More on meaninglessness

I’m glad that my “everything is meaningless” essay generated so much discussion over at 3QD. But the discussion has made it clear to me that I could have been much more explicit in what I was trying to say.

First off, let’s agree that there are many different meanings of “meaningfulness.” I was focusing on the “meaning of life” kind of meaningfulness, which has to do with the point, the aim, the significance, or the telos of living a human life. “What makes a human life meaningful?” was the sort of question I was raising. I wasn’t concerned with the meaningfulness of words, or the significance an event or an object might have to an individual (“my first car meant a lot to me, since I bought it with money I earned all by myself”). I don’t have anything interesting to say about these other meanings of meaningfulness.

But I did have (I think) something interesting to say about human activities and lives being meaningful, and in claiming that “everything is meaningless” I was trying to draw attention to the fact that our ordinary, familiar ways of determining whether processes or endeavors are meaningful should lead us to the conclusion that nothing we do is ever meaningful. I’ll try here to make the argument more explicit.

Let’s begin with familiar cases of meaningful and meaningless activities. Here are some prima facie meaningful ones: (a) I write an essay to be published on 3QD; (b) I mow the lawn; (c) I plan a very special evening for my wife and myself on our anniversary. And here are some prima facie meaningless ones: (d) I write an essay to print on paper and then burn it; (e) I mow the lawn just before the workers come to cut it up and roll it into sod; (f) I plan the special evening even though, as it happens, we’ll both be out of town on separate trips.

Now what makes (a)-(c) meaningful? I think it’s obvious that the activities are easily identified as parts of larger processes that most of us typically take to be meaningful, like sharing ideas on the web, keeping up a nice appearance, and demonstrating love toward one’s spouse. If we are likely to see any of these bigger processes as important or meaningful, then we will see the smaller components as meaningful too.

That “being part of a larger meaningful process” is what makes (a)-(c) meaningful can be seen in what we have to do in order to try to see (d)-(f) as meaningful. Printing out an essay and burning it might be meaningful if in that essay I am describing all of my past sins and regrets, and burning the essay somehow is meant to free me from them. Mowing the lawn before the sod workers come – well, that’s a harder one, but maybe I’m collecting lawn clippings for mulch, or maybe I’m thinking that shorter grass will make their job easier. And planning for an event that won’t happen – well, maybe I’m planning to share those plans with my wife in order to demonstrate to her how much I regret our not being together on our anniversary. Maybe I’m planning to show the plans to her, so that we can share the event in our imaginations, if (alas!) not in real life.

In these cases, I’m folding the seemingly meaningless events into bigger things that we are likely to see as meaningful. So, again, if we are likely to see any of these bigger processes as important or meaningful, then we will see the smaller components as meaningful too.

Now I am going to suppose that this feature of part/whole meaningfulness applies at every scale. If we go on to ask about the larger schemes and endeavors – sharing ideas with others, keeping up appearances, demonstrating love toward one’s spouse – and ask whether they are meaningful, there should be some even larger meaningful framework that bestows meanings upon them. They could be, respectively, maintaining an intellectual community, being a good neighbor, and maintaining a strong and loving relationship. And if, again, we ask about the meaningfulness of these things, there should be an even bigger framework that makes them meaningful, and so on, and so on.

There have been times in history when people believed in absolute, outermost frames of meaningfulness, frameworks that are intrinsically meaningful and bestow meaning upon all parts. Like religion, for example: religious people believe in some divine truth that gives aim, point, purpose, and meaning to all that exists. Or like a Hegelian belief in progress and human potential, or like Aristotle’s view of the natural world, and everything in it, as governed by final causes. All of these worldviews have “buck-stopping” frameworks of meaning, or courts of highest appeal. If you have such a system of beliefs, then I congratulate you and have no further criticisms to raise, at least in regard to your account of meaningfulness in life.

