The Meaning of Life

As I see it, the subjectivist view of existential meaning is deeply incoherent. To be blunt, anyone who answers the meaning question by saying ‘The meaning of one’s life is the meaning one gives it’ simply has not understood the question. The question arises concretely when one begins to doubt the value of the dominant projects and purposes one has been pursuing. A novelist, a stockbroker, a philosopher, a professional chess player, even if successful, can come to doubt the point of being a novelist, a stockbroker, a philosopher, a professional chess player. ‘Have I wasted my life helping the rich get richer?’ ‘Have I dribbled my life away among bloodless abstractions in an illusory quest for an unattainable knowledge?’ ‘Am I squandering my life’s energies on a mere game?’ These are possible questions. Even if one has been entirely successful in achieving one’s life-goals, these questions can and do arise. They are not questions about success or failure within a life-plan but questions about the success or failure of a life-plan as a whole. Anyone who sincerely asks himself whether he is wasting or has wasted his life presupposes by his very posing of the question that there are objective factors that bear on the question of the meaning of life. To raise the question is to presuppose that existential meaning cannot be identified with agent-conferred meaning. One who wonders whether he is wasting his life perhaps does not thereby presuppose that there is exactly one recipe for a meaningful life applicable to all, but he does presuppose that there are one or more objectively meaningful uses of a human life. He presupposes that one can throw away one’s life, waste one’s time, fail to live a meaningful life. But if the meaning of one’s life is the meaning one gives it, then one cannot fail to live a meaningful life since any meaning is as good as any other. To tell such a person that it suffices for his life to have meaning that he invest it with meaning shows a failure to understand the question. The person can respond with an analog of G. E. Moore’s Open Question Argument: “You tell me that the meaning of my life is identical to the style of life I choose as meaningful. But is this style of life truly meaningful?” The fact that the question remains open even after the subjectivist answer has been proffered shows that the subjectivist answer is no answer at all.

— Bill Vallicella, Maverick Philosopher: Imago Dei and the Meaning of Life

Published in: on December 6, 2009 at 10:30 am  Leave a Comment