Life Has No Meaning. So What?
Philosophy is supposed to be able to address broad and important issues such as the meaning of life. Philosopher Rivka Weinberg’s provocatively-titled paper “Ultimate Meaning: We Don’t Have It, We Can’t Get It, and We Should Be Very, Very Sad” is one such attempt. The question is both universal and personal. What is the meaning of life, but in particular what is the meaning of your life? Does your life have meaning? Is it meaningful? Weinberg thinks not, not because she knows you or anything about you but because she thinks nobody’s life has any meaning.
First, let’s be clear that we are not talking about meaning in the sense of the meaning of a word or sentence. If I ask what “perspicuous” means, the answer is “clearly expressed and easily understood.” If I ask what “Schnee ist weiss” means, the answer is “Snow is white.” But if I ask what life means, there is no corresponding answer because life is not a word or sentence. It doesn’t have that sort of meaning. Some have said that the question has no answer because it doesn’t make sense; it’s a kind of category error to attribute meaning to life. But Weinberg says it does make sense; she just doesn’t like the answer.
In her view, meaning is more like purpose. When we ask about the meaning of life, we want to know the purpose or point of living. It’s a way of asking Why in terms of motivation. We often ask someone why they are doing something. Why are you going to the store? To get some eggs. Then we can ask a further Why question. Why do you want to get eggs? Because I’m hungry (and want to alleviate my hunger). Each Why becomes more general. Why do you want to alleviate your hunger? Because hunger is painful and I don’t want to feel pain. In trivial cases the questions can eventually become divorced from everyday reality. Why do you not want to feel pain? Because it hurts. At this point you might feel like you are talking to a toddler.
Other motivational Why questions seem more salient to the human condition. Why are you sending money to Doctors Without Borders? Because I want to help earthquake victims. Why do you want to help earthquake victims? Because I want to alleviate their suffering. Again, each Why becomes more general, but now the answers are not so trivial. Why do you want to alleviate their suffering? What is the point of alleviating suffering? You might answer that you feel compassion for people who are hurting, and compassion is a painful state for you because you feel their pain. You might answer that you want to build your character to become a generous sort of person, because that would be a better way to live than not. You might answer that you want to be recognized as a good person (in which case you need to let others know that you are donating). You might answer that you feel obliged to do God’s will, who orders you to love your neighbor. Whatever the answer, it gets closer to something ultimate, something you might consider the meaning of your life.
Weinberg observes that in both trivial and morally significant cases, the purpose or point of an activity is something you value that is external to the activity itself. A point in this sense is a valued end(1), and “valued ends are external to the projects toward which they are directed.”(2)
What’s valued is not just the activity. Alleviating your hunger is different from going to the store. Alleviating suffering is different from donating money to a worthy cause. Such activities are called “telic,” meaning that they aim at some end or goal, such as getting eggs or alleviating suffering. (The term comes from the Greek telos, which means end result; by extension it means goal or purpose.) The value is found in something external to the activity. Some other activities, such as going for a walk, are called “atelic.” Their aim is the activity itself.(3) But even in those, the value is not the same as the activity. Your goal in going for a walk might be enjoyment or health or companionship (if you walk with somebody else), but it’s not just to go for a walk.
In such activities and many more you find meaning or purpose or value in what you do. Weinberg calls such meaning “meaning in life.”(4) Even meaning in a cosmic sense—your impact on the cosmos, your role in the grand scheme of things, or the purpose assigned to you by God or some such—is part of meaning in life.(5) But she’s concerned with something else, the meaning of life as a whole. The former sort of meaning she calls “Everyday Meaning” and the latter, “Ultimate Meaning.”(6) “Ultimate Meaning refers to the point of leading a life at all. Why bother …?”(7) And she says that there is no reason to do so, no point in it, no ultimate meaning.
The reason is simple. For things that have everyday meaning, meaning in life, the activity and the goal are both in your life. It is you who go to the store to get eggs, and you who eat them. It is you who donate money and you who alleviate suffering. But to ask about ultimate meaning, the meaning of life is to ask about a valued end distinct from your life as a whole, and there isn’t any. “There can be no end external to one’s entire life since one’s life includes all of one’s ends.” Therefore “leading and living one’s life as a whole cannot have a point.”(8)
Think of it this way. In your life you can at least imagine how it would be to achieve your goal—ending world hunger, say—even if you don’t actually succeed. But once your life is over, you won’t be around to see whether your life goal has been achieved. If you imagine it, you are imagining yourself still alive. But you’ll be dead, so there will be no goal for you. (If you believe in life after death, then the idea is the same. You’ll still be alive but in some other, spectral, realm until you finally die or get sublated or whatever. If you believe in reincarnation, then the idea is still the same; you’ll be alive in another body until you get annihilated into nirvana.) So it makes no sense to think that your life as a whole has any purpose, end or goal. It’s pointless.
Life is pointless, not just because you, in your limited viewpoint, can’t find a point, but because metaphysically there isn’t one to be found.
