Robert Nozick was a scintillating figure in the history of philosophy. In part, he made a big splash with Anarchy, State and Utopia, and then “dropped the mic” and by and large, moved on! It was virtually the opposite of a John Rawls or a Peter Singer, who spent their entire professional lives fleshing out their theses. Secondly, his book Philosophical Explanations was well-regarded and wide-ranging. He was a generalist in the highest meaning of the term, a man of letters, and I admire that ability and self-confidence. He made some interesting assertions in the chapter “Value” in his book Philosophical Explanations, “a very wide-ranging investigation of a lot of territory in philosophy one way or another concerned with how to live a life in light of all sorts of philosophical problems,” as Mattias Risse, a philosopher of government and meaning in life at Harvard University, put it. Nozick’s idea about meaning in life being about transcending limits stands up to scrutiny; it is my intention to reconstruct, analyze, and assess Nozick’s claims about the nature of God and meaning herein.
But what does meaning even mean? Seven “modes of meaning” are developed, and the ultimate mode, the eighth, is considered total resultant meaning. The meaning of life is essentially qualitatively related to the other uses of the term meaning (for example, one use of meaning is referential; in other words, “What does the word dubious mean?”). This cumulative approach to the use of the word meaning as “meaning of life” bolsters the investigation of personal significance (i.e., philosophical meaning).
Theism has certain pillars of belief, representing claims about the nature of God and existence. Nozick’s chapter dispatches them slowly and methodically, in a form resembling a survey, of the negative style. He arrives eventually at the unlimitedness of God as the sole unassailable contention, but that is only because many of the other pillars of religion’s claims about the nature of God are shaky. Even the claim that God’s existence provides meaning to human beings is unsound (for who gives meaning to whom – God to humans, or humans to God?).
One aspect of theism’s tenets is that a god has a divine plan for its creations. Supposedly, the fact that, say, Yahweh, created humans to procreate, to keep the Sabbath holy, or to honor their fathers and mothers, is capable of providing meaning. I imagine many “believers” feel comforted knowing that they are following the blueprints for wholesome, proper, sanctioned living as provided by God and communicated through Matthew, Luke, or even Rick Warren, pastor of a “megachurch.” When persons console themselves with “Everything happens for a reason,” they are essentially saying “God has a plan for me, and thus I should be passive and accepting and nonjudgmental about my perception of a negative event.” If the nature of this relationship is that of one distinctive other providing meaning to the self, then should not a lover or a mother be able to provide that, as well? “Even if God gave us purposes, how do we know that He had our own best interests in mind?”, Risse shows (bringing in a bit of Bertrand Russell). “Even if you buy into theology, Nozick says, how can there be something that is just kind of ‘glowing meaning…?”, Risse asks. Thus, Nozick discards this pillar of theism as a solid basis for meaning in life.
Creation (of another entity) itself is an attractive contender for meaning (consider how humans were allegedly created “in the image” of Yahweh, according to the monotheistic religions). However, logically, the fact that an entity was created by another does not engender meaning for the created lifeform. If this were so, then the lives of cloned animals in a laboratory would have meaning simply because they were created, and one thing is for certain: animals undergoing scientific experimentation do not have meaning separate from their utility as subjects advancing the human agenda. There being a meaning for my life is reassuring, but it does not follow from the belief that a god has a purpose that it is able to “give” purpose to another being (even one literally created by that superior being). It is even conceivable that a god would create an offspring or lifeform simply to give meaning to his or her (it’s?) own life. That does not confer meaning, either. It is even possible that we humans were created by an all-knowing, all-powerful, omnipresent, infinite being for its own amusement, not unlike a flea circus!
Superiority per se does not convey meaning, for the simple reason that historically/anthropologically, the god of all three modern monotheistic religions, Yahweh (worshipped by the ancient Samarians, Canaanites, and possibly Egyptians) was one god among a pantheon of gods and goddesses. Certainly, the ancient Greeks, founders of philosophy, believed that 49 deities were inferior to Zeus. In reality, that might be the case as well – that a god may be but one among many deities, some of whom are superior to him or her. Thus, superiority does not automatically provide meaning to the lives of those who worship one.
