Life’s Biggest Question
Often when discussing the concept of philosophy, sooner or later someone in the discussion will bring up the most important of all questions: What is the point of life?
This is partly done in jest. In Douglas Adams’ “The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy,” characters stumble on a quest to discovering the answer to “Life, the Universe, and Everything.” Ultimately, the answer they arrive at is “42.”
Though Adams satirizes the concept of trying to decipher the meaning of life, the subject warrants serious thought. The question is a valid one because the answer has many implications for a person’s life.
For those who have never had an opportunity to study philosophy, it may be helpful to have a brief primer on the concepts that philosophers consider. There is a dispute over whether these three branches are sufficient to cover all of philosophy’s considerations.
Although an independent study of philosophy will reveal alternative theories on the capabilities and contents of philosophy, the various questions that have vexed deep thinkers for millennia can generally be grouped into three main categories.
Metaphysics sounds like a science fiction term to the uninitiated, but it is a legitimate branch of philosophy. Metaphysics contains the largest in scope and most cosmic questions that philosophers debate.
Questions in this category include: Is there a God? What is the point of life? Where do humans come from? What is the definition of a human? What is the purpose of the universe? What is the origin of life and matter? What is reality?
Metaphysics is the least imminent of philosophical topics, but the consequences of its ideas are the most widespread in their effect. How a human being views the universe in which they participate has a great deal to do with how he or she lives daily. Answers to the types of questions that fit in this category help with discovering the purpose of life.
How does a person know what they know? This is the ultimate concern of the discipline of epistemology. The term is derived from the Greek word for “belief.”
Philosophers who study this branch must ask: What is truth? How is truth determined? Is there such thing as truth? What is the role of a person’s perception of truth? Can anything really be known? What does it mean to know something at all?
Though this branch still deals with many abstract ideas, it is more relevant to daily life than many metaphysical topics appear to be at first glance. The source of truth affects everything a human being believes, including their thoughts on the meaning of life.
The final branch is the most obviously relevant to the everyday living of the average person. It is at this point that everyone is truly a philosopher whether they know it or not.
There is only one question asked by this branch: What, if anything, must we do?
It is the goal of the ethicist to determine right behavior. If a person has considered metaphysical concepts and arrived at a certain conclusion, it will necessarily affect their opinion of how truth can be found.
If a human being has come to conclusions about metaphysical questions and has an opinion on where truth can be derived, he or she must develop a system for deciding what to do with that information.
Ethics are most easily observed when a person is faced with dilemmas. When confronted with a choice, people reveal their values, their source of truth, and their core beliefs about their place in the universe.
When trying to determine the purpose of life a person must necessarily align their conduct with their beliefs. That is the very issue that ethics seeks to clarify.
With this information now in hand, the question can be approached afresh: What is the point of life?
Since this article appears on EndAbortionNow.com, the perceptive reader will assume that at some point the question will connect to the issue of abortion. In fact, some clues are already present that those connections are being constructed.
A wise reader ought to stop here and consider the question by themselves. If the reader is reluctant to give the issue much thought, why might that be?
Different Strokes for Different Folks
Since the concepts involved in philosophy are often hopelessly abstract and difficult to discuss succinctly, it will be beneficial to illustrate the real implications of certain philosophical leanings when faced with examples or situations that reveal philosophical underpinnings.
If a person concludes there is no God, that has profound implications for their entire worldview. How might an atheist answer the question of “what is the point of life?” This may be the most representative answer from an atheist:
For me, the major difference between the religious and the atheistic concepts of purpose is that the atheistic position leaves the specifics of individual purpose up to us. We get to decide what’s important to us. Atheism contains no demands nor consensi on purpose, nor does it enforce any universal meaning. There is no atheistic, existential reason for all human existence.
— Sean Breen, The Atheist Republic
This argument reveals that to the atheist’s mind, the individual is autonomous and selects his or her own purpose in life.
One need not be a master logician to see the issues that could arise with this worldview. What if someone decided to make it their mission to eradicate all or part of mankind in order to preserve nature?
What grounds would there be to oppose them? If a person does not believe in God then there appears to be no reason to place value on human life above the life of any other creature.
Furthermore, what if two people choose a purpose that is mutually exclusive or contradictory? Without the preexistence of a deity, can a person have a moral right to anything at all, even their own life? On what basis?
Atheists tend to lack consistency in answers to these topics. Why would an unbeliever get out of bed in the morning? Why live another day? What are the ultimate goals of the unbeliever in life? Is suicide immoral? Is murder immoral? Why?
In an effort to contribute some consistency to the discussion, some philosophers have approached these issues honestly.
Albert Camus was the most noteworthy adherent to a philosophical school called “absurdism.” Though he was born into a Roman Catholic family, Camus rejected their religion and later embraced atheism.
Camus believed that nothing mattered. He wrote a short novel called The Stranger to illustrate his philosophy in the life of a character who lived out his ideas.
Camus had a few goals with this work, but one of the most important to him was to show that his philosophy could not be tolerated by a society that craved a larger or deeper meaning. The protagonist was amoral and performed both good and bad deeds for others in the course of the novel.
Ultimately, the protagonist kills a man. The novel is ambiguous on whether this action was murder or self-defense, but to the protagonist, it did not matter because there was no purpose in life.
Due to his strange outlook and his disdain for finding meaning in life, the court determined him to be a danger to society who must be guilty. Ultimately, he is put to death for the crime which they view as aggravated by a lack of any apparent remorse.
Camus himself died in a car crash when he was still a young man when his sober friend lost control of his car on a straight, dry, and well-maintained road colliding with a tree.
A common refutation of atheism is to point out the inconsistency in the atheist’s philosophy and the lack of any compelling excuse to believe one truth over others. Atheists generally believe in some version of truth.
The question is: why? Where does it come from? The most common and compelling answer from atheists is that the belief system emerges from human reason.