Category Archives: Book Reviews-Meaning of Life

Review of Julian Baggini’s: What’s It All About: Philosophy & The Meaning of Life

Julian Baggini (1968 – ) is a British philosopher, author of several books about philosophy written for a general audience, and co-founder and editor-in-chief of The Philosophers’ Magazine. He was awarded his Ph.D. in 1996 from University College London. His recent book, What’s It All About?: Philosophy and the Meaning of Life is a secular and non-hubristic inquiry into the question of the meaning of life. Baggini presupposes that we can’t know if religion is true and that there is no secret answer to the question of the meaning of life, for were there such an answer we would probably have discovered it by now. Baggini begins by looking at some of the proposed answers.

Can living life forward give life meaning? Why not look to some future goal, like avenging your brother’s death for meaning? The problem with this answer is that we can always ask of this future, or any future, why bring it about? And that question leads to the quest for some final end. In short, any why/because series can be extended infinitely into either the past or future and never definitively puts an end to our questions. Other problems with looking to the future include: 1) we might die before we reach our goal; 2) even if we are immortal this does not solve our problem since meaning would always be in our future; and 3) if we do reach our goal, then what?

The main problem with a future-oriented life is that it locates meaning in a specific moment in time. This raises an obvious question: shouldn’t we expect some meaning from the present too? It seems then that meaning involves something enduring, something about which no further why questions need be asked, and this something must exist now. In other words, the key to meaning must be found in something that is an end in itself.

Baggini now turns to the notion that gods or an afterlife give life meaning. While believing in a god is no answer to the question of the meaning of life, we could stop worrying and accept that the gods provide meaning. However, this is to give up the search for meaning. In this case, you don’t know the meaning of life, you just stop asking the question. As for an afterlife, is there such a thing? The evidence suggests there is no afterlife, and even if there were what would be the meaning of it? The more important question is whether life can be meaningful without this assumption.

To fully answer our question we need to find a way that life can be meaningful that is not derived from the gods, or the past or the future, but from within us now. Baggini proceeds to investigate six ways (helping others, serving humanity, being happy, becoming successful, enjoying each day, and freeing your mind) that might provide life with meaning. He concludes that all of them may be part of a good or meaningful life, but they aren’t all of it. They don’t guarantee that our lives are meaningful because, of any of them, we can still ask: is such a life meaningful?

What all this means is that we are threatened with meaninglessness. It seems we must choose among the following: 1) life is meaningless; 2) the question is meaningless; or 3) meaning is impossible to discover. Regarding 1—while life is not meaningful in an objective sense, it can still be subjectively meaningful. Regarding 2—while the question may be meaningless, life can still have meaning for the person living it. Regarding 3—although we can’t know the meaning of life with certainty, we can still find our lives meaningful by living them. One might say that such a life isn’t sufficiently examined and thus not worth living, but that is mere intellectual snobbery. Unexamined lives can be worth living if the people living them find them worthwhile. So a life can be subjectively meaningful despite the lack of any objective meaning.

Baggini admits, “This kind of rationalistic-humanistic approach leaves many unsatisfied.”[i] A fundamental objection to such an approach is that it separates morality from meaning. Can human values really be enough to ground value? In response Baggini says: 1) we might say that certain people have meaningful but immoral lives; or 2) we could say that subjective meaning is a necessary but not sufficient condition for meaningful life—the life must also be moral. He prefers this second option. As to the charge that this second response is ad hoc, Baggini reminds the reader that life is meaningful only if it is worth living. All humans have an equal claim to a good life, and to make someone’s life go worse is a moral wrong. Still simply because life has to have value in itself and for the person living it “does not … mean that the only person able to judge the value is the person living the life…”[ii] Individuals may be mistaken about the value of their lives.

