Most of this article was written in 2017. I never finished it, but rather abandoned the project halfway §12 for reasons explained below. Until the horizontal line separating old from new, the following is the unchanged text of the 2017 draft.
There is a common idea that philosophy is concerned with figuring out the meaning of life. Although there are exceptions, such as James Tartaglia,1 most academic philosophers will deny this. But when I ask my students during the first day of class of my “Introduction to Philosophy” course what philosophy is about, then “the meaning of life” is usually one of the first suggestions. Since I have little reason to believe that my students deviate significantly from the general population in this respect, it seems safe to conclude that in the understanding of many (or many of those who are not initiated into the esoteric world of academic philosophy, at least) philosophy is, among others, concerned with answering the question: “What is the meaning of life?”2
I have always been puzzled by that question; mostly because I never really understood what it meant. Although I think that I’m less “in the dark” than I used to be, I’m still not sure what exactly it means – or what it is supposed to mean. The primary purpose of this article, is to systematically assess what it possibly could mean. Of course, if you’d accept a theory of meaning that claims that meaning is nothing but the intention of the speaker, then the question could mean anything, but I’ll take a somewhat more restricted approach. As Donald Davidson has pointed out, one cannot intend the impossible,3 and thus a speaker cannot mean what she expects the hearer to be unable to understand. For that reason, I’ll restrict this overview of possible meanings of “the meaning of life” to notions that make sense (and thus should be expected to be understandable), given the common use of the words involved.
There are (obviously, perhaps) two words in the phrase “meaning of life” that stand in need of disambiguation: “meaning” and “life”. We’ll start with the latter, but first it must be emphasized that the usual phrase is not “meaning of life”, but “the meaning of life”, and that that little word at the beginning, “the”, cannot be ignored. In this case it signifies that we are not talking about multiple competing meanings of life that are all equally good or important, but that there really is just one meaning of life. That one meaning is the meaning of life.
“Life” in “the meaning of life” can refer to any (or all?) of the following:
1) some particular individual’s life – my life, or your life, or Saint Augustine’s life, and so forth;
2) any individual’s life;
3) the life of me and those like me (in some relevant respect) – my family, tribe, social group, culture, and so forth;
4) all human life (i.e. the species homo sapiens);
5) all intelligent life in the universe;
6) all animal life on Earth, or (7) all animal life in the universe;
8) all life on Earth, or (9) all life in the universe;
10) the universe itself, if you take the universe to be a living “thing”, as some religions appear to do;
11) “life” in a more abstract sense – life as ontological category or biological phenomenon rather any specific kind(s) or collection(s) of living things;
12) the way things are – that is, the apparent “order” of things including the universe, society, and so forth;4
as well as to nearly (?) infinitely many intermediate options. In other words, there is a bewildering number of possible referents of the term “life” in “the meaning of life”, and while in many cases the focus appears to be option (1), my life, this is certainly not universally the case – any of these options can be the intended referent of “life” in some particular discussion (or even fragment of discussion) on the meaning of life.
Nevertheless, in the highly individualistic culture of the West (and the cultures influenced by it), “life” in “the meaning of life” is usually (1): it refers to some particular individual’s life. The question about the meaning of life is a question about the meaning of my life, or your life. That doesn’t mean that the other questions are any less valid or important, of course (or any more important, for that matter, because it could turn out that all of them are nonsensical).
Unfortunately, the word “meaning” in “the meaning of life” isn’t any less ambiguous. “Meaning” can have a variety of meanings and all of those meanings have different implications.
Paul Grice distinguished natural from nonnatural meaning.5 Natural meaning is the meaning of signs as symptoms of something. The first example he gives is “Those spots mean measles”.6 In case of nonnatural meaning there is a human agent meaning something with a sign. Thus, in “Hanako meant ‘no’ when she shook her head” and “‘atama’ means ‘head’ in Japanese”, meaning is nonnatural. Only in case of nonnatural meaning is an agent involved, but in either case there is an audience. Grice’s second example of natural meaning is “Those spots didn’t mean anything to me, but to the doctor they meant measles.” A sign means something to someone.
If “meaning” in “the meaning of life” is natural meaning, then the question “What is the meaning of life?” means “What is life a sign/symptom of to someone?” in which case, in addition to “life”, also that “someone” must be specified. Similarly, in an interpretation as non-natural meaning, the question becomes “What does some agent mean with life (as a sign) to someone?” in which the agent (as well as “life” and audience/“someone”) need specification.
Before proceeding, to facilitate comparison (especially considering that further interpretations will be added below), let’s summarize these two interpretations in a table.
|meaning of “meaning”||meaning of “the meaning of life”||implied thematic relations|
|natural meaning||the meaning of life as a sign/symptom of something to some audience||audience|
|nonnatural meaning||the meaning – by some agent – with life as a sign of something to some audience||agent, audience|
In table 1 – as well as table 2 further down – the leftmost column names the notion of “meaning” leading to that interpretation of the meaning of “the meaning of life”. The second column gives a gloss of the meaning of “the meaning of life” according to that interpretation. And the third column under the header “implied thematic relations” shows who or what are involved in this sense or interpretation of “meaning”.
