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What Gives Life Meaning?

November 14, 2011

As an atheist, Jennifer Fulwiler felt like she was living a lie: “I acknowledged the truth that life was meaningless,” she tell us, “and yet I kept acting as if my own life had meaning, as if all the hope and love and joy I’d experienced was something real, something more than a mirage produced by the chemicals in my brain.”  Her outlook was rather dismal: “if everything that we call heroism and glory, and all the significance of all great human achievements, can be reduced to some neurons firing in the human brain, then it’s all destined to be extinguished at death.”  For her, life couldn’t possibly have meaning because life was merely material and temporal.  Nothing special.

At the risk of throwing unholy water on Jennifer Fulwiler’s fervent conversion story, I must object to this idea that life can be meaningful only if it has spiritual and eternal significance.  If life has such everlasting significance, so much the better, but we needn’t get so far as spirits, gods, and the heavens to find meaning in the human condition.  We can, for example, trace the emergence of meaningfulness back to the human capacity for consciousness and narration.  Even if glory, hope, love, heroism, and joy are reducible to reacting chemicals and firing neurons, they become meaningful in the context of our consciousness of them and the stories we tell, retell, and remember.  To quote Richard Kearney: “From the word go, stories were invented to fill the gaping hole within us, to assuage our fear and dread, to try to give answers to the great unanswerable questions of existence: Who are we? Where do we come from? Are we animal, human or divine? Strangers, gods or monsters?”

We discover what it means to be ourselves in this grand endeavor of storytelling, of narrating who and what we are and from where we came.  Some of these stories we remember; others we forget.  Some we consider sacred; others profane.  Some rise to the heights of culture; others are lost in the sands of time.   Regardless of these contingencies, they are all meaningful.  The story no one remembers still had meaning when it was told and heard and remembered.  Similarly, if the human story ultimately comes to nothing, the story will still have been meaningful for those who lived and shared it.

What gives life meaning?  At the very least, we do.

H/T: Sullivan

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  1. Brian Martin permalink
    November 14, 2011 1:47 pm

    Given that we are created by a Creator, how then is it possible for life to have meaning absent said Creator? Unless there is a way of removing the “fingerprint of God from our being…how is that possible.
    Viktor Frankl discussed this search for meaning in “Man’s Search for Meaning”
    Also, if I recall, and it has been quite some time since I read it, but the book “The Religious Sense” by Giussani makes this point from a Catholic perspective. We all have within us a draw to meaning, and that meaning is God. Without that, it is always less than.

  2. November 14, 2011 2:25 pm

    “Similarly, if the human story ultimately comes to nothing, the story will still have been meaningful for those who lived and shared it.”

    I call bullshit on this kind of response. Most people’s lives are short, painful, extremely impoverished, and rife with suffering. Perhaps privileged inhabitants of the rich West can talk about giving their life “meaning” as a recompense for existence, and can go on about how their lives have “meaning” even if cut off at death, etc., but for the vast majority this is a kind of bizarro fantasy-world. Life is miserable, most of the time, for most. If there is no meaning beyond what is here, then it would be better never to be born, and next best to die young.

    • November 14, 2011 2:37 pm

      And yet mass suicide isn’t the norm, is it? People living miserable lives still go on living, making what they can of the almost nothing that they have. Is there no meaning in this?

      • Darwin permalink
        November 14, 2011 2:59 pm

        If one is being materialist anyway, one need not assign life any “meaning” in order to explain why people cling to it. That could be a simple biological drive. Animals cling to life, even through scarcity and pain. And yet, so far as we can tell, they lack the ability to tell stories or derive senses of meaning.

        It could be that life is essentially meaningless, and yet people cling to it anyway.

      • November 14, 2011 3:22 pm

        Here I would say that essentially meaningless doesn’t mean completely meaningless. If meaning emerges only through story and other human activities, then we might not call such meaning essential.

    • Peter Paul Fuchs permalink
      November 16, 2011 6:18 pm


      You remind me of the great Catholic poet Francis Thompson (sp?)

      “Nothing begins, and nothing ends,
      That is not paid with moan,
      For we are born in other’s pain,
      And perish in our own.”

      As Fr. Robert Barron likes to say: catholicism is all about joy!!

  3. November 14, 2011 2:56 pm

    Indeed, and the vast majority of these people are all religious.

    • November 14, 2011 3:20 pm

      Yes, and religion is a way people give lived expression and ritualization to mythos–story. Even if their stories are not literally true, they’re still meaningful and give meaning to their lives.

      • Darwin permalink
        November 14, 2011 3:40 pm

        I think specifically, though, mythos is a way we assign “meaning”, not just “story” in the sense that “XYZ happened.” Mythos tells us “XYZ happened, and it did so because it means something.”

        I’m not clear you can have myth as a provider of meaning if you’re holding to a biological materialism, which is what Jenn is discussing there.

      • November 14, 2011 4:50 pm

        Why not?

