Secular view on the meaning of life

Kanrry asked:

Why do we exist? What is our purpose? What happens after death?

Answer by Massimo Pigliucci

Those are three fundamental questions about human existence that have probably vexed us ever since we have been able to pose questions to ourselves. Arguably, they represent the very reason for the existence and persistence of religions, and they have kept philosophers busy for millennia.

The answers I am going to suggest avoid altogether any religious reference or transcendental approach, for the simple reason that I don’t think there is any evidence for the existence of the transcendent (which in this context can simply be understood as the supernatural), and therefore no reason to seriously entertain the notion. On this I am with David Hume, who in An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding (1748) said that ‘In our reasonings concerning matter of fact, there are all imaginable degrees of assurance, from the highest certainty to the lowest species of moral evidence. A wise man, therefore, proportions his belief to the evidence.’

If not from mystical traditions, however, when do we get at the least tentative answers to these existential questions? From philosophical reflection on the body of available scientific findings. Indeed, the above are precisely the sort of questions that show how a combination of science and philosophy — what I often refer to as ‘scientia’ (knowledge in the broadest sense) — is the most powerful source for understanding the world that we have devised so far.

In order of appearance, then: i) Why do we exist? As best as we can tell, we do not exist for a reason, i.e., human existence (or, for that matter, existence in general) does not have what Aristotle would have called an ultimate cause. It has only material causes, the sort of causes that are better understood as answering ‘how’ rather than ‘why’ questions. We exist because we are one of millions of different products of billions of years of biological evolution that took place on what is likely one of billions of planets in the universe. There is no reason to think that our eventual appearance in the history of the cosmos was preordained or inevitable. It just happened, and it may very easily not have. This is not to say that our existence isn’t special, in the sense of likely being a rare, if not unique, outcome of evolutionary processes. We do not know how many other intelligent species there are in the universe, but it is possible that that number isn’t very high — given how many conditions have to be in place for the emergence of life, not to mention of the kind of intelligent life capable of language, culture, and technology. And it is all but certain that we are the only intelligent beings of our kind in the cosmos, meaning that our particular biological type presumably evolved only here on earth. So, we are special, in a way, probably even unique, but not for any particular reason other than a long string of chance events.

ii) What is our purpose? That depends on the level at which the question is asked. If by that we mean whether there is a cosmic, universal purpose behind our existence, then the answer is no, as implied by the answer to the first question above: since no plan went into evolving the species Homo sapiens, let alone into producing any particular individual belonging to our species, then obviously it makes no sense to talk of a cosmic meaning of our existence. However, of course we as individual sentient beings are perfectly capable of attributing meaning to our own life. For most of us that meaning comes from a combination of having loving relationships and being able to pursue our own goals and interests. The ancient Greeks talked about eudaimonia, a life of flourishing, which consisted of leading a morally virtuous life, striving to excel at whatever it is that interests us, and cultivating friendships and family relations. By and large, that ancient concept is confirmed by modern social science, which has uncovered the presence of those very elements as sources of our happiness, and their lack as sources of our unhappiness.

iii) What happens after death? Nothing. As Epicurus argued, there is no reason to fear death because ‘death, … the most awful of evils, is nothing to us, seeing that, when we are, death is not come, and, when death is come, we are not.’ Less poetically, everything we know from modern science tells us that our consciousness, and with it our sense of self, cease to exist the moment in which our brain stops functioning. Our bodies keep going for a while (indeed, they may even be maintained artificially ‘alive’ for relatively long periods of time), but eventually succumb to decay. Over a relatively brief period of time the complex biomolecules (proteins, DNA) that made our life possible disintegrate, and the simpler molecules of which they are composed re-enter the cycle of elements in the geo-biosphere, possibly to be reassembled in part into other living organisms, be they plants, animals or bacteria. In no sense, however, does this recycling amount to anything like the sort of reincarnation of which a number of religious and mystical traditions speak. Should this fate worry us? Not according to Epicurus, and I see no reason to disagree with him, on either scientific or philosophical grounds.


Can God make it the case that I passed the exam that I failed?

Jeff asked:

I failed my exam.

If I pray hard enough, is it possible (logically possible) that God could bring it about that I passed?

Does it make any difference whether I know that I failed (received the result) or not?

Answer by Jürgen Lawrenz

This is can of worms, Jeff. Which God are you praying to? I’ve lost count of how many there are, but even if I restrict them to monotheistic religions, there are plenty to choose from. But irrespective of this doubt, I’ve heard on the grapevine that none of them pick up the receiver any more, because sales have diminished so much of late that the cost of the line exceeds the value of the service.

It is a serious problem, as otherwise it would be wholly possible, logically speaking. There are books you should read, written by eye witness accounts, of such corrections of a faulty reality. I remembered the name Enoch just now. But another consideration is, are you important enough to your God for him to go through the trouble of creating a time tunnel and alternative world just for you where reality changed your failure into a pass due to a bribed or incompetent examiner? You should keep in mind that logically this small alteration to your personal fortune could (depending on the exam’s importance to world politics) affect everyone else in the college, even the whole world, maybe World War III will break out over it and change the course of future history. Remember the little winged phrase, ‘for the want of a nail …’ So be careful about what you ask for!

Finally, if you failed, you must know. But if you didn’t know for sure, because no-one informed you, it makes no difference. You wanted to pray anyway. A kind of Pascal’s wager. Do it! A little contrition never hurt anyone. Meanwhile your question loops back to the beginning. So does my answer.


Answer by Geoffrey Klempner

We’ve had a version of this question before. See:

Bringing about the past

I’m interested in the question what kind of world would this be if it was a world where a sufficiently powerful being (God, say, or it could just be the kind of god who lives on Mount Olympus) can make the past different from what it is (or was).

So far as one’s personal experience is concerned, nothing seems easier than to make it the case that when I look at my result on the exam results notice board later today I see that I have passed. On the notice board yesterday, it stated that I got an F and so I failed. Today, it states that I got a respectable B.

It doesn’t matter whether I looked at the notice board yesterday or not. Reality has been changed, for the better in my case.

Yes, of course, a lot of other facts have to change too. My exam script was rubbish, and I remember that it was rubbish. But now, a day later, I ‘remember’ that it was quite good. And the examiner thought so too.

Lots of facts about the past have to change, and also my memories of particular facts. So… let it be.

The world I have described is a world where there is no past. There is a view in the philosophy of time called ‘presentism’ according to which only the present moment is real. The past is just things we say or ‘know’ or ‘remember’ (in scare quotes) about the past. (This would be a counterexample to the dictum pinned on Birdman’s dressing room mirror, ‘A thing is a thing, not what is said about that thing,’ Sontag.)

The past isn’t a thing. The universe does not have a past. We just talk as if it had.

In that case, does that mean all bets are off, we can change the past in any way we like? The assumption of this question is that it requires a lot of power. Wishing the past had been different, or getting a group of nutcases together (Holocaust deniers, for example) and ‘agreeing’ that the past is different from what it is taken to be isn’t sufficient to make the past different.

Broadly Kantian considerations would come in here that the past has to be largely or for the most part difficult or impossible to change, in order for experience to have any coherence. But we do not need to go down the road that Kant took, insisting on ‘all or nothing’ (e.g. universal determinism, or nothing).

We thought reality was hard as steel. Facts are immutable. We were wrong. Reality is plastic. It is mutable. But it still has shape and form.

I am not saying this is the world we inhabit. It is a logically possible world, one which is familiar to certain genres of fiction.


Is truth just a logical property?

Vivian asked:

Is truth just a logical property?

Answer by Jürgen Lawrenz

No, it’s a lost property. Across the millennia of human occupation of this planet, a number of people stood up and claimed to know what truth is, and graciously (very often at sword’s point) passed it on to others. But as human nature is changeable, societies change and the belief in truth changes over time. However it is also possible for people in different, but contemporary societies, to entertain disparate conceptions. Quite often they disagree so violently, that the sword is unsheathed again and employed in settlement of the issue.

So you can see that it’s not a logical property, but the property of the person with the stronger arm, quicker sword or, in some cases, the most persuasive promises.

All the same, one variant of truth, namely half of the question ‘true or false?’ can at times qualify for the title of logical property. This is when something is definitely known to be the case, such as the wetness of water, or that 2 apples are more than 1 apple, or the mortality of mortals. Here logic settles the case, and the sword’s point will not change it even when a victim is coerced into a pretended ‘no’ when he or she knows full that ‘yes’ is the correct answer.

We humans have a deeply emotional craving for truth, but it is truly said that ‘the spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak’. And so we blunder through, day after day, putting up with watered down truths (which logically speaking are falsehoods). Only computers are absolutely truthful, because they have no emotions. Which is why their proper name is ‘logical inference devices’, as they do nothing but compile huge chains of 1 (true) and 0 (false). Of course this depends on programmers writing logical algorithms first.

All told, then, I suppose the short answer to your question is ‘yes’. Truth with a small ‘t’ is only a logical property.

But for Truth with a capital ‘T’, you had better check with the Lost Property Office at the Railways. That’s where things are collected which absent-minded travellers tend to leave in the carriage when their minds are fully preoccupied with the really serious business of the day. If you’re lucky on that day, you might find a book or leaflet there with the word ‘Truth’ emblazoned on it. But this is evidently not a logical property, though it might also remind us that logical properties are not necessary adjuncts to everything we strive for in life.


In what manner (if at all) do numbers exist?

Atron asked:

How do you put the following argument below in standard form?

One thing we can all agree on is that a statement like 17 is prime is true and that we know it to be true. But this simple fact gives rise to an irresolvable puzzle. If it’s a normal subject/ predicate sentence, we can’t explain how we know it to be true. For if it’s that sort of sentence, then there must be some object, the one we call 17, and it has to have the property of primeness. But if there is such an object, it is outside space and time, and so a mystery how we come to know anything about it. Could it be some other sort of claim, then. besides a normal subject/ predicate sentence? I suppose, but then we have a different mystery. It’s utterly mysterious what other sorts of sentences there are.

Answer by Craig Skinner

Yes it is a normal subject/ predicate sentence: the subject is 17, the predicate primeness.

And yes, standard semantics requires that for it to be true, 17 (the subject) must exist.

Some people try to get round this requirement. There are two ways:

1. Saying ’17 is prime’ really means ‘If 17 existed, it would be prime’. This approach is called paraphrase nominalism. I don’t like it: when I say 17 is prime I mean 17 is prime, not something else.

2. Allow that nonexistent objects can still have properties. An approach championed a century ago by Meinong. Being nonexistent, these objects can’t instantiate a property, they are said to exemplify it. Thus the round square, not merely nonexistent but necessarily so, exemplifies roundness and squareness. This view is still viable. After all, we speak of fairies having wings, Santa Claus having a red suit. And so we can speak of 17 exemplifying primeness.

Others accept that ’17 is prime’ is untrue, because 17 doesn’t exist, but is true in the story of mathematics, just as ‘Sherlock Holmes plays the violin’ is untrue, but true in the stories of Conan Doyle. This is called fictionalism. I rather favour it. The distinction from Meinongianism isn’t completely clear — is Holmes fictional or nonexistent? If he’s fictional, does this mean he is a fictional object, or that we pretend he’s a real object? And if he’s a nonexistent object, did he only come into nonexistence when Doyle dreamed him up, or was he a nonexistent object in, say, the middle ages, and Doyle only added properties for him to exemplify, such as being a detective and playing the violin, being careful of course not to accidently select the equally featureless nonexistent James Bond to add these properties to thereby making things difficult for Ian Fleming years later. You can see how all this verges on Alice in Wonderland, so I’ll move on.

Most people accept that 17 exists. Existence can be physical, mental or abstract. Let’s deal with each.

Physical: 17 doesn’t exist physically in the external world, although there are many instances of collections of seventeen objects in the world. A few people hold that 17 exists physically in brains as a particular pattern of wirings/ firings. This seems to me the same as existence as a concept (see below)

Mental: overlaps with the wiring/ firing/ conceptual story. Means 17 only exists if somebody is thinking it. So 890785432308, say, often doesn’t exist since most of the time, very few people, if any, would be thinking of this number. But i suppose there is always some computer or other processing this number somewhere. Is this mental existence for the number, or is the computer crunching nonexistent numbers.

Abstract: the popular choice, including your own. You emphasize the access problem: how can something outside spacetime causally affect us. I think this objection is overblown. It’s a legacy of Plato’s theory of forms, whereby numbers and other universals exist in a timeless heaven, accessible only to the inner eye of the intellect. And mathematicians of a Platonic bent, such as Gödel, didn’t help, claiming the trained maths mind could access these objects, thereby discovering, not inventing mathematical truths. I think abstract existence is less ethereal. It is existence as a shared concept, such as divorce or humour, not spatiotemporal to be sure, but hardly a special mystery.

So take your pick. Conceptual existence, in-brain physical or mental existence, nonexistent but still prime, fictional existence. And I suspect that close analysis might show all these options to be pretty much the same.

Finally, you ask for a deductive argument formulated from your text. How about:

P1. ’17 is prime’ is true if and only if 17 exists.
P2. 17 exists (in some way).
C 17 is prime.


P1. For a predicate to be true of a subject, the subject must exist.
P2 Hence ’17 is prime’ is true if and only iof 17 exists.
P3 17 doesn’t exist (it’s a mathematical fiction).
C ’17 is prime’ isn’t true (but is true in the fiction of mathematics).


What questions did Thales ask?

Ayotunde asked:

What are the fundamental questions Thales asked?

Answer by Jürgen Lawrenz

Goodness me, this is so long ago that even Aristotle had to rely on second-hand reports. His problem is therefore still ours: namely, how much of this is real; how much merely idle gossip?

Judging by a few accounts which add up to a believable portrait, he seems to have been a man with a scientific bend, e.g mathematics, engineering, astronomy. Just as long as you take care not to confuse it with what we call by those names.

And so to his notorious proposition. But you must try to understand the background, otherwise it makes no sense.

In religious mythology, nature is one and continuous. Which means that one could explain the existence of some natural thing by the transformation of another natural thing, e.g. a human being turned into flowers. The Roman poet Ovid wrote a big book on these things, called appropropriately ‘Metamorphoses’.

In addition the Greeks worshipped innumerable forces of nature as gods.

A skeptical person might be induced to question these beliefs. Thales, who apparently travelled widely and must have heard hundreds of such stories in other cultures, probably grew skeptical about their rational basis. And so it might have occurred to him that water, although it bears dozens of different names of gods in different localities, is actually one and the same everywhere. Moreover, it seems to occur everywhere, even in deserts, and it springs out of cracks in mountains too.

So his fundamental question was: Could water be the substance from which everything else is made?

I don’t believe it was a doctrine. In those days thinkers did not write up doctrines; they discussed ideas over a glass of fine wine. He might have challenged like-minded men with his idea. When we hear what Anaximander retorted, it seems very probable that he put it up for others to think about and debate.

They did; and the most astonishing aspect is, that just three generations down the track, the arguments had become so subtle that Demokritos (or Leukippos) framed his idea that atoms are the final building blocks of the cosmos. It was a ‘mere philosophical idea’ then; but at last in 1810, John Dalton discovered empirically that atoms are real things and, as they say, the rest is history!


Aristophanes on Socrates

Mark asked:

I am having trouble deciphering Aristophanes’ clouds. He seems to be ridiculing Socrates for his radical beliefs, is this true? How far apart are these two men?

Answer by Jürgen Lawrenz

Answering the last part of your question first: They occupied virtually opposite positions in respect of their beliefs about a healthy society. Aristophanes sided with the conservatives; he wanted the old sterling morals of the Persian war generation reinstated, and although nothing much of it survived the explosion of wealth at Athens, plenty of lip service was still paid to it. The playwright evidently believed that the innate character of Athenian society was as good as one might wish, and that the exaggerations of recent times were reversible hiccups which did not impair the overall moral fibre of the state.

Whereas Socrates saw the Athenians succumbing to greed, immodesty, power hunger and political instability. So he made himself a one-man band for reform; but after some time of trying to awaken the citizens to the desperate need for virtues, for examining themselves in light of the good of their soul and their individual responsibility for the collective health of the state, he gave up. They just didn’t want to know. So he turned to the young, who were curious and fascinated by this ugly satyr with the honey tongue of wisdom. Before long, half the adults at Athens were incensed at what they believed to be his mission of undermining their authority over these teenage youths.

This is a nutshell view of what seems to have been going on. Socrates had become a ‘character’ known to everyone, with plenty of gossip flying around, most of it nonsense. None of this serves, however, as an excuse for Aristophanes. He is not ridiculing Socrates, but a straw man. The fact is that the playwright produced a vicious character assassination and put falsehoods on stage full well knowing that ‘public opinion’ about Socrates (i.e. gossip) confused his aims and methods with those of the travelling teachers of rhetoric who were flooding Athens at the time in search of prestige and a quick buck. This is a reference to the so-called ‘sophists’. I can’t enlarge on them here, so look them up. But the point about The Clouds is precisely that Socrates is depicted as someone who worships strange gods and runs a school (called the ‘Thinkery’) where people come to learn how to lie and cheat with conviction, which is indeed what some of the less scrupulous sophists were known for.

At his trial, years later, Socrates would ruefully remind his judges that none of the accusations against him had a foundation in truth; that they were mere echoes of Aristophanes’ play. When you are aware of this long-term outcome, the sardonic humour of the play tends to leave rather a sour taste in one’s mouth. Because this is more than satire; it is a pack of lies dressed up as comedy; and as it happened, lodged in the memory of the Athenians much longer than was good for their rational appreciation of what the trial was all about.