The Varieties of Religious Experience


The Varieties of Religious Experience: A Study in Human Nature is a book by Harvard University psychologist and philosopher William James (1842 – 1910). James was an American philosopher and psychologist, and the first educator to offer a psychology course in the United States. He was one of the leading thinkers of the late nineteenth century and is believed by many to be one of the most influential philosophers the United States has ever produced, while others have labelled him the “Father of American psychology”.

Varieties comprises his edited Gifford Lectures on natural theology, which were delivered at the University of Edinburgh in Scotland in 1901 and 1902. The lectures concerned the nature of religion and the neglect of science in the academic study of religion.

Soon after its publication, Varieties entered the Western canon of psychology and philosophy and has remained in print for over a century.

James later developed his philosophy of pragmatism. There are many overlapping ideas in Varieties and his 1907 book, Pragmatism.

Religion, therefore, as I now ask you arbitrarily to take it, shall mean for us the feelings, acts, and experiences of individual men in their solitude, so far as they apprehend themselves to stand in relation to whatever they may consider the divine. Since the relation may be either moral, physical, or ritual, it is evident that out of religion in the sense in which we take it, theologies, philosophies, and ecclesiastical organizations may secondarily grow. Religion is a man’s total reaction upon life.

James was most interested in direct religious experiences. Theology and the organizational aspects of religion were of secondary interest. He believed that religious experiences were simply human experiences: “Religious happiness is happiness. Religious trance is trance.”

He believed that religious experiences can have “morbid origins” in brain pathology and can be irrational but nevertheless are largely positive. Unlike the bad ideas that people have under the influence of a high fever, after a religious experience, the ideas and insights usually remain and are often valued for the rest of the person’s life.

Under James’ pragmatism, the effectiveness of religious experiences proves their truth, whether they stem from religious practices or from drugs: “Nitrous oxide … stimulate[s] the mystical consciousness in an extraordinary degree.”

James had relatively little interest in the legitimacy or illegitimacy of religious experiences. Further, despite James’ examples being almost exclusively drawn from Christianity, he did not mean to limit his ideas to any single religion. Religious experiences are something that people sometimes have under certain conditions. In James’ description, these conditions are likely to be psychological or pharmaceutical rather than cultural.

Religion thus makes easy and felicitous what in any case is necessary; and if it be the only agency that can accomplish this result, its vital importance as a human faculty stands vindicated beyond dispute. It becomes an essential organ of our life, performing a function which no other portion of our nature can so successfully fulfill.

James believed that the origins of a religion shed little light upon its value. There is a distinction between an existential judgment (a judgment on “constitution, origin, and history”) and a proposition of value (a judgment on “importance, meaning, or significance”).

For example, if the founder of the Quaker religion, George Fox, had been a hereditary degenerate, the Quaker religion could yet be “a religion of veracity rooted in spiritual inwardness, and a return to something more like the original gospel truth than men had ever known in England.”

Furthermore, the potentially dubious psychological origins of religious beliefs apply just as well to non-religious beliefs:

Scientific theories are organically conditioned just as much as religious emotions are; and if we only knew the facts intimately enough, we should doubtless see “the liver” determining the dicta of the sturdy atheist as decisively as it does those of the Methodist under conviction anxious about his soul. Science… has ended by utterly repudiating the personal point of view.

James criticized scientists for ignoring unseen aspects of the universe. Science studies some of reality, but not all of it:

Vague impressions of something indefinable have no place in the rationalistic system…. Nevertheless, if we look on man’s whole mental life as it exists … we have to confess that the part of it of which rationalism can give an account of is relatively superficial. It is the part that has the prestige undoubtedly, for it has the loquacity, it can challenge you for proofs, and chop logic, and put you down with words … Your whole subconscious life, your impulses, your faiths, your needs, your divinations, have prepared the premises, of which your consciousness now feels the weight of the result; and something in you absolutely knows that that result must be truer than any logic-chopping rationalistic talk, however clever, that may contradict it.

James saw “healthy-mindedness” as America’s main contribution to religion. This is the religious experience of optimism and positive thinking which James sees running from the transcendentalists Emerson and Whitman to Mary Baker Eddy’s Christian Science. At the extreme, the “healthy-minded” see sickness and evil as an illusion. James considered belief in the “mind cure” to be reasonable when compared to medicine as practiced at the beginning of the twentieth century.

The “sick souls” (“morbid-mindedness” / the “twice-born”) are merely those who hit bottom before their religious experience; those whose redemption gives relief from the pains they suffered beforehand. By contrast, the “healthy-minded” deny the need for such preparatory pain or suffering. James believes that “morbid-mindedness ranges over the wider scale of experience” and that while healthy-mindedness is a surprisingly effective “religious solution”,

healthy-mindedness is inadequate as a philosophical doctrine, because the evil facts which it refuses positively to account for are a genuine portion of reality; and they may after all be the best key to life’s significance, and possibly the only openers of our eyes to the deepest levels of truth.

James sees the two types as being a mere matter of temperament: the healthy minded having a “constitutional incapacity for prolonged suffering”; the morbid-minded being those prone to “religious melancholia”.

The basenesses so commonly charged to religion’s account are thus, almost all of them, not chargeable at all to religion proper, but rather to religion’s wicked practical partner, the spirit of corporate dominion. And the bigotries are most of them in their turn chargeable to religion’s wicked intellectual partner, the spirit of dogmatic dominion, the passion for laying down the law in the form of an absolutely closed-in theoretic system.

For James, a saintly character is one where “spiritual emotions are the habitual centre of the personal energy.” James states that saintliness includes:

1. A feeling of being in a wider life than that of this world’s selfish little interests; and a conviction … of the existence of an Ideal Power.

2. A sense of the friendly continuity of the ideal power with our own life, and a willing self-surrender to its control.

3. An immense elation and freedom, as the outlines of the confining selfhood melt down.

4. A shifting of the emotional Centre towards loving and harmonious affections, towards “yes, yes” and away from “no,” where the claims of the non-ego are concerned.

For James, the practical consequences of saintliness are asceticism (pleasure in sacrifice), strength of soul (a “blissful equanimity” free from anxieties), purity (a withdrawal from the material world), and charity (tenderness to those most would naturally disdain).

James identified two main features to a mystical experience:

Ineffability —”No adequate report of its contents can be given in words. … its quality must be directly experienced; it cannot be imparted or transferred to others. … mystical states are more like states of feeling than like states of intellect. No one can make clear to another who has never had a certain feeling, in what the quality or worth of it consists.”

Noetic quality —”Although so similar to states of feeling, mystical states seem to those who experience them to be also states of knowledge. They are states of insight into depths of truth unplumbed by the discursive intellect. They are illuminations, revelations, full of significance and importance, all inarticulate though they remain; and as a rule they carry with them a curious sense of authority for after-time.”

