Is there “a meaning to life” for nonbelievers?

When I was talking about FvF with Dan Barker on Saturday, someone stood up during the Q&A session and asked a question that I’ve often heard: “If you don’t believe in God, how can you possibly find meaning in life?”

This is perhaps the most common criticism of atheism, though of course it doesn’t bear at all on the existence of God. Rather, it goes after atheism by arguing that its psychological consequences are unpalatable. Often the question also mentions “the purpose of life”, which to the religious questioner is identical to “meaning”—and carries the implicit notion that both purpose and meaning can be found only by believing in a god and fulfilling its dictates.

Well, that’s a preliminary response to the question: whether God exists is independent of whether it makes us feel good. To echo a nice but largely unknown quotation from Voltaire, “The interest I have in believing in a thing is no proof that such a thing exists.” We should first find out what is true, and then our brains will process that truth to adjust our lives. And there’s simply no evidence for any god who could possibly give meaning to one’s life.

But the stock answer of nearly all atheists and humanists is this: “Of course we don’t need God to have meaning in our life. We make our own meanings.” Then you just cite some of the things that people consider meaningful: your family, your friends and loved ones, your work, your job, your avocations, good books, a good bottle of wine, and so on. QED.

After our discussion, though, I wondered if the question is even meaningful. Does anyone really ponder the issue of “the meaning of their life”? Yes, of course, some religious extremists do structure their lives around God (I’m thinking of Orthodox Jews, many Muslims, and Mormons), but what about moderate religionists or the rest of us? Do we really have a good answer to the question, “What is the meaning of our lives?”

I’d maintain that, based on my casual observation, very few people conceive of a “meaning” to their lives, but simply, when asked the question, confect one post facto.  That is, if asked that question, I would blather on about science, my friends, teaching evolution, traveling and seeing the world to enlarge my experience, and so on. But what I am doing is simply articulating the things that I like to do. I never think of these as the “meaning” of my life. In fact, I never think about that at all.  Nor do I think about the “purpose” of my life. I just do what brings me satisfaction.

I would claim that this is true of most nonbelievers, even if they argue that, as secularists, their lives still have purpose and/or meaning. In reality, we do what our constitutions—and the laws of physics—compel us to do: the things that bring us pleasure, that constitute our “duties”, and so on. A lot of that comes from evolution, and a lot from culture, and a lot from the nexus of both. We may, for instance, have evolved in small groups to behave altruistically, for reciprocity might have been the result of genetic evolution in our ancestors. And there’s cultural input: we learn, or figure out, that being nice to people gives us more rewards than being selfish and mean. Ergo, being charitable and nice to people becomes a “meaning.” Or we have a constitution, based on genes and environments, that makes us enjoy reading. Ergo, reading good books becomes a “meaning”.

Is taking care of your kids the “purpose” of your life? In what sense? You can indeed find it meaningful in that it gives you satisfaction, but it’s in no sense a “purpose.” And we don’t really decide what gives our lives meaning, and then go ahead and do those things. Rather, based on our genes and environment, we stumble onto the things that give us satisfaction and pleasure, do those things, and then call it “meaning.”

I’m sure religionists will seize on these thoughts with glee, arguing, “See, atheists have no meaning in their lives.” But that claim is misconceived. We have satisfaction in our lives, or can strive for it, and that’s no different from the non-goddy satisfaction that believers have in their own lives. Further, knowing that our lives are finite, our brains can adjust our behaviors in a salubrious way—a way not open to many religionists. If this life is all we have, we’d damn well make the best of it, for we get no sequel in Heaven.

The notion of “purpose” (and to a lesser extent, “meaning”) almost requires that something outside yourself give direction to your existence. At the very least, it implies that we can choose freely among alternative ways of living, and decide on a way that gives us the most “meaning” or “purpose”.  But of course if you’re a determinist that’s not the case. If your “purpose” is to raise your family, well, we don’t choose to do that any more than a robin chooses to raise its brood. These are simply the results of kin selection, an aspect of evolution, which itself is just an esoteric manifestation of the laws of physics. We have no more “purpose” or “meaning” in our lives than do squirrels or hedgehogs. All of us do the things that our genes, in combination with our environments, compel us to do.

Granted, in humans the working-out of the nexus of genes and environments can result in esoteric satisfactions, like reading and playing chess. But in the end, these satisfactions are no more “meaningful” than the satisfaction of a squirrel who finds a big walnut.

I’m sure some readers will disagree, and I’m thinking about this issue as I’m typing these very words, so my thoughts are somewhat nebulous and inchoate. But I still wonder if we’re being honest when we tell religionists that, as atheists, we make our own meanings and purposes. Rather, just like those religionists, we simply do what the laws of physics have ordained. But perhaps only Alex Rosenberg would agree with me!

If the lives of nonbelievers have a meaning and a purpose, so do the lives of foxes, earthworms, and hedgehogs. And since there’s no evidence for any gods, the religiously based meaning and purpose for believers is identical to drawing your life’s meaning from The Lord of the Rings.


  1. Posted April 12, 2016 at 10:08 am | Permalink

    I think I agree all that you said.

    The things I enjoy make my life meaningful to me. There is nothing else as far as I can see.

    I fail to see how abasing one’s self before some overlord provides a “better” “meaning” to one’s life than the things you mentioned.

    Maybe their meaning is: If I do these various rituals and abstain from X, Y, and Z, then I get to live forever after I die — and that’s the purpose in my life.

    The odious Rick Warren gives the game away in the Title of his most famous book. They find a purpose in their life by boot licking their god. (“I found my Special Purpose!!!!” and “The new phone books are here!”)

    • rickflick
      Posted April 12, 2016 at 10:22 am | Permalink

      “They find a purpose in their life by boot licking their god.”

      Maybe that makes sense if your tired of thinking and want to give up.

    • Zado
      Posted April 12, 2016 at 10:42 am | Permalink

      Echoed my thoughts exactly. A monotheist will tell you their purpose in life is to serve God. Well, I’d rather have no purpose than one as slavish as that.

      • jeffery
        Posted April 12, 2016 at 9:40 pm | Permalink

        Most people aren’t in the habit of thinking deeply enough to consider this: if a “God” created the world, then that world was exactly the way God intended it to be. There is no possible way for anything that occurs LATER in that world, from chemical reactions to the interactions of individuals and societies, to be in any way of the nature of something that God “didn’t” want, since God set up the conditions that created the potential for change in the first place. In that sense,”to serve God” is a “given”- EVERYONE would be “serving” God, no matter what they were doing and it would be impossible to do anything that WOULDN’T serve that God’s purposes.

      • Mark Joseph
        Posted April 12, 2016 at 10:23 pm | Permalink

        I’m not arguing with you–in fact, I agree 100%–but feel obligated to point out that some Orwellians religionists claim that *slavery is freedom* as per their big book of magic myths (Romans 6.22, Ephesians 6.6, etc.).

    • Charlie
      Posted April 12, 2016 at 10:44 am | Permalink

      I have no idea why religious people find satisfaction in being the pawn of an all-powerful god who extracts arbitrary and capricious punishments on believers and non-believers alike, with no regards to merit, guilt, or innocence. What meaning is derived from worshipping a deity whose “plan” is famously unknown, and whose purpose seemingly requires children to die of leukemia.

      They talk about worshiping a god of love, but this s the very same god who invented death and suffering for all life, for all time. How can worshiping such a beast bring meaning and purpose, instead of despair and nihilism?

    • Posted April 12, 2016 at 12:46 pm | Permalink

      Yes, Rick Warren is a jerk.

    • Heather Hastie
      Posted April 12, 2016 at 3:21 pm | Permalink

      Rick Warren is who I thought of immediately on reading this. He believes his god-ordained purpose is to look after suffering children in Africa – that god put him here for that purpose. That God gave him that purpose The problem with that is that it means God created all the suffering children just to give Rick Warren some purpose in his life. The idea is pretty repugnant, and if you can worship a god like that, you’re as screwed up as He is.

    • infiniteimprobabilit
      Posted April 13, 2016 at 1:27 am | Permalink

      jblilie – your second sentence says it all, as far as I’m concerned.


      • Posted April 13, 2016 at 2:42 am | Permalink

        “The time you enjoy wasting is not wasted time.” — Bertrand Russell


    • ajmgw
      Posted April 19, 2016 at 12:29 am | Permalink

      The question of meaning is valid, but must be understood in a different way. How can meaning come from a mindless process, no guidance just time and chance? In that kind of a world an atheist cannot give a justification for a difference between good and evil. If we are simply pond scum, the result of mindless processes over millions and billions of years, who decides what is right and wrong? The atheist cannot explain the existence of mind and morality. In order to do so they unwittingly must borrow from the Christian Worldview. As Greg Bahnsen said, “Like a petulant child they sit on their father’s lap and they reach up and slap his face.” According to the atheistic worldview, right and wrong are the results of chemical processes in our brains, a by product of survival of the fittest inherited from our common ape-like ancestors. In that case one doesn’t even have free will, but the chemical processes are in control.

      • Posted April 19, 2016 at 10:50 am | Permalink

        For your reply, look at the entire post on “Reader beefs at reader” put up at 1 pm on April 19.

      • Posted April 19, 2016 at 1:24 pm | Permalink

        What an uneducated moronic thing to say. Is it their good Christian upbring that a lion nurtured and protects her young or choose to live in a community that serves a greater purpose. Think about the tripe you push in your comments before you write them.

  2. David Andrews
    Posted April 12, 2016 at 10:11 am | Permalink

    To quote the writer Glen Duncan, ” Just because life is meaningless doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try to live meaningful lives.”

    • John Ottaway
      Posted April 12, 2016 at 10:29 am | Permalink

      I like that

      Consider it stolen

      • Mark Joseph
        Posted April 12, 2016 at 10:25 pm | Permalink

        Me too.

        Reminds of Stephen Jay Gould’s (quoting here from memory only): “Just because nothing will matter a million years from now does not mean that nothing matters now.”

        • Posted April 13, 2016 at 8:15 pm | Permalink

          Or in the words of Linkin Park, “in the end, it doesn’t even matter.”

  3. jimroberts
    Posted April 12, 2016 at 10:14 am | Permalink


  4. Stephen Barnard
    Posted April 12, 2016 at 10:17 am | Permalink


  5. Devin Crow
    Posted April 12, 2016 at 10:19 am | Permalink

    I consider it a loaded question because it assumes there is a meaning to life.

