On Meaning and Tiddlywinks
One of the things that we most desperately crave as human beings is meaning. We want our own individual lives to be meaningful, and we want our lives to somehow fit into some larger narrative of drama and purpose. We want our brief moments on this cosmic rock to matter.
Yet the very thing that we most want is the thing that is said to be lost in our postmodern world. There is no god thought to be animating our world or leading it to any fixed destination. There are no objective values “out there” that could take hold of and command us. Whatever values we may imagine to exist, whatever might hold our attention or imagination and guide our behaviour for even a brief amount of time are thought to almost entirely be projections of our own needs, desires, and preferences. To quote Alan Soffin, “the postmodernist, skeptical, scientistic, and self-interested standpoints all insisted that meaning flowed from us into the world.” From us into the world. Not to us. It’s a huge difference, a huge loss.
But some aren’t prepared to give up on meaning just yet, even if it is thought to be self-evidently true that there is no meaning-making god out there. Yesterday’s New York Times, for example, contains an interesting piece by Clemson philosopher Todd May called “The Meaningfulness of Lives” that attempts to produce an account of objective meaning for humans to live by that requires no god(s) for its legitimation. The idea that a god would be necessary for objective meaning suffers the same fate as “the good” in Plato’s famous dialogue with Euthyphro. Does God command the good because it is good or is it good because God commands it? If the former, then goodness precedes and is separate from God, if the latter, then goodness is arbitrary. Substitute “meaning” for “the good” and May’s point becomes clear. Either meaning is out there regardless of what God may prefer, or it is arbitrary. So much for needing God for meaning.
So where to turn, in our quest for meaning that goes beyond our own preferences? May appeals to Susan Wolf, who says that “meaning arises when subjective attraction meets objective attractiveness.” A life must feel worthwhile and actually be worthwhile. It’s not enough for our lives to simply feel meaningful to ourselves. We can, after all, be quite inventive in convincing ourselves that we are engaged in meaningful tasks. As May humorously points out, “engagement in a life of tiddlywinks does not rise to the level of a meaningful life, no matter how gripped one might be by the game.”
Objective meaning, then, is the key. And where might we go for that? May acknowledges that this level of meaning is considerably more difficult to justify. It includes but is not synonymous with morality. It incorporates but is not constrained by feelings of subjective meaning. It’s a tricky thing, this objective meaning. In the end, May feels that an understanding of the narrative character of our lives is a useful place to start:
There are values we associate with a good narrative and its characters that are distinct from those we associate with good morals. A fictional character can be intense, adventurous, steadfast or subtle. Think here of the adventurousness of Ishmael in “Moby-Dick,” the quiet intensity of Kip in “The English Patient,” the steadfastness of Dilsey in “The Sound and the Fury” or the subtlety of Marco Polo in “Invisible Cities.” As with these fictional characters, so with our lives. When a life embodies one or more of these values (or others), and feels engaging to the one who lives it, it is to that extent meaningful. There are narrative values expressed by human lives that are not reducible to moral values. Nor are they reducible to happiness; they are not simply matters of subjective feeling. Narrative values are not felt, they are lived. And they constitute their own arena of value, one that has not been generally recognized by philosophers who reflect on life’s meaningfulness.
Now, I would certainly affirm the fact that good narratives can (and do) move and inspire us and embolden us. I think that we are creatures who cannot help but conceptualize our lives and our world in terms of narratives. Narratives are hugely important. But I’m not sure May has really accomplished anything like what he set out to do, namely, to articulate “an approach to thinking about meaning that can draw us together, one that exists alongside or instead of religious views.” I’m not sure, to borrow May’s clever metaphor, that he really has gotten us any closer to the question of how a life devoted to tiddlywinks cannot rise to the status of “meaningful.”
The obvious question the reader is left with at the end of May’s article is this: What happens when people find meaning in fundamentally different kinds of narratives? It’s all very well and good to be inspired by characters in the masterful literary tales highlighted by May, but what about those who prefer the more tawdry narratives of TMZ or Jersey Shore or any of the other apparently limitless options out there in a culture gorging itself on mindless, vulgar entertainment? What about those who prefer these “arenas of value?” What of these many characters (fictional or, tragically, not) that seem to inspire and animate so many lives in our culture?
The only response that seems open to May is that these people are listening to/living according to the wrong kinds of narratives. And while I think this is absolutely (even desperately!) true, it is not very helpful in the context of what is, ostensibly, an account of objective meaning apart from God. It only takes us right back to our initial question of how, exactly, we distinguish between right/wrong, good/bad, meaningful/meaningless, and what it is that constitutes, validates, and compels us to align ourselves with meaning that is “out there” as opposed to a mere reflection of personal preference.
I’m all for the importance of a good narrative in learning how to live meaningfully. I’m all for the centrality of “lived values” that feel engaging and that move and animate us at a subjective level. I just don’t think this tells enough of the story, in and of itself. I think that good narratives like the ones May identifies, rather than producing or legitimating objective meaning in our reliving of them, reflect, at their best, meaning that already exists by virtue of the God who created us to be meaning-seekers and meaning-makers.