He also identified two subsidiary features that are often, but not always, found with mystical experiences:

Transiency —”Mystical states cannot be sustained for long.”

Passivity —”The mystic feels as if his own will were in abeyance, and indeed sometimes as if he were grasped and held by a superior power.”

The only thing that religious experience, as we have studied it, unequivocally testifies to is that we can experience union with something larger than ourselves and in that union find our greatest peace.

Read Now: The Varieties of Religious Experience by William James (PDF)

What makes People distrust Science?


A Map of the Square and Stationary Earth by Professor Orlando Ferguson, South Dakota, 1893. Photo courtesy Wikipedia

Bastiaan T Rutjens | Aeon Ideas

Today, there is a crisis of trust in science. Many people – including politicians and, yes, even presidents – publicly express doubts about the validity of scientific findings. Meanwhile, scientific institutions and journals express their concerns about the public’s increasing distrust in science. How is it possible that science, the products of which permeate our everyday lives, making them in many ways more comfortable, elicits such negative attitudes among a substantial part of the population? Understanding why people distrust science will go a long way towards understanding what needs to be done for people to take science seriously.

Political ideology is seen by many researchers as the main culprit of science skepticism. The sociologist Gordon Gauchat has shown that political conservatives in the United States have become more distrusting of science, a trend that started in the 1970s. And a swath of recent research conducted by social and political psychologists has consistently shown that climate-change skepticism in particular is typically found among those on the conservative side of the political spectrum. However, there is more to science skepticism than just political ideology.

The same research that has observed the effects of political ideology on attitudes towards climate change has also found that political ideology is not that predictive of skepticism about other controversial research topics. Work by the cognitive scientist Stephan Lewandowsky, as well as research led by the psychologist Sydney Scott, observed no relation between political ideology and attitudes toward genetic modification. Lewandowsky also found no clear relation between political conservatism and vaccine skepticism.

So there is more that underlies science skepticism than just political conservatism. But what? It is important to systematically map which factors do and do not contribute to science skepticism and science (dis)trust in order to provide more precise explanations for why a growing number of individuals reject the notion of anthropogenic climate change, or fear that eating genetically modified products is dangerous, or believe that vaccines cause autism.

My colleagues and I recently published a set of studies that investigated science trust and science skepticism. One of the take-home messages of our research is that it is crucial not to lump various forms of science skepticism together. And although we were certainly not the first to look beyond political ideology, we did note two important lacunae in the literature. First, religiosity has so far been curiously under-researched as a precursor to science skepticism, perhaps because political ideology commanded so much attention. Second, current research lacks a systematic investigation into various forms of skepticism, alongside more general measures of trust in science. We attempted to correct both oversights.

People can be skeptical or distrusting of science for different reasons, whether it is about one specific finding from one discipline (for example, ‘The climate is not warming, but I believe in evolution’), or about science in general (‘Science is just one of many opinions’). We identified four major predictors of science acceptance and science skepticism: political ideology; religiosity; morality; and knowledge about science. These variables tend to intercorrelate – in some cases quite strongly – which means that they are potentially confounded. To illustrate, an observed relation between political conservatism and trust in science might in reality be caused by another variable, for example religiosity. When not measuring all constructs simultaneously, it is hard to properly assess what the predictive value of each of these is.

So, we investigated the heterogeneity of science skepticism among samples of North American participants (a large-scale cross-national study of science skepticism in Europe and beyond will follow). We provided participants with statements about climate change (eg, ‘Human CO2 emissions cause climate change’), genetic modification (eg, ‘GM of foods is a safe and reliable technology’), and vaccination (eg, ‘I believe that vaccines have negative side effects that outweigh the benefits of vaccination for children’). Participants could indicate to what extent they agreed or disagreed with these statements. We also measured participants’ general faith in science, and included a task in which they could indicate how much federal money should be spent on science, compared with various other domains. We assessed the impact of political ideology, religiosity, moral concerns and science knowledge (measured with a science literacy test, consisting of true or false items such as ‘All radioactivity is made by humans’, and ‘The centre of the Earth is very hot’) on participants’ responses to these various measures.

Political ideology did not play a meaningful role when it came to most of our measures. The only form of science skepticism that was consistently more pronounced among the politically conservative respondents in our studies was, not surprisingly, climate-change skepticism. But what about the other forms of skepticism, or skepticism of science generally?

Skepticism about genetic modification was not related to political ideology or religious beliefs, though it did correlate with science knowledge: the worse people did on the scientific literacy test, the more skeptical they were about the safety of genetically modified food. Vaccine skepticism also had no relation to political ideology, but it was strongest among religious participants, with a particular relation to moral concerns about the naturalness of vaccination.

Moving beyond domain-specific skepticism, what did we observe about a general trust in science, and the willingness to support science more broadly? The results were quite clear: trust in science was by far the lowest among the religious. In particular, religious orthodoxy was a strong negative predictor of faith in science and the orthodox participants were also the least positive about investing federal money in science. But notice here again political ideology did not contribute any meaningful variance over and beyond religiosity.

From these studies there are a couple of lessons to be learned about the current crisis of faith that plagues science. Science skepticism is quite diverse. Further, distrust of science is not really that much about political ideology, with the exception of climate-change skepticism, which is consistently found to be politically driven. Additionally, these results suggest that science skepticism cannot simply be remedied by increasing people’s knowledge about science. The impact of scientific literacy on science skepticism, trust in science, and willingness to support science was minor, save for the case of genetic modification. Some people are reluctant to accept particular scientific findings, for various reasons. When the aim is to combat skepticism and increase trust in science, a good starting point is to acknowledge that science skepticism comes in many forms.Aeon counter – do not remove

Bastiaan T Rutjens

This article was originally published at Aeon and has been republished under Creative Commons.


Postmodernism in Ancient Greece


Plato and Aristotle Plato (left) and Aristotle, detail from School of Athens, fresco by Raphael, 1508–11; in the Stanza della Segnatura, the Vatican. Plato pointing to the heavens and the realm of forms, Aristotle to the earth and the realm of things. Album/Oronoz/SuperStock

The 5th-Century Sophists

The Sophists taught men how to speak and what arguments to use in public debate. A Sophistic education was increasingly sought after both by members of the oldest families and by aspiring newcomers without family backing. The changing pattern of Athenian society made merely traditional attitudes in many cases no longer adequate. Criticizing such attitudes and replacing them by rational arguments held special attraction for the young, and it explains the violent distaste which they aroused in traditionalists. Plato thought that much of the Sophistic attack upon traditional values was unfair and unjustified. But even he learned at least one thing from the Sophists—if the older values were to be defended, it must be by reasoned argument, not by appeals to tradition and unreflecting faith.