    • eric
      Posted April 12, 2016 at 10:32 am | Permalink

      Well the problem (IMO) is that the word “meaning” itself gets used in multiple ways. So, I can state that while I don’t think there is a (singular) meaning to life (write large), I find meaninfulness in/to my life. Which is basically just the stock answer JAC already talked about, but with some nuance.

      • Devin Crow
        Posted April 12, 2016 at 11:25 am | Permalink

        I agree that theists do plenty of equivocating. My point is, until they can demonstrate that there is a meaning to life, they have a meaningless question. It’s like asking what color hair a unicorn has. Unicorns must be shown to exist before we can discover their attributes. Likewise, I can not derive what the meaning to life is before it is shown that there is a meaning to life.

        • eric
          Posted April 12, 2016 at 11:54 am | Permalink

          I think as a general point your logic is incorrect; one does not always have to prove X exists prior to having a reasonable conversation about X. That sort of linear, lock-step demand really ignores the fact that theory sometimes comes before observation and experiment, and often guides experiment. Discussing potential properties can be very useful in helping us strategize how to find out whether something exists. Such as the Higgs boson: we had to have theoretical conversation about what it’s mass might be before designing and building an experiment to determine whether it existed or not.

          Now I’m not sure either unicorn hair color or meaning of life are good example cases where that is true. But as a general rule, no you do not necessarily have to prove something exists before you are rationally able or allowed to have useful conversations about its hypothetical properties; in some cases, it will make perfect sense to hash out the expected properties before going about determining whether it exists or not.

          • Devin Crow
            Posted April 12, 2016 at 12:02 pm | Permalink

            Except they aren’t asking for hypothetical meanings, they are asking for an actual meaning. I have no problem talking hypotheticals, but if someone demands an actual meaning, they need to show there actually is one in the first place.

            • Devin Crow
              Posted April 12, 2016 at 12:06 pm | Permalink

              In short, I reject the assumption built into the question. I don’t think it is unreasonable to ask for a justification of an assumption.

    • Mark Joseph
      Posted April 12, 2016 at 10:27 pm | Permalink

      Perzackly. As Jack Vance put it: “Of all questions, why? is the least pertinent. It begs the question; it assumes the larger part of its own response; to wit, that a sensible response exists.”

  6. Kevin
    Posted April 12, 2016 at 10:20 am | Permalink

    Very few people, if any, who believe in a deity, do so all the time. The meaning they think they attribute to life is actually the same meaning derived by a secular person.

    The question is for religious people: what part of their lives is not secular? It is the same as determinism. Prove that any part of the universe is not deterministic. The burden is on the believer to show that some part of ‘meaning’ is outside experience.

  7. Posted April 12, 2016 at 10:23 am | Permalink

    For me, a main purpose is to comprehend to the best of my ability this vast, wonderful and mysterious universe I find myself in for a short time. A gazillion creatures have come and gone without the ability to contemplate their existence and ask why. To me, the fact that we can comprehend the universe is humanity’s greatest inheritance, and taking full advantage of that astonishing fact is purpose enough.

    As to the meaning of life, we all know the answer is 42.

    • ToddP
      Posted April 12, 2016 at 6:42 pm | Permalink

      I completely agree with your first paragraph. I’ve always felt that the “meaning” or “purpose” of life is to learn as much as possible about the universe, to attempt to understand what’s really REAL, what’s out there, what’s going on. All human experiences are naturally woven into that fabric.

      Credit goes to Carl Sagan for my personal outlook. Watching the original Cosmos as a child instilled a deep curiosity in me. His infectious love for wonder and the desire to learn about the universe made a huge and lasting impression.

  8. Kevin E Meredith
    Posted April 12, 2016 at 10:27 am | Permalink

    Something I wrote on the question of ultimate purpose/meaning, a bit long, sorry for that, but I have yet to read a comparable statement, and the implications lead one to interesting places:


    1. We humans and all other life constantly pursue the satisfaction of want, for food, safety, sex, travel, comfort, entertainment, money, narcotics, romance, revenge, family, friends, and self-actualization, and in fact cannot do otherwise, cannot in fact even for a moment encourage, force or cajole ourselves into pursuing that which we don’t want, and;

    2. The satisfaction of want creates more want, algebraically in the sense that creatures that have their wants met continue generally to live and want more than creatures that do not have their wants met, and exponentially, in the sense that creatures that have their wants met produce more offspring, which also want, than those that do not have their wants met;


    1: If the universe has been created by an intelligence, it is accepted as exceptionally likely that this intelligence considers the maximal satisfaction of want to be the only purpose of the universe;

    2: If the universe has been created unintentionally, as a random occurrence, an accident, or a by-product of some other action by an intelligence, it is our right to establish the purpose of the universe, and it is also in our interest to establish that purpose, because the universe is a more certain, understandable and therefore better place if it has a purpose than if it does not; and we do consequently declare that the maximal satisfaction of want is indeed its purpose;

    3: If the universe has been created by an intelligence for some purpose other than the maximal satisfaction of want, we who have suffered, bled and died, lived and loved and wondered, who have been fashioned by an extraordinarily difficult evolution that has left upon us inconvenient vestiges including a festering appendix, an uncooperative spine and a habit for lingering, vague anxieties, who now live as the opposable-thumb-equipped and slightly cleverer descendants of lizards, who therefore live and have lived in this universe in a way no such intelligence can ever experience, imagine or understand, do hereby usurp the right to identify the purpose of the universe, and we do so now, declaring hereby that the purpose of the universe is the maximal satisfaction of want, and that the burden to prove otherwise falls upon that intelligence, who is asked immediately to show itself, publicly to all of us, to present its arguments against said purpose of the universe and in favor of some other purpose in a way comprehensible to us, and concurrently to explain the consistent lack of noise up to this point from its quarters on this or any other matter. Failure to appear immediately and argue shall be interpreted as apathy, or distraction, or ignorance of us, or an inability or unwillingness to communicate with us, or non-existence, or incompetence, any of which now and forevermore disqualifies said intelligence from the right to identify the purpose of this thing it has made.

    4. If the universe is such that its purpose cannot be defined, or we are for some reason unqualified to declare its purpose, or it has no purpose and requires no purpose and can be given no purpose, we will nevertheless occupy, direct and consume the universe as if its sole purpose is the maximal satisfaction of want, and in so doing make the purpose of the universe de facto the maximal satisfaction of want.

    • Posted April 13, 2016 at 8:15 am | Permalink

      I really love this:

      [W]e…do hereby usurp the right to identify the purpose of the universe, and we do so now, declaring hereby that the purpose of the universe is the maximal satisfaction of want, and that the burden to prove otherwise falls upon that intelligence [the one who created the universe]….
      Failure [of said intelligence] to appear immediately and argue shall be interpreted as apathy, or distraction, or ignorance of us, or an inability or unwillingness to communicate with us, or non-existence, or incompetence, any of which now and forevermore disqualifies said intelligence from the right to identify the purpose of this thing it has made.

      I’m with you on this one Kevin!

      • Kevin Meredith
        Posted April 14, 2016 at 10:05 am | Permalink

        Thanks, Lynn!

    • HaggisForBrains
      Posted April 13, 2016 at 10:04 am | Permalink

      Great manifesto!

      • Kevin Meredith
        Posted April 14, 2016 at 10:06 am | Permalink

        Thanks, um, Haggis(?)!

  9. Posted April 12, 2016 at 10:28 am | Permalink

    As is so often the case, a big part of the problem is that theists try to build upon premises that include terms they haven’t defined. They themselves haven’t really thought about what they mean by “meaning”. If forced to define it explicitly, I think we’d find that their own definitions wouldn’t require a god. I think it would be interesting to challenge a theist to come up with a definition of a meaningful life that absolutely requires the existence of a god.

    • Kevin
      Posted April 12, 2016 at 11:53 am | Permalink

      Proving the existence of god is proving the existence of their meaning, if they attach it only to god. They will attach meaning to love, kindness, beauty, nature, energy, etc., and these are thing which are explicitly real, not associated with any personal definition of god.

    • Tim Harris
      Posted April 12, 2016 at 7:29 pm | Permalink

      Yes, I also think the thing to do is to challenge believers as to what they mean by the ‘meaning of life’.

  10. mfdempsey1946
    Posted April 12, 2016 at 10:34 am | Permalink

    I was born into a Roman Catholic family, and I studied for the Roman Catholic priesthood during most of my teenage years in a minor seminary (a type of school that I believe no longer exists).

    A key feature of this form of education was the conviction that The Meaning Of Life is tightly connected to the existence of an eternal afterlife, one of perfect bliss, the other of the worst conceivable torment.

    To this mindset, a human earthly life can be no more “meaningful” than a cat’s or worm’s life or a bacterium’s life if it is like a Broadway show that opens, plays one performance, and then closes forever.

    Atheism cannot promise an eternal afterlife to its adherents, and this is the supreme hurdle that atheism has to overcome, in the minds of most religious people.

    Thinking about The Meaning Of Life (as though it must ultimately be the same for everyone) isn’t something religionists do because to them it’s a problem that was solved long before they were born.

    Shedding this belief in The Meaning Of Life and the existence of an eternal afterlife, which means that there is really no such thing as death for human beings, was for me the most difficult belief to let go of as I was making the transition from Catholicism to atheism.

    I have read, here and elsewhere, that many atheists never experienced this sort of difficulty. I can still recall several decades after reading Mary McCarthy’s “Memories Of A Catholic Girlhood”, in which she experienced her abandonment of Catholicism as a simple, easy process.

    Well, it wasn’t that way for me, and for most Catholics I more than suspect that such an experience would be unthinkable and horrifying. Generating one’s own sense of meaning for oneself is not necessarily a simple matter when was formed by belief in “a better place.”

    However, I still recall how help came from a character in the movie “Hud”, a young man who, after the funeral of his beloved grandfather, is comforted by a kindly pastor with the notion that the grandfather is now in this better place. The young man replies, “No, I don’t think so. Not unless dirt’s a better place than air.”

    • Stonyground
      Posted April 12, 2016 at 1:58 pm | Permalink

      “Atheism cannot promise an eternal afterlife to its adherents, and this is the supreme hurdle that atheism has to overcome, in the minds of most religious people.”

