Category Archives: Meaning of Life – Work/Love

The Meaning of Life, in 3 Minutes

My friend Lawrence Rifkin MD, who has thought deeply about the meaning of life, recently posted this beautiful, inspiring, and philosophically sophisticated video. I have outlined its basics ideas below, but this is meant merely as a guide, and in no way substitutes for the emotional power of the video itself, which I highly recommend.

1. From the Universal or Objective perspective, the meaning or purpose of life is just to stay alive, reproduce, and keep life going.  Without this, there is no life.

2. From the Social or Interpersonal perspective, meaning emerges from engagement with positive or worthwhile relationships, goals, and actions. Love of family, people, ideals, knowledge, creativity, helping others or life itself drives or inspires such engagement. Without this, there is no progress.

3. From the Subjective or Personal perspective, the lack of pain and suffering and the experience of bliss, pleasure, inner peace, awareness, beauty, and happiness give life meaning. Without this, there is no peace and joy.

Putting this all together, Rifkin is saying that there must be life as a prerequisite for anything, but from the point of view of the universe, there isn’t much more purpose than survival. Since this doesn’t totally satisfy conscious beings, unless mere survival totally consumes them, deeper meaning must emerge from personal and interpersonal perspectives which, when driven by love, produce good things like creativity, productivity, knowledge, inner peace, and ultimately joy. This also entails that suffering, loneliness, hunger, stress, have been minimized.

In the end, Rifkin finds meaning in what I would call a hybrid subjective-objective meaning position. Meaning is found subjective engagement with objectively worthwhile things such as relationships, creative labor, inner peace, and joy, etc. This echoes the position espoused by the philosopher Susan Wolf, which I have summarized here and here.

Summary of Raymond Belliotti’s, What is the Meaning of Human Life?

Raymond Angelo Belliotti is Distinguished Teaching Professor of Philosophy SUNY Fredonia. He holds a PhD in philosophy from the University of Miami and a J.D. from Harvard University.

Belliotti’s book What Is The Meaning Of Human Life? (2001) advances an objective naturalist approach to meaning.  He begins by addressing the bearing of theistic belief for meaning and concludes that for those who truly believe doubts vanish and the meaning of life is clear. “Charitably interpreted, theism can fulfill the deepest human yearnings.”[i] The problem is that belief is hard to maintain and doubt hard to swallow. In short, belief requires a leap of faith that many will resist. Yet he finds nihilism even less compelling. It is just not true that life is pointless. Meaning is possible, and the process of creating it satisfies most of us at least some of the time. Still, the question of life’s meaning continually intrudes, becoming most acute in times of psychological crisis. As for subjective accounts of meaning, they are deflationary, providing a starting point in the search for meaning but not the robust meaning that most desire. Believing one’s life has meaning does not make it so.

These considerations lead to a kind of philosophical paralysis, especially when our lives our viewed from the cosmic perspective. Adopting the cosmic perspective we might conclude that the cosmos and our lives lack meaning, that we are limited, insignificant, and impermanent. In response numerous strategies are available. One would be to accept that meaningful lives don’t require significance from a cosmic perspective but only from a human perspective. One could lower the bar that needs to be reached in order to call a life meaningful. Another might use the cosmic perspective to help put things in perspective, to take ourselves less seriously, and to view our sufferings as less grave. Used creatively the cosmic perspective can help us. Thus we should oscillate between perspectives, using whichever one aided us at the moment. If we want to feel vibrant in the moment, savoring our current achievements, we could adopt the personal perspective. If we want to reflect on our situation from afar, we could adopt the cosmic perspective. So we can maximize happiness and minimize suffering by deftly switching perspectives.

