Can Life Be Meaningful without Free Will?


If we lack deep free agency, like that supposed by metaphysical libertarianism, should we view life as meaningless, pointless, or not worth living? Here I present a new argument in support of meaning-compatibilism, or the view that life can indeed be meaningful without our having deep free agency. I show that this argument secures meaning-compatibilism more effectively than an argument provided by Derk Pereboom. In the process, we learn that Susan Wolf’s hybrid theory of meaning in life is not equipped to handle the question of meaning-compatibilism, which a broader approach to meaning in life should help us to grasp. On the alternative approach I present, judgments about meaning in life involve a sensitivity to whether giving up on life, or “agency defeat”, is justified. I argue that, so long as we are able to exist in reality, giving up on life is difficult to justify, and even without deep free agency, we do indeed exist in reality.

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  1. 1.

    Honderich addresses the compatibility of free will skepticism with what he calls “life-hopes”, but Honderich’s question is at its heart the question of life’s meaningfulness. In any case, the focus of this paper will be the interaction between Pisciotta and Pereboom, who explicitly acknowledge the issue at hand as one of meaning in life. Like Susan Wolf and others, here I will speak of “meaning in life”, “life meaning” or “life meaningfulness” rather than asking whether life has “a meaning”.

  2. 2.

    Honderich’s view is not so simple, but we only need the basic idea for our purposes here.

  3. 3.

    Pereboom specifies that he means moral responsibility in the “basic desert” sense (2014: 2), and that there are forward-looking ways of holding people responsible compatible with their lacking ultimate responsibility (Ch. 6). But these nuances will not enter into the present paper.

  4. 4.

    Hume (1999) discusses such matters here: An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding, Section VIII, Part 1; A Treatise on Human Nature, Book 2, Part 3, Section 1.

  5. 5.

    Honderich describes three ways that determinism affects our “life-hopes”: responses of dismay and instransigence (Chs. 7.2–7.3, 9.2) and affirmation (Ch. 9.6). Pereboom (2001: 189-193) does not agree with every move that Honderich makes here, but the differences are not important for our present purposes.

  6. 6.

    Pisciotta’s appeal to Watson seems misguided, however, since Watson distinguishes attributability and accountability (229). Watson would appear to be working wholly within a compatibilist framework to arrive at a distinction between what could be called “deep” and “shallow” attributability, as in the distinction between the viciousness of a person and the viciousness of a dog. The former’s moral capacity produces the depth (244–245), a moral capacity that does not seem to depend, for Watson, on something like “origination”. In the introduction to a collection of his essays (2004), Watson explicitly states that “it is possible to be skeptical about the idea of accountability ... without challenging the core notion of attributability” (10). There, Watson also gives his subtle reasoning for “why I am not an incompatibilist” (6).

  7. 7.

    As Pisciotta notes, this follows a strategy Pereboom uses to argue against the compatibility of moral responsibility and determinism (2001: 110–117). In the end, I believe our dispirited intuitions about Tom undergoing neuroscientist manipulation involve the additional problem that emerges from Robert Nozick’s “experience machine” thought experiment (2013: 42–45), a problem of illusory activity owing to detachment from reality, not a problem of determinism per se. Interestingly, my reality account, described in section 4, can help us to see why the experience machine shows up as a problem for meaning in life, insofar as one does not see oneself as existing in reality in an experience machine.

  8. 8.

    Also see Pereboom (2003: 28).

  9. 9.

    But, as someone who shares Pisciotta’s enthusiasm for prioritizing the objective, Thaddeus Metz would surely challenge Pisciotta, based upon Metz’s critique of Wolf. Metz recommends dropping Wolf’s subjective attraction component altogether for a more objectivist account of meaning in life. According to Metz, it wouldn’t matter for life meaning how Mother Teresa feels about her life’s work so long as she is doing something of value, like helping people (2013: 183–184), so presumably it wouldn’t matter for Metz whether an external observer would be dispirited to learn that Mother Teresa did not have deep free agency, so long as the result of her life was that she helped people. Where Metz talks about the importance of rational deliberation and decision-making to meaning in life (226), he seems to have in mind something compatible with absence of deep free agency.

  10. 10.

