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IEET > Vision > Philosophy > Contributors > Massimo Pigliucci

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The meanings of the meaning of life

Massimo Pigliucci
By Massimo Pigliucci
Rationally Speaking

Posted: Mar 29, 2013

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.

Massimo Pigliucci has a Doctorate in Genetics from the University of Ferrara (Italy), a PhD in Evolutionary Biology from the University of Connecticut, and a PhD in Philosophy from the University of Tennessee. He has done post-doctoral research in evolutionary ecology at Brown University and is currently Chair of the Philosophy Department at Lehman College and Professor of Philosophy at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York. His research interests include the philosophy of biology, in particular the structure and foundations of evolutionary theory, the relationship between science and philosophy, the relationship between science and religion, and the nature of pseudoscience.
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Well, you have pretty much defined “loosely” and broadly the meaning of philosophy, which is really to question all things, and moreover, all questions have root in ontology, even the questions posed for science and the origins of nature and the Universe/Cosmos are driven by philosophical contemplation?

For sure existentialism is the way to go, yet there are many flavours as you highlight. I would propose that the Buddha was the forefather of existentialism, as he purposefully, carefully, (with care), and logically deconstructed the false notion of Self, yet then espoused that in knowing this does not make existence any less worthy, and we should therefore lead a life of mental vigilance, calm, peace and serenity and pursue an existence of non-harm to all things.

Yet karma and the “seeds that we sow” seem to have foundation in all eastern philosophies, Hinduism, Jainism and Buddhism alike, and find root also in Abrahamic religions and philosophy. So no surprises there – just ancient wisdom?

Stoicism, Sophism, Romanticism, Hedonism, Epicureanism are also flavours of existentialism, even the much maligned Libertarian is an existentialist?

As far back as the 5th century B.C, Socrates and the Sophists argued that sensibility and the senses could not be trusted to provide truth and understanding of the world around us. And for this reason the Sophists declared that the pursuit of knowledge and universal truth was misguided, and that man should strive to live according to his limits, and concentrate on the advancement of himself rather than pursue that of which he did not know, and could not possibly comprehend.

Thus the words of Protagoras - “Man is the measure of all things”. Another great Sophist, Gorgias, went even further declaring, “Nothing exists, and if it did, no one could know it, and if they knew it, they could not communicate it”. Instead the Sophists promoted a philosophy of life, and non reliance of knowledge, but rather the development of humanity, and communication. Rather like the contemporary ideas of emotional intelligence and social development. And politics I would add.

More accurately Man is the measure of all things – to Man. And despite arguments pertaining to subjectivism and phenomenology, knowledge IS of great importance and is a noble pursuit regardless?

“Existence precedes essence” then? And yet still, essence precedes existence precedes essence?

Some existentialists find collectivism and true unity abhorrent, and are ardent individualists, and at the root of metaphysical and spiritual arguments for both philosophies arises the likes of party politics and social theory?

One thing is for sure, we Humans cannot hope to survive by pursuing individualism to the point of increasing independence, (a utopian ideal contained only for VR uploading?) Despite my own preference for independence, freedom and ethics concerning “personal” responsibility, Humans need to re-evaluate collectivism and purpose and come together to solve political and socioeconomic and the environmental problems and dilemmas facing us?

Thus the greater “purpose” lies with a philosophy towards unity and collectivism?

I see “42” as more of a plot device and an absurdist non-answer highlighting the fact that there is no inherent meaning. The very question itself is meaningless, akin to asking why pi is what it is in a flat Euclidean space; it just is, of necessity - there is no why. Likewise, nothingness is quantum dynamically unstable and thus existence spontaneously erupts - there is no why.

Also, the notion that the answer can be computed but the question that led to same is beyond the computer’s grasp is hard to believe.

Shagggz, humor me.  You complain that the computed answer must have resolvable premises.  That implies a telology, or meaning, for the computer, the answer, and the premises.  But human life is not permitted to contain such a telos?  Pi is not permitted to be the function of something more abstract?

Your salt and pepper shakers have each the same letter on them.

The meaning is all contained within the phenomena, or, more broadly, our observable universe. The pi example was merely a random example used to illustrate that eventually one reaches causal “bottom” - things are the way they are because there is simply no other possible way for them to be. At some point, no further abstraction is possible. The human telos is no different from those the computer processes, once one removes anthropogenic illusions.

But if the computer can “grasp” the premises of the answer it computes, then shouldn’t man be able to grasp the premises of his life-as-he-sees-it?  But I’m not sure we all agree on those premises, or at least we don’t want to.  And nothing about unwillingness [to agree] implies illusion.

If the forum will bear with me:  we’re all ready to admit that redwoods reduce to carbon chains, but does anything about the hydrogen atom declare:  “Of course, that will help form the leaf of a tree!”

My point is that in Adams’ analogy, perhaps making the Earth a premise allows for the spiritual considerations that science can neither adjudicate, concoct, or fathom.  To say there are no spiritual considerations is itself a spiritual statement, since it refers to the all qua all.

Man does grasp these premises in the sense of an emerging scientific consensus about the nature of reality. Of course there is disagreement, especially around the edges, because we are not (yet, at least) a unified information processing entity in the way the computer is where it can reach such agreement.