I’m not sure whether the natural meaning interpretation makes sense at all. Life – regardless of what referent we choose for “life” – doesn’t appear to be a symptom of anything in the way that spots may be a symptom of measles. Furthermore, I’m quite sure, that this is not the notion of “meaning” intended when people refer to “the meaning of life”.
Unfortunately, the nonnatural meaning interpretation doesn’t make much more sense either. Obviously, it requires some agent that means or meant something with the sign. Supposedly, that agent would be God or some similar supernatural being or beings, and consequently this interpretation would require a belief in such a being, but that’s not nearly the greatest problem of this interpretation. If it is assumed that there is a God who does or did the meaning, then the nonnatural interpretation of “the meaning of life” would be that God used/uses life as a sign to communicate something to someone, but this does not seem to be what anyone has in mind when talking about “the meaning of life”. Or at least I am not aware of anyone believing that life itself – again, regardless of what referent we choose for “life” – is intended by God (or some other supernatural being or beings) to be a sign of something to someone. And if this is right, then nonnatural meaning cannot be the right interpretation either, and we need to look for other interpretations of “meaning”.
My wedding ring is meaningful to me. It also means something (in a Gricean sense) – namely that I’m married – but it is not the bare institutional fact of my marriage that makes it meaningful to me. It is meaningful to me because it represents – in some way – my relation with some particular person (and the institutional and legal form of that relation is about the least important aspect thereof). Similarly, life could be meaningful because of what it represents or signifies to someone (i.e. some particular audience). The problem with this interpretation – and also a problem for the previous two – is that it depends on the idea that life is some kind of sign, but it is quite debatable whether that idea makes sense. Firstly, it has the rather absurd implication that sign and audience may coincide. For example, if “life” refers to human life, and humanity is also the audience, then we are sign and audience at the same time. And secondly, as already pointed out twice, life being some kind of sign (or symptom) does not seem to be what people have in mind when they talk about “the meaning of life”.
Consequently, “meaning” in “the meaning of life” cannot be the meaning of life as a sign, which raises the question whether “meaning” in “the meaning of life” refers to a concept of “meaning” at all. Meaning is – by definition – meaning of or by means of signs.7 All acts and occurrences of meaning involve signs, and lacking a sign that means something or by means of which someone means something, there is no meaning. Perhaps then, the notion of “meaning” in “the meaning of life” is metaphorical more than literal.
The question “What is the meaning of life?” could be confusing way of asking (something like) a “Why” question – that is, a question for explanation: What is the explanation of/for life?
Explanations come in different kinds. Historical or genetic explanations point at reasons, causes or origins; functional explanations at functional roles or purposes; teleological explanations at aims, goals, or purposes (there is an overlap with teleological explanations here); and so forth. Commonly, explanations for the occurrence of some thing or phenomena appeal to causes, reasons, and/or purposes. If the question “What is the meaning of life?” would be a question for explanation, then it could be rewritten as one or more of the following:
a) What is the cause (or are the causes) of life?
b) What is the reason (or are the reasons) for life?
c) What is the purpose (or are the purposes) of life?
Causes, reasons, and purposes are not wholly separate categories. The purpose of an artifact like a pen or a computer is the reason for its creation – it was created with that purpose. And reasons are often considered to be a kind of causes. If purposes are reasons, and reasons are causes, then an answer to (c) would be an answer to (b) and an answer to (b) would be an answer to (a), but not the other way around.
Importantly, reasons and purposes require an agent (like nonnatural meaning). If there is a reason for the occurrence of something, then that implies that someone had a reason for making that thing occur. And if something has a purpose, then either someone gave it that purpose, or someone created it for that purpose. If a purpose is the explanation for some thing’s occurrence, then that purpose is the reason why some agent created that thing.
Purposes need to be distinguished from functions, and indeed, we could add:
d) What is the function (or are the functions) of life?
Nothing in nature has an inherent purpose, but things are created with a purpose or are given a purpose. However, many things in nature have functions. The function of the heart – that is, its functional role in the organism it is part of – is to pump around blood, but that is not its purpose – it doesn’t have a purpose. On the other hand, an artificial heart has a purpose, and that purpose is also its function, and it is the same function as that of a natural heart.
Another notion that is closely related to purpose is that of a goal (or aim), but goals only make sense if “life” in “the meaning of life” is understood as referring to some individual human (or other intelligent) life. Species do not have goals, and neither do animals or plants – only humans (can) have goals. Hence, while we can add one more interpretation to the list, this interpretation comes with an inherent restriction to the “life” it can be about.
e) What is the goal (or are the goals) of life?
