Meaning Machines

The question of the meaning of life is an old one. However, it is unclear exactly what the question means. Normally, we have little trouble with meaning. Clouds mean rain. Joe meant to warn me. Sentences, words, signs and signals have conventional meanings. The question of the meaning of life is different. It is not simply the definition of a word that we seek. Philosophers and those drawn to various religions tend to be the ones to ask it, and the question can be taken on three levels. We can ask about the meaning of all life, of human life, and of the individual’s life.

I would argue that the question has little meaning when taken in the first two senses. Life has no meaning in itself, it is simply here in the universe. The same goes for human life considered as the life of a natural species. Species come and go in the geological record, and it is not clear what meaning they can have. However, when it comes to questioning the meaning of an individual’s life, then the question comes alive.

Notoriously, in philosophy, the question of meaning is difficult and complicated. What is the Meaning of Being? What is the Being of Meaning? What is meaning anyway? Does it even make sense to ask about the meaning of life? If we decide that the question makes sense, what sense does it make? Various ideas are at play. Anxiety appears to be the motivation.

Sometimes we are worried that all our efforts will be for nothing if life has no meaning. A meaningless life may appear pointless, ‘superfluous,’ or ‘de trop’. Existentialists and absurdist playwrights hammered away at this theme with great gusto.

The question of the meaning of the lives of humans arises more or less acutely at different historical junctures. At times of great religious devoutness, the question is less pressing. Religion has an easier time than philosophy with the question of meaning. First, in religion, the question clearly has meaning; second, the question has an answer, and that answer is a resounding ‘Yes.’ Gods or spirits render mute the question of the meaning of human life, by folding it within a higher-than-animal purpose. We may be the ones asking the question, but the answer has always been foretold. There is actually no question about the meaning of human life.

Philosophy cannot take this way out. The question is a live one. If there is no ‘foreordained’ meaning to life, then what sort of meaning is there? It is not that we have the option of living in a world totally devoid of meaning; for, if that were possible, the question of meaning would not even come up. I can only worry about the possible meaninglessness of life if I suppose or hope it might have a meaning after all.

David Hamlyn, my old supervisor in graduate school, used to remark that we get our first idea of causality from our own powers to make changes in the world around us. You want to roll a rock. You push on it and it rolls. You learn from experience which rock will roll and which will not, no matter how hard you push it. We think of causality as ‘out there’ but our understanding of the concept begins within us.

Similarly, people look for the meaning of human life, and would be glad to find it ‘out there’, ready made, a transcendent meaning that surpasses mere animal existence. This is to get things backwards. We are the ones who bring meanings into the world, and then, looking around, find them there.

Human beings are little meaning machines who cannot help but create and then leave meanings on everything that pertains to a human world. This morning I am sitting, typing on my laptop, in the courtyard of a hotel in Los Angeles, looking out on a beautiful blue-sky, palm tree morning by the pool. The only reason I am comfortable here and now, is that everything around has a fairly stable meaning. My meaning machine is turned on and working. If I were to come down suddenly with early stage dementia, and lose many of the concepts by which I now understand my being in the world, in Los Angeles, beside a hotel pool, I would be as frightened as a small child abandoned in a strange place. The interesting question is not how human life can have meaning, but how it could ever be a worry that it might have none.

Leave a comment ?


  1. Cool post.

    Suppose that in this context, “meaning” means something like “the cause of the persistence of x that is also an impulse for the persistence of x”. The meaning of all three items — life, human life, and individual life — is “survival”. The difference is that the concept of “survival” means something radically different from one item to the next.

    The meaning of life is entirely coarse-grained: life is its own justification. Life reproduces, or else it perishes. That is the impulse that explains why life carries on; life *just is* the business of carrying on. That’s as stable as it gets.

    It’s hard for me to see how the meaning of human life is much more than life in general. Humans are vessels that contain strands of DNA, which are hoping to produce more strands.

    The meaning of a humane life is far more fine-grained than all that. I think you’re right to suggest that the meaning of a humane life is a life of meaning. And a life of meaning is a life that has been chosen, a life of commitments, relative to the intellectual and motivational powers of the person. It doesn’t matter to humanity what a particular person chooses, it only matters that they be able to exercise and appreciate their own powers of volition.

    The meaning of individual lives is more fine-grained still. People can make a choice in understanding what constitutes them as persons. Many would be willing to say that they will carry on if their works and projects lived on after them, for instance — that they, as persons, survive even after their bodies die. I doubt that any other animal is capable of this conviction; but I also doubt that many people are capable of this, and so it is unfair to say that it is a feature of what is means to be human or humane.

  2. I don’t think our lives have any more meaning than a cat’s or ant’s or snapdragon’s life has one for its possessor. If we go back a half million years, could our ancestors at that time have had a meanings for their lives? It seems to me the question of meaning only comes about with some level of consciousness, or intelligence. Were those relations of ours back then able to formulate such a grandiose idea as life’s meaning? I think it not the case. So, if the human line did acquire a meaning to life, it had to be after logical capabilities kicked in which makes it something imagined or invented in the mind . . . A chimera.
    On the other hand, we all do have a common purpose, in fact all living entities, even viruses do. To create protein.

  3. Meaning is life is existence is context. We exist as animals do; they probably don’t dwell on philosophy or the meaning of meaning. Humans are intelligent and hence probe such questions. At the most basic level, I can picture you sitting in LA in the warmth of southern California (or near so) while I am sitting here in Canada at 32F but somehow understanding you through the meaning machine.

  4. When one doesn’t have meaning a void is created and one has to comprehend what that void means, it means of course nothing. a void is nothing. however one can not comprehend the true meaning of nothing because we can only comprehend something. Our mind can only interpret something as meaning. So then we have to say well what is the absence of meaning and thus attempt to take our own ability to create meaning away in an attempt to understand it. Then its possible our body tells us danger this is death. When you don’t exist your minds ability to create meaning is abolished. How though can we comprehend what is it to not exist, we exist nonstop until death. We know what it is like to see other people not exist, more often then not it is the result of suffering with the aftermath being sorrow. So instead of empathising with our own mortality we would rather cast into that void our own meanings and anxieties, we create stores, which form beliefs, our natural mechanism of avoiding the truth. Avoiding death is why we formed society in the fist place and creating stories is the basis of what we call culture which keeps us occupied until our inevitable demise. Its a catch 22 though. What happens when we believe all meaning is meaningless, in other words nihilism? In this respect we take meaning away bringing us face to face with death once again.

  5. You’re writing philosophy by a pool in Los Angeles. Coooool.

  6. If matter and energy cannot be created or destroyed, only changed, then we discover, not create. If we discover, not create, then we discover meaning, not create it, which suggests that it precedes us and is “out there” for the seeing. Religions get away with the meaning void by promoting an axiomatic cosmology from which meaning is derived. But we ALL have a set of faith axioms in order to even live a coherent human life. So we already act “as if” anyway. I don’t see the dilemma, and think the radical nihilism is an artifact of an academic worldview that must exclude all assumptions in order to defeat bias. While this is important to be academically objective, it is not a workable worldview.

  7. Great post, Jeff, and I like Ralph’s comment a lot. I think in juxtaposing the Jeff’s and Ralph’s comments you get a great picture of the issue.

    On the one hand, when talking about the meaning of life, the essentially existentialist ideas that Jeff alludes to always must come up. It’s the idea of a life as a work of art that requires creativity, that “existence preceeds essence.” I would also add to them the idea of the “inexpressibility” of the meaning of life, the idea that life’s essential meaning cannot be fully conveyed by means of language. This is more of an eastern or Zen concept.

    Ralph has the other view: the view that essence preceeds existence, the more hard wired view of human nature.

    It’s the difference between taking a subjective stance or an objective stance. How can they be reconciled, if at all? In general, I think I lean towards Jeff’s view. How could one be motivated at all if one constantly viewed one’s life in a deterministic way?

  8. Benjamin S Nelson

    You can reconcile them by finding the causes of life (material cause) that are also the purposes of life (final cause, or something roughly like it). In other words, those material processes that are aimed at producing life, in some appropriately watered-down sense of “aimed”. The impulse to survival satisfies both criteria — it is both a material process, and it is aimed towards the creation of life.

    Contrast this answer to others on offer: e.g., the mysterion, the mystical existentialist, or the bloodless evolutionary theorist.

    1. The mysterion says, “there’s an inexpressible quality to life”. With respect, this seems to be neither plausible or helpful — it ignores, trivializes, and impoverishes all explanations instead of augmenting them.

    2. The existentialist says, “We choose it, it’s our creation, life is what you make it”. The only problem is that it ignores everything that’s interesting about the question. We want to know, what’s the meaning of life in the context of the universe? At the very least, you’ll need to give an answer that has some causal force when it comes to all kinds of life. I won’t pretend to preach to cells what the meaning of their lives are, though I think we can come up with one and only one good explanation of how they go about their business.

    3. The bloodless evolutionary theorist says, “Never mind final causes, that’s teleology”; or “the intentional stance isn’t appropriate to describe the behavior of cells”; or “the entire question of life having ‘meaning’ is frought from the start”. And they might be right about these things. But to the extent that there is an answer to the question of “Is there a meaning of life?”, we have to at least pretend that the intentional stance is appropriate. So long as we’re self-aware about it I don’t see the harm.

  9. This is simple – if one wishes to relate life to the possibility of its relation to meaning, then go ahead.

    there is no necessary relation.

    it’s simply not that interesting.