Nozick makes the argument that the key to theism’s ability to provide meaning in life is the unlimitedness of God. He doesn’t believe in religion’s conclusions or consolations, but he does admire the artistry with which the enterprise fashions meaning out of myth and disconnected bits of testimony from times-past – and intends to use the same method for secular purposes! He wants to redesign and repurpose theism’s successes and create an authentic and defensible substrate for humanism to stand on.
The operative idea in religion according to Nozick is the infinite nature of God, or unlimited transcendence. Nozick posits the idea of unlimitedness as a “stopping place” for meaning (i.e., ending the philosophical “infinite regress”). Transcending limits is the operative idea when the idea of a god is taken out of the equation, though this does leave open the possibility of an undesirable “self-referential vacuum.” Limited transcendence is also an apt description of Nozick’s primary theme when it comes to the terrestrial plane, if you will.
If x requires meaning, then x is required to look beyond x for it. Nothing finite can ultimately provide meaning; it’s about transcending. Unlike human beings, whose lives are limited, God’s existence is alleged to be unlimited; he represents infinity. He has always been, and will always be; there is no place God is not. A finite being cannot give meaning to others, but an infinite being can (i.e., connecting to something unlimited). He asks on page 594: “How must the notion of meaning be structured…for (only) unlimitedness to provide a secure basis for meaning…?” Essentially, meaning is inherently about something outside something else; that which lies beyond a thing; for example, something beyond the self.
The fact of life being finite for human beings is not sufficient to engender meaning. Nozick considers the venerable existentialist philosophy Viktor Frankl to be parochial and essentially incorrect when it comes to that very assertion. Just because something ends does not make it meaningful. Could the life of a fly be considered meaningful because it dies in a period, according to human beings’ understanding of time, of 24 hours? Is life really meaningless if it stretches on unendingly? Perhaps that could provide adequate time to read every book in The Harvard Classics, or climb every mountain over 5,000’ on Earth, or invent a method of deep space travel.
Human beings long to connect with something greater than themselves. If this world is all that exists (as the humanist believes), then how will unlimitedness be the answer to the meaning of life? “We are asking how something is connected to something outside of it,” as Risse notes. Theism successfully offers prayer and karma and such, but meaning generated in that manner is not applicable to a non-theistic framework. The structure can be applied to secular life, however. Limited transcendence is the nature of secular meaning, as it involves the transcending of limits (in a human framework, that is). Meaning is about connecting to something outside oneself.
This is the nature of value, according to Nozick. If one engages in valuable activities, repeatedly, then meaning can be gained. “Constantly crossing boundaries; transcending limits within the finite life that we have – so building our lives as transcending what we have achieved [thus] far,” as Professor Risse described. Simply aging is not sufficient to engender meaning or lead to wisdom. Instead, three notions are key to Nozick’s project:
Intrinsic value is the first pillar, and “…[it] will help us with formulating a rich and rewarding understanding of what it is we’re transcending,” Risse indicates. Though “value” is a vague or even ubiquitous term, Nozick conceptualizes it as “organic unity”; that is, integration of a diversity of constituent elements. Scientific theories are valuable to the degree that they integrate disparate themes, as do great paintings, the evolutionary development of the human brain, or Earth’s ancient natural ecosystems. This refers to the intrinsic value, or moral value, or organic unity, according to Risse. This is a reason why it is unethical to degrade or exploit the environment for personal or corporate gain – because it has an organic and intrinsic value.
Secondly, meaning. Drawing on more elementary modes of meaning, Nozick develops the idea of the meaning of life as being connected to other activities which have intrinsic value (which of course can include other human beings). Limited transcendence is about connecting to something outside the self, to things that themselves possess inherent value. It’s about embeddedness, connectedness, balance, and context. The idea is to transcend one’s own, limited value. “The meaning of life is its place in a wider context of value,” Nozick writes.
Using an analogy, an Iowa farm boy’s significance grows if he travels increasingly far and wide: first to Kansas, and then California, and then to Angor Wat in Cambodia or to see the pyramids of Egypt. Or, a person who lives a fairly solipsistic or introverted life could grow outward, to be more embedded and involved in greater and greater spheres of life. These two must begin with the self – their own character – but grow increasingly wider and more sophisticated by means of connections. “You are connecting to more and more things as you go through life – but not just anything; you are connecting to other people, you are pursuing activities, you are doing things that themselves have intrinsic value,” Professor Risse notes. Artistic and creative pursuits, participating in social causes and political movements, engaging in altruistic endeavors, and belonging to groups that are worthy are ideal. It’s iterative and progressive. Making a difference is illustrative; who would say that Gandhi’s life did not have sufficient meaning? Imagine the satisfaction and rich meaning that Elizabeth Cady Stanton or Jonas Salk or Mother Teresa probably experienced on their deathbeds.
