The Meaning of Life

By Jonathan M.S. Pearce, Dec 2010

‘I very rarely think either of my past or my future, but the moment that one contemplates writing an autobiography – and I am sitting down with that intention today – one is forced to regard oneself as an entity carried along for a brief period in the stream of time, emerging suddenly at a particular moment from darkness and nothingness and shortly to disappear at a particular moment into nothingness and darkness. The moment at which officially I emerged from non-existence was the early morning of November 25th, 1880, though in fact I did not personally become aware of my existence until some two or three years later. In the interval between 1880 and today I have lived my life on the assumption that sooner or later I shall pass by annihilation into the same state of non-existence from which I suddenly emerged that winter morning in West Cromwell Road, Kensington, so many years ago. This passage from non-existence to non-existence seems to me a strange and, on the whole, an enjoyable experience. Since the age of sixteen, when for a short time, like all intelligent adolescents, I took the universe too seriously, I have rarely worried myself about its meaning or meaninglessness. But I resent the fact that, as seems to be practically certain, I shall be as non-existent after my death as I was before my birth. Nothing can be done about it and I cannot truthfully say that my future extinction causes me much fear or pain, but I should like to record my protest against it and against the universe which enacts it.

‘The adulation of the deity as creator of the universe in Jewish and Christian psalms and hymns, and indeed by most religions, seems to me ridiculous. No doubt in the course of millions of millions of years, he has contrived to create some good things. I agree that ‘my heart leaps up when I behold a rainbow in the sky’, or ‘the golden daffodils, beside the lake, beneath the trees, fluttering and dancing in the breeze’, or ‘the stars that shine and twinkle on the Milky Way’. I admit that every now and again I am amazed and profoundly moved by the beauty and affection of my cat and my dog. But at what a cost of senseless pain and misery, of wasteful and prodigal cruelty, does he manage to produce a daffodil, a Siamese cat, a sheepdog, a housefly, or a sardine. I resent the wasteful stupidity of a system which tolerates the spawning herring or the seeding groundsel or the statistics of infantile mortality wherever God has not been civilized by man. And I resent the stupid wastefulness of a system which requires that human beings with great labour and pain should spend years in acquiring knowledge, experience, and skill, and then just when at last they might use all this in the service of mankind and for their own happiness, they lose their teeth and their hair and their wits, and are hurriedly bundled, together with all that they have learnt, into the grave and nothingness.

It is clear that, if there is a purpose in the universe and a creator, both are unintelligible to us. But that does not provide them with an excuse or a defence.’

Leonard Woolf (1960)[1]

Are the views expressed in this passage reasonable?

There is much to be analysed and debated in this long quote by Leonard Woolf (the husband of the author Virginia Woolf) from his autobiography Sowing: an autobiography of the years, 1880–1904. In this essay I will seek to illustrate the main ideas in this quote before debating them at greater length. The nature of the quote means that there are too many points (as seen below) to cover in this essay as some of them have had more ink spilt about them than would be caused by a riot at the Parker factory. For ease of review and economy of space I have set out the ten main points that can be garnered from his quote as follows:

1. We are nothing before birth and shortly become nothing at death.

2. Our lives and existence are sadly short.

3. We do not have immortal souls.

4. He has not been worried by finding the meaning of existence (“, I have rarely worried myself about its meaning”).

5. He resents the fact that he will be nothing at death as before life. Therefore there is a lingering inference of the futility of existence (“And I resent the stupid wastefulness of a system … they … are hurriedly bundled, together with all that they have learnt, into the grave and nothingness”).

6. He is not afraid of death – the prospect gives him no pain.

7. The worship of a god is ridiculous as illustrated by the problem of evil.

8. There is pointlessness (or wastefulness) in undergoing a lengthy process of acquiring knowledge only to lose it, shortly after gaining it, in death before using it to give service to mankind and achieve happiness.

9. He believes that there is a pain and shame in ageing.

10. God is unintelligible to us, as is a purpose in the universe, even if they do exist. ‘A’ purpose suggests a universal objective purpose for humans in the universe.

Woolf seems to use meaning and purpose in the different places interchangeably, which I will discuss. The main areas that I have chosen in which to delve deeper are Point 8 and Point 10, which I will look at in reverse order. Firstly, Woolf hints that if there is an objective purpose, and it is unintelligible to us. After differentiating meaning from purpose, I will look to agree with the idea that if they exist, then they are effectively unintelligible, thus pointing towards a subjective purpose. I take this a step further by claiming that objective purposes are themselves effectively and philosophically incoherent.

Woolf then claims that (like philosophers from John Stuart Mill to AC Grayling) learning is integral to happiness and the service of mankind. He claims that our learning is short-lived and wastefully left behind at the annihilation of our death. I will secondly look to find partial agreement in that happiness is certainly an end to which most humans do and should set their goals to achieve (their subjective purpose) but that it, like knowledge, is not necessarily wasted.

