Sunday 14th April 2013

Bill has been posting recently about the meaning of life: here, here, and less recently, here. I don't usually comment on non-technical subjects, but it's been a difficult day and the last piece purports to contain an argument the logic of which I can't see.  In We Cannot Be the Source of Our Own Existential Meaning Bill argues that a subjectivist view of life's meaningfulness collapses into eliminativism.  He says
Note that if I must first give my life meaning, if it is to have some, then it has no meaning prior to and independent of my giving it meaning. And yet I must exist prior (both logically and temporally) to the decisions, resolutions, declamations, and whatnot whereby I give my life meaning. This implies that the acts of meaning-bestowal and the subject whose acts they are, exist meaninglessly. These acts, however, are mine, and their subject is me. It follows that my existence and my acts of meaning-bestowal are meaningless. [my underlining]
I have two objections.  Firstly, I can't see how it follows or is implied that an act of meaning-bestowal is meaningless.  For surely the meaning of an act of meaning-bestowal is the bestowal of the meaning bestowed?  That is the aim, purpose, goal, or meaning if you will, of the act, if there are such things.  That is perhaps a narrow logical point.  My second objection is wider.

The picture Bill paints is one in which the meaning of one's life is created by an all-or-nothing decision prior to which one's life had no meaning.  Perhaps this can occur---Saint Paul on the road to Damascus maybe, though persecution of Christians seems to have supplied his life's prior meaning---but surely for most of us  what meaning we and others ascribe to our lives emerges gradually and non-volitionally.   The significance others place on our lives arises through our evolving relationships with them and behaviour towards them.  Likewise, the significance we place on our own lives arises through our emerging relationship with ourselves.  I cannot give my life meaning by an act of will, just as I cannot decide to believe something I have been told, though Bill would probably disagree with the latter. The best we can do is to choose a course of action and see what happens.  As with belief, meaningfulness may or may not be forthcoming.

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