      I have also read comments to the effect that atheists have no hope, expressing the same line of thought. To me the hurdle is the acceptance of the obvious truth that there is no afterlife and that this life is the only one that you get. This is as true for religious folk as it is for atheists, the difference is that atheists are not in denial about it. If your life is going to have value, it is an important step to acknowledge that you don’t get another one.

    • Posted April 13, 2016 at 9:22 pm | Permalink

      Well said. A few years ago, I experienced panic attacks associated with the guilt I was feeling as I fully abandoned the Catholic faith I was raised withis. The complete abandonment process played out over more than a decade and I do wonder whether the ex-Catholics who transitioned away with ease were very devout. I truly believed in and feared Hell. The psychological torment as the floods of memories of phrases like “the devil’s greatest trick was making the world think he didn’t exist” were tough to get past. The panic attacks I had were about five years ago and for a couple days, I prayed as earnestly as I ever had for God to forgive me and demonstrate to me that I was wrong for losing my faith. It was the first time I’d genuinely prayed probably in close to a decade.

      Of course, the answer I was looking for never came, but the sense of calmness ultimately did when this allowed me to finally let go of these last vestiges of faith and childhood guilt. Since then, I feel like I finally see the world lucidly. I feel as if time has slowed down as I accept (if not enjoy) every moment of this finite life for what it is, rather than focusing on the bipolar possibilities of an infinite hereafter. Perhaps it was my genuine belief in the possibility of Hell that ultimately helped me let it all go. Those transfixed on Heaven who ignore the pleasures of this world tend to think Heaven is in the cards for them.

      • Posted April 13, 2016 at 9:25 pm | Permalink

        Withis = with. And now my phone added withis as a word…thanks spellcheck…

      • Posted April 14, 2016 at 1:48 am | Permalink

        My apostasy was fairly painless. I stopped going to church before my Confirmation because my mother stopped. She was fiercely critical of the local priest who had reneged on his promise to visit my bereaved grandfather.So I never really “got the message” about hellfire &c.

        I still feel innately guilty, however.


        • Stephen Barnard
          Posted April 14, 2016 at 1:55 am | Permalink

          “I still feel innately guilty, however.”

          The human condition. You haven’t accepted the “no free will” proposition.

  11. Posted April 12, 2016 at 10:36 am | Permalink

    I think that a person asking about what gives your life meaning are asking what gives you the feeling that your life is valuable, worthwhile, more important than just eating and sleeping. Therefore, the objection that perhaps life has no meaning, while an interesting philosophical point, is irrelevant.

    What gives your (or my) life meaning? I think you are right that we don’t so much MAKE meaning but FIND it. What we are doing that seems to extend beyond ourselves feels meaningful and is in fact meaning, as we humans experience such things.

    Perhaps that “extending beyond ourselves” bit is my own bias. However, eating good chocolate is enjoyable and I work to have that experience, but it doesn’t feel meaningful the same way my writing does, or interacting with my nieces and nephews.

    Though I have sometimes found meaning in watching the patterns of the world, whether waves at the shore or the behavior of birds. Hmmm. But what makes those things feel meaningful is that the observing becomes participating in these patterns that extend beyond me.

  12. Simon Hayward
    Posted April 12, 2016 at 10:36 am | Permalink

    I suppose in a “selfish gene” sense taking care of your kids could reasonably be argued to be the major purpose. Certainly there is a strong, but not unavoidable, imperative to be sure that ones genes survive into the next generation – although most would not verbalize it in those terms.

    Essentially though I agree, I’m not looking for “purpose” in my life, since I don’t consciously see it lacking. Generally I suppose I pursue a sense of satisfaction, but that can be very broadly expressed. A good meal, a job done well, a paper accepted, a grant that actually gets funded, helping someone else achieve one of their aims, a novel idea – at least novel to me (truly new thoughts are really rare).

    Is the purpose to keep ourselves entertained until we die?

    • rickflick
      Posted April 12, 2016 at 10:48 am | Permalink

      Maybe the intellectual purpose of our experience is the ability to set goals and pursue them. When the goals are achieved we have a sense of satisfaction. So we are placed on a sort of treadmill, pursuing goals and then setting new ones. Until the end.

  13. BobTerrace
    Posted April 12, 2016 at 10:36 am | Permalink

    The purpose of my life is to reproduce, the same as it is for all life.

    The meaning of my life is what I convince myself it is. I can be content or disappointed in the circumstances of my life, no matter what those circumstances are.

    • brighterstill
      Posted April 12, 2016 at 10:45 am | Permalink

      Plenty of life is set up not to reproduce: sterile drones among an insect population, for example.

      • BobTerrace
        Posted April 12, 2016 at 10:54 am | Permalink

        But they serve the queen and the hive to improve reproduction.

        • Kevin
          Posted April 12, 2016 at 12:08 pm | Permalink

          But over time most species do eventually fade away. Our planet is asymptotically approaching a 100% extinction rate.

          Real purpose of life is to have life itself continue to transmit information. In the big picture, I doubt life cares which species continues so long as information continues.

          • BobTerrace
            Posted April 12, 2016 at 12:14 pm | Permalink

            So you agree with me. Reproduction does not mean 100% cloning.

        • c emerson
          Posted April 12, 2016 at 12:23 pm | Permalink

          @Kevin.. Kevin has a pretty solid point here, regardless of whether ‘purpose’ is meant to conate intelligent intent or physical consequence.

  14. Posted April 12, 2016 at 10:37 am | Permalink

    I like Richard Dawkins’s musings on life:

    We are going to die, and that makes us the lucky ones. Most people are never going to die because they are never going to be born. The potential people who could have been here in my place but who will in fact never see the light of day outnumber the sand grains of Sahara. Certainly those unborn ghosts include greater poets than Keats, scientists greater than Newton. We know this because the set of possible people allowed by our DNA so massively outnumbers the set of actual people. In the teeth of these stupefying odds it is you and I, in our ordinariness, that are here.

    Here is another respect in which we are lucky. The universe is older than 100 million centuries. Within a comparable time the sun will swell to a red giant and engulf the earth. Every century of hundreds of millions has been in its time, or will be when its time comes, ‘the present century.’ The present moves from the past to the future, like a tiny spotlight, inching its way along a gigantic ruler of time. Everything behind the spotlight is in darkness, the darkness of the dead past. Everything ahead of the spotlight is in the darkness of the unknown future. The odds of your century’s being the one in the spotlight are the same as the odds that a penny, tossed down at random, will land on a particular ant crawling somewhere along the road from New York to San Francisco. You are lucky to be alive and so am I.

    We live on a planet that is all but perfect for our kind of life: not too warm and not too cold, basking in kindly sunshine, softly watered; a gently spinning, green and gold harvest-festival of a planet. Yes, and alas, there are deserts and slums; there is starvation and racking misery to be found. But take a look at the competition. Compared with most planets this is paradise, and parts of Earth are still paradise by any standards. What are the odds that a planet picked at random will have these complaisant properties? Even the most optimistic calculation will put it at less than one in a million.

    Imagine a spaceship full of sleeping explorers, deep-frozen would-be colonists of some distant world. Perhaps the ship is on a forlorn mission to save the species before an unstoppable comet, like the one that killed the dinosaurs, hits the home planet. The voyagers go into the deep-freeze soberly reckoning the odds against their spaceship’s ever chancing upon a planet friendly to life. If one in a million planets is suitable at best, and it takes centuries to travel from each star to the next, the spaceship is pathetically unlikely to find a tolerable, let alone safe, haven for its sleeping cargo.

    But imagine that the ship’s robot pilot turns out to be unthinkably lucky. After millions of years the ship does find a planet capable of sustaining life: a planet of equable temperature, bathed in warm starshine, refreshed by oxygen and water. The passengers, Rip van Winkles, wake stumbling into the light. After a million years of sleep, here is a whole new fertile globe, a lush planet of warm pastures, sparkling streams and waterfalls, a world bountiful with creatures, darting through alien green felicity. Our travellers walk entranced, stupefied, unable to believe their unaccustomed senses or their luck.

    As I said, the story asks for too much luck; it would never happen. And yet, isn’t it what has happened to each one of us? We have woken after hundreds of millions of years asleep, defying astronomical odds. Admittedly we didn’t arrive by spaceship, we arrived by being born, and we didn’t burst conscious into the world but accumulated awareness gradually through babyhood. The fact that we gradually apprehend our world, rather than suddenly discovering it, should not subtract from its wonder.

    — Richard Dawkins, Unweaving the Rainbow

    • Posted April 12, 2016 at 10:57 am | Permalink

      Elegantly expressed, as expected from Richard.

    • Eric
      Posted April 12, 2016 at 12:32 pm | Permalink

      Thank you for that.

  15. Posted April 12, 2016 at 10:38 am | Permalink

    We humans, unlike squirrels with nuts, know that we’re small and short-lived compared to the universe. I think “meaning” for us (or just me?) is feeling that my life has value beyond my own obvious limited life.

    • Dominic
      Posted April 12, 2016 at 11:30 am | Permalink

      Don’t these things end up being circular arguments?

      You could take the Shakespearian view – the good me do dies with them…

      I do not think life has any value, but I do not think that matters!

  16. Mark Sturtevant
    Posted April 12, 2016 at 10:42 am | Permalink

    Are you doin’ it right? Are you takin’ care of business? Have you ever seen paradise by the dashboard light? You know when your life has meaning!

    • infiniteimprobabilit
      Posted April 13, 2016 at 3:13 am | Permalink

      Ah, Paradise by the Dashboard Light – that’s the most elegant thing I’ve ever heard it called 😉

      But as I recall, that one didn’t really work out too well –

      I started swearing to my god
      And on my mother’s grave
      That I’d love you to the end of time
      I swore I’d love you to the end of time

      ( – okay so far, but – )

      So now I’m praying for the end of time
      To hurry up and arrive
      ‘Cause if I gotta spend another minute with you
      I don’t think that I can really survive
      I’ll never break my promise or forget my vow
      But God only knows what I can do right now
      I’m praying for the end of time
      It’s all I can do
      I’m praying for the end of time
      So I can end my time with you


  17. brighterstill
    Posted April 12, 2016 at 10:43 am | Permalink

    As a determinist who sees “free-will” as a helpful illusion, the very concept of “meaning” or “purpose” in the above sense (as opposed to “use” or “function”) can’t apply to a person entire. It’s as unhelpful as trying to figure out the “meaning” of a grain of sand.

