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Does life have a meaning?

January 13, 2013

Over Christmas I found myself thinking about the meaning of life. This was started by a document prepared by the Templeton foundation on the question “does the universe have a purpose?”, which I found via Jerry Coyne.

After reading this the question I found myself stuck on wasn’t so much “what is the meaning of life?”, but rather “what does it mean for life to have a meaning?” This is a very different question. As a liberal atheist I think that life can take a variety of meanings, some possibly of better value that others, but nevertheless differing between individuals. “What is the meaning of life?” therefore should actually be phrased as “what is the meaning of my life?”. This is obviously an important question that we should all reflect on from time to time, but before we can do so, what does it mean to have a meaning or purpose to life?

A clear starting point is to set out some definitions. The best I could initially come up with is as follows. A “life” is a series of actions and events performed by and centered around one person. For this life to have “meaning” means deciding what one values and shaping the actions and events in life around that value. “The meaning” of life is the value chosen as it relates to the person involved (so for instance “love” isn’t the meaning of life, but “loving my family” could be). “Purpose” could therefore be understood as the end of realising this value in life.

There are some interesting questions raised by these definitions. An obvious objection to them is the emphasis on deciding, on the autonomy of the individual to define the meaning of their own life. We would probably not wish to say that the person who centers their life around stealing has a “meaningful” life. This implies that there may well be some requirement for an external check on whether or not the “meaning” of a life is a good one. If we consider someone for whom life consists (voluntarily) of solitary confinement repeatedly reading the complete works of Plato, they certainly have a meaning to their life under my definition above, but viewed from our perspective it is hard to say that their life is “meaningful” in any concrete way. My definitions probably need to be revised to allow for some influence of external factors.

This brings me to the real problem that caused me pause for thought. We are often told by religious believers that without a god life can have no meaning. What I want to know is, does this make sense?

The value that we decide should be the focus of our life can obviously point to something external to us. In the religious case, the value might be “serving God”, where the believer thinks that God is some “entity” separate from themselves. In my more secular example above, loving my family would obviously direct the value I seek away from me to my family. So, the value that choose to shape our lives and actions can be external to us.

However, does it make sense for the importance of that value to ultimately be imposed on us by an external entity? For this is surely what the religious believer means when they say that without a god life can have no meaning. It is only because God exists that life can have meaning, implying that God either dictates what is valuable in life or makes what is valuable good (there could be multiple “good” values, only one of which is able to give life meaning because chosen by God).

There are a number of points to notice about this statement. The first is that it seems susceptible to a Euthyphro  style argument: is a particular value meaningful because God says it is, or does God say it is because it is meaningful? If the latter then we have an independent means of assessing the value of a life. If the former, all the standard arguments relating to divine command theory can be deployed. I will note one point here.

Consider a person who consistently acts in a particular way the results of which are widely deemed as being “good”.We would hold them morally praiseworthy if they did so of their own volition, but not (or at least less) if they acted as a result of being compelled to do so by another. The free choice to perform an act adds a moral dimension to the action that is missing when the choice to perform the action is imposed externally. Surely a similar consideration holds for choosing the value associated with life’s meaning?

Again, we appeal to the concept of autonomy. If I have not autonomously chosen the value according to which I will shape my actions throughout life, isn’t the worthiness of that value diminished? I think so, as this would mean that the important thing in the life being considered, the person living it, is overridden and of secondary importance. Autonomy does not imply that no considerations external to the person are taken into consideration, but without the free choice of value I would say that life loses meaning to the person living it, and therefore any meaning worth talking about.

These are obviously thoughts that need to be developed, but they are at least a starting point.

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