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What IS the meaning of life?

Thursday 19th November 2015 (1:00AM)

Please file this under Nicholas-is-a-smart-arse. :-)

In my experience, "what is the meaning of life?" is viewed as a difficult question. Nothing could be further from the truth, so let's just get to the answer shall we?

We're simply asking in the wrong way. Instead of wondering what something is, we can flip the question around and ask what its opposite isn't. Ergo, honestly listing the reasons for not killing yourself tells you what gives meaning to your life.

Try it for yourself!

Obviously, the answer is different for each of us and changes over time. But that's essentially it: asking the meaning of life is solved with a glib philosopher's dinner party trick.

Didn't I tell you to file this under Nicholas-is-a-smart-arse?!?!

"Wait a minute..." I hear you ask, "there must be more to it than that! What about deep stuff like God?"

Yes, what about God?

I am an atheist and find it hard to discuss "God" seriously. To give you a flavour of what I mean (and I'm certainly not trying to be disrespectful here) when discussing religion please replace "God" with "flying spaghetti monster" and "heaven" with "Sugarcandy Mountain". If the result starts to sound silly, then you have a sense of how all religious discussion sounds to me.

Given that I'm a smart-arse, perhaps I should top the meaning of life with proof that there is no god.

Actually, I don't have to because the burden of proof is not my responsibility ~ it's religious people who are asserting something (that there is a god).

Let's play another word replacement game to illustrate what I mean: where a religious person might say "God" let's say "a teapot orbiting the Sun" instead. As a result the assertion becomes "I believe there's a teapot orbiting the Sun" to which I might reply, "oh no there isn't". The response, "OK smart-arse, prove there is no teapot orbiting the Sun" shows how bonkers and untenable such a position is. Any reasonable person would expect the person making such assertions to be the one to prove there is a teapot orbiting the Sun, rather than waiting for me to prove there isn't such celestial brewing equipment. Put simply, just because it's possible to assert something that is blatantly unverifiable doesn't make it true.

My favourite example of this phenomenon is a drogulus ~ an entity whose presence is unverifiable, because it has no physical effects. The atheist philosopher A.J.Ayer coined it as a way of ridiculing the belief system of his friend, the Jesuit philosopher, Frederick Copleston.

In 1949 Ayer and Copleston took part in a radio debate about the existence of God. The debate then went back and forth, until Ayer came up with the following as a way of illustrating the point that Copleston's metaphysics had no content because there was no way of testing the truth of metaphysical assertions. He said:

"I say, 'There's a "drogulus" over there,' and you say, 'What?' and I say, 'drogulus' and you say 'What's a drogulus?' Well, I say, 'I can't describe what a drogulus is, because it's not the sort of thing you can see or touch, it has no physical effects of any kind, but it's a disembodied being.' And you say, 'Well how am I to tell if it's there or it's not there?' and I say, 'There's no way of telling. Everything's just the same if it's there or it's not there. But the fact is it's there. There's a drogulus there standing just behind you, spiritually behind you.' Does that makes sense?"

Of course, the natural answer Ayer was waiting for was "No, of course it doesn't make sense." Therefore, the implication would be that metaphysics is like the "drogulus" ~ a being which cannot be seen and has no perceptible effects. If Ayer can get to that point, he can claim that any kind of belief in the Christian God or in metaphysical principles in general is really contrary to our logical and scientific understanding of the world.

So, what am I saying?

That is a complicated question - it's not just synonymous for "what is my argument?".

The examples above demonstrate that language is a source of confusion. It's possible to ask, "what am I saying?" in a more fundamental way - synonymous with "what do words mean?". Habit or familiarity appear to lead to lazy thinking: some thing must be true because it's repeated in such-and-such a way by lots of people. Yet, when the way that thing is expressed in language is explored it becomes obvious it's actually confused and a tad silly.

Ask yourself, what is the meaning of "life"? (Or any other word or turn of phrase.)

So, what's my argument? ;-)

If language is such a blunt tool and endless source of