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Notes on Garrett Thomson, On the Meaning of Life


Chapter 1, Untangling the Question.  The main point: The question of the meaning of life needs to be clarified before it can be properly addressed.  We can inquire to find the meaning of life in a way that can be true and universal, while making room for individual and cultural differences.

A first expansion.  Chapter 1 will probably impress you with how a philosopher trained (at Oxford) in the analytic tradition can clarify the complexities implicit in a question that at first glance may seem obvious: What is the meaning of life?  Just getting clear about the question and its implications if often a very important beginning to an inquiry.  As you read the chapter, please recognize that the headings “Unanswerable questions,” “Unknowable answers,” and “No universal answers,” represent summary objections to the view for which GT is arguing.  Notice on pp. 12 –13 the reference to kinds of value—this will prove to be an important topic as the book unfolds.  As GT sorts out the ways of understanding the question of the meaning of life, he announces just one major conclusion: “An understanding of the meaning of life must have some practical implications for the way that we conduct our lives.” (10)

On p. 3 and 13 you will notice direct or indirect criticisms of religious ways of responding to the key questions of this inquiry.  Ask yourselves how a religionist might respond.  It will be therefore of particular interest to indicate possible lines of response to GT’s materialist arguments to help the student assess how strong they are when confronted with some responses from the perspective of a religious philosophy.  Obviously it is up to the individual reader to arrive and his or her own decision whether a particular reply is as strong as GT’s argument.


            Chapter 2, The Infinite.  Main point: We don’t have to assume that meaning in life necessarily depends on relating our life to God. 

            Expansion: this chapter argues not against the idea that God exists but against the idea that meaning in life is to be understood solely in terms of its reference to God (or the Infinite or the Absolute).  Pp. 17-19 challenge the idea of the authority of God being the basis of values.  The argument has important parallels with the Euthyphro dilemma; review the webnotes (http://www.personal.kent.edu/~jwattles/dilemma.htm) and ask whether they help provide any answer to GT’s argument.

Note an important philosophical point: the “mere fact” of God’s (allegedly) having a purpose for human life doesn’t justify the normative conclusion [‘value judgment’] that we ought to honor that purpose.  [Question: should a religionist accept the characterization of the (alleged) fact of God’s purpose as a mere fact without normative implications?]  In general, it is a mistake to conclude a value judgment or a normative claim about obligation merely from premises that simply state matters of fact.  If a religionist must make that kind of mistake, then this criticism on this point is incisive indeed.

Regarding GT’s claim about the “false dichotomy,” how might a religionist respond?

On p. 20 you see a critique of the idea that life has no real meaning except as a way to gain a better after-life.  Would an intelligent religionist make such an extreme claim?  If not, how could the claim be modified? 

P. 22: would immortality make life boring and meaningless?  Necessarily?

Note the distinction between factual and normative claims toward the bottom of p. 18.  This will be a focus of later reflection. 

GT then argues that it imposes a false dichotomy to ask someone to choose between affirming an objective, divine purpose and settling for a merely subjective, human purpose.  There are alternatives. 

In more detail: Read the paragraph beginning at the bottom of p. 16 plus the following paragraph, which discuss Annie Dillard’s quoting the Bible: “What does the Lord require of you but to do justly, and to love mercy, and to walk humbly with your God?”  Is it necessarily an appeal to authority to quote the Bible?  What would be implied if she were in fact making an appeal to authority?  Have we evidence of that here?  What other possibility is there for using this quote? 

GT’s conclusion: Even if God exists and if He wills what is good, then His will does not constitute the good, but rather reflects it” (18).  If the issue could be reduced to the choice between two one-sided and simplistic alternatives, one might indeed prefer GT’s conclusion, but mature religious thought may well reject this way of setting up the question.  GT’s first chapter has well shown the importance of careful work on a question before trying to answer it.  In case the question here carries problematic assumptions, it merits comparable work.  In particular, if God’s authority is not merely that of an external but omniscient observer, but if our being and our good and the meaningfulness of our lives involve our relationship with him, and if his spirit presence indwells the mind—including the heart of our center of motivation towards our interests—then knowing him and seeking his will would have a major affect on our experience of intrinsic value in our daily activities—the key to the meaning of life for GT.

