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EPISODE SUMMARY:

In this season, we’ll explore the question of meaning. Is there meaning to be had at all? Can we find it, especially in our disenchanted age? Join us as we explore the many angles to the question of meaning. In this first episode, we’ll set the stage for what is to come for the rest of the season by asking a very basic question: What is do we mean when we seek an answer to the question of life’s meaning? 


EPISODE NOTES:

Is there a story that is true to the way the world is and the way the world ought to be? And how do I locate my life in the true story of the world? These questions help us see that one of the central metaphors for life is that of story, or quest, or journey. All of us are on a quest, a journey. All of us are on the road. And we are on the road of the same reason: we are looking for a story that is true and satisfying. 

But how do we find that true story, and even more, how do we make our way home? This is the question of meaning. We are all on a quest for meaning. We long for a meaningful life and we long for a story to make sense of it all. 

It is difficult to say exactly what we mean when we ask the question “What is the meaning of life?” Let’s try and make some progress. A common distinction in the debate is between the meaning “of” life and meaning “in” life. 

  • The meaning of life = is roughly about whether there is a point to the existence of humans or the universe at all
  • The meaning in life = is roughly about whether and how an individual person’s life can be meaningful. 

What is the conceptual connection between the question, “What is the meaning of life?” and “What makes a life meaningful?” 

The answer is, it depends on whether moral nihilism, subjectivism, or objectivism is true. 

  • The nihilist says there is no meaning to be found anywhere. On this story, there is no meaning in life, and of course, there is no meaning of life either. 
  • The subjectivist says that the key to living a meaningful life “is to pursue projects you find deeply engaging and that make you happy” [1] On this view one can live a meaningful life, even if God doesn’t exist, and even if there is no ultimate meaning in the world. So, on this story, there is no meaning of life, but there can be (subjective) meaning in life. 
  • The objectivist argues that this subjectivist account of meaning is too permissive, for it allows almost anything to be meaningful so long as the person performing it counts the task as happy (even if the tasks were immoral). The objectivist could argue that being happy or satisfied is a necessary condition for meaning, but not sufficient. Rather, the objectivist adds a further condition to meaning: a person’s life is correctly judged meaningful if (i) she finds satisfaction in one’s projects and (ii) those projects are objectively valuable. In other words, the projects that we engage in must be worthy projects, projects that contribute value to the world [2]. On this view, our lives can have meaning only if there is some objective value and objective meaning found in the world. So according to the objectivist, our lives are (objectively) meaningful only if there is objective meaning in the world. 

What we are interested in then, in this season, is discovering whether there is objective meaning in the universe. In other words, we are primarily asking and seeking an answer to the question: What is the meaning of life?

The Quest to Find Our Place in the Universe

There are four things to notice about this quest for meaning:

  • First, notice that the question of meaning is a partly a question about cosmology. In order to understand if there is any meaning to be found in the universe, we must first understand what kind of universe we live in. Thus, the question is cosmological, even metaphysical. 
  • Second, there is the distinction between defining and discovering meaning. Notice that I’ve only defined what a meaningful life consists in. A meaningful life is a life that has found its place in the universe. It is one thing to define meaning, it is another thing to discover that there is meaning.  
  • Third, there is the distinction between meaning and happiness. It is possible to live a meaningful life but not a (subjectively) happy life. We’ll explore this connection in our next episode as we consider in greater detail the many meanings of meaning, or what we’ll call there, the meaning triad
  • Finally, there is the distinction between space and place. As physical beings we exist in space. But merely existing at certain spatial locations doesn’t, at least directly, help us determine the meaning of life (although the fact that we live in a fine-tuned universe on a planet that is positioned just right for life does give us a clue, as we explored in chapter two). Place is a richer concept than space. Place is where we belong, where we are known and know, where we make a difference, where we are valued and value. Thus, while place includes the concept of physical space (we are, after all, embodied beings), it is a much richer concept, including value, significance, and purpose. Find our place in the universe and we discover our true name. We discover the true story of the world. 

CONCLUDING REMARKS:

We are all on a quest to discover the true story of the world, to discover if there is any meaning in the universe. But as we end, it is important to make two more observations: 

First, while we are all on a journey, we are not all pilgrims on the way. There are two basic kinds of life, two ways to journey – As Wanderers or Pilgrims:

  • Wanders think “the road is life”; on this way, happiness is adventure. This is a Sisyphean philosophy – life is a loop, arrival always alludes us, accomplishments are perpetually undermined. We learn to “get over” our hope for home [3].
  • Pilgrims think “the road is the way home”, on this way, happiness is rest. (and thus, our hearts are restless because we lack “at-home-ness” [4]

Second, for those of us who are pilgrims, on the way to a destination, the next question is this: how do I find my way home? How do we get home? How do we discover our true name? (this is sometimes called the quest for authenticity, we long to become the “I” or “self” that we were destined to become). There are two basic answers:

  • The modern quest for authenticity = “I will find my own way home;” all I need to do is be “true to myself.” Only I can name myself. 
  • The ancient quest for authenticity = I can’t find my way home.” “I can’t get home from here”—I need help: the virtuesfaithful guidessigns along the wayconsolation. On this more ancient way, we cannot name ourselves. We can only discover our true name when named by another. 

We’ll consider the pilgrim’s quest and the more ancient quest of authenticity this season.


RESOURCES MENTIONED:

  • Owen Flanagan, The Really Hard Problem
  • Robert Nozick, “Philosophy and the Meaning of Life,” in Life, Death, and Meaning.
  • Jordan B. Peterson, 12 Rules for Life
  • Joshua Seachris, “The Meaning of Life as Narrative: A New Proposal for Interpreting Philosophy’s ‘Primary’ Problem,” Philo 12:1 (2009).
  • James K. A. Smith, On the Road with Saint Augustine
  • Christine Vitrano, “The Meaning of Life Can Be Found Without God” in Problems in Value Theory.

Thanks to our season five sponsor:

[1] Christine Vitrano, “The Meaning of Life Can Be Found Without God,” in Problems in Value Theory, ed. Steven B. Cowan (New York: Bloomsbury Academic, 2020), 178.

[2] Ibid., 179.

[3] James K. A. Smith, On the Road with Saint Augustine (Grand Rapids, MI: Brazos, 2019), 42. 

[4] Ibid., 11.

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