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Ask An Atheist: What is the meaning of life?

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Q. If we all completely pass out of existence when we die, what ultimate meaning is there to life?

The question is a legitimate one, but mushes a lot of issues together that need to be separated.  First, if the question assuming that “ultimate meaning” can only exist in a context of some kind of afterlife (eternal or otherwise), then the deck is stacked, and no answer apart from that would be conceivable. The issue ultimately relates not to the afterlife at all, but to what meaning and purpose people come to think about their own lives and the lives of others.

Let me try a concrete example: what is the “ultimate meaning” of Beethoven's life?  As far as we are concerned, living in the temporal river that Beethoven once flowed in, as well, he was a prickly bachelor and a genius who left no children. He was by all accounts an appallingly unskilled foster parent given that, Beethoven over-managed the young man's life so much that his nephew tried to kill himself. Despite these facts, Beethoven’s vast output of fabulous music touches the lives of millions of people every day (including this author’s).

Do any of those things change one micron if it turns out that Beethoven is knocking around in an afterlife, whether it is an explicitly Christian one or whether he has reincarnated this very moment as a field mouse in a Hindu afterlife? Does Beethoven’s life become any less important or true if the mind that was Beethoven has ceased to exist and will never be met again, so only by our remembrance of him and enjoyment of his art can a fragment of his identity be preserved?

I contend that the answers to these questions are a resounding “no,” and that whatever meaning any human life has for us is the sum of how that person affected the people around him or herself, how he or she is remembered, and what works of creativity or destruction that person may have done while alive. That is the meaning of all human beings and the standard by which our place for good or ill may be assessed.

This is why I have such a sad feeling about all the millions of people who have passed along the river of time without ever being remembered or otherwise known (a topic I have touched upon in regards to Chaco Canyon in New Mexico). We have a duty to know and to remember and thereby enrich our own meaning and progress towards our own purpose.

Be curious and kind. Think through what you believe and why, and know always that an idea worth having is one worth defending. Try to enjoy yourself in all such endeavors, but don't make a nuisance of yourself. And above all, never forget  for it is through the collective memory of all humanity that all our meanings and purposes come to be known, to be embraced or rejected on their sound merits.

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About Jim Downard

Jim Downard is a Spokane native (with a sojourn in Southern California back in the early 1960s) who was raised in a secular family, so says had no personal faith to lose.

He's always been a history and science buff (getting a bachelor's in the former area at what was then Eastern Washington University in the early 1970s).

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One comment

  1. I’ll take a crack at this question. It is a doozy, I must say. I remember lots of good jokes as a kid around this topic – it was considered to be un-answerable.

    There are two implicit assumption in the question that I want to point out as incorrect:

    1) Life is a thing. This is an implicit assumption of the wording of the question. The wording contains a nominalization. A nominalization is a PROCESS that is indicated as an OBJECT. That is a VERB that is indicated using a NOUN. There is no such “thing” as “life.” There is the PROCESS OF LIVING.

    2) Meaning is a thing, and that it is a thing that exists separate from living. This is a false assumption. Meaning is NOT separate from living. Meaning is a process (a sub-routine if you will) of living.

    Ok, those two points are pretty heady already, so buckle, up, because now we are going deep.

    As we go through the process of living, we engage the world through our senses. As we do so, we do not passively absorb information from the environment, we ENGAGE the information of our sense in an active process of extracting relevant information that is useful toward meeting our intentions. We simultaneously use this information to change the environment through our actions.

    We call this process EXTRACTING MEANING FROM OUR ENVIRONMENT.

    But notice that the meaning is NOT in the environment. The meaning is in our RELATIONSHIP with the environment.

    EXAMPLE: Right now, as you read this, you are looking at dark blobs on a white screen, and you are actively extracting meaning from those blobs to make sounds in your head. You then translate those sounds into sentences, and in that process you understand the MEANING of my words. Probably you did not notice that you were even doing this until right now when I pointed it out!

    So what is it we are doing there? This is a deep mystery, and philosophers and theologians have been struggling to figure out how the process of meaning works for millennia. But it does seem clear that it’s an active process.

    So given these observations, we can see that the question itself is incoherent. Meaning is a conscious process we engage in as we do the business of living. You can’t have meaning separate from life, and only non-conscious life (plants? Bugs?) can have life devoid of meaning. Once you make explicit the assumptions of the question, you can see that the question itself is meaningless.

    SO: Taking these ideas into account, the ONLY coherent way to phrase this question is:

    How can we practice living a meaningful life?

    Now THAT is a question we each have a shot at answering!

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