Last Updated on 2020-11-18 by Joop Beris
It’s been a while since I posted so I thought I might try to deal with one of the bigger questions to ask: what is the meaning of life? Religious people often remark that without belief in God, atheists can’t possibly have meaning in their lives. To put the argument simply, it goes like this: if you don’t believe in God and you’re just the result of natural selection, you’ll die and that’s it. So what’s the point of it all? I have touched upon this a little bit in a previous post but I will attempt a deeper dive here. What is the meaning of life? Let’s see if we can find out.
The meaning of meaning
Before we can answer the question ‘what is the meaning of life’, we need to establish what we mean when we ask that question. The word meaning can refer to the value of someone’s life, the purpose of someone’s life, the significance of someone’s life or a combination of these.
The value of someone’s life refers to the intrinsic value of that life. Is the life worth anything, does it matter at all?
The purpose of someone’s life is related to a goal or goals. These can be lofty ideals like working for world peace or curing cancer or they can be more close to home like being a good parent or loving partner. In short, it answers the question: what is my life for?
Lastly, the significance of someone’s life refers to the contribution that this someone is making to the human race or the universe as a whole. Am I leaving the world a better or worse place by living my life?
It is clear from this short exploration, that the question “what is the meaning of life” is a very fundamental and multifaceted question and that there is no easy answer. It also shows that the answer is going to be a personal one and one that may vary throughout the course of ones’ life.
Meaning without God
Religious people will argue that it is impossible to find meaning in life without God because God is the creator of everything and the source of eternal life. Our lives only have value, purpose and significance through God. They have value because they are created by God, they have purpose determined and revealed by God and our lives have significance because they are somehow part of God’s plan.
So if there is no God to bestow meaning upon our lives, our lives are meaningless? Can the meaning of life only be bestowed from the outside or can it be bestowed from the inside as well?
Outside meaning and inside meaning
As an atheist, I believe I am the result of evolution, a biological process. Biologically speaking, my life has a meaning or a purpose at least: to assure the survival of my genes by passing them on to subsequent generations. In doing so, I am contributing to the success of Homo sapiens, my species. This may seem a rather mundane and base meaning compared to the lofty assertions of the religious but at least it has the benefit of being demonstrably true.
Meaning doesn’t have to be bestowed from the outside, though. I have seen it argued that it is logically impossible for a life to give itself meaning just as it is impossible to lift yourself off the floor by your bootstraps. A meaningless life can’t bestow meaning upon itself.
This seems to me an erroneous way to look at it. It is not life that bestows meaning upon itself, the value is bestowed by the cognitive processes in one’s brain. These processes, while dependent on life, are different from that life. I can reflect upon my existence in a way that life can not. We don’t expect bacteria to ponder the question of the meaning of life but thanks to our big brain, we can.
Another objection that I have seen raised against people bestowing meaning on their own lives, is that it is completely arbitrary. What some may find a meaningful existence is completely different from what others may find a meaningful existence. A person may think that sitting at home playing video games gives meaning to their lives.
In my opinion, arbitrariness is not a convincing argument against the validity of the meaning someone chooses to place upon their own lives. Even if someone should choose to play video games all day and think that a meaningful existence, who am I to say that for them, this is not a meaningful existence? Isn’t that just me judging someone else’s choice in life from my personal perspective?
A meaningless question
Ultimately, I think that the question “what is the meaning of life” is a meaningless question. Through some evolutionary pressure, Homo sapiens has developed a big brain which enables him/her to ask deep, probing questions. That doesn’t mean these questions will ever have a satisfactory answer or are answerable at all. Why am I here? What is the purpose of the universe? What is the meaning of life? These are deep and important questions, questions we need to ask ourselves because the answers to these questions determine our outlook on life. We should not fool ourselves into thinking that there is a one-size-fits-all answer to these questions. The benefit of being an atheist is that you get to pick your own answer.