Review of “A Significant Life: Meaning in a Silent Universe” at NDPR

Philosophers make a distinction between the possibility of there being a meaning of life and there being a possibility of a meaning in life. If there really was a meaning of life that would indicate that there is a purpose to humanity which would apply to each of us and  could dictate how we ought to live.  Finding a meaning in life would mean something that an individual could do to have a “significant” or “valuable” life even if there was no meaning of life.

As our reviewer at the Notre Dame Philosophical Review, Thaddeus Metz, writes, the book, “more or less supposes from the outset that there is no meaning of life, i.e., that there is neither a God who created human life for a purpose nor some other property such that the universe makes sense or gives us a reason to live one way rather than another or even to live at all.” That’s the sense in which the universe is silent, as the title has it. The universe doesn’t care about us. It doesn’t have plans for us nor are we in any way ontological primary in the universe. We are just more random, meaningless stuff as far as that goes.

But Todd May, the author of “A Significant Life: Meaning in a Silent Universe,” wants to argue that even in that meaningless silence there can still be meaning in life.

Broadly speaking, May’s view of what can make a life significant is naturalist, maintaining that meaning in a life is possible in a purely physical world, i.e., a spatio-temporal universe that is made up of sub-atomic particles and best known through empirical means. More than that, though, May also maintains that a life can be significant even if normativity is not ‘built into the fabric’ of the universe as per an Aristotelian, teleological construal of it.

According to Metz, May’s basic position will be that a life has meaning in it if the life has the  virtue of “narrativity”:

… a desirable theme characterizing a life trajectory that can be constituted by the moral or the aesthetic but need not be. Key examples of narrative values for May are steadfastness, intensity, integrity, adventurousness, courage, and creativity.

As Metz points out an immoral life could have a narrativity to it.  As Metz says of May’s theory:

The glaring problem with it, as I have construed it so far, is that it is utterly non-moral and so entails that resolute and clever mass murder would be meaning-conferring.

Professor May wants to avoid this conclusion. But doing so is not so easy. One thing he’ll say is this:

… one must be engaged in or love what one is doing at the time in order for it to be meaningful. Of course, being subjectively attracted to one’s project is not sufficient for meaning, however; one must, for May, also be exemplifying a narrative value, the relevant sort of objectively attractive project.

Here we get a sentiment that lots of philosophers will be ready to agree with. But lots of regular folks (or let me just say non-academic, non-philosophers) would have a problem with. If it’s one thing I hear from my undergraduate students, it’s that if X is significant for you, then X is significant in any way that matters.

Think, for example, about the steadfast counter of blades of grass or detector of non-causal correlations. Or think about someone with impeccable integrity who strives to make his surroundings as ugly and more generally aesthetically bad as he can.

Can those lives really have meaning in them? It’s given that the individuals living those lives are subjectively enthralled with the value of what they are doing. But is what they are doing really valuable and significant?


Conscious Willpower is an Illusion

Philosopher Peter Carruthers at the OUP blog:

You can, as it were, hear yourself as deciding to do something when the appropriate sensory-like episode — “I’ll do it now”, say — figures in consciousness. But your access to the underlying decision is just as indirect and interpretive as is your access to someone else’s decision when they say such a thing out loud. In our own case, however, we are under the illusion that the decision is a conscious one.

… what we take to be the conscious self is a puppet manipulated by our unconscious goals, beliefs, and decisions. Who’s in charge? Well, we are. But the “we” who are in charge are not the conscious selves we take ourselves to be, but rather a set of unconsciously operating mental states.


Header image credit: “Museo Internazionale delle Marionette”, by Leonardo Pilara. CC by 2.0 via Flickr.

Behavioral Economics is an Incomplete Revolution

The Boston Review critiques Richard Thaler’s latest book, “Misbehaving: The Making of Behavioral Economics.” Or actually the critique is of behavioral economics itself.

Before behavioral economics, there was classical economics which, “assumes people are rational, utility-maximizing decision-makers with consistent preferences, correct expectations, and unbiased beliefs; in economic parlance, everyone is homo economicus, ‘economic human.'”

John McMahon, the reviewer, goes on:

Behavioral economics, on the other hand, takes into account the “bounded rationality, bounded willpower, and bounded self-interest” of real humans­­—the propensity to be affected by perceptions, psychological factors, and other influences supposedly irrelevant to the neoclassical economic actor.

What behavioral economics gets right is human psychology. But it remains misguided, McMahon says, because it sticks to a blind faith in the marketization of every kind of thing.

Nearly everything, from behavioral economics’ standpoint, becomes a qualitatively similar choice. Choosing a mortgage belongs to the same category as choosing a spouse. Body weight is represented as a problem to be solved in the same way one might encourage people to save more for retirement.


Thaler situates regular purchases—buying lunch, groceries, and clothing—on the same list as high-stakes, infrequently occurring acquisitions, such as “cars, homes, careers choices, and spouses.” There is a revealing slip in this last example: Thaler describes this spectrum as “a list of products” arranged by purchase frequency, then ends the list with choosing a spouse. Surely, even in the most marketized dystopia, a spouse is not a product to be purchased?

So McMahon has some real problems with Thaler and behavioral economics:

There is nothing inherently economic to eating at a party with friends or building a relationship. Such activities, subjected to an economic frame by Thaler, are qualitatively different than shopping for groceries or buying a home insofar as their ends—joy, partnership, compassion, relaxation, and so on—are not the same as economic utility-maximization. They might even be read as attempts to gain respite from the ever-pressing market logic of the neoliberal world.