Theistic philosophers often argue that the naturalistic worldview renders life completely meaningless (Craig, 1994, p57-75). On their understanding, objective meaning can only be derived from a transcendent–i.e., supernatural–source. But many philosophers question this assumption.
One such philosopher is Neil Levy who believes we can find meaning in life and that we can do so within a, “thoroughly naturalistic framework” (Levy, 2005, p180). According to him, there are superlatively meaningful activities or projects–e.g., the pursuit of truth or justice or beauty–that, once engaged in, make life truly and deeply meaningful.
In this essay I argue that Levy’s projects fail to confer meaning to life. In section one I discuss the nature of a meaningful life from the naturalistic perspective–specifically addressing the notion of meaning-conferring activities. In the second section, I present two major challenges to the naturalistic conception of meaningful activities: the problem of circularity and Mill’s Dilemma. In part three I explain how Levy attempts to overcome these challenges through his notion of projects. Finally, in section four I show that Levy’s projects fail to overcome the challenges. In so doing I demonstrate that, given naturalism, life is utterly meaningless.
The Nature of a Meaningful Life
The characteristic picture of a meaningless life is that of a farmer, “who grows more corn to feed more hogs to buy more land to grow more corn to feed more hogs” (Levy, p178). Although the farmer is achieving concrete goals–i.e., feeding hogs and growing corn–his life is pointless because he is not engaged in any activities beyond his own subjective self-interested existence. His life is, thus, a circular chain of events and manifestly insignificant.
Consequentially, the majority of naturalistic philosophers agree: if there is any hope of finding meaning we must escape the banality, pointlessness, and circularity of a life like that of the farmer envisioned above. We must orientate our lives around activities which promote goods beyond the circle (Levy, p179).
Examples of such meaning-conferring activities often include things like science, art, sports, food, or family. Such activities, it is argued, engage us with something that, “transcends our-selves, with goods which are not merely subjective but (at least) intersubjective” (Levy, p180). In other words, they engage us with goods that are beneficial to all and outstrip mundane activities that merely maintain our existence.
Levy notes, however, that there are two substantial challenges to this construal of meaning. The first is that many of the alleged meaning conferring activities only appear to escape the problem of circularity that plagues the life of the farmer. Consider the example of investing in your family. Imagine two parents who find meaning in rearing their children so that they can grow up and start families of their own to find meaning in rearing their children, etc. A life dedicated to the family is no less circular than the life of the farmer. As Levy puts it, “this account of meaning seems merely to substitute a larger circle for a smaller” (Levi, p180).
The second obstacle facing this account of meaning we shall call “Mill’s Dilemma”–so named after the famous ethicist and political philosopher to which it is attributed. It points out that meaning conferring activities lose their meaning when the aim of the activity has been reached. For example, if you dedicate your life to creating a just society and this goal is realised you will have nothing left to live for (assuming it was the only meaningful activity you were engaged in). One can just as easily imagine having successfully attained every meaningful goal they had striven for. With no more meaningful activities to engage in, life would be pointless.
But suppose, in an effort to escape the dilemma, we argue that our goals are inherently unrealisable–that they can never be reached. This, too, is problematic because making progress at achieving our goals is impossible if our goals are inherently unachievable. Imagine if, no matter how hard you worked, you never progressed towards generating a more just society. Imagine if, as a matter of principle, it was impossible to achieve a just society. Would such an activity still be meaningful? Clearly, it would not (Levy, p182).
In spite of these obstacles, Levy maintains there are activities, or projects (as he terms it), that avoid both the trap of circularity and escape Mill’s Dilemma (Levi, p184). Such projects are superlatively meaningful, because they are highly valuable pursuits that promote goods beyond themselves and thus transcend the charge of circularity. They are also open-ended–i.e., they have no fixed goals–and thus avoid the trap of Mill’s Dilemma. As Levy states it:
There are, I shall suggest, valuable activities which are inherently open-ended – not because they aim for a goal that cannot be achieved, but because the goal they pursue is not fixed prior to the activity itself. Instead, the goal is gradually defined and more precisely specified in the course of its pursuit, so that the end of the activity is always itself one of its stakes (Levy, p185).
So, according to Levy, the pursuit of justice would qualify as a project as long as we understand that the end or goal or meaning of justice is something that progresses and changes over time. There is no fixed universal idea of justice that, once realised, ends our pursuit. Rather, the idea of justice evolves as we pursue it. We, therefore, progress toward our goals without ever achieving them. Not because the goals are inherently unrealisable, but, because the goals are not fixed. As Levy puts it, “the ends of superlatively meaningful activities cannot be achieved, because as the activities evolve, so the ends at which they aim alter and are refined” (Levy, p186).