    Generally speaking, it seems to be the external point of view that generates intuitions against deep free agency – this was Holbach’s (1984) classic way of arguing against free will, by treating will as a “modification of the brain” (213). Nagel (1986: Ch. VII) highlights the tension between the external and internal standpoints in this regard. Also, in his critique of libertarian Robert Kane, Daniel Dennett notes the oddness of caring about whether we have moments of (deep, incompatibilist) free will if, by Kane’s account, they are indetectable “from inside or outside” (2003: 136; emphasis in original). Given indiscernibility of deep free agency from the outside, how could Wolf’s external approach provide a way of distinguishing lives lived by free and unfree agents?

  11. 11.

    Iddo Landau makes a similar point about Shakespeare. If the work of a hypothetical Shakespeare* were not as good as that of the actual Shakespeare, “most would value Shakespeare over Shakespeare* even if we believed that Shakespeare* was much freer than Shakespeare” (2017, 110).

  12. 12.

    Along these lines, in Freedom within Reason (1990), Wolf presents the Reason View, which distinguishes deep and superficial levels of freedom and responsibility within a compatibilist framework, while indicating the limited ability of the incompatibilist-leaning Autonomy View to capture some of our intuitions about responsibility. Wolf herself does not seem as invested in the importance of origination to freedom and responsibility as Pisciotta, so we should doubt that Wolf would detect a serious threat for meaning-compatibilism on that score.

  13. 13.

    James Tartaglia (2016: 12-15) aptly calls this a judgment of “social meaning”, accounts for which, like Wolf’s and Metz’s, he believes inescapably suffer from arbitrariness issues (with which I might agree), although I believe Tartaglia goes wrong in rejecting subjective engagement as a criterion for life meaningfulness. The approach sketched in the next section indicates a better way to grasp the importance of subjective engagement than has yet been presented, but there isn’t space to leverage that approach against Tartaglia’s critique here.

  14. 14.

    In The View from Nowhere (1986), Thomas Nagel addresses the way in which inattention to the conceptually difficult switch between internal and external standpoints wreaks havoc in numerous areas of philosophy, including the area of life meaning. Nagel has produced much insight on life meaning (esp. 1979: Chs. 1, 2 & 14; 1986: Ch. XI), but he does not suggest something like the agency defeat approach presented in the next section.

  15. 15.

    In particular, the agency defeat approach helps to clarify why Camus (1983) places so much emphasis on the question of suicide (which can be understood as a finalizing response to agency defeat), famously viewing suicide as the “one truly serious philosophical problem” (3), although I would suggest that agency defeat, or giving up, is a phenomenon broader than suicide or its contemplation.

  16. 16.

    What if morality is not objective in the right way, and what if all that we experience is an illusion?

  17. 17.

    Richard Taylor’s well-known account of meaning in life (2000) would seem to subscribe to this brute motivation account, as might Michael Rowland’s approach (2015), inspired by Simon Blackburn, although Rowland’s approach involves subtleties my simple presentation of the brute motivation account doesn’t capture. These approaches are describable as “subjectivist” while an approach like that of Thaddeus Metz (2013) are more “objectivist” in orientation. My present approach can be seen as providing critiques for both theoretical tendencies.

  18. 18.

    Paul Edwards (2018/1967) criticizes pessimists like Schopenhauer for judging life against too high a standard (127), but does not himself suggest that the base standard might be as minimal as existence in reality. There is an interesting question of how exactly a standard of meaningfulness gets raised. I would suggest that the standard gets raised by “infusing” meaningfulness judgments with other values and norms, whether aesthetic, narrative, prudential, moral, social or what have you, so that what one takes to be a meaningful option gets informed by other normative and evaluative resources.

  19. 19.

    Wolf also notes that acceptance is important for overcoming nihilism when she encourages nihilists to “Get Over It” (2007: 71), but she doesn’t make the strategy of acceptance an explicit part of her theoretical approach.

  20. 20.

    There are at least two other problems of meaning in life that appear to be directly explained by a sensitivity to the importance of existence in reality: death and delusion. Death is itself non-existence (so continuation as a soul would not be death in this sense), while delusion involves an insufficient relation to reality. Insufficient relatedness to reality does not undermine the condition of existence entirely, but the problem still involves a sensitivity to the importance of real existence. Where a sensitivity to the importance of reality does not provide a full explanation of the sense of meaninglessness, I suggest that a subject’s raised standard does the remainder of the work in making an option appear meaningless; though, as I suggested in section 4, acceptance can in principle bring us back to an appreciation of bare existence in reality, in this way restoring at least some rudimentary sense of meaning in life.