      • Darwin permalink
        November 14, 2011 5:05 pm


        Well, I guess the questions would be:

        1) Can a myth which assigns meaning you know to be false carry meaning? Certianly, it can carry meaning in the sense of being a coherant fiction. But I’m not sure if, knowing a myth to be false, one would say, “Yeah, that realy gives life meaning.” I mean, if you were to tell me about some big family happening, and I responded, “At least all this is held in the noodly mind of the Flying Spaghetti Monster,” would you find that that statement provided you with a sense of meaning and worth about the event?

        2) If we assume that there is not meaning to a set of events, that they are “random”, can we get a true myth or story out of them? So, for instance, say we’re paying jacks. Would we stop and look at a spread of jacks and come up with a myth that gave the patter the jacks had fallen in meanning? Could pinball be a source of myth? I suppose we could say, “The jacks might tell myths about why they fell as they did.” But if we did, wouldn’t we be implicitly saying that the jacks would do so only under the illusion that it did matter where they fell?

        I think you could have a humanistic kind of story telling which doesn’t really touch on questions of gods or souls. (Think Cicero’s “Dream of Scipio”, which although it may implicitly assume the Roman panthoen is really talking about humanistic worth, not escatological worth.) But I don’t think you could if you assumed a materialistic biological determinism and proceeded to take it seriously. (Which is why I think such a view is fundamentally anti-humanist.)

      • November 14, 2011 8:31 pm

        You’re not likely to see myths told by materialists to explain in a literal fashion the random pattern of jacks or neurons or other events, but atheists have made use of the mythic form to give non-literal expression to life’s significance. Joss Whedon comes to mind. I don’t know if he’s a materialist and determinist, but I don’t see why he couldn’t be. Even if human behavior is reducible to biological determinations, it’s complex enough for the work of a literary dramatist.

      • Darwin permalink
        November 15, 2011 9:29 am

        Certainly, one can be a dramatist while being a materialist, but in that case, isn’t one essentially engaging in the Paradox of Fiction — the sense in which just as we act as if our own lives have meaning, we act as if the fiction we read has meaning.

        I think that fiction essentially sidesteps the question of whether life itself has meaning and allows us to treat a set of known-fiction events as if they have whatever meaning we assign to life.

        And that works, because we instinctively act as if our own lives have meaning, even if our actual beliefs don’t provide and justification for that instinctual action.

  4. November 14, 2011 3:42 pm

    Pace Nietzsche, you can’t get meaning from a mythos you know to be false. These people *believe* the stories are true, which is why they are meaningful.

    • November 14, 2011 4:52 pm

      What are you saying makes a mythos meaningful? Belief in it? Its truth?

      • November 14, 2011 5:58 pm

        Belief that it is true gives it meaning.

      • November 14, 2011 8:01 pm

        Does the believed-in truth have to be literally true in order to be meaningful?

  5. Rodak permalink
    November 14, 2011 3:43 pm

    Albert Camus was pretty good on this question, from the non-religious point of view. What could be more absurd than the existence endured by Sisyphus? And, yet, the seemingly pointless struggle that was his life gave his life meaning.

    • November 14, 2011 4:54 pm

      Exactly. Some people find life to be absurd, and this absurdity is its meaning.

      • Rodak permalink
        November 14, 2011 6:10 pm

        I wouldn’t say that it’s the absurdity qua absurdity that gives the life of a Sisyphus meaning. I would say that it’s refusal to be defeated by the combined forces of gravity (on the material side) and fate (on the metaphysical side) that gives it meaning. It’s the refusal to stop striving toward the apparently unreachable goal.
        A Christian faces exactly the same task as Sisyphus. We are commanded to be “perfect as our Father in Heaven is perfect” and we cannot do more than constantly strive to comply with that command, knowing all the while that we must fail. This is every bit as absurd, by worldly standards, as the dilemma of Sisyphus.
        We are all Sisyphus, unless we quit. If we keep on keeping on, that is the meaning of our existence.

      • Peter Paul Fuchs permalink
        November 17, 2011 12:19 pm


        Well Das Nichts in Meister Eckhart is certainly not just “nothingness” in the way Thales means it, that it “just ends”. With a vacant whimper. Eckhart meant it as the Godhead having emptied itself; the very well-spring of creation and all that exists.

        A little Ideengescichte here, just for fun. Since much of Heidegger is arguably based on Eckhart, and since the majority of modern Catholic theology owes some debt to Heidegger; and since such theology underlay the changes of Vatican II; we can say that this Echartian notion lies as a substratum of much of Catholic thought today.

        • November 17, 2011 12:25 pm


          I was just extending the realization of mountains…

  6. Thales permalink
    November 14, 2011 4:35 pm

    The story no one remembers still had meaning when it was told and heard and remembered. Sure, but only for that brief moment of time during which it was remembered.

    Similarly, if the human story ultimately comes to nothing, the story will still have been meaningful for those who lived and shared it. Sure, but again only for a brief moment of time that amounts to a mere blink of an eye when considered against the entire universe and all of space, time, and existence.

    I guess I’m thinking that Ms. Fulwiler might respond to this post by saying “So what? So what if my story was told and gave some meaning to someone else? When considering the grand scheme of all things, that is a miniscule amount of meaning to a miniscule portion of the universe for a miniscule amount of time — so miniscule that for all practical purposes, my life is still meaningless.”

