Meaning from Meaninglessness

Tuesday, April 5, 2005 -- 5:00 PM

Irv Yalom was a great guest.  We had a fun,  lively conversation that went back and forth between philosophy, biography, and psychotherapy.    You can hear the archived version of the episode here.

I want to expand on a topic that we just barely touched on during the episode.  I discussed it briefly but not in great detail in my pre-show post.   I'm thinking about where values and meaning come from and whether a metaphysics anything like Schopenhauer's has the resources to make room for value and meaning. I think that the answer is yes.  And I suspect that Schopenhauer fails to see this, if he does, because he buys into a commonly held, but I think deeply mistaken criticism of naturalism.   I'll call it the "you can't get something from nothing" criticism. 

probably should say what I mean by naturalism.  Very roughly,  by naturalism I mean the view that there is no order but the natural order.   All there  is, has been, will be, or even could be has its being in and through the natural order. 

I have to admit that it's something of  a stretch to call  a transcendental idealist, like Schopenhauer, a naturalist.  Certainly Kant, one of Schopenhauer's two great philosophical heroes -- Plato was the other --  was no naturalist.  For Kant the natural order is "phenomenal" rather than "noumenal."  As such, the natural order has no transcendental reality, as Kant would have put it.    The natural order is for him empirically real, but transcendentally ideal.   There is  a transcendentally real order.  That is  where  the noumenal ding an sich resides.  But for Kant, the noumenal ding an sich  is no part of the natural order.  Indeed,  it  is the ultimate, but unknowable and not positively characterizable  ground of the natural order.   The noumenal realm, whatever it is, is  precisely the kind of thing that decidedly does not  have its being in and through the  natural order for Kant.

Now  Schopenhauer rejects much of what Kant has to say about the noumenal order.  Unlike Kant, he does think that we have a kind of "cognitive"  access to the ding an sich.  Of course, he insists that our access is through inner feeling rather than  abstract concepts.   He also ventures many  positive statements about the nature of the ding an sich.   He tells us that the will in itself is a blind, aimless, unconstrained striving, for example. Of course, like Kant,  Schopenhauer insists that "nature" is in one sense  phenomenal rather than  noumenal.  And like Kant, he claims that the phenomenal natural world is not ultimate reality  and is in many ways unlike ultimate reality.  In the natural world, for example,  our actions are causally determined by  "motives."  Motives   are themselves causally determined.   But the "internal nature" of the will, the will-in-itself,   is free, rather than determined.

So  Schopenhauer is probably not a naturalist in any straight-forward contemporary sense.  Certainly he has metaphysical views that would be jarring to any thoroughly modern naturalist.  Most thoroughly modern naturalists don't go in for transcendental idealism.    Quite the reverse! Most thoroughly modern naturalists are prone to realism, rather than idealism.

Still, at least this particular thoroughly modern naturalist,   finds at least the spirit, if not the letter,  of Schopenhauer's views quite amenable to naturalism.  In particular,  Schopenhauer seems to believe that  way down at the very foundation of all that exists, is a realm in which neither meaning, nor value, nor valuing yet subsists.   All that is or could be must find its being in and through a basic reality in which there is nothing normative, nothing of value and nothing of meaning.

Now many friends of meaning, value, normativity and the like reject naturalism just because they think something like the following:   There is value in the world.   Naturalism says that at the fundamental level of being, whatever that is, there is no value.   You can't get something from nothing.  That is, no value in, entails no value out.  Ergo,  naturalism must be false.  Because if naturalism were true, the existence of value in the world would be entirely inexplicable.

A naturalist has at least two options here.  Either accept that you can't get something from nothing and insist that the world is devoid of meaning and value.  Whether or not Schopenhauer is a naturalist in any recognizably contemporary sense, at times he certainly  seems to accept the  premise that you can't get value from non-value and to conclude that therefore the world is devoid of value.  His  views, though, are so rich and complicated that I wouldn't stake much on that being the best final interpretation of his views.  Still let's assume for the moment that I've got that roughly right.

But  a naturalist can, I think,  simply reject the claim that you can't get value out of non-value.   How could that happen?  This post has already gotten longer than I intended, so  I'll try to be brief about what is really a very long story.   The  key is human desires and aspirations and our relation to them.  More  particularly, the answer has to do with what John Fischer referred to on our episode about freedom as our capacity to reflectively own our desires and other motivating aspirations more generally.  There's a very complicated story to tell about this all.   Very, very briefly (and inadequately),  when an agent reflectively owns a desire, she endows it with a special status.  That desire now "speaks" for the agent and functions as a source of reasons for the agent.  It's no longer merely one among the agent's inner pushes and pulls, vying for control of the agent's life.   Rather, it now expresses something about the agent's rational commitments, about where the agent stands.  By locating herself just here rather than there, the agent stakes out commitments.  Staking out commitments opens her to rational criticism by others.  She entitles others (and herself) to hold her to those commitments.  This is the kind of thing I had in mind when I referred in our conversation on the air to "the creative force" of the human will and intellect.  We are the kinds of creatures that can create values.  And we can do this, I claim, even though we exist only in and through a more fundamental reality that is itself entirely devoid of value and valuing.   

