The question that idiots always ask when they learn you’re a philosopher is “so what’s the meaning of life?” This question is probably unanswerable, and that’s probably because it’s not a real question, or at least not a single real question.
At the same time, it’s not entirely worthless to consider, at least because it expresses certain feelings or impulses that do seem to matter to people. Today I’m not going to even begin addressing that topic, but a preliminary topic: is life devoid of meaning? I think there are tendencies that might make it seem as though life is, ultimately, devoid of meaning, but that these tendencies are unreliable.
I suspect the argument I’ll consider is generally only used unconsciously, rather than explicitly spelt out. And I suspect it’s used not only by nihilists trying to make their position sound more reasonable, but also by theists or sundry mystics trying to make their opponents sound less attractive – if there is no God, then existence is just a huge meaningless sequence, and isn’t that horrible? So that’s an added reason to be interested in it.
Even that requires some clarification. Firstly, what is this ‘meaning’ that life might or might not be devoid of? I’m deliberately leaving that unspecified – it’s whatever people are trying to evoke the idea of when they use the word ‘meaning’ in this context. Same goes for ‘life’. Moreover, that life is ‘devoid of meaning’ might be a pessimistic doctrine, that really everything is genuinely futile, and if you’re not filled with despair you’ve misunderstood things, or it might be a ‘heroic’ doctrine, that life is to be given meaning, whatever meaning we wish. I will consider it in the first, gloomier, sense.
So here, in rough outline, is an argument that, if we consider things rationally (and there is no God), life is meaningless: life only seems meaningful when we think on small scales, about our lives, our countries, our species; when we think on larger scales, about the whole universe or the whole history of the solar system, life tends to seem meaningless. But the latter way to think is more ‘ultimate’, more genuine, and hence life really is meaningless.
Let’s unpack this a bit. The idea is that ‘life, the universe, and everything’ appears different from two different perspectives, but one perspective deserves to be taken more seriously. Of course, it might be disputed that things do seem that way: some people may feel inspired by the vast sweep of inky blackness that surrounds us, and others might find every event on this planet’s surface individually humdrum and stupid.
But let’s grant that we can have these sorts of emotional reactions: from one perspective, life seems meaningful, from another perspective, futile. Suppose also that life can’t be both meaningful and meaningless at once. The two impressions, then, are in conflict, and which should win?
The argument relies on something like the following principle: if something looks different from two perspectives, the more encompassing, or fuller, perspective is the one that should be taken more seriously. In this case, the ‘grand cosmic’ perspective would appear to be more encompassing, to take more into account.
I think this principle has a certain plausibility. For instance, if a given action seems very intelligent when you focus on how much money it would make you, but then seems very stupid when you think about the money, the time, the risk, and the effort involved, then surely you should pay more attention to the latter impression. Preferring partial perspectives to broader perspectives seems to be the essence of irrationality.
The principle just appealed to is quite plausible, but here’s another principle: when we’re ill-equipped to understand some object, process, or subject-matter, we often don’t recognise the significance that it does have. Obviously this is sometimes a simple matter of lacking background knowledge, or having sense-organs that simply can’t pick out important details. But I think it can involve more subtle things.
For instance, imagine a mathematician trying to explain to a non-mathematician what makes a certain proof ‘beautiful’. Or imagine trying to explain to a psychopath why it matters that their business plan will hurt tiny rabbits. Or consider a set of numbers coming out a stock exchange, which to one person looks simply like a set of numbers, and to another looks like a picture of the whole world’s events of the last day. In each case, simply presenting the uncomprehending party with all the facts might not make a difference: what they lack is ‘understanding’, a certain way of grasping those facts and integrating them so as to make what they are observing meaningful.
A more general example is the difficulty that humans have with big numbers. 5? They can handle 5. They can maybe even handle a hundred. But above a thousand or so, they stop thinking ‘this particular number’ and start thinking ‘a really big number’. Hence it’s very easy to confuse them by throwing in big numbers, saying them as though they were breath-takingly important, and not providing the right sorts of comparisons to make them meaningful.
Generalising from these cases, we can say that the ‘meaning’ in something requires a certain amount of cognitive work to make it manifest. And cognitive work requires cognitive resources, which in the human case are finite.
Appealing to this principle, we might say that while ‘life as a whole’ is deeply meaningful, but we can’t really grasp how or why because our minds are built for dealing with much smaller things, or much more familiar things. To appreciate this meaningfulness would require not just our mind, considering the infinity of existence, but an infinite mind, considering the infinity of existence. And we have no idea what that viewpoint would be like.
That is, we might say that although the perspective from which life seems futile is more ultimate than the perspective from which life appears meaningful, it’s ultimate in a skewed way – it concerns itself with ultimate things, but lacks the cognitive equipment to deal with them properly – and this distorts it and makes it less reliable.
This wouldn’t in itself be an argument for life being meaningful; it would just be a debunking of an argument for life being meaningless. Perhaps, given this, the reasonable inference is that if life seems meaningful ‘at our level’, then it probably is meaningful, deep down. But maybe that inference is itself unreasonable. Quite possibly, the whole question is ill-framed or otherwise unanswerable. But then again maybe it’s not: without a rigorous analysis of what the terms used mean (in particular, what does ‘meaningful’ mean?) we won’t be able to decide whether it’s even a real question.