Although I think that questions about “the meaning of life” are often questions for explanation like (a)~(e) indeed, these interpretations are somewhat peculiar given that the term “meaning” is rarely – if ever – used to mean “cause”, “reason”, “purpose”, “function”, or “goal” in any other context. There is, however, another more or less metaphorical use of the verb “to mean” and the adjective “meaningful” that is less peculiar – it is not used in just one context, and it deviates less from a more literal understanding of “meaning”.
My wife means a lot to me. “Meaning” in this sense appears to be a further extension of the kind of meaningfulness illustrated above by means of my wedding ring, but unlike my wedding ring, my wife isn’t meaningful to me because of what she represents or signifies. Rather, she doesn’t represent or signify anything at all, she is not a sign of something, and thus literally she doesn’t (as sign) mean anything (but she can mean lots of things as agent, of course). “To mean” in this metaphorical sense is “to matter”. That my wife means a lot to me means that she matters a lot to me. And that something matters to someone means that that “thing” is (subjectively) valuable, significant, or important to that someone.
Table 2 adds these “more metaphorical” interpretations of “meaning” in “the meaning of life” to table 1.
|meaning of “meaning”||meaning of “the meaning of life”||implied thematic relations|
|natural meaning||the meaning of life as a sign/symptom of something to some audience||audience|
|nonnatural meaning||the meaning – by some agent – with life as a sign of something to some audience||agent, audience|
|cause||the cause(s) of (the occurrence of) life|
|reason||some agent’s reason(s) for (the creation of) life||agent|
|purpose||the purpose(s) of life (as determined by the purpose-giving agent)||agent|
|function||the function(s) of life|
|goal||the goal(s) of life||agent|
|subjective value||the subjective value/importance/significance of life (to some experiencer)||experiencer|
The notion of subjective value, significance, or importance suggests that there may also be (something like) objective value, but before we can turn to that issue (see §9), some further assessment of the newly added interpretations is necessary.
“The meaning of life” as the reason, purpose, or goal of life (noting again, that a purpose is given, and thus can be a reason for creation) implies an agent. Either it is that agent who had that reason (or those reasons) to create life, or it was that agent who gave that purpose or goal to life or created it with that purpose.
Individual human lives are created by other humans in acts of procreation, so if the meaning of my life is the reason for my creation then the meaning of my life could be anything ranging from sexual excitement to loneliness, and from my parents’ wish to “live on” in their children to an attempt to save their marriage. People have children for all kinds of reasons, but I don’t think that this is what anyone means with “the meaning of life”, so we can discard this interpretation as well as the interpretation of the purpose of individual lives along similar lines (implying, for example, that the purpose of someone’s life is/was to save her parents’ marriage).
If the notion of “life” we are employing does not refer to some individual’s life, but is a more general notion (i.e. a higher-numbered notion in the list in §3 above), and if the agent is the creator, then that agent is God. Indeed, the notion of “the meaning of life” is often understood as God’s reason for life, or as the purpose that God gave to life. (And if God is involved in the creation of individual humans, then similar interpretations for the meaning of my life can be conceived.) For an atheist (or a believer in a non-purpose-giving god) such interpretations of “the meaning of life” would be empty – life cannot have a meaning in that sense. However, purposes are not necessarily determined by a creating agent, but can also be bestowed upon something later. Chimpanzees give sticks a purpose when they use them to catch ants, for example. Similarly, life may be given a purpose by some agent that didn’t create that life.
For a believer in a creator God, the cause of (the occurrence of) life is God’s creation and thus coincides with the reason for life. The alternative explanation is science. The cause of an individual human life is the engagement in sex of the parents. The cause of human live is evolution. The cause of all life on Earth is a much more complex story involving biochemistry, evolution, and lots of other details. None of this has anything to do with philosophy, but none of this seems to be what people mean with “the meaning of life” either.
Function is not a likely candidate for “meaning” in “the meaning of life” either (and it may be worth once again stressing the difference between functions and purposes). Particular lives may have functions in particular ecosystems, but it is doubtful that it makes sense to speak of a function of life in general,8 or even of human life, and certainly individual human lives do not seem to have functions in any relevant sense of that term. Perhaps, some people may think of “the meaning of life” as being equivalent to “the function of life”, but almost certainly this would only be the case because they confuse “purpose” with “function”. In other words, this option can be discarded as well.
In case of “meaning” as purpose, the purpose-giver is the agent who determines life’s purpose(s) and thereby its meaning, and in case of “meaning” as goal, the goal-setter is the agent who determines life’s goal(s) and thereby its meaning. Something similar applies to the last interpretation listed in table 2 – “meaning” as subjective value, significance, or importance, or “to mean” as “to matter”. However, rather than an agent actively conferring a purpose or goal on life, here the thematic role of the “meaning-giver” is more like that of an “experiencer” than that of an agent. That is, someone or some social group (or maybe even some thing) experiences the subjective value of life. Perhaps, this becomes clearer when comparing earlier examples of “meaning” as purpose and as subjective value.