  18. Mark Cagnetta
    Posted April 12, 2016 at 10:44 am | Permalink

    Since there is no god, why waste time fantasizing about what he wants and doesn’t want from you. REM, in one lyric, summed up man’s existence: Live your life filled with joy and wonder. That’s it, the meaning of life.

  19. Posted April 12, 2016 at 10:46 am | Permalink

    My whole life has been based on “The meaning of life is a life of meaning”. This was my grandmothers phrase when I was young.

    I grew up atheist and was never exposed to religion except for an aunt that used to mock “holy rollers” once in awhile.

    I am lucky that I wasn’t exposed to religion and happy that my life has had great meaning to myself and others.

    • Torbjörn Larsson
      Posted April 12, 2016 at 11:42 am | Permalink

      I think that is the complement that Jerry’s ‘inchoate’ but it seems very correct analysis needs. I.e. if we have a strategy of seeking out pleasure instead of taking it where we meet it, we instill ‘a life of meaning’.

      That said, I think many animals are capable to do the same. Say, cats stray but stay with owners, exploring and planning for pleasure.

      • Torbjörn Larsson
        Posted April 12, 2016 at 11:43 am | Permalink

        Ah, “capable of doing the same”. (I am drugged to my gills/lungs with painkillers.)

  20. Posted April 12, 2016 at 10:49 am | Permalink

    I recall a terrible hymn –

    God is working his purpose out,
    as year succeeds to year,
    God is working his purpose out,
    and the time is drawing near;
    nearer and nearer draws the time,
    the time that shall surely be,
    when the earth shall be filled with the glory of God
    as the waters cover the sea.

    What you wrote is clear- the religious view of goddish purpose is what is inchoate.

    • Stonyground
      Posted April 12, 2016 at 2:15 pm | Permalink

      We used to sing that one at primary school*. A more popular version of the lyrics went “God is wearing his knickers** out”

      *Elementary school.


  21. steve oberski
    Posted April 12, 2016 at 10:51 am | Permalink

    I want a sandwich named after me.

    – Jon Stewart

    • Dominic
      Posted April 12, 2016 at 11:32 am | Permalink

      I want to be named after an earl.

      – Two bits of bread & butter with something else in between.


      • Posted April 12, 2016 at 12:15 pm | Permalink

        “Enjoy every sandwich.” — Warren Zevon

        • gscott
          Posted April 12, 2016 at 6:59 pm | Permalink

          Reminds me of Raymond Smullyan’s ham sandwich argument:

          Which is better, eternal happiness or a ham sandwich? It would appear that eternal happiness is better, but this is really not so! After all, nothing is better than eternal happiness, and a ham sandwich is certainly better than nothing. Therefore a ham sandwich is better than eternal happiness.

  22. ChrisH
    Posted April 12, 2016 at 10:54 am | Permalink

    A nice meal is transient. Should I stop having nice noms because of this?

    • Urban Treehouse
      Posted April 13, 2016 at 6:26 am | Permalink

      My purpose in life is to keep my intestinal biota happy.

  23. Toon Desmarets
    Posted April 12, 2016 at 10:55 am | Permalink

    Prachtige tekstje van onze vriend Jerry!

    > Op 12 apr. 2016 om 17:01 heeft Why Evolution Is True het volgende geschreven: > > >

  24. Dave
    Posted April 12, 2016 at 10:57 am | Permalink

    As others above have said better than I can, I find “meaning” in my life by doing the things that give me personal satisfaction, e.g. striving to be successful, to achieve things, to learn more about the things that interest me, to do positive things for others, and to experience all the standard pleasures that are available in the physical world. Believing that my life is a fleeting thing, and that my time to do all these things is limited, makes them all the more “meaningful”. It’s always struck me that immortality would suck most of the “meaning” out of life – if you knew you had unlimited time, why bother striving to achieve anything? You can always put it off until tomorrow.

    Conversely, the supposed “meaning” invoked by religious people seems like the exact opposite to me. Their desired goal of immersing themselves in some kind of blissed-out trance state (aka “united with god”)would involve the complete loss of the individuality that makes me a person rather than a component of a hive-mind, while the notion of spending eternity heaping sycophantic praise on a cosmic dictator sounds like being trapped forever in a North Korean rally. I’ll take a brief earthly life then eternal oblivion in preference to either of those.

    • Stonyground
      Posted April 12, 2016 at 2:29 pm | Permalink

      Absolutely superb post. Expresses my take on the whole thing but much more elequentley than I could.

  25. Posted April 12, 2016 at 10:58 am | Permalink

    Whenever believers want to talk about “meaning” and “purpose” I think it’s most helpful to first ask the believer to be a little clearer about their definition of “meaning/purpose.” Immediate full tilt on he Boghossian strategy.

    Invariably you’ll find that their clarification of the words amounts to nothing more than this: “Living a righteous life in service to the will of the Lard,” or some variation thereof.

    Generally speaking, at this point, I either a) make a run for it or b) ask several other clarification “questions” just for my own entertainment. More often than not, I must sadly admit, choice “a” was the wiser and less painful choice.

  26. Historian
    Posted April 12, 2016 at 11:02 am | Permalink

    Here is my view on the issue of purpose and meaning in life. I have written this quickly, so perhaps I have not thought everything through.

    Here is what I think most theists believe.

    1. God exists.
    2. God is all-powerful.
    3. Everything he does has a purpose (plan) even if humans often don’t know what it is.
    4. Therefore, all human beings are created to carry out his purpose.
    5. Humans get meaning in life by just knowing they are carrying out his purpose, even if the purpose cannot be discerned.

    Although perhaps most theists cannot discern his plan, some claim they can. It is not uncommon for theists who are on some sort of mission to say that they are carrying out God’s plans.

    The notion that people are carrying out God’s will is, of course, total nonsense and can be logically attacked on many levels. It does, however, provide theists the psychological benefit of not falling into total despair.

    Here is what I think most atheists believe.

    1. Humans are born through random chance.
    2. Therefore, they were not created by an outside entity.
    3. As such, existence has no inherent purpose or meaning.
    4. The lives that people live give them whatever degree of meaning they discern while they are alive.

    Point 4 is the stock answer that atheists give about the meaning of life as Professor Coyne has pointed out. Yet, I would argue that this answer is the correct one (barring the free will issue).

    Perhaps it is true that humans lack free will and that to talk about purpose and meaning is both purposeless and meaningless. Still, most theists and atheists believe they have free will. In the case of theists who both claim to have free will and that God created them for a purpose do not realize the logical contradiction. If God created them for a purpose then how could they have free will when they are simply carrying out God’s preordained plan?

  27. Stephen Barnard
    Posted April 12, 2016 at 11:07 am | Permalink

    Steven Weinberg’s famous quote, “The more the universe seems comprehensible, the more it also seems pointless,” is terrifying to believers. To me, it’s liberating. We construct our own meaning. It’s not imposed by some nasty, vengeful deity.

    • Steve Pollard
      Posted April 12, 2016 at 4:41 pm | Permalink

      This is a key point for me. One of the (many) things that turned me off the church was the presumption that God had a purpose for me, and that it was my duty to find out what that was, and fulfil it. I remember, at quite a young age, feeling affronted that I was not allowed to work out the aims of my own life for myself.

  28. rickflick
    Posted April 12, 2016 at 11:14 am | Permalink

    It occurs to me now after reading many worthy ideas about secular meaning and purpose, that the subject might best be captured in art. A great novel or film provides insight by showing human beings in the struggle to live out their lives with their own subjective sense of purpose. A play by Shakespeare defines human purpose and meaning indirectly by displaying some examples. Against the realm of art, the rigorous, philosophers definition may seem inadequate, somehow.

  29. Jamie
    Posted April 12, 2016 at 11:23 am | Permalink

    Religionists like to say they ‘find’ meaning, which implies that meaning preexists external to themselves.

    Atheists like to say we ‘create’ our own meaning… but this does not entirely escape the implication that what is created exists independently of us. OK, meaning is an abstract ‘object’, so it’s creation is not exactly like the creation of a loaf of bread, which clearly exists outside of and independently of us once it has been created. As a mental construct, meaning still depends on the individual creator for it’s continued existence after it has been ‘created’… but I find the phrase ‘create meaning’ ambiguous and less satisfactory than the phrase ‘assign meaning’.

    If I ‘assign meaning’ I am clear that meaning preexists… as categories of values held individually but recognized collectively. I imply that humans have a collective stock of values we draw on when deciding what is important to us and what we can safely ignore, of which we make our individual selections. The meanings (values) exist in us (as a matter of our psychology), and are entirely subjective. What is emphasized is that we attach certain values to real physical objects and events. The religionists attach values to their concepts of god and the doctrines they support. In my opinion, where meaning comes from is not the important question (thus I downplay meaning creation). The important question is how do certain meanings become attached to real objects and events? And what objects and events do they get attached to in different individuals?

    I agree with Jerry’s analysis. We seek satisfaction and then declare what satisfies us ‘meaningful’. We have biologically and culturally determined ranges of satisfaction that may vary a bit from one individual to another, but that preexist within us collectively, and are entirely subjective, which we assign to the various objects and events in our lives. We don’t “create meaning” anymore than we create all the rest of our own psychology.

    ‘Assign’ meaning may imply deliberation to some, but I do not think of it that way. Our values can be expressed through our behavior completely reflexively. Most of us, most of the time, don’t really know why what is important to us is important to us. Nevertheless, our values mediate our behavior. When I say we “assign meaning” I am thinking in terms of a computer program assigning a value to a variable. There is a link or association between the value and the object (an investiture?) that is the assignment… this does not have to be a conscious process at all, and seldom is.

    • Posted April 12, 2016 at 9:46 pm | Permalink

      It may seem a minor semantic quibble to some, but I like “assign” rather than “create”.

  30. GBJames
    Posted April 12, 2016 at 11:24 am | Permalink

    “What is the meaning of life?” is one of those questions that sounds like it is signifiant, but only because it is formed as a grammatically correct query. But it isn’t an answerable question since it assumes the existence of an external reference point and there simply is no evidence that such a thing (being) exists. Time spent trying to answer it is ultimately time wasted, IMO.

    • TJR
      Posted April 12, 2016 at 11:35 am | Permalink

      Agreed. The question is Not Even Wrong.

