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Posted by on Jun 18, 2008 in the meaning of life | 29 comments

The meaning of life

The Rev Sam says here:

“What does it mean to believe in God? Specifically, what does it mean for a Christian to believe in God? As I understand it, the essential element is about meaning or purpose – to believe in God is to believe that life is meaningful, is purposeful, and this meaning is by definition independent of personal choice or preference, it is something that stands outside of our desires and it is something to which we need to conform in order to flourish.”

That may be true. But I just want to point out that having an objective, externally given purpose does not necessarily give life a meaning. Even if it does help us flourish.

In his book Atheism – A Very Short Introduction, Julian Baggini has a nice analogy, which I now develop somewhat here.

Suppose it turns out that we do have a purpose. Human beings are being bred on Earth by aliens. And for a purpose too. To clean their toilets. They are coming next week to pick us up and take us to where we can fulfill our true purpose – to forever toil, cleaning the enormous toilets of the giant three-bummed aliens of Avatar! It’s a purpose for which we are extremely well adapted. Indeed, when we start doing it, we find everything about us starts to make sense. Our bodies just fit perfectly into the role. Indeed, we find we gain a profound sense of satisfaction from cleaning their giant bogs – for we are designed find the smell their excrement extraordinarily addictive. We never want to do anything else! We flourish and finally feel “fulfilled” in a way we have never felt before!

You know that “hole” we all feel deep down inside – that yearning for we-know-not-what? – it’s finally fulfilled… by alien poo!

Would this make our lives meaningful?


I am reminded of the cow-like beast in Douglas Adam’s The Restaurant at the End of The Universe – a being that is bred to want to be eaten “Which bit of me what you like to eat, sir? Perhaps my rump, chargrilled?” – whose death and consumption is what it’s designed for, and what it desires above all else. Is this creatures’ life meaningful? Does having an externally given purpose make it meaningful?

Not necessarily.

The question is, why should the discovery that we were made by God for a purpose – to love and worship him – make our lives meaningful? Theists almost always just assume this would make our lives meaningful – but it’s not at all clear why it should.

They really need to explain why it would. Can they? I am guessing they can’t. But then it turns out they no more have an account of what makes life meaningful than does the atheist.

Personally, I’d find it pretty dreadful to discover my purpose is endlessly to adore, worship and obey someone that designed me – be it an alien or God. Certainly, the discovery wouldn’t make me feel that my life was now more meaningful. If anything, it’d make me feel it was now rather less meaningful.

POSTSCRIPT: Incidentally, the assumption that having a God given purpose is the (only) thing that can make our lives meaningful is very typical of the kind of lazy thinking theists typically get away with. How many of them have ever subjected this assumption to critical scrutiny, I wonder? Very, very few, I’d guess. Yet they are typically very keen on subjecting atheist and humanist views on meaning to the minutest critical scrutiny.


  1. Crikey. I’d rather go back to the rule of the Lizard men!Alien antics aside, Why does “to believe that life is meaningful, is purposeful, and this meaning is by definition independent of personal choice or preference” imply that there is a personal God or indeed any sort of God? Either a) “Meaning” is something completely objective – it requires no-one to bestow it. Even God.b) “Meaning” is given by someone. The link with “purpose” suggests this. Does it matter who? Can it change on the whim of the giver? Can we have more than one purpose? The most consistent position would seem to make the individuals own judgment paramount.or c) “Meaning” in this sense, is an illusion.Isn’t this just another abuse of the word “God” being re-defined yet again to mean “that which gives life meaning”?

  2. As far as definitions of “God” go. I think the one which seems to fit best is “that which I do not understand”. It seems to make some sort of sense of much theistic writing rendering it either an expression of emotion or at least making it plain that the author is confused.

  3. I think it may be useful to distinguish between ‘how Christians understand things to be’ and ‘how people must necessarily understand things to be’*. Christians centre their understanding of all meaning on Jesus – that’s what makes them Christian. It’s no argument against that to say that what Christians find meaningful is not found meaningful by non-Christians. You can say, eg of sharing the eucharist, or setting up a hospital, ‘that just seems like cleaning alien toilets to me’. I’m not sure what would be a convincing argument against that, unless it was evidence of abundant life (ie that which could be generally acknowledged as abundant life) more prevalent in the Christian community than elsewhere.(*However, having said that, I think Christianity DOES claim that a full understanding of reality does entail something like Christian faith.)

  4. By the way – something a little lighter – there is an ‘atheism meme’ going round at the moment. Might be worth five minutes of your time.