Seen from this point of view, the Sophistic movement performed a valuable function within Athenian democracy in the 5th century BCE. It offered an education designed to facilitate and promote success in public life. All of the Sophists appear to have provided a training in rhetoric and in the art of speaking, and the Sophistic movement, responsible for large advances in rhetorical theory, contributed greatly to the development of style in oratory. In modern times the view occasionally has been advanced that this was the Sophists’ only concern. But the range of topics dealt with by the major Sophists makes this unlikely, and even if success in this direction was their ultimate aim, the means they used were surely as much indirect as direct, for the pupils were instructed not merely in the art of speaking, but in grammar; in the nature of virtue (aretē) and the bases of morality; in the history of society and the arts; in poetrymusic, and mathematics; and also in astronomy and the physical sciences. Naturally the balance and emphasis differed from Sophist to Sophist, and some offered wider curricula than others. But this was an individual matter, and attempts by earlier historians of philosophy to divide the Sophistic movement into periods in which the nature of the instruction was altered are now seen to fail for lack of evidence. The 5th-century Sophists inaugurated a method of higher education that in range and method anticipated the modern humanistic approach inaugurated or revived during the European Renaissance.

Nature of Sophistic Thought

A question still discussed is whether the Sophists in general had any real regard for truth or whether they taught their pupils that truth was unimportant compared with success in argument. Plato’s hostile judgment on both counts is still frequently repeated without question. The Platonic writings make frequent reference to what Plato calls “eristic” (eristikos, “fond of wrangling”) and “antilogic”; the two often have been incorrectly treated as identical. Eristic, for Plato, consists in arguments aimed at victory rather than at truth. Antilogic involves the assignment to any argument of a counterargument that negates it, with the implication that both argument and counterargument are equally true. Antilogic in this sense was especially associated with Protagoras; but Plato, no doubt correctly, attributes its use to other Sophists as well. He regards the use of antilogic as essentially eristic, whether it be used to silence an opponent by making his position seem self-contradictory, or whether it be used mechanically to negate any proposition put forward in debate. He concludes that the widespread use of antilogic is evidence that Sophists had no real regard for the truth, which must itself be free from antilogic.

But Plato himself believed, for much or possibly all of his life, that the phenomenal world was essentially antilogical inasmuch as no statement about it could be made possessing a greater degree of truth than the contradictory of that statement. For example, if a person is tall in relation to one object, he will be short in relation to another object. In so characterizing the phenomenal world, Plato certainly did not wish to be called eristic—he regarded the application of antilogic to the description of the phenomenal world as an essential preliminary to the search for the truth residing in the Platonic forms, which are themselves free from antilogic.

Seen in this perspective, the Sophistic use of antilogic must be judged less harshly. To the extent that it was used irresponsibly to secure success in debate it was eristic, and the temptation so to use it must often have arisen. But where it was invoked in the sincere belief that antilogic elements were indeed involved, or where it was used for analyzing a complex situation in order to reveal its complexity, then antilogic was in no way inconsistent with devotion to truth. This raises the question to what extent the Sophists possessed any general view of the world or gave expression to any genuine philosophical views, whether original or derived. Ancient writers, influenced by Plato and Aristotle, seem to have excluded the Sophists, apart from Protagoras, from their schematized accounts of early Greek thinkers. Modern writers have frequently maintained that, whatever else they were, the Sophists were in no sense philosophers. Even those who acknowledge the philosophical interest of certain particular doctrines attributed to individual Sophists often tend to regard these as exceptions and claim that, inasmuch as the Sophists were not a school but only independent teachers and writers, as a class they were not philosophers. Two questions are involved: whether the Sophists held common intellectual doctrines and whether some or all of these could actually be termed philosophical.

Among moderns, Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel was one of the first to reinsert the Sophists into the history of Greek philosophy. He did so within the framework of his own dialectic, in which every thesis invokes its own opposite, or antithesis; thus, he treated the Sophists as representing the antithesis to the thesis of the group of philosophers known collectively as the pre-Socratics. Pre-Socratics such as ThalesHeracleitus, and Parmenides sought the truth about the external world with a bold enthusiasm that produced a series of explanations, each claiming to be correct. None of these explanations of the physical world paid attention to the observer and each was driven to reject more and more of the phenomenal world itself as unreal. Finally, with the Eleatics, a 5th-century school at Elea in Italy that held that reality is a static one, of which Parmenides and Zeno are representatives, little or nothing of the phenomenal world was left as real. This trend in turn produced a growing distrust of the power of human beings to attain knowledge of the ultimate basis of natural phenomena. Philosophy had reached an impasse, and there was a danger of complete skepticism. Such an extreme position, according to Hegel’s view, provoked the “antithesis” of the Sophistic movement, which rejected the “thesis” of the objectivists and concentrated attention upon humankind rather than upon nature. To Hegel, the Sophists were subjective idealists, holding that reality is only minds and their contents, and so philosophy could move forward by turning its attention to the subjective element in knowing. Reflection upon the contrast between the thought of the Sophists and that of their predecessors produced the “syntheses” of Plato and Aristotle.

Whether any of the Sophists actually were subjective idealists may be doubted. The conclusion depends in part on whether Protagoras held that phenomena had subjective existence only, or whether he thought that all things perceived had objective existence but were perceived differently according to the nature of the percipient and their relation to him—i.e., whether he interpreted phenomena subjectively or relativistically. It is fairly clear, however, that the Sophists did concentrate very largely upon human beings and human society, upon questions of words in their relations to things, upon issues in the theory of knowledge, and upon the importance of the observer and the subjective element in reality and in the correct understanding of reality.

This emphasis helps to explain the philosophical hostility of Plato and Aristotle. Particularly in the eyes of Plato, anyone who looks for the truth in phenomena alone, whether he interprets it subjectively or relativistically, cannot hope to find it there; and his persistence in turning away from the right direction virtually amounts to a rejection of philosophy and of the search for truth. Many a subsequent thinker for whom metaphysics, or the investigation of the deepest nature of reality, was the crowning achievement of philosophy has felt with Plato that the Sophists were so antimetaphysical that they have no claim to rank as philosophers. But since the mid-19th century there has been growing appreciation of a number of problems and doctrines recurring in the discussions of the Sophists in the 5th and 4th centuries BCE. In the 18th and early 19th centuries the Sophists were considered charlatans. Their intellectual honesty was impugned, and their doctrines were blamed for weakening the moral fibre of Greece. The charge was based on two contentions, both correct: first, that many of the Sophists attacked the traditionally accepted moral code; and second, that they explored and even commended alternative approaches to morality that would condone or allow behaviour of a kind inadmissible under the stricter traditional code.

Much less weight is now attached to these charges. First, many of the attacks on the traditional morality were in the name of a new morality that claimed to be of greater validity. Attacks upon particular doctrines often claimed that accepted views should be abandoned as morally defective. Furthermore, even when socially disfavoured action seemed to be commended, this was frequently done to introduce a principle necessary in any satisfactory moral theory. Thus, when Thrasymachus in the first book of Plato’s Republic argues that justice is unwarranted when it merely contributes to another’s good and not to the good of the doer, Plato agrees. Finally, there is no evidence that any of the Sophists were personally immoral or that any of their pupils were induced to immoral actions by Sophistic teaching. The serious discussion of moral problems and the theory of morality tends to improve behaviour, not to corrupt it.

