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Is Life Meaningless?. Jean Kazez Philosophy Department, SMU. Prelude. A few words about solidarity vs. agreement. Alex Rosenberg’s cheerful nihilism. Is he right that life is meaningless??. Professor of Philosophy, Duke University. Background. The debate about God and

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is life meaningless

Is Life Meaningless?

Jean Kazez

Philosophy Department, SMU


A few words about

solidarity vs. agreement

alex rosenberg s cheerful nihilism
Alex Rosenberg’scheerful nihilism

Is he right that life is meaningless??

Professor of Philosophy, Duke University



The debate about God and

the meaning of life

an existential crisis
An existential crisis

Everything comes to an end … my life is meaningless …

I may as well be dead!

Tolstoy, age 51, 1879

tolstoy s conversion
Tolstoy’s Conversion

“As I looked around at people, at humanity as a whole,

I saw that they lived and affirmed that they knew

the meaning of life.”

Tolstoy, A Confession (1879)

tolstoy on the necessity of faith
Tolstoy on thenecessity of faith

“… only in faith can we find the meaning and possibility of life.”

Faith gives “an infinite meaning to the finite existence of man; a meaning that is not destroyed by suffering, deprivation or death.

Tolstoy, A Confession (1879)

no no
  • No God
  • No necessity of God for meaningfulness

Meaning OF life

cosmic purpose

[need God]

Meaning IN life

having your own plans, goals, ultimate aims

[don’t need God]


Needed more fulfilling goals, not faith

enter trouble

Enter: Trouble

Can there really be meaning IN life?

meaning in life is only possible if
Meaning IN life is only possible if…
  • Hillary has thoughts ABOUT peace
  • Michelle has thoughts ABOUT her daughters
  • Mountain climber has thoughts ABOUT mountains
aboutness is problematic

My brain weighs 2 pounds

It’s spongy

It’s wet

It has electric charge

And it has aboutness. ABOUTNESS?

are these things possible in natural physical world
Are these things possiblein natural, physical world?
  • Souls
  • The self
  • Free will
  • Objective morality
  • Aboutness
philosophy of aboutness aka intentionality
Philosophy of aboutness(aka “intentionality”)

Franz Brentano

Edmund Husserl

Jerry Fodor

Daniel Dennett

Ruth Millikan

Fred Dretske

Paul & Patricia Churchland

John Searle

rosenberg aboutness doesn t exist

Like souls, fairies, witches,

ESP, heaven, destiny, etc. don’t exist


Can’t think about


Can’t think about


Can’t think about

world peace

life is meaningless
Life is meaningless!


Because no God


Because no aboutness



life is meaningless? What me worry?



Tolstoy just needed Prozac

why no aboutness

Why no aboutness?

Rosenberg’s argument why

aboutnessdoesn’t exist

aboutness is unreal because
Aboutness is unreal because

1) Paris too diffuse—what are the boundaries?

Neurons too simple—

even sea slugs, rats, frogs have them; just “circuitry”.

aboutness is unreal because1
Aboutness is unreal because

3) Piling up doesn’t help—

“Piling up a lot of neural circuits that are not about anything at all can’t turn them into a thought about stuff out there in the world.”

Rosenberg, p. 184

w hy should atheists pay attention
Why should atheists pay attention?

SCIENTISM* – “The physical facts fix all of the facts.” What “floats” free of physical facts is unreal, illusory.



* Not a dirty word in Rosenberg’s view

2 agree but secretly
2. Agree, but secretly

Vote for me, even though I think God doesn’t exist, life is meaningless, and nobody has thoughts about anything.

3 d ismiss rosenberg s view as self defeating
3. Dismiss Rosenberg’s view as “self-defeating”

I am not thinking about anything or talking about anything!

4 reject scientism
4. Reject scientism
  • Come to atheism by another route—e.g. argument from evil
  • Say there are genuine facts that float free of physical facts.
  • Accept aboutness as “floater”
5 rebut his arguments
5. Rebut his arguments



“Piling up a lot of neural circuits that are not about anything at all can’t turn them into a thought about stuff out there in the world.”

Rosenberg, p. 184

Piling up a lot of atoms that aren’t conscious can’t make me conscious.

how can there be aboutness in physical world

How can there be aboutness in physical world?

hard question,

piles of literature


Fly detector

A fly-detector has physical states ABOUT flies.

paris detector
Paris detector

That’s Paris!

paris detector1
Paris detector

Let’s go to Paris!


Daughter detector

Mountain detector

World peace detector

mission accomplished

Mission accomplished

Aboutness and meaning in life defended

meaning in life

Meaning in Life

Expanding on idea

1 love
1) Love

“Love saves us … from squandering our lives in vacuous activity that is fundamentally pointless”

“Love makes it possible … for us to engage wholeheartedly in activity that is meaningful”

-- Harry Frankfurt, The Reasons of Love

2 objective attractiveness
2) Objective attractiveness

“Meaning arises from loving objects worthy of love and engaging with them in a positive way.”

“Meaning arises when subjective attraction meets objective attractiveness.”

-- Susan Wolf, Meaning in Life and Why it Matters (2010)

2 objective attractiveness1
2) Objective attractiveness
  • An activity is objectively attractive when—
  • Benefit is not just received by me—
    • but shared by others too
  • Benefit is not just visible to me— but real, factual
  • -- Susan Wolf, Meaning in Life and Why it Matters (2010)
3 the arc of a life
3) The arc of a life

In a meaningful life we have at least some overarching goals that organize time and energy, making life not just one day after another.

meaning less parts of life
Meaningless parts of life
  • Checking email and Twitter endlessly (you want to do it, but don’t love it)
  • Malicious online bullying (might feel brief attraction to this, but not objectively attractive)
  • Flitting from one project to another, endless chatter at blogs (goes nowhere, creates no life arc)
what adds meaning to our lives two examples
What adds meaning to our lives?Two examples
  • Raising children
  • Working for social justice
tolstoy s crisis
Tolstoy’s Crisis

A cost of religion + sexism –

not seeing the meaning in your own backyard


Alex Rosenberg, The Atheist’s Guide to Life: Enjoying Life without Illusions

Jean Kazez, Review of Rosenberg in Free Inquiry (August/September 2012)

Leo Tolstoy, A Confession

Harry Frankfurt, The Reasons of Love

Susan Wolf, Meaning in Life and Why it Matters

Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy – look up Intentionality; Causal theories of mental content