This discussion of perspectives shows that meaning is connected with consciousness, freedom, and creativity. The more these attributes adhere to a being, the greater the possibility of meaning. Thus meaning is not out there waiting to be discovered, the individual must contribute to its creation. Still, we cannot create meaning out of nothing, but only from our interaction with objects of value. This takes us back to the familiar discussion of objective values. Belliotti argues that engaged lives concerned with freely chosen trivial values count as minimally meaningful. Thus a meaningful life does not have to be significant or important, but fully meaningful lives are both—significant because they influence other people, and important because they made a difference in the world. And to be valuable a life must produce moral, intellectual, aesthetic, or religious value. Value is the most important attribute of meaningful lives. Of course most of us don’t live robustly meaningful lives because our lives are not valuable as thus defined, but they can be meaningful to a lesser extent by being important or significant.

Talk of valuable lives leads Belliotti to the idea of leaving historical footprints or legacies. For example, we think of Picasso’s life as valuable and robustly meaningful for the reason that it left a legacy of artwork independent of whatever moral shortcoming he may had. A legacy does not grant us immortality but it does give meaning to our lives by tying us to something beyond ourselves. Dedicated service to our community or commitment to rearing children are classic examples of intense labor that points beyond ourselves and gives so many lives meaning. We can always bemoan our insignificance from a cosmic perspective, but why should we? Meaning is found by standing in relationship to things and people of value, importance, and significance. In simple terms by having fulfilling relationships and appreciating music, literature, and philosophy, as opposed to watching television or engaging in small talk.

In the end we must love life and the world; we must love the valuable things of this world to find meaning in it. Often our habits and the diversions of life obscure our search for meaning, but we can come back to it. With joyous engagement in and relationship to valuable things and people of this world, we can live meaningful lives, and leave some trace of that encounter as our legacy.

Summary – We find meaning in relationship with persons and the objective values of this world, and leaving a legacy if possible.

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[i] Raymond Belliotti, What is the Meaning of Human Life? (Amsterdam: Rodopi, 2001), 29.

Christopher Belshaw’s, 10 Good Questions about Life and Death

Christopher Belshaw is a Senior Lecturer in philosophy at the Open University. He received his PhD from the University of California-Santa Barbara. In his 2005 book, 10 Good Questions About Life And Death, he devotes a chapter to the question “Is It All Meaningless?”

Belshaw argues that those who seek meaning are concerned that life does not have one. They think either that their own life or all life lacks a point, purpose or significance. Some reasons we might think life meaningless include: a) the brevity of our lives; b) the smallness of life compared with the vastness of the universe; c) the pain and suffering of life; or d) that there are no gods with a master plan.

But are these good reasons to think life meaningless?  Belshaw thinks not. The last argument only follows if there are no gods, and lots of people believe the opposite. As for the claim that life is full of suffering, we might retort that it is full of satisfaction as well. It is hard to challenge the fact that we are small and the universe vast, but is that really significant? Why would life be more meaningful if the universe were smaller or we were bigger? And why would it make a difference for meaning that humans continue to exist forever? These replies lead Belshaw to believe that we don’t want meaning per se, such as fitting into something else’s scheme, but our own meaning and purpose. He suggests we change the focus of our question from the meaning of life in general to that of our individual lives. And he rejects a singular answer in favor of considering various things as giving life meaning. In this way we can make progress in answering our question.

Now the first suggestion is that meaning is up to you; meaning is entirely subjective. Belshaw dismisses this with a thought experiment. If someone claims they live a meaningful life by trying to make their plants sing then, though they may be happy, they are living a pointless and foolish life. You cannot make a life meaningful simply by believing it to be. After all plants don’t sing! Or you might be happy as a drug addict, but we would still judge your life to be a waste.

If the subjective approach  work, what about the objective approach? Belshaw says that the things that matter are relationships, projects, and morally good living. If we really love others, share their pleasures and pains, their hopes and aspirations, it is hard to believe that our lives are insignificant. If we have a project that means something to us—to build a house, write a book, see the world—this fits poorly with the notion that our lives are meaningless. And if we seek to help others and make the world a better place, such a life such will not seem meaningless. Moreover, these points are connected. Involvement with others gives rise to projects, and projects involve you with other people. Living a moral life does something similar. All of these activities are held together by giving our temporal lives a constructive, creative, and ultimately meaningful dimension.

But on reflection the objective approach  seem to work either. Our moral lives and our projects don’t seem to be meaningful if we are not engaged in them. So your attitude, although not sufficient to meaning, does seem necessary.

But even if there are ways to live which are better than others, does it matter in the end? Belshaw counters that the fate of the universe is independent of whether it matters that people suffer, and likewise for the more mundane matters in our lives. Things matter to us and the fate of the universe is irrelevant. You might object that such things don’t really matter but this is no different than plain mattering. If something matters, then it does. The idea of ultimately mattering does not really make sense. Once you ask for the meaning of the meaning, you are involved in an infinite regress—there will be no way to end the search for the ultimate meaning. And yet, although we can view our lives as meaningful from the inside, the external perspective continually reappears. Should we just accept our lives as absurd then? Belshaw says no. The ordinary things in our lives are important even if they don’t change the history of the universe, and there is no inconsistency in this recognition. Life is not absurd.

Should we then be concerned with meaning? Many in the past have not been concerned about it, and Belshaw argues that our current concern emanates from the twentieth century existentialists. The question is not necessarily one of perennial concern. If we consider the life of a typical person that works, gets married, raises a family, and has a little fun, it is not especially meaningful but it is not meaningless either. Such a person may not be very moral, or have any satisfying relationships or work, but if they find their lives worth living we should let the matter rest there. After all too much about life may not be much help, and a simple life of limited meaning and contemplation is probably best.

Our lives differ by degree in terms of their meaning. The meaning of a life differs depending on what the life is like and what the subject living it thinks about it. As for the meaning of the universe we can say that it probably has no meaning, but Belshaw says this does not matter, since we cannot imagine how the universe could have meaning. Thus we don’t lack anything real when we lack ultimate meaning. Belshaw concludes: “Even if we decide that we can see that, really, there is nothing that it’s all about, that’s alright as well.”[i]

Summary – Relationships, projects, and moral lives are the objectively good things that give our subjective lives meaning. And that is enough, as concerns about the ultimate meaning of everything are unfounded.

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[i] Christopher Belshaw, 10 good questions about life and death (Oxford: Blackwell, 2005), 128.

Summary of Viktor Frankl’s, Man’s Search for Meaning

Viktor Emil Frankl M.D., PhD. (1905 – 1997) was an Austrian neurologist and psychiatrist as well as a Holocaust survivor. Frankl was the founder of logotherapy, a form of Existential Analysis, and best-selling author of Man’s Search for Meaning, which belongs on any list of the most influential books in last half-century—it has sold over 12 million copies! (According to a survey conducted by the Library of Congress and the Book-of-the-Month Club, it is one of “the ten most influential books in America.” New York Times, November 20, 1991)

The first part of the book tells the story of his life in the concentration camps—needless to say it is not for the faint of heart. Although Frankl survived, his parents, brother, and pregnant wife all perished. (There is no good substitute for a close reading of the book to convey the unrelenting misery of the situation, or to appreciate Frankl’s reflections on it. The record of his personal experience and observations of concentration camp life is a priceless cultural legacy.)

Frankl’s philosophical views that emanate from his experience begin by quoting Nietzsche: “He who has a why to live can bear with almost any how.” Whether we live to return to our loved ones or to finish our book, if we have a meaning to live for, then we have a reason to survive no matter how miserable the conditions of our lives. This desire to live, what Frankl calls “the will to meaning,” is the primary motive of human life. Putting these ideas together we are driven by the desires to survive, exist, and find meaning.

