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The Meaning of Lives Essay

In her article The Meaning of Lives, Susan Wolf, a moral philosopher and philosopher of action, investigates whether meaning can exist in lives without postulating the existance of God. Wolf establishes her position on this philosophical question from an agnostic perspective and rationally argues that such a question can in fact “fit within a negative or agnostic view about the meaning of life” (Wolf 63). With this paper, I will first summarize the prominent points of Wolf’s article then highlight and expound upon areas of her argument that contradict her line of reason.

Lastly, I will introduce the theistic perspective on meaningful lives along with presenting Wolf’s reason and argument as supporting evidence for the theistic view. In the Meaning of Lives, Susan Wolf opens briefly with an evaluation of the philosophically ambiguous question, “What is the meaning of life? ” She argues this particular question is impossible to rationalize because it dependents upon a postulation for the existence of God.

Wolf claims it is necessary to postulate the existence of God in order to argue this original question because if God does exist, then He “may have created us for a reason, with a plan in mind”(Wolf 63). Thus, if God exists then there would be purpose and meaning to human existence dependent upon the creator God. Wolf does not deny the existence of God; she simply suggests that a divine existence is improvable. Therefore the question of a grand purpose and meaning in life is an unnecessary and an improvable argument to find an answer to, due to the improvable nature of God.

However, she does believe that meaning in lives is not contingent upon the existence of God stating, “Meaningfulness is an intelligible feature to be sought in life” and that “a positive view about the possibility of meaning in lives can fit with a negative or agnostic view about the meaning of life”(Wolf 63). She expounds on this argument in three distinct sections. The first part of Wolf’s argument observes three different examples of meaningless lifestyle. Wolf articulates that learning from three paradigms of meaningless lives, one can construct an understanding for meaningfulness.

She begins with a lifestyle she labeled the Blob. The Blob is defined by a lifestyle that “is lived in hazy passivity… unconnected to anyone or anything, going nowhere, achieving nothing” (Wolf 64). Wolf deduces from the Blobs meaningless lifestyle, that in order to attain a meaningful life one must be engaged in a project, which can include relationships. The second meaningless lifestyle, in contrast to the Blob’s lifestyle of passivity, is regarded as the Useless life; “a life whose dominant activities seem pointless, useless or empty” (Wolf 65).

After reviewing the lifestyle of the Useless life, a life void of worth, to achieve meaning “one must be engaged in a project or projects that have some positive value” (Wolf 65). The final category of a meaningless life would be the lifestyle of the Bankrupt, “someone who is engaged or even dedicated, to a project that is ultimately revealed as bankrupt, not because the person’s values are shallow or misguided, but because the project fails”(Wolf 65).

Ultimately, Wolf concludes that in order to achieve meaningfulness one must not only be engaged in a project of positive value but that project must be in some way successful. After providing a working definition for a meaningful life, Wolf raises the question as to what constitutes “positive value” and who has the right to objectively determine value. Similarly to Wolf’s construction of meaningfulness, she argues reasons for why an individual is incapable of objectively determining positive value.

This incapability for determining objective value is due to the individual’s subjectivity and “interest in living a life that feels or seems meaningful”(Wolf 66). Therefore, because an individual is incapable of distinguishing objective positive value from interest, it is unlikely that the individual can distinguish what is required for a meaningful life. She argues that objective value is determined and achieved through observing value in other people’s lives.

Wolf clarifies that the objective good she is referring to is not compared to moral goodness, “benefiting or honoring humanity” (Wolf 67). Wolf claims that meaningfulness is not contingent upon moral value. Instead, Wolf suggests that while there are examples of lives exhibiting great moral value, such as Mother Teresa and Gandhi, that are full of meaning; there are also examples of other lives, such as “artists, scholars, musicians and athletes”, that possess great meaning, not based upon their moral value.

These lives are considered valuable and meaningful due to their ability to “develop our skills and our understanding of the world” which “give meaning to our lives- but they do not give moral value to them ”(Wolf 67). A greater understanding of our own worth and the Universe is what Wolf constitutes for lives to have meaning. The final stage in Wolf’s argument poses the question “what is the good, after all, of living a meaningful life”(Wolf 67)? Wolf does not wish to define goodness, but rather discusses the advantages for living a life full of meaning.

Wolf makes the final stand, that in order to grasp meaningfulness and understand how one can achieve it in their life; an individual must become enlightened to their status in the world as “a tiny speck in a vast universe” (Wolf 69). This description of where an individual lies in relation to the vastness of the Universe, provides the reality that meaning in lives cannot logically be contingent upon the desires and benefits for the individual, due to humanities insignificance.

