The Meaning of Life - for comments (about 5k words, conclusion to follow)

Friday, January 22, 2010
GOD, RELIGION AND THE MEANING OF LIFE (for my Oxford University Press Very Short Intro to Humanism) This is a first draft. Comments please. Conclusion is missing.

According to some, questions about the meaning of life are inextricably bound up with questions about God and religion. Without God, it is suggested, humanity amounts to little more than a dirty smudge on a ball of rock lost in an incomprehensively vast universe that will eventually bare no trace of us having ever existed, and which will itself collapse into nothingness. So why bother getting out of bed in the morning? If there is a God, on the other hand, then we inhabit a universe made for us, by a God who loves us, and who has given us a divine purpose. That fills our lives meaning.

But is God, or religious belief, really a necessary condition of our leading meaningful lives? And how is the existence of God supposed to make our lives meaningful? If meaningful lives are possible whether or not there is a God, what makes for a meaningful existence? This chapter examines these and related questions.

What do we mean by a “meaningful life”?

One of the difficulties we face in giving an account of how humanism, or any other view for that matter, can allow for the possibility of a meaningful life is in identifying what constitutes a meaningful life in the first place. It is clear that certain answers won’t do.

First of all, there is obviously more to leading a meaningful life than, say, feeling largely happy and content. Someone continuously injected with happiness-inducing drugs could enjoy such a pleasurable life, but that wouldn’t guarantee a particularly worthwhile or significant existence.

Secondly, there are presumably more ways of leading a meaningful life than just doing morally good works. While leading an exceptionally virtuous existence is one way in which one might, perhaps, have a meaningful existence, it is not the only way. Many great artists, scientists, explorers, musicians, writers and sportsmen and women have, surely, lived rich and meaningful lives, despite not being noticeably more moral than the rest of us (indeed, some have been rather selfish and immoral).

Moreover, it seems that not only is a lifetime spent performing good deeds not necessary for a meaningful existence, neither is it sufficient. Consider a man living under a totalitarian regime who devotes his entire life helping sick children. However, while believing this to be good, he only does it because he fears the terrible consequences of not obeying. Has this individual led a meaningful life? Despite his countless good acts, it is by no means obvious that he has. What this example, illustrates, perhaps, is that, in order for a person’s life to be genuinely meaningful, that person has to exhibit a kind of autonomy. You must be self-directed, rather than just following the instructions of another. The freely-chosen pursuit of your life’s projects is, perhaps, a condition of life meaningfully.

Presumably, someone might bow out thinking their life had been a pointless waste of time when it was in fact highly significant. Conversely, someone might consider their life highly meaningful when in truth it is not. Someone who tirelessly devotes himself to leading a white supremacist movement has not, in truth, led a particularly meaningful existence, whatever they, or indeed their many followers, might happen to think. It appears to be a condition of leading a meaningful life that our projects have some genuine worth, and we can, of course, be gravely mistaken about what is really worthwhile.

Notice that a meaningful life can also end in the failure of its central project. Consider Scott of the Antarctic, who struggled valiantly to be the first to reach the South Pole. Scott did not, because of his failure, lead a meaningless life. Indeed, Scott’s life is held up as a shining example of a life well-lived despite his dramatic failure. It was the manner of his failure that gave his life particular significance.

There are, perhaps, certain features a life must possess if it is to be meaningful – a fairly worthwhile project or goal pursued in a self-directed way, for example. But is even this sufficient? Perhaps not, as a lifetime spent pursuing a worthwhile goal by an enthusiastic incompetent is often rather more farcical than it is meaningful.

Is the search for *the* meaning of life a wild goose chase?

The above section illustrates the point that it is notoriously difficult to provide a clear characterization of what makes for a meaningful life.

