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Münchhausen Trilemma and the Meaning of Life

Hieronymus Carl Friedrich Baron von Münchhausen was known for being a pathological liar. At least the fictionalised version of him. There are many stories surrounding the 18th-century German nobleman and his unbelievable achievements. His hunt for an eight-legged rabbit. The time when he travelled to the moon. Or his infamous ride on a cannonball. One of the most notable of his made-up stories is the namesake of the Münchhausen Trilemma, a concept about the tricky business of proving any truth. It’s a great place to start when contemplating the eternal question about the meaning of life.

What Is the Münchhausen Trilemma?

The Münchhausen Trilemma, also known as Agrippa’s Trilemma, is a thought experiment about the difficulty of proving any truth. At least in theory. When making a claim about the true nature of things, chances are you’ll be asked to justify your knowledge. You may be able to provide evidence for your claim. But then you’ll be asked to prove that evidence is sound before having to provide evidence for the evidence of your initial claim. And so on. According to the philosophical trilemma, you’ll always end up in one of three places:

Baron von Münchhausen
Baron von Münchhausen
  1. Circular reasoning: Using an initial claim or conclusion as evidence to support itself, without providing any external evidence or support. The answer is A. Why A? Because of B. Why B? Because of A.
  2. Regressive argument: Each piece of evidence requires further evidence. Like being trapped in a car with a 3-year-old forever. Why A? Because of B. Why B? Because of C. Why C? Because of D. Why…?
  3. Axiomatic argument: Using a claim based on self-evident or fundamental principles that are accepted without further evidence or explanation. Why? Because of the big bang / god / 42 / I say so.

The trilemma itself was named after Münchhausen due to one of his extraordinary adventures. Riding out and about the aristocrat’s horse gets stuck in a mire. But he manages to escape by pulling himself (and the horse) out by his own hair. An impossible accomplishment of course. As is the attempt to prove a truth when we lack a solid foundation for knowledge. Whatever we base a statement on, the why will pull the metaphorical rug from under it.

While the connection to Baron von Münchhausen was coined by German philosopher Hans Albert in 1968, it’s actually an ancient argument. The trilemma goes back to the 1st century and Agrippa the Skeptic who used it to challenge people who thought they had arrived at the truth. And is there a bigger truth to be found than the meaning of life? Perhaps. But this is what we’re going to talk about anyway.

Münchhausen Trilemma and the Meaning of Life

Once you play the Game of Why to its inevitable conclusion, it’s hard to unsee how the trilemma pervades our lives. Inquisitiveness is seen as a virtue. But at some point, something deep inside of you wishes that dreaded question wouldn’t be asked at all. So you have to put a stake in the ground, which led my wife to hypothesise that the belief in god started with annoyed parents who ran out of answers to their toddlers’ why questions.

The same goes for the question about the meaning of life. It’s perhaps the deepest yet most boring and fascinatingly unoriginal question you can ask nowadays. Why are we here? What’s the point of all of this? When did it stop being funny to throw the number 42 around? Trying to answer any of those questions we run into the Münchhausen Trilemma. So let’s consider a few answers you probably haven’t heard.

John Danaher and Survival

An intriguing one comes from John Danaher, a legendary Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu coach and part-time philosopher. Asked on the Lex Fridman Podcast what the meaning of life was, the black belt takes us back to the emergence of the question itself:

For most of human existence, the meaning of life was very very simple. Survival. The only thing that humans cared about was just surviving. Because it was so damn difficult for the early years of human existence in this Earth. If you look at ourselves as biological agents, everything about our body is set up for one mission, and that is survival.

John Danaher

When people were busy not starving, dehydrating or being killed by nature in a myriad of ways, the question of why we were here didn’t even occur to them. It was implicitly obvious. The problems only started once humanity evolved. “Through the use of technology and social structure,” so Danaher, we’ve become much less vulnerable as a species. Now that our lives were pretty much “guaranteed”, he elaborates, the struggle for survival has been relegated to the background. As a result, we’ve started looking for meaning elsewhere.

Ernest Becker and the Immortality Project

Danaher’s answer to the meaning of life echoes the immortality project, also known as the heroism project. This fascinating concept about the human response to mortality was developed by American anthropologist Ernest Becker. In his 1973 book The Denial of Death, he saw civilisation as an elaborate attempt of our species to become “symbolic beings” who heroically contribute to world life.

