So what is The Meaning Of Life? Some events in it seem meaningful; but looking at your life as a whole, you realize they don’t add up, and it’s meaningless. And if it’s meaningless as a whole, how meaningful can the parts be, really?
So says lite nihilism. It opposes eternalist systems, which often tell you your overall purpose:
Question #1: What is the chief end of man?
Answer: Man’s chief end is to glorify God, and to enjoy him forever.1
With loss of faith in eternalism comes disbelief in any ultimate cosmic source of meaning. Nevertheless, if you are only a lite nihilist, you recognize that buying dental floss is meaningful (barely). Is that all there is to it? A few decades of chores, jobs, vaguely unsatisfying relationships, and then you die?
Shouldn’t there be some actual point to having a life? Some “chief end,” a higher meaning, a significant mission, something to hope for and strive toward? Mundane meanings might exist, but they are plainly inadequate. Trying to make a meaningful life out of that stuff is materialism. “He who dies with the most dental floss wins”? Everyone knows that doesn’t work.
Why can’t life have a richly meaningful story arc? Lots of ups and downs, and a happy ending not guaranteed of course, let’s be realistic, but still?
A common intuition is that everyone’s life must have the same meaning. It used to be glorifying God, for example. But without God, where would a uniform Meaning Of Life come from? Maybe meaning comes from biology? But biology sets how things are, not how they should be; and if people have any life purposes at all, they seem in fact to be quite diverse. Anyway, it doesn’t seem credible that you get a genetically specific life-meaning. If people’s ideas about their life-meanings are different, it’s probably because they are just making them up, and made-up meaning isn’t a thing?
The exact opposite intuition is also common: that a meaningful life must have a unique individual purpose—and if most people’s don’t, that’s because theirs aren’t meaningful after all. Since mundane purposes are shared, unique ones must be “higher” meanings: great acts of altruism, invention, or artistry. This is the stance of mission.
Who is to say what counts as a “higher” meaning, though? How “high” is enough? Existentialism says that you must choose your unique, “authentic” life purpose, as an act of absolute self-authorship using perfectly free will, uninfluenced by society. This is impossible (as we’ll see in the chapter on that). Lite nihilism recognizes (correctly) that arbitrary subjective meaning is no meaning at all, and concludes (mistakenly) that “higher” meanings are delusional.
What would it be like to have a single, overall meaning for your life? If you had a single purpose, would that imply that you tried, as nearly as possible, to do nothing other than that? It is hard to imagine what that would be like, but it sounds unpleasant and probably pathological. Variety and balance of activities seem important—mundane enjoyments among them.
Somewhat saner attitudes might treat the meaning of life as a whole as a project or as a story. Both involve organizing diverse activities to make sense overall.
Rivka Weinberg’s “Ultimate Meaning: We Don’t Have It, We Can’t Get It, and We Should Be Very, Very Sad”2 makes a lite nihilist case against life being meaningful when considered as a whole:
Leading a human life is an effort or enterprise we all engage in, just as we engage in many other projects within our human lives. It can then come as a disappointing surprise to note that, unlike many other of our purposeful enterprises, leading life itself cannot have a point.
Her argument is that the value of a project must be external to the project itself, and also must be somewhere else within your life. But your life as a whole couldn’t have a point, because there is nowhere that is both within and external to your life, for the point to live.3
I like this paper a lot; the writing style is delightful, and it’s as well-reasoned as philosophy gets. However, its implicit theory of projects, activities, and purposes is wrong, and is harmful if it does make you very, very sad. It’s tempting to respond in kind, but committing philosophy is very, very bad, so instead I’ll point out two reasons to reject this view.
First, “a project” is an optional technique for viewing patterns in your activity in order to rationalize it. There is no objective truth about whether or not something “is” a project. Sometimes it’s useful to view some things you are doing as a project, to better organize them; sometimes it’s not. Walking on the beach is better not viewed as a project. Usually you don’t make a project of breakfast, but if you are going to try cooking something new for guests, treating it as a project and planning it out might help.
Is it a good idea to view your entire life as a single overall project? Weinberg says that if you do, it should result in your being very, very sad. I think she’s probably right.
