In this piece I consider the question of whether life can have meaning in an atheistic universe (i.e. if God did not exist). I first consider a common theistic notion, according to which the meaning of life consists in the purpose or reason for which life exists. I argue that under this definition, life probably cannot have any true meaning without God, as there would be no reason for which life exists. I then proceed to contrast this theistic notion of meaning with some possible alternative naturalistic conceptions of the meaning of life. I argue that, although life probably does not have any intrinsic, mind-independent meaning in a naturalistic universe, nevertheless we can construct a cogent (albeit vague) inter-subjective understanding of the meaning of life. I therefore outline a notion of the meaning of life along these such, according to which an action or lifestyle is meaningful to the degree that those affected by the action or lifestyle hold it in a certain sort of ‘positive regard’, where this notion of ‘positive regard’ is a vague and loose conglomeration of many inter-related concepts and notions, but loosely corresponds to a form of quasi-nostalgic approval and believe that the action or life has been enriching in some way. I then consider some potential objections to this view, including that inter-subjective meaning of this sort is not ‘real meaning’ but is merely ‘made up’, and also the idea that any such atheistic conception of meaning is necessarily undermined by the eventual end of humanity and heat death of the universe. I close the essay with some reflective thoughts on nihilism and the challenge it can pose for us all at different times.
Theistic Conceptions of Meaning
There is no agreement among philosophers as to what is meant when we ask the question “what is the meaning of life?”. That said, let us consider the following working definition which I believe many (though of course not all) theists would be broadly happy to endorse:
(1.0) The meaning of (human) life is the reason or purpose for which humanity exists or was created.
Theists, as I understand it, would generally say that humans were created for the purpose of serving, glorifying, relating to, and obeying god, and as such these things are the (ultimate) meaning or purposes of life.
Under an atheistic worldview, of course, humanity was not created, but came into existence without the influence of any external agent (this is usually described as ‘by chance’ or ‘by accident’, though I think that words like ‘chance’ and ‘accident’ are somewhat vague in this context, so I will stick with ‘without the intervention of any external agent’). The question we then ask is: can there be any purpose or reason for which humanity exists, in the absence of any creator God (or other similar agent)?
To answer this question, we need to determine what is meant by the ‘reason for which humanity exists’. Suppose we interpret this phrase as follows:
(1.1) X constitutes a reason for which humanity exists iff X is some motivation or justification, in the absence of which humanity would not exist.
So, for example, if we take X to be “God’s desire for humans to enter into relationship with him” (theists who object to attributing desires to God can read this in the same analogical way in which they presumably read such attributions in their respective holy books), then we may say that absent this desire, God would not have created humanity, and therefore we would not exist. Thus, God’s desire is in a direct sense a necessary and intentional prerequisite for our existence, and therefore underpins the meaning of our lives.
Understood in this way, our question “does life have any meaning if there is no God?” becomes the following:
(1.2) If there is no God, does there exist some motivation or justification, in the absence of which humanity would not exist?
It seems to me that the answer to this question is fairly clearly ‘no’. Certainly there will be various physical causes in the absence of which humanity would not exist, however mere causes, in this analysis, are insufficient to imbue purpose. What is needed is some motivation or justification, and in the absence of any external agent influencing the process, there seems no possible way this could exist (absent sufficiently powerful aliens, but for our purposes here I will simply call that a variation of God).
I therefore conclude that, if we conceive of the meaning of life as the reason for which humanity exists, and if we interpret the reason for which humanity exists as the motivation or justification absent which humanity would not exist, then life has no meaning.
Naturalistic Conceptions of Meaning
As a naturalist, however, I do not accept (1.0) as being the only possible conception of what is meant by ‘the meaning of life’. In particular, I deny the premise that the meaning of life need bear any relation at all to the reason for which humanity was created or came into being. I believe that, at least potentially, meaning could be determined by the present nature and properties of human beings and they way they relate to one another, without any explicit reference to the reasons for which we came into being. Perhaps when we look for such meaning none will be found, but my point is that I don’t think we can rule it out definitionally by simply asserting that meaning necessarily related to purposes of creation. Some theists may reject this as being ‘not real meaning’, in which case I have nothing to say other than we differ on our understandings and usage of the word ‘meaning’.
The Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy says the following:
“Within the analytic philosophical community, the disinterest in the question of life’s meaning, and in some cases outright logical suspicion, is likely partly a result of the question’s inherent lack of clarity and partly a result of the suspicion that it is a request for which no answer exists because it is built on suspect assumptions about what would have to be the case in order for life to have a meaning. Indeed, it is not immediately clear what is being requested in asking the question of life’s meaning, nor is it clear that life could have such a meaning, given latent assumptions often accompanying the asking of the question.”
