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Is Life Meaningless? Jean Kazez Philosophy Department, SMU.

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1 Is Life Meaningless? Jean Kazez Philosophy Department, SMU

2 Prelude A few words about solidarity vs. agreement

3 Alex Rosenberg’s cheerful nihilism Is he right that life is meaningless?? Professor of Philosophy, Duke University

4 Background The debate about God and the meaning of life

5 An existential crisis Everything comes to an end … my life is meaningless … I may as well be dead! Tolstoy, age 51, 1879

6 Tolstoy’s Conversion “As I looked around at people, at humanity as a whole, I saw that they lived and affirmed that they knew the meaning of life.” Tolstoy, A Confession (1879)

7 Tolstoy on the necessity of faith “… only in faith can we find the meaning and possibility of life.” Faith gives “an infinite meaning to the finite existence of man; a meaning that is not destroyed by suffering, deprivation or death. Tolstoy, A Confession (1879)


9 Standard Atheist Response

10 NO, NO No God No necessity of God for meaningfulness Meaning OF life cosmic purpose [need God] Meaning IN life having your own plans, goals, ultimate aims [don’t need God]

11 My primary goal is to be a great climber MEANING IN LIFE

12 My primary goal is to raise my daughters MEANING IN LIFE

13 I’m working on world peace, thank you very much MEANING IN LIFE

14 ∞ Needed more fulfilling goals, not faith

15 For meaning in life God is not necessary

16 Enter: Trouble Can there really be meaning IN life?

17 Meaning IN life is only possible if… Hillary has thoughts ABOUT peace Michelle has thoughts ABOUT her daughters Mountain climber has thoughts ABOUT mountains

18 ABOUTNESS IS PROBLEMATIC! My brain weighs 2 pounds It’s spongy It’s wet It has electric charge And it has aboutness. ABOUTNESS?

19 Are these things possible in natural, physical world? Souls The self Free will Objective morality Aboutness

20 Philosophy of aboutness (aka “intentionality”) Franz Brentano Edmund Husserl Jerry Fodor Daniel Dennett Ruth Millikan Fred Dretske Paul & Patricia Churchland John Searle

21 Rosenberg: ABOUTNESS DOESN’T EXIST Like souls, fairies, witches, ESP, heaven, destiny, etc. don’t exist

22 Can’t think about mountains Can’t think about daughters Can’t think about world peace

23 Life is meaningless! NO MEANING OF LIFE Because no God NO MEANING IN LIFE Because no aboutness

24 Rosenberg: life is meaningless? What me worry?

25 ∞ Rosenberg: Tolstoy just needed Prozac

26 Why no aboutness? Rosenberg’s argument why aboutness doesn’t exist

27 Aboutness is unreal because 1) Paris too diffuse—what are the boundaries? 2)Neurons too simple— even sea slugs, rats, frogs have them; just “circuitry”.

28 Aboutness is unreal because 3) Piling up doesn’t help— “Piling up a lot of neural circuits that are not about anything at all can’t turn them into a thought about stuff out there in the world.” Rosenberg, p. 184

29 Why should atheists pay attention? SCIENTISM* – “The physical facts fix all of the facts.” What “floats” free of physical facts is unreal, illusory. NO GOD NO ABOUTNESS * Not a dirty word in Rosenberg’s view

30 How should we respond?

31 1. Dismiss Rosenberg as a nut

32 2. Agree, but secretly Vote for me, even though I think God doesn’t exist, life is meaningless, and nobody has thoughts about anything.

33 3. Dismiss Rosenberg’s view as “self-defeating” I am not thinking about anything or talking about anything!

34 4. Reject scientism  Come to atheism by another route—e.g. argument from evil  Say there are genuine facts that float free of physical facts.  Accept aboutness as “floater”

35 5. Rebut his arguments HE SAIDLIKE SAYING “Piling up a lot of neural circuits that are not about anything at all can’t turn them into a thought about stuff out there in the world.” Rosenberg, p. 184 Piling up a lot of atoms that aren’t conscious can’t make me conscious.

36 6. Explain how aboutness arises from physical facts

37 How can there be aboutness in physical world? hard question, piles of literature

38 Fly detector A fly-detector has physical states ABOUT flies.

39 Paris detector That’s Paris!

40 Paris detector Let’s go to Paris!

41 Mountain detector Daughter detector World peace detector

42 Mission accomplished Aboutness and meaning in life defended

43 Meaning in Life Expanding on idea

44 1) Love “Love saves us … from squandering our lives in vacuous activity that is fundamentally pointless” “Love makes it possible … for us to engage wholeheartedly in activity that is meaningful” -- Harry Frankfurt, The Reasons of Love

45 2) Objective attractiveness “Meaning arises from loving objects worthy of love and engaging with them in a positive way.” “Meaning arises when subjective attraction meets objective attractiveness.” -- Susan Wolf, Meaning in Life and Why it Matters (2010)

46 2) Objective attractiveness An activity is objectively attractive when— A.Benefit is not received only by me— but shared by others too B.Benefit is not seen only by me— but real, factual Susan Wolf, Meaning in Life and Why it Matters (2010)

47 3) A meaningful life Not just lots of different meaningful activities, but goals that give shape to life as a whole

48 What is meaningless? (some examples from online life) Checking email and Twitter endlessly (you don’t love it) Malicious online bullying (not objectively attractive) Endless chatter at blogs (gives no shape to life)

49 What adds meaning to our lives? Three examples 1) Raising children 2) Working for social justice 3) Skilled X-ing

50 Had all the elements of meaning but didn’t know it Blinded by … religion? Sexism? ∞

51 Bibliography Alex Rosenberg, The Atheist’s Guide to Life: Enjoying Life without Illusions Jean Kazez, Review of Rosenberg in Free Inquiry (August/September 2012) Leo Tolstoy, A Confession Harry Frankfurt, The Reasons of Love Susan Wolf, Meaning in Life and Why it Matters Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy – look up Intentionality; Causal theories of mental content Nicholas Carr, The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains Links at my blog—

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