  5. I’m working on a longer post on this theme. And you may consider yourself tagged.

  6. I’m not sure I really understand what Sam is getting at.However, i think your discussion of purpose fails because you do not distinguish between intrinsic and extrinsic purpose. But I don’t blame you because I don’t think that an atheist could give an account of intrinsic purpose.Extrinsic purpose is purpose that is given to something; whereas intrinsic purpose is something that a thing has in virtue of it’s being. Extrinsic purpose is like my parents bringing me up to be a footballer. They would have a purpose for me, but I am still not morally obliged to fulfill it, even if it would be good for me and I would enjoy it etc…Intrinsic purpose means to be created (this is created in the strongest sense possible, ex nihilo) with a purpose.I think this helps with the discussion because you are denying that there is any intrinsic purpose.Perhaps you can come up with a story that involves intrinsic purpose but does not involve God, but it would have to involve a being that was very much like God.I think this distinction is why Christians say that without God there is no meaning.

  7. Kyle said: “Perhaps you can come up with a story that involves intrinsic purpose but does not involve God, but it would have to involve a being that was very much like God.”I think the genetic code of living things provides intrinsic purpose. There’s no intention behind it, just natural laws. Good thing, too; it’s a collection of bloody, miserable methods being used to achieve said purpose.Of course, beings that are able should really think about what their purpose ought to be. That is if they’d like to have a life with more meaning than eating, excreting, and respiring (which is about all everything else on the planet is doing).We all have a narrative about the meaning of life. I’d prefer mine to be more informed by present scientific knowledge than metaphysical concepts developed in the ancient past.It’s not that I think long-haired sandal wearers were incapable of philosophically profound thoughts, it’s just that the universe has turned out to be a little bigger, stranger, and more complex than they imagined.

  8. Kyle S. re Intrinsic vs extrinsic purposeI think being bred for a purpose is a pretty strong variant of intrinsic purpose as you describe it. If you require creation ex-nihilo rather than from available material is necessary I think you will run into problems. e.g. most of humanity today was born as a result of sexual reproduction and did not just pop into existence. According to legend even the first man, Adam, was made from clay.

  9. And before attacking Julian B’s theory ask yourself this. How many other species do we know that clean lavatories?

  10. Hi anonymous,yes it is true that I was not created ex nihilo, in fact, no human has been . However, on the Christian understanding all of the material and processes that led to my existence have been created by God ex nihilo.In order for God to give something intrinsic purpose he is not required to create it instantly.

  11. kyle s – “In order for God to give something intrinsic purpose he is not required to create it instantly.”Surely then neither are the aliens.

  12. How many species clean lavatories, I wish I knew. Dung beetles collect dung, but that’s different. There are birds that clean rhinos ears, and fish that clean up after sharks and such. I bet they like their work. Does our view of it degrade it in any way whatsoever? Fungi grow on shit, and huge numbers of species of microbes are involved in what we might view as the clean-up side of the cycles of nature. And plants spring to mind. But I’m only guessing here.So suppose you fall in love, Stephen. You adore your wife. You know that nature has designed you (via some horrible method of slaughtering millions of animals that were not so full of hormones, before they could reproduce) to fall in love so devotedly; but does that thought affect the happiness of your marriage, does it reduce the lovely sense of purpose you now have?

  13. Hi anonymous,the aliens are not required to create instantly, however, they have not done any creating at all. They are just using what is already there.

  14. Kyle – If it is necessary by your definition to create from nothing then I don’t think anything currently existing can be said to have intrinsic purpose other than to be used as building blocks for something else. Certainly not people since, as we agree, they are made of pre-existing components. Returning to the Christian myth (if I reember it correctly) of Adam and Eve, I suppose that one could argue that God created the clay that Adam in turn was created from with this express purpose in mind. Eve on the other hand is much harder to justify in this way since she only came to be as a result of Adam (who presumably had free will) wanting a companion. So God improvised a bit using materials to hand. Now Adam could not have been created with the purpose of later creating Eve. I don’t think that invalidates the idea that Eve was created with the intrinsic purpose of being Adams companion.

  15. Hi anonymous,Your approach seems very reductionistic. A thing as a whole can be given an intrinsic purpose that its individual components do not have.Also, God is free to change the purpose of something, or indeed give it more than one purpose.Before God created, there was nothing, in the strongest possible sense. Everything has its origin in Him no matter how it came about, therefore God has the ability to determine the intrinsic purpose of every being.I don’t really have this all figured out, and I’m sure there are problems to be worked through. However, all I am trying to show is that the theist can offer an account of purpose that the atheist cannot.Various people have made objections to what I’m saying, but none of them have been ‘killer’ objections.

  16. Hello Kyle SWhy does that the fact that something is made, not out of pre-existing materials, but ex nihilo, make its existence more meaningful?I can’t see the relevance of the ex nihilo bit…I am also puzzled, incidentally, about what you mean by ex nihilo. Presumably this wouldn’t count: a machine is devised that can conjure up, entirely out of nothing, lumps of matter (i.e. we don’t have to put any raw materials in), and in any form we choose. We design an egg timer. Is our egg timer produced ex nihilo? Does this egg timer have an intrinsic purpose?I guess you’ll say no. Why?

  17. Kyle – We may be agreeing here in some fashion! You said “A thing as a whole can be given an intrinsic purpose that its individual components do not have” (My italics). This is part of my point. I do not believe that being created ex nihilo is necessary for a thing to have an intrinsic purpose. Your statement seems to back this up.The ability of God to change a things purpose also supports my view since in either case no act of creation at the time of determining the purpose is necessary. Whatever intrinsic purpose is, creation from nothing is not logically required.I think either a more liberal interpretation of creation is required or else it is dropped entirely and becomes something like “Intrinsic purpose is God given.”Whether or not anything can actually have intrinsic purpose in practice or where that purpose comes from are other matters.

  18. Excellent point, anonymous. In fact, Kyle S does seem to be contradicting himself. But maybe he can clarify…?

  19. Stephen – I would guess that kyle could attempt to argue that both the machine and us were part of the Universe created by God so anything we do is “a derived work”.Cant see the art world being very happy with that…

  20. Yes that’s what I thought he would say but it would be good to get some clarity….

  21. “Personally, I’d find it pretty dreadful to discover my purpose is endlessly to adore, worship and obey someone that designed me – be it an alien or God.”I hope you’ve seen Bedazzled – the real one, the one with Peter Cook and Dudley Moore and Eleanor Bron? There’s a great bit where Pete (as the fallen angel-devil) gives a sarcastic, bored, irritated rendition of what God expects of everyone – you’re so wonderful, you’re so lovely, you’re so perfect, blah blah.

  22. Anyway, it’s quite like the Euthyphro problem, isn’t it. Is meaning whatever god says it is? Or is it what we ourselves think is meaningful, and god agrees with us. Do we find X meaningful because god says it’s meaningful, or do we find certain things (and not others) meaningful and attribute our ideas of meaningful to our god?God says being kind is good. Okay. God says torture is good. Not okay. So if we don’t think god can make just anything good merely by saying so, we don’t actually derive our ideas of what’s good from god; we may think we do, but we don’t. (If we do think god can make just anything good merely by saying so, we’re dangerous.)So, god says compassion is meaningful. Okay. God says cleaning toilets to the exclusion of doing anything else is meaningful. Not so okay. So either we use our own judgment (whether we realize it or not), or we don’t (in which case we may do bad things for bad reasons).

  23. Surely the point is that the aliens breed us to (a) want to do the task (b) get some sort of sensual pleasure from doing so (c) feel good about having done it afterwards. This is pretty much the same as the current state we are in with regard to eating and reproduction isn’t it? Is this “meaning” for life in any real sense? I don’t think so; maybe at a low level. Now if one were to take a philosophical position that it was worthwhile to clean up after aliens above and beyond the mere gratification of (engineered) biological urgings then that would perhaps qualify. After all we all eat but not everyone aspires to being a great chef.

  24. The question is, why should the discovery that we were made by God for a purpose – to love and worship him – make our lives meaningful?This has been one of my problems with the Abrahamic god from the beginning: Why do I need to accede to some creature’s demand that it be loved? I’m with Garth Ennis on this one: if there was a god, its creation outgrew it, and it should have the good grace to let it go.

  25. I think this helps with the discussion because you are denying that there is any intrinsic purpose.Perhaps our intrinsic purpose it to find extrinsic purpose?Or perhaps intrinsic purpose is a conceit.

