THE MEANING OF LIFE

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

(Toward the end of his life, A. J. Ayer, British philosopher and the father of Logical Positivism, gave a lecture on the Meaning of Life. Following his death in 1990, the lecture was published as an essay in a book of the same name.)

An open letter to A. J. Ayer (posthumous):

Professor Ayer, I have just re-read The Meaning of Life. While I have great respect for your significant contribution to 20th century English philosophy, I profoundly disagree with the conclusions you reach in this essay.

In the course of your lecture, you suggest four possible ways in which life could have meaning:

  • In itself: “…A person’s life may come of have meaning for him in itself. He may find fulfillment…”
  • In the intensity with which it is lived: “…If we take the intensity with which a life is lived as a criterion of its being meaningful.”
  • In its possible continuation beyond the boundaries of mortality: “…A question which has strong bearing upon what I have chosen to call the meaning of life, namely that of the possibility of the continuance of one’s existence, in one form or another, after death.”
  • In its contribution to a collective enterprise: “…Most people are excited by the feeling that they are involved in a larger enterprise, even if they have no responsibility for its direction…most English people enjoyed the war (WW II).”

But you begin your lecture by critiquing an idea attributed to Nietzsche: “God is dead and therefore everything is permitted!” You were right to begin here.

Nietzsche’s statement implies that ethical norms depend for their authority on the existence of God. You correctly point out the circularity of such an argument. In order for a phrase such as ‘God is good’ to be meaningful, there must be a concept of ‘good’ that is distinct from our concept of ‘God’. Otherwise, ‘God is good’ just means ‘God is God’ and ‘good’ is reduced to whatever God arbitrarily wills it to be.

Your argument is ingenious…but ultimately also circular. You implicitly assume that moral values can have no objective source other than God and then you prove that God cannot be such a source. Perhaps you have in mind another statement of Nietzsche’s: “…There exists nothing which could judge, measure, compare, condemn our being, for that would be to judge, measure, compare, condemn the whole…But nothing exists apart from the whole!” (Twilight of the Gods)

Nietzsche understands that for values to be objective (and therefore normative) they must transcend the events they ‘judge, measure, compare, condemn’. They cannot be located within the world of events, ‘the whole’; but only God (by definition?) transcends the whole.

By your reasoning, the question of God’s existence becomes irrelevant.  Nothing but God could be the source of objective values and God cannot be that source. Therefore, regardless of whether God exists or not, you are justified in concluding that “there are no such things as objective moral values.” Ingenious!

But there is a problem! Objective values do in fact exist. Beauty, Truth and Justice, for example, enter into our experience of the world on a daily basis. We may not always agree on how to define these values, or on how to apply them in concrete situations, but for the most part we take for granted that they are real. They are something to be strived for, if not achieved, in everything we do. In fact, without them, we would have little motivation to do anything, except perhaps satisfy our most basic biological urges.

Professor Ayer, if you and I and our dear reader, whoever she may be, were asked to define justice, our respective definitions would undoubtedly differ. Nonetheless, there would be substantial overlap and it is that overlap that testifies to the objective character of justice (and beauty and truth).

Of course, the fact that the three of us share a sense of justice does not make us just persons. We may deliberately choose to act unjustly in pursuit of wealth or power or in order to satisfy biological or psychological urges; or we may strive to act justly but fall short due to the temptations we encounter along the way and our own personal weakness. Finally, we may pervert the concept of justice for our own purposes; but none of this changes the objective character of justice (or beauty or truth) itself.

Beauty is not in the eye of the beholder, Truth is not determined by the currently fashionable intellectual elite and Justice is not defined by the reigning government, be it tyrannical or democratic. In fact, we use the concepts of Beauty, Truth and Justice specifically to evaluate works of art, scientific theories and social structures. They are the objective yardsticks by which we measure subjective paintings, theories and laws.

You are right, Professor Ayer, God does not make objective values: “Morals cannot be founded on authority…human or divine.” But they do not need to be. They exist sui generis and their ‘authority’ is inherent in their objectivity.

Conceptually, they must exist independent of God, but God still has a crucial role to play. It is God who makes those objective values operative in our world. If God did not exist, beauty would still be beauty, truth would still be truth and justice, justice; but we would have no knowledge of them. They would exist outside our world; they would have no influence in our world.

