Ultimate Meaning: Its nonexistence, and good riddance

Frosty pondering the meaning. [19 source]

Abstract

Some philosophers have been shifting the discussion from meaning of life to meaning in life. Not so fast. There are things to learn about the former — it doesn’t exist — and how it impacts us (positively). Let’s define meaning as a point, an end that justifies an endeavor. A point is external to the enterprise it serves as a point to. But the human life encompasses itself completely. And pursuits external to oneself cannot to be intrinsic to one’s own life. So there is no Ultimate Point.

However, this is a good outcome. Experience is all we have, so any meaning of ours must occur in experience. Accordingly, Everyday Meaning (that created by pursuits within a life) and Ultimate Meaning are fungible as sources of Momentary Meaning. Furthermore, disbelieving in an Ultimate Meaning can afford more meaningful lives than otherwise for reasons concerning freedom, creativity and presence. It frees us from the authoritarian doctrine that only one pursuit is sacred, allows us to create our own meaning and and grounds us again in the creative conversation and the meaning it entails creating. Without the epistemic freight of Ultimate Meaning, we can craft a most meaningful narrative identity, and in turn, see through it at a different level of explanation, to realize and express the inherent lack of meaninglessness in experience. Thus, lingering on the meaning of life can engender more meaning in life, and nonmeaninglessness therein.

No Point

“Ultimate Meaning: We Don’t Have It, We Can’t Get It, and We Should Be Very, Very Sad” entitles Rivka Weinberg’s recent paper. What is it about? It’s self-explanatory from the title. Her logic is solid, but I believe she cleaved onto the wrong horn of the dilemma. We should not be “very, very sad” at the lack of an Ultimate Meaning; we should grin up and exhale a celebratory breath. And yes, I mean that. I will now show it.

Meaning is a multifarious word, so she simplified the problem by considering it as a point, a valued end that justifies actions or choices. The point of building a house is the end-result — gaining a trusty shelter. A long walk’s point is the state of tranquility and delight induced by the walk. That of meditation is acquiring insight into the nature of consciousness. Those points justify taking the action, and as such, are necessarily external to the action itself. But since the enterprise of life is all we have, nothing of ours can be external to it.[2] There is no room for an ultimate point to life. There can be points within our lives, but no end-state justifying a life’s efforts.

Those who have read Man’s Search for Meaning may think they have gamed the argument: We can create an Ultimate Purpose in our lives by working towards an ideal that we cannot reach within our lifetime, like curing all disease, making humanity an intergalactic species, or just living to help others.[3] Then our projects in life would be structure towards an end, meaning there is a point to such a life, right?

Not quite. Many of us have devoted ourselves to unachievable ends or others. However, when we are on their deathbed, do we grimace in regret that poverty is still a thing, or that we failed to achieve our life’s point? Probably not, we look back in satisfaction at the people we helped and feats we’ve accomplished. If not, we look back ruefully and grow to accept the outcome. But those reactions are incongruous with what failing to fulfill an Ultimate Purpose should lead to: perpetual resignation. So, the meaning that we create is actually not Ultimate, but rather meaning within a life; even devoting oneself to a cause does not solve life’s lack of Ultimate Meaning.

This is not to say that such pursuits are not valuable, and indeed, I argue later that such pursuits are just as valuable as if we were following an Ultimate Point.

Should we be sad?

We can create meaning by pursuing projects and causes, though that meaning cannot be Ultimate Meaning. Rivka Weinberg calls it Everyday Meaning — meaning within a life, as opposed to meaning of a life. She says that it makes sense to want both types of meaning: Just like we want our efforts in individual projects to lead to some point, we should want our efforts to matter towards something beyond individual projects. Without an Ultimate Point that’s impossible. So we should be sad.

The picture portrays a life as a series of N projects, each contributing to an Ultimate Point. I reject this viewpoint: The Ultimate Point does not exist, since it is external to life, which is all we have.

But I’m not convinced it is sad. Ultimate Meaning bestows certainty at the cost of freedom, objective goals instead of presence, rendering one pursuit sacred at the cost of all others.

There is an ancient story about a Chinese Emperor Wu.[6] He benefacted Buddhism by constructing temples, funding monks and nuns and copying scriptures. So, he asks the passing Zen master Bodhidharma, “What is my merit for all these deeds?”

