Commentary on Jennifer Fulwiler’s argument

Jennifer Fulwiler 

If consciousness is just a mirage produced by chemical reactions in our brains, and if the mirage permanently flickers out on the day those reactions cease, then do any of our conscious thoughts really matter? Sure, you can have an impact on others who will live on after you die, but one day they will disappear into thin air too. To my mind, all this talk of valuable life experiences adding up to something meaningful is like talking about how to make X add up to something meaningful in the above equation. In the end, it’s all for naught.

The argument is fascinating, though I was primed to see it since I’d been teaching The Symposium. The sense of “meaningful” in play here is one which requires an eternal life. Said negatively, no finite life can be meaningful and/or “meaning for a finite time” is a contradiction. There are two claims to address here:

1.) The precise sense of meaning in play and

2.) The negation of time or finite time.

1.) Notice that in one sense the claim is very odd: if we see a man building a house or drinking we don’t tend to question what the meaning (i.e. purpose) of his action is. Each of the particular actions in life tends to have a straightforward and identifiable meaning which is realized in time. But there are some interesting exceptions even on this level of first-level meanings: love, as Socrates points out is a desire to possess which develops into a desire to keep possessing, and so it is intrinsically infinite. Love can never be characterized by looking to some point in the future and thinking “yeah, at that point it will be enough”, it simply desires to possess forever. Now love is not just one meaningful action among many, but it seems to hold a primacy of place. Love and meaning, then, interact with each other and run together in this argument, and it might help to consider both.

On way in which this love/meaning nexus is illuminating is that we have a very old and well tested three-fold taxonomy of loves into those that are useful, pleasant, and noble/ desirable in themselves. The first two sorts of loves are loves that we have for ourselves and for our own needs while the last includes more than this. Because of this reference to our own desire in the first two sorts of love, they have the benefit of having a clear and obvious sense of how they are “meaningful”. No one questions what the meaning in building a house or watching an enjoyable show is.

The last and highest sort of love, however, deprives us of a ready-made and obvious sense in which it is meaningful. There is, to be sure, something in this sort of love that is good for us, but it’s not enough to say that the other we love is a good for us. We have to also include a note of going-outside-oneself in the love. To take this sort of experience seriously as the highest sort of meaningful experience, we come to the conclusion that the highest goal of human life is, by love, to go outside of oneself to possess that which is lovable in itself.

But just what can play the role of this good? And is it enough to simply go outside of oneself once, so that we might check off the box of having performed the most meaningful action in life?

It seems we need more than this. This need to go outside of ourselves has a more humble aspect in that we only need to do this because we are insufficient to ourselves. If we did not have such an insufficiency, all of our loves could be justified by the sort of self-reference that characterizes the merely useful and pleasant. It follows from this that we do not go outside of ourselves seeking just any lovable thing, but only to one that is not characterized by the sort of insufficiency we find in ourselves. For Plato, this was the good in itself or absolute good, but the Western tradition has had few qualms about calling such a being “God”. And so, by a bit more winding road, we come to the same conclusion as Fulwiler does.

2.) Again, the most fascinating claim in Fulwiler’s argument is that “finite meaning” or “meaning for a finite time” is contradictory or unintelligible. Note that she is not making the argument that chemical interactions are intrinsically meaningless (she makes that argument in the next paragraph) but that the finite duration of anything is incompatible with it being meaningful. In (1) we filled out this claim and give a quasi-exception to it in activities that are meaningful by being useful or pleasant. Now, we’ll look at the contradiction in “meaning for a finite time”.

It’s interesting to compare Fulwiler’s claim to Koheleth’s, bearing in mind that our contemporary term “meaningless” maps perfectly over the Hebrew hebel, traditionally translated vanity:

2 Vanity of vanities, saith the Preacher, vanity of vanities; all is vanity.

4 One generation passeth away, and another generation cometh: but the earth abideth for ever.

5 The sun also ariseth, and the sun goeth down, and hasteth to his place where he arose.

6 The wind goeth toward the south, and turneth about unto the north; it whirleth about continually, and the wind returneth again according to his circuits.

7 All the rivers run into the sea; yet the sea is not full; unto the place from whence the rivers come, thither they return again.

Notice that Koheleth sees meaninglessness precisely in the perpetuity of things. While Fulwiler sees the vanity in the fact that things end, Koheleth sees the vanity in the fact that things never end, but that they simply repeat forever. But the contradiction is only apparent, and is based on an illuminating harmony: time itself is what is meaningless, that is, can only have meaning by borrowing it from some other source.  This also harmonizes with the account of love in Symposium, mentioned above: love seeks perpetual possession, but so far as this possession is merely temporal, the love will always be characterized by an insufficiency or lack. Any attempt to totalize time, and to seal it off as a closed and homogeneous system (whether we see this system as scientific or as existential) will make time itself pointless and vain. It is fundamentally our culturally-secular, scientific and existential views of time that raise the inescapable problem of meaninglessness (though the scientific account only does this contingently, that is, if it is taken as total or when it becomes “scientism”).


%d bloggers like this: