GOD AND THE MEANING OF LIFE – PART I

“I was quite sure that life was not worth living; for if religion was false everything was worthless, and almost everything if religion was true.” – George Santayana. A Brief History of My Opinons.

Now that we have defined reasonable criteria for the meaningful life, we consider the traditional answer – human life is meaningful within the context of creation by God. For the moment, we will bracket the question of whether God actually exists, and consider how the existence of God imparts meaning on human life. There are found facets implied in human meaning by the existence of a deity.

1.    Pre-ordained purpose1  

2.   Immortality  

3.   Explanation of morality2   

4.   Ultimacy

William Lane Craig, a Christian philosopher addresses these in his essay The Absurdity of Life without God.3 He argues that in a Godless universe, everything ends in oblivion, even the universe itself, therefore it is impossible for any contribution by any person to have significance. “All these come to nothing. In the end they don’t make one bit of difference, not one bit.” His theory is that if the universe is an accident we exist “to no purpose,” we are nothing more than insects. In fact this situation becomes tolerable only if we embrace a Noble Lie of some pretended purpose or meaning. Self-created meaning in Craig’s opinion is an illusion.

He also notes meaninglessness is further implied by the atheist’s acceptance of the brevity of human life and the eventual extinction of humanity. Without God, immortality is impossible, making our pitifully short lives still more frivolous and absurd. Moreover, following Dostoevsky, he argues in a world without God, morality is relative or mere opinion; literally anything goes. If there are no objective standards of right and wrong, there is no moral difference between the life of the despot and life of the saint. And since there is no immortality, there is no possibility to rectify evils done in this world or to reward goodness and sacrifice done in life. Last without God there is no ultimate reality, purpose, or meaning. Everything is finally trivial, or as T.S. Eliot wrote: “This is the way the world ends/Not with a bang but a whimper.”

 

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1We can formulate this as a logical argument: (1) God created everything in the world for a purpose, (2) Man is part of the world, (3) God created man for a purpose. Of course the first premise is a point of significant philosophical disagreement.

See YouTube film  Is God Necessary for Mortality? William Lan Craig vs Shelly Kagan Debate for a thorough discussion of theistic and atheistic justifications of morality.

3Klemke, E.D. (editor), The Meaning of Life. Oxford University Press, New York, 2000. ISBN 0-19-512703-X, pages 40-56.

THE MEANING OF LIFE: Criteria (continued)

Possibility

Whatever criteria we apply to human meaning, any discussion is contingent on its achievement being possible. If one says human meaning requires what is not feasible for humans to accomplish, it is no better than saying there is no human meaning or that human life is absurd. For example it is irrational to say human meaning is dependent on biological immortality when we know this is not the case. It is equally unreasonable to say my life cannot be meaningful unless something I do outlasts humanity and the existence of planet Earth knowing this is implausible. Human meaning is only viable if its requirements are possible. The proof is simple enough; if any human life has been meaningful, we know de facto it must be possible.

Desirability

The meaning of one’s life must involve actions which are desirable not only for oneself, but for others, for humanity, for nature, and for the cosmos. The desirability of the effects of one’s existence is a vital factor in one’s own contentment, itself a facet of human meaning.

The actions of a dictator, while far-reaching, do not bring meaning when they are harmful to his countrymen or his neighbors. And the value of actions that improve the situation of humanity can be undermined by the ill effects on other species or the planet. Meaning and value then are intricately tied to goodness and benevolence.

Understanding

The final feature of a meaningful life is understanding that one’s actions and their effects are meaningful. Actions or calculated inaction must be intentional, not accidental; due to free will, not determinism. One must have sufficient knowledge of reality and of the effects of human action to guide oneself. And for one’s life to be meaningful, one must recognize the meanings one has realized. It seems illogical to say a person had a meaningful life if that person thought their life was absurd or meaningless.

