Sunday, 27 November 2016

Antti Kauppinen on Meaningfulness and Time

In a very long and rich paper on “Meaningfulness and Time”, published in Philosophy and Phenomenological Research 84/2 (2012): 345-377, Antti Kauppinen defends what he calls the “Teleological View of meaningfulness”. Meaningfulness is here understood as one of the two properties that makes a life good for the one who leads it, the other one being happiness (or pleasure). Both together constitute human well-being. Since happiness (pleasure) and meaningfulness are distinct properties, a life can be happy, but meaningless, and also unhappy, but meaningful. (N.B.: Although Kauppinen is far from alone in distinguishing meaningfulness from happiness, there is something odd about treating them as separate. People are, after all, not likely to be happy and at the same time regard their life as meaningless. If they do regard their life as meaningless, feeling that there is no real point to what they are doing, this usually means that they are not happy. The apparent pointlessness of their lives is what makes them unhappy, or a feeling of meaninglessness is the specific form their unhappiness assumes. It seems that in order to allow for the possibility of someone living a happy, but meaningless life, and a meaningful, but unhappy life, we need to assume that meaningfulness is an objective property of one’s life in the sense that you don’t have to feel your life to be meaningless or meaningful for it to be meaningless or meaningful, respectively, which is also strange, because it privileges the third-person perspective over the first-person perspective: I judge your life to be meaningless, even though you are not aware of it.)

While happiness, for Kauppinen, is the final good for passive subjects of experience, meaningfulness is the final good for active agents (372). Since we are both, experiencers and agents, the best life for us is one that contains (a maximum of) both, happiness and meaning. (N.B.: I think this is an important point: that the passive or experiential side of our being makes for one sort of good, while the active or agential side makes for another. However, I am wondering how non-human animals would fit in here. Are animals not also agents? And if they are, do their lives have to be meaningful, too, to be truly good? And if an animal’s life cannot be meaningful, nor meaningless, then perhaps it is not agency as such that generates the orientation towards meaning as a final good, but rather the ability to look back and plan ahead, to perceive one’s life as being stretched out in time, surpassing the needs and rewards of the present moment. Meaningfulness would then not be the final good for agents, but the final good for recollectors.)

Kauppinen’s aim is twofold. He wants to a) convince the reader that meaningfulness is an important dimension of (human) well-being and b) determine what meaningfulness actually consists in. His method is to present the reader with contrasting cases of lives lived (some real, some fictional) and then appeal to our intuitions regarding which of those lives we think is better, all things considered. The Argentinian revolutionary Che Guevara’s life for instance may have been happier (and longer) if he had not fought so passionately against poverty and social injustice in South America, but it almost certainly would have been (or struck us as) less meaningful, and maybe for that very reason less good overall (and hence less worth choosing).

In order to be meaningful, Kauppinen suggests, a life must have a certain narrative shape. Whether a moment or period in my life is meaningful or not depends not only on what is happening during that period, but also on what happened before and what will happen later. Meaningfulness unfolds gradually over time and is thus, if I understand Kauppinen correctly, ultimately a property of a life considered as a whole. In other words, my life now is, properly speaking, neither meaningful nor meaningless. My life now may well contribute to the overall meaning of my life (which can be more or less meaningful), but not because it is in itself meaningful, but because it helps create the narrative shape that makes (or perhaps better: will have made) my life as a whole meaningful. Meaning is not additive, which means that a life’s (degree of) meaningfulness cannot be determined by adding up all the meaningful bits or periods in it (and possibly subtracting all meaningless or “anti-meaningful” bits, as Campbell and Nyholm have suggested).

