humour, music, life, sociology. friendly agnostic.

Showing My Hand – The Meaning of Life

Posted by spritzophrenia on June 21, 2010

For twenty years, off and on, I’ve thought about writing a book on The Meaning of Life. Last year I decided to work more explicitly towards that goal, and this blog is part of my journey towards publishing. Here’s The Meaning of Life – Part One, for example. I really value your input and constructive criticism.

I had thought I’d call my book simply, “The Meaning of Life”. However, in my research I’ve just discovered a book in the library, published only a few years ago by a UK professor of English titled “The Meaning of Life”. Aargh! Robbed! Beaten to my goal! 😉

Actually, I’m feeling quite content and rather phlegmatic. Let’s face it, it’s a big question and there’s room for all. I haven’t read his book yet, but I feel my hand somewhat forced. Before reading it, I want to note down my general ideas for structuring my book, lest I be accused of plagiarism.

42 Meaning of Life
42 – I know, I don’t get it either 😉

Big caveats: This is the beginning of a work in progress, largely in note form, misses out a lot, and will no doubt change over the course of the project. This post is abandoned, rather than finished. (Hopefully the rest of my blog is more readable – eg my stuff on Atheist Spirituality). That said, here’s a preview:

Book structure.
I’m intending to make it personal as well as philosophical? How to pitch it? Academic versus popular is tricky. I want pictures! eg Engineers versus Physicists versus Philosophers

[Edit: I now think the structure will be more short vignettes, but the content will be similar, so will leave this here.]

Working Title:
42 Is Not Enough:
The Meaning of Life

“God is dead! And we have killed him!” – Nietzsche

“How can anyone discover what life means?
It is too deep for us, too hard to understand.
But I devoted myself to knowledge and study;
I was determined to find wisdom and the
answers to my questions”
– Ecclesiastes (The Bible)

“‘If life was devoid of realities there would be no meaning to life’, my father wrote in one of his forewords to his book, in Hindi” – Sri Bachchan, Indian actor.

“The meaning of life is to find your gift, the purpose of life is to give it away.” – Joy J. Golliver

1. Welcome to Your Life

My intentions, biases and background. (Perhaps to be unpacked through the book.) I’m an open agnostic, or perhaps a theistic agnostic or a deist.
This book is only the story so far. I’d like to revisit it in 20 years and update or change it. After all, I have neglected major religions like Hinduism, and I can’t possibly fairly evaluate everything. Look at how big the religion and philosophy sections in public libraries are! The dangers of guru-ism?

Having said that, I do think there are less than a dozen major worldview alternatives, eg atheism, theism, polytheism, pantheism, monism… And few options within those are realistic, eg polytheism is just too unlikely imo. Within theism, Mormonism, for example, is just too unbelievable. US archaeology alone destroys it. Sorry Mormons 😦

Disclaimer: I’m well aware that a non-adherent of a religion usually makes mistakes in emphasis, nuance and understanding when writing about it. My apologies for any factual errors. I feel uncomfortable criticising a spiritual path from the outside so I’m relying on those writing from the inside. I also acknowledge the large number of good, moral people in any worldview.

Music! Supertramp | The Logical Song That song really affected me and made me think, from a young age.

Feel free to skip straight to my answer, although it will be more fully understood in the context of other things.

“If everybody contemplates the infinite instead of fixing the drains, many of us will die of cholera.” ~John Rich

2. There’s no Escape
(The “feel” of the meaning of life)

It’s a universal question, and arguably the motivator behind the spiritual search. Atheist spirituality.
“God is dead. We have killed him” – Nietzsche. But this is a tragedy that N spent his life trying to overcome, not the triumphalism of some atheists. See nihilism. My experiences / thinking as a youth.

Humour – Monty Python’s film, Hitch-hikers Guide to the Galaxy.

“There is a theory which states that if ever anybody discovers exactly what the Universe is for and why it is here, it will instantly disappear and be replaced by something even more bizarre and inexplicable. There is another theory which states that this has already happened.” – Douglas Adams

42 – note it’s called the big question of “life, the universe and everything”. Doesn’t mention the meaning of life, tho’ it’s implied?

Note 42 is the result of asking the wrong question. It’s worth considering is asking “what’s the meaning of life?” the wrong question too? (thanks Randy Murray for this).

