Fourth is the issue of ultimacy, where God as envisioned by the theologian admittedly fits nicely. However, should there be no God; the universe, life, perhaps even humanity, may serve as ultimate, not to mention immaterial concepts such as Being, beauty, creativity, or science. Moreover these possibilities are immanent while the divine is elusive and intangible. Meaning seems more secure when one’s ultimate concern is readily apparent rather than hidden or questionable.

On the other hand, theology-based expressions of the meaningful life are easily countered by secular versions of them or by adoption by the agnostic or atheist. Tolstoy may be correct that meaning for him was belonging to a community of persons with simple faith in the Christian God, but the same is likely true for a community of humanists such as the one created by Epicurus in Athens. Thomas A. Kempis may find powerful worth in imitating the life of Christ, but we would expect this with imitating the life of many great individuals. Centuries before Christ, Democritus said “One should be or imitate a great man.”

We have already seen in this site’s section called Suffering that human suffering does not negate human meaning.. In particular Viktor Frankl having suffered immensely in a concentration camp found being worthy of one’s suffering can instantiate meaning in one’s life. With all due respect to Paul Tillich, it seems to me self-transcendence and the conquest of finitude and ambiguity is possible without religious symbols; in fact, the concept of Being seems more tangible to me than Christian religious symbols, and his powerful presentation in The Courage to Be can be embraced without adding a deity beyond Being itself. Last Unamuno might himself admit, that acting so as to merit eternity and the approval of the divine is not contingent on there being a divine being at all.

Two final points- first the opacity of God’s will, purpose, and expectation of humans assures us we can never be certain we have achieved a divinely approved meaningful life. Second, formal religions take this even farther; their truth by authority will always be suspect, inevitably leading to a personal internal conflict of reason and dogma. A salient example is the Holy War, the killing of innocent non-believers at the urging of ecclesiastics in the name of God.

In summary there are reasonable counter-arguments to the necessity of God in the struggle  to find meaning. Belief in God may affect how one chooses to find meaning and the role one plays, but it may well turn out that the meaningful life is more tenuous for believers.  Now we must confront the opposite issue, that of nihilism – that there is and can be no meaning of life.


“Existentialism isn’t so atheistic that it wears itself out showing that God doesn’t exist. Rather, it declares that even if God did exist, that would change nothing… in this sense Existentialism is optimistic, a doctrine of action, and it is plain dishonesty for Christians to make no distinction between their own despair and ours and then to call us despairing.” – Jean-Paul Sartre, Existentialism.

In the last few blogs we saw how theologians and people of faith argue God is necessary for human life to be meaningful. First we examined their logical argument that the existence of God affords meaning to human life by virtue of pre-ordained purpose, objective morality, immortality, and ultimacy – none of which they believe applies in the absence of a deity. Then we reviewed typical practical expressions such as living in a community of believers, imitating the life of Christ, consolation for earthly suffering in the afterlife, self-transcendence and the conquest of finitude and ambiguity via religious symbols, and acting so as to merit eternity and the approval of the divine. Today we consider rebuttals to these assertions.

First it is unclear and certainly debatable whether pre-ordained purpose is necessary to a meaningful life. On the one hand, this is not a self-evident principle; take the example of the human eye, which has the purpose to enhance human survival, but is easily repurposed to appreciate art – the latter being arguably of greater importance to human meaning. On the other hand, it is unclear whether a purpose imposed by another is as meaningful as one chosen by oneself.

Second is the question of morality. It appears doubtful that morality is determined by the divine – take slavery, which is condoned in the Bible, but seems intrinsically wrong. Morality it turns out can be derived through reason as argued by Immanuel Kant or defined by a species as is asserted by humanists. If there is a God, it seems likely that His goodness is not affirmed by the assertion that all his acts are by definition moral, but rather that in His perfection, he acts in a way that is always morally correct by some extra-divine objective criteria. God’s choice to do logically unethical acts would not impart moral goodness upon them: it seems equally evil for God to needlessly blind baby animals as for humans to do so.

Next, while immortality may increase the hope of meaningful existence, it is not immediately evident that immortality is essential to it. This involves some complex arguments that we will address later, but as an example, if the last two living members of a species have offspring from which the species is renewed, it seems their existence is utterly meaningful despite their own eventual deaths. And if only humans are immortal, then all other living things become meaningless by definition as does arguably the universe itself. This does not even address the doubtfulness of human immortality and the problems with it as discussed in the section on Death and Immortality on this site.