    • Diana MacPherson
      Posted April 12, 2016 at 11:52 am | Permalink

      Yes, this has been my experience with the question as well. I never really understood why the question was important, but you often here pop culture references to “what were you meant to do?” as if an external entity had fated what you needed to do as a human (like those damnable Fates in Ancient myth). So, I wonder if “meaning of life” and “meant to do” are all wrapped up in one thing that relies on the belief in the existence of an external deity.

      Slightly related to this – I often hear “losing your humanity” or “the fear of losing your humanity” usually associated with extremely violent or oppressive situations. I don’t know why this is a concern. If I act in a cruel way in a cruel world, I’m doing what I need to do to survive. Again, I think this relies on the external notion of “goodness” and and “entity” that dictates what that is….and probably why I don’t understand it because you need that external deity belief to understand what that means.

    • Posted April 12, 2016 at 12:19 pm | Permalink

      The meaning of my life is: The smell of the color red and the taste of entropy.

      • Larry Smith
        Posted April 12, 2016 at 11:11 pm | Permalink

        I like that and I don’t know why.

    • Posted April 12, 2016 at 1:00 pm | Permalink

      “Meaning” is a weasel word here. If you were able to get a theist to flesh out the concept it would become apparent that there are many other terms or phrases that could be substituted, and that the theist would likely offer as part of fleshing it out, but which are less ambiguous and therefore which don’t confer to the project the mystique they’re after. Things like “satisfaction”, “that which keeps you going day after day”, “that which interests you”, etc.

      • Diana MacPherson
        Posted April 12, 2016 at 3:44 pm | Permalink

        Yes, good point. It’s an abstract word that, while abstract, gives you the good feels so it’s perfect to use it to laud something over someone else!

  31. Jiten
    Posted April 12, 2016 at 11:28 am | Permalink

    “All of us do the things that our genes, in combination with our environments, compel us to do.”

    That’s not quite true, is it?,unless by “our environment” you also include the thoughts in our heads. A squirrel acts according to the “genes + environment ” formulation but for humans we need an extra term in there : thought. For example, a suicide bomber acts as he/she does because of the thoughts in their heads. And genes haven’t compelled me to have kids. As Pinker once said ” the genes can go jump in a lake” when talking about why genes didn’t compel him to have kids.

    Re meaning and purpose, just because we can pose a question does not mean that it is an intelligible question or that it has an answer. What if there is no meaning? Why isn’t just being enough? I suspect what questions about meaning are getting at is : how do we make our lives matter? We don’t exist for aeons then we exist for a blink of an eye and then again we don’t exist for aeons. So how do we make that blink of an eye matter? Well I like Richard Dawkins’s answer : might as well spend your time learning as much as possible about the universe you find yourself in. And that is a very fulfilling enterprise!

    • Posted April 12, 2016 at 10:05 pm | Permalink

      Our thoughts do not exist independently of our genes and our environment. They are the result of our genes and environment. In Pinker’s case, his genes plus his environment conspired to produce in him no desire to have children. We will all have different, idiosyncratic desires stemming from the interaction of the expression of our genes with the environment.

      • Gregory Kusnick
        Posted April 12, 2016 at 11:41 pm | Permalink

        See Pinker’s Edge essay on why “genes and environment” is a singularly unenlightening way of explaining behavior.

        My own take (which you’ve probably heard before) is that “genes and environment” either leaves out the most important factor (internal brain states), or defines “environment” so broadly that you might as well say that behavior is determined by our shoes, plus everything that’s not a shoe.

        We can certainly imagine intelligent agents (robots, for instance) who lack genes altogether. How shall we explain their behavior, if the interaction of genes and environments is primary? Clearly we’ll need some other explanatory framework, one that references internal states explicitly. So why not use that framework for us as well? The fact that our brains were built by genes rather than by chip fabs is of minor importance compared to their internal information-processing capability.

        • Posted April 12, 2016 at 11:52 pm | Permalink

          Thanks for the link. Looks thought provoking. Will read tomorrow.

        • Tim Harris
          Posted April 12, 2016 at 11:52 pm | Permalink

          Just as the ready recourse to determinism is a singularly unenlightening way of explaining behaviour.

          • c emerson
            Posted April 13, 2016 at 12:05 am | Permalink

            Why unenlightening as a means for explaining behavior?

            • Tim Harris
              Posted April 13, 2016 at 12:42 am | Permalink

              Please observe the part played by that ‘ready recourse’; I am supposed to be busy translating now, so I refer you to Gregory Kusnick’s comment above, and to Vaal’s good comment at 61 below.

        • Posted April 13, 2016 at 3:49 pm | Permalink

          Ok. Granted, “genes + environment” may be unenlightening because it is a facile summarization, but it’s not technically incorrect, as Pinker acknowledges. In the context of my reply to Jiten I think this level of summary is acceptable because I wasn’t trying to identify any specific causes of specific behaviors. I was only pointing out that I don’t think thoughts can be an independent third term. That sounds like the ghost in the machine to me.

          To my average intellect, it seems Pinker isn’t really arguing that “B = G + E” needs to die, just that there are several ways to be more accurate. In his take-down of the term “environment”, he lists things he presumably thinks aren’t captured by the term “environment”, but which I think, in the context of a discussion like this, can be. “Events in life with unpredictable effects”, for example.

          As for robots without genes, again, I think in a big-picture, rough-grain, casual discussion like this “genes” can function as an analogue for programming.

          Can we get away with such summarization if we’re actually trying to do psychological science? Of course not.

          • Gregory Kusnick
            Posted April 13, 2016 at 7:26 pm | Permalink

            But if you’re going to partition the causes of behavior into X + not X, all values of X are technically correct. Pinker’s point is the most reasonable choice of X for explanatory purposes should reference the proximal cause of behavior, namely the brain. Ignoring the brain and setting X = genes seems reasonable only to geneticists.

            • Posted April 13, 2016 at 9:08 pm | Permalink

              Not only is that true for brains, it’s true for how we function as a society. For example, a driver found at fault in an accident could just as easily say that it was the car who cut him off 30 seconds earlier and made him miss a green light that caused him to be in position to later have the accident. Or it could be that he forgot his bag and ran back in the house, delaying his trip. Or, it’s his boss’s fault for saying to come into work at 8 instead of 9, or the engineers who made the road 2 lanes wide instead of 3. The list goes on. If we didn’t use proximate causes, it’d be hard to meaningfully assign causes to anything.

            • Posted April 14, 2016 at 10:38 am | Permalink

              Again, I’m not sure a conversation like this gains much from explicitly stating any number of intermedate causes. Our genes, plus, as Pinker notes, random events during development, produce our brains. A worthwhile discussion about athletes that includes reference to genetic advantages can be had without reference to all the specific ways a given athlete’s genes conferred those advantages.

              Also, I don’t think “environment” is really meant to signify *everything* that isn’t genetic. Obviously, there will be many things that go in the “no effect” category, however, I don’t think the fact that something is mundane, like shoes, means it should go in the “no effect” category. My shoes could certainly affect my behavior. What if they’re too small and causing me pain? I’ll be crankier than if I had a pair that fit.

          • c enerson
            Posted April 13, 2016 at 9:08 pm | Permalink

            What is missing from genes + environment is the emergent nature of thought processes and the values (the abstractions) those thought processes can act on. I think that is something Pinker sees. Atheism needn’t always be focused on a-theism, but also on the independent value of human thought processes.

  32. Robert bray
    Posted April 12, 2016 at 11:28 am | Permalink

    The creation of meaning is this organic machine’s way of denying the 2nd law of thermodynamics by fencing in a bit of ‘local equilibrium’ against the incursions of physical law. Pointless, a point in time, but also a fart in the face of eternity.

    • Diana MacPherson
      Posted April 12, 2016 at 11:54 am | Permalink

      I like the imagery of the last sentence. I imagine Eternity being a little startled by your impudence.

      • HaggisForBrains
        Posted April 13, 2016 at 11:01 am | Permalink


    • Posted April 12, 2016 at 4:42 pm | Permalink

      I agree. Resistance is also futile. We keep trying to attach meaning, simply to allay our sense of suffering.

  33. Michael
    Posted April 12, 2016 at 11:38 am | Permalink

    I thought Monty Python already investigated and came up with an answer –

    “Well, it’s nothing very special. Uh, try and be nice to people, avoid eating fat, read a good book every now and then, get some walking in, and try and live together in peace and harmony with people of all creeds and nations.”

    (Though it should probably updated with ‘avoid eating sugar’, but otherwise it’s fairly solid)

  34. Posted April 12, 2016 at 11:40 am | Permalink

    Bunge used to say in response to “what is the meaning of life?” that life, not being a construct, was neither meaningful nor meaningless.

    As for purpose, well, I don’t think one gains much non-alienation (for example) by adopting someone else’s. So let’s work together to help each other find how to live. (A meta-purpose, which its itself one, if people want it.)

  35. Randy Schenck
    Posted April 12, 2016 at 11:41 am | Permalink

    I would look at that so-called “big question”, what is the meaning of life, more as a handicap for humans. They are probably the only species that would even ponder this question and at the same time think it is a great question to ponder. We just as well be seeking the answer to what is the best color. It is no more than an opinion question and that is why it has a million answers.

    The idea that the religious have some type of special and exact answer for the question verses the non-religious is just proof of the error in religion and one of the main scams to attract believers. Come join us, they say, and learn the secret meaning…no one else knows. You were lost and know you are found. Thank g*d.

    • Randy Schenck
      Posted April 12, 2016 at 1:11 pm | Permalink

      Sorry for that k. It’s now you are found.

  36. Posted April 12, 2016 at 11:41 am | Permalink

    “Love is the meaning of life, life is the meaning of love.” Ron Nasty, 1967

  37. Posted April 12, 2016 at 11:42 am | Permalink

    In the relatively few discussions I’ve had with the religious (or that I’ve been a party to), I’ve often found we seemed to be talking at cross-purposes. My approach to answering such a question would run along broadly similar epistemic lines as those on display in this post, being a reasonably reliable indicator of people who are used to thinking for themselves, rather than being told what to think. On the other hand, I am yet to be convinced that the religious are engaging in anything like such a cognitive process. In an attempt to find common ground and to ensure I understand what they mean, I have usually thrown the question back at them. ‘What is “meaning”, to you?’ Then, at least, I know whether we’re talking about need to be subservient, some sort of sublimated dependent personality disorder, a simple lack of contact with anything outside of a religious paradigm, etc. I find it more useful to get beyond the jargon the religious tend to employ (like finding oneself ‘in’ Jesus, which I have difficulty making sense of), and start relating on a human level in terms of what’s important to them. Here’s hoping for more such constructive discussions.