  10. Benjamin,
    “The impulse to survival” you use, I believe, to mean survival of our species. Perhaps that impulse has atrophied with age in me. Is that impulse really strong in you?

  11. No, I do not mean the survival of our species. I mean survival of life, of a humane species, or of the person.

    Sometimes these different senses of survival are in conflict. A martyr can sacrifice his or her survival as a bag of flesh and bones and DNA, and hence as a living organism — yet she might still think that they survive as a person by sharing her legacy (her beliefs, hopes, and so on).

    I don’t want to do any self-analysis here, so I plead the fifth as an answer to your question.

  12. I think the question, “What is the meaning of life?” has a lot of bias and assumptions built in.

    It implies that there is a single meaning to life, that there ought to be one and perhaps even that we should be able to answer it.

    I’m an existentialist about this (according to Benjamin’s description above) and I think the usual phrasing of the question is biased towards a religious answer.

  13. Benjamin,
    You once wrote, in answer to something I questioned, that you were playing the devil’s advocate or something like that. Ever since then I’m suspicious of what you write. For example, how do you get “I do not mean the survival of our species. I mean survival of life, of a humane species, or of the person.” from what it refers, also written by you,
    “You can reconcile them by finding the causes of life (material cause) that are also the purposes of life (final cause, . . .) In other words, those material processes that are aimed at producing life, … The impulse to survival satisfies both criteria — it is both a material process, and it is aimed towards the creation of life.” Slight of hand?

  14. Something like that. The full sentence that you are thinking of was, “In this case, while I’m ultimately playing devil’s advocate, I’m also working with intuitions that I find compelling and plausible, which give life and color to the interlocutor in Julian’s post.” There’s an important difference between trolling for controversy and toughening up somebody else’s strawman. The former is an attempt to get attention to oneself; the latter is an attempt to draw attention to relevant issues that are neglected and trivialized that should not be.

    I’m glad for the skepticism, but can only reasonably hope that it is based on an honest effort to confront what I have said. I have never gotten that sense that you are prepared to make that effort. Perhaps this is because of the episode you mention; perhaps because I am unclear; perhaps for other reasons.

    But I digress. I’ll lay out the case again, hopefully more clearly.

    Here is the way that Jeff set up the issue:
    – The question is, “What is the meaning of life?”
    – It can be answered in three ways: the meaning of my life, the meaning of human life, and the meaning of life in general.

    Here is what I argued:
    1. “Meaning” in this case means something like “the cause of the persistence of x that is also an impulse for the persistence of x”.
    1.1. That is, the “meaning of life” is best answered by finding the material causes of life that are also the purposes (roughly, final causes) of life.

    2. The only candidate that meets the conditions set out in (1) is “survival of x”.
    2.1. Here are the candidates: survivalism, existentialism, mysterianism, and bloodless evolutionism.
    2.1.1. Existentialism fails because it does not (necessarily) ground final causes in material ones.
    2.1.2. Mysterianism fails because it trivializes the question by putting a moratorium on any serious answers.
    2.1.3. Bloodless evolutionary theories are unattractive because they don’t think that final causes have an explanatory role, and hence don’t take the initial question seriously on its own terms.
    2.2. Life generally wants to survive in some sense or other; and that life that does survive, aimed to survive. That’s how survival is a final cause. The kind of life that does not want to survive, dies — and hence cannot be the cause of further life. That’s how survival is a material cause. Hence, satisfies (1.1.)

    3. Survival means something different depending on what constitutes (x). Echoing Jeff, x can mean any one of three things: life in general (3.1.), humanity (3.1.2.; 3.2.), or the individual life of the person (3.3.).
    3.1. Life reproduces, or else it perishes — life is the business of carrying on. Life is both maintained and constituted by the impulse to survive. Hence, satisfies (1.1.)
    3.1.2. (3.1.) is as true for necrotizing fasciitis, the common cold, and panda bears as it is for us. Humanity is just an exotic form of life that carries some loose confederation of genotypic traits. The meaning of humanity is just the survival of these traits. Apart from that, there’s nothing special or interesting about the survival of humanity. We might as well say that human life has no unique meaning, or that it has the same meaning as any other kind of life.
    3.2. The only thing that is distinctive about our species is that sometimes we think highly of ourselves. When we do, we call ourselves “humane” — the autonomous kind of people worth having around. A humane species survives just in case its population is made up of agents that are able to choose and commit to the kinds of lives they live, relative to the their intellectual and motivational powers. Whether a humane species survives or not depends on whether or not we commit to being the kinds of people that are capable of making choices (on a going-forward basis). Since that involves the commitments of an aggregate of persons, it’s a final cause, and since it’s the kind of commitment that has effects, it is a material cause. If we ever got there, it would satisfy (1.1.)
    3.3. Whether a person survives or not depends on how they understand what it means to be a person. In some cases, personal survival might mean carrying on a legacy, for instance, among other things. (See the discussion in In this case, if an intentional self-concept of the person is grounded in a stable materialistic explanation, then it tells us what material conditions are involved in personal survival. And because it’s an intentional self-concept, it involves final causes. Satisfies (1.1.)

    Now, despite my best efforts for the moment, that may very well be as clear as mud to you. I’d be glad to say more, or less, depending on what will get the point across. But the fact that there’s no contradiction between the two statements you cite, along with the fact that I’m carrying on with a line of argument from a thread that is more than a month old, ought to indicate something about whether I am exercising the right to be a contrarian.

  15. Benjamin,
    This is a lot for me to get through in a timely manner, but I will make the effort and hope to be able to make some reply to the non-personal part, though I have to admit I don’t hold high expectations of that happening, since I find your writing hard to follow; I’ve mentioned this more than once to you. I take upon myself a very great part of the responsibility for this. I’d be lying if I said I’m giving you a blank check on this.
    As to your having the sense that I’m not making an honest effort to confronting things you say, perhaps what you’re sensing most is my frustration, but otherwise you’re mostly right. I don’t understand enough of what you say to make any kind of an attempt at confrontation. I have spent by far more time trying to understand your contributions than all others combined. Perhaps I should just avoid the things you submit, but I’m a sucker for a challenge, and I’ve challenged myself to either understand you or understand why I don’t.

  16. Well, I have no trouble in answering whatever questions you may have (if that will help, and if you have an interest). And by the same token, I have no problem showing you the passages that you may have overlooked, as I have done here (and before).

    But if you genuinely do think I am just posturing insincerely, and you think that you have evidence for that, then I would encourage you to ignore me. Empty posturing is just the same as pretentiousness, and pretentiousness doesn’t deserve any oxygen.

  17. Benjamin,
    This dialogue is, after all, too uncomfortable for me. I feel to go on is like the proverbial beating of the dead horse. If no one else has told you you’re difficult to read, then that says more about me than you. I’ll avoid commenting on any of your contributions, which you’ll note is not the same as ignoring you.
    No one said philosophy is easy.

  18. If the consensus of society has any bearing then the meaning of life is to understand all that is possible. The goal it seems is to posses within the boundaries of the universe connections that will give us the facilities to harness all of its powers. The universe is a mechanism of supreme complexity, we don’t know all that it does, we’re most certainly learning how to use it though. Its as though we are craftsman attempting to reverse engineer a machine by building tools, life, vessels that let us experience creation from the inside looking out. Even if we as individuals do not seem to have free will, we in the figurative sense seem to be achieving advanced awareness and capability. It’s possible there are many other uses of the machine, besides life, that we have yet be aware of. The crazy thing is that figuring this whole thing out is whats so exciting about it. Thats what life is really about, just figuring it out.

  19. Thanks again for the comments. If we conflate the material and final causes of life, then survival is the meaning of all life, species life and individual life. However, humans are perhaps the only animals that are not happy with being animals. They want something more, and thus do not find the meaning of life simply in its continued animal survival. Is this curable? Jeff

  20. Anyone who doesn’t want to survive in any way would commit suicide in a ditch. If they were really serious about it, then they’d erase all traces of evidence that they were ever born. I’m going to go out on a limb and say that while death might be inevitable, it is not the meaning of life.

    True, many people define themselves as persons in ways that go beyond their picture of themselves as animals. The person’s self-concept isn’t restricted just to thoughts of the survival of their body or consciousness. Oftentimes, people define themselves in terms of their legacy — their beliefs, plans, ways of thinking, acts, and so on. And to the extent that they do this, they’re telling others about what they think it would mean to survive as persons, even if their body and mind were to die.

    In extreme cases, people will define themselves in ways that are directly in spite of, and contrary to, the survival of their bodies and minds. Extreme altruists can be like this — filled with self-hatred, despising their faults, ashamed of their limitations, their animal nature. I don’t doubt that some people think in this way, but it’s a completely unstable and ineffectual way of looking at things. It would be very surprising to learn the meaning of life from someone who has been driven into the abyss.

  21. “how it could ever be a worry that it might have none.”

    Sometimes we overlook the most obvious answers especially when it comes to the “meaning of life” question.

    I think that is exactly it. How could it [life] ever be a worry that it [life] might have none?

    It suggest (at least in my mind) that it really doesn’t worry about having some meaning or no meaning at all.

    Perhaps, it worries only about it’s ability to make meanings.

    In human life terms, maybe we are more perplexed by the problematic “worry” then we are about the “realness” of “meaning” itself.

    My personal philosophy regarding the meaning of life (because it is usually regarding death) is this; were is it going to go?