Theoretical Issues

Relativism and skepticism have often been regarded as common features of the Sophistic movement as a whole. But it was early pointed out that only in Protagoras and Gorgias is there any suggestion of a radical skepticism about the possibility of knowledge; and even in their case Sextus Empiricus, in his discussion of skepticism, is probably right when he declares that neither was really a skeptic. Protagoras does seem to have restricted knowledge to sense experience, but he believed emphatically that whatever was perceived by the senses was certainly true. This led him to assert that the tangent does not touch the circle at a point only but along a definite length of the circumference; clearly he was referring to human perception of drawn tangents and circles. Gorgias, who claimed that nothing exists, or if it does exist it cannot be known, or if it exists and is knowable it cannot be communicated to another, has often been accused of denying all reality and all knowledge. Yet he also seems to have appealed in his very discussion of these themes to the certainty of perceived facts about the physical world; e.g., that chariots do not race across the sea. Others dismiss his whole thesis as a satire or joke against philosophers.

Probably neither view is correct. What Gorgias seems to have been attacking was not perceived reality nor one’s power to perceive it but the attempt to assign existence or nonexistence (with the metaphysical implications of such an operation) to what one perceives. There is evidence that other Sophists (e.g., Hippias) were interested in questions of this kind, and it is likely that they were all concerned to some degree with rejecting claims of any nonsensible existence, such as those of the Eleatics. The Sophists, in fact, were attempting to explain the phenomenal world without appealing to any principles outside phenomena. They believed that this could be done by including the observer within the phenomenal world. Their refusal to go beyond phenomena was, for Plato, the great weakness in their thinking.

A second common generalization about the Sophists has been that they represent a revolt against science and the study of the physical world. The evidence is against this, inasmuch as for Hippias, Prodicus, Gorgias, and Protagoras there are records of a definite interest in questions of this kind. The truth is rather that they were in revolt against attempts to explain the physical world by appeals to principles that could not be perceived by the senses; and instead of framing new “objective” explanations, they attempted to explain things, where explanation was required, by introducing the perceiver as one element in the perceptual situation.

One of the most famous doctrines associated with the Sophistic movement was the opposition between nature and custom or convention in morals. It is probable that the antithesis did not originate in Sophistic circles but was rather earlier; but it was clearly very popular and figured largely in Sophistic discussions. The commonest form of the doctrine involved an appeal from conventional laws to supposedly higher laws based on nature. Sometimes these higher laws were invoked to remedy defects in actual laws and to impose more stringent obligations; but usually it was in order to free the individual from restrictions unjustifiably imposed by human laws that the appeal to nature was made. In its extreme form the appeal involved the throwing off of all restraints upon self-interest and the desires of the individual (e.g., the doctrine of Callicles in Plato’s Gorgias that might, if one possesses it, is actually right), and it was this, more than anything else, that gave support to charges against the Sophists of immoral teaching. On other occasions the terms of the antithesis were reversed and human laws were explicitly acclaimed as superior to the laws of nature and as representing progress achieved by human endeavour. In all cases the laws of nature were regarded not as generalized descriptions of what actually happens in the natural world (and so not like the laws of physics to which no exceptions are possible) but rather as norms that people ought to follow but are free to ignore. Thus, the appeal to nature tended to mean an appeal to human nature treated as a source for norms of conduct. (See also natural law.)

To Greeks this appeal was not very novel. It represented a conscious probing and exploration into an area wherein, according to their whole tradition of thought, lay the true source for norms of conduct. If Plato’s Callicles represents a position actually held by a living Sophist when he advocates free rein for the passions, then it was easy for Plato to argue in reply that human nature, if it is to be fulfilled, requires organization and restraint in the license given to the desires of particular aspects of it; otherwise the interests of the whole will be frustrated. Both Plato and Aristotle, in basing so much of their ethics on human nature, are only following up the approach begun by the Sophists.

Humanistic Issues

The Sophists have sometimes been characterized by their attacks on the traditional religious beliefs of the Greeks (see Greek religion). It is true that more than one Sophist seems to have faced prosecution for impiety, as did Socrates also. Protagoras wrote “concerning the gods, I cannot know either that they exist or that they do not exist nor what they are like in form,” and Prodicus offered a sociological account of the development of religion. Critias went further when he supposed that the gods were deliberately invented to inspire fear in the evildoer. It is thus probably correct to say that the tendency of much Sophistic thought was to reject the traditional doctrines about the gods. Indeed, this follows almost inevitably if the supposition is correct that all the Sophists were attempting to explain the phenomenal world from within itself, while excluding all principles or entities not discernible in phenomena. But in their agnostic attitudes toward the Olympian deities, the Sophists were probably at one with most of the pre-Socratic philosophers of the 6th and 5th centuries and also with most thinking people living toward the end of the 5th century. It is thus probably misleading to regard them as revolutionary in their religious beliefs.

The importance the Sophists attached to human beings meant that they were extremely interested in the history and organization of human societies. Here again most is known about Protagoras, and there is a danger of treating his particular doctrines as typical of the Sophistic movement as a whole. In the 5th century, human history was very commonly seen in terms of a decline from an earlier golden age. Another view supposed that there were recurring cycles in human affairs according to which a progression from good to bad would give way to one from bad to good. The typical Sophistic attitude toward society rejected both of these views in favour of one that saw human history in terms of progress from savagery to civilization. In a famous mythProtagoras explained how humans achieved civilized society first with the aid of arts and crafts and then by gaining a sense of respect and justice in the ordering of their affairs. The general thinking of most of the Sophists seems to have been along similar lines.

One of the most distinctive Sophistic tenets was that virtue can be taught, a position springing naturally from the Sophists’ professional claim to be the teachers of young men. But the word virtue (aretē) implied both success in living and the qualities necessary for achieving such success, and the claim that aretē could be taught by the kind of teaching that the Sophists offered had far-ranging implications. It involved the rejection of the view that aretē came only by birth—for example, by being born a member of a noble family—and it involved also the rejection of the doctrine that aretē was a matter of the chance occurrence of specified qualities in particular individuals. Aretē, in the Sophists’ view, was the result of known and controllable procedures, a contention of profound importance for the organization of society. Moreover, what can be taught has some relation to what can be known and understood. The belief that teaching of a high intellectual calibre could produce success both for the individual and for governments has had a profound influence upon the subsequent history of education. Once again, it is through the acceptance of this doctrine by Plato and Aristotle that the Sophistic position came to be part of subsequent humanist tradition.


Encyclopedia Britannica – Sophist

What is the Life of Meaning?