So what exactly makes a life meaningful? Kauppinen lists a series of key features, which, when present in somebody’s life, makes it appropriate for them to feel a certain pride and joy, and appropriate for us to admire and feel inspired by them. (N.B.: Kauppinen suggests that we understand meaningfulness primarily in terms of the appropriateness of these feelings: the prouder the agent should feel about their life and the more admiration we should feel for them, the more meaningful their life has been. Yet since their appropriateness depends entirely on the presence of those alleged key features of a meaningful life, I don’t quite see why we should not focus directly on them. The suggested “fitting attitude analysis” seems an unnecessary detour.) Key features of a meaningful life are: that the goals pursued are objectively valuable, that pursuing those goals challenges the agent’s abilities, that nobody else can replace the agent in their pursuit, that the goals are pursued with some degree of success, that success is lasting rather than fleeting, and, perhaps most importantly, that the agent’s life “forms a coherent whole”, meaning that “past efforts increase the success of future goal-setting, goal-seeking, and goal-reaching” (346). Because it is so much goal-focussed, Kauppinen calls this particular conception of meaningfulness teleological. The view is summed up in the formula “life is ideally meaningful when challenging efforts lead to lasting successes.” (346) If good things happen to us, this is good, but it is even better (namely in terms of meaningfulness) if we had to work hard to make them happen, and the harder we had to work to get them, the better (more meaningful) our lives are. Furthermore, to get what we want is good, but it is even better if what we want is good (i.e. worthy of being wanted), and the better what we want is, the better our lives are. It is even better still if what we get will last, and the longer it lasts the better our lives are.

Meaningfulness, for Kauppinen comes in degrees. Our lives are always more or less meaningful. When we call a life simply meaningful (or meaningless), then what we actually mean is that it is more meaningful (or less meaningful) than the average life, just as when we call someone “tall” what we actually mean is that they are taller than a contextually determined standard of comparison, e.g., tall for a five-year old boy, but not tall for a five-year old elephant. (N.B.: It seems to me, though, that the predicate “tall” adheres to a different logic than the predicate “meaningful”: while it is impossible that everyone is tall, it does not seem impossible for every life to be meaningful, not even maximally meaningful.)

Now, as others have noticed before, the sequence of events matters for how good we think a life is. A life that starts out badly, but then gets better (happier), is considered better (more worth having) than a life which starts out very well, but then eventually goes downhill. All other things being equal, we would rather have a happy ending than a happy beginning. The hedonic shape of life matters. However, Kauppinen notes, there is more to the narrative shape of life than just the sequence of events. Thus an upward trajectory in life seems more valuable when it is the result of hard work than if it results from sheer luck. Even a life eventually ending in failure can be better than a life that ends in bliss, if what precedes the failure is a sustained effort to achieve something really good and important, and the bliss, in contrast, comes unearned and unconnected to the achievement of objectively valuable goals. Noble failure makes for a more meaningful life than sheer luck. (N.B.: But does it really? How reliable are our intuitions here? Is it really better for me to fail in my pursuit of the truly good than to succeed in my pursuit of minor or false goods such as wealth or fame? Good how exactly? Good in the sense of making my life more meaningful, but what exactly does that mean? When we call a life “more meaningful”, are we then really saying more than Mill did when he called certain pleasures “higher”?)
Kauppinen holds that meaningfulness is an objective quality of lives: “Just as a food can be unhealthy for a person even if she thinks it is healthy, a life can be meaningless for someone even if she thinks it is meaningful.” (356) However, as far as I can see he does not attempt to provide an argument for this claim. What is important for him is that we understand meaning in terms of narrative shape. “A meaningless life is one that is not going anywhere or moving forward.” (357) Every life has a narrative structure, a plot, he argues (drawing on Aristotle’s Poetics as a major inspiration), thereby suggesting that the better the plot is, the better our lives are. (N.B.: The analogy is initially attractive, but ultimately misleading. A good plot does not always make for a good life. The story of Oedipus as related by Sophocles has a very convincing narrative structure, a good plot, and but we would hardly want to say that Oedipus’s life must therefore have been a good one. In judging the quality of a life by its narrative qualities we adopt an aesthetic perspective, which may not be appropriate at all. It is once again a third-person perspective, a look at a life from the outside, which ignores what it is actually like to live that life. That a life “is not going anywhere or moving forward” sounds suspiciously like the complaint of a bored spectator who needs some juicy action, a rape or a murder perhaps, to sustain their interest. Of course that is not what Kauppinen has in mind. What he wants a life to have is not really, as he suggests, a good plot, but in fact an edifying one, which is not the same thing at all.)