Well, that sounds plausible, if a bit disturbing. Weinberg makes two claims in her paper, (a) that life is pointless and (b) that we should be sad that it is so. I’ll return to the second point shortly, but let’s stay on the first for a moment. There are some ramifications to consider. One is that in her view one’s life is one’s project or enterprise. But maybe it’s not.
She makes the assertion over and over again. “Why bother with the project, effort, or enterprise of life?” she says. “What is the valued end of running a human life?”(9) “We lead one entire life as an effort or enterprise of its own.”(10) “We are all human and we all, to some degree, put effort into running our lives as an effort or project of its own.”(11)
It’s quite a strong claim to assert that we all do that. The obvious objection is that we don’t all do so. Does an impoverished Afghan wife run her life as a project? Does a homeless vagrant on the streets of Sao Paolo do that? How about a demented person locked up in a psychiatric hospital? More likely, they just try to get by. Not all of us have enough sense of agency to even view our lives as our projects, although I think it would be good if we did.(12)
Weinberg recognizes the objection but dismisses it.
We are not merely alive, like a bacterium or even a rat; we lead lives, we run our lives as a sustained effort or enterprise, often attempting to fit its pieces together into a purposeful whole. Not entirely, of course. We may live for the moment sometimes but a life led that way all the time would likely seem fragmentary, incoherent—not only pointless, but centerless, agentless; not a truly human life.(13)
This seems suspiciously like a “No True Scotsman” argument, one that improperly excludes a counterexample.(14) If you don’t run your life as a project or enterprise, you aren’t truly human, she implies. That’s a dangerous way of thinking. Once you exclude some people from being truly human, you may feel justified in treating them badly, even to the point of exterminating them, as Hitler did with Jews. At any rate, if such a person had no sense of a meaning of their life, it would not be because such a meaning is metaphysically impossible. And lacking such a sense, they would have no reason to be sad about it.
A similar consideration is that her account of human agency seems to require that we view our life as a narrative, a story in which we are the protagonist. But some of us don’t think of ourselves that way. She notes “the importance that the narrative trajectory of a human life plays in leading a meaningful life”(15) and cites several thinkers to that effect. But not everyone views their life that way. Galen Strawson says that he and numerous others are “episodic,” lacking in overall narrative. Their lives are a succession of incidents that do not hang together as a whole story.(16) Presumably such people would find no reason to look for the meaning of their life as a whole. I don’t suppose that Weinberg would consider them as lacking true humanity even though she thinks their lives would be fragmentary and incoherent. They are true humans, but they are not bothered by their lack of ultimate meaning.
These considerations throw doubt upon her second assertion, that we should be sad that our lives don’t have any ultimate meaning. Her title asserts that “we should be very, very sad”. But what is the nature of this Should?(17) It’s certainly not a legal requirement. It doesn’t seem like a moral obligation; we are not commanded to be sad. Is it a prudential thing, that we should be sad about this tragic state of affairs because indulging in that emotion will lead us to greater fulfillment or flourishing? No, it’s hard to see how being sad about something you have no control over would fulfill you or bring you happiness.
More likely it’s a form of social convention, almost etiquette. She talks about being fitting and making sense. “It is fitting,” she says, “to be sad to recognize that leading and living a life is pointless.”(18) “It makes sense to be saddened [and] disappointed that there’s no valued end to leading a life at all.”(19) “Discovering that leading life itself … is pointless should make us sad because it is a fitting response to the facts.”(20) It is fitting because all our other projects, the ones within our life, have a point or purpose, but the project of being alive in toto doesn’t. That one is an outlier; so, asserts Weinberg, it is fitting to be sad about it.
None of these reasons make sense to me. Some people might miss having a point or purpose to life and be sad about its absence, but there are other equally good responses.
We’ve seen that those who have no sense of ultimate meaning don’t feel sad about the lack. Are we to say that they should have a sense of ultimate meaning in order not to be a deficient human being? We’ve already dealt with this issue and found that it’s not an appealing way of thinking. In their case, paucity of affect seems quite fitting.
Those whose lives are episodic may recognize that there is no such thing as ultimate meaning for their lives, but don’t consider that state of affairs a defect. Their appropriate response is indifference.
Some people are just innately cheerful about things. They don’t mind missing out on ultimate purpose. That seems an appropriate response to their situation. Don’t worry, be happy.
I think the Stoics have the best response. Epictetus says “There is only one way to happiness and that is to cease worrying about things which are beyond the power of our will.”(21) The idea is to pay attention to what you have some control over and not aggravate yourself about what you don’t. You don’t have any control over whether your life has any ultimate meaning, so don’t be sad about. Instead, be detached.
Weinberg alludes to this approach to life and finds it lacking. “Why be sad about life’s pointlessness? Is that not also pointless? You might think that lamenting life’s pointlessness is futile, and itself pointless, like crying for the moon. If you can’t do anything about it, why bemoan it?” Her response is telling: “Uh, because it’s sad.”(22)
But that’s no response at all! It merely restates the premise that is at issue. Nothing is sad in and of itself. Something is sad only for a person or some people. The Kansas City Chiefs recently beat the Philadelphia Eagles in an American Football match. No doubt fans in Philadelphia were sad, but fans in Kansas City were elated. Which was the appropriate, fitting response? Neither one in abstraction; both in the concrete. We need to look at the context. In the context of Kansas City fans, elation was quite appropriate; in the context of Philadelphia, sadness was. The Kansas City fans perceived the outcome as happy, and the Philadelphia fans perceived it as sad. Both were right from their point of view. Weinberg’s assertion that the pointlessness of life is sad begs the question. It’s sad only if you think it is. But why think it is?
