The Meaning of Life

In Douglas Adams’ Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, a question is asked: “What is the meaning of life, the universe and everything?” The answer given, “42”, shows that this is comedy and not to be taken seriously but the question itself has been taken seriously and debated endlessly throughout human history.

The question is pernicious because it is based on an unquestioned assumption, namely that life does have a meaning, that this meaning applies to all people at all times and that this meaning can be known. Once such a meaning is defined (and very many have been defined), the way is open to powermongers to impose it on the rest of us, curtailing our freedom, narrowing our intellectual horizons and putting our lives at risk.

To see that this is no imaginary threat we only need look at any of the religious or political dictatorships that have cast their shadow on human history and continue to do so, or at cults such as Heaven’s Gate, which led its befuddled followers to group suicide, or Aum Shinrikyo, which perpetrated the sarin gas attack on the Tokyo subway.

If there is such a thing as The Meaning of Life, then who or what decides what it is? It is no good trying to discern it in nature because nature knows nothing of meaning: meaning is a mental construct. Thus only a mind can conceive of a meaning and apply it to something.

Religious believers will of course say that it is their deity that decides The Meaning of Life and conveys it to us. Even if the whole notion of a deity were not paradoxical and therefore absurd, we would have to face the fact that the gods apparently disagree fundamentally among themselves as to what The Meaning of Life actually is, begging the question: Which god, if any, has the right answer? The question is thus swept up by storms of religious dispute.

Can the question be solved by the cool logic of secular philosophy? It is hard to see how. If the conclusions of philosophy are to be more than the idiosyncratic opinions of the individual philosopher, they have to be anchored somehow in the real world. This is the reason for the Cartesian “Cogito” (Cogito ergo sum, “I think therefore I am”). But how do you connect a mental construct with the world of trees, rocks, rivers and tigers? I know of no way. (Science also has this problem but we will leave that for another day.)

Where, then, does this leave The Meaning of Life? The answer is that there is no such thing as The Meaning of Life. Or, if you prefer, there is no objective (i.e. mind-independent) reality called The Meaning of Life, only whatever meaning the individual chooses to invent for himself. No one such meaning has any priviledged status: all are as good or as bad as one another.

If you want to see a meaning in life, that is up to you but be aware that, like all ideologies, this one constrains you and limits you rather than freeing you and opening your horizons.

I prefer the view that life has no intrinsic meaning. I apply my own meaning to it, not a fixed meaning, but whatever meaning seems appropriate at the moment. Gods and creeds, both spiritual and political, are so many dictatorships pressing their dead hand upon the human mind and are to be rejected.

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About SilverTiger

I live in Islington with my partner, "Tigger". I blog about our life and our travels, using my own photos for illustration.
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19 Responses to The Meaning of Life

  1. This is wonderful, and I agree with you completely. Your last sentence is beautifully phrased; I’m going to quote it on my blog.

  2. Pingback: your life’s meaning is up to you « more than the sum of my parts

  3. mrparks says:

    Wow. Totally agree.

  4. oneguy says:

    I like your thinking on this. What do you think came first, humanity’s quest for the meaning of life, or the dictatorships of religion? I would tend to think the former, and that this longing for an answer made people ripe for exploitation, but I’m not really sure.

    So long, and thanks for all the fish! 😉

  5. SilverTiger says:

    oneguy Says: I like your thinking on this.

    Thanks! 🙂

    oneguy Says: What do you think came first, humanity’s quest for the meaning of life, or the dictatorships of religion?

    Not being a historian, I don’t have an answer to that. I read somewhere (though this view might have been superseded) that some archaeologists thought it likely that early hominid groups were burying their dead and placing possessions in the grave with the corpse even before they had achieved speech. If true, this argues for deep sub-rational origin for religious impulses. (In that case, how do some people “escape” and become atheists?)

    It is hard to imagine a religion consisting of a sole believer but, logically speaking, that is how all religions begin. People like Jesus, the Buddha, Zoroaster, etc start, I think, as “lone voices crying in the wilderness”, until their followers create organizations to perpetuate their teachings. That’s when the trouble starts because, as Lord Acton famously said: “All power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely”.

