I was thinking about (something like) Nagel's view from nowhere

When one takes up this most external standpoint and views one's finite—and even downright puny—impact on the world, little of one's life appears to matter. What one does in a certain society on Earth over an approximately 75 years just does not amount to much, when considering the billions of years and likely trillions of beings that are a part of space-time.

I wondered if one objection to the triviality of all human life, is that, given human life will be around for some tiny fraction of the time the universe will, even a very insignificant thing is non trivial if it's the only thing which is meaningful.

It doesn't seem to work for individuals. Supposing the only meaning in my life is being physically cruel to people that are weaker than me. I think it would be wrong to conclude that because it's all I have its meaning is non-trivial. But does the same hold for humanity?

If human life is all there is, must it be of non-trivial meaningfulness?

  • 6
    Discussions of meaning/triviality of life always seemed vacuous to me. They come from attempts to attach some conceptual contrivance ("meaning") to something that is at the root existential, and suffers no such contrivances.
    – Conifold
    Apr 1, 2016 at 23:35
  • ok, thanks for the reply. i think that however contrived it sounds we can say that our life is meaningless or meaningful. it may not be as pressing as some would like to think tho
    – user6917
    Apr 1, 2016 at 23:38
  • There is nothing that human life must be but that which is made of it, as far as meaning is concerned. For that same reason human life must be meaningless outside of the subjective significance it is afforded. And therefore, this question reduces to interpretation and indeed, specious and circular argumentation as Conifold asserts.
    – commando
    Apr 2, 2016 at 0:47
  • @commando i don't see where the circular reasoning is, and i don't really understand the reasoning you present. if you like, answer the question to show that the view from nowhere is circular. if that's what you're saying?
    – user6917
    Apr 2, 2016 at 0:51
  • Maybe a case in point will help. If I've understood your question correctly, you're suggesting that if the only "sentient" life in the universe is human, then maybe it's "of non-trivial meaningfulness". Let Amir argue for this position, asserting "we're the only beings who'll ever understand existence, so everything we do is the only thing that will be intelligently perceived, and is therefore maximally important." Miki replies, "but we'll only exist for a pinprick of time in the lifetime of the universe, and everything we do will turn to dust, and after heat death sets in the universe...
    – commando
    Apr 2, 2016 at 1:04

3 Answers 3


The whole discussion whether life is trivial or meaningful seems to me to be based on the wrong assumption that significance or insignificance is a property inherent to life, that life qua life is meaningful or meaningless.

The correct use of the word meaningful is meaningful for someone.

The life of a certain individual from the human species or from any other species is not meaningful for the earth, the solar system, the galaxy or for any other set of cosmic objects. Cosmic objects are not predispositioned for meaning. Therefore I consider the cosmic context to be the wrong place to search for meaning.

In general, my life has a value for me because I want to go on living. And I can decide how to shape this value into a meaning of my life for me and for a small group of my fellow companions.

  • 4
    Precisely this. Meaning is not an inherent attribute. It's at least a binary relation between a meaning-giver and a meaning-receiver.
    – commando
    Apr 2, 2016 at 1:05
  • again the reasoning is not clear. you say that meaning is for someone, and so because 3,000 years in the future has no meaning for you, it has no bearing on the meaning of your life. but it's not obvious that only what is meaningful for you can have a bearing on what is meaningful for you.
    – user6917
    Apr 2, 2016 at 1:46
  • I'm not sure, @MATHEMETICIAN, I understand what you mean by "any value is also trivial if predicated on its meaningfulness". As for your first comment, the assertion is that meaning must be an inherent attribute for something to be meaningful or meaningless simpliciter. However, things can be meaningful or meaningless by virtue of standing in certain relations to other things, e.g. I can give something meaning and that thing becomes meaningful with respect to me.
    – commando
    Apr 2, 2016 at 1:46
  • looks like you made the 2nd claim in my (own) answer, thanks.
    – user6917
    Apr 4, 2016 at 1:06

David Hume is noted for his famous idea that you cannot get an 'ought' from an 'is', thus making an important distinction between values and facts. The underlying reason for this is rooted in the nature of a logic and can be summed up simply by saying that you can't get out what you don't put in. In order for a logical conclusion to be ethical in nature, there must be some ethical assertion or principle introduced as a premise. More recently, G.E. Moore spoke of the same principal, calling it the naturalistic fallacy:

"Yet a mistake of this simple kind has commonly been made about 'good.' It may be true that all things which are good are also something else, just as it is true that all things which are yellow produce a certain kind of vibration in the light. And it is a fact, that Ethics aims at discovering what are those other properties belonging to all things which are good. But far too many philosophers have thought that when they named those other properties they were actually defining good; that these properties, in fact, were simply not 'other', but absolutely and entirely the same with goodness. This view I propose to call the 'naturalistic fallacy' and of it I shall now endeavour to dispose." (Moore, * Principia Ethica*)

