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.

Wednesday, June 09, 2010

Dissolving the Ultimate Question

Douglas Adams' Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy (HHG2G) series became deeply embedded in my psyche after a childhood spent reading the books and watching the TV episodes endlessly. And I'm far from alone: quotes from and references to HHG2G are everywhere, not just on the internet and in geek subcultures, but in maintream pop culture as well.
For example, I wonder how many non-HHG2G fans are somewhat  mystified by the fact that they keep seeing the number 42 everywhere they look. Pixar uses it as the name of Buzz Lightyear's space ship, and as the address of the dentist in Finding Nemo ("42 Wallaby Way"). It's Dr. House's favorite number on the TV show "House," it's the title of a Doctor Who episode, and it showed up on Lost as the last of the sequence of "mysterious numbers". And try typing the phrase "answer to life the universe and everything" (no quotation-marks) into Google.
But most of the references to HHG2G are no more than that: references. When "42" or another HHG2G reference is worked into a TV show, it rarely manages to convey why that joke was clever in the first place, and the reference simply serves as a buzzword which allows viewers to enjoy the experience of recognizing what it refers to. I realize this is starting to run the risk of sounding like a lame rant about how the "masses" don't "get" my cherished series the way I do -- so let me hurry up and get to the point, which is that I want to explain why I think the 42 joke is so brilliant and why it made such an impact on my development as a rationalist and critical thinker.
I suspect that the set of Rationally Speaking Readers is highly, if not wholly, contained within the set of People Who Know About HHG2G, but nevertheless, here's an explanation of what's so special about this particular two digit number: In HHG2G, an advanced civilization builds a sophisticated computer called Deep Thought, and asks it to finally solve the ultimate question of "life, the universe, and everything." After seven and a half million years of computation, Deep Thought announces that the answer is... 42.
In response to his audience's consternation, Deep Thought explains that the reason the answer doesn't make any sense is probably because their original question didn't make any sense. When he points this out, they are at a loss:

"But it was the Great Question! The Ultimate Question of Life, the Universe and Everything!" howled Loonquawl.
"Yes," said Deep Thought with the air of one who suffers fools gladly, "but what actually is it?"
A slow stupefied silence crept over the men as they stared at the computer and then at each other.
"Well, you know, it's just Everything ... Everything..." offered Phouchg weakly.
"Exactly!" said Deep Thought. "So once you do know what the question actually is, you'll know what the answer means."

On one level, this is funny simply for its absurdism, for the idea of such a profound question turning out to have such a trivial answer. (Douglas Adams said he picked 42 because he considered it to be the "funniest-sounding" two digit number.) But the joke's cleverness goes deeper than that -- Adams is making a critical point about our attempts to understand the world. I think HHG2G may have been my first exposure to the idea that some questions are unanswerable not because they're so profound that they're beyond our ken, but because they're logically incoherent.
That's a lesson that comes in handy quite frequently, not least of all when you're confronted with this ubiquitous variant on the Ultimate Question: "What is the meaning of life?" This, at least, has the appearance of a proper question, complete with a question-mark at the end, which is more than can be said for Loonquawl and Phouchg's query. But although it's widely viewed as one of the great unsolved mysteries, I think our failure to solve it stems from the same problem Adams cheekily highlighted with his story of Deep Thought: the question makes no sense.
One way in which a question can fail to make sense is if it's committing what programmers call a category error. For example: "What color is geometry?" Geometry is simply not something to which the word color applies, so we can't answer the question. (This, incidentally, tends to be the solution to many a zen koan -- like "What is the sound of one hand clapping?" The act of clapping by definition involves two hands, so the question is unanswerable.)
Likewise, I would argue that life simply isn't something to which the word "meaning" can be applied. The word "meaning" has a few different standard definitions, but one of the most common refers to the information conveyed by a symbol within a system of communication, as in the question "What does this word mean?" So it would be committing a category error to ask, for example, "What is the meaning of water?" since water is not part of any system of communication. And neither is the phenomenon of human life.
Another way a question can fail to make sense is if it relies on premises that are false. For example, the question, "When did you stop beating your wife?" has no answer if you never started beating your wife in the first place. Similarly, another common interpretation of the meaning-of-life question is that it's asking about the "purpose" or "point" of human life. But using the word "purpose" carries the implied premise that some entity created us intentionally to serve some end. Reject that premise, and the question no longer makes sense. (Of course, you could also declare that you're going to pick a purpose for your own life -- like being happy, or alleviating other people's suffering. But the phrase "the purpose of life" generally indicates that the questioner is asking about the purpose of human life in general, not of his own individual life.)
As with many Big Questions, the first tricky part of approaching the question "What is the meaning of life?" is recognizing that it doesn't need to be solved -- it needs to be dissolved. The even trickier part, though, is figuring out why we felt like there was a problem in the first place. That's especially hard for me to answer because it never occurred to me growing up that life was the type of thing that could have a "meaning," so it's hard for me to put myself in the mindset of someone who started out approaching this question from the opposite direction. But until we figure out where that assumption came from, I don't think that troublesome Ultimate Question of Life, the Universe and Everything will truly feel dissolved.