But many of us to not have such worldviews, and instead we believe in a pointless, purposeless universe. This is the world delivered to us through Hume, Darwin, thermodynamics, Nietzsche, and contemporary cosmology. The upshot of such a universe is that there is no buck-stopping framework of meaning. Indeed, at some point in our process of linking what seem to be meaningful events and endeavors to broader, bigger meaningful endeavors, we end up shrugging. Take, for example, mowing the lawn:

Why is that meaningful?

  • Because it helps to maintain outward appearances.

Why is that meaningful?

  • Because it is part of being a good neighbor.

What is that meaningful?

  • Because we are social creatures, and we need to be mindful of others.

Why is that meaningful?

  • Because, uh, well, it makes us happy to be in pleasant communities.

Why is that meaningful?

  • I guess I’d rather be happy than not happy.

Why is that meaningful?

  • Alright! Alright! Enough already! Can’t I just prefer to be happy?

“Yes, of course!” I would say to this. There’s nothing wrong with wanting to be happy, and doing the sorts of things that generally will lead toward one’s happiness. But that’s different from saying that those things are meaningful. If I am right about the “smaller things are meaningful in virtue of being parts of bigger meaningful things” claim, then the things that make us happy are not meaningful unless they are included eventually in a buck-stopping framework of meaning. If we deny that, then we deny meaningfulness all the way down.

If this seems wrong to you, then I suggest that one or the other of two things is likely going on.

First: you might have two senses of “meaningfulness” at work. You might think that, on the smaller end of things, endeavors are made meaningful1 by being parts of larger, meaningful endeavors; but on the larger end of things, endeavors are made meaningful2 just by us preferring them to alternatives, and the “being part of a bigger meaningful endeavor” feature just ceases to apply at some level of scale. There’s no law against having as many senses of “meaningfulness” as you like, of course. But I do think, and ask you to consider the possibility, that in this case “meaningful2” is just an honorific, and all it really amounts to is “I like it.”

Second: you might be just assuming some bigger endeavors are meaningful without thinking about it. Few of us have the occasion to wonder why it is meaningful to save threatened species, to write better copyright laws, or to settle regional conflicts. We just get on with the business of doing it because it seems important and meaningful to us. It doesn’t seem enough to say that we do these things merely because we prefer some states of the world to others. It’s not just our preference which makes them valuable, we think. They are valuable in themselves. But rarely are we asked to give any account of this intrinsic value or meaningfulness; and good thing, too, because most of us don’t have an account to give.

Why should I care about this? Why do I want to go around and poke at people and convince them that everything is meaningless? Good question. I guess it is because I like it when people face up to the reality of their philosophical situation. In my essay I claimed that the Great Experiment of our age is to live without meaningfulness, and I think that’s true. The challenge is for us to own up to the fact that we legislate our own ends, and nothing in the universe can determine whether we legislate correctly or incorrectly. There is nothing for us to get right or wrong. All that we have to go on is our own set of preferences – what we would like to see, and what we would rather not see. And these, I think, should be up for intelligent and sensible discussion. (I may be in the minority on this — what am I saying?! Obviously I am!)

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 Meanings of life / death / social & moral stuff. Bookmark the permalink.

10 Responses to More on meaninglessness

  1. Joe says:

    So, I think that by having your dialectical opponent say that “I guess I’d rather be happy than not happy”, you’re loading the deck in favor of your conclusion. Obviously that reply changes the subject from the basis of meaningfulness to personal preference. What they need to say is that happiness makes activities meaningful. This would, indeed, be an “outermost frame” of meaningfulness, but it is certainly not one that stands *refuted* by Hume, Darwin, thermodynamics or contemporary cosmology.

    Secondly, the argument assumes a kind of foundationalism about the justification of meaning-claims, as though there must be one single thing that sits at the bottom of meaningfulness in life. But couldn’t meaningfulness arise out of a life’s relation to several goods, where none of them gets to be *the* meaning-generating value? Thus, it would be consistent with the absence of a single, universal “frame” that there are true positive judgments about meaning in life, and there would be no such thing as a skeptical regress, here.


