Photo of person standing under Milky Way galaxyTo see the Milky Way stretched across a clear night sky is awe-inspiring. Made even more so by knowledge of the vastness of the universe and the variety of ‘heavenly’ bodies on show. Sadly the Milky Way is no longer a nightly vista for most of us. Its splendor has been greatly reduced by air pollution and the lights of cities, industry and urban sprawl.

Pondering the mystery of existence under a clear night sky helped our ancestors to dream up stories that gave meaning to their lives. Although we have lost such an awe-inspiring canopy, we are still moved by other core elements of existence, namely nature and human interactions.

Those whose world-view includes supernatural entities and ‘spirituality’ – whatever that means – sometimes criticise Humanism as being a shallow life philosophy. They think that because we Humanists value reasoned thinking and science, our world-view excludes any sense of mystery; but that is not so.

We grasp that there are limits to human understanding, a fact that requires us to live with uncertainty. However, we Humanists can still be deeply moved by experiences, both ordinary and extraordinary, just as religious people are – a baby’s first smile, music, works of art, poetry, a full moon over water, the bush wet with rain.

The philosopher Richard Norman in his book On Humanism examines the inadequacy of using the word ‘spirituality’ when we want to discuss the mystery and meaning of life. Instead he suggests five things we know from experience that give life depth and meaning. These are:

The satisfaction of creative achievement. Satisfaction in the sense of ‘I did this’ can be derived from work or leisure activities like writing, gardening, painting, or music-making.

The excitement of discovery. Norman points out that we are by nature curious and seek to ‘know’ and understand what we encounter in the natural world. Science, historical research and philosophical argument are formal examples of seeking to know.

Relationships with others. As social animals, co-operation and interaction with others is both essential for our survival and rewarding in the mutual satisfaction that socialising brings.

The life of the emotions. Love of parents, children, friends and lovers bring joy and delight. While more negative emotions of anger and fear add to the complexity of a meaningful life.

The enjoyment of beauty in art and nature. At different times we are all moved by the beauty of nature and the many interpretations of existence that the work of creative artists put before us.

In putting these experiences forward as central to a meaningful life, Norman is tackling the accusation that without religious spirituality a Humanist life lacks depth. We know that is not so. As our HSV website puts it, ‘for the one life we have’, Humanists say yes to life’s opportunities. In the manner of the Romans who would invoke carpe diem or ‘seize the day’, we try to lead productive, responsible yet enjoyable lives.

Reproduced from Victorian Humanist, Vol. 56, No.4, May 2017

Photo of Rosslyn Ives

Copyright © 2017 Rosslyn Ives

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7 Responses to What gives life meaning?

  1. […] other day, my internet travels brought me to an article on an Australian Humanist Society website. It is an attempt to answer the charge that a secular worldview offers no place for meaning in […]

  2. Paul Scott Pruett says:

    Being a theist, I hope you’ll not mind me offering some thoughts and clarifications on this post.

    Let me start by saying that I agree with your criticism of the general concept of “spirituality.” It is vague and not really grounded in anything tangible. Many people claim to be spiritual, but not fond of organized religion. This seems to imply that they prefer their religion to be…disorganized 🙂

    Now, on to the areas that caught my attention.

    You said: “[Those believing in the supernatural] think that because we Humanists value reasoned thinking and science, our world-view excludes any sense of mystery.”

    This seems to presuppose that theists do not also value reason and science. Perhaps we disagree on some of the conclusions to problems for which we apply our reason, but it is another thing to say that someone like myself actually prefers irrationality and superstition. Additionally, I think this gets the sense of the objection wrong. I’ve trafficked heavily in the world of debate between theists and non-theists (among other groups) for two decades, and I’ve never seen the objection framed in this way.

    It is not a question of mystery. Mysteries are a brute fact of nature that everyone must wrestle with, and we are all universally touched by them. (Indeed, I think there are more mysteries for atheists than anyone, given that they have fewer metaphysical tools at their disposal to answer the most profound questions in life.) It is actually a question of “meaning,” as is in the title of this post. The actual claim being made is that a purely secular world does not provide a basis for objective meaning to life.

    If the universe and the life found within it are the result of blind, purposeless forces and unguided processes, then there is no sense in which we can say that either our individual or collective lives have “meaning.” You listed 5 things that certainly give us pleasure and distraction in this life, but that is a different thing than saying that these are the “meaning” of life. That would imply not only that humanity was meant to be by “the universe,” but that we were meant to come into existence for those very specific reasons. Absent this kind of intentionality, the only thing left is for any “meaning” to come out of our own subjective minds. That is to say, meaning is whatever we choose it to be. This fails for two reasons.

    First, if it’s up to us, then each individual can (and many will) certainly come up with a different meaning to their existence. This affirms my point that there can be no objective meaning, because objectivity implies some fixed definition that is not dependent upon what any one individual decides.

    Second, this does violence to the very definition of “meaning.” Say we find an inscription in a rock and ask, “What is its meaning?” The common-sense answer to that question presumes that it is a meaningful language and was written by someone who meant to communicate something, not that we should be free to read anything into it we wanted. If one is free to make up their own meaning, then we’re really not talking about the word “meaning” in the first place. The secular solution to this challenge seems to be to discard the very idea of “meaning” and simply replace it with the idea of preference.

    So, it would seem that an intellectually honest answer to the question, “what gives life meaning,” is this: “There is no meaning to life. Therefore, feel free to do what you enjoy in the time you have here.” Now, this may or may not be the truth of it, but let’s not try to muddle the question simply because we have the curious preference for life to actually have meaning.