The motivation for the search. Nihilism, atheism. Not all, or even most atheists end up nihilists, but it’s a strong pull for me.

To look in the eye of meaningless-ness is to feel the horror of being
“Cast out upon 40,000 fathoms of the deep” – Joseph Conrad??

3. Unpacking The Question
(What do we mean by ‘meaning’?)

What does “The Meaning of Life” (MoL) actually mean?
Distinguish between ‘meaning’, ‘purpose’ and ‘significance’. See my The Meaning of Life – Part One
Some people think that the question is a non-question, eg Marty at AtheistClimber. I respectfully disagree (as per my comments in his blog).

Animals and the meaning of life – dolphins, higher primates. Is intelligence alone the measure of value? No.

I think unpacking the question actually leads to a lot of insight into what the answer might be.

4. The Invisible Hand

Concentrating mainly on Christianity, as that’s my background but will also reference Islam and Judaism where I can. Judaism does consider the question to a degree. Victor Frankl was Jewish, although his conclusions in “Man’s Search for Meaning” do not require any spiritual point of view.

My previous conclusion that meaning is found “in God”, and later “in Jesus”. But what does that actually mean? Is it coherent? Probably not.

Conclusion: Surprisingly, even if God exists, it may not give an answer to the meaning of life. “God” cannot be a meaningful answer to the question “What is the meaning of life?”

Perhaps God needs a meaning of life too? Perhaps all “intelligent life” does?

5. If You See the Buddha on the Road, Kill Him
(Mysticism/The East)

So far, I don’t think the concept of the meaning of life is actually addressed by Buddhism. (Buddhist friends, please help?)
This leads to the interesting idea that MoL is a Western (theist influenced?) idea. My attempts at meditation. Ultimately, I don’t think Buddhism is intellectually helpful.

Mysticism? Christian Mystics? AW Tozer? (He now feels too hardline to me.) My few pagan / wiccan experiences? New Age worldview?

from http://offthemark.com

6. Both Beast and God
(Reason, Philosophy)

Am I a rationalist? Possibly, but there may be limits to reason (viz Bertrand Russell’s quote).

“To live alone one must be a beast or a god, says Aristotle. Leaving out the third case: one must be both – a philosopher.” ~Friedrich Nietzsche

J P Moreland moving the question to being about value (in Scaling the Secular City) He’s a good philosopher, but I don’t think this satisfies. Although losing a sense of value is a consequence of loss of meaning for me.

Kai Neilsen and other atheist philosophers. The “new atheists” – Dawkins, Hitchens, et al (if I must! 😉 )

Philosophy is life’s dry-nurse, who can take care of us – but not suckle us. ~Soren Kierkegaard

The point of philosophy is to start with something so simple as not to seem worth stating, and to end with something so paradoxical that no one will believe it. ~Bertrand Russell

God offers to every mind its choice between truth and repose. Take which you please – you can never have both. ~Ralph Waldo Emerson

Philosophy begins in wonder. And, at the end, when philosophic thought has done its best, the wonder remains. ~Alfred North Whitehead

7. My Answer

I think the MoL is essentially found in living life. In life itself. (Not in biology, but in a human life lived.) Living, loving, enjoying sunsets, working to help others, playing a sport. Living itself has intrinsic meaning. (Or maybe not – that could be challenged.) Thus the specific meaning could be – in fact, must be – different for each person.

It’s the same conclusion Baggini came to, tho I came to it independently. But as he says, it’s not a great secret and you don’t have to be a great philosopher to figure it out. He is more eloquent than I am here:

“The only sense we can make of the idea that life has meaning is that there are some reasons to live rather than to die, and those reasons are to be found in the living of life itself. ”

Surprisingly, this is an answer that works for both theists and atheists.

(He also agrees with me that a religious worldview only makes a small difference to the outcome.)

“Believe those who are seeking the truth. Doubt those who find it.” ~Andre Gide

8. How Then Shall We Live?

What life might be like, “living” the meaning of life.
This book is only the story so far. I may revisit it in 20 years and update or change it.

My working bibliography is here.


What do you think? Would you enjoy reading such a book? Please comment below. Ideas and helpful criticism are really welcome both on content and structure, or anything really.

31 Responses to “Showing My Hand – The Meaning of Life”

  1. Iain said

    It sounds like a worthy project and a book I’d enjoy reading. Looking over your notes alone I managed to chuckle several times with “aha!” moments. I can only imagine how interesting the final product would be.