  1. No answer is required to a question. Insofar as time goes on, however, I suppose that a question entails a response. I can turn away, or I can engage with the question or with the person who asks the question, whether partially or whole-heartedly. Although you suggest that some questions should be dissolved, you engage with "figuring out why we felt like there was a problem in the first place". Your response to the question of what might be the meaning of life is a question. Not to turn away. Fair enough, but this is not dissolution, it is engagement.

  2. Julia, nice column, which finds me in pretty much total agreement. Except of course that philosophers have come up with the concept of category mistake far earlier than computer scientists... And you thought philosophy was worthless!

  3. Growing up in the Presbyterian tradition, I learned to ask the question in the words of the Westminster Shorter Catechism: "What is the chief end of man?" I think that's a good way to phrase it. In other words, "What is the best thing to do with our lives?" It's kind of difficult to imagine doing philosophy without taking this question seriously.

    But even concerning the more abstract question, "What is the meaning of life?" part of me wants to say, "Whoa, are you serious?" Honestly, you never considered life to be something that might have meaning, or purpose? Forgive my incredulity, but hearing someone honestly say that is kind of like hearing someone say, "I've honestly never seen food as something to be enjoyed." It seems subhuman to me.

    And the troublesome thing is, it seems very difficult to have a rational discussion about these things when there appears to be no common ground. You view the meaning of life as a non-issue; I view it as the issue. I don't see how we can rationally argue from one side of this divide to the other.

    A curious, and perhaps sad, state of affairs, if you ask me.

  4. Excellent post, Julia.

    Not to mention the astonishing fact that if you sum all the letters in "julia galef" (a=1, b=2, etc) and divide by 2 (because there are 2 words) you get, yes, 42.

    btw, "juliagalef.com" does not seem to work.

  5. The question clearly asks, what purpose does life serve? Which does not need to carry the premise that it was created with a purpose. It carries the premise that we seem to serve our own purposes, but what purpose is or was served by our having that capacity?
    And the question can carry more than one such premise in any case, depending on who asks it.

  6. @Jameson

    I am not convinced these are the same question: "What is the chief end of man?" and "What is the best thing to do with our lives?"

    The "chief end of man" is a transcendent concept; the end to which must be universal, the "best thing to do with our lives" is a concrete concept, the answer to which does not need to expand beyond a single person. In other words; the "best thing to do with your life" varies from person to person, generation to generation, situation to situation, the "chief end of man" should not, and by nature of the question cannot.

  7. @JP - Thanks for the heads-up, it's fixed!

    @Jameson Graber - the point of the post was that the question doesn't make sense. Of course, people clearly believe they're asking something coherent when they ask what the meaning of life is, but I have a hard time understanding what their question actually is (for the reasons I tried to explain in the post). But any light you can shed for me on what they mean by the question would be welcome.

    @Artie -- what purpose do rocks serve? I'm not trying to be flippant, but I think that if you acknowledge that human life wasn't created intentionally, then the question of what purpose we serve makes just as much sense as the question of what purpose rocks serve. We could find a purpose for rocks (e.g., making them into spearheads). But that's clearly a purpose we've invented based on our own needs and desires, not some "inherent" purpose to the rock.

