October 10, 2013

Does Too Much Meaning Beget Meaninglessness?

Filed under: Life,Philosophy — camcintosh @ 12:32 am

Where “meaning” or “meaningfulness” is what makes things valuable, purposeful, or worth doing, consider the connection between meaning and time: we typically judge what is worthwhile according to what is worth our while. Ideally, the existential ‘worth’ appropriately corresponds to the temporal ‘while’ it took to achieve it. Hence, we say we ‘waste our time,’ while we do things not worth doing.

meaning-of-lifeNow suppose naturalism is true. Life is finite and death is final. The moments that together constitute my life are the only moments I will have. Every passing breath brings me closer to the annihilation of my self. Thus, naturalists would seem to have a stronger impetus to make more worth their while than theists, because wasted time is literally wasted life. So, in an ironic turning of the tables, the naturalist could argue life is more meaningful given naturalism than theism: Does anyone have more motivation to “make the most out of every moment” than the naturalist? As a naturalist, would there be anything more foolish than choosing to not make the most out of every moment of my life?

But granting this is so, it’s almost as if each moment of life is so pregnant with meaning that it would be impossible to fully grab. The worth could never appropriately correspond to the while because nothing seems worth as much as the while. The value of my time will always exceed the value of anything I could be spending my time doing. Suppose there is something worth my while; namely, whatever is the most I could be getting out of any moment. If I’m not making the most out of this moment, I’m wasting my life. But how can I ever be sure I’m making the most out of the moment? Isn’t there always the possibility that there’s something else I could be “getting more out of”? But don’t think about it, because time’s a’wastin’! The anxiety is liable to produce despair. It an ironic re-turning of the tables, too much meaning might result in meaninglessness.



  1. A couple thoughts on this. (Which I’ve thought about since you posted it years ago, btw.)

    If the naturalist is a moral realist, I think he might not even care so specifically about the meaningfulness of his life. He might be more concerned with living the good or right life – which is a more specific category than a “meaningful” life. To live a good life means to respond to the pain of people around us to the best of our abilities, to cultivate the virtues, and to fulfill our obligations. Meaningfulness might just be a pleasant byproduct of this, the actual goal.

    Then there is the pragmatic objection, which is that a naturalist would get the most out of life by recognizing the finitude with which he must work, and therefore will judge accurately what he does and what he does not have time to do. I think a lot of people might not have your capabilities of abstraction to arrive at such despair.

    Lastly, does this not also apply to the theist, who only has one earthly life to live? Have we any reason to expect our lives will have the goods here in heaven? Does Scripture not make it seem like it will be a whole new tier of goods, and that anything like our earthly life here will be merely a misty memory?

    P.S. There is a How I Met Your Mother episode where Barney has a sign at the Super Bowl with his phone number on it. It airs on TV and after the game the phone never stops ringing with women who want to sleep with him….but every time he is about to do so, the phone rings again, and an even better-sounding woman is on the other line, whom he immediately leaves to sleep with. Eventually, having not slept with anyone, he is overwhelmed and destroys the phone.

    Comment by Philip Mendola — October 10, 2013 @ 4:19 pm | Reply

    • Thanks for the comment, Phil. You must have an exceptionally good memory.

      Let’s separate two questions I didn’t clearly separate in the post.

      Q1: Given naturalism, is there anything worth my while? Supposing the answer to this question is “yes,” proceed:
      Q2: Given naturalism, if I can’t ever be sure I’m doing something worth my while, should that beget crippling anxiety?

      If I understand you correctly, you suggest a naturalist moral realist could justifiably answer “yes” to Q1. His answer would be “living the good or right life.” Let’s grant that. Given the broad understanding of ‘meaningful’ introduced in the post, “pursuing the good life to the best of my ability” will be what is worth the while; i.e., how the naturalist makes the most out of his life. And it still seems like the naturalist qua naturalist would have special impetus to make the most of his life. But then Q2 still raises a worry. How could he ever know if he’s pursuing the good life to “the best of his ability”? If he isn’t, he’s failing to make most out of his life, and so irreparably squandering it. Being in this cognitive situation, it seems to me, should produce crippling anxiety. Here’s a story to motivate the thought (I haven’t thought it all the way through, so I may need to tweak it):

      You are a 49er rushing for gold on an American frontier. The goal is to get all the gold on the frontier within a strict but feasible time window. If you manage, you get to keep the gold and live worry free for the rest of your life. If you don’t collect all the gold in time, you get shot. But there’s a lot of fool’s gold out there, and you can’t really be sure the gold-looking chunks you find are real gold without performing a time-costly analysis. The longer you pause to check, the more time expires and the less likely you are to collect all the gold. It’s also the case that if you wind up with any fool’s gold in the end, you get shot. But the more gold chunks you check, the more likely it is that you end up with no fools gold.

      It seems to me that being in this situation would beget a crippling anxiety that makes the whole task a despairing one. Of course, even if it’s true that a naturalist’s not knowing whether what he’s doing is worth his while should produce crippling anxiety, not everyone is reflective enough to find themselves in that cognitive situation. Maybe this is a good reason for why no naturalist should be a philosopher! Cf. the passage from C. S. Lewis that William Vallicella recently quoted.

      I’m thinking an expanded theism helps here because the afterlife will guarantee “making up for lost time,” effectively preventing any crippling anxiety one might experience in the face of the countdown to our death.

      The episode of HIMYM sounds hilarious.

      Comment by camcintosh — October 11, 2013 @ 12:30 am | Reply

  2. I’m also assuming that if the naturalist (if naturalism is true) isn’t making the most out of his life, he is squandering it–squandering it in a way that’s more ‘weighty’ or ‘grave’ than when a theist (if theism is true) squanders his life. This is what I meant by “irreparably squandering”. Should the gravity of this squandering produce crippling anxiety?

    Comment by camcintosh — October 11, 2013 @ 10:12 am | Reply

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