When the chimpanzee confers a purpose to the stick, it does something, and thus it is the agent of the act of purpose-giving. But I didn’t do anything to make my wife matter to me (and neither did she, or not on purpose, at least), and thus I’m not the agent of the act of conferring subjective value to my wife. Rather, I experience that subjective value, and thus my thematic relation is that of experiencer.
A difficult question is whether this notion of “meaning” as “mattering” necessarily involves an experiencer. Is it possible for something to matter without it mattering to anyone or anything? If the answer to that question is “No”, then there always must be an experiencer; if is “Yes”, then there doesn’t always have to be an experiencer. Regardless of the answer to this question, it should be clear that there are very many different possible experiencers – everything that is on the list of possible referents of “life” in “the meaning of life” could also be an experiencer, and probably the list of possible experiencers is even longer than that of possible referents of “life”. That doesn’t mean that all those possibilities are equally good candidates when it comes to making sense of the notion of “the meaning of life”, of course, but even with that limitation, there are many options.
The most obvious candidate experiencers are: me, me and those around me, my society/culture, and mankind. Any of those four candidates can be combined with any of the possible referents of “life”. If both variables would be “me” then “the meaning of life” is the meaning of my life and my life is meaningful if it matters to me. It is this self-centered meaning of life that Albert Camus declared the most fundamental problem of philosophy in the opening lines of The Myth of Sisyphus:
There is only one really serious philosophical problem, and that is suicide. Deciding whether or not life is worth living is to answer the fundamental question in philosophy. All other questions follow from that.9
Thaddeus Metz selects a different experiencer.10 He understands “the meaning of life” to be the subjective value or importance of some individual’s life to that individual’s society or culture (or, perhaps, even to all of mankind). Although Metz seems to think otherwise, all referents of “life” in “the meaning of life” are equally legitimate targets of the question about the meaning of life. Choosing a different referent of “life” is changing the topic. But choosing a purpose-giver or value-experiencer is of a different nature. Changing those is not changing the topic, but changing the meaning of “meaning”, and it is less clear whether that is (always) a legitimate move.
There is at least one fundamental difference between choosing the referent of “life” (i.e. choosing the topic) and choosing a purpose-giver or experiencer (i.e. choosing the meaning of “meaning”): the former choice only needs the interest of the question-askers as a motivation, but the latter choice needs a solid argument. To substantiate the claim that “the meaning of life” is the subjective value of life to some particular kind of experiencer an argument is needed that shows it is that particular kind of experiencer rather than some other that matters. Lacking such an argument, the choice is arbitrary, and one cannot arbitrarily choose the meanings of terms.
Not everything can be a purpose-giver for any referent of “life”. I can’t give you a purpose; nor can I or you give the whole of mankind a purpose. Perhaps, my society can give me a purpose, and perhaps, God can give any referent of “life” a purpose – if God exists, of course. In the case of goal-setting, which is very similar to purpose-giving, even less combinations are possible. Only individuals can have goals, and they can only set those goals themselves. Society or God might give me a purpose, but it cannot set my goal(s). It can suggest goal(s), of course, but the suggested goal(s) become mine alone if I accept the suggestion and thereby set those goals as my goals myself.
Furthermore, it seems that any selection of a purpose-giver – but possibly not of a value-experiencer – can be countered by means of a variant of G.E. Moore’s Open Question argument. How exactly to understand the Open Question argument is a controversial topic in meta-ethics, but I’ll summarize one possible interpretation here, and it is that interpretation that I will develop into an argument against purpose-giving.
If one has a definition of the form A =def. B, and some particular c that is B, then a question like “c is B; is c therefore A?” should be a rather silly question. If it is not – that is, if it is an open question whether c’s being B also makes it A – then there is something wrong with the original definition.
This is a generalized form of one particular interpretation of the Open Question argument. Moore employed a much more obscure version of the argument (hence, the aforementioned controversy) to argue against naturalistic definitions of “good” or “right”, and the interpretation of the Open Question argument summarized in the previous paragraph can most easily be illustrated by applying it in the same context. Thus, if we define that something is morally right if and only if it produces more happiness than unhappiness (as Utilitarians do), and if we assume that porn makes more people happy than unhappy, then the question “c is B; is c therefore A?” becomes “porn produces more happiness than unhappiness; is porn therefore morally right?” and that is an open question, which suggests a problem in the definition (of “right”) we started with. On the other hand, if we define that someone is a bachelor if and only if he is an unmarried male, and if John is an unmarried male, then the same question becomes “John is an unmarried male, is he therefore a bachelor?” and that is a very different kind of question. It is not an open question, but it is closed and shut, and the person who asks that question is either very silly, or doesn’t know the word “bachelor”.