    • November 14, 2011 4:56 pm

      I would turn the question around: why does a miniscule amount of meaning mean that life is meaningless? A miniscule is still something. Maybe it’s enough.

      • Thales permalink
        November 14, 2011 6:16 pm

        Well, Ms. Fulwiler seems to grant that there does exist some miniscule amount of meaning — she grants that there are neurons firing in the human brain, which I think she would concede creates some miniscule amount of meaning. But for her, this is practically meaningless because everything gets extinguished at death. You’ve just extended the time frame a couple of generations. But your amount of meaning gets extinguished too. Comparing your finite amount of meaning that gets extinguished after memory dies with Fulwiler’s neurons that extinguishes after death… both are practically meaningless when compared with the infinite boundaries of time, place, and existence in the universe.

      • November 14, 2011 8:11 pm

        You’re assuming that the miniscule meaning of human life loses its significance when compared with the “infinite boundaries of time, place, and existence in the universe.” I don’t share this assumption. My firing neurons make possible my capacity for narration, and this in turn makes possible meaning for me and for others. Why should this meaning’s eventual disappearance lead us to say it wasn’t meaningful?

      • Thales permalink
        November 14, 2011 10:52 pm


        You’re missing my point. My point is that your post is non-responsive to the thought Fulwiver had when she was an atheist. It seems that for Fulwiver-as-atheist, the fact that human life was temporal and “destined to be extinguished at death” was reason to make her think that life was meaningless. Your post is non-responsive to this thought. You’re just giving a notion of human life with a different and slightly longer temporal ending, but with a temporal ending all the same. In other words, you’re describing a notion of human life that is just as temporal and “destined to be extinguished” as the one that Fulwiver-as-atheist recognized. That means that Fulwiver-as-atheist would most likely consider your notion of life to be just as meaningless as how she was thinking about life, because your notion is not essentially different from her notion. She would probably concede that your notion of life had some miniscule meaning — but she would probably make the same concession with her “neurons-firing” notion. It’s just that she would probably find that both notions are similarly meaningless because they are both temporal and destined to be extinguished, even though your notion lasts a few years longer than hers.

      • November 14, 2011 11:13 pm

        Non-responsive? I bring up narration precisely to show that human life can have meaning even within the constraints of temporarily and that, therefore, Fulwiler was incorrect to imply that life can be meaningful only if it has spiritual and eternal significance. The human capacity for storytelling shows us that the merely temporal life can be meaningful.

      • Thales permalink
        November 15, 2011 12:37 am

        What do you mean “Fulwiler was incorrect to imply that life can be meaningful only if it has spiritual and eternal significance.”? You haven’t shown this to be incorrect. It’s not illogical to think that if a life is only temporal and will be non-existent, its meaning is of so insignificant value when compared to the eons of non-existence that follow this life, that it is essentially meaningless. That’s Fulwiver’s point. Sure, the temporal life of storytelling can have some meaning — but when compared to the infinity of the universe, I think Fulwiver would say that it is not odd to think that it is essentially meaningless. You can disagree with Fulwiver on this point — that’s fine — but you haven’t successfully argued against Fulwiver. If Fulwiver says “temporal existence is essentially meaningless because it becomes extinguished”, you haven’t successfully rebutted the point by saying “no, temporal existence is not essentially meaningless because it can last a few years longer through memory and storytelling before it becomes extinguished.”

        Regardless of that debate, we’re getting away from the point I first made when I first responded to your post. As I said when I first commented, I read Fulwiver to say that the fact that life got extinguished made it essentially meaningless. You then posited another description of life that was a minuscule time fraction longer than Fulwiver’s, but which was not essentially different than Fulwiver’s, because it was still temporal. So I observed that if Fulwiver didn’t think her temporal existence on earth had much meaning, I didn’t think that your temporal existence on earth through memory would have much meaning for Fulwiver either.

      • November 15, 2011 7:43 am

        My counter-example has less to do with long term memory and more to do with the creation of meaning through narration. Fulwiler may dismiss this temporal meaning as meaningless, reducing some meaning to none, but this dismissal would overlook the real meaning that is present for a time. A story once told and now forgotten, now extinguished, so to speak, still had real meaning for those who, for a time, told it, heard it, and remembered it. There’s no sense in saying that because the story is lost to us that it never had meaning for anyone. Analogously, the lives of people no one remembers still meant something to those who lived them and knew them, who shared their joys and sorrows. To say that those lives were meaningless because they’re now gone and forgotten overlooks the real meaning they had. No comparison can take away their meaning.

        As for saying that the finite is meaningless next to the infinite, this comparison would hold true even if we grant all the truths revealed by God. Next to God’s infinite meaning, our finite meaning has no meaning; therefore, our finite lives our meaningless.

      • Thales permalink
        November 15, 2011 9:25 am

        My counter-example has less to do with long term memory…. To say that those lives were meaningless because they’re now gone and forgotten overlooks the real meaning they had. No comparison can take away their meaning.