In short we see that the meaningful life requires experiences and effects with five critical features: sufficient magnitude and depth, acceptable duration and frequency, the possibility of actualization, desirability at many levels accompanied by personal contentment, and understanding of reality, human action, and one’s own success therein. Now we need to take on the difficult question of the necessity of

THE MEANING OF LIFE: Criteria

“I shall say that an activity is fully meaningful if it suffers from none of these defects, so that it is valuable in itself, directed towards an end which is not trivial and not futile.” – W.D. Joske, Philosophy and the Meaning of Life.

In the last three posts we considered some simple contexts for approaching the meaningful life, but found them wanting. Now we will try to firm up our foundation without dismissing some role for these common considerations. However, what we desperately seek are criteria which inform an approach to the question, and it seems that five stand out: magnitude, duration, possibility, desirability, and understanding. I will address each individually.

Magnitude

Here I am referring to the idea that for anything to contribute to the meaning of life, it must be of sufficient importance or depth to satisfy our expectations. We already saw that trivial purpose denies meaning and suggests absurdity – recall Kurt Vonnegut’s fictional purpose of the human species as providing a small part for a ship on a voyage nowhere. Human meaning increases in light of an adequate scale of the effects of one’s living although it is doubtful we can or need achieve something of ‘cosmic significance.’ Sensuous pleasure and simple biological continuance fail for this reason. Logically a multitude of purposes, achievements, and pleasures augments overall magnitude, increasing the likelihood of success in finding meaning. Alternatively it seems risky to rely on a single grand purpose to sustain one’s life and aspiration for meaning.

Duration

In addition to depth, common sense tells us greater meaning is likely with more enduring achievement. The brevity of human life and the impermanence of even our species and planet undermine the hope for everlasting meaning from our lives. This incongruity may explain the futility so many feel about the concept of human meaning. However there is a way out of this rabbit hole. As we discussed in the section on immortality, a human life is an infinite number of moments; perhaps we need to reconfigure duration in terms of one’s own life, in which case we seek to maximize the number of meaningful moments in our own lifespan.

We can enhance duration by extending some of our impact to the next generation, but it is for them to build on our efforts, find their own meaning in their segment of time, and attain extension to the next generation. There is not logical reason to insist the immense future is the responsibility of a single finite human.

(continued next post)

THE MEANING OF LIFE – Non-physical Pleasure

“Philosophers tell you, that pleasure is contrary to happiness.” – Samuel Johnson, Boswell’s Life of Samuel Johnson.

Perhaps when you were reading the last post on physical pleasure as a possible source for meaning in life, you thought that is not the kind of pleasure that should be seriously considered. We take up today on whether alternate forms of pleasure can instill meaning in life.

In the course of life, all of us have a multitude of opportunities to experience non-physical pleasure – elation, feelings of accomplishment, and intense excitement. In rough order of increasing depth, some examples include.

1.    Acquiring a desired material good – for example a beautiful home or luxury automobile,

2.   Completing an onerous task – finishing a Marathon or a long novel such as War and Peace,

3.   Winning the lottery or achieving financial success,

4.   Acquiring a desired skill – for example, mastering the piano,

5   .Creating a great work –such as a museum quality painting or prize winning poem,

6.   Becoming famous – for example politically or as a performer,

7.   Making a great discovery – a valuable invention, or a scientific breakthrough,

8.  Falling in love,

9.   Having children

Clearly most if not all people will experience the pleasure of one and more likely several of these events. Can they be the instruments of a meaningful life? The answer is maybe, but there are several major pitfalls. As in the case of physical pleasure, most of these give only temporary satisfaction. Several, including the acquisition of material goods and completion of a task, offer particularly brief elation. Some, such as wealth, are instrumental to future goods, rather than good in themselves. Others such as fame are highly dependent on the approval of others and thus suspect. Most are diminished if unethical behavior is involved; for example wealth through theft or the fame (infamy) of the tyrant. Falling in love imparts immeasurable quality to life, but is typically fragile and impermanent. Having children likely brings the most predictable joy to life of any of these, but that joy fluctuates and eventually feels incomplete.

We know from the experience of others how elusive meaning and happiness can be despite attaining such non-physical pleasures. There are countless examples of unhappy celebrities, including ones who commit suicide. We know  of lottery winners and the super-wealthy who experienced bad outcomes. The high number of divorces and the persistence of child abuse attests to the tenuous hope of meaning from love, marriage, and offspring.