Meaning of Life

Let us look, then, at the question of whether there is meaning to life as hinted by Woolf in the following words: “It is clear that, if there is a purpose in the universe and a creator, both are unintelligible to us.” Let us debate “its meaning or meaninglessness”. What does the question ‘What is the meaning of life?’ mean; and then what does ‘What is the purpose of life?’ mean? To me, the first question is itself somewhat meaningless. First, we have to define life and meaning to decipher the question. Life is a process, and a collection of experiences and actions taken by an individual until the individual dies. Life, in its early form, is without self-awareness, and so is described in an even more basic and biological manner, of living cells and functions.

Let us return to meaning. What does ‘meaning’ mean? There are many interpretations of the word ‘meaning’:

pain means bread

Did you mean to hurt him?

The smell of cut grass means a lot to me

What is the meaning of this whole debacle?

The colour red means danger

I mean business

Running into her in the café was meant to happen

And so on, the list is very long. There are linguistic issues to muddle through, sorting signification from intending and suchlike. But the meaning of life is different from the meaning of pain in the sense that one is trying to decipher the meaning of a phenomenon and not just a simple word. It makes no sense to say ‘What is the meaning of a tree? Of a pebble? Of a puddle?’ as Hanfling (1987, p. x) says, “The difficulty that faces us here is as if we were asked about the meaning of grass, or of the Atlantic Ocean.” Intrinsically they have no meaning outside of the definition of the word and what it signifies. Life is potentially no different in this respect, and the question is possibly meaningless. Life has significance in that it perhaps has, as Terry Eagleton states, “point, substance, purpose, quality, value and direction” (Eagleton 2007, p. 37).

An approach that a postmodernist would try to do away with might point out that ‘meaning’ calls for something to stand in for something else, to represent something else. In this way, though not without its critics (such as Wittgenstein) Terry Eagleton says,

Meaning and interpretation imply hidden messages and mechanisms, depths stacked beneath surfaces … it still needs to be dug out, since the world does not spontaneously disclose it. One name for this excavatory enterprise is science, which on a certain view of it seeks to reveal the invisible laws and mechanisms by which things operate.

(Eagleton 2007, p. 16-17)

It may be true to say that science determines the mechanisms and establishes data, but finding meaning and purpose is out of its remit. The knowledge and understanding of data and mechanisms is not synonymous with understanding the meaning that may or may not lie behind them. Understanding that evolution is the mechanism that defines life as we know it does not infer that evolution is the meaning of life (although it still may be). The conflation of method and meaning is all too common.

Purpose of Life

To return to Eagleton’s first quote, it is the words point and purpose that are really invoked by meaning. What is the point to life: why are we here? What is our purpose? This is arguably a more sensible approach than seeking the meaning of life. But these questions are potentially fraught with issues themselves.

Consequently, ‘What is the purpose of life?’ is problematic too, since it question begs the existence of a purposer, or it demands subjective purposing, thus meaning there is no objective ‘purpose of life’. In order for an object to have a purpose, there must be some entity that is giving the object that purpose. A puddle does not intrinsically have a purpose, and nor does an ant, unless we conflate method with purpose as seen before. In other words, the method of evolution does not necessarily imply that the purpose of an ant is to do ant things that lead towards the survival of the colony and thus the species.

Yet, one can argue that evolution gives purpose to living things. This actually implies that it is the underlying principles of evolution that provide the purpose (the mechanisms of survival and reproduction), nay the end result of evolution (existence of the species) that represents the purpose. Therefore can we say that the purpose of life is to survive? I would actually say that this is possibly the only purpose that we can provide for life without much doubt, since in order to even think about existence, purposes and points, one needs to exist. And one cannot exist as a living entity (with living being a basic condition, not one such as meaning a ‘fulfilled’ sense of life), as a human, without surviving and having been produced via reproduction. This sounds obvious, like a truism, but it is hugely important. The foundational purpose, before working out any overarching or highly philosophical purpose to life, is to survive as an individual, and as a species. Thus, evolution provides a good framework for purpose. That being said, could these aspects (survival and reproduction) simply be the method which entities use in order to achieve their (ultimate) purpose?

Consequently, we could be back at square one at still needing to interpret what our purpose is. It could be that evolution, and all the baggage that comes with the process, provides the mechanistic purpose and method for existing, but that there is a greater purpose that humans aspire towards that exists alongside, or overshadowing, evolution. This touches on the unintelligible nature of purpose as hinted at by Woolf (‘It is clear that, if there is a purpose in the universe and a creator, both are unintelligible to us’). Whatever our purpose is, given a creator or not, our purpose isn’t exactly explicit. Not only is it not explicit, but it may not exist at all. The mere fact that I, after many thousands of thinkers, am trying to tease out potential meanings and purposes to life shows that these things are clearly not explicit.

