CURRENT READING -The Philosopher’s Magazine – Who is a meaning of life for?

“There is but one truly serious philosophical problem, and that is suicide. Judging whether life is or is not worth living amounts to answering the fundamental question of philosophy”- Albert Camus, The Myth of Sisyphus.

The second quarter 2020 issue of The Philosopher’s Magazine1 includes an essay with the intriguing title Who Is a Meaning of Life For? by Elijah Millgram of the University of Utah. This is quite timely as I begin to delve into the question of what a meaningful life is by permitting a preface to that section.

Millgram begins by recalling a comment by Gisela Striker, a historian of ancient philosophy, that she hoped life didn’t have a meaning, because it would be too oppressive. Millgram transposes this into a more than rhetorical proposition; perhaps “we shouldn’t simply take it for granted that we want meaningful lives.”2 He begins with the example of John Stuart Mill (on whom he wrote a book) who made his life’s meaning ‘the Utilitarian Enterprise’ but eventually felt himself trapped by it.

By comparison, Millgram posits Friedrich Nietzsche who in The Gay Science suggests one’s ‘purpose for existence’ can be achieved by finding an interpretation that covers what one has already done. Here the goal is to lock everything down through ingenuity and inventiveness so that one’s entire life in all its meaningless detail is reconfigured into a unifying purpose which one can then embrace in conformity with Nietzsche’s metaphysical theory of ‘eternal return.’  But Milligram thinks such an artistic reconstruction of one’s life ultimately reflects Nietzsche’s rock bottom cynicism as to whether reality matters at all.

In brief then, J.S. Mill sees meaning as guiding action and Nietzsche sees it as reconciliation. Alternatively the desire for a meaningful life can viewed as a prison or a fanatical delusion.  Millgram offers a third option, the denial of the need for a meaning of life, concluding with the perplexing question, “What do I want it [a meaning of life] for?”3

I would reply that perhaps Millgram is conflating the meaningful life with  the purposeful life. I believe the reason we want to find purpose is because it is one of the four components of the meaningful life. The other three are contentment, virtue, and resolution of one’s relationship to ultimate reality. Each of the four is difficult to achieve, but all are worthy of attainment. And why do we want these? Well, because they compose the summum bonum of happiness and meaning. The next section on this site will investigate all of them  and answer Millgram’s question.


1Garvey, James (editor), The Philosopher’s Magazine. Issue 89, 2nd  Quarter 2020.

2Ibid., page 50.

3Ibid., page 54.




“Only the infinite self, the problem solver, the complete thinker, the one who knows…only his existence, I say, is perfectly sure.” – Josiah Royce.



This final review blog on this site’s preparatory work covers the topic of certainty and offers a final summation.


An earnest analysis reveals that very little if anything is certain for our species. A few metaphysical concepts such as the existence of something, basic logic, and simple mathematics exhausts the list of absolute truths. Our individual ‘knowledge’ is largely opinion and prejudice plus a lesser fraction of reasonably justified belief. Thus it is perilous to assume even our deepest ‘truths’ are certain.  Still the skeptical denial of the truth of any proposition is impractical; action is necessary for a meaningful existence and forces us to rely on principles of the highest degree of certainty while mitigating for those of lesser certainty. Nonetheless healthy doubt is an excellent tool by which to increase the confidence we have in our views.

Science remains the best foundation for interpretation and manipulation of the physical world, but subjective truth is more trustworthy for personal understanding and action. Objective and subjective truth are not only different, but to some extent mutually exclusive.  From a position of humility and wariness, we can lay out a table of principles ranked by our degree of certainty as a practical guide for action in a world of stubborn uncertainty. The practical philosopher’s goal then is not absolute truth, but rather sufficient confidence for meaningful action.


Our final conclusions come down to the following points. Reality and ethics must be understood at multiple levels. Internal reality and self-examination are particularly important to the meaningful life while cosmic and ultimate reality are more central to an enduring purpose. An understanding of good and evil underpins ethics while the metaphorical conflict between them gives context to human life. God, defined as the eternal or necessarily existent originating force behind the universe, permeates the realm of human existence. The immaterial depth and spiritual capacity of man, traditionally called the ‘soul,’ supports ethics, art, science, hope, brotherhood, love, and contemplation of the divine.

