Monday, November 07, 2005

What does it all mean? (I)

In the opening chapter of his book, On the Meaning of Life, John Cottingham asks: "Can a radically immoral life really be meaningful?" He proposes some conditions that might rule this out: "the meaningful life for human beings is an integrated life", whereas the life of the torturer, say, is likely to be fragmented. What is more, "in order to be meaningful, life must meet the standards of some pattern tailored to our human nature, rather than being a pure function of isolated individual choice."

Forget, for a moment, whether these claims are true. What do they have to do with the meaning of life? It is a famously opaque question, but as I understand it, when we ask whether life has meaning, we are not interested in the meaningfulness of individual lives, but in human life in general. Scepticism about the meaning of life is not piecemeal: "Ned's life isn't meaningful, nor is Kate's, nor is mine. I wonder whether anyone has a meaningful life?" If human life has meaning, all human life has meaning; if not, none. Consequently, much of Cottingham's discussion strikes me as mis-directed. (I have the same complaint about other recent work on the topic.)

To repeat: the demand for meaning is obscure. How to get a grip on it? One strategy is to look at the ways in which it might be satisfied – or not.

So, what could give meaning to life? The overwhelmingly instinctive response is: God. Thus, I think it is a constraint on any adequate account of the question of life's meaning to explain why this would seem to do the job.

In much the same way, we need to make sense of the argument that life is meaningless because we are tiny specks in an endless cosmos – even if we reject that argument in the end. Much as I adore it, I cannot be satisfied with Ramsey's charming riposte:
Where I seem to differ from some of my friends is in attaching little importance to physical size. I don't feel the least humble before the vastness of the heavens. The stars may be large, but they cannot think or love; and these are qualities which impress me far more than size does. I take no credit for weighing nearly seventeen stone.
A tempting proposal is that life has meaning just in case human lives play a role in a larger functional whole. After all, the question of life's meaning is often framed as a question about the point of life, about whether it has a purpose. This would account for the relevance of God, but also for the view that life has meaning only because it is social, and the attempt to give meaning to life by putting us "in harmony with nature".

There must something in this "functional interpretation", but it does not take us very far. For one thing, it won't explain why the magnitude of the universe seems like an argument against the meaning of life. On the functional view, appeal to size is no more than a stand-in for mechanism or the rejection of purpose, as in the planetarium scene of Rebel Without a Cause. But the problem of mechanism is about freedom and agency, not about meaning: it is not the problem I have in mind.

In any case, the functional interpretation makes it hard to see why we should want life to have meaning. What is the appeal of being cogs in a divine machine? As well as explaining why God seems relevant, and why size really matters, an interpretation of our question must explain why anyone should care about the meaning of life.


Anonymous Anonymous said...


I don't think the question is too mysterious; I think it's adequately addressed in the virtue ethics tradition. For one's life to have meaning is to be on the way to a state of complete fulfillment. What that state is, is a fact about human nature, so it applies to everyone, not just individuals. The events/actions of one's life have the purpose or function of getting you to that state of fulfillment, if you're living right, and they are "meaningful" in that derivative sense.

To be completely fulfilled, one would have to last forever; thus really hard-core meaningfulness to life requires immortality. Religion has guaranteed this; furthermore, in the Christian tradition, the enjoyment of God enters into the content of the perfectly fulfilled state. Mechanism is a specter because (1) one's life is no longer understood as aiming at achieving an end, but only as the effect of prior causes, and (2) there is no state of fulfilment that persists, either individually or corporately.

1:59 PM  
Blogger Kieran Setiya said...

The question that is addressed by the virtue ethics tradition (as you describe it) can't be the one I have in mind, since it allows for the possibility that only some human lives are meaningful. I took it to be a constraint on interpretions of the question, "Does life have meaning?", as I intend it, that all lives have meaning, or none.

Similarly, in saying that mechanism does not create a problem for meaning, I was engaging in a bit of phenomenology. My doubts about meaning are not stirred by the thought of mechanism.

I don't claim that the question I'm trying to pin down is the only one worth worth asking here, or that it is what everyone has in mind when they talk about the meaning of life. (Though I think that many people would agree with the intuitions expressed above.)

Nor am I sure that I can make sense of my question, in the end. But I am sure that it is not settled by considerations about fulfilling one's nature, or leading a good and worthwhile life. I'm not worried about those things (right now), but I'm still worried that life has no meaning. And, as I said in response to previous comments, I can't believe that I'm simply confused!

4:38 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

In the comments to the previous post, you said, "...if an issue has seemed gripping to many, there is probably something there...."

After much thought, I have to wonder if the issue isn't the meaning of life but the fear that life will lose what meaning it has. God and pie in the sky at least place this vale of tears in a larger perspective. Threaten to take away that larger perspective and a person is going to wonder what you will give them to replace it. And will it make them feel as good as does The Loving Father they will lose?

Could this be a psychological issue masquerading as philosophy?
Believers imagining a case of metaphysical buyer's remorse?

6:12 PM  
Blogger Ian said...

I can't help but get the sense that this discussion is a little misguided. "What is the meaning of life?", in the sense Kieran is trying to articulate here, has not yet been given a meaning. We cannot hope to understand it by looking at all of the different ways it is used, because so far it has been used only to express puzzlement (or else dogma)! These are precisely the kinds of questions that philosophers should not pluck from the tree of Tradition. They are bad apples. Instead, we should give this question some sort of determinate meaning, i.e. show what would count as an answer, and proceed from there. Either that, or we should abandon this muddlesome and hitherto useless string of words for something else. Refusing to explicate at the expense of connotative sense, and refusing to admit that the question as phrased does not yet have any one meaning, we have no choice but to scratch our chins and wince.

12:38 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hi Kieran,

There's a discussion of this topic going on over at PeaSoup. Here is the link.

9:36 AM  

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