Worth is the apex for Nozick. In his words: “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.” Professor Risse characterizes it as character-building, plus connection to things of intrinsic value in my world, “and how have I pursued that over a lifetime.”
Consider the opposite of what Nozick would characterize as building a life of worth: the obsessive accumulation of money. That decidedly does not involve connection and transcendence. The idea of hygiene factors are put in a lesser place on a hierarchy as more aspirational goals (termed motivational factors), such as family, the psychological concept of flow, and service to a higher cause. This is much of what animates a believer in God’s sense of meaning in life, and so it makes sense that Nozick uses it for his secular conception of a good life.
Ethics is part and parcel of Nozick’s theory of meaning in life. It is the highest and ultimate good. It is the recognition of others’ rights and desires and freedom. …ethical behavior, responding to the value of another as value, will be reflected in the meaning of a person’s life (if not in the value)…. 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 meaning; the moral push consists in the fact that his life will have greater worth” (Robert Nozick). Social causes, such as the quest for social justice for all in society, are a natural outcropping of someone who has successfully built a self and wishes to find meaning by transcending personal or idiosyncratic concerns.
“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” (Robert Nozick).
Thus, the concept of God is not necessary for the personal significance of the individual. It’s really a kind of existentialism, and truly secular and humanistic. It might not be the grandiose meaning promised by evangelical Christians (or even the Hindus), but it’s what we’ve got. At least it holds water and is based in philosophy, not theism. It’s limited transcendence. “It’s all you can have – that’s the bad news; but the good news is, you can have that,” Professor Risse believes.
Nozick describes it as: “Limited transcendence, the transcending of our limits so as to connect with a wider context of value which is itself limited, does give our lives meaning, but a limited one. We may thirst for more….” The potential is truly cosmic, though, because as Nozick indicates, perhaps human beings will travel to the distant reaches of our galaxy (or beyond), and “experience the challenges of diverse intergalactic civilizations, further human evolution….”
Robert Nozick’s theory of meaning in life gets a boost from writer Susan Wolf, in her book The Meanings of Lives. She indicates that though a subjective element (sense of reward that could be described as “emotionally satisfying” or “subjectively rewarding”). “If your goal is just yourself – to be as subjectively as happy as you can –…then you might be missing out on things that connecting to which is intrinsically rewarding.” He goes on to note that this is, probably, ultimately self-serving, in that one might be “playing a little bit of a trick on yourself”, mentally, when one reaches out and serves, pursues external and integrated goals.
It is reminiscent of the idea of altruism; some say that altruism is not real or legitimate because all goals are ultimately self-serving; I say, well, okay, but the question is, Was that child saved from drowning or were they not? It doesn’t matter deeply if the person did it because they felt impelled to do the right thing, or because they knew that doing the right thing would make them feel good about themselves (e.g., subjective reward). The good person would certainly not walk away, though.
Returning to Susan Wolf, she notes that when we consider “what sorts of lives exemplify meaningfulness, subjective criteria do not seem to be in the forefront. Who comes to mind? Perhaps, Gandhi, or Albert Schweitzer, or Mother Teresa; perhaps Einstein or Jonas Salk. Cezanne, or Manet, Beethoven, Charlie Parker.” She is pointing out that a satisfying life might be one of pleasure and benign neglect of the world around one, but that a truly meaningful life must necessarily involve others, and causes, and connections with something greater than the self (though, I would think, something less than a god). Active engagement, she notes.
“For me, the idea of a meaningless life is most clearly and effectively embodied in the image of a person who spends day after day, night after night, in front of a television set, drinking beer and watching comedies.” As well, she points out that Olympic athletes and world chess champions “whose accomplishments leave nothing behind but their world records.” In contrast, Wolf refers to the meaningful pursuit of “one that is actively and at least somewhat successfully engaged in a project (or projects) of positive value.”
