Junior Ganymede
We endeavor to give satisfaction

How Can Anything Be Meaningful?

December 05th, 2014 by G.

How-To-Be-A-Deep-ThinkerWhat are the minimum conditions for meaning? Meaning is one of the basics of life, so it sounds like an obvious question to ask and an easy question to answer. It is both. But it is rarely asked.

Meaning comes when you make a difference. An action is meaningful if it makes a difference. If an action does not and could not change anything, even in myself, it isn’t meaningful. Therefore, meaning and causation are linked. If my choices don’t make any difference to anything, they are not meaningful. Meaning requires morality: good and evil. As a rule of thumb, you could probably say that meaning=cause and effect plus morality. But the cause and effect for meaning isn’t strict, mechanical cause and effect. An action is meaningful if it moves somebody hundreds of years later who then happens to read about it. Likewise, an action doesn’t necessarily have to have the effect we intend to be meaningful, because someone who knows the circumstances and our intentions can still appreciate what we did and the irony or tragedy of the actual outcome. Their appreciation is an effect that makes the act meaningful.

Most of us can readily see how actions are meaningless if they make no difference even in the short term. Imagine a philosophy class where the professor shares a modified version of the trolley problem: suppose you see a trolley barreling along towards a split in the line. You can see further down, past where the split branches in the line come back together, that there is a person tied to the track. You are standing by a switch. If you throw the switch, the trolley will take one branch then merge back in to the central line and kill the tied person. If you don’t throw the switch, the trolley will take another branch then merge back in to the central line and kill the tied person. What do you do? Answer: who cares?

It’s very hard for us to imagine apparently meaningful action that is in reality completely meaningless. Even in the Groundhog Day scenario, Bill Murray is affected by what he does, even if no one else is. Everything we do that has some moral content affects at least ourselves, because actions form character. If I were to ask if Bull Murray’s Groundhog Day sins were meaningful if each new Groundhog Day literally rewound the clock so Murray didn’t remember anything he’d done before, your response would be to fight the hypothetical. Well, you’d say, unconsciously he’d be a darker person, maybe. You’d claim that his character was still being affected, even if he didn’t know it. (Digression: the unconscious and the subconscious seem to have some actual reality, but they are basically religious concepts for secular people. Their function is to “save the appearances.” When childhood abuse doesn’t seem to have affected people in any directly observable way, the unconscious allows us to claim that they are affected, they just don’t know it. Same with wrongdoers who don’t appear to have suffered much guilt. The unconscious allows us to say that they really are hurting themselves, they just don’t know it yet.) We fight hypotheticals where actions have no effect because, in the real world, everything we do affects ourselves and others. The idea of moral action actually being meaningless horrifies us, so we’ll always try to find a way to fight the hypothetical. But that itself is revealing. We have a very strong intuition that moral, meaningful must have some effect.

Now let’s think about death. Abraham Lincoln had a little engine of ambition that never quit (his law partner’s description). We know that Lincoln had a hard time believing in an afterlife. Instead, one of his basic ambitions was to leave a name behind him. He wanted to make a mark on the world that would survive his death. That’s pretty typical. Atheists and non-atheists alike at a funeral will talk about how the loved one lives on in our hearts. In other words, the loved one’s life isn’t meaningless because it continues to have effects. Even when we don’t explicitly validate the meaningfulness of someone’s acts in terms of their effects on other people, we usually do so implicitly. “Well, even if its Hiroshima 1945 and you’re about to die, you still shouldn’t spit at somebody nice just for fun, because not spitting shows you are a good person.” Shows to whom? Implicitly, to the person speaking. (That’s another reason why we fight hypotheticals where moral action appears not to affect anybody. When we imagine the hypothetical, we necessarily are observers to the hypothetical, so we are always subconsciously aware of one group of people who are affected by the hypothetical acts—ourselves.) But even so, its mentally possible to see how over the long run, people’s acts can cease to be meaningful. Hundreds of years ago, many, many, many faceless masses of people lived who no one now remembers, not even vaguely. They do not live on in anyone’s hearts. Any effects their actions may have had have been swamped by time and change. If one more or less of them had never been born, it would make no difference. It is as if they never were. That they once may have existed has become meaningless. And what is meaningless in the end is meaningless all along. The apparent meaningfulness is only apparent. What is true of Groundhog Day is also true of Groundhog Week and Groundhog Month and Groundhog Life. Decisions that converge on nothing mean nothing: the rate of convergence is irrelevant.

But if the soul lives on . . .