I tend to agree with this analysis. I believe that when people speak of ‘the meaning of life’, they have in their minds a fairly amorphous and often confused set of overlapping and intermingling ideas, connotations, and conceptions, which can often differ considerably from person to person. This, when different people consider the question of the meaning of life, they are in effect pondering different questions, as each person conceives of what the question is asking, and what a potential answer could look like, differently.
As such, I lean towards endorsing the Amalgam Thesis, according to which ‘the meaning of life’ is really a constellation of related questions, including ‘what is the purpose of life’, ‘what makes life valuable’, ‘what makes life worth living’, and ‘what does a good life look like’. As such, it is unlikely that the question will admit a single clear answer. This viewpoint informs my later analysis, and I think justifies a certain degree of imprecision and vagueness in answering what is, after all, a very imprecise and vague question.
One proposed naturalistic basis for the meaning of life could be outlined as follows, which can broadly be described as ‘objectivism’, can be outlined as follows:
(2.0) The meaning of life is some natural property of the world external to humanity which exists independently of whatever human beings may believe
I know of no way to determine whether this statement is true or false. I do not know how it would be possible to look at the world and determine the existence of some meaning-giving natural property, but nor do I know of any argument by which we could rule out such a thing categorically (some may argue along the lines that mere facts about nature cannot imply any facts about meaning, however absent any justification for this assertion I consider it to be question-begging).
That said, I tend to think that this proposition is false, as I think it unlikely that such natural properties exist. I acknowledge that I do not have especially strong justifications for this belief, other than my fairly insubstantial sense that it is hard to imagine what such natural properties would look like, or how we could find out about them (though of course proponents of this view argue that we already do know what they look like and have considerable knowledge of them). Theists will probably not agree that strong justifications for this belief are lacking, however I maintain that the burden of proof falls on those making that claim that ‘meaning-giving natural properties of the world do not exist’ to justify how they can know this, and I believe that is quite difficult to do.
Having rejected this form of objective, naturalistic meaning of life, what is left? My views on the subject are quite uncertain and in flux, and I do not have a fully articulated or clearly worked out theory. However, I do have some thoughts on the matter, which I will outline below.
I tend to think that ‘meaning’ cannot exist absent some agent making an evaluation, and as such I do not think there are any facts about what outcomes or activities are meaningful ‘in themselves’. That said, I do think that there are ways of living which are relatively more meaningful than other ways of living. I think that this ‘meaningfulness’ consists not in any meaning imbued by an external agent (e.g. God), nor do I think it consists in certain outcomes or actions having meaning or purpose ‘in themselves’. Rather, I think that actions and lifestyles can attain meaning as a result of the impact they have on ourselves, and also other people. Importantly, these other people may be those living in the distant future, and so need not be people we will ever know personally or interact with directly. Thus, we have our first rough definition:
(2.1) An action or lifestyles is meaningful to the degree that those affected by the action or lifestyle hold it in a certain sort of ‘positive regard’
Exactly what sort of ‘positive regard’ this is I cannot say, precisely because this notion of the ‘meaning of life’ is so vague and difficult to pin down. That said, I can paint a broad picture of the sorts of actions that I am talking about, which includes helping others, striving for and achieving excellence in various fields, making scientific discoveries, producing great works of art, exploration, building and sustaining deep positive relationships with others, and many other such things. To me, meaningful activities are not merely those which produce pleasure or spark our interest in the moment, but those which we tend to hold in a certain sort of quasi-nostalgic positive regard when reminiscing about later on. This means, of course, that we may not be able to determine how meaningful something is at the time it occurs. Indeed, perhaps we will never know, as we have no way of nothing what impact our actions will have on others, now or in the future.