    This doesn’t explain why religions start at all. I think the reasons are probably complex and that there may be a basket of motives which individually come into play to different degrees according to circumstances. For example, although science has overtaken religion in its role of “explaining the universe” there remain other uses for religion such as answering man’s indefinable yearnings. The plethora of New Age cults shows that there is still plenty of “spiritual” hunger about.

    Cheers,
    Tiger

  6. Tim says:

    In what way is the entire concept of a deity paradoxical (and therefore absurd)? I’m asking honestly, and not in the rhetorical sense. (I *have* heard the converse, that a science that presumes causes for every effect, but rejects any possibility of deity, is paradoxical.)

    Also, you make the premise that an “escape” implies a move to atheism, suggesting that an escape in the opposite direction is impossible. This seems, at the very least, quite arrogant, and seems to presume that proving the non-existence of God (proving a negative) is possible. Did I misread what you wrote?

    As for me, I’m on a constant search for the truth, regardless of how it’s dressed up and presented. No doubt I have my biases, as do you. Even so, I’m not married to them, and I’m not afraid of discarding theology or beliefs that can’t hold up to scrutiny, especially if the only reason for believing it is “because the preacher said it.” – Tim

    P.S. My favorite “meaning of life” answer was given by Curly in “City Slickers” when he held up his index finger and Billy Crystal said “Your finger? That’s the most important thing?” 😀

  7. SilverTiger says:

    In response to Tim. Passages in italics are quotations from your comment.

    Thanks for your comment. You raise some interesting questions which I will attempt to address.

    In what way is the entire concept of a deity paradoxical (and therefore absurd)?

    The first point is that where logic applies, paradox is normally thought to indicate an error in logical reasoning, i.e. that the statement containing or leading to the paradox is absurd so, in a sense, “absurd” is redundant in my sentence and doesn’t need separate justification.

    I find the concept of a deity paradoxical; others might not. The claim that the concept of a deity is paradoxical is not argued in my post; it is simply alleged in passing, as it were.

    I would sketch a justification of the claim as follows: as far as I can see, the world is entirely physical and operates according to a set of “laws” or regularities that science is gradually discovering. The idea that there is an agency that is non-material, “spiritual” and “supernatural” and yet nevertheless intervenes in the physical (at least to the extent of “creating” it) makes no sense to me. In order to introduce such an agency, it seems to me that you have to violate the principles on which science has found the world works. This means that either the view of the world we have from science is wrong or that the concept of a deity is wrong. You cannot have both of them. If we believe the world is as science tells us, then the deity cannot exist. Hence my contention that the concept of a deity is paradoxical (and therefore absurd).

    The above is obviously not a formal “proof”. It justifies the statement to me but it might not justify it to others.

    Also, you make the premise that an “escape” implies a move to atheism

    Not exactly. What I said was that I had seen a suggestion that pre-linguistic humans buried their dead and that if true, this would suggest a sub-rational origin for religious impulses. In other words, it would suggest that religious impulses are “programmed” into us without our volition.

    But if that were true, then the question would arise as to how some people can shake off this conditioning (“escape” it) and become atheists. There is no assumption, arrogant or otherwise in it, simply a questioning of how the suggestion can stand up to the fact that some people are atheists.

    As for me, I’m on a constant search for the truth, regardless of how it’s dressed up and presented. No doubt I have my biases, as do you. Even so, I’m not married to them, and I’m not afraid of discarding theology or beliefs that can’t hold up to scrutiny, especially if the only reason for believing it is “because the preacher said it.”

    I can only approve of this. You cannot ask of anyone more than that they “constant[ly] search for the truth” as long as they do this honestly. In your second sentence (Even so, I’m not married to them…) you echo the theme of my post.

    In 300 BC or so, the Chinese philosopher Chuang Tzu pointed out that, for the purposes of discussion, we have to adopt a “resting place” or, as we would now say, a “position” or “point of view”, from which to make our point, but that we should always regard this as temporary and be ready to abandon it when it proves unsatisfactory. Moving thus from one point of view to a better one is the way we make progress in understanding ourselves and our world.

    P.S. My favorite “meaning of life” answer was given by Curly in “City Slickers” when he held up his index finger and Billy Crystal said “Your finger? That’s the most important thing?” 😀

    The simile of the finger pointing at the moon is often used in Zen. The idea is that the master’s teaching is the finger pointing at the moon (enlightenment) but the student, instead of seeing the moon, sees only the finger. Maybe the exchange you quote was alluding to this.

