Monday, November 21, 2005

What does it all mean? (III)

It may seem that we are getting nowhere fast. My excuse is that the question is not easy. But I am ready to attempt an answer, for what it's worth. What follows is less philosophy than autobiography. It is tentative and provisional in the highest degree.

Life may come to seem meaningless in many different ways. What do they have in common? I think it is this: they are all ways of bringing out the contingency of life. What is really upsetting about Darwin is not mechanism, but the opposite: the sense that our very existence is happenstance, the product of random forces that might easily have gone another way. Fear of death is about the precariousness of one's existence.

The stories that might give meaning to life are stories of necessity. The idea of God's design, of teleology, is a story in which we have to exist, we are needed by God, we are essential. Nietzsche's myth of the eternal recurrence answers to part of the same urge: this life will happen again and again because it must.

In discussing the problem of evil, John Cottingham describes the theodicy according to which imperfection is inevitable because, in creating the world, God had to subtract from himself. He connects this with the inevitability of death:
Any creatures inhabiting a material planet, and themselves made of matter, formed of 'the dust of the earth', will necessarily be mortal […] we cannot coherently wish […] that God had created a material world not subject to change, decay and suffering […] the very possibility of existence […] depends on mortality […]
If this were true, if it were really a metaphysical necessity (not just a natural law) that we are mortal, I think – though it is hard to be sure – I would no longer be afraid to die. It would be incoherent, in a way, to rail against death from love of life, if life were strictly impossible without death. (I say it is hard to be sure because the claim of metaphysical necessity seems to me obviously false, and barely intelligible. Mortality is a physical necessity; it is not part of the essence of things, and I am not sure how it could have been.)

At any rate, the interpretation of the demand for meaning as a demand for necessity explains why it is satisfied for all of us, or none. It accounts for the relevance of God. And it makes sense of the importance of size. Contemplating the vastness of the cosmos is another way to bring out the contingency of our existing at all.

None of this explains why necessity should matter to us, or how contingency would justify the fear of death. But what did you expect? Surely it's enough that I have answered the question of life's meaning, even if I have not explained what the question is. The answer is sung by the strings in the final movement of Beethoven's last quartet. The meaning of life is the reason why whatever is, must be.


Anonymous Heath White said...

I've been following this series with interest. A couple of issues:

1. Nozick considers that Earth might be constructed for a very specific purpose of God's: namely, to be food for a group of aliens in the middle of a long voyage. In the example, God doesn't care about us and we have no other role. The point is that God's purposes and our own sense of value or fulfillment can, in principle, come (far) apart. I don't know about you, but if I thought we were all placed here to be snacks for some alien, I wouldn't believe life was 'meaningful' in the sense that I think most people mean, however non-contingent we might be.

2. I don't think size is uniformly interpreted as evidence of meaninglessness, and this needs explaining. Kant looks at the starry heavens above, knows they're really big, but feels awe rather than anomie. Also, it's just a fallacy to infer from something's being small to it's being contingent. I think the issue may be more like this: if you think life has no intrinsic meaning, that life is what you make it, then it all depends on you. And then the size of the universe can induce a feeling of powerlessness and triviality. It is *that* sort of person who feels meaningless in the face of size.

3. I don't know quite what to do with this but ... according to traditional monotheisms, what God precisely did NOT do was create mortal creatures, at least ones who could ask about the meaning of life. Though, also, the belief in resurrection seems to be a late development in Judaism. So perhaps there have been theists who did not feel meaningless but nevertheless thought they would perish, and then this tradition somehow develops the idea of immortality too.

12:29 PM  
Blogger Kieran Setiya said...

Thanks for the comments. Some brief replies:

1. I agree about Nozick. In fact, I made a similar point in an earlier post, where I asked "What is the appeal of being cogs in a divine machine?" Presumably, if necessity has anything to do with the meaning of life, it is itself necessary, but not sufficient, for life to have meaning.

2. I also agree that size could matter in many ways, not just one. I was thinking of the image of endless stars and dead planets as a way of bringing out the contingency of life on this one. But there are other arguments lurking here, as well.

3. I don't know enough to speak competently to the historical issue, but my interest is certainly in ways of thinking about the meaning of life (and equanimity in the face of death) that don't depend on immortality. I'll try to say more about this, if I can. But I'm afraid the posts have more or less exhausted what I think I understand.

