I was reading a piece by the very influential philosopher (and fellow generalist!) Robert Nozick, as part of my class on meaning in life. The excerpt comes from his book Philosophical Explanations. In this blog, I want to share some of my understanding of Nozick’s approach to finding meaning in life. In a word, it’s about connectedness to things outside yourself which have intrinsic value. People, pursuits, ideas, causes – it’s about getting out there and transcending yourself. The quotes set apart in blue are his, though not necessarily from this book. Just relevant thoughts by the late, mostly-great philosopher, Robert Nozick.
George Kateb says this about the man: “His learning is enormous and interconnected … His ability to surround a subject, to anticipate objections, to see through weakness and pretense, to exact all the implications of a contention, to ask a huge number of relevant questions about a seemingly settled matter, to enlarge into full significance what has only been sketched by others, is amazing.” The Harvard philosopher’s most famous for the book Anarchy, State, and Utopia. It is a libertarian work of great impact from the 1970s. Interestingly, once he published that, he didn’t make a lifelong career out of supporting and defending it. He just let it to the talking. And talk it did! Libertarians love him and his “minimal state” idea.
But about his book about meaning in life. I primarily read chapter six, entitled “Philosophy and the Meaning of Life.” It’s long and not terribly easy to get, but my professor, Mattias Risse, Ph.D., and teaching fellow, Kirstin Hasse, were very helpful.
“The strongest sort of intention about one’s life is a life plan, an individual’s set of coherent, systematic purposes and intentions for his life. …[It] specifies the intentional focus of a person’s life, his major goals (perhaps partially ordering them), his conception of himself, his purposes, what if anything he dedicates himself to, and so forth.”
Nozick starts from the perspective that there is much to learn from theism (belief in God; religiosity) but that since it can’t be shown that God definitely exists, we should treat the matter as a philosophical dead-end. Meaning in life is still possible in a non-theistic, secular-humanistic framework, though. Happily. We atheists and agnostics and others don’t get the same benefits as believers, but as my dad would say, “it ain’t too shabby.”
One interesting aspect is Viktor Frankl. With over 10,000,000 copies of the book Man’s Search for Meaning in print, the famous Holocaust survivor and psychotherapist/psychiatrist has got the chops. “Frankl assumes our only desire is to have done certain things, to put certain things somewhere on our record. Because we shall die, if we are to have done these things by the end of our lives, we had better get on with them.” He is saying that Frankl is mistaken to frame meaning as being fundamentally based on the fact that we are going to die, and, therefore, that limited time horizon really focuses the mind. I think I tend to agree with Frankl on this, but Nozick does say that “Even were this general assumption true, though, death constitutes only one kind of structural limitation: finiteness in time.” Fair enough.
One bit of evidence is the following:
“We can pursue this issue by considering a puzzle raised by Lucretius, which runs as follows. No one is disturbed by there being a time before which they did not exist, before their birth or conception…. So why should you be disturbed by the fact that after you’re dead, there also will be an infinite amount of time when you will not exist? …Is it that death is bad because it makes our lives finite in duration?”
When we shuffle off this mortal coil, as it were, “…all that will be left of you is your effects, leavings, traces.” He continues: “Endurance, however, even if a necessary condition for a meaningful life, is certainly not sufficient.” That’s interesting stuff. So what do we leave behind? “People sometimes speak of achieving immortality through their children,” he offers. “Artists often strive to leave behind permanent masterpieces…” he points out.
He wonders why traces are important. He suggests several possible reasons. One, “the importance of traces might lie not in themselves but (only) in what they indicate. Traces indicate that a person’s life had a certain meaning or importance….” Nozick notes that “a philosophical tradition going back to Plato holds that the permanent and unchanging is more valuable by virtue of being permanent and unchanging.” I can see that, sure.
Here is the heart of the matter about traces:
“People do seem to think it important to continue to be around somehow. The root notion seems to be this one: it shouldn’t ever be as if you had never existed at all. A significant life leaves its mark on the world. A significant life is, in some sense, permanent; it makes a permanent difference to the world; it leaves traces.”
Next in Philosophy and the Meaning of Life, Nozick gets into God. The idea that a supreme being can confer some meaning on the lives of human beings. He points out that meaning in life (or the meaning of life, in his words) “is connected with God’s will, with his design for them. Put roughly, people’s meaning is to be found and realized in fulfilling the role allotted to them by God.” Clearly, though, as religion/God are a matter of faith, they are not necessarily real, or true. Thus, for people like Nozick and myself, faith is fine for others, but it lacks solid philosophical ground, and rationality does not indicate that there is a “god” out there in some other dimension who was originally Yahweh, the “God” of the ancient Hebrews (or Israelites?) but who now is God to Christians and also Muslims. Certainly, the idea that “He” knows and loves each of us and thinks we ought to do this or that to please him and/or to get into heaven is a philosophical non-starter. It just doesn’t hold up. What is true about theism, though, is the infinite nature of the idea of a supernatural being. That is what does the work of meaning, he believes.