A good (i.e. meaningful) life plot, for Kauppinen, requires, above anything else, coherence. Coherence is meant to integrate all the other key features of a meaningful life mentioned above: “A life is the more Coherent the more that later activities are positively informed by earlier activities with respect to goal-setting (the agent’s goals are more valuable than they would otherwise be), goal-seeking (the agent exercises her capacities more effectively and/or is more irreplaceable), and/or goal-reaching (the agent is more successful).” (368) A good, meaningful life is not so much one in which every single ‘chapter’ is better than the last, but one whose coherence increases over time. In order for a life to be meaningful, its chapters need to “build on each other” (which seems to mean that they sustain and reinforce an upward trajectory). Apparently, however, our life story can have chapters added to it even after our death, which may then affect the extent to which our lives have been meaningful. “Since narrative significance of an event can change even after one’s death, the meaningfulness of a life may be influenced posthumously. What if Martin Luther King’s campaigns eventually turn out to have led to catastrophic consequences for African-Americans? Shall we think of his life as having been as meaningful, or to have been as good for him as we now do?” (374, footnote) Perhaps not. It is a bit odd, though, to think that we can never be sure how good or meaningful a life has really been, not even when it is over and we know everything there is to know about it. Nobody can foresee the long-term consequences of their actions. And there is no temporal limit to the effects of our actions. Also, how can something that happens in, say, a thousand years, long after I died, even if it results in part from my actions now, make my life any better or worse than it is now? Doesn’t that require some kind of backward causation?

Sunday, 20 November 2016

Guy Kahane on our Cosmic Significance

In a paper entitled “Our Cosmic Insignificance”, published in Nous 48.4 (2014): 745-772, Guy Kahane attempts to clarify what cosmic significance (and its opposite, cosmic insignificance) actually is and whether we really are as “cosmically insignificant” as the immense vastness of the universe has often been taken to suggest. Kahane argues that we often misunderstand the nature of cosmic significance and insignificance and that, due to this misunderstanding, we mistakenly believe ourselves to be cosmically insignificant, while in fact we are anything but (assuming we are right about the facts on which we base the belief in our alleged insignificance): “it turns out that we might be of immense cosmic significance, even universally central, in the only sense that matters.” (746-7) In view of this conclusion, the paper would have been more aptly titled “Our Alleged Cosmic Insignificance” or simply “Our Cosmic Significance”.

It is not uncommon for us to feel cosmically insignificant. Kahane cites many philosophers and writers who provide evidence of this. If you feel too important and take yourself and your affairs too seriously, just think how gigantic the universe is both in space and time and how miniscule we are in comparison. The contemplation of all those billions of years during which we do not exist and all those vast spaces that we are unable to fathom, let alone traverse, should be more than sufficient to crush all our illusions of grandeur. It makes us realize that in the grand scheme of things our lives do not really matter. From the point of view of the universe, we are nothing.

As Kahane correctly points out, this concern about our cosmic insignificance seems to be different from metaethical concerns about the non-existence of objective values. Even if we do have such metaethical concerns and believe that because nothing matters objectively we don’t matter either and (perhaps erroneously) that this makes our existence pointless, surely this has got nothing to do with the size or age of the universe. If we lived in a tiny and very short-lived universe, then values would not be any more objective than they are now. So it seems that if we are worried about our cosmic insignificance, we are not worried about there not being anything that really matters, but about our own relative insignificance. In other words, we do not seem to doubt that things can have value. We simply have lost our confidence that we have much value, all things considered. Some things do matter. We just happen to be not one of them. Yet once again it is not clear why we should think we have less value in a big universe than we would have in a small one. “If something possesses intrinsic value, value in virtue of its intrinsic properties, then how could the size of the universe, or indeed anything about the surrounding universe, affect its value in any way?” (748) Size is irrelevant for (intrinsic) value. What I am and what I do either matters or does not matter, but whether or not it does is independent of the size of the universe. Kahane cites Bertrand Russell to emphasize this point: “there is no reason to worship mere size”, Russell said, “Sir Isaac Newton was very much smaller than a hippopotamus”.

That size does not matter in itself is of course correct. However, it seems to me that Kahane is perhaps missing the point here. Newton may be much smarter than a hippopotamus and much more eminent, but if the two had a fight, the hippopotamus would probably win it and there wouldn’t be much left of Newton. And while we may conceivably win a fight against a hippopotamus, we have no chance at all to win a fight against the universe, precisely because it is so much bigger. My point is that perhaps our concerns are not so much about size as such as they are about power. While what is bigger is not necessarily more powerful than what is smaller, size is usually a good indicator of power, and if the size of a thing is so immense that there is not really a common measure between it and us, then it would be foolish to think we might stand a chance to overpower it in a confrontation. In other words, we don’t feel insignificant because the universe is big and we are small, but because we correctly infer from its immensity that we are utterly powerless to influence the course of (cosmic) events. Whatever we do, things will stay pretty much the same, and in the end, once we are all gone (and gone we will be), things will be exactly as they would have been if we had never existed at all.

