About Rationally Speaking

Rationally Speaking is a blog maintained by Prof. Massimo Pigliucci, a philosopher at the City University of New York. The blog reflects the Enlightenment figure Marquis de Condorcet's idea of what a public intellectual (yes, we know, that's such a bad word) ought to be: someone who devotes himself to "the tracking down of prejudices in the hiding places where priests, the schools, the government, and all long-established institutions had gathered and protected them." You're welcome. Please notice that the contents of this blog can be reprinted under the standard Creative Commons license.

Friday, March 29, 2013

The meanings of the meaning of life

by Massimo Pigliucci

I just finished reading the excellent collection Philosophy and the Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, edited by Nicholas Joll, a must for anyone who has ever been captivated by Douglas Adams’ comic genius and its scientific and philosophical undertones. Here I am going to briefly comment on a single table that appears in the last essay of the volume, “The funniest of all improbable worlds — Hitchhiker’s as philosophical satire,” by Alexander Pawlak and Joll himself. It’s a table about several potential meanings of the phrase “the meaning of life” and how they are related to each other.

Of course, a major feature of the plot of the Guide is precisely our heroes’ quest for the answer to the ultimate question of life, the universe and everything. The answer turns out to be “42,” at least according to Deep Thought, a supercomputer constructed by an alien race for the sole purpose of answering said question. When the somewhat disappointed builders of Deep Thought asked what sense should they make of such a superficially meaningless and preposterously simple answer, they were told that the real quest had just begun. You see, the big prize is not, as so many had assumed, the answer to the ultimate question of life, the universe, and everything. The real deal is to find out the question that made sense of the answer, 42. But even Deep Thought did not have the computational power to uncover the fundamental question, so a much bigger computer, running for much longer, should be built to accomplish the new task. That computer eventually became known to human beings as “Earth,” and it was destroyed just five minutes before it achieved its objective, for the mundane purpose of building an interstellar bypass to ease local traffic (the plans to do so, and the forms to complain about, had been locked in a basement on Alpha Centauri for 50 years). If you want to know the rest of the story, you better get going reading The Hitchhiker’s Guide, The Restaurant at the End of the Universe, Mostly Harmless, Life, the Universe and Everything, and So Long, and Thanks for All the Fish, which all together comprise the standard Adams canon in this respect.

But back to Pawlak and Joll’s essay in the volume exploring the philosophical underpinnings of the Guide. The authors set out to explore the possible meanings of the above mentioned ultimate question of life, the universe and everything (henceforth, UQLU&E), together with some of the answers that philosophers and scientists have come up with so far.

To begin with, according to Pawlak and Joll, UQLU&E could mean that one is interested in life’s character. This could be that of a comedy, a tragedy, or an unintelligible farce; or it could be about suffering, or struggle; or perhaps the character of life is just whatever you make of it. Needless to say, my strong intuition is that the character of existence is whatever we make of it, because there is no independent intelligent agency that might have set things in motion for any particular reason (I do occasionally entertain the so-called simulation hypothesis, which would entail a different answer, but I guess I don’t take such an alternative seriously enough for sustained consideration — at least not without a couple of martinis).

Naturally, if one is a religious believer of some sort one also thinks that the character of life is likely to be one of the others mentioned by Pawlak and Joll, depending on your taste in matters of gods and the supernatural (if you are Christian, you may go for suffering; if a stoic perhaps for struggle; if an Ancient Greek comedian,  for comedy, and if a tragedian, for tragedy). The point is that the sort of answer you pick for the character of existence, following Pawlak and Joll’s reasoning, is entailed by a particular choice for the second meaning of the question: life’s cause.

Choices on offer here include god(s), some combination of scientific explanation (Big Bang followed by Darwinian evolution — Pawlak and Joll here seem for some reason to think that these two are independent alternatives, but they are clearly not), or “something else.” It is hard to imagine what a third alternative might look like (again, except for the Tron-like scenario offered up by the simulation hypothesis!), so we really have just two competitors — though they do come in a number of possible flavors: supernaturalistic or scientific explanation. Again, it will come as no surprise to readers of this blog that I think this is another slam dunk, in favor of the latter possibility. This is for a number of reasons, but the fundamental ones include: a) a “supernatural explanation” is really an oxymoron, as invoking supernatural forces explains precisely nothing; b) there is no evidential or conceptual reason on earth why anyone should take the existence of gods seriously; and c) we do have a number of very good, if always incomplete and revisable, scientific accounts of the causes of the universe.