        But I think Fulwiver-as-atheist would concede all that. She would acknowledge all that, just as she would acknowledge that her actual lived life would have had some meaning to the people around her. But that wouldn’t be enough for Fulwiver. The reason why some atheists (like Fulwiver) get disconcerted about their existence is because their existence, whether it be a lived life or a life of meaning through narration as you describe, always and everywhere ultimately comes to an end, and the only thing that lasts beyond is nothingness. Absolute nothingness. And for these atheists, their life — whether it be their lived life and its affect on others, or a life of meaning through narration and its affect on others — their life can’t really matter in the long run because the only thing that lasts is nothingness. In other words, ultimately, it doesn’t really matter whether they had a lived life or a life of meaning through narration, because the result is the same — nothingness.

        As for saying that the finite is meaningless next to the infinite, this comparison would hold true even if we grant all the truths revealed by God. Next to God’s infinite meaning, our finite meaning has no meaning; therefore, our finite lives our meaningless.

        Here, you’re using infinite/finite in a different way than how I’ve been using it. I was talking about a finite life from an atheistic and materialistic perspective: i.e., a life that exists for a time, but ultimately is extinguished into Absolute Nothingness with no part remaining. From that perspective, some atheists conclude that life can’t really matter in the long run because the only thing that lasts is Absolute Nothingness. From the Christian perspective, our lives aren’t finite in that way: we are created with an immortal, non-temporal soul and we are destined to live forever with God, who is the opposite of Absolute Nothingness; and from that perspective, it is easier to conclude that our lives have meaning.

      • November 15, 2011 10:24 am

        Temporary meaning before absolute nothingness may not “be enough” for Fulwiler, and if so, that’s her choice. If she would concede that such miniscule meaning is real meaning, if only for a time, then she and I are not that far apart. But then, if it’s real, then it’s not a mirage.

      • Thales permalink
        November 15, 2011 3:03 pm

        Fair enough. I’d say that you have a more positive outlook on existence than some atheistic existentialists.

      • Peter Paul Fuchs permalink
        November 17, 2011 9:37 am


        Just a — potentially funny — note on the terminology you are using. The term “Absolute Nothingness” is one that I don’t associate with atheistic materialists. They are not attracted to absolutes anyways, and are, by my reading more likely to say things like “it just ends”. It is Buddhists who are drawn to terms like “Absolute Nothingness” but then it has a very different meaning than you have given it. This was especially true of the Kyoto School of Zen philosophers, some of who were involved with Buddhist-Christina dialogue, like Masao Abe, who was a disciple of Keiji Nishitani. I am so happy to say that that I knew Masao Abe on friendly terms. He was a happy guy, especially when eating Italian food. .

      • Thales permalink
        November 17, 2011 10:18 am

        I’m using “absolute nothingness” to describe whatever it is when “it just ends.”

  7. Peter Paul Fuchs permalink
    November 14, 2011 5:25 pm


    Terrific post. You and I share something in common, in terms of thought. But I would give a different kind of comment on this case specifically. I think the sort of melodrama contained in her atheistic angst boils down to a kind of hardscrabble turf war in religion that even atheists buy into willy-nilly. They believe that “religious people” own religious rhetoric. And even though they don’t assume any form of Deity, they seem to feel there is an almost metaphysical problem (which they in turn wouldn’t believe in, but to which they give tacit obeisance) that precludes them from using the meanings and rhetoric and experiences of religion. You can tell from the melodrama of the presentation that she would have felt like a very naughty atheist to involve herself in religion to make her life better. My point is, ditch the turf war. All of it. Religion isn’t going anywhere in human affairs, and people are better off ‘using” it well and beautifully. This is precisely what tends to create some sort of meaning. And even de-mythologized religion can get people there too. Unfortunately, types like this lady tend to be pushed to a breaking point, and then of course become the most over-the-top convert types. Pretty predictable.

    The odd fact is that right-wing Catholics hate this sort of talk vastly more than bleak atheism. Right-wing Catholics just love atheists, vastly more than about 95% of fellow Catholics. This is because they feel comforted that the bleak atheist some how respects their turf. They own the religious bones, and like a doggy want to sit on the whole pile of them. I think it is bunk. Meaning, be it religious or otherwise gives joy to life. We should all savor it seriously. There is another side benefit of such a viewpoint, or better put, experience. It tends to make one not go into knee-jerk denial when religious tropes conflict with reality and moral contradictions. That’s a big deal in itself.

    • November 14, 2011 8:15 pm

      Karen Armstrong makes a similar point about atheists missing, in your words, “the meanings and rhetoric and experiences of religion” because they approach religion much the same as fundamentalists: all logos, no mythos.

      • Peter Paul Fuchs permalink
        November 14, 2011 8:24 pm


        Love her!

      • November 14, 2011 8:34 pm

        I’m currently reading and very much enjoying The Case for God.

    • November 15, 2011 1:16 am


      Terrific comment! I love the panoramic quality of your analysis. On the left we see the atheistic dupes who envy the religious meaning and rhetoric they eschew. In the center is the melodramatic naughty lady convert who goes over the top. Oh and don’t forget the right winged Catholics who truly love their enemy, the atheist, better than the ordinary smuck Catholic becasue doing so makes them feel righteous about their errant beliefs (their bones). Pretty inclusive.

