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The Meaning of Life
Daniel Hill argues that without God, life would be meaningless.
What is the meaning of ‘the meaning of life’? In analytic philosophy the bearers of meaning have usually been considered to be words, phrases, clauses, and sentences. Hence life itself is not usually considered to be a bearer of meaning, but the word ‘life’ is. Understanding the meaning of the latter is itself an important philosophical task, to determine whether life involves any non-physical substance, or whether it merely involves a certain form or arrangement of a certain type of physical matter. It is therefore a task that logically must be tackled before the task of understanding the meaning of life in the sense usually intended by the earnest questioner. However, the person that asks “What is the meaning of life?” is not usually asking for a definition of the word ‘life’. What I think the questioner means to ask is what the explanation is for the presence of life or existence of living things. Peter van Inwagen gives a helpful analogy: “If Alice surprises a trusted employee who has broken into her office and is going through her files, and if Alice says ‘What is the meaning of this?’ she is requesting an explanation of a certain state of affairs in terms of the purposes of her employee or those whose agent the employee is.” (Peter van Inwagen, Metaphysics, 1993, p.134). So, if someone asked you the meaning of the fact that the water was boiling, replying that a heating element was giving the water molecules energy wouldn’t be a proper answer, nor would saying that the water had reached 100ºC. The answer would be that (for example) someone had put the kettle on in order to have hot water to make a cup of tea. If it was apparent that nobody was responsible for the event in question, if, say, the event was just the boiling of water in a natural geyser, the person asking “What is the meaning of the fact that the water is boiling?” would receive the answer that there was no meaning (or would perhaps receive just a puzzled stare). Thomas Morris calls this the ‘Endowment Thesis’: “Something has meaning if and only if it is endowed with meaning or significance by a purposive personal agent or group of such agents.” (Thomas V. Morris, Making Sense of it all: Pascal and the Meaning of Life, 1992, p.56). He goes on,
“This seems to be a truth about meaning of any kind. Human languages provide the simplest and most straightforward example of this. No word in any human language carries its meaning as one of its intrinsic properties. No sound or shape essentially means whatever it does in fact mean when produced by a user of the English language as a meaningful linguistic utterance… It has been endowed with whatever meaning or meanings it has by linguistic convention, by agreement among speakers or users of the language. To have meaning of any kind, a thing must be brought under the governance of some kind of purposive intention, whether an intention to refer, to express, to convey, or to operate in the production of some acknowledged value. This is true of all meaning.”
As far as life is concerned, then, life has a meaning only if there is an explanation of it in terms of the purposes of an agent that brought life about. Although the life of a particular individual might be explained in terms of the purposes of her, his, or its parents, this sort of explanation won’t suffice for the whole of life throughout time and space, since it seems that life has not been going on forever, so that there must have been in the history of the world at least one living thing that had no living ancestors. In any case, contrary to what David Hume says, it does not seem as if an explanation of each member of a series adds up to an explanation of the whole. Even if we could explain each individual life in terms of the actions of that living thing’s parents backwards ad infinitum, that would still not explain why we had an infinite series of living things rather than an infinite series of non-living things. Thus it would fail to explain fully the phenomenon of life. Finally on this point, although the parents’ action may (usually) be a physically necessary condition of life, it is not a physically sufficient condition of it, and therefore cannot function as a complete explanation, since not everything is physically able to be a parent.
You might object that in order for life to have meaning it is not necessary that there be some designer having purposes for her or his or its creation. Perhaps all that is actually necessary is that somebody have a purpose. So, for instance, I may use a cup intended for drink to keep my pens in. My purpose for the cup is different from that of the designer. I don’t think that this suggestion fully captures the intuitive notion of ‘meaning’, however. If somebody asked what was the meaning of (the existence of) the cup, she or he would want to know who had made it and why. She or he would not, I think, want to know for what I was using it (unless I had made it). Secondly on this point, nobody can have a purpose for the whole of her or his life, since part of our lives is already past by the time we are capable of forming purposes. One cannot, I think, really have a purpose for something already past. To have a purpose for something is to use it to bring about a particular state of affairs, but one cannot use past states of affairs to bring about anything. Thirdly, since we are considering the whole phenomenon of life here, only the first living thing or things could have had a purpose for almost all of life. But palaeontologists tell us that the world’s first living organisms were not things of the sort that could have had purposes – they were too biologically simple to have any mental life at all.
