Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Ayer and Sartre on the Meaning of Life

   [You read the title right. Ayer and Sartre on the meaning of life. So let's add him to the picture above!
   Many in the Philippines may be thinking whether their lives are still worth living with the damage caused by Tropical Storm Sendong/Washi. Lend a hand if you can.  Follow this link for those who want to help.  I am sure there are many other links. I have posted one in the previous blog entry.
    Here's more of my academic writing , particularly on subjectivism  in the meaning of life. I had a previous entry on Tolstoy who is classified as a supernaturalist, though I would have to say that it does him some disservice. The chapter of my work where I am getting all this is a critical evaluation of the approaches to the meaning of life.  My comments in square brackets.]
[Big cut. Spacing seems to be OK as I enter this text]....Ayer’s exposition and addressing of the meaning of life is valuable. It seems easier to show at what points something called “subjectivism” is whimsical, unrealistic and idiosyncratic. But what could the aim be in taking such a position? Or stated in another way, what could be some of the reasons that lead to this conclusion? What value/s may be taken in such conclusion? Ayer (2000, 224) writes further:

But how can a life in general be said to have any meaning? A simple answer is that all events are tending towards a specifiable end: so that to understand the meaning of life it is necessary only to discover this end. But, in the first place, there is no good reason whatever for supposing this assumption to be true, and secondly, even if it were true, it would not do the work that is required of it. For what is being sought by those who demand to know the meaning of life is not an explanation of the facts of their existence, but a justification. Consequently a theory which informs them merely that the course of events is so arranged as to lead inevitably to a certain end does nothing to meet their need. For the end in question will not be one that they themselves have chosen [emphasis added]. 

In the above passage, one may imagine what Ayer’s reply would be to philosophers like [William Lane] Craig. “I can grant you that God exists and that this existence can provide the explanation/s about the facts of our existence, but it does not really provide a justification, for these explanations that lead to this ultimate end are not what I myself have chosen.” The existence of God may provide the requisite explanation to questions posed by Leibnitz and Heidegger, like “Why is there something rather than nothing?”  The theoretical physicists may succeed in formulating the unified field theory, for a “theory of everything”, a quest that Einstein also embarked on. But both miss their mark as far as Ayer and the meaning of life is concerned. Neither theology in this way, nor theoretical physics in that way would do. Ayer may not have known it, but his hinting that concerns about the meaning of life in this way share more with Sartre (in talking about the value of choosing for oneself). At the very least one already see why Ayer was classified as a subjectivist about the meaning of life. Ayer (2000, 224) continues his line of reasoning:

As far as they are concerned it will be merely arbitrary; and it will be a no less be arbitrary fact that their existence is such as necessarily lead to its fulfillment. In short, from the point of view of justifying one’s existence, there is no essential difference between a teleological explanation of events and a mechanical explanation of events. In either case, it is a matter of brute fact that events succeed one another in the ways that they do and are explicable in the ways that they are.

Note that Ayer’s passage above applies to theological and scientific explanations. Following Ayer and applying this to a theological type of explanation, it is an objective (in this framework) fact that events follow one another in the way they do because of God’s will. Or to scientific explanations, it is an objective fact that events follow one another in the way they do because of the instantiation of some particular laws of nature. One may conceivably combine both to come up with an explanation that would satisfy both the priest and scientist. Yet these explanations leave those who deal with the problem of the meaning of life cold. Further comparison to Sartre and existentialism is even invited by Ayer’s acknowledging the arbitrariness of the meaning of life, seen only in terms of either the theological or the scientific explanation.  Yet can we say, following this train of thought that invites comparisons to existentialism, that this kind of subjectivism may easily be dismissed as whimsical and unrealistic? On the inadequacy of explanations as previously discussed, Ayer (224-5) writes further:

Thus, an attempt to answer the question why events are as they are must always resolve itself into saying only how they are. But what is required by those who seek the meaning of life is precisely an answer to their question “Why?” that is something other than an answer to any question “How?” And just because this is so they can never be satisfied.

Taking into account the discussion of Ayer so far, the answer to the question “Why?” can never be satisfied in the way questions about explanations can be satisfied. Answers to questions about the latter can be subsumed to the objective; criteria can be formulated in advance that would determine the correctness or adequacy of answers to questions regarding explanations. But, following Ayer, these are not the sorts of questions asked about the meaning of life.  In this sense, existential questions are not objective, for they are not questions having to do with explanations.  Ayer (2000, 226) goes so far as to call “untenable in logic” those who demand of question of the meaning of life (that I have called “existential”) an answer analogous to questions regarding explanations (that Ayer has called “teleological” and “mechanical”).

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