Everything is meaningless – but that’s okay

What would it be for life to have a “meaning”? What does it mean when people say life is meaningful? I’m not sure, so let’s start with smaller, more obviously meaningful things. Better yet, let’s start with some meaningless things. When Bob sits down to polish the steel junk he’s about to haul to the scrap heap, we can say his activity is meaningless: there’s no point to it. Similarly, when my students sit down to prepare for an exam that I have decided to cancel, their work is pointless and meaningless. When Sally writes a memo about the futility of writing memos, crafting her prose to limpid perfection, with the aim of deleting her anti-memo memo before anyone reads it, we should feel some degree of concern for her mental well-being. Meaningless things have no point to them – nothing is achieved, no purpose can be fathomed, and the work we dedicate to them is entirely wasted. Meaningfulthings, let’s presume, are just the opposite.

So, how about life as a whole – your whole life, and the lives of everyone? If we believe in a Grand Scheme of Things, some cosmic contest with an unambiguous finish line, then we might then see lives as meaningful. The history of philosophy is crammed full of such Grand Schemes, but we might call upon Leibniz to present one of the greatest ones. This world, said Leibniz, is the best of all possible worlds, the very best world a just and omniscient being could call into existence, and it is made the best by all of the things people do, when taken as a whole. All finite things strive toward greater and greater perfections of being, and the world over time turns into something that is worthy of divine selection. If we embrace the Leibnizian scheme, we feel the pressure of bringing all our actions and thoughts to the highest reaches of moral and metaphysical perfection. Everything is meaningful, because everything contributes to the end God set for creation.

This is one thrillingly grand notion of cosmic meaningfulness – but hardly anyone now believes it. Most of us accept that the universe has not come about for the purpose of achieving anything.

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About Huenemann

Curious about the ways humans use their minds and hearts to distract themselves from the meaninglessness of life.
This entry was posted in 3QD essays, Meanings of life / death / social & moral stuff. Bookmark the permalink.

7 Responses to Everything is meaningless – but that’s okay

  1. Mike says:

    Maybe we’re incapable of judging the ultimate meaning of things. I mean given the numerous times the accepted knowledge of the Grand Scheme of Things has been overturned, is it really wise to have a position on the question of ultimate intent?


  2. Huenemann says:

    You’re right. It’s wiser to be agnostic. But I would be wildly, wildly surprised if any of the guesses offered so far turn out to be right!


  3. Alex says:

    Autumn Refrain

    The skreak and skritter of evening gone
    And grackles gone and sorrows of the sun,
    The sorrows of sun, too, gone . . . the moon and moon,
    The yellow moon of words about the nightingale
    In measureless measures, not a bird for me
    But the name of a bird and the name of a nameless air
    I have never–shall never hear. And yet beneath

    The stillness of everything gone, and being still,
    Being and sitting still, something resides,
    Some skreaking and skrittering residuum,
    And grates these evasions of the nightingale
    Though I have never–shall never hear that bird.
    And the stillness is in the key, all of it is,
    The stillness is all in the key of that desolate sound.

    —Wallace Stevens, 1931


  4. Alex says:

    You and Stevens would have a really interesting conversation about the ramifications of nothing. Here’s another one.

    The Emperor of Ice Cream

    Call the roller of big cigars,
    The muscular one, and bid him whip
    In kitchen cups concupiscent curds.
    Let the wenches dawdle in such dress
    As they are used to wear, and let the boys
    Bring flowers in last month’s newspapers.
    Let be be finale of seem.
    The only emperor is the emperor of ice-cream.

    Take from the dresser of deal,
    Lacking the three glass knobs, that sheet
    On which she embroidered fantails once
    And spread it so as to cover her face.
    If her horny feet protrude, they come
    To show how cold she is, and dumb.
    Let the lamp affix its beam.
    The only emperor is the emperor of ice-cream.


  5. Alex says:

    At least, I’m reading these as reflecting on how one might “ginny up some enthusiasm for the purposes we imagine for our lives.” If Stevens were alive, he’d steal the word ginny from you in a flash.


  6. Huenemann says:

    Stevens is truly wonderful. For years, I had a volume of his poems beside the bed. Good to give the dream maker excellent working materials.


  7. Howard says:

    Would life be meaningful even if the universe was meaningful? Even if God existed or there was some scheme of things? I think that’s an open question


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