As in the case of physical pleasure, the seeking of continuous non-physical pleasure seems a precarious strategy prone to disappointment. Still non-physical pleasure seems to be an undeniable component of the meaningful life. Next time we look for a more comprehensive foundation for the meaningful life.

 

THE MEANING OF LIFE – The Role of Physical Pleasure

“For whether pleasure is present or not, the person who positively maintains that pleasure is the end will have to submit to perturbations.” – Sextus Empiricus, Outlines of Pyrrhonism, Chapter XXXI.

Last time we looked at the question of the meaning of life in the natural or biologic context. Today we investigate the common sense assumption that the goal of life is to seek sensual pleasures and avoid physical pain. This option likely appeared at the dawn of civilization, when emerging technology and social structure unleashed a number of new or heightened pleasures including: enhanced sexual relations, food delicacies, alcohol-induced euphoria, and so on.

In speaking of happiness several ancient Greek philosophers consider the place for sensual pleasure. Aristippus, a friend and follower of Socrates, founded the Cyrenaic school of hedonism. His metaphysical skepticism and focus on practical ethics led him to the belief that physical enjoyments are the richest source of pleasure and should be fully cultivated.1 However he imposed a Socratic element of self-control in order to avoid slavery to pleasure.

Aristotle discounts physical pleasure as a means to happiness, attributing it to the vulgar or common person. He argues there are three lifestyles, the sensual, the political, and the life of thought. “Now the mass of mankind are evidently quite in their tastes, preferring a life suitable to beasts…”2  But for most men these types of pleasures are in conflict, happiness is not achieved, and we see that “pleasure is a state of the soul.”3

Epicurus is mistakenly seen as a proponent of pleasure-seeking, but  his philosophy is more sublime; happiness comes from diminishing anxiety by avoiding the pursuit of pleasure, attaining only physical necessities such as food, water, and shelter, and averting unease. He sees the ‘limit of pleasure” as the simple cheerfulness in knowing our needs can be easily met.

More recent philosophers assign value to pleasure; for example John Locke and Thomas Hobbes see pleasure as integral to happiness. Utilitarianism goes further, urging a political strategy of maximizing pleasure and minimizing pain in the populace. Jeremy Bentham attempts a Hedonic calculus of net pleasure over pain in defining what is useful to society. This concept of hedonism is based on the theory that pleasant experiences and pleasure are the only goals desired in and of themselves, hence the only goods. All other ‘goods’ are merely instrumental to obtaining pleasure.

But hedonism and the focus on pleasure appear to fail as a key means to make life meaningful for four reasons. First pleasure cannot be sustained, as it lessens when prolonged – consider consumption of desserts. Second many people attach greater importance to non-sensual features of life such as fame, honor, and aesthetic creation. Third pleasure may occur at another’s expense diminishing its desirability or goodness. Last pleasure can be induced by drugs, but it is unlikely anyone would consider a permanent drug induced euphoria as a meaningful life.

In summary, sensual pleasures and freedom from pain, if not artificial or at another’s expense, may be components of the meaningful life, but ultimately are too superficial or inconsistent to satisfy most earnest people. Next time we will consider whether non-physical gratifications can provide a path to the meaningful life.

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1Edwards, Paul (editor), The Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Macmillan Publishing Co., Inc. & The Free Press, 1972.   Volume 1, page 148 and Volume 3, page 432.

2Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics, Book I Chapter 5

3Ibid, Book I Chapter 8.

THE MEANING OF LIFE – The Biological Context

“The point of his living is simply to be living.” – Richard Taylor.

Now that we have analyzed and reformulated the question of the meaning of life and considered the major criticisms of it, we need to evaluate it within varying contexts. Today we start with the biological since it is most concrete and immediate. By this I do not intend to default back to a literal interpretation as in “what is the meaning of the word ‘life’?”, rather what is the biological significance of our individual lives.