Frankl believes that a large part of meaning is subjective. It is not what we expect from life but what it expects from us that will provide meaning. We are free and we are responsible for how we live our lives. In this way Frankl sounds like an existentialist and subjectivist, extolling us to create our own meaning. But we classify him as an objectivist, for in the end there are objective values, there are things in this world that can provide meaning for anyone. The three objective sources of meaning are: 1) the experience of goodness or beauty, or of loving others; 2) creative deeds or work; and 3) the attitude we take toward unavoidable suffering. It is easy to see that love or work could give life meaning. If others whom we love depend upon us, or if we have some noble work to finish, we have a meaning for our lives; we have a why for which to bear any how.

But how is the attitude we take toward suffering a potential source of meaning? Frankl says first that we reveal our inner freedom in the attitude we take toward unavoidable suffering; and secondly, like the Stoics said, we can see our suffering as a task that we can bear nobly. Thus our suffering can be an achievement in which tragedy has been transformed into triumph. Frankl observed that prisoners who changed their attitudes toward suffering in this way were the ones who had the best chance of surviving.

Here is an example of Frankl’s description of finding meaning while working in the harsh conditions of the Auschwitz concentration camp:

… We stumbled on in the darkness, over big stones and through large puddles, along the one road leading from the camp. The accompanying guards kept shouting at us and driving us with the butts of their rifles. Anyone with very sore feet supported himself on his neighbor’s arm. Hardly a word was spoken; the icy wind did not encourage talk. Hiding his mouth behind his upturned collar, the man marching next to me whispered suddenly: “If our wives could see us now! I do hope they are better off in their camps and don’t know what is happening to us.”

That brought thoughts of my own wife to mind. And as we stumbled on for miles, slipping on icy spots, supporting each other time and again, dragging one another up and onward, nothing was said, but we both knew: each of us was thinking of his wife. Occasionally I looked at the sky, where the stars were fading and the pink light of the morning was beginning to spread behind a dark bank of clouds. But my mind clung to my wife’s image, imagining it with an uncanny acuteness. I heard her answering me, saw her smile, her frank and encouraging look. Real or not, her look was then more luminous than the sun which was beginning to rise.

A thought transfixed me: for the first time in my life I saw the truth as it is set into song by so many poets, proclaimed as the final wisdom by so many thinkers. The truth—that love is the ultimate and the highest goal to which man can aspire. Then I grasped the meaning of the greatest secret that human poetry and human thought and belief have to impart: The salvation of man is through love and in love. I understood how a man who has nothing left in this world still may know bliss, be it only for a brief moment, in the contemplation of his beloved. In a position of utter desolation, when man cannot express himself in positive action, when his only achievement may consist in enduring his sufferings in the right way—an honorable way—in such a position man can, through loving contemplation of the image he carries of his beloved, achieve fulfillment. For the first time in my life I was able to understand the meaning of the words, “The angels are lost in perpetual contemplation of an infinite glory….”

In the end, Frankl makes a case for what he calls “tragic optimism.” Life may be tragic, but we should remain optimistic that it meaningful nonetheless—life even in its most tragic manifestations provides ways to make life meaningful.

Summary – Meaning in life is found in productive work, loving relationships, and enduring suffering nobly.

Summary of Owen Flanagan’s “What Makes Life Worth Living?”

Owen Flanagan

Owen Flanagan (1949 – ) is the James B. Duke Professor of Philosophy and Professor of Neurobiology at Duke University. He has done work in philosophy of mind, philosophy of psychology, philosophy of social science, ethics, moral psychology, as well as Buddhist and Hindu conceptions of the self.

In his essay, “What Makes Life Worth Living?” Flanagan does not assume “that life is or can be worth living.”[i] Perhaps we are just biologically driven to live worthless lives. So he begins by asking: “Is life worth living?” And if it is then “…what sorts of things make it so?”[ii] He notes that reflecting on this question may be a waste of time, as life might be better for the non-reflective. Reflection may lead to despair if one determines that life is worthless, or to joy if one concluded to the contrary. The question of whether life is worth living and what makes it so is connected with another bewildering question: “Do we live our lives?”[iii] In one sense the answer is obvious—we spend time not dead—but Flanagan wants to know if we act freely or are merely controlled like puppets. So questions about the value of living involve issues about who we are and what kinds of things are true about us.