    • Huenemann says:

      Thanks for the comment. I am probably loading the deck, but only because I can’t imagine what else might be said (other than “it makes me/us happy”) when asked what’s the purpose of living in pleasant communities. Of course, Aristotle could say something like it is a natural end for humans as social creatures. We could claim that happiness by itself makes activities meaningful – but it seems to me we can be very happy doing meaningless things, like noodling on the piano or playing invented games with kids and pets.

      Good point about my presuming there’s a single thing making events meaningful. I think in my mind I was presuming that, even if there are many goods in a human life, they can all be summed up in a comprehensive account (again, like Aristotle). But even if they can’t be summed up in this way, I think I could still claim that a life is meaningless unless there some nonsubjective goods in relation to which a given life can be rightly said to be meaningful. Or have I missed your point?


  2. Jim H. says:

    Boy oh boy, we have very different notions of ‘meaning’.

    Meaning is an interpretive, ascriptive term. A second order valuation of something. We learn from folks like Leibniz, Frege, Wittgenstein, Goedel, et al., that meaning does not occur within the propositional system but only arises in the meta-language. The same can be said for so-called ‘meaning of life’ questions: they must take the whole of the life into account and can only be ascribed from outside, else they are incomplete. Thus we have religion and specifically Christian religion which claims to have a transcendent knowledge, or revelation, of the meaning of it all.

    Someone like Beckett or Kafka expresses our ultimate inability to find this meaning because we are limited by our finite existence.


    • Huenemann says:

      But I think I agree with you, Jim! What am I missing? EDIT: Okay, now I think I see – I didn’t bring in the distinction between 1st-order and 2nd-order at all. Thanks – I’ll have to think harder about whether that’s what is really going on in my mind.


  3. Mike says:

    My favorite thing about this whole line of thought is that it’s pointing to futile behavior being in tune with the universe. Therefore when I see someone behaving in a particularly futile/pointless way I can say, “aha! you, my friend, are in tune with the universe.” (and step away)

    To add to your sayings — “only by embracing futility are we made one with the universe”. 🙂

    I’m not convinced the “buck stopping” frameworks are or ever were really buck stopping. They seem question begging to me. I mean “If God is all knowing and all powerful then why is my behavior meaningful in any sense?” comes up pretty fast with Christianity at least. I’m hesitant to ascribe real solutions to any of those frameworks but more likely to look for the same characteristics described differently (like a good contextualist).


    • Mike says:

      Hmm, unless the universe really has some sort of awareness I suppose it would have to be inadvertent acts in futility that would line up most closely. Good to keep in mind.


  4. Huenemann says:

    Vonnegut FTW! Yes, in the back of my mind I’ve been bothered by the way I have given a free pass to the buck-stopping framework. I can still imagine being told the Grand Purpose of Everything and responding – “so why should that be important?” This might well be tied up with the point that Jim H. above (along with Wittgenstein!) is drawing my attention to: an ascription of meaning is made from a point outside of possible experience.


  5. Guy says:

    Hi Charlie,
    Thanks for tackling this question.
    In your replies you seem to admit that one has to explain why the Grand Purpose framework should “stop the buck”, but my question addresses the issue from below, so to speak, namely: why can’t “it makes me happy” be my buck-stopping framework; my final intrinsic end which gives meaning to all “smaller” activities?


    • Huenemann says:

      Hi, Guy – thanks! I do think “It makes me happy!” can be a buck-stopper. But I don’t think that it is sufficient for making the activity meaningful. Perfectly meaningless activities (like doodling, whistling, etc) can make me really happy, but that doesn’t make them significant. Now someone like Aristotle might link up the pleasure we take in certain activities with given ends for human lives; but I’m guessing most of us these days are suspicious of such “given” ends.


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