Category Archives: Meaning of Life – Agnostic

Summary of John Wisdom’s, “The Meanings of the Questions of Life”

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A Meaningful but Mostly Unanswerable Question

Not all philosophers agree that the ultimate why question is meaningless. A notable exception was John Wisdom (1904–1993), who spent most of his career at Trinity College, Cambridge, and became Professor of Philosophy at Cambridge University.

In his article 1965, “The Meanings of the Questions of Life,” Wisdom asks why some people think the question of the meaning of life is senseless. Because he argues, answers to why questions appear to go on infinitely. (For example, if we ask what holds up the world and are told that it rests on a giant turtle, we may ask, what holds up the turtle? And if the answer we are given to that question is “super turtle,” we can then ask, what holds that up? And if we are told the answer to that question is “super duper turtle,” well, it is easy to see that we can just keep asking these questions forever and never resolve the issue.) Asking what supports everything is absurd and non-sensible; there cannot by definition be something outside of everything which supports everything. In short, there cannot be an answer to the ultimate why question.

Perhaps the meaning of life question cannot be answered because it asks for the why of everything rather than of just of a specific thing. Just because some particular thing supports some other particular thing does not mean that something supports everything. Similarly, we can say that there is a meaning of something, but that does not mean there is a meaning for everything. Perhaps the meaning of life question is like this. If I tell you why I think something is meaningful, I always refer to something else and you can always ask: but why is that meaningful? So maybe the question of the meaning of life is like asking, what is the largest number? Or what supports everything? These all look for something outside everything but nothing is outside of everything. Similarly, there cannot be a big meaning outside all the little inside meanings. (Essentially, this was the argument given by Edwards, Ayer, and Nielsen.)

So when we ask about the meaning of life we are asking about the meaning of the whole thing. And though there cannot be anything other than the whole thing, the question of what the whole thing means is not absurd. It’s like coming in in the middle of a movie and not seeing the end. In that case, we want to know what went before and after to make sense of it. We want to go outside of our experienced meaning to see the whole. But we might have seen the whole movie and still not know the meaning. In that case, we might ask, what did the whole thing mean? And that is not an absurd question. We might ask whether the play or movie is a tragedy, comedy, or farce. It is a tough question but it is not senseless. From an eternal perspective, I could sensibly ask: what does it all mean?

Of course, we have only seen a small part of the movie or of life; we do not know much about what went before and what will come after. Nonetheless, we want to know what the whole thing means; in Wisdom’s words we are trying to find “the order in the drama of Time.”[i] We don’t know the answer but the question is sensible, and we may move toward an answer as we learn more. An answer, if there is one, lies not outside but within the complex whole that is life.

Summary – The question of the meaning of everything makes sense. There cannot by definition be anything outside of everything that gives it meaning, since there is nothing outside of everything, but we can still meaningfully ask: what does the whole thing mean? That question may be unanswerable, but if there is an answer it comes from within life.

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[i] John Wisdom, “The Meanings of the Questions of Life,” in The Meaning of Life, ed. E.D Klemke and Steven Cahn (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008), 220-222.

Summary of Kai Nielsen’s,“Linguistic Philosophy and The Meaning of Life”

A Meaningless Question and Valuable Lives

Kai Nielsen (1926- ) is professor emeritus of philosophy at the University of Calgary. Before moving to Canada, Nielsen taught for many years at New York University (NYU). He is a prolific writer, the author of more than 30 books and 400 articles.

In his 1964 article, “Linguistic Philosophy and The Meaning of Life” Nielsen begins by agreeing with Ayer that the purpose of life is the end at which all things aim. The trouble with this answer, as Ayer pointed, is that it only explains existence—but we want more. We want the end to be something we chose, not something dictated from the outside. In short when we ask what the meaning of life is we don’t want an explanation of how things are; we want a justification of why things are. And no matter how completely we explain the facts about the world that does not tell us how we should live and die, it never tells us the meaning of it all.

Nielsen offers the example of discovering all sorts of facts about yourself. If after all this discovering you decide to continue to live as you had before, who can justifiably say that you are mistaken? No one is justified in saying that because all of these facts don’t imply any values about how to live.