Here nature is our guide; the two strongest instincts imposed on life of all types according to Darwinism are survival and reproduction. While these instincts may be the mere brutal facts of living things, their necessity for the continuance of life imparts a gloss of intention. Thus it seems fair to say at the biological level a meaningful life is one that survives as long as possible, and at least until offspring are created.

Richard Taylor outlines this clearly starting with the myth of Sisyphus who was eternally condemned by the Gods to roll a rock up a hill every day only to see it roll back down to no purpose. Taylor thinks this makes life meaningless for Sisyphus and notes that even immortality fails to extend meaning to Sisyphus’ life and perhaps even increases the sense of meaninglessness. However his efforts would become meaningful if the Gods had also implanted a drive in him to roll rocks up hills in which case Sisyphus would find at least some meaning in fulfilling his drive.

Taylor thinks this analogy applies to living things be they cave-restricted glow worms that struggle to subsist on stray insects until they reach a single day when they mature into winged adults, mate, and then are themselves eaten by other glow worms, or are birds that migrate great distances only to return to mate, or are humans who play out a Sisyphus-like drama in the generational cycle of birth-reproduction-death. Taylor believes that as would be the case for Sisyphus, the presence of the drive that compels these life courses gives living things a modicum of meaning.1

Other thinkers go somewhat further. Jonas Salk sees life as the continuation of evolution which for humans includes cultural advancement.2 Jane Goodall proposes the raising of children as highly meaningful.3 Freeman Dyson adds a further level – the prospect of humans controlling their evolution.4

In short, seemingly futile human biological existence imparts meaning because we are driven to survival and reproduction, because we can continue the human line and its evolution, and because we participate in the compendium of life. This is unlikely to meet the deep need we have for ‘larger’ meaning, but assures at least a limited value to life. Next time we will consider the realm of pleasure.

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1Klemke, E.D. (editor), The Meaning of Life. Oxford University Press, New York, 2000. ISBN 0-19-512703-X, pages167-175.

2Fadiman, Clifton (editor), Living Philosophies. Doubleday, N.Y., 1990. ISBN 0-385-24880-6, pages 238-244.

3Ibid., pages 81-88.

4Ibid, pages 7-15.

THE MEANING OF LIFE – Coherent or Nonsense

“The solution to the problem of life is seen in the vanishing of the problem.” – Ludwig Wittgenstein, Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus  6.521.

While the question whether life has meaning is ancient, perhaps one even primitive humans asked, it is relatively recently that the question has come under attack as incoherent. There are three basic criticisms.

The first is linguistic; the mere construction of a sentence or question that deploys words in an apparently standard way does not mean the sentence or question makes sense. Ludwig Wittgenstein points out that language consists of words which are atomic symbols used in relaying ideas and requiring consistency in use. Symbols and words have meanings of course, but activities and human life do not. It is quite right to ask “What is the meaning of the symbol ‘$’ or the word ‘turtle’?” but despite the similarity in construction, it is not correct to ask “What is the meaning of life?” In fact Wittgenstein goes further arguing it is impossible to say anything meaningful about ethics or metaphysics since that involves the impossible task of talking about them from outside the world.1

The second criticism is that of the logical positivists, who argue the question is  faulty in that it is unanswerable. A.J. Ayer sees the crux of the question as why the world is the way it is and why are we here. But ‘why’ questions make no sense in this situation. We can answer the question of how things in general and humans in particular are and how they got there, but cannot show a justification or proof of intention. In his opinion, if the question is changed to “How ought we to live?” we are little better off since there is no objective basis for morality either. There can never be an answer that is logically independent. At best “all that can be said is that life has at various times a different meaning for different people according as they pursue their several ends.”2

The last criticism is that of the postmodernists where the question is seen as simply absurd.  They challenge the viability of a search for systematic, complete accounts of reality which impose rationality on an irrational universe.3 They see such efforts as subjective and based on unreliable human reason. The postmodernists allege human life is trivial or futile. Literary examples are Albert Camus’ analogy of human existence to the plight of Sisyphus4, Kurt Vonnegut’s story plot where the ultimate end of all human activity is to deliver a part to a wrecked space ship on a journey nowhere,5 or Douglas Adams’ answer by a supercomputer after 7.5 million years that the meaning of everything is ’42.’6

It is worth stating that none of these views can be entirely rebutted, although I hope by rephrasing the question as I did in the last blog, we may avoid some pitfalls. I would also note that even philosophers skeptical of a foregone meaning of human life concede that human conduct and aspirations offer at least some meaning for our individual lives.

