What is The Meaning of Life, the Universe and Everything

The answer is 42, according to Deep Thought, from the Hitch Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.   The Philosophers were keen to turn the machine off, and perhaps rightly so.  Still, the NY Times’ Philosophers Stone has raised the question again.  What is meaning in life?  Or something like that.

This week’s Stone author is Sean Kelley.  He sees nihilism as saying that there is no meaning in life.  There are, he appears to think, two alternatives to such a view.  One is to take one’s life and its values as universally justifiable.  Kelly takes this view to have been present in the Middle Ages, and presumably beyond, though that is less clear.  When the society starts to recognize that other modes of belief and action are acceptable, taking one’s own to be universally valid becomes a kind of self-deception.

The other way is articulated by Melville:

Writing 30 years before Nietzsche, in his great novel “Moby Dick,” the canonical American author encourages us to “lower the conceit of attainable felicity”; to find happiness and meaning, in other words, not in some universal religious account of the order of the universe that holds for everyone at all times, but rather in the local and small-scale commitments that animate a life well-lived.  The meaning that one finds in a life dedicated to “the wife, the heart, the bed, the table, the saddle, the fire-side, the country,” these are genuine meanings.  They are, in other words, completely sufficient to hold off the threat of nihilism, the threat that life will dissolve into a sequence of meaningless events.  But they are nothing like the kind of universal meanings for which the monotheistic tradition of Christianity had hoped. 

To find meaning, then, is to see one’s life as lived according to universal standards OR to see it as attaining the local and small-scale contentments of human life. 

I hope we can discuss these issues.  I’ll try to start off the discussion with two observations, but my sense is that remarks tangential to all this might be particularly illuminating.  Anyway, here goes:

1.  From what perspective is the question of the meaning of life raised?  Is it the philosophers’ reflections on lived lives, or does it really signal some concern animating human lives as they are lived?  I do think the question of meaning can get younger people in its grip, but I’m less sure that it does for those of us who are older, particularly those who don’t read philosophy.  I could easily think of myself as steering a large ship through unknown waters, where I lack both a map and any clear idea of the goals the journey is supposed to have.  By this time, I have a pretty clear idea of my own goals and priorities, but they can hardly determine the decisions I have to make.  Too much else is involved in this extraordinarily puzzling trip.  It seems more correct to judge it nearly incomprehensible than to say it lacks meaning.  (I am, of course, exaggerating.)

2.  What do we do with the fact that each approach seems to have extremely serious drawbacks?  The idea that one is living according to universal values can come under some pressure since those values are pretty much always interpreted.  And, when interpreted, often highly questionable.  Indeed, it may take a kind of self-deception on the part of some living then to accept that the values of the Christian Middle Age were really universal.  Not recognizing any rights of women to their children or the property brought into a marriage?  Shutting women in nunneries?  Boiling dissidents in oil?  Castrating sinners? 

Of course, today, at least in Western culture, we don’t boil dissenters in oil, we merely water-board them.  But, putting that aside, those of us embracing the  small-scale pleasures of life may still find incongruities.  For example, how does one cope with the fact that seemingly small events can put an end to what one – or others – care about? 

All such incongruities seems to leave us threatened with meaningless.  At least if we read philosophy.

So what do you think?

15 thoughts on “What is The Meaning of Life, the Universe and Everything

  1. Super post jj! I do not have time to type the kind (and length) of comment that your post deserves, but here are some very quick thoughts for now.

    One thing your post reminded me of is excellent work by the social psychologist Shelly E. Taylor on positive illusions regarding positive self-perceptions, personal control, and unrealistic optimism about the future. Of course, different people deceive themselves with such illusions in different ways and to different degrees; in any case, doing so does seem to contribute to alleged “mental health”, and/or forms of happiness and (feelings/sense of) meaning. See:

    http://taylorlab.psych.ucla.edu/index.htm , and

    http://shelley.taylor.socialpsychology.org .

    Given many basic facts of life and this world, being “mentally healthy”, being “well balanced”, being “happy” and not being seriously depressed and/or anxious arguably requires substantial illusions/self-deception. Of course, the rationalizations/defense mechanisms can work in both ways, so I (sometimes) think/acknowledge that we cannot know for sure.