  26. Hi Stephen,If I may add to your points – I think a more direct, more fatal argument can be given. The typical problem that theists have with the idea of atheism is that What is a purpose? Is it that some thing is brought on due to some Aristotelian final cause, a telos of sorts? It seems to me then that we can immediately distinguish between two different sorts of purposes.Purpose acquired externally: That a thing has a purpose in that that thing is brought about by something else for some reason i.e. that a person creates a chair, for the purpose of sitting down upon.Purpose acquired internally: That a thing has a purpose in that that thing brings about and bestow purpose on itself i.e. that a person decides to contribute to the human endeavor.Presumably, the theist wishes to deny the meaning of internal purposes, for internal purposes is the sort of purpose most atheists accept – namely that, through our own free will, we literally create our own goals, our own purposes, and our own ends. If we wish to be poetic, we “define” our lives. So, presumably, it is only through external purposes we can attain meaning.If one wishes to continue this supposed game of external purposes, perhaps one can ask what the external purpose of God is? Either God has meaningful internal purpose (in the exact same sense as anyone else; and given that God has presumably of great metaphysical worth, why not humans as well?) or meaningful external purpose. The latter is impossible since God is not created at all. The former gives up the theistic charade of that internal purposes are meaningless. So, either God has a meaningless life or internal purposes can be meaningful. [1]It seems to me that external purposes are meaningless. For they are not the ends that we acquire intrinsically, out of our own free will, but purposes placed upon us by the fiat and whim of another. Purpose that we acquire is closer to the idea of purpose than any theistic story of purpose can ever accomplish. At least, internal purposes can be meaningful. A theistic life might be meaningful because one chooses to worship God [2], a perfectly good being, because we ultimately we choose so and because worship of God is good and brings good into our lives. It is not because God created us that we acquire meaning – even if God created us and we did not worship Him, our lives would still be meaningful.Either way, these “problems” for the atheist are illusionary. There is no problem whatsoever here. [1] Perhaps the theist will retort by appealing to the necessity of God. Ignoring at the moment that we have no reason to accept that God is necessary, let alone multiple reasons to reject such a proposal, the assertion is irrelevant. God’s life would be “meaningless” in the precise same sense as any other entity – God was not created for a purpose since He was not created at all, and from His perspective, He simply finds Himself to exist. It is not as if God is causa sui or self-caused in the sense of bringing Himself and His own purpose about; that is entirely impossible. [2] By God, I refer to the eternal, omnipotent, omniscient, and morally perfect Creator of the universe – not the sadistic overlord found in Abrahamic theology. That sort of god is the sort of god that makes life without worth, without meaning. Either we submit to the will of this sadistic tyrant and accept his tyrannical rule over us and be brainwashed to a state exceeding an Orwellian love of Big Brother, or be damned to torment forevermore. Of course, I don’t typically make an argument of Hell or moral argument against theists; it is largely pointless since our moral compasses on these issues differ so starkly as to make meaningful conversation virtually impossible. So, at least, I should say that the God mentioned here is not a God that created Hell or capriciously inflicts genocide.

  27. ^ ETA:”The typical problem that theists have with the idea of atheism is that “should have read”The typical problem that theists have with the idea of atheism is that they believe if God had not created us to worship Him, we would simply find ourselves to exist without purposive reason. They say we might engage a charade of gaining purpose in a subjective non-cosmic sense, but that’s not *really* meaningful.”

  28. When the religious insist God, and only God, can make life meaningful, they often exhibit a pattern of thought that crops up again and again in religious circles. First, they spot a philosophical puzzle regarding e.g. ultimate meaning, or the justification or ground of ethics, or source of existence, or whatever. “What, ultimately, makes things right or wrong?” “What, ultimately, gives life meaning?” etc.They then say, “God is what solves that puzzle”. E.g. God is what ultimately explains the meaningfulness of life, God is what ultimately explains all existence, God is what ultimately lays down right and wrong” or whatever.But rarely do they actually *explain* how God solves the puzzle.In fact, usually the puzzle is merely postponed, for the same old problem crops up again at the level of God.That’s what happens with the divine command theory in ethics, for example (Ophelia’s example of the Euthyphro dilemma). The same postponement crops up here too. God is the external something that bestows meaning on our lives, but then, as Rayndeon asks, what bestows meaning on his existence?Of course, they want to make God the “exception to the rule” so far as, say, the existence of things requiring an external explanation, or an external meaning-giver, or whatever.But what’s the justification for making God the exception? That’s the bit of explanation they rarely provide (which is not to say it cannot be provided).“God just *does* explain it”, they say, without bothering to explain how, or indeed, even think about how.God just becomes an excuse to stop thinking.Rather than provide a genuine solution, they just say, in effect, “It’s mysterious God magic! Problem solved!” Then they add – “Now, what’s *your* solution?”

  29. I’ll now stick that last comment in as a main posting – so let’s move further comments over to there…

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