Wednesday, March 14, 2012

The flaw of existential nihilism

According to Wikipedia, existential nihilism suggests that life is without objective meaning, purpose or extrinsic value.

One flaw in this philosophical concept is the use of the term "objective" which, itself, seems to be meaningless as used in this context. What is the difference between a subjective meaning and an objective meaning? Subjective means from a particular point (or points) of view. Objective means either from no point of view or, perhaps, from all possible points of view.

There cannot be objective meaning if that means meaning separate from any point of view. If there is no point of view, there can be no meaning because meaning is fundamentally is a process of understanding or appreciating a truth (i.e., realizing a meaning of something). It is an intellectual process. How can you have an intellectual process take place without an intellect? You cannot. The concept of objective meaning is, itself, an oxymoron if objective is meant to imply separate from any particular consciousness or group of consciousnesses.

Well, what if objective instead means from ALL points of view, thus being a universal truth if we are willing to limit "universal" to the realm of conscious awareness (i.e., not insisting that it exists outside of thought processes)? In this case, can there be objective meaning? Or, to put it another way, can there ever be UNIVERSAL AGREEMENT on a particular meaning, purpose or value?

There are two ways to answer this: theoretically and practically. The distinction is like asking if it is possible for everyone on Earth to have the same favorite food. Theoretically, this is certainly possible as there is nothing fundamentally impossible about this. Practically, though, one might say this will surely never happen.

The practical approach is intellectually dishonest. We cannot know what the future may hold, or even all that the past has held. To suggest you can KNOW that it is impossible that everyone on Earth will EVER in a million years have the same favorite food is an act of intellectual hubris because we cannot know what the future may bring.

So, let's return to the theoretical approach. Theoretically, I can postulate countless ways history may take twists and turns that lead to everyone on Earth having the same favorite food. Similarly, I can postulate countless ways we could also come to share identical values, view life as having the same meaning and the same purpose. I can even postulate these shared values extending beyond humanity to all life forms, from animals and plants to aliens in other galaxies. Thus, it is quite simple to imagine a way the future might unfold leading to all living beings evolving to a point of shared understanding and appreciation of the same values, purpose and meaning of life. Which is objective meaning, if "objective" means universally agreed upon by all subjective awarenesses.

So, in the end, the question whether life can have an objective meaning is either (1) a meaningless question if "objective" means separate from any point of view, and (2) must be answered as theoretically possible if "objective" means universally agreed upon by all points of view, as much as this may seem a practical impossibility to occur at any time in the foreseeable future.

Ken Myers

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