The choice of some particular (kind of) purpose-giver (or goal-setter, and so forth) is a proposal for some particular definition of “the meaning of life”. For example, if the purpose-giver is me, then that definition would be that some (kind of) life is meaningful if and only if it is given a purpose by me. Let’s assume that I gave my life a purpose (that of being an adequate teacher, husband, and father, for example); then the question “c is B; is c therefore A?” becomes “my life is given a purpose by me, is my life therefore meaningful?”, and that is an open question.
Of course, as mentioned above, there are limits to the combinations of referents of “life” and purpose-givers or goal-setters, but that is not the (main) problem here. The problem is that for any combination that makes sense as an interpretation of “the meaning of life” – with one exception – the corresponding question “c is B; is c therefore A?” is an open question,11 and that means that these interpretations – being implicit definitions of “the meaning of life” – fail. The one exception is God – if God is the purpose-giver or goal-setter, then for a believer the question is probably not an open question.12 In other words, the interpretation of “meaning” as purpose or goal is available only to believers in a particular kind of God – one that gives purposes and/or sets goals.
If the weakness in the interpretations discussed in the preceding section is the – apparently arbitrary – selection of some particular meaning-giver (i.e. some particular purpose-giver or goal-setter), then we could try to remove that meaning-giver from the equation by generalizing it. If someone or something created x with a purpose, then x has a purpose. If someone or something gave x a goal, then x has a goal. And similarly, if x matters to someone (i.e. is subjectively valuable to someone), then x matters, or so it might seem at least.
There is an important dis-analogy between the case of subjective value and the other two cases, however. There is no purpose or goal independent from the purpose-giver or goal-setter – there always is a purpose-giver or goal-setter even if it isn’t mentioned – but this might be different in the case of value. If there is something like objective value, then to say that x matters appears to imply that x has objective value (independent from a value-experiencer), but to say that x matters to someone is to say that x has subjective value. Consequently, the statement that “if x matters to someone, then x matters” is true only if objective value can be reduced to subjective value in this way, or – to be more precise – if the definition of objective value is the following: Some x has objective value if there is some y that subjectively values x (or if x has subjective value to y). This isn’t exactly right, however, as we’ll see in a few paragraphs.
In case of the goal/purpose understanding of “meaning”, generalization is insufficient to block varieties of the Open Question argument. The questions that would be substituted for “c is B; is c therefore A?” would be something like “I have a goal/purpose; is my life therefore meaningful?”, which seems very much like an open question.13 Nevertheless, an understanding of “meaning” as having a goal or purpose may be a step in the right direction. Paul Thagard argues in The Brain and the Meaning of Life that:
your life is meaningful to the extent that
1. you have goals, . . .
2. some of your goals have been accomplished to some degree;
3. you have other goals not yet accomplished that you have reasonable prospects of accomplishing;
4. your goals are coherent with each other; and
5. your goals are objectively valuable.14
Just having goals (criterion 1) is insufficient – your goals must also be achievable and partially achieved (criteria 3 and 2) and must not be in conflict with each other (criterion 4), and most importantly, your goals must be objectively valuable. This last criterion is the most important, but is also the most problematic, because it is far from clear what makes a goal objectively valuable. (Notice, by the way, that this is not the same objective value mentioned above – the topic was the value of life or lives there, while it is the value of goals here!) Different moral theories will have different theories to determine which goals are (objectively) valuable and which are not, and there is no consensus which moral theory is right or even how we could decide which moral theory is right. It appears that, for Thagard, what makes a goal objectively valuable is just that there is some kind of qualified widespread agreement about the value of that goal, but that would leave the question wide open – “I have a goal/purpose that is considered valuable by most people (or experts); is my life therefore meaningful?” is still an open question.
The interpretation as “meaning” as mattering doesn’t seem to fare any better, although this is, perhaps, less obvious. I’m inclined to say that “My life matters; is my life therefore meaningful?” is not an open question, but the problem is that “my life matters” is shorthand here for “there is some x such that my life matters to x”, and the longer question, “There is some x such that my life matters to x; is my life therefore meaningful?” certainly is an open question. Eva Braun’s life mattered to Adolf Hitler, for example, but that bare fact (assuming it is a fact) appears to be insufficient to make Eva Braun’s life meaningful (regardless of whether it was meaningful or not). Hence, in the same sense that just having a goal or purpose is insufficient, just mattering to some x is insufficient, and it is for this reason that the definition reducing objective value to subjective value suggested a few paragraphs back is wrong.15 (Notice that the qualification “to some x” must be added here to distinguish this generalized subjective value from the hypothetical objective value mentioned a few paragraphs back, because it is not clear whether or how the first can be reduced to the second.16)
Of Thagard’s criteria to zoom in on the right kind of goals, the fifth is the most important. An analogous application to subjective value or mattering to some x would be “your subjective value (or mattering) to some x is objectively valuable”, which raises the question what (if anything) makes mattering to someone or something objectively valuable. As a first step to answering that question, I’d propose the following:
You matter objectively if you matter subjectively to someone or something (or some x) that matters objectively.17
This definition is, of course, circular, but that is intentional. It should be circular, because what makes someone or something matter is that it matters to things or people that matter themselves in the exact same sense. This circularity obviously implies that two people would matter objectively if they would matter to each other (even if they would matter to no one else) – the circle can be very small. I don’t think that is a problem for this definition, however, but it does suggest that objective value (or objective mattering) comes in degrees: the larger the network of objectively valuable things that you subjectively matter to, the more you matter (objectively). Another implication of this circularity is that no thing can be or become objectively valuable on its own. If two people matter to no one at time 0, but matter to each other (and no one else) at time 1, then at the point in time when they start mattering to each other, both of them start to matter objectively.
