The "Need to Know"
and the Meaning of Life

Our highest assurance of the goodness of Providence seems to me to rest in the flowers. All other things, our powers, our desires, our food, are all really necessary for our existence in the first instance. But this rose is an extra. Its smell and its colour are an embellishment of life, not a condition of it. It is only goodness which gives extras, and so I say again that we have much to hope from the flowers.

Sherlock Holmes [Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, Memories of Sherlock Holmes, "The Naval Treaty," 1892]

"I want to know, for example, why beauty exists," she [Gabrielle] said, "why nature continues to contrive it, and what is the link between the life of a tree and its beauty, and what connects the mere existence of the sea or a lightning storm with the feelings these things inspire in us? If God does not exist, if these things are not unified into one metaphorical system, then why do they retain for us such symbolic power?..."

Anne Rice, The Vampire Lestat [1985]

Two things fill the mind with ever new and increasing admiration and awe, the oftener and more steadily we reflect on them:  the starry heavens above me
and the moral law within me.

Immanuel Kant, Critique of Practical Reason
[A 289, Lewis White Beck translation]


In military or intelligence operations, personnel are usually only told what is necessary for them to carry out their own task. Then, if they are captured or for some reason betray the operation, they will not be able to divulge very much, willingly or unwillingly, about what is going on. This operational doctrine is called "need to know" -- nobody knows anything except what they need to know. In some ways, life seems to be structured this way. Certainly, most people would complain that we know too little, and so not even as much as we need to know, rather than too much. However, something of the sort is actually a feature of some religious doctrines. Jesus refuses to describe the delights of heaven. The most he says is, "In my Father's house are many mansions" [John 14:2]. Similarly, the Buddha refused to answer many questions as "not tending to edification," including anything substantive about the nature of Nirvana. In those cases, however, it is clear that the disciples of Jesus and the Buddha do not need to know the answers to their questions in order to practice the religious discipline introduced by their teachers.

When we ask about the meaning of life we are usually asking about its value, why it is, and what it is for. It usually seems that the most satifying answer would be about the purpose or the end of life. If, as many people believe, God has a plan, then clearly a plan aims to some end and is justified in those terms. However, thinking in terms of purposes leads to a paradox. For every end posited to an action, we can always ask what that is for. We own a car to get places. We want to get places for various reasons -- to earn a living, to buy food, to enjoy entertainments, etc. Earning a living and buying food, however, are both for ulterior purposes, to have the means to live, and to sustain life itself. Working in a profession, eating food, and enjoying entertainments, however, can also be pleasurable and satisfying in themselves. This would make them ends-in-themselves and so exempt from the "what are they for" question. Pleasure, although the ultimate end of all action for hedonism, nevertheless does not seem sufficiently weighty or meaningful as the only end-in-itself, not to mention being without a moral dimension.

Purpose is how we act because we have a future and intentions. A purpose is something in the future that we intend to realize. We intend to realize it because it is a good, but goods can be both instrumental and intrinsic. Most goods are instrumental. Money is nearly worthless as an end in itself, for most people, but is extremely valuable as a good-for something else, an instrumental good. We get so used to instrumental goods that our habit is to treat all goods as instrumental, as good-for something -- a common reproach of disappointed parents used to be "you're good for nothing!" -- but this would produce an infinite regress. Any instrumental good is really worthless without the ultimate justification of an intrinsic good.

So what are the intrinsic goods in life? Well, there is pleasure, which we would hope to have with any worthy activity; but the true worth of any activity consists of its being right and good, and the true worth of any end consists of its being good and beautiful. Although it is not always obvious what is right and what is good, and "there is no disputing taste" when it comes to beauty, these are the kinds of things that we "need to know" in order to live, indeed, the "good life." These categories of value are descibed in The Polynomic Theory of Value" and "Six Domains of the Polynomic System of Value." It is difficult enough in life to deal with the uncertainties in our knowledge about the right and the good, and with the dilemmas that arise from the independence of these categories of value from each other. We do not always know what we need to know to deal with life, though the basics of morality are, as it happens, simple enough to be understood by most competent adults, and even by most children. This is curious enough in itself, but is not my main concern here:  For even when we know the right, the good, and the beautiful, this still does not answer the really ultimate questions about the meaning of life, where we do have this urge to ask the purposive question, "What is it all for?"