Humans are mortal, but by virtue of their unique characteristics have transcendental and metaphorical access to eternity in addition to an unparalleled access to infinitude and nothingness. We also have free will, but, being finite, are limited in bringing about our desires making fatalism understandable, though unworthy of acquiescence. Human destiny is about equally likely to be limited and unlimited, and thus our goal should be to work for the latter.  The universe, like man himself (or woman herself), is self-designed and self-defined, although in our case, this imposes total responsibility for our actions and the possibility of guilt. Suffering is a key part of the human condition, but can be managed, even used to increase the meaning of our lives. And while none of this is certain, practicality requires us to accept this best picture of human and cosmic reality in order to move forward and find the dual summum bonum of happiness and meaning.



“Try to exclude the possibility of suffering which the order of nature and the existence of free-wills involve, and you find that you have excluded life itself.” – C.S. Lewis, The Problem of Pain.



Teleology – final cause or purpose – contrasts random or functional selection with intelligent design in the cosmos; offering meaning in reality and a point to the universe. The origination of the universe remains speculative but cannot be ascribed to ‘chance’ if we accept the discipline of cosmology. Its development may seem random, but complexity and chaos inherently lead to self-organization and emergence, while nature’s uniformity assures only statistical probability not predictability. Quantum uncertainty adds an additional indeterminate element. Our full understanding is impaired by our metaphysical biases and species limitations. In lieu of science, the direct grasping of reality professed by some Eastern philosophies offers an alternative means to understanding.

Natural selection is the best explanation for emerging complex inorganic and organic structures, but fails to definitively account for the appearance of life. Biological processes appear meaningful beyond simple teleonomy and human consciousness adds additional levels of teleology.  Absurdity may apply to our lives, but seems indefensible for reality since the alternative is nothingness. The universe is meaningful by at least five of six reasonable criteria with only the vague criterion ‘intention’ being inapplicable.

In short, the universe and life are best viewed as self-designed via scientific and ultimately deterministic laws, with a dose of quantum indeterminacy. In the absence of demonstrable intention, the best conclusion is that the universe has direction and we are wise to synchronize our lives with its trajectory. 


Suffering is a part of the human condition, not synonymous with evil, and not always best avoided. While we imagine a perfect world would be free of all discomfort; logic tells us that inevitable boredom make this belief self-contradictory. The courageous approach to suffering is one of our greatest powers. Thus human suffering (excluding young children and the mentally challenged) is not indisputable disproof of deity nor inconsistent with a meaningful life.

Suffering is a domain of ironies; the opposite of happiness, but likely necessary for happiness, universal but not inevitable. Pleasures we seek to increase happiness unexpectedly lead to suffering. Perhaps most paradoxical of all – even extreme suffering can be the catalyst for finding meaning in endurance and making oneself worthy of it.

Our approach to suffering is key – we must coopt suffering as a conduit to the twin summum bonum: meaning and happiness. Our first ethical duty is to eliminate unnecessary suffering, but we can overcome and repurpose unavoidable suffering through the lessons of Hinduism, Buddhism, Stoicism, Epicureanism, Christianity, and Existentialism. For the unfortunate who must endure extraordinary suffering, Viktor Frankl urges they avert nihilism and recognize that confronting and being worthy of it is one of the three primary tracks to meaning. Finally controlled asceticism self-discipline, virtue, and harmony with nature- can be the path to meaning, tranquility, and mystical union. Suffering then is both existential and essential: offering transformation, clarification, presence, wisdom, and enlightenment.


“…in truth there only atoms and the void” – Democritus.




In continuing the review of our preparatory work, we now move to two additional special topics.

Death and Immortality

The certainty and blunt fact of our inevitable death belies the complexity of analysis of mortality and immortality. Literal biologic and personal spiritual immortality appear implausible at best and undesirable at worst. Rather the inescapability of death imposes on life a focal point and provides an impetus for action. Transcendental immortality is found in the infinite moments composing a lifetime, existential continuity with being, and participation in space-time. More tangible is metaphorical immortality via offspring, effects on others, and our works; and the ripple effect of mental energy and chains of causation. While not demonstrable, if there is an afterlife it most likely takes the form of impersonal spiritual continuance within a greater being.

Existential anxiety may be one of the greatest forces affecting humans, but paradoxically we appear to be unique participants in the two eternal aspects of the universe – materially via the body’s indestructible subatomic particles and immaterially through knowledge of the eternity of the universe as a whole. We also uniquely participate in the two poles of being – nothingness and ultimate being – and thereby attain the existential summit within the universe. In truth our fear of death is not justified and the best means to overcome it is by preparation. All reasoning converges on this conclusion: the best response to our mortality is for us to live fully and thoughtfully, appreciate our apparent uniqueness in the cosmos, prepare for physical death, and recognize that at worst our immortality is instantiated in having existed at all.