The problem for this definition is not its circularity, but its lack of restrictions. What if those two people who only matter to each other are psychopathic serial killers who only matter to each other because they enjoy torturing and killing their victims together? And what about the case of Eva Braun? According to this definition Eva Braun would be objectively valuable because she mattered to Hitler who was himself objectively valuable because he mattered to a whole lot of people and some of those are bound to be objectively valuable (as defined here). There must be some restriction to exclude cases like these, because otherwise this definition (combined with the interpretation of “meaning” as mattering) would imply that that couple of psychopathic serial killers and Eva Braun lead meaningful lives. However, that restriction cannot be some kind of arbitrary principle, because any arbitrary restriction is as vulnerable to the Open Question argument as the arbitrary meaning-givers discussed above.
According to Derek Parfit, it is “very close to being a universally recognized truth” that suffering – and especially undeserved suffering – is bad.18 And John Bowker showed that while religions differ in how they deal with problems of suffering, they agree in seeing suffering as something bad.19 There seems to be no moral principle that is as widely shared as the idea that undeserved suffering is wrong. As far as I can see, Parfit was right when he claimed that no one ever seriously argued the opposite claim – that is, that undeserved suffering is sometimes not wrong – although there can be cases, of course, in which all options involve undeserved suffering, and thus even the best course of action involves suffering. Still, that wouldn’t make that undeserved suffering right – its wrongness would just be overridden by other considerations, namely, the prevention of even greater wrongs.
Because of its universal acceptance, it is hard to think of a restriction that is less arbitrary than one based on the the principle that undeserved suffering is bad. So, if we add that restriction to the previous definition, we get something like this:
Something matters objectively if and only if
a. it matters to something else that matters objectively according to the criteria of this definition, and
b. it does not cause significant undeserved suffering.
Or, if we take into account that one can matter more or less depending among others on the size of the “circle”, then we could write:
Something objectively matters more to the extent that
a. it matters more to more other things that objectively matter more according to the criteria of this definition, and
b. it causes less undeserved suffering.
And if “meaning” is mattering in this sense, then:
Your life is meaningful if (and to the extent that) it matters to things and/or people that matter, with the provision that mattering is defeated by causing significant undeserved suffering.
These definitions are a bit vague, partially because the notion of suffering is not entirely unambiguous, but mostly because they don’t specify in any way what makes suffering deserved or undeserved and how much undeserved suffering is “significant”. I’ll ignore those problems, however, because I think they matter little in practice, and because it’s not exact measurements of meaning or mattering I’m after – I’m merely trying to make sense of the notion of “the meaning of life”.
In the previous section the test used to see whether a definition or interpretation (or an interpretation in the form of a definition) makes sense was a version of the Open Question argument. That same test can still be used here, but it requires two “stages” now. Stage 1 concerns the question “My life matters; is my life therefore meaningful?”, which does not appear to be an open question. Rather, the most appropriate answer to this question might be something along the lines of “Yeah, duh!”. Stage 2 investigates the question “My life matters to someone/something that matters, does my life therefore matter?”, omitting the bit about suffering in the above definitions for sake of brevity. I’m inclined to say that this isn’t an open question either, but I’m slightly less confident about this stage than about the first. Nevertheless, what seems to me an inescapable conclusion is that of all the interpretations considered thus far, this interpretation of “meaning” makes by far the most sense.
Above I said that it is hard to make sense of “meaning” as purpose, but in talk about the meaning of life the term “purpose” makes a frequent appearance, and often it seems to be used almost as a synonym of “the meaning of life”. This suggests that like “meaning” the term “purpose” in this context should not be interpreted overly literally, and that if meaning is mattering, then so is purpose. And contrary to the more literal interpretation of “purpose” discussed above, this actually makes sense.
If meaning is mattering to something that matters, then having a purpose (of the right kind) is mattering to something that matters. Thus, “purpose” is not something like a reason for creation, and it doesn’t matter where a purpose came from – all that matters is what kind of purpose it is. One has a purpose in life if one’s life matters to something that matters. And consequently, “meaning” and “purpose” are nearly synonymous indeed.