It seems Wu is laboring under the conception that there is a reward at the end of life or the next turn of reincarnation for an Ultimate Point, and he is working toward it by shoring up Buddhism. Or, he is looking for an affirmation from the Zen master that he is leading his life well. These two points — reward and affirmation — are what most seek from an Ultimate Point. However, each object is more a life-stealing vampire than a beneficient fairy; they positively hamper a life’s meaning. Hence Bodhidharma’s response:

“No merit whatsoever.”

It might sound plaintive, but Bodhidharma is scarcely giving a nihilistic — or in any way sad — response. He is affirming the lack of an Ultimate Point, but not in a metaphysical way. He is trying to be practical, just with the purpose of pointing towards our experience. He is showing us what he thinks constitutes a good life: one that realizes there to be no merit whatsoever.

To render Bodhidharma transparent, first I’ll explain why we need no Ultimate Meaning. Then, I’ll argue that it is a good riddance, that the lack of an Ultimate Meaning and acknowledging it should make us happier.

We don’t need Ultimate Meaning

An Ultimate Point may very well create additional meaning. However, any meaning it creates must arise in experience. That’s because life is made of experience, and experience encompasses itself entirely. There is nowhere for meaning to arise but in our momentary experience. And so, Ultimate Meaning reduces to meaning occuring in the moment, Momentary Meaning. Likewise, Everyday Meaning also reduces to Momentary Meaning.

Does the meaning created by an Ultimate Point feel different from that engendered by Everyday Meaning? Definitely not. The joy arising from a fun conversation is the same feeling as that created by merely thinking about the experience. Origins don’t matter here. What matters is that there is meaning in the moment, but it does not matter whether that is brought by ultimate or everyday pursuits. Everyday and Ultimate Meaning are fungible (mutually replaceable).

The key conclusion follows logically: Given we have sufficient reserves of Everyday Meaning, Ultimate Meaning adds nothing. Sure, more meaning is better. But we can create more meaning by simply pursuing more meaningful projects more wholeheartedly, without need for anything Ultimate.

Fungible Meaning: Meaning created by an Ultimate Point (if it did exist) and Everyday Points are fungible, because each ends up as Momentary Meaning.

No Ultimate Meaning -> Happier Life

Yet I am making a stronger claim. Ultimate Meaning is not only unnecessary; believing in an Ultimate Meaning, can positively hamper a good life.

That claim seems to run counter to the stories we hear and read about those following their meaning. They are more resilient and passionate, successful and happy. As Victor Frankl phrased it, He who knows his why can bear almost any how.”[3] All of which is true; and all of which is possible only because we have no Ultimate Point bearing down on us.

Freedom over Authoritarianism

Why is that? Let’s pretend an Ultimate Point did exist. Then one would be obligated to follow their Ultimate Meaning, and the path that leads to it would be privileged over all others: This path leads to the Ultimate, and those are worthless. So when one is unable to follow the path of their choosing — whether one is blocked for want of skill, medical issues, or incapacitated by Nazis as Frankl was — one is resigned to a “worthless” path. An Ultimate Point renders us at the mercy of circumstances. Its lack frees us to create our own meaning, because we can forge a path irrespective of circumstances.

Not only does it make us vulnerable to ill circumstances, but the doctrine of Ultimate Meaning leads to such circumstances, by justifying assertions of power. Even if we were to believe one exists, we don’t know what path leads to our Ultimate Meaning. We have to figure it out by trial and error. This creates a bifurcation: One subset of people anxiously searching for their Ultimate Meaning, and another believing, accurately or delusionally, that they found theirs. The latter, who “found their meaning” and pursue it, would think themselves justified by an Ultimate mission to impose on others their actions, beneficient or malfeasant. This thinking creates tyrants. Indeed, Ultimate Meaning, at heart an authoritarian doctrine, philosophically justifies tyranny. “The doctrine that truth is manifest”, wrote Karl Popper, “is the root of all tyranny”, meaning that those who think themselves to have “manifestly” seen their truth in turn assert it on others.[7] To give up Ultimate Points is to step towards a better political philosophy.

Disbelieve in an Ultimate Meaning and we gain a freedom: a freedom to craft one’s own pursuits, a freedom from justified moral doctrines. What we do with that freedom is up to us. But so long as we employ it creatively, any additional freedom is a boon to life.[12] (The footnote is for those not convinced of this last point.)

