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Volume 18, Issue 3: Pat-Pat

Voodoo Meaningfulness

Douglas Jones

You know the end of something is near when the naked emperor starts parading. I had to go back and reread some of the essays in Oxford University Press's The Meaning of Life (2000) because I couldn't believe I was remembering correctly. The book is a relatively fun philosophy text that has been quite popular in introductory philosophy classes in the past few years. Apparently, kids love to talk about meaning. It's an anthology that starts with the obligatory weak essays defending a theistic answer—Tolstoy, et al, followed by more interesting nontheistic answers and then the usual crowd fussing against even raising the question (also called chickens).

The editor, E. D. Klemke, contributes the essay "Living Without Appeal: An Affirmative Philosophy of Life." It carries weight because Klemke gets to frame everything in the first place, so he knows what he's talking about. Unfortunately, we have to tape his opening arguments back together right from the start. He's a bit torn, it seems. He very much wants a naturalistic answer to the question of the meaningfulness of life. But, he's got, understandably, to begin by tossing aside any transcendentalist (e.g., Christian) and objective approach to meaning. "It is true that life has no objective meaning. Let us face it once and for all." Oh, how we can wish we'd all "face it." But it doesn't help convince anyone for Klemke to deny the existence of objective meaning at the same moment he declares that that claim fits some objective norm of Truth. The freshmen giggle; I've heard them. Let's face it.
He continues this mix-up by insisting on objective criteria in order to toss aside religious, transcendental views of meaning, but abandoning them when he gives his own account of the meaning of life. Religious claims cannot be taken seriously, he says, because they "lack intersubjective testability." But pages later he happily asks, "What are the some ways by which such worthwhileness can be found? I can speak only for myself." Again, early in the essay, he claims, "I constantly rely upon criteria of evidence before accepting a cognitive claim." We could only wish. A few pages later, he says, "it does not follow that life is not worthwhile, for it can still be subjectively meaningful. And, really, the latter is the only kind of meaning worth shouting about." Maybe only Christians are required to provide objective criteria.
But something more interesting than inconsistency enters. Amid his praise of the subjectivity of meaning, he sneaks in objective aesthetic norms, as if no one would notice. It hurts to watch, but it's a common blind spot among secularists.
He says, for example, an "objective meaning—that is, one which is inherent within the universe or dependent upon external agencies—would, frankly, leave me cold. It would not be mine. It would be an outer, neutral thing, rather than an inner dynamic achievement." Whoa. Cold? Not mine? Neutral is bad? What is the justification for those huge aesthetic standards? Why would naturalism care whether something is cold and impersonal? For them, most of the cosmos is cold and impersonal. Why object when it comes to meaning? Klemke, in fact, shows he's still a closet Christian. Within a Trinitarian world, the warmth of the personal counts because Father, Son, and Spirit are the epitome of the personal, the height of inner dynamic. But Klemke has cut himself off from such norms. Cold Pluto is the norm.
But he doesn't stop his sneaking there: "I, for one, am glad that the universe has no meaning, for thereby is man all the more glorious. I willingly accept the fact that external meaning is nonexistent, for this leaves me free to forge my own meaning." Again, a huge individualistic aesthetic-moral norm right in the middle of the living room. What evidence do we have for the universal norm that individualism is more glorious? How does a naturalistic jungle determine gloriousness?
Then comes the most wonderful move of all: lying through Magic. "I have found subjective meaning through such things as knowledge, art, love, and work. . . . a Bach fugue, a Vlaminck painting, a Dostoevsky novel; life is intensely enriched by things such as these." (Bach and Dostoevsky? Why must he invoke explicit Trinitarians again?)
So how does this subjective meaning actually work? It's actually quite easy. He says some people have an impoverished imagination, but "those whose subjectivity is enlarged—rationally, esthetically, sensually, passionally—may find life to be worthwhile by means of their creative activity of subjective evaluation, in which a neutral universe takes on color and light, darkness and shadow." More whoa. Meaning comes by pretending something is what it is not. In less polite society, we call this lying. The universe is ugly. We fake it's profundity. That's his bottom line. Not exactly crowd inspiring.
Klemke further explains, "as long as I am conscious, I shall have the capacity with which to endow events, objects, persons, and achievements with value." Now that's quite a universe. But no one, except maybe Harry Potter, talks that way about value or meaning anywhere else. My consciousness can endow my junker car with value all it wants, but I'm not going to get a million for it, even if I furrow my brow. My consciousness can't even endow simple words with private meanings—"star" now means "pickle." It's not just up to me. Value requires more public work than individualistic magic. Klemke is trying to live in a fantasy universe. Where have all the skeptics gone?
In the end, then, Klemke urges us toward lying and conjuring for an affirmative philosophy of life, all while peeking out of a Christian closet. Let's face it.

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