    One of my favorite writings more directly on the matter is chapter 11 of Thomas Nagel’s 1986 book The View From Nowhere. The chapter is titled, “Birth, Death, and the Meaning of Life”. Since the end of high school, I have always tended towards (and really settled into) a version of what Nagel on pages 218-219 calls the first and most Draconian solution to the problem of the meaning of life (seemingly involving universal matters, though I find many more things in the objective, universal standpoint than Nagel does – and Nagel seems to use “universal” differently from Melville and/or jj). In different terms, for me, the path to meaning (or away from things that seem meaningless) involves some version of the Marxist (and I think feminist!) project of transcending false consciousness (false consciousness – to me anyway – unfortunately very, very often includes common conceptions of both universal and local/small scale matters). Of course, we need examples for clarity, though I find the requisite examples too personal to me and potentially offensive to others for a public blog.

    I have not kept up with all of his writings, but I have substantial respect for thought/work by Thaddeus Metz, who I have noticed in recent years has published several pieces on this topic.

    Maybe more later… and thanks for the great, thought provoking post jj.

  2. Yikes! I just read the NY times piece linked in jj’s post and immediately recognized miscommunication in my comment above.
    – To correct/clarify:
    The “Draconian solution” that I relate to transcending false consciousness results in and primarily involves precisely the “local and small scale commitments” from Melville (but without the middle-ground towards religion, or whatever).

  3. Why should life have a meaning?

    What’s more, I don’t see why one cannot live happily (whatever that means) a life without meaning.

    In any case, it’s the only life I’m going to have, so it would be wise to make the best of it.

  4. interesting conversation!

    i must confess i’m a bit confused about the confluence of “meaning” and “happiness” on offer in the Melville option. It seems to me that, along with David, happiness involves significant powers of self-deception. And the small happinesses of wife (! oh, for a wife!) hearth, bed, garden, etc. seem to be encouraging us to just not worry about things that much, which is to say, to cease asking after meaning. this turn towards seeking small happinesses, rather than meaning, also seems to be pretty useful for an economic system that relies upon engendering fear and unhappiness, so we will buy things to make us feel secure and happy (though i am not at all doubting that these things do in fact make us happy; i am just, like de beauvoir, asking after its value).

    not that, as you point out, jj, those universal values are such a great option, either, or were doing what they purported to do, if they relied upon the oppression of women, or slavery, or empire.

    so it seems that, at base, both positions rely on significant self-deceptions.

    i think that Nietzsche is actually pretty instructive in this case. we insist upon meaning in the face of the death of god, and go about creating it, despite the unlikeliness of our success; this is what makes humans interesting for him. and perhaps gave him cause to love them a little bit.

  5. SK, really interesting thoughts. I’m wondering about self-deception. There are good reasons, apparently, for thinking that depressed people are more realistic in their beliefs. Perhaps we should not expect that somehow our nature makes it possible for us to live completely harmonious lives.

    It has struck me recently that philosophy may induce confusions about the importance of truth.

  6. There are good reasons, apparently, for thinking that depressed people are more realistic in their beliefs.

    I have heard this a few times, and can imagine that it’s true, but I have always wondered what the direction of causation was.

  7. Matt (and others), the direction obviously can work in both ways. The main conjecture, however, that I associate with the positive illusions required for alleged “mental health” in my comment above is reverse as you state it: full awareness of what goes on in life and what’s going on in the world should cause deep depression and/or anxiety (otherwise, one must be ignorant, and/or in denial, and/or with delusions, and/or with various kinds of substantial self-deception; alternatively, one might just be an apathetic sociopath). Of course, depression can cause people to focus on the negative and become more aware of the salient negative features of the world in this context. However, this direction can involve genuine mental illness that distorts thinking by exaggerating the negative, for instance. So the direction of causation needs to go the other way, at least in order to capture the sentiments that I (and I guess SK) tried to express.

    I remember from college Taylor’s 1989 book titled, “Positive Illusions: Creative Self-Deception and the Healthy Mind”. Along with many others, she has more recent work on these matters. Great stuff. Clarifying my comment here and above might require a distinction between two forms of depression, especially to capture the ideas associated with the causal direction briefly described here. Maybe more later…

  8. This is a really interesting post and has played on my mind quite a lot throughout my life. I’ve never felt that there is some universal meaning or significance to human life, and while this has often been greeted with almost pitying responses, it’s an outlook which I enjoy and think is quite a positive one.

    I think that it can depend a lot on how you perceive yourself and your position in your own life. There are people who relfect on themselves and their life a lot, searching for meanings and connections in what could be said to be a continuous sense of self. And then you also have people who ‘live for the moment’ quite literally and find it difficult to understand their sense of self in a continuous and stable manner. For the former, ‘meaning’ may come from discovering the connections in their stages of life, but for the latter it may come in the immediacy of experience.

