The Trap Door Spiders was a literary dining club that met in New York in the middle part of the 20th century. It was home to a number of luminaries, but its best-known members were probably the science fiction authors (and publishers) Isaac Asimov, L. Sprague DeCamp and Lester Del-Rey. Indeed, the club was immortalised and parodied by Asimov in his series of short stories about the ‘Black Widowers’ dining club.
The Trap Door Spiders met once a month for dinner. One member of the club would invite a guest and, once the meal was over, the other members of the club would ‘interrogate’ the guest. The interrogations would invariably start with the following question:
How do you justify your existence?
Polite, post-prandial chit-chat this was not. The question was an ominous, intimidating one. The guest was being held to account for how they spent their time — to think of their life as fitting into some larger scheme of value (social, political, economic, scientific) and to justify it by explaining how it contributed to that larger scheme.
While this is not the typical, after-dinner fare, the question itself speaks to something deep within the human condition. We often do feel that, in order for our lives to have meaning, they have to be situated relative to some larger scheme of value. In other words, we feel that the day-to-day activities that make up the mundane details of existence have to be justified in terms of something else. Some people are highly self-conscious about this, often feeling anxious because they don’t think their lives measure up. The audacity of the Trap Door Spiders’ question was in bringing these anxieties to the surface.
In this post, I want to consider the merits of such anxieties. Should we really think about our lives in this way? Should we worry if they cannot be justified in terms of their contribution to a larger scheme of value? I’m going to argue that we shouldn’t. To be more precise, I’m going to argue that it is a mistake to always value our activities in terms of their contribution to something else, partly because this is not how value works in all cases, and partly because doing so gets us into a misguided quest for ultimate purpose.
1. Chains of Value and the Infinite Regress
To start out, it will help if we have a clear sense of the problem that arises when we value our actions in terms of their contribution to something else. As noted above, it is very common for us to do this. You could almost say it is natural, though doing so would raise all sorts of unnecessary questions about what is meant by ‘natural’. But think about any actions you performed today. Why did you do them? In many cases the answer that first springs to mind will be an instrumental one, i.e. you did them because they helped you to achieve something else. Why did you eat? To avoid starvation and to keep going for another few hours. Why did you get up and go to work? To earn an income that you can use to support your lavish lifestyle. And so on. In each of these cases, the value of your actions seems to lie in their contribution to something else.
For ease of analysis, let’s introduce some notation to depict what is going on here. Let’s denote actions with the letter ‘A’ and the goals to which they contribute with the letter ‘G’. According to the instrumentalist account outlined in the previous paragraph, A derives its value from G:
A ← G
Now let’s think about G in a little more detail. Where does it derive its value from? Again, it is natural to think about this in terms of some other goals to which it contributes. Why did you want to stave off starvation? So you could continue to work and earn an income; so you could be a more pleasant companion to your spouse and children; so you could butter-up some client for work; so you could avoid death; and so on. The G we originally identified fits within a larger chain of Gs from which it too derives its value.
G1 ← G2 ← G3;….Once you go down this route, you get into trouble. An infinite regress seems to arise. If each individual Gn derives its value from another Gn+1, you have to ask where does that Gn+1 derive its value from? Gn+2? Surely this cannot go on forever (lives are finite after all). So what is holding up the entire ‘chain of value’? Is there some final G, some ultimate G, that holds everything together?
You could argue that there must be, that our lives have to have some overarching purpose in order for them to have value. But what might that purpose be? We could, arbitrarily, pick one. For example, I could decide that the ultimate goal of my life is to leave as many offspring as possible. That might provide some measure of purpose and meaning to my day-to-day activities, but I think my choice of ultimate goal could be rightly criticised. What is so valuable about leaving as many offspring as possible? How does that justify my existence? I’m sure the Trap Door Spiders would be sceptical if I offered that as my response to their after-dinner interrogation.
So we need something else. If we are to follow the instrumentalist paradigm, we need some ultimate goal that is more intuitively satisfying and less open to sceptical doubts. We need something that provides a rock solid sense of purpose to our lives. Are we ever going to find this? Should we even try? I offer two responses: ‘no’ and ‘no’.
2. The Case Against Ultimate Goals/Purposes
The first response is justified on the basis that the quest for ultimate purpose is, ultimately, forlorn. We will never find what we are looking for. I take this response from the work of Stephen Maitzen.
To see why the quest is forlorn, we need first to get a clearer understanding of what is meant by an ‘ultimate purpose’. Philosophers append the word ‘ultimate’ to different things. Some philosophers talk about ultimate ontological entities. These are entities that lie at the foundations of reality and from which all other entities derive their essence. Some talk about ultimate causes. These are causes the kick-start the entire chain of causation we observe within the universe. In both of these cases, the word ‘ultimate’ means something like ‘foundational’ or ‘primary’.
When appended to the word ‘purpose’, ‘ultimate’ carries a similar connotation, but it also seems to mean something else. In order to truly count, an ultimate value must be, in some sense, incorrigible or unquestionable. That’s the only way it is going to avoid the problem of apparent arbitrariness that we identified above. That problem arose when we ‘stepped back’ from a suggested final end and considered it from another perspective: maybe having lots of children makes my life meaningful but how valuable is it for the rest of my community, city, nation etc? The broader our perspective, the more trivial and insignificant any purpose we propose will start to seem. Indeed, from a cosmic perspective, everything we do looks pretty silly. We are, after all, just ‘motes of dust floating in sunbeam’, on an obscure planet, in an obscure solar system, in an otherwise hum-drum galaxy. It puts one in mind of the the total perspective vortex in Douglas Adams’s Hitchiker’s Guide to the Galaxy series: one you get an absolute perspective on everything, you lose the will to go on.