Objective Purpose – Can it exist?

If there is an objective purpose[2] (one that exists in all possible worlds, for humans), it is a highly subjective process of trying to decipher exactly what it is! This is very important to note, and is analogous to objective morality. There is pointlessness or inconsequentiality to an objective purpose if each and every person does not know what it is, and all make up their own subjective purpose to replace it. This subjective / objective interplay provides ample reason to cast doubt on the existence (or usefulness) of objective purposes.

Let us return, though, to the idea that to have a purpose requires a purposer (someone to import purpose onto something else). ‘What is the purpose of a spade?’ assumes that the spade has a purpose outside of itself to another entity, for a specific end (i.e. for a gardener to dig). Thus, the question with regards to life would imply there is another entity outside of humanity that can use humanity to achieve a certain end. In this case, humans serve a purpose rather than have a purpose. This obviously begs the question of whether there is an entity outside of humanity that can give human life a purpose. Is there a Creator who gives us purpose? Assuming, though, that there is a god, and that we do indeed have an objective purpose, where does that leave us? I would go as far as to say, however, that given the objective purpose provided by a god, it simply becomes a subjective purpose to that god. If the spade was sentient, and decided that it didn’t fancy being used to dig holes in my garden at my behest (I am the purposer here, the god), but wanted to take on a nobler cause of digging gardens in the community, and helping criminals rehabilitate their ways in a gardening program, then the spade is entitled to feel that their own purpose was superior (even if it was something less morally upstanding). As a god, I could chastise and cajole the spade, through punishment and reward, towards aligning its purpose with mine. But then objectiveness simply gets transformed into a consequentialist purpose, with the spade only adopting a purpose to avoid or gain the reward from me as the god. There is an intuitive lack of objectivity here in that the real purpose is the happiness of the spade, since pleasing me gives the spade less punishment and more reward. Thus objective purpose is replaced by subjective gaining of happiness.

In this way, just because a god might have a purpose for us, and this may be seen as objective, does not make it superior (which is indeed a completely un-measurable notion) to a subjective purpose set by ourselves. Furthermore, the notion of an objective purpose is rendered pointless or meaningless by this. If there is an objective purpose, the only ‘duty’ to follow it would be in terms of a consequence of punishment for not adhering to it, or reward for doing so. A sort of ‘so what’ to an objective purpose. Duties and ‘oughts’ are, in my opinion, conditional notions (an if … then idea). What I mean by this is there is only a duty to do something if there is a consequence to not doing it, or a reward for doing it. The duty of a schoolteacher to take the register at the beginning of the day may be for the following reasons:

· To avoid being disciplined by the school management

· To ensure that all the children are present, which in turn ensures that the school has accurate records

· To allow the teacher to know who is present so that he / she may alter their planning accordingly

· To ensure a thorough process is in place to facilitate child protection etc.

However, the register being taken is not a duty in and of itself. In other words, there is no objective duty; the teacher is not bound by having to (ought) take the register on its own merit. As long as there is a ‘because’ after the ought, then it is a conditional, consequentialist notion. I ought not punch a passer-by in the face because I will get in trouble for it; he might retaliate to my disadvantage; a sound society relies on decent and reliable behaviour; a sound society is beneficial for all concerned; and so on. As soon as there is no ‘because’, then a behaviour or action is committed on its own merit – there is true objective duty. However, I can see no situation whereby this causal circumstance exists. Even with God, as mentioned, we may have moral duties, but these duties exist within a framework of consequences and repercussions, positive and negative. Obviously, this is in direct opposition to the beliefs of moral absolutists or deontologists (such as Thomas Nagel) and Divine Command Theorists. Deontology seems to be under threat from itself, as expressed by the issues within the trolley problem[3]. Deontologists get into trouble because part of their theory says that they should save the five by killing the one, thus reducing the Principle of Permissible Harm (PPH)[4] by five. However, the PPH clearly states that the one should not be thrown in front of the trolley. Respecting the rights of five involves respecting the rights of the one, but involves the death of the five. As Jeremy Bentham stated, deontology looks rather similar to popular morality. Especially since, as John Stuart Mill added, when the rights conflict, no one can absolutely say which ones take priority. Deontology simply cannot provide an absolute moral guide.

From this, we can extrapolate that life is not an end in itself, but possibly a means to an end, and it is that end that we need to fathom out. The ought in life, like the register, is a means towards a goal.

