I will argue that reality and truth play central roles in determining whether a person’s life is meaningful. The main thought is that a life of merely subjective happiness and pleasure — e.g. a life under Nozick’s well-known Pleasure Machine — is not a meaningful life. It is not easy to argue for this view. I will explore some intuitions that seem to favour it. These intuitions come to the fore when we consider particular examples.
The idea that life is meaningless unless all the happiness we can achieve proves not to be somewhat illusory plays a central role in many religious traditions. The thought, put forward most vividly by Tolstoy (1905), is that subjective happiness, comfort and well-being are meaningless if in the long run we will all be dead and all our achievements — either moral or literary or scientific — will be nothing. Although there is some plausibility to this thought, it has been most notably resisted by Thomas Nagel. He argued that if what I do now does not matter in a million years, then it does not matter now that it does not matter in a million years (Nagel 1979: 11). However, even if Tolstoy’s argument cannot resist Nagel’s objection, there is something to be learned from it. Namely, that although on a subjective level we can enjoy happy and pleasurable lives, from an objective point of view — sub specie aeternitatis — that may be meaningless.
This is interesting because it suggests that those who believe life is meaningless are probably motivated by the thought that a truly meaningful life must be objectively valuable. It is plausible to believe life is meaningless if one believes life is objectively valueless. The religious thought — and Tolstoy’s own — in reaction to this is that only if God exists can life be meaningful because God will make sure our values and achievements will not come to nothing.
Philosophers that believe life is meaningful can be objectivists or subjectivists. Subjectivist philosophers face the problems put forward by Tolstoy and some religious traditions. They will have to argue that all that matters is the subjective quality of life one enjoys; all else is irrelevant. I will argue against subjectivism in a moment. I want to bring in a further thought I believe clarifies the issue. Intuitively, if a philosopher is an objectivist regarding some values — e.g. ethical values — and believes we can achieve some of those values, then that philosopher cannot believe life is meaningless. For even if achieving objective values is not a sufficient condition for a meaningful life, it is the most important condition that is beyond our reach, so to speak; the other central conditions are dependent upon our will — namely, our active engagement in valuable activities. However, Thomas Nagel (1979) presents a powerful challenge to this intuitive view, arguing that life is absurd, even if there are objective values, namely ethical values. Rejecting Nagel’s view is not only a central task for any philosopher that believes life is objectively meaningful; it will also clarify important features of the notion that life is objectively meaningful.
Let me start with a few clarifications. To say that life is meaningful can be understood in two different ways:
- Life is necessarily meaningful;
- Life is possibly meaningful.
When I use that phrase, I have the second meaning in mind. The obvious reason is that a particular life can be meaningless not because it cannot be meaningful but because it lacks meaning due to the choices of that particular person, or due to the circumstances that particular person finds herself in.
I will also assume without further discussion that a meaningful life results from engaging in meaningful activities. This thought faces some problems, and one could argue that a meaningful life is not the sum of all meaningful activities the agent engages in minus the meaningless activities of that agent. I am not committed to this view, however, but rather to the more modest view that a meaningful life must result — although maybe not in such a simplistic way — from engagement in meaningful activities.
Furthermore, I do not have a complete view of what makes a life meaningful. Any such view would perhaps have to list necessary and sufficient conditions for meaningfulness and would have to explain the connection between meaningfulness and value, and the nature of value itself. These are difficult issues and I am not prepared to offer an adequate treatment of them here. However, I hope that the remainder of our discussion will throw some light on them.
There are at least three necessary conditions for a given activity to be meaningful. It is not claimed that they are jointly sufficient for meaningfulness. The three conditions are the following:
- The activity must either be an appropriate means for an end or an end in itself.
- That end must be valuable.
- The agent must be actively engaged in that activity.
Due to lack of space I will not explain these conditions further. (Wolf 1997 provides the necessary explanations.)
The connection between value and meaningfulness is not completely clear, but it is at least plausible that value is an important part of meaningfulness. Intuitive views and sometimes even elaborate religious views on the meaning of life miss this point. It is not plausible that a life is meaningful just because it fulfils a purpose or a set of purposes someone ascribed to that life, even if that someone is God. Sisyphus is a case in point. He was assigned a purpose by the gods. However, that purpose is valueless and that precludes his life from being meaningful.
