Academic journal article Cosmos and History: The Journal of Natural and Social Philosophy

A Meaningful Life in a Meaningless Cosmos?: Two Rival Approaches

Academic journal article Cosmos and History: The Journal of Natural and Social Philosophy

A Meaningful Life in a Meaningless Cosmos?: Two Rival Approaches

Article excerpt

Abstract: This paper discusses the ancient problem of meaningful life. Given the amount of evil and absurdity in the world around us, how can human life be experienced as meaningful? Two traditional approaches to this issue are identified and critically discussed: the life of action and the life of contemplation. It is argued that none of these can resolve the problem in a satisfactory manner. Finally, the notion of guilt is briefly taken up as one potential source of meaning (or of the fact that life can genuinely lack meaning and that this lack can be experienced as a loss).

Keywords: Meaning in/of life; Action; Contemplation; Evil; Guilt; Wittgenstein; Nagel



We all seek meaning in our lives. While the meaning of life may be hopeless to find, at least if it denotes an all-encompassing, overarching meaning of one's life as a whole, meaning(s) in life may, we are entitled to hope, be available in careful philosophical reflection and evaluation. (1) The meaning of life might, for instance, be regarded as the function of a design constructed by someone else than us, presumably by an external God who created us and thereby provided our lives with meaning. If so, there is little hope in the search for the meaning of life in the absence of theistic commitments, unless one attaches some kind of a mystical metaphysical significance to the natural order of things as a totality. The meaning (or meanings) in life, by contrast, invokes the committed perspective of an agent always inevitably situated within her/his life; to experience life as meaningful is to perceive certain specific meanings in one's life. Thus, meaning in life is as much constructed as found; it must be literally made through one's living one's unique life. No external Creator or Designer is required for this process of meaning-construction to take place.

My aim in this paper is not to settle the age-old dispute between theism and atheism but to examine a fundamental challenge to the possibility of viewing human life as meaningful (even in the "meaning in life" sense). This challenge, very simply, arises from the amount and intensity of evil and suffering we cannot fail to notice in the world around us--and it is a challenge not only for those who must, sadly, undergo such suffering but for everyone else as well. How could human life in this miserable world be (experienced as) meaningful? More precisely, given the unbelievable sufferings of our fellow human beings, how could our experiences of meaningfulness, or the meanings we claim to construct by living through our lives, be anything but illusory? The cosmos does not seem to care for our aspirations at all; in particular, it could not care less for our search for meaning. Is the concept of meaning even applicable to, say, the life of someone who recognizes that some of her/his fellow humans have gone through Auschwitz? Can the process of constructing meaning in and through life even get started in such a person's life? It is, after all, meaningless suffering that is usually presented as a fundamental challenge for the value of life, and hardly anyone can deny that the world as we know it is full of meaningless suffering. (2) This is one way of saying that the cosmos, as we limited humans experience it, seems to be fundamentally meaningless.

The search for meaning in life, and the attempt to understand and live with (apparently meaningless) evil, is both metaphysical and ethical. As Susan Neiman puts it in her important book on evil in modern philosophy, "[w]e ask about the point of making theoretical sense of the world when we cannot make sense of misery and terror". (3) Do we have to "deny philosophy" if we take evil seriously, admitting that it cannot, and perhaps even should not, be theoretically analyzed? (4) These worries go to the heart of the problem of justifying a theoretical, intellectual, or contemplative attitude to life--an attitude that seems to underlie the very issue of the meaning of/in life. …

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