While our ‘intrinsic value’ may not be affected by the size of the universe, our power (the effect we may hope to have on the overall course of things) certainly is. And ‘intrinsic value’ is a very abstract notion, by which I mean that it does not have much, if any content. It is pragmatically empty. ‘Power’ on the other hand is concrete, steeped in the real world. Power and its absence are very real for us; intrinsic value, on the other hand, not so much. The more we are able to effect, the more powerful we are. The less we are able to effect, the more powerless we are. In order to think that we can ‘change the world’, as many of us aspire to do, we need to pretend that “the world” is pretty much exhausted by the here and now, confined to Planet Earth and a few hundred years (if we are very ambitious). If we then, in a lucid moment, realize that the world is actually much bigger than that and that, consequently, the effects of our actions are so infinitesimally small that they are as good as non-existent, we are perfectly justified to feel utterly insignificant.

That Kahane does not consider the possibility that the cosmic insignificance concern is about (lack of) power rather than size is a bit odd, especially since he continues his argument by distinguishing between (intrinsic) value and significance, defining the latter in terms of a thing’s ability “to make a difference”, which is pretty much what I understand by ‘power’. Value, for Kahane, is a necessary, but not a sufficient condition of significance. Only something that has some value can be significant, but not everything that has value is. In order to be significant, the valuable thing also needs to “make a difference”, and if it does make a difference (and only then), it “merits our attention and concern”. (749)

Kahane uses the example of pain to illustrate the difference between value and significance. Pain is bad. Its badness is its intrinsic (though in this case negative) value.[1] However, not each instance of pain is significant. In order to be significant, i.e. to matter in the emphatic sense of meriting our attention and concern, it needs to stick out, either by being much more intense or enduring than most other instances or pain, or by being a relatively rare occurrence. What is important here is that intrinsic value is thought to be independent of changes in the environment, while significance is not. My pain is bad no matter how many people are in pain and how bad their pain is. My pain does not get any better if your pain increases. However, if that happens, then my pain becomes less significant. It is no longer such a big deal if we adopt an objective (or cosmic) point of view, because it is just one instance of pain among others, and there are others that are worse. Similarly, if my existence is intrinsically valuable, then it is valuable no matter what happens around me, and no matter how big or small the universe is. Yet the significance of my existence may increase or decrease, depending on certain changing features of my environment. If that is correct, then our significance may possibly also be affected by the size of the universe. And indeed it is. Just not the way we thought it was. Far from making our lives insignificant, the sheer vastness of the universe actually increases our significance. This is because although the universe may be vast, there is not much of value in it: “When we are impressed by our tiny size, by the vastness of the space that envelops us, and conclude that we must be very unimportant, this may be because we forget to consider just how empty this immensity is. An observer might take a very long time to find us in this immensity, but besides us, he might find in it little or nothing to care about.” (753)

We cannot know whether there are other beings like us anywhere in the universe, but so far we haven’t found any evidence of that. If there is nobody else out there, that would make us very special indeed. The emptier the world is, the more significant our comparative fullness (the fact that our lives have value) becomes. We are then, from the point of view of the cosmos, the only thing that matters in the world. “The argument is embarrassingly simple. We possess value, and, if we are alone, nothing else in the universe does. Therefore we are the only thing that has value, and, trivially, possess most value. We’re therefore of immense cosmic significance.”

But why do we matter in the first place? What exactly is it that is supposed to give us intrinsic value? According to Kahane, we “possess value in virtue of our capacity to think and love”. (754) The assumption that human lives possess some intrinsic value is justified, he argues, because virtually everyone agrees that we do. At least we will all agree that it is bad when people (and perhaps also animals) suffer, which implies that it matters what happens to them. If their lives had no value, their suffering should not concern us. But according to Kahane our significance goes beyond that of sentient life. We are also intelligent, and this intelligence and what it allows us to do gives us a unique, distinctive, superior kind of value (757). Why? Because (almost) everyone says so. And even if that were not so, we can very much affect what happens to other life on earth and even the planet as a whole, which, if all value is terrestrial, puts us in a very important position indeed. Given our (probably) unique constitution, we are anything but insignificant. We do make a huge difference.