Which brings us to Pawlak and Joll’s third meaning of the UQLU&E: the purpose of life. The link the authors suggest is that the cause (second meaning) is explained by the purpose, but I actually think they've  gotten things exactly backwards here: once we agree on a most likely cause for life, the universe and everything, then we can reason about the possible options concerning its purpose. These options include some sort of assignment by a higher being, a type of purpose that can be found or discovered by us, or a purpose that can be made up or constructed by us. Notice that these three possibilities really are containers of sorts, each representing a family of possible answers. For instance, even if we agree that the cause of the universe is the creative act of a god, and that that implies a particular purpose for us that was present in the mind of that god when it created the world, it doesn’t follow that the purpose in question is of any particular type. Depending on the (unknown, and likely unknowable) character of said god, our purpose could vary from mere entertainment to the fulfillment of a cosmically narcissistic desire for attention. (Similarly, if the simulation hypothesis is correct, we may turn out to exist for the programmers’ entertainment, or perhaps to satisfy their scientific-philosophical curiosity about what happens in different “possible worlds.”)

My preferred answer here is, not surprisingly, that we make up the purpose of life as we go, and that we have a (not unlimited) number of options. More specifically, I think that a good way to think about the purpose of one’s life is within the virtue ethical framework first established by Aristotle and other Ancient Greek philosophers: that purpose is to live a eudaimonic, i.e., a morally right flourishing existence. Other options provided by other philosophies include, of course, the existentialist idea of living an authentic life, the stoic discovery of the distinction between what one can and cannot do, the Epicurean quest for ataraxia (similar to the Buddhist one for Enlightenment) and so on. The issue of the purpose of existence is an excellent reason to study philosophy, just like the issue of the cause of our existence is a splendid reason to study science.

Finally, Pawlak and Joll bring us to the fourth interpretation of the UQLU&E: what is life’s import, i.e., what should one do with one’s life? They vaguely say that this latter sense of the UQLU&E is related to the other three, because those three have “some relevance” to the fourth one. But I think the relationship is actually more specific than that: the issue of the import of life follows directly from the issue of the meaning of life.

Pawlak and Joll here provide a panoply of choices to their readers. Perhaps the import of life is that we should not bother to do anything (Camus’ famous contention that suicide is the most important question in philosophy comes to mind), or we should just live and let live (not the most awful advice, really), or strive to minimize suffering, or to create beautiful things; or perhaps we should think of life itself as a work of art, to labor on throughout our existence; or maybe we should concentrate on increasing our knowledge, or striving to achieve “oneness” with all things (whatever that means), or finally to “do what thou wilt, and that is the whole of the law.”

Once again, this is the sort of quest for which philosophy will equip you well. Indeed, you may have recognized a number of philosophical precepts in the above list: some sense of becoming one with all things is a major goal of Buddhism and other mystical approaches; to minimize suffering is one of the laudable goals of a number of religious traditions; to treat your life as a work in progress, as well as to use it to increase your knowledge is the eudaimonic ideal mentioned above. The point is that the answer to the question of purpose is a matter of one’s theoretical philosophy, while the issue of the import is best treated as one of practical philosophy, and the two are obviously intimately connected.

The nice table that Pawlak and Joll have put together may also serve to illustrate one of my recurring interests on this blog: the exploration of the nature of the relationship between science and philosophy. I have said above that the cause aspect of the UQLU&E is best dealt with by science, while discussions of both purpose and import are more clearly philosophical in nature. Notice, then, that the availability of a sound scientific account of the causes of the universe does favor certain philosophical approaches to purpose and import and disfavor others. But the scientific answers strongly underdetermine the philosophical options on offer. That is, if we agree that the universe came about because of the Big Bang, and that human life is the result of a process of Darwinian evolution, we can exclude some options under purpose and import, but we are still left with pretty much no guidance on the remaining alternatives. Does the choice of a eudaimonic life follow from the Big Bang? Clearly not. Is a quest to minimize suffering, or to become one with all things logically entailed by Darwinian evolution? Again, not at all. So the scientific answers pertinent to some aspects of the UQLU&E constrain, but by no means pinpoint, the philosophical answers, reflecting what I think is a general picture of the relationship between the two disciplines.

What, then, is the status of the first of Pawlak and Joll’s considered meanings of the question of meaning, the one concerning character? As we have seen, they suggest that life’s character might be explained by the causes of life, and I think they are correct. Since I prefer the scientific causal explanation, I am left with only the option that the character of life is whatever we make of it. But that, in turn, is a philosophically broad container which, again, is underdetermined by the underlying scientific answer, thereby again fitting the general scheme just proposed. As Douglas Adams would say, so long, and thanks for all the fish.


  1. Living in the dark or the light.

    The scientific answer as is all of science is uncertainty which leads to only more questions at best.
    And the religious answer is ye must have faith.
    Faith and uncertainty is a doubtfully Way to live.

    The purpose or meaning of life is just living.