So I recommend that you don’t do that.
She says that everyone does treat their life as an overall project, and seems to think this commonality is obvious and requires no evidence. I think it’s obviously not true. I don’t treat my life as a project. I doubt anyone usually does, unless they’ve had long-term exposure to hazardous levels of toxic rationalism.
Second, “a whole” is also an optional way of viewing the nebulous flux of phenomena. Matter, space, and time are not objectively divided into clearly separate chunks.4 Wholes and parts are not fixed by physical reality, but emerge from the process of locating meanings in our interaction with the world. Cultural concepts play a major role in what we count as a unified thing. We take “a corporation” for granted as a kind of whole, and relate to it as such; people from cultures that don’t have that idea don’t and can’t.
The ancient Greeks came up with the idea that “a life” is a kind of thing, that you have one, and that you should relate to it correctly.5 This was a disastrous mistake that has caused vast unnecessary suffering for thousands of years. Like “colorless green ideas,” “your life as a whole” doesn’t have a meaning because it isn’t a thing.
Stuff happens. You do things. More stuff happens. It goes on like that. Many events you get involved with have nothing to do with your intentions: big stuff like plagues and major government errors, and little stuff like friends unexpectedly showing up for brunch or an outbreak of inscrutable office politics. All those are individually meaningful, but trying to make sense of them as parts of a coherent whole is indeed pointless and doomed to failure.
Another approach is to try to view “your life” as a story: a coherent narrative in which you are the central character. But if that is a story, you are definitely not the author. Much of what happens, you don’t get to choose, and makes no sense in terms of the story arc you are trying to force. As a narrative, it would have to be a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.6 Stories are not good models for life, because their function is entertainment and sometimes ineffable insight, not fidelity to reality.
Both the project view and the story view try to to impose a fixed pattern of meaning on the unpredictability of events. They try to make eternalism true by force, in order to gain impossible degrees of certainty, understanding, and control. This has costs.
One cost is overlooking the meaning of events that don’t fit your concept of the project or story. They don’t count as really meaningful, so you are likely to neglect both risks and serendipitous opportunities.
Another is that you are likely to adopt standard-issue social scripts. Most people don’t find those predictively accurate, nor easy to conform to, nor very satisfying even if you manage to more or less act out your part. They are boring and don’t have anything to do with you personally. They’re mostly meaningless, actually!
Recognizing this, existentialism fantasizes that you can come up with your own unique, original script, which would be much more exciting. But almost certainly you can’t, and even if you do write a better story, you aren’t likely to be able to live it.
Rejecting a fixed overall schema for the meaning of all your activities does not imply passively drifting through events, much less that they are all meaningless. Organizing some activities as projects can increase confidence, analytical insight, and effectiveness. Stories are tools for holistic insight, for recognizing nebulous patterning. Both can be more or less helpful according to circumstances. Choosing when and how to use them is a skill. Do not try to order events into battle, nor allow yourself to get blown about like a leaf in a storm.
The way out of both eternalism and nihilism is to gain skill in more comprehensive and accurate perception of meaning.
Open to nebulous meaningness; notice it, allow it, nurture it, dance with it, ride it.
- 1.This is the opening of the Westminster Shorter Catechism (1647).
- 2.Journal of Controversial Ideas 1:1, 2021.
- 3.What about living altruistically, for the sake of others? What you do for them can’t be the point of your life, she says, because it’s part of their life. And anyway, it just postpones the problem: what’s the point of their life? Living for others just creates an infinite regress.
- 4.See “Boundaries, objects, and connections” in Meaningness and “Objects, objectively” in In the Cells of the Eggplant.
- 5.Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics usually gets the blame for this, but the Greeks said they got philosophy from Egypt, so maybe the catastrophe goes further back. Egyptian beliefs about the judgement of souls upon entering the afterlife do seem to depend on “your life as a whole” being a thing.
- 6.I recommend two papers by Galen Strawson explaining why trying to understand your life as a story is optional and probably a bad idea: “We live beyond any tale that we happen to enact,” Harvard Review of Philosophy 18 pp. 73–90, 2012; and “Against Narrativity,” Ratio (new series) XVII, 2004.