God and the Meaning of Life

Can a belief in God give our life its meaning?

Historically and still today many people feel that humankind was created by a supernatural entity called God, that God had an intelligent purpose in creating humankind, and that this intelligent purpose is the ‘meaning of life’.

Here is not the place to go through the various arguments for and against the existence of God. Suffice to say that many people who believe in God would admit that they do not really know what God’s purpose might be, nor that it would necessarily be particularly meaningful. For example, the second Law of Thermodynamics states that entropy increases up to the point at which equilibrium is reached, and God’s purpose in creating us and, indeed, all of nature, might simply have been to catalyse this process. If our God-given purpose is to act as super-efficient heat dissipaters, then this purpose is almost as bad as no purpose at all.

In fact, one might argue that having no God-given or pre-determined purpose is better than having any sort of pre-determined purpose at all (even a more traditional and uplifting one such as serving the will of God or improving our karma) because it frees us to be the authors of our own purpose or purposes, and so to lead truly dignified and meaningful lives. Thus, even if God exists, and even if God had an intelligent purpose in creating humankind, we do not know what this purpose is and, whatever it is, we would much rather be free to determine our own purpose or purposes.

Some might object that not to have a pre-determined purpose is, really, not to have any purpose at all. However, this is to believe (1) that for something to have a purpose, it must have been created with that purpose in mind, and (2) that something that was created with a purpose in mind must necessarily have that very purpose for which it was created. Last summer, I visited Château-Neuf-du-Pape in the Southern Rhone where I picked up a beautiful rounded stone called a galet from one of the vineyards, took it back to England, and put it to excellent use as a book-end. The purpose of these stones in the vineyard is to absorb the heat from the sun during the daytime and then to release it during the night time. However, galets were not created with this or any other purpose in mind. Even if galets were created with a purpose in mind, then this purpose was almost certainly not (1) to make great wine, (2) to serve as book-ends, or (3) to be beautiful. That same evening over some supper, I had my wine-loving friends to blind-taste a bottle of claret that I had brought along from England. Unfortunately, I did not have a decanter to hand, so I masked the identity of the wine by slipping the bottle into one of my (clean) dark blue socks. Unlike the galet, the sock had been created with a purpose in mind, even if this purpose was a very different one from the one that it eventually found.

Some might also or otherwise object that talk about the purpose of life is neither here nor there because life is merely a prelude to some form of eternal afterlife and this is, if you like, its purpose. But (1) it is not at all clear that there is or even can be some form of eternal afterlife that involves the survival of the personal ego. (2) Even if there is an eternal afterlife, living for ever is not a meaning in itself and so the question arises, what is the meaning of the eternal afterlife? If the eternal afterlife has a predetermined purpose, again, we do not know what this purpose is and, whatever it is, we would much rather be free to determine our own purpose or purposes, which we can just as well do in this life. (3) It is not just that reliance on an eternal afterlife merely postpones the question of life’s purpose, but also that it prevents us from determining a purpose or purposes for what may well be the only life that we do have. (4) If one believes that it is the brevity or finiteness of human life that lends it shape or meaning, then an eternal afterlife cannot, by definition, have any purpose. I do not personally believe that the brevity or finiteness of human life lends it shape or meaning, and rather suspect that this is just another ego defense against death. However, that is quite another debate and I shall put it to one side.

The real point here is that whether or not God exists, whether or not God has a purpose for us, and whether or not there is an afterlife, we should strive to give meaning to our lives. For unless we can be free to determine our own purpose or purposes, our life may, at worse, have no purpose at all, and, at best, only some unfathomable pre-determined purpose that is not of our choosing. The great philosopher Plato once defined a human being as an animal, biped, featherless, and with broad nails, but a much better definition that he gave was simply this, ‘A being in search of meaning.’

Adapted from The Art of Failure: The Anti Self-Help Guide

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Plato’s metaphors: The Chariot Allegory

Le Char d'Apollon, Odilon Redon

In the Phaedrus Socrates compares the soul to a chariot with a charioteer and a pair of winged horses. Whereas the chariot of a god has two good horses, that of a human being has one good horse and one bad, unruly horse that is the cause of much hardship for the charioteer. The soul, he says,

…has the care of inanimate being everywhere, and traverses the whole heaven in divers forms appearing – when perfect and fully winged she soars upward, and orders the whole world; whereas the imperfect soul, losing her wings and drooping in her flight at last settles on the solid ground – there, finding a home, she receives an earthly frame which appears to be self-moved, but is really moved by her power; and this composition of soul and body is called a living and mortal creature.