Very consistent with Nozick, and it bolsters his claims, I think. And it is very compelling, because it is putting a very fine point on it to indicate that a star athlete who dedicated years to training does not enjoy the same caliber of life which a social justice advocate or foster parent or inventor of a vaccine do. “Neither is a meaningful life assured of being an especially happy one, however” she notes.
Whereas it might be fun or somehow rewarding, a deep and meaningful fulfillment will be absent in “a life that is directed solely to its subject’s own fulfillment, or, to its mere survival or towards the pursuit of goals that are grounded in nothing but the subject’s own psychology, appears either solipsistic or silly.” The ethical life is often not easy or “happy,” but it is the sure route to meaning.
An objection to Nozick could be formulated along these lines, according to Kirstin Haase: Outside of a theistic framework, lives cannot be meaningful because each of the finite lives would be able to obtain its own meaning only by reference to other finite lives. But since finite lives thereby would get their meaning from each other, this manner of thinking about meaning in life would fail.
Another objection: persons as varied and significant as Frankl, Steve Jobs and Franz Kafka believe that, in Kafka’s words, “The meaning of life is that it stops”; in Jobs’, “Remembering that I’ll be dead soon is the most important tool I’ve ever encountered to help me make the big choices in life.” I think it is just a difference of viewpoint. I do see Nozick’s concept is best exemplified by his counter to Frankl: “[He] assumes our only desire is to have done certain things, to put certain things somewhere on our record. Because we shall die… we had better get on with [it]. He strongly asserts that “Persons who are immortal need not be limited to the desires and designs of morals…” and that “Frankl never seems to wonder or worry whether unlimited existence presents a problem of meaningfulness for God.” As well, in addition to time, others limitations are also possible, and therefore “death only constitutes one kind of structural limitation: finiteness in time.” I think he makes a good objection to Frankl, but I also think the idea that time is limited and of unknown amount for humans can, at its best, concentrate the mind of living a life that is subjectively rewarding and intrinsically fulfilling.
I believe Nozick’s formulation of life’s meaning as limited transcendence is compelling. I do think meaning is possible outside of a theistic framework. First of all, there are many atheists and agnostics who find life quite fulfilling. I would imagine there is a huge contingent of social liberals engaged in causes of all sorts who don’t necessarily believe in a divine power. “Religion is whatever the individual takes to be his ultimate concern. One’s religious attitude is to be found at that point where he has a conviction that there are values in human existence worth living and dying for,” wrote psychologist and humanist Rollo May.
This compelling idea does not indicate that a god is necessary in this calculus. One reason is, of course, that the existence of God cannot be proved, and thus, it is not a sure way to meaning in life (except, perhaps, if one considers the idea that one could live for 99 years being mistaken about a fundamental fact of the nature of reality and still be living an authentic and meaningful life). I think the latter would qualify as at least subjective, and at worst, deluded. Indeed, Nozick’s theory satisfies because it jibes with my belief that “a life of value” is one that is not just subjectively rewarding and happy, but one which is ethical; one in which the individual reaches out, integrates the self with the other, and tries rather successfully to broaded one’s sphere of engagement and, ideally, makes a difference. In Professor Risse’s words: “[Y]ou choose the things you’re connecting to in terms of their intrinsic value, and then you get the life satisfaction kind of ‘ex-post’ for having done that.”
One interesting triangulation comes from psychological research on happiness and optimism: “We will never know if social insects have hive emotions and if arthropods have found and exploited nonemotional ways to sustain group cooperation. But positive human emotion we know well: it is largely social and relationship-oriented. We are, emotionally, creatures of the hive, creatures who ineluctably seek out positive relationships with other members of our hive” (Martin E. P. Seligman).
Thus, Nozick is correct to ground his theory of meaning in the scientific reality that human beings are not happy and fulfilled when they pursue solipsistic, selfish, and narrow pursuits. It is also bolstered by the fact that individuals who are wealthy are no happier, by and large, than folks making $75,000 a year.
No less a theologian than Martin Luther is alleged to have said, “Whatever your heart clings to and confides in: that is really your god.” It is a strong indication that human beings are quite capable of finding fulfillment and meaning in non-theistic goals such as altruism, compassion, service, and integration. As well, Seligman points out that “[t]he life committed to nothing larger than itself is a meager life indeed. Human beings require a context of meaning and hope. …I call the larger setting ‘the commons.’ It consists of a belief in the nation, in God, in one’s family, or in a purpose that transcends our lives.”