Part of the difficulty we face, here, perhaps, is that we assume that in order to explain what makes for a meaningful life we must identify some one feature that all and only meaningful lives possess: that feature that makes them meaningful. But why, if meaningful lives are possible, must there be one such feature? Perhaps the search for the meaning of life – this single, elusive, meaning-giving feature – is a wild goose chase. Perhaps lives can be meaningful in a variety of ways. The concept of a meaningful life may be what the philosopher Wittgenstein calls a family resemblance concept. The members of a family may resemble each other, despite there being no one feature they all have in common (e.g. that big nose or those small ears). Wittgenstein supposes the same is true of, for example, those things we call “games”. Activities such as backgammon, solitaire, football, chess and badminton resemble each other to various degrees. But is there one thing all and only games have in common, in virtue of which they are all games? Wittgenstein suggests not:

Don’t say: “There must be something common, or they would not be called ‘games’— For if you look at them you will not see something that is common to all, but similarities, relationships, and a whole series of them at that. To repeat: don’t think, but look!— Look for example at board-games, with their multifarious relationships. Now pass to card-games; here you find many correspondences with the first group, but many common features drop out, and others appear. When we pass next to ball-games, much that is common is retained, but much is lost. — Are they all ‘amusing’? Compare chess with noughts and crosses. Or is there always winning and losing, or competition between players? Think of patience. In ball-games there is winning and losing; but when a child throws his ball at the wall and catches it again, this feature has disappeared …[T]he result of this examination is: we see a complicated network of similarities overlapping and cross-crossing: sometimes overall similarities, sometimes similarities of detail. I can think of no better expression to characterize these similarities than “family resemblances”; for the various resemblances between members of a family: build, features, colour of eyes, gait, temperament, etc. etc. overlap and criss-cross in the same way. — And I shall say: ‘games’ form a family.

If Wittgenstein is correct, the search for the one feature all and only games possess is a wild goose chase. There is no such feature. But of course that does not entail that either there is, after all, no such thing as a game, or that what makes something a game must be some further mysterious characteristic we have yet to identify.

Perhaps we make the same kind of mistake if we assume that, if meaningful lives are possible, then there must be some one feature that all and only the meaningful lives share. Our inability to identify this feature amongst warp and weft of the Earthly features of our lives may then lead us mistakenly to conclude that either our lives lack meaning, or else the elusive meaning-giving feature must be other-worldly.

When we look at lives that are meaningful, and compare them with those that are not, we may find, not a single feature possessed by all of the former and none of the latter, but a great many factors that have an impact on meaningfulness, including some to which we have already alluded: a worthwhile goal, a goal freely-chosen, a goal pursued with some dedication and skill, engagement in activity that helps or enriches the lives of others, and so on. The impression that none of these worldly features are sufficient – that some further, magical, other-worldly ingredient is required if our lives are really to have meaning – may in part be a result of our failing properly to register that the concept of a meaningful life, like that of a game, is a family resemblance concept. Talk about “the” meaning of life may be symptomatic of this confusion.

Is God required for a meaningful life?

While we might struggle to provide a watertight philosophical characterization of what makes for a meaningful life, most of us tend to agree about which lives are meaningful and which are not. There’s a broad consensus that Marie Curie, Socrates, and Scott of the Antarctic led highly significant and meaningful lives, whereas a mindless jobsworth, or someone who has passionately devoted their life entirely to kicking other people in the shins, has led a rather meaningless existence.

However, some Theists argue that, if there is no God, then none of our lives are meaningful – not even the lives of Curie, Socrates or Scott. Let’s now look at three such arguments.

1. A moral argument

One very simple line of argument that may tempt some is: a meaningful life is a morally virtuous life; but morality depends on God; thus there cannot be meaningful lives without God.

We have already seen two reasons why this initial line of argument won’t do.

First, the lives of many great artists, musicians, explorers and scientists have surely been highly meaningful, despite the fact that the individuals in question were not particularly moral – indeed, some were rather selfish and self-obsessed. While moral lives can be meaningful, meaningful lives need not, it seems, be particularly moral. In which case, even if there were no such thing as morality, meaningful lives might still be possible.

Secondly, the above argument in any case just assumes that morality depends on God, a claim we have already seen is very dubious (see chapter 4).