The chariot of a god is able to soar to the top of the vault of heaven, such that the god is able to step outside the rim of heaven and contemplate the colourless, formless, intangible essence of reality. The revolution of the spheres carries the god round and back again to the same place, and in the space of this circle he feasts his mind upon justice, temperance, and knowledge, not in the form of generation or relation, which men call existence, but in their absolute, universal form.

Despite their bad, unruly horse, the chariots of the imperfect souls that are most alike to the gods are able to ascend high enough for their charioteers to lift their heads above the rim of heaven and catch a fleeting glimpse of the universals. However, the rest are not strong enough to ascend so high, and are left to feed their mind on nothing more than opinion.

In time, all imperfect souls fall back to earth, but only those that have seen something of the universals can take on a human form; human beings are by their nature able to recollect universals, and so must once have seen them. The imperfect souls that have gazed longest upon the universals are incarnated as philosophers, artists, and true lovers. As they are still able to remember the universals, they are completely absorbed in ideas about them and forget all about earthly interests. Common people think that they are mad, but the truth is that they are divinely inspired and in love with goodness and beauty.

Adapted from

Are you an Epicurean?

Epicurus of Samos, who flourished not long after Aristotle died, founded a school of philosophy that convened at his home and garden in Athens and that dedicated itself to attaining happiness through the exercise of reason and the application of rational principles. According to Epicurus, reason teaches that pleasure is good and that pain is bad, and that pleasure and pain are the ultimate measures of good and bad. This has often been misconstrued as a call for rampant hedonism, rather than the absence of pain and tranquillity of mind that Epicurus actually intended. Indeed, Epicurus explicitly warned against overindulgence, because overindulgence so often leads to pain.

Epicurus wrote prolifically, but the early Christians thought of him as especially ungodly among the ancient philosophers, and almost none of his works survived their disapprobation. Epicurus held that the gods exist, but that they have absolutely no concern for, or even awareness of, humankind. Indeed, for them to get involved in the menial matters of men would be to perturb the supreme happiness and tranquillity that characterises and even defines them. Human beings should seek to emulate the gods in their supreme happiness and tranquillity, but they need not to fear them.

Neither need they to fear death, this for two principal reasons. (1) The mind of a person is a part of his body, and, just like other parts of his body (and everything else in the universe), it consists of atoms. The death of the person entails the death of both his body and his mind and the dispersion of their atoms. As there is no longer any person to be troubled, death cannot trouble the person after he is dead. And if death cannot trouble the person after he is dead, then nor should it trouble him while he is alive (this is the famous ‘no subject of harm argument’). (2) The eternity that comes before a person’s birth is not regarded as an evil. Therefore, nor should the eternity that comes after his death (this is the famous ‘symmetry argument’).

Epicurus himself died at the age of 72 from renal colic (kidney stones), which is associated with one of the sharpest and most intense of all bodily pains. On the last day of his life, he penned this remarkable letter to his friend and follower Idomeneus, which is nothing if not a testament to the overriding powers of philosophy.

I have written this letter to you on a happy day to me, which is also the last day of my life. For I have been attacked by a painful inability to urinate, and also dysentery, so violent that nothing can be added to the violence of my sufferings. But the cheerfulness of my mind, which comes from the recollection of all my philosophical contemplation, counterbalances all these afflictions. And I beg you to take care of the children of Metrodorus, in a manner worthy of the devotion shown by the young man to me, and to philosophy.

Epicurus agrees with Aristotle that happiness is an end-in-itself and the highest good of human living. However, he identifies happiness with the pursuit of pleasure and the avoidance of pain rather than with the pure exercise of reason. Pleasure is the highest good, and anything else that is good is so only by virtue of the immediate or deferred pleasure that it can procure. The behaviour of infants confirms that human beings instinctively pursue pleasure and that all of their actions, including those that may be construed as being either virtuous or altruistic, are ultimately aimed at obtaining pleasure for themselves. Just as human beings can immediately feel that something is hot or cold, colourful or dull, so they can immediately feel that something is pleasurable or painful. However, not everything that is pleasurable should be pursued, and not everything that is painful should be avoided. Instead, a kind of hedonistic calculus should be applied to determine which things are most likely to result in the greatest pleasure over time, and it is above all this hedonistic calculus that people seem unable to handle.

To help them a bit, Epicurus proceeds to distinguish between two different types of pleasure, ‘moving pleasures’ and ‘static pleasures’. Moving pleasures involve the satisfying of a desire, for example, eating a meal when hungry. Static pleasures on the other hand involve the state of having had a desire satisfied, for example, feeling sated after eating a meal. Static pleasures, says Epicurus, are better than moving pleasures because they free us from the pain of need or want. Epicurus also distinguishes between physical and mental pleasures and pains, and argues that anxiety about the future, especially fear of the gods and fear of death, are the greatest obstructions to happiness. To attain a state of perfect mental tranquillity or ataraxia, a person needs to avoid anxiety, which he can do by learning to trust in the future.