Comments on GT’s refutation of Nozick.  Finding meaning is indeed (at least often) a matter of placing something in a wider context.  Even the intrinsic values in GT’s meaningful life have to do with the self’s relation to something beyond itself.  Activities are interactions.  To substitute “value” for “meaning” doesn’t do the work GT wants it to do, since there are meanings of values, too.  There is no infinite regress since, for the believer, God is eternal truth and the source of eternal truth, the source of endless expansion of meaning.


            Chapter 3, Is There a Plan?  Main point.  Evolutionary theory makes it unnecessary to appeal to divine purpose to explain life and the characteristics we have as organisms. 

This chapter characterizes the personality concept of God (e.g., the Father concept of God or the concept of the motherly love of God) as anthropomorphic personifications (anthropomorphism—conceiving God, e.g., in human form).  How might a religionist reply?  (In case you want to read some more on this try http://www.personal.kent.edu/~jwattles/unifam.htm) 

How does GT manage to characterize the theory of evolution so that there is no possibility of accepting both evolution (natural selection + genetics + biochemistry of DNA) and the concept of a purposive Creator operating behind the mechanical causation traced by science?

            Because we’re a bit rushed for time, I’m going to allow you to skip the appendix—but read the first paragraph of it.  The argument there is, like most of the arguments in this book, very clear, very up-to-date, very interesting, and very challenging to traditional religious thinking.


            Chapter 4, The Purpose of Goals.  Main point.  If we regard an activity as merely a means to a goal, then we will miss whatever intrinsic (non-instrumental) value it may have.  Example: you do a job you dislike merely to earn money for school.  If you could handle school bills without doing the job, you would do so.  Thinking of the meaning of activities only in terms of goals (surprisingly) takes away from whatever values of the activity that you could enjoy while doing it.  This is true for all goals, divine or human.  Being oriented toward goals serves the purpose of enhancing our activities, not the other way around.  "A person is not just a means to achievement" (51).

            First, note the critique of the idea that meaning in life is only a matter of turning your life into an instrument for serving the goal of God (as though there were nothing in your life that is “non-instrumentally” valuable).  How can a religionist reply?  Notice GT’s important critique of the notion that meaning is all about purpose—as though purpose (divine or human) threatens to strip life of intrinsically worthwhile activities (49-50).  Note GT’s helpful discussion of the difference between two distinctions: the first between instrumental and intrinsically valuable activities and the second between means and ends (50-55; note the helpful summary of the argument of this chapter to this point on p. 55).  Notice that the critique of a goal-oriented answer to the question of the meaning of life challenges human as well as divine goals as being able to provide the answer that one might seek to the question of the meaning of life.


            Chapter 5, Spiritual Development.  “The religious aspect of life needs to be reconceptualized to avoid the error of turning life into only a means to Heaven, Nirvana, or union with God.”  We are capable of “training our consciousness to pay attention to value, and this constitutes a form of self-improvement.”  It may be, for all that has been argued thus far, that “part of the meaning of life consists in the contemplation or worship of the divine.”  But “rather than starting from the divine and understanding the meaning of our lives in terms of that, we should start from meaningful activities, such as contemplation and worship . . . and, from this, try to make sense of the divine.”

Enjoy the fine, brief summary of a certain kind of Buddhism, and note the conclusion that GT draws on pp. 66-67—which applies both to religious and non-religious persons.


Chapter 6, Happiness.  Pleasure theories (hedonism) define happiness in terms of pleasure or satisfying one’s desires.  But the fact that we’d miss something by plugging into Nozick’s “experience machine” shows that the meaning of life is more than pleasure.  Actually, our desires are, at best, just a guide to our interests—the motivational source of non-instrumental desires (e.g., desires for friendship and beauty).