It seems illogical to Wolf, that a person who seeks to find meaning in their life could conclude that is dependent upon their independent happiness claiming, “to devote oneself wholly to one’s own satisfaction seems to me to fly in the face of truth, to act as if one is the only thing that matters, or perhaps, more, that one’s own psychology is the only source of (determining) what matters” (Wolf 70). The truth, to which Wolf refers, is the reality that individuals have very little significance in relation to the value of the vast Universe.

It is because of this truth that a self-center and egocentric life goes against of logic after such a truth is realized. Wolf argues that instead of egocentric priorities to achieve meaning, an individual should alternatively be focused on the needs of the Universe and others. She understands that “you are just one person among others, equally real- is the source of practical reason-in this case, it gives you reason to take the pains of others to constitute reasons for action…reason to care about the pain of others that is grounded, not in our own psychologies, but a fact about the world”(Wolf 70).

In this section, I will address three areas of Wolf’s reasoning I find to be inconsistent with her argument as a whole. A concern that I have regarding Wolf’s argument is her use of the word “meaning”, in regards to the meaning of lives. A very different connotation of the word “meaning” suggested by the philosophical question, “What is the meaning of life? ” Wolf states that the question, “What is the meaning of life? ” requires an individual to postulate the existence of God because it implies their ultimate aim “to find a purpose or a point to human existence”(Wolf 63).

However, Wolf also argues, “whether or not God exists, the fact remains that some objects, activities and ideas are better than others. Whether or not God exists some ways of living are more worthwhile than others”(Wolf 72). At the beginning of Wolf’s argument about the meaning of lives, suggests that she neither denies nor rejects the existence of God. She argues this as true because she believes the question behind the meaning in lives can be answered as “an intelligible feature to be sought in life and that it is at least sometimes attainable but not everywhere assured”(Wolf 63).

Wolf reduces the meaning of lives to that which can be determined by human reasoning a finite measurement of this transitory world. Thus Wolf, who has neither denied nor rejected the existence of God has unreasonably eliminated the question of origin of lives, as irrelevant to meaning in lives. She focuses how certain types of lives merit significance in existence and consequently refers to the word “meaning” as synonymous with value. Finally, Wolf argues that there is value in human lives that “can fit with a negative or agnostic view about the meaning of life”(Wolf 66).

This statement is far less controversial than her attempts to argue that meaning in lives is achievable without the postulation of God. Logically, to explore meaning in lives, one must consider the beginning of life, which must have been constructed either by accident or by a creator. Meaning cannot be cited as more or less significant at a particular point in an individual’s life. Thus, the point that one comes into existence must be regarded for defining meaning within an individual’s life. The second problem in Wolf’s argument comes in her evaluation of what is considered a project of positive value.

An individual who is engaged in a project of positive value is central to Wolf’s definition of a meaningful life. Although, projects of positive value can add to meaning in an individual’s life, Wolf’s reasoning as to “who is to decide which projects have positive value” is vague and inconsistent with her earlier positions (Wolf 66). Wolf concludes that individuals are incapable of objectively deciding what has positive value, due to subjective interests, which skew their understanding of objective value.

Wolf deduces that in order for an individual to understand projects of positive value, which will eventually adds meaning to heir lives, they must experience an “epiphany… to the recognition that our life to date has been meaningless” (Wolf 66). This comment is completely inconsistent with Wolf’s fundamental goal to acquire an understanding of meaning in lives from an intelligible process of reason. The understanding for projects of positive value through an epiphany is inconsistent with her pervious arguments because it depends she suggests that understanding meaning comes from an unintelligible source of knowledge.

Who is to say that that epiphany is not guided by a supreme higher being? The irony of Wolf’s conclusion about the necessary epiphany, is that her statement “It is the sort of experience that one might describe in terms of scales falling from ones eyes”, compares closely to the allusion found in Acts 9:18 (Wolf 66). The verse reads “And immediately something like scales fell from his eyes, and he regained his sight. Then he rose and was baptized” (NIV 1000). The language of scales falling from the eyes in order to gain true understanding is regarded in both versions as an act depended upon a supernatural entity enabling the change.

This very interesting comment by Wolf, suggests that understanding how an individual recognizes truth through epiphany is beyond the capabilities of human control and intellect. Her attempted arguments about how a meaningful life is realized are sound up until the point about epiphany. Lastly, Wolf’s argument for meaning in lives lacks any discussion of immortality as a necessary property for meaning. Wolf reasons that there are certain lifestyles that are more meaningful than others.

