There is no objective meaning

It would be foolish to deny that there is such a thing as subjective meaning to life. If you have an emotional engagement with something outside yourself, especially if there is something or someone that you love, then it’s perfectly sensible to say that your life has a meaning, albeit one private to you.* Your life may suck, but maybe you love your dog and that makes up for it.

Love isn’t unproblematic, as some sages have noted. It might give life meaning, but it is also a suffering multiplier, opening up exquisite new forms of torment available to those who do not love, such as the heartbreak that comes when the object of your love does not reciprocate your love, or that which comes when that which or those whom you love fail to flourish. Some unfortunates come into the world and are incapable of finding a worthy object for love. Whether love makes the world at all better is very much an open question.

The peddlers of meaning offer the possibility of meaning as a counter to antinatalism. Antinatalists note that life is on balance suffering and that starting from a hard-to-deny moral principle that one ought not create more suffering, conclude that we ought not create more life. Meaning-mongers say that there’s meaning in life and that somehow this makes up for the suffering. The antinatalist counter to this is to point out that many people do not find meaning, cannot settle it on an object that works, or are made to suffer even more by what they find meaning in and that therefore on balance meaning cannot make up for suffering.

One counter by meaning-mongers is to claim that there is objective meaning, that is, that meaning isn’t a subjective feeling we have but a property of things in the world somehow, and that if we were to “correctly” perceive the world, then we would see that there are objects of love (maybe not your dog but God, humanity, art, whatever). If you somehow fail to see this, it is a cognitive failure on your part that is somehow your fault. Or, a little more charitably, one that a little counseling will fix.

It is deeply mysterious how anything can be inherently worthy of love regardless of whether anyone actually loves it. The notion of objective meaning is pretty much garbage anyway for the following reason. What is objectivity? It can be an elusive notion at the best of times, but something roughly like the following is the case. For something to be “objective,” it has to be something that someone can be reasonably argued into, that is to say, with a proper presentation of facts an arguments, they will come to somehow believe or endorse it, unless they are irrational or somehow cognitively impaired. So take a good candidate for “objectivity,” something like the Second Law of Thermodynamics. The evidence for it — a good high school course on physics — will convince a rational person that it is true and not just some prejudice or taste we happen to have. That doesn’t mean that there aren’t still people out there trying to build perpetual motion machines, but we generally see such people not as “just different somehow,” but as crackpots, and rightly so.

“Objective” means you can be argued into it. “Meaning” means that it is an object of love (or hate, etc.). But can you be argued into love? That is ridiculous on its face: someone who thinks you can argue another into love is a pathetic figure of comedy (“I come from one of the most respectable families in town, Mabel. I have a good position in a solid firm with excellent promotion prospects. I am neat and clean. Why won’t you marry me?”) Indeed, the idea that you can be argued into love would seem to have few rivals in ridiculousness, although there are at least a few ideas that equal it and add a measure of creepiness besides, such as that notion that you can be commanded into love.

*Of course, you could also give your life meaning by having something or someone to hate as well, and indeed given how much hate there is in the world, and how much an appetite so many people have for propaganda that deepens the hate they have for those they already hate, it seems likely that many people are resorting to exactly this expedient as a way of giving their lives meaning. It is strange that those who like to peddle “meaning” as the answer to the painful riddle of human existence do not devote more attention to the possibilities hate opens up for meaning. What I have to say about love in this post applies mutatis mutandis, to hate. Back to main text.

What is meaning?

My approach to the question will, I fear, have to be a bit roundabout.

I’ll start with an observation: your life and everyone else’s is dominated by various bloodsuckers, a plenum of people who want something from you. Your boss — the human extension of the capitalist system — wants as much of your labor-power as he can extract. Other extensions of capitalism want you at the mall, the megastore, or online buying as much of the crap created by the labor-power of you and all the rest of the world’s working schmoes. Your priest/minister/rabbi/imam/whatever wants you to show up for weekly (or more) worship services and to drop a fat check in the collection basket when you do. The government wants you to pay taxes. Your parents want you to keep honoring their religion and generate grandchildren. The chattering class, the pundits and professors and their various administrators and hangers-on, want you buying their books, clicking on their links, paying their tuition, and so on. The whole spectrum of institutionally-enabled bullies, from your jerkass middle-school principal up to senators and presidents* want you and others to dominate. Add to this mix various grifters, petty and not-so-petty criminals, and miscellaneous creeps trying to cadge sexual favors, and you have a lot to bear.

