UserpicThe Meaning of Life: Part 1

This semester, for the first time ever, I'm teaching a course on the meaning of life - which I imagine we should easily be able to sort out in the 14 weeks allotted. As  I've never taught this before, this is all thinking out loud for me. Since at least half of the emails I receive every day tend, in one way or another, to be about the meaning of life, I thought it might be fun to share this thinking out loud with the readers of this blog. So, to follow between now and Xmas are a series of 'essays' on the meaning of life, based on readings we are looking at in class. The first reading is Richard Taylor's 'The meaning of life' from his, in my view, groundbreaking (1970) book, Good and Evil.

Sisyphus was condemned by the gods to roll a rock up a hill, for all eternity. When he gets to the top, the rock rolls back down, and Sisyphus has to begin again. Taylor sees in this an example of "repetitious, cyclic activity that never comes to anything." This he takes to be the epitome of meaningless. What makes the gods punishment so nasty is not the pain or difficulty involved, but that his activity is devoid of meaning.
He then goes onto argue that human life is, in important respects, like one of Sisyphus's journeys up the hill. This invites an obvious response. There is a clear difference between our lives and Sisyphus' journeys up the hill: in our lives we can achieve things. This idea is, in effect, the primary target of Taylor's paper. Taylor's argument takes the form of a dilemma:

Our achievements are either pathetic or they are not. If they are pathetic, then cannot give meaning to our lives. If they are not, then we must make sure we never achieve them.

The first horn of the dilemma. Why might our achievements be thought of as pathetic? Taylor's argument seems to be: they are pathetic because (or in the sense that) they don't last very long. No matter how great our achievements seem to us, on a cosmic time scale they are gone in the blink of an eye. The medieval philosophers referred to a certain perspective we can adopt towards ourselves and our achievements: the view sub specie aeternitatis (roughly, under the gaze of eternity). Taylor doesn't need to invoke anything quite so drastic - any sufficiently long term view will do (it doesn't need to be the view from eternity).

So, for example; you are Sophocles, and write a few tragedies that people are still reading a couple of thousand years after you have shuffled off the mortal coil. So what? On a cosmic time scale, a few thousand years is nothing. We could make the same point about the spatial extent of Sophocles' fame: so a few million apes living in an unfashionable part of a backwater galaxy have heard of him. So what?

There is a famous poem by Percy Bysshe Shelley that nicely makes Taylor's point. It's called Ozymandias:

I met a traveller from an antique land
Who said: Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert. Near them on the sand,
Half sunk, a shatter'd visage lies, whose frown
And wrinkled lip and sneer of cold command
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamp'd on these lifeless things,
The hand that mock'd them and the heart that fed.
And on the pedestal these words appear:
"My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:
Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!"
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare,
The lone and level sands stretch far away

If we think too much of our achievements, then we are like Ozymandias. In other words, we are absurd. Ozymandias's absurdity consists in his overinflated sense of his achievements - that is, in the dissonance between his perceived value of his achievements and their actual value (more on absurdity later in the course when we look at Camus and Nagel).

Now, this argument, in turn, invites an obvious response, one with which, if my memory serves me well, Simon Blackburn has made somewhere or other (Please let me know if you know where he said it). Taylor's argument works only if we accept that the view sub specie aeternitatis (or rather the truncated form of this view that Taylor needs to assume) provides a legitimate stance from which to assess our achievements. But why assume this? Can we say anything in favor of Taylor's adoption of this stance?

Maybe we can. First of all, we need to distinguish two different interpretations of the question: ‘Does life have a meaning?' I like to tell my students that if we can answer this question in a satisfactory way, we can finish this course early. Ending the course in the third week of September is, of course, something that appeals to them greatly. And so there is a lot riding on the distinction between these interpretations.

According to the subjective interpretation, this question means: does my life seem meaningful to me? And the answer to this is: Yes, duh! - Unless you're ill, severely depressed, etc it probably does seem meaningful to you: all this means is that what you do, and what happens to you, matters to you. So, if the question, ‘Does life have meaning?' means on this, then the answer is yes, and we can finish the course now.

So, if there is any genuine issue here, there must be a somewhat more robust way of interpreting the question, ‘Does life have meaning?' Roughly: does my life have meaning independently of how I happen to feel about it? And if so, what? This is the objective interpretation of the question of the meaning of life. If there is a genuine problem concerning life's meaning it must be based on the objective interpretation (for there is no problem on the subjective interpretation).

With this distinction in mind, we might respond to Blackburn (on behalf of Taylor) as follows: there is an important connection between the objective value of an achievement and the relative permanence of that achievement. Ozymandias's achievements no doubt seemed important to him. But when looked at from a longer term perspective, they seem to be largely inconsequential. In other words, that an achievement still looks impressive when looked at from a longer term perspective is the hallmark of an achievement that has objective value as opposed to one that merely has subjective value. That is the source of the validity of the long term perspective assumed by Taylor.

The second horn of the dilemma. Most - probably all - of our achievements are inconsequential when viewed from a sufficiently long term perspective. But suppose we could find an achievement - hence a goal - so monumental that even the ravages of time failed to diminish it. Then, Taylor argues, we must make sure we fail to achieve it:

"Let us suppose that, without having any interest in rolling stones ... Sisyphus did nevertheless have a deep interest in raising a temple, on that would be beautiful and lasting. And let us suppose he succeeded in this, that after ages of dreadful toil, all directed at this final result, he did at last complete his temple, such that he could now say his work was done, and he could rest forever and enjoy the result. Now what? What picture presents itself to our minds? It is precisely the picture of infinite boredom."

If there is an interest so monumental that it can, plausibly, be thought as giving our lives meaning, then we must make sure we don't achieve it: as soon as we do, our lives would, in effect, lose their meaning. Some achievements are transient because they are events (someone wins the Superbowl every year). Some are permanent in the sense that they consist of a standing state of affairs rather than an event - the (permanent) elimination of poverty. That's presumably why Taylor employs an example of a permanent one - a temple that will endure for ever. Even the permanent achievements are subject to the second horn of Taylor's dilemma: achieve them, and they can no longer provide your life with meaning.

I'm not as convinced by this as I used to be. And if/when I work out why, I'll let you know. I don't think he needs it - he could rely on the first horn of the dilemma, and supplement this with the impossibility of identifying a purpose so monumental that it could give meaning to your life.

In any event, Taylor thinks he has established that the meaning of life can't be understood in terms of purpose. He then uses this to support his own preferred account of the meaning of life.
More on that to follow ...

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