Intro to the Meaning of Life PHIL105 – T3, 2011 Lecture 5
Nagel (1937) on the Absurd • Human existence is absurd • But let’s face it with irony • (not angsty heroism or despair)
‘Absurd’ in the Ordinary Sense • A noticeable difference between what someone intends or claims and reality
Absurd to Philosophers • The dramatic difference between: • Our (internal) perception of the significance of our lives • The objective (external) perception of the significance of our lives • It’s absurd because, from the external view, our lives have only a tiny fraction of the significance that we feel and act as though it has
Our Significance from Inside • Events are only significant if they are likely to or actually do significantly affect us • The universe revolves around us • We are all like this to some extent, but some people don’t realise that this is the same for other people! • You may know people like this
Our Significance from the Outside 1 • We are completely insignificant to 99.9999999999999999% of what exists • When heat death kills the universe, our plans seem beyond insignificant • How big are we? (Not very big) • How long do we live compared to the universe? (Not very long) • Nagel thinks these arguments are misleading (justifications end OK)
Our Significance from the Outside 2 • Even if we do have free will, so many of our ‘choices’ are still the result of our prior causes • Why will most of you vote for the same political party that your parents do? • Where did you get your very cool “individual” ideas from?
Skepticism & the Absurd • We can’t be sure that we’re not dreaming etc. • And yet we carry on caring • It’s like taking a cheating spouse back!??!?!
The Human Condition • Also known as the Human Situation • From the inside, our significance is paramount • From the outside, our significance is basically none-existent • The Human Condition is being aware of the absurd contradiction between these two points • Humans are thought to be unique in their ability to be aware of this situation
Which Story is True? • From the inside, our significance is paramount • From the outside, our significance is basically none-existent • So, which one of these ‘stories’ is true? • Probably both
Nagel’s Answer • If ‘nothing matters’, then it’s also true that it doesn’t matter that nothing matters • So, don’t despair • And don’t fight it • Just go along for the ride, have a cosmic giggle when you get a parking ticket, enjoy the irony
Leo Tolstoy • Or Count Lev Nikolayevich Tolstoy • Famous Russian author • War and Peace, Anna Karenina etc. • Anarchist, Pacifist, Christian • Loved, respected, healthy, very wealthy, famous, politically influential
Tolstoy’s Confession • When middle-aged, and successful on all accounts, he became plagued by “foolish, simple, and childish” questions • Qns that would lead him to question the purpose of his life and life in general
Tolstoy’s Questions • E.g. “Why. Well, and then? • Qn: Why write this book this? Ans: For fame. Qn: But why should I want fame? Etc. • He realised they were important qns about the meaningfulness of his actions and even of his life • Questions that he thought unanswerable • Questions that paralysed him • “I ought to know why I should do that. So long as I did not know why, I could not do anything. I could not live.”
Trapped Between Death and Meaninglessness • Life seems “a mean, stupid trick” played on us by a mocking observer • He had it all, but it was all meaningless • “there was nothing in life and never would be.” • “Sooner or later there would come diseases and death… and there would be nothing left but stench and worms.” • “All my affairs, no matter what they might be, would sooner or later be forgotten”
Tolstoy’s Moral of the Story • The problem of the meaning of life is that… • Life is meaningless! • And then you die! • What a bummer! • Note that life is meaningless because we all die and nothing is left of us
Get Over it! • Some say: “You cannot understand the meaning of life, do not think, live!” • But Tolstoy saw every event as bringing him closer to inevitable death • (Including licking honey off leaves and going to parties!)
The Sweetest Honey… • “[T]he love of family” • “and of authorship” …Isn’t Sweet Enough
On Loving Family • “they are also human beings” • “they must either live in the lie or see the terrible truth… [a]nd the truth is death” • So, “[w]hy should I love them[?]”
On Loving Authorship • Looking at life through the mirror of art was once pleasurable • But knowing that there was no meaning of life made the mirror “useless, superfluous, ridiculous and painful” • Art cannot help us to escape death
Will Science Help? • “I know… all which science wants to know…, but there is no answer to the question about the meaning of my life” • “What will come of my life?” • “Nothing” • “Why does everything that exists exist…?” • “Because it exists” • “You are a temporal, accidental conglomeration of particles”
No • Tolstoy: What is the meaning of my life? • Science: “You are an accidentally cohering globule of something. The globule is fermenting. This fermentation the globule calls its life.” • Science: “[But] the globule falls to pieces, and all fermentation and all questions will come to an end.”
Tolstoy had 4 Options… • Of people’s attitudes towards the meaning of life problem: • 1) living in ignorance of the problem • 2) admitting the problem and trying to maximise their pleasure • 3) admitting it and committing suicide • 4) admitting it and continuing to live aimlessly
…Until He Hung with the Masses (Normal People) • Who didn’t fit his classificatory scheme • 1) They knew the problem well • 2) Their lives were full of suffering, not pleasure • 3) Killing themselves is taboo • 4) They can explain why they perform every act
Science vs Religion 2 • “Rational knowledge” AKA science “did not give any meaning to life” • We are just fermenting globules • “the meaning which… all humanity… ascribed to life was based on… false knowledge” AKA faith in religion • “creation in six days, devils and angels, and all that I could not accept so long as I had not lost my senses”
Science vs Religion 3 • Problem: • Faith demands that reason/rationality be abandoned to gain meaning • (the meaning of life) • But we only need meaning if we have exercised reason/rationality • (asked what it’s all about)
Tolstoy’s Mistake • He was asking: • “What is the extra-temporal, extra-causal, extra-spatial meaning of my life?” • I.e. “What… indestructible essence will come from my… destructible life?” • I.e. “What meaning has my finite existence in this infinite world?” • But gave an answer to the question: • “What is the temporal, causal, spatial meaning of my life?” • To which, science answered: “none”
The Flaw of Reason • Rational knowledge only says that the real question of the meaning of life cannot be meaningfully answered • It gives the answer: Life = Life • because it cannot reconcile the finite with the infinite (our lives with greater meaning) • So rational knowledge leads to the limited “What is the temporal, causal, spatial meaning of my life?” question • Which is not what we really want to know!
