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 – 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:
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.]
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
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?
6. Both Beast and God
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.