Free Will, Fate, and Human Destiny

While arguments are inconclusive, most of us accept free will, intellectually or de facto, based on our experiences of deliberation and morality. Still we attribute outcomes to fate because of feelings of helplessness and unpredictability of action in a world of uncontrollable circumstances and personal limitations. Existentialists reasonably assert that we define our basic nature and life course, and are thus responsible for erroneous choices and unable to avoid guilt from inaction, even if fortune, chance, and outside circumstances impact the outcome. Taoism and Stoicism teach us that disinterested acceptance of the reality of the unfolding world imparts equanimity. The Bhagavad Gita suggests that acting without undue concern for the results allows tranquility and connection to ultimate reality. For Christians, predestination by the grace of the divine may devalue action in this life, but feelings of freedom and fate will still need to be acknowledged. Religious authorities advise believers that the love of God trumps one’s concern for salvation and impels action consistent with the plan of the divine.

Human destiny remains largely conjecture, but it makes sense to hope for eventual evolution to a higher form while supporting the parallel goals of preservation of other species and our home planet. We must avoid self-destruction and drive human destiny forward ala Kant’ s a priori choice with attempts at moral perfection, learning, and global cooperation, directed at  a unity of mankind, a unity of life, and ultimately a cosmic mind.


“Spirit is the real and eternal; matter is the unreal and temporal.” – Mary Baker Eddy.






The first two parts of our review covered the five tiers of reality and of ethics, and the special problem of good and evil. We now review two additional special subjects.


Logical proofs of God’s existence or non-existence prove unconvincing, although in sum incline to belief since arguments against His existence are merely attacks on presumed traditional characteristics rather than existence per se. Subjective warrants for the belief in God such as spiritual or mystical experiences of others are also unpersuasive, but predispose to belief as they are not counterbalanced by an opposite experience of God’s nonexistence.

Mortimer Adler claims that philosophy demonstrates the existence of a ‘single supreme being as the indispensable, creative, or exnihilating cause of the cosmos.’1 From my standpoint an analysis of why there is something rather than nothing concludes that the best explanation is that God, defined as the origin of the universe, exists even if it is because the universe is itself necessarily existent and thus self-originating. In either case the traditional characteristics attributed to God and challenged by skeptics can be reconfigured as shown in the Appendix.

Interaction with God through meditation and contemplation is consistently described as blissful and life-altering so may justify some personal effort if the goal is the maximally meaningful life.  However, religions are philosophically dubious since the truth of each is unverifiable, exclusive, and dependent on unreliable faith rather than human reasoning.

Atheism and agnosticism turn out being surprisingly difficult to defend although detailed philosophical analysis permits pantheism. The unimaginable complexity of the universe leaves hope that it may be the physical manifestation of a conscious being that appears to be indestructible, eternal and timeless, material and immaterial. Our best means to understand God’s nature then is by introspection (meditation) and inspection (science). Psychologically it is more reasonable and more propitious to attribute the origin of everything to (an indefinite) God rather than austere chance, especially since a justified belief in divine being offers the possibility of purpose, ethical foundation, contentment, and apotheosis.

Body and Soul

Most ancient thinkers accept human duality – a material body and an immaterial soul. However, for most of us, objective arguments and subjective warrants fail to demonstrate convincingly the existence of a distinct human soul. Rather the immaterial facets of human existence are erroneously amalgamated into a detachable being. By defining criteria of physicality, we can deconstruct the traditional concept of soul into its component immaterial parts: personality, mind, identity, will, and self.

These we can reconstruct not as a unique substance, but the immaterial depth and spiritual capacity of man. This neither requires or implies God, religion, immortality, or the supernatural. It is the seemingly universal ability of man to reflect deeply on himself and the universe, especially universal law. It embraces science, art, morality, openness, freedom, hope, brotherhood, and love. It is not the concrete in our world, but the abstract and the ephemeral. All men and all women have access to it, and it ties all of us together beyond a particular body, space, or time.

1Adler, Mortimer, Truth in Religion. MacMillan Publishing Company, New York. 1990. ISBN 0-02-500225-2, Chapter 5, pages 101-110.


“Only a life lived for others is a life worthwhile.” – Albert Einstein.

Last time I started my review of the prior work prefatory to the discussion of a meaningful life, covering internal, proximate, social, and cosmic reality and ethics to self, others, and society. Today we pick up with ultimate reality which I have defined as the highest reality inclusive of all being and all ideas or as the logically first being from which all other beings and cosmic law are derived. This rather indefinite characterization allows the ultimate to be the cosmos for the physicalist, an ethereal unity for the spiritualist and the existentialist, or divine and creative for the theologian. Other names for the ultimate are God, the Tao, Brahman, Being, and the One among others.