The Creative Conversation

If we were to follow an ostensible Ultimate Point, our path through life would would become unitary and unimproving, crystallized in staticity. There would be no improving our way of living with forays onto other paths or by forging new moral explanations. We would stop learning how to live. This is a highly perverse outcome: irrespective of what stage we are in life, there is undoubtedly more to learn about living. As Seneca wrote, “It takes a whole of life to learn how to live” [8]. So, to cease learning to live means to forfeit a better life, to forswear creating ever more meaning in one’s life. Altogether, believing in Ultimate Meaning leads to less meaning in a life than otherwise.

There is in reality no Ultimate Point. That means meaning is only ever created from pursuits within one’s life. It also means there is no one optimal way to live — we have freedom in how we lead our lives, since no one path is set up for us. But that does not degrade the structure of our lives into mere arbitrariness; there remain better ways to live than others. From a standpoint of meaning, the better paths are those in which we create more meaning, and the path earns a plus if it is aligned with morality. Those better paths, or ways of living, are not just there for us to find, though; we must create them. And we make ours the best path possible only by continually creating and recreating our own way of living.

A way of living is an explanation, and there is only one means known that can improve an explanation: conjecture and criticism. When we face a problem about how we are living, either by spontaneous encounter or by creating criticisms of our way of living, we conjecture several new ways of living that may solve the problem. We criticize those in our heads, enact the best one or ones in our lives to test whether they make an improvement in our lives, then tentatively adopt the new way of living, until experience or criticism create more problems (see [13] for a less abstract example]. In this way our explanations of life improve. And yet we can never reach a final, problem-free way of living. (This implication is called fallibilism in theory of knowledge, and I discuss it in more depth in [14].) These two points, that ways of living always have problems and the method of conjecture of criticism can improve upon them, imply that there is infinite room for improvement in ways of living.

Time to render these concepts poetic, because ideas about life deserve to be poetic. The process of ever recreating new ways of living — conjecture and criticism applied to life — I call, following poet David Whyte, engaging in the creative conversation. It entails creating ourselves again and again in conversation with the elements as we tread towards a horizon (not quite a goal, more than a direction) of our choosing. And in the creative conversation, we are most laden by meaning when staying close to the way we like to travel; the specific horizon we follow is less important. [10]

Thus, the best, i.e. the most meaningful and moral, ways of living are infinitely better than the others. The only way to make our paths closer to those is by engaging in the creative conversation. And that entails forswearing the progress-stymying belief of Ultimate Meaning which renders itself immune from criticism and hence improvement.

Narratives or Nonmeaninglessness

Last section, I lodged the unintuitive claim that the illusion of Ultimate Meaning puts a constraint on how much meaning we can experience. But the illusion does not merely constrain; it conceals, too. It conceals the door to meaning’s often less discussed cousin: the inherent lack of the demand for meaning in experience, or nonmeaninglessness. For the only reason we need meaning is our thinking we do.

What I describe is both an experience and a philosophical argument. As an experience, it may be what Bodhidharma means by “no merit whatsoever”. He’s not quite saying that our actions should be meaningful in of themselves. Though they should be — it’s just that this is not Bodhidharma’s point. Instead, in the baffling laconus that is the Zen master’s wont, he is pointing to such a state of mind that actions need not harbor merit or meaning — they could, but one would thrive either way (so my interpretation goes).

Nonmeaninglessness need not only be described, however; it can be explained as a philosophical argument. The main actor in the explanation is the narrative identity. It is the story through which we see ourselves. It explains who we are right now in terms of where we came from, how we are, and to what horizons we are traveling.

The narrative identity exhibits a cardinal role in our lives. It is the generator of all meaning: Meaning does not arise from actions and pursuits, but by how our narrative identity interprets them and connects them to ourselves. It is often the best explanation for the ways we act. For example, if it is lain our in front of us, we would not be tempted in the slightest by a bag cocaine. However, we would be tantalized by a freshly grilled steak — unless, of course, we are vegetarian. That’s a result of our narrative: It tells us that we are the type of person to indulge in a juicy t-bone, but to shun the powder. Indeed, I’ve found the best (only?) self-help advice is that if we change our narratives, enduring actions follow downstream. Cold showers every morning become easy if I become the type of person to not take hot showers. Given the right narrative, we can do anything we are capable, on any time-scale. And the creative conversation is about allowing our narratives to change with our growing moral knowledge and wisdom.