Now suppose we add a god. Even if we assume there are gods, that they have purposes for us, and that we know these purposes, this still does not provide meaning for our lives. Why?  Because either we have to be part of that plan or we don’t. If we have to be part of some god’s plan then these purposes would be the god’s purposes, not ours, since the gods chose them and we did not. But if we do not have to be part of some god’s purpose then we must judge if a god’s plans are valuable, we must be the judge of whether to conform to the plan or not. So when we ask “what is the meaning of life?” we are not asking what our purpose is as a divine artifact. We don’t want to know what we were made for, or that we were constructed for something which may or may not have value. We want to know if there is something in our lives that gives us purpose, we want to know why we should live one way instead of another. And whether there are gods with plans for us or whether there are some ends built into us by nature, these facts don’t tell us how to live and die, they don’t tell us the meaning of it all. Only we can decide this for ourselves.

So far Nielsen agrees with Ayer’s analysis. But while Ayer concluded that we cannot reason about how to live, that value judgments are subjective, Nielsen argues that we can and do reason about morality—we do give reasons for saying one ought to do x or that x is good. But more importantly, Nielsen suggests that when we ask about meaning we really are asking for more than an answer to questions about what we ought to do or seek or value. Instead, we are asking whether what we do matters at all. We are asking “Does anything matter?” But how do we answer such a question? If I say that love, conversation, and hiking are worthwhile to me, that they matter to me, I don’t seem to really have answered the question. We want to know if these things are really worthwhile, that they ever really matter in some ultimate way.

But does it make sense to ask if anything is really worthwhile?  For this question to be intelligible we need some standard of worthiness outside of our subjective preferences. Suppose for example that the standard for a worthwhile life is whether or not that life brings about the elimination of all human suffering. In that case, one might legitimately say that life is worthless since nothing one does will likely achieve that goal. Such a criterion for worthiness is unrealistic. In contrast, Nielsen argues that something is worthwhile not only if it ought to be achieved, but also that it can be achieved. If the goal cannot be achieved—eliminating all human suffering—one is bound to be frustrated, which means that one has set the bar too high. Instead, we should set the bar more realistically by making our purpose, for example, to “help alleviate the sum total of human suffering.”[i] This realistic goal is more conducive to our finding meaning. Often the frustration one feels from not being able to do more leads to questions about meaning. In this case, we can probably not understand all suffering much less eliminate it, but we can find meaning by fighting against it. In short, Nielsen counsels us to adopt the attitude that some things are valuable.

So what things are of value? Going to art museums or on fishing trips is valuable if you like art and fishing. And to say that such things are not eternal does not detract from their meaning. In fact, it might add to it, since an eternity of doing these things would be boring. If we seek a more general answer to the question of why anything is worthwhile we might answer that people’s preferences, desires, and interests are the cause of them finding certain things worthwhile. The reason certain things are worthwhile depends on the thing in question. So questions about the meaning of life do ultimately reduce to questions about ends that are worthwhile—we do find worthwhile what we desire, approve of, or admire. This may seem unsatisfactory, but all we can do is show that questions about what is meaningful or worthwhile are intelligible; they are amenable to general answers. If we value things, they are worthwhile to us.

But what if someone still wants an objective answer to the meaning of life question, an answer that is independent of a particular person’s values? Nielsen argues that this question cannot be answered. There simply cannot logically be something that gives meaning to everything else but which is independent of human values. One way of understanding this point is to consider questions like “how hot is blue?” or “what holds the universe up?” These have the grammatical form of intelligible questions, but they are not intelligible. We can answer why certain things are valuable but the question of why things as a whole are valuable is non-sensible. Nielsen argues that if you continue to ask the meaning of life question after you have been told about subjective values, you will never be satisfied and something may be psychologically wrong with you. You may simply be expressing your own anxiety or insecurity.

Summary – We cannot know the answer to the question, why anything. As for the meaning of life, it is more than a question about what is valuable; it asks whether anything is valuable or anything matters. We might say that nothing matters since our efforts to effect change come to so little, but we should find meaning in the little we can do. Thus meaning reduces to subjective ends that we find worthwhile.

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[i] Kai Nielsen, “Linguistic” Philosophy and “The Meaning of Life,” in The Meaning of Life, ed. E.D Klemke and Steven Cahn (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008), 211.

Summary of Paul Edwards’ “Why?”

Image result for paul edwards philosophyPaul Edwards (1923 – 2004) was an Austrian American moral philosopher who was editor-in-chief of Macmillan’s Encyclopedia of Philosophy, published in 1967. With eight volumes and nearly 1,500 entries by over 500 contributors, it is one of the monumental works of twentieth-century philosophy.