(continued next post)



In Systematic Theology,3 Paul Tillich refers to life as ambiguous, for example: the desire for individualization versus participation, acting on moral imperatives versus norms, and the contrast of essential and existential elements. What we seek is the ‘unambiguous’ life. Religion moves one into the realm of the spirit wherein self-transcendence is found, but religion too is ambiguous, especially ‘concrete religion.’ However religion produces three symbols of the unambiguous life: (1) the “Spirit of God” or “Spiritual Presence,” (2) the “Kingdom of God” – the historical dimension of life and the dynamics of historical transcendence, and (3) Eternal Life – the conquest of finitude and ambiguity. Through these symbols one can achieve self-transcendence, described as a vertical movement towards (though never reaching) the unconditional.

Unamuno in Tragic Sense of Life offers a slightly different take on the existence of God. Since proof or demonstration are impossible, belief in God is a longing, a decision to “act as if He existed.”4 And what will bring the greatest meaning to human life, what he calls the ‘heart’s truth’? The answer is apparent enough; the immortality of one’s soul or consciousness – “the truth of the human finality of the Universe. And what is its moral proof? We may formulate it thus: Act so that in your own judgment and in the judgment of others you may merit eternity.”5 In Kant-like words, Unamuno tells us faith in God is part craving and part pretending, but meaning comes from being worthy of God’s approval and from meriting eternal life.

In short, for the person of faith and the theologian, God’s existence offers the opportunity of an expanded human meaning. This can be attained by living in a community of believers, imitating the life of Christ, consolation for earthly suffering in the afterlife, self-transcendence and the conquest of finitude and ambiguity via religious symbols, or at a minimum, acting so as to merit eternity and the approval of the divine. Next time we will examine rebuttals of God as essential to a meaningful life.


1Klemke, E.D. (editor), The Meaning of Life. Oxford University Press, New York, 2000. ISBN 0-19-512703-X, pages 11-20.

2Ibid., pages 57-64.

3Tillich, Paul, Systematic Theology. The University of Chicago Press. 1967. ISBN 0-226-80336-8. Volume 3, Pages 11-110.

4De Unamuno, Don Miguel, Tragic Sense of Life. Dover Publications, Inc., New York, 1954. Pages 184-185

5Ibid. page 263.


“Does God exist? This eternal and eternalizing person who gives meaning – and I will add, a human meaning, for there is none other- to the Universe, is it a substantial something, existing independent of our consciousness, independently of our desire? Here we arrive at the insoluble, and it is best that it should be so.” – Miguel de Unamuno, Tragic Sense of Life.

Last time we saw that the existence of God is seen by some as affording meaning to human life by virtue of pre-ordained purpose, objective morality, immortality, and ultimacy. Today we will investigate various approaches to a God-derived meaningful life.

Leo Tolstoy in My Confession1 describes an ‘arrest of life’ that occurred to him at age 50. His existential crisis and sense of meaninglessness led him to despair. He found no answers in science, philosophy, or the pursuit of pleasure, and drifted to the edge of madness and suicide. He eventually concluded that the answer is not in rational knowledge, but in the relation of the finite to the infinite, in the irrationality accepted by the masses – faith and life according to God’s law, “the union with infinite God, paradise.”

In Philip Quinn’s essay, The Meaning of Life According to Christianity,2 he begins by defining meaning as axiologic, teleological, and complete (both). For Quinn, a human life has axiologic meaning if it has positive intrinsic value and on the whole is good for the person living it; and teleological meaning if it contains some purposes of positive value the person takes to be non-trivial and achievable and contains actions directed towards achieving those purposes with zest. The secret of the meaningful life is to develop a narrative similar to that of Christ by imitating the life of Christ. He cites classic guides: The Imitation of Christ by Thomas A. Kempis and Practice in Christianity by Soren Kierkegaard.

However Quinn is not sanguine; this life will involve suffering, being found offensive by others, and even waiting for axiologic meaning in the afterlife. He also cautions humility of two types: (1) one must not assume humanity is the most important thing from God’s point of view, and (2) one must not exaggerate the certainty of Christianity’s answer; non-religious narratives and those of other religions offer reasonable alternatives for meaning.

(continued next post)


“I was quite sure that life was not worth living; for if religion was false everything was worthless, and almost everything if religion was true.” – George Santayana. A Brief History of My Opinons.

Now that we have defined reasonable criteria for the meaningful life, we consider the traditional answer – human life is meaningful within the context of creation by God. For the moment, we will bracket the question of whether God actually exists, and consider how the existence of God imparts meaning on human life. There are four facets implied in human meaning by the existence of a deity.