  8. Jameson Graber

    Would you care to elaborate ?

    Certainly no common ground will ever be found if you re content with asserting that we "should have thought" of life as something that has meaning or by saying it "feels" subhuman to you. Are you referring to some intrinsic purpose that lies in the mind of an intelligent creator or to a metaphor for something different like the goals we should be striving for (that btw would be a pretty bad use of the word meaning in this context)

    I believe life (human life included) is a natural phenomenon like all others. Certainly you cant find my position unreasonable. Looking for purpose in life to me is just like looking for purpose in black holes. If i said theres no purpose in black holes i am willing to bet most people wouldnt object to my statement. What makes life so special. Is it just a feeling or something more ?

  9. Julia,
    The question makes sense to those who ask it, even if the answer might not - that was part of the point. Because those same people have asked that if the existence of humans serves some purpose in nature (whether in fact it does or not), then why not those rocks?
    And serving a purpose is not the same as having an inherent role to play in the universe. I have to assume you see that, so yes, I think you were being somewhat flippant by bringing rocks into the picture - the rocks that I know have never asked those types of questions.

  10. And I might add that those rocks I know serve structural purposes, and they don't even have to be asked.

  11. Julia,

    I agree that asking for the meaning of human life in general does not make much sense. But then you ask what people mean by the question, that is what is the meaning of the meaning of life? One is tempted to quote Deep Thought when he was asked the question: "tricky". But, seriously, maybe this is related to the fact that humans understand their life through some all encompassing narrative about life or the universe. I am guessing but when people ask the question about meaning, maybe what they really are after is the appropriate narrative in which to embed their life and their place in it. As a consequence, the question is a personal one unless we assume a common narrative for everybody, which is clearly not the case. In my case, the narrative is based on science but others will use religious stories, and so on. I remember being fascinated by what Neil Postman writes about this in one of his books (don't remember which).

  12. I agree with the idea that asking about the meaning of life is like asking about the meaning of sausage, but I think rephrasing it as Jameson's "What is the chief end of man?" is a rational move. Although "what is the best thing to do with our lives?" is much easier to answer, the fact that a question of ends isn't provable inductively doesn't make it nonsensical (As Bertrand Russell once said, "the difficulty in discovering the truth does not prove that there is no truth to be discovered"). It could be worked towards indirectly, whether or not we actually do what we know we ought to. Similarly, we could also ask "How could we try to edge toward what we believe to be our potential chief ends?" That's the difference between presuming that we are all made with inherent meaning just by existing, and presuming that there could potentially be a meaning that could start to exist if we attempt to do more than simply existing.
    Of course, I could have said all that with a haiku.

  13. First off: if a description of life in purposeful/teleological terms were senseless or invalid, the Darwinism would be invalidated. Clearly it is possible to speak of species or individuals as having "a purpose" without implying a creator. This is one of the pillars of Darwinian thought.

    With that out of the way, a common mistake is to assume that because something is constructed or posited, that makes it somehow unreal or invalid. Yet, there is a good case to be made that the ultimate goals of humanity (at the species, cultural or individual level) are both constructed and real: they live in our thoughts, our writing, our art, our values and mythologies. They have causal efficacy by directing our actions, which makes them no less real than anything else. Why are these "purposes" not valid answers to the question of life's meaning?

  14. @Anath

    It sounds like you've set up a bit of a false dichotomy. Having a transcendent answer to the question, "What is best to do with our lives?" certainly does not mean that right action does not vary from "person to person, generation to generation, situation to situation." If the chief end of man is to satisfy his own desires, then that will certainly entail quite varied approaches among people, times, and places. If the chief end of man is to glorify God, then that, too, will mean a great deal of variation (certainly within the Protestant tradition). We all behave in different ways at different times, not necessarily because we have no transcendent purpose, but because different circumstances call for different ways of fulfilling those purposes, and because it's often unclear what is the best particular way to reach a more general goal.

    The two questions as I've phrased them need not mean the same thing, but for my part, the question I'm concerned with is one that has transcendent significance. If you're not interested in that question, that's fine. It's just not clear to me then how we can have a rational discussion about what to do with our lives.

