The meaning of life

Some theists believe that if thereís no god, then human life has no meaning, in the sense that thereís no point to it.We leave the sense of this vague for the moment.Here are a few possible arguments for that view:

A. Some questionable arguments

a. Without God, life has no meaning because we're tiny specks existing for a short time in an immense, long lived universe.
Problem: No reason why size per se should be relevant to life's meaning. We could be as big as the universe and yet our lives still be meaningless; similarly, if our lives are not meaningless, it's hard to see why becoming smaller per se would render them so.Ditto for temporal limitations.

b. Without God human life is meaningless because deprived of ultimate cosmic significance.

Problem: But, one might ask, so what? Thinking that oneís life should have ultimate cosmic significance is on a par with thinking that the Earth is at the center of the universe.Moreover, something may lack ultimate significance and still be meaningful or significant.For example, since pain is bad, if I try to make the universe better by reducing pain on this earth, my life has meaning.My adopting a stray cat has some significance (other things being equal, it does make a difference, presumably for the better) although hardly an ultimate cosmic one.Perhaps, like most value-based features, lifeís meaning comes in degrees.A man has got to know his limitations.


c. Without God, even if human life could be meaningful within the frame of the universe, it would be ultimately meaningless because the universe itself would be pointless.It would be like playing a part in a pointless play.

Problem:It is true that without God there is no point to the universe.But why should the fact that there is no point to the universe be relevant to whether my life is meaningful?If I adopt the stray cat, Iíve done something good and meaningful even if the universe as a whole is meaningless.Why?Because alleviating pain and suffering is a goal one ought to pursue because it expresses an objective value.Moreover, if the universe has a point because of Godís existence, what is the point of Godís existence?That He does good?But so do I when I alleviate pain.



B. A better theistic argument

If there is no god, often theists claim, we live in a world deprived of objective values, namely values that do not depend on human beings.To get an idea of an objective value, consider the following: one may believe that the wanton killing of an innocent person is wrong, and the wrongness is independent of our human beliefs, needs, inclinations, or experience.Then one is likely to hold that the wrongness of that action depends on values that are independent of us and hold objectively, similarly to how a law of nature holds independently of us.(Itís not that the laws of mechanics did not apply before we existed, or wonít apply after we have become extinct, or are not true if we believe them false!).


This may have consequences for the meaning of life.Suppose one believes that in wondering about what the meaning of life is, one is thinking about oneís life having a point, what oneís life is for; in other words, one is trying to evaluate oneís life in the light of certain goals one, objectively speaking, ought to pursue. For example, suppose that alleviating pain and suffering is objectively good and therefore a goal I ought to pursue; then, the part of my life devoted to that is objectively meaningful because spent in achieving something which is objectively valuable.So, oneís life has meaning or not in the light of certain values one ought to follow.As without God there are no objective values, if you want to say that your life is the sort of thing that could be objectively meaningful, then you must appeal to God.

At this point a theist could say that:

         My life can have an objective meaning because it may be guided by objective values.

NOTE: it does not matter whether one is an atheist or not; as long as one strives for objectively valuable goals, oneís life is objectively meaningful


Perhaps the theist could make the criteria for meaning less stringent and say that oneís life has an objective meaning as long as it is part of a system designed to achieve objective values.So, my life would be meaningful even if I donít strive for objective values but contribute, however unintentionally, to their achievement.Then,

         My life for sure has an objective meaning because itís part of the divine plan guided by objective values; in other words, itís divine providence that gives meaning to my life.

NOTE: again, it does not matter whether one is an atheist or not, as all human lives are part of the providential plan.




         Is it true that without God there are no objective values and with God there are?Weíll come back to this later in the course.For the moment, note that an atheist could adopt one of the following:

1.      there are objective values, God or no God, and therefore our lives can have meaning as long as they aim at bringing about those values

2.      there are no objective values, God or no God, in which case it makes no sense to ask whether our lives are meaningful.The theist is not in better shape than the atheist, then.

         Suppose itís true that without God there are no objective values, and therefore the issue whether oneís life is meaningful does not even arise.But then why should one care?Without objective values, a life cannot be objectively bad or good, worth living or not worth living.

         Objective values or not, we do have values, goals, and plans.If my life has no point in spite of my plans and values, how are Godís plans and values supposed to help?If without God alleviating pain is objectively meaningless because it merely reflects my or our human based subjective preferences and values, how are Godís subjective preferences supposed to help?Of course, God is infinitely more powerful than I, but how does that change His subjective values into objective ones?†† Weíll come back to this later in the course.

         Do we really need objective human-independent values to raise the question of the meaning of life sensibly?Perhaps our subjective human (vs. merely individual) values are enough.Then, from the perspective of human values, a life devoted to alleviating suffering would be meaningful.However, my life would have meaning only within the context of human values.

NOTE: For some this is not enough, as they want the meaning of their lives to transcend human values

Thought Question: Do you think appealing to human values should be enough?If so, why? If not, why not?

As usual, we stop before things get too complicated.If youíre interested in a (radical) presentation of the theistís view, see Lane Craigís writings on the subject and the various criticisms they received, some of which are available on the web.

Thought Question: How about saying that the point of my life is to do what I want to do, whatever that might be?Would this be a satisfactory position? Note that it matters to me to do what I want to do.So, could we say that my life is meaningful, has a point, as long as it matters to me?