    If you believe in gods or gods or spirits and afterlife, you aren’t asking about the meaning of life, you are asking about the meaning of death.

    If you don’t believe in gods etc., you aren’t asking about the meaning of life, you are asking about the meaning of death.

    So, we can look around and observe death and apply meaning and know for certain that nothing just ‘disappears’ but I find it fascinating that we do, mostly, separate ourselves from Nature and that IS the problem with understanding either.

    All anyone wants to know (in my opinion) is whether or not you will retain your memories. So do we?

    If you knew for certain that you would remember and retain your memories, do you think anyone would ask about life or death or about its meaning?

    At any rate, this isn’t a well thought out reply but it was on the top of my head.

  22. Well in that case we’re always asking about the meaning of death. Since you can only either believe in gods or not believe in them, and you’re asking about the meaning of death either way, then you’re always asking about the meaning of death. But that seems like you’ve condemned us to morbidity. (That’s very goth.)

    I’m not sure that memory retention is all that people want to know about to settle all questions about life and death. I’ll use two religious examples, because you mentioned them.

    Some people think they’ll live on in some sense if their projects are satisfied. So the religious might say that “Jesus lives on in our hearts”, evidently because the teachings of That Guy are passed on. It really matters to people on a deep level what they leave behind. Suppose God were to offer you the chance to survive death, but only if you were abruptly killed in a freak accident, and even then you would only reappear as a ghost who is totally incapable of influencing human affairs but has all their memories intact. Would you say yes? I don’t know if I would. That sounds like torture to me.

    Others think they’ll live on if their bodies live on; so supposedly when The Day of Judgment happens, orthodox interpretations of Judeo-Christian doctrine tell us that the bodies of all who have ever lived will be completely reconstituted in perfect form, so that we can all stand trial. Evidently, the molecule-for-molecule reconstruction of our bodies is important to some people, otherwise they’d just tell a different story about us all standing trial as bodiless ghosts.

  23. Hi Benjamin, I will just disagree about ‘condemning us to morbidity’ I don’t see anything morbid about death. It seems as though you have made that assertion on your own and also used a stereotype to help form your thoughts.

    I don’t believe in any of the religious garbage. Asking religiously posed questions only tries to put a “meaning” to things that have none to begin with. So what is the worry? Just the worry about worry.

    I do agree that it does matter to people, the things they leave behind but would you consider that the living are still the ones fixated on “death”?

    Whether or not people will come right out and say it, they really are worried about retaining memories because we are less attached to our bodies then we are our minds/feelings. We are sentient beings.

    If someone can give me a very good argument as to why people are not asking about memory retention with regards to death, then I am all for it.

    Otherwise, (and I mean no offense) what you wrote is just more of the same religious thought because they all tell a different story about us all standing trial as bodiless ghost as well as zombies. lol

  24. Clarity of thinking – this is what one(in particular,a layman)expects from philosophers on such grand issues or for that matter on any question under discussion. But that seems to be nowhere except in a few contributions. Everybody seems to be impatient to put forth everything that comes to one’s mind without seeing what it may mean or doesn’t mean to others. If only the contributors could be more patient and thought for themselves a bit more deeply and expressed themselves in a more coherent manner, the discussion would have perhaps been more fruitful.

  25. Hey Sandra. Well I suspect that “death” means something quite absolute. Your plans fail, your body rots, and your mind is destroyed. That’s true death. People want comfort from that. That’s why I say death-talk is morbid.

    I just used religious examples because you discussed them, but there’s no need to maintain the religious aspect to them. e.g., in the first example replace “God” with “brilliant scientist” and “ghost” with “artificial intelligence”. The point is the same. Under some conditions, while your memories and consciousness might survive, that fact only produces a nightmarish scenario. So memory retention can’t be sufficient.

    It’s not even always necessary, I don’t think. Suppose you suffered a horrible brain injury from a freak car accident. A multibillionaire is at fault, and he feels tremendously guilty. So you have roughly a six hour window of lucidity before going into a permanent coma or death. A brilliant neurosurgeon said to you: “We’re very sorry — to save your life, we have to perform an operation that will produce amnesia.” But then she says, “The wealthy donor has agreed to fulfill all of your current life desires, regardless of whether you choose to undergo the procedure.”

    If you agree to the procedure, you will wake up without any knowledge of who you are. But unbeknownst to you, your desires and plans will be fulfilled: your parents will be living in a mansion, donation to your favorite charities, etc. You won’t remember wanting these things, and you’ll have to relearn to want them (if at all). Or, of course, you can choose death.

    For what it’s worth, I think a great many people would choose to live, with the hope that their current preferences and goals and desires might be rediscovered. Many, for their part, would say that memory retention isn’t all there is to life, and it doesn’t have to be the meaning of life in any strong sense.

  26. Oblivion consciousness oblivion seems to be the lot of each human being, consciousness sandwiched between two eternities of oblivion. The question here seems to require concentration on the consciousness bit. In this phase we become acquainted with a reasonably accurate account of some events occurring in history and also predictions of what seems likely to happen in the future. Out of this it seems that some process is in operation in which we are involved. The process does not appear to depend on the evolution of Humans or any other life form for that matter, these seem merely accidental. We know almost certainly, that the system continued without life, and would continue were all life to be wiped from the face of this planet. In the face of all this humans ask what does it all mean? Is there a meaning what is the purpose of it all. On what grounds do they feel justified in asking such questions?
    I think the answer here is to be found in a consideration of the process of Evolution. I speak of here of survival. Not necessarily survival for all time but survival for as long as possible. For instance a Granite mountain has better survival value than a Limestone mountain. But they probably both will not last for ever. Evolution has equipped humans and other life forms with survival strategies and in the case of animals also the instinct of curiosity, which elicits great survival value.
    The experience of human life from birth to death is one of routines. There seems to be beginnings and ends in all activities from the beginning of a life to its end. Mostly these beginnings and ends have a purpose, which is to ensure survival for as long as possible, in fear of the second stage of oblivion, which faces us. Out of this, replies to questions such as what is the purpose of routines like sleeping, eating, breeding etc are easily answered. As are questions like why do days and nights have beginnings and ends why do earthquakes have beginnings and ends.
    We examine the world by use of the processes of cause and effect; we look at a fragment of the world see that x causes y and use this in our explanations too.
    All of these questions about purpose and meaning can be answered because they are asked against a background of what is familiar to us, our routines and life experiences.
    My argument now is that against this background we assume that questions concerning ultimates like “what is the purpose of life?” can be replied to in a similar way. Applying Human dull routines to explain something which may remain beyond human cognition for ever.
    Returning to causation for instance, this is surely, as are concepts of meaning and purpose, a human construct to come to terms with Nature, and it serves pretty well. However its great defect is that it places an unwarranted break in what is in itself a continuous process. To extrapolate from the particular, no matter how well it seems to work for humans, to the Ultimate is to commit the fallacy of misplaced concreteness, something like the fallacy of composition.
    In our eagerness to apply beginnings and ends and meanings and purposes to everything in existence we have proposed a Big Bang theory, which so well matches our everyday experience It starts swells outwards and then contracts again. Well possibly, but the latest thought is that this is only part of a vaster system.
    What I am proposing here is that concepts like meaning and purpose and causation have no application whatsoever in the overall scheme of things which of course embraces the human race. At best all life is a series of vehicles constructed by electrochemical entities which we call genes out of which more genes are produced and so on. There is no purpose, no meaning, just chemistry that is all.

  27. Don, based on your conclusion, I’d accuse you of being a bloodless evolutionary theorist and of not taking the question seriously on its own terms. However, once I look at your argument as a whole, it seems to me you can’t even arrive at any bloodless conclusions, because your account undermines itself. For if “causation” is just a human construct (in any interesting sense of that concept), then there are no such unique things as chemistry, or life, etc. And if I understand your comment about the fallacy of composition correctly, you’re saying that there’s just the inseparable Parmenidean whole that we call “existence”.

    Assuming I’ve got you right, I’m still willing to give you some credit. The Parmenidean’s holism is at least slightly more respectable than mysticism, since the holist at least purports to say something intelligible. But one major problem is that a metaphysical holist’s answer is a non-answer: it has zero explanatory power, and it forces us to think of all other explanations (that are in terms of discrete cause and effect) as being mere fictions.

  28. Hi Benjamin, I think your argument for the meaning of life not being so much as “memory retention” is a good one. I wouldn’t want to retain memories of my own death. Good point. 🙂

    I don’t really know what the meaning of life is for me or anyone else but I agree, people would probably choose life if given the opportunity.

    Good thing for Living Wills. 😀

  29. I have a hard time wrapping my mind around this, “I accidentally recognized myself.”

  30. We are more concerned with language and minds (what language ought to be for), rather than language and things (what language is about). Examining a phrase in itself does not contain the information of what a speaker means. If this is what makes some answers right and wrong, then finding out the meaning consists in figuring out what the producer had in mind when creating it. Unfortunately, we cannot read minds.

    The above is discouraging enough to terminate any further inquiry, since there is no way to tell what you see written is what a writer means.
    Perhaps there is meaning, but it is not for mortals to know. Only the Gods and Goddesses may know.