That aside, this does not necessarily affect the question of whether there is actually an objective purpose and what that might be. From a religious point of view, that would be down to the followers of each religion to interpret (whether it be leading a morally decent life whilst maintaining a loving relationship with the personal god or otherwise). There are too many religions equally vying for my attentions to give a quality assessment of the different purposes, and so I will sweep this massive subject aside in a massive atheistic gesture. Essentially, the purpose is not in the hands of the human, but in the hands of the god, and without explicit and indubitable revelation, then the purpose is, indeed, unintelligible and subjective.

In the event of the plethora of choices offered up by the myriad of different religions, and not wanting to show favouritism to Christianity simply because I was born (through a natural lottery) into the geographical area in which Christianity is prevalent, I will assume a position of atheism (or of purpose not emanating directly from a god). This is similar to the existentialist approach of thinkers such as Sartre who believed that meaning is not given but is achieved through the actions and interactions of people. For example, the case of the spade assumes that the spade is given a purpose by the creator (the gardener / designer / manufacturer). Without an overarching creator for the universe, we are devoid of the purposer. As such, we have two ‘choices’: there is no objective purpose, and so we have to create subjective purposes ourselves; or objective purposes can exist naturally to which we are not obliged to adhere, and thus create subjective purposes.

Let us look at whether objective purposes[5] can exist naturally. As far as I can see, the only way that an objective purpose or meaning to life can be derived naturally would be if it depended upon unarguable objective foundations existing upon which the purpose can be built. The only framework that seems to be fit for purpose would be logic. Logic, and rationality that derives from it, has an unarguable ‘objectivity’ to it, which is why it is universally accepted in the discipline of philosophy. Moreover, to return to a god (who is omnipotent), defying logic is outside of even his[6] bounds. For example, he cannot make a rock that is too heavy for him to lift, or a square circle. These are seen as logical and semantic paradoxes that do not apply, because they defy the objective nature of logic. Could it be, then, that if we could rationally develop (based on sound logical premises) an argument that defined a purpose to (human) life that was universally acceptable, we could have an objective purpose? I have seen similar arguments be used to arrive at theories of objective morality, such as by Francois Tremblay[7]. He states that the unit of ethics (such as a unit of energy might be a Joule) is value. As such:

By evaluating what values are being effected by a given action in its context, we can express a sound moral judgment on that action (this was a good thing to do, this was a bad thing to do). This is true regardless of your actual moral system – we all have values, implicitly or explicitly. The real argument is about those scientific and social facts and what values they entail.[8]

In order to establish his theory, Tremblay attempts to marginally redefine objectivity to be “based on reality”. The issues with regard to objective purpose is that it is not a case of evaluating a single action against a scale of good to bad using logic and rationality. Life is wholly more complicated and multifaceted. To find a single, all-encompassing purpose does not lend itself easily to a natural objectivity. More importantly, if there is one, then it is effectively unintelligible, since (as mentioned before) it is a subjective process of interpreting and arguing what that may be.

Purpose is Unintelligible

Woolf implies that an objective purpose, if it exists, is unintelligible to us, as mentioned before. I have argued that objective purposes are either philosophically incoherent or subjective to the Creator. In Appendix 1 I set out the complementary logical arguments for all of the options. They conclude that whether or not God exists, and whether or not an objective purpose does actually exist, purpose for humans is effectively subjective. It is because of this subjectivity that objective purpose is in effect ‘unintelligible’. Purposes are not explicit (objectively) and therefore are up to us to define. The mere fact that people have been arguing over them for thousands of years, and that philosophers write many an essay in trying to decipher a conclusive answer as to what universal purposes humanity should adopt should lead us to believe they are unintelligible. In this, therefore, Woolf and I are in agreement.

Happiness as a goal

Although there is no explicit statement in Woolf’s quote that the purpose of humanity is to learn to achieve happiness, there is certainly an implicit acknowledgement that this is (at least one of) our purpose(s). Happiness is an end, and cannot really be a means to an end. To sum up, Woolf seems to believe that happiness and service to society are long-term goals (purposes) that can be achieved by learning, experience and the accumulation of skill. Now let us look at whether happiness is a worthy purpose, and if it can be achieved by learning.

Accepting, then, that humanity’s purpose is subjective in nature, does happiness offer itself as one of the most promising purposes to a human? On an obvious note, if this is our one and only life, then it would be pretty senseless and masochistic if we were not trying to make it as enjoyable as possible. The idea of an afterlife is something that warrants dwelling on for a short while. It is worth calling upon Ockham’s Razor[9] here. In the case of an afterlife, the theory assumes an awful lot of extra phenomena that have not been adequately evidenced. It requires another dimension, usually a god, a soul or immortal vessel carrying the self and so on. Without evidence for these things[10], then the theory that there is no afterlife offers a simpler and more effective explanation for what happens after our death. Given the assumption (along with Woolf) that we have no afterlife, then, it seems fairly self-evident that we need to make the most of the life that we have.

