The Meaning of Life

Categories 4 Think pieces

It’s often said that atheism leaves us with no meaning in life, no point to it all. Compared to the infinity of time and space, our short lives are microscopic and seem trivial. Theists claim that God gives meaning to their lives. Neither claim is true.

There is a new concern with the issue of meaning in life amongst academic philosophers, such as Susan Wolf, Thaddeus Metz, Erik Wielenberg, Joshua Seachris, Arjun Markus, John Kekes, Brooke Alan Trisel, John Cottingham et al. They set out the alternative accounts for meaning in human life as i) theist/supernatural, ii) objective naturalist, and iii) subjective naturalist. Cottingham argues for a theist view, but the argument fails for the atheist, and also because meaning would still have to be independent of any deity. Wolf, Metz and Wielenberg all convincingly overturn the theist view, but argue for objective naturalist meaning, despite this being difficult to explain. Without human interpretation, there seems to be neither purpose nor meaning in nature itself.

This leaves us with a subjective naturalist account of meaning. The fact that our lives are a mere flicker in eternity does not render them meaningless, since we find meaning in the same timescale as our lives are actually lived, and do not view them from the perspective of eternity. Meaning is apprehended subjectively. Individuals can and do get different meaning from the same object or experience. Some people are more aware of meaning in life than others. Meaning is essentially subjective. There is also a strong tendency in the literature to dismiss pleasure as a component of meaning, but individual human response to objects, events and lives is all there ultimately is, so that positive or negative pleasure has to be the way in which meaning is apprehended and evaluated.

Meaning is metaphysical. Standing on a ship approaching land, the coastline bathed in sunshine may well mean beauty, or homeliness, familiarity, comfort, return, resource, strength, fortitude, opportunity. It may alternatively mean challenge, threat, or signify failure. It’s my take on the hills that creates meaning, not their physicality itself. Similarly with life. Life has what meaning we interpret from it and therefore work into it. Philosophers interpret meaning as significance, worthiness, achievement and contribution. This is too pragmatic and elitist, and means that some people have more meaningful lives than others, and that some lives maybe have no meaning at all. Isaac Newton’s life was one of great meaning, but this meaning will be different for the contemporary physics student and engineer, for Gottfried Liebniz with whom Newton bitterly contested the development of calculus, for the quantum theorist challenging the Newtonian paradigm, or for William Chaloner, the counterfeiter whom Newton hounded to conviction to a slow painful death.

Wherever we find or develop an interpretation, we have meaning. Every object, event, experience, act, person, and life, has potential meaning. Robert Adams writes that intent, rationality, and coherence all contribute to meaning. We can be blind to meaning, or we can dwell on the hills and, like the poet, derive meaning from them. We can see virtue as meaning, and find this virtue/meaning in our own and others’ lives and in each event, experience, conversation, and interaction. Appreciating meaning is a choice in life, but a choice which renders life a richer shared experience. We make our own lives meaningful, and we appreciate the meaning in each other’s lives.


Thaddeus Metz ‘Meaning in Life’ (OUP 2013)

Susan Wolf ‘Meaning in Life and Why it Matters’ (Princeton 2012)

Joshua Seachris ‘Exploring the Meaning of Life : An Anthology and Guide’ (Wiley 2012)

Erik Wielenberg ‘Value and Virtue in a Godless Universe’ (Cambridge 2005)

John Cottingham ‘On the Meaning of Life’ (Routeledge 2002)

Terry Eagleton ‘The Meaning of Life’ (OUP 2007)

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