Another objection to a humanistic account of meaning says that we should accept and be attuned to the mystery in life, and that the rationalistic humanistic account doesn’t do this. Baggini responds that this is merely a plea from those who like mystery. He has not said that there are no gods, or that people can’t get meaning from them; he just doesn’t think there are good reasons to believe in gods, and he finds his meaning elsewhere. Furthermore, there is plenty of mystery about how to have meaningful lives; discovering what is meaningful is mysterious. Being attuned to the fact that we are alive at all is a to be in touch with the mystery. In fact, this is a more noble kind of mystery than believing in the mystery of gods or afterlife, for fear motivates the latter beliefs.

The tragedy and fragility of life suggest that love, a topic on which philosophers are notoriously silent, is the answer to the problem of human existence. The desire to do good things is motivated, not by reason, but by love. What then of love and happiness? They are connected but they aren’t identical. Love persists thru unhappiness, and its object is the beloved. Love shows the value we place in authenticity since we want to be loved for who we are. Love provides insight into true success, the kind that makes life meaningful. Love requires us to seize the day, otherwise, we might let it pass us by. Love shows that we can have meaningful lives without philosophy, without a careful examination of our lives.

Philosophy is not good at examining love or the non-rational components of human life. The rational-humanistic approach is not misguided, rather it shows the limits of our ability to understand life, and it reveals the limit and fragility of love. “Sadly, it is not true that all you need is love. Love, like life, is valuable, but fragile and subject to no guarantees. It is fraught with risk and disappointment, as well as being the source of great elation and joy.”[iii] In the end the humanist accepts that morality, mystery, meaning, and love exist without transcendental support. This is a sign of one’s ability to confront and accept the limits of life. “The transcendentalist’s desire for something more is understandable, but the humanist’s refusal to succumb is, I believe, a sign of her ability to confront and accept the limits of human understanding and, ultimately, human existence.”[iv]

Baggini concludes his deflationary account of meaning by saying that the meaning of life is available to all, not only to the guardians who claim a monopoly on it. His view challenges the power of those who would control us and gives us the responsibility of determining meaning for ourselves. But knowing about the meaning of life doesn’t provide a recipe for living it. It is hard to live meaningfully, it is an ongoing project, and one is never finished with the task. Baggini concedes that his is not the last word on the subject, that we need more than philosophers to work the problem out, and that no book is ever the final word on the subject. Also, people are different, so we cannot offer an instruction manual for all—we can only suggest a framework within which persons might live meaningfully.

In the end, the meaning of life is not that mysterious, it is something within our grasp, and we can live meaningfully. Hope rather than despair is called for since there are many ways to live meaningful lives. We can recognize all the good and bad things in life, and still see that there are many ways to live meaningful lives. To find meaning then,

We can see the value of happiness … We can learn to appreciate the pleasures of life … We can see the value of success … We can see the value of seizing the day … We can appreciate the value in helping others lead meaningful lives … And finally, we can recognize the value of love, as perhaps the most powerful motivator to do anything at all.[v]

Summary – We can give our lives meaning by doing meaningful things and recognizing the value of love.

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[i] Julian Baggini, What’s It All About: Philosophy & The Meaning of Life (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004), 174.
[ii] Baggini, What’s It All About: Philosophy & The Meaning of Life, 177-78.
[iii] Baggini, What’s It All About: Philosophy & The Meaning of Life, 184.
[iv] Baggini, What’s It All About: Philosophy & The Meaning of Life, 184.
[v] Baggini, What’s It All About: Philosophy & The Meaning of Life, 188.

Summary David Lund’s, Making Sense Of It All

Le Penseur in the Musée Rodin in Paris

David Lund is Professor Emeritus of Philosophy at Bemidji State University in Bemidji, Minnesota where he taught for many years. His 1999 textbook, Making Sense of It All: An Introduction to Philosophical Inquiry, concludes with a chapter devoted to the meaning of life. He asks: What is the point of it all? Is this point found in our daily lives, or is there a higher purpose to our lives? How can anything matter if all ends in death? The basic problem with answering such questions is that they depend upon our answers to other philosophical questions such as:  Is there objective truth? Are we free? Is there personal identity over time? Does a non-natural realm exist? Do we survive death?