Why does GT argue that happiness a poor candidate for the meaning of life—and what definition of happiness does he use?  Can you find the main lines of GT’s alternative theory?  How does he distinguish desire and interest?

In this chapter GT refers to his book, Needs (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1987).  Here are a few quotations from the Introduction (n.p.).


  1. Needs are objective in the sense that it is a discoverable matter of fact what needs people have and this fact has an intrinsic bearing on what we ought to do.  ‘Need’ allows us to pass from an ‘is’ statement to an ‘ought’.

  2. Needs are unimpeachable values.  We cannot say truly that people ought to have different needs, and hence needs provide a bed-rock for evaluation.

  3. Needs are a matter or priority.  What we need is something which we cannot do without, and hence is an overriding reason.


Not all needs are instrumental; the notion of a fundamental or non-instrumental need is a normative concept because it pertains to serious harm.

Fundamental needs are inescapable.

Harm should be defined in terms of interests and not desires.

Harm is not indefinitely plastic.

The concept of a need is in a certain respect vague but this does not mean that needs are relative.

Needs must be distinguished from desires and needs override desires as prudential reasons.

The concept of a need cannot be analysed prescriptively.

‘Need’ makes a virtue of necessity.


            Chapter 7, The Invention of Meaning.  Main point: meaning is discovered, not invented.  An activity is meaningful because of the value(s) connected with the activity.  Evaluative statements, such as “the breeze is refreshing” can be true or false (this is the “cognitivist” position).

Much of the chapter is difficult, but worth working at; it’s GT’s argument against the idea that meaning is merely subjective.  Note GT’s first arguments against the “invention of meaning” view in the section, “Relevance” (83f).  How does GT argue against non-cognitivism and for cognitivism?  Note that when he comes to metaphysics in chapter 8, GT will argue that meaning and value do not exist, are not entities, are not real.  In what sense then doe he propose a realist theory of value?  Try to grasp his view of the alleged is/ought gap: that empirical statements can by themselves support evaluative conclusions, and that we cannot disentangle descriptive and evaluative components in terms that have both aspects (e.g., “he is diligent”).


Chapter 8, Soft Reality.  We can agree with materialism that the universe (all that exists) contains nothing but things that are material) while still recognizing the meanings and values in human experience.  There are three ways to do this: (1) we can say that some properties of material things are non-material; (2) we can say that basic material properties give rise to non-material (“supervening”) properties; or (3) we can say that material things can be described in non-material ways as well as in material ways.  You may wish to read the final conclusion first as a clue to where the argument is going.  Why might a religionist object to GT’s claim not to have a reductionist view?  For GT, statements of meaning and value describe matter.


            Chapter 9, Appreciation.  Realism is the view that we can perceive meaning and value; thus, statements of meaning and value can be true or false.  Thus, we can succeed in recognizing values, and we can also sometimes fail to be aware of values.  We can learn to experience more value by training our attention.


            Chapter 10, Beyond the Self.  We connect to people by (1) appreciating them through our own perception and feelings, being aware of their valuable character-traits and ways of being; (2) making some of their concerns our own goals; (3) gaining a sense of “we.”


Chapter 11, Metaphysical Expressions.  If human life in general says or expresses something, then it is to be interpreted as having expressive value.  Heidegger’s metaphysics claims to show what it means to be, or by revealing what human existence in general expresses.  According to Heidegger, to take up authentically and resolutely our being-towards-death takes us beyond our inauthentic ways of just saying, thinking, and seeing what our social group says, thinks, and feels.


            Chapter 12, The Novelist.  In addition to possible expressive value that human life may have in general, there may be ways in which a particular life expresses something.  Our lives are more than particular intentional actions following life plans.  There are patterns, changes, and aspects of life beyond the conscious mind.  Our life is not a text or a story, so hermeneutics does not exactly apply the way it does in the paradigm case of a text; but hermeneutics can be applied to some extent.  The parts of one’s life thus far make sense in terms of the whole (and vice-versa); there are many dimensions of meaning and interpretation, but it is also possible to have a mistaken understanding of one’s life; finally, to interpret well, one needs a critical self-awareness of one’s presuppositions.