  31. Benjamin:-
    I am not sure what “a bloodless evolutionary theorist” is. The term smacks of verbal abuse to me as does the patronising expression “still willing to give you some credit.” In a previous post to me you used an emotive and deriding expression “Well hey now! Take that, “philosophy”! A cheap jibe,which I chose to ignore. A berating school masterly attitude is not applicable here I think, especially when it emanates from someone who is extremely difficult to understand. As has already been mentioned, elsewhere, it takes as much time to plough through your contributions as it does to read all the others, and then one does not really get a clear understanding.
    The fact that I claim Causation is a human construct, that is the way humans understand nature, does not entail that there is out there, nothing going on, therefore there is no chemistry of life. Neither am I suggesting that a Parmenidian ontology exists such that perception of reality of the physical world is mistaken and that there is one being which is an unchanging ungenerated indestructible whole. My claim is simply that for all life, what predominates, is survival of the species. In order that this may be achieved perception in animals is accordingly limited to this end. There is no God’s eye view of nature we have to take it in, so to speak, in instalments We are basically here to survive not to understand the ultimate reasons for existence. This of course omits reference to the instinct of curiosity, which in humans in addition to its value for survival, also is applied to endeavouring to understand what this place in which we find ourselves, is all about. From a human viewpoint we are not doing too badly in that connection, but I am concerned that this human viewpoint is somehow closed in on itself due to our cognitive limitations. What to do about this I do not know, call it a mysterian viewpoint with a touch of Parmenides and Alfred North Whitehead if you like.

  32. A question for Don and Benjamin.

    This is a silly question when you read it but take the question seriously. Use your imagination and answer honestly.

    If, for whatever reason, we found out that the meaning of life was to build a mountain of cheese, would you immediately start churning butter?

    For this question, you cannot say that it is impossible, or the question is moot because it is too stupid. Just pretend that that really is the meaning of life. What would you do and why?

  33. Sandra,
    I know your question was not posted to me, but allow me to interpose an opinion. The building of a mountain of cheese is a task and not a purpose. I do not know what the purpose is to build a mountain of cheese, because I do not know what you had in mind when you composed the question. Would I churn butter with the same monistic feverish that Captain Ahab pursued the Great White Whale? Probably not. However, your question is reasonable. What made the Egyptians build the Great Pyramids?

  34. Sandra:-
    I find this an interesting question. I am not quite sure what you mean by ‘Meaning’, it is so difficult to pin the word down. This has always been a problem in philosophy. As you may have realised I do not consider that life itself, has in the overall scheme of things, a meaning or perhaps as I preferred to say a purpose. No more meaning or purpose than is to be found in a meteorological system with its innumerable comings and goings. However this does not prevent any single person from choosing some career or activity which they say gives a meaning or purpose to their lives. I find life generally overwhelmingly fascinating and read widely in this connection (not especially good as one then can become a Jack of all trades master of none). I endeavour also to keep myself as physically fit as far as my body permits. I suppose therefore one could say all this gives my life a meaning. To a large extent this is I think optional, so I could if I wished turn my attentions exclusively to ballroom dancing if I wished or as you suggest building a mountain of cheese. If however the meaning of life is something deeper than optional choices that is to say it comes with the job of being a human, and that is churning butter, I suppose I would do just that, much in the same way that I have reproduced myself under the pressure of evolutionary forces such that genetic material will survive after my death.

  35. Don,
    I understand that simple occupation and submersion in a task is recognized as sufficient purpose and meaning for many philosophers. This may satisfy a traditional theoretical basis, for example Descartes Cogito. However, I cannot help but wonder if this is too intrinsic (self-centered). Is there a larger extrinsic purpose that we should be considering? The question becomes more acute as the effects of globalization and cyber-world increase.

  36. Sandra, I hate cheese, so long as it isn’t on pizza. But yes, I suppose I would have to, I couldn’t help it.

    Don, I apologize for the snark in the other thread. It was uncalled for. While I am obviously not impressed by the content of your post in that thread, I also should not have been so emotive in my rebuke. It won’t happen again.

    Thanks for clearing up your view. If you’re not a Parmenedian, then it seems that you still inherit the problems of what I called the bloodless theorist. My description of that was: “The bloodless theorist says, “Never mind final causes, that’s teleology”; or “the intentional stance isn’t appropriate to describe the behavior of cells”; or “the entire question of life having ‘meaning’ is frought from the start”.” In other words, the bloodless theorist would reduce everything to causal talk, without any talk about intentions, reasons, or meaning.

    My problem with this way of treating the problem is that I think it fails to take the question seriously on its own terms — it seems like you have to invalidate the question, or turn it into something that it isn’t.

    You’re surely right about our cognitive limitations, and about the lack of a God’s Eye View. But then I doubt the question “What is the meaning of life?” makes much sense from a View from Nowhere. So that might mean that we should abandon the question. But so long as we are still trying to answer the question, however flawed it might be, we have to work with the assumptions that make the question intelligible.

    As an aside, I am always glad to hear advice on how to improve my writing. Blogging philosophy is hard. For one thing, it’s hard to measure what your audience cares about in philosophy — what will seem interesting to me, will seem irrelevant or uninteresting to someone else (and vice-versa). Also, even if I’m trying to be constructively playful in order to get people interested, that might not always get conveyed over a text medium. So we all have to make a tradeoff between overexplaining something uninteresting and simplifying something that’s cool and interesting; and we have to weigh sounding robotic with sounding like an actual human being. If I strike the wrong balance for you, then I apologize for that; you can chalk that up to artlessness on my part.

  37. Actually Denis, no I don’t think you know what I had in mind when I posed the question.

    I purposely asked to refrain from semantics.

    I also said, “for whatever reason”, it turned out that the meaning of life is to build a mountain of cheese.

    Regardless, your response seems to indicate that, even though I told you the meaning of life was to build a mountain of cheese, you decided that it was not the meaning or the purpose because it didn’t fit your description of life’s meaning or purpose which seems to indicate (to me anyways) that you believe the purpose of life is to give it purpose.

    What I mean is, because the meaning of life was to build a mountain of cheese, you assume that there was a purpose to it to begin with.

    Meaning, you may think there is a reward waiting for you if you complete life’s purpose.

    I want to ask the question again.

    If the meaning or purpose of life is to build a mountain of cheese, would you immediately start churning butter?

    Similarly I could ask, if the purpose/meaning of life is to be happy, would you immediately start being happy?

    Similarly I could ask, if the purpose/meaning of life is to survive, would you kill for it?

  38. To Don and Bejamin, you both answered yes, you would build the mountain of cheese, so now I want to ask the follow up question. Why?

  39. Cheese, definitely. In order for cheese to be the meaning of life, there would have to be a sense in which I could not help but be… (working with? indulging? praying to? bathing in?) cheese, at least at some point or other in my life. But the spiritual experience of cheese would have to be as compulsory and value-laden as giving birth, or surviving a plane crash.

    The third question has an easy answer: it depends on what you think survives. If you think survival is just a matter of bodily survival, then I guess life is meaningless, since death is inevitable. But if you think that there are other ways you can survive, then it’s not so clear. For example, a human can choose to be a reckless altruist, but they can still “survive” in various ways. Great thinkers that are martyred in the flesh, like Socrates. But they still survive in a sense, because they manage to spread their ways of thinking and their personal legacy onto others.

    Survival, in other words, is cheap. But it’s a widespread ambition. People pursue survival in all of the different ways that a person can.

    I think the second question is the most interesting, because it seemingly presupposes things that I would not accept. One presupposition seems to be that the meaning of life has to be immediate and unfailing (hence, if happiness is the meaning of life, then we have to achieve happiness immediately). But if that were necessary, then the answer of “survival” would be on the ropes, because clearly it can’t meet that criterion — people commit suicide. But I don’t know why life’s meaning would have to be immediate in that sense, and I’m not sure why we’d have to have absolute power over it.

  40. The above post was in response to Sandra’s 7:58, though I think it also answers 8:06.

    Incidentally, I wrote the above while eating Cheetos.

  41. we don’t survive life – but our works and our progeny do. That’s meaning and it’s what we make of it while we’re alive that matters. The rest – to us is nothingness.

    PS – I am having chicken soup – feeling slightly flu’ish. On reading this I decided to shred some cheddar on top. It’s very nice actually and based on this post: meaningful to me which goes to Sandra’s 7:58 Q2. Thanks – (Wish I had some Cheetos tho’ Darn-it!)

  42. Hi Benjamin, actually I don’t hold life to be only in animal or plant or living form. In fact, life in my sense of the word is consistent with (how to put it?) matter. A rock is life, a sentient being is life, a plant is life, water is life, the Universe is life.

    While trying to narrow down the understanding of “meaning” as it relates to life, you suggest that it does with or without regard, meaning that you view the meaning of life to be something that just does.

    I hold a similar view actually but most will disagree, probably stating that the meaning has to have purpose or the purpose has to give it meaning or that there has to be an answer.

    I personally don’t necessarily hold that view because I think it takes away from other peoples meanings regardless of the most literally answer being “life”. The meaning of life is life. Life means life like no means no.

    So, maybe we could continue the discussion with a well defined definition for what “life” we are talking about.

    Are we talking solely about animal/plant life or something more abstract like the previously mentioned plus rocks and stars and formation, deterioration etc.

    If a child walked up to you and asked, “what does life mean”, one might be compelled to answer ‘living’ but for others who have thought a little more about what life is, the list seems endless.

    So lets narrow down the objectives.

  43. Sandra,
    Someone implied this question once before. Is it possible to give a truthful answer to a fictitious question? In my opinion the answer is yes, one might stumble on a truth. However, there is no deliberate answer I know in advance to be truthful.