God is the bridge. It is God who takes these conceptually transcendent values and makes them relevant to each and every event in our world. Values are objective and normative in their own right. God’s function is to incorporate these logically pre-existent values into a single event, himself, that exhaustively and perfectly instantiates those values.

Indeed, our world would not exist in any recognizable way without the influence of objective values. There would be nothing to coax events into becoming. All possible states of affairs would be effectively equivalent so there would be no impetus to move off of status quo, to change or to grow.

Our world would for all intents and purposes be still born: “…without form or shape, with darkness over the abyss and a mighty wind sweeping over the waters” as Genesis puts it.

Yet that is not the case! Our world most definitely has form and shape, darkness is not universal and the so-called abyss teems with highly ordered material structures.

In fact, change is just about the only constant in this world. The British philosopher Alfred North Whitehead, a contemporary of yours, began his systematic philosophy (Process and Reality) by specifying three undefined terms: one, many and creativity. For Whitehead, creativity was an absolutely universal characteristic of our world.

There seems to be a principle of unrest, a fundamental hunger, at the core of being itself. That hunger is induced by and directed toward the objective values as instantiated by God. As a result, potential entities become virtual entities and virtual entities become actual entities. Actual entities in turn interact with one another, “exchanging bright colors” (Parmenides), seeking to ‘be all that they can be’ (US Army). Such purposeful activity is proof positive of the immanence of objective values in our world.

Value are values independent of God but God is the actual entity that perfectly instantiates every objective value. As an actual entity, God participates in our world and makes his qualities (i.e. the objective values) available to all other actual entities. God’s values act as a lure, drawing potentiality into actuality and guiding its development. Ultimately, completed matters of fact are ‘judged’ in terms of those values.

It is fashionable today to question God’s omniscience or his omnipotence (or both); but this rests on a misunderstanding of the nature of these qualities. It is because God is both omniscient and omnipotent that he freely but surely chooses the objective values as his essence. As Pope Leo XIII observed, no entity, all knowing and all powerful, would do otherwise. That’s what knowledge and power mean: the ability to know what is right and to choose what is right, every time. All entities strive to instantiate the good ab initio; only God has the means to do so surely and perfectly.

Professor Ayer, you write “…there are no such things as objective moral values”; but you also write, “I think that acts of cruelty or kindness are ugly or attractive in themselves.” But if there are no such things as objective moral values, how can any act be ugly or attractive in itself? On what authority are we justified in making such judgments?

You write, “If I say that there are no such things as objective moral values, this is not to be taken as a profession of moral nihilism.” Really? It seems to me that ‘moral nihilism’ is exactly what you are professing here.

You continue, “On the contrary, I have strong moral sentiments and am anxious that other people should share them and act upon them.” What then is the source of those ‘moral sentiments’?  Are they merely personal whims? If so, why should we pay attention to them? Are you arbitrarily defining ‘the good’ as you accused God of doing (above).

On what grounds is your concern that others ‘share them and act upon them’ justified, or even reasonable? What entitles you to judge your moral sentiments as superior to anyone else’s?

You complete this train of thought with an astonishing flourish: “In saying that moral values are not objective, I am maintaining only that moral terms, while as it were, commenting on natural features of the world, do not themselves describe them.” Of course they don’t! That’s the whole point. Robert Kennedy said, “I dream of things that never were and say why not.”

The 2500 year old Book of Job is a treatise on how unjust the world actually is. But the conclusion of the book is not that justice does not exist; rather the book poses this question: since the concept of justice is real and objective, how is it that the real world can be so unjust?

Our world is a world in the process of becoming. That process is guided by objective values, driven by universal unrest, and powered by Whitehead’s ‘creativity’.

Turning at last to the topic of your essay, and mine, ‘the meaning of life’, we need to ask what it would ‘mean’ for life to have ‘meaning’ in the first place. Something can have meaning only in terms of something other than itself, something beyond itself, and something that itself has meaning. Furthermore, to confer meaning, that ‘something beyond’ must of a different ontological order.