Although both Hume and Moore we're speaking of moral values, the same principle applies to values in general which owe their existence to a subjective evaluations. This idea is clearly described by Ilkka Niiniluoto:

"To express my conclusion in Popper’s terms, let us distinguish World 1 (physical objects and processes), World 2 (mental states of individual human minds), and World 3 (artefacts and other cultural and institutional products of human social action). World 1 is ontologically independent of World 2, even though we may by our concrete actions bring about facts in World 1 (e.g., by moving stones, cutting down trees). [...] Hence, we have the partial non-symmetry result: Facts in World 1 and values do not have the same status with respect to human practices." (Ilkka Niiniluoto, "Facts and Values – A Useful Distinction")

The reason that I'm bringing this up is, of course, because the idea of a meaningful life is also rooted in a subjective evaluations. We could thus modify the famous adage attributed to Hume, saying that you can't get meaning from being. The following gives an example of a syllogism in which the idea of meaning can be introduced:

  • Socrates was a philosopher.
  • Being a philosopher makes one's life meaningful.
  • Socrates' life was meaningful.

If it were true that being a philosopher makes one's life meaningful, the conclusion follows from the first premise. It should be noted that the first premise states an objective fact, and the second one makes a subjective evaluation about facts of that type. Because a subjective evaluation is introduced as a premise, the conclusion can be expressed in terms of that subjectivity. However, without such a value judgement in one of the premises, no such conclusion could be drawn. Any attempt to do so would have to somehow sneak it through the back door, so to speak, leading to a possible charge of circular reasoning.

  • fwiw i kinda disagree with your "subjective" assumption, at least without a definition of "philosophy" which excludes a lot of "philosophers". it's not obvious why the ephemeral nature of human life doesn't make it trivial, unless you're claiming that only "subjective" statements can curtail a subjective judgment. besides which, i'm done worrying about intrinsic values: maybe someone/thing is so just if they do what i would better.
    – user6917
    Apr 2, 2016 at 5:02
  • 1
    @MATHEMETICIAN. I disagree with the "subjective" assumption too. I updated the answer to clarify that it was only an example of how meaning can validly be introduced in an argument.And I wouldn't say that the ephemeral nature of life makes it "trivial." If no person exists to make a value judgement about life, then it is less than trivial; it is nothing.
    – user3017
    Apr 2, 2016 at 8:22
  • "I do not feel that I am the product of chance, a speck of dust in the universe, but someone who was expected, prepared, prefigured. In short, a being whom only a Creator could put here; and this idea of a creating hand refers to God." John-Paul Sartre
    – user3017
    Apr 2, 2016 at 9:08

To clarify what I'm thinking:

  1. Only human life has meaning
  2. Human life has a trivial meaning in the universe
  3. All meaning in the universe is trivial.

Point 2 could be motivated by a slew of factors. At root, the intuition is that absolutely everything there is would hugely trivialise human life in general, because however humanity lives its e.g. power is dwarfed by that of all things.

The argument does not covertly change a fact ("is") to a meaning ("ought"), because the term "meaning" is already there. So it does not commit the naturalistic fallacy: we can reason from fact to meaning.

  1. Enjoying what you have worked hard for is more meaningful than freeloading.

  2. I worked hard for this meal and you didn't.

  3. My enjoyment of this meal is more meaningful than yours.

I see no reason to disagree with the claim in the question itself, which say that whatever can be said of individual lives (specifically, that they can be trivial) can also be predicated of human life per se.

So how could the argument be rebutted? I can think of four ways all of which seem suspect:

  • Human life has a meaning which is not in the universe.
  • Only humanity, or its concerns, has any bearing on the meaning of human life.
  • Life cannot be trivialised by meaningless things.
  • The universe doesn't trivialise human life, but makes it more meaningful.

The 1st seems like an inflated and unrealistic metaphysics.

The 2nd is the claim the world itself, independent of our concerns, doesn't figure in any failure or success to live a meaningful life. But, given that no living person's life is completely used up, its meaning can still change, whatever they are concerned with.

The 3rd assumes that meaning is had whenever it is lost: but seems too optimistic. If everyone around me enjoys sadistically hurting me, everyone concerned including me has a less meaningful life.

The 4th is IMO the best bet. For me the case could definitely be made that it makes human life more valuable, in its uniqueness etc.. But, as Jo said, we don't look for our own meaning in what (huge expanse of space-time) does not concern us.

  • any covert assumption in 2 isn't the naturalistic fallacy, but the idea that reality can't make any human pursuit robustly meaningful (einstein's work is meaningful only for as long as it is believed or developed), so in trivialising a human life it does so on an awesome scale
    – user6917
    Apr 2, 2016 at 7:37
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    If at some point in time all life in the universe ceased to exist, there would be no one to make a value judgment, and, consequently, no basis for meaning to be asserted. Given that, I would reject both of your premises because human life wouldn't have any meaning whatsoever, trivial or otherwise.
    – user3017
    Apr 2, 2016 at 8:39

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