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1 Magill, Frank. Masterpieces of World Philosophy. HarperCollins Publsihers.  1990. ISBN 0-06-270051-0. Page 510.

2Klemke, E.D. (editor), The Meaning of Life. Oxford University Press, New York, 2000. ISBN 0-19-512703-X, page 226.

3Law, Stephen, Philosophy. Metro Books, New York, 2007. ISBN 978-1-4351-3895-0, page 43.

4Camus, Albert, The Myth of Sisyphus. Vintage Books, N.Y., 1983.

5Klemke, E.D. (editor), The Meaning of Life. Oxford University Press, New York, 2000. ISBN 0-19-512703-X, page 285.

6Baggini, Julian, What’s It all About? Oxford University Press, Oxford, England, 2004. ISBN 978-0-19-531579-0, page 3.

THE MEANING OF LIFE – Clarification of the Question

“The real questions are the ones that obtrude on your consciousness whether you like it or not…the ones that you ‘come to terms with’ only to discover that they are still there. The real questions refuse to be placated. They barge into your life when it seems most important for them to stay away. They are the questions asked most frequently and answered most inadequately, the ones that reveal their true natures slowly, reluctantly, most often against your will. ” – Ingrid Bengis.

Our first task is simply to clarify what we mean when we ask: “What is the meaning of life?”  For example the use of the singular third person conjugation of ‘to be’ is rhetorical. There is no presumption that there is only one answer; there may be and are more likely to be multiple answers. And there may in fact be multiple facets of the meaningful life for any individual. In short, we do not seek a single, all-purpose response to the query.

Also the word ‘life’ should not be taken too concretely. We are neither asking for a dictionary definition of the word ‘life’ nor the significance of living things in the general sense. Instead the question implies an individual human life and usually the individual life of the one posing the question.

The use of the word ‘meaning’ however is the tricky. There are three contexts of this word: linguistic, indicative, and importance. I have already pointed out that the linguistic or denotative use of ‘meaning’ is not intended. The indicative use of the word ‘meaning’ – for example, dark clouds mean it is likely to rain – also is not operative here. The use of ‘meaning’ refers to significance, importance, or lasting value.

In brief then the question so far can be reworded: “What significance(s) and/or lasting value(s) does life have for individual humans?” or “What significance(s) and/or lasting value(s) does life have for me?”

Additional versions of the question offer further clarification, including:

What’s it all about?

What is the point of it all?

Why am I here?

Where do I fit in?

What is the point of (my) life?

What should I do with my life?

What is my purpose?

How can I make a good life for myself?

What will make me happy?

What is the definition of happiness?

Is life worth living?

None of these is an absolute equivalent of the original question, but from them we extract additional key elements of any answer: an understanding of reality, a role and purpose(s) for the individual, a need for action, the criteria of happiness, and a hope that any meaning must outstrip any suffering and futility we experience.

In closing, the original question can be reworked into a more awkward but more exact form: “Based on a well-developed understanding of reality, what role and conduct, if any, will promote the highest level of  happiness, lasting significance, and value for me, relative to the suffering and futility I will experience in the course of my life?”

Next time we will investigate whether the question is itself flawed.

THE MEANING OF LIFE    Introduction

“If he [Man] could without effort see what the meaning of life is, and if he could fulfill his ultimate purpose without trouble he would never question the fact that life is worth living. Or if he saw at once that life had no purpose and no meaning, the question would never arise.” – Thomas Merton, No Man is an Island.

In the course of living, most humans will ask in one form or another the ultimate question: what is the meaning of life? or perhaps why am I here? This seemingly rhetorical question is in fact of vital interest to us as the answer traces the lines of perspective that converge in the focal point of life, our eventual death. Alternatively rejection of the question or of all possible answers threatens to lead us on a course towards nihilism or absurdity.