The soul living on must be forever, of course. It isn’t the length of our lifespan that makes death a problem. It’s death itself. But if the soul is immortal, either because it continues forever in time, or because it exists in some sort of eternal state, or both, then death doesn’t apply. For our lives to be meaningful now, our existence as souls must be intelligibly connected to our lives now. That means that we must continue to have morality and meaning and be agents and aware to some degree. Even if our values then far transcend our current values, there must be some point of connection to our current ones. I have a pretty strong intuition that we must continue to have some kind of real access to the events of our lives, such that we can continue to be emotionally affected by them—at minimum, this would mean a vivid and lively and accurate memory. However, it is also possible to argue that meaningfulness still happens if our character or our happiness is cumulative, such that every good or nostalgic or wicked act or humorous thing I do has a real effect on my goodness or badness or taste for nostalgia or happiness a thousand or a million years later. Otherwise, if character and joy can’t increase indefinitely, after enough time has passed the things I did many, many, many years ago would become irrelevant and therefore meaningless.

If the soul does not live on, there is still a minimum condition that preserves meaning. There has to be an undying observer who is has an intelligible standard of morality and beauty. If it is different than ours, it must be only because it is much, much more advanced than ours. This observer must be aware of what we do and must be quite intelligent and wise in order to evaluate properly. Human affairs are complex enough that the observer may well need to be omniscient and all-intelligent. But I can’t say for sure, only that at least the observer has to be superscient and super-intelligent. He probably has to have some kind of spiritual, transcendent access to our inner workings, though its possible that only a highly developed sense of empathy combined with super-intelligence would be enough. Finally, the observer must also be able to observe without fundamentally altering what he observes; or else he needs to make his observations at the same time that everything is happening, so that his participation through observation is part of everything in the first place.

Bottom line: my daughter Betsey’s life is meaningful if death is not the end and we’ll know here again. Or if she is gone forever, her life still has meaning if God continues to know her life and love her forever from His throne.

Meaning is one of the basic facts about human life. No one is able to deny it, even those who say they deny it and think they do. Meaning requires either the immortality of the soul or the existence of God, or both.

Comments (5)
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December 05th, 2014 10:42:29

December 5, 2014

“Or if she is gone forever, her life still has meaning if God continues to know her life and love her forever on His throne.”

I have long thought that the existence of an omniscient God is a sufficient condition to establish the immortality of the soul.

But I think there’s much more to it than memory, even if that is sufficient.

December 5, 2014

*I have long thought that the existence of an omniscient God is a sufficient condition to establish the immortality of the soul.*

There is a sense in which you are very right, and that is what I was getting at in this piece.

Bruce Charlton
December 5, 2014

“Meaning requires either the immortality of the soul or the existence of God, or both.”

This used to seem obvious to Men but no longer does, and it requires rediscovery.

For me that rediscovery came from thinking on a little known (but utterly wonderful) story of Tolkien’s (probably intended for inclusion with The Silmarillion but left out of the 1977 volume – perhaps because of its different style) and writing this essay about it:


Of particular relevance was the Elves point of view – as humans who are supposed to be so long lived that Men assume them to be immortal – yet because they are expecting to be annihilated along with the Earth, they become increasingly ‘depressed’ as they get older, and tend to try and cling to life, slow-down time – and in general move reluctantly into the future while looking backward with sorrow.

Men, on the other hand, have hope of eternal life beyond the world – hope but (at that time in ‘history’, before Abraham, before Christ) no knowledge, no revelation except that men’s souls leave the world.

Elves envy men their hope, Men envy elves their ageless ‘immortality’. But the wise of both kinds have hints of something better than either can really imagine.

December 10, 2014

For future reference:

A popular quote in some circles is the one attributed to Socrates, which goes something like “The unexamined life is not worth living.”

Socrates probably did, in fact, say something like this, though of course he said it in Greek and we have it only second-hand through Plato. Still, there is a frightening message there that most of those who repeat the quote with approval have completely missed:

“Examined” in this context means “put on trial.” I think Socrates meant that life in the absence of an Examiner was pointless.

From Vader, here:

To a certain extent we can act as our own examiners, but no man can rightly judge his own case. We are too lenient and too harsh both. One version of the sin of pride is refusing the accept the Examiner’s verdict, even when it is in our favor.

Bartlett's Quotations
March 14, 2016

Mortality – along with the other related problems such as suffering, limited ability, disease, decay – puts an end to all pretensions to have solved Life.

Wilson perceived this to a limited extent, in taking up GB Shaw’s fascination with extended human life (eg 300 years) – but more-of-the-same does not solve anything, really – just puts it off. So long as we know we will die and our perspective acknowledges only this mortal life, then we are stuck.

Mortal life can be understood, and its success evaluated, only in light of a perspective which is outside mortal life, which sees it as a whole, and judges it in terms of what lies outside of mortal life.

-Thus Bruce Charlton

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