Flanagan argues that even happiness is not enough to guarantee that life is worthwhile, inasmuch as a life may contain much happiness and still be meaningless. Happiness is not sufficient for meaning, since one might derive happiness from evil things, and it may not be necessary either, since a meaningful life may be devoid of happiness. But even if happiness is a component of a worthwhile life, he argues that identity and self-expression are more crucial. “Wherever one looks, or so I claim, humans seek, and sometimes find worth in possessing an identity and expressing it.”[iv] Identity and self-expression are necessary but not sufficient conditions for worthwhile living since we need to clarify what forms of identity and expressions of it are valuable.

But what if there is no self to find meaning through self-expression? There are three standard arguments supporting the idea that we are not selves. First, maybe I am just a location where things happen from a universal perspective. Second, I may simply be the roles I play in various social niches, with self just a name for this apparent unity. Third, my apparent unity may be just various stages which change as we age. Regarding this last argument, Flanagan concedes that there is no same self continuing over time, but that this does not show there is no self, just that it changes over time. Even granting the second argument that I am a social construction; I am still something, so the death of self does not follow. The first argument suggests determinism; but even if I am determined, I am still an agent who does things. So these death-of-subject arguments, while deflating our view of self, don’t destroy it. Flanagan agrees that humans are contingent and don’t possess eternal souls—but this does not mean they are not subjects.

But why is there anything at all? And why am I one of the things that is? Such questions invite answers such as: 1) the gods decided that the universe and creatures should exist and I have the chance to join them if I follow their commands; or 2) we don’t know why there is anything except to say that the big bang and subsequent cosmic and biological evolution led to me. Flanagan notes that neither answer is satisfactory because both posit something eternal—gods or physical facts. But that does not answer why there is something rather than nothing. (Reminiscent of earlier claims that we can’t answer ultimate why questions.)

And yet many find the first story comforting, presumably because it links us with transcendent meaning. The second story has less appeal to most since it raises questions about one’s significance, moral objectivity, concept of self, and ultimate meaning. But is the first story really more comforting than the second? How do the gods’ plans make my life meaningful? And if the gods are the origin of all things are they really good? Thus it does not seem that either the theological or scientific story about origins can ground meaning in our lives.

Thus Flanagan suggests that we look elsewhere for meaning. Perhaps a person’s meaning comes from relationships with others, or with work, or from nature—from things we can relate to in this life. After all, the scientific story never says that life does not matter. In fact, a lot of things matter to me, from mundane things that I love to do—hiking and travel—to more long-term projects that matter even more—learning, loving, and working creatively. This means that we are creatures that thrive on self-expression and, to the extent that we are not thwarted in this desire, can ameliorate the human condition and diminish the tragedy of our demise by this expression. As Flanagan concludes:

This is a kind of naturalistic transcendence, a way each of us, if we are lucky, can leave good-making traces beyond the time between our birth and death. To believe this sort of transcendence is possible is, I guess, to have a kind of religion. It involves believing that there are selves, that we can in self-expression make a difference, and if we use our truth detectors and good detectors well, that difference might be positive, a contribution to the cosmos.[v]

Summary – We find meaning through self-expression in our work and in our relationships.

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[i] Owen Flanagan, “What Makes Life Worth Living?” in The Meaning of Life, ed. E.D. Klemke (Oxford: Oxford University Press 2000), 198.
[ii] Flanagan, “What Makes Life Worth Living?” 198.
[iii] Flanagan, “What Makes Life Worth Living?” 199.
[iv] Flanagan, “What Makes Life Worth Living?” 200.
[v] Flanagan, “What Makes Life Worth Living?” 206.