  15. @Julia,

    I disagree with your assertion that the question is logically incoherent. It might be incoherent given your assumptions, just as you say: "But using the word "purpose" carries the implied premise that some entity created us intentionally to serve some end. Reject that premise, and the question no longer makes sense." Okay, now supposing we don't reject that premise. Then what?

    I don't think the question of meaning necessarily boils down to this, but here's an alternative question that I hope you'll agree is at least coherent: "Have we been created with a purpose?" You can respond no, of course, but I don't think you can respond with, "The question doesn't make sense."

    That's not the only question, though. Why not just as simply ask, "Is there any source of transcendent purpose for our lives that we haven't thought of?" Maybe it doesn't need to be a Creator. Maybe it's just something we miss because we're too steeped in the traditions of Western thought (or something). Again, the answer might be, "No, there isn't any," but I don't think the answer is, "The question doesn't make sense."

    Or let's just boil it down to this question: "Is life something to which the word meaning can be applied?" That is certainly a coherent question, to which your article is a resounding, "No."

    Why does this question matter to people? Why would it matter to people that your answer is "No"? Well, if life has meaning, then it might be something we should try to understand. If our lives are being used as communication, we might want to try and hear what's being said. If meaning is not a category that can be applied to life, then there's nothing to listen for. And at least for some of us, that makes life less interesting. That is why we might "feel like there was a problem in the first place."

  16. I think whether or not the question makes sense depends on your assumptions. If you start out assuming that life has meaning, it is perfectly appropriate to ask what that meaning is. You, and I would wager most here, myself included, start with the assumption that life doesn't have an intrinsic meaning. In that case, the question doesn't make sense. Even so, I think JP has it right when he hypothesizes the question ultimately emerges from our tendency to narrative thinking. Indeed, I would guess that most everyone, regardless of their assumptions about whether or not life in general has meaning, still ask as to the meaning or purpose of their own lives, and this then goes to the tendency toward narrative thinking, as well as aspects of how people conceptualize their identities and feel the need to have those identities be relational to something larger (maybe this is an aspect of our being social creatures embedded in structured groups). The answer to this lesser question is always going to be personal and subjective, with the consequence that there is no reason to expect that one's own answer necessarily make logical sense to others.
    In any case, regardless as to ultimate answer of why we ask the question, it has clearly been, and continues to be, a very important line of inquiry in human culture (no matter whether or not it makes analytical sense), with myriad suggested answers with their own myriad attendant ramifications, and is thus interesting and worthy of study for that reason (and it is also always interesting and fun to conceptualize how the universe and life look to those who hit upon and internalize a particular answer).
    And Julia, if I might ask, if you don't understand what people mean when they ask what the meaning of life is, have you thought of asking what they mean? I don't mean to be hectoring, but it seems to be a logical next step.

  17. Julia, great post. Please don't be offended that, possibly because I read it quickly, I assumed it was Massimo until I got to your byline. :)

    Jameson: You still aren't unpacking your question enough. There are plenty of implications by the passive voice in "Have we been created with a purpose?" that make the question, in my mind, nonsense. Or at least as silly as "Did a gas-cloud alien from Jupiter use its power to replace my house with one EXACTLY LIKE IT last night?" The very posing of this question assumes (or implies or entails, this might be easier if I wrote it in another language...) facts that, not only have not been demonstrated, but are of fairly low probability.

    Nick: aren't those two uses of "purpose" completely different? The first, which I regard as the more teleological, implies that the purpose is a property of the object. The second, which is how I use the term, means that the purpose is a property of the person assigning it, or, if you like, of the larger physical/social system to which the object belongs or with which it is interacting.

  18. "What is the sound of one hand clapping?" The act of clapping by definition involves two hands, so the question is unanswerable.

    Where did you get that definition from? I have a friend who can clap with one hand. It sounds like a flapping kind of clap, like with very loose hands.

    Also, I read that Adams said he just looked up from his typewriter and said "42" and that that would do.