I do not think this idea should seem especially strange or unfamiliar. Most people, I think, can recall occasions when, after spending some time doing something, one looks back on this and thinks to oneself ‘that was just a total waste of time’. This need not, I wish to emphasise, necessarily have anything to do with said activity being ‘productive’ as we typically understand the word to mean. For example, if I spend a few hours playing marginally entertaining online games as a way of procrastinating for something else I should be doing, I might feel bad about this not only because I didn’t get done whatever I was supposed to, but also because this simply wasn’t a ‘meaningful’ use of my time: it neither enriched me as a person, nor did it enrich anybody else. It did not add to my flourishing as a human being, or help anyone else. It did nothing to contribute to the development of me as a person, or humanity as a group. As such, I am not likely to remember it with particularly fond or positive feelings. On the other hand, if (for example) I invited some friends around and we had a great afternoon playing exactly the same online games, I might look back on this as a very meaningful and enriching activity, as a result of the bonds of friendships strengthened and relationships built. Thus, I do not think that it is the inherent nature of the activity itself which determines whether it is meaningful or not; rather I believe it is the context in which we engage in the activity, and the attitudes which we and others have towards it afterwards, which will depend in part on the long-term effect the activity had on our flourishing as human beings (even if we may not consciously think of it in such terms)
I might also say, to avoid potential objections, that these attitudes with which the meaningfulness of an action or life is judged, should be properly informed and reflective attitudes. For example, perhaps I think that spending months learning a new musical instrument was a complete waste of time and not at all meaningful. But perhaps I am just in a bad mood when making this judgement, or perhaps I don’t actually realise the subtle positive effects this has had on me, which I would consider meaningful if I knew about them. Or to give another example, a person suffering from an episode of depression may not think that anything they have ever done is meaningful, even though when they are functioning more normally they would not hold this view at all. Thus, I adjust slightly my rough definition:
(2.2) An action or mode of living is meaningful to the degree those affected by the action or mode of living would hold it in a certain sort of ‘positive regard’ if they were considering the matter with access to all relevant information and in an appropriately uncompromised mental state.
Broadly speaking, therefore, I would say that my conception of meaning in life is ‘inter-subjective’, meaning that on the one hand it is determined by the subjective reactions of human beings (rather than some external mind-independent fact about the universe, or by some external agent), but on the other hand it is not purely subjective to each individual. Thus, even if a pure hedonist (for example) claimed that their lifestyle was meaningful to them, (and it is not clear to me that this would necessarily be true, because perhaps they merely crave more of the same sorts of pleasures, rather than being enriched and holding in positive regard the actual experiences they have had in the past), but even if this were the case, I would still say that their lifestyle was probably not particularly meaningful, because (presumably) few if any other people would similarly hold their life in comparable positive regard, as this sort of life is (in general) fundamentally selfish, and does not enrich other people or humanity as a whole.
Objectivity, Reason, and Meaning
One major line of theist attack on such an inter-subjective conception of the meaning is that it is not ‘real meaning’ – it is merely something that we have ‘made up’. In response to this, I would say two things. Firstly, this conception of the meaning of life is not subjectivist in the sense that it depends only upon the beliefs of the person in question. That is, I have not said that each person determines their own meaning in life, or decides for themselves based on their own totally arbitrary personal criteria whether or not their lives are meaningful. Rather, I have said that I think that the meaningfulness of a life is determined by facts about the sort of regard we and others hold that life in, when reflecting on it from an appropriately informed and sound mental state.
Meaning is thus subjective in that it is dependent upon the reactive attitudes of human beings (which is not something I think should come as a surprise given that meaning is generally understood to be an emotive and cognitive phenomenon), but that does not mean that it is totally arbitrary or just ‘made up’. The way we react to things and the attitudes we hold towards them are determined by very fundamental components of who we are as people. We can, of course, alter such attitudes through introspection and practise, but I do not think it is the case that they can (generally) be frivolously changed at whim. As such, I fail to see the force in the objection that such meaning is ‘just subjective’ or ‘made up’.
On a related note, many people seem to have an intuition that the meaning of life must, in some way, be derivable from reason alone if it is to count as ‘real meaning’. In other words, meaning cannot ‘merely’ be based on our reaction to things – there must be some factual, propositional content to it beyond that. I, however, question why this need be the case. Why is meaning derived from the nature of the world by reason to be preferred over one that is based on people’s inter-subjective sense of what is meaningful and important? Is it because we feel that we need this to be the case in order to convince others to agree with us about what is meaningful? This seems like poor justification, as even on many questions that are clearly matters of objective fact, there is still immense disagreement and inability to convince. Is it because we feel that the ultimate source of meaning needs to come from some transcendent force or power or agent in order to be ‘real’? But why should this be the case? If certain actions and mods of living enrich our lives in such a way that we hold them in a certain sort of positive regard (i.e. they are meaningful to us and others), then why is that source of meaning somehow less ‘real’ simply because it does not derive from a transcendent source?
