Monday, June 01, 2015

On the feeling that life is meaningful

Time for Monday morning philosophizing!

Here's Sarah Perry (that is, the antinatalist* Sarah Perry, not the novelist Sarah Perry), writing in Every Cradle Is a Grave, making a point worth consideration about the role one's concept of "the meaning of life" plays in providing existential stability beyond the sum of its intellectual parts:
Subjectively, the feeling that life is meaningful - that there are ultimate values, that life has a purpose - tends to point to a source of meaning, something higher than and external to the mere feeling or intuition of meaning. While sources of meaning vary greatly (and often contradict each other), the sense and expectation of meaning itself is surprisingly universal - so universal that the intuition is almost never challenged. This very universality should motivate us to be cautious about taking meaning’s claims at face value. One should be suspicious of any claim that is defended for contradictory reasons, and most people who agree that life is meaningful disagree as to what makes it so. The belief that life is meaningful tends to take the form of a strong feeling rather than a reasoned conclusion; indeed, one of the functions of meaning is to shield a person from the harmful effects of reasoning by providing a value that is justified for its own sake, a foundational rock for cognition below which no “whys” need be answered. (p.31)

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I rather appreciate that she begins with the acknowledgment that the feeling there is a meaning to life waiting to be discovered or articulated is just that: a feeling, rather than an empirically observable fact about the universe. It's a widespread feeling, to be sure, but even so I suspect no one here** or anywhere else has ever come across that big eff-off stone tablet, ten hundred feet tall, covered with big eff-off graven letters, spelling out the text of the cosmic meaning of life Mad Libs? "The meaning of life is __________ (insert noun) and to live one's life __________ (adverb). The best tips for this meaning of life can be found in __________ (book title)."

The publisher of Every Cradle Is a Grave has made a PDF of the entire book available for free download, here.
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* The antinatalist is sometimes referred to as 'the wisdom of Silenus': "For he lives with the least worry who knows not his misfortune; but for humans, the best for them is not to be born at all, not to partake of nature’s excellence; not to be is best, for both sexes."

** If you HAVE found such a tablet, feel free to spill the details. We may be skeptics, but in view of such evidence, I don't think we're so proud that we wouldn't revise our worldview as needed to admit the existence of some great eff-off cosmic Mad Libs publisher out there somewhere, leaving tablets around willy-nilly to remind us that there is a meaning to life waiting for us to fill in the right answer.