Is it easy to promote happiness as our raison d’être? Epicurus[11] certainly felt that happiness was the prime goal of life which is philosophically known as hedonism. Realising that we returned to atoms at death, and that there was no afterlife, this seemed eminently sensible. Aristotle[12] made the point that happiness is the only thing that humans strive for, for its intrinsic value. For example, we might want to be healthy, but this is only relevant in the context that it leads to happiness. Although his term for happiness, eudaimonia, was defined in light of activity as opposed to an emotional state per se (the ‘pleasure’ definition of happiness used by Epicurus), it certainly holds true (for me at least) that most, if not all, of what we do leads towards the intended end of happiness. Playing sport at the weekend, working (for the wage and what the wage can bring), buying clothes, going to the cinema and so on. It gets controversial when we think about charitable actions, and whether we do them to make ourselves feel better (psychologically and subconsciously) at the expense of true altruism. Aristotle overlaid his own theories of happiness with virtuous ethics, which is a step away from the last point. He had Platonic ideals that actions could be abstractly and objectively good. As I have previously pointed out[13], this sort of realism does not sit coherently, and I prefer a conceptualist, or even nominalist approach. That means that I do not believe that abstracts or universals (such as strength, redness, this table here, or Bill Clinton) exist as objective entities in abstract form. Plato suggested that there was another dimension where abstract ideas existed (in a sort of spatial sense). This notion seems incoherent[14], and it certainly appears that ideas only exist subjectively in the mind of the beholder. For example, if you or I saw the same table, we would actually have marginally different ideas about what the abstract idea of that table would be. Furthermore, the idea of a table itself can be argued, such that it becomes a case of mutual agreement over properties. However, I might argue that a sawn tree stump that I eat my picnic off is a table, whereas you might disagree entirely. Thus, even seemingly obvious abstract ideas are open to subjective gainsaying. In this way, I dispute that actions can be objectively virtuous (in the sense of Aristotle’s happiness).


Utilitarians such as John Stuart Mill decreed that people should behave in a way that brings the maximum amount of happiness to the maximum amount of people[15]. It becomes much more difficult, though, to define objectively (or by accurate consensus) exactly what such behaviour should be. One might take a course of action thinking it may be for the benefit of many, but end up causing less happiness. For example, you could instinctively save a person from being run-over, only to find out they would become a mass murderer. Furthermore, choosing between the pain caused to an individual over the resulting happiness to a larger majority is inherently problematic. I could poison the water system in the world’s most overcrowded city of Manila, killing off a third of its inhabitants. This could be argued to be of huge benefit to the surviving population that would allow them far more resources and a greater standard of life. My actions would hardly be considered ‘good’. Having said this[16], utilitarianism is actually the common-sense moral approach adopted by most people, whether they know it or not. However, let us be primarily concerned with happiness on an individual level. We know much about how happiness manifests itself[17]. Therefore, our happiness depends in no small measure upon our daily actions (further research shows that social networks, for example, are one of the foremost contributors to happiness), and these can depend greatly on long term goals and aims towards achieving consistent biological happiness.

In Pursuit of Knowledge

So how does learning fit into this? Interestingly, it is not explicitly seen as one of the primary contributors to happiness, such as are notions of social interaction, employment, health, optimism and so forth. That is not to say, though, that learning and education cannot be important variables in achieving these ends, which in turn achieve happiness. Moreover, Woolf sees this knowledge, experience and skill as part of a matrix of things important in life, and not necessarily the main goal. To support the importance of such intentions, Aristotle is quoted as saying of a predecessor:

They say that Anaxagoras, when someone raised just these puzzles and asked him what it was for which a person would choose to be born rather than not, answered that it would be “in order to apprehend the heavens and the order in the whole universe.”[18]

Humans do have a predisposition towards searching for knowledge. It seems that we search out answers and seek knowledge about anything and everything[19]. Knowledge does have practical applications, obviously, and is useful both for ourselves to acquire and thus for our children. As such, education is seen as hugely important in society. However, it does not follow that it is valuable in and of itself. The advantages and consequences to knowledge acquisition aside, does it have intrinsic value and can we be seen as being ‘better’ than a mere dog with no hope of such knowledge? Knowledge is incredibly valuable for the ends it produces. Without any knowledge[20] we would get nowhere since we would not be able to achieve anything, living in gross ignorance (or even not being able to survive). Thus, knowledge finds itself to be a crucial consequentialist ideal. It is a key necessary ingredient in being able to achieve anything, whether as an individual, or as a collective, a society.