Depending upon whom one asks, the question, “What is the meaning of life?” may be one of the most profound questions of human existence or nothing more than a nonsensical request built on conceptual confusion, much like, “What does the color red taste like?” Ask a non-philosopher, “What do philosophers discuss?” and a likely answer will be, “The meaning of life.” Ask the same question of a philosopher within the analytic tradition, and you will rarely get this answer. Within the analytic philosophical community, the disinterest in the question of life’s meaning, and in some cases outright logical suspicion, is likely partly a result of the question’s inherent lack of clarity and partly a result of the suspicion that it is a request for which no answer exists because it is built on suspect assumptions about what would have to be the case in order for life to have a meaning. Indeed, it is not immediately clear what is being requested in asking the question of life’s meaning, nor is it clear that life could have such a meaning, given latent assumptions often accompanying the asking of the question.

Despite the relative disinterest in the question of life’s meaning among analytic philosophers for a large part of the twentieth century, there has been a growing body of work on the topic by contemporary analytic philosophers since the 1980’s. The parameters in which the philosophical discussion of the meaning of life is unfolding within analytic philosophy largely center on two dimensions: the first, with bringing clarity and sense to the question, and the second, on fitting the concept of meaning within the realm of normativity in general, and then with discovering the necessary and sufficient conditions for a meaningful life.

This article surveys the important trajectories in discussions of life’s meaning within contemporary analytic philosophy. It begins with a consideration of an important generating condition of the question of life’s meaning, one that Thomas Nagel has particularly noted (Nagel 1971, 1989)—the human ability to view life sub specie aeternitatis. Next, it surveys current analytic philosophical discussions over the following prominent themes: (i) strategies for understanding what the question is asking, (ii) extant views of how a meaningful life can be secured, and (iii) the connection between death, futility, and a meaningful life. This article concludes by noting some considerations that may bring further depth to discussions over life’s meaning as they progress.

Table of Contents

  1. Introduction
  2. The Human Context
  3. The Meaning of Life in Contemporary Analytic Philosophy
    1. Addressing the Question’s Lack of Clarity: Securing a Non-linguistic Usage of “Meaning”
    2. Addressing the Question’s Lack of Clarity: The Amalgam Thesis
    3. A Meaningful Life: Current Views
      1. Supernaturalism
      2. Objective Naturalism
      3. Subjective Naturalism
      4. Pessimistic Naturalism: Nihilism
    4. Death, Futility, and a Meaningful Life
  4. The Future of the Discussion
  5. References and Further Reading
  1. Introduction

Vis-à-vis the meaning of life, there are two juxtaposed and incongruent realities. On the one hand, for a large part of the twentieth century, analytic philosophers generally ignored the question of life’s meaning because they were doubtful that it had no answer. This doubt was because of latent assumptions on the part of many who ask the question about what would have to be the case for life to have a meaning or because they were suspicious that it is incoherent and meaningless. On the other hand, most non-philosophers consider it one of the most important questions, if not the most important question, of human existence. This, of course, creates a prima facie impasse, given that the question of life’s meaning is one that many of those supposedly functioning as guardians of the canons of reason think is rationally sub-par or at least less deserving of philosophical energy than is a consideration of, for example, how consciousness and accompanying qualia arise from matter or whether discussions of epistemic luck and control hold the key to discovering the necessary and sufficient conditions of propositional knowledge.

While this trend of neglect is unfortunate, it is partly understandable given that the question, “What is the meaning of life?” is at least moderately characterized by a lack of clarity (and some would say a lack of coherence). Philosophically, the question therefore has seemed unmanageable to many. It is surely not a question about the semantic meaning of the word “life,” but what then is it a question about? Is it a question about human life? Is it a question about all biological life? Is it a question about all of existence? Is it asking for a comprehensive explanation of why the universe exists and of our place within it? And if so, is it asked with strong teleological assumptions at the fore, such that a purely efficient, mechanistic causal story would leave the inquirer unsatisfied? These latter questions with aglobal focus seem to track a request like, “What is it all about?” Indeed, there is a profound human impulse to seek a sweeping, deep explanation, context, or narrative through which to interpret existence, and then to move beyond localized foci by living into this universal, totalizing narrative. This first cluster of questions highlights the explanatory dimension of the question of life’s meaning whereby some sort of explanation (perhaps even narrativeexplanation) is sought that will render the universe and our lives within it intelligible. Conceding the question’s lack of clarity, these requests partially illuminate what is being asked.

However, raising these questions alone neglects other important questions in the neighborhood of life’s meaning. Though connected, they are conceptually distinct from the first set; although, depending on how robust the above explanation of what it is all about is, one might have good reason to think that it would also encompass this second dimension. In any case, while related to the explanatory dimension, these next questions highlight thenormative dimension of the meaning of life question. When asking these, we are more concerned with the aim of securing a meaningful life. We wonder what we must, or should, or ought to order our lives around so as to render them meaningful. Meaningfulness, then, perhaps supervenes on a life properly ordered around the right stuff. Questions within this dimension include, “What is (are) the purpose(s) of life (my life)?” “What makes life valuable?” or “What makes life worthwhile and not irredeemably futile?”

Most philosophers currently writing on the topic think the question of life’s meaning is somehow a question about all of these and other related topics, but only insofar as it is viewed as a long disjunctive question or an amalgam of related yet distinct requests about purpose, value, worth, significance, death, and futility, among others. Furthermore, though it is viewed as a request that moves us into normative territory, this question is thought to be distinct from purely ethical requests about rightness and wrongness, purely aesthetic requests about the good and beautiful, and purely eudaimonistic requests about human happiness and flourishing, while bearing some relationship to all three. There is little consensus beyond this minimal agreement.

  1. The Human Context

The human preoccupation with the question of life’s meaning is at least partly generated by our capacity to get-outside-of ourselves and view our pursuits and very lives first-person oriented and distantly from a detached, more-or-less dispassionate standpoint (see Nagel 1971; 1989; Fischer 1993). We, unlike butterflies or cats for example, can take a  critical viewpoint on our lives. We possess the ability to shift from engagement to reflection. We question what we do. We question how what we do coheres with the rest of reality, and whether reality, at the deepest level, in any way cares about us and our pursuits. We can view our lives sub specie aeternitatis, after which we can either experience profound angst, indifference, or hope, among other reactions, depending upon what we think that viewpoint entails. Whether, in normative appraisals of life, it is reasonable to privilege this detached perspective over our immediate, human perspective is beside the point. The fact is we often do, and this human propensity is correlated with inquiring into the meaning of life.

