In Woody Allen’s latest movie, Irrational Man, Joaquin Phoenix plays Abe, a moody philosophy professor, while Emma Stone plays Jill, a cheerful undergraduate, who etc. etc. etc.
New York Times critic Manhola Dargis describes Jill as “an eager A student who’s attracted to Abe because that’s how she was written”. That’s very nicely put, but our topic isn’t cinema or gender. Our topic is whether life is meaningless.
From the Times review of Irrational Man:
In Woody Allen’s 1987 drama “September,” a writer and a physicist walk into a room … when the writer asks the physicist, “Is there anything more terrifying than the destruction of the world?” The physicist, sunk deep in gloomy shadow, answers, “Yeah, the knowledge that it doesn’t matter one way or the other — that it’s all random, radiating aimlessly out of nothing and eventually vanishing forever.” The physicist says that he’s not talking about the world. “I’m talking about the universe,” adding, “all space, all time, just a temporary convulsion.”
The exchange is in keeping with Mr. Allen’s oft-repeated insistence, on-screen and off, that life is meaningless, which may be true even if he seems feverishly bent on refuting it with his prodigious cinematic output.
Nobody has ever accused me of always, or even generally, looking on the bright side of things, but I don’t see any connection at all between the end of the universe and the meaning of life. So maybe Woody Allen, who is rather intelligent and can be relatively funny, is having a bit of fun when he suggests that life is meaningless because, meaningless because, in the distant future, the whole shebang will come to nothing.
Apparently not. It was easy to find videos in which Allen, speaking as himself, not through one of his characters, expresses an extremely bleak view of our situation. In one video, for example, when asked to comment on Macbeth’s complaint that life is “full of sound and fury, signifying nothing”, Allen offers this:
You die and eventually the sun burns out … eventually all the planets and all the stars … the entire universe goes, disappears, and nothing is left at all … and you think to yourself, it is a lot of noise and sound and fury and where is it going? It’s not going anyplace.
He then imagines a cycle in which all of humanity is replaced every 100 years. Each time, people take their lives very seriously, yet “it seems like a big meaningless thing”. Strangely, however, he concludes that “even knowing the worst … it’s still worthwhile …it’s still important to go on”. Further, it’s the artist’s job to help the rest of us understand why this is so.
Not that it makes any difference, but physicists aren’t really sure how the universe will end. Will there be a Big Freeze? Big Rip? Big Crunch? Big Bounce? One reason they’re not sure is that they don’t know enough about dark energy, the strange force that seems to be making the universe expand more quickly. But however it ends, the universe should keep going for billions of years. Its ultimate destination may be nowhere at all, but in the meantime, a whole lot of stuff, including us, will be traveling every which way.
Citing events like the end of the universe or the explosion of the sun as reasons for the meaninglessness of life could be the most ridiculous thing I’ve ever heard a public figure say. It’s like saying that traveling around the world or visiting the Moon is pointless because you’re going to end up back in your own bed and, besides, you’re not going to live forever.
Life has meaning for anyone who finds it meaningful. None of our experiences, memories, expectations, accomplishments or relationships are inherently meaningful – meaningful in themselves – but they are often meaningful to us and other people. That’s why we say things like “that really meant a lot to me” or (as I heard in a movie this week) “you mean nothing to me”.
To be meaningful in this sense is to be significant. It’s true that we sometimes perceive significance where there really isn’t any, but we don’t always get it wrong. Was it meaningful to you when you finished that task, visited that place, played that song, met that person? Well, no it wasn’t, because billions of years from now, there won’t be anything in the universe except black holes, and they’ll eventually disappear too! Making this supposed connection explicit – “life can only have meaning if the universe lasts forever” – shows what an absurd, lazy idea it is.
To be fair to Woody Allen, however, he might have another idea in mind. When people say life is meaningless, they sometimes mean that life has no ultimate purpose. Our individual purposes (putting food on the table, learning how to surf, becoming a banker) don’t seem important enough in the grand scheme of things. Isn’t there a bigger purpose to all of this?
Perhaps we’re here to propagate the species (until there’s no room on Earth for one more person?). Or help the universe or the Absolute become aware of itself (good one, Hegel). Or to fulfill a divine plan, like glorifying the supreme being forever and ever (the ego!). Or maybe we humans are only here as unwitting contestants in a vast competition run by the rulers of the galaxy to see which planet can produce the best muffins? That’s a possibility.
In addition to the difficulty of identifying which particular cosmic purpose we’re here to serve, there’s another big problem with this idea. Whatever purpose we’re serving, it most likely isn’t ours (especially if we don’t know what it is). Living in order to serve someone or something else’s higher purpose means that we are being treated as a means, not an end. That’s the opposite of what Kant argued is the basis of morality: to treat people as ends in themselves, not as means to achieving something else. Unless we can correctly identify a higher purpose and then adopt it as our own, the desire to serve a higher purpose is the desire to be used.
In a similar context, Nietzsche criticized what he called “the ascetic ideal”, a way of thinking that helps the less psychologically advanced among us (the “herd”) avoid “suicidal nihilism”. The ascetic ideal, as embodied by Christian morality, requires that:
there is nothing on earth of any power which does not first have to receive a meaning, a right to existence, a value from it, as a tool to its work, as a way and means to its goal [On the Genealogy of Morality, III, 23).
Knowing that we were being used to serve an overriding purpose in the way Nietzsche describes service to the ascetic ideal would certainly add meaning to our lives. That’s true. But whether it would be a desirable meaning is another question.
The world in which we find ourselves should make us wonder what higher purpose would justify or explain what goes on around here. Nature is red in tooth and claw for most living beings. We humans do have Beethoven and Michelangelo, as Woody Allen often says, and surprisingly many people around the world are fairly satisfied with their lives, but consider all the horrendous crap we have to deal with (often at the hands of other humans).
Finding out that all of humanity’s pain and suffering happens for a reason would be adding insult to injury. The world is like this on purpose? It’s more agreeable and understandable that it just worked out this way. If I learned that this whole enterprise was set in motion by some higher-ups (or -up), I’d be very surprised, but also very disappointed. Couldn’t they do a better job? Are we living in a beta version?
They better damn well enjoy our muffins.
Postscript of 7/27/15:
From the 16th century French essayist Michel de Montaigne: “Life should be an aim unto itself; a purpose unto itself” (Essays, III, 12).