A rational person, confronted with the bloodsucker army, might be tempted to give up entirely or, at the various least, go antinatalist and not bring new persons into the world where they would be subject to a lifetime of parasitization. But your giving up won’t the bloodsuckers at all. They need the game to keep going — on you and if it is to continue into the future, on your children. Given that there are probably limits on how much they can achieve just by brute coercion (slave revolts take the fun out of their game), they need an inducement. Happiness? True, some of the world’s more shameless con-men do offer happiness to their marks, but as an overall strategy of offering people happiness in return for their submission runs up against the hard fact that life is on balance suffering, and even the dimmest human beings tend after a while to notice that happiness isn’t something that’s happening in their lives. So promises of happiness, except perhaps those made of happiness in an afterlife (always and conveniently not accessible to our first-hand observation), tend not to work very well.

So what’s offered instead is “meaning,” a bit of hocus-pocus meant to convince the marks that even though they are mostly unhappy, their lives and the lives of their wretched offspring are somehow “worth it.” (What is often so insidious about “meaning” is that generating said wretched offspring — possibly as many of them as you can — is argued to be a part of “meaning.”) Keep working and procreating, citizen! Don’t grumble about being unhappy — your life has meaning.

In wartime, people can lose access to even simple things that make them happy. Butter and sugar, say. A national emergency dictates that they can no longer have butter and sugar, so a government rationing board provides them with ersatz products in their place: saccharine and and a foul-tasting industrial conglomerate of vegetable oils, say. People are mollified with the promise that if they work hard and sacrifice and win the war that real butter and real sugar will come back, but in the meantime they will have to make do with cheap synthetic substitutes.

“Meaning” is the cheap synthetic substitute that we are offered in place of real happiness. The difference between it and saccharine is that unlike the human condition, wars end.

*“Now who’s being naive, Kay?” Back to main text.

Your tax dollars at work, fellow Americans

Parts of books will stay with you, sometimes because they inform or inspire (or enable you to get off), but most of all because they provide nightmare fuel. I think nightmare fuel is especially prominent in one passage of a book I’ve finished recently, Neil Sheehan’s A Bright Shining Lie.

This fine book is entwined history of the disastrous involvement of the United States in the Vietnam war and the career of an American Army officer and later civil servant, John Paul Vann, a man of extraordinary energy and intellect and, at the same time, some deep moral flaws. Vann though that the U.S. could win the war, and went to his death in a helicopter crash in 1972 thinking that.

There’s a great deal that Sheehan writes, both about the man and the war he believed in, that’s memorable in this thick book, but one thing that I just can’t evacuate from my mind no matter how hard I try to helicopter it out. It is an incident that occurs in 1965, by which point Vann is a USAID civilian adviser. Here is Sheehan’s account:

[The incident] occurred at the end of April, on the afternoon of the day the Ranger company was overrun at So Do. A young peasant woman and her two children and two of her friends and their children were cutting sugar cane in a field about a mile away. VNAF [South Vietnamese air force] and U.S. Air Force fighter-bombers had been called out, as they invariably were after such debacles on the Saigon side, and were over the air with spotter planes looking for long-gone guerillas. Two fighter-bombers made a pass over the sugercane field. To try to indicate that they were not Viet Cong, the woman and her friends and the children did not run. The planes made several more passes and the women their children kept cutting sugar cane, hoping that their innocence would be recognized. On the next pass the planes dropped napalm. The young woman was the only survivor of the eight in the field. Vann and Ramsey [Douglas Ramsey another U.S. advisor working as an assistant to Vann] found out what had happened when she walked into Bau Trai for treatment at the dispensary and they questioned her. Both of her arms were burned so badly they were going to have to be amputated. She would never be able to close her eyes to sleep again because her eyelids had been scorched away. She was eight months pregnant with another child, but she was not going to be able to nurse her baby. The nipples of her breasts had been burned off.(p. 553)

Tell me again about how life is basically good, and how it is good to bring children into the world. If you really think that a fate like this is somehow made acceptable by the fact that other people have “good” lives, please explain to me how many similar fates (a lot of napalm was used in Vietnam, remember) we should prepare to tolerate for the sake of others “good” lives. Please explain how your number is computed and show your work.


I think it was Robert P. George who once insisted, as an argument against utilitarianism, that we would not allow human sacrifice, even to prevent a huge plunge in the stock market.  (This is what I remember anyway.  It was a long time ago that I would have heard this, so if I’ve gotten it wrong or mischaracterized his words, my apologies to Professor George.)

What strikes me is not that this claim is wrong as a critique of utilitarianism, as that it is simply false.  Granted that it is true that we do not (as far as I know) engage in human sacrifices to prevent stock market crashes, but this is only because no one of any consequence believes that human sacrifice has a causal relationship to market movements. If for some reason sufficiently important and influential people were to come to believe that human sacrifice could prevent market crashes, then of course we could expect human sacrifices to begin.  It’s not just that human interests are at stake in keeping equity prices up.  The interests of rich people are at stake, and barring the occasional revolution rich people get what they want.