In his 1967 article entitled “Why,” Edwards discusses whether or not the question of the meaning of life is itself meaningful.[i] He begins by pondering two issues regarding the use of the word why: 1) the contrast between how and why questions, and the prevalent view that science only deals with how questions; and 2) ultimate or cosmic why questions like “Why does anything at all exist?” or “Why is there something rather than nothing?”

Regarding the first issue, some thinkers insist on the contrast between how and why for religious or metaphysical reasons—maintaining that science answers how questions but only religion or metaphysics answer why questions.  Other writers like Hume who are hostile to metaphysics maintain that neither science, religion, nor metaphysics can answer why questions. Both groups agree that there are classes of meaningful why questions which cannot be answered by science; they disagree in that the former argue that religion or metaphysics can answer such questions, while the latter argue that they cannot be answered at all. In response, Edwards makes a number of points. First, how and why questions are sometimes of the same type, as in cases where A causes B but we are ignorant of the mechanism by which it does this. In such cases, it would be roughly equivalent to ask, why or how a particular drug works, or why or how some people who smoke get lung cancer but others do not. In these instances, science adequately deals with both why and how.

Still, there are cases when how and why ask different kinds of questions, as when we consider intentional human activity. How we robbed a bank is very different from why we robbed it, but it is false that empirical methods cannot answer both questions. In fact, the robbers probably know why they robbed the bank. True they might be lying or self-deceived about their aims, but still the answer is open to empirical methods. So we might ask the robbers friends about them or consult their psychoanalyst to find out why they did it.

For another case in which how and why questions differ, consider how we contrast questions about states or conditions as in “How cold is it?” or “How is his pain?” with questions about the causes of those conditions as in “Why is it cold?” or “Why is he in pain?” Clearly, these are different types of questions. Edwards also notes that why questions are not always questions about the purposes of human or supernatural beings. To ask “Why are New York winters colder than Los Angeles winters?” is not necessarily to suppose that there is some conscious plan behind these phenomena. But it does appear we often answer both how and why questions without resorting to metaphysics.

To summarize Edwards thus far: how and why often are used to ask the same question; when dealing with human intentional actions they ask different questions—how asking about the means, why asking about the ends. Additionally, how questions often inquire about states or conditions, while why questions inquire as to the causes of those states or conditions. It does seem that we can in principle answer all these questions without resorting to religion or metaphysics.

Regarding our second issue, cosmic why questions, Edwards begins by considering what he calls “the theological why.” The theological answer to the theological why posits that a god answers the question of meaning. Major difficulties here include how we could say anything intelligible about such disembodied minds, as well as all of the other difficulties involved with justifying such beliefs. Edwards focuses particularly on whether the theological answer really answers the question, mentioning a number of philosophers in this regard: “Schopenhauer referred to all such attempts to reach a final resting place in the series of causes as treating the causal principle like a ‘hired cab’ which one dismisses when one has reached one’s destination. Bertrand Russell objects that such writers work with an obscure and objectionable notion of explanation: to explain something, we are not at all required to introduce a “self-sufficient” entity, whatever that may be…Nagel insists that it is perfectly legitimate to inquire into the reasons for the existence of the alleged absolute Being…”[ii] Thus, the theological answer appears to be one of convenience that does not fully answer our query; rather, it stops the inquiry by asking no more why questions.

Edwards differentiates the theological why question—are there gods and do they provide the ultimate explanation?—from what he calls the “super-ultimate why.” A person posing this latter question regards the theological answer as not going far enough because it does not answer questions such as “Why are there gods at all?” or “Why is there anything at all?” or “Why does everything that is, exist?” The theological answer simply puts an end to why questions arbitrarily; it stops short of pushing the question to its ultimate end. One might respond that it is obsessive to continually ask why questions, but most reflective persons do ask “Why does anything or everything exist?” suggesting that the question is basic to thoughtful persons. Of course, it may be that we just don’t know the answer to this ultimate mystery—all we can say is that the existence of anything is a mystery, its ultimate explanation remaining always beyond us.

