Tuesday, July 22, 2014


  1. Every meaning derives from components to which intelligent beings have assigned a meaning.
  2. Some things that have a meaning that does not derive from components to which earthly beings have assigned a meaning.
  3. Therefore, there is a non-earthly intelligent being.

I suggest two examples for premise (2).

Life: Life has a meaning. But a meaning of life that derives from our assignments is not a meaning that matters to us. What we have assigned meaning to, we could reassign meaning to. If the meaning of life were merely a matter of human assignment, then humanity's search for meaning would be a mere matter of curiosity, of figuring out how our ancestors have assigned meaning and how those meanings combine. It would be either like searching for the meaning of an ancient inscription (a case where we don't know the meanings of the components) or like parsing a complex sentence in first order logic (a case where we know the meanings of the components but don't know how they go together). There would be no deep existential relevance in such a meaning, since we could just as well assign a meaning ourselves. It would be just a meaning assigned by peers.

This example shows that the meaning of life needs not just to be a meaning assigned by a non-earthly intelligent being, but by a being whose meaning-assignments have deep existential relevance to us. A being with a deep kind of authority. So not just some space alien that seeded life on earth, say.

The sublime: Any case of the sublime—say, the Orion Nebula or Beethoven's 9th—has a meaning that escapes us, all of us. Cases of the sublime can be natural or human-made, but in both cases they have a meaning beyond us. And that meaning-beyond-us isn't just a matter of being better at figuring out how components combine, in the way that the meaning of a sentence of First Order Logic is. In a piece of the sublime we don't know very well, but can only vaguely sense, what the meaningful components are, and we are not responsible for the mysterious meaningfulness of these components. Even in the human-made cases, the creator is a servant to that mysterious meaning of the components.

Moreover, the meaning of the sublime piece is one that we resonate with, one we have a kind of grasp of—or maybe that has a grasp on us—that ever eludes us. We have a resonance to the meaning of the sublime. So whatever story we give about that meaning, we also need to give a story about how it's a meaning we resonate to. There could be aliens that have assigned deep mythological interpretations to various components of the Orion Nebula. But that isn't the meaning we resonate to. So, once again, the argument not only yields a non-earthly intelligence, but one who can make us resonate to his designs.


Unknown said...

You say:" Life has a meaning. But a meaning of life that derives from our assignments is not a meaning that matters to us".
1. In the proposition: "Life has a meaning, I believe there is an agent that assigns meaning to life (i.e. yourself). Do you believe there is a meaning "out there" that is ought to be found, independent of our mind, independent of appraisals and/or assignments?
2. And how can a meaning of life that derives from our assignments doesn't matter to us? If we assigned a meaning to life that means our mind represented it as relevant.

Alexander R Pruss said...

Ad 1: Yes.

Ad 2: Good point. But such a meaning simply doesn't matter enough...

Let's say I am willing to lay down my life for queen and country. But then I realize while *I* have a patriotic attachment to Canada and its sovereign, there is nothing more meaningful in this than my own attachment. It's like a hobby, which has little value on its own, but comes to have value because I like it. If I thought that my patriotic attachment was like that, then if it came to a matter of life and death, I would give up on my country rather than on my life, just as I would give up on all of my hobbies (programming, astronomy, archery, various DIY projects, and now fencing) rather than on my life. It is only when I think of my country and its queen as having a value that transcends me and my whims that it makes sense to die for it.

And what is true of death is true of the meaning of life. The kind of meaning that we talk of as "the meaning of life" needs to be something that goes beyond my preferences.

It is probably true that only something one should be willing to die for is the sort of thing that can give meaning to life.