To be sure, we might not expect to see naked human sacrifice for the sake of rich people’s portfolios.  Perhaps the practice would be kept discreet, an the only open sign of its existence would be that every now and then some people just…vanish.

A more interesting possibility is that we would have the practice of human sacrifice, but with window dressing.  We wouldn’t call it “human sacrifice,” but rather “national service.”  There would be a draft that everyone would have to register for, you see, and some people would be called up.  This arrangement would not be so different from anything we are already used to.  Over the last century young men by the millions have been fed into the red maw of war by exactly such an institutional mechanism.  You can bet in this latter circumstance that there will be plenty of articulate people, lawyers and academics and newspaper and cable-tv pundits who present smooth, intellectually plausible-sounding justifications of the practice.  The rich can buy these people, after all.  We might even imagine state funerals for the victims, complete with honor guards in snappy uniforms, a bugler playing Taps, a folded flag handed to the victim’s morning family: “With the thanks of a grateful bourgeoisie…”

An observation on marriage

If someone were to propose that your dentist, your plumber, and your attorney all should be the exact same person, elected in early adulthood and ideally cleaved-to for the rest of your life, he’d be dismissed as a madman.  But for some reason we all live with, indeed for the most part eagerly endorse, the proposition that your most intimate friend, your bedmate, and your partner in household management should all be the exact same person, elected in early adulthood and ideally cleaved-to for the rest of your life.

Small wonder so many of us are so emotionally dysfunctional.  Small wonder also, in words attributed by Laura Kipnis to novelist Vince Passaro, “It is difficult to imagine a modern middle-class marriage not syncopated by rage.

“Consensual” sex

I’m in a long process of migrating content off social networks onto scrapbook blogs where it will continue to be kept even in the event the social network goes out of business or becomes unfriendly to the kind of content I like. The large majority of such content is “nice” adult material which I migrate to Hedonix and most of the balance is some not-so-nice stuff which I migrate to Infernal Wonders. It isn’t often that I find something I want to migrate over here, but every so often something might come up.


Justifying the Mephistopheles wager

My two previous posts on p-zombies and homunculus actors have been attempts to lay a little philosophical groundwork, imagining some possibilities in which you appear to go on into the future even though you are annihilated. The point of these is to try to provide a refined form of an argument I visited some years ago called the Mephistopheles wager. The idea behind that wager, for those of you who have never heard of it or who have quite forgivably forgotten, this Mephistopheles wager was a bet taken at some probability p such if you won the bet with probability (1-p) you would get something you wanted, needed, sought, or so forth and otherwise with probability p you would be instantly and painlessly annihilated. Since even your instant and painless annihilation would leave bereaved loved-ones behind, I conjured up some exotic possibilities called the p-zombie and the homunculus actor, which between them, make for a better mechanism of self-annihilation than just being dead, because your loved ones need never know that you lost the wager. From their perspectives, you’ll be going on as before. Call p-zombies and homonculus actors, therefore, a BATDAPE, a Best Alternative to Death as Personal Extinction. We can therefore refine the Mephistopheles wager to understand that if you win, you get what you wanted, and if you lose, BATDAPE for you.

Now we might well imagine a cumulative Mephistopheles wager, that is to say perhaps, many small wagers that add up to a larger one: for example, you’d take a Mephistopheles wager with a probability of 0.1 if the prize is a really awesome romantic partner (in place, perhaps, of a lifetime of loneliness), a probability of 0.2 of having a career that is at once well-remunerated, meaningful, and enjoyable (as opposed to a lifetime of crappy work). All these wagers could be added up to your Cumulative Lifetime Mephistopheles Wager.

Now my intuition, way back when, was that if you would take a Cumulative Lifetime Mephistopheles wager of 0.5 or greater, then in some important sense your life is a misfortune. There are various informal ways to try to justify this intuition — think, for example, how desperate and miserable you would have to be to play a single round of Russian roulette, with say, a prize of ten million dollars offered if you survive — and that’s a just a wager with probability of 0.17 (assuming a fair six-chambered revolver). But here is a way in which I think that the intuition might be justified more formally.

Everyone’s life is a combination of satisfactions and frustrations. Satisfactions are things that make you happy (good food, time with friends, good sex, etc.) or which make your life seem to mean something to you (you teach inner-city children to read, visit and provide company for lonely old people, make scientific discoveries, adopt puppies and kittens otherwise fated for destruction). It take it every life has at least some satisfactions, and some have many. The satisfactions of your life have a magnitude, which is to say some measure of their overall size. The magnitude is probably best characterized as an ordinal measure of sorts: while only the most aggressive utilitarians would be willing to attach a number to each individual satisfaction and then treat the magnitude as an arithmetic sum of those, most of the rest of us would still be able to say that adding a certain condition to our lives either makes our satisfactions greater or less, and to compare adding one or the other and seeing whether their addition to our life’s satisfactions be greater or less for one or the other, or equal for both.

