Does size matter?

There is a kind of reflection that would incite people to look for grand meaningfulness, the kind of meaningfulness that we presumably cannot find in the lives we are living here and now. Bertrand Russell expresses such reflection vividly in the following remarks:

In the visible world, the Milky Way is a tiny fragment; within this fragment, the solar system is an infinitesimal speck, and of this speck our planet is a microscopic dot. On this dot, tiny lumps of impure carbon and water, of complicated structure, with somewhat unusual physical and chemical properties, crawl about for a few years, until they are dissolved again into the elements of which they are compounded. They divide their time between labour designed to postpone the moment of dissolution for themselves and frantic struggles to hasten it for others of their kind. (Russell, “Dreams and Facts”, reprinted in his Sceptical Essays)

Compared with Russell’s description of how small we are, which seems accurate, the usual metaphor that human beings are tiny specks in a vast universe seems an exaggeration of our size. If even the solar system is only a tiny speck, how should we describe our smallness? However, what we should ask in this connection is rather the question “What does the size of us have to do with the meaningfulness of our lives?”. It does not seem that meaningfulness depends on the relative size of our existence. If I think my life is meaningful, I would not think that it was less meaningful simply because I had come to believe that the universe had become several hundred million times bigger (while my size did not change). As Frank Ramsey so pithily puts it, “[t]he stars may be large, but they cannot think or love” (see “Epilogue” of his Philosophical Papers). Whether our lives are meaningful or not depends on what we do and think and feel, rather than on how big or small we are.

But then why do some people think the relative size of our existence matters to the meaningfulness of our lives, or more specifically, why do some people think our smallness implies that our lives as such are meaningless? I think the most reasonable answer is that when people think in this way, they see their smallness as a kind of limit of their lives. Death can be understood along the same lines ¾ death is a temporal limit of life. Our smallness is, by contrast, not just a spatial limit, but also a limit to our abilities: being so utterly small relative to the universe, we are confined to the extremely tiny space we are in and not able to achieve much even within that tiny space. There is no better expression of this understanding of how limits of a life and meaningfulness are related than the following passage by Robert Nozick:

Consider the most exalted and far-researching life or role imagined for man: being the messiah. Greater effect has been imagined for no other man. Yet still we can ask how important it is to bring whatever it is the messiah brings to the living beings of the third planet of a minor off-center star in the Milky Way galaxy, itself a galaxy of no special distinction within its particular metagalaxy, one of many in the universe. Te see something’s limits, to see it as that limited particular thing or enterprise, is to question its meaning. (Nozick, Philosophical Explanations, p.597)

On this understanding,“[t]he problem of meaning is created by limits, by being just this, by being merely this”, and “[a]ttempts to find meaning in life seek to transcend the limits of an individual life. The narrower the limits of a life, the less meaningful it is” (pp.594-595). Hence the quest for grand meaningfulness.


Meaningfulness and happiness

When we are thinking about meaningfulness, we may be inclined to see it as the most important thing we care about, or should care about, in our lives. I certainly think that meaningfulness is an important issue, and that the meaningfulness of my life is very important to me, but I am not sure I would say that meaningfulness should be considered the most important thing in our lives. Many people do not give any thought to meaningfulness. And even for those who do seek meaningfulness, there is at least another thing they seek, and should seek, equally mightily, namely, happiness. It takes reflection to see the need we have for meaningfulness, while happiness is something we naturally, or even blindly, pursue. Is there any relation between meaningfulness and happiness? Of course the answer depends on how we understand happiness, but it is common for people to think that a meaningful life must be in some sense a happy life. In some sense, yes, but there are also other senses of happiness in which a meaningful life is not necessarily a happy one.

As Susan Wolf observes, meaningful lives may “frequently involve stress, danger, exertion, or sorrow” (“Happiness and meaning: two aspects of the good life”, Social Philosophy and Policy, 14, p.209), all of which are incompatible with pleasure. Wolf understands meaningful lives as “lives of active engagement in projects of worth” (ibid.); it is not difficult to see why such engagement does not always give us pleasure --- is not necessarily happy in the hedonistic sense.

As long as happiness is understood phenomenologically, that is, in terms of some of the subject’s positive feelings, states of mind, or experiences, it seems that we can always imagine that a person whose life is meaningful does not have any such feelings, states of mind, or experiences. It is, I think, true that a meaningful life is usually accompanied by a sense of fulfillment. Although fulfillment is not the same as happiness, it, as Wolf rightly maintains, “deserves an important place in an adequate theory of happiness” and should be considered “a major component of happiness” (ibid., p.220). Nevertheless, there is still no guarantee that living a meaningful life will give one a sense of fulfillment. Even for Wolf, who thinks that “the links between meaningfulness and fulfillment are tight” (ibid.), there is no such guarantee, for she can only say that “[n]ine times out of ten, perhaps ninety-nine times out of a hundred, a meaningful life will be happier [through having a sense of fulfillment] than a meaningless one” (ibid., p.222). Ninety or ninety-nine percent is still not one-hundred percent, though it may well be good enough.

It is even clearer that a meaningful life does not imply happiness when happiness is understood as objective well-being rather than in terms of subjective positive experiences. A meaning life is not necessarily a life that prospers or goes well, or a life in which most of one’s important desires are satisfied, or a life in which one enjoys a high quality of life (materialistically construed), or a life full of great achievements. I cannot agree more with the following remarks by Harry Frankfurt:

A life may be full of meaning, then, and yet so gravely deficient in other ways that no reasonable person would choose to live it. It cannot even be assumed that a meaningful life must always be preferable to one that lacks meaning. What fills a certain life with meaning may be some intricate and demanding conflict, or a terribly frustrating but compelling struggle, which involves a great deal of anxiety or pain and which is extremely destructive. Thus the very circumstances that make the life meaningful may be deeply objectionable. It might be better to live an empty life than to generate or to endure so much suffering and disorder. (Necessity, Volition, and Love, CUP, p.85)

Viktor Frankl may be right when he says that “[t]here is nothing in the world […] that would so effectively help one to survive even the worst conditions as the knowledge that there is a meaning in one’s life” (Man's Search for Meaning, Simon & Schuster, p.109), but for a more balanced understanding of the importance of meaningfulness we have to keep in mind that there could be conditions so bad that nothing could help one survive them, not even the knowledge that there is a meaning in one’s life. To think otherwise is to romanticize human nature.

Some may insist that a meaningful life is necessarily better than a meaningless life. Although we do not have to object to this, we should notice that meaningfulness is only one dimension of the evaluation of life. As far as this dimension of evaluation is concerned, it is true that a meaningful life is always better than a meaningless life. Indeed, it is true trivially, for this dimension of evaluation is understood by us in such a way that ‘meaningful’ is on the positive side of it and ‘meaningless’ on the negative side (and a gray area in between). In any case, there are other dimensions of the evaluation of life, such as happiness, with ‘happy’ on the positive side and ‘unhappy’ on the negative side (and a gray area in between). It is possible for the very same life to be placed on the positive side of one dimension of evaluation while being placed on the negative side of another dimension. This is what happens when a life is meaningful but unhappy. It is not always clear which dimension of evaluation should trump which: in some cases it might be better to live a happy life that is not meaningful than live a meaningful life that is unhappy, but vice versa in other cases.