It is maintained that a question does not make sense unless the questioner knows what kind of answer he is looking for. However, while the fact that the questioner knows the “outline” of the answer may be a strong or even conclusive reason for supposing that the question is meaningful, the converse does not hold. One can think of examples in which a question is meaningful although the person asking it did not know what a possible answer would look like. Thus somebody might ask “What is the meaning of life?” without being able to tell us what kind of answer would be relevant and at a later time, after falling in love for the first time, he might exclaim that he now had the answer to his question.
Paul Edwards, Why?, in Paul Edwards (ed.), The Encyclopedia of Philosophy, New York: Macmillan, 1967, vol. 8
There is a great deal of misery in the world, and many of us could easily spend our lives trying to eradicate it. […] [O]ne advantage of living in a world as bad as this one is that it offers the opportunity for many activities whose importance can’t be questioned. But how could the main point of human life be the elimination of evil? Misery, deprivation, and injustice prevent people from pursuing the positive goods which life is assumed to make possible. If all such goods were pointless and the only thing that really mattered was the elimination of misery, that really would be absurd.
Thomas Nagel, The View from Nowhere, Oxford, 1986, p. 217
His chosen comrades thought at school
He must grow a famous man;
He thought the same and lived by rule,
All his twenties crammed with toil;
‘What then?’ sang Plato’s ghost. `What then?’
Everything he wrote was read,
After certain years he won
Sufficient money for his need,
Friends that have been friends indeed;
‘What then?’ sang Plato’s ghost. `What then?’
All his happier dreams came true –
A small old house, wife, daughter, son,
Grounds where plum and cabbage grew,
Poets and Wits about him drew;
‘What then?’ sang Plato’s ghost. `What then?’
‘The work is done,’ grown old he thought,
‘According to my boyish plan;
Let the fools rage, I swerved in naught,
Something to perfection brought’;
But louder sang that ghost, `What then?’
William Butler Yeats, ‘What then?’ (1939)
Ohne Musik wäre das Leben ein Irrtum.
Friedrich Nietzsche, Götzen-Dämmerung, Sprüche und Pfeile, 33
I am forty-four. Not old, but old enough that friends and family are beginning to provide more occasions for funerals than for weddings. Old enough to love life for what it is. Old enough to see that it has meaning, even while seeing that it has less than I might wish.
David Schmidtz, ‘The Meanings of Life’, in Schmidtz (ed.), Robert Nozick, Cambridge, 2002, p. 199
I had spent my life waiting for something, not knowing what, not even knowing I waited. Killing time.
John Crowley, ‘Snow’, Omni, vol. 2, no. 2 (November 1985)
I stand here on the summit of the mountain. I lift my head and I spread my arms. This, my body and spirit, this is the end of the quest. I wished to know the meaning of things. I am the meaning. I wished to find a warrant for being. I need no warrant for being, and no word of sanction upon my being. I am the warrant and the sanction.
Ayn Rand, Anthem, New York, 1946, chap. 11
The [obsessional search for meaning] has two main roots in the history of ideas. […] The first is the theological tradition and the problem of evil. Within Christian theology there emerged two main ways of justifying evil, pain and sin–they could be seen either as indispensable causal conditions for the optimality of the universe as a whole, or as inevitable by-products of an optimal package solution. The first was that of Leibniz, who suggested that monsters had the function of enabling us to perceive the beauty of the normal. The second was that of Malebranche, who poured scorn on the idea that God has created monstrous birth defects ‘pour le bénéfice des sages-femmes’, and argued instead that accidents and mishaps are the cost God hat to pay for the choice of simple and general laws of nature. In either case the argument was intended to show that the actual world was the best of all possible worlds, and that every feature of it was part and parcel of its optimality. Logically speaking, the theodicy cannot serve as a deductive basis for the sociodicy: there is no reason why the best of all possible worlds should also contain the best of all possible societies. The whole point of the theodicy is that suboptimality in the part may be a condition for the optimality of the whole, and this may be the case even when the part in question is the corner of the universe in which human history unfolds itself. If monsters are to be justified by their edifying effects on the midwives that receive them, could not the miseries of humanity have a similar function for creatures of other worlds or celestial spheres?
Jon Elster, Sour Grapes: Studies in the Subversion of Rationality, Cambridge, 1983, p. 102
The total amount of suffering per year in the natural world is beyond all decent contemplation. During the minute that it takes me to compose this sentence, thousands of animals are being eaten alive, many others are running for their lives, whimpering with fear, others are slowly being devoured from within by rasping parasites, thousands of all kinds are dying of starvation, thirst, and disease. It must be so. If there ever is a time of plenty, this very fact will automatically lead to an increase in the population until the natural state of starvation and misery is restored. In a universe of electrons and selfish genes, blind physical forces and genetic replication, some people are going to get hurt, other people are going to get lucky, and you won’t find any rhyme or reason in it, nor any justice. The universe that we observe has precisely the properties we should expect if there is, at bottom, no design, no purpose, no evil, no good, nothing but pitiless indifference.
