What is The Meaning Of Life? It is to play your role in the The Cosmic Plan.
When you realize there is no Cosmic Plan, it could seem reasonable to conclude that everything is meaningless.
Why did you buy dental floss? So you could clean your teeth. Why clean your teeth? So you don’t get bad breath. Why avoid bad breath? Because you want to be appealing on dates. Why? To get married. Why? To have children. Why? To propagate and ensure the flourishing of humanity. Why? Because that’s The Meaning Of Life As A Whole. Why? Because that’s in the Cosmic Plan.
Maybe buying dental floss was completely pointless, since there’s no Cosmic Plan? Maybe everything is pointless, and there’s no justification for doing anything. That way lies catatonia…
This is a common pattern of nihilist reasoning. Fortunately, it depends on a mistaken understanding of how purposes work.
This is a version of a more general misunderstanding: that something can be meaningful only through depending on something else being meaningful. The second thing supposedly justifies the meaning of the first, which would have to be meaningless without that justification. But what makes the second thing meaningful? Maybe a third thing. But where does this chain of justifications end?1 It would have to be in something ultimately and inherently meaningful. Eternalist systems point to some eternal ordering principle, such as God or Utility, for that; but all such are delusional.
Dimensions of meaning other than purpose follow the same pattern. Ethics, for example. One thing is good because it is justified by another good thing, and that is good because etc., and the last thing is good because the God said so. The practical problem here is not so much that God is fictional; it’s that our limited human reasoning is often incapable of discerning His Will. Likewise, it is rarely feasible to resolve difficult concrete ethical quandaries with arithmetical utility computations.
The motivation for this demand for ultimate justification is the eternalistic desire for certainty. The model is Euclid’s geometry, in which everything could be proven by stepwise deduction, starting from a handful of unquestionably true axioms. If we had an axiomatically meaningful ultimate, a chain of justifications would ensure we were always doing the right thing. Realizing that this is impossible can throw us into nihilism. The complaint “you can’t justify anything as meaningful” is a wistful, covert demand for an apology (or at least an explanation, or at least greater guidance) from God.
Usually “meaning can’t be justified” is a 190-proof argument for the total non-existence of meaning. Like most 190-proof arguments, it’s immediately defeated by the obviousness of mundane meanings. We do have purposes for many things we do (although not “ultimate” purposes), so meaning does exist. As with other 190-proof arguments, what remains is to understand why it seems to make any sense at all. I would postpone analysis until the 190-proof section, except that we will need it in the next page. That is about the lite nihilist complaint that life has no purpose “when considered as a whole.”
These confusions stem from a rationalist misunderstanding: that all activities result from plans that aim to accomplish definite purposes. Let’s steelman this idea first. Saner rationalist theories let go of Cosmic Ultimate Purpose, and admit that there are some intrinsic goals that you just have, with no justification. Maybe you just do want to have children. In order to accomplish that, you plan to get married, which will require going on dates, and with a few more steps of rational deduction you can prove that you need to buy dental floss.2
When feeling nihilistic, you might think “well, why should I have children,” and there’s no answer to that. (Maybe that goal was put in you by evolution, but that’s just its cause, not a justification. There’s no should involved.3) If you’ve been drinking 190-proof nihilism, then you say “so everything is meaningless,” and maybe lapse into a catatonic stupor. When that wears off and you’re only doing the lite stuff, you admit that some things have some sort of inadequate mundane meaning, including maybe even buying floss, but feel very sad that there’s nothing more to life than that.
Fortunately, this theory of purposes and actions, with the implicit assumption that we are all mechanical, rational planners or utility-maximizers, is simplistic, and I think factually wrong. It is not metaphysics, it is an empirical claim, which could be supported or refuted with factual evidence and coherent reasoning. In fact, there is extensive evidence from cognitive science against it, plus in-principle reasons it can’t be true.4
I will sketch aspects of an alternative conception of activity.5 Scientific investigation is in progress but inconclusive, so I will suggest that you attend to your experience, to see whether it seems plausible.
What was your purpose for singing in the shower?6 There isn’t a meaningful answer to this. Singing in the shower is not pointless, but it has no point. It is neither rational nor irrational. “Purpose” is not a relevant consideration.
If someone asked why you were singing in the shower, you would come up with some meaningless generic “justification” like “I enjoy it” or “it’s a habit, I guess” or “for fun.” Or you might be slightly peeved, because it’s a dumb question that the asker should know can’t have a meaningful answer.
Nevertheless, it’s a social norm that you are required to come up with a justification for anything you do if asked. This is called “accountability” in ethnomethodology, where it’s taken as the fundamental mechanism of both rationality and morality. Because of this requirement, we all become highly skillful at coming up with “purposes.” Generally, though, these are after-the-fact rationalizations for the social acceptability of what we’ve done, not accurate reports of why we did it.
When you were looking around the kitchen for a snack, why the handful of cherry tomatoes rather than a chunk of cheddar? You could come up with a meaningless generic reason, like “I felt like it.” Maybe you did have a real one (you remembered you are on a diet), but more likely it’s just what you did. “I determined that it was the action that would result in greatest long-term utility” is absurd; no one grabs snacks on any such basis.
It seems that lots of things you just do. But this isn’t quite right: you were looking around the kitchen. Mostly, the situations we find ourselves in show us what to do. The tomatoes made you do it.7
Why did you buy floss? The chain of justifications at the beginning of this page was ridiculous; no one thinks like that. You bought floss because it was on your shopping list, that’s all. (Your list told you to do it!)