The problem I have with this argument is not so much that it is simply taken for granted that humans lives are intrinsically valuable (on the rather shaky grounds that most humans would agree with that), but that I’m having trouble understanding what ‘making a difference’ means in this context. Those who have bemoaned our cosmic insignificance have understood it in the sense of a lack of causal power, for instance Nicholas Rescher or Susan Wolf, who are both quoted by Kahane. Rescher states that “on the astronomical scale, we are no more than obscure inhabitants of an obscure planet. Nothing we are or do in our tiny sphere of action with the universe’s vast reaches of space and time makes any substantial difference in the long run.” Wolf, similarly, stresses our inability to “make a big and lasting splash”. Evidently, the feeling of cosmic insignificance is, as I pointed out earlier, not about size, but about (the relative lack of) power. But Kahane refuses to acknowledge that. He accepts that we may very well disappear very soon without a trace, without having made “any grand, lasting causal impact on the cosmic scale” (760), but insists that we are still making “a vast difference” and that it would be “a momentous loss” if we disappeared from the cosmos. Unfortunately, however, it is not clear at all (at least not to me) in what way we are ‘making a difference’. What difference exactly does our existence make? And for whom and what does it make a difference? And who would suffer the loss if we were no longer around? The universe? Would the universe care? If it could care, then our disappearance would presumably not be such a great loss (because, as I understand the claim, it is a great loss precisely because we are the only ones who can care). And if it would not, how can our disappearance be a loss for it? For Kahane, our significance is ultimately a function of our supposed intrinsic value. We ‘make a difference’ not because we achieve anything lasting, but because we are ‘valuable’ while nothing else is. In other words, we are supposed to make a difference despite the fact that we are not really making any difference at all.

I am not a hostile critic. I am sympathetic to what Kahane is trying to do. I want to believe that what we do and not do matters, that it is significant in some way (and I kind of do believe it). But Kahane’s argument has failed to convince me that we have no grounds to feel cosmically insignificant. We try to reassure ourselves that we are something special and something wonderful, and perhaps we are, but we also want to believe that there is a (cosmic) point to our existence, and perhaps there isn’t. To insist so much on our cosmic significance smacks of narcissism, of megalomania. Kahane realizes that, but insists that it is not that at all. Having such significance is, after all, “not a cause for elation, but a burden” (764). It gives us a whole lot of responsibility, lends a “cosmic urgency” to our existence and survival. Understanding our cosmic significance should prompt us take our existence seriously.

Fair enough. However, I still don’t see why it matters whether we exist or not. Why is it important that beings exist who can think and love if, ultimately, nothing comes off it? Even if we are markedly different from the rest of the universe (as the only creators of values), why is this a difference that makes a difference?

[1] That this value is intrinsic I take to mean that it is bad for there to be pain rather than merely bad for the one who suffers it, but perhaps Kahane has a different view on that.

Sunday, 13 November 2016


It is widely thought (though hardly uncontested) that a life (and certain activities in life) can not only be happy or unhappy (as well as more or less happy or unhappy), but also meaningful or meaningless (or perhaps more or less meaningful). People do not always agree what exactly it is that makes some lives more ‘meaningful’ than others, but it is certainly not unusual at all for us to express how well or badly we think a life is going in terms of its supposed meaningfulness or lack thereof. We seem to understand what people are saying when they complain about a lack of meaning in their lives, and we readily accept that living a ‘meaningless’ life is anything but desirable. Meaninglessness is supposed to be bad, something that we have good reason to avoid if we can.

But perhaps lives can be even worse than just meaningless. In a recent paper (“Anti-Meaning and Why It Matters”, Journal of the American Philosophical Association 1/4 (2015): 694-711), Stephen M. Campbell and Sven Nyholm have argued that lives can not only be meaningful or meaningless, but also “anti-meaningful”. If a meaningless life is bad, then an anti-meaningful life is even worse. According to Campbell and Nyholm we need to recognize the existence of anti-meaning to make sense of the fact that some lives appear to be less meaningful than others although they contain the same number of meaningful activities, as well as the fact that some lives appear to be not meaningful at all despite clearly containing some meaningful activities. If we think for instance that to what extent our lives are meaningful depends on the extent to which we contribute to what is (objectively) good (which is one popular theory of meaning in life), then we would probably want to say that somebody who does good and no evil leads a more meaningful life than somebody who does the same amount of good, but also some evil. However, in order to accommodate this intuition we need to assume that the bad things we do, do not only not contribute to the meaningfulness of our life, but actually detract from it. In other words, what we gain in meaning by doing what is good, we lose in meaning by doing what is bad, so that the more good and the less bad we do, the more meaningful our lives are, and if we actually do more bad than good, then our lives are not merely meaningless (or not meaningful): they are anti-meaningful.