What if the gods had created Sisyphus in such a way that by his very nature he would feel happy to push heavy stones uphill only to let them go downhill again? (This possibility is explored by Taylor 2000.) Would that make his life any more meaningful? Subjectivists about meaning would say yes, because subjective happiness or subjective value is all they believe is necessary for a meaningful life. Similarly, a brain in a vat or an agent connected to Nozick’s Pleasure Machine would have a meaningful life, as long as he had a happy life from his point of view. All else would be irrelevant.
It is hard to argue against such intuitions, except perhaps by considering different examples. Consider John and Mary. An important part of John’s happiness is his relationship with Mary — he loves her, and he believes she loves him. Actually, she does not love him at all; she puts up with him because she is after the money, abhorring his company and attention. Does that matter to John? Subjectivists have to say it does not; as long as he never finds out the truth, his life is meaningful — or at least this is not one reason why John’s life is not meaningful. Objectivists say it does matter that Mary does not love him at all, even if he does not know it — objectively, his life is farcical and therefore devoid of meaning, even if he does not know it.
What we have here is a clash of intuitions, and it is not easy to solve the issue one way or the other. What I have to offer in the way of argument is two thoughts.
The first is this. If all that matters is what matters subjectively, why is it that John would be very upset were he to find the truth? In these issues, it is hard to steer clear from mere psychological responses, many of which are just prejudices and failures of rationality. That is why I said nothing about Mary being unfaithful. I do not want to exploit feelings of jealousy. What I want is to ask whether it would matter to John to find out about the truth. Would it be reasonable to be upset about it, even if he knew that nothing would change?
Compare this with drinking water. Our intuitive ideas about the nature of water are very different from the truth. The truth is that drinking water is a matter of drinking mainly empty space plus molecules of oxygen and hydrogen and some minerals. However, this does not matter a jot. We drink water because we need it and because we like it and the true nature of water is not very important in this context. Someone who declared to be in an existential crisis because he had just found out that water is very different from what it looks like would be a rather colourful character. Presumably, this is because we just care about the effect water has on us; how that effect comes about is irrelevant. We need water to survive; we enjoy drinking clean, fresh water; we can think of little else if we do not have it; but we do not connect meaningfulness with such a trivial thing as drinking water, even if it is necessary to our survival and well-being.
There seems to be an important difference between the value we attach to drinking water and the value we attach to love or friendship. The value we attach to drinking water is not connected to whatever we believe the nature of water is; it is only connected to our survival and our pleasure. But the value we attach to love or friendship is connected to the truth about the people involved. Furthermore, it does not seem that this is an exception when it comes to love or friendship. On the contrary, it seems to be a feature of any value connected with meaning.
The contrast is similar to that between belief and knowledge. One can have false beliefs, but false knowledge is no knowledge at all. Likewise, there are subjective values, but values attached to meaning cannot be subjective at all. John cannot know that the Earth is flat because the Earth is not flat, although he can believe it. Likewise, John’s life cannot be meaningful if he is massively deceived because there really is no meaning in his life even if he falsely believes that there is.
It is of course possible to resist the argument as I presented it, but maybe my second thought will add some plausibility to objectivism regarding meaning. The second thought is more complex, and it is here that we will face Nagel’s idea that life is absurd. The second thought is this. Rational beings must be able to look at themselves and the world from an objectivist standpoint — sub specie aeternitatis. And it is from this point of view that we want to evaluate our lives in respect of meaning. That was the thought Tolstoy vividly put forward: even if from my subjective point of view my life is happy, that can be quite meaningless if I cannot see any value in my happiness from an objective point of view.
This is why it looks ludicrous for Sisyphus to assert that all is well because he happens to enjoy pushing rocks uphill. We pity Sisyphus, as we pity John if he declares he does not care about Mary’s true feelings, because they are both failing to look at themselves as they really are. In a word, they are engaging in self-deception.
Contrary to what the subjectivist claims, the most meaningful things do not matter because they matter to us; it is rather that they matter to us because they matter. We do not find meaningfulness in solipsistic happiness; we find meaningfulness when our happiness is connected with reality and truth. A meaningful life in a dream is not a meaningful life at all; a meaningful life based on illusion and false beliefs is not a meaningful life at all. Meaningfulness is connected with reality and truth and it is incompatible with illusion and false beliefs. Meaningfulness requires us to look at ourselves from an objective point of view.
Once we accept that there are objective values — like ethical values, for instance — it would seem that meaningfulness comes for free. For then, as long as we are actively connected to those values, our lives would be meaningful from an objective point of view.
Perhaps surprisingly, Thomas Nagel (1979 and 1986) argues that life is absurd — although he is an ethical objectivist. The remainder of this paper is an attempt to argue against Nagel’s view, and to draw some important thoughts from this discussion.