What seems to follow from here, though, is that knowledge (and skills and so on) are not valuable intrinsically, but have great value in being able to facilitate almost everything else. I cannot achieve the happiness of a secure job, of being married, of reading a good book, or playing sport, without any knowledge of how to do these things. And, as with the ideas of goal-setting, goal-achieving, and goal-resetting as discussed earlier, it is natural that when we achieve a certain level of knowledge that we have the urge to push ourselves to setting a goal of achieving the next level of knowledge.

So knowledge and skills (that are learnt) are almost elementary particles in the physics of achievement. What is fundamental here, then, is deciding to what end to employ such knowledge. I am of the opinion that knowledge cannot be an end in itself, since it does not appear to be the last link in the chain. There is no intrinsic value in knowledge. As the old adage goes, knowledge is power. It is what you do with knowledge that matters, that is the end. Knowledge is a means to that end, whatever that may be. And we find ourselves, in a circular manner, arriving back at setting ourselves an overarching goal, a purpose to life. Our goal, our purpose, cannot be to gain knowledge for knowledge’s sake – that is futile in and of itself, unless done so for a further goal (the gratification of being ‘the most intelligent mind in the physics faculty). No, what we do is set ourselves goals that necessitate the gaining of knowledge[21].

Knowledge is Not Wasted

Woolf’s point that it all seems tremendously wasteful and thus largely futile that we spend our lives acquiring these skills only to die and be annihilated, is powerful. I concur with the realisation that, from an individual point of view, spending your entire life learning and acquiring skills only to die and not be able to use them is seemingly futile. However, the process of learning, itself, is something that can be thoroughly enjoyable, even addictive[22]. Conversely though, it is often posited that the more knowledge you have, the more prone you are to depression, though this is often not a causal relationship, but a correlation[23].

Woolf, and it is difficult to know whether these views should be taken at face value or with an air of irony[24], claims that the gaining of knowledge is wasteful begging the question that people don’t use their knowledge beneficently before they die, and don’t achieve happiness before they die. As I have said, there is happiness to be gained in the process of the pursuit of knowledge, of the goal setting, achieving, and further goal-setting in knowledge acquisition. Look at how different society is today to society 100,000, 10,000, 5,000 and 500 years ago. To imply that there has been no service to mankind and no gaining of happiness is obviously untrue. Humans all over the world exist (not consistently admittedly) in moments of great pleasure and happiness.

There is regret that we don’t live for longer than we do – we would all like to live longer, no doubt. Our knowledge could be put to a more sustained good use, and the longer we lived, the more knowledge we could gain, and the greater amount of good use it could be put towards. This is the basis of Woolf’s regret but it need not be so blinding as not to recognise the service to mankind and happiness that is achieved.

Let us look at the idea that our knowledge and goals might not be wasted in view of the larger picture of humanity. If one could argue that there is value for the individual in safeguarding the human species and even the world in which we live, so that an individual’s actions in their one finite life can have lasting beneficial effect for the whole species, then the playing field could look very different. The key here is that we, as humanity, would need to come to some kind of consensus as to a mission statement for humanity. This would then cohere with the acquisition of knowledge and skills, since we would have a framework to build our knowledge around to achieve the ends set out in the mission statement, with happiness ensuing from the pursuit, and the achievement, of goals. This would, as mentioned, be beyond the scope of our immediate and individual lives, but would benefit humanity as a whole and would lessen the wastefulness of our learning. It also depends upon whether it is possible to argue that there is objective, or at least universal subjective value in setting goals for the whole of humanity that go beyond the scope and duration of a human life.

In conclusion, we have seen that it is necessary to set our own purpose, our own subjective goals in life. Given that it is self-evident that there is value in happiness (it makes us happy!) and it is a emotion that can be seen as an end in itself then whatever objective we set ourselves, it should involve happiness (there is no point living our one and only life in perpetual sadness if it can be avoided). The United Nations (UN)[25], with its humanity-wide global perspective, looks to create a set of objectives[26] for achieving the maximum amount of happiness for humanity (through equality, the minimising of suffering and so on) and their charters serve as mission statements and mechanisms towards these ends. Philosophically speaking, the UN arguably provides a tangible embodiment of the utilitarian ethics of John Stuart Mill. The gaining of knowledge and skills that feed into the achievement of these goals will eventually feed back into the happiness of the individual. The individual in a safe and secure society is arguably happier, on average, than an individual in an anarchistic, warring society. Therefore, if you were a betting person, you might wager that the happiness of the individual would be inexorably linked to the happiness of the whole species, which would more likely be in a peaceful society. In this way, it can be argued that the goal of the individual should be aligned to the goal of the whole society such as defined by organisations like the UN. This idea runs contrary to Woolf’s claim of wasted knowledge as we move collectively towards what many will agree to be a better world (socially, in terms of health, welfare and justice) than the world of 500 years ago (and so on).

