Ultimate Meaning: We Don't Have It, We Can't Get It, and We Should Be Very, Very Sad

28 Jul 2022 10:59 - 17 Jun 2023 08:29
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    • I'm going to use it as kind of a test case, to see if I can write a review of sorts using my freshly-baked writing stack. And yeah, there's something meta-level going on here. Right here in this paragraph I'm talking about my own local purpose, trying to justify and frame whatever it is I'm doing here (on this page, with this website, with my life).
    • Results: well, I took some notes and quotes and engaged in a sort of argument with this piece, the results are below. I can't be bothered to do the work to turn this into a coherent review, and I'm not sure what the value in publishing this is, but here it is anyway.

    • Some people worry that life is pointless. That’s because it is.
    • Really have to admire the forthrightness and plain language used here. That doesn't make it any less wrong. I don't think I'm being very fancy when I say that it's pretty obvious that an assertion like "life is pointless" does not have such a plain answer; people give their lives points, or not, in a rich and varied way. This is in the sense Telling the American Story, that is, people construct fictional narratives for themselves and their lives; and to that extent their life has a point, in exactly this fictional/narrative sense.
    • I further argue that ends lie separate from the acts and enterprises for which they provide a point
    • Well, not exactly, but it has a similar disconnect between goals and actions. Maybe this is the root of all evil (see anti-purpose).
    • A good discussion of what it means to have a point, an objective, valued ends. Distingusihes between telic and atelic pursuits. Telic are activities with a final end and completion, atelic ones are not, like "taking a walk", it is done for its own sake and with no final goal.
    • When we consider the project of living of a human life, what’s the point of it?
    • Something about this (and a great many other philosophy papers) makes me want to scream Type Error! Type Error! That is, the whole thing comes from trying to apply properties and predicates to inappropriate objects. "living a human life" is not the same sort of thing as a project
      for another critique of life-as-project see Psychopolitics
      , and all the bad consequences (being very sad) derive from this fundamental mistake.
      • Note: I'm not that much of a strong typing fan in programming languages, and it's even less applicable to human languages which are deeply metaphorical and inherently nebulous. But philosophy discourse, which pretends to a sort of mathematical rigor, could use a bit of that.
    • Ah OK the article anticipates this exact critique:
    • Seeking a Point to Life Is a Category Mistake: We might consider asking for the point of life, or being sad that there isn’t one, to be a category mistake, akin to asking, “When is a potato?” or being sad that your baby has a name but not a number.
    • But the answer is not very strong, it's just asserting that, yes, life is a project, but one that can't hold together. This seems wrongheaded and unsupported.
    • Are we nonsensically bemoaning an incoherence? I don’t think so. Leading a human life is an effort or enterprise we all engage in, just as we engage in many other projects within our human lives. It can then come as a disappointing surprise to note that, unlike many other of our purposeful enterprises, leading life itself cannot have a point. Asking whether life is pointless is not incoherent—we understand the question and are capable of sensibly answering it; we just may not like the answer.
    • You might think that you value, say, playing with your children, for its own sake but the play itself is not the valued end—it’s not the act of stacking blocks that is itself the point of stacking them. We want to know: why stack blocks?
    • Something gradgrindian about that. Real play is self-motivating and escapes from questions of why, although there are always evolutionary just-so stories available.
    • The point is not the running, it’s the exhilaration derived from it, etc.
    • Yes this is demonic utilitarianism . Running can't be for itself, it must be in pursuit of some abstracted, refined quantity like "exhilaration".
    • It is helpful here to distinguish between what we might call Everyday Meaning from Ultimate Meaning. Everyday Meaning refers to the value and significance in our everyday lives, including values such as beauty, love, and truth, and the significance of doing things that engage with them. It includes the purpose (i.e., the reason for which something is done) and point (i.e., justifying valued end) of much of our meaningful, everyday lives... Ultimate Meaning refers to the point of leading a life at all. Why bother with the project, effort, or enterprise of life? .... Distinguishing between Everyday Meaning and Ultimate Meaning makes sense of feeling that life is pointless while still caring very much about everyday matters such as your stubbed toe or your child’s first words.
    • Instead, the problem of Ultimate Meaning—its metaphysical impossibility—results from the nature of points (i.e., that they are separate from the activities, pursuits, projects, and efforts toward which they’re aimed) and the nature of a human life (i.e., that it includes its entirety)
    • We may note that many things in life are purposeful and have plenty of value, making life itself a container, of sorts, for valued ends but not the kind of thing that is itself directed toward a valued end.
    • It sounds like the author agrees with my type-theoretic argument above. Lives are not projects and so can't have a Meaning. (I think that's oversimplified but let's go with it for present purposes). But, why should we be sad about that?
    • Anyone who dreams and plans for the future, who thinks about how the past fits into their present and future, who thinks about the shape of their life, their reasons for living, the legacy they hope to leave—in other words, anyone who lives a human agential life, is leading a life—running a life—which is an effort, project or enterprise of its own. Our lives, as Velleman has argued, are a story we tell ourselves; we have a narrative identity, we want our lives to make sense as a whole.
    • Ah a link to narrative self which makes sense. But the attitude is wrongheaded.
    • Agency, authorship, and the leading of one’s life are human features that can come in degrees and variations. And for those who don’t care so much about the overall shape, structure, and purpose of their lives, noting life’s pointlessness will perhaps be less devastating. (So they may be merely sad, rather than very, very sad, at our realization about life’s pointlessness).
    • OK, to paraphrase: Our lives are pointless, yet we are doomed to try to give them a point, and we can't, so we should be sad. This makes zero sense, sorry. It suggests existentialism and Sisyphus, who was doomed to futile effort – but recall that Camus said we must imagine him happy.