Richard Dawkins, ‘God’s Utility Function’, Scientific American, vol. 273, no. 5 (November, 1995), p. 85
The pleasure of pursuit will not be enjoyed unless we start with at least some faint desire for the pursued end. But the intensity of the pleasure of pursuit may be out of all proportion to the initial intensity of the desire for the end. As the pursuit goes on the desire to attain the end grows in intensity, and so, if we attain it, we may have enjoyed not only the pleasure of pursuit but also the pleasure of fulfilling a desire which has become very strong. All these facts are illustrated by the playing of games, and it is often prudent to try to create a desire for an end in order to enjoy the pleasures of pursuit. As Sidgwick points out, too great a concentration on the thought of the pleasure to be gained by pursuing an end will diminish the desire for the end and thus diminish the pleasure of pursuit. If you want to get most pleasure from pursuing X you will do best to try to forget that this is your object and to concentrate directly on aiming at X. This fact he calls “the Paradox of Hedonism.”
It seems to me that the facts which we have been describing have a most important bearing on the question of Optimism and Pessimism. If this question be discussed, as it generally is, simply with regard to the prospects of human happiness or misery in this life, and account to be taken only of passive pleasures and pains and the pleasures and pains of fulfilled or frustrated desire, it is difficult to justify anything but a most gloomy answer to it. But it is possible to take a much more cheerful view if we include, as we ought to do, the pleasures of pursuit. From a hedonistic standpoint, it seems to me that in human affairs the means generally have to justify the end; that ends are inferior carrots dangled before our noses to make us exercise those activities from which we gain most of our pleasures; and that the secret of a tolerably happy life may be summed up in a parody of Hegel’s famous epigram about the infinite End, viz., “the attainment of the infinite End just consists in preserving the illusion that there is an End to be attained.”
C. D. Broad, Five Types of Ethical Theory, London, 1930, pp. 191-192
There is no need to import superstition. We can begin with a mechanistic view of the world, one in which bits of energy and matter interact in various ways perhaps according to certain deterministic or probabilistic laws of causation; and in which people’s lives are determined by the interplay of their own desires, goals, commitments, urges, and impulses with those of other people, steered by different beliefs about the world, of varying degrees of falsehood and veracity, all within the limits imposed by nature; but a world that exhibits no transcendent purpose or meaning or design in any of its parts—no purpose, that is, outside the purely continent (and usually quite powerless) wills of individual people and animals. Nevertheless, surely it would be blindness to fail to see, at the very least, that some things in this purposeless world are objectively bad; that these things ought not to arise; that we are obliged by their very badness to prevent them from arising; and that certainly the experience of suffering in its many forms has this very property of objective badness that I have been describing, even if nothing else has it. It seems to me stranger to deny this than to affirm it.
Jeremy Mayerfeld, Suffering and Moral Responsibility, New York, 1999, p. 113
If I could trade some bafflement in factual matters for certitude about questions of ethics, would I do so? Which is more important: knowing the precise phylogenetic relationships between al the various branches of the evolutionary bush or knowing the meaning of life?
Robert Sawyer, Calculating God, New York, 2000, p. 197
Now, let us hear another story. A man goes to India, consults a sage in a cave and asks him the meaning of life. In three sentences the sage tells him, the man thanks him and leaves. There are several variants of this story also: In the first, the man lives meaningfully ever after; in the second he makes the sentences public so that everyone then knows the meaning of life; in the third, he sets the sentences to rock music, making his fortune and enabling everyone to whistle the meaning of life; and in the fourth variant, his plane crashes as he is flying off from his meeting with the sage. In the fifth version, the person listening to me tell this story eagerly asks what sentences the sage spoke.
And in the sixth version, I tell him.
Robert Nozick, Philosophical Explanations, Cambridge, Massachusetts, 1981, pp. 573-574
Life is agid, life is fulgid.
Life is a burgeoning, a
quickening of the dim primordial
urge in the murky wastes
of time. Life is what the
least of us make most of
us feel the least of us
make the most of.
Willard Van Orman Quine, in Hugh S. Moorhead (ed.) The Meaning of Life: According to Our Century’s Greatest Writers and Thinkers, Chicago, 1988, pp. 154-155
[O]nce space travel begins, there are, in principle, no further physical barriers to prevent Homo sapiens (or our descendants) from eventually expanding to colonize a substantial portion, if not all, of the visible Cosmos. Once this has occurred, it becomes quite reasonable to speculate that the operations of all these intelligent beings could begin to affect the large scale evolution of the Universe. If this is true, it would be in this era—in the far future near the Final State of the Universe—that the true significance of life and intelligence would manifest itself. Present-day life would then have cosmic significance because of what future life may someday accomplish.
