Saturday, 25 March 2017

Richard Taylor on Time, Creativity, and Life's Meaning

Sometimes we change our view of things. Perhaps we had doubts all along, or something happened that made us reconsider, or we have simply thought some more about the issue, so that eventually we reach a different conclusion. Philosophers are no exception. They change their views, too, sometimes dramatically. One example is Richard Taylor, who, in his 1970 paper “The Meaning of Life”[1] argued that all that is required for a meaningful life (and “the nearest we may hope to get to heaven”) is that there is something in it that we pursue energetically, an “inner compulsion” to do whatever it is we do. If this inner compulsion is what makes life meaningful, then it is conceivable that even the endlessly repetitive life of a blind worm in a cave and the endlessly repetitive life of a Sisyphus who desires nothing more than rolling rocks up hills are meaningful. However, in a second paper on the topic, “Time and Life’s Meaning”, published 17 years later,[2] Taylor renounces the claims he made previously and now argues that even the life of a happy, passionately rock-rolling Sisyphus is far from meaningful because it lacks one crucial ingredient: creativity.

Taylor’s new argument starts with a reflection on the reality of time. Contrary to the countless philosophers, from Plato to McTaggart, who have claimed that time cannot possibly be real, Taylor very sensibly insists that it feels far too real to be an illusion. On the other hand, however, the reality of time is very much dependent on us. If there were no creatures like us, Taylor suggests, time would not be (fully) real. Imagine a world entirely devoid of life. Such a world would have no “history or meaning” (297). Time may exist in some abstract way, but it is completely irrelevant because it “makes no difference” what happens when. In that sense, time, in such a world, is not real yet. Now add living beings to this world (but still holding back on rational beings). According to Taylor, time has now been introduced to the world, but still only in a very rudimentary sense. Importantly, a world containing living but not rational beings would still be a world without history because nothing genuinely new ever happens in it. “The sun that rises one day illuminates nothing that was not there the day before, or a thousand or million days before. It is simply the same world, age after age. (…) Every sparrow is just like every other, does exactly the same things in the same way without innovation, then to be imitated by every sparrow to follow. The robin or squirrel you see today does nothing different from those you saw as a child, and could be interchanged with them without discernible difference.” (298)[3] Animals live their lives in “unchanging cycles”, “to be repeated over and over, forever.”

Clearly, Taylor is still concerned with repetition and futility, the not-getting-anywhere that in his previous paper he ended up defending as posing no obstacle to a meaningful life. Not so anymore. According to the new Taylor, the repetitive world, the world that goes nowhere, is not only a world without history, but also, precisely for this reason, a world without meaning. This is because in a world without history “nothing is ever created.” (299) As a perfect illustration of such a meaningless world, Taylor once again invokes the myth of Sisyphus. Existence is here “reduced to utter meaninglessness”. And in stark contrast to his earlier position, Taylor now claims that what Sisyphus is doing would still be meaningless “even if we imagined Sisyphus to rejoice in it – if we imagined, for example, that he had a compulsive and insatiable desire to roll stones, and considered himself blessed to be able to do this forever.” (299)

Only if we imagine Sisyphus actually creating something (out of all the rocks he rolls up that hill), and doing so consciously and purposefully, something “beautiful and lasting”, something “important” (for instance a “great temple”), only then could we see his life as meaningful because his labour would “no longer be wasted and pointless.” (299) Fully meaningful, however, it would only be if Sisyphus did not have to do what he is doing, but had freely chosen to do it. Whatever he is creating “must be something of his own, the product of his own creative mind, of his own conception, something which, but for his own creative thought and imagination, would never have existed at all.”[4] (300) This is a kind of creative activity that cannot be found in nature: it requires rational beings “who can think, imagine, plan, and execute things of worth”. Everything that may strike us as an example of immense creativity in the non-human world, like “the complex beauty of the spider’s web” or “the ingenious construction of the honeycomb”, is in fact just another example of “endless repetitions”, a “capacity of fabrication”, which discloses “not the least hint of creative power” (301). Genuine creativity brings forth things that are genuinely new. Only humans have that kind of creativity, though not everyone has it in the same degree. It can also be exercised in various different areas of life, not only in art, but also in, e.g., chess-playing, gardening, or woodworking, and even in the “raising of a beautiful family” (302). However, Taylor admits that “creative power is no common possession” (not to speak of creative genius, which is very rare). In fact, the “work of the vast majority of persons does not deviate much from what others have already done and from what can be found everywhere.” (302) Taylor blames this on a certain widespread unwillingness to actually use one’s creative powers. Most people simply don’t care enough about being the creators that they could be. Or they are afraid of standing out. It is in fact often religion that discourages us from using our creative powers, despite the fact that God is conceived as the creator (so that developing our creativity is actually tantamount to developing our divine potential). Creative power has an “indescribable worth”, which is why it gives human existence its significance and meaning: “That a world should exist is not finally important, nor does it mean much, by itself, that people should inhabit it. But that some of these should, in varying degrees, be capable of creating worlds of their own and history – thereby creating time in its historical sense – is what gives our lives whatever meaning they have.” (303)