      The saving grace of all of this is the de-mytholigized religion which gets a free ride on the back of the tithing slobs striving for conversion. Can I get an AMEN!! Feel free to ‘use’ any of us…or our neutered meanings…really…no problem!

      • Peter Paul Fuchs permalink
        November 15, 2011 4:46 pm


        Thanks for the appreciation. I was quite interested in you second paragraph:

        “The saving grace of all of this is the de-mytholigized religion which gets a free ride on the back of the tithing slobs striving for conversion. Can I get an AMEN!! ”

        I take this to mean that you are thinking of the sort of mainstream Protestant de-mythologized religion. This raises and interesting cultural question for me. I think a lot of the appeal of right-wing religion in various forms has to do with the sappy and often insipid nature of very de-mythologized Protestantism. I would argue that there is nothing intrinsic in this, but just a strong cultural factoid. The “Wasp” ethos was never the most exciting one to begin with, so when it transmogrified into today’s archetypal Lexus liberal it became, for some, an oppressive concoction of condescending smiles and guilty sallies into the “inner city” before returning safely to a place with cul-de-sacs.

        These are largely cultural and not religious matters, and certainly not intellectual ones either. But they still were majorly annoying for a lot of people. Thus, my guess is that a lot of the people drawn to right-wing religiosity are not even so interested in the great exclusions and high-dudgeon that is part of it. They were just turned off by a part of our culture, which was, in truth, never so great to begin with.

      • November 15, 2011 6:50 pm


        You are one of my favorite commentators here at VN.and I note that you have commended our hosts for tolerating a wide variety of views. That’s why I always look forward to your perspective. In this case I was impressed that you were able to behead so many with one grand swoop.

        No, the ‘saving grace’ was not what you perceived but my own wilted sarcasm. I confess I am the catholic slob I alluded to. Beyond that, I followed Jennifer F. for several years as she was emerging in her conversion and grew quite respectful of her online introspection. I have had many a dialogue with her and have found her to be astute and highly perceptive (at least at my level). Perhaps when you dismissed her as melodramatic, over the top and pushed to the breaking point, I jumped to a rash conclusion. I truly thought you were a mere step away from calling her hormonally imbalanced. But that was yesterday and its passed. Peace and all good.

      • Peter Paul Fuchs permalink
        November 15, 2011 8:54 pm


        Bless you. There were so many Catholics like you when I was in the Church.
        It made one feel that one was part of an organization with a canny sense of reality and wisdom. Sigh. I know it is not quite my place to bemoan it ,because I left the Church long ago; but I really am amazed how quickly the reactionary bent took over. What I always liked in the Catholic ethos was the very inclusive sense of meaning. Some vibe of fright entered at some point, and now that sense seems to have evaporated. I knew some great Catholics like John Meier during my time. Believe me, he was not threatened by questions. The whole vibe was different. It is perhaps not fair of me to go on in my memories from long ago of one (now quite well known) priest. (I sure hope he doesn’t mind if he somehow hears my blog digressions) But it is there as a proof to me that I have not misremembered the whole attitude. Because believe me, I have questioned myself just on the basis on having been so young, and one tends to not quite get things exactly when young. It had begun to change just about the time of my exit. One of my good native talents that has served me well in life, and helped me avoid lots of problems others have fallen into, is what could be called a “nose for trouble”. I could literally smell the new wave that had entered the Church and it was a mean spirit. The ensuing years have only made me happy I left, and please understand I do NOT mean that as an insult for those that remain.

  8. November 14, 2011 5:58 pm

    I think there may be some equivocation going on. “Meaning” can mean “what is meant by something,” but it can also mean “significance” or “import”. Yes, our stories about our experiences give them meaning in the sense that they mean something. But does it give them true import or significance?

    I think this is analogous to asking whether an act can be truly good if there is no God. You might say an act can be good if there is some conscious being who has some sense of good, and finds it good. But who’s to say his sense of good is objectively good? What if his sense of good has been perverted, as often happens? Ultimately it’s a subjective sense of good, and so the question whether the act itself is objectively good goes unanswered without God.

    Now as to whether our lives have true import or significance, you answer by saying, if some human beings live who consider them to have import or significance, then yes they do. But is that an objective import or significance, or a subjective one only? If the latter, is that really “enough”? Do subjective feelings of import or significance impart objective import or significance to life?

    • November 14, 2011 8:21 pm

      It’s both objective and subjective. Storytelling is a subjective endeavor, of course, i.e., something done by us, and it also it makes use, in some way, of objective reality as it’s subjectively understood.

      I’m pretty sure we can get to objectivity without getting so far as God. I can appreciate the objective beauty of a sunrise, even find meaning in the experience, without bringing God into the picture.

  9. Dan permalink
    November 15, 2011 1:08 am

    A candle that burns quickly still provides light and heat.

