Thursday, March 17, 2011

Meaning of life again

I posted earlier that what I take to mean when people talk about the "meaning of life" is either the value (or highest significance, etc) of life or, on the other hand, the purpose of life. But sometimes people may have another meaning in mind.

Some may think when they say things like "life does not have meaning" is that there is no non arbitrary or objective narrative structure to life, no grand story of life. More specifically, I've heard that many people who believe in god may think that life has a "narrative" structure created by God and that it is our job to find out what this narrative structure is. It is there independent of our interpretation. It is a grand story of life, complete with beginning, middle filled with some kind of conflict (between good and evil etc) and teleological end. I will call this the hermeneutical understanding of the meaning of life. Finding out this meaning is analogous to finding out the correct interpretation for a Shakespearean play only we are the actors and stage directors that are to be in it. Shakespeare may very well have intended his plays to be interpreted in certain ways as opposed to others. Knowing it helps us to know our roles well perhaps: how to act, what to say, how to say it, etc.

Some people would be deeply upset by the fact that there is no such absolute hermeneutic meaning if it turns out revealed that there's no god-author and they will not be consoled by the existentialists' advice that we should, in some sense, be the authors of our own life story. Those not satisfied with that advice may see this as arbitrary or a "projection" without the absoluteness if divine meaning or some kind of absolute principle that we don't impart on reality.

This kind of thinking makes a linguistic analogy (hermeneutical). However, this understanding of life's meaning simply pushed the problem one step back for even if there is a god and he has intended life be lived and interpreted in a certain way, we may still ask if that way of understanding and living is absolute or arbitrary. In other words, there is a "further question problem." Notice this is analogous to the problem Plato posed about morality in the Euthyphro. As Socrates allegedly said:

"Is the pious (τὸ ὅσιον) loved by the gods because it is pious, or is it pious because it is loved by the gods?"

This is a moral direction-of-fit problem. Philosophers seem to universally agree that if there is a god or gods, they cannot choose to make whatever they want moral (or pious) much as they cannot make it so that 2+2=5. Anyone, even if god, doubts the truth of that mathematical claim seem not to understand mathematics or be communicating in a different language from us when they doubt that claim. Analogously, they cannot make it so that torturing babies for fun is right. If torturing babies for fun is wrong, it is wrong whether the god(s) believes or loves the fact that it is it is or not. If anyone denies that moral fact, it seems they also not know what moral terms and claims mean or they seem to be using a different language altogether.

If god made the world with an intention in mind as to its hermeneutic meaning, we can always ask if this meaning is arbitrary and if god could have made it otherwise. If it is arbitrary then it is, in a real sense, not absolute and we are back to the arbitrariness of life. The theist does not escape arbitrariness in meaning by appealing to god. If god put in some meaning because it is valuable and not because it becomes valuable by the mere fact of him endorsing it, then god simply factors out of the equation. It is valuable on its own. Even if god had never lived, it would still be valuable to live life according to that interpretation.