            Chapter 13, Everyday Life.  Meaning in life has to be found in everyday activities, and focusing on the question, “What are the meaning of my life at this time, in this particular context” “requests one to specify the particular challenges and struggles that one faces.”  We have learned to avoid nine mistakes: (1) only the infinite (e.g., God) has meaning, and the finite can only find meaning in relation to the infinite; (2) the meaning of life consists in some goal or purpose; (3) the meaning of life is happiness; (4) the meaning of life must be invented; (5) life cannot have a meaning if the universe is entirely composed of matter, as science teaches; (6) the sole or primary purpose of evaluations is to guide our choice of actions, and value judgments are basically nothing more than reasons for action; (7) the meaning of a person’s life cannot extend beyond him or herself; (8) a person’s life cannot be meaningful since only linguistic terms have meaning; (9) the meaning of our lives consists in our living in accordance with a self-determined life plan.

            The overall positive lessons are (1) that the meanings of life are in the living, and it is the person that has primary non-instrumental value; (2) we can enhance the meaning and value of our activities by paying attention to untapped value possibilities around us; (3) we can also build a better world or life for ourselves by acting in accord with our interests rather than merely following our desires; (4) a realism about meaning and value saves one from subjectivism, and the fact that values correlate with our interests saves us from absolutism; (5) non-instrumental relations with others are essential; (6) goodness, beauty, and truth help us form goals; (6) interpreting what our lives express and reveal about ourselves enables us to understand ourselves more deeply and to live more in accord with the values mentioned above; (7) spiritual significance in life, if there is one, should be understood in the above terms of reaching out to values beyond ourselves with our attention and actions, not as becoming merely the instruments of a divine purpose or as having a transcendent goal as the source of our meaning in life.



Class notes for July 26, 2006 

Chapter 2  Here are some of Thomson's arguments against religious theories followed by beginnings of replies that a religionist might offer.

Appeal to authority is a poor ground for the meaning of one’s life (17).  [Is that all religion offers?]

Logically, there is an open question whether any command is good; we can give reasons in favor of it, therefore a command does not define meaningfulness (17).  [Correct, but a religious philosopher would not imply otherwise.]

Values are not based on authority (17).  [Does religion claim otherwise?  Let’s explore the relation between supreme truth, beauty, and goodness and divinity.]

We are not mere possessions of God, (slavish) obedience to whom would devalue ourselves (17).  [Most religious thinkers would not affirm what GT is criticizing.]

A factual claim that God has a purpose for our lives does not validate the normative claim that we ought to devote our lives to fulfilling it (18-19).  [Logically speaking, a good point; additional premises need to be supplied and the conclusion needs to be rewritten.  But note the contrast between this discussion and Thomson’s rejection of the is-ought distinction on pp. 90ff.

Moreover, it “claims exclusive authority,” seems final, important, and authoritative (19).  [Most religionists would acknowledge that a person may have a meaningful life without faith in God, but what about the a meaningful life in its fullness and depth?  And, in the end, might not the initial acknowledgment be in some way misleading?  This is one of the thorniest issues in the debate.]

To contrast God-originated purpose with merely subjective purpose is a false dichotomy (19).  [Thomson’s commitments to scientific objectivity and to human need anchor this claim.]

The solar system and the universe will eventually be in ruins (20, quoting Bertrand Russell).  [To challenge this widespread conclusion of “scientific cosmology” is difficult, but possible.]

If not having eternal life makes it all meaningless, what’s the complaint?  There must be something good about the finite life we know! (21)  [There is something good about this life, and this life has everything to do with God and with the wider universe adventure to which this life is the antechamber.]

Moreover, an eternal life is arguably boring (22).  [This now popular claim shows remarkably little imagination and understanding of a religious conception of an infinite eternal God and creative potentials that should open up as one ascends in the universe.]