It is tempting to think of the meaning of life as something beyond life, and we do say meaning of life instead of meaning in life. Yet, from the cosmic standpoint, it does not seem to matter much whether we lived or not, as all ends in universal death. Of course our day to day lives seem significant, as we concern ourselves with happiness, self-actualization, love or other aspects of our lives. But the universe does not care about our interests: “It is indifferent to our ideals, our achievements, our values, our very existence. It is a vast spiritual emptiness. There is no cosmic plan in which our lives have a permanent value.”[i]

In response we might look to the gods’ purposes, but this merely pushes the question back. How does fulfilling the god’s purposes make our lives meaningful? For this answer to terminate our search for meaning, we must embrace the god’s purposes, they must become our own. So meaning comes largely from within us. The same with an afterlife, either it is intrinsically meaningful or not. If it is not meaningful, then we would have to look to some other world for its meaning; if it is meaningful, then this life could be too. This suggests that the meaning of life must be found within us, in this life. In fact most of us do think our lives are intrinsically valuable and most of us try to live well no matter what. Questions about the meaning of life then are about whether our lives are valuable beyond their intrinsic value.

Lund proceeds by distinguishing activities that have intrinsic value for people but which are not goal oriented, with activities that are not intrinsically valuable but which have derivative value because they are goal directed. Lund concludes that for an activity to be meaningful:

It must have enough intrinsic value to be worthwhile in itself; it must also have derivative value in virtue of being directed toward a goal; and this goal must be important and achievable. An activity would be meaningless if it lacked all of these features. And though it may still have meaning, it would be meaning-deficient to some degree if it lacked at least one of them.[ii]

Unfortunately our lives may be futile because of the nature of the world itself. If we cannot achieve our goals, the goals that if achieved would prevent life from being meaningless, then we can say that life is futile. We may think that our lives have value beyond their intrinsic value, but if they do not then our lives are futile whether we know it or not. Perhaps it is only our illusions that prevent us from seeing them this way. We might assume that there is objective truth and pursue it, but if we found there was no such truth our pursuit of it would be futile. Or it might be that moral values are subjective. If we had lived as if values were objective, then we gave our lives for things which were ultimately insignificant. Of course we could simply accept that moral subjectivism holds and find meaning in our subjective values.

The loss of theism makes the meaning problem worse for many people since the truth of theism solves the problem of the indifferent universe, and the futility that accompanies it. This is why atheism is so devastating for meaning and why it is so difficult to accept. In response, Lund suggests we face our probable fate with honor.

It is unbecoming of us, indeed unworthy of us, to be unwilling or unable to face the truth, whatever that should turn out to be. If a more uplifting view of the world—one more in accord with our hopes—can be sustained only with a faith that has no concern for the truth, then it is not worth having; and we should have the intellectual courage to reject it.[iii]

The quest for meaning is a quest for understanding and truth—a truth we must find for ourselves.

… there are churches and other institutions or organizations that would have us passively accept, without critical reflection, the dogmas they foist upon us. But we must not succumb to this, even if what we hear from these sources is what we would very much like to believe. We must insist on thinking things out for ourselves and on having our beliefs reflect our understanding of truth, rather than our desires or the opinions of some self-proclaimed authority.[iv]

To live this way is courageous and wise; it is to reject the dogma imposed by authority. It also evokes compassion at the real suffering and lack of meaning that we all endure. “Such compassion, especially in conjunction with courage and wisdom, will help us to live so as to leave a good legacy, and to see that one’s legacy is of great importance, despite the likelihood that it be short-lived.”[v] The search for truth and meaning may never succeed, but the search itself is all the meaning that there probably is, and is as close to the meaning of life as we will probably come.