Here are some thoughts on God/meaning in life: “How can playing a role in God’s plan give one’s life meaning? What makes this a meaning-giving process? It is not merely that some being created us with a purpose in mind. If some extragalactic civilization created us with a purpose in mind, would that be enough by itself to provide meaning to our lives?”
He also points out that “[i]t seems it is not enough that God have some purpose for us – his purpose itself must be meaningful. If it were sufficient to merely play some role in some external purpose, then you could give meaning to your life by fitting it into my plans or your parents’ purpose in having you.” Later Nozick rephrases it thusly: “For if it were possible for man and God to shore up each other’s meaningfulness in this fashion, why could not two people do this for each other as well?” One can’t give or create meaning for another if that is the specific, intended purpose; “the plan must have some independent purpose and meaning itself” Nozick indicates.
“Our principles fix what our life stands for, our aims create the light our life is bathed in, and our rationality, both individual and coordinate, defines and symbolizes the distance we have come from mere animality. It is by these means that our lives come to more than what they instrumentally yield. And by meaning more, our lives yield more.”
Having dispatched the theistic view of meaning in life, but noting that the infiniteness of God is a key strength of that approach, he gets to the meat of this chapter: “You can make your existence meaningful by fitting it into some larger purpose, making yourself part of something else that is independently and incontestibly important and meaningful.” That is pithy stuff. He goes on: “Alternatively, one can seek meaning in activity that is itself important, in something self-sufficiently intrinsically valuable. Preeminent among such activities, if there are any such, is creative activity.”
Creative activity. That’s an odd way of saying what Corita Kent puts more compellingly: “There is an energy in the creative process that belongs in the league of those energies which can uplift, unify, and harmonize all of us . . . . If the job is done well, the work of art gives us an experience of wholeness called ecstasy, a moment of rising above our feelings of separateness, competition, divisiveness to a state of exalted delight in which normal understanding is felt to be surpassed.”
“Although it might be best of all to be Socrates satisfied, having both happiness and depth, we would give up some happiness in order to gain the depth.”
He spends ink debunking the idea that one can find meaning in a theistic view of the world – the sky god of the Hebrews giving our lives meaning, like Adam receiving it from God as depicted on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, if you will. For example: “[T]he purposes of God are the purposes of a powerful and important being (as compared to us). However, it is difficult to see why that suffices for those purposes to ground our existence in meaning. Could the purposes of scientists so give meaning to artificially created short-lived animal life they maintained in a controlled laboratory environment?” The coup de grâce is: “Once we are embarked there is no sure stopping; why not a God who created that God, and so forth?” and “How in the world (or out of it) can there be something whose nature contains meaning, something which just glows meaning?”
However, if one really could arrive at an infinite being, apparently, “the unlimited can stand in a certain relationship with itself so that no limited thing can stand in to itself: being its own meaning.” He continues: “…the unlimited, and only that, is able to be its own meaning; only it is able to block all further questions about meaning and put the continually arising and iterated question about meaning finally to rest.” Okay. I think he is trying to show how religion posits answers humans have about finding meaning in life and so on. As he doesn’t consider this a realistic possibility for human beings (he is non-theistic), we are left with the need to find a humanistic route. Regarding theism, he writes: “We must not confuse what we desire with what is the case; we must continue to base our beliefs on the evidence and reasons, to calibrate our degree of belief according to the evidence.”
“What else can matter to us, other than how our lives feel from the inside?”
More importantly, Nozick then transitions to his main thesis: transcending limits. His point about meaning in life can be summed up succinctly: “For a life to have meaning, it must connect with other things, with some things or values beyond itself.”
Further, he notes that one is not going to hit the bull’s eye of finding meaning in life if one’s “long-term goals do not extend to anything beyond the person, to anything other than his narrow concerns…. Of such lives we ask, ‘but what does that life add up to, what meaning does it have?'” Indeed, it’s about transcending limits, and also connecting and serving and creating and branching out.
Here is a brilliant summation:
“The particular things or causes people find make their life feel meaningful all take them beyond their own narrow limits and connect them up with something else. Children, relationships with other persons, helping others, advancing justice, continuing and transmitting a tradition, pursuing beauty, truth, world betterment – these and the rest link you to something wider than yourself. The more intensely you are involved, the more you transcend your limits.”
So, Robert Nozick counsels us to build a life of value. “We care both about value and the meaning of our life. I suggest we view these as partial aspects of one underlying thing we care about, let’s call it worth. Value is one facet of worth, and meaning is another.”