Next, I reconstruct an argument that Thomson makes, using a different reading of Nozick.  Finding meaning in something often a matter of connecting it to a wider context.  If one were to make that observation into a universal requirement or definition, then it would apply to that wider context as well, which itself could only be meaningful in terms of a still wider context, and so on, until the widest possible context were reached.  But that widest possible context could not, by this criterion, be meaningful.  This would make meaning contingent on its relation to something meaningless.  Nozick discovered this puzzle and considered the possibility that that the puzzle would be resolved if God were to exist as the widest context, since the infinity of God would keep any context from being the last one.

Nozick, followed by Thomson, observed another route to meaningfulness: a connection to value.  Activities are meaningful not only because of their connections to wider spheres of meaning but also because of their values.  While these two approaches to meaning hardly exhaust philosophers’ technical notions in the theory of meaning, they do address what is of prime importance in meaning of life discussions.

GT’ claim: “Now that we have removed the threat of a regress, the motivation to posit a uniquely, inherently meaningful absolute has also been eliminated.” (25)  [This claim, as GT surely knows, is overstated.]


Chapter 3.  GT denies that there is forced choice between affirming either a universe as the creation of a purposive Creator and a universe in which life is explained by meaningless material forces and things forming life by chance and necessity, self-organization (Teilhard de Chardin vs. Jacques Monod).   

“Evolution” is often used as a blanket term covering the following theses.

1.  Early life forms were the ancestors of all later life forms; biological evolution is a process of “descent with modification.”

2.  Natural selection is an important process in evolution.

3.  Natural selection is the main process in evolution.

4.  The origin of living organisms is an accident wholly due to physical and chemical processes.

5.  The continuities between humans and monkeys, chimpanzees, and other primates, make it wrong to think of discontinuities of mind and spirit between human beings and animals.[i]

The first two theses are well supported, the third is controversial, the fourth is speculative, and the fifth is a philosophical claim going beyond biology; so it is understandable that conflating them spawns conflict.

What is self-organization?  See http://psoup.math.wisc.edu/archive/sosfaq.html.   Systems acquire organization without outside causes and a way that cannot be explained reductionistically in terms of the laws implicit in the system components.  Thus properties “emerge” that are not found in their component parts.  The phenomena are studied mathematically and are beginning to be compared empirically to see how well they seem to explain a host of phenomena at all levels of nature.  (Comment: the term “self-organization” gives the impression of excluding the possibility of a Creator.)

What is Daniel Dennett’s argument?  He wrote this paper before his book, Darwin’s Dangerous Idea came out: http://gort.ucsd.edu/jhan/ER/dd.html  Here’s just one critique: http://www.bu.edu/wcp/Papers/Meth/MethRick.htm.

GT emphasizes that arguments for evolution do not prove that God does not exist, but methodologically make purposive or teleological explanations of no empirical value.  He is particularly concerned to preserve the possibility of a meaningful life, indeed one including spiritual values, as we shall see, even if we accept what he calls “the materialism of science.” 


Chapter 5.  After presenting Theravada Buddhism as a religion of self-transformation without a Creator God, GT sets forth what he calls the paradoxical character of the Buddhist distinction between the higher, absolute truth (according to which Buddhism has no self and no aim) and the lower, relative truth (according to which a self has a goal to attain nirvana).  Then, after dropping the remark that if God exists he would be responsible for suffering of the world, GT returns to the notion of the divine and suggests that those who are so minded might better start from meaningful activities, such as contemplation and worship and try to make sense of the divine in this experiential way.  This, he proposes, would be superior to trying to start with a “transcendental” God.  (If God could be experienced, would he be transcendental?  If transcendental, could he be experienced?  This, by the way, is the problem alleged by Kant.)

[i] This list is a variation on one in Alvin Plantinga, “When Faith and Reason Clash” in Robert T. Pennock, ed., Intelligent Design Creationism and Its Critics (Cambridge, MIT Press, 2001), 127.