What is the Meaning of Life?

One thing that bothers me about the title question is that it is the first question people seem to think of when they think of philosophy. I have at least vague opinions on most philosophical questions, at least the big ones, even those that I’m not very confident in or passionate about (free will for example). The meaning of life is not like that. It isn’t even really taught as a field of study in philosophy classes, much less the central question to philosophy itself.

In the end, I’m not quite sure what to say when people ask what I think the meaning of life is. It seems somewhat accurate but also somewhat obtuse to say “the question is too vague”. Maybe a better response is “this is the wrong question”, but while this is less obtuse, it is not more informative. I think the most specific broad answer I can give is that it is a particular sort of wrong question, it is, in my opinion, like the classic question “have you stopped beating your wife?” to a certain extent. It is not that this is the “wrong question” because if you got an answer it would be uninteresting or fail to satisfy curiosity, it is that, as phrased, it is basically a nonsensical question unless you make certain prior assumptions. If you were at one point beating your wife, then the answer to the question is sensible and important. If you were not, any yes/no answer you give will be sensitive to idiosyncrasies of formal logic, and utterly misleading.

Maybe more dramatically, consider the question “are all unicorns pink?” on the standard rules of formal logic, the answer is yes. If there are no unicorns, then all of the none unicorns are pink. This, like any possible direct answer you could give in this situation, only works in formal logic, it does not translate even imperfectly, into common language. If “stop” is taken to mean “no longer do a thing one once did”, then the literal answer may be no, you have not stopped beating your wife, but real language does not provide any answer at all, useful or useless, trivial or important, to either the question “have you stopped beating your wife?” or “are all unicorns pink?”.

For my own part I think the following is my best attempt to explain what this question seems to be about: There is a cluster of questions, that are in principle separable, and which are big deals to the history of philosophy. Maybe the principle three are “what is ethical?”, “what does a good life look like?”, and “what is the reason I exist (taken not in a purely causal sense, but abstracted to a more representational level, less “how do I exist” than “what is the reason I exist”)”. “The meaning of life” is a sort of theory of everything for these, and perhaps some other close by questions. It is whatever the answer to all of them is.

If you, like me, don’t think that there is really one unique common denominator to all of these questions, then it can be tempting to answer “there is no meaning to life”. A sort of broad, maybe even liberating, sort of nihilism. I see some popular humanism going in this direction, and perhaps drawing fallacious conclusions from this sort of answer, Kurzgesagt’s “Optimistic Nihilism” is a good example of this, I think this is more or less what Rick and Morty is leaning towards as well. I’ve heard several people close to me say things roughly like this informally as well. This answer has always bugged me about as much as the question itself, and I think that I can finally explain why. Insofar as “there is no meaning” is the right answer to “what is the meaning of life”, this is, at least to some extent, the same way that “no” and “yes” are the answers to “have you stopped beating your wife?” and “are all unicorns pink?” respectively. That is, it is not an answer that translates from formal logic into common language, and neither is any other direct answer. It is easy to assume, and indeed seems like a feature of answers of this sort, that an implicit conclusion of “there is no meaning of life” in the sense of “there is nothing that answers all three questions” is the confused conclusion that “there is no meaning of life” in the sense that “there is no answer to each question in turn”.

Maybe the closest thing to this popular humanist nihilism to grapple, substantially, with the question of what the meaning of life is, is existentialism. Rather than saying that “nothing answers the question”, roughly, it says “nothing answers the question”. The precise relationship of the concept of nothingness to existentialism is a bit dense and hard to understand (and notoriously much loathed by other philosophers like Rudolf Carnap), but its take-away is best captured by the classic credo “existence precedes essence”. Roughly, one could understand this as starting with the premise “you” don’t meaningfully come from any prior cause or plan or nature. “You” may be situated by these things in some way, but you are your life, so you are created by living it. By acting and choosing for yourself, whatever the situation you find yourself in is.

Maybe the more difficult aspect of this project is to figure out to what extent you can derive things like “ethics” and “the good life” from this, and so to what degree this translates to a candidate answer to the meaning of life question. Part of how this tended to be answered was through the rejection of other candidates. Any answer you give to the “good life” or “ethics” questions which surrenders your ability to define your life to some external authority, whether some principle, or GOD HIMSELF, is inauthentic. Positive answers, likewise, tend to come in some way from the idea of “authenticity”, that is, the ultimate understanding and acting on the view that you are the one ultimately at the drivers seat, and can never put anyone else at the wheel, just pretend someone else is there for some fleeting, meaningless comfort. You and your life do not come before, but after you are born, and so you are entirely responsible for them.