Belief in a creator and designer is essential, then, for anyone that thinks that life has a meaning. The famous argument from design seeks to identify such a designer with God. Whilst it seems certain that necessarily God is the designer and creator of all else that there is, it is not certain that necessarily any designer is God. Could there not, for instance, have been a designer that knew a lot but not everything, or that could do a lot but not everything? It seems that there could. Sometimes considerations of simplicity are invoked (for example by Richard Swinburne) to the effect that it is more rational to believe in the allegedly simpler hypothesis of an all-knowing, allpowerful God than in one who is not quite all-powerful and not quite allknowing. In any case, the identification cannot be made with 100% certainty. Since I have no space here to discuss this thorny issue in depth I shall assume that from revelation, religious experience, or some other source, one may make this identification.
Therefore, atheists must necessarily deny that life has a meaning, since no overall complete explanation of the existence of living things could be given in terms of the purposes of any set of non-divine agents. Theists, on the other hand, believe that God’s purposes form a necessary condition of all life (apart from God’s), and perhaps a sufficient condition too. Certainly they will say that the union of the set of God’s purposes and the set of the purposes of all parents will be a sufficient condition, since any physical factor is reducible to one of these sets. So, for a theist, the meaning of life will be given in terms of the purposes of God and parents. God’s purposes are more important because if, as scientists tell us, there was once at least one first living thing in the world, then that thing’s existence can be given meaning only in terms of God’s purposes. Secondly, it seems to follow from God’s omnipotence that God’s will is a necessary condition for any parent producing a child. So God, being rational, has a purpose of some kind behind the existence of every life. But no one human parent has a purpose for bringing about more than relatively few lives. So I shall concentrate on God’s purposes.
What are these purposes? There is an infinite number of possible purposes for a designer, some good and some bad, but God could only have a good purpose, since God is, by definition, good. Furthermore, it cannot be that God needed to create life, for God is, by definition, self-sufficient. But it does not seem that God could have created living things for their benefit – does it make any sense to talk about benefiting something by bringing it into existence? I do not think so, for it does not seem sensible to compare an existent and a nonexistent thing with respect to happiness. So it seems as if God created life for God’s own sake. Why? Well, although God does not need praise from any other being, it is good that God be praised, since, by definition, God is the supreme being, most worthy of praise. It also seems good, though not essential, that a being other than God should glorify God. An artist creates a picture not for the picture’s sake, but for her or his own sake, to redound to her or his own credit. This may sound as if God is egotistical, but in fact, an egotist is one who has an over-inflated selfopinion. God does not have this, since God really is the supreme being, and God does not wrongfully deprive anyone of praise in creating life for God’s own glory. This, then, may explain why God created life. The Shorter Catechism puts it thus:
“Q1: What is the chief end of man?
A: Man’s chief end is to glorify God, and to enjoy him for ever.”
God created life to glorify God and to be in relationship with God. The Catechism rather anthropocentrically and chauvinistically speaks of ‘man’, but I think that at least the first half of the principle, that is, the principle of glorifying or giving honour to God, may be generalized to all life. It seems plausible to say that the beauty and diversity of organisms in the natural world glorify their creator in roughly the way in which an artist’s work may bring praise to the artist: the artist or designer’s skill is made manifest in the thing that is designed. Creatures capable of free intentional action may glorify God in an additional way, viz by obeying and imitating God and so demonstrating the rightness of God’s commands and nature, and by freely and intentionally giving God the praise and honour that God deserves.
But does the collective purpose for all humanity filter down to each individual? Does it follow from the fact that all humanity was created to glorify God that this is the purpose of each individual? I do not think it can be said logically to follow. Rather what follows is that each person should do what is necessary in order that the whole of humanity may truly be said to be glorifying God and being in relationship with God. In practice, I think this will mean that each person should glorify and be in relationship with God and also encourage others to do the same. However, the precise way of obeying God can, it seems to me, only be known a posteriori, i.e. from God’s revelation or by experience, since God might command me to do a particular sort of action, but you to do a different sort of action.
But why should there be an overarching purpose for one’s life? Why shouldn’t one just have lots of small purposes, for example to write this article, to pass an exam, to get one’s girlfriend a nice birthday present? It seems as if we all do have small purposes in life, for this is no more than the claim that we act intentionally. If we never did any action on purpose we should not survive very long, for it is not only the case that most people work (at least partly) in order to get money in order to get food and drink, but also that we do such mundane actions as going to the refrigerator and cupboard in order to get food and drink. I do not think that there need be an overarching purpose for one’s life, but I think one does want assurance that the small purposes one has are significant. If my purpose in my actions was just to continue to exist for as long as possible I think most people would want to class such a life as meaningless, for, unless I held the view that simple existence was a good thing there wouldn’t seem to be any point in prolonging an existence that I was not using for any other purpose. Similarly, if my ambition were to amass the world’s largest collection of bottle tops just for its own sake or to count the number of blades of grass in Britain, I think most people would dismiss such an ambition as pointless, for intuitively it does not seem as if either is a worthwhile end. Yet if I said my ambition was to relieve world suffering or to be happy or to glorify God the question “Why do you want to do that?” would seem odd.
There seem, then, to be some purposes that are right or appropriate for humans and others that are not. The purposes have to be worthwhile or important to some degree, and they also have to be morally good. It seems that a life devoted to advancing human suffering and causing pain would only be meaningful in a perverse sense. But it seems to me that there may also be more than morality at stake here: it seems plausible to say that painting The Mona Lisa or writing Hamlet is a worthwhile end even though it may not be morally good. It seems then that purposes or ends should be weighed on a general value scale to see whether they are suitable for dedicating one’s existence to. This general value scale will be a function from particular values such as moral value, aesthetic value etc., to an overall merit or value. I think that these value facts are brute facts, i.e. ones with no explanation: there are some purposes that are good or valuable, and one cannot say why they are so, nor can one or need one give any additional reason for the pursuit of one of these purposes.
It seems to me that we do have some intuitive idea of what these intrinsically good or valuable purposes are: for instance, helping others or fighting disease. However, the most important purpose must surely be to glorify God, since God is, by definition, the supreme being, who ought to receive infinite praise and obedience. There are other purposes that are good and valuable, but none of them is of infinite value. Similarly, there is no other state of affairs as valuable as that in which God is glorified. God, being our creator and benefactor, has a claim on and right to our lives; nobody else has as strong a claim or as great a right to our lives, not even our parents. It follows that the moral imperative to glorify God is greater than any other moral imperative.
It is not the case that an overarching purpose is necessary to have a life worth living: God has no overarching purpose in living – there is no reason for which God is alive, yet God’s life is worth living, because God necessarily brings about good things for God and all others, and because God is happy so to do. So, whilst there is no meaning to God’s life – nor, therefore, to the set of God’s life and every other life – God’s life is full of purposes of the greatest value.
It may seem at first sight that it is problematic to say that God’s life has no meaning. I do not think it is problematic – we started the article by saying that for a life to have meaning it must be explicable in terms of the purposes of its creator; but it is not possible, by definition, for God to have a creator, so it is not possible for God’s life to have meaning. To insist that God’s life be meaningful is to make a category mistake – God’s life is simply not in the category of things that could have a meaning. It might then be claimed that if we derive our meaning from God and if God essentially has no meaning, then we inherit God’s lack of meaning. I do not think this is so. Indeed, if all meaning is endowed, then, necessarily, one of three things happens: (i) a chain of explanation goes on for ever, (ii) a chain of explanation is circular or (iii) a chain of explanation comes to a stop in an unexplained phenomenon. I think that (i) is implausible in this case: it does not seem likely that there is an infinite sequence of meaning-bearers stretching off into the logical distance. I think (ii) is unsatisfactory – I do not think circular explanation is a valid form of explanation. That leaves the third option. In any case, I do not see why meaninglessness should be inherited.
I have not shown in this article that there is a meaning to life, nor have I shown that there is a designer, nor that the designer is God. As a matter of fact, I do not think I can prove any of these things. I hope I have shown that there can be a meaning to life only if there is a designer, and that if the designer is God then one should adopt as one’s own God’s purpose for one’s life. I have suggested that such a purpose in the broadest sense is that of glorifying God and being in relationship with God, but that the particular expression of this for the individual is a matter for that individual to discern by religious experience or revelation.
© Dr Daniel Hill 2002
Daniel Hill was once robbed and marooned in the desert by a Bolivian truck driver. He would like to thank Christine Odone, librarian at the University of London Library, for bibliographic help with this article above and beyond the call of duty.