    • Thanks Iain! 🙂 You are the sort of person that would contribute well to this project methinks.

      • Iain said

        It does seem to be up my alley. I think all of these chapter ideas hit my interest buttons.

        To add a comment, I think you are right that unpacking the question gives us hints at the answer but it also highlights the danger of predefining and answer by using the wrong question-finding process. Otherwise known as a hidden premise! When my flatmate was doing an honours in philosophy, she wrote her honors project on the question, “what is the meaning of life?”, and I thought that was a problem with her research (she had predefined constraints on the path she was willing to follow to the conclusion).

    • And I think “chuckling” is good. It’s gonna be pretty dry if I can’t insert some humour there. As I said, the academic vs popular “tone” is something that I’m wondering about.

      I *can* write VERY academically. And my ego says “I want academic respect”. But how many people read philosophy texts?

      • Iain said

        Popularisation is good. Deep thoughts don’t have to be complicated. In fact, I think the better teacher is the one who can discuss a powerful concept at an accessible level.
        You’d think that after seeing what a force majeure a guy like Carl Sagan was, the academic world would get over themselves and their hatred of bringing the ideas to the people. But I still meet people time and again who say things to me as though the popularising academics aren’t the real heart of the academy. But i think they have it exactly opposite.

        • Some favourite quotes:

          “Good philosophy is like a Swiss lake. Its depth is revealed by its clarity.”
          (Schopenhauer I think)

          “Whatever can be said, can be said clearly.”

  2. […] Showing My Hand – The Meaning of Life […]

  3. SugarPop said

    If something is really worth saying, it is possible to do so simply and elegantly. Who REALLY cares if the appeal is academic or popular – surely (and I’m an academic – a work in progress PhD’er) simple and elegant is the ultimate goal of expression. I guess I *should* confess a caveat – I’m a rebellious academic, and am personally opposed to the snobbery that occurs in that space for the sake of *academia* and ego. So shoot me. Go Mr Elliot – I look forward to your future missives 🙂

  4. Warning! I need your mailing address. MUST send you my dad’s book. Will not stalk – promise!

    • Oh, stalk away! If I find you outside my house (with steep steps) I will simply marvel at how you got there all the way from Canada! 😉

      And yes please, your Dad’s book would be wonderful. Thankyou 🙂

  5. This is blogger/writer/nice guy Randy Murray’s response. His blog is http://whowritesforyou.com



    This sounds like an interesting book project, especially if you make it a personal one. There are libraries full of books that explore the topic. By talking about your journey you can cover new ground, guaranteed.

    I think that one section you should consider is “Why look for meaning in life?” You can discuss and explore meaning coming from outside one’s self verses created meaning. Or this could be a part of your #3 – “unpacking” section.

    Although you touch on it, I think you could expand on the impact of the question on systems that are not belief-based. Does life and biology have a meaning?

    And you can explore the possible aspects of living as if there were no externally dictated meaning.

    I’d be cautious about directly attacking any religion. I tend to agree with you about Mormonism, but attacking them directly might unnecessarily alienate potential readers.

    I think your next step would be a full book proposal, and perhaps, to write your introduction.

    Good luck and I hope to see more!


    • Thankyou Randy for taking the time. These are helpful comments.

      Yeah. I was considering the more personal side might be a better
      angle. Elizabeth ??’s bestseller “Eat, Pray, Love” weaves the
      personal and the metaphysical together very well.


    • Re: offending people. That is a very tricky one, given the subject matter and I’m very aware of it.

      Added disclaimer.

  6. Definitely do this! Seems to me that, in agreement with Randy, this might be more effective as a personal narrative. Interestingly, I was especially touched when you brought up the Supertramp song. Made me think of the similarities you share with so many people in this search. Also made me think of the direction in publishing that’s opening up all sorts of doors, like multimedia book projects. Your ethos lends itself to an edge-pushing format, not just your run-of-the-mill philosophy debate carried out through ivory-tower publishing. Be fearless. I’m also glad you brought up the Killing the Buddha reference. Made me feel even more strongly about the work KTB is doing and how your thoughts fit well with that paradigm.

    Thanks so much for sharing. Please keep me posted.

