06 May 2007
The meaning of life
Hi folks. I'm not going to tell you The Meaning of Life today, instead, I'm going to talk about that age-old question:
"What is the meaning of life?"
This is a question that can, depending on what mood I'm in, either make me very irate, or very silly. In any event, it's not a question that I've ever seriously entertained myself, and I plan to discuss why, further down the page.
What does it mean? What is it all about? And what is its purpose?
I'm actually asking this about our question, and not about life, people. The question about the meaning of life is one of the slyest tools that proselytising theists like to use to ingratiate themselves onto freethinkers, and it's one that freethinkers such as atheists and agnostics prefer not to address.
But they should. This is a question that is not going to go away, no matter how hard we try, so let's have a look at it.
These days, usually whenever I hear this question, it's usually framed like this:
"Everybody thinks about the meaning of life."
I think that the presumption included within this one statement is breathtaking.
Let's have a look at some of the "leaps of faith" included within this sentence, and see if we can come to some sort of idea of what this sentence even means.
1. What do people mean, when they talk about the "meaning of life"?
This one has always confused the hell out of me. What is the meaning of life? I don't mean the meaning itself, really, I'm looking for someone to tell me about what they mean when they use this term.
I've heard a remarkably diverse number of answers on this very subject, but no one has yet been able to pinpoint a single definition that appears to have any degree of consensus.
Some answers include the following:
"What is my purpose?" - I'm uncertain of this as a possibility, as it appears to interpose a significant degree of vanity upon what is at first glance an answer about existence generally.
"Why are we here?" - This is a great example of a question that cannot be answered. If you were to ask me this, I would generally answer with the question, "If I give an answer, how are you going to prove me wrong?"
"What is our destiny?" - This is merely the first question with an attempt to remove the personal vanity. This is another great example of a question without an answer.
"For what reason are we alive?" - Finally, a question with a variety of possible answers. Personally, if this is given to me as a possible interpretation of the meaning of life question, I like to answer it with the most obvious answer there is - "A happy series of accidents involving mostly Carbon, Hydrogen and Oxygen atoms." Unfortunately, this doesn't cut it with our intrepid questioners, so we have to move on.
"What is life's purpose?" - Yet another question with no possible answer.
Now I could go on and on with this, but it would appear to be, quite frankly, silly to continue.
What we have is a potentially limitless series of questions without answers that are designed to obfuscate and dazzle the respondant into a situation where they are overwhelmed by this potentially unlimited series of questions.
A more meaningful definition of "the meaning of life" is one that encompasses all of these - and yet this has no meaning at all. Apart from the grammatical impossibility of all of these forming a single "meaning", we still have no firm definition of what this is.
This does my head in sometimes, but why would anyone design a question to have no answer?
Why not ask these questions one by one?
The answer is God. The questions of the meaning of life really have no answer, but this is not important to the theist. What the theist wants you to do is to be so overwhelmed, and so dazzled by all the implications of whatever it is that you think that the question is all about, that it is immediately plausible amongst all this confusion that God exists as a way to make sense of it all.
I call bullshit.
"The meaning of life" is a gigantic red herring that renders all other questions secondary - yet it should not. It is through consideration of what is essentially a bogus concept that proselytizing theists are allowed to push their worldview onto the rest of us, and I really wish that it would stop.
It is also, a question without meaning. Theists have been allowed to get away with this one for years - and if you allow them to ask it without pulling them up, you're not doing them any favours, either.
Put simply, the term, "meaning of life" means nothing.
2. Does everyone think about it?
There's a fair amount of anecdotal evidence that suggests that a lot of people consider this question, and we've seen from the first point that no one knows what problem it is that they're supposed to be solving, when they ponder the "meaning of life".
To be fair, we live in a world where at every possible opportunity, lots of people are prompted to think about this question. And not just by theists.
In his somewhat erroneously titled, Hitchhiker Trilogy, Douglas Adams came up with an answer to "Life, The Universe and Everything". The answer was, quite famously, 42.
Adams makes my first point pretty well, in that he made the point that the answer would make no sense until you could come up with a workable question.
In the real world, we're unlikely to come up with an answer until we've correctly formulated a question first, but it's interesting to note that the person doing the prompting of the reader to think about the meaning of life, in Adams' case, was a staunch atheist.
But in the examples we've used, the most interesting thing about them is that a third party has prompted the thinker to think about the meaning of life.
Nowhere do we have an example of someone thinking about this question unprompted.
So in this light, what do we make of the claim, oft stated by theists, that everyone thinks about the meaning of life?
It is implicit in the claim that people do this sort of thinking unprompted, however it is my view that the stats on this simply don't exist. And therefore, in the absence of hard evidence to suggest that people do think about the so-called meaning of life unprompted, the only reasonable position that we can take is that of the null hypothesis - that not everybody thinks about the meaning of life unprompted.
3. What use is the "meaning of life" question to us?
We've seen that the question itself is riddled with flaws as to its meaning, and we've seen that no one (to my knowledge) has ever produced stats that confirm that people naturally think about this question unprompted.
Our next question is about how the hell do we come up with some sort of viable use for such a question, once we have answered it?
The question, at this point in time is too vaguely worded to be of any use to us, and we simply have to accept that the utter meaninglessness of the question means that consideration of this question without any definable terms is an exercise in futility.
If it has any use at all, it is as an example of a completely useless question that should never have been asked in the first place - your archetypal unanswerable question.
Apart from this, it is inefficient to consider such questions.
4. How can God hope to provide the answers to such questions?
Theists are used to this sort of thing. No matter how ridiculously formulated a question is, if you ask it, He will be able to answer, goes the line.
Allow me to provide an excellent example:
"Ailwehfo;ihwe;ip' p owejf' eopj' wegopjwe wro[j wervg wegjo[asdoj skl;jsdv'phiasdf ojbvo?"
Believe it or not, a theist will maintain that there is an answer to this question.
Never mind that I formulated this question by just hitting keys at random, a sort of tactile version of glossolalia.
I've heard a theist, in exasperation, say, "Never mind the question: God will provide the answer."
The utter uselessness of this statement is staggering. How can God presume to answer a question that has no meaning?
And, more to the point, how can He presume that this question, to which I attach no personal relevance, will suddenly become more relevant after the answer has been provided?
Lastly, how useful would such an answer be?
No theist can seriously believe that God answers undefined and irrelevant questions that no one asked, really, do they?
And, one last point, can a theist really get away with the claim that everyone thinks about this "question" unprompted?