  2. Causal questions to which scientific theories about the origins of the cosmos and evolutionary theory propose answers are, I agree, very important in helping us come to plausible views about the character of the world. But simple observation of the natural world can also tell us a lot about the character of the world (and also about the nature of any hypothetical maker). The basic facts of living things and how they survive (the spider's web and a thousand other familiar but, from a human point of view, nightmarish examples) is very difficult (impossible?) to reconcile with an all-powerful, benevolent creator. Evolutionary theory obviously takes us to a deeper level of understanding of what we pre-theoretically observe.

    It's a mark of the power of religious belief-systems that they have been able to get people to ignore or impose far-fetched interpretations on what is in plain view. Think of those medieval bestiaries, for instance, full of absurd moralized tales of the natural world.

  3. I don't really understand the need most people seem to have to find purpose or meaning in their existence.

    From a non-religious point of view, I don't see why we should suspect there is any purpose at all, or at least any objectively correct answer to the question.

    It seems to me that purpose is only a matter of personal preference. Philosophy and introspection might help you to identify what you specifically want out of life, but they will not provide general answers.

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  5. I think a better framework for understanding "our existential quandary" than that offered by Pawlak and Joll can be derived by taking seriously Camus's (brilliant and profound) question, which for convenience might be stated as "Why live?

    There are really two reasons that Camus' question is philosophically first or most basic: 1) it establishes whether philosophical inquiry is worthwhile; if one has no reason to live, one also has no reason to philosophize; (How could we have a reason to philosophize yet no reason to live?); presumably, philosophy is worthwhile if and only if life is worthwhile; 2) Given that a reason to live is found, the governing value of one's subsequent philosophizing is established.

    Now the question of whether there is a reason to live just is the question of what the meaning of life is. That is, one's answer to the question "Why live?" and one's answer to the question "What is the meaning of life?" are the same. Importantly these questions can be pitched at both the level of humankind and the individual level. When one asks why live or what the meaning life is one could mean this with regard to humanity generally or only with regard to oneself. Note that one who believes that she has no reason to live could hold this either because she believes humans generally have no reason to live or because she believes only she has no reason to live.

    Related questions, such as the purpose of life and the cause of life, are not additional questions but questions within the question of why live or life's meaning; that is, they are questions one encounters in trying to answer the question of what the meaning. In particular, the question of whether life has a meaning may lead one to the question of whether life has a purpose; if life has a purpose that's a possible meaning.

    Now the question of purpose is something that may be considered on three levels: metaphysical purpose, i.e. reality is made with a purpose for humans built in, e.g. glorifying God; naturalistic human purpose, e.g. to carry on the generations; individual purpose, e.g. to create a great work of art.

    These questions lead to the question of "the cause of life," which I think is better stated as that of the nature of reality, or how humans came to be. Is reality such that there is a metaphysical or naturalistic purpose to human life?

    Now the question of whether purpose or cause is seen as prior to the other depends on how one answers the question of cause: if one believes reality was created for a purpose, with a purpose for humans in ming, then purpose precedes cause; that is, the answer to the question of why we are here makes reference to a purpose; if one believes reality was not made with a purpose, then our thinking about purpose will be posterior to our understanding of reality.

    A further point, one that I find very interesting, is that purpose does not entail meaning; that is, one could identify a purpose for life, even a divine one, but not feel it makes life worth living. This means that purpose does not explain what meaning is; purposes may or may not be meaningful. A further angle on this is that purpose may not be necessary to meaning. (Continued below.)

    1. Paul, that's a damn skippy take on Camus. Dang you for beating me to it! I especially agree, it would appear tangentially (at least) contra Massimo, that "purpose" is NOT a *necessary* answer. In fact, I think that, to insist that purpose is, runs close to ... moralizing.

      At the same time, per modern cognitive science and the idea of subselves, I would disagree that one always knows why one is asking particular questions. Even a deep philosophical question may be driving by some semiconscious subself, or at least a "splinter." (I don't want to sound like I'm going down the road of repressed memory, or something.)

      But, back to Camus. What if alienation is that ingrained into modern life, unless one does in actuality what a Thoreau only wrote about?


      And, @Neil, death is not a "state of experience." It is a nonexperience, because there's no I after I'm dead. (And, Camus was not an "existentialist." He was an "absurdist" and regularly made clear he did not consider himself an "existentialist."


      That said, in my opinion, Massimo fails to sufficiently distinguish the monotheistic multi-omni god of Judeo-Islamo-Christian tradition from many other possibilities, not just the ones we know are religiously confessed here on earth, but all the logical possibilities. For example, Mormons believe that god and H. sapiens both continue to evolve. Therefore, a god need not be "omni" but can still, contra Robert Schenck, transcend Arthur C. Clarke's potential "box."

