Jeff Noonan. Embodiment and the Meaning of Life | Review by Prof John McMurtry

Volume 89 Issue 3, Summer 2020, pp. 531-533


Jeff Noonan. Embodiment and the Meaning of Life

John McMurtry, FRSC Related information

Department of Philosophy, University of Guelph

Published Online: March 02, 2021

This book seeks to explain the meaning of life from a materialist standpoint where it faces its greatest challenge – the certain death of our embodied being. Jeff Noonan lucidly argues across metaphysics and moral and social philosophy for the ultimate meaning, not meaninglessness, of human life created by the limit of certain death. The implicit assumption is that there is no otherworldly life after death, or immaterial God source, or destiny of the individual soul beyond this world or any supra-or-extra-terrestrial meaning.

Noonan contends that our ultimate meaning emerges not in spite of, but, rather, in virtue of, the final curtain. His unifying argument is that death provides the “frame of finitude,” which compels a meaningful life to be lived, or there is in fact no meaning to it.

Although the history of human thought across cultures has found its hope in a mental or spiritual afterlife as a way to face death, a raw existential fact that we must bear alone, or a challenge for solution by information technology to program us for immortality, Noonan adopts material annihilation as a transcendental fact for the good. He argues against both classical and contemporary philosophers that death is not a disvalue as normally assumed but, instead, of necessary value because it demands choices, projects, and care to work for a better life on earth against dehumanizing oppressions. Humanity’s shared needs are a condition of the good as well because they demand positive action to meet them. Against Karl Marx’s vision of a “realm of freedom” beyond needs and the “realm of necessity,” Noonan argues that this “dependence on nature – is a condition of the good because it encourages us to pay attention to the things of the world and our relationships to them – the objective side of [our] existential freedom – the power to decide – the need to choose in order to survive” (emphasis in the original).

But how do we choose good rather than bad in our lives?

Noonan’s work allies with John McMurtry’s “life-ground ethics” (“life-value onto-axiology”) in three ultimate concepts and principles.

  1. Life-value” is adopted as the only true value on earth.
  2. The “life-coherence principle” (consistency with all of the conditions that enable life) is the ultimate test of validity across domains.
  3. “Life capital” is the substance of all that is of worth on the planet (that is, “life wealth/capacities that create more life wealth/capacities without loss and with cumulative gain through time”).

These full spectrum concepts are intrinsic to Noonan’s argument throughout and implicitly affirm a deeply anchored meaning of life against received notions of morality and value that have no life base or coordinates, and that dominantly assume today that individual meaning lies in competing for “money values.” Certain death for Noonan is the wake-up call from this systemic alienation from life. His essential argument can be found in a few words: “Dying is the condition without which we would not be able to give an overall shape, purpose, and identity to our lives.”

Noonan’s work critically confronts a rich variety of philosophers, issues, and positions that are well indexed. His most trenchant target is the robotic mechanism increasingly denaturing and displacing life on earth, which transhumanist and technotopian schools of thought seek to totalize, reducing human evolution to futuristic mechanical and computational substitutions for self-determining organic life rather than recognizing “the forms of non-alienated labour which are essential to the production of the goods of human life.”

The real barriers to living well as humans, Noonan suggests, are diverted into market-magic solutions for consumers who can pay. Noonan’s clarity of exposition and critique of this market roboticization seem prescient as the stripping of natural rhythms of every kind and dehumanizing of work, time, and the future of the living world continue in ever more mazed and computerized blindness to the meaning of life.

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