The category of value that is listed on the linked pages but that has not yet been mentioned here, of course, is the sacred or holy. In the bible, God demands that the Jews be a holy people by obeying his Law. Jesus requires that his disciples follow his moral instruction, but the purpose or meaning of it all follows simply from believing in him -- though the impression from this is that the purpose of that belief is to achieve eternal life. The purpose of the Buddha's teaching, on the other hand, is not eternal life, but clearly the end of suffering, or, as the Buddha says:

...aversion, absence of passion, cessation, quiescence, knowledge, supreme wisdom, and Nirvana. [Buddhism in Translations, Henry Clarke Warren, Atheneum, 1987, p. 122]

Unlike Western religions, Buddhism does not necessarily envision salvation or liberation as a recognizeable continuation of life. Nirvana is incomprehensible and inexpressible. Exactly what purposes are fulfilled, or even exist, in Nirvana is thus an open, or unaskable, question.

If we rule out using purposes to explain the ultimate meaning of life or existence, then we are restricted to intrinsic goods. Plato, after all, made "The Good" the ultimate reality. But it is not clear how the bare "Good" is more satisfying than pleasure, since we want to ask, "What Good?" We do not find "good" just floating off in insolation, but some thing, some meaning, which is good. It is not clear how upgrading the "Good" to the holy or the sacred is any more satisfying. We still want the reference or the conceptual content. Supreme conceptions of the experience of the ultimately holy object don't seem to help. The essence of the delights of Heaven in Christianity, or of union with Brahman in Hinduism, can be expressed in one word:  Bliss -- the "beatific vision" of God, or the Bliss (ânanda) which is the essence of Brahman. "Bliss," however, just sounds like an extreme enraptured state of happiness ("blissed out"), and so of a kind of pleasure, afterall. Perhaps a kind of eternal, cosmic orgasm sounds nice, but intellectually it seems rather deficient. We want to know what the deal is. That is going to be the only satisfying answer to the meaning of life.

This makes it sound like neither purposes nor intrinsic goods are going to quite do the job. As with purposes themselves, the nature of our understanding itself seems to preclude the sort of answer that would actually satisfy our understanding. What would help, then, would be at least to understand how our understanding defeats itself. The infinite regress that explanations of purpose lead to is one problem. The disappointment of intrisic goods of the presumably most satisfying character, like pleasure or beauty or the sacred, is their lack of intellectual content:  We don't have to understand anything about what things cause the most intense physical pleasures to have them, and the causes are pretty mundane anyway; beauty is not wholly comprehensible and tends to be denatured with analysis; and the sacred depends on paradoxical religious doctrines or mysteries that are explicitly posited beyond human understanding.

One thing that the sacred does, in its obscurity or mystery as an intrinsic good, is stand as a placeholder for the understanding that we would like to have of ultimate things. We might even say that our inability to have that understanding is displayed in the very plurality and incoherence of the world's religions. If there were one true religion, then clearly we would know what the deal is in terms of the doctrine of that religion. As it is, not all religions even agree on whether there is a personal God, or an individual afterlife, at all. Religions don't even agree on whether the practice of religion aims only at this life or beyond it. Thus, while Christianity and Islâm clearly aim at the afterlife, Judaism, although always containing popular beliefs about the hereafter, makes no explicit promises of eternal life as the fruit of religious practice. Most curiously, Buddhism, which begins with monastic practices of renunciation and the clear project of avoiding rebirth, gives rises to permutations, at least in East Asia, where liberation valorizes life itself and even Nirvana does not preclude rebirith and continued individual existence.

This paradoxical situation is explicitly addressed, in the first instance by Buddhism itself, and, more recently in Western philosophy, by Immanuel Kant, for whom speculation about "things-in-themselves" produces "dialectical illusion" and the system of contradictions he calls the "Antinomies of Reason." Kant does think that some questions about transcendent objects can be settled on the basis of morality, that "God, freedom, and immortality" are required as postulates of the Moral Law, but his arguments for all of these (except freedom, perhaps) seem to require assumptions whose own credibility is suspect. What would be more striking, and perhaps revealing, is if morality required that we don't know the answers to questions about ultimate purposes and transcendent objects. This, I suspect, is actually the case. For our task in life, our "need to know," as in any military or intelligence operation, may involve things that we need to not know.