Your most famous student, Ludwig Wittgenstein, wrote, “No statement of facts can ever be, or imply, a judgment of absolute value…all the facts described would, as it were, stand on the same level.” Meaning can only come from something that stands on a different level, a level that is both transcendent and inclusive.

As mentioned earlier, your essay suggests four possible ways in which life might have meaning. Let’s see if they meet our criteria.

  • Meaning in terms of personal fulfillment would not seem to meet the criteria since it is apparently self-referential. But wait! If by ‘life’ we mean the day to day events that constitute our existence and if by ‘fulfillment’ we mean our lives taken as wholes, then indeed the collected parts could find meaning in the integrated whole (which is of a different ontological order from the parts). The elements of the set could find meaning in the set itself.
  • Meaning in terms of intensity would be subject to the same critique…with the same possible resolution.
  • Meaning in terms of a continuation of life beyond the borders of morality will only work to the extent that that life-continued is of a different ontological order than life-lived. If immortal life is merely an infinite extension of mortal life, it will not confer meaning.
  • Finally, meaning in terms of a collective enterprise will work only if that enterprise is of a different ontological order. World War II (see above), for example, is of the same ontological order as our personal lives…and therefore cannot confer meaning on those personal lives.

Our lives are not only haunted by the specter of personal mortality; they are also haunted by the ultimate demise of the universe itself.

Many of us claim to find meaning in the influence our lives may have in the broader world. Long after we are gone, the things we have done will continue to ripple through that world. However, this does not constitute meaning. Nothing of me will survive Heat Death…or Big Crunch. Meaning cannot be conferred by something that itself lacks meaning. If the universe is meaningless, so is everything in it. Entropy is the guaranteed annihilation of all meaning in the historical world.

“My name is Ozymandias, king of kings. Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair. Nothing beside remains. Round the decay of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare the lone and level sands stretch far away.” (Shelley)

Others claim to find meaning in relationships with their mates or with their offspring. We seek to shape our children’s lives by loving them, teaching them, being a role model for them. When they are very young, we imagine that they will live forever; but they will not.

In Genesis, God promises Abram that his descendants will be more numerous than the stars in the sky. Poetic, yes; meaningful no! Someday all of Abram’s descendants will have perished.

So by itself the perpetually perishing historical world cannot provide life with any meaning. Without going into the details of your arguments, you categorically reject all four of the possibilities you name. You ultimately join with Shakespeare (Macbeth) in concluding that life is “a tale, told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.”

On the other hand, I think that all four of the possibilities you mention, rightly understood, can indeed confer meaning. Ultimately, it is precisely the objective values that you reject that give that meaning to life.

First, objective values always refer to a whole rather than a part. At its end, each of our mortal lives will be measurable in terms of those values. We will be defined, not by the day to day incidents that form our lives, but by the way and degree to which our lives, as wholes, instantiate the objective values. That’s the true meaning of ‘fulfillment’. Therefore, fulfillment can confer meaning on our lives after all.

Second, ‘intensity’ ultimately boils down to the passion with which we embrace and project the objective values. ‘Sound and fury’ do not confer meaning; beauty, truth and justice do! Therefore, the level of intensity that characterizes our lives does confer meaning on those lives. As Barry Goldwater famously said, “Moderation in pursuit of justice is no virtue.” Intensity is!

Third, objective values do not arise or perish in time. They exist independent of space and time. Whitehead refers to them as “eternal objects”. Therefore, to the extent that events incorporate (‘positively prehend’ in Whitehead speak) these values, those events too exist eternally. Eternal life is obviously ontologically different from mortal life; it transcends it and includes it and therefore it confers meaning on the mortal lives embedded in it.

Finally, values are objective and therefore normative for every single event in our world. Therefore, we are all involved in one great corporate enterprise whose direction we did not directly determine: the universal instantiation of the objective values.  In the context of that project, our lives have meaning to the extent that they instantiate and project those values.

So it turns out, Professor Ayer, that you (and Shakespeare too…good company) were wrong. Life does have meaning after all! You identified all the key elements: objective values, God, fulfillment, intensity, eternity and community; but you put the jig saw puzzle together incorrectly. You missed out on the beautiful image on the cover of the box.