Meaning Is a Many-Splendored Thing, Part 2

Roy Scranton’s “We’re Doomed. Now What?” begins with a different premise than Charlie Hueneman’s “Everything Is Meaningless – But That’s Okay” (which I went on about two weeks ago). Scranton thinks that global warming, escalating violence or a combination of the two will one day put our species out of its misery:

Today, as every hour brings new alarms of war and climate disaster, we might wish we could take Nietzsche’s place. He had to cope only with the death of God, after all, while we must come to terms with the death of our world….

We stand today on a precipice of annihilation that Nietzsche could not have even imagined. There is little reason to hope that we’ll be able to slow down global warming before we pass a tipping point….The West Antarctic ice sheet is collapsing, Greenland is melting, permafrost across the world is liquefying, and methane has been detected leaking from sea floors and Siberian craters: it’s probably already too late to stop these feedbacks, which means it’s probably already too late to stop apocalyptic planetary warming. Meanwhile the world slides into hate-filled, bloody havoc, like the last act of a particularly ugly Shakespearean tragedy.

It’s fair to say that without a major technological breakthrough on one hand or the collapse of the carbon-based global economy on the other, the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere will continue to increase. That could have horrific consequences. A “runaway” greenhouse effect may have given Venus its thick atmosphere of carbon dioxide and average surface temperature of 842 degrees.

Scranton implies that we’re doomed because four common responses to the global warming crisis are seriously misguided. He says “denialists” deny the problem exists, “accelerationists” think more technology is the answer, “incrementalists” favor the kind of modest changes already being made, and “activists” argue that “we have to fight, even though we’re sure to lose”. He thinks “we respond according to our prejudices”.

He then calls attention to what could be thought of as a fifth type of response, except that it’s closer to no response at all. Scranton thinks nihilism “defines our current moment”. Too many of us believe that “if all is already lost, nothing matters anyway”. What he apparently has in mind is the point of view sometimes referred to as “existential nihilism”. That’s the idea that life, whether individual lives or human life as a whole, lacks meaning, purpose or value.

What evidence is there for this increasing nihilism? Scranton mentions four television programs (I’ve watched two of them – they’re very good). Maybe more convincingly, he says “you can see it in the rush to war, sectarianism and racial hatred”. There is also the advance of “scientific materialism”, which has been undermining religious beliefs since at least the 17th century.

But war, sectarianism and racial hatred aren’t examples of nihilism. Nobody goes to war because they think everything is meaningless. People don’t divide into sects because they lack purpose. Racists value some people more than others for no good reason. That’s stupid, but not nihilistic. Science conflicts with some religious doctrine, but people who take science seriously aren’t generally amoral. So, putting aside the issue of nihilism for the moment, what does Scranton say we should do?

Oddly, by the end of the article, Scranton has declared himself to be a kind of “activist”. He believes some of us will survive global warming. Our species isn’t due for extinction. Therefore:

…it’s up to us … to secure the future of the human species. We can’t do it by clinging to the progressivist, profit-seeking, technology-can-fix-it ideology of fossil-fueled capitalism. We can’t do it by trying to control the future. We need to learn to let our current civilization die, to accept our mortality and practice humility. We need to work together to transform a global order of meaning focused on accumulation into a new order of meaning that knows the value of limits, transience and restraint.

In other words, we need to find meaning in taking care of the planet, not in the all the stuff we can get from burning carbon. We can’t wait for the global carbon-based economy to collapse. If we want to keep the planet habitable for human beings (a few of us anyway) and other living things, we need to immediately cut back our use of fossil fuels.

I’m sure Scranton would like to explain how we can accomplish this. How will it come to pass that so many people will change their way of looking at the world, of valuing what oil and coal do for us? Global warming isn’t such an obviously imminent crisis that the powerful or the mass of humanity will quickly reorient their thinking. It’s not as if a planet-destroying asteroid is heading our way. Nor are we in danger of running out of fossil fuels in the foreseeable future. There are billions of tons of the stuff just waiting to be extracted.

But all that Scranton offers as a way forward is to cite Nietzsche. The German philosopher set forth a position known as “perspectivism”. It’s not exactly clear what he meant by that (clarity wasn’t one of his strengths), but the general idea is that we each have our own perspective on the world; none of our perspectives give us access to the world as it really is; so the best we can do is view the world from as many points of view as possible. Adopting more and more perspectives can get us closer to the truth, even though we can never attain absolute, completely objective, non-perspectival truth about anything at all.

At least that’s how Scranton interprets Nietzsche. Life may be meaningless. The planet is probably doomed. But human beings have a tremendous capacity to find meaning in all kinds of situations. We need to use that capacity to view the planet’s future from as many perspectives as possible, human and non-human:

We need to learn to see not just with Western eyes but with Islamic eyes and Inuit eyes, not just with human eyes but with golden-cheeked warbler eyes, coho salmon eyes and polar bear eyes…

If we can manage that, difficult as it may be, we may be able to stop the Earth from becoming another Venus.

Perhaps you agree about adopting new perspectives, but I think it’s highly unlikely that the world’s leaders or the mass of humanity will ever stop finding most of life’s meaning in the here and now, based on their own particular points of view. Denialists will continue denying there’s a problem. Technologists will continue looking for technological solutions. Incrementalists will advocate or settle for incremental change. Activists like Scranton will propose new ways of finding meaning, while nihilists won’t think it matters what happens.

My own view is that the human race may get lucky but probably won’t. We should, however, still make intense efforts to stop burning so much carbon, while making life as decent as possible for those of us who are already here, including the fish of the sea, the fowl of the air, and everything that travels or grows upon the earth (except maybe mosquitoes and poison ivy). We have to balance the near future in which life is hard for so many and the more distant future in which life may not be possible at all. We will probably fail, but it’s the right thing to do.

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.

What’s It All About, Woody?

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).