So instead, like I did before to keep your attention, here's one of my philosophy papers. I did not want to write this paper because it deals with a question that (a) I think the answer to is plainly true, (b) is depressing, and (c) brings to mind a lot of the terrible arguments I had with those close to me when I was super depressed.
Consequently, I procrastinated writing this paper and wasn't able to get started on it before I found a way to make it funny. But I did manage to conceive of a fairly novel (to me) argument while writing it, which is kind of the point, so that's good. Unfortunately, in the first draft (which I turned in), that novel argument was kind of muddled. I cleaned things up a bit for this post. So here's hoping my TA tries to find out whether or not I plagiarized anybody and ends up stumbling onto my second draft.
Before writing a paper, one should always figure out why one is writing it. However, to save time, I have decided to answer this question while writing it. More broadly put, the question I’m considering here is whether writing this paper is in some sense a meaningful thing to do. In asking this question, I will also be forced to wonder whether anything at all—up to and including being alive—is meaningful. A cursory examination of my thoughts reveals three potential reasons why I might want to write this paper: to get a good grade, to have some sort of positive impact on the world, and to give my life value. A detailed exploration will reveal that none of these are sufficient reasons for paper-writing and that it’s overwhelmingly unlikely that completing this assignment could be considered at all meaningful. And yet there is no possible way for me to reach this conclusion without analytically contemplating the question itself—without writing the paper. I could have come to a different conclusion, so it would appear that any necessary first step in finding meaning in life is looking for it.
The most compelling reason for writing this paper is that I want to get a good grade on it. When we ask whether something is meaningful in this sense, we’re inquiring as to the point or purpose of doing it. Here I am asking to what ends paper-writing is a means. While it may not always be easy to elucidate the motivation for any particular action, it seems clear that anything we end up doing was motivated by something. Thus the motivation for writing this paper—the meaning in doing so—is that I wish to excel academically. Within the context of academic excellence, it is easy to find meaning in paper-writing.
Where trouble arises is that the goal of getting good grades is itself embedded in broader contexts. So we might be tempted to ask why doing well in school is a meaningful activity. After all, if maintaining my GPA is not meaningful, it’s hard to argue that any task geared toward GPA maintenance is also meaningful in a deep sense. So we can follow a causal chain up from paper-writing that goes something like this: I’m writing this paper to get a good grade; I want good grades so that I can get a degree; I want a degree so that I can find a satisfying, well-paying job; I want a satisfying, well-paying job so that I can live a happy, moral life; I want a happy, moral life so that… well… here’s where our chain runs into some problems.
Why do I want to live a happy, moral life? It might be so that I can raise happy, moral children who will raise happy, moral children, and so on. There’s no escape from the chain in that direction. I might want to live this kind of life because I am motivated to do so psychologically. If I am merely a machine in a clockwork universe, then my desire to live such a life can be understood as a tool of biological evolution for producing viable offspring, like the kind of animal life described by Taylor in “The Meaning of Human Existence.” Happiness is meaningful only insofar as I am a more efficient tool when happy; morality is meaningful because social cohesion provides a better environment for rearing children.
We might be tempted to stop here and find meaning in being happiness-generating biological machines, but doing so forces us to admit other features of the natural world we find less palatable. We are also motivated to kill competitors, to steal mates, and to enslave our inferiors. In fact, any action we take can be rationalized as psychologically-motivated and thus ultimately stemming from biological urges. Not only does this seem to grant legitimacy to terrible actions, but it also doesn’t leave room for degrees of meaningfulness. If writing this paper is just as meaningful as binge-watching House of Cards (consuming popular media signals to others that I am a member of the group, increasing my social status and apparent reproductive fitness, or something), then there’s no positive reason to perform any particular action at all.
If we continue on down the causal chain, we must engage in some reductionism. Biology is nothing more than the chemistry of self-replicating, homeostatic, organic molecules. Chemistry is nothing more than the physics of very large chunks of atoms. And physics is nothing more than a fundamental description of reality. From this vantage, why we engage in any particular action such as paper-writing can be summed up rather neatly: because thermodynamics, or because the fine-structure constant is 0.0072973525698.
While these might be accurate descriptions of why we do what we do, they are not altogether satisfying as explanations. The reason is that there doesn’t appear to be any deeper significance to the laws of physics. It’s difficult to say that the purpose of writing a paper is to conserve angular momentum. In fact, such a statement hardly even seems intelligible, which casts doubt on it being meaningful. At the end of this causal chain, we’re left not with motivations for actions but abstract descriptions of them.