  19. Julia,
    What purposes are served by the established laws of physics, for example, referred to as "first principals." Are not those principles meant to serve a purpose - the question then being, if not for some first "regulator," then for what?
    Acquired over time perhaps - which would be my guess, since what came "first" would have to be some form of nothing.
    But are such universal purposes then acquired over time? And could not earthly life be just one form of such an acquisition? A mechanism found to then acquire purpose on its own? And who are we to say that's not the answer - and thus know not to even ask the question?

  20. Great post.

    Some here seem to be missing the point. Once you personally redefine the question to mean what we should do with our lives, it makes sense, and she seems to agree with that; but Julia's issue was that the question as typically understood by most people already implies a transcendental purpose that can only come from a superhuman agency (that likely does not exist in the first place).

    Kostas: What makes life so special?

    Human delusions of grandeur and self-importance, nove?

  21. Julia, I think it's a little unfair to dismiss the question as incoherent because it makes no sense when taken literally. One should ask what people mean by it. People who ask this question usually seem to mean "What is the purpose of (our) life?".

    But they tend to conflate two different senses of "purpose". When an object is created for a purpose, the word "purpose" can be attached to both the object and the creator:
    - The hammer's purpose is to drive in nails.
    - The creator's purpose (i.e. goal) in creating the hammer was to drive in nails.
    When the created object is itself a person, the word "purpose" can be applied to it in both senses. So, when people ask what is the purpose of our life, they can mean both:
    - For what purpose are we here?
    - What are our purposes (i.e. our goals) in life?

    Possible answers to the first question include:
    - Whatever God put us here for.
    - Whatever goal our parents had in choosing to have children (if it was a choice).
    - For propagating our genes.

    Some people tend to conflate the two questions, and assume that we can't have any goals in life unless we were put here for a purpose. Or, if you say the only purpose for which we are here is to propagate our genes, they think you are saying that our goal in life must be to propagate our genes.

  22. Nick:

    I'd suggest you be very careful about arguing that evolution by natural selection is teleological. The entire point of evolution is that it provides an account of the appearance of teleology. I can understand why you might make the mistake, thinking about organisms in terms teleology is a really useful tool in helping us get to grips with the idea, just be careful about not carrying the analogy too far.


    When you say "Is life something to which the word meaning can be applied?" what you've done is changed the question so that now it can be answered; what you've not done is shown that the original question is meaningful.


    On the question of why people feel it is an issue worth following, the cynic in me tells me that rational people struggling to find a niche to hide their emotional attachments will naturally gravitate towards these kinds of questions. Philosophically I'll say that this kind of problem gives a strong hint that modern theories of language that focus on interpretation are right and that these kinds of problems take advantage of the assumption of rationality.

  23. @Thatguy: I did not say that evolution is teleological. I am aware that the apparently inevitable teleological language in evolutionary descriptions does not imply an actual teleological story. My point was rather about what kind of language we are allowed to use without implying (in Julia's terms) "a creating entity".

    @Bubba: it may be that two senses of "purpose" are sometimes illegitimately combined by those who ask the question. This is irrelevant to the larger issue of whether the question itself is senseless. If there is, as I think, a valid kind of answer to the question, then it is not meaningless. Rather, the answers themselves help to clarify what we meant all along by the question... not an uncommon result in most areas of inquiry.

  24. That Guy Montag: The entire point of evolution is that it provides an account of the appearance of teleology.

    Yes, as an explanatory framework, I think that's right (viz. no mindful designer or engineer is required in order to explain the origin of new species - natural processes are sufficient).

    But, insofar as organisms themselves pursue goals, or serve functions within a larger ecosystem, is it fair to say that telos is an emergent property of nature? Even if not, then it at least seems fair to say that, once we find a symbolic species like ours (in which the concept of "telos" is real, such that individuals can construct and pursue goals for themselves or for the societies in which they are active members), we have something very much like it.

    This may be a trivial observation or premise, and it restates what others here have said. Nonetheless, I prefer to put it this way: purpose is real - if not in nature generally - in organisms specifically - or (if that seems an overstatement) at least in our own species, symbolized in our minds and realized in our actions. This does not make purpose radically different than other lower-order, organismic processes (e.g. metabolism), but no less deserving of acknowledgment in dialogues or debates re: the philosophical implications of evolution.