Consequently, it can be argued that we should individually set our goals to obtaining the knowledge and skills to obtain the objectives of (say) the UN in order to achieve the maximal happiness for humanity as this would ensure the most average happiness for an individual[27]. Therefore, our experience, skills and knowledge aren’t wasted and can be utilised towards achieving a happier world, and happiness is an emotion that has intrinsic value – an end in itself.


Although Woolf is not emphatically concerned with whether God exists or not, it is a useful place to start in order to tease out exactly what the ramifications of what he says are. The nature of talking about the purpose of life requires at least a cursory walk through the landscape of theism with regards to its impact upon the nature of purpose. Here are three really simplified arguments that set out to show that all purposes for humanity are subjective.

If there is no god, or there is a God but he has no purpose for us:

1) There is no God (or Godly purpose)

2) There is no objective purpose

C) Therefore, humans make up their own subjective purpose.

If there is a god and an objective purpose exists:

1) God has an objective purpose for humanity

2) Humans do not know this purpose

3) God’s ‘objective’ purpose is pointless (since it is not adequately communicated)

C) Therefore, humans make up their own subjective purpose

If there is a god and the purpose for humanity is subjective to god:

1) God has a purpose for humanity

2) This purpose is merely subjective to God

3) Humans either do not know this or can reject the purpose

C) Therefore, humans make up their own subjective purpose

Below are the objectives for the United Nations as retrieved on 14/01/2011 from


Article 1

The Purposes of the United Nations are:

1. To maintain international peace and security, and to that end: to take effective collective measures for the prevention and removal of threats to the peace, and for the suppression of acts of aggression or other breaches of the peace, and to bring about by peaceful means, and in conformity with the principles of justice and international law, adjustment or settlement of international disputes or situations which might lead to a breach of the peace;
2. To develop friendly relations among nations based on respect for the principle of equal rights and self-determination of peoples, and to take other appropriate measures to strengthen universal peace;
3. To achieve international co-operation in solving international problems of an economic, social, cultural, or humanitarian character, and in promoting and encouraging respect for human rights and for fundamental freedoms for all without distinction as to race, sex, language, or religion; and
4. To be a centre for harmonizing the actions of nations in the attainment of these common ends.
Article 2

The Organization and its Members, in pursuit of the Purposes stated in Article 1, shall act in accordance with the following Principles.

1. The Organization is based on the principle of the sovereign equality of all its Members.
2. All Members, in order to ensure to all of them the rights and benefits resulting from membership, shall fulfill in good faith the obligations assumed by them in accordance with the present Charter.
3. All Members shall settle their international disputes by peaceful means in such a manner that international peace and security, and justice, are not endangered.
4. All Members shall refrain in their international relations from the threat or use of force against the territorial integrity or political independence of any state, or in any other manner inconsistent with the Purposes of the United Nations.
5. All Members shall give the United Nations every assistance in any action it takes in accordance with the present Charter, and shall refrain from giving assistance to any state against which the United Nations is taking preventive or enforcement action.
6. The Organization shall ensure that states which are not Members of the United Nations act in accordance with these Principles so far as may be necessary for the maintenance of international peace and security.
7. Nothing contained in the present Charter shall authorize the United Nations to intervene in matters which are essentially within the domestic jurisdiction of any state or shall require the Members to submit such matters to settlement under the present Charter; but this principle shall not prejudice the application of enforcement measures under Chapter Vll


[1] Woolf (1960)

[2] Woolf implies this in his last sentence with ‘a purpose’.

[3] The thought experiment where someone has maliciously sent a trolley hurtling towards five innocent and immobile people at the end of a track. The only way to stop the trolley and save the five is to throw one innocent bystander in front of the trolley.

[4] Frances Kamm set out the principle which states that one may harm in order to save more if and only if the harm is an effect or an aspect of the greater good itself. Kamm argues that we believe it would be impermissible to kill one person to harvest his organs in order to save the lives of five others which is contrary to the trolley thought experiment.

[5] I.e. a purpose that exists for a human irrespective time or place.

[6] Assuming, of course, that god is a ‘he’.

[7]As Francois Tremblay sets out in this essay:

[8] Ibid.

[9] The idea that postulates that the simplest theory (the one with the least unnecessary entities) is more often the correct one. In other words, if there are competing hypotheses to explain something, and assuming they all satisfactorily explain the phenomenon, then the one with the least extra assumptions should be deemed the most likely.

[10] As I have set out in Pearce (2010a) p.54-58, there are many good arguments against the existence of the soul. For such a belief, evidence is very important, and there simply is none for the soul, unless it is conflated with consciousness. The eternal existence of either begs many questions, and seems, as I argue, exceptionally improbable. The arguments can also be seen in 3 videos here:

[11] Living at around the end of the fourth century BCE, Epicurus was well known for the paradox that is now expressed as the Problem of Evil.