  1. The Meaning of Life in Contemporary Analytic Philosophy

Contemporary analytic philosophy has inherited important trajectories from the ancient and modern worlds, whether from Qohelet, Schopenhauer, Tolstoy, Camus, or Sartre among others, vis-à-vis the meaning of life. But, understandably, the analytic philosophical impulse toward conceptual clarification has given discussions of the meaning of life within this tradition a unique shape. Indeed, a significant portion of the discussion within this contemporary context has been primarily concerned with trying to understand the question itself. Is it coherent? Is it meaningful? What is it asking? What assumptions motivate the question? Asking such questions is necessary because the question of life’s meaning lacks clarity and has an elusive quality to it. Analytic philosophers have rightly noticed this. There exist a couple of options for addressing this lack of clarity short of the outright charge of incoherence that was common for a substantial portion of the twentieth century in the wake of logical positivism’s once strong grip.

  1. Addressing the Question’s Lack of Clarity: Securing a Non-linguistic Usage of “Meaning”

One option for addressing the clarity problem is to retain the use of the word “meaning” and to secure a usage that applies to non-linguistic phenomena, given that in asking the question of life’s meaning, one is not asking for the semantic meaning of the word “life.” This strategy is especially concerned with finding a natural interpretation of the question through a plausible employment of the term “meaning.” “Meaning” has multiple meanings, and at least some of the more prominent ones mitigate its usefulness in the context of trying to formulate the intuitions driving the question of life’s meaning. Indeed, if one is asking for the semantic meaning of life rather than “life,” then the accusation of incoherence is plausible. We ask for the meanings of semantic constructions, but not of things like physical entities, events, or life in general. The problem then is that “meaning” is a term which appears to most naturally find its home within a linguistic context. However, life itself is not such a context. That is to say, in asking the question, one is not asking for any sort of definition of “life” or a description of this term’s usage. But then, what is being asked? This is where the problem lies.

The problem is solvable, though, given that asking what something means need not be a request for a definition or description. There are additional non-linguistic contexts in which the locution, “What is the meaning of x?” makes perfect sense (for example, intentional signification, non-intentional signification (that is, natural signs), and so forth.) (see Nozick 1981). Some of them even share family resemblances to the question of life’s meaning. One in particular is especially relevant.

The question, “What is the meaning of x?” functions naturally in the largely non-linguistic context in which we seek to know how something fits within a larger context or narrative. We naturally and legitimately invoke the formula, “What is the meaning of x?” in situations wherex is some fact, event, or phenomenon we encounter and of which we want to know the fact’s or event’s or phenomenon’s “. . . implication in the wider world within which this notion [or fact, event, or phenomenon] makes the sense it makes” (Wright 2003: 719). This “wider world” Wright considers to be a worldview, metanarrative, or something similar.

To make his point, Wright uses the example of how one comes to understand the Easter Event (that is, the putative bodily resurrection of Jesus of Nazerath). For example, a well-educated Roman soldier who comes to learn of the event may contextualize it, and therefore “fix” its meaning, through the myth of Nero redivivus, the idea that Nero had come back to life in order to return to Rome in all his glory. The event means something different for him than for, say, Saul of Tarsus. The wider worldview framework or narrative (or even simply a more localized narrative which is, itself, part of a larger worldview narrative) will play a heavy hermeneutical role, then, in “discovering” (some may prefer determining) what any given fact, event, or phenomenon means. Discovering this meaning will be a product of asking and answering questions like: In what larger narrative(s) does the sentence (intended to refer to a fact, event, or phenomenon) belong? What worldviews do such narratives embody and reinforce? What are the universes of discourse within which this sentence, and the event it refers to, settle down and make themselves at home – and which, at the same time, they challenge and reshape from within? (Wright 2003: 719).

In terms of the meaning of life, one could argue that we are trying to find the “wider world” (i.e., worldview, metanarrative) in which the existentially salient elements and accompanying questions of life fit. These existentially salient elements and accompanying questions of life, for which the word “life” is a marker, are perennial meaning of life themes. They are what often prompt in us the grand question: “What is the meaning of life?” and include:

(1) Fact—something exists, we [humans] exist, and I exist / Question—Why does anything or we or I exist at all?

(2) Question—Does life have any purpose(s), and if so, what is its nature and source?

(3) Fact—we are often passionately engaged in life pursuits and projects that we deem valuable and worthwhile / Question—Does the worth and value of these pursuits and projects need grounding in something else, and if so, what?

(4) Fact—pain and suffering are part of the universe / Question—Why?

(5) Question—How does it all end? Is death final? Is there an eschatological remedy to the ills of this world?

(1) – (5) constitute the cluster of considerations that track discussions of life’s meaning, even though reasonable debate will exist about the details. In asking, “What is the meaning of life?” it is plausible to view this as the request for a “wider world” (that is, worldview, metanarrative) through which to secure answers to these questions. Viewed as such, this renders the question, “What is the meaning of life?” coherent and intelligible by securing a usage of “meaning” that fits naturally within a non-linguistic context.

  1. Addressing the Question’s Lack of Clarity: The Amalgam Thesis

The most common interpretive strategy for understanding what the question, “What is the meaning of life?” involves discarding the word “meaning” and reformulating the question entirely. With this approach, the question is morphed into a cluster of other supposedly less vague questions, even if no less difficult to answer:  “What is (are) the purpose(s) of life?”, or “What makes life valuable?”, or “What makes life worthwhile and not irredeemably futile?” among others.

Following precedent in the literature, especially R. W. Hepburn, this approach for addressing the vagueness in the question of life’s meaning may be called the amalgam thesis (Hepburn 1966). Roughly, the amalgam thesis entails that the original question, framed in terms of meaning, is a largely ill-conceived place-holder for a cluster of related requests, and thus, not really a single question at all. One way of understanding the amalgam thesis is to view it as making the question of life’s meaning little more than a disjunctive question:

What is the purpose of life, or what makes life valuable, or what makes life worthwhile?

On amalgam thesis premises the question, “What is the meaning of life?” ought  to be a question about purpose, or value, or worth or something else. However one worry is that these questions are primarily about purpose, value, and worth and  then secondly about the meaning of life.

Due to the dominance of the amalgam thesis as an interpretive strategy and its arguable philosophical merit, most contemporary philosophical treatments of the question of life’s meaning consider it in one of its reformulated versions such as, “What makes life valuable?”, “What makes life significant?”, “What is (are) the purpose(s) of life?”, “Does a particular life achieve some good purpose?”, or “What makes life worth living?” among others. So, there exist at least two interpretive levels of the question using the amalgam thesis, one tracking something like the question’s formal properties, and the other tracking the subsequent questions’ material content. In other words, the amalgam thesis implies that the question, “What is the meaning of life?” is really just a disjunctive question whereby requests about purpose, value, worth, and significance are made.