  25. BubbaRich:

    You wrote, "The very posing of this question assumes (or implies or entails, this might be easier if I wrote it in another language...) facts that, not only have not been demonstrated, but are of fairly low probability."

    From what you say, at least you would have to concede that it is a matter of facts (and explanations of those facts) about the external world, not about some internal logical coherence. If you give me that much, I'll be satisfied.

    If you see a bunch of dots on a screen, it might or might not mean something. We might ask whether someone left it there for a reason. That same question can be applied to our lives. I don't see what's internally incoherent about that question. Just because you think the answer is "no" does not make it a nonsense question.

    That Guy Montag:

    No, I've not shown that the original question is meaningful, and that seems to me too big a project to accomplish in this comments section. So, I will refrain from attempting it.

  26. Thanks for that bit of clarification Nick, and you too Mufi, it's nice to know where we're all standing on this and I agree with both of you that purpose is a meaningful term. Just in case it's useful for either of you I'm far more comfortable using Dan Dennett's idea of the various stances and using his terminology purpose is a way of describing a situation using the intentional stance.

    Now while you're both right, I think that point side-steps Julia's original point which is that the question itself doesn't make sense. The question "what is the purpose of life" doesn't make sense not because any of the terms are intrinsically meaningless, but because purpose as a term needs more information. In this regard it's very similar to the word good when we say things like a good cricketer (guess who isn't American) or a good knife. It's interesting to note that a question like "Is Kevin Pietersen a good cricketer?" is relatively easy to answer while the very similar question "what is good" is not. You could argue that it's simply because one is more abstract than the other but I think the reason is simpler; good is an adjective that needs a qualifier to completely make sense. I think that something similar is the problem with purpose. It's a perfectly meaningful term, and very useful when it's attached to things like a persons actions. The problem comes when we remove that extra information because what we end up with is a sentence that to all intents and purposes looks right and feels like it really is saying something meaningful, but is in fact missing a really key piece of information.

  27. Jameson:

    Then your entire comment was a giant non-sequitur.

    More broadly, it's this precise point that's inclining me to say that the Verificationism of the Logical Positivists wasn't the big bad bogie it seems to be have been made into. Am I missing something?

  28. Assuming you've read Eliezer Yudkowsky's article on this topic?

  29. Jameson: I would agree with you that the question "what is the meaning of life?" can be made meaningful, but I think it begs for some more information.

    For example, is the inquirer looking for a definition of "life"? If so, then s/he may be satisfied with an answer from the sciences. If, however, s/he is looking for a theological answer (e.g. do what God expects of you, as revealed in the following verses of the Hebrew Bible or New Testament...), then s/he is unlikely to be satisfied with a more secular answer (i.e. lead a virtuous life, as defined by Aristotle in the following lines of Nicomachean Ethics...). In my case (as a non-theist), the theological answer is a virtual non sequitor (and even my secular example seems a bit out-dated), which suggests that I had better elaborate on the question.

    But, then, lots of questions are like this. If I did not know the political background (or subtext) behind the question "are you pro-choice or pro-life?", I might be baffled by it. (And, even knowing it, I still have a hard time not qualifying my answer.)

  30. I'm often asked what is the point or purpose of mosquitoes? sometimes phrased as "why do mosquitoes exist?" and I explain that mosquitoes exist to make more mosquitoes. All their adaptations are present because they "work" to enable persistence. This is true of all life. The questioners often have the false premise that all non-human life was created by an intelligent designer for the benefit of humanity.

    It is also important to clarify whether one is asking "what enabled X to exist? {past}" from "given the existence of X, what will X do {future}"

  31. That Guy Montag:

    As mufi said, the question of meaning begs more information. That much I will grant. My only point was that the question is not internally inconsistent. By rejecting certain premises outright (e.g. the possibility that the universe was created by a transcendent being) one can make the question of meaning, well, meaningless. But if we leave certain premises as possibilities, then the question is still coherent.

    Again, I admit that to prove that the question is meaningful, more information has to be given. But I don't think it makes sense to attempt such a proof in this little comments section. Chances are you already know most of the world's religious suggestions that have been made toward such a proof(or if not, you really ought to have a look). There's no need to get into all of that here.