5:09 PM  
Anonymous Zena said...

I like the suggestion about necessity. I wonder if there isn't another way life can have meaning. Suppose God is capricious: he changes his mind from one minute to the next about what to do. (I seem to remember that there are some medieval Arabic philosophers who thinks that God recreates the world at every moment.) Or suppose he is unjust. His intentions for us, even if not bound by necessity, might still give our life meaning. Cf. Hardy's "Hap":

If but some vengeful god would call to me
From up the sky and laugh: "Thou suffering thing,
Know that thy sorrow is my ecstasy,
That thy love's loss is my hate's profiting!"

Then would I bear it, clench myself, and die,
Steeled by the sense of ire unmerited;
Half-eased in that a Powerfuller than I
Had willed and meted me the tears I shed.

I feel slightly embarrassed to be citing poetry, so I'll leave out the rest of it (It's in Norton Anth.). But it does seem to illustrate the source of meaning I have in mind.

11:27 AM  
Anonymous wmr said...

Intriguing. Do you think it ties in with the idea "everything happens for a reason", which also seems to comfort a lot of people?

10:56 PM  
Blogger Kieran Setiya said...

I'm out of my depth here, but...the idea that "everything happens for a reason" could be an expression of the demand for necessity. As it stands, it is a bit ambiguous. To say that everything happens for a reason might simply be to say that things will work out for the best, without implying that there is a specific best way in which they must work out. In order to express necessity the claim must be that everything happens for a sufficient reason. And then we hit the daunting metaphysics of 18th-century "rationalism".

I'm not sure how to respond to the Hardy poem. One of the conditions I proposed on a positive answer to the question of life's meaning was that it should make fear of death irrational. I can report that this is not the effect on me of thinking about the capricious, vengeful god.

But there's an issue here I've brushed away once before (in the comments to the previous post) about whether the same things would make fear of death irrational for all of us, and what to say if the answer to that question is "no".

9:23 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Overall, these are nice and compelling ideas.

However, I would draw the exact opposite conclusion than do you from the fact of our smallness in the presence of the cosmos. Precisely because the Universe is so vast, with so many stars and (we now believe, although we did not always) planets, then the fact of our existence is much less of a surprise. If there is a 1 in a million chance of life appearing on a planet, and there are one billion planets in the Universe, then we would expect there eventually to be 1000 planets with life on them. In other words, our contingent-ness seems to feel more like necessity if the size of the reference population (ie, the cosmos) is sufficiently large.

5:57 AM  
Anonymous charlie mccalla said...

Reading and thinking about these ideas has been enjoyable. One area that I found interesting deals with the concept that Darwin makes our existence seem happenstance.

In the realm of science I have often encountered Darwin's observations supporting something more like determinism.

Two interacting atoms will always behave in the same manner, dictated by their state at the time of interaction. This is easily tested and consistently reproducible.

Larger biological systems are far too complex and the number of interacting particles far too enormous to lend themselves to such testing. Evolution, however, could be said to show a pattern that indicates even such complex systems follow basic immutable laws.

This suggests mankind's as well as our own individual existences as having been necessitated by the universe's prior condition and the subsequent inevitable flow of interactions.

For me personally, it was that concept that first challenged the meaningfulness of life. It was not the contingency of life for me, but rather the possibility of its machine like predetermined nature.

God seems to me to represent the ultimate reality, the context from which meaning comes. Man turns to God because the vast cosmos, the social systems of the world, the myriad forms of life, the workings of our own organs systems,the interactions of subatomic particles and on and on, are far too complex for us to understand or easily make a unified meaning from.

Many turn to God for that and find solace in their trust that God embodies the meaning they seek and by their relationship with God they may be in touch with that meaning.

But, perhaps we should be careful not to put preconcieved notions on God. Perhaps God need not be comprehensible to us. If God exists in the laws that underlie our universe and thus brought us about in that way, is this any less of a God? Does God need to be in an exalted human form for our human lives to have meaning?

In some zen way the meaning of our lives may be incredibly simple, but the web of the universe around us is incomprehensibly complex. If something forms it and underlies it all, that to me is God, and that by itself would reassure me of life having meaning.

8:28 PM  

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