by Charlie Huenemann
What would it be for life to have a “meaning”? What does it mean when people say life is meaningful? I’m not sure, so let’s start with smaller, more obviously meaningful things. Better yet, let’s start with some meaningless things. When Bob sits down to polish the steel junk he’s about to haul to the scrap heap, we can say his activity is meaningless: there’s no point to it. Similarly, when my students sit down to prepare for an exam that I have decided to cancel, their work is pointless and meaningless. When Sally writes a memo about the futility of writing memos, crafting her prose to limpid perfection, with the aim of deleting her anti-memo memo before anyone reads it, we should feel some degree of concern for her mental well-being. Meaningless things have no point to them – nothing is achieved, no purpose can be fathomed, and the work we dedicate to them is entirely wasted. Meaningful things, let’s presume, are just the opposite.
So, how about life as a whole – your whole life, and the lives of everyone? If we believe in a Grand Scheme of Things, some cosmic contest with an unambiguous finish line, then we might then see lives as meaningful. The history of philosophy is crammed full of such Grand Schemes, but we might call upon Leibniz to present one of the greatest ones. This world, said Leibniz, is the best of all possible worlds, the very best world a just and omniscient being could call into existence, and it is made the best by all of the things people do, when taken as a whole. All finite things strive toward greater and greater perfections of being, and the world over time turns into something that is worthy of divine selection. If we embrace the Leibnizian scheme, we feel the pressure of bringing all our actions and thoughts to the highest reaches of moral and metaphysical perfection. Everything is meaningful, because everything contributes to the end God set for creation.
This is one thrillingly grand notion of cosmic meaningfulness – but hardly anyone now believes it. Most of us accept that the universe has not come about for the purpose of achieving anything. Cosmologists tell us that it’s something of a puzzle why there should be anything at all, and many of them are driven to the conclusion that there must be an infinity of possible universes, most of them boring beyond any description, and a scant few of them including such noteworthy features as matter. They come to this conclusion precisely to avoid the conclusion our universe has anything to brag about. Our universe is the way it is because some universe had to be, and it’s consequently no surprise that we – as evolved, intelligent beings – would find ourselves in one of those rare universes in which something relatively interesting has happened.
What does our universe try to achieve? Well, if anything, it seems to enjoy growing entropy – that is, it tries to shed itself of any order. Our universe would love nothing more than to become a thin, bland soup, and verdicts seem to go back and forth about whether it’s likely to succeed in this modest goal. The more fundamental point, of course, is that the universe itself does not really care one way or another about its own success. It just does whatever its laws tell it to do, and the laws, so far as we comprehend them, do not aim toward any special, purposeful end.
This tells us in the most straightforward way possible that all of existence is meaningless: everything has no point. “But hold on!” I hear you object. “That the universe doesn’t care should not mean that our lives are meaningless! Human lives are made meaningful by the hopes and aspirations of the people living them. We create our own meaning, with the ends we set and the decisions we make. You and I may have different values, of course, and we can enter into philosophical dialogue about them – but our dialogue presumes that lives can be meaningful, and indeed that there may be better and worse meanings to choose for our lives.”
While this is a cheery idea, I think it is completely false, even obviously false. I’ll grant, of course, that we can pretend that our lives are meaningful, and we can ginny up some enthusiasm for the purposes we imagine for our lives. But when we do this, we have to forget for the time being that (to repeat) all of existence is completely meaningless. We have to think that, somehow, that fact that we happen to value something is itself a meaningful fact – when it isn’t.
This is a core fact about the meaning of meaningfulness: in order for an activity or pursuit to be meaningful, it can’t be a matter of pretending. Bob might pretend that the scraps of metal he is polishing will be widely appreciated for their beauty, or that they will be given as medals to valiant soldiers. But this does not make his polishing meaningful; it is only an illusion that helps him to keep up his pointless efforts. Leibniz’s Grand Scheme, by contrast, makes everything meaningful because, if he were right, everything really would be contributing toward a real and meaningful end. Leibniz may have been wrong, but at least he didn’t have to pretend.
“But I’m not pretending,” you might insist. “I am choosing to regard my pursuit as meaningful, and declaring it to be so!” Notice, however, that one could make this declaration about any pursuit whatsoever – polishing scraps of metal, saving the lives of children, creating monuments, eating monuments, counting blades of grass, and so on. That’s exactly where the attempt to “create” meaning fails. If anything can be made meaningful by an individual’s choice – then nothing really is meaningful. It is only a matter of individuals acting as if or pretending that their pursuits are meaningful.