The most common solution to this problem is to turn to God. He is after all the ultimate being: the foundation of reality and the primary cause. His perspective is naturally cosmic since he created the cosmos. If He has some purpose in mind for us — e.g. to enter into the kingdom of Heaven and worship him forever — then surely it is an ultimate purpose?
Many people put their faith in God for this reason. But does God really help with this? If you don’t believe in God, and if you think there are good reasons not to, then there is little reassurance to be found in this solution to the problem. But even if you do believe in God, it’s not clear that he provides the satisfactory answer. For one thing, there is the problem of knowing what God’s final purpose actually is. More fundamentally, there is the problem that even God’s alleged final purposes are questionable. Maitzen pinpoints this in his critique:
Any purpose that we can begin to understand, we can step back from and question. Consider what theistic religions offer as God’s actual purpose for our lives: glorifying him and enjoying his presence forever. Surely we can ask — I hereby do ask — “What’s so great about that?” What is it about such an activity that automatically answers the question “Why is this ultimately worthwhile?” We’re not asking a confused or senseless question like “What time is it on the Sun?” or “Why is here here?” It’s the same question that [a theist] would aim at any life purpose an atheist might offer. We can sensibly question any possible answer to it in just the same way.
Theists will often resist this by offering us a promissory note: God’s ultimate purpose might seem questionable (or even opaque) to us right now, but it will all make sense in the end. You just have to have faith. But that doesn’t really provide any reassurance. It doesn’t provide us with the rock solid, incorrigible and unquestionable foundation of value that we were hoping to find. But Maitzen’s point — which he himself derives from the work of Thomas Nagel — is that if that’s what we are hoping to find, we will forever be disappointed. Any allegedly ultimate goal or purpose we care to articulate will be questionable. There is always some perspective we can take on it that will challenge its true value and significance.
What does this mean for the quest for value in life?
3. Intrinsic Values and Fleeting Pleasures
It means that we should stop looking for ultimate ends. Forget about finding some overarching purpose that gives your life meaning at a cosmic scale. You are never going to get it. But that doesn’t mean that you should abandon all hope. There is still plenty of value out there. Iddo Landau, in his book Finding Meaning in an Imperfect World has some useful advice in this regard.
He argues that we can, in many instances, abandon the instrumentalist paradigm that gives rises to the problem of ultimate purpose. Not all of our actions have to be justified in terms of their contribution to something else. Some actions are intrinsically valuable. It might seem like a trite point, but it is generally accepted that there are some activities that have this property. Watching an entertaining movie, playing a challenging sport/game, engaging in mutually pleasurable sexual congress. Each of these is an action that can be enjoyed for its own sake. It does not need to serve some other purpose. Such purposes could be found, of course — I could claim that I am watching the movie in order to unwind and recover in advance of tomorrow’s stresses and strains; I could argue that I am engaging in sexual congress in order to procreate — but those purposes are not strictly necessary. In answer to the question ‘why are you doing that?’, I need say no more than ‘because’. There is a potential model for a meaningful life in this:
We need not feel that our life is meaningless just because we cannot name an ulterior goal or end for it, since the supposition that in order to be meaningful a life must have an external goal or purpose is incorrect. The assertion, “I have no general goal or purpose to my life, I just live a life that includes a sufficient number of aspects of sufficient value” can be a good reply to questions such as “What do you live for?” or “What is the goal of your life?”
In other words, forget about larger goals and purposes: just fill your life with lots of intrinsically valuable moments.
That might not be enough for some people. They might be so deeply wedded to the instrumentalist paradigm that they cannot imagine living without some larger goals. That’s fine too. Such people will simply need to accept that the goals they serve may not have ultimate value. The goals could have some intrinsic value (e.g. making great art or advancing human knowledge), that may be questionable from a particular perspective, but you cannot hope to eliminate all such questions. Some valuable ends may just be brute facts of reality.
Furthermore, there may be a basic logical error underlying the quest for ultimate purpose, that could provide some reassurance for the avowed instrumentalist. As I noted above, the quest for ultimate purpose derives, in part, from a fear about infinite regresses: the chain of instrumentalist justification cannot go on forever. But why not? If each and every link in the chain is justified by a prior or subsequent link, why do we need an overarching justification for the entire chain? There is nothing logically contradictory or absurd about a chain of justification that lacks some final link or some external justification. Your life may simply sit within an infinite chain of justification. You can rest assured that what you do is fully justified in terms of the links within this chain without having some external, cosmic justification. Of course, there are problems with this insofar as we do not know whether our universe is going to be infinite in either duration (as best we can tell it is not past-infinite, but it might be future-infinite) or in chains of justification (maybe the heat death of the universe will bring an end to all valuable activity even if the universe is future-infinite), but there are uncertainties regarding the ultimate fate of the universe that might provide some hope that we (potentially) sit within an infinite chain of justification.
In sum, although it is tempting to justify our activities in terms of their contribution to some larger scheme of value, it is a temptation that can lead to some tangled thinking. Once you get into this habit of mind, it is easy to look for some ultimate purpose/end that your life can serve. This is dangerous because it is unlikely that any purpose you find will satisfy the demands of ultimacy. This doesn’t mean that life is devoid of purpose or value. Activities can be self-justifying and we can make do with temporary, fleeting purposes too.