Review : Exploring the Meaning of Life : An Anthology and Guide by Joshua Seachris

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This is a very welcome anthology addressing the neglected but important question of the meaning of life. As Joshua Seachris points out, the mechanisms of science have displaced the teleology of religion. Claims for a source of meaning can range from the supernatural, objective or subjective naturalism, or nihilism. Meaning can be defined as significance, worth, coherence, self-fulfilment, or expressed as the narrative of our lives. Essays on death in section V consider how far the end of the story determines this narrative.

Robert Nozick shows that meaning must be independent and is not aided by a god. He claims meaning derives from transcending our limits. Narrow living restricts meaning which is realised in relationship and over time. For Susan Wolf, meaning derives from successful creative projects in life. Jeffrey Gordon presents an admirable case for meaning being independent of God, but does then offer a theistic interpretation. His is the best of the theist essays. William Lane Craig’s is by comparison the worst, claiming that human life is dire without God. One wonders where he has been, why he has not seen happy fulfilled human life, and whether he acknowledges that it is technology rather than God which has determined the human experience. Paul K Moser is allowed to finish the volume with a presentation of the standard evangelical claim that we need to overcome death to have meaning, and that only God can overcome death for us. Neither point is convincing ;  he seems not to have read the challenge to theism as the basis for meaning from the other contributors to the same anthology. He simply ignores their argument.

Arjun Markus asks whether meaning is invented or discovered, and suggests it is both. Meaning cannot be dictated, ie absolute, or even objective. Almost by definition it must be subjective. So, according to John Kekes, we create our own meaning. Brooke Alan Trisel contributes an excellent essay arguing convincingly that neither immortality nor long lasting effect generate meaning.

My own conclusion is that meaning is indeed a subjective naturalist interpretation of our lives. We generate our own meaning, as we do our own purpose, and choose our own virtues. To generate and derive meaning from life is to appreciate, enjoy, and make something creative of our life, whether for us and/or others to enjoy. It is our personal metaphysical. The present and the person is ultimately all there is. We need to value this and not dismiss it as transient futility. These essays explore how meaning might be derived. They do not however suggest much what that meaning might be. This is the next important step for philosophy to consider.

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