Humans are the only species who are aware that their time on Earth has an expiration day. It can be a fear-inducing realisation. Our bodies will decompose and our existence be forgotten. Unless we manage to prolong our lives. Within the context of the immortality project, we attempt this by subscribing to religious beliefs that promise eternal life. By leaving a legacy through the work we put out in the world. Or by raising a family so our lineage continues and our genes live on.

According to Becker, the goal is always the same: to achieve some form of eternal existence or enduring legacy beyond our physical lifespan. The only other option was to numb our anxiety about death and compensate for a failure to live “heroically”. If the task of making ourselves spiritually immortal overwhelms us, the only other option is to develop coping mechanisms and distract us from the uncomfortable reality. With drugs, alcohol or Netflix.

Alan Watts and Being Alive

In both Becker’s and Danaher’s readings, mortality is the ultimate source of our quest for meaning. This search seems to increase the more we’re aware of our impermanence and, paradoxically, the less we have to struggle for survival. No wonder philosophers have responded with attempts at simplification. Alan Watts, the self-described spiritual entertainer, is one of them:

The meaning of life is just to be alive. It is so plain and so obvious and so simple. And yet, everybody rushes around in a great panic as if it were necessary to achieve something beyond themselves.

Alan Watts

In the spirit of Zen Buddhism and its infamous Zen stories, Watts sees us as needlessly complicating and overthinking the question. In a sense, it’s a positive reading of Danaher’s “survival” and Becker’s immortality project. Life itself is enough. Truth be told, it’s probably not too satisfying a solution.

Now, we could argue that rather than answering the question directly, all of the above philosophers ponder the nature of the question itself. They question the reason for asking it in the first place. This doesn’t make them immune to the Münchhausen Trilemma. So let’s consider the take of angel investor and philosopher Naval Ravikant who has tackled the question through the lens of Agrippa’s thought experiment. What does it mean if any statement about the meaning of life leads to one of three dead-ends?

There is no answer. The real answer is because.

You get to make up your own answer is the beauty. If there was a single answer we would not be free, we would be trapped. Because then we’d all have to live to that answer. Then we’d all be like robots, each one competing with each other to fulfill that single meaning more than the others. […] But luckily there is no answer. You just do whatever you want.

Naval Ravikant

The fact that there is no ultimate answer to the question means you can make up your own. This may sound reassuring at first. Until decision fatigue sets in and the abundance of choices to search for meaning depletes our energy and paralyses us all together.

Bustamante and Bilyeu’s Self-Respect

Regardless, let’s suppose all of the above is true. The struggle for survival is off the table (unless we manufacture it). We’re still trapped in our little heroism project. And while our desire for meaning cannot be fulfilled through achievements, we’re free (or doomed) to come up with a purpose ourselves because there is no real answer. The challenge then remains to find something meaningful to do. Clearly, just sitting in the woods and “being alive” isn’t going to cut it.

If we believe former spy Andrew Bustamante and entrepreneur Tom Bilyeu, life is ultimately all about “self-respect” (Bustamante) or “How you feel about yourself when you’re by yourself.” (Bilyeu). That’s different from measuring your worth by what you’ve accomplished as behind every achievement lurks emptiness (What now?). According to Bilyeu, what eventually counts is the meaningful struggle in and of itself: “Tying your self-esteem to a sincere pursuit of something feels like the only way out of the death trap.”

The difference to early humans’ shared fight for survival is that nowadays we get to choose our favourite personal struggle. There’s a high chance we fail. There’s a slim chance we’ll achieve great things. But it doesn’t matter as long as we find a struggle worthwhile to us. Our Circle of Competence if you will. Like building a business or figuring out how to think for yourself through writing. According to Bilyeu, it all boils down to the question: “What would I do, and love, every day even if I were failing?”

Closing Thoughts

With survival as the shared goal off the table, we are free to pursue our personal heroism project. That freedom can be daunting. But the solution seems to be to take on so much responsibility in your own chosen field that you perpetually fight for metaphorical survival. Then you won’t even have time to ask about life’s meaning. Similarly, proving the truth may be an impossible struggle. But it’s a meaningful pursuit to get as close to it as possible. Who would’ve expected that level of insight to come from a pathological liar?