    Thanks for the above. I hope you will continue to visit and make interesting comments.

  8. Tim says:

    Re: Deity & Paradox

    I would presume that any being sufficiently superior to create the known universe would not necessarily be bound by any of the constraints inherent in the system. To draw a programming parallel, just because a Visual Basic programmer is constrained by the rules of the language doesn’t mean that the author of the operating system or firmware or microcode of the chip is similarly constrained. Naturally, there is also an implication of superior intelligence, but this is not strictly necessary, as the superiority of said being might be confined to the nature of its existence, and its demonstrated ability to create lesser beings.

    Re: Escape, Atheism, etc

    I probably read too much into what you wrote. I have been working on a blog entry (and since I know Tiffany will read this, I am still working on it!) titled “Atheism as a Meme.” In the study of memetics, it’s become fashionable to toss out all religions as successful memes, as they have evolved into self-replicating thought patterns that tend to discourage contrarian thought. (Clearly, such people did not know my father, who was an ordained and degreed Southern Baptist minister, but also possessing a BSME.)

    Re: Zen, the Moon, and Billy Crystal

    I would love to think that the scene was playing to multiple levels, but when the finger belongs to Jack Palance, I rather doubt it. 😀 – Tim

  9. Tim says:

    Oh, I would be remiss if I failed to add (in response to your opening paragraph) the “Ultimate Question”:

    What is 6 x 7?

  10. Tim, this is why I get frustrated in theological discussions. You say in one post that you’re “not afraid of discarding theology or beliefs that can’t hold up to scrutiny”; but then in the next post, faced with Tiger’s eloquently logical explanation of why he (and I!) find the idea of a supreme being paradoxical based on scientific knowledge, you say that you “would presume that any being sufficiently superior to create the known universe would not necessarily be bound by any of the constraints inherent in the system.”

    So … you say you’re open to having your belief disproven, but then you say that no such proof can be given. Christians I’ve spoken to about my requirement for proof as to the existence of a God say that it’s all a matter of faith, and that I shouldn’t require proof of God’s existence. As James Randi says in one of his books, “Religious people can’t be argued with logically, because they claim that their beliefs are of such a nature that they cannot be examined, but just ‘are.'”

    You can’t provide any proof for me of God’s existence, and regardless of how open-minded and logical you are — and I know you are both those things — your religious faith is such that no evidence I can present to you of his nonexistence can ever be sufficient.

  11. Tim says:

    Re: Faith vs. Proof

    Let’s play a logic game then. Let’s assume for a moment that everything that we experience, was in fact created by someone/something. If that is the sole presumption, then it follows (quite logically) that the creator is superior to the created, at least in terms of being sufficiently superior to get the ball rolling (or the big bang banging). Isn’t that logical?

    Go back to the programming analogy that I gave. Is it logical to assume, even if I’ve never seen the source code for Windows or the microcode for the Intel processor line, that those guys can’t play pointer-arithmetic games, simply because VB doesn’t allow it? The very rules that VB abides by are inherently superseded by the boundary system (the OS and processor). If I wanted to create my own Windows control, but don’t have the capability within my toolset to do so, it follows that the person who built my environment (Windows) has a different toolset, and/or is bound by a different set of rules. Why then, is it illogical to presume that a creator isn’t bound by the very rule set that it creates?

    In terms of having faith disproven, I was simply asking where faith in a superior being is illogical or paradoxical. I don’t think any reasonable person would suggest that the existence or non-existence of a superior being or creator can be determined empirically. That’s part of my point. Because atheism, like theism, is a meme, once you have one mindset, moving to the other is very difficult, and for some, impossible. – Tim

  12. SilverTiger says:

    Tim Says: I have been working on a blog entry […] titled “Atheism as a Meme.” In the study of memetics, it’s become fashionable to toss out all religions as successful memes, as they have evolved into self-replicating thought patterns that tend to discourage contrarian thought.

    I don’t find the conception of the meme particularly useful or interesting. I think it is one of Dawkins’ least enlightening ideas.

    I don’t doubt that some religious believers and some atheists are reluctant to consider arguments contrary to their own perception of things. You don’t need memetics to tell you that: its a common human trait.

    What matters to me personally is the quality of the argument. Bring on valid arguments and evidence and I will attend to them.

