Meaning Is a Many-Splendored Thing

Since reading a couple of articles that deal with the subject, I’ve been meaning (intending) to write about the meaning (significance) of life.

Back in October, Charlie Hueneman, a philosophy professor at Utah State, posted “Everything Is Meaningless – But That’s Okay”. Then, in December, Roy Scranton, a writer working on his Ph.D. in English, delivered “We’re Doomed. Now What?”. Hueneman and Scranton both start out negative and end up positive. That happens a lot on this topic.

Hueneman begins by describing supposedly meaningless activities, ones that “have no point to them – nothing is achieved, no purpose can be fathomed, and the work we dedicate to them is entirely wasted”. If meaningful activities are the opposite, he says, they have a point. They’re done for reasons.

He then asks the same question about our lives as a whole. Do our lives have a point? Instead of offering an answer, however, he quickly moves to the whole universe. Does the universe have a point?

I don’t think this is a fruitful way to think about the meaning of life. We shouldn’t expect the meaning of particular activities like brushing our teeth to be the same kind of meaning that could attach to a person’s entire life. Why would a person’s life, something that consists of lots of actions but also many, many experiences, most of which have no purpose and aren’t intentionally acquired, be meaningful in the same way as an individual action?

It’s even more questionable to expect the universe to have a meaning in the sense of having a purpose. Hueneman mentions entropy: maybe the universe’s purpose is to wind down and even out. But it’s one thing to say that what happens in the universe tends to go in one direction and another to say that it all happens for a reason. So Hueneman concludes that “all existence is meaningless”. Nothing, not even brushing our teeth, has a point (despite what your dentist says).

To the objection that “we create our own meaning, with the ends we set and the decisions we make”, Hueneman replies that we can’t create meaning. We can merely pretend that our actions are meaningful. Why can we merely pretend? Because we could decide that any activity at all is meaningful, even those that seem obviously meaningless. Furthermore, since all of our actions will come to nothing in the end (when the sun explodes, for example), there is no point to any of our actions now.

None of Huenman’s points are convincing, but even if they were, that wouldn’t be a problem, since he goes on to explain why he thinks living in a meaningless universe is okay. It’s okay because we have the ability to enjoy or find value in pointless activities, even if we understand that they’re pointless. Everything we do is ultimately pointless, but it can still be worth doing:

The distinction I’m invoking is this. A pursuit is made meaningful in virtue of being part of some larger purpose or end that exists apart from us. But a pursuit or activity or achievement can be pleasurable or valuable by meeting some condition set by us – either deliberately (as in staged contests), or simply by us being the sort of beings we are. We generally are the sort of beings who like having fun, seeing beautiful things, and helping one another. And that’s why we value these things – regardless of the fact that they are ultimately meaningless.

What Hueneman has done here is to offer a questionable definition of “meaningful” and then use that questionable definition to declare everything meaningless. Given his definition, only things that serve a higher purpose apart from us are meaningful. But not to worry, since we can find enjoyment and value in life anyway.

It  would have made more sense for Hueneman to admit up front that we find meaning in all kinds of things, whether or not they serve a higher purpose. We don’t pretend to find them meaningful; we actually do. Some activities and experiences are meaningful for us because they’re enjoyable (or painful) or we think they’re valuable or because they serve our purposes or someone else’s. There is no need to confuse the issue by worrying about whether the universe has a purpose, whatever that could possibly be. If you find something meaningful, it’s meaningful for you, whether that something is your teeth, your life, the history of the universe or stories about heaven and hell.

Of course, this doesn’t mean that whatever a person finds meaningful has significance or substance beyond what that person thinks or feels. There are those among us who think the movements and positions of the planets are extremely meaningful. I, for example, was born on a certain day sixty-odd years ago, so I and millions of others should understand that today (actually yesterday) might be hectic. Nevertheless, we should remember not to hurt anyone “who has walked a small distance” with us. We should also use our excellent sense of humor to “bridge the gap” between us and our “superiors” (which will be difficult for me, since I retired several years ago). Astrologists and their fans who really believe in astrology find meaning where more down-to-earth people don’t. Unfortunately, the meaning they find doesn’t correspond to reality in terms of allowing them to make good predictions or devise helpful explanations, but they do find astrology meaningful.

In conclusion, it’s hard to say whether we find meaning or create it. We don’t usually pretend to find it (although there are ministers who have lost their faith, various politicians and hucksters, and those of us who want to protect somebody’s feelings). If we create meaning, most of us don’t consciously create it. If anyone ever has, it’s probably the people who originally made up stories like the ones about Mount Olympus, Shiva and the burning bush; or Plato and Aristotle when they explained the world in terms of ideal forms or final causes. Most of us use the tools we have (our desires, our experiences, our biology) to find meaning where we can. Sometimes we find it. Sometimes we don’t.

Next time I’ll get to that other article, the one that says we’re all doomed but we should take meaningful action anyway.

3 thoughts on “Meaning Is a Many-Splendored Thing

  1. Interesting post! I think, in the absence of some religious framework, absolute meaning simply isn’t there. All meaning we might care about is relative to our own desires, which themselves have meaning in biological, psychological, social, and perhaps historic terms. Ultimately though, it all amounts to meaninglessness since the universe is heading toward eventual heat death. (Accusations of nihilism are usually not far behind, and, descriptively, such accusations aren’t far off the mark.)

    But that doesn’t mean it’s productive to declare everything meaningless and just stay in bed. Anyone who attempts that learns pretty quickly that meaning relative to our desires is still very consequential for us in our own subset of the universe.

  2. Pingback: Meaning Is a Many-Splendored Thing, Part 2 | Whereof One Can Speak

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