This is where the Stoics have an edge. They advise us to figure out what we have control over and what we don’t, and to have no concern about the latter. Epictetus says
Examine [whatever bothers you] … by this: whether it concerns the things which are in our own control, or those which are not; and, if it concerns anything not in our control, be prepared to say that it is nothing to you.(23)
Stoicism, like most ancient Greek schools of philosophy, took the ultimate goal of life to be eudaimonia, a state of happiness, fulfillment or flourishing. One of the things that interferes with being happy is being emotionally agitated. And one of the primary ways we get emotionally agitated is by reacting to things we have no control over. So if you want to be happier, quit reacting. You do have control over that.
There’s a lot more to Stoicism than this, of course: an account of how the world works and the place of human beings in it; ideas about what is fully in our control (our thoughts, judgments and actions) and what is not (pretty much everything else); a list of virtues and a corresponding list of vices; advice about how to practice being less reactive and more serene; and more. If you want to find out more, an internet search will bring up quite enough to keep you busy.
According to Weinberg, we have no control over the meaning of our life because there is no such thing. Feel free to be sad about it if you like, but know that you’re being sad about the absence of something that can’t possibly exist and hence over which you have absolutely no control. If you persist in that attitude, you are actually being foolish.
That said, most of us do want some sense of purpose. We like feeling a connection with something larger than ourselves and having some purpose or meaning within that context. OK, no problem. There’s no shortage of things within life to dedicate ourselves to: truth, justice, climate resilience, animal welfare, feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, housing the homeless, healing the sick, raising self-reliant kids. I’m sure you can think of more. If we can’t have ultimate meaning, a meaning of our life, we can at least find everyday meaning, meaning in our life. So, the Stoics would say, quit wasting your time with useless sadness and get on with something worthwhile.
(1) Weinberg, “Ultimate Meaning,” p. 2.
(2) Idem, p. 4.
(3) Idem, p. 3.
(4) Idem, p. 7.
(5) Idem, p. 5, footnote 16.
(6) Idem, p. 5.
(8) Idem, p. 1.
(9) Idem, p. 5.
(10) Idem, pp. 7-8.
(11) Idem, p. 8.
(12) See Chapter 20, “The Human Virtue” in my How To Be An Excellent Human.
(13) Weinberg, op. cit., p. 8.
(14) Wikipedia, “No true scotsman.”
(15) Weinberg, op. cit., p. 13.
(16) Strawson, “Against Narrativity.”
(17) See my “Ways to Say ‘Should’,” chapter 22 of How To Be An Excellent Human and at https://www.bmeacham.com/blog/?p=622.
(18) Weinberg, op. cit., p. 1.
(19) Idem, p. 8.
(20) Idem, p. 10.
(21) Weaver, “Stoic Quotes.” Epictetus, Discourses, Book Four, Chapter 4.
(22) Weinberg, op. cit. p. 21.
(23) Epictetus. The Enchiridion, Section 1, paragraph 4.
Epictetus. Discourses. Tr. Elizabeth Carter and Daniel Kolak. Online publication
https://antilogicalism.com/wp-content/uploads/2016/12/epictetus_discourse.pdf as of 13 February 2023.
Epictetus. The Enchiridion. Tr. Elizabeth Carter. Online publication http://classics.mit.edu/Epictetus/epicench.html as of 15 February 2023.
Meacham, Bill. How To Be An Excellent Human: Mysticism, Evolutionary Psychology and the Good Life. Austin, Texas: Earth Harmony, 2013. Available at https://www.bmeacham.com/ExcellentHumanDownload.htm.
Meacham, Bill. “Ways to say ‘Should’.” Online publication https://www.bmeacham.com/blog/?p=622.
Strawson, Galen. “Against Narrativity” in Real Materialism and Other Essays. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 2008. Available on line at http://reading.academia.edu/GalenStrawson/Papers/287273/Against_narrativity_final_2008_version_ as of 3 March 2012.
Weaver, Tobias. “Stoic Quotes: The Best Quotes From The Stoic Philosophers.” Online publication https://www.orionphilosophy.com/stoic-blog/stoic-quotes-the-best-quotes-from-the-stoic-philosophers as of 13 February 2023.
Weinberg, Rivka. “Ultimate Meaning: We Don’t Have It, We Can’t Get It, and We Should Be Very, Very Sad.” Journal of Controversial Ideas. 2021; 1(1):4. Online publication https://journalofcontroversialideas.org/article/1/1/132 as of 6 February, 2023.
Wikipedia. “No true scotsman.” Online publication https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/No_true_Scotsman as of 14 February 2023.