Rivka Weinberg defined us as narrative identities. And she argued that, given we are narrative identities, we should be sad that there is no Ultimate Point. Why? A narrative has a start, a development and we expect an end. So, if we think ourselves narrative identities, it makes sense to wonder at the incompleteness of our lives: I don’t see the climax… Where is the meaningful ending? How does this narrative of life even make sense? Thus, it would make sense to hanker for an Ultimate Meaning if we define ourselves as narrative identities. However, though our identities may be narratives, we are not identities.

An identity is the quality of uniquely being one person. This concept makes sense as an explanation on the level of everyday actions and interactions. Only on that level does it make sense, though. Identity is not universally applicable. When we test the idea on extreme circumstances via thought experiements (like duplication and brain-uploading machines), identity ceases to make sense as something that matters to us.

I’ve built upon these thought experiements in another article, P&R II [18], and to get a real sense of the strange and winding road, you have to tread on it. However, to hazard a compression here (that may be more Procrustean than essence-extracting): What matters about us — continuity in memory, links of character and goals, capacities for consciousness and creativity — could be shared by another, down to the scintinilla of similarity. And yet it would not make sense for us to want to destroy our doppelganger to regain our identity. So identity is not what matters for our persistence through time. [11]

We have narrative identities, but we are not identities. So, we should not be sad in seeing a lack of Ultimate Meaning: Demand for meaning arises only when we identify with our narrative identity. So, what would happen if we didn’t — if we cease taking the narrative seriously for a moment and see experience through anther, more fundamental explanation. Well, I termed the result nonmeaninglessness. It requires we disbelieve in an Ultimate Meaning: seeing ourselves as amorphous conscious states in the moment, connected in a continuous sequence by overlapping links of memory, character, capacities and goals, or using a different explanation.

Those in a flow state, for example, simply don’t get into any sort of existential quagmire. That’s because existential dread arises only when we are identifying with a narrative identity. And those in flow experience it only because they forget their narrative identities. But do we have to hanker for spontaneous flow experiences to experience that state of nonmeaninglessness? I don’t think so. We can momentarily disbelieve in the narrative identity to experience nonmeaninglessness on demand. Those glimpses are not so much experiences, but momentary insight that colors the rest of experience, that tells us we have a lifeline: no meaning, no problem. However, that is only possible if we can truly see that experience need not always be explained through a narrative. And that is equivalent to thoroughly disbelieving in an Ultimate Meaning.

Conclusion

No ultimate meaning of life exists. This idea seems to be prevailing upon those philosophers who have thought deeply about meaning. There are even proposals to outright change the questions from meaning of life to meaning in life. I think that might be prudent, for there is only ever meaning in life. So, it is seeming more and more true that to demand a meaning from life is to mistake a psychological problem for a philosophical one [9].

I focused on how this insight has the potential to make our lives much, much better. Let me build on how, and in doing so, convey generally how to actualize them in our lives.

Our actions are given meaning by our narrative identities — explanations that interpret how our actions mesh into a unity. Actions have meaning insomuch as they figure in that explanation. And we can forge more meaning by engaging in the creative conversation, ever criticizing our narratives and conjecturing better ones.

Nonmeaninglessness is created by seeing experience through explanations different from the narrative identity. For example, meditators talk about this experience with reference to their practice, in which they cultivate wordless intuitions about experience. Those intuitions are really just non-narrative theories about experience — I call them inexplicit explanations [17] — and in seeing experience in their light, they can realize that sense of nonmeaninglessness.

However, nonmeaninglessness is not just a “meditative” idea. It simply involves disbelieving (though only momentarily) the narrative identity as the best explanation for experience. We do so by rallying a different explanation. Meditators do so with inexplicit explanations. I try to make them explicit — rendering them able to be criticized — in my article, P&R II [18].

Seeing experience through a non-narrative explantion involves more than just knowing one, though; it involves integrating the explicit idea all the way down, into our inexplicit and unconscious theories of experience. How to do this… I don’t know (I would be a bliss machine if I did). Think about your own explanations, live their implications, ponder and criticize them. Experiment with taking them seriously for moments, in glimpses. I think these ideas are magic pills, but there is no magic pill for integrating ideas.

The paths to realizing the good from ultimate meaning’s nonexistence are hard. Both require us to go beyond what we are currently. To continually change. To see the world radically different. Either way, we cease to see ourselves as narratives. Creating meaning means to take ourselves as explanations to be criticized and conjectured anew, not identities to be cathected and cleaved to. Glimpsing nonmeaninglessness means to see experience through another light. Both opportunities only open up due to the lack of an Ultimate Meaning, which demands a narrative identity immune from criticism. And only in this sense its nonexistence is happy: it frees us to do more. However, without the belief in an ultimate meaning, there is no longer certitude of path to support us, no longer justification that we are leading a life well, or for why we are leading a life at all. In turn, we get freedom, a freedom that affords us infinite potential for better lives. But freedom alone can only provide potential: It is up to us what to do with it.