What is the reward of virtue? This has always been one of the fundamental questions of philosophy and religion. Is there divine retribution and justice? That the wicked often prosper and the good suffer is what has persuaded many that the universe is actually random, pointless, and meaningless. But the very essence of morality may depend on not knowing whether there is a reward for virtue or divine retribution and justice. This is because of the fundamental difference between morality and prudence. Morality, as understood from Confucius to Kant, is to do what is right, regardless of consequences or return. Prudence, on the other hand, is simply to govern one's affairs so as to satisfy an interest. This may be merely self-interest, or the interest of something of which one has charge (a family, company, state, etc.), but it is still an intention to obtain some particular goods. Morality may require the denial of an interest, for the sake of justice and righteousness.

Now, if one is good and righteous and holy in life merely because of the promise of divine reward or the threat of divine retribution, this simply converts morality into prudence. Our interest is to obtain salvation and bliss and to avoid damnation and punishment, so we use the means to that end. Interestingly, this approach is harshly condemned in the Bhagavad Gita, and its futility asserted:

[2:43] Their soul is warped with selfish desires, and their heaven is a selfish desire. They have prayers for pleasures and power, the reward of which is earthly rebirth.

Thus, when it comes to salvation, that is an end that prudence, by its nature, cannot attain. The very pursuit of self-interest effects rebirth.

Even Plato's great examination of the benefit of virtue and justice in the Republic merely concluded, like the Stoics later, that the just person is happier. Justice, therefore, is merely recommended to the prudent, who aim at happiness. Plato's uneasiness with this perhaps led to the inclusion of the "Myth of Er" at the end of the Republic, where the promise of divine reward and the threat of divine punishment is introduced -- adding another layer of the appeal to self-interest. The most dignity that can be attrituted to this approach is that it is one of "enlightened" self-interest.

If the divine reward of virtue and the punishment of vice were certain, then, just as in human affairs, it would merely be foolish, not wicked, to behave improperly. When, however, divine justice is problematic, and human justice limited and imperfect, the merely calculating person may find evil and injustice to offer the promise of greater rewards. The moral person, however, abstains from wrong merely because it is wrong, and shameful. As Confucius says, "The superior man understands right (), the mean man understands profit ()" [Analects IV:16]. Our lack of knoweldge of the ultimate purpose, meaning, or justice of life therefore separates the proper motive of moral action, as Kant says, the consciousness of duty, from the motive of prudent action, which is to find the means sufficient to satisfy our interests. As noted in the Gita, the latter may earn karmic reward, but not salvation. Christianity, on the other hand, appears to allow salvation by belief and repentance, even if merely prudent, with the qualification, as we see in Dante's Divine Comedy, that some, the truly moral and saintly, end up closer to God in Heaven than those whose belief was less pure. In other words, those who believe and act because of their desire for Heaven and their fear of damnation will attain Heaven, but will have a rather poor seat, the equivalent of the bleachers, in the cosmic ball park, with the Elect seated around God behind home plate.

If the human condition is one where we do not know the ultimate meaning and purpose of life, or whether there is divine justice, reward, and retribution, then the temptation or tendency is to say that there is no meaning and no justice, divine or otherwise. If all is but atoms and the void, and pleasure, in fact my pleasure, is all that really counts in life, since it feels good, then there is no barrier to agreeing with Thrasymachus or Nietzsche that self-interest and power are all that count. The person who restrains their self-interest out of just consideration of others is merely a fool, following a non-existent standard to no real purpose. There are always, of course, people who are virtuous and just, despite believing in no substantial existence for these things, or any non-immediate benefit for practicing them, simply out of self-respect. This is a precarious position, however, for being good merely to respect oneself requires that the good, rather than self-interest, is what is truly worthy of respect, and this is what their scepticism or unbelief has fundamentally unsettled. These are people who, in Plato's terms, are good merely out of habit. One need merely draw the obvious conclusion to adopt the position that the only self-respecting person abandons worry about goodness or justice and simple seizes as much power and pleasure as possible.

What we truly need to know, then, is not the ultimate meaning or purpose of life, but just that there is meaning and purpose, as found in the reality of the right, the good, and the beautiful. Any good person, in a sense, knows this implicitly. The philosopher, sceptic, or too clever sophisticate, however, requires more. Hence, we should hope to have a demonstrable metaphysical theory of value. As I have argued elsewhere, we can construct such a theory and have some confidence that matters of value are as real as matters of empirical fact, because value is merely an artifact of our existence as conscious beings, which severs the connection, let alone the identity, between our existence and existence as such. While we exist in a way that does not seem to benefit from the principle ex nihilo nihil fit ("out of nothing comes nothing"), or, as it appeas in physics, the conservation of mass-energy, i.e. we appear to become unconscious, and die, value is what remains within consciousness as the ghost or after-image of existence as such, which does benefit from the principle. It is what our existence is like apart from consciousness, which means apart from subject and object, that defeats the understanding, which can only grasp things in terms of representation and intention. But the substitute that we possess for such an understanding is indeed the end-in-itself of the good and the beautiful, however differentiated and specifically they appear in life.

