We say things like:. In each of these situations, we perceive a lack of fit—a lack of fit between a decision and circumstances surrounding that decision or between reasonable expectations about what one will find on a philosophy exam and what one actually finds. There is a kind of absurdity here. Perceiving this weaker lack of fit will be a product of beliefs, norms, and other epistemic, evaluative, and social commitments.
Therefore, determining whether or not something, in fact, involves a lack of fit in this broader sense often will be a messier task than in cases of narrow sense-making. Ascertaining meaning, then, is often about fitting something into a larger context or whole: words into sentences, paragraphs, novels, or monographs; musical notes into measures, movements, and symphonies i.
Similarly, we can plausibly view our requests for the meaning of life as attempts to secure the overarching context through which to make sense of our lives in the universe see Thomson Our focus here is on existentially weighty matters that define and depict the human condition: questions and concerns surrounding origins, purpose, significance, value, suffering, and death and destiny. We want answers to our questions about these matters, and want these answers to fit together in an existentially satisfying way.
We want life to make sense, and when it does not, we are haunted by the specter of meaninglessness. Requests for meaning are very often requests for purpose.
We want to know whether we have a purpose s and if so, what it is. Many assume that there is a cosmic purpose around which to order our lives. A cosmic purpose likely would require transcendence or God.
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- Experiencing Meaninglessness.
- Difficulties of the Question?
Someone must intend it all in order for there to be a purpose of it all. We also distinguish actions done on purpose from those done by accident. We use meaning or meant to contrast willful from non-willful action. We want sufficient autonomy, and when it is absent or severely mitigated, we worry about the meaningfulness of our lives see Mawson ; Sartre Most of us do not want to walk through life haphazardly, nor in a way that is largely determined apart from our own consent.
Likely one aspect of meaningful life, then, is life lived with our wills sufficiently engaged, one lived on purpose. These two shades of purpose are probably related. We want to really mean it as we select and align our lives with aims that will provide the salient structural rhythms to our day-to-day existence. In other words, we do not want to be alienated from the purposes that guide our lives.
Purpose and sense-making often are connected. Purpose itself, via future-targeted goals that shape pre-goal activity, provide important aspects of the structure that serves as the framework through which life fits together and makes sense. Lives that fit together and make sense—meaningful lives—are those that are sufficiently teleological.
Working to attain goals at various levels of life-centrality is likely a facet of life properly fitting together and therefore being meaningful. Teleological threads connecting discreet life episodes are then necessary for a robust kind of sense-making in life. Lives lacking this are threatened with a sort of unintelligibility that results from being insufficiently structured by a telos.
In the words of philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre:. When someone complains…that his or her life is meaningless, he or she is often and perhaps characteristically complaining that the narrative of their life has become unintelligible to them, that it lacks any point, any movement toward a climax or a telos MacIntyre Meaning often conveys the idea of significance, and significance tracks a related cluster of notions like mattering, importance, impact, salience, being the object of care and concern, and value, depending on context. We contrast trivial discussions about the mundane with deep discussions about important matters, referring to the latter as meaningful or significant.
Physical objects deeply enmeshed in our life stories are meaningful. We view actions and events that have salient implications as significant, and in cases where that significance has positive value, as meaningful whether a person can lead a meaningful life in virtue of making large negative impacts is a growing topic of discussion as the field seeks to understand the connection between meaning and morality; see Campbell and Nyholm Finding the cure for that disease was meaningful because it had such a large positive impact within a certain frame of cares and concerns.
This shade of meaning is also in view in cases where some piece or set of data crosses a threshold of salience against background information.
Philosophical questions about the universe and reality
That such a large percentage of the population living under certain conditions is getting a particular disease is statistically significant or statistically meaningful. In this way, sense-making and significance senses of meaning connect. That game did not matter because the playoffs were already set. The wrapping paper does not matter, what is on the inside of the package counts. Spending your life sitting on the couch and watching sitcom re-runs on Netflix is meaningless; you do nothing that matters, you do nothing of importance or value, and so on.
Something that is significant from one vantage point may, and often does, lose its significance when viewed from a broader horizon. When looking back decades later, its significance wanes. Most events important enough to make it into local lore will not matter enough to be included in a national history, let alone world and, especially, cosmic history. Significance is often distinctly normative and person-al. When we say that something is meaningful in the sense of being significant, important, or mattering, we make a kind of evaluative claim about what is good or valuable.
Things are, most naturally, significant to someone.
Insofar as meaning is thought to have an affective dimension, that dimension likely intersects with significance. Though this may not make such affective states a further type of meaning or constitutive of meaning, these states reliably track instances of significance or perceived significance. In broad terms, one way of construing meaningful life is as a life that matters and has positive value. This, of course, admits of various understandings of mattering that, at one level, might track the objective naturalist, subjective naturalist, hybrid naturalist, and supernaturalist debate see Section 3 below : matters to whom and according to what standard?
Additionally, some find it difficult to separate personal and cosmic concerns over significance. Cosmic concerns, for many, are also intensely personal. If the universe as a whole lacks significance, some worry that their individual lives lack significance, or at least the kind that they think a deeply meaningful life requires.
What then are we asking, and what is the scope of that request? The targets of our questions and concerns about meaning are varied in scope. We ask questions about our own, personal existence as well as questions about the entire show, and one might think that questions about personal meaning are connected to questions about cosmic meaning.
Life5 provides a way of bringing important aspects of each together see Section 2. Another thorny issue for the traditional formulation is its incorporation of the definite article— the. It implies that there is only one meaning of life, which violates common inclinations that meaning is the sort of thing that varies from person to person. What makes one life meaningful is different from what makes another meaningful. One person might derive large doses of meaning from her career, another through gardening. For this reason, many are suspicious of the definite article.
There is good reason, though, to question this suspicion. First, it might reveal confusion about what meaning even is in the first place.
Indeed, one of the aims of those working in the field is to clarify just what meaning is. Here, it is worth noting that many plausible theories of meaning have an objective component, indicating that not just anything goes for meaning. However, even if meaning were solely a matter of, say, being fulfilled, notice that the following two claims are still consistent: 1 the meaning of life is about being fulfilled and 2 sources of fulfillment are exceedingly diverse. Second, one might also reasonably think that there is a single meaning of life at the cosmic level that itself is consistent with a rich variety of ways to lead a meaningful life meaning in life at the terrestrial, personal level.
Thinking through possibilities like this will connect with claims about what is true about the world, for example, whether there is a God with a plan for the cosmos and whether there is an overarching meaning to it all. In a case like this, there might be a single meaning of life, but the sense of meaning in which there is a single meaning could be different from the sense of meaning in which there are varied meanings.
In what has become a standard distinction in the field, philosophers distinguish two ideas: the meaning of life M of L and meaning in life M in L. M in L is focused on personal meaning; the meaning of our individual lives as located in the web of human endeavors and relationships sub specie humanitatis —within the frame of human cares and concerns.