Monday, November 14, 2005

What does it all mean? (II)

Accustom yourself to believe that death is nothing to us, for good and evil imply sensation, and death is the privation of all sensation. [...] Foolish, therefore, is the man who says that he fears death, not because it will pain when it comes, but because it pains in the prospect. Whatsoever causes no annoyance when it is present, causes only a groundless pain in the expectation.
Thus Epicurus in his Letter to Menoeceus. His arguments – there are others, too – prompt a standard reply: even if (what seems doubtful) pleasure and pain are the only things that matter in life, death may still come as a harm to us in depriving us of the pleasure we would otherwise have had.

Suppose that is right. Would it be enough to justify our attitude to death? If death is not bad for us, there is no reason to fear it. But the converse is less clear: not everything bad is worthy of fear. Fear has to do with the uncertain. It is just as irrational to be afraid of an inevitable harm as it is of something harmless. The proper emotion is dread, or resentment, or grim resignation. In any case, the violence of my terrified reaction to the prospect of death is completely out of proportion to the deprivation that orthodox philosophers describe. If I am not irrational in this, the answer to Epicurus must have left something out. But what?

Here is my conjecture, which takes us back to our original topic: if you know the meaning of life, you will not be afraid to die. If life has meaning, it must be something to reconcile us to extinction – even if it does so by denying that the death of the body is the death of the soul. That is why I was not satisfied, last time, by the teleological interpretation of the meaning of life, at least when it is unadorned. Even if I believed in it, I would still be frozen with anxiety at the thought of death. What justifies this fear (as it seems to me) is the thought that life is meaningless.

Wittgenstein made it fashionable to defend non-cognitivism about religious conviction: what we call "belief" here is a certain attitude, not the representation of a fact. Hence his impatience with The Golden Bough:
Frazer's account of the magical and religious views of mankind is unsatisfactory: it makes these views look like errors. Was Augustine in error, then, when he called upon God on every page of the Confessions?
In his book, On the Meaning of Life, John Cottingham flirts with a version of this:
[Faith] is hard to describe in purely cognitive terms; for it is not primarily characterisable in terms of propositions assented to, but is a matter of a certain orientation in which emotions and beliefs and practices of worship and moral convictions merge together in what Wittgenstein called a 'passionate commitment' to a certain form of life.
This approach to the spiritual can be tempting, but if I am right about death and the meaning of life, then it must be wrong. To grasp the meaning of life – which religion is meant to provide – it is not sufficient to undergo a non-cognitive change through which one ceases to fear death. (Therapy or yoga might do that.) Instead one has to know something that makes it wrong to be afraid. This knowledge may depend on emotional transformation; but it must be knowledge all the same.
To know an answer to the question 'What is the meaning of human life?' means to be religious.

So Einstein claimed. And while his statement must be qualified, at least this much is true: knowledge of God is sufficient for knowledge of meaning (if there is any such thing). Since knowledge of meaning is cognitive, so is knowledge of God.

6 Comments:

Anonymous Kris McDaniel said...

Hi Kieran,

This is a really interesting suggestion. I'm now thinking about how it might connect with your earlier comments that the primary bearer of meaning is "human lives in general" and not individual human lives.

One could worry that the two theses could come apart. It may be that there is some fact, such that if *you* were to know it, you would no longer be able to rationally feel fear, dread, horror, or some other such emotion towards your own death.

But it may also be that if I were to know this fact, I wouldn't be in the same boat -- maybe I could still rationally feel fear, dread, horror etc. towards my own death. And there is no fact such that if I were to learn it, my fear of death would be irrational.

Obviously, I don't know if this is even a real possibility. But suppose it were to obtain. Would you still want to say that the primary bearer of meaningfulness is "human life in general"? Or would you be willing to say that some lives end up being meaningful and some lives don't?

Like I said, I have no way of knowing whether this possibility obtains. But I guess you don't know that it doesn't either?

Second unrelated thought: why "human" lives in general? I think a labrat can have a pretty bad life; maybe it even has a meaningless life. But maybe some non-human animals can have meaningful lives.

2:13 PM  
Blogger Kieran Setiya said...

Thanks for the questions. A few responses...

My thought was not that, if life has meaning, all human lives are meaningful, but rather that the question of the meaning of life is dfferent from the question what it takes for an individual life to be meaningful. Perhaps life has meaning, but most of us live meaningless lives; or we live meaningful lives, but life, as such, is meaningless. I didn't mean to deny that some lives can be meaningful, while others are not, but to distinguish that topic from mine. (Presumably, there is some connection, but I'm not sure what it is.)

The consequence is that I don't see a problem in the possibility you describe. The "thesis" of the post is that knowledge of a positive answer to the question of life's meaning would make fear of death irrational. Although I did not spell this out, I meant: irrational, for anyone. A fact, knowledge of which would make fear of death irrational for me, but not for you, wouldn't deserve to be called "the meaning of life". (It is a further question how it might relate to the meaningfulness of your life, or of mine.)

Finally, why "human" life, not life in general? Again, the issue is not whether non-human animals can have meaningful lives. But I think you are right that, given the kind of question I am asking, the "human" is out of place. This is implicit in the title of the posts. The question is really: "What does it all mean?"

2:34 PM  
Anonymous wmr said...

I'm glad you drew the distinction between "meaning of life" and "meaning of a life" and pointed out that they are two different problems. I agree that you are under no obligation to discuss both problems.

Regarding death: I am an atheist and I do not fear death, but I fear dying. I would love to be certain that I will die in my sleep or of a massive heart attack in the midst of an orgasm, but my fear is that I will drown or burn or some other ghastly, painful thing.

Finally, a question about meaning. Does meaning imply a context? A larger setting in which the thing or event has a place and a set of relations? If so, then how can "it all" have a meaning? Or might it be a matter of an individual's feeling that he has come to a place where he can imagine a context for everything he has experienced ("it all"?).

9:30 AM  
Blogger Kieran Setiya said...

I agree that the appearance of "meaning" in "What is the meaning of life?" and in "What does it all mean?" is anomalous. Perhaps you are right that "meaning" in an ordinary sense requires a context of some kind that is lacking here. I'm not sure. I do suspect that if we try to understand these questions as though they employ "meaning" in the standard way(s), they'll end up looking like bad questions.

This seems to be one of those cases in which we are trying to ask something, or to make a demand for something, and in doing so we find ourselves forced to use language metaphorically. That can be sign of confusion. I've been proceeding on the assumption that it isn't – out of nothing more than optimistic charity – and trying to determine what we might be after when we hope that "life has meaning".

If we could first figure that out, maybe we could then go back and explain why "meaning" was the right word to use in framing our question. At any rate, that is the order in which I would proceed, if I knew how.

11:07 AM  
Anonymous jonathan said...

Hey Kieran.
You say, "knowledge of God is sufficient for knowledge of meaning (if there is any such thing)". But you also conjecture that "if you know the meaning of life, you will not be afraid to die". So it sounds like you're saying knowledge of God is sufficient for extinguishing the fear of death. But that doesn't sound right to me unless knowledge of God comes with knowledge of the afterlife (in particular, that there is an afterlife). If there were a God but no afterlife, why should we be any less afraid of dying?

2:11 PM  
Blogger Kieran Setiya said...

You are right that the conclusion is really conditional: if knowledge of God is sufficient for knowledge of life's meaning, then it should silence the fear of death. I don't think that the promise of immortality is the only way in which this could happen, however. I make a different suggestion in the next post – but I don't pretend to have the issue under control.

10:32 AM  

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