    2. Thanks Gadfly. Love the accolade, "damn skippy." I think that's the way Bing Crosby described doing his duet with Grace Kelly.

      Regarding knowing or not knowing what one is doing in philosophizing, I grant that we might often follow curiosities and fascinations that one's not sure the origin of. What I meant by *not knowing* what one is doing in philosophizing was more doing philosophy without a personal sense of why the issue in question is an issue, i.e. such that the question has no known relation to one's own values. This can happen in academia, at all levels (students, teachers), and perhaps culture generally. People get enmeshed in philosophical issues without asking critically why they care.

      My view is that philosophy is far more value-driven than science. With philosophy, the question of what philosophy should be worried about is itself a philosophical question, and there's latitude for each philosopher to set their own program. For this reason, when philosophy is presented as if it were like a science that had some agenda dictated by some impersonal reality, one can be sure that one is being recruited into some else's answer to the "What should philosophy be doing?" question.

      So, anyway, it's okay if one doesn't know why various specific questions arise for one so long as one has a sense of the general values that govern one's philosophizing.

  6. (Continuation) Anyway, so the basic question is why live?, which just is the question of what the meaning of life is. Purpose is one possible answer but perhaps not a necessary one. Either way one goes, one is led into the question of the nature of reality. In this way, Camus's question opens up to a way of doing philosophy that has integrity; philosophizing is centered on a central value and one always knows why one is asking the questions one is asking.

    On this point, a risk of professionalized philosophy is becoming alienated from the deeper question of why one is doing philosophy; if a person is philosophizing only because it's a job and one has been set a task and one is worried about building up one's 401k then that philosophizing has possibly become unhinged from personal meaning and hence possibly personal and social value. This would raise the question of what values are in fact governing philosophy. A philosopher must know the answer this question, which is why Camus's question is so excellent.

    Disagreeable Me,

    A constant risk in life is becoming alienated from or confused about one's life directing values. Question of meaning, i.e., questions of central value, arise when this happens.


    1. The question, "Why live?", does not seem to have the same existential meaning as "Why not commit suicide?" which I believe is a better rendition of Camus intent in The Myth of Sisyphus. The question, "Why live?" seems meaningless. We are alive and while we are alive our questioning of this state is of no effect whatever; whereas, "Why not commit suicide?" is a question directed towards some future action or inaction.

    2. Neil,

      Interesting. To me the question "Why live?"seems equivalent to the question "Why not commit suicide?" The result of committing suicide is being dead, i.e., not living. Thus the question "Why not commit suicide?" is effectively equivalent to the question "Why not not live?," which by double negation elimination yields, "Why live?" I'm being a bit facetious, but I don't hear the difference you do. Will think about it.

    3. I agree with Neil. I can say that the question 'Why not commit suicice' never crossed my mind. I believe we have a fundamental curiosity to make some sense of the world so that we can navigate it safely making choices of what to avoid and what to approach.

      This curiosity can lead to many questions and in our attempts to resolve those questions we create our own meaning. So I agree with Massimo in that respect. Science can inform the question of why we are curious and I think philosophy can help us decide how to apply our curiosity.

    4. Paul,
      You are correct if one applies binary logic and assumes ‘life’ and ‘death’ as polar opposites. One may however collapse this opposition. ‘Life’ is all we can experience and all of our thinking, including the posing of questions, must arise from this state. ‘Death’ as a realm of experience is completely unknown and unknowable. Any description of the concept of death from an experiential perspective must be speculative and, to my mind, may not be put in opposition to and from the existential realm of ‘life’.

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  8. What is the meaning of life? Charles Sanders Peirce, Jean-Paul Sartre, and Richard Rorty walk into a bar, have some beers, and leave.

  9. Isn't the simulation hypothesis just a special case of the supernatural explanation, i.e. deism for geeks a la Clarke's Third Law and corrolaries ("Any sufficiently advanced intelligence is indistinguishable from a deity")?

  10. This is clearly a difficult issue that needs to be thought about. However no one has time to think about it, so we need some robot-philosophers to spend all their time thinking about it. They can get into debate with the robo-monks in their down-time.
    Oh well, to paraphrase Marcus Aurelius, "Life is terrible, but it isn't serious".

  11. Dear all, and especially Paul M. Paolini

    It might be worth mentioning that *Philosophy and The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy* has a chapter that treats Camus. That chapter is chapter 3. It's called 'Life, the Universe, and Absurdity', and is by Amy Kind.

    As to simulation, one might see the chapter (in the same book) by Barry Dainton.

  12. Scientists are still updating their theories, even with all the modern technology. The message of the Bible has stayed the same for thousands of years. With only the physical realm and chance you have chaos. Many people say they do not have the time to think about the meaning of life, but it is likely in the back of their mind at some point.


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