  10. November 15, 2011 8:35 am

    I think your argument, taken as a criticism of Fulwiler’s position, may be going a bit astray, and taking one stage of a process, which was later refined in other stages, as if it were the whole process. She fully recognizes that meaning can be had without getting into the eternal; cf. her later comments on the birth of her child, where she says that her life had more meaning but that this lacked any transcendence. Rather, what we’re getting in the part you quote is one stage of reflection in a moving picture.

    I think I am, however, much more skeptical than you are about these magic powers of stories: I deny that we ourselves give our lives meaning in any way, shape, or form, and deny that storytelling has the powers you claim. Storytelling as an answer to the question of how life gets its meaning runs into a problem like that which Plato discusses in the Phaedrus and the Meno: you can only find meaning in stories if you somehow already have it — they don’t give it.The only way, I think, that we can get the result you are suggesting is if by ‘meaningful’ we simply mean ‘material for storytelling’. Likewise, I think you are much too quick in your response to Agellius’s objection above; ironically, given how much power you attribute to storytelling in terms of unveiling meaning, I think you don’t do justice to its power to distort, hide, and delude. What you’re arguing against is not so much Fulwiler’s position as all Platonisms and Neo-Platonisms and Aristotelianisms about the Good (with which Fulwiler’s account is in broad sympathy), in favor of a broadly existentialist approach. (Actually, I think in many ways it ends up just being Simone de Beauvoir’s approach, modulo certain details, in The Ethics of Ambiguity.) I’m not so sure the Platonic tradition goes down so easily; in fact, I’m convinced it doesn’t.

    • November 15, 2011 11:04 am

      Whoa! I say, sir, you’re attributing much more meaning to what I’ve said than I intended. I’m at a loss for how I’m arguing against “all Platonisms and Neo-Platonisms and Aristotelianisms about the Good.” I may be taking an existentialist approach here, but not at all at the expense of the Platonic or Aristotelian. My thesis here are rather meager: the merely temporal and physical is meaningful. I bring in narration as an example of such temporal meaning. We create and tell meaningful stories. Of course stories can distort, hide, and delude — look at all the narratives in the presidential campaigns — but that doesn’t take away the fact that people tell stories to give expression to, explain, and understand the meaning of their lives. Individuals tell stories in response to questions about who they are. Families and nations and other communities tell stories to make sense of their identity. Meaning emerges through these narratives.

      Regarding Fulwiler, she said that she “felt” that her life had more meaning after the birth of her child, but not that she had at that point switched her view that such experiences of meaning were a mirage. She wondered if it could be otherwise, but was not yet convinced.

    • November 15, 2011 8:52 pm

      My thesis here are rather meager: the merely temporal and physical is meaningful.

      But this is not actually your thesis. What your argument actually seems to entail is that the merely temporal and physical is meaningful even if there is no transcendent meaning; if the merely temporal and physical has meaning, but this meaning necessarily requires the transcendent meaning, then anyone who accepts that there is no transcendent meaning and recognizes the necessary requirement must conclude that the merely temporal and physical is meaningless. So it seems the claim has to be that the merely temporal and physical is meaningful even without requiring any transcendent meaning as its condition. And that is definitely a broadly anti-Platonist argument; it’s inconsistent with the necessity of the Good (or any functionally equivalent notion).

      Again, I think you have no way of getting around the problem Plato discusses in different ways in the Phaedrus (in the aftermath of the myth of Theuth) and the Meno: there is no way for meaning to emerge through stories unless we already have it in some way independently of stories. We might find it there; but we can’t get meaning from stories. And surely this is pretty obvious? To find meaning in stories you have to interpret them in meaningful ways. But this means stories are only meaningful to the extent and in the way that we’ve taken them to be so; which seems to imply that we only find the meaningfulness in the stories that we put there, and thus that we have at least in seminal form already, independently of any story.

      • November 15, 2011 10:41 pm

        Okay, I’m following you now. I hadn’t been thinking of meaning in terms of the Good, but I see now why you relate the two and call my thesis anti-Platonist and inconsistent with the necessity of the Good. I’m not sure I am quite ready to part ways with the tradition, but I might pack a bag or two. I aimed in the post to argue that meaning can be discovered and experienced in the merely temporal and physical and that this meaning is real even if at some point it ceases to exist. What this meaning ultimately depends upon is a related but separate question, and not one I had intended to address in the original post, although I gather you would say that my intended thesis necessitates a specific position on the conditions for temporal and physical meaning.

        Regarding stories, I agree with Plato that, in interpreting a story, I bring meaning to the story and recognize meaning within it. I couldn’t, for example, makes sense of hobbits without understanding certain meanings (e.g. personhood) beforehand. And yet, Tolkien also created something of new and unique meaning and special importance.

      • Peter Paul Fuchs permalink
        November 15, 2011 11:20 pm

        Brandon and Kyle,

        I just bopped past your conservation here, and have a tidbit. When the Catholic Church once and for all rejected Realist (Platonic) metaphysics it altered the frame of reference of such things for Western Culture. It did this by saving the Catholic Church based on the rejection of Platonic metaphysics, at the Council of Constance, and burning John Hus alive for holding tenaciously to the same metaphysics they had held for more than a millenium. But strangely, a lot of people never got the message of Constance, and the Catholic Church would be just as happy to sweep it under the rug.