Other examples of projects would be the pursuit of knowledge or truth, the pursuit of beauty, and the pursuit of the good. According to Levy these are all open-ended activities of tremendous value–the pursuit of which confers real meaning to life.
An Ever Expanding Circle
At a glance, Levy’s projects appear to have overcome both the problem of circularity and Mill’s Dilemma. Projects seem to take us beyond our-selves and are inherently valuable; thus they transcend the banality of the farmers life. Continuous progress seems feasible in the pursuit of a project while a final completion does not. So, it appears Mill’s Dilemma is safely avoided (Levy, p184). But, do projects stand upon closer evaluation? To find out we must first consider the nature of progress.
Progress necessarily requires an end or standard. It is impossible to move forward, to advance, to make headway, toward an undefined goal. To see that this is true, consider the following example. Professor Yujin informs his class at the beginning of the semester that the goal of the module is not based upon any fixed criteria. Rather, he says, the aim of the class is undefined; as class activities evolve the ends at which they aim will be altered and refined. Furthermore, he explains that it will not be possible to achieve a final grade because the criteria for measuring success is open-ended. Given Yujin’s guidelines, or lack thereof, it would be impossible to make headway in his class. To be sure, one would move, like a canoe swept along down a stream that never terminates, but they would not progress. For there is nothing to progress to; no destination as it were.
The same is true of Levy’s projects. If the pursuit of beauty is open-ended–if it has no fixed goal–it is inconceivable that one engaged in such an activity could make progress. Like Yujin’s directionless class one would have no basis by which to judge whether they were closer to achieving their goals or not. Like a child assigned an open-ended list of chores, their task would never end:
Child: “Mother I’ve put away my toys, have I finished my chores?”
Mother: “Well done! But did you make your bed?”
Child: “Mother I’ve made my bed, now have I finished my chores?”
Mother: “Good job, but did you tidy your little sisters room?”
Child: “Mother I’ve I’ve tidied her room, now have I finished my chores?”
Mother: “Excellent, but did you mop the bathroom floor?
Levy’s projects, like this child’s open-ended list of chores, are based upon contingent factors which are constantly in flux. One does not progress while engaged in them; one simply acts.
This, of course, brings us right back to the same dilemma Levy was attempting to avoid. Namely, it renders projects meaningless because continuous progress, in fact progress of any kind, is inherently impossible. But this is only the first problem. The second problem is far worse.
The person engaged in one of Levy’s open-ended projects, while not progressing, is moving from one goal to the next as they evolve. As I previously stated, they are like a canoe swept along down a stream that never terminates. It would be a mistake, however, to imagine this stream extended indefinitely in either direction like a geometric line. The stream is not infinite–for the world in which we engage in projects is finite. Circumscribed and limited as it is, the stream never terminates because it follows a circular path.
Thus, we pursue a just society, so that our children might pursue a revised conception of a just society, so that our grandchildren might pursue a revision of the revision, etc. Eventually, given enough time, future generations embrace the same conception of justice that we did. For there is not an indefinite number of ways to conceive of a just society. As a wise man once said, “What has been is what will be, and what has been done is what will be done; and there is nothing new under the sun” (RSV Ecclesiastes 1:9).
Another example would be the evolution of metaphysics. The Platonists and Aristotelians speak of substance, the Continental Rationalists redefine substance, the British Empiricists question the notion of substance, the Postmoderns and Logical Positivists deny the existence of substance, Analytic Philosophers destroy Logical Positivism and Postmodernism, and the Neo-Aristotelians bring back the ancient notion of substance. Even philosophical pursuits, which Levy claims are, “paradigmatically valuable activities,” become regressively circular.
There are only a finite number of memes or ideas to be passed around from generation to generation as we pursue projects. The pursuit of beauty can only be redefined so many times. Inevitably the same memes will resurface and there is no transcendent reality we can embrace to break the cycle. Levy’s solution simply trades a smaller circle for a larger one. The person pursuing projects is living as meaningless a life as the farmer growing corn to feed hogs to buy land to grow more corn.
Neil Levy believes his conception of projects provides an escape from the problem of circularity and the challenge of Mill’s Dilemma that plague naturalistic attempts at finding meaning. I have demonstrated, however, that projects fail to do so. Because the goal of a project is open-ended it is inherently impossible to make progress because progress requires fixed goals by which we can measure success. Our inability to progress coupled with the impossibility of success renders projects meaningless. Furthermore, projects are regressively circular and, thus, ultimately pointless. There are, therefore, no superlatively meaningful activities given naturalism. Life is utterly meaningless.
Craig, W. (1994). Reasonable faith. Wheaton, Ill.: Crossway Books.
Levy, N. (2005). Downshifting and meaning in life. Ratio, 18(2), pp.176-189.