Having a purpose in life or leading a meaningful life is not the same as believing that one has a purpose in life or that one leads a meaningful life, but the groundwork in the preceding two sections now makes it easy to explain the difference. All we need to do is to insert the verb “to believe” at three places in the rough definition of meaning suggested in §10, as follows:
Someone believes that her life is meaningful if (and to the extent that) she believes that her life matters to things and/or people that she believes to matter.
An obvious implication of this definition of “subjective meaning” is that the subject can be wrong in two different ways: she can be wrong about her belief that she matters to the things that (she believes to) matter, and she can be wrong about the fact whether those things actually matter. The first kind of mistake isn’t very interesting, but the second is. The most important difference between “subjective meaning” as defined here and “objective meaning” as defined in §10 is that between things/people that really matter and things/people that are merely (and possibly mistakenly) believed to matter.
Arguably, what is commonly believed to matter is largely determined by terror management. According to Terror Management Theory, people control (i.e. “manage”) their largely unconscious fear of death (i.e. “terror”) by means of their self-esteem, and they boost their self-esteem by strengthening their worldview and/or their belief that they are valuable contributors to the world according to that worldview.20 Subjective meaning of life (i.e. believing that one’s life is meaningful) is nothing but self-esteem in the sense of Terror Management Theory – it is believing that one is a valuable contributor to (i.e. that one matters to) the world according to one’s view (i.e. to that what matters). It is one’s worldview that determines what matters in this subjective sense.
Hence, your life is subjectively meaningful to the extent that you believe that you matter to the world according to your worldview, or to the parts or aspects of the world that matter according to that same worldview, at least. Objectively, on the other hand, your life is meaningful to the extent that you matter to other things that matter, and nothing that causes significant suffering can matter in the relevant sense. By implication, a subjectively meaningful life may very well be objectively meaningless. If your worldview causes massive suffering, then mattering to the world according to that view doesn’t make your life meaningful. More likely, it makes you a monster.
These last two paragraphs weren’t fully written yet in the 2017 draft of this article – they only existed in the form of key phrases and half sentences, but they were easy to add. Halfway §12, I had stopped writing because (I thought that) I needed to think about the implications of the climate crisis for (the notion of) the meaning of life. The reason why the climate crisis matters for the meaning of life (as understood here) is related to a key point made by Samuel Scheffler in his Death and the Afterlife: “the actual value of our activities depends on their place in an ongoing human history” and “humanity itself as an ongoing historical project provides the implicit frame of reference for most of our judgments about what matters”.21 In a doomed or dying world “people would lose confidence in the value of many sorts of activities, would cease to see reason to engage in many familiar sorts of pursuits, and would become emotionally detached from many of those activities and pursuits”.22 Without a future, almost everything that matters to us loses its value. It is for this reason that Scheffler asserts that “the collective afterlife [i.e. the survival of mankind] matters more to people than the personal afterlife”.23
Obviously, this is a problem only in case mankind is doomed indeed, but actually Scheffler is far too cosmopolitan. As Ernest Becker and Terror Management Theory have pointed out,24 it is not humanity as a whole that gives meaning to us and our projects, or that determines what matters, but rather, it is people like me, people who largely share my worldview. It is my culture or “civilization” that matters, the small part of mankind that I (consciously or unconsciously) most strongly identify with. Consequently, it is not necessarily human extinction that would threaten to make everything meaningless, but the collapse of our civilization. And importantly, I am quite convinced that the collapse of our civilization is all but guaranteed. It just isn’t possible to reduce carbon emissions fast enough to avoid 3°C of average global warming (with sizeable uncertainty margins!), and we may very well end up with 4°C or even more by the end of the current century. Such levels of warming will make large parts of the planet practically uninhabitable and will lead to mass mortality, hundreds of millions or even billions of climate refugees, and inevitable global societal collapse.
I stopped writing this article, because I knew that saying this is more or less taboo in academic circles. I could try to back up this pessimistic claim with references, evidence, and arguments, of course, as I have been doing in many other articles in this blog, but that still wouldn’t make the article acceptable to the academic mainstream. (Also, it would take me too far off-track.) So I just didn’t bother, and buried it. This was a mistake, however. Or actually, the idea that climate disaster undermines the meaning of life was a mistake.
I should be more precise here. Surely, subjective meaning of life (see §12) depends on one’s (cultural) worldview and the world according to that view, and consequently, if our civilization is doomed, subjective meaning of life is doomed as well. Everything, then, indeed becomes subjectively meaningless in that sense. I suspect that the strong resistance against more or less “apocalyptic” views is strongly related to a need to believe in continuity of this civilization, particularly among those who have most to gain from it and/or are most strongly committed to it (i.e. those who believe to matter to it). If your self-esteem/sense of meaningfulness depends on a belief that this civilization will continue, then you are not likely to accept a view that undermines that belief – self-esteem is too important for that, psychology tells us.