    • c emerson
      Posted April 12, 2016 at 3:52 pm | Permalink

      nicely said

  38. Dominic
    Posted April 12, 2016 at 11:44 am | Permalink

    My porpoise…


  39. Chris G
    Posted April 12, 2016 at 11:52 am | Permalink

    I think the key aspect here is to challenge the validity of the question, particularly the glib complacency of the religious in thinking their faith automatically gives them ‘meaning’.
    As with the question ‘Where did the universe come from’, believing the answer to be ‘God created it’ just moves the problem one step on i.e. leaves us asking ‘Where did God come from’. So is the case with ‘What’s the meaning of life’; the answer ‘To commit oneself to Jesus/Allah/Poseidon’ just moves the question sideways i.e. ‘But what’s the meaning of the commitment??’
    I think there’s a similar line of argument with the claim that faith gives comfort. Does it, really? Worrying whether you’ll go to heaven or hell? Confusion as to why God took your child aged 5 through cancer? Wondering why God killed thousands through a massively destructive natural disaster?
    We should push back more often on the faux certainty religious folk have when they claim to derive meaning and comfort from their faith.

    • Diana MacPherson
      Posted April 12, 2016 at 11:55 am | Permalink

      I once new someone who haughtily claimed, when she found herself unexpectedly pregnant, that she wanted to “give her life meaning” with the implication that because I was not a mother, my life had no meaning.

      • Diana MacPherson
        Posted April 12, 2016 at 11:56 am | Permalink


        • BobTerrace
          Posted April 12, 2016 at 12:02 pm | Permalink

          We gnu that.

          • Jerry Tarone
            Posted April 12, 2016 at 7:30 pm | Permalink

            I newt that two.

      • Posted April 12, 2016 at 12:30 pm | Permalink

        Well, if that’s what it took to give her life meaning, I think that betrays a lack of imagination on her part. (I do find being father to my sons very satisfying and meaningful; but that is not what “gives my life meaning” (for Hank’s sake!).)

        • Posted April 12, 2016 at 2:43 pm | Permalink

          Yes, people who insist that the things on the list they are holding in their hand are the only things that grant “meaning” (ie, result in a satisfying life) seem to operate under the assumption that everyone is just like them. No imagination. Or, at least, no ability to perceive that other people all around them are achieving satisfaction in other ways.

          And, apropos of recent discussions here at WEIT, I think this lack of imagination plays an important role in the authoritarian mindset. They can’t conceive of anything redeeming about views that aren’t theirs. Those with good imaginations, that is, to whom empathy comes easily, are more likely to be more tolerant of diverse worldviews and to identify as anti-authoritarian.

          • Diana MacPherson
            Posted April 12, 2016 at 3:41 pm | Permalink

            Yes, I’ve encountered many of these people in my lifetime. They seem to wish to punish those who are different from them as well (with ridicule or social isolation or just plain bullying). I worked with a bunch of people who, though young, seemed incredibly conservative. If you were a woman who wasn’t married with children by a certain age, they’d pretty much call you a whore. I never experienced such a bizarre work plance in all my life.

          • c emerson
            Posted April 12, 2016 at 3:57 pm | Permalink

            also nicely said, check

      • Posted April 12, 2016 at 12:50 pm | Permalink

        How mean of her. Though I admit making similar gaffes unwittingly, due to my habit to talk faster than I think.
        The detail that her pregnancy was unexpected is curious. I suspect that she did not really want a baby, at least not yet, and was trying to convince herself. In cultures I know, pregnant women who are really excited about their pregnancies avoid saying it, and parents avoid praising their child and saying what he means to them. This is superstitious fear not to attract the attention of evil forces that will attack the child.

        • Diana MacPherson
          Posted April 12, 2016 at 3:38 pm | Permalink

          I suspect it was a bit of a “one up” on me that she was going for. There were other occasions when she brought up things like “I think I know that; I’m a MOTHER!”. I still use the phrase “I”m a MOTHER” in situations where I’m mocking being a know-it-all who is inflicting their will on others.

          • Ken Kukec
            Posted April 12, 2016 at 7:37 pm | Permalink

            Insecurity, thy name is mother (in her case, anyway).

      • Posted April 12, 2016 at 4:55 pm | Permalink

        When I was young and in my childbearing years, I felt bemused and insulted when told by certain women that they’d planned to have their children, as though everyone could and should do it that way. Not everyone can, or does, plan children. Especially if you are the progeny of very fertile ancestors.

        • Diana MacPherson
          Posted April 12, 2016 at 7:10 pm | Permalink

          Yes and this person used to lie and say she planned her kids. She actually planned it only in that she wanted to keep her boyfriend in the picture (he was threatening to leave). It’s stupid because she probably just felt bad all around and took it out on me for not being like her. She used this against me whenever she could for the remainder of our friendship.

          • Posted April 13, 2016 at 7:15 am | Permalink

            Some friend, eh?! She sounded like an insecure person with low self-esteem. I hope she grew out of it.

  40. Kevin
    Posted April 12, 2016 at 11:56 am | Permalink

    Question to theist: How does believing in God give any meaning to life in a way that someone who doesn’t believe in God can actually understand?
    Any attempt at an answer by definition will be meaningless due to the circular reasoning that the answer would have to use. The answer can only have meaning to a person who believes in God a priori.

    • Posted April 12, 2016 at 4:09 pm | Permalink

      To paraphrase Hitchens: Tell me what meaning your life as a theist has that my life as an atheist can’t have. Be specific.

  41. Matt
    Posted April 12, 2016 at 11:57 am | Permalink

    Science can tell us the meaning of life we are looking for, in a similar way that it answers the questions on morality that are most important.

    In the case of morality, science does not tell us what is right and wrong but it can tell us why we care so much about what is right and wrong. It’s an instinct or set of instincts we evolved to help ourselves and our tribe succeed.

    Similarly, science can not tell us the purpose of our lives but it can tell us why we want so badly to know our purpose. Because tribal separation of labour evolved and along with it evolved our desire to know our particular purpose in our tribe so we can fulfill that purpose thereby ensuring our own as well as our tribe’s survival and flourishing.

    So when people desperately want to know “why am I here” it is an evolved desire to find your niche talent/skill that can make a meaningful difference to your tribe’s survival. In short, the meaning of life is help your tribe in a meaningful way. If you can do that, this will bring the satisfaction and contentment you are looking for when desiring to know your purpose in life.

    The problem in todays world, is that it is very hard to find a purpose that helps the tribe in a meaningful way because we aren’t even sure what our tribe is(human, ethnic, national, religion, etc.)and when we do pick a tribe there is no clear answer as to how we can best help it because tribes are so huge now. The human tribe is in crisis and most of our jobs don’t seem to be helping. I believe this is one of the things Marx was talking about.

    Anyway there you have my secular meaning of life. Help your tribe in a meaningful way. Hope you like it.

    • c emerson
      Posted April 12, 2016 at 4:15 pm | Permalink

      seems pretty reasonable to me, especially if the view is to maintain the biosphere in a manner that allows the human tribe and all the sub-tribes to flourish (without killing each other)

      • Posted April 12, 2016 at 5:06 pm | Permalink

        Yes, as an individual in a tribe, one wants to
        support and enhance the well being of the tribe, as well as oneself. If/when one does that, one might say that life “has meaning”. However, I think we align ourselves with many mini-tribes: a family tribe, a tribe of friends, a political tribe, a poetry group reading tribe (in my case), an educational tribe, secularist tribes, special interests tribes, etc. Much as I would like all human beings to be supportive of the well being of each and all, we haven’t seemed to have arrived at global tribe-hood yet.

  42. Ken Kukec
    Posted April 12, 2016 at 12:01 pm | Permalink

    Life has meaning in the doing, not in the contemplation of its meaning. (Of course, contemplation, the life of the mind, is part of the doing, for those so inclined. For nonbelievers, however, “the meaning of life” itself is an empty formalism, not worth the candle of one’s contemplation.)

  43. alexandra moffat
    Posted April 12, 2016 at 12:06 pm | Permalink

    Feynman puts it perfectly – words to live by:

    “You see, one thing is, I can live with doubt and uncertainty and not knowing. I think it’s much more interesting to live not knowing than to have answers which might be wrong. I have approximate answers and possible beliefs and different degrees of certainty about different things but I am not absolutely sure of anything and there are many things I don’t know anything about, such as whether it means anything to ask why we’re here…
    I don’t have to know an answer. I don’t feel frightened by not knowing things, by being lost in a mysterious universe without any purpose, which is the way it really is as far as I can tell. It dosn’t frighten me.”

  44. Paul S
    Posted April 12, 2016 at 12:33 pm | Permalink

    The question seems to be one of establishing a pecking order. If you’re a rabbi, priest, Sophisticated Theologian ™ or whatever Ken Ham is you need to ask this question of non-believers in order to establish your superiority among your followers. It doesn’t seem to be a question you would hear in a normal conversation.
    Or I might just be lucky in not knowing many religious people or those that I know keep it to themselves.

    • Posted April 12, 2016 at 12:53 pm | Permalink

      It is common among teenagers and among people in some sort of a crisis.

      • Paul S
        Posted April 12, 2016 at 12:59 pm | Permalink

        Agreed, I have heard people in situations of crisis / tragedy seek meaning.
        Still, I’ve never had anyone ask me how I find meaning in my life other than a religious figurehead.

    • Ken Kukec
      Posted April 12, 2016 at 2:31 pm | Permalink

      … or whatever Ken Ham is …

      I think Ham professes to be a Baptist; technically speaking, his denomination is “dickwad.”

      • Robert bray
        Posted April 13, 2016 at 10:00 am | Permalink

        His church should be called the ‘Holy Congregation of Myself: Only Me’. But if he is indeed a Baptist, he may be one of the Calvinist stripe. Note that the Southern Baptist Convention (world’s largest hive of Baptists) is currently in the midst of a proto-schism over Calvinism, with its cruel doctrine of predestination threatening to prevail among those who DON’T want just anyone to accept ‘free grace’ and be eternally saved. Rather, only a few ‘elect’ souls have god’s imprimatur (guess who?). The rest of the Baptists can hallelujah and ‘feel good about themselves in Jesus’ all they want, can even live a morally decent life–all, however, on their way to hell.