We usually use the word ‘absurd’ as equivalent to ‘meaningless’ or ‘pointless’. Nagel, however, uses the word in a slightly different way. For him, the absurd arises from a clash between the importance we ascribe to our lives and projects from within (that is, subjectively) and the lack of importance our lives and projects have from without (that is, objectively). One of the examples he uses is that of a speaker who delivers a passionate speech in favour of a motion that has already been passed (without his knowledge, we presume).
Nagel’s notion of the absurd only makes sense if we accept that meaningfulness is an objective feature. Take the example of the speaker; a subjectivist about meaning would just say that it did not matter that the motion had already been passed: as long as the speaker did not know about it, and as long has he valued his speech, it would be meaningful. Thus, Nagel’s view of meaningfulness requires reality and truth to play a central role, even if in the end he is a pessimist regarding the meaning of life.
Nagel rejects two common arguments for the absurdity of life. I already mentioned the first: the thought that it does not matter what we do now because we will all be dead in a million years. He objects that if in a million years it does not matter what we do now, then it does not matter now that it does not matter in a million years. Another argument is that we are very small beings in a vast Universe. Nagel objects that if our lives are meaningless, then they would not become meaningful if we were much bigger. Nagel’s view of the absurd is not based on these popular thoughts.
I do not have much of an argument to the thought that if there are objective values, namely ethical values, then our lives can be meaningful as long as we are actively engaged with them. I can only hope you may agree with me if I can show the kind of mistake I believe Nagel is making.
His view is that the absurd arises from the contrast between the importance we give our lives and projects from within and the recognition that, from without, our lives and projects are at least not as important as they seem from within. To put it crudely, from my point of view, a slight headache is much more worrying than five million people dying of famine in some distant country. But, of course, from an objective point of view it is the reverse that is true. Nagel goes on to argue that we may try to bridge the gap by caring less about our lives and projects, and caring more about what matters from an objective point of view. But he rejects that this can ever close the gap. I would add further that completely closing that gap would indeed be a wrong move; there are reasons to believe a saint who looked at everything from an objective point of view would be morally terrible, not to mention a party spoiler.
The mistake, however, lies in assuming that just because there is a contrast between assigned importance our lives are meaningless. If Nagel uses the word ‘absurd’ just to express this contrast, he is right. But then a life can be meaningful although it is absurd in his sense. If we accept that a life actively engaged with objective values is meaningful, then that life is not absurd just because from an objective point of view it may have less importance than it seems from the subjective point of view.
I believe, however, that Nagel expresses an intuitive thought regarding the meaning of life. This thought seems to play a central role in at least some religious traditions. In some religious traditions, namely among some Christians, the angst and spiritual conflicts one goes through is of cosmic importance. It is a manifestation, so to speak, of our divine spark. For the whole universe and God himself our spiritual story is of utmost importance. I believe this a reason why some people find it difficult to accept life can be meaningful without God.
This intuitive thought, however, is dead wrong. It is just a form of egocentrism. It is actually a consequence of a failure to conceive objective value. The egocentric version of an objective value is a subjective value that ‘grows’ so much that it becomes important for the whole universe. But this is nonsense. My pet projects do not become objectively valuable just because God and the whole universe cherish them. It is rather that if my projects are objectively valuable, then God (and whoever else is capable of judging value) has to recognize it, if he reasons correctly.
Thus, the clash of views Nagel talks about does not render our lives meaningless. It is only proper that what is seen from one perspective looks different from a different perspective. A house seen from the inside looks very different if seen from the outside. But that does not mean the house from the inside should look as it looks from the outside, or vice-versa. By definition, objective values are not valueless from an objective point of view. What lacks value from an objective point of view, or is at least much less valuable, are mere subjective values. However much one may value stamp collecting, that will not fare very well from an objective point of view. But saving a child from being murdered is valuable from an objective point of view — if you accept ethical objectivism, of course.
Thus, by itself, the fact that what we value subjectively may not have much objective value does not render our lives meaningless. As long as we are actively engaged in objectively valuable activities, our lives are meaningful. However, Nagel captures one of the most common misconceptions regarding meaningfulness, a sort of conceptual confusion that demands that whatever we value subjectively must have precisely the same value objectively. This looks like the confusion of claiming that if you believe hard enough in something, your belief will make it so. The objectivist’s point about the meaning of life is rather that we should educate ourselves into valuing subjectively what has objective value. The necessary residue of subjective values that have little objective value does not render our lives meaningless. It just puts us in our place.