Insignificant to whom

In a conversation asking for compelling arguments against nihilism (the idea that life is without objective meaning, purpose, or intrinsic value), I found these points from reddit user “illogician”:

The claim that “life has no intrinsic meaning or value” looks to me not so much directly mistaken, but confused, and possibly a category mistake. Meaning and value are not things that are “out there” like oxygen and sugar are “out there”. Meaning and value are things that cognitive systems make. A brain that does not assign meaning to inputs and outputs and value certain things but not others is not a properly functioning brain – such a brain is not in the business of cognition.

When you say “a single human or even the entire human species is insignificant,” I want to know: insignificant to whom? I’m willing to bet that your existence is significant to a number of people. To ask whether it’s significant to “the universe” again looks to me like a category mistake. The universe (presumably) isn’t a person and doesn’t have interests.


Much depends on one’s view of meaning. You’re treating meaning as a one-place relation (X has meaning) and I don’t know how to make sense of that.

If we treat meaning instead as a two-place relativistic relation (X has meaning for C, where X is a data point or pattern of any kind and C is a cognitive agent) then things get clearer. We’re no longer talking about some ineffable ‘meaning’ in a vacuum, but embodied meaning as a natural product of cognition.

On this view “does life have meaning?” is a poorly formed philosophical question, arguably a category mistake because it refers to a cognitive state but implies that it might somehow exist apart from any cognitive agent. This is roughly the psychological equivalent of a Newtonian physicist asking “how fast is the asteroid traveling?” without stipulating a frame of reference in which to ground an answer.

I didn’t read the entire conversation, but the above stood out as compelling.