    • OK, after awhile I gave up on this because it is so obviously wrong-headed. God do I get pissed off at philosophy, which takes important and interesting questions and reduces them to overly simplistic schemata that don't have much to do with reality. Wastes everybody's time.
    • The basic truth of this question is not that hard to grasp: meaning is not a thing you have, it's something you do, something you construct. There's no fixed meaning to your life; meaning is an interpretive frame you apply to your life to guide it and evaluate it.
    • And more than most things it's a cultural and social process rather than a purely individual mental act. People invent religions and subcultures and political movements as part of the collective project of meaning-making, and define their personal lives in relation to these larger-scale formations.
    • Or they don't. There are all kinds of ways to conceptualize a life and its purpose or lack thereof; some are more coherent than others, but there is nothing requiring coherence. Meaning is an essentially constructive, nebulous, and quasifictional process. It's a very characteristic and interesting human activity, we put a lot of time and effort into these sorts of self-dramatizations, the stories we tell ourselves about ourselves.
    • But the author seems upset that these stories aren't better grounded, that there is some external reason that drives the narrative process. This seems like a mistake.
    • Also: I find it wrong, and mildly offensive, to suggest that I be sad about my life's lack of well-defined external meaning. That is, there are plenty of things I can be sad about, but that isn't really in the top ten. It can make me feel regretful, or frustrated, or stupid, or inferior, but very very sad? For want of some Official Certificate of Purpose? I don't think so.
    • To be fair this point is anticipated:
    • And for those who don’t care so much about the overall shape, structure, and purpose of their lives, noting life’s pointlessness will perhaps be less devastating. (So they may be merely sad, rather than very, very sad, at our realization about life’s pointlessness)
    • I can get with that. There is a certainly a tinge of sadness to the indefiniteness of our lives and meanings, the sort of wistful pathos found in all transitory things, mono no aware. But there's a big difference between that and crippling nihilistic depression, which is what I interpret "very, very sad" to mean.
    • Another thing to note about this paper is that it it makes very little reference to the actual specific conditions of human life. Specifically, I would guess that of agency, purpose, and life-meaning-creation operate quite differently in young people vs old, people who are necessarily at different stages of whatever life stories they may have and have different senses for what is possible in the time left to them.
    • Elsewhere

    • Meaningness has weighed in: No meaning of life as a whole | Meaningness. He identifies Weinberg's stance as "lite nihilism" and his own view is expectedly more sensible:
      • First, “a project” is an optional technique for viewing patterns in your activity in order to rationalize it. There is no objective truth about whether or not something “is” a project. Sometimes it’s useful to view some things you are doing as a project, to better organize them; sometimes it’s not... Is it a good idea to view your entire life as a single overall project? Weinberg says that if you do, it should result in your being very, very sad. I think she’s probably right. So I recommend that you don’t do that.
      • I'd quibble with this; I think some people do manage to conceptualize their life as a project and that's just fine for them and may even be essential for cultural progress. The problems come from thinking you are obligated to do that.