Ultimate reality in general is not encountered through the five senses, but rather through spiritual experiences. Ultimate ethics occurs through communion with nature and the cosmos, meditation, contemplation, or religious practice. Detachment, self-discipline, humility, and self-less love appear to be essential to these methods. Most of the great ancient philosophers have a concept of the ultimate that underpins their philosophy, and our own concept of ultimate reality will shape our understanding of meaning and purpose and thus what constitutes a meaningful life.

The final tier of ethics, supererogatory duty, fills a special role for the human as a fallen or at least imperfect being. No one can claim to be completely free of error and guilt, but by redirecting behavior towards good, atonement, self-forgiveness, and extreme generosity, we can hope to achieve a type of spiritual cleansing and moral apotheosis.

Good and Evil

No matter how one views reality, the experiences of life invariably lead one to recognize good and evil as integral to the universe and fundamental to ethics. I have defined the elusive term, good, as that which contributes to the happiness, well-being, longevity, pleasure, or knowledge of oneself and others, or at least does not diminish these for others; and that which promotes existing non-human reality in the universe.  I attempted to categorize and rank goods and evils in the Appendix, but the reader’s own tabulation is worth the effort. In general, intrinsic goods, those good in of themselves, are of higher value than instrumental ones; while internal goods tend to eclipse external goods. The summum bonum or greatest good for humans seems to be the dual goals of happiness and meaning (see diagram in the Appendix).

Evil can be natural and thus unavoidable or due to free agency, meaning human action, which should be preventable. Human evils are usually minor when due to accident or immaturity, but more severe when due to error, weakness, selfishness, and especially malice. Evil is countered through efforts at self-perfection and humility. Nevertheless the mythological contest between good and evil continues to play out in daily life where the best means to be an agent for good is a personal commitment to it. Historically this benevolence is embodied in two personas – the saint and the hero.


“The plain fact is that there are no conclusions.” – Sir James Jeans, Physics and Philosophy.

After over 250 blogs we have at last completed the preliminaries essential for our discussion on the construction of a meaningful life. Before moving on, I think it will be instructive and reinforcing to review the earlier discussions. For our purposes, philosophy distills down to the big picture of reality and ethics and admittedly superficial treatment of key special problems: Good and Evil; God; Body and Soul; Death and Immortality; Free Will, Fate, and Destiny; Teleology; Suffering; and Certainty.

As Socrates taught us we must examine our life in order for it to be worth living. But in order to do this, we must define the nature of reality and a philosophy of human conduct. In an earlier section we saw that this big picture of philosophy boils down to thinking about five tiers of each of these two basic components.

REALITY                                                        ETHICS

Internal                                                             Self-Mastery

Proximate                                                       Conduct to Others

Cultural                                                            Societal Duty

Cosmic                                                             Relationship to the Ultimate

Ultimate                                                           Supererogatory Duty

Internal reality and ethic require Socrates’ intense self-examination. This examined self seems to be composed of three parts: (1) the external or visible persona recognized by others, (2) the internal or psychological and mental constitution, and (3) the primal, ineffable self. Defining these demands deep introspection with the help of phenomenology with its concept of ‘bracketing.’ In addition self-mastery with its five components – (1) self-discipline, (2) selflessness, (3) self-knowledge, (4) self-improvement, and (5) self-actualization – requires long periods of reflection and lifelong commitment. Humility and a strong moral compass are critical here, but the reward is a full life including a final connecting of your primal or ontological self with the unity of the cosmos awaits.

External and cultural reality require particular care as misperception and bias permeate our interpretation. Consultation of multiple authoritative sources of information offers the safest method for justification of beliefs, but we must always entertain the possibility of error with continual reappraisal and openness to amendment. An excellent guide in ethical action towards others is William Frankena’s prioritization model: in complex situations: first avoid and eliminate evil, next promote good, and third, never choose any evil unless there is a clear excess of good from the choice. Societal ethics is further defined by the notion of duty. My table of prioritized duties is presented in the Appendix (.

Science offers the best system of understanding cosmic reality or the physical world and should be discounted only in rare circumstances, although it too must be carefully scrutinized. Nonetheless absolute certainty is not possible although a high degree of confidence is a reasonable justification in situations demanding action. The calculus of confidence is referred to as practical wisdom by the ancients, but in any case an approach that minimizes the consequences of potential error, while accommodating the largest number of possibilities is the wisest course.


