President's Teaching Scholars Program




Wes Morriston
Philosophy Department

PHIL 4830 (Senior Seminar: Life, Death and Meaning) Course Description:

At some point, many people fall into a certain kind of perplexity. They find themselves wondering whether, beyond the particular projects and goals of everyday living, their lives have meaning. Without an overarching, transcendent purpose, they worry that life may not be not worth living. It is far from easy, however, to see whether there is any such purpose, or even what sort of purpose would make our lives fully meaningful. In some minds this produces a profound sense of absurdity. Anxiety about the meaning (or absurdity) of life is often triggered by the thought of death. According to some, the inevitability of death makes the kind of purpose that would give a satisfying meaning to one’s life unattainable. According to others, life would be meaningless without death.

This semester, we will wrestle with a series of questions closely related to the above-mentioned concerns. What would it take for a life to be fully meaningful, and what is the meaning of “meaning” here? Must one’s life be meaningful in some especially robust sense in order to be worth living? Would it help if there were a God, and if our lives had an important role to play in God’s plans? Or would God make no real difference?

Is death a destroyer – or is it perhaps an enhancer – of meaning? Assuming optimal conditions, would it be good (or bad?) for an individual to live forever? If death is an “experiential blank,” how (if at all) can it be bad for the individual who dies? Can the dead be harmed by events subsequent to their demise? Is it rational to worry so much more about the nothingness that (we fear) comes after death, and not at all about the nothingness that precedes our birth? And why is the thought of death so closely linked to worries about the meaning of life?

Our assigned readings give (sometimes eloquent) expression to a wide variety of perspectives on these (and related) questions. Students are encouraged to develop their own views and to defend them both in class discussion and in the papers they will be writing for the course.