Summary – Our lives may well be futile, but we can find some small meaning by searching for truth, and accepting whatever it is that we find.

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[i] David Lund, Making Sense Of It All: An Introduction to Philosophical Inquiry (Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 2003), 195.
[ii] Lund, Making Sense Of It All: An Introduction to Philosophical Inquiry, 198.
[iii] Lund, Making Sense Of It All: An Introduction to Philosophical Inquiry, 203.
[iv] Lund, Making Sense Of It All: An Introduction to Philosophical Inquiry, 204.
[v] Lund, Making Sense Of It All: An Introduction to Philosophical Inquiry, 204.

Review of Milan Kundera’s: The Unbearable Lightness of Being

                   Milan Kundera redux.jpg

Should we take life seriously or not? Should we think of it as heavy or light? Perhaps we shouldn’t take it too seriously, enjoy the pleasures it affords, and reject all heavier philosophies of meaning. But is this solution satisfactory? These are the fundamental questions posed Milan Kundera in his novel The Unbearable Lightness of Being. (Kundera is a writer of Czech origin who has lived in exile in France since 1975, where he became a naturalized citizen. His books were banned by the Communists of Czechoslovakia until the downfall of the regime in the Velvet Revolution in 1989.)

Kundera begins his novel by pondering Nietzsche’s idea of eternal recurrence—the notion that everything that has already happened will recur ad infinitum. Although it is hardly Nietzsche’s interpretation, Kundera remarks: “Putting it negatively, the myth of eternal return states that a life which disappears once and for all, which does not return, is like a shadow, without weight, dead in advance, and whether it was horrible, beautiful, or sublime, its horror, sublimity, and beauty mean nothing.”[i]

For Kundera a life lived only once is light, unimportant, and infinitely trivial; by contrast, if all recurred infinitely, a tremendous heaviness or significance would be imposed on our lives and choices. Kundera contrasts the heaviness and lightness of life as follows: “If the eternal return is the heaviest of burdens, then our lives can stand out against it in all their splendid lightness.”[ii] But is heaviness bad and lightness splendid? Kundera answers:

the heaviest of burdens crushes us, we sink beneath it, it pins us to the ground. But … the heavier the burden, the closer our lives come to the earth, the more real and truthful they become. Conversely, the absolute absence of a burden causes a man to be lighter than air, to soar into the heights, take leave of the earth and his earthly being, and become only half real, his movements as free as they are insignificant.[iii]

So both the heaviness and lightness are unsatisfactory. The light life is meaningless. If everything happens only once, it might as well not have happened at all; and our best response to this situation is to live for beauty and pleasure. Yet such insignificant lives are unbearable—the unbearable lightness of being. But if our actions eternally recur, if life is heavy, then the heaviness of our actions and choices crushes us under their weight.

Despite these conundrums, the main characters in his novel who embrace the heaviness of life and love die happy, while those who live lightly suffer the unbearable lightness of being. This suggests that heaviness is better after all. Still, nothing is eternal for Kundera, and if there were eternal things, our lives and choices would be too burdensome. Perhaps the fact that some of his characters find love is enough, but nothing matters ultimately. In the end nihilism is, for conscious beings, both true and unbearable. A heavy life crushes us; a light life is unbearable.

Brief Reflections

As for me, I think we ought to consider life significant, but not too significant; light but not too light. Here it is in simple form.

Nothing matters -> life is unbearable
Everything matters -> life is unbearable
Some things matter but most things don’t -> life is bearable and occasionally meaningful.

Wisdom is, in large part, differentiating what matters from what doesn’t.

Near the end of the movie Unbearable Lightness of Being, the protagonists Tomas and Tereza, despite the meaninglessness of life seem to have found happiness. Here is the penultimate scene.

[i] Milan Kundera, The Unbearable Lightness of Being (New York: Harper Perennial Modern Classics, 1999), 3.
[ii] Milan Kundera, The Unbearable Lightness of Being, 5.
[iii] Milan Kundera, The Unbearable Lightness of Being, 5.

