LIVING in a silent universe (or universes) can be dispiriting. A previous article on this blog claimed that it was the reduction in a sense of a higher authority that had led to an existential crisis. If there is no God what meaning is there? In that article Frank Martela in his book A Wonderful LIFE argued that we should shift from trying to find the meaning of life to meaning in life.
The demise of God also plays a major role in A Significant Life – Human Meaning in a Silent Universe by Todd May. But May goes deeper still into the problems we face in a secular universe. He begins at ground zero exemplified by Albert Camus for whom the universe is indeed silent. For Camus thoughts about meaning are ‘symptoms of the absurd’. Todd writes: “The absurd itself is something very precise. It is the confrontation of our need for meaning with the unwillingness of the universe to yield it to us.” Camus draws on the Myth of Sisyphus in his book of the same name to bring out this sense of the absurd while urging us to gain freedom by courageously acknowledging this unavoidable absurdity.
May, however, is not finished with meaning and turns his attention to Aristotle for whom the flourishing of human life is an ongoing activity involving the commitment to be ‘intellectually engaged with the world’. But while May admires Aristotle he asks whether a life that is lived well and does good is also a meaningful one. Unlike Camus, for Aristotle the universe is not silent – rather it is a structured, ordered telos which humans can discover. And it is this telos, embedded in the universe, that provides Aristotle with his meaning. But as May points out – we are not Aristotle. The universe is not ‘ordered in such a way that everything has its telos’ and the cosmos is not for us a rational place’.
So, attractive though Aristotle’s conception of the flourishing human life may be, it lacks the meaning that he sought.
And even if we accept the existence of God, that cannot help us as Socrates makes clear in the Platonic dialogue Euthyphro when he asks: “Is what is holy, holy because the gods approve it, or do they approve it because it is holy.” (This not the first time that this question has featured in this blog). Now, we have to assume that because God is considered to be good he has to conform to what is actually good. “God cannot ground the good because God answers to it,” writes May. And, further, there ‘must be something about the universe independent of God that offers human lives a sense of meaningfulness that God himself must answer to’. As we have seen, however, the idea that some sense of the good forms part of a rational universe does not hold water either.
Rejecting God and Aristotle, May sees if he can also reject Camus’s bleak prospectus – and he begins this task by shifting to Martela’s position of attempting to find meaning in life. His first venture is what he calls the ‘narrative approach’ in which ‘humans must take the resources they are given, develop them into a flourishing life and then sustain (or in the case of great misfortune, restore) that flourishing over the course of their personal histories’. This, of course, sounds a lot like Aristotle but without the rational universe. May also acknowledges that there is another problem with this approach because not all narratives provide meaning in the way that he hopes they will. He writes about the depressed life – and we might also point to narratives that are attenuated by poverty and those for whom the past is something people would rather forget. Another problem is that for some people, like the philosopher Galen Strawson (who has also featured in a previous article on this blog), their lives are not driven by narratives and their self-experience is more episodic than diachronic.
So, in the light of this, May’s next move is to write about what he calls ‘narrative values’ like steadfastness, intellectual curiosity, intensity, integrity and so on.
It still looks as though we are drifting back towards an attenuated Aristotle here but May ploughs on: “In approaching life by way of narrative values then, we find that the meaningfulness does not lie in the narrative itself. Instead, we are asking whether that narrative is characterized by or expresses a theme that would give it value.” With reference to Strawson, he adds: “It might be that although Episodic, his life is nevertheless steadfast in its attention to a small range of important philosophical concerns.” It’s important to point out that May is not referring to moral values here because, obviously, the steadfastness of Eichmann in pursuing the Final Solution is rendered morally worthless. However, he does claim that both moral and narrative values do have the required degree of objectivity to mean something beyond the purely subjective, even if, at the same time, they are made up. As he argues that, because values are subject to reasoning they are not arbitrary. “If this is right, then we can say both that our values are made up and that they are, in an important way, objective,” he claims. To be sure, values operate within a tradition and network of practices.
For May, our values are not ‘assured by the universe’ or in God, but nor or they product of blind whim. For some this might not be enough but for the rest of us, he writes ‘although this may not be all the objectivity we would like, perhaps it is the objectivity we need’. To use an analogy in the world of art, even Malevich’s famous Black Square contains within it traces of meaning, particularly when it is seen in the context of his life’s work.