        What was revived at Trent was a grand admixture. There was the Realist-Platonist spirituality brought back, but now thomas had an apotheosis. It has been riding on this admixture for centuries now, even though it makes little sense with their actual praxis. It leads to either/ors like the one Brandon presents. “Stories” vs. transcendens. Appearance versus reality. But now after the modern era they don’t mind if what people take as “reality” is conveniently misunderstood as empirical reality of the modern era, confabulated with some attenuated Platonic sense of the “really real” or the transcendent. In this kind of mix-up the idea of “meaning” as an over-arching heuristic — which is at bottom what Kyle was going of here –does not stand a chance for all the noise. the only way to make it clear is to dismiss a lot of the confusion, but unfortunately, that immediately sounds like one has no interest in historical philosophy. that may be the case for a few that speak of meanings, but not for most. It is just that it is truly heavy baggage and it deserves to be a lovely carry-on for the journey.

  11. November 15, 2011 12:21 pm

    I think you are ignoring, then, the very human sense that the concept of “meaning” for humans implicitly contains within itself the concept of the Absolute, the transcendental, the eternal. You may be able to have a sort of “relative” meaning, or a “meaning” constant deferred in the “differance” but…the sort of meaning most people understand is utterly incompatible with that meaning being reducible to anything material.

    Of course, your very post seems to take for granted that “human consciousness” doesn’t require a God or any explanation beyond the material. I would highly question that. I think the very nature of subjective consciousness, of qualia, makes them unexplainable by the material and irreducible to it. You can’t answer “how” for something like consciousness which is not an objective reality, but a Subject.

    • November 15, 2011 2:10 pm

      What I am trying to say is like when James Trefil said, that the “hard problem of consciousness” is “the only major question in the sciences that we don’t even know how to ask.”

      And it can’t be asked, really. You can’t ask for a material explanation of consciousness because you’d need a material description of what it is first.

      We can explain “why the sun is hot” because we can quantify its heat, demonstrate how fusion forms that heat. We can explain “how a pulley lifts a weight” because we can quantify what “lifting a weight” is and show that “quantity” to be the sum of a number of efficient causes. We could even take a human being and a physical sensory input, and a physical output (like speech, or pointing the arm) and “connect the dots” by showing all the physical causal steps in between the two (going through the nerves, processed in the brain electrically, back out to the nerves).

      We could never do this for consciousness though, because to figure out an “equation” of material causes to explain something, we have to know what the “sum” is first. We have to have a quantitative (or at least quantifiable) description of a physical phenomenon in order to even begin to propose a set of physical causes that “add up to” that sum. However, there is no way to quantify qualia! The quantitative and qualitative, the objective and the subjective, are by their very nature of two different orders. You’re never going to get a sum total of apples from adding up oranges.

      • November 15, 2011 2:23 pm

        And, I’ll add, another reason it clearly isn’t of the same order as material causes is that consciousness could never be proven replicated. In science, the “test” for whether certain causes “add up to” a given “sum” result is if you recreate those causes, the same result occurs. But how would you ever proven consciousness (by nature incommunicable and nontransferrable) had been created. Even if you created a very sophisticated exact bio-chemical replica of a human brain, you could never prove it was conscious, perhaps you’ve just created a Philosophical Zombie.

  12. November 15, 2011 2:01 pm

    “The story no one remembers still had meaning when it was told and heard and remembered. Similarly, if the human story ultimately comes to nothing, the story will still have been meaningful for those who lived and shared it.”

    I think you’re making a category error here. You seem to be imagining “eternal” in terms of “immortal.” That is to say, you are speaking in terms of “horizontal” longevity and claiming that the fact that stories had meaning at the time proves meaning does not depend on it (because not all stories are remembered forever, yet they still really did have meaning when they DID exist).

    However, no one was claiming that this horizontal longevity gives things meaning. What is being claimed is that a “vertical” transcendence (connecting back up to the Absolute) is necessary for the concept of meaning always and everywhere, in the present even. The stories may not have lasted forever temporally, but to have had meaning even in their own day, they had to reference (then and there) a reality irreducible to the material.

    There would be no “meaning” for the man in the “Chinese Room” thought-experiment, nor can the meaning be found in “the process itself.” If merely quantitative objective mechanistic realities do not make the leap to the realm of a qualitative Subject irreducible to material causes, then they cannot be said to have any meaning, because meaning is by its very nature as a concept subjective and immaterial. Just like consciousness itself, there is no way to give a material explanation for “meaning” because there is no way to provide an objective physical description of what you are trying to explain in the first place.

    • November 15, 2011 2:39 pm

      A Sinner:

      Awesome! That’s partly what I was trying to say, I think, assuming I’m understanding you right. : )

    • November 15, 2011 4:57 pm

      I’d certainly expect a materialist and a Catholic to have fundamentally different conceptions of consciousness or the Subject and even to mean something radically different by the terms. Given this difference, I would still call non-transcendent (either vertical or horizontal) meaning real meaning, albeit of much less significance than transcendent meaning.

      • November 15, 2011 7:33 pm

        I’m not sure what non-transcendent meaning would even mean. “Meaning” can’t be a quantitative experience, it is necessarily a qualitative experience. “Meaningfulness” is a qualia, because words only come to terminate in Forms or Ideas which are transcendent. Otherwise it’s just like a Chinese Room: sounds in the air turn into vibrations on the ear drum turn into nerve impulse turn into neural “storm” which may turn into a physical response through an addition nerve impulse causing muscles to contract (whether of gesture or returning speech)…but with no reason that material event should be subjectively experienced “in between” as qualia of Meaning. There is no “meaning” in just the material chain of causes unless there is a consciousness that experiences them qualitatively in between. Otherwise it’s just a chain of material events (largely vibratory and electrical) which have no “meaning,” the very nature of which implies a Subject “interpreter”

      • Rodak permalink
        November 17, 2011 3:29 pm

        I’m curious about the dichotomy that is being drawn here between “materialists” on the one side and “Catholics” on the other. It would seem to this Protestant that Catholics who insist upon, a) the transubstatiation of the communion Host; and b) the actual physical resurrection of the same body that one died in, to be “materialists” in very essential ways.
        Now, if Catholics, despite these things, tended to live very ascetic lives, as opposed to the lives of Protestants, atheists, and others, the distinction could be drawn on that basis. But Catholics seem to live pretty much exactly like everybody else in the society. So Catholics would seem not only to be as materialistic in the societal sense as everybody else, but also to be even more materialistic in their religious beliefs than, for instance, most Protestants who view the host symbolically, and may expect to be resurrected in an immaterial “spiritual body,” rather than the old flesh and bones.
        Can you enlighten me here?

      • November 17, 2011 11:58 pm

        Rodak, by materialism I mean:

        “In philosophy, the theory of materialism holds that the only thing that exists is matter; that all things are composed of material and all phenomena (including consciousness) are the result of material interactions. In other words, matter is the only substance. To many philosophers, not only is ‘physicalism’ synonymous with ‘materialism’, but they use both words to describe a position that supports ideas from physics which may not be matter in the traditional sense (like anti-matter or gravity).[1] Therefore much of the generally philosophical discussion below on materialism may be relevant to physicalism. Also related are the ideas of methodological naturalism (i.e. “let’s at least do science as though physicalism is true”) and metaphysical naturalism (i.e. “philosophy and science should operate according to the physical world, and that’s all that exists”). The philosophical alternatives to materialism are some forms of monism (besides the materialistic monism), dualism and idealism.”

  13. Peter Paul Fuchs permalink
    November 17, 2011 11:54 pm


    I have been writing a paper all day and am a bit bleary-eyed. I can’t remember what I was commenting on. Where do mountains fit in?? So much for absolute nothingness….more like my middle-aged memory loss on my part.

    • November 18, 2011 4:50 am


      You were talking about Zen… there is a famous Zen statement about the realization of things… “At first, I saw mountains as mountains and rivers as rivers. Then, I saw mountains were not mountains and rivers were not rivers. Finally, I see mountains again as mountains, and rivers again as rivers.”

      • Peter Paul Fuchs permalink
        November 18, 2011 12:03 pm

        Ah yes, those mountains….and now I am hungry because it made me think of Benihana.

  14. Rodak permalink
    November 18, 2011 11:11 am

    @A Sinner–
    Thanks for the explanation of materialism. I’m not certain though if I understand how the philosophical distinctions you discuss show precisely how, or why, Kyle was opposing “materialism” to “Catholicism.”

  15. November 18, 2011 7:22 pm

    Materialism would deny the existence of a subject/object, a spirit/matter, dualism. They’d say that consciousness is, in the end, reducible to some sort of material phenomenon (even though the very nature of the qualitative and subjective is opposed to quantitative and objective).

  16. Rodak permalink
    November 19, 2011 7:11 am

    @A Sinner–

    And it is, then, your contention that Catholicism–alone and uniquely–opposes philosophical materialism, and this is why Kyle set up the dichotomy I questioned?

    • November 20, 2011 6:38 pm

      No, I can’t speak to why he made that dichotomy (obviously, theists in general are not materialists). I was merely countering your assertion that Catholics are “materialists.” In the philosophical sense, we’re not.

  17. Rodak permalink
    November 19, 2011 8:18 am

    What do you say to this?:

    “Scientific psychology–the only rational psychology–considers the unity of consciousness no more than a phenomenal unity. No one can say what constitutes a substantial unity. What is more, no one can say what constitutes a substance. For the notion of substance is a non-phenomenal category. It is a noumenon, and it belongs, strictly speaking, to the realm of the unknowable. That is, it depends on its application. But its transcendent application is really inconceivable and, in point of fact, irrational.” ~ Miguel de Unamuno, THE TRAGIC SENSE OF LIFE

    • Peter Paul Fuchs permalink
      November 22, 2011 3:25 pm


      To quote another Spanish speaker, this is why we need “perspicacity” as Ortega y Gesset to talk of all the valences religion indicates.

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