This argument for certain lifestyle having greater meaning has limited relevance because as she rationalizes, lives are finite and temporary as are the lives of others whom we must focus in our acknowledgement of the truth that we are just a “speck in the vast Universe”(Wolf 69). Wolf does a fine job at articulating the insignificance and temporary state of human life. However, she fails to recognize that in her attempts to construct a logical framework for meaning in finite lives she disregards the possibility for immortality to give further meaning to lives.

Thus, she reduces the idea of meaning as an avoidance of an egocentric lifestyle and recognizes insignificance and meaning within an individuals’ life alone. Wolf’s claim that meaning is attainable through certain actions only satisfies temporary lives for a finite amount of time. This argument surrounding meaning as dependent upon an inward realization of insignificance manifesting into outward actions, is simply a cycle of meaningless people helping other meaningless people, and causes only a temporary impact.

In an argument for the importance of immortality to meaning in lives, Gianluca Di Muzio states, “If a human being dies and her actions have no lasting effect, because the world itself perished, then her life was meaningless. If, in the end, all comes to nothing, then it does not matter in the first place whether a particular person existed or not” (Di Muzio 2). In order for actions and lives to be meaningful, they must have a lasting impact or something to gain, and provide for others in a way that is not reducible to the finite and temporary world. Thus, achievable immortality must exist for meaning to be possible.

Although she attempts to determine the meaning in lives for an agnostic world, I would argue that Wolf’s argument actually supports many theistic views regarding the meaning of lives. Though many of Wolf’s arguments do not adequately provide understanding for meaning in lives from an agnostic perspective, many of her points parallel to the theistic view of “purpose theory. ” Before I expound on these similarities, an understanding of the theistic view regarding the meaning of must be addressed. According to Borchert, the theistic view argues that, “life is meaningful insofar as one fulfills a purpose that God has assigned” (Borchert 295).

In “Confession”, Leo Tolstoy discusses meaning in life from the theistic perspective and claims “now I see clearly that my faith-my only real faith-that which apart from my animal instincts gave impulse to my life- was a belief in perfecting myself” (Klemke 2). Tolstoy sought such perfection in artistic achievements and loving his family. In trying to find meaning in family and people, Tolstoy ultimately realizes that “My family — wife and children — are also human. They are placed just as I am: they must either live in a lie or see the terrible truth” (Klemke 10).

In other words, Tolstoy realizes that if meaning resides in the finite and temporary nature of humanity, meaning too will die along with the life. Tolstoy further suggests that meaning cannot reside within artistic modes when he writes “Art, poetry? “… Under the influence of success and the praise of men, I had long assured myself that this was a thing one could do though death was drawing near — death which destroys all things, including my work and its remembrance; but soon I saw that that too was a fraud” (Klemke 10).

This declaration further supports Tolstoy’s theistic belief that everything of and in this world cannot be the ultimate source of meaning in lives. Although, the substance of this world may increase value within life, it cannot supply ultimate, enduring meaning. Tolstoy finally declares, “To know God and to live is one and the same thing. God is life- Live seeking God, and then you will not live without God” (Klemke 11). This passage concludes with his theistic assertion that without a “divine plan for the world, then all efforts come to nothing, because everything comes to nothing. Hence our lives are meaningless without God” (Metz 293).

Though Wolf attempts to support an agnostic view for the question, “is there meaning in lives? ” her central points mirror those of the theistic view and supports many of its claims. This final section will concentrate on central points within Wolf’s argument that support a theistic view for understanding meaning in lives. To begin, she claims that a life has meaning insofar as it is “engaged in a project or projects that have some positive value” (Wolf 65). Although this statements seems logical, Wolf fails to provide an intelligible source for acquiring knowledge about whether or not a project has positive value and which projects do not.

She betrays the agnostic attempt to provide an understanding of meaning in lives through reason, by suggesting that realization of projects with positive value relies upon an epiphany. The concept of an epiphany for realization is inconsistent with her attempts to rationalize. However, when Wolf’s definition is placed against the theistic view, it is logically consistent with theological beliefs. Theists believe that an individual must be actively engaged in positively affecting peoples lives with in the world, while ultimately contributing to God’s divine plan in order for their lives to have meaning.