1.    Pre-ordained purpose1  

2.   Immortality  

3.   Explanation of morality2   

4.   Ultimacy

William Lane Craig, a Christian philosopher addresses these in his essay The Absurdity of Life without God.3 He argues that in a Godless universe, everything ends in oblivion, even the universe itself, therefore it is impossible for any contribution by any person to have significance. “All these come to nothing. In the end they don’t make one bit of difference, not one bit.” His theory is that if the universe is an accident we exist “to no purpose,” we are nothing more than insects. In fact this situation becomes tolerable only if we embrace a Noble Lie of some pretended purpose or meaning. Self-created meaning in Craig’s opinion is an illusion.

He also notes meaninglessness is further implied by the atheist’s acceptance of the brevity of human life and the eventual extinction of humanity. Without God, immortality is impossible, making our pitifully short lives still more frivolous and absurd. Moreover, following Dostoevsky, he argues in a world without God, morality is relative or mere opinion; literally anything goes. If there are no objective standards of right and wrong, there is no moral difference between the life of the despot and life of the saint. And since there is no immortality, there is no possibility to rectify evils done in this world or to reward goodness and sacrifice done in life. Last without God there is no ultimate reality, purpose, or meaning. Everything is finally trivial, or as T.S. Eliot wrote: “This is the way the world ends/Not with a bang but a whimper.”


1We can formulate this as a logical argument: (1) God created everything in the world for a purpose, (2) Man is part of the world, (3) God created man for a purpose. Of course the first premise is a point of significant philosophical disagreement.

2 See YouTube film  Is God Necessary for Mortality? William Lan Craig vs Shelly Kagan Debate for a thorough discussion of theistic and atheistic justifications of morality.

3Klemke, E.D. (editor), The Meaning of Life. Oxford University Press, New York, 2000. ISBN 0-19-512703-X, pages 40-56.

THE MEANING OF LIFE: Criteria (continued)


Whatever criteria we apply to human meaning, any discussion is contingent on its achievement being possible. If one says human meaning requires what is not feasible for humans to accomplish, it is no better than saying there is no human meaning or that human life is absurd. For example it is irrational to say human meaning is dependent on biological immortality when we know this is not the case. It is equally unreasonable to say my life cannot be meaningful unless something I do outlasts humanity and the existence of planet Earth knowing this is implausible. Human meaning is only viable if its requirements are possible. The proof is simple enough; if any human life has been meaningful, we know de facto it must be possible.


The meaning of one’s life must involve actions which are desirable not only for oneself, but for others, for humanity, for nature, and for the cosmos. The desirability of the effects of one’s existence is a vital factor in one’s own contentment, itself a facet of human meaning.

The actions of a dictator, while far-reaching, do not bring meaning when they are harmful to his countrymen or his neighbors. And the value of actions that improve the situation of humanity can be undermined by the ill effects on other species or the planet. Meaning and value then are intricately tied to goodness and benevolence.


The final feature of a meaningful life is understanding that one’s actions and their effects are meaningful. Actions or calculated inaction must be intentional, not accidental; due to free will, not determinism. One must have sufficient knowledge of reality and of the effects of human action to guide oneself. And for one’s life to be meaningful, one must recognize the meanings one has realized. It seems illogical to say a person had a meaningful life if that person thought their life was absurd or meaningless.

In short we see that the meaningful life requires experiences and effects with five critical features: sufficient magnitude and depth, acceptable duration and frequency, the possibility of actualization, desirability at many levels accompanied by personal contentment, and understanding of reality, human action, and one’s own success therein. Now we need to take on the difficult question of the necessity of God or the divine for a meaningful life.


“I shall say that an activity is fully meaningful if it suffers from none of these defects, so that it is valuable in itself, directed towards an end which is not trivial and not futile.” – W.D. Joske, Philosophy and the Meaning of Life.

In the last three posts we considered some simple contexts for approaching the meaningful life, but found them wanting. Now we will try to firm up our foundation without dismissing some role for these common considerations. However, what we desperately seek are criteria which inform an approach to the question, and it seems that five stand out: magnitude, duration, possibility, desirability, and understanding. I will address each individually.


Here I am referring to the idea that for anything to contribute to the meaning of life, it must be of sufficient importance or depth to satisfy our expectations. We already saw that trivial purpose denies meaning and suggests absurdity – recall Kurt Vonnegut’s fictional purpose of the human species as providing a small part for a ship on a voyage nowhere. Human meaning increases in light of an adequate scale of the effects of one’s living although it is doubtful we can or need achieve something of ‘cosmic significance.’ Sensuous pleasure and simple biological continuance fail for this reason. Logically a multitude of purposes, achievements, and pleasures augments overall magnitude, increasing the likelihood of success in finding meaning. Conversely it seems risky to rely on a single grand purpose to sustain one’s life and aspiration for meaning.


In addition to depth, common sense tells us greater meaning is likely with more enduring achievement. The brevity of human life and the impermanence of even our species and planet undermine the hope for everlasting meaning from our lives. This incongruity may explain the futility so many feel about the concept of human meaning. However there is a way out of this rabbit hole. As we discussed in the section on immortality, a human life is an infinite number of moments; perhaps we need to reconfigure duration in terms of one’s own life, in which case we seek to maximize the number of meaningful moments in our own lifespan.

We can enhance duration by extending some of our impact to the next generation, but it is for them to build on our efforts, find their own meaning in their segment of time, and attain extension to the next generation. There is no logical reason to insist the immense future is the responsibility of a single finite human.

(continued next post)


“Philosophers tell you, that pleasure is contrary to happiness.” – Samuel Johnson, Boswell’s Life of Samuel Johnson.

Perhaps when you were reading the last post on physical pleasure as a possible source for meaning in life, you thought that is not the kind of pleasure that should be seriously considered. We take up today on whether alternate forms of pleasure can instill meaning in life.

In the course of life, all of us have a multitude of opportunities to experience non-physical pleasure – elation, feelings of accomplishment, and intense excitement. In rough order of increasing depth, some examples include.

1.    Acquiring a desired material good – for example a beautiful home or luxury automobile,

2.   Completing an onerous task – finishing a Marathon or a long novel such as War and Peace,

3.   Winning the lottery or achieving financial success,

4.   Acquiring a desired skill – for example, mastering the piano,

5   .Creating a great work –such as a museum quality painting or prize winning poem,

6.   Becoming famous – for example politically or as a performer,

7.   Making a great discovery – a valuable invention, or a scientific breakthrough,

8.  Falling in love,

9.   Having children

Clearly most if not all people will experience the pleasure of one and more likely several of these events. Can they be the instruments of a meaningful life? The answer is maybe, but there are several major pitfalls. As in the case of physical pleasure, most of these give only temporary satisfaction. Several, including the acquisition of material goods and completion of a task, offer particularly brief elation. Some, such as wealth, are instrumental to future goods, rather than good in themselves. Others such as fame are highly dependent on the approval of others and thus suspect. Most are diminished if unethical behavior is involved; for example wealth through theft or the fame (infamy) of the tyrant. Falling in love imparts immeasurable quality to life, but is typically fragile and impermanent. Having children likely brings the most predictable joy to life of any of these, but that joy fluctuates and eventually feels incomplete.

We know from the experience of others how elusive meaning and happiness can be despite attaining such non-physical pleasures. There are countless examples of unhappy celebrities, including ones who commit suicide. We know  of lottery winners and the super-wealthy who experienced bad outcomes. The high number of divorces and the persistence of child abuse attests to the tenuous hope of meaning from love, marriage, and offspring.

As in the case of physical pleasure, the seeking of continuous non-physical pleasure seems a precarious strategy prone to disappointment. Still non-physical pleasure seems to be an undeniable component of the meaningful life. Next time we look for a more comprehensive foundation for the meaningful life.


THE MEANING OF LIFE – The Role of Physical Pleasure

“For whether pleasure is present or not, the person who positively maintains that pleasure is the end will have to submit to perturbations.” – Sextus Empiricus, Outlines of Pyrrhonism, Chapter XXXI.

Last time we looked at the question of the meaning of life in the natural or biologic context. Today we investigate the common sense assumption that the goal of life is to seek sensual pleasures and avoid physical pain. This option likely appeared at the dawn of civilization, when emerging technology and social structure unleashed a number of new or heightened pleasures including: enhanced sexual relations, food delicacies, alcohol-induced euphoria, and so on.

In speaking of happiness several ancient Greek philosophers consider the place for sensual pleasure. Aristippus, a friend and follower of Socrates, founded the Cyrenaic school of hedonism. His metaphysical skepticism and focus on practical ethics led him to the belief that physical enjoyments are the richest source of pleasure and should be fully cultivated.1 However he imposed a Socratic element of self-control in order to avoid slavery to pleasure.