That does mean that our values aren't built into the fundamental fabric of nature.  Since we aren't, how could they be?  But it also means that our values have at least as secure a place in the natural order as we do.   Moreover, as I said in an earlier post, we don't need nature to vindicate our values for us.  We vindicate them ourselves.  And we do so by deploying the merely natural powers of valuing with which nature has endowed us.  I write about this a lot more in my  book in progress  called Toward a Natural History of Normativity by the way.

Comments (7)


Guest's picture

Guest

Wednesday, April 6, 2005 -- 5:00 PM

Great post, Ken! One sees this "you can't get

Great post, Ken!
One sees this "you can't get something from nothing" objection quite a lot in philosophy. Certainly many people have applied something like this idea to the mind and have thought we can't get consciousness from elements which are themselves unconscious or not "pre-conscious" or whatever--hence (one route to) panpsychism. And you are right that a similar objection comes us in discussions of free will and moral responsibility. The answers are parallel: you can't get something from nothing (perhaps), but something of one kind can emerge from (perhaps) complex arrangements and functional patterns of things of another sort. So the mind emerges from or supervenes on (I'm waving my hands madly here, ignoring distinctions, and so forth!) a complex arragement of material constituents (perhaps of certain kinds), capable of functioning in certain ways. And free will emerges from a certain kind of complexity in what may be physically determinied events. Similarly, as you have suggested, with meaning.
Ex nihilo, nihilo fit. Ok. But something of one sort can come from something of another, as Ken points out. (In Blog, veritas!)

Guest's picture

Guest

Wednesday, April 6, 2005 -- 5:00 PM

John beat me to this (barely!), but here's my 2 ce

John beat me to this (barely!), but here's my 2 cents anyway:
Ken,
Thanks for your great post on how our values survive (get generated, actually) under naturalism. You capture precisely the anxiety many feel about naturalism and how that anxiety drives them to anti-naturalism (supernaturalism): if there is no value or meaning written into the fabric of the cosmos as shown by science, then it just has to be the case there?s ?something more? beyond the natural world. Ergo, naturalism is false. But of course this is the fallacy of arguments ad baculum: just because we fail to find ultimate meaning in nature alone doesn?t mean there?s more than nature (there might be, but you have to establish that independently of your desire for it).
There?s a similar fear that crops up about human nature, I think, related to naturalism. If it turns out, as science suggests, that we are nothing over and above magnificently orchestrated collections of mindless components, how can we have minds, feelings, rationality, etc.? Since we obviously *do* have such things, then people often conclude the scientific story about ourselves must be false and we must have something like a soul. But it?s the same fallacy. It?s to suppose that the only sort of mind worth having must be *essentially* mind-stuff, that it can?t be ?merely? physically instantiated, just as values can?t be ?merely? human, but have to be transcendental or noumenal.
Seeing how values, meaning and mind worth having can exist in a cosmos that doesn?t have such things as fundamental properties is one of the great modern scientific/philosophical projects. Whether more than a fraction of humanity will ever buy into the naturalistic picture you and most other philosophers take for granted is an open question. Perhaps your book will help.