Life is also characterized by frustrations. These have both a positive an a negative character. Life’s positive frustrations are bad things we wish we could remove but can’t. They might be personal forms of unhappiness like persistent physical pain or debility or loneliness, Or there are negative frustrations, things we desire or need but can’t achieve: real success in a career that matters to us, or a happy relationship with someone. There might even be global meaning frustrations to our lives: we really want to get rid of war or poverty or political oppression but just can’t and feel helpless and angry as a result of these. Like satisfactions our life’s frustrations have a magnitude, again probably of an ordinal character: add this frustration to life and our lives are worse, add another one and our lives are worse still even if the first frustration is not added, and so on.

Magnitudes of satisfactions and frustrations matter. Imagine a hypothetical life that had in it only satisfactions. Would we say that life is a misfortune? I would concede that it is not. Indeed, I would concede that we could add some minor frustrations to that life and it would still not be a misfortune. But surely we cannot add on frustrations to that life without end without at some point deeming that life to be a misfortune. The contrary position is subject to a straightforward reductio: if you believe that no amount of frustrations make a life a misfortune, then you’re committed to a view that life could have infinite frustrations — infinite suffering — and that’s absurd.

At what point might someone say that a life is a misfortune? It is clearly at some point between null and infinite magnitudes of frustration. While I suppose that there might be other possible answers, the only one that seems intuitively plausible to me would be the point at which the magnitude of one’s frustrations becomes greater than than of one’s satisfactions.

If the magnitude of your frustrations exceeds that of your satisfactions, then your life is a misfortune. And that, I think, is about intuitive rock-bottom for me.

Well and good, but that just seems to bring up the question of how one compares magnitudes of things like satisfactions and frustrations. The answer to that question would seem to be “what bet would you take?”

If it seems absurd to talk about what bets one would take in a context where what is at stake is your future existence, reflect: in a small way we are taking bets that resemble the Mephistopheles wager all the time. Have you ever crossed a busy street to buy a cup of coffee and a newspaper? Well, then you’ve taken a bet that you won’t be run down by a car. Maybe in most circumstances that’s a pretty good bet, but it’s still a bet. In taking that action you are accepting a (very small, one hopes) probability of having no future in order to turn a frustration (lack of coffee and news) into a satisfaction. You might not want to think about it as a bet, but a bet it is, and in some situations the risk will become sufficiently salient that the bet-like character of the action will become apparent. You might cross a busy street to get a cup of coffee and a newspaper, but you would be unlikely to want to cross an active minefield for the same. Then again, if what’s on the other side of that minefield is sufficiently important to you, you might very well cross it: if what’s on the other side isn’t just coffee and a newspaper but your badly-wounded, will-die-if-she-doesn’t-receive-medical-attention child, then you might very well plunge forward and take the risk. The risks we take are the mechanism for revealing what it is that matters to us.

Now there’s a special sort of bet that becomes rational when the magnitude of what we win matches the magnitude of what we stand to lose, the so-called double-or-nothing bet, that is, the bet that we might take when the odds of losing are 0.5. Consider a very simple kind of person, Homo economicus, who is only interested in maximizing how much money he has. If you offer Homo economicus an opportunity to spend his $4 in wealth that wins lottery ticket that wins with a probability of 0.5, how much would the jackpot have to be to induce him to buy? Answer: at least $8.01, because the expected value of the ticket for Homo economicus can be calculated simply as p(win)*jackpot, so 0.5*$8.01 = $4.005 > $4. For that value, Homo economicus would give up the satisfaction that matters to him (possession of $2) to get rid of the frustration he has (of $2.01 that isn’t his but might be).

Few people would be so simple as Homo economicus. Consider a cousin of Homo economicus, Homo prudens, who doesn’t value only money, but cares about what money can get him — about money’s utility, in other words. The more money Homo prudens has, the less valuable it is to him, though more is always better. Homo prudens might have a utility function like this:

Note, however, that there is still a double-or-nothing bet that Homo prudens might take if his wealth is $4, which is to say one which pays off $16 if it wins. The magnitude of the utility of $8 isn’t enough, but whatever frustrations Homo prudens could make go away with $16.01 in wealth would make it worth it to him to take the bet. That would thus seem to be the point at which the magnitude of his frustrations equals that of his satisfactions.

That’s enough for one post on the matter. On a post shortly to come, I’ll try to address the question of whether it’s just crazy to use examples like this to evaluate actual human lives.