2. The ultimate purpose argument

A second argument for the conclusion that meaningful lives require God focuses on ultimate ends or purposes. Surely, the argument runs, a life has meaning by virtue of its having some sort of final aim or goal. We must be here for some purpose. And only God can supply such an ultimate purpose.

Some religious people, for example, maintain that our ultimate purpose is to love and worship God. They believe that without God, there can be no such purpose, and with such a purpose, life is meaningless.

But is God required in order for us to have a purpose? Not necessarily. Each living organism has a purpose, to reproduce and pass on its genetic material to the next generation. We each exist for a purpose, a purpose supplied by nature, whether or not there is a God.

What this example also brings out, of course, is that merely having a purpose is not, by itself, sufficient to render a life meaningful. Discovering that nature has designed me for no other purpose than to pass on my genetic material to the next generation hardly makes my life seem terribly significant. Indeed, my life is, on this measure, no more significant than that of a worm, which has the exact same purpose.

In reply, it may be said that I am overlooking a crucial difference between purposes: those for which we have evolved and those bestowed on us by some higher, designing intelligence. It is only the latter, they may maintain, that can render a life meaningful. But is this true? No. It is notoriously easy to construct counter-examples involving super-intelligent aliens.

Suppose, for example, that it turns out that humans have been bred on this planet for a reason – to wash the smelly underwear of a highly advanced alien race. The aliens will shortly return to pick us up and take us to their enormous alien laundry. Would this fact, or its discovery, fill our lives with meaning? Hardly.

Perhaps it will be conceded that merely being designed by some higher intelligence for a purpose is not enough to render our lives meaningful. The purpose must be one that we positively embrace and that makes us feel fulfilled. Washing alien undies is neither something we would positively embrace, nor something that would makes us feel particularly fulfilled.

But suppose it did. Suppose our hypothetical aliens have designed us so that we discover we profoundly enjoy washing their underwear. Indeed, once we start work in their laundry, we finally feel fulfilled in a way that we have never felt before. Our sense that there was something “missing” from our lives entirely disappears. We rest each evening with an enormous sense of satisfaction that we are now doing what we were always meant to do. Would this make our lives meaningful? It’s by no means obvious that it would.

In reply, it may be said that I am focussing on a silly purpose, certainly not the sort of purpose God would have for us. God made us for a very specific purpose: to love him. It is this particular purpose that makes our lives meaningful.

But, again, this seems dubious. Suppose a woman wants to love someone who loves her unconditionally in return. It occurs to her that she could have a child expressly for this purpose, and does so. Does the purpose for which this new person is created automatically bestow meaning upon their life? Not obviously. Some of us probably were conceived for such a purpose. Yet few would point to that fact in order to explain why their lives have meaning. I cannot see why God’s creating me for the purpose of loving him would give my life any more meaning.

In fact, isn’t creating human beings solely for a particular purpose actually a rather demeaning and degrading thing to do, as a rule? But then why is God’s doing it any different? It is debatable whether, if there were a God of love, he would even want to create human beings for some particular purpose.

So the question of how our lives can have meaning is not, it seems, easily answered by appealing to divine purpose. In particular, the question of how our possessing a God-given purpose makes our lives meaningful has not, so far as I can see, been adequately explained. Often as not, we are offered, not a clear account of how God’s existence is supposed to make our lives meaningful, but merely a promissory note that, in some mysterious and unfathomable way, it just does.

In short, the suggestion that our lives are made meaningful by virtue of God having created us for a divine purpose appears, on closer examination, to raise at least as many difficulties as those facing non-religious views about what makes life meaningful.

3. A divine judgement argument

Here’s a third argument. It seems lives don’t have meaning just because we judge that they do. Presumably, a life devoted solely to kicking other people in the shins at every available opportunity would not thereby qualify as meaningful, not even if we all thought it did.

But, the Theist might now add, if lives aren’t meaningful simply because we judge them to be so, then they can only be meaningful because God judges them to be so. So a meaningful life requires God after all.