Pleasure often arises from the satisfaction of desire and pain from its frustration. Thus, any desire should either be satisfied to yield pleasure or eliminated to avoid pain, and, overall, it is elimination that should be preferred. There are, Epicurus says, three types of desires, (1) natural and necessary desires such as those for food and shelter which are difficult to eliminate but naturally limited and both easy and highly pleasurable to satisfy, (2) natural but non-necessary desires such as those for luxury food and accommodation, and (3) vain desires such as those for fame, power, or wealth which are inculcated by society and which are not naturally limited and neither easy nor highly pleasurable to satisfy. Natural and necessary desires should be satisfied, natural but non-necessary desires can be satisfied but should not be depended upon, and vain desires should be entirely eliminated. By following this prescription for the selective elimination of desires, a person can minimise the pain and anxiety of harbouring unfulfilled desires, and thereby bring himself as close as possible to ataraxia. Given the prime importance that he attaches to the avoidance of pain, the elimination of desire, and peace of mind, Epicurus is far more of a ‘tranquillist’ than a hedonist. ‘If thou wilt make a man happy’, he says, ‘add not unto his riches but take away from his desires.’

Adapted from

On the Existence of God

Historically and still today, many people believe that humankind is the creation of a supernatural entity called God, that God had an intelligent purpose in creating humankind, and that this intelligent purpose is the ‘meaning of life’. I do not propose to go through the various arguments for and against the existence of God. However, even if God exists, and even if He had an intelligent purpose in creating humankind, no one really knows what this purpose might be, or that it is especially meaningful. The Second Law of Thermodynamics states that the entropy of a closed system such as the universe increases up to the point at which equilibrium is reached, and God’s purpose in creating humankind and, indeed, all of nature, might have been nothing more lofty that to catalyse this process. If our God-given purpose is to act as super-efficient heat dissipaters, then having no purpose at all is better than having this sort of purpose because it frees us to be the authors of our own purpose or purposes and thereby to lead truly dignified and meaningful lives. For this same reason, having no purpose at all is better than having any kind of purpose, even a more traditional and uplifting purpose such as ‘serving God’ or ‘improving our karma’. In short, even if God exists, and even if He had an intelligent purpose in creating humankind (and why should He have had?), we do not know what this purpose might be and, whatever it might be, we would rather be able to do without it. Unless we can be free to become the authors of our own purpose or purposes, our lives may have, at worse, no purpose at all, and, at best, only some unfathomable and potentially trivial purpose that is not of our choosing.

Some might object that not to have a pre-determined purpose is, really, not have any purpose at all. However, this is to believe (1) that for something to have a purpose, it must necessarily have been created with a purpose in mind, and (2) that something that was created with a purpose in mind must necessarily have the same purpose for which it was created. Last summer, I visited the vineyards of Château-Neuf-du-Pape in the South of France. One evening, I picked up a beautiful rounded stone called a galet which I later took back to England and put to excellent use as a book-end. In the vineyards of Château-Neuf-du-Pape, the declared purpose of these stones is to absorb the heat from the sun during the daytime and then to release it during the night time. Of course, these stones were not created with this or any other purpose in mind. Even if they were created with a purpose in mind, then this purpose was almost certainly not to make great wine, serve as book-ends, or be beautiful. That same evening over supper, I got my friends to blind-taste a bottle of claret that I had brought along from England. As I did not have a decanter to hand, I kept the wine in its bottle and masked the identity of the bottle by slipping it into one of a pair of socks. Unlike the galet, the sock had been created with a purpose in mind, even though this purpose was very different from (although, note, not strictly incompatible with) the one that it eventually found.

In summary, whether or not God exists, and whether or not He has a purpose for us, we should strive to create our own purpose or purposes. In Sartrean terms, whereas for the galet it is true only that existence precedes essence, for the sock it is true both that essence precedes existence (when the sock is used on a foot) and that existence precedes essence (when the sock is used other than on a foot, for example, as a bottle sleeve). Human beings are either like the rock or like the sock, but whichever one they are like, they are better off creating their own purpose or purposes. To re-iterate, unless we can be free to be the authors of our purpose or purposes, our lives may have, at worse, no purpose at all, and, at best, only some unfathomable and potentially trivial purpose that is not of our choosing. Plato once defined man as an animal, biped, featherless, and with broad nails, but another much better definition that he gave was simply this, ‘A being in search of meaning.’

Adapted from