According to Edwards, while some philosophers take the ultimate why question seriously many others argue that it is meaningless. The reason for this is that if a question cannot in principle be answered, as so many philosophers claim about this super ultimate why question, then that question is meaningless. Critics of this view agree that the question is radically different from all others but disagree that it is meaningless. They respond that ordinarily, questions must in principle be capable of being answered to be meaningful, but not in the case of this ultimate question. Yet if a question really cannot be answered, and if all possible answers have been ruled out a priori, is that not the very definition of a meaningless question?

Another way of arriving at the conclusion that the question “why does everything exist?” is meaningless, is to consider how when we ordinarily ask “why x?” we assume the answer is something other than x. But in the case of “why anything at all?” it is not possible to find something outside of everything to explain everything. So meaningful why questions are those which are about anything in the set of all things, but if our why question is about something other than everything, then why has lost its meaning because it is logically impossible to have an answer.

Summary – How and why sometimes ask similar questions, and sometimes they ask different questions. Theological whys ask meaningful questions, but this does not mean theological answers to such questions are true. Furthermore, theological answers do not answer the super-ultimate why question. The super-ultimate why question is meaningless since there cannot be something outside of everything that explains everything.

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[i] Paul Edwards, “Why?” in The Meaning of Life, ed. E.D Klemke (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1981), 227-240.
[ii] Edwards, “Why?”  234.

Agnosticism about Meaning

I am an agnostic; I do not pretend to know what many ignorant men are sure of.
~ Clarence Darrow 

I would never die for my beliefs because I might be wrong. ~ Bertrand Russell

Ubi dubium ibi libertas.
(Where there is doubt, there is freedom.) 
~ Latin proverb 

Agnosticism

Agnosticism is the idea that the truth or falsity of some claim is unknown or unknowable; it also denotes a basic skepticism toward answering certain questions. Typically agnosticism applies to religious belief, but we will apply the idea to the meaning of life. The authors we call agnostic believe either that the question of the meaning of life is meaningless because it is unanswerable, or that the answer, if one exists, is unknowable.

In contrast with many other philosophers, I don’t believe that the word meaning properly applies only to words or signs, but that it also applies to activities such as human lives. But there is a more substantive objection to the meaningfulness of our question—that our question is meaningless because it is not possible to answer it. Accordingly, a question for which there cannot possibly be an answer is said to be meaningless, at least by supporters of the validity of the objection. Note that this does not mean that there may be an answer which we don’t know. Rather it means that the question asks for an answer which cannot be provided, thus rendering the question meaningless by definition. To understand this deeper objection, in our next 3 posts we will consider three extraordinary twentieth-century philosophers who advocated this view: Paul Edwards, A.J. Ayer, and Kai Nielsen.

Here are a number of great quotes about doubt and agnosticism.

It you would be a real seeker after truth, it is necessary that at least once in your life, you doubt, as far as possible, all things.~ Rene Descartes

Philosophy begins when one learns to doubt particularly to doubt one’s cherished beliefs, one’s dogmas and one’s axioms. ~ Will Durant 

Doubt is not a pleasant condition, but certainty is absurd.~ Voltaire

Men become civilized, not in proportion to their willingness to believe, but in proportion to their readiness to doubt. ~ H. L. Mencken

We declare at the outset that we do not make any positive assertion that anything we shall say is wholly as we affirm it to be. We merely report accurately on each thing as our impressions of it are at the moment.~ Sextus Empiricus 

Trust a witness in all matters in which neither his self-interest, his passions, his prejudices, nor the love of the marvelous is strongly concerned. When they are involved, require corroborative evidence in exact proportion to the contravention of probability by the thing testified.~ Thomas Henry Huxley

You see … I can live with doubt and uncertainty and not knowing.  I think it’s much more interesting to live not knowing than to have answers which might be wrong. I have approximate answers and possible beliefs and different degrees of uncertainty about different things, but I am not absolutely sure of anything and there are many things I don’t know anything about, such as whether it means anything to ask why we’re here…I don’t have to know an answer.  I don’t feel frightened not knowing things, by being lost in a mysterious universe without any purpose, which is the way it really is as far as I can tell.  It doesn’t frighten me. Richard P. Feynman

Maybe philosophical problems are hard not because they are divine or irreducible or meaningless or workaday science, but because the mind of Homo sapiens lacks the cognitive equipment to solve them. We are organisms, not angels, and our minds are organs, not pipelines to the truth. Our minds evolved by natural selection to solve problems that were life-and-death matters to our ancestors, not to commune with correctness or to answer any question we are capable of asking.~ Steven Pinker