  1. A Meaningful Life: Current Views

Beyond discussions over the nature of the question itself, one will find competing views on what gives life meaning, whereby meaningfulness is meant. That is to say, by virtue of what can life be said to be meaningful, if it all? The four primary competitors are: (1) Supernaturalism, (2) Objective Naturalism, (3) Subjective Naturalism, and (4) Nihilism (inter-subjectivism and non-naturalism are additional options, but are much less prevalent). Importantly, both objective and subjective naturalism can be categorized as optimisticnaturalisms, in that these views allow for a meaningful existence in a world devoid of finite and infinite spiritual realities. Pessimistic naturalism is what is commonly called “nihilism.” Nihilism is generally a view adopted alongside an entirely naturalistic ontology (though vigorous debate exits about whether naturalism entails nihilism), although there is nothing logically impossible about someone adopting nihilism while being a religious believer. One will be hard-pressed, however, to find genuine examples of this belief, save some sort of rhetorical, provisional nihilism, as found in Ecclesiastes in the Bible.

  1. Supernaturalism

Roughly, supernaturalism maintains that God’s existence, along with “appropriately relating” to God, is both necessary and sufficient for securing a meaningful life, although different accounts can be given as to the nature of this relationship. Among countless others, historic representatives of supernaturalism in the Near-Eastern ancient world and in subsequent Western history are Qoheleth, Jesus, Paul, Augustine, Aquinas, Edwards, Pascal, and Tolstoy. The supernaturalist position can be plausibly viewed as possessing three distinct yet related dimensions: metaphysical, epistemological, and relational-axiological. Metaphysically, it is argued that God’s existence is necessary in order to ground a meaningful life because, for example, conditions necessary for securing a meaningful existence like objective value are most plausibly anchored in an entity like God (Cottingham 2005; Craig 2008). In addition to the metaphysical dimension, supernaturalism often requires, at some level, orthodoxy (right belief) and orthopraxy (right practice), although much debate exists on the details. God’s existence may be a necessary condition for securing a meaningful life, but it is generally thought that one must additionally relate to God in some relevant way in the epistemological and axiological dimensions (In addition to God-based supernaturalist theories, there are soul-based theories, where meaning in life is thought to be a function, not so much of God, but rather of having an indestructible soul whereby immortality is possible).

  1. Objective Naturalism

Objective naturalism, like supernaturalism, posits that a meaningful life is possible, but denies that a supernatural realm is necessary for such a life. Life in a purely physical world, devoid of finite and infinite spiritual realities, is sufficient for meaning according to objective naturalism. Objective naturalists claim that a meaningful life is a function of appropriately connecting with mind-independent realities that are, contra supernaturalism, entirely natural. Objective naturalism is further distinguished (from subjective naturalism) by its emphasis onmind-independence. One way of putting the point is to say that wanting or choosing is insufficient for a meaningful life. For example, choosing to spend one’s waking hours counting and re-counting blades of grass is likely insufficient for meaning on objective naturalism. Rather, meaning is a function of linking one’s life to inherently valuable, mind-independent conditions that are not themselves the sole products of what one wants strongly and chooses (contra subjective naturalism). Put simply, with objective naturalism it is possible to be wrong about what confers meaning on life—something is meaningful, at least partly, in virtue of its intrinsic nature, irrespective of what is believed about it. This is why spending one’s entire existence counting blades of grass or reading and re-reading phone books is probably not meaningful on objective naturalism, even if the person strongly desires to do so.

iii. Subjective Naturalism

Like objective naturalism, subjective naturalism posits that a meaningful life is possible apart from something like supernaturalism being true, but unlike objective naturalism, it differs on what confers meaning to life. According to subjective naturalism, what constitutes a meaningful life varies from person to person, and is a function of one getting what one strongly wants, or by achieving self-established goals, or through accomplishing what one believes to be really important. Caring about or loving something deeply has been thought by some to confer meaningfulness to life (Frankfurt 1988). Subjectivism seems most plausible to some in light of perceived failures to ground objective value, either naturally, non-naturally, or supernaturally. A worry for subjective naturalism, however, is analogous to ethical worries over moral relativism. Many protest that surely deep care and love simpliciterare not sufficient to confer meaningfulness on life. What if someone claims to find meaning in life counting blades of grass, or reading and re-reading the phone book, or worse, torturing people for fun? Can a life centering on such pursuits be a meaningful life? The strong, nearly universal intuition here towards objective value in some form inclines in the direction of requiring an objective standard that comes to bear on the meaningfulness of an activity or life in general. Subjectivism still has its defenders, with some proposals moving towards grounding value inter-subjectively—in community—as opposed to in the individual exclusively.

Nuanced forms of naturalism, vis-à-vis meaningfulness in life, make room for both objective and subjective elements, as is captured nicely by Susan Wolf, “Meaning arises when subjective attraction meets objective attractiveness” (Wolf 1997: 211). On this view, the objective and the subjective must unite in order to give birth to robust meaningfulness. Meaningfulness is not present in a life spent believing in, being satisfied by, or caring about worthless projects.However neither is it present in a life spent engaging in worthwhile, inherently valuable projects without believing in, or caring about, or being satisfied by them.

Though they are in disagreement on the conditions for meaningfulness, both objective and subjective naturalism are united in their rejection of supernaturalism and supernaturalism’s insistence that God is necessary in order to secure a meaningful life. In this way, both forms of naturalism, vis-à-vis meaningfulness in life, can be thought of as optimistic naturalisms—that is, meaningful life is possible in a godless universe. An optimistic naturalist sees no problem in thinking that a meaningful life can be secured within an entirely naturalistic ontology. Nothing additional, nothing of the transcendent sort, is needed to ground those things in life that we, pre-philosophically, find to be meaningful. The raw materials for meaningfulness are available apart from God.

  1. Pessimistic Naturalism: Nihilism

Against all views which think a meaningful existence is possible, is the view of pessimistic naturalism, more commonly called nihilism. Roughly, nihilism is the view that denies that a meaningful life is possible because, literally, nothing has any value. One way to understand nihilism is by seeing it as the fusion of theses and assumptions drawn from both supernaturalism and naturalism. That is to say, nihilism may be seen as requiring (i) that God or some supernatural realm is likely necessary for value and a meaningful existence, but (ii) that no such realm exists, and therefore nothing is of ultimate value. Other forms of nihilism focus on states like boredom or dissatisfaction, arguing that boredom sufficiently infuses life so as to make it meaningless, or that human lives lack the requisite amount of satisfaction to confer meaning upon them. Another form of nihilism that is logically compatible with the existence of God is one based upon a disparity between standpoints. It has been argued that from the most distant, detached viewpoint, nothing we do seems to matter at all. If one thinks that it is possible to view even God and the economy of his workings from some more distant standpoint, then even supernaturalism may face a nihilistic threat of this form.

  1. Death, Futility, and a Meaningful Life

The meaning of life is closely linked with a cluster of related issues surrounding death, futility, and the way life is going to end, in regards to both the individual life and to the universe as a whole. These are common threads in the meaning of life literature, from Ecclesiastes to Camus to contemporary analytic philosophy. Death (and the end of the universe itself) often is thought to bear a close relationship with futility. The common pessimistic claim is that cosmic futility supervenes upon the entirety of human existence, given a naturalistic view of the ultimate fate of life, both human life as well as the universe itself, where death and entropy will very likely be the final, irreversible state of reality.