[12] In his landmark Nichomachean Ethics.

[13] Pearce (2010)

[14] Though I explain the incoherence in the next sentence, it is worth also exemplifying that by my mind inventing the object or abstract ‘ftyangyang’, realists would have to assert that the ‘ftyangyang’ would pop into metaphysical existence in some domain somewhere. This would be the case for every idea that any human (or non-human) might ever had. Thus, though the represented matter exists empirically, such abstract labels, or any abstract idea, only exist in the mind of the communicator.

[15] He developed the work of predecessors such as Jeremy Bentham.

[16] There are several developed versions of utilitarianism such as act, rule and preference utilitarianism but this is not the place elaborate further.

[17] Wuch as in neurobiological terms, about the effects of hormone levels and so on. This more instantaneous gratification is a very important aspect to happiness, but it is not everything, or at least needs to be sustained on a lower level with consistency if ‘happiness’ is to be holistically achieved. We know through various research that happiness is about 50% genetically dependent (Lyubomirsky et al (2005)), about 10-15% (Blanchflower and Oswald (2004)) determined by variables concerned with life circumstances (health, socioeconomic status, sex etc.) and the remaining 40% or so dependent on an unknown set of variables and the actions an individual may do to purposefully engage in becoming happier.

[18] As quoted in Hanfling (1987) p.139 who quotes Aristotle (1982 edn)

[19] The success of the internet, and of sites such as Wikipedia are tangible evidence of this.

[20] And I mean no knowledge whatsoever, such that mere survival would be almost impossible. If I was living as a hunter gatherer and did not know how to hunt or gather, then I would be unable even to fill the basic physiological needs of Maslow’s Hierarchy, let alone approach ideas of self-actualisation.

[21] Unfortunately, there is the chicken and egg paradox here. It can be argued that we need to gain sufficient knowledge in order to work out the machinations of the world and ourselves, in order to work out what goals we should strive for, which will necessitate the gaining of knowledge[21] to achieve. What comes first, the goal setting for knowledge, or the knowledge to set goals?

[22] From my own experience, enrolling on a distance learning Masters Degree in Philosophical Studies partially for the sake of gaining knowledge, is proof enough of this.

[23] As King Solomon said, “For in much wisdom is much grief: and he that increases knowledge increases sorrow” (Ecclesiastes 1:18). Woolf himself suffered from depression, as if to prove this point, and elements of such can be gleamed from nuances in the initial quote.

[24] Surely he cannot think that our knowledge is ‘bundled into the grave’ at our death?

[25] Which can broadly be seen as a ‘service to mankind’!

[26] See Appendix 2 for the objectives of the UN.

[27] And yet I used the term ‘can be argued’, because to do this, it is essential to argue that a universal subjective goal for the society is also good for the individual, even though the benefits of said goals would most likely be arrived at after the individual dies.


Aristotle, (1982 edn), ‘Eudemian Ethics’, 1215b, M. Woods (trans), Oxford ; Oxford University Press

Audi, R. (Ed.)(1999 2nd edition), ‘The Cambridge Dictionary Of Philosophy’, Cambridge ; Cambridge University Press

Blackburn, S. (1999), ‘Think’, Oxford ; Oxford University Press

Blackburn, S. (1994;2008), ‘Oxford Dictionary of Philosophy’, Oxford ; Oxford University Press

Blanchflower, D.G., Oswald A.J., (2004), “Money, Sex, and Happiness: An Empirical Study”, NBER Working Paper No. 10499, The National Bureau of Economic Research, Issued May 2004

Eagleton, T., (2007), ‘The Meaning of Life: A Very Short Introduction’

Hanfling, O. (1987), ‘The Quest for Meaning (Life & Death)’, Oxford ; Blackwell

Hanfling, O. (1987a), ‘Life and Meaning: A Philosophical Reader (Life & Death’, Oxford ; Blackwell

Hume, D. (1779) ‘Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion’, Project Gutenberg ( retrieved 21/11/2010)

Lyubomirsky, S., Schkade, D., and Sheldon K.M., “Pursuing Happiness: The Architecture of Sustainable Change,” Review of General Psychology, Vol. 9, No. 2, 111–131, 2005

Pearce, J. M. S., (2010), “Does modern cosmology supply the materials that can fill gaps in the traditional arguments for the existence of God?”, (14/01/2011)

Pearce, J. M. S. (2010a), Free Will? An investigation into whether we have free will, or whether I was always going to write this book’, Hampshire ; Ginger Prince Publications

Thompson, M. (1995;2006), ‘Teach Yourself Philosophy’, London ; Hachette Livre UK

Woolf, L. (1960), ‘Sowing: an autobiography of the years, 1880–1904’, London ; The Hogarth Press Ltd