We also associate wisdom with persons who seek integration, have compassion, and engage in altruism (see for example Stephen S. Hall’s book Wisdom: from Philosophy to Neuroscience), and wherever wisdom is, humans find value.
The idea of pantheism also bolsters Nozick’s conclusion; as Mikhail Gorbachev put it, “I believe in the cosmos. All of us are linked to the cosmos. So nature is my god. To me, nature is sacred. Trees are my temples and forests are my cathedrals.”
I couldn’t develop a statement about the possibility of non-theistic meaning in life any better myself than the following: “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. …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” (Robert Nozick).
Indeed, the universe may not have an ultimate meaning, but creatures on Earth, from ants to humans, seem convinced they can find a meaning to life by being a part of something greater than a solitary and solipsistic existence.
I will now include a dozen interesting quotes about meaning:
“Society’s problems are bigger than any one of us. Despair and setbacks are inevitable. But connecting with others who share our concerns helps sustain us for the long haul.” ~ E. M. Forster
“A man is a little thing while he works by and for himself, but when he gives voice to the rules of love and justice, he is god-like.” ~ Ralph Waldo Emerson
“An association of isolated individuals bound not by a sense of place, nor by extensive family connections, nor by loyalty to an employer, but only by the fleeting ties of self-interest, cannot be a good society. Such a society will fail even if it professes that its role is only to allow each individual citizen ‘life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.’ ~ Peter Singer
“God may well be our most interesting idea. Down the ages, humans have posited a deity, or deities, to find meaning and value in life.” ~ John Elson
“All through life a person is engaged in a continuum of differentiation of himself from the whole, followed by steps toward new integration. Indeed, all evolution can be described as the process of differentiation of the part from the whole, the individual from the mass, with the parts then relating to each other on a higher level.” ~ Rollo May
“Philosophers are always reminding people of the interrelatedness of things, always bringing together what has been artificially torn apart and disunited.” ~ Corliss Lamont
“All men are in need of help and depend on one another. Human solidarity is the necessary condition for the unfolding of any one individual.” ~ Erich Fromm
“Integration, or even the word ‘organic’ itself, means that nothing is of value except as it is naturally related to the whole in the direction of some living purpose.” ~ Frank Lloyd Wright
“Our capacity to reason and our freedom to choose make us morally autonomous and, therefore, answerable for whether we honor or degrade the ethical principles that give life meaning and purpose.” ~ Michael S. Josephson
“We publish the book of our lives every day through our actions, and through our conduct we teach one another what is worthy of admiration and what is worthy of disdain.” ~ David Brooks
“What gives God’s life meaning? If the only correct answer to that kind of question was an external answer, then God would need something to give his life meaning; he would need his own god. …I think you can see that there’s a question about that second god — what gives his life meaning? That clearly leads to an infinite regress. It can’t be that for any being you can consider, his life has meaning if and only if there is another being, distinct from him, who gives it meaning.” ~ Colin McGinn
“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.” ~ Robert Nozick
“Most men and women lead lives at the worst so painful, at the best so monotonous, poor, and limited, that the urge to escape and the longing to transcend themselves, if only for a few moments, is and always has been one of the principal appetites of the soul. ~ Aldous Huxley
“A person’s life is limited but serving the people is limitless. I want to devote my limited life to serving the people limitlessly.” ~ Lei Feng
“There’s this wonderful accord between the exterior and interior worlds, and it’s not as though God had breathed anything into us; the gods we know are projections of our own fantasies, our own consciousness, our own deep being.” ~ Joseph Campbell
“In walking through the world there is a choice for a man to make. He can choose the fair and open path, the path which sound ethics, sound democracy, and the common law prescribe, or choose the secret way by which he can get the better of his fellow man.” ~ Ida Tarbell
“It 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.” ~ Robert Nozick
“The purpose of religion is not to build beautiful churches or temples, but to cultivate positive human qualities such as tolerance, generosity, and love.” ~ Tenzin Gyatso
More quotes about meaning can be found in The Wisdom Archive! It’s free, interesting, and ad-free. Enjoy yourself.
Here is a bit more about Nozick’s book in case you are that interested.