C. Undirected Evolution

If thereís no God, we (Homo sapiens) are the result of undirected (unplanned) evolution, the result of a series of events, some unlikely, that ended up by favoring our evolutionary branch.So, atheism cannot deliver the view that

         We are the apex of the universe and/or the universe is made for us

         There is something in us that transcends nature

         We are made in the likeness of the Lord of the universe


Some find this distressing and discouraging; others find it invigorating and to some extent consoling.

Thought Question: What do you think?

Thought Question: Do you think that evolution is directional in the sense of producing more and more sophisticated and complex organism?


Perhaps you think that there is a god and that evolution is directed (planned), but at the same time you cannot bring yourself to believe in the Abrahamic god, the Trinity, the miracles, and the Bible stories.Then you might be tempted by Deism, a branch of Theism that dismisses Revelation as a piece of superstition.Deism, which originated in England in the 1600 and seems to have been popular among the US founding fathers such as Washington, Adams, Jefferson, Franklin, Paine, and Madison.Deism is alive and kicking today.



The philosophical issue whether death harms us and if so to what extent and when goes back to Greek philosophy.It is extremely complex and particularly significant for one who does not believe in an afterlife.

1. The issue here is not dying, but death.Nobody doubts that dying, vs. being dead, may harm us by being unpleasant.  Death may be an event, or a process, or even a state, and the arguments proposed vary depending on what notion of death one has.

Probably the easiest approach is to think of death as a permanent state, that of being dead, involving the annihilation of the subject.

2. Is the fear of death justified? That is, is death an evil for the one who dies?If it is an evil, is it a great one, one we should greatly fear?


Epicurus argued that death should not be feared because ďit is nothing to usĒ.†† Hereís an Epicurean flavored argument for the claim that we should not feat death.

As a preliminary, one should distinguish two senses of evil for an individual:

  1. X is evil per se.Suffering, e.g. physical or psychological pain, fits the description.
  2. X is evil in comparison to Z.That is, Z is better than X, although need not be an evil per se.

NOTE: Being an evil by comparison doesn't entail being an evil per se (e.g. the worst among good options); being an evil per se doesn't entail being an evil by comparison (e.g., the best among bad options).


  1. X can be an evil per se for Y only if Y can be affected by X
  2. NoX can affect Y before X occurs or exists
  3. Y cannot be affected by X after Y ceases to be
  4. Y's death (being dead) occurs after Y ceases to be
  5. Hence, Y's being dead cannot be an evil per se for Y either before Yís death or after.
  6. Only evil per se mayreasonably feared
  7. Hence, the fear of death is unjustified, like the fear of the dark.
  8. Hence, one should not cling to life merely in order to avoid death.
  9. Hence, length of life is subordinate to quality of life: the best life is that with the overall greatest pleasure (the large/pleasant food portion example)



No matter what Epicurus may have thought, it seems that from the fact that death is not en evil per se it does not follow that it's a matter of indifference, as one can consistently hold that a happy life is better than no life: death is not an evil per se, but may be an evil by comparison.



         Some have questioned (2).One might claim that future events may affect me (but obviously not causally) now even if they have not occurred yet.If I value my reputation now, and in the future my reputation will be destroyed by slander, then I am harmed now.Similarly, if dying prevents me from finishing my project, and I value my project now, I am now harmed by the fact that my project will never be completed because my present goal will be thwarted.

         Another questionable premise is (6).I may fear death because it harms me by depriving me of goods I may reasonably expect to enjoy.(The ďreasonablyĒ clause is to avoid the objection that I am not harmed by the fact that I did not win the lottery, say).For example, if because of hard work I won a prize and death prevents me from enjoying it, it seems reasonable for me to consider death an evil, and perhaps a great evil.(Notice, however, that death may also free me from great harm, in which case it may be a good).†† One might answer that X is bad for one only if one can experience it, and dead people cannot experience anything because they donít exist; however, this seems implausible.If I always get mocked behind my back and I never know it, you may reasonably pity me not only because Iím mocked but also because I donít know it.†† In short, it seems that there are evils per se that are not experienced by the subject.



Lucretius symmetry argument about pre-natal and post-mortal non-existence: we don't fear the former; so, we shouldn't we fear the latter.
Problem: We fear death because it's in the future; we have asymmetric attitudes towards past and future.Typically, we donít want to extend our lives by being born earlier; we want to continue our lives by postponing death.Whether the asymmetry between past and future is physically justified, we most certainly adopt it.


Would it be good to be immortal?Some have argued that death might not be an evil by comparison to immortality.If we, as we are now, were immortal, after we have tried everything crushing boredom would set in.So, death might be better than immortality; however that seems irrelevant to the human condition.Long lived humans die at 120 years or so, and extending their lives tenfold would not have to result in boredom.So perhaps the problem is not death per se, but the fact that we die too soon.Of course, an extremely long life might become unbearable if accompanied by a serious decline, but that has to do with our lives, not our deaths.




So, can one who does not believe in an afterlife reasonably (truly?) say that either death is not an evil per se or, if it is an evil per se, it is not a great one, and therefore that one should not fear it or not fear it too much?Note that being convinced that one should not fear death is not the same as not fearing death: fear can be irrational, especially if it is the result of childhood influences.


Thought Question: Is it morally permissible to scare children with stories about the afterlife, flames of hell, or whatever?Some atheists have claimed that doing so is a form of child abuse.What do you think?