The same argument can be made within the context of other theories of meaning. If you, for instance, think that meaning is determined not by our contribution to the good, but by subjective life-satisfaction, then a life that contains a lot of satisfying experiences and no dissatisfying (i.e., positively unpleasant or painful) ones would still appear more meaningful than one that contains the same amount of satisfaction, but also, in addition, a lot of dissatisfaction. And if you think that meaning is determined by the extent to which you achieve your central goals in life, then a life in which you achieve all your goals would still appear more meaningful than a life in which you achieve the same number of goals, but also fail to achieve some others. No matter which theory of meaning you favour, anti-meaning is needed to explain how the overall meaning in a life can be diminished (rather than simply not enhanced) by some activities or experiences.

Campbell and Nyholm maintain that because it helps us account for the above intuitions, the concept of anti-meaning is of quite some theoretical significance. But the main reason they would like to see the existence of anti-meaning acknowledged is practical in nature. They argue that anti-meaning would give us a good, additional reason to stop engaging in certain practices that are actually harmful to others (for instance consumptive practices that contribute to the gradual destruction of the environment, or our meat consumption, which contributes to widespread animal suffering). It helps us to be more concerned about “the harms and burdens that we collectively impose on present and future individuals through our economic and individual lifestyle choices”, namely when we realize that by making those choices we “are actually harming ourselves by generating anti-meaning in our own lives”.

Should we, therefore, accept the authors’ suggestion that lives can be anti-meaningful and that certain actions and practices in life can generate anti-meaning? Although this is certainly an interesting idea, I am not convinced that it is, all things considered, all that useful, neither for theoretical nor for practical purposes. For one thing, it is hard to believe that anyone would abstain from, say, eating meat or driving around in their car, or generally from causing harm to others in some way, not because they think it is bad to inflict harm on other people or animals, but because “doing so generates anti-meaning” in their lives. Apologies to the authors, but this expectation or hope strikes me as preposterous. If people cannot get motivated to change their ways by considering the harm they cause, they will most certainly not be motivated to do so in order to avoid something as obscure and intangible as “anti-meaning”. (Imagine a savvy democrat trying to convince a Trump supporter before the presidential election that he had better not vote for Trump: “I know you couldn’t care less about Trump’s racism, sexism, egocentrism, and all too obvious lack of self-control and moral integrity, despite the fact that all of this clearly has the potential of unleashing a lot of evils on the world. I know you will vote for him anyway. But have you considered that doing so will actually increase anti-meaning in your life?”)

Neither am I convinced that there is a theoretical need to acknowledge the existence of anti-meaning. It is difficult enough to defend a concept of meaningfulness, but at least we have a widely used word for it, which indicates that there is something there, some aspect of our life, some aspect of our experience, that we try to get conceptual hold of by calling it ‘meaning’. We may find it difficult to pinpoint exactly what we mean when we call a life or an action meaningful or meaningless, but we can be pretty sure that there is some quality that the one has and the other lacks and that, for some reason, we think is important to take into account. But, as Campbell and Nyholm point out, the word “anti-meaningful” is a new word, which previously did not exist, nor was or is there any other word that would convey what the word “anti-meaning” is meant to convey. We feel the need to describe certain states of affairs as meaningful and others as meaningless, but it appears that before Campbell and Nyholm nobody has ever felt the need to express anti-meaning. Yet if there is something like anti-meaning, why do we not have a word for it?

