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.

4 thoughts on “There is no objective meaning

  1. Off the top of my head when I saw your title I was going to respond that finding a meaning for your life was your job, assisted by the poets and the scientists. Then I saw that you addressed that point and are not dismissing that idea, but instead only addressing the concept that there is a meaning that can be more universally perceived and generally accepted. “Meaning” as you seem to be defining it seems to be very much endowed with an emotional component. To find agreement about anything with emotional weight attached to it will prove difficult since emotions are seeming irrational. To me the will to survive seems to be one answer, whether manifest at a purely individual level or projected more broadly to one’s clan or perceived tribe. Emotion, irrational as it may be, can still serves this purpose when difficult choices are required.

    For some of us I think meaning is achieved through the need to create as expressed in this ditty I created almost twenty years ago.

    The Space Between the Ears

    They listen to the heavens
    for the far too distant mutterings
    of their own invention,
    radio messages brought
    from beyond at the lazy speed of light,
    but encounter truth eons old–

    vastness of void,
    blackness of soul,
    gravity of spirit
    and cold of absolute zero
    that only the act
    of creation can dispel.

  2. Even if there were an objective meaning of life (which I doubt), that would not justify bringing new humans into lives of suffering. Certainly, people are entitled to use meaning as a compensation for suffering — in their own lives. But they are not entitled to make this choice for others.

  3. When I had the minor surgery that terminated my potential for accidental progeny, I explained it to friends as not being willing to give hostages to fortune. Now it is almost forty years past that action; I still have the same wife and we agree that we made a very good decision. Many were shocked that we would be so certain of our own decision to make it permanent without having any children. I just think it was a matter of determining our intent before it was too late to do so. The ‘meaning’ of our lives has been to be with, partner, and support each other.

  4. An interesting read, marred only by a failure to properly proof-read the text. English is a vulnerable means of communicating meaning, often conveying unintentional absurdities by the lack of an “un-” or a “not”, never mind the always present possibility of typing errors and spelling mistakes.

    Victor Frankl links finding subjective meaning, which often transcends one’s more selfish propensities, to survival in the death camps. As an imaginative species we have created many fictions by which we manage our lives. Can we do without them? Eventually, maybe.

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