    I think it should be sufficiently clear that the question, "What is the meaning of life?" is not, a priori, an incoherent question. Yes, the question assumes certain things about life; but there's no reason to reject those assumptions a priori. That's all I'm trying to say.

  32. Thanks for the response Jameson especially considering that looking back my original challenge looks rude. If I take you at face value though, you're missing the point. It's incredibly telling that the question on its own isn't good enough, that you need more information, because I suspect the very reason people ask questions like that is because it doesn't have enough information to be answered. The entire point of asking "what is the meaning of life" is specifically to raise a question that science can't answer. That's easy to do when you've taken out the information that allows us to hone in on the relevant features of the world; if you put the information back in however you've got the problem that it becomes the kind of problem religion doesn't give any good answers for and at that point you really should be looking to the relevant science such as Psychology or Ethics.

  33. That Guy Montag:

    I'm not sure any question is good enough "on its own." Every question is contextual, as language is contextual.

    I disagree with this statement: "The entire point of asking "what is the meaning of life" is specifically to raise a question that science can't answer."

    That's not the only point in asking, "What is the meaning of life?" Here's a more natural point in asking such a question: life might just be something with a meaning, and if it does have a meaning, I'm really curious to know what it is. It's possible (though not proven, as far as I can see) that life can only have meaning if it was created by God. Well, if that possibility turns out to be right, then the question of life's meaning reduces to, "Is there a God, and if so, what was His purpose in creating us?" And that's a perfectly coherent question, even if you think the answer is "no."

    I'm hesitant to say that science is the sole or even primary source of "information that allows us to hone in on the relevant features of the world." But if you're convinced of that, then I can see why you'd think it's a waste of time to ask the kinds of questions I'm asking. And that's fine. I guess that brings up a question: what assumptions to I have to make in order to contribute to this conversation?

  34. Jameson:

    I recently went to the first of Stephen Neale's Chandaria Lectures and one of the biggest take homes is his argument that talk of context when it comes to language is simply confusing the metaphysics of meaning with the epistemology of meaning; context isn't literally part of what is meant, it's what enables us to know what is meant. It is far better to say that meaning is underdetermined by language.

    This isn't just me nit picking. An important part of any theory of meaning which accepts underdetermination is that you need to give an account of why despite this problem, human beings are really good at understanding what each other means. One of the best comes from Donald Davidson and I read him as roughly saying that Grice's maxims of effective conversation are in fact fundamental aspects of how human beings determine meaning. In particular Davidson is concerned with charity, the assumption that the people you're dealing with are reasonable. What this means is that what the person can reasonably believe forms a part of the "context" that we use to understand what they mean and I suspect that this is exactly what goes wrong when we deal with people asking questions like "what is the ultimate meaning of human existence."

    The point I'm making is that you're right that it's possible to make the sentence meaningful; specifically I'm a humanist so I'd argue meaning is something which human beings put into life. That's not the issue Julia appears to be concerned with though. Instead the problem is that often people are not really asking the question they appear to be asking. In effect what they are actually doing is taking advantage of certain linguistic necessities to create the illusion of profundity and either ignoring the need to clarify the terms, or more viciously passing the buck for explanation over to the person interpreting their meaning. I'd also go on to say that this is particuarly true for the supposed "questions only religion can answer".

  35. Montag:

    That's an interesting comment. I shouldn't veer too far off topic, but I do want to make quick mention that some theories of meaning do make context literally part of what is meant. Specifically, as far as I understand Paul Churchland and his theory of mind from a neurocomputational perspective, meaning would have to be, quite literally, contextual. The way he accounts for how humans understand each other is more or less directly through neuroscience.

    Anyway, I confess I'm a mathematician, not a philosopher, so I'm not fully immersed in these conversations. Nevertheless I did want to make that comment before getting back to the topic at hand.

    I hope it's safe to infer from the comments I've read so far that the complaint you and Julia would have is that people try to prove that science can't answer certain questions by asking a question like, "What is the meaning of life?" If that's the fundamental complaint being made here, then fine, I am happy to concede that this complaint is justified. My only complaint is that Julia's post appears to assert that any rational person must concede that the question, "What is the meaning of life?" is incoherent. I disagree with this assertion. But then again, you're free to define "rational" in such a way that discounts me.