Faith’s Virtue • Despite being “irrational and monstrous”, faith provides answers that always reconcile the finite with the infinite • Qn: “What is the meaning which is not destroyed by death?” • Ans: “The union with infinite God, paradise.”
Tolstoy’s Argument • The finite must be reconciled with the infinite to give meaning to our lives • Reason cannot do this • Faith can • Therefore, we should use faith to answer the question: “what is the meaning of life”
Tolstoy’s Position • We need faith to avoid the catch 22 of meaninglessness vs death/suicide • He needed faith to become un-paralysed by the problem of the meaning of life • Faith is the power of life that allows all people to live • He thinks that we should have faith & live “According to God’s law”
Summary of Tolstoy • If you think about it, life is absurd – we live a meaningless life and then we die! • Only faith can properly answer the question of the meaning of life • By reconciling the finite & infinite • Despite being irrational, faith in religion is the only way to know the meaning of life • We must know the meaning of life to go on living
Read for Next Time • Taylor, Richard (2000). The Meaning of Life, in E.D. Klemke (ed.), The Meaning of Life, 2nd edition, pp. 167-175. New York: Oxford University Press. • Schlick, Moritz (1988). On the Meaning of Life, in Hanfling, Oswald (ed.), Life and Meaning, pp. 60-73. New York: Basil Blackwell.
More on the Meaning of Life PHIL105 – T3, 2011 Lecture 6
What Does it all Mean? • What is the meaning of life? • Purpose, point, reason for, etc? • Why this and not something else? • Why is my existence meaningful? • What should I be doing?
This Time: Richard Taylor • More on meaninglessness • An account of how to find meaning in your life • Brief summary: • the meaning of life is to live in accordance with your nature • for humans, that is to use our will – to make plans and follow them through
Richard Taylor • Maybe we can better understand this tricky qn (what is the meaning of life) if we consider what a meaningless existence would be • It’s rude to examine real people so…
The Myth of Sisyphus • Sisyphus made a deal with the Gods and then went back on it • They punished him by giving him a meaningless chore to do for eternity • Nothing ever comes of Sisyphus’ labours • His existence is meaningless • Nothing comes of it
A New Myth of Sisyphus • The Gods changed Sisyphus’ desires so all he wants is to roll rocks • He now gets exactly what he wants for all eternity • Sounds great! • But, this doesn’t make his existence any more meaningful • Nothing comes of it
Taylor on Meaningfulness • Meaninglessness is endless pointlessness • Meaningfulness is activity with a point, a result, a significant culmination • So, which of these best represents all life as we know it? • This includes plants and animals
Is Animal Life Objectively Meaningful? • Glow worms, cicadas and the meaningless cycle of life • The only point of any living thing’s life is just life itself
Is Human Life Objectively Meaningful? • Humans also perpetuate the meaningless cycle of life • We have goals and plans, but are they ultimately for anything other than surviving & reproducing? • Even when our achievements create lasting results • how long will they persist? • and will it prevent our children from merely surviving and reproducing?
“Whatever!!! My Life is Objectively Meaningful!!!” • Sorry buddy – that’s just absurd! • You need to consider the dramatic difference between: • Your (internal) perception of the significance of your life, and • The objective (external) perception of the significance of your life
Our Significance from the Inside • We think that all events in the universe are only significant if they are likely to affect us • I.e. The universe revolves around us • We are all like this to some extent, but some people don’t realise that this is the same for other people!
Our Significance from the Outside • All of us are completely insignificant to 99.99999999 etc.% of what exists • How big are we? (Not very big) • How long do we live compared to the universe? (Not very long) • When heat death kills the universe, our plans would seem beyond insignificant to anything left to observe
“It is not surprising, then, that men invent ways of denying it” • Religious beliefs centre around a departure from this meaningless cycle • Going to heaven • Becoming enlightened, etc. • This would be nice! But which, if any, is right? • Are there any good reasons to believe in one over another?
What Does ‘What is the Meaning of Life?’ Mean? 1 • What does ‘life’ mean? (Not interesting) • To us, it means not being dead or lifeless • To a God, it means amusement or experiment • To a plant, it doesn’t mean anything • What is the purpose for life (objective meaning/significance)? • Various religious purposes - e.g. heaven • Continuing the cycle of life - e.g. glow worm • There is no purpose for life • Taylor: But, if there is a purpose for life, then life is meaningless!!
Taylor: A Purpose for Life (Objective Meaning) Makes it Meaningless • If life had an ultimate purpose, then you could achieve it • Let’s say you do… • Then, for the rest of the time you would lead a boring meaningless life • E.g. Sisyphus’ Temple
What Do We Want ‘What is the Meaning of Life?’ to Mean? • So, if Taylor is right, an objective meaning of life leads to either: • Fulfilling it and then being bored • Not fulfilling it • Both end in meaninglessness! • Taylor: Since an objective meaning of life would be bad, the best way to understand the MoL question is taking it to ask: • ‘How can we make our lives subjectively meaningful?’
Taylor’s Answer: • Simply understand that the MoL is to live in the manner in which it is our nature to live • The glow worm does what is in it’s nature • For humans, then, the meaning of life is living as we will to live • Making plans and seeing them through • Dissatisfied with this? • Remember, if there were a purpose for life, then life would be boring or meaningless! • So, the best MoL we can hope for comes from within us