That's high praise, since I've read a lot of them. Philosophical, spiritual, psychological, mystical, religious, scientific, political, environmental.
May's book has resonated with me more than any other.
Maybe it is because "A Significant Life" is the most recent one I've read. But I don't think that's the reason. Rather, May delves into issues that have always fascinated me, explicating them in a fresh and appealing manner.
Whether we're speaking of meaning, values, morality, or any other concept of this sort, the age-old question is what grounds our belief that this is good or true, and that is bad or false?
Some people regard God or another transcendent cosmic being as the source of objective answers to questions of right/wrong, good/bad, true/false, and so on. Others consider that The Universe (whatever this means) speaks to us. As in, the universe is sending a message to me.
However, May correctly dismisses these attempts to ground what I'll call values, for lack of a better word, in an objective foundation.
(Sorry, religious believers, but there is no evidence that any god/divine being exists, much less the particular god/divine being that you worship.)
Turning completely in the other direction, toward subjectivity, other people feel that values are entirely in the eye, or mind, of whoever holds them. Whatever is their byword. No one can say that murdering millions of people is better or worse than finding a cure for cancer.
Whatever. We live in a meaningless world. Any attempt to ground meaning or morality in anything other than individual whim is doomed to failure.
May's book strikes a middle ground, which makes sense to me. Intuitively, I'm not attracted either to religious absolutism or existential nihilism. And it seems that most reasonable people I know feel the same way.
We just find it difficult to express what that middle ground might be. Which is understandable.
May, a professional philosopher, takes an entire book to do this, and I suspect his conclusions are based on a heck of a lot of personal pondering and interpersonal discussions with friends, colleagues, and many others.
In this post, and likely a few succeeding ones, I'll share my understanding of May's view that a meaningful life is one where "subjective attraction meets objective attractiveness." It is pretty easy to grasp the subjective part; the trick is how objective attractiveness is possible without positing a god or cosmic force that grounds this.
The beliefs and values arise from a community of human beings. Where else could they come from, if the universe is silent and there is no god? May then asks a great question:
But here someone might ask, what justifies the web itself? If we accept or reject certain values based on the web of beliefs a community holds, how do we know the web itself is right? It may be that values aren't arbitrary because they must be justified within the network of other values and practices. But couldn't the entire thing be arbitrary? And if it is, doesn't that, by extension, make each of the values in it arbitrary?
The worry here is that our web of values, founded in our practices, is somehow floating in space. It is unmoored. Without beliefs being anchored somewhere, it could be floating anywhere: that is the arbitrariness of it. If the web is what anchors the values, but the web is unattached, then each of the values still floats free -- not from the web, but along with it.
I loved May's next sentence.
The short response to this worry is this: nothing justifies the web.
Along with what he said after that.
We have arrived at the point where justification comes to an end. In fact, we have arrived at the point where justification must come to an end. We cannot justify the web, the whole, itself. The reason for this is that all justification, all giving of reasons for what one believes, happens inside the web. This is true not only for values but for all of our beliefs.
...The attempt to step outside our current web of beliefs, values, and the practices in which they arise in order to justify the whole is an impossible task. After all, what would even count as a justification for an empirical claim or a value if we need to lay aside everything else we believe? In a case like that, it would be the claim or value itself that would be floating free, unanchored to anything else.
This is freaking brilliant philosophizing. Clear, logical, persuasive. Unless, I guess, one is either a dogmatic religious believer or a whatever nihilist.
Soon after, May quotes the philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein: "If I have exhausted the justifications, I have reached bedrock and my spade is turned. Then I am inclined to say: 'This is simply what I do.'"
May's next words are my favorite in the entire book. I can't resist quoting them in their entirety.
The image is a striking one, and it is famous in contemporary philosophy. My only quibble with it is that the reference to bedrock suggests that there is hard ground beneath the soil of our practices.
But there isn't, as the last line of the citation reminds us. The reason we cannot dig any deeper is that there is no more soil left. This is not because we have hit something sturdy that resists our spade. It is only because we have run out of soil. What is left is not granite or marble; it is nothing.
This is simply what we do.
The web of values and beliefs and the practices in which they arise are all we have to ground objectivity. Any one of us could be wrong, and we could all be wrong -- although we cannot say why this might be, since that would refer us back to our own practices, beliefs, and justifications.
It is perhaps possible that far in the future a generation of posthuman types will look back upon us and ask, "What were they thinking" Of course, they will do that from their own lights, as we do from ours. And, of course, we cannot imagine what it would be like to be those posthuman types, since we would have to do it from our perspective.
All we can say is that we cannot in advance rule out the possibility of it happening.
Our web of practices, with their beliefs and values, does not rest on a ground assured by the universe. As with meaningfulness, the universe is silent on this matter. But neither do the beliefs and values in that web arise simply according to individual or collective whim.
When we seek to justify our narrative values (or anything else) to ourselves, we are in a realm which is neither arbitrary nor ultimately assured, but somewhere in between.
For some, this might not be enough. And to them, as I have said, I have nothing to offer by way of consolation. But for the rest of us, although this may not be all the objectivity we would like, perhaps it is all the objectivity we need.