“But, in fact, some pursuits are better than others. Obviously, it is more meaningful to save lives, create art, and extend knowledge than it is to count blades of grass!” But this is not at all obvious. It may seem obvious – but only if we forget about the larger frame of futility that encompasses all human endeavors. The people whose lives we save today: all will die later on, as will everyone who remembers them. The species we save: it will someday go extinct, as will every species. We forge friendships and loving relationships that history will easily forget within a generation or two. We create great works of art that will inevitably be ground down by our universe’s drift toward entropy. For a mind-bogglingly huge chunk of time, the universe had no conscious beings in it; and the universe will soon return to that state, or an even less interesting one, for another mind-bogglingly huge chunk of time. Anything we can possibly think of or manage to do or love will be swallowed up in those twin enormities like a crayon pitched into the Grand Canyon.
If this talk of deep time seems too remote, consider the question that gets raised from time to time over a glass of wine: “What would you do today if you knew the world was going to end tomorrow?” Most people would toss aside everything they have been doing because the very pointlessness of it all becomes starkly evident. Even doctors might take their last day off, once they realize that, despite their best efforts, their patients will die tomorrow anyway. Well, here’s a newsflash: the world will end, maybe not tomorrow, but someday. With what reason should the distance between “tomorrow” and “someday” magically bestow meaningfulness upon the things we do?
When we claim that we make our own lives meaningful, we are investing in a shady distinction between short-term futility and long-term futility. Short-term futility, we all agree, is bad, meaningless, absurd: there’s no point in rushing to paint the house when the tornado is on its way. We try to avoid putting time or effort into projects that are evidently and immediately futile. But then we go on to think that it is meaningful to save the rainforest since the extinction of life on earth will not happen any time soon – its futility is long-term. But long-term futility is every bit as futile as short-term futility. Isn’t it obvious that, in the fullness of time, everything we do is futile – but because of the shortness of our lives and the small scope of our horizons, we manage to forget this fact and dupe ourselves into thinking otherwise?
So, no, we cannot “make” our lives meaningful by just ignoring the fact that everything sooner or later vanishes into a deep and dark hole of time. But let me hasten to add that, at the same time, I’m a huge fan of existing. (Woody Allen: “Cloquet hated reality but realized it was still the only place to get a good steak.”) I think there’s plenty of fun to be had – at least for those of us not in tragically dire circumstances. Moreover, siding with thinkers like Hume, I think there’s a great contentment in seeing other people being helped, and great joy in behaving like a decent human being. I would even call myself an optimist, since I’m willing to defend the view that humans have made genuine moral progress over the centuries, and I believe we’ll continue to do so. I’m a big fan of my species, for the most part.
Each one of our examples of meaningless activities can all be thoroughly enjoyed and appreciated. Bob might take great pleasure in revealing the beauty hidden within scraps of metal. My students might enjoy being together and arguing and exploring their knowledge together, even if the exam has been cancelled. Sally may be in the highest throes of amusement as she drafts her anti-memo memo, intending to delete it as soon as she finishes. Recognizing these clearly pointless activities as meaningless need not make them any less enjoyable or rewarding. The great experiment of our age – living without Grand Schemes – consists in recognizing that we don’t need meaning in order to find value.
The distinction I’m invoking is this. A pursuit is made meaningful in virtue of being part of some larger purpose or end that exists apart from us. But a pursuit or activity or achievement can be pleasurable or valuable by meeting some condition set by us – either deliberately (as in staged contests), or simply by us being the sort of beings we are. We generally are the sort of beings who like having fun, seeing beautiful things, and helping one another. And that’s why we value these things – regardless of the fact that they are ultimately meaningless.
Now this distinction might prompt us to wonder whether we ought to find value in meaningless things. Whether we “ought” to or not, I can’t say. But I think we can’t help but do it. If some Eeyore (like me) comes along pointing out the long-term futility of all things, we should recognize that the things we have been valuing still feel really valuable to us, even considering the fact that everything and everyone will get sucked up into the deep, dark hole of time. Indeed, Eeyore’s prophecy might prompt us to see even greater value in the things we cherish – precisely because any lives we may touch will be with us for such a vanishingly small segment of time.
So we should not mistake our valuing of our pursuits for meaningfulness. The fact that humans, for a short slice of time, find fulfillment in doing nice or noble or beautiful things is simply another fact – a rather small one, really – within an entirely pointless existence. Isn’t that grand?