    “The purpose of life is to give it purpose.” I never used those exact words, so I would be interested as to how you arrived at that conclusion. You may be assuming what you are trying to prove.

    One of the interesting points of your questions is the implication of immediacy. Are you trying to ask, if one already has purpose, should one act immediately, or with deliberation? I apologize if the question involves semantics, but there does not appear to be any other form of communication.

    Why? Why is a causal question. I do not know what causes things.

    I also invite you to answer your own questions. Perhaps then, we may know what is on your mind. If the meaning or purpose of life is to build a mountain of cheese, would you immediately start churning butter?

  44. PS. I might say that the meaning of life is “moving”.

  45. Hi Denis, you said “I do not know what the purpose is to build a mountain of cheese.”

    This makes me think that you tend to believe that meaning needs a purpose, the purpose of life is to give it purpose.

    You also said, “The building of a mountain of cheese is a task.”

    It would most certainly be a task but what task have you ever undertaken that had absolutely no purpose?

    Yes, of course you can give an truthful answer to a fictitious question. The purpose of my questions isn’t to make a judgment about what you believe but to narrow down what we understand as the “meaning” of the objective meaning of the question.

    Then you answered that you probably would NOT immediately churn butter if you knew the meaning of life was to build a mountain of cheese.

    So, to me, it assumes that you may believe that the purpose of life is to give life purpose.

    In other words, why go and churn butter if you already know the ultimate outcome will be a mountain of cheese.

    Yes, what is the purpose of the mountain of cheese but to be a mountain of cheese? lol It really doesn’t mean much to you without another purpose, right?

    To answer honestly my own question, I would say, I don’t know. I don’t know if I would immediately start churning butter after finding out with all certainty that the purposeful meaning of life is to build a mountain of cheese.

    Why would I? Why wouldn’t I? I say it would depend on how I am feeling that day. lol However, if I coincidentally crapped cheese, I would be doing it regardless.

  46. Per Sandra’s “…after finding out with all certainty that the purposeful meaning of life is to build a mountain of cheese…”

    You might not know whether you’d start churning but if it was “proven adequately” to someone they would, having appropriated that meaning and having become a true believer.

  47. Bahahhaha Dana! Then the discussion would deteriorate into what kind of cheese is the mountain supposed to be.

    Joe crapped Munster and Julie crapped cheddar, which is the right cheese.


  48. Sandra,
    Thank you for answering your own question. I have a much better understanding of what was on your mind when you composed the question.

  49. Sandra, I suppose that you’ve offered an answer I hadn’t thought of. But I’m not really equipped to think about that. If life refers to inanimate non-cellular physical processes, then I don’t know what “life” means.

    Still, I suppose that if “life” could be extended to all that stuff that we ordinarily call inanimate matter, then perhaps “movement” could be considered to be the meaning of “life”. But, as far as I’m approaching the issue, the “meaning of life” means something like “the cause of x that is also a reason/impulse for x”. In that case, then we’d also have to attribute reasons, impulses, and motives to rocks if we wanted to continue to call them “alive”. And I’m not interested in talking about rocks as if they were alive.

    My approach to answering the question is pretty narrow, I think. In line with good bloggy etiquette, my goals are just to talk about the three senses of “life” that Jeff was working with: (cellular) life, the life of the human species, and the life of the person.

  50. Okay Benjamin. Then how could we, if any, apply “moving” to the meaning of life as it concerns physical sentient human life.

    I intentionally chose “moving” instead of movement, moved, movable, etc.

    The meaning of life is moving.

    Let’s think about it. How many ways to you think you can interpret the statement?

  51. so Sandra –

    back to your post before 9:16

    ‘I might say that the meaning of life is “moving”.’


    ‘If a child walked up to you and asked, “what does [a person’s] life mean[?]”

    – you were saying the list is endless. What’s all that? That the list changes through the life course?

  52. Hi Dana, more like life’s courses.

  53. Sandra – what you’re saying, if I parse it correctly: is that the meaning of a person’s life is living it’s life course.

    So – what’s your definition of “living”? Certainly not just the maintenance of a pulse… or is that Item # One of that endless list?

  54. Sandra, it’s a fairly straightforward statement. But it can only function as an answer to the question in the most awkward ways.

    First, because “moving” isn’t a unique feature of life, it is hard to motivate it as an answer to a question like “What is the meaning of life?”. When someone asks that question, they tend to want to know something that is about the distinctiveness of life, and not about the furniture of the universe. So the answer misses the mark, just because it isn’t specific enough.

    (Caveat: I realize that sometimes people ask related questions, like “What’s the point of it all?”, and they might mean to ask something like “What’s the meaning of life?”, as if they were the same question. But if I’m right, then we ought to think they’re separate questions. Also, I would say that questions like “What’s the meaning of the universe?” are self-consciously bad; people don’t really tend to phrase it that way.)

    Second, there isn’t necessarily any purpose to moving. There’s nothing necessarily reason-like or motive-like about moving. But when we ask the question, “What is the meaning of life?”, we’re interested in hearing about motives, reasons, purposes, points. For that reason, a generic answer like “moving” is out of step with what we might think of as a valid answer to the question.

  55. To be clear, by “it’s a fairly straightforward statement”, I mean for the pronoun “it” to refer to the statement “The meaning of life is moving”.

  56. Hi Dana, No, I don’t define ‘living’ as “just the maintenance of a pulse.”

    Living, to me, would be more along the lines of “able to change” “able to move”…things that do not stay the same forever and ever and ever.

    I have yet to hear of one thing that doesn’t change. Can you name one thing that does not change or move or in someway shape or form, alter its’ appearance, structure or meaning?

    I am not sure what you mean by “or is that Item # 1 of the endless list?”

    And, no. I actually don’t know if the meaning of a person’s life is living its’ life course.

    Though I am positive it will. What you make of what happens after the molecular breakdown of life is anyones guess.

    And while not really sold on a static universe, I am also not certain of an ever expanding one either.

  57. Sandra:-
    This blog has suddenly exploded with so many comments it is difficult to know where to begin. Or to whom one should reply. On a lighter note if “movement” is the meaning of life are we to take it that those unfortunates with Locked in Syndrome have no meaning to their life. I would not think this is the case. Those thus afflicted who have made some small recovery seem to indicate that Survival and contact with normality was uppermost in their thoughts. So perhaps what basically gives an individual life meaning is the will to survive. Once you loose the will to survive you give up and most likely die.
    In reply to my previous post to you, you now ask why would I build the mountain of cheese? I think the reply here is that I do not know, any more than I know why there was some constraint on me to reproduce. Agreed we can reply to this in a scientific context but this does not answer the metaphysical question why am I and all that I apparently perceive are here at all. The answer being I suspect, for no reason at all, but honestly I do not know. Were I religious the reply would come trippingly off the tongue I guess.
    Previously I attempted to indicate a difference between meanings of life which we could choose if we thought it would enhance our lives and meanings which might come with the job of being a human such meanings are imposed on us from the outset. These might be reproduction, survival, curiosity, etc. What I was concerned with here is to draw attention to the fact that how nature appears to us is only to be extended in the most cautions way to ontological explanations. Out of this I do not see that meaning has any application in such explanations.
    It has been suggested that I am dodging the issue here, not discussing meaning, in shall I say, its psychological, aspect. This is probably so. If I presumably have the option of whether or not to start churning cheese, and I have definite knowledge that this will be the ultimate activity to bring a rich meaningful life and it is not just silly, then I would start the activity. I will I suppose, always be able to compare my pre cheese life with my ongoing cheese life and revert to the former if I wish. If that option were not available I might decide it is better the devil I know.

  58. Maybe so Benjamin @11:09, I think, however, that the meaning doesn’t necessarily have to have an answer.

    Also, moving is an action in progress, to me, it is its’ purpose. Like every attempt to answer the question in a meaningful way, there is always yet, one more question resulting.

    I am saying that any answer given isn’t usually if at all, acceptable as an answer that has a meaningful purpose for most.

    Also, I believe everything I mentioned is distinctive about life just like people tend to want a distinctive answer to their own meaning of their life.

    Which again, I don’t know. We don’t know those answer for anyone. But besides that I was looking for something more along the lines of and emotional reaction.

    That movies really moving.
    The letter I received from my grandma in Afghanistan was really moving.

    There isn’t necessarily purpose in “moving” you are right but there are chemical reactions that do occur, and those do move, not just in how they change chemically but also in what it causes us to feel.

    Those also cause us to do. Is there any point in doing? Like Dennis (I believe it was) what is the purpose of building a mountain of cheese?

    Maybe we are looking at the wrong question. What is the meaning of meaning?

  59. Hi Don, at some point we were talking about the meaning of life being something that “just does” regardless of how we feel about it.

    You said “Once you loose the will to survive you give up and most likely die.”

    I think my problem with that is that it seems to suggest that a person need the will to live to begin with.

    A new born baby does not have the capacity to decide whether or not it want’s to survive or live, it just does. It is nurtured by it’s mother for a spell and then it is on its’ own.

    Somewhere along the line, it might pick up a sense of willingness to survive in tragic cases but it doesn’t mean that their survival is dependent on what they want for themselves. It most certainly doesn’t mean their life has no meaning either.

    However, their meanings could be altered forever. They used to play soccer but lost their legs. One day they heard a speaker in the same condition talk about how they had moved on from that and grew as a human emotionally as well as picked up new skills they never thought were possible.