For objective meaning of life, on the other hand, none of this matters. As explained in §10, “your life is meaningful if (and to the extent that) it matters to things and/or people that matter, with the provision that mattering is defeated by causing significant undeserved suffering.” If you matter to people who are alive now (and who don’t cause significant suffering), then you matter and your life is meaningful. The climate crisis does not in any way change that.
There is another important implication, however. If our current civilization is to blame for the climate crisis and the massive suffering it will cause (and already causes), then mattering to that civilization doesn’t make your life meaningful (due to the provision in the definition). Consequently, bankers, oil executives, conservative and centrist politicians, and a long list of others who believe that they lead meaningful lives are actually mistaken. Surely, they matter to something, but the “thing” they matter to most is an evil thing – it causes massive suffering and death. Conversely, a climate activist (or other kind of activist) who tries to stop (or slow down) the machinery of suffering and death might not matter to our current civilization, but matters greatly to everyone committed to limiting suffering and death as much as possible.
When I first started working on this article, the notion of the (or a) “meaning of life” seemed obscure, if not nonsensical to me, but now it makes perfect sense. The meaning of life is mattering to others who matter and to “things” that matter, with the provision that all mattering and meaning is defeated by causing significant suffering. I don’t know whether my life is meaningful, but if I’d feel the need to make it more meaningful, I know what I’d have to do.
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- James Tartaglia (2016). “Is Philosophy All About the Meaning of Life?”, Metaphilosophy 47.2: 283-303.
- I could, of course, use a survey to find out what the “general population” really thinks about philosophy, and perhaps that has even been done already, but I see little value in such a study, and all I’m claiming here is that many people think that philosophy is concerned with the meaning of life (i.e. not “all” or “most” or some specific percentage).
- For example, if meaning is intention, as Davidson holds, then: “Humpty Dumpty is out of it. He cannot mean what he says he means because he knows that ‘There’s glory for you’ cannot be interpreted by Alice as meaning ‘There’s a nice knockdown argument for you’.” (Donald Davidson (1986). “A Nice Derangement of Epitaphs”, in (2005), Truth, Language, and History (Oxford: Oxford University Press): 89-107, p. 98.)
- It may seem a stretch to understand “life” as referring to the way things are, but it seems to me that sometimes when people talk about the meaning of life, this is exactly what they mean. This is related to the notion of subjective meaning discussed in §12.
- Grice, Paul (1948/57). “Meaning”, reprinted in: Studies in the Way of Words (Cambridge MA: Harvard University Press), pp. 213-23.
- Idem,p. 213.
- Lajos Brons (2011). “The Grammar of ‘Meaning’”, CARLS Series of Advanced Study of Logic and Sensibility, Vol. 4: 363-371.
- Life on Earth has a function in the Earth system, of course, but that is a contingent function – it merely has that function because it evolved as part of the Earth system, and other Earth systems (without life) are possible, existed, and will exist.
- Albert Camus (1942). The Myth of Sisyphus, translated by Justin O’Brien (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1955), p. 3.
- Thaddeus Metz (2013). Meaning in Life (Oxford: Oxford University Press).
- In other words, any question like “my life is given a purpose by X, is my life therefore meaningful?” wherein some purpose-giver is substituted for X is an open question.
- The question would then be: “my life is given a purpose by God, is my life therefore meaningful?” I suspect that most believers would unhesitatingly answer “Yes” to that question, implying that it is not an open question.
- Certainly, having the goal of killing at least one kitten every day doesn’t make someone’s life meaningful!
- Paul Thagard (2010). The Brain and the Meaning of Life (Princeton: Princeton University Press), p. 151.
- “Some x has objective value if there is some y that subjectively values x (or if x has subjective value to y).” Obviously, this definition would entail that Eva Braun had objective value (and thus a meaningful life under this interpretation of “meaning”, just because she was subjectively valuable to Hitler. (And the same mutatis mutandis for Hitler.)
- A similar addition is not necessary in cases of goals/purpose because no similar confusion can occur there – again, there is no such thing as a goal without a goal-setter or a purpose without a purpose-giver.
- “Mattering objectively” herein means the same as “being objectively valuable”, and “mattering subjectively to some x” means the same as “being subjectively valuable to some x”. And recall that “value” is a rather imprecise notion here, that can also be read as “significance” or “importance”
- Derek Parfit (2011). On What Matters, Volume 2 (Oxford: Oxford University Press), p. 568.
- John Bowker (1970). Problems of Suffering in Religions of the World (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press).
- Sheldon Solomon, Jeff Greenberg, & Tom Pyszczynski (2015). The Worm at the Core: on the Role of Death in Life (New York: Random House)
- Samuel Scheffler (2013). Death and the Afterlife (Oxford: Oxford University Press), pages 54 and 60, respectively.
- Idem, p. 44.
- Idem, p. 72.
- Ernest Becker (1973). The Denial of Death (New York: Simon & Schuster).