This is a popular argument. Unfortunately, it runs into difficulties similar to those that face the parallel argument that if things aren’t morally right or wrong because we judge them to be so, they must be right or wrong because God judges them to be so (see pages XXX). The Euthyphro dilemma crops up here too. We can now ask our Theist:

Are lives meaningful because God judges them to be so, or does God judge them to be so because he recognizes that they are?

The first answer seems ridiculous. Surely, had God judged that kicking people in the shins at every available opportunity is what makes life meaningful, that wouldn’t make it so. But the second answer – God merely recognizes what makes for a meaningful life – concedes that there are facts about what makes for a meaningful life that obtain anyway, whether or not there is a God to make such judgements. But then these are facts to which humanists are as entitled to help themselves as are Theists. God is not required.

Does meaning require immortality?

We have not, as yet, found a good argument fro supposing a meaningful life requires the existence of God. Let’s now set such arguments to one seide, and consider a slightly different claim: that, whether or not meaningful lives require God, they do at least require that we possess immortal souls. How, Theists sometimes ask, can a life have any meaning or point if it ends in death? True, we may have achievements that outlive us, such as books written, buildings designed, and children well-raised. But those books will eventually be forgotten and those buildings will crumble. Our children will soon wither and die. Indeed, the human race as a whole will eventually disappear entirely without trace. But then, without immortal souls, isn’t our existence all for nothing – a pointless waste of time?

As it stands, this is a poor argument. Notice, first of all, that it is not true of other forms of meaning, such as linguistic meaning, that if that which is supposed bears meaning ceases to exist, then it never had any meaning in the first place. The language I am using to communicate my thoughts to you right now has meaning – if it didn’t, you would not be able to understand me. Yet these words, and indeed this entire language, will eventually disappear without trace. That doesn’t entail that my words are, after all, meaningless. But if languages don’t need to last forever in order to have meaning, why should we suppose lives are any different?

While a longer life might be desirable, it is not necessarily more meaningful. True, if you live longer, you may achieve more, do more good works, etc. But is a long life exhibiting such virtues thereby more meaningful than a shorter version? Presumably not. Nor is it obvious why extending such a life to infinity imbues it with any more meaning.

In fact, it is sometimes in the manner of our death that our lives acquire particular meaning and significance. Someone who deliberately sacrifices their own life to save others is often held up as an example of a person whose life is particularly meaningful (I might add that, if we compare the sacrifice of someone who lays down their life thinking they will be resurrected in heaven, and someone who lays down their life thinking that death is the end, surely it is the latter individual who intends to make the greater sacrifice, and whose action is, for that reason, the more noble and meaningful).

Even when a life is not sacrificed for others, the manner of its end can often be what marks it out as particularly significant. We rightly admire those who face death with courage and dignity. Consider the death of Scott of the Antarctic, for example. Death is often an important episode of the story of our lives, an event that completes the narrative of a life in a satisfying and meaningful way. The fact that we die, and that death really is the end, does not make our lives meaningless. In fact, the finality of death actually gives us an opportunity to make our lives rather more meaningful.

Religion vs. shallow, selfish individualism

Let’s now turn to religious practice. Setting aside the issue of whether God exists, perhaps it might still be argued that religious reflection or observance is required if our lives are not to be shallow and meaningless. Here is one such argument.

It is sometimes claimed, with some justification, that religion encourages people to take a step back and reflect on the bigger questions. And many people, including many non-religious people, maintain that a life lived out in the absence of any such reflection can be petty and shallow. Contemporary Western society is obsessed with things that are, in truth, comparatively worthless: money, celebrity, material possessions, cosmetic surgery, and so on. Our day-to-day lives are out often lived out within a fairly narrow envelope of essentially selfish concerns, with little or no time given to contemplating the bigger questions. It was religious tradition and practice that provided the framework within which those kind of questions were addressed. With the loss of such traditions and practices, we have inevitably slid into selfish, shallow individualism. If we want people to enjoy a more meaningful existence, we need to reinvigorate those traditions (and some would add that we need, in particular, to ensure young people are properly immersed in such practices in school).