Third doubt is the tool by which we fine tune belief. By stepping back and questioning the truth value of a proposition, we have the opportunity to identify confirmatory and/or contradictory evidence for additional reasoning. If we start with 10 consecutive black balls randomly pulled from a closed box, we may believe the rest are black as well, but if we draw out another ten we are more confident of our findings, and if we examine them all we are assured. This applies as well to our biased opinions of people; one of the great lessons of life is that each human being must be judged individually.

Fourth science offers a reasonable foundationalism for understanding and manipulating the physical world, but subjectivity is more trustworthy, or perhaps unavoidable, for personal understanding and action. Objective and subjective truth are not only different, but to some extent mutually exclusive. Science, not intuition , tells us why the moon does not fall to the Earth like an apple, but internal reflection informs one’s knowledge of good and evil.

Fifth, with care, we can design a practical method to justify beliefs by gauging our degree of confidence in them and then employing a comparative tabulation to guide action in a world of admitted uncertainty. Nonetheless, such a table will require amendments as further reflection, experience, and evidence are processed.

In closing we have learned that our goal cannot be absolute truth, but rather sufficient confidence for ethical action in our lives. The truth value of statements can be evaluated from the standpoint of correspondence with reality, coherence with other principles and observations, pragmatic confirmations, and disciplined contemplation. In the end, certainty is not possible, nor, we hope, essential for a meaningful life.


“That which expresses necessary self-grounded fact, and which we must believe, is distinct both from the hypothesis of a science and from illegitimate postulate – I say ‘must believe’, because all syllogism…is addressed not to the spoken word, but to the discourse within the soul, and though we can always raise objections to the spoken word, to the inward discourse we cannot always object.” – Aristotle, Posterior Analytics, Book 1, Chapter 10.

The last 36 blogs on this site have investigated the concept of certainty and thereby indirectly truth and knowledge. It is time to summarize what we have uncovered. First, all analysis arrives at the fundamental conclusion that very little is in fact certain at least for our species. A tiny number of metaphysical concepts such as the existence of something, indispensable logic, and simple mathematical relationships appear to be the limit of absolute truth. Virtually all of our ‘knowledge” is no more than reasonably justified belief, while many or most of our strongest convictions are mere opinion or individual prejudice. From this arises the compelling corollary that it is perilous to trust in uncertain beliefs.

On the other hand doubting or negating all beliefs, particularly those justified by reasonable evidence, is incapacitating. Only a nihilist defaults to assuming nothing is true and no individual action can be justified. Strict skepticism obstructs human progress and eliminates the hope for a meaningful existence. The solution to this quandary is to rely on principles of the highest degree of certainty while mitigating for those of lesser certainty.

(continued next post)


“The game of doubting itself presupposes certainty.” – Ludwig Wittgenstein, On Certainty, #115.

Our syntheses of the four categories of concern in the meaningful life – metaphysics, experience, ethics, and the ultimate – can now be integrated into a more comprehensive table (see Appendix, Table 6;  posted 8/10/20 Obviously this roster is subjective, and of course the reader may take issue with my choices and designations. If you feel I am far off, I encourage you to synthesize your own list. For this blog, I will refer to my table.

We see that in general the most certain propositions are metaphysical (the top 5); likely because they are based on pure reason and also serve as axioms for later propositions. Empirical propositions make up a second tier, but I emphasize that these are phenomenologic conclusions of internal and proximate reality and demonstrate the limit of our individual ability to identify highly certain truths beyond our immediate sphere.

Propositions regarding ultimate reality come next although such items are very limited and God can only be asserted by a circumscribed definition, many persons may deny as defining ‘God’ at all. For those who accept this tautology, we cannot escape the disappointment that God’s characteristics are otherwise uncertain. Religion then is extremely speculative and caution must be exercised in following it to a purposeful life. The ultimate propositions of moderate certainty – the universe as creative (#20) and directional (#45) however yield some hope of cosmic meaning for those who seek it.

Surprisingly we are least confident of ethical propositions, in part because free will is itself not certain, but also because good and evil are intangible and elusive concepts. Here we hope that Immanuel Kant’s argument – moral deliberation proves the existence of free will and the possibility to be worthy to be happy  – emboss ethical truths with sufficient certainty.

I also wish to point out that the modern foundational approach of science comes in at #34, making many beliefs more certain than scientific facts and laws. On the other hand, since we must accept these for any modern existence in the world, I believe those rated higher should be considered effectively as factual.

As we begin to move from our preparatory work to a formulation of the meaningful and flourishing life, the table of certainty will serve as a yardstick for guidance. Each reader should be prepared to defend his or her own version of trusted beliefs when confronted with the big questions.