Sven Nyholm

Meaning, Anti-Meaning, and the Knowledge of Death

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The absence of meaningfulness in life is meaninglessness. But what is the polar opposite of meaningfulness? In recent and ongoing work together with Stephen Campbell and Marcello di Paola respectively, I have explored what we dub “anti-meaning”: the negative counterpart of positive meaning in life. For example, coming to believe a crazy conspiracy theory and storming the capital of a democracy, causing damage to historical buildings and leaving several people dead in the end, can seem like the polar opposite of a positively meaningful thing to do. Creating a new technology that on balance does much more harm than good is another example. In my presentation, I will relate this idea of “anti-meaningful” actions, activities, and projects to the topic of death, and in particular the deaths or suffering of those who will live after our own deaths. If we today make choices or have lifestyles that later lead to unnecessarily early deaths and otherwise avoidable suffering of people who will live after we have died, does this rob our current choices and lifestyles of some of their meaning, perhaps even making them the opposite of meaningful in the long run? I will relate this idea of anti-meaning and what happens after our own deaths to recent work by Samuel Scheffler on what he calls “the collective afterlife” in one recent book and his four reasons to care about future generations suggested in another recent book. Moreover, to give concrete examples of what I have in mind, I will also briefly relate this overall idea to some worries about so-called existential risks associated with things like human-created climate change and uncontrollable artificial intelligence discussed by Toby Ord, Nick Bostrom, and others.


Sven Nyholm is Assistant Professor of Philosophy at Utrecht University, a member of the Ethics Advisory Board of the Human Brain Project, and an Associate Editor of the journal Science and Engineering Ethics. Much of his recent work has been about the impact of emerging technologies on our opportunities to live meaningful lives, have meaningful relationships, and do meaningful work. He is particularly interested in how life in the contemporary world – with technologies like robots and artificial intelligence – affect traditional ideas about ethics and our human self-understanding. Nyholm’s publications include Revisiting Kant’s Universal Law and Humanity Formulas (De Gruyter, 2015) and Humans and Robots: Ethics, Agency, and Anthropomorphism (Rowman & Littlefield International, 2020). He is currently writing his third book, This is Technology Ethics: An Introduction (Wiley-Blackwell, 2022).