This concept is articulated beautifully in Gianluca Di Muzio’s argument: Theism and the Meaning of Life, in which he states, “In order to have meaning, our lives must make a difference to a higher scheme. And theism sees human action as doing a sort of double duty. On one hand, they affect other people and events in this world, on the other, they further or hinder God’s ultimate plan” (Di Muzio 2). This statement suggests that humanities actions in projects have the ability to have two different forms of significance, both relative and ultimate.

Relative significance refers to the theistic perspective that, “actions and events have relative significance when they only influence other actions and events”(Di Muzio 3). Ultimate significance is when our actions and events “contribute to God’s plan” (Di Muzio 3). Both of these forms contribute to theistic view, however Wolf’s argument focuses solely on relative significance. The theistic understanding of relative significance is paralleled to Wolf’s understanding of meaning in lives. She believes that when individuals realize their insignificance and begin to seek beyond themselves for meaning by actively engaging in projects of positive value, they can acquire meaning.

Though this insignificance is transient, it supports the theistic belief that, “human beings have access to value” without having to postulate the existence of God, because “existence affords the opportunity to attain the kinds of goods that make a human life worthwhile and fulfilling” (Di Muzio 5-6). Wolf’s profound point that human life is just a “speck in a vast universe” lays the foundation for the theistic belief in ultimate significance (Wolf 71). Theists believe that there is A fundamental disproportion between aspirations and reality is a powerful source of the idea that our lives are absurd and meaningless.

We think we matter, and yet we don’t. The world is not intoned with our hope, desires and projects. The possibility of out destruction looms everywhere; and human suffering, however enormous, seems to be nothing but a passing accident, a byproduct of the presence of sentient creatures in a world that merely tolerates them for a short time. (Di Muzio 9) This understanding of human insignificance plays a vital role in the theistic belief that despite human fragility, purpose and significance are achievable within the most tragic circumstances. Wolf’s recognition of our insignificance implies our need to look beyond our own lives for meaning.

If a life of meaning depends upon recognizing the truth about our insignificance and continuing to be “actively engaged in a project of positive value”, and one cannot perform these projects due to tragic circumstances, then within Wolf’s reasoning their life can not have meaning. Wolf’s understanding of meaning depends upon individual human performance. In trying times of suffering, whether great or small, this concept of looking outside of ones own circumstances is hard to accomplish and in some circumstances impossible, thus in such cases meaning cannot be unachieved.

The theistic view of ultimate significance provides a hope that a life of suffering can have meaning and purpose too in that, “the idea of God and hope for immortality can help us look again at the world and our fragile lives as meaningful”(Di Muzio 9). The project of participating in God’s divine plan is the only project that has lasting and unwavering value for meaning in lives. Wolf’s central argument concerning meaning in lives provides many logically convincing and sound points.

However, Wolf’s definition of a life of meaning is both disconnected from her original argument and lacks a consistent, authoritative source and process for achieving meaning. She attempts to suggest that meaning is an “intelligible feature to be sought in life”, then provides the solution for achieving this insight of through the unintelligible source of epiphany. Secondly, Wolf’s argument for the realization of insignificance as the truth, unlocks the need for an individual to look beyond serving his or her own self-centered desires for meaning.

However, though her point about insignificance seems valid, Wolf fails to provide examples or an understanding of how an individual can objectively determine how to look outside of themselves. In total, Wolf produces an understanding of meaning that depends upon an individuals abilities to undergo an epiphany and properly manifest their understanding of the need to look outside one’s self and recognize Universal needs. The problem with this stance is that focusing on the Universe provides no lasting impact, or meaning to a particular life because the things of this Universe are finite and temporary.

The individual’s life will eventually end along with the actions and events they affected. Though existence can provide an opportunity for value, as understood in Wolf’s argument and the theistic view, meaning is dependent upon a infinite being whose performance can not be temporary. An individual must not be reliant on their personal performances and finite experiences to obtain meaning, but rather is actively engaged in an eternal project of positive value, determined by an infinite and constant authority, God.

Works Cited Borchert, Donald M. “Theism. ” Encyclopedia of Philosophy. 2nd ed. 10. Detroit: Gale, 2006. Web. 25 Apr 2012. Di Muzio, Gianluca. “Theism and the Meaning of Life life’s meaning? ” Ars Disputandi . 6. (2006): 1-12. Print. Klemke, E. D. “The Meaning of Life”. 2nd. New York: Oxford University Press, 2000. Print. Metz, Thaddeus. “Could God’s purpose be the source of life’s meaning? ” Cambridge Journals. (2000): 293-311. Print. Wolf, Susan. “The Meaning Of Lives. ” 62-73. Print.


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