Why is death in an exclusively naturalistic world thought by many to be a challenge to a meaningful life? One reason may be the widespread view that, ceteris paribus, meaningful things last, as in ’diamonds are forever’’. Vis-à-vis the meaning of life, most people judge various aspects of life, pre-philosophically, to be meaningful. When subsequently engaged in conscious reflection on the necessary conditions for meaningfulness, immortality is often thought to be transcendentally necessary (though not sufficient) for meaningfulness. Many people desire consciousness, memory, personhood, love, creativity, and achievement to be part of the deep structure of reality, in that the universe, in the long run, makes space for these things. An exclusively naturalistic universe likely does not. From the perspective of a universe that will very likely become unfavorable to the existence of intelligent life, nothing we do seems of any real consequence or value. Death, both our own and the universe’s (speaking metaphorically of course), is a profound barrier to the meaningful properties and activities that populate human existence continuing on in any robust sense. And so the threat of futility lingers for many who worry that we live in an exclusively naturalistic universe.

The kind of futility surfacing in this context can be thought of as strong futility or weak futility. In the strong sense, it is claimed that if the final state of affairs of the universe (e.g. heat death) is one in which nothing matters, then nothing ever really mattered and everything is irredeemably futile. In the weaker sense, it is claimed that if the final state of affairs of the universe is one in which nothing matters, then the mattering or significance of current states of affairs is in some way mitigated, either minimally or considerably, though not completely destroyed. This futility partly arises, then, through an asymmetry between the vantage points of the lifeless, distant future that lacks consciousness of any sort, and the present filled with conscious life and its various dimensions. A “bad” ending is thought to threaten the meaningfulness of the entire story.

Critics of these strong and weak futility claims counter by calling into question what can be called the-arbitrary-privileging-of-the-future. They ask, “Why should the end state of affairs be given such veto power over the worth and meaning of the here and now?” It has been noted that appealing to such asymmetry by which to charge naturalism with irredeemable futility is contingent upon a suspect assumption; namely, arbitrarily placing an undue amount of importance (perhaps all the importance) on the final state of affairs to which life leads. But why give the future priority over the present and the past? If life is meaningful now, how can the fact that it will cease to exist make it less meaningful now? And, if life is not meaningful now, how could its un-ending continuation confer meaningfulness to it? Critics of such futility claims argue that the most plausible way to appraise the meaningfulness and worth of life here and now, is by adopting the here and now perspective, not the distant, detached perspective of some indifferent future of a universe in ruins. Of course, one might make the converse claim, “Why privilege the present over the future?” Principled reasons must be offered that will help settle the question of which viewpoint—the distant-future or theimmediate-present—gets normative priority for appraisals of life as either worthwhile or futile.

  1. The Future of the Discussion

Within normative theory, one underexplored question is where the concept ofmeaningfulness fits within the normative realm shared by the ethical, aesthetic, and eudaimonistic. Meaning seems closely connected to these other normative categories, but reducible to none (though it is perhaps closest to the third). One can perhaps imagine ethical lives that are, for example, profoundly unsatisfying to the one who lives them. And even if the ethical is one component of the meaningful, it seems implausible to think that an apathetic, yet morally exemplary life, qualifies as fully meaningful, especially if one thinks that meaningfulness is at least partly a function of being subjectively attracted to objective attractiveness. Meaningfulness extends beyond the ethical, while somehow including it. These same sorts of questions can be raised regarding the relationship between meaningfulness and other normative categories.

In addition, the debate between reductive naturalists and non-reductive naturalists has direct implications for whether it can be thought that normative properties are part of the deep structure of reality on naturalism. If they are, then optimistic naturalism of the objective variety will gain the upper hand over subjective optimistic naturalism. So, progress in the debate between objective and subjective naturalism will track progress in discussions within metaphysics more generally.

Or, consider the problem of evil in the philosophy of religion. The experience of evil links to the meaning of life, especially when one considers death and futility. Quite apart from philosophical reflections on the problem, the experience of evil is often one of those generating conditions of the question of life’s meaning born out of existential angst. Is there an intelligible, existentially satisfying narrative in which to locate the experience of pain and suffering and to give the sufferer some solace and hope? Evil in a meaningful universe may not cease from being evil, but it may be more bearable. In this way, the problem of meaning may be more foundational than the problem of evil. And one especially thinks of what we might call the eschatological dimension of the problem of evil—is there any hope in the face of pain, suffering, and death, and if so, what is its nature? Bringing future-oriented considerations of pain and suffering into the philosophical discussion will also naturally link to perennial meaning of life topics like death and futility. Additionally, it will motivate more vigorous research and debate over whether the inherent human desire for a felicitous ending to life’s narrative, including, for example, post-mortem survival and enjoyment of the beatific vision or some other blessed state is mere wishful thinking or a cousin to our desire for water, and thus, a truly natural desire that points to a referent capable of fulfilling it. In any case, discussions over the problem of evil are correlated with discussions over the meaning of life, and progress in one might be significant for progress in the other.

Finally, an underexplored area in contemporary analytic philosophy is how the concept ofnarrative might shed light on the meaning of life. One reason this is important can be seen in the following. Historically, most of the satisfying narratives that in some way narrated the meaning of life were also religious or quasi-religious. Additionally, many of these narratives count as narratives in the paradigmatic sense as opposed to non-narrative modes of discourse. However, with the rise of modern science, both the narratives and the religious or quasi-religious worldviews embodied in them were diminished in certain spheres. This led to the anxious questioning of life’s meaning and the fear that a thoroughly scientific-naturalistic narrative of the universe is far from existentially satisfying. This elicits the following important question: Are such paradigmatic instances of narratives which, in some way, narrate the meaning of life, thought to be more existentially satisfying in virtue of their explicitly religious perspective on the world or in virtue of the fact that they are paradigmatic instances of narrative or both? In terms of an interdisciplinary approach, the work of cognitive scientists who are informing us that personal identity has a substantial narrative component may be of benefit here. Perhaps our deep human need to construct meaningful narratives in order to contextualize parts of our lives and our very lives themselves is genetically hardwired. More specifically, perhaps our existential need to locate our lives and the profound elements that populate human life within grand narratives that are paradigmatic instances of narrative is genetically hardwired. If something like this is correct, then it may become clearer why questioning the meaning of life with such intensity and angst is correlated with the rise of a grand narrative (that is, naturalism) that is not a narrative in the paradigmatic sense.

Within a philosophical tradition that has had relatively little to say about the meaning of life, there are signs of change. Since the 1980’s, some within the ranks of analytic philosophy have turned their attention to life’s great question. The question is approached with an analytic rigor that will hopefully illumine some of the assumptions motivating it and point in the direction of possible approaches for answering it. Much work remains to be done. The philosophical waters remain murky, but they are clearing.


Further Reading: