The Meaning of Life

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Professor Sir Alfred Jules Ayer
Professor Sir Alfred Jules Ayer (1910 – 1989)
Professor Ted Honderich
Professor Ted Honderich (1933 – )
Conway Memorial Lecture
Conway Memorial Lecture
Moncure Conway photo by Edward Steichen, 1907. Courtesy of Dickinson College.
Moncure Conway photo by Edward Steichen, 1907. Courtesy of Dickinson College.
Delivered at Conway Hall 19 May 1988. Chaired by Professor Ted Honderich and presented by Professor Sir A. J. Ayer.

Even if a deity did exist, his will could not supply a basis for morality. Will-authority alone cannot validate moral principles, and a being with divine authority could not be regarded as morally good just because he possessed such authority. The concept of goodness is logically independent of any being to whom the goodness is attributed—whether, in fact, that being be divine or human.

Religious belief is important to consider, not only in relation to morality but also to the Christian notion of an after-life. That notion is closely bound up with the question of the “meaning of life.” It has affected people’s moral conduct in a variety of ways. At the same time, not all believers in an after-life situate it, as Christians do, in another world. For example, the Oriental concept of reincarnation locates it in this world. Overall, however, all doctrines of an after-life are very problematic.

To the extent that belief in an after-life is connected with viewing physical death as an experience without a sequel, it should be noted that death is in fact not something we experience: we can only have experiences while alive. Also, why should we be disturbed at the thought that a time will come when we will no longer exist, if we are not disturbed at the thought that we did not exist in all the time that elapsed before our birth?

For most of us, life is too short to achieve maximal satisfaction from the things that delight us. Life’s brevity includes the ageing process; unless the latter can be arrested, there is no good reason for extending life-span.

Different people find different meanings in life, in accordance with what absorbs their interest. Some people understandably seek meaning in acquiring fame. Yet fame is often limited or ephemeral; and, even when it outlasts the person’s lifetime, the person has no way of knowing this.

Over and above questions about the meaning and significance of individual lives, there is the more general question about the significance of the universe as a whole. Many people believe that the cosmos has a purpose, of which human life is part. The belief is based on the view that the universe was created by a being of supernatural intelligence. However, this view is vacuous. It fails to specify the end for which the universe was allegedly designed, and how the cosmos’s various features promote that end. The traditional argument from design has been supplanted, at least as regards organic life, by the evolutionary theory of natural selection. Further, while the universe does have a structure, the latter is not that of an artefact, and therefore does not point to the existence of a creator-designer. The structure is in fact a fluke: it simply and contingently is what it is ( though logically it could have been otherwise).

Religious belief and belief in an after-life, though they frequently go together, are logically distinct from each other. The first can exist without the second. Regarding the latter, the chief problem remains the postulate that personal identity can be defined in non-physical terms, and therefore that consciousness can exist independently of the physical brain.

Returning to the issue of what makes life meaningful: there is no simple correlation between a life lived intensely and one lived morally. Many historical figures, who lived their lives to the full, have been only partly good from a moral standpoint, or not good at all.

To affirm the importance of morality is not necessarily to argue that moral values are objective. Such values, while a basis for action, do not describe natural features of the world—as they would do if they were objective—but only express attitudes to those features: attitudes based on feeling.

There is no general answer to the question of what constitutes a meaningful life. There are only particular, individualistic answers, arrived at from different perspectives.

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