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Guest

Wednesday, April 6, 2005 -- 5:00 PM

The unity of Being and Nothing is Becoming-Hegel L

The unity of Being and Nothing is Becoming-Hegel Logic

Guest's picture

Guest

Saturday, April 9, 2005 -- 5:00 PM

Hello Drs. Taylor and Perry: Found your show la

Hello Drs. Taylor and Perry:
Found your show last Tuesday for the first time; course I got in at the middle, but I heard enough to get hooked.
Regarding getting something from nothing, or "where does value come from?": of course, in the material world, you cannot make a tangible table without raw materials (wood, fasteners) and tools. And you also need the idea of a table, which you most likely get from having seen other existing tables, or from a plan.
But a few years ago there was a feller in Germany; they called him Ludwig von Beethoven. He could take plain sheets of paper and some ink and a pen, and when he was done there existed The Forth Piano Concerto, or the Sixth Symphony. These things that he created from scratch have value in that they have influenced millions of us. (Us, who do exist because Descartes told us we do. And if it influences something real, it has to be real, right?) Surely we would not say that the paper and ink were the raw materials from which it came. These were just used to make the list of instructions to tell the musicians what kinds of sounds to make and when, so as to create an instantiation of the work.
The same argument can be made, of course, regarding literature (fiction). There was nothing there before from which these works of art came into existence via the intellect of the artists. The intellect is just improvising or extemporizing; they come from no pre-existing patterns of thought.
In the case of the table, we take existing material and modify it, cutting away all that is not part of the table and then assembling the rest. But nothing existed previously that was modified into Beethoven's Fifth Symphony. An instance of a real, tangible value created from nothing previously existing is sufficient proof, it seems to me, that the claim that "You can't get something from nothing" is refuted.
Great show. I'll be on time this week..
Art Simpson
Foster City

aaron's picture

aaron

Tuesday, October 6, 2009 -- 5:00 PM

"The same argument can be made, of course, regardi

"The same argument can be made, of course, regarding literature (fiction). There was nothing there before from which these works of art came into existence via the intellect of the artists. The intellect is just improvising or extemporizing; they come from no pre-existing patterns of thought."
Art, I do not think you would want to use that argument, for it seems to me that you are suggesting that the intellect (i.e. the mind) has creative power, which would suggest causal power. You certainly could work this argument out in some form if you hold to epiphenomonalism (Mental events are the cause of physical events though they have no causal power on their own), but you must be clear to show how this "intellect" is simply caused by physical impulses and that what becomes of these impulses (i.e. a work of fiction)is simply a result of the physical causation and has no mental causation. The reason that this distinction must be held is that to suggest that the mind has creative or causative powers is exactly what theism asserts in saying that God is mental, or non-physical, matter. Simply put, if the mind has causative powers, this is typically a point that theists enjoy to utilize in order to establish that God is the Supreme Mind.
It could be the case that there is some sense in which the mind does have causative power but in no way negates naturalism. This surely could be the case. However, this notion is typically avoided since naturalism seems to assert that all causation is physical, even mental activity.

Guest's picture

Guest

Monday, October 11, 2010 -- 5:00 PM

As far as Schopenhauer is concerned, his philosoph

As far as Schopenhauer is concerned, his philosophy is not devoid of values or meaning. Like the naturalist, he does deny that there are inherent values within the external phenomenal world; however, as he takes to be one of the admirable advances made by Kant, he finds value and meaning to exist ultimately within the thing-in-itself. His philosophy has a great focus upon this and it is definitely found in his doctrines regarding aesthetics and morality.
When it comes to the thing-in-itself, he does not go beyond Kant in the sense of the possibility of having absolute access. At best, the difference with Kant on the thing-in-itself (TTI) comes in deducing things about TTI. This includes ideas such as that since time/space are necessary for differentiation, and they do not apply to TTI, that it is undifferentiated. Ultimately though, he never allows for direct knowledge of TTI. When speaking of the will, he is talking about it as it is objectified within the phenomenal realm whether it is in its outward or inner form. Even when he talks about inner access to the will, he is careful enough to distinguish between the noumenal and phenomenal aspect. He does this most clearly in the section "On the Possibility of Knowing the Thing-in-Itself" (WWR Vol. 2) where he raises the possibility of direct access to the noumenal but dismisses it as even our knowledge and experience of inner self is still subject to being in the phenomenal realm and thus it is never direct knowledge of TTI.

Guest's picture

Guest

Tuesday, October 12, 2010 -- 5:00 PM

2005. Hmmmm. This is really old, by modern standar

2005. Hmmmm. This is really old, by modern standards. And taut, if not logical. Complexity seems popular now. A bit like culture, popular that is. I don't know: what is meaningful; what is meaning-less? Moreover (or lessover, depending on your point of view), what is meaninglessness? Comrade Ade has said: "words are messy." Exactamente. I recall an album of songs, beautiful in their simplicity, by James Seals and Dash Crofts---their first album. One song on that album recounted the Seven Valleys, the last of which was the Valley of Absolute Nothingness.
Now then, are meaninglessness and nothingness similar?
It would seem so, for without meaning, we have nothing and vice versa. This post and the ensuing comments was/were long. I read that somewhere/when---was it Neuman? or PD VanPelt, or me? I'm not sure. Nor does it matter. Perhaps you ought to post something on miracles---the rescue of miners in Chile, for example...let's just forget that technology and engineering played any role in their rescue. We'll call it a miracle. Just like the big oil blowup in the Gulf of Mexico. Miracles are overrated. Sure.

 

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