Institute for Ethics and Emerging Technologies

The IEET is a 501(c)3 non-profit, tax-exempt organization registered in the State of Connecticut in the United States. Please give as you are able, and help support our work for a brighter future.

Search the IEET
Subscribe and Contribute to:

Technoprogressive? BioConservative? Huh?
Overview of technopolitics

whats new at ieet

Call for Papers: The Nietzsche and Transhumanism debates continues.

What Happens When We Design Babies?

Plausible Deniability: How we’ll be attacked, unable to retaliate

Accepter et combattre la mort

Include specific tasks and goals to improve health of the global aging population into the WHO

What makes an algorithm feminist, and why we need them to be

ieet books

Philosophy’s Future: The Problem of Philosophical Progress
Russell Blackford and Damien Broderick eds.


Enframing the Flesh: Heidegger, Transhumanism, and the Body as “Standing Reserve”

Moral Enhancement and Political Realism

Intelligent Technologies and Lost Life

Comment on this entry

The meanings of the meaning of life

Massimo Pigliucci

Rationally Speaking

March 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.


Complete entry


Posted by CygnusX1  on  03/29  at  03:52 PM

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?

Posted by SHaGGGz  on  03/30  at  04:27 AM

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.

Posted by Henry Bowers  on  04/01  at  04:26 PM

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.

Posted by SHaGGGz  on  04/01  at  07:52 PM

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.

Posted by Henry Bowers  on  04/01  at  08:58 PM

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.

Posted by SHaGGGz  on  04/01  at  09:12 PM

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.

Posted by Intomorrow  on  04/01  at  09:37 PM

“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?

Posted by Henry Bowers  on  04/02  at  12:19 PM

@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.

Posted by Intomorrow  on  04/02  at  03:54 PM

“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.

Posted by Henry Bowers  on  04/02  at  08:55 PM

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.

Posted by Intomorrow  on  04/02  at  10:15 PM

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.

Add your comment here:




Remember my personal information

Notify me of follow-up comments?

Please enter the word you see in the image below:


RSSIEET Blog | email list | newsletter |
The IEET is a 501(c)3 non-profit, tax-exempt organization registered in the State of Connecticut in the United States.

Executive Director, Dr. James J. Hughes,
35 Harbor Point Blvd, #404, Boston, MA 02125-3242 USA
Email: director @