I can see the appeal of the existentialist worldview, it starts from some premises that seem both basically true, and psychologically compelling, and tries to apply it to as much of the original meaning question as possible. It is the pop humanistic nihilism made substantial, and with the splinter of fallacy pulled most of the way out. It takes what rings true about nihilism, and removes the nihilism from it. I also think, ultimately, it fails.

An acquaintance of mine recently reminded me of this epic anecdote about one of the existentialist giants, and her activist hero Simone Weil:

“In Memoirs of a Dutiful Daughter, de Beauvoir reports her first and perhaps only personal interaction with Weil in, most likely, 1929. ‘A great famine had just begun to devastate China,’ she writes, and: ‘I was told on hearing the news she [Weil] had wept; these tears commanded my respect even more than her philosophical talents. I envied her for having a heart that could beat right across the world. One day I managed to approach her. I don’t remember how the conversation began; she declared in no uncertain terms that one thing alone mattered in the world today: the Revolution that would feed all the people on earth. I retorted, no less peremptorily, that the problem was not to make men happy, but to find a meaning for their existence. She looked me up and down: ‘It is easy to see you have never gone hungry,’ she said. Our relationship stopped there.’ (239)”

This is subtler than it looks, but I think no less devastating. I can’t help but think something like this must be part of what is behind de Beauvoir’s own attempt, one of the only in the existentialist tradition, to develop existentialist ethics (the more obvious and probably more direct impetus was living under Nazi occupation in Vichy France). The key desiderata are that it not get rid of the authentic self-creation core of existentialism, and that it uses this to derive, without putting some external authority in the apparent driver’s seat, the genuine reason ethics demands we not let people go hungry. I tentatively believe that she failed.

Again she is able to criticize other orientations towards ethics, sometimes (I don’t think always) with success, but once you tear down the people who surrender their ownership over their decisions to some authority, or live in denial of the freedom of others, or pretend at nihilism or pretend at incapacity, those who attempt to choose not to choose, it seems some additional thing is required. If someone watches someone starve to death, but does so “authentically”, they remain morally defective (and getting to morality straight from here might again require a dubious blurring of lines between a descriptive and normative sense of “authentic”, but this is a nit I don’t plan to get sidetracked picking). There is nothing I can imagine existentialism providing that is strong enough to say that watching this person starve and doing nothing is, necessarily, inherently, something someone can only do inauthentically.

Some of this might be found in human psychology, the idea that an authentic life, lived in recognition of the freedom of others, will ultimately need to seek justice for them. Some might be a neo-Kantian bootstrapping attempt in which recognizing our own agency requires respecting the agency of others in some way basic to the nature of rationality (which I think Kant failed at as well). At the end of the day, existentialism seems to have a distinctly hard time passing judgment on which things are simply good or simply bad, only which things are (conditionally) authentic or inauthentic. It is telling that alongside de Beauvoir’s atheistic leftist worldview existentialism or something much like it accommodated Heideggerian fascism and Kierkegaardian Christian faith, among many other contradictory approaches. These were not stupid people, their mistake just wasn’t something their philosophy was obviously going to reveal.

For my own part, I think existentialism contains many valuable insights, and remains one of the most relevant projects in recent philosophy. But it does not succeed at providing a meaning of life. I also think that it is simply incorrect in many of the details. There is a separation, even in de Beauvoir’s ethics, between the self and the other, which is deeply relevant. There is almost a completely bald stipulation of free will, the idea that one can look at how people experience life moment to moment from the inside and locate some necessary aspect of freedom in it. This seems to assume certain things about experience being broken into unified and distinct streams of consciousness on some basic level. I think this falls into the unfortunately common philosophical category of confusing “basic psychological presupposition” with “self-evident axiom”. Indeed, I think rejecting this worldview provides the closest thing to an answer to the meaning of life question I am drawn to.