    • Peter says:

      I think a difference here is you are talking about the meaning of life whereas the article is talking about having meaning in life.

      The fact that we can ask the question ‘what is the meaning of life?’ does not mean that it must have an answer. We may ask what does the inscription on these stones mean, that makes sense, but asking what is the meaning of life is more ambiguous.

      It also implies meaning is already presupposed and to be discovered via an external source.

      So then we have to wonder if our meaning was handed down from an all powerful being would our lives automatically become meaningful? If we are assigned our functions and roles by a ruling power or ‘programmed’ a certain way we could hardly say that would give us meaning. We would be more akin to people living under oppressive rule or even machines. Rather having the freedom to live as we please and create meaning within our lives seems preferable.

      This is not a vacuous situation of pure subjectivity, either. We have evolved as a species to live in the environment in which we find ourselves. Our actions are typically driven by reciprocity and empathy which have implications on how we structure our societies and what we do within them. These traits have been clearly shown in an evolutionary origin.

      I believe meaning to be created within this context rather than something to be discovered ‘out there’.

      To align your view with science you would have to provide evidence. It is not the role of the doubter to prove that a God does not exist. The onus is on the religious.

      • Peter, thank you for the response. I think you’ve conceded my original point that there is no objective meaning to our lives in a purely atheistic universe. There is a problem, though, with an equivocation on the word “meaning.” You, as with this article, seem unwilling to surrender the word “meaning” in the discussion. Other subjective words, like “pleasure” or “fulfillment,” seem more appropriate to what you have in mind here.

        The article was an attempt to answer the critics of humanism “as being a shallow life philosophy.” As a critic, that’s not how I would characterize the argument, but I’ll go with it. Part of that shallowness is in the lack of meaning in the classical sense of the word. No one denies that an atheist can find interests and pleasures in this life, but depth and meaning are not found in what gets you out of bed in the morning, but rather in the grand meta-narrative of a life filled with both pleasure and suffering.

        Depth is having an undercurrent of intentionality beneath the wonders of nature and the yearnings of our heart. Meaning is what offers you a reason not to take your life when its distractions evaporate. Atheism offers none of that. It is life taken at face-value, on surface impressions, and fueled by subjective passions. Atheism may or may not be true, but it is just a fact that the idea of theism entails a profound additional layer beneath the surface veneer of our own experiences and preferences.

        You then ask if on having objective meaning (authored by God) “would our lives automatically become meaningful?” But again, you equivocate on the word “meaning.” It would clearly allow one to say that “life is about X” or “we were made for Y.” Your objection, though, is not about this, but rather about your impressions of what that would mean: that it would be “oppressive,” or that we wouldn’t have “freedom,” and that it’s not “preferable.”

        It’s hardly a rational argument for atheism to say you prefer not to be constrained by the purposes of your creator. Indeed, it plays right into the hands of theists who appeal to the psychology of unbelief. I try to avoid playing that card unless the “need to believe” card is first played against me.

        I will say, however, that if one is free to define their own “meaning” in life, then surely they are free to define what they think about having a creator of the universe and life itself. And I, for one, find it perfectly reasonable to think such a being should have certain rights over that creation, and should be intelligent enough to know its end game and what is in the best interest of all it contains. Additionally, I find that “preference” has been a poor guide in my life and has led to far more net misery than pleasure. Indeed, when I reflect back upon my life I find that almost every bit of embarrassment, drama, and hardship was caused by doing things “my way” rather than God’s way.

        As far as what evolution has delivered to us, I am wholly unimpressed with both the science and the psychology of it. I’ve seen evolution credited with every conceivable trait found in humans, from monogamy to rape. Indeed, in a materialistic universe, it must be the author of all that we are, but it’s a meaningless tautology to say that X exists because it had some sort of evolutionary advantage — especially when not-X, Y, and Z also exist. An example of the problem is that if we really are adapted to our environment, then it’s a curious thing that anthropologists discovered that all cultures had spiritual beliefs. Even today, there are very few pure atheists. This is a strange evolutionary turn if “the environment in which we find ourselves” truly is a materialist one.

        Funny you mention science, because that is one of the areas which I believe to offer compelling evidence for theism. I am not averse to offering proofs, but it is a fiction that atheism has nothing to prove. The atheist worldview comes replete with many assumptions, and needs its own narratives to explain many of the same things that theism presumes to explain. It is a worldview just like any other, and is not vindicated merely by poking sticks in the spokes of other worldviews.

  3. J says:

    Then there’s the refrain from Peterson who suggests that the only thing that reliably or sustainably orientates individuals towards meaning is the voluntary adoption of responsibility. I think there is something to that. Those other factors might contribute but the contribution of some, like appreciation of beauty is transitory and others like relationship with other can both add but also detract from having meaning in your life.

  4. Leslie Allan says:

    Thanks Ros for putting it so clearly and succinctly.

  5. Lindsay Coker says:

    So well put. Those values stand not only the test of time, but the vicissitudes of life. After 86 years, I can find no better delight in life than to write, both poetry and non-fiction, to teach, walk, talk, be with like-minded people, and to contemplate the wonders spread all around us. This has led me to stronger bonds with others, which have an almost extra-dimensional power to them, one stemming from the past and spreading into the future.
    To contemplate death is comforting and without terror or sadness – something I believe many of my believer acquaintances are at a loss to grasp.

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