He, and I, feel that character and ethics are crucial when it comes to living a life that is fulfilling and meaningful. About this he characterizes it as: “…the issue of whether the ethical person will live a more valuable life” and “whether the ethical person’s being responsive to the value of others, as value, would be reflected back into his own value.” Odd wording, but he is claiming/showing that when one truly opens up to the world, acting selfishly and harmfully is no way to find peace, fulfillment, or meaning in life. It’s virtually going to run counter to those goals, in fact. He summarizes:
“In behaving ethically, we transcend our own limits and connect to another’s value as value. The life of the ethical person will have greater value or meaning; the moral push consists in the fact that his life will have greater worth.”
Here is a neat way to look at finding meaning in life by philosopher Susan Wolf, from The Meanings of Lives. She uses personifications of vices; for example, Greed or Ignorance. “In contrast to the Blob’s passivity, a person who lives a meaningful life must be actively engaged. But, as Useless can teach us, it will not do to be engaged in just anything, for any reason or with any goal, one must be engaged in projects that have some positive value….”
Wolf doesn’t think that morality need be a fundamental part of a life of value, but I do, and I think Nozick probably would agree. None of us think that a meaningful life would be selfish, solipsistic, or shallow. Grace Hopper said: “A ship in harbor is safe, but that’s not what ships are built for.”
Here are a dozen miscellaneous quotes about meaning in life to end with:
“Our principles fix what our life stands for, our aims create the light our life is bathed in, and our rationality, both individual and coordinate, defines and symbolizes the distance we have come from mere animality. It is by these means that our lives come to more than what they instrumentally yield. And by meaning more, our lives yield more.” ~ Robert Nozick
“…Rockefeller and Carnegie both spent the second half of their lives giving away to science and medicine, to culture and education, much of the fortunes they had made in the first half of their lives. They created meaning later in their lives after early lives of winning only for winning’s sake.”
“The significance of man is that he is that part of the universe that asks the question, ‘What is the significance of man?’ He alone can stand apart imaginatively and, regarding himself and the universe in their eternal aspects, pronounce a judgment: The significance of man is that he is insignificant and is aware of it.”
“Only spiritually healthy people, people experiencing some measure of a deeply attuned, overall positive growth toward personal excellence, can stand in deeply harmonious social relations with other people. A spiritual malaise, or incompleteness within any person, inevitably infects relations between and among persons, preventing them from being the best they can be.” ~ Tom Morris
“Wisdom is not just knowing fundamental truths, if these are unconnected with the guidance of life or with a perspective on its meaning. If the deep truths physicists describe about the origin and functioning of the universe have little practical import and do not change our picture of the meaning of the universe and our place within it, then knowing them would not count as wisdom.” ~ Robert Nozick
“A clear sense of our own eventual death is a great clarifier and adjuster of priorities. Being aware of our death makes us think about the meaning and significance of our life. It leads us to imagine ourselves at the moment of death looking back on our lives, and prompts us to ask: “Does the life I am living have the meaning I want it to have?” If we don’t like the answer to that question, it is nice to still have enough time left to do something about it.”
“The intellectual life seems to offer one route across all limits: there is nothing that cannot be thought of, theorized about, pondered. Knowledge of deeper truths, fundamental laws, seems more meaningful since it takes us more significantly beyond our limits.” ~ Robert Nozick
“Does your life matter? Does mine? Do they matter to other people? Do they matter in the larger scheme of things? Significance may be the ultimate issue, and an important yardstick of successful living. Our feelings of self-worth are intimately tied to our sense of significance. What gives the strongest boost to our feelings of self-worth? Isn’t it the knowledge that we are making a meaningful contribution to the world around us? That we are helping others? That we are doing things which somehow matter?”
“The problem of collective meaning and purpose is both urgent and immediate because, if for no other reason, it determines our environmental ethic. Few will doubt that humankind has created a planet-sized problem for itself.”
“The capacity to care is the thing which gives life its deepest meaning and significance.”
“[Mental] [d]epression, I argue, stems partly from an overcommitment to the self and an under commitment to the common good. …The consequence of preoccupation with our own successes and failures and lack of serious commitment to the commons is increased depression, poor health, and lives without meaning.”
“Even if life as a whole is meaningless, perhaps that’s nothing to worry about. Perhaps we can recognize it and just go on as before. …If you ever ask yourself the question, ‘But what’s the point of being alive at all?’ – leading the particular life of a student or bartender or whatever you happen to be – you’ll answer ‘There’s no point. It wouldn’t matter if I didn’t exist at all, or if I didn’t care about anything. But I do. That’s all there is to it.”
“Humanism believes that the individual attains the good life by harmoniously combining personal satisfactions and continuous self-development with significant work and other activities that contribute to the welfare of the community.”
Here is another blog about meaning in life.