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The meaning of life

It’s wafer thin!

No, not that one. Breaking with the recent tradition of substance-less blogging here, we’re going to discuss the meaning of life. Sort of.

I’m reading a book called Value and Virtue in a Godless Universe by Erik Wielenberg at the moment. I’m not very far, but it’s pretty interesting so far. He starts by critiquing various secular ways to give life meaning, starting with Richard Taylor’s “create your own meaning” idea. That’s basically the view I subscribe to, so I was interested to see what Wielenberg’s problem with it was. Here’s the argument:

The grinning excrement-eater, we may suppose, has been condemned to an eternity of eating excrement. As Taylor envisions them being merciful to Sisyphus, however, the gods have shown mercy on the excrement-eater by instilling in him a true passion for eating excrement. He gobbles it down night and day – he simply can’t get enough! Both the pianist and the grinning excrement-eater are engaged in activity for which they have a genuine passion; each is doing what he most wants to do. Imagine these two lives, one filled with the sort of activity in which David Golub [the pianist] is engaged in Darwall’s photo, the second filled with the grinning excrement-eater’s favorite pastime. If we are to accept Taylor’s proposal, we must conclude that both lives have internal meaning. But this conclusion is hard to swallow. If you were offered the choice between the two lives, would you be indifferent? Would the two lives seem equally worthwhile to you? If you are like me, the answer is no, in which case you must reject Taylor’s proposal. It is simply going too far to say that whether a life has internal meaning is entirely a matter of the attitude of the person who lives the life.

Colorful, but I think it’s incorrect. It’s at least misleading. Wielenberg is correct to say that intuitively we aren’t particularly impressed with the excrement-eater’s life. But why is that? We are biased by at least two factors: no one likes eating excrement and we all believe the intellectual pleasure of a pianist is better than the simple bodily pleasure that we expect of consuming some substance. It seems to me that Wielenberg is rejecting Taylor’s argument because it doesn’t fit what he believes internally to be meaningful. All that really shows is that it wouldn’t be a good life for him. Maybe he has problem with the fact that Taylor’s idea doesn’t require external meaning. Does believing your life has some meaning to others make it more meaningful? Perhaps. I suspect it depends on the person. Which still fits with Taylor’s idea; to have a life that’s internally meaningful, some people may need a life that has some benefit to others. It makes sense and doesn’t result in contradiction.

I still look forward to seeing what Wielenberg comes up with. I certainly would like to see some objective meaning to life. But I won’t be devastated if there isn’t.

Categories: Religion
  1. April 1, 2006 at 11:33 am

    A Nihilist in the makeing?

  2. April 1, 2006 at 1:59 pm

    I’m a long way from that point.

  3. April 1, 2006 at 8:07 pm

    I only ask because; if one’s sense of meaning is completely subjective to the individual than, does that not imply, all measures of meaning by a society are irrelevant? Does that not approach Nihilism?

    Hey, I’m an armature. But I’m curious what you think about that.

  4. April 2, 2006 at 11:51 am

    That’s not really what I’m saying, though. Our actions have meaning in the sense that they have objective consequences. What I was talking about is whether there’s an overall point or meaning to our lives beyond the urge to propagate our genes. Is there something that’s objectively better to do with our lives than other things? Since I don’t believe in gods, I doubt there would be, but it’s possible.

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