William Vallicella on the Meaning of Life

William Vallicella (aka Maverick Philosopher) recently made a series of posts on the topic of meaning of life, and these contain some of the most philosophically sophisticated and refined discussions that I have read on the matter. In this post I’d like to summarize some of his main conclusions, primarily for my own clarity of thought. For a detailed understanding of his reasoning and arguments, I’d strongly urge the readers to look up the original posts.

The existential meaning of life refers to ‘the ultimate and objective point, purpose, end, or goal of human willing and striving, if there is one’.

Existential meaning has a teleological aspect: a meaningful life is a purpose-driven life. This is a purpose that the individual has to choose for himself out of his own free will. This purpose has to be both non-trivial and achievable. 

Existential meaning has an axiological aspect: a meaningful life contains some positive noninstrumental value, a source of personal satisfaction for the agent. Furthermore, it is necessary that this value has to be objective; the pursuit of an immoral life may bring personal satisfaction, but it cannot be called meaningful.

There are also anthropic and cosmic aspects to the question of meaning.
Anthropic question: What is the objective purpose of human existence? 
Cosmic question: Is the nature of the world whole such as to enable and further the meaningfulness of human existence?

The meaning can be either exogenous (objective) or endogenous (subjective).
An objective meaning is assigned by an external agent, such as God or ‘the nature of things’. A subjective meaning comes from within and assigned by oneself.

The philosophical question is distinct from the psychological question of a meaningful life. 

The philosophical thesis that the meaning of life is subjective (Subjectivism) comes in an extreme and a moderate version. I will only talk about extreme subjectivism here, and will refer the reader to the original post for the discussion of moderate subjectivism.

Subjectivism does not claim that there is no meaning (which is Nihilism) but that there is meaning in life, and this meaning is subjective by its very nature. Vallicella argues that Subjectivism collapses into Nihilism.
Extreme subjectivism states that you give meaning to your own life. Meaning is invented by the agent in a life that is otherwise meaningless. 

“On extreme subjectivism, then, the agent freely decides (i) whether or not his life will have meaning, (ii) what meaning it will have, and (iii) whether and to what extent he will live out this meaning day by day.”

Vallicella argues that extreme subjectivism is incoherent. “Anyone who sincerely asks himself whether he is wasting or has wasted his life presupposes by his very posing of the question that there are objective factors that bear on the question of the meaning of life.  To raise the question is to presuppose that existential meaning cannot be identified with agent-conferred meaning… if the meaning of one’s life is the meaning one gives it, then one cannot fail to live a meaningful life since any meaning is as good as any other. ” The subjectivist answer contradicts the presupposition of the philosophical question of meaning of life that one can fail to live a meaningful life. If subjectivism were true, a failure of meaningful life would be impossible.

Secondly, Vallicella argues that extreme subjectivism collapses into nihilism. “For if the meaning of my life is the meaning I give it, then my life has no meaning in the sense of ‘meaning’ that gave rise both to the question and the extreme subjectivist answer…. A conferred meaning is no meaning.”

Thirdly, extreme subjectivism entails a vicious infinite regress. For life to be meaningful, there has to be an act of meaning-bestowal, and these acts of meaning-bestowal must be meaningful if life has to have meaning. In subjectivism, however, nothing is intrinsically meaning. If an act of meaning-bestowal (A) is not intrinsically meaningful, then this act of meaning-bestowal needs to have meaning bestowed on it by a second act of meaning-bestowal (A*) and that in turn would require a third act (A**), and so on.

“if a life is meaningful due to acts of meaning-bestowal, and these latter are meaningless, then the life as a whole is meaningless.”

“As soon as the agent reflects that the bestowal of meaning on his chosen purpose is not a response to any objective value such as the elimination of unnecessary suffering, he should see that his meaning-bestowal is a gratuitous and arbitrary and meaningless act.  A meaningful life, one wants to protest, is one in response to objective values, where one's responding is itself an objective value.”

“The meaning of life, if there is one, cannot be subjective…  But the meaning of life cannot be purely objective either. The meaning of life, if there is one, must somehow involve a mediation of the subjective and the objective: the meaning of life must be subjectively appropriable.”

“An objective meaning or purpose of X is a purpose that is as it were assigned to X  from without…. if X has a purely objective purpose, then X plays no role in the realization or enactment or embodiment of its purpose.”