Following our preparatory work we are ready at last to systematically address the inevitable question of the significance of our existence and means to an optimal life. I will divide the subject into four parts. In the introductory section of which this post is the first, I hope to clarify the question particularly looking at alternative versions and delineate its nuances. Then I will evaluate whether the question itself is coherent or mere nonsense. Next we will consider various contexts including that of biology  and pleasure, before looking for some criteria by which to judge any answer. We need to then investigate the two magnetic poles – the role of God as a potential source of human meaning contrasted with the nihilistic view. The introductory section will conclude with a logical justification, if one exists, for the pursuit of a meaningful life.

The second section will describe the four classic proposed courses in the quest for a meaningful life: virtue, purpose, contentment, and relationship with ultimate reality. We will stop briefly to look at other possible solutions or features such as love, fame, and aesthetics. Finally we will assemble the structure of a meaningful life from the various possibilities using the simple criterion of internal consistency.

The third section will examine and critique an assortment of answers offered by other thinkers including philosophers such as Aristotle and Epicurus and non-philosophers such as Loren Eiseley and H.L. Mencken. I hope to distill from their thoughts a group of confirmatory principles for additional clarification. In the final section I will attempt to synthesize the best blueprint for a meaningful life that can be individualized by the reader.

This stage of our work will be methodical and perhaps tedious, but patience will be rewarded. Again I urge you to review the preparatory work on this site if you have not already done so as many earlier points will be reiterated or assumed during this process. Join me next time as we clarify the question itself.

CURRENT READING -The Philosopher’s Magazine – Who is a meaning of life for?

“There is but one truly serious philosophical problem, and that is suicide. Judging whether life is or is not worth living amounts to answering the fundamental question of philosophy”- Albert Camus, The Myth of Sisyphus.

The second quarter 2020 issue of The Philosopher’s Magazine1 includes an essay with the intriguing title Who Is a Meaning of Life For? by Elijah Millgram of the University of Utah. This is quite timely as I begin to delve into the question of what a meaningful life is by permitting a preface to that section.

Millgram begins by recalling a comment by Gisela Striker, a historian of ancient philosophy, that she hoped life didn’t have a meaning, because it would be too oppressive. Millgram transposes this into a more than rhetorical proposition; perhaps “we shouldn’t simply take it for granted that we want meaningful lives.”2 He begins with the example of John Stuart Mill (on whom he wrote a book) who made his life’s meaning ‘the Utilitarian Enterprise’ but eventually felt himself trapped by it.

By comparison, Millgram posits Friedrich Nietzsche who in The Gay Science suggests one’s ‘purpose for existence’ can be achieved by finding an interpretation that covers what one has already done. Here the goal is to lock everything down through ingenuity and inventiveness so that one’s entire life in all its meaningless detail is reconfigured into a unifying purpose which one can then embrace in conformity with Nietzsche’s metaphysical theory of ‘eternal return.’  But Milligram thinks such an artistic reconstruction of one’s life ultimately reflects Nietzsche’s rock bottom cynicism as to whether reality matters at all.

In brief then, J.S. Mill sees meaning as guiding action and Nietzsche sees it as reconciliation. Alternatively the desire for a meaningful life can viewed as a prison or a fanatical delusion.  Millgram offers a third option, the denial of the need for a meaning of life, concluding with the perplexing question, “What do I want it [a meaning of life] for?”3

I would reply that perhaps Millgram is conflating the meaningful life with  the purposeful life. I believe the reason we want to find purpose is because it is one of the four components of the meaningful life. The other three are contentment, virtue, and resolution of one’s relationship to ultimate reality. Each of the four is difficult to achieve, but all are worthy of attainment. And why do we want these? Well, because they compose the summum bonum of happiness and meaning. The next section on this site will investigate all of them  and answer Millgram’s question.

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1Garvey, James (editor), The Philosopher’s Magazine. Issue 89, 2nd  Quarter 2020.

2Ibid., page 50.

3Ibid., page 54.