But why floss your teeth at all? An honest, thoughtful answer might be “many reasons, and none in particular.” It’s true you want to avoid bad breath, but that danger seems fairly theoretical, and not a main motivation for flossing. Your dental hygienist always nags you about it, and for some reason you feel a vague responsibility not to let her down. You also know in theory that failure to floss results in “gum erosion,” which sounds bad, although you’d really rather not know the details, and have been careful not to find out. Your mother taught you to floss when you were a kid, but there’s lots of things she told you to do that you don’t. Really, I mean, flossing is just what one does; everyone knows it’s a good thing to do; do I have to justify it to you?
Rather than “chains of justification,” it would be more accurate to say “webs of activities.” Everything we do fits together with many other things, in a semi-coherent fabric. Sometimes there is a single, well-defined purpose for an action; but even then if you ask why that, usually there are many answers. Purposefulness divaricates and disperses into the spreading web. Further, “each” purpose is itself nebulous; rarely a completely clear, distinct, and specific goal. That means the fabric is not a web after all: it is a continuous, vividly-patterned sheet of mutually-supportive, meaningful activities; a variegated landscape.
The rationalist idea that everything you do has (or should have) a single well-defined purpose, which lies outside the activity itself, alienates you from your own experience. It renders meaningless what you are doing while you are doing it. Your continuous, interlinked flow of activity gets reduced to a sequence of discrete decisions and actions, each of whose meaning is only abstract and theoretical, in pointing to a hypothetical, often distant, future “state of affairs.” This is a recipe for nihilistic depression!
There are times when careful, rational consideration of possibilities and purposes is valuable; particularly when stakes are high, interactions are complex, and it’s not obvious what to do. Learning about game theory, decision theory, and means-ends planning methods may save you from serious mistakes.
Explicit decision-making is not usually warranted in the case of grabbing a snack. On the other hand, reflecting on your Hostess® Twinkies® habit, and resolving to make healthier choices in future, might be sensible.
Stakes are highest in “major life choices,” like whether and when and with whom to have children. These often don’t seem like choices, though. As with choosing a snack, the situation shows you what to do. You don’t need to deliberate; you know. Still, particularly in the case of children (on whom you may impose your bad choice for a lifetime), I wish more people did think carefully. Explicit reflection on purposes and alternatives could prevent much suffering. Too many parents blunder into child-rearing by just going with the flow, and secretly regret it later.
In high-stakes emergencies, there is no time for planning or deciding. You have to rely on the situation to show you what to do. A classic study on “decision-making” interviewed a fireground commander who had been working under severe time pressure while in charge of a crew at a multiple-alarm fire at a four-story apartment building.
We asked him to tell us about some difficult decisions he had made.
“I don’t make decisions,” he announced to his startled listeners. “I don’t remember when I’ve ever made a decision.”
He insisted that fireground commanders never make decisions. We pressed him further. Surely there are decisions during a fire—decisions about whether to call a second alarm, where to send his crews, how to contain the fire.
He agreed that there were options, yet it was usually obvious what to do in any given situation. He insisted that he never compared them. There just was no time. The structure would burn down by the time he finished listing all the options, let alone evaluating them.8
This is highly meaningful activity in a highly meaningful situation. Yet inventing any “justification” would have to wait until the tiresome bureaucratic Incident Report he’d be required to fill out the next morning.
As a practice, I suggest remembering occasionally to observe your own activity, to check whether it results from chains of justifications, or is part of a vividly-patterned landscape.
To avoid nihilism, I suggest refraining from reasoning about justifications except when there is a specific reason it could be helpful in a particular situation. I suggest avoiding excessive planning and obsessive decision-making. I suggest dropping the compulsion to justify your past actions to yourself, or to anyone else, unless required.
Instead, I suggest cooperating with the textures of your situation and activity, and particularly those of the complete stance: wonder, curiosity, humor, play, enjoyment, and creation.
- 1.The standard citation for this problem is Thomas Nagel’s “The Absurd,” The Journal of Philosophy 68:20, pp. 716–727, 1971.
- 2.I took the dental floss example from Rivka Weinberg’s “Ultimate Meaning: We Don’t Have It, We Can’t Get It, and We Should Be Very, Very Sad,” Journal of Controversial Ideas 1:1, 2021. I’ll discuss that paper in “No meaning of life as a whole.”
- 3.Rationalist nihilism frequently confuses causes of action with reasons for action. This is due to the mistaken assumption that you are a causal mechanism programmed to derive all its actions from reasoning about goals and effects. We’ll explode that delusion in “No meaning for automata.”
- 4.Reviewing the science is out of scope for Meaningness. The first part of In the Cells of the Eggplant covers some of it. My PhD work aimed to dispel this misunderstanding within the field of artificial intelligence. For a programmatic early version, see “Abstract Reasoning as Emergent from Concrete Activity” (1986). My 1991 thesis book, Vision, Instruction, and Action, is more detailed but quite technical, and therefore less relevant to Meaningness.
- 5.Part Two of The Eggplant discusses it in greater detail. Some of the research on this is now described as “4E cognitive science,” meaning “embodied, embedded, enacted, or extended.” This work draws together strands from many different fields, but is particularly rooted in phenomenology (particularly Heidegger, Wittgenstein, and Merleau-Ponty), cybernetics, developmental psychology, neurophysiology, and the theory of computation.
- 6.I took this example from Richard Gipps’ excellent blog post “what’s the point?”. His analysis, like mine, is influenced by Heidegger and Wittgenstein, and by the psychology of depression.
- 7.This was the point of Pengi, an artificial intelligence program I wrote with Phil Agre in 1986, whose seemingly purposeful activity came from looking at its situation to see what to do. Philip E. Agre and David Chapman, “Pengi: An Implementation of a Theory of Activity,” AAAI-87 Proceedings, pp. 268–272.
- 8.Gary Klein, Sources of Power: How People Make Decisions, 20th Anniversary Edition, 1998. Extract lightly edited for concision.