Summary of Simon Critchley’s: Very Little … Almost Nothing

Simon Critchley (1960 – ) was born in England and received his PhD from the University of Essex in 1988. He is series moderator and contributor to “The Stone,” a philosophy column in The New York Times. He is also currently chair and professor of philosophy at The New School for Social Research in New York City.

In this recent book, Very Little … Almost Nothing: Death, Philosophy, LiteratureSimon Critchley discusses various responses to nihilism. Responses include those who: a) refuse to see the problem, like the religious fundamentalist who doesn’t understand modernity; b) are indifferent to the problem, which they see as the concern of bourgeoisie intellectuals; c) passively accept nihilism, knowing that nothing they do matters; d) actively revolt against nihilism in the hope that they might mitigate the condition.[i]He rejects all views that try to overcome nihilism—enterprises that find redemption in philosophy, religion, politics or art—in favor of a response that embraces or affirms nihilism. For Critchley the question of meaning is one of finding meaning in human finitude, since all answers to the contrary are empty. This leads him to the surprising idea that “the ultimate meaning of human finitude is that we cannot find meaningful fulfillment for the finite.”[ii]But if one cannot find meaning in finitude, why not just passively accept nihilism?

Critchley replies that we should do more than merely accept nihilism; we must affirm “meaninglessness as an achievement, as a task or quest … as the achievement of the ordinary or everyday without the rose-tinted spectacles of any narrative of redemption.”[iii]In this way we don’t evade the problem of nihilism but truly confront it. As Critchley puts it:

The world is all too easily stuffed with meaning and we risk suffocating under the combined weight of competing narratives of redemption—whether religious, socio-economic, scientific, technological, political, aesthetic or philosophical—and hence miss the problem of nihilism in our manic desire to overcome it.[iv]

For models of what he means Critchley turns to playwright Samuel Beckett whose work gives us “a radical de-creation of these salvific narratives, an approach to meaninglessness as the achievement of the ordinary, a redemption from redemption.”[v] Salvation narratives are empty talk which cause trouble; better to be silent as Pascal suggested: “All man’s miseries derive from not being able to sit quietly in a room alone.” What then is left after we are saved from the fables of salvation? As his title suggests; very little … almost nothing. But all is not lost; we can know the happiness derived from ordinary things.

Critchley finds a similar insight in what the poet Wallace Stevens called “the plain sense of things.”[vi] In Stevens’ famous poem, “The Emperor of Ice Cream,” the setting is a funeral service. In one room we find merriment and ice cream, in another a corpse. The ice cream represents the appetites, the powerful desire for physical things; the corpse represents death.  The former is better than the latter, and that this is all we can say about life and death. The animal life is the best there is and better than death—the ordinary is the most extraordinary.

For another example Critchley considers Thornton Wilder’s famous play “Our Town,” which exalts the living and dying of ordinary people, as well as the wonder of ordinary things. In the play young Emily Gibbs has died in childbirth and is in an afterlife, where she is granted her wish to go back to the world for a day. But when she goes back she cannot stand it; people on earth live unconscious of the beauty which surrounds them. As she leaves she says goodbye to all the ordinary things of the world: “to clocks ticking, to food and coffee, new ironed dresses and hot baths, and to sleeping and waking up.”[vii] It is tragic that while living we miss the beauty of ordinary things. Emily is dismayed but we are enlightened—we ought to appreciate and affirm the extraordinary ordinary. Perhaps that is the best response to nihilism—to be edified by it, to find meaning in meaninglessness, to realize we can find happiness in spite of nihilism.