        In this Calvinist context I always think of what I call the ‘intolerable doctrine’ found in Mark 4: 11-12, where Jesus says to his disciples, following the parable of the sower:

        ‘Unto you it is given to know the mystery of the kingdom of God; but unto those who are outside all these things are done in parables. That seeing they may see, and not perceive; and hearing they may hear, and not understand; lest at any time they should be converted, and their sins should be forgiven them.’

        In other words, seekers of Jesus: he probably doesn’t want you with him.

  45. John Harshman
    Posted April 12, 2016 at 12:34 pm | Permalink

    More succinctly, we can quote the great philosopher Robert Crumb:

    Flaky Foont: What does it all mean, Mr. Natural?

    Mr. Natural: Don’t mean shit.

    • Posted April 12, 2016 at 1:34 pm | Permalink


      I think the best way to respond to the question about meaning and purpose without god is to ask right back: “What purpose or meaning can be found by believing in the existence of god?”. Any possible answer to that has got be highly unsatisfactory. Well, at least as unsatisfactory as purpose or meaning without such a belief 🙂

  46. Kurt Lewis Helf
    Posted April 12, 2016 at 12:49 pm | Permalink

    You could do a lot worse than drawing meaning from the The Lord of the Rings:
    “I wish it need not have happened in my time,” said Frodo.
    “So do I,” said Gandalf, “and so do all who live to see such times. But that is not for them to decide. All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given us.”

    • Posted April 13, 2016 at 11:48 am | Permalink

      I *almost* agree. But I remember my departed friend Raven’s advice on such things. She would say that “given? given by whom?”

      And she’s right. Sometimes I think there’s a danger even in putting it that way.

  47. Posted April 12, 2016 at 12:54 pm | Permalink

    religion makes life a dress rehearsal

    that removes meaning

    • Posted April 12, 2016 at 2:24 pm | Permalink

      Yes, that is a very important point.

      I can often be heard saying, “This ain’t no rehearsal!

  48. Dale
    Posted April 12, 2016 at 1:08 pm | Permalink

    I often reflect on a quote from Gandhi when it comes to this issue: “Whatever you do will be insignificant, but it is very important that you do it.”

    • Posted April 12, 2016 at 7:14 pm | Permalink

      That is similar to the supposed last words of the Buddha: “All earthly things decay; strive diligently.”

  49. JonLynnHarvey
    Posted April 12, 2016 at 1:47 pm | Permalink

    That quote from Voltaire is in the context of a longer rebuttal to Pascal’s Wager, in an essay entitled “Remarks on Pascal’s Thoughts” (Pascal wrote a book called “Thoughts”).

    • Posted April 13, 2016 at 11:49 am | Permalink

      Sort of – the _Thoughts_ (Pensees) was collected and made into its current form by editors, not Pascal himself.

  50. c emerson
    Posted April 12, 2016 at 1:59 pm | Permalink

    “I just do what brings me satisfaction …. I would claim that this is true of most nonbelievers, even if they argue that, as secularists, their lives still have purpose and/or meaning. In reality, we do what our constitutions—and the laws of physics—compel us to do: the things that bring us pleasure, that constitute our “duties”, and so on. A lot of that comes from evolution, and a lot from culture, and a lot from the nexus of both.”

    How the laws of physics and evolution affect outcomes in human history is a pretty significant topic for humans to consider. We had better hope that ‘our satisfaction’ is a broad enough term to include not just how we feel about our jobs, a walk in a beautiful park, or sex, but also how we feel about any existential threats (from extreme leftist authoritarianism to extreme libertarianism to radical religious-based violence to global warming).

    I think we need a more developed term than satisfaction, to capture what is going on with humans, even if meaning of life is not that term … regardless of any substantive distinctions between believers and nonbelievers, and regardless of whether free will is just a empty term for a physically determined neural mechanism for human decision-making.

    To quote myself (in my 1994 Notre Dame law review comment),
    “How freely meanings, rules, values, objectives and actions can change depends on how free [our higher brain functions are] from the physical sequence of both external and internal physical events. Animals without the higher brain functions of humans appear to be generally limited to their instinctual and trained responses.
    An example of the transforming effect of [the higher brain functions] in humans and the degree of our disconnection from real events is found in our ability to contemplate and act on hypothetical events rather than real ones. I can picture a new building or imagine a purple cow. I can make decisions based on [such] hypothetical situations …. These decisions might change an action which would otherwise have occurred.
    If I can contemplate an existing value or objective which is physically encoded in my brain, I can change it or override it through an act of will. The degree of difficulty I have at times in doing this shows how physically powerful the rules and values which become encoded in my brain can be. Even if I fail to change existing values or objectives, I can alter outcomes by adding new objectives and values to the system. Improvements in the system relative to survival can theoretically be made or objectives unrelated to survival can be established. Conflicts of various kinds can be created or resolved. Whether or not conflicts occur, balancing between values may be required in order to make a decision relative to an objective …. How [our higher brain function] works determines which future among many humans will actualize.”

    Whether there is any meaning in life, the answer to that is not a question of finding some distinction between between theists and atheists, regardless of how important that distinction might be for eliminating logical errors in one’s perception of reality. The question about which future can be, or should be, actualized stands on it own, and can be separated from the question of the utility or disutility of religion itself.

    * [ the quote of my own writing is from p. 905-906 in “Do Survival Values Form a Sufficient Basis for an Objective Morality? A Realist’s Appraisal of the Rules of Human Conduct” … 1994 Notre Dame law review comment in the field of legal jurisprudence. Here is the link for anyone interested: ]

  51. Gregory Kusnick
    Posted April 12, 2016 at 2:02 pm | Permalink

    I’ve often wondered how hard determinists reconcile the claim that we make our own meaning with the claim that we don’t make our own decisions. I’m glad to see that you’ve recognized this problem. But I think a retreat into Rosenbergian nihilism is unwarranted. The fact is that meaning does exist in the universe: words have meaning; animals signal each other with meaningful vocalizations, scents, and postures; even the genetic code has meaning to a ribosome. We have plenty of evidence that physical processes can give rise to meaning, so there’s no reason to conclude that our brains are incapable of producing it.

    Similarly, I think it’s wrong to say we have no purpose in our lives. We have reasons we get up in the morning, go to work, collect a paycheck, and plan for the future. Those reasons give purpose to those actions, i.e. we do them for the purpose of providing for our families, enabling our leisure activities, ensuring a comfortable retirement, or what have you. Free will is a red herring; a hammer has no free will, but it seems perverse to deny that its purpose is to drive nails.

    To me the most reasonable conclusion is that purpose, meaning, choice, and so on are all real phenomena rooted in physical causes — as real as genes, species, and natural selection. We don’t fully understand the mechanisms by which some of these phenomena arise, but that’s no reason to deny their existence.

    • c emerson
      Posted April 12, 2016 at 4:21 pm | Permalink


  52. Stephen Barnard
    Posted April 12, 2016 at 2:16 pm | Permalink

    • Posted April 12, 2016 at 2:31 pm | Permalink

      Yes, silly lyric; but an excellent album nevertheless.

      • infiniteimprobabilit
        Posted April 13, 2016 at 6:01 pm | Permalink

        Nice backing on that track. Can’t comment on the words because I was listening to the music instead 😉


    • Robert bray
      Posted April 13, 2016 at 10:10 am | Permalink

      For a slacker’s antidote to this, see Procul Harum’s ‘Boredom.’ Wish I knew how to embed the song, but I don’t. So here are the lyrics:

      Some say they will and some say they won’t
      Some say they do and some say they don’t
      Some say they shall and some say they shan’t
      And some say they can and some say they can’t

      All in all it’s all the same
      But call me if there’s any change

      Some say there’s nothing and some say there’s lots
      Some say they’ve started while some say they’ve stopped
      Some say they’re going and some say they’ve been
      Yes, some say they’re looking and some say they’ve seen

      All in all it’s all the same
      But call me if there’s any change

      • infiniteimprobabilit
        Posted April 13, 2016 at 5:51 pm | Permalink

        I think Supertramp put it more succinctly in Goodbye Stranger:

        Now some they do and some they don’t
        And some you just can’t tell
        And some they will and some they won’t
        With some it’s just as well

        (though I rather think Supertramp were talking about decidedly non-spiritual matters there).


    • Philip Elliott
      Posted April 13, 2016 at 3:54 pm | Permalink

      I approve this message!

  53. Posted April 12, 2016 at 2:36 pm | Permalink

    “I never think of these as the “meaning” of my life. In fact, I never think about that at all.”

    Yeah I think about life in terms of goals I have, but I only contemplate meaning when trying to wrap my head around what theists mean when they say it.

  54. Christopher Bonds
    Posted April 12, 2016 at 2:45 pm | Permalink

    I think Prof. CC is on target by questioning the question of meaning at all. Do other mammals think of their lives as meaningful? Don’t they just do their thing? What, then is the human “thing”? Have we moved beyond survival, attracting mates, and reproducing? Have our passions for knowledge, reflective thinking, which have their roots in our prehuman past, split off from our survival needs? Do they exist rootless in some kind of mental space as pursuits of pleasure? What about the desire to accomplish some difficult task, whether it’s climbing a high and dangerous mountain, or mastering a Beethoven sonata? What evolutionary urges push us in those directions? It’s a fact that all these pursuits exist and the people who do them find that their lives are enriched by them. Isn’t that enough? Why does “meaning” have to be sought in the immaterial or supernatural?

  55. Cerask
    Posted April 12, 2016 at 3:32 pm | Permalink

    I submit that an individual can get satisfaction from being part of a group. Membership demands agreement to the main tenants of that group. Whatever the “purpose” of the group, the individual is mouthing such only because membership gives him/her something in return. Talk of “life meaning” covers the complexity of the person’s needs being satisfied with the group’s “purpose” statement. The sense of belonging, closure to the uncertainty of actual meaning in life, and self-importance by identifying with what one deems a winning proposition, probably all are factors that brings the person to accept the group’s “purpose”. Those are the psychological factors which are more powerful than any “idea” or belief. From my experience, the majority of believers have little intellectual understanding of their beliefs. It is the psychological factors that are important to them, and they are happy to mouth the illogical platitudes the group leaders feed them.

    As an atheist, my ability to look into the abyss of meaninglessness and still find meaning for my life is probably predicated on a strong dislike of being pushed to accept nonsense myths in order to partake in a group hug.