Aristotle discounts physical pleasure as a means to happiness, attributing it to the vulgar or common person. He argues there are three lifestyles, the sensual, the political, and the life of thought. “Now the mass of mankind are evidently quite in their tastes, preferring a life suitable to beasts…”2  But for most men these types of pleasures are in conflict, happiness is not achieved, and we see that “pleasure is a state of the soul.”3

Epicurus is mistakenly seen as a proponent of pleasure-seeking, but  his philosophy is more sublime; happiness comes from diminishing anxiety by avoiding the pursuit of pleasure, attaining only physical necessities such as food, water, and shelter, and averting unease. He sees the ‘limit of pleasure” as the simple cheerfulness in knowing our needs can be easily met.

More recent philosophers assign value to pleasure; for example John Locke and Thomas Hobbes see pleasure as integral to happiness. Utilitarianism goes further, urging a political strategy of maximizing pleasure and minimizing pain in the populace. Jeremy Bentham attempts a Hedonic calculus of net pleasure over pain in defining what is useful to society. This concept of hedonism is based on the theory that pleasant experiences and pleasure are the only goals desired in and of themselves, hence the only goods. All other ‘goods’ are merely instrumental to obtaining pleasure.

But hedonism and the focus on pleasure appear to fail as a key means to make life meaningful for four reasons. First pleasure cannot be sustained, as it lessens when prolonged – consider consumption of desserts. Second many people attach greater importance to non-sensual features of life such as fame, honor, and aesthetic creation. Third pleasure may occur at another’s expense diminishing its desirability or goodness. Last pleasure can be induced by drugs, but it is unlikely anyone would consider a permanent drug induced euphoria as a meaningful life.

In summary, sensual pleasures and freedom from pain, if not artificial or at another’s expense, may be components of the meaningful life, but ultimately are too superficial or inconsistent to satisfy most earnest people. Next time we will consider whether non-physical gratifications can provide a path to the meaningful life.


1Edwards, Paul (editor), The Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Macmillan Publishing Co., Inc. & The Free Press, 1972.   Volume 1, page 148 and Volume 3, page 432.

2Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics, Book I Chapter 5

3Ibid, Book I Chapter 8.

THE MEANING OF LIFE – The Biological Context

“The point of his living is simply to be living.” – Richard Taylor.

Now that we have analyzed and reformulated the question of the meaning of life and considered the major criticisms of it, we need to evaluate it within varying contexts. Today we start with the biological since it is most concrete and immediate. By this I do not intend to default back to a literal interpretation as in “what is the meaning of the word ‘life’?”, rather what is the biological significance of our individual lives.

Here nature is our guide; the two strongest instincts imposed on life of all types according to Darwinism are survival and reproduction. While these instincts may be the mere brutal facts of living things, their necessity for the continuance of life imparts a gloss of intention. Thus it seems fair to say at the biological level a meaningful life is one that survives as long as possible, and at least until offspring are created.

Richard Taylor outlines this clearly starting with the myth of Sisyphus who was eternally condemned by the Gods to roll a rock up a hill every day only to see it roll back down to no purpose. Taylor thinks this makes life meaningless for Sisyphus and notes that even immortality fails to extend meaning to Sisyphus’ life and perhaps even increases the sense of meaninglessness. However his efforts would become meaningful if the Gods had also implanted a drive in him to roll rocks up hills in which case Sisyphus would find at least some meaning in fulfilling his drive.

Taylor thinks this analogy applies to living things be they cave-restricted glow worms that struggle to subsist on stray insects until they reach a single day when they mature into winged adults, mate, and then are themselves eaten by other glow worms, or are birds that migrate great distances only to return to mate, or are humans who play out a Sisyphus-like drama in the generational cycle of birth-reproduction-death. Taylor believes that as would be the case for Sisyphus, the presence of the drive that compels these life courses gives living things a modicum of meaning.1

Other thinkers go somewhat further. Jonas Salk sees life as the continuation of evolution which for humans includes cultural advancement.2 Jane Goodall proposes the raising of children as highly meaningful.3 Freeman Dyson adds a further level – the prospect of humans controlling their evolution.4

In short, seemingly futile human biological existence imparts meaning because we are driven to survival and reproduction, because we can continue the human line and its evolution, and because we participate in the compendium of life. This is unlikely to meet the deep need we have for ‘larger’ meaning, but assures at least a limited value to life. Next time we will consider the realm of pleasure.


1Klemke, E.D. (editor), The Meaning of Life. Oxford University Press, New York, 2000. ISBN 0-19-512703-X, pages167-175.

2Fadiman, Clifton (editor), Living Philosophies. Doubleday, N.Y., 1990. ISBN 0-385-24880-6, pages 238-244.

3Ibid., pages 81-88.

4Ibid, pages 7-15.