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[i] Simon Critchley, Very Little … Almost Nothing (New York: Routledge, 2004), 12-13.
[ii] Critchley, Very Little … Almost Nothing, 31.
[iii] Critchley, Very Little … Almost Nothing, 32.
[iv] Critchley, Very Little … Almost Nothing, 32.
[v] Critchley, Very Little … Almost Nothing, 32.
[vi] Critchley, Very Little … Almost Nothing, 118.
[vii] Thornton Wilder, Our Town (New York: Coward-McCann, Inc., 1938), 82.

Review of Thaddeus Metz’s: Meaning in Life

Thaddeus Metz is Head of the Department of Philosophy at the University of Johannesburg in South Africa. He grew up in Des Moines, Iowa and received his Ph.D. from Cornell University in 1997. He is probably the most prolific scholar working today on an analytic approach to the meaning of life.

Metz’s directs his new book, Meaning in Life, primarily toward scholars, although any serious student of the subject can follow along if they are willing to put forth the effort. The book results from ten years of systematic research into what I consider the single most important philosophical question: Is human life meaningful? Metz states on the first page that he believes “the old saying that the meaning of life lies in the search for it.” If meaning is found in the search for it, then Metz has lived a meaningful life.

The book is divided into three parts. In the first part, he considers the concept of meaning itself. He argues that both parts of a life and the whole of a life can exhibit meaning, and that meaning is a good distinct from other goods like pleasure or happiness. In the second part, he examines supernaturalist theories of the meaning—the idea that a god or soul is the key to the meaning of life. Such theories are motivated by the idea that meaning requires an engagement with some perfect or ideal value. But Metz denies this idea, arguing that life can be meaningful even in the absence of a perfect ideal. Still, he does admit that a god or soul would probably enhance life if they indeed exist.

In the final part of the book, Metz begins by rejecting subjectivist, naturalistic accounts of meaning. He then proceeds to reject the major objectivist, naturalistic accounts of meaning: 1) attraction to objectively good things; 2) utilitarian actions that make the world a better place; and 3) engagement with mind-independent goods in the physical world.

Metz then offers his own account of meaning in life. He approaches the question by asking what if anything the good, true and the beautiful—classic sources of meaning—have in common.  Is there some single property which makes the moral, the intellectual, and the aesthetic worth admiring or striving for? Is there something that the lives of a Gandhi, Darwin, or Beethoven might share that confer great meaning to their lives?

Metz answers that the good, the true, and the beautiful confer great meaning on life insofar as they are physical properties that have a  final, intrinsic value. In other words, ethical, intellectual, and aesthetic actions are intrinsically worthwhile because they make it possible for individuals to transcend themselves. But how do moral, intellectual, and artistic activities allow for self-transcendence and, simultaneously, give meaning?

To answer this question Metz proposes his own theory of self-transcendence: “The good, the true, and the beautiful confer great meaning on life insofar as we transcend our animal nature by positively orienting our rational nature in a substantial way toward conditions of human existence that are largely responsible for many of its other conditions.”

Metz explains this focus on fundamental conditions by considering the difference between a well-planned crime and moral achievements such as providing medical care or freeing persons from tyranny. Moral actions, unlike immoral ones, respect personal autonomy, support other’s choices, and confer meaning. Intellectual reflection sheds light on human nature; scientific knowledge explains external reality; and great art illuminates profound human experiences like love, death, war, and peace.

One might object that reading trashy fiction or pondering that 2 + 2 = 4 involve reason and focus on fundamental conditions, but do not confer meaning. Metz replies that substantial effort is necessary to fully meet his standard, and that is missing in the above examples. In addition, progress is also necessary for meaning. Not simply doing, knowing, or making what was done, known, or made before, but the bringing forth something new. Metz concludes that we transcend ourselves and find meaning “by substantially orienting one’s rational nature in a positive way toward fundamental objects and perhaps thereby making an advancement.”

This is a carefully and conscientiously crafted work. It is not an easy read, but it is a substantive and enlightening one which will reward the dutiful reader. We commend Professor Metz for this wonderful piece of scholarship.