    A blind man might develop superhuman hearing and navigate using sound waves.

    The mentality of people to feel like they will just give up if tragedy strikes seems to dominate the fact that, they don’t have a choice in the matter. The person in question doesn’t always maintain control over their bodies or have the mentality to choose. Their will is sometimes left to someone else. Suicide attempts aren’t always successful. And people, at random seems to defy logic when it comes to “what should have happened”. A man could fall out of a plane at 3000 ft. and survive, do you really think it had anything to do with their will to live. I can almost guarantee that they were probably praying the whole way down but once they hit the ground, they didn’t choose whether or not to call for help.

    But since you brought up the cheese again. You said, ” If I presumably have the option of whether or not to start churning cheese, and I have definite knowledge that this will be the ultimate activity to bring a rich meaningful life and it is not just silly, then I would start the activity. I will I suppose, always be able to compare my pre cheese life with my ongoing cheese life and revert to the former if I wish. If that option were not available I might decide it is better the devil I know.”

    The assumption again, is that you believe the meaning would have to have a positive reward. And if you don’t like it, you would want to go back but if you couldn’t, you would definitely want to know?…

  60. Sandra, it’s true that the question doesn’t necessarily have an answer, in the sense that the question has an obvious answer. You can die without ever considering the question or trying to answer it.

    It just so happens that it does have an answer, though.

    True, people want to give their own distinctive answers to the question. But not all distinctive answers are equally valuable — some are delusions. So what separates plausible distinctive answers from implausible ones? I think that any distinctive answers that are at all valid will need to say something realistic about their survival as persons. And to cut to the chase, realistic accounts of a person’s survival must involve the satisfaction of two out of these three conditions: bodily survival, survival of memory/consciousness, and survival of the person’s legacy.

    I think the meaning of meaning, as far as this question goes, is something like: “the cause of x that is also the reason / motive / impulse for x”.

    So that’s why I don’t see how “moving” can be a candidate for the meaning of life. Moving isn’t necessarily an action, because actions are intentional, while moving need not be intentional. And “moving”, in the sense you used it above in the example involving the sentiments, is not much like the sense of moving that I thought we were talking about — trucks going 100km/h, birds flying, people playing tennis, etc.

  61. Sandra: Maybe it is already apparent from what you have subsequently said and if I have not put two and two together I apologise for my lack of comprehension.
    In respect of your original “Cheese Problem” I am wondering if you could state as concisely as possible what answer, if any, you would have given, had it been posed to you, out of the blue so to speak.
    Regarding your reference to the new born baby I would argue in that connection that a baby is not the finished article. we do not come fresh from the womb with all the abilities and cognitive powers of an adult. All that takes many more years to develop.

  62. Could we – perhaps, move off of the “cheese problem” and substitute the words: “a person’s legacy” per Ben’s @ 12:29?

    I’m not anti-cheese but his categorization of meaning as narrative vis-a-vis “realistic accounts of a person’s survival must involve the satisfaction of two out of these three conditions: bodily survival, survival of memory/consciousness, and survival of the person’s legacy” is compelling to me.

    This goes to Don’s contention @ 2:51 that a new-born baby wouldn’t have built that narrative and hence that person’s life, up to that point, would lack a certain amount of meaning.

  63. Ben:-

    Thanks for your reply. I Guess I have my feet in different camps. Yes I am highly attracted on the one foot by what you call bloodless theory whilst the other foot is in the camp which deals with what you have called reasons intentions and meaning. I blame George Berkeley for this as he was in my later childhood, the first philosopher I read, and I loved his portrayal of Idealism. It made me think we have probably got it all wrong, there was so much more going on than what we commonly apprehend in our dismal daily routines.

    My first reaction to this question was somewhat dismissive, in that meaning was no more than a human construct, that is to say something postulated which is not given, to explain the things that are. Whether or not one agrees with this, I think the question demanded a consideration of meaning as an item in the human psyche. Jeff Mason covered this point in his introduction when he said “We can ask about the meaning of all life, of human life, and of the individual’s life.
    I would argue that the question has little meaning when taken in the first two senses. Life has no meaning in itself, it is simply here in the universe. The same goes for human life considered as the life of a natural species. Species come and go in the geological record, and it is not clear what meaning they can have. However, when it comes to questioning the meaning of an individual’s life, then the question comes alive.” It seems my first reaction to the question accordingly started of on the wrong foot.
    As you say blogging Philosophy is quite hard I am never quite satisfied with what I write. It is a bit like sitting an exam, there is a time limit, one would often like to do a bit more research before replying. Some of the problems you mention here I also share. This site so far as I am concerned is very useful as it causes me to revisit certain Philosophical issues, which I would not normally pursue.
    So far as what attitude one should bring to Philosophical discussion I remember as a philosophy undergraduate we were introduced to the Principle of Charity and Humanity. This entailed amongst other things an attempt to suspend our own beliefs, and seek a sympathetic understanding of the new idea or ideas. We assume for the moment the new ideas are true even though our initial reaction is to disagree; we seek to tolerate ambiguity for the larger aim of understanding ideas which might prove useful and helpful. This is best done in a non-abusive and civilised manner. If you contend any thing let your reason guide never the emotions. That way if you win an argument your opponent will not feel belittled, or browbeaten, and if you lose you will do so gracefully. You may agree to differ but remember you are both seeking the same end, that is to understand. It seemed good advice at the time and still does.

  64. Ben 12:29, IDK, I would only disagree because moving is always in action. I think I was telling Dana that I consider life/living to be anything that can change and I asked her to name one thing that does not change.

    In this sense, I do believe I have clearly defined “moving” as it relates to the meaning of life. The meaning of life is moving.

    In this sense, I am suggesting that regardless of the action/reaction has nothing to do with our sentiments but I did want to take the statement further and apply it to something more abstract about the human condition as it relates to our “motives” in which case, I figured it would be understood that motives would be to meaning as actions are to reaction. And of course, in order to survive we have to also change.

    I think it fits your equation very nicely but of course it’s still open to debate because I can be wrong.

    or is it, cause [moving] of x [life] is also the reason/motive/impulse for x[life].

    You bring up survival a lot. I think you are saying that the meaning of life is to survive but that doesn’t satisfy anything knowing that we do die.

    It could be considered if you broadened your definition of life, then yes it would fit, much like moving would fit.

    But to keep it restriction to human life, survival doesn’t fit. I think we already discussed memory retention and you said that it could not be because people wouldn’t want (it could have been someone else who said it, forgive me if I am wrong) retain their memories of their death. At that point, I did have to agree, if trying to avoid such a travesty, it wouldn’t make sense to able to retain the memory because your survival would render it moot.

    I might be misunderstanding you though.

  65. Don, that is exactly what I said. New born babies to not have the will to survive, their survival is nurtured and left in someone else’s control.

    I did answer the question about the cheese though already. 😀

  66. Don, I can see why you might find some things attractive to that view. But I think there’s a bit more to be said on behalf of life in general.

    I think we agree that cells have a purpose, or familiar constellation of purposes — they aim to reproduce. Is that right? If so, then we have to ask, does “reproduction” or “survival” qualify as an answer to the question? I would like to say it does, but you seem to be inclined in another direction. So it might be helpful if you laid out the conditions that would have to be satisfied for something to be the “meaning” of life. That is: just how much sympathy do you have for the role of reasons, meanings, and intentions in answering the question?

    Sandra, that’s not my preferred route, because the meaning of life has to be something that is unique to life, but since moving isn’t unique to life, it can’t be the meaning of life. Still, I suppose we can confine ourselves to those movements that are unique to life, and call it “life-movement”. To my ear, that sounds like an ad-hoc stipulation. But nevermind my doubts — assuming there is a distinctive concept that we can call “life-movement”, then I can think of it as a candidate for the meaning of life.

    So you emphasize that there’s a sense in which life-movement is inevitable to life, and that’s what motivates your account (no pun intended). But then I don’t think that the meaning of life is answered just by any old thing that inevitably applies to all life. Death is inevitable for all life, for example, but it’s surely not the meaning of life.

    Instead, I think the answer has to meet the criterion: is a reason for life that’s also the cause of life. And life-movement isn’t a reason for life, it isn’t an aim — it’s an effect. That’s why I don’t think it qualifies as an answer any more than “death”.

    I mention survival a lot because it’s the answer I think we should favor. There are issues, though, about what it means to “survive”, and what we think is surviving. Life survives only through the survival of cells in certain arrangements. However, persons — unlike cells — are able to define for themselves what it means to survive as a person (so long as they are being realistic).

    So that brings us to the question, “What does it mean for a person to survive?”, which we were talking about in the other thread. The answer to that, I think, is: a “person’s survival must involve the satisfaction of two out of these three conditions: bodily survival, survival of memory/consciousness, and survival of the person’s legacy”. In other words, any of the following might be plausible conceptions of personal survival:

    1. Your body, mind, and legacy are all just fine. (This is the sense in which the person I was a year ago has survived in the form of the person I am now.)
    2. Your body lives on, and your legacy lives on, but your memories are extinguished, e.g., through amnesia. (For example, in the identity thread.)
    3. Your body and mind live on, but nobody thinks that you’re the same person you were. (Think of one-hit wonders that are featured on an episode of “E True Hollywood story”.)
    4. Your mind lives on, and your legacy lives on, but not your body. (That’s why people might legitimately say that Socrates survives as a person: for he has left behind a fairly robust legacy that gives us some motivated insight into how his mind worked.)