I was originally tempted when writing this, to end with a section “revealing” the meaning of life. Partially inspired by the self-awaredly anticlimactic ending of the “Monty Python’s the Meaning of Life”, in which the host is handed an envelope with the meaning of life in it, and casually reads it out to the audience 1. I ultimately decided against this tact, not just because a reference to an only semi-funny bit from the third most popular of the three Monty Python films 2 hardly seems justified just by the title of the film. But more importantly because I think this tactic ultimately fails as well, and for reasons not dissimilar to why existentialism fails to supply a meaning of life.

My own view, like many of my views, is heavily influenced by Derek Parfit. His book Reasons and Persons seems to usually be viewed and advertised as a grab bag of interesting philosophical ideas, attempts to puzzle through a variety of, sometimes but not always connected, dilemmas, and to supply some new ones while he’s at it. To me it was a few more things than this. In particular, I picked it up in large part because I had been thinking recently a great deal about ideas which I had heard this book developed in much more detail, ideas that would derail much of my previous worldview 3, and by the time I put it down, I was in a significant sense “converted” to analytic philosophy. A telling quote about Parfit’s own life can be found in Larissa MacFarquhar’s excellent profile of the man:

“He decided to study philosophy. He attended a lecture by a Continental philosopher that addressed some important subject such as suicide or the meaning of life, but he couldn’t understand any of it. He went to hear an analytic philosopher who spoke on a trivial topic but was quite lucid. He wondered whether it was more likely that Continental philosophers would become more lucid or analytic philosophers less trivial. He decided that the second was more likely, and returned to Oxford.”

Parfit gave me more or less the same impression. The ideas that I had been struggling with for months up to that point were nailed down, not precisely, but sufficiently closely that useful progress could be made on them, and then he made such progress. The book as a whole is hard to summarize because it does go through so many puzzles, but the uniting theme of it might be to tear the idea of self-interest, and its role in ethics and our daily lives, to shreds. Parts one and two set up dilemmas for the idea that self-interest is rational, and ultimately left it with no obvious place to appeal that wouldn’t undermine it either in the direction of cooperative morality or extremely myopic moment to moment values. Part three further fleshed out the trouble, on a metaphysical level, with identifying specifically and absolutely with oneself over time, in a way one didn’t identify at all with others. Part four set up a dilemma for the commonsense idea that acting with beneficence requires acting for the benefit of specific people, and ultimately embraced (though with anguished uncertainty about the specifics) a view that beneficence should not just be about doing what is good for any particular person or set of people (I personally view this particular move as a mistake, and it seems that Parfit came to also view it as a mistake in later years).

In essence, Reasons and Persons takes on the key components of the meaning of life, “what is ethical”, “how do I live a good life”, and “what is the reason I am me”, and chips away at all of them in a similar revisionist direction. Ultimately, it points us to the view that the idea of distinct individual lives has muddied and corrupted our ability to approach any of these questions honestly, and once we undermine the idea, the distinctions drawn by these three questions looks much more arbitrary. Transforming something like this insight into a version of the meaning of life is in a way a very old tradition, from Buddhism in Eastern philosophy to Schopenhauer in continental philosophy. The reason I am not stuffing this in an envelope to read out at the end of the show is basically that, like existentialism, this just provides a new way to look at life, and a critique of certain old ways of looking at it. It does not answer the relevant questions in the right way, there is something decisive still leftover that you can separate from it. The sense that not only are you not that separated from the suffering of others, but that this suffering matters.

There are ways to get this crucial step, but fatally for the meaning of life, it does not seem like the place you will get this is anywhere like the reason for existence. And maybe this wouldn’t be all that worth caring about. It is a bit annoying that people approach what I now consider my field primarily through the lens of a project that I believe has failed. Still, its failure on its own tells us little about what matters, and progress in philosophy often looks like this. If a question was confusing, investigating why sometimes has to radically change your view of the question itself, and sometimes to destroy the question without definitively answering either it or its components. But this idea that we will get things like ethics and the good life from the reason we exist is worse than most philosophical questions like this, it’s dangerous.

I remember when I was very young some smarmy teacher put “what is the meaning of life?” as a bonus question on a test (basically a free point). I answered “to reproduce”. This seemed to me like the literal reading at the time, even though even then it bothered me and now I see it as willfully ignoring what the question was really about, but it isn’t an uncommon perspective at this point. Once upon a time the meaning of life question seemed sensible because we had an answer: God. God is the reason we are here, the good life is the life lived to God’s plan, ethics is glorifying God. It is dubious to me whether God ever provided such answers, the secular existentialist would deny this certainly, but the real trouble goes back to Socrates and the dilemma between whether God is merely good by definition (arbitrary) or whether he just endorses the good (extrinsic). It seems like what is required to use God as a meaning of life is to somehow convincingly thread the needle between these two, and it is not clear to me that theologists have yet provided a satisfactory answer.

And yet, at that point in history, asking about the meaning of life was not very interesting, and it didn’t do much to mislead people further. Whether these aspects of religious belief are the source of the framing of “the meaning of life”, or vice versa, I don’t want to speculate on. Today however, many people asking the question in earnest stumble most obviously on natural selection as part of the answer. This is not the only possible way to approach the issue, again the existentialists don’t invoke nature or God anywhere, but natural selection is after all the cause of our lives. If we abstract it into the level of reasons, and assume such an abstraction, by answering one of the questions in the meaning of life must answer the others, then it seems like natural selection gives us something very important. And yet…

I’ve been rereading the LessWrong “Sequences” recently, to get inspiration for a paper on philosophy of science. I am not fond of the paper that came out of it, but I don’t regret the reread, as I’m noticing some things I didn’t the first time. When I first read it, the part on natural selection seemed like a bit of a tangent, maybe similar in nature to the tangents on physicalism and the Everett interpretation of quantum mechanics. Yudkowsky applying his framework to specific controversies and soap boxing a bit in the process, not my favorite aspect of the sequences, but not terrible. Maybe he would throw some AI angle in for good measure, but it rarely felt like that was the point.

On rereading, I think I solidified a high level, sociological insight about ethics that I was approaching before. Very roughly, natural selection sucks. It is not remotely the sort of thing worth morally imitating or deferring to, it happens to point to a true thing about the world, but that doesn’t mean that it points to a good thing about the world. There are roughly three approaches to the insight that natural selection is where we came from. One is the approach I take: understanding what natural selection really is, and utterly rejecting it as a good guide for morality. This, I think, is what decent people do upon really getting natural selection.

I think that this is actually an undertheorized aspect of the moral culture of circles I run in, especially Effective Altruism and rationalism. A good exemplar is the tagline of Ozy Brennan’s pre-Substack “Thing of Things” blog, “the gradual supplanting of the natural by the just”. I think to the average outsider, this type of line will sound frightening, at best hubristic, but possibly even more sinister still. On the other hand people like me will look at this with inspiration. They will say that the idea that “I could do this better than nature” is hubristic gives nature too much credit, not the speaker too little. We can do better than nature at many things because nature is not even trying to do well.

It is the causal reason that we exist, but that doesn’t mean that it shares a deeper version of our fundamental values, or anything even abstractly resembling what we mean by the word “value”. The belief that it must is essentially the same mistake as those who don’t understand the inner alignment problem with mesa-optimizers, but in reverse, a not insignificant part of Yudkowsky’s interest as well. We are mesa-optimizers for nature’s optimization process. What we even mean by value has about as much relationship to what nature is up to as trying to move to the right of a video game that usually puts coins on the right side of the screen in training data has to collecting actual coins. And, here’s the crucial step: the fact that we are the mesa-optimizer does not imply that our values are in some sense inferior to or subservient to the original optimization function that produced it. Indeed any intuition we might have that this inferiority is sensible is the product of our values to begin with, not the “values” of natural selection, and certainly not some third value system outside of either that settles meta-level issues of moral authority.

I should add here, to be clear, that I don’t think we ought to only optimize “human values”. I think we should, wherever possible, optimize the values of anything for which things can relevantly be of value (I see this as the difference between humanism and sentientism, among other things). It is true that it will always be a human view of what those values are, but to borrow a valuable existentialist insight once again, not choosing is also a choice. I believe conceptualizing welfare in terms of “nature” is the wrong choice, and it isn’t not choosing. If eating meat, or at least hunting is some sense “natural”, this does not license us to do it. More controversially, if there are ways we can help reduce suffering of wild animals without collapsing the ecosystem and causing more harm, that this interferes with non-human affairs is not an adequate argument against it. It is just trying to choose not to choose, and both inevitably and inauthentically, failing.

One can see this idea having disproportionate appeal in what I have termed my “moral culture” (a separate sort of breakdown from moral theory, and more useful, I think, for picking out what morally defines movements like EA that contain lots of first order moral disagreement), for instance in the appeal of animal rights, transhumanism, and even concern about wild animal suffering.

More speculatively, it might have some influence on the demographics of this group. It is my experience that trans people and autistic people tend to be strongly overrepresented within EA and rationalism relative to the general population. I don’t think the only reason for this, even the main reason in the case of autism, is this distrust of moral appeals to what is natural, but both groups have tended to be disproportionately delegitimized by appeals to what (and who) is “natural”. For my own part, I am autistic and extremely unsympathetic to moral appeals to the natural. This may even be one of the high-level cornerstones of my approach to ethics. Reading Brennan’s tagline, I feel inspired, not revolted. I don’t think I can directly attribute this to my autism, but that’s one data point for what it’s worth 4. More directly it might help explain the difficulty EA has had making inroads with religious conservatives and traditional environmentalists.

Aside from this approach to natural selection, there are two others that I consider myself in strong opposition to. The first of these is roughly bioconservatism and deep ecology. Essentially, it is to view nature as a good basis for morality, by misunderstanding it in some way. I think people who do this can and often are decent. But by viewing nature in slow motion, they view it as a sort of mass flow-state, and equilibrium of different bases of flourishing. In short, it views nature as the wise provider of reasons, even telos, to its constituents, rather than an emergent and cruel interaction of clashing dispositions. This worldview seems determined to provide apologist propaganda for mass death and suffering in almost every domain of practical ethics, by gerrymandering its definition of flourishing, at every turn, to be in conformity with the most recent natural “equilibrium”. This perspective is one of my most frequent moral adversaries, one that has caused me endless frustration and argument, but mostly because it is so incredibly common.

The third approach to nature, the third of these moral cultures, is defined by understanding what nature really is at heart, and embracing it as a moral guide. This leads you to Nick Land, to “Gnon-conformity” and “hyper-racism” and “accelerationism”. Rather than humanism or transhumanism or sentientism, it leads you to anti-humanism. To the view that it is okay if sick people don’t get the medicines they need, and that it’s actually fine if the superintelligent AI kills us all because the AI is better than us. It leads you by degrees into Beff Jezos’ e/acc stuff or social Darwinism or outright fascism. In short, this third approach basically means being evil 5.

Mind you, I find this framework for splitting up attitudes towards nature useful, and I think it’s the right break down, but obviously there is room for disagreement on any of the particulars, and I suspect many people will object to my characterization of, for instance, the bioconservative/deep ecologist view. That said, I’m drawing on it to try to illustrate a broader point. The idea that “the meaning of life” serves a vital philosophical purpose gives unearned points to theories which take the integration of these different philosophical issues more seriously than answering them. We can easily have theories of every constituent aspect of the meaning of life question without them all proving to boil down to the same thing. We can get common denominators, robustly insightful philosophical perspectives like existentialism and the dissolution of the individual, without this serving as an actual answer to these questions on its own.

I don’t think that all of this means that people should completely abandon looking for a meaning of life, if we do find one, it would be genuinely important, and someone might. What I object to is implicitly taking the existence of an answer as bedrock, and so cramming any answer you find appealing for one constituent question into the other two. The thing that is frustrating for those seeking a meaning of life isn’t that they have found nothing in the search, but that they have found too much. Per the example I have spelled out, that of nature as a key to unified meaning, I think that this confusion and insistence on asking this specific question is very far from costless.

  1. Also to an extent the theodicy reveal towards the end of Unsong, which was both unexpected and, unlike the Monty Python ending, unexpectedly insightful. ↩︎

  2. No I am not counting “And Now for Something Completely Different” or their live shows, you freaking nerds. ↩︎

  3. In particular, I was trying to make a version of person-affecting population ethics work, and kept running into very serious problems, and I was also asking myself something like “how would it feel if I wasn’t just me living right now, but if I was everyone at every time at once”, and finding myself closer to answering this with “it would feel just like this”. ↩︎

  4. Ed. Note: Same. ↩︎

  5. Ed. Note: I know one or two more examples that are even more directly like this, but I obviously don’t want to give them more attention. (They are fairly obscure anyway.) ↩︎

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