    As for happiness, I’m not sure how far I’d agree with either 1) that it’s an indication of a meaningful existence or 2) the idea that people with depression have more ‘realistic’ beliefs. Firstly, there are problems with defining happiness, and even the fact that it could be leading a meaningful life which leads to happiness (in a more Aristotlean sense than a temporary state) instead of becoming happy in order to lead a meaningful life.

    Secondly, I think that there is a risk of conflating pessimism, cynicism and a generally negative or sad disposition with depression. There may be a case for finding a causation between pessimism and realistic beliefs (for want of a better phrase) but I’m not sure how reasonable it would be to make a connections with mental health issues and realistic beliefs. It suggests that there’s a kind of privileged epistemelogical position granted to those who society deems maybe neuro-diverse or mentally ‘ill’. I can’t say I know much about mental illness but as David has said above, in many cases of extreme depression or other difficult mental states, there is a very skewed sense of reality and drawing a line somewhere between realistic beliefs and highly distorted sense of reality would be problematic.

  9. David: Why would full awareness of what goes on in life and in the world
    produce depression or anxiety? Couldn’t it lead to acceptance and, as Nietzsche preaches, affirmation of what is? Maybe if you expect life to be other than what it is, seeing life as it is produces depression, but why expect life to be other than it is? By the way, acceptance of or affirmation of the way things are need not produce passivity or inaction regarding injustice, although it will make you more realistic.

  10. I hope that people who are interested in the question of whether there’s a link between depression and seeing things accurately will look at some of the empirical research. I think it’s probably very interesting from the little I know..

    One hypothesis is that very negative experiences can damage and maybe even come close to destroying filters that human beings tend naturally to have. (Our conscious experience has a lot of its content filtered in various ways.) We filter out a lot, including negative signs. One thing that might do this is an abusive childhood, where it is very much to one’s benefit to have accurate ideas of what’s going to happen next. But the same childhood can leave one very prone to depression. In this case, one might have one cause of two effects.

    I’ve heard there is some fMRI evidence for this hypothesis and for the related idea that some of that same loss of filters accounts for the recurrent visions and nightmares that come with PTSD.

    I don’t know that simply being in a negative state and so having a negative bias is going to do it. What the depressed person is said to have is more accurate beliefs, and the effects of a negative bias as such needn’t include accuracy. If you’re feeling low from a hangover, I don’t know that somehow you understand better what is going on. But it might be that someone who is feeling negative is more prone to notice signs of bad stuff to come, and this might make them like the person who lacks filters.

    I was really surprised to discover in real life what seemed to be a test for forming positive or negative beliefs. It’s a real life example provided by a fairly recently widowed relative of mine. The wife who died was his second wife, and they had been married 15 years. A couple of years before that he felt he was very in love with another women, who turned down his offer of marriage. He was then heart-broken and told her it was a huge mistake. So then in a couple of years he gets married and 15 years later his wife died suddenly. He was distraught for months but after about ten months, he heard from a friend that the first woman had said she bitterly regretted turning him down and had herself never married. And then contacted her. More or less, they fell into each others arms with sobs of relief. It was, “I am so glad I found you again.”

    The thing that so interested me was that my friends’ reactions fell into two very distinct camps.
    So what’s your reaction? Do you expect they’ll go on to be happy or not?

  11. If by happy, you mean happy together, I suspect not (though I hope I am wrong). It would be lovely if this was a happily-ever-after love story, but I tend to think that when people are reunited after some time they’ll likely have these built-up expectations about the idea of the person that the real person just won’t match up with.

  12. Judging from the minimal data which you provide, I would bet that their relationship will be disappointing. They expect too much from each other. Expecting so much from another person is normal at age 17, but from what you say, the people involved are at least in their 40’s, if not older, and if they haven’t learned by age 40 (or more) to
    be more realistic in their romantic expectations, each will have problems navigating the complexities of discovering the other.

  13. Sorry! That was less interesting. With just about that data, most people thought it was a lovely storey and they were very happy for him. Even his therpist was weepy at the story. I and a few others thought it a recipe for disaster. It had a really bad outcome, as her obsessiveness took over.

    I am wondering now whether we’re depressed!

    Amos, I thought your first comment made an excellent point.

  14. Even if the theory that depression does away with the filters and opens the doors of perception, so to speak, is true, there may be many other factors which allow people to see more clearly, without filters.

    For example, my therapist, one of the most cheerful persons whom I’ve ever known, had very very few filters.

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