  67. Don’s point of revisiting old understandings and suspending belief at what we read here on this Blog long enough to allow the formation of a new ways of thinking is a good one – works for me, anyways.

    I think that perhaps “survival” as Ben outlines it is worth exploring as I move forward – not just in this Blog space; but more generally.

    I have a growing sense that a working construct to answering the question is then the “act of becoming meaningful” which goes somewhat towards Sandra’s “moving” if I modify that word to read “movement” or “movement towards becoming meaningful”.

    So to step through it: the meaning of life is the human process of becoming meaningful in and of itself.

    Socrates was meaningful to his wife, sons and family, his friends and his community while he was living and to us now through his legacy. He had the sense of being meaningful enough to himself in the end to give himself up to his fate.

  68. Ben and Sandra:-
    I will try as briefly as possible to explain what seems to me to be the position. Consider the world before life as we know it, evolved. Unless one has some sort of religion which says otherwise, I would hold that meaning as we understand it had absolutely no reference or sense whatsoever here. This situation outside of the human mind still holds, and moreover also embraces life, which is, outside of religious beliefs, accidental.
    That said we now turn to consideration of the human mind. It is not suggested that we are wrong to say as we do in everyday speech that we perceive things like tables and chairs. Nor is it wrong to point out that the more immediate objects of sense perception are such things as colour patches sounds and tastes and that physical objects are constructions from these. We are only mistaken when we fail to notice that objects of both these kinds are abstractions from what is given to us in perception, and hence treat them as its immediate data.
    Similarly we are not wrong, under the pressures of evolution to survive, and use any thing which comes to mind to enhance this. All we ever contemplate are our own mental states which again are the product of innate propensities all geared at rock bottom towards survival together with the above mentioned abstractions as to what might be out there. As rational animals we need somehow to make sense of all this and thus concepts like causation, meaning, purpose. Have been constructed to this end.
    So yes I agree that Meaning is an important part of a person’s life and can be discussed in both psychological and philosophical concepts and also a religious one if it is wished. I am accordingly sympathetic for the role of reasons, meanings, and intentions in answering the question provided it has nothing to do with why we are here, and dwells only what we are going to do whilst we are. (This is developed a little more in my reply to Sandra). Unfortunately we so often expect what goes on in human minds to have some application or purpose in the vastness which encompasses us and thus we ask incorrectly in my opinion, ‘what is the meaning of life why are we here?’ and expect a reply in terms we understand. In this connection I suggest Reality speaks a different language. For me it all comes down to the final question why is there Something rather than Nothing. So far I have not the slightest idea.

    On reflection I cannot agree that Movement is the meaning of life. Our everyday experience of having a meaning to our lives is something personal something which keeps us going through thick and thin and surely this must vary from person to person. If you want something which is common to everybody than all I can suggest is Survival without the will to do that we are done for. Ben has enlarged a bit more on this.
    You stated as follows-
    “In this sense, I do believe I have clearly defined “moving” as it relates to the meaning of life. The meaning of life is moving.”
    I am not trying to be facetious here just brain storming if you like. So may I ask if meaning of life is moving then does the degree of meaning in a life vary directly as the degree of moving. That is the more or less one moves the greater or lesser the meaning of their life? If a person is completely paralysed then moving is impossible what is the situation then?
    Is there more meaning to the life of vigorous athlete than there is to the life of a physically inactive scholar whose life is devoted to reading and understanding

  69. I thought the mountain of cheese was a very good question for philosophy. It was like a Zen koan, except with answers. However, I lost interest when the discussion turned to movements or something. Too bad.

  70. Re: Posted by Don Bird | December 16, 2010, 9:25 am
    “…under the pressures of evolution to survive…”

    We are not under the pressures of evolution to survive. We can survive without evolutionary process. We can destroy without evolutionary process. We may even rationalize to change, alter, or ignore evolutionary process, for rationalization is separate from evolution.

  71. Hi Don, I think we are debating ad nauseaum over semantics.

    You consider survival to fill the bill for the meaning of life, which I do but it cannot be restricted to only human life.

    I used moving, as an actionary word that plays well for consistency because before we became who we are today, the process was already in progress.

    Bot of us are arguing points for survival under different terms. Life will survive after we are gone.

    Our legacies will be left behind as meaningful but those will not forever survive.

    I brought up the point about meaningful being left to others for your survival.

    In one of my beginning post, I suggested that the meaning of life is to give life meaning but that wasn’t a satisfactory answer.

    Now, there are parts of the evolutionary process that I don’t know if you understand. Part of the process is death.

    They are symbiotic, you cannot gain one without losing another.

    Anyways, thank you for breaking down the question “what does it mean for a person to survive?”

    You need to fulfill the bodies survival, the ability to use the brain beyond regulatory bodily functions and a legacy.

    I understand what you are getting at however, the question cannot satisfy the majority of human life, in fact it would only satisfy it for an extremely small number of humans that ever lived.

    -homeless people
    -people without any surviving family
    -mentally deficient people

    cannot leave behind a legacy. All their meaning was placed on the observer.

    Dennis, I am assuming what Don meant by pressure by evolution is that regardless of what you believe, it still happens, it will still ebb and flow, it will still morph by whatever means necessary to ensure that it does survive.

    It will not talk to us and give us ultimatums or even a choice, it will just do as it does.

    Talking about sentience is even more complicated then talking about the meaning of life however, it still fits well under the process of evolution.

    However I thank you for taking the cheese question seriously. I too think it was a good question otherwise this discussion wouldn’t have progressed.

    I read a question once that had a similar impact on me, it was; Would you slap a baby to save a kitten?

    Anyways, if you could see the point in your own observation about the discussion moving from cheese to movements, it might give you a better idea of natural progression through meanings, process, survival, change.

    They all have similar features but sometimes it is really is hard to see the obvious when looking for answers that are not there to be found. 🙂

  72. Sandra,
    This is the point. Natural progression and survival is not necessary. As Don pointed out elsewhere, humanity will probably be responsible for its own extinction.

    Whether you believe in God’s will or natures will, neither seem to apply to the concept of rationalization and ethics. Nothing observable in the universe parallels the cruelty, stupidity, and greed of the human rational species. Except perhaps the phenomena known as the Black Hole: which sucks everything around it, including light, never to be seen again.

    Actually, I have a difficult time goading Don Bird into a debate. We tend to agree more often than disagree. However, on the interpretation of Darwinian evolution and rationalization, we stand apart.

    You indicated that you might not immediately begin to churn butter, but deliberate over some issue. Perhaps you could explain the reasons for deliberation. What would make you doubt your purpose and task to churn butter?

  73. I disagree completely with your first statement so I will just leave it at that. 😀

    Again, like I said talking about sentience is a lot harder then just talking about the meaning of life.

    The issue about churning butter is that if the meaning of life was to build a mountain of cheese, then what would be the point of doing if I would already be doing it regardless of my ability to deliberate.

    I would spend the rest of my life making a cheese mountain only to find out that I built a mountain of cheese.

    Then what happens when you reach the top of cheese mountain? Natural progression is key to everything regardless of you desire to say that it really isn’t.

    It has to progress or it wont be anything at all. It will have no meaning, no means to attribute meaning, no will for meaning, no actions, no reactions, no ability, no movement, no change, no thought, no exploration, no concepts, no rationalizing, to discoveries about how awful the human species can be, or the possibility of extinguishing ourselves because some cannot break from from the selfish desire to MAKE EVERYTHING YOURS.

    You can have your own meaning to life and its’ purpose. You can give someone a meaning, you can end their meanings, alter their meanings, negate their meanings, change their meanings but you cannot stop it.

    The concept of rationalization and ethic and morals are formed through observation and they do change all the time.

    Some people have a very difficult time letting go of the old ways and progressing, and if you want to survive you have to make change.

    It really is the bottom line of rationalization through observation and everything that accounts for human behavior and the desire to apply a “positive” meaning to life in a way that suggest we (our sentient self) will survive and it wont.

    Because it wont, people want to leave behind a legacy that tries to ensure their thoughts survive because we are attached to ourselves and have became accustomed to negating our natural order in the Universe in LIFE’s complex nature which does include everything.

    The human species is not more rational than any other animal. It is instinctive, it does change through the changes with the natural order of life.

    It is an ever moving concept that keeps people looking for answers that always remain out of reach unless you can fulfill that void with something that gives your inner self a satisfactory answer.

    Beyond that, you do not have a say in the meaning of life because you cannot stop it.

    I feel certain you don’t understand what I am talking about and that is fine.

    You want an answer that is suitable to you, then have one but you cannot make it suitable to everyone based on ego.

  74. Now, there is another question that I asked that received no response.

    Name one thing in life that does not change?

  75. The author of this post said this, “The interesting question is not how human life can have meaning, but how it could ever be a worry that it might have none.”

    That is a fantastic thought!

  76. Sandra
    “Now, there is another question that I asked that received no response.
    Name one thing in life that does not change?”

    I racked my brains on this one. Being under the influence of the concept of Heraclitian flux and the process philosophy of A N Whitehead I have so far come up with nothing, save the so called Laws of Nature and mathematical equations. I suspect these you would reject.

  77. Sandra,
    I do enjoy reading you dialogues, and your journey through self-realization.

    Is change inevitable? Yes, I agree. But not everyone else agrees and here is a point of contention. To use your own words, “Some people have a very difficult time letting go of the old ways and progressing, and if you want to survive you have to make change.”