As Plato thought that the love of wisdom began with the love of the kind of value we can see, beauty, now we can say that beauty most concretely contains the promise of what is not merely of this life and this, phenomenal, world. This is ironic, since mere beauty can be regarded as one of the most superficial and trival things in life, with no necessary connection to virtue or morality. Indeed, beauty sometimes seem positively adverse to virtue and morality. When the Greeks, of course, said "good and beautiful," they meant nobility as well as good looks, or even, as with Socrates, nobility without good looks. At best, beauty often seems inert and dormant. On the other hand, beauty has other permutations. The sublimely beautiful displays active and even fearful power. While one tends to think of wind and lightning in this respect, erotic beauty is just as much an expression of it, with a fearful power that disturbs and unsettles, even frightens, many, even as it drives a great deal of fashion, entertainment, and daily life, often threatening loss of control, both personal and public. The sublime and the erotic bespeak hidden power that is only latent in the merely beautiful.

While the numinosity of the sacred and holy is sometimes said to merely be a form of the sublime, there is considerably more to it than that. Where the sublime is powerful and even fearful, the numimous is positively uncanny and Other -- supernatural rather than natural. No longer an inert and dormant beauty, numinosity seems to have broken free from objects altogether, feeling like an intrusion from reality beyond phenomena, whether of divinities, spirits, or any other kinds of paranormal powers. This can still have its erotic aspect, as we see in the divine sexuality of Babylonian temple prostitution, or the pornographic sculptures on Indian temples. This certainly gives us another case of the difficulty of pinning down a construction of transcendent objects, since a religion like Christianity seems to construe the hereafter as devoid of sexuality. It is India that ironically combines the most austere ascesticism with the most explicit eroticism.

Of all the forms of value, then, the holy is at once the most promising, for the meaning it bespeaks, and the most frustrating, for the lack of postive information and understanding that we derive from its manifestations. Given the limitations of the human condition, or of human understanding, however, this is rather what we should expect. The ultimate meanings, understandings, values, and conditions are closed to us. The immediate meanings, understandings, values, and conditions are available, but as something over and above the mundane factual phenomena which the too clever sophisticate takes to be all that there is. That it is not all that there is at once gives us the reality of meaning and value, but only in relation to the phenomenal world. The form of value that contains no relation to the world, and so is in itself devoid of coherent conceptual content, is the holy. Trying to identify the holy with a form of value with positive content led Kant himself to construe the holy as the faultlessly moral (the angelic "holy will"). However, although we would like, in some ultimate construction of things, for the moral and the holy to be identical, as we find them they are not, and we even see them diverge in the moral ambivalence, not only of the pagan gods, who are positively human in their immorality, but even of the Biblical God, whose moral difficulties Jung explored in his Answer to Job.

It appears, then, that what we need to know are the values of the phenomenal world. Since we are not now living or operating beyond that, our doctrines and speculations about it end up being paradoxical and self-contradictory. Yet the values of the phenomenal world are themselves not truly of it, and present us a clue that there is more to things than what we see. The ultimate clue, though also the most tantalizing, is the sense of the numinous, in which we seem to glimpse an unaccountable majestas in the transcendent, whether we think that this is the God of Abraham and Isaac, the Existence, Consciousness, and Bliss of Brahman, the wonderful, cosmic Buddha-dharma, or even the Form of the Good. Whether we credit that or not may not make that much difference in our mundane tasks or enjoyment of life. As Confucius said, "I have long been offering my prayers" [Analects VII:35], just by being good. It is only a matter of concern when we want more, when the undeniable randomness, senselessness, and unfairness of events moves us to yearn for some way in which it will all make sense -- when the shortness and imperfection of life means that we want reunion with our loved ones, to enjoy moments that in fact were all too brief or that in our folly we did not appreciate enough at the time. We cannot know if this will ever be explained or made good. All we have is what Kant said, the sublime beauty of the starry heavens above and the sublime nobility and justice of the Moral Law within, and the question "What can we hope?" These are the meaning of life, and all that we need to know, even as they represent a flame of hope for more.

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