Notes

[1] Weinberg, Rivka. 2021. “Ultimate Meaning: We Don’t Have It, We Can’t Get It, and We Should Be Very, Very Sad.” Controversial Ideas 1.

[2] This argument is most clear for those who don’t believe in an afterlife. However, it can easily be adapted for any kind of afterlife. You might think the point of your human life is to please God in the afterlife. However, human life and afterlife are ultimately parts the same life. So what is the point of the afterlife? Now the same argument works equally as well for the human life as an eternal afterlife.

[3] The punchline of the book — “you don’t find meaning, you create it” — has now pervades the zeitgeist. See Victor Frankl, Man’s Search for Meaning.

[4] Basing one’s meaning around others is also regress-prone. If I say the point of my life is to make my friend Ea sublimely happy, what is the point of Ea’s life? An equally unappealing alternative, if she says the point of her life is to make me sublimely happy, we have an infinite loop with no basis, a logical circularity.

[5] And if you think God both judges and rewards you with a placement in the afterlife, what do you think an Ultimate Meaning would look like in the afterlife? See note [2].

[6] “The Story of Zen: Bodhidharma.” Poetry China.

[7] Karl Popper. Conjectures and Refutations: The Growth of Scientific Knowledge. New York, Harper & Row, 1968.

[8] Seneca. “On the Shortness of Life.” New York : Penguin Books, 2005.

[9] Sam Harris said something like this somewhere (can’t recall where).

[10] This language — way we like to travel, horizon, elements, creative conversation — is adapted from David Whyte’s poetry, especially Consolations (Many Rivers Press, 2014). In the self-help lingo, this would be loosely equivalent to continually reinventing our self-narrative, if that resonates with you more.

[11] We quickly dive into the metaphysics of identity and emerge out again. I write about the subject in other essays (see my series “Paradox and Resolution: The Strange Philosophy of What makes Us Us”). Derek Parfit argues for the psychological criterion of identity (which I advance) in Parfit, Derek. “We Are Not Human Beings.” Cambridge University Press, 2012. For an overview of the field, see Shoemaker, David, “Personal Identity and Ethics”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Winter 2019 Edition).

[12] Read this if you are not convinced that additional freedom is a good thing. Existentialists like to claim that we have too much freedom, and our freedom freedom devolves into mere arbitrariness. I find this ill-conceived. They are hankering for rules in life, see one area in which there are no defined rules, and then throw up their hands in despair. There are right and wrong ways to live in life; however, they have to do with morality, not Ultimate Points. So if you want constraints to actions, go to moral theory. Plenty of rules there. Additional freedom permits us to even more closely accord our’s actions with our chosen moral theories, as I explain in the creativity section.

[13] For instance, Let’s say I feel sloppy at the end of a day (I don’t actually). A criticism would be that my self-discipline has become vacuous due to the comforts of modern life. A conjecture to solve that is to start taking cold showers every morning. Then I become one who takes cold showers every morning. To not do so does not jibe with my self-narrative. And then criticism of that way of living. This process is expanded to all manners of my living, and my way of living every improves, ad infinitum.

[14] Limits and Growth of Knowledge

[15] An example adapted from Eric Barker, Barking up the Wrong Tree. (HarperOne 2017)

[16] Thaddeus Metz, “The Meaning of Life” (The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Spring 2021 Edition, Edward N. Zalta ed.).

[17] Following David Deutsch, there are three kinds of explanations: explicit (formulated in words, intellectual), inexplicit (not formulated in words, intuition) and unconscious (not in words and not conscious). See “The Fun Criterion” on YouTube.

[18] Paradox and Resolutions II: Duplication, Vaporization and the Chimera of Identity.

[19] The image was generated by DALL-E, OpenAI’s text-to-image model of 12 billion parameters. OpenAI 2021 (“DALL·E: Creating Images from Text.”)

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Creative in science & tech. Thinking about AI & epistemology. Published assistant researcher. CS major at Columbia Engineering.

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Adam Mehdi

Adam Mehdi

Creative in science & tech. Thinking about AI & epistemology. Published assistant researcher. CS major at Columbia Engineering.

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