Campbell and Nyholm try to make the idea palatable by claiming that the case is analogous to those of good and evil, benefit and harm, and well-being and (more controversially) ill-being. Evil, they point out, is not merely the absence of good, but something in its own right, something positive. Similarly, harming somebody is different from merely not benefiting them. Finally, we can be well, not well, and unwell (or ill). In all those cases we have three different states, not two, a positive one, a negative one, and a neutral one. So why do we suppose that there are only two states of meaning, namely meaningful and meaningless? If meaninglessness is the absence of meaning, then we should expect that there is also the opposite of meaning, a negative to the mere neutral state of meaninglessness and the positive one of meaningfulness.

However, not for all conditions we have three different states. Yes, perhaps unhappiness is not merely the absence of unhappiness. We know that suffering and pain are more than just the absence of pleasure. But evil can plausibly be understood as the absence of good, and a total absence of well-being may plausibly be seen as the worst state you can possibly be in. We normally don’t make any difference between being unwell and being not well. And even if in all those cases there really were a positive, a neutral, and a negative state, it would not follow that the case of meaning was analogous. A glass can be either full or empty, or even half-full or quarter-full, but it cannot be anti-full. A room can be light or dark, or more or less light or dark, but it cannot be anti-light. Perhaps meaningfulness is very much like fullness or lightness, and not at all like pleasure or happiness. Then the assumption that “where there is meaning, there is the possibility of anti-meaning” would simply be false.

It is also not clear to me that it makes sense to say of a life, as Campbell and Nyholm frequently do, that it is “somewhat meaningful” or “very meaningful”. It does not sound right to me, which would suggest that meaning is not really something of which a life (or an activity) can have more or less. My life would then be either meaningful or not, but not more or less meaningful. By introducing the notion of “anti-meaning”, Campbell and Nyholm make the question of meaning a matter of mathematical calculation. If you want to know whether your life is (overall) meaningful, you just have to add up all instances or bits of meaning that you have accumulated in your life, then subtract all the bits of anti-meaning that you have also accumulated, and if the balance is in the black, then your life is meaningful, and if it is in the red, then it is anti-meaningful. Should you find that it is anti-meaningful, then all you would have to do is perform a sufficient amount of meaningful activities (like spending a couple of hours every day for the next two weeks on saving the world or curing cancer) until you are in the black. Some lives might be so balanced that those who live them permanently switch from having a meaningful life (just about) to having an anti-meaningful life (just about) and back again, forever fluctuating between meaning and anti-meaning. We could then also expect lives to be very rarely meaningless, because in order to be meaningless there would have to be exactly the same amount of meaning and anti-meaning in it, so that meaning and anti-meaning cancel each other out, which is rather unlikely. It seems to me, then, that whatever we have in mind when we talk about meaning in our lives (and perhaps more importantly its absence), it is surely more complex than this rather mechanistic view of meaning and anti-meaning would suggest.

We may indeed want to say that somebody who does more good than bad in their life, or somebody who experiences mostly satisfaction and success, leads a better life than somebody who does more bad than good, or somebody who experiences mostly dissatisfaction and failure. But the reason for this may not be that their life is, on the whole, more meaningful. Perhaps it just lacks consistency or coherence, or perhaps dissatisfaction and frustrated life plans count as bad, even though they do not make your life any less meaningful. The whole scenario assumes that we can actually make our lives more meaningful by consistently seeking out meaningful activities and avoiding those that are anti-meaningful or meaningless. If you devote every hour of your day to making the world a better place, whereas I spend only 50% of your day on making the world a better place, using the rest of my time for meaningless activities such as walking the dog, doing the dishes, or watching a romantic comedy with my wife, then your life would apparently be much more meaningful than mine (twice as meaningful, to be exact), at least on the contributing-to-objective-good theory of meaning. Or if (in accordance with the aim-achievement theory of meaning) I only get to achieve half of my central goals in life and you achieve all of them, then your life is so much more meaningful than mine (again, twice as meaningful). What, then, do we make of people who, like the members of the German resistance group White Rose, fight bravely against an oppressive regime and pay for it with their lives? Clearly they did not achieve their goals, but were their lives therefore less meaningful than if they had succeeded? Are we really prepared to say that their lives were in fact even worse than just meaningless, namely “anti-meaningful”, as the discussion in this paper suggests? Sometimes it is better to try and to fail than not to try at all. Perhaps that is why (according to Camus) we need to imagine Sisyphus as happy (precisely because his life, despite the apparent pointlessness of how he spends it, achieves meaning by his refusal to accept that it is best for the rock to remain at the bottom of the hill).