The atom does “declare” this in the presence of all of the surrounding factors that end up in its constitution of the tree.

I don’t pretend to know Adams’ intentions, I can only give my interpretation. Science cannot fathom these things for the same reason we cannot: they are simply beyond its ken. It is just more honest and upfront about this reality than many of us are.

“perhaps making the Earth a premise allows for the spiritual considerations that science can neither adjudicate, concoct, or fathom.”

By your lights, Henry, there are evil as well as good spirits- so how can you possibly discern a good from an evil spirit? The electronic tracking device in Ghostbusters? whose ethics Rule? the ethics of those who talk loudest, or who intimidate the loudest—or possibly those who have the largest bankroll? It is all up in the air; too nebulous even for my vague liking.
Do you judge others by their fruits? “By their fruits ye shall know them.” But then how do we define ‘fruits’? And how are the fruits apportioned?

@Shagggz:  I think a hint of the “unified info-processing” is already present, for we all seem to understand what universal “redness” means, as the very red not found in any particular object, but as the concept.  How does this happen?  Some may contend this is just the power of a word per cultural construct, but how is the concept formed?  It seems the 2 plausible answers are:  (1) a giant, single mind thinks for us, (2) a giant mind gave us all the same kind of intelligence for figuring.  To say (3) each individual evolved an individual mind that could universalize like the others, seems to over-reach; for how could the abstractions of a concept be so similar across a population?  Our other ancient functions like seeing, walking, and talking vary greatly per individual, but the abstraction of concepts doesn’t.  Therefore, I vote for (2).

@Intomorrow:  if you’re asking what the good is, I say it is that which is desired, and of course some goods are irreducible and some are only apparent.  But even evil spirits are ontologically good; they are corrupted desiderata.

“But even evil spirits are ontologically good; they are corrupted desiderata.”

Will have to think about the above. But for the rest of what you write, am not convinced:

“(2) a giant mind gave us all the same kind of intelligence for figuring.”

But what if that giant mind isn’t good? In the meatworld we have CEOs running corporations which make baby food; and companies manufacturing WMDs. Who is to say the WMDs are not good? We two might say WMDs are not good yet we cannot prove it. However “but even evil spirits are ontologically good; they are corrupted desiderata” is an indicator—but of what?
So I say two cheers for the future: if one wants pleasure, excitement, even happiness, then the future is might be good; if you want virtue that is an extremely tall order unless you would want to live say in a Christian intentional community. Possibly colonise an island, or conceivably even a planet, and live there as a Christian. Yet how can we dislocate the world so violently as we have and are doing yet expect to retain a 19th- 20th century morality? We can possibly be masters of our own destinies yet how can we change a Bernie Madoff? a Lucky Luciano? a Vlad Putin? tens of millions of them- at least. Answer is we cannot and wont change them, we’ll have to arrive at a modus vivendi as we always did. When you—coming from a decent background—were v. young you thought the world was decent. As you grew up you realised the Darwinian carnivorousness of the world thus you had to sign a Separate Peace (you remember that book) treaty with the world. If you are conservative you know you have to roll with the punches, you can’t bang your head against a wall in frustration over every injustice. Conservative also means conserving yourself.
One can conserve some morality, some virtue- yet my question always remains: how could we change the world so radically as we have done the last nine decades (you can trace it back to the Industrial Revolution, perhaps the Renaissance) while expecting morality/virtue to be other than fragmented? Morality in a dislocated world becomes situational ethics.
You are a pious man however by the standards of Medieval morality you are a total reprobate—that is how much we have dislocated the world. Plus we will dislocate the world far more radically in the future therefore the conventional moralist eventually tilts at windmills, dreaming the impossible dream of returning to a 19th- 20th century ethics.

Why should I care about changing Bernie Madoff, and however could I?  I think instead we should keep planting viable seeds, like the ones kept in the underground mountain for armageddon, and protect the young from idiot schemata whenever possible.  And not a blind protection, but an informed protection.

People change when they see the train not slowing down as it approaches the fireworks warehouse . . . _if_ they have a few viable seeds in their psyche, their past, or if they have the map to find them.

Virtue is a contest.

We have something in common: we are both stuck in the past when it was simpler: for example not having to choose between cellphone corp. deals—in 1955 you just called Ma Bell (remember her?) and got the landline acct. going and that was that. Today Africans can bypass the Ma Bell era altogether and go straight to the cellphone. So if you want you can say we gain the world and lose our souls. That is, if we define soulfulness as simplicity.
And of course we can if we want.
1776 was naturally simpler than 1955: reason looking back to ‘76 America appears more moral was it was smaller, simpler; in 1776 America’s predation was at a smaller scale- we could only glom on the ‘Indians’, slaves, poor, and women. Now we can go all over the world and prey.
One great advantage 2013 and 1955 have over 1776 (and “33 AD”, btw) is anesthetics. But you are correct to use the word contest—concerning virtue and everything else—some win, some lose- has always been that way with the possible exception in the Garden of Eden before the Fall, if the story is true. IMO it is not: we were defective from the get-go.

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