John Barrow and Frank Tipler, The Anthropic Cosmological Principle, Oxford, 1986, p. 614
Mi pensamiento es pesimista; mi sentido vital es optimista. A mí me encanta la vida, yo me divierto con vivir. Si oigo una frase que me hace gracia, estoy contentísimo; si he soñado un sueño que me parece divertido, de algún modo estoy encantado; si se me ocurre una idea, lo mismo… Me gusta leer, me gusta ir al cine… Yo tengo la impresión de que, cuando hago el balance de mis días, en general puedo decir que me he divertido y que, en los días estériles, tampoco lo pasé tan mal. En cambio, si yo reflexiono sobre la vida, pienso que nada tiene demasiada importancia porque seremos olvidados y desapareceremos definitivamente. Eso es lo que yo pienso. Yo creo que nuestra inmortalidad literaria es a corto plazo, porque un día habrá tanta gete, que no se podrán acordar de todos los escritores que hubo en un momento. O se acordarán muy imperfectamente. Ya no seremos materia de placer para nadie: seremos materia de estudio para ciertos especialistas, que quieran estudiar tal y tal tendencia de la literatura argentina de tal año. Y, después de todo eso, un día la Tierra chocará con algo, ya que la Tierra, como todas las cosas de este mundo, es finita. Un día desaparecerá la Tierra, y entonces no quedará el recuerdo de Shakespeare, y menos aún el de nosotros. Así que pienso que, teniendo en cuenta todas estas cosas, nada de la vida es muy importante. Entonces, yo casi podría reducir la importancia de la vida a una idea: la idea de que son importantes las cosas que, por lo menos, nos hacen estar complacidos. Vale decir: a mí, por ejemplo, me duele algo que es cruel o es deshonesto. O inclusive algo que sea desconsiderado con otra persona: eso me duele. Entonces, salvo hacer esas cosas y salvo hacer las que dan placer y dan alegría, nada tendría importancia.
Adolfo Bioy Casares, in Fernando Sorrentino, Siete conversaciones con Adolfo Bioy Casares, Buenos Aires, 1992, pp. 240-241
At some level, we still hadn’t swallowed the hardest-won truth of all: The universe is indifferent.
Greg Egan, ‘Silver Fire’, in Luminous, London, 1998, p. 171
Most of the time, we live in an illusion of meaningfulness and only some times, when we are philosophically reflective, are we aware of reality and the meaninglessness of our lives. It seems obvious that this has a genetic basis, due to Darwinian laws of evolution. In order to survive and reproduce, it must seem to us most of the time that our actions are not futile, that people have rights. The rare occasions in which we know the truth about life are genetically prevented from overriding living our daily lives with the illusion that they are meaningful. As I progress through this paper, I have the illusion that my efforts are not utterly futile, but right now, as I stop and reflect, I realise that any further effort put into this paper is a futile expenditure of my energy.
Quentin Smith, ‘Moral Realism and Infinite Spacetime Imply Moral Nihilism’, in Heather Dyke (ed.), Time and Ethics: Essays at the Intersection, Dordrecht, 2003, p. 53
If you look for a meaning, you’ll miss everything that happens.
Andrei Tarkovsky, in ‘Tarkovsky’s Translations’, interview with Philip Strick, Sight and Sound, vol. 50, no. 3 (Summer 1981), pp. 152-153, reprinted in John Gianvito (ed.), Andrei Tarkovsky: Interviews, Jackson, 2006, p. 71
Not long ago I was sleeping in a cabin in the woods and was awoken in the middle of the night by the sounds of a struggle between two animals. Cries of terror and extreme agony rent the night, intermingled with the sounds of jaws snapping bones and flesh being torn from limbs. One animal was being savagely attacked, killed and then devoured by another. […] [I]it seems to me that the horror I experienced on that dark night in the woods was a veridical insight. What I experienced was a brief and terrifying glimpse into the ultimately evil dimension of a godless world.
Quentin Smith, ‘An Atheological Argument from Evil Natural Laws’, International Journal for Philosophy of Religion, vol. 29, no. 3 (June, 1991), pp. 159, 173
That Man is the product of causes which had no prevision of the end they were achieving; that his origin, his growth, his hopes and fears, his loves and his beliefs, are but the outcome of accidental collocations of atoms; that no fire, no heroism, no intensity of thought and feeling, can preserve an individual life beyond the grave; that all the labours of the ages, all the devotion, all the inspiration, all the noonday brightness of human genius, are destined to extinction in the vast death of the solar system, and that the whole temple of Man’s achievement must inevitably be buried beneath the debris of a universe in ruins–all these things, if not quite beyond dispute, are yet so nearly certain, that no philosophy which rejects them can hope to stand. Only within the scaffolding of these truths, only on the firm foundation of unyielding despair, can the soul’s habitation henceforth be safely built.
Bertrand Russell, ‘The Free Man’s Worship’, Independent Review, vol. 1 (December, 1903), pp. 415-424
When I eat my dinner I don’t do it to the greater glory of God; I do it because I enjoy it. The world’s full of amusing things—books, wine, travel, friends—everything. I’ve never seen any meaning in it all, and I don’t want to see one. Why not take life as you find it?
George Orwell, A Clergyman’s Daughter, 1935