The way out that many take here is to suppose that the underlying rules do exist for a reason, and that reason is God. If there is a transcendent entity who makes all the rules, including the rules that govern what is meaningful or moral, then acting in accordance with the purpose laid out by this being would be a meaningful way to spend one’s life, as Wolf alludes to in “The Meanings of Lives.” In that case, all I have to do is figure out whether or not me writing this paper is part of God’s plan.
Ah, but which God? Throughout the span of human history, we have described (either via revelation or invention) a great many possible gods. It’s unlikely that I’m going to be able to settle on the correct one before completing this paper. In fact, it’s not even clear how one might go about proving that a particular god is the correct one, because many who profess such knowledge claim that it is a subjective matter of faith. I might be tempted to find one specifically devoted to paper-writing, but that seems somewhat self-serving.
In the absence of any definitive proof about which gods are real, I am forced to abandon my search for meaning down the path of purposes and points. While there is certainly meaning within limited contexts, there is not a clear way toward objective meaning by focusing on the reasons for acting a particular way.
Perhaps the meaning of a thing is not found in the reason for it but in the significance of it. Perhaps me writing this paper will have an impact on the world or be felt in some way. This sense of meaningfulness is divorced from notions of what is good about paper-writing and instead focuses on the lasting effects of paper-writing. Something is meaningful if its creation adds to the world, changes the course of things, or leaves a mark. Here, meaning is found in the positive features of a thing—its extent and shape.
From this perspective, it’s easy to see how my paper will be meaningful. It will have a significant impact on the way its grader spends a half hour. Rather than binge-watching House of Cards, the person deciding my grade will read my paper, mark it up, complain about its inanity to sympathetic ears, and be forced to wrestle with ELMS in order to record my grade for all time. There are two possible objections one might make to this conception of meaning: it’s rather permissive, and our intuitive sense of meaning is of something grander.
Meaning as impact is permissive in that significance is lacking qualification. Everything I do has an impact on the world. Every breath I take rearranges the positions of billions and billions of air molecules. Given the sheer number of states that can be occupied by the atoms around me, everything I do ensures a permanent change. That is, after I act, nothing will ever be exactly the way it was before. Every tap of the keyboard makes microscopic changes in the structure of the keys themselves. These are all lasting changes to the world brought about by my direct intervention, but few would describe any of it as meaningful. Yes, from this perspective, writing papers is meaningful, but so is scratching my head or yawning.
So then we must be discerning about what qualifies as significant if we wish to exclude the trivial. One possible criterion is that actions must be noticed for them to be significant and meaningful. Because I have no direct awareness of how my actions change the molecules around me, my breathing is not noticeable and thus not significant. This qualification still permits my paper to be meaningful because someone else will be forced to read it, which might okay. We can say that my paper would be more meaningful if it were read by more people, if its brilliant philosophical insights changed the way millions thought, if it were referenced in Wikipedia articles, if undergraduate students taking introductory philosophy courses a thousand years from now were required to read it. This sense of meaning gets at the grandeur lacking from simply capturing the attention of a grader for a short while.
We can object to this notion of meaning in two ways. First, meaning as a noticeable impact on the world is grounded concretely in the limitations of human awareness. These limitations can be overcome by advances in observational tools. For example, we could imagine a world in which robots with exquisite sensors monitor the microstates of air molecules in my house and broadcast that information across the internet for all to consume. Under such a scenario, my breathing has once again become meaningful. But in the opposite direction, that which too few of us are aware of is not meaningful. We can imagine another world in which the prosperity of our civilization rests on slave labor that is hidden from us. We would all find it to be very significant indeed if the weight of our world were carried on the backs of the impoverished, and it seems incongruous to believe that the meaningfulness of this notion depends on our being aware of it. It’s also reasonable to believe a hidden slave population should be meaningful to more than just the slaves, especially because it is easy to conceive of a world in which they are unaware of why they labor.
The second objection picks away at the seeming grandness of what we are capable of doing. Having my paper appear on the reading list of future generations is about as significant as paper-writing can get. We can move up in scope and ask what possible significance my life in general could have. History is certainly peppered with great men and women who have done awesome and terrible things that echo in the present. Many historians might quibble with the idea that great people are ultimately responsible for the changes we see, but it’s probably possible to have a lasting impact on human civilization.
Yet here we are faced with the inevitable absurdity of human life. History is doubtless populated by countless significant figures we remain forever unaware of. But beyond that, the extent of our possible significance is quite literally infinitesimal. Virtually every human event in history has taken place inside a sphere with a radius under 6,400 km. The distance to the nearest star is 6 billion times that; the distance to the nearby Andromeda galaxy is half a million times that; the known size of the universe is a hundred thousand times as large as that; and the universe in all its unknown extent may be infinite. Geological records indicate that most species don’t persist longer than a few million years. Even if we beat the odds, in five billion years the Sun will swallow the Earth. If we somehow manage to escape that, the heat death of the universe will eventually erase any contribution we make. And long after we are gone, the universe will continue to exist for a span that is possibly trillions of times longer than its current age.