    I missed this code :D. What does it mean?

    “The human species is not more rational than any other animal.” Yes, I agree, or at least I agree that humans have not demonstrated any more rational ability for their ultimate survival. But Don Bird does not agree. Some people feel that rationalization is an evolutionary process that peaks with human construct.

    Allow me to paraphrase your approach to the mountain of cheese: What would be the point of churning butter, if I were already churning butter? Perhaps here I seem to be missing your logic or conclusion.

    Also, have you considered convincing someone else to churn butter, so that your task is fulfilled but your pre cheese life of liberty is still available. What would you say to convince someone else to churn butter? Should you do defer your task to someone else?

  78. Re Dennis Sceviour 16th of December. …under the pressures of evolution to survive…”
    If assuming He/It exists, God suddenly discontinued the process of Evolution How long do you think species would continue to exist. There would be no protection against adverse conditions which could wipe us out. Consider AIDS for instance if that became uncontainable most would die save those few who have natural immunity to the infection; but that’s your lot, the evolutionary process has been turned off, all species are now on their own. Evolution must be an ongoing process if it is to work and life, saving great disasters like total extinctions, to persist.
    Additionally I do not think Rationalisation is separate from evolution it is surely a product thereof. Some are better at it than others and those which are better probably have better survival value in the appropriate circumstances.
    Perhaps “…under the pressures of evolution to survive…” was not a good expression I would be prepared to change this to “as a result of evolution we strive, perhaps without knowing it, to survive”. Nobody feels pressured by evolution we generally just go on and do things as is our evolved nature.
    I write this with a smile on my face as I think you may be trying to goad me into debate again.

  79. Don,
    It is not the worry that God or nature might discontinue the process of Evolution; this is inevitable. Our current calculation is that the universe is going to entropy. So, if we are still here 12 billion years from now, evolution will end.

    The immediate concern is whether science and technology in the out-of-control hands of humanity might discontinue the process of Evolution, tomorrow. All other things being equal, I agree with your observations.

    “I do not think Rationalisation is separate from evolution it is surely a product thereof.” This is a main point of disagreement. However, I will goad you no further, for now.

    The furthest I am prepared to accept your alteration is “as a result of evolution we strive, perhaps without knowing it, to adapt.” This conforms more to Darwin’s observations and theory of Natural Selection. This also might help Sandra’s inquiry into meaning of change and movement.

  80. Hi Dennis, if you really want to take low blows at my intellect because it doesn’t agree with you, go right ahead.

    Other than that you make no sense, you sound like you have no idea what you are talking about which is apparent by your use of entropy and evolution.

    Good luck with that. 🙂

  81. Sandra,
    Sorry. But I think your intellect is fine. I do not know what else to say.

  82. Per Sandra @ 16:3:12 Re:no response to – name one thing that does not change?

    Human Nature and it’s individual uniqueness.


    Per Don’s @ 6:19 Re: strive to survive.

    As I read that I thought about the biological imperative.

  83. Gunterlee Gunter

    well i guess to get back on subject for one person to say they KNOW the meaning of life and or what may or may not happen 12 billion years from now would be foolish except in that one persons perception the meaning of life is and always will be different for everyone and everything the meaning of my life is different from the meaning of yours and neither mine or yours is the same as the meaning of life for the stone sitting in my driveway we all perceive life from a different perspective and thus in my opinion there is no one answer we must all figure it out for ourselves

    i like to believe that the world as a whole will be a much better place when we ALL figure out the answer

  84. Gunterlee:
    I figure out that the meaning of my life is probably much the same as that of the stone sitting in your driveway. I came to that conclusion at a surprisingly early time in my life now I look back. I think I probably enjoy life more than the stone does but that’s about all. We are less than transitory insignificant specks in some vast incomprehensible/uncomprehending system. Such are my thoughts on this Christmas Day.

  85. Gunterlee Gunter

    i like that

    i like it alot except for one thing nothing is insignificant me, you, us, them everything, every thought, every action, every reaction effects and is connected to ALL

  86. Gunterlee:-
    I agree with what you say. On a social level we have to try to get on and make the best of life. We are only here once so let’s try to give our best shot. However, for want of a better description, ‘in the vast scheme of things’ it does not matter one jot; our consciousness on death returns to oblivion and the chemical composition of our bodies to the environment.
    The only real winners are the genes they go gaily on hitching lifts in these temporary bodily vehicles they have constructed for their own purpose, which is to survive.

  87. RE: Don’s life enjoyment @ XMas 07:37 and moving ahead to Don @ 12/27/08:37

    Perhaps the meaning we attach to “our lives” as they are being lived is something to entertain us just long enough to make sure those genes catch their lifts.

  88. Enh… that can’t be a conclusion we’re forced to take.

    It would certainly be right if we were a different sort of species, like dogs or cats or what have you. But we’re not. We’re animals that are capable of higher-order thoughts and decisions. Our abilities let us redefine what it means to be a person, and hence what it means to survive as a person.

    Still, it depends on what you care about, as a person. So if all you care about are your genes, then it follows that everything in between birth and copulation is just a distraction. But this is a merely optional view.

    I think once we acknowledge this point, we’re in a place where we can point out some of the faults in various other spheres of thought. For example, the tension between these two kinds of survival runs up and down throughout the corpus of psychoanalytical thought. Freud used the concept of Thanatos to describe both altruistic meaningful behavior and the desire for death. In an important way, this conflation between the desire for death and the desire for meaning is right, because the pursuit of a meaningful life allows people to find strength in something besides genetic survival. But it’s also wrong in an important way, if you think you can survive without your body — a kind of memetic survival, if you like.

  89. Dana:
    Yes I think that’s probably about it.

    So it turns out you are some sort of speciesist then. Nothing to be ashamed of there, but I think there are one or two cats and dogs who might object if they knew how you felt. How high does thought have to become such that a line can be drawn between lower and higher thought? What is the position with those humans of much reduced mental ability; are they in the same position as cats and dogs when it comes to meaningfulness?
    I envy my cat. She is getting on a bit in years but has never, so far, had a day’s illness. She visibly appears to enjoy every minute of her waking life. Highly sociable with Humans,mischievous and affectionate, she is always ready for a game especially if it is a fighting one. So it seems to me here is a perfect life with meaning to it. Unfortunately she is unable to pass on her genetic assets to offspring. As I said we are, including the cat, only here once, so make the best of it. If you can and without harming others, enjoy it for that is all you are going to get.
    You say our ‘However our abilities redefine us’ I cannot follow what difference this makes to what I am claiming, that in the broad scheme of things, we, the cats, the dogs, the stones, and everything are inconsequential.

  90. On speciesism. I’m not sure anthropocentrism is an accurate description of my view. An anthropocentrist would have to think that humanity is a necessary or sufficient condition for believing in non-bodily survival. I don’t believe in either.

    For one thing, I don’t think humanity is a necessary condition for non-bodily survival. e.g., my remarks would apply just as well to robots or aliens, so long as these robots and aliens attach some importance to their own legacy. By the same token, I’ll be happy to permit my dogs and cats into the fraternity once they’re capable of discovering existentialism.

    Also, humanity can’t be a sufficient condition for non-bodily survival. After all, there are lots of humans that don’t care about their memetic survival very much. To use a concrete example: my uncle has Down’s syndrome, and his sense of meaningful reasoning is not the best. But he’s just as human as anyone.

    To rephrase my earlier remarks more carefully, I would say: *so far as we know now*, humanity is necessary for non-bodily survival. But I think that’s a pretty weak claim, and probably doesn’t deserve to be called speciesist.

    Returning to the main point. The upshot of my view is that, in the broad scheme of things (in the sense that I think you’re using that phrase), the question of “the meaning of life” is meaningless. But humans, unlike other animals, do have a sense of meaning; they make sense of the question well enough; and they even make sense of it so well that they can achieve non-bodily survival (in rare instances). So for that reason, any answer to the question that tries to phrase itself in terms of the broad scheme of things will be inadequate.

  91. Wee spark there – what?

    “genes hitching lifts” is ultimately what life does – to ensure its survival. That human beings are animals there’s no doubt (maybe even animals of somewhat higher order intelligence than most, but perhaps we should ask some dolphins first.) That humans are certainly of higher intelligence than non-animals, absolutely; above that of stones for instance.

    The fact remains that unlike stones we make meaning of and in itself amongst each other. If Don wanted to express the ultimate lack of essential meaning of life to a dog or his cat or a stone he’d wait some time – perhaps for all of eternity, for an answer. The other fact is that the stone for sure wouldn’t care and I doubt the dog or his cat would either.

    Ask a human and you wait a mere matter of days. (I’m using prima facie evidence of the date stamps on the thread here – we probably would have been quicker off the mark had it not been for Christmas.) And we care about the answer but more importantly we feel something bigger than ourselves in the question.

    We do have our humanity and everything that means. That goes beyond projection of our genetic material since there is evidence that someones’ individual sense of our their humanity has resulted in self-sacrifice which ultimately flies in the face of that form of bodily survival.

    It’s also my view is that the practice of being fully human is hard work which goes beyond mere entertainment pending gene propagation. If that was all there was “to it” why not just act as animals: far easier and, I dare say – more entertaining and assured gene propagation to boot. I too, reject that contention.

  92. meanings would no have meaning in life if we lacked the inquisitive nature.Our inquisitive nature would either lead us to an apparent conception of life or an intellectual culdesac.

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