  21. 21.

    See Hume’s (2000) A Treatise of Human Nature, Part 4, Sec. 6; and Parfit (1987: 21). In response to Buddhism, Robert Kane (1996), who argues as a libertarian for deep free agency, admits that the value of deep free agency or origination is not undisputed:

    Theravadin Buddhists regard the desire for “independent selfhood” not only as unimportant, but as perverse. ... This Buddhist view shows, as clearly as any view could, why it is so difficult to compel assent in these matters from incontestable premises. How do you settle a matter of whether the desire to be autonomous and independent selves is a good thing, as many in the West would say, or a destructive perversion, as these Buddhists would say? I don’t think one can settle it in a final and definitive way. (99- 100)

    But when it comes to Kane’s informal explanation of what’s so great about origination, he points to a delight which could just as well be explained in a non-libertarian way:

    why do we want free will? We want it because we want ultimate responsibility. And why do we want that? For the reason that children and adults take delight in their accomplishment from the earliest moments of their awakening as persons, whether these accomplishments are making a fist or walking upright or composing a symphony. This delight is no arbitrary feature of what we are. It is related to the fact that we first distinguish ourselves as selves distinct from the world by virtue of our ability to control some things by our wills, as the baby did her fist. (100; emphasis in original)

    Kane, of course, has provided much sophisticated argumentation for deep free agency, which I’m not attempting to review here, but as for the cases of babies operating their hands and learning to walk, while they might provide a psychological explanation of where a zeal for origination can first form in human beings, it doesn’t seem very compelling as evidence for the reality of deep free agency, but instead, I believe, inclines us against this view. These babies are working with the materials they were given and in ways that are greatly limited by the same bodily apparatus. If they become originalists, it is prima facie odd for them to claim “ultimate responsibility” for the use of their physical form.

  22. 22.

    Moral and prudential norms also bottom out on basic reasons that cannot be given further justification. At the end of the day, it just is the case that we care about such values as autonomy, equality, well-being, etc. When it comes to judgments about meaning in life, it just is the case that we care about existing in reality.

  23. 23.

    Looking at things from the point of view of theoretical physics, Ronald Dworkin argues for the related idea that beauty is real in Religion without God (2013: Ch. 2).

  24. 24.

    However, this may not be an absolutely mind independent sense of objectivity. Given my belief in and endorsement of the pursuit of objective value, in some sense of the word “objective”, I understand myself to be largely in agreement with Wolf’s conception of meaning in life. What I dispute is that her conception gives us the very concept that acts as a baseline judgment of meaning in life.

  25. 25.

    If the problem around non-origination is that something that precedes you makes you do something, this problem becomes less pronounced if what precedes and forces present action is one’s own character, that is, if you have come to approve of your own personality. This is a kind of solace provided by a compatibilist position on determinism and free will: what’s the problem if one can do what one prefers and if one endorses one’s preferences? I believe that my reality account more directly neutralizes agency defeat owing to lack of deep free agency. Still, the compatibilist observation serves to improve the case I’m making, at least for those who approve of the personality guiding their actions.

  26. 26.

    See Chastain (2017) for more on how “gift and gratitude thinking” does not require belief in a personal giver of life.

  27. 27.

    Note that lack of deep free agency does not entail determinism. Honderich and Pereboom agree that quantum mechanics may allow for real indeterminacy. However, Honderich denies that indeterminism arising from quantum mechanics is “consistent with indeterminist pictures of the mind” (335), while Pereboom denies that explanation of action by any mechanism (deterministic or statistical) allows for special agent-causation (2001: 84–85). But it still could be that mild metaphysical (not just epistemic) indeterminacy, or a sense of mild indeterminacy, can improve the point of trying to do something in some cases, even if it does not improve the case for deep free agency.


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I’d like to thank Benjamin Bayer, Jason Berntsen, Bruce Brower, Tim Chastain, Everett Fulmer, Leonard Kahn, Joel MacClellan, and anonymous reviewers for very helpful comments on earlier drafts of this paper.

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Correspondence to Drew Chastain.

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Chastain, D. Can Life Be Meaningful without Free Will?. Philosophia 47, 1069–1086 (2019).

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  • Free will
  • Meaning in life
  • Compatibilism
  • Susan Wolf
  • Derk Pereboom