In “The Absurd,” Nagel objects to this notion of absurdity by pointing out that if nothing we do now will matter in a million years, then it doesn’t matter now that nothing we do will matter in a million years. But this misses the importance of meaning as significance. What’s important about this conception of meaning is persistence, whether through time or space. Binge-watching television isn’t meaningless because it happens not to be important years from now, but because its effects don’t persist through those years. It captures my attention while I am engaged in it but has no effect beyond its limited scope. So if the condition for meaningfulness is persistent significance on a large scale, then everything we could do ultimately fails.
Finally, we are left with a definition of meaning that most closely resembles more traditional meanings of the word meaning. It is possible that writing a philosophy paper could give my life value. That is, writing this paper may be an expression of who I am, a tool that others could use to gain knowledge about me. This is what it means for something to have meaning. The dictionary definition of a word tells you what a word is about; similarly, this paper may tell you what I am about and consequently be meaningful. In this sense, something is meaningful if it builds up some representation of an object that lets us understand something about that object.
From this notion alone, we can again naively conclude that paper-writing is clearly a meaningful activity. Anyone who reads this paper will gain some measure of insight into how my mind works. Similarly, anything I end up doing with my life can be meaningful if the events of my life create a narrative which tells you about me. Yet that presents us with a problem, because our intuition tells us that some lives might be more meaningful than others and that this should depend on what you end up doing with your life. It shouldn’t depend on the quality of the representation that can be built up based on your life.
As an example of why not all representations we can construct about a thing are meaningful, consider lightning. We could image a picture of lightning as being a manifestation of Zeus’ anger over the fact that we build skyscrapers. You could even argue that Zeus has reason to be mad at trees and sometimes even people. This is a description of lightning which may match what we observe, but we would not say that it is a meaningful description of lightning. It does not correspond to what we now know lightning to really be about—electricity, ions, and the like. So what we might say is that some things you do with your life—such as going to the bathroom or watching television—might not be meaningful because they don’t correspond to what we really know life is about.
Once again we are confronted with our sense of what is meaningful. That is, if we sense that some life activity is meaningful, our belief is that the activity accurately maps on to the person. If we follow the sense analogy, we can consider two ways in which we can sense what is out there in the world. On the one hand, our eyes see in color. It might seem obvious to believe that color inheres in objects, but the mechanism by which eyes work suggests something else. Rather, our eyes detect the intensity of light around three wavelength bands and then construct colors based on that information and a variety of other contextual clues. Color is not something that really exists but something our minds make a posteriori because it is useful for distinguishing between objects.
On the other hand, we also sometimes see objects that resemble triangles. Triangles, rather than being something we experience, are things we can construct a priori based on the formal rules of geometry. When we see a triangle in the world, we are comparing it to the Platonic triangle that is a product of our reason.
The parallel with our sense of meaning is this: is meaning a useful tool we build up from experiences, or is it an abstract entity that we see reflected in the world? If I write a philosophy paper and others see something meaningful in it, does that meaning arise from a psychologically-motivated heuristic about what’s important in life, or from a formal system that deductively defines human experience? If it is the former, then that meaning may not necessarily connect to what’s out there in the world—namely me. If the latter, then perhaps my paper is a true reflection of me and the sense of meaningfulness accurately signals this.
Unfortunately, there are no problem-free theories about what humans really are. Are we invested with souls? Are we rational agents or just animals possessing the illusion of control? What is the essence of being a human? What is consciousness? Does personal identity persist over time? Many of the questions regarding what it means to be human come down to what Nagel calls the subjective character of experience, a problem some consider unsolvable. We can never really know what is going on inside another person’s head because qualia are simply not objective. This leads us to the conclusion that it is very unlikely our haphazardly constructed brains have stumbled upon a sense of meaningfulness that is logically sound, so our sense is not a reliable indicator of whether what someone does with their life reflects who they really are. This does not rule out the possibility that people can do meaningful things, but it does rule out our knowing about it. And it might not make sense to say that something can be meaningful if no one gets the meaning, in which case nothing is meaningful.
From all this I can conclude that there is no point to writing this paper, that doing so will have no lasting impact on the world, and that it does not say anything meaningful about who I am. I clearly shouldn’t have wasted any time on it. However, it cannot be ignored that I could not have reached this conclusion without carefully considering what it means to be meaningful. While the arguments I present show that life does not appear to be meaningful, they do not prove that life could not be meaningful. This leaves open the possibility that we may discover some meaning in the future, and the only path toward that meaning is through thinking about it. So writing papers about meaning is not meaningful, but it might be a prerequisite for meaning.