“We may or may not have an objective purpose, but if we have one, it cannot be a purely objective purpose; it must be a purpose that can be made our purpose. But it is best to speak in the first-person. A purpose that I cannot make my purpose is of no consequence to me. Such a purpose would be meaningless to me. An objective purpose that I could not come to know about, or could not realize, or an objective purpose that I knew about and could realize but whose realization would destroy me or cause a preponderance of misery over happiness or thwart my flourishing or destroy my autonomy would not be a purpose I could make my own.”

“We can sum this up by saying that an objective purpose, if there is one, must be subjectively appropriable if it is to be relevant to existential meaning. To appropriate a thing is to make it one's own, to take possession of it.”

“The subjectively appropriable is not merely that which is able to be appropriated, but that which is worthy of being appropriated.  I take it as axiomatic that a meaningful life for a human being must be a life worthy of a human being.”

An objective purpose is available to all, the same for all, applicable to all. “The meaning of life, if there is one, must be the same for all and available to all.  A rational world plays no favorites.  If the objective meaning of life were not available to all, then that would be an evil arrangement, one that could not be objectively meaningful.”

Vallicella defines aporia as ‘a set of propositions each member of which has a strong claim on our acceptance, but whose members are collectively inconsistent.’

With regards to the existential meaning of life, he presents the following aporetic tetrad:

A. If life has a meaning, then it cannot be subjective.
B. The meaning of life must be subjectively appropriable by all.
C. There is no meaning that is both nonsubjective and subjectively appropriable by all.
D. Life has a meaning.

All four statements cannot be true simultaneously. Reasons have been given for A and B. The choice then is between C and D. One of these has to be rejected in order for the contradiction to be resolved.

The case for C can be made as countless millions of humans have not had the capacity or the opportunity to investigate the questions of whether there is an objective purpose in life, what is it and how one may live in accordance with it. Those who have the capacity and opportunity to investigate these questions are confronted with a plethora of conflicting opinions and doctrines, and little means of gleaning out the knowledge of the objective purpose.

“Redemption from absurdity must be possible for all if it is be possible for any.  If the world is so arranged that you are barred from redemption through no fault of your own, then my redemption is not a redemption from absurdity.”

Rejecting C, therefore, is not easy. Rejecting D is not an easy alternative either. The biggest argument in its support is a pragmatic argument. One cannot live a life of zest, vigor, passion and commitment, unless it is presupposed that life is objectively meaningful. One who denies this simply does not appreciate the full force of what life’s lack of objective meaning entails. Such a person “maintains at the level of theory that his life has only the meaning he confers upon it, but he ‘contradicts’ this theoretical belief by the energy and passion with which he pursues his projects and perhaps also by the passion with which he tries to convince the rest of us that nothing matters except what we make matter.”

“We must presuppose the intelligibility of the world if we are to embark seriously upon the arduous quest for understanding, but it is logically and epistemically possible that the world is unintelligible in itself.  Likewise, we must presuppose the objective meaningfulness of life if we are to live rich and full and committed lives, but it is logically and epistemically possible that our lives are objectively meaningless nonetheless.”

We end, therefore, in an impasse. We have good reasons not to reject all four limbs of the aporetic tetrad, but all of them cannot be true. It is up to the reader, then, to decide which one he/she will choose to reject.


My comment on Vallicella’s post: “Your discussion of limb C seems to have the underlying assumption that the search for meaning terminates at death. If everyone has just one shot at this earthly existence, then indeed it is hard to reject C. However, if some variant of reincarnation is the case, then the search for meaning is no longer restricted to one particular individual life, and will carry on even afterwards by means of another life. If such a possibility is entertained, then one may hope (cosmic optimism!) that over the course of many lives, an objective meaning will eventually be subjectively appropriable by all.”

Vallicella’s reply: “That is a good suggestion and may be a way of solving the problem. My very stringent knowability condition on the appropriability of meaning makes it impossible for most of us to appropriate the meaning of life in one lifetime. But if there are multiple lifetimes then one can hope that mere belief that there is an objective meaning might transform itself into knowledge that there is one.

Or if God exists, then one hope that after death one will come to know what we can only believe in this life. It may be -- and this is what I really think -- that the only way to subjectively appropriate the objective meaning of life in this life is by faith and hope. Just as we cannot live well (or at all) in this life without hope, we must hope beyond this life, and indeed to live well in this life.”