    At the heart of the matter, for me, is this paragraph:

    "Likewise, I would argue that life simply isn't something to which the word "meaning" can be applied. The word "meaning" has a few different standard definitions, but one of the most common refers to the information conveyed by a symbol within a system of communication, as in the question "What does this word mean?" So it would be committing a category error to ask, for example, "What is the meaning of water?" since water is not part of any system of communication. And neither is the phenomenon of human life."

    I'm not sure whether Julia is totally aware of this or not, but to many people, particularly Christians, "What is the meaning of water?" is a perfectly coherent question--particularly within the context of a tradition that, for instance, uses water in the sign of baptism. It is highly common for physical things such as water to have meaning, and for believers in some traditions, these even have transcendent meanings. (Note that baptism would not exhaust the range of meanings water can have in the Christian tradition.)

    So if the question, "What is the meaning of water?" can be taken as perfectly coherent and even natural, surely the question, "What is the meaning of life?" can be equally coherent. It all depends on who you ask, I suppose. If you ask a secular philosopher, "What is the meaning of life?" you might get the response, "That question is incoherent." If you ask a priest, you'll probably be taken seriously, because the priest understands the world to be one in which that question makes sense.

    If the priest is for this reason considered irrational, then I humbly submit that "rational" is being defined quite narrowly.

  36. Good post, Julia, but I wil ltake exception with one point. The Doctor Who episode "42" had nothign to do with Douglas Adams, although Adams had been script editor on the show back in the 1970s; the reason for the title is that, after the title credits, the adventure takes place in real time, which is 42 minutes long.
    I am truly a Doctor Who geek.

  37. As a thoughtful atheist I could not simply dismiss the question "What is the meaning (purpose) of life?" Essentially I reduced it to "Why do you get out of bed in the morning?" Obviously "God has plans for you" doesn't work, but one really must have an answer to the question or one simply would not get out of bed. The answer is certainly not 42, and it took a while to finally come up with a coherent answer. With thanks to John Dobbs the answer is to continue to work on my Legacy. "I leave you this valuable and useful space."

    The space isn't going to be valuable and useful by happenstance, it will take a lifetime of concerted effort to make it so, and each day there are important things to do. So the legacy is the purpose for my life and its purpose is to provide meaning to those who might follow.

  38. I have never wondered "What is the meaning of life?" - I don't see the relevance, application or reason for the question. The question only has relevance in a transcendent context. The purpose of life however, is to be lived. Otherwise it wouldn't have happened. I do have a question though.. Why do humans make things so complicated?

    Some other living things/beings have a clearer purpose like bees..

  39. The purpose of life, as was recognized by Steve Martin in "The Jerk", is... sex. Procreative activity. The old in-out. And even that is pushing the issue. I'm somewhat equating "pupose" with "meaning" when in fact I'm completely in agreement with Julia that "the meaning of life" is incoherent. Purpose has a slight enough different connotation that I feel that I can legitimately say that the purpose of life is replication while the meaning of life is a category mistake.

    re: 42

    I live in St. Petersburg, FL where we have a baseball stadium called Tropicana Field. I'm not a baseball afficianado but I visited the stadium for my daughter's high school graduation. On the far wall out past center field was a prominent, baseball-shaped sign with a large number 42. I thought, "How cool. Someone is a big Douglas Adams fan and has put the answer to life, the universe and everything right up there for all to see and contemplate." I mentioned it to someone and they deflated my enthusiasm. It appears that there's some famous baseball player whose number is/was 42 and it's a memorial to him. But, I do see real HHGTTG references quite frequently (babelfish anyone?) and wonder how many around me get it.

  40. Die Anyway: The purpose of life may well be reproduction from an evolutionary standpoint, but that does not moot the question of purpose for intelligent, self aware life. Even the mating dance for humans in this era involves the question of why should I mate with you? Or in a larger sense what is the purpose of adding your genes to the pool? Or memes for that matter as parenting involves memes much more than genes?

    These are not trivial questions. God has one answer. The rest of us better have one as well, and it should be much more compelling than God's.


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