  13. SilverTiger says:

    Tim Says:Let’s play a logic game then. Let’s assume for a moment that everything that we experience, was in fact created by someone/something. If that is the sole presumption, then it follows (quite logically) that the creator is superior to the created, at least in terms of being sufficiently superior to get the ball rolling (or the big bang banging). Isn’t that logical?

    No. In order to be logical (i.e. draw true conclusions) an argument has to be based on true premises. (Finding premises that are guaranteed true is one of the big problems of both philosophy and theology.) Saying “Let us assume for the sake of argument that P” is not a true premise; it is merely speculation. Any conclusions derived from speculation are also speculation and have no validity.

    Go back to the programming analogy that I gave.

    Programming is a technology. Its rules are precise and known. Anyone can examine them. There is no technical manual specifying the functions of God, as far as I know.

    Because atheism, like theism, is a meme, once you have one mindset, moving to the other is very difficult, and for some, impossible.

    You are missing the point. I have covered this in my post Atheism is not a Belief”. Atheists do not have a “mindset” to move from: we are waiting for you religious believers to support your claims with evidence. By your own assertion (“I don’t think any reasonable person would suggest that the existence or non-existence of a superior being or creator can be determined empirically”) we are still waiting and are likely to go on waiting forever.

  14. Tim says:

    Re: Dawkins

    What he has said about Memes is, in my opinion, some of the less interesting stuff. What Dr. Sue Blackmore has said is much more interesting, and more compelling in terms of memes and evolution of thought patterns.

    Re: Logic, Programming

    If the only way to be logical is to base the discussion on “true premises,” then I have greatly misunderstood what logic is. Most of computer science is based on completely theoretical logical questions. By your assertion here, it would not logical to believe that the sun doesn’t revolve around the earth unless we can go out in space and validate it, and establish what the “true premise” is. (Any inference made in one context doesn’t necessarily validate another until you’ve tried it in both.) My experience with logic is far different from yours.

    The programming analogy is apt, if you apply rules of logic the way I have above. If I’m the VB programmer, even if I don’t know the rules that the system programmer has to apply, they still exist. My lack of knowledge or understanding hardly precludes their existence. Just because you and I haven’t seen a technical manual specifying the rules that God has to play by, doesn’t mean such rules don’t exist, or how different those rules may be from ours.

    Re: Atheism, mindsets, and beliefs

    If I start from the other point, a point of belief, then wouldn’t you agree that proving God’s non-existence is just as futile? As you say, “we are still waiting and are likely to go on waiting forever.” I don’t think I missed the point (and yes, I read the other post but disagree with its premise). I am simply approaching the question from the other direction. – Tim

    P.S. As I said via e-mail, I hope this discussion has not become a “hijacking” of your blog via comments. Alt.talk.origins is a much more common place for such discussions, and I realize that we’ve diverted quite a bit off of the “meaning of life” question. Ultimately, one of my favorite answers that *that* question is the Monty Python movie of the same name. 🙂

  15. SilverTiger says:

    I am sorry that I was guilty of loose expression when I taked of “being logical”. I should have said “the only way to build a valid logical argument is to start with valid premises”.

    I am not one to stifle discussion (though I do reserve the right to withdraw from it if I think it is going round in circles) but I think, firstly, that this one is getting away from the topic of the original post and, secondly, developing into another turgid attempt to argue that God might exist. I don’t think this is the place for such a discussion.

    By all means get in touch by email if you want to continue the discussion privately.

  16. Tiger, I’ve said all I want to say in this discussion, but I wanted to thank you for your eloquent explanations and to express wholehearted agreement with your posts, such as the one that begins “In order to be logical (i.e. draw true conclusions) an argument has to be based on true premises.” In this realm, our views are apparently identical. 🙂

  17. Tim says:

    Thanks for kicking off any number of interesting thought processes with the original post. As you stated, the discussion was moving OT. I’ll either follow up via e-mail, or trackback to this in a follow up post. – Tim

  18. What is the real meaning of life? In a lot of cases, people never find the answers to the questions they do have. People that cant find their life purpose are the ones that arent really seeing life for what it is

    • SilverTiger says:

      So how should they be seeing life?

      My point is life life doesn’t have any built-in “purpose”, only the purpose that the individual reads into it.

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