  56. Denny
    Posted April 12, 2016 at 3:49 pm | Permalink

    “Life may have no meaning. Or even worse, it may have a meaning of which I disapprove.”
    ― Ashleigh Brilliant

    • Posted April 13, 2016 at 11:52 am | Permalink

      Yvonne Fern, the (hagiographic) conversationalist with Gene Roddenberry, said she was terrified that if there was a great cosmic truth she may not understand it and thus be disqualified from showing allegiance to it. (She had been a nun, so this is an interesting remark indeed.)

  57. WT
    Posted April 12, 2016 at 3:54 pm | Permalink

    As many have noted, I often find arguments over meaning or purpose are a definitional problem. Given the influence of Plato on Christian thinkers like Augustine, I am usually unsurprised when I discover that when theists try to define “meaning” and “purpose,” their definition often has the flavor of of a Platonic Form or Ideal. Given that “meaning” and “purpose” for them requires, by definition, an external, eternal, ideal reference point in order to qualify as being True Purpose or whatever, it is no shock that they balk at the usual responses we might give. To them, saying “We create our own purpose” is to simply admit that your life lacks any True Purpose.

    I tie this back to the influence of Plato simply because I think it is an outlook which is held beyond any specific religion, or even theism.

    For example, I suspect that such an outlook can probably be ascribed to many who describe themselves as “spiritual, not religious” or as deists. While they would describe it quite differently from an evangelical or Catholic, their feelings on meaning/purpose often boil down to the same thing. I suspect that some self-described agnostics remain “on the fence,” so to speak, because they too want to believe in some form of True Purpose or Meaning, despite realizing that there’s no evidence that such a thing exists.

    @10, mfdempsey1946 described their difficulty with this question when losing their Catholicism. As a child, I was raised in a mildly Methodist household — church and Sunday School each week, but not really any talk of religion outside of that — and felt no judgement or pressure from friends or family as I fell away in college. For me, letting go of the trappings of my particular church/religion was no problem whatsoever. However, letting go of the idea that there was some absolute, platonic reference point for Truth, Meaning, or Purpose was a longer struggle.

    • c emerson
      Posted April 12, 2016 at 4:37 pm | Permalink

      respectfully … so a Platonic concept such as “life has value” or a subjective concept such as “life is something that I value” (even if we can’t describe that value any further than to say “because I want to live”) has no meaning for you? leave theism out of it altogether, do you think life has a value to an atheist or agnostic? if so, isn’t that enough to act on?

      • WT
        Posted April 12, 2016 at 5:01 pm | Permalink

        I’m not sure what prompted your question. I would clearly argue against a Platonic or transcendental version of “life has value,” because I don’t think Platonism or transcendentalism has any basis in reality.

        I would argue that life is something that I value, just as I would say that we ascribe or create our own purpose and meaning for life. I, and most others, subjectively value life, and that is enough to act on.

        My argument is that people who ask the question “If you don’t believe in God, how can you possibly find meaning (or purpose, or values)” often require these to be rooted in the Platonic or transcendental in order to qualify. Therefore, it is not surprising that they would find my answer unsatisfying.

        • c emerson
          Posted April 12, 2016 at 5:41 pm | Permalink

          yes, thank you, I thought you meant to challenge Plato’s notion of forms, as being real entities, as opposed to mental abstractions, but I wasn’t sure if you objected as well to use of the term ‘value’ as a description of a subjective attitude. thanks

          I come at this from a different place, in that I view ideas as physical, not as a Platonic Form, but as a bio-electrical signal of some kind, that enters our evolutionary-evolved brain, interacts with other ideas and values stored there, and triggers various effect, with subsequent cause and effects. I accept the use of the term ‘subjective’ as referring to an individual, but the process may be entirely physical and deterministic, depending on what free will is, or isn’t. thanks for your reply.

  58. Curt Nelson
    Posted April 12, 2016 at 4:47 pm | Permalink

    “Further, knowing that our lives are finite, our brains can adjust our behaviors in a salubrious way—a way not open to many religionists. If this life is all we have, we’d damn well make the best of it, for we get no sequel in Heaven.”

    That is a key point. The religious lead constrained lives built around a fundamental falsehood, and then have the gall to tell us our lives have no meaning. I mean, I’d rather have a bottle in front of me than a frontal lobotomy.

  59. jrhs
    Posted April 12, 2016 at 5:11 pm | Permalink

    “What is the meaning of human life, or, for that matter, of the life of any creature? To know an answer to this question means to be religious. You ask: Does it make any sense, then, to pose this question? I answer: The man who regards his own life and that of his fellow creatures as meaningless is not merely unhappy but hardly fit for life.”


  60. Posted April 12, 2016 at 6:28 pm | Permalink

    When believers conceive of meaning: What do they actually mean? They seem to view life from the outside, as something that exist for a reason. The reason does not come from within. The meaning is conceived of something that was specifially designed, or created to serve a purpose. We have a word for this: It’s like a job.

    A job’s purpose is to get something specific done, regardless of whether you enjoy a particular task or find meaning from whatever you wound up doing. You might enjoy pushing pixels across the screen, and find meaning in endless numbers your research generates, but that’s not the purpose of the job. Your job is filling some role that needs to be done, usually in the interest of generating money for someone.

    For believers, life is something similar. To them, the purpose of life, which seem to actually mean “your role” is to secure your own afterlife by pleasing the divine employer. For centuries, pleasing the Lord was much like pleasing the other lord. You please one to live another week, hopefully in a better position than last week, and you do the same with the divine Lord – where you obey your lot and make the best of it, so that you get a promotion later on.

    Without a divine job creator, believers cannot even conceive of the situation. They see that you have that job (your life), and you are just failing to do your duty and as a consequence, the divine employer will not be pleased, with the consequence that don’t get that promotion.

    I agree with Jerry that people probably don’t think this trough. It seems to me that it’s one other area where a conceptual metaphor (“Life is a Job”) is sitting deep in people’s minds and they generate ideas based on their conception without being aware of what they really mean.

  61. Vaal
    Posted April 12, 2016 at 6:30 pm | Permalink

    The first part of Jerry’s post strikes me as
    insightful. I think it’s true that most of us, including most religious people, don’t put much thought into the “meaning” or “purpose” of our lives as a whole. (And that most religious people have probably thought little beyond pat answers themselves).

    The latter part I find seems to be sliding toward the claims we see lobbed at us by religious apologists, of the type “if we are ‘merely matter in motion’ then nothing has meaning, and we aren’t reasoning, and there is no truth to apprehend. We are just fizzing molecules.”

    The idea that we can’t really have “purpose” or “meaning” given determinism make no more sense (IMO) than those religious scare-tactic arguments.

    The atheist response: We have meaning and purposes whether God exists or not is apt, and the same goes for whether we are determined or not.

    “Purpose” arises from an agent with desires/goals, and who takes reasoned actions toward fulfilling those desires/goals. “He bought a plane ticket for the purpose of vacationing in Paris.”

    Whether determined or not, people have desires, reason about how to fulfill those desires, and can act to fulfill those desires based on those reasons. Nothing about determinism changes those facts.

    “Meaning” is similar to “purpose” in terms of intention toward ends, but also may appeal to things like “significance.”
    Does determinism mean we don’t sometimes think in terms of symbolism? Or think in terms of how something relates to some set of desires? No. Meaning is still an apt description for a certain way of thinking.

    Of course we all agree we don’t have some “objective” meaning or purpose imposed upon us. (It could be true a God created us with a purpose, but that does not make it inherently meaningful for us – we are in that driver’s seat).

    But we can have all sorts of purposes subservient to a larger purpose – and think of how those smaller purposes are significant in terms of the larger, overreaching purpose. Someone who has thought about these things may have the overriding goal of “living a good life” – whatever philosophical model he/she may hold for a “good life” and various purposes and achievements along the way can be significant, and made “meaningful” in terms of that overall goal. (And we can assign “meaning” to literal achievements, or to symbols of those achievements).

    So, people who don’t think in big picture terms still generate purpose and meaning, as a matter of how we operate. And it leaves open the possibility for spreading purpose as wide as we want – to stretch over a lifetime if we see fit.

  62. peltonrandy
    Posted April 12, 2016 at 7:02 pm | Permalink


  63. Mehul Shah
    Posted April 12, 2016 at 7:42 pm | Permalink

    I once read somewhere that “life is not a problem to be solved, but a mystery to be lived”. That sums it up for me.

    Feynman had something similar to say …

    • Mehul Shah
      Posted April 12, 2016 at 7:53 pm | Permalink

      Also, the motive behind the question is more interesting than the question itself.

      Why is it that children or generally content, joyous people don’t ask this question but others do.

  64. infiniteimprobabilit
    Posted April 13, 2016 at 1:25 am | Permalink

    And, crawling on the planet’s face
    A species, called the human race
    Lost in time, and lost in space
    And meaning

    – last lines of the Rocky Horror Picture Show


    • infiniteimprobabilit
      Posted April 13, 2016 at 6:08 pm | Permalink

      (which, not entirely surprisingly, were cut from the US release as being too much of a downer for the ending. Later restored)


  65. Posted April 13, 2016 at 7:21 am | Permalink

    The universe is indifferent. It’s up to each of us to make the best of our fleeting time here, if we’re so inclined.

  66. peepuk
    Posted April 13, 2016 at 10:58 am | Permalink

    The only thing that sets us really apart from other animals that we create an enormous amount of fiction. Some of it is enjoyable, some of it is useful, but (almost) never worth to take it seriously.

  67. Richard S
    Posted April 13, 2016 at 4:17 pm | Permalink

    I re-encountered a poem by Emily Dickinson the other day that I had never really understood until I read writers like Alex Rosenberg, Jerry Coyne, Sabine Hossenfelder and others.

    Finding is the first Act
    The second, loss,
    Third, Expedition for
    The “Golden Fleece”

    Fourth, no Discovery—
    Fifth, no Crew—
    Finally, no Golden Fleece—

  68. johnranta
    Posted April 13, 2016 at 9:20 pm | Permalink

    I’m kind of surprised that the author dismisses the efforts of us atheists to ascribe meaning to our lives. I have been an atheist for 50 years, and I’ve had strong opinions about the meaning of my life for 50 years. “What is the meaning of our lives?” It’s to do what we can to leave the world a better place. Isn’t that obvious?

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