    • Iain said

      I’d be interested to see how the two of you, Jonathan and Ag-Pente, interpret this “killing the buddha” idea. I find buddhism interesting. I’d love to hear more of your thoughts.

      Jonathan, perhaps you would care to elaborate (or even blog) on why you didn’t find buddhism helpful.

      • Iain, it’s not a complete answer to your question, but for now https://spritzophrenia.wordpress.com/2010/01/06/the-dark-side-of-the-buddha/

        I find the loss of individual personality in Nirvana scary. I think this ultimately means individuals have no value. Also I think stuff like sex and other ‘attachments’ is a good, which the enlightened give up. Some Buddhists say I misunderstand. Maybe I do.

        • Iain said

          Thanks, I’ll give that a read.

          Maybe you misunderstand, or may they (and by that i mean “They”) are using another vague concept YET AGAIN to allow convenient equivocation whenever it suits them. Lol sorry, frustration with metaphysics much?

        • I totally agree. I am trying to be humble and open, but in the end I value reason highly. My achilles heel.

          I think a lot of intellectual positions are hidden in jargon, and the emperors are naked.

          Heidegger? Hegel? Turgid as fuck.

        • Iain said

          I agree. I’m not saying that there is not value in many perspectives and opinions, because there clearly is and it doesn’t pay to be dogmatically blinded to new information. But I’m sick of feeling second class because I want to use reason and I think discussion is worthless without clarity.

          Sometimes I think that raising up alternatives to clear-thinking reason is just a way of excusing… unreasonableness.

        • Yup. I believe in Eastern thought there is sometimes a disparaging of reason in favour of experience.

          cf the “monkey mind” of (i think) Hinduism.

        • Iain said

          Here’s my awesome example of metaphysical obfuscation, by Heidegger in “What is Metaphysics?”:

          What is to be investigated is being only and—nothing else; being alone and further—nothing; solely being, and beyond being-nothing. What about this Nothing? … Does the Nothing exist only because the Not, i.e. the Negation, exists? Or is it the other way around? Does Negation and the Not exist only because the Nothing exists? … We assert: the Nothing is prior to the Not and the Negation…. Where do we seek the Nothing? How do we find the Nothing…. We know the Nothing…. Anxiety reveals the Nothing…. That for which and because of which we were anxious, was ‘really’—nothing. Indeed: the Nothing itself—as such—was present…. What about this Nothing?—The Nothing itself nothings. (Heidegger as quoted by Carnap 1932, 69)

          I mean… really…

      • The Agnostic Pentecostal said

        Iain, here’s one thing I was referring to that sums it up nicely: http://killingthebuddha.com/manifesto/

    • Great ideas Dave (A.P.)

      Right now even the thought of a normal book is daunting, and multimedia even more so. But yeah, combined with a website etc… could be good. I do very much like the idea of multimedia, as in a good presentation.

      Glad you think “many” would be interested. I don’t get heaps of hits here at present, so that’s encouraging.

      I suppose I just need to link with like minded people.

      • The Agnostic Pentecostal said

        I wasn’t necessarily referring to a book/website project. My good friend, a veteren of the publishing industry and uber-geek, has told me of hopeful developments in the industry leveraging things like the iPad…where you can, for instance, seamlessly insert that Supertramp song within the text..but that’s a very basic example. The ideas swirling around emerging publishing seem to be gravitating toward enabling the author with more creativity in the medium…as much as the publishers leverage with marketing, so should the authors with their content creation. …but…

        …that’s neither here no there. One step at a time. One chapter at a time, one page at a time, one sentence at a time. I’m having trouble myself in that department.

  7. Cristine said

    i would love to read your book as I struggle with the same questions..i have been deeply involved in the new age movement and conservative Christianity and several other belief systems in between and I find myself still struggling with the same existentialism I have struggled with my entire life. I think you are on to something as far as living in the moment. I have really been putting this into practice lately as I have realized that due to numerous distractions, I am missing the important moments

    • Cristine, we must chat sometime. I’m discovering there are more and more people like us out there, and I’d love to hear your perspective. Thanks for taking the time to comment 🙂

  8. […] 19th/20th-century French writer, Andre Gide, who devoted himself to intellectual honesty. My friend Spritzophrenia brought up this brilliant Gide […]

Sorry, the comment form is closed at this time.

%d bloggers like this: