Sunday, June 17, 2012

Some Thoughts on the Meaning of Human Lives

The question "what is the meaning of life" persists. In this post I would like to summarize what I think answers to a form of this question may be, from a humanist non-religious framework. Consider these thoughts more of speculations, possibilities, or leanings of mine rather then beliefs.

One way of interpreting the question "what is the meaning of life" is to ask what good's make life worthwhile. But we aren't looking for answers that are merely subjective we want objective answers to these questions. That is, the meaning of life isn't the pursuit of goods that merely satisfy a subjects desires, an appropriate answer to the question lies independent of what people think, it will be objective. For example a  life where a person is satisfied by endless stamp collecting doesn't seem meaningful despite the subject's satisfaction. At any rate such a life shouldn't seem meaningful to the humanist!

Ancient Wisdom

An ancient perspective on the meaning of life is that the "most worthwhile kind of life involves pursuing the joint tasks of understanding oneself and of understanding one's place within the universe." (See Evan Fales paper Despair, Optimist, and Rebellion) Notice how stamp collecting (unlike philosophical investigation, religious practice, and so on) does nothing to advance these goals. So some lives will be more worthwhile then others. Those lives which face the facts of human existence, the facts of this particular universe, and all that entails will be meaningful lives.

Yet one might worry that this perspective merely rephrases the initial concern. We want to know what we are and what our place in the universe is not to merely pose a question! Although the investigation of understanding into the depths of what we are and reality at large may be meaningful in itself, how much better will the answers to such questions be! As such we may want to consider some answers.

Social Goods

Humans are social animals, that is one aspect of what we are and one way to understand what we are. So perhaps one way in which life is worthwhile, and good is through  social pursuit. In getting to know other human beings, being involved in their lives and having other human beings know and be involved with us (our desires, needs, and other attributes) life takes on meaning. The goods of relationships with other animals (human and nonhuman) not only bring about pleasures (and of course pains), insight, but may also be good in themselves. 

Another good related to human sociability is being good. Treating others with moral concern is not only morally good, but meaningful as well. For example lives fighting for justice and equality, against racism, sexism, speciesism, and statism certainly seem meaningful. There is of course the question of whether life is meaningful in mere pursuit of such causes or in actual, concrete success. Either way morality will be relevant, central even in a meaningful life.

Human lives may also gain a boost in meaningfulness from aesthetic concerns. Fittingness is one of those aesthetic components. We might best capture what fittingness is by analogy. Suppose you are considering where to put your door frame, mentally picturing different possibilities, now absent practical concerns how are you to choose? Most likely on basis of what simply looks right, or in other word in which set-up fits. Not how it fits in respect to itself (whether the door itself looks right) but whether the door looks right in it's environment, in this case the house. We might describe fittingness as this then:
Fittingness is a judgment and experience of a thing x in regards to the surrounding things y. The judgment is an aesthetic judgment of x being in the state that it should be or is proper in an environment of y, where y’s properties are setting what x should be or is proper
How does this relate to the meaning of lives? I will quote Roger Scruton from his nifty book A Very Short Introduction to Beauty , “Aesthetic interest has a transfiguring effect. It is as though the natural world, represented in consciousness, justifies both itself and you. And this experience has a metaphysical resonance.” There is then a move between a fittingness of other objects, to the fittingness of the self. We recognize at certain parts in our lives that we are where we should be in relation to the universe. We are at home. These experiences are examples of fittingness. Now it is no doubt quite mysterious and vague how this works, but never the less it is significant. for these experiences of fittingness “contain a reassurance that this world is a right and fitting place to be—a home in which our human powers and prospects find confirmation."


The above answers to the question "what is the meaning of live" all have objective answers. We can answer whether someone is in fact living a life with ancient wisdom, full of social goods, and one that is fitting (independent about what they think or feel is the case). The answers to these questions will not depend on that persons desires, or satisfaction. Yet what if that person is horribly unhappy are we still to say that  their life is meaningful. Maybe, maybe not. Perhaps happiness is a necessary condition for fittingness. At any rate one may think that a severely unhappy life isn't a life that is worth living, and thus it is not a meaningful life. Facing this challenge perhaps we could say that in order for a life to be meaningful there must be a marriage between subjective and objective goods. It is not enough to have one without the other. A meaningful life must be one in which a subjects desires are satisfied, but it must also have meaning outside of the subjects desires and preference. 

These then are a few ways in which a humanist can answer the question "what is the meaning of life." This list should of course not be taken as extensive by any means. Clearly each category of meaningfulness could use some more sketching out. At any rate I hope to have shown that there is some plausible answers for the humanist for the persisting question.

See Mere Humanism for a discussion on what a Mere Humanist might be.

Thursday, June 14, 2012

Mere Humanism

In Mere Christianity C.S Lewis argues for an account of what you need to believe in order to be a Christian. Of course there is a huge variety of beliefs between Christian denominations (possibly up to 50,000!) and within those denominations. What Lewis attempts to do is pinpoint the beliefs most of these Christians have in common, thus Mere Christianity.

I would like to shortly speculate what Mere Humanism might look like. After all so called, humanists differ in many ways (some are agnostic, others naturalist, they have different ethical beliefs, some are vicious in there opposition to religion others couldn't care less and so on). For example here is a definition of Humanism from my magazine the Humanist (which is produced by the American Humanist Association):

"Humanism is a rational philosophy informed by science, inspired by art, and motivated by compassion. Affirming the dignity of each human being, it supports liberty and opportunity consonant with social and planetary responsibility. Free of theism and other supernatural beliefs, humanism thus derives the goals of life from human need and interest rather than from theological or ideological abstractions, and asserts that humanity must take responsibility for its own destiny."

and according to Wikipedia:

"Humanism is an approach in study, philosophy, world view, or practice that focuses on human values and concerns, attaching prime importance to human rather than divine or supernatural matters."

From the American Humanist Association website:

"Humanism is a progressive philosophy of life that, without theism and other supernatural beliefs, affirms our ability and responsibility to lead ethical lives of personal fulfillment that aspire to the greater good of humanity."

My first qualm with these definitions is that they are speciesist, they only mention the value of humans rather than that nonhuman animals. So much the worse for humanism if it entails speciesism. Thankfully I don't think it does, at any rate Mere Humanism shall not!

Religious Skepticism

Humanism we are told is devoid of "theism and other supernatural beliefs"? But should the Mere Humanist reject all supernatural beliefs or remain skeptical? Should they even reject all religions beliefs? I don't think they should reject such beliefs nor should Mere Humanism entail that. For example it seems as though agnostics (even though they don't positively deny the existence of a theistic God) can be humanists! Moreover at the bottom of religious claims one sees, as J. L. Schellenberg has argued, what he calls Ultimism. Ultimism is the belief in a metaphysically and axiologically ultimate reality. So at the root of religious claims there is an ultimate reality and part of that reality exist the deepest possible goods which humans may receive/experience/whatever in relation to it. A reality that is ultimate and salvific. It is noteworthy that even though an athiest rejects theism they don't deny Ultimism, for theism is just a species of ultimism. And surely we are too limited and immature of beings to throw away all religious realities! Yet we should ask what should the Mere Humanist say about such possible realities? Well at the very least she shouldn't affirm them. Rather she should affirm that we can live morally and meaningful lives without any religious reality. Even if there is no salvific good, other goods may be surely achieved! Notice she need not say that we can live as meaningful and as moral lives as may be the case if some religious beliefs were true. Mere Humanism only entails that we can live moral and meaningful lives without religious realities.

So in order to be a mere humanist one need not be a naturalist or even an atheist, only a religious skeptic. That is someone who doesn't affirm or deny the existence of Ultimism. Notice that one can of course deny all religious realities as the naturalist does and remain a mere humanist. You might imagine then a spectrum of views with religious views on the left, and nonreligious on the right; the humanist may go further right then the religious skeptic, but not to the left--towards religious belief.

Meaning without ReligionWhat does it mean to say that life has meaning without religion? To begin with life is worthwhile without religion, it is worth living. Further there might also be purposes in life, there may be goods that are distinct from pleasure and morality, and there may be a narrative structure to human lives that deems at least some of them worthwhile. Which one of these ideas does a humanist have to embrace in order to remain a humanist? At the very least they should think that at least some lives lived are worthwhile. And in worthwhile lives there is meaning. Someone who thinks life isn't worth living is not a humanist so defined.

Morality without Religion

These days it's common to think morality can't be supported by nonreligious means. This is terribly unfortunate and false. A Humanist should think that there exist objective moral facts independent of whether religious realities obtain. That there are moral facts about what we ought to do, in the same way there are facts about math, science, and logic. Thus being a humanist is inconsistent with Moral Antirealism. In the words of AHA, Humanism "affirms our ability and responsibility to lead ethical lives...[for] the greater good." And this "greater good" isn't subjective, relative, or meaningless it is objective and meaningful!


Mere Humanism then is this: "a philosophy which affirms no religious realities, yet firmly believes that meaningful and moral lives can exist without such realities"

Of course in this post I haven't defended Mere Humanism, merely explained what it is. In following posts I would like to explicate what moral and meaningful lives might consist of and how they can exist without religious realities.

Here is Some Thoughts on the Meaning of Human Lives

Sunday, June 3, 2012

Excercise I


This is the first mini-album of experimental hip hop, Exercises if you will, in which I write over my beats. No instrumental samples, just synths and some beats. This is a lot different then the other work I have done, so I would appreciate any feedback or criticism.