Indeed, many theists already believe that reason alone is insufficient to lead one to submit one’s life to God – there also is some scope for a choice, or the work of the spirit, or ‘something’ else. However we describe this ‘something else’, theists are typically already comfortable with the idea that decisions about what ultimately matters, or what ultimately to commit oneself to, are not based purely on reasoning about facts, but that other considerations and motivations can be relevant too. Of course, the nature of these ‘other considerations and motivations’ is not identical in the cases of believing in God and deciding what we think the meaning of life is, but my point is only to highlight that there seems to be a similarity in ‘going beyond pure reason’ in both cases. As such, if the theist is willing to accept non-rational (or what I tend to think of ‘pre-rational’) motivations in one case, then what bases do they have for ruling such motivations as inferior or lacking in another case? If one can justifiably choose to follow God partly on the basis of reasoning, but also partly on the basis of one’s inner convictions and sense of what is right and good and true, then why cannot one similarly justifiably pursue what one believes to be meaningful for a similar collation of reasons?
The Temporal Question
Another line of criticism levelled against naturalistic conceptions of meaning argues that they fail to adequately address what I will call ‘the temporal question’, the fact that we will all die and, ultimately, the Earth and everything else that we know and care about will eventually cease to exist (e.g. through the heat death of the universe).
William Lane Craig outlines this view in the following quote:
“The universe is doomed to die anyway. In the end it makes no difference whether the universe ever existed or not. Therefore, it is without ultimate significance. The same is true of the human race. Mankind is a doomed race in a dying universe. Because the human race will eventually cease to exist, it makes no ultimate difference whether it ever did exist. Mankind is thus no more significant than a swarm of mosquitos or a barnyard of pigs, for their end is all the same. The same blind cosmic process that coughed them up in the first place will eventually swallow them all again.”
In response to these criticisms, I would ask what basis there is for the belief that the final end state of the universe is of unique (or even primary) importance in determining the value or meaning of our lives? I see no reason why the fact that something will eventually cease to be implies that it cannot have any meaning or value for the time while it does exist.
The Internet Encylopedia of Philosophy article on this subject includes a quote which aptly expresses my views on this matter:
“Critics of these strong and weak futility claims counter by calling into question what can be called the-arbitrary-privileging-of-the-future. They ask, “Why should the end state of affairs be given such veto power over the worth and meaning of the here and now?”… why give the future priority over the present and the past? If life is meaningful now, how can the fact that it will cease to exist make it less meaningful now? And, if life is not meaningful now, how could its un-ending continuation confer meaningfulness to it? Critics of such futility claims argue that the most plausible way to appraise the meaningfulness and worth of life here and now, is by adopting the here and now perspective, not the distant, detached perspective of some indifferent future of a universe in ruins.”
I cannot deny, however, that the fact of ‘ultimate cosmic ruin’ does resonate strongly with many people as being a strong argument against the notion that life has any ultimate meaning. Perhaps that is what some people believe ‘the meaning of life’ is – being able to make some ultimate difference to the final end state of the universe. If this is the definition we adopt, then I agree that in an atheistic universe life has no ultimate meaning. However, I see no reason to accept this very particular conception of what it is for life to have meaning.
In particular, I would ask people how, exactly, the eventual heat death of the universe in any way takes away from the meaningfulness of great acts of courage or kindness, deep and meaningful relationships one forges with friends and family, the awe inspiring beauty of nature and some of mankind’s greatest accomplishments in art and science. I think these things (and many others) are meaningful precisely because they have great emotional and cognitive significance to us here and now, and in many cases will continue to hold great meaning for generations to come. We may wish that such things could last forever – perhaps if they did, they would be even more meaningful. But why should we suppose that their eventual extinction undermines their meaning completely? Why does the temporality of our existence, our finite extension along the dimension of time, somehow undo or negate the positive attitudes and reactions that hold towards such things for that duration of time for which we do exist?
The Ugly Head of Nihilism
In my experience, it is often very difficult to remember, through times of pain and other trials, what we think the meaning or purpose of our lives to be. I think this is a problem for people of all philosophies and worldviews; Kierkegaard, for example, talked at length about the absurdity of the world, and though he believed that God acted as an ultimate source of meaning and a source of comfort against such absurdity, nonetheless he acknowledged and explored the ongoing difficulties in living in this mad world of ours.
Though I am often tempted by nihilism, and often it can seem to me that life as no meaning or purpose (or at least that my life has no meaning or purpose), ultimately I do not think that the justifications given for nihilism are particularly compelling. I believe that life does have meaning, even when it often seems like it does not. I believe that we can make sense of the meaning of life in an atheistic universe. This is not to say, of course, that God could not serve as a crucial serve of meaning if he does in fact exist – indeed, to many he clearly serves as a source of meaning regardless of whether he exists or not. It is, however, to say that we do not need God for our lives to have meaning. For this we need only ourselves, and perhaps also a few good friends.