There is some truth in the above argument. Religion can encourage people to take a step back and contemplate the bigger issues. It can help break the hypnotic spell that a shallow, selfish individualistic culture can cast over young minds.

However, in chapter one we saw that there is another long tradition of thought running all the way back to the Ancient world that also addresses the big questions – a secular, philosophical tradition. If we want people, and especially children, to think about such questions, we are not obliged to take the religious route. We can encourage them to think philosophically.

Indeed, as I point out in chapter XX, there is growing empirical evidence that introducing philosophy programmes into the curriculum can have a dramatic impact on both the behaviour of pupils and the ethos and academic standing of their schools.

Most contemporary humanists are just as concerned about shallow, selfish individualism as are religious people. They too believe it is important we should take a step back and consider the big questions. They simply deny that the only way to encourage a more responsible and reflective attitude to life is to make children religious.

The suggestion that we have, in effect, to choose between religion and shallow and selfish existence is an example the fallacy known as false dilemma. The dilemma is often employed as a sales tactic: “Either you buy the K1000, or you put up with inferior sound quality! You choose!” Salespeople often attempt to railroad us into purchasing their product by presenting us with just two options, when there are others available that may be better. The religious sometimes present us with similar dilemma: “Either you promote religion, or else you end up with a society of shallow individuals who never think about anything but themselves. You choose!” The truth is that there are other alternatives.

In fact, if we really want to encourage young people to think about the big questions, philosophy is, arguably, a better alternative. True, the religious often ask the big questions. For example, the Church of England advertises its Alpha Course by posting questions such as “Is this it?” on the backs of buses, promising those who sign up “An opportunity to explore the meaning of life”.

However, when the religious pose such questions, they are presented for rhetorical effect only. They are asked, not in the spirit of open, rational enquiry, but merely as the opening gambit in an attempt to sign up new recruits. Unlike religion, philosophy does not approach such questions having already committed itself to certain answers (though it does not rule out religious answers, of course). Philosophy really does encourage you to think and question and make your own judgement – a tendency, that, in truth, religions have often been very wary of. That claim that only religion encourages us to think about the big questions is not just false, it is particularly ironic when made by religions with a long and sometimes violent history of suppressing independent thought.

Do humanists miss out on something?

It may be that we do miss out on something if we give up religion. Consider belief in Santa Claus. For the child who comes to believe in Santa, the universe appears wonderfully transformed. From within the perspective of their bubble of belief, the world, come December, takes on new meaning and significance - a rosy, magical glow. There is something it is like to inhabit this bubble of belief - to be a true believer in Santa - something its very hard to understand if you have never experienced it yourself.

When the child grows up a bit and the Santa bubble pops, it can be rather distressing for the child: rosy glow surrounding December vanishes leaving the world seeming rather sad and drab by comparison.

There’s no doubt that popping the bubble of religious belief can also be distressing for its occupant. The magic and meaning may appear to drain out of the world, leaving it seeming cold and barren. Isn’t it better to live inside such a religious bubble, if we can?

I don’t believe so. If there is no God, then the magical glow the world seemed to take on when viewed from inside the bubble was always an illusion. Once the bubble has popped, the world might seem a little drabber for a while. But, personally, I would rather see the world as it is, than as I would like it to be.

In fact, isn’t an appreciation of what is really important in life actually likely to be obscured by such a bubble? Compare belief in Santa, the elves in his workshop, the flying reindeer and so on. When the bubble pops, they vanish, but what was always most important come December 25th - love, getting together with our friends and family, and so on - are still all in place. In fact, for us grown ups, wouldn’t belief in Santa - and the accompanying activities of writing to the North Pole, putting out the mince pie and milk - threaten to be a disabling distraction, preventing us from recognizing what is really important?

I believe the same is true of belief in a dimension of Gods, angels, demons, and so on. It is true that, without religious belief, we may miss out on something – e.g. on seeing the world as a divinely-ruled kingdom, or on the comforting promise of everlasting life and of being reunited with loved ones after our death. But we may gain rather more – including a more mature and clear-sighted view of what is actually valuable and significant in life.

Conclusion (to follow)