Taylor argues that without us, or without rational beings, time would not be (fully) real because there would not be any history. I can go along with this, but only because I associate “history” with memory. Things (people, countries, technologies) have a history to the extent that we remember the changes that those things have undergone, thus connecting the past to the present. Memory makes history. Taylor, however, does not even mention memory. Instead, he focuses on the notion of the “new”. A world without history is a world in which nothing new happens. Such a world is declared to be meaningless not because the past is not remembered, but because the past is supposed to be pretty much (that is, in all relevant respects) identical to the present, as the future will be identical to the present. The sun illuminates always the same spectacle. It’s the same world over and over again. But is it really? I guess the answer depends on what we choose to mean by “new”. It seems obvious to me that in many ways there is undeniably newness even in a world without life. Continents form and fall apart, seas dry out, flat surfaces fold into mountains. And there are even more changes, more new things happening, in a world populated by living, though not rational beings. If the sun had eyes to see what is going on here on Earth, what it would see today would be very different from what it would have seen 70 million years ago when the dinosaurs still roamed about. Species come and go; old ones disappear, new ones enter the stage. And those new species could not have been predicted. None of those changes could have. So in what sense exactly is all that has happened in the world since its creation before the arrival of human beings devoid of newness? Perhaps in the sense that even though this particular kind of animal never existed before, animals have, and this one is just more of the same? But couldn’t we say the same about human productions, even highly artistic and original ones? Sure, a new nocturne of Chopin’s (one of Taylor’s examples of true newness) is different from the previous ones, but it would still be a nocturne, and still be a musical composition. And even though Chopin might be different from other composers, he is still a composer who basically does what other composers also do, namely compose stuff. How do we distinguish the genuinely or relevantly new from the ordinary and not really new? I for one am struggling to clearly understand the difference.

Neither am I convinced by the claim that every sparrow is the same as every other, doing exactly what all other sparrows do and have done since the beginning of time (or the beginning of sparrows). To a casual observer this may indeed appear to be the case, but I’m pretty sure that if you looked more closely you would find that even sparrows are individuals and do not generally behave exactly like any other sparrow. (And for each one of them, what they do is very new to them. As if it were in fact the first time that it’s being done. That’s actually the advantage of having no history: an abundance of newness.) Of course, they all do what sparrows do. They live a sparrow’s life, and the general features of that life are fixed. But the same is true for us. We are alike in many ways, and behave alike in many ways. Everything we do is confined by the human life form. We do what humans do and never go beyond that.

In “The Meaning of Life”, Taylor radically democratized the meaning of life. He was willing to grant meaning to every sentient being that took a lively interest in something, and be it only eating and reproducing. Perhaps that took things a bit too far. In “Time and Life’s Meaning”, however, Taylor goes too far again by claiming more or less the exact opposite of what he claimed before. He now basically declares that a truly or fully meaningful life can only be had by the creative geniuses of this world, so in other words by very few. In order to live a meaningful life we need to find something that only we can do. We need to be truly special. Do we really, though, I wonder. Do we have to do something that nobody else has done before and nobody could do the way we do it? Why? Why must a meaningful existence manifest itself as the exceptional rather than the ordinary? Why do I have to be different from others for my life to have meaning? I suspect the answer has something to do with a notion of irreplaceability. If we are not different, if we do not bring something into the world that nobody else could bring into it, then nothing really depends on us being here. With or without us, the world continues unchanged. But what is wrong with that?

[1] Cf. my summary of, and commentary on, Taylor’s “The Meaning of Life”:
[2] Richard Taylor, “Time and Life’s Meaning”, The Review of Metaphysics 40/4 (1987): 675-686. Reprinted in: Exploring the Meaning of Life. An Anthology and Guide, ed. Joshua W. Seachris, Chichester: Wiley-Blackwell 2013, 296-303. I am using and citing the reprinted version.
[3] I’m pretty sure Taylor has this idea from Schopenhauer, whom he, as the editor of The Will to Live: Selected Writings of Arthur Schopenhauer (1967), knew well enough. Schopenhauer claims that the cat I now see sitting on the fence is literally the same cat that was basking in the sun a hundred years ago. But that is of course because Schopenhauer did not believe in the reality of time. As an objective manifestation of the Will, the species cat exists, but the individual cat does not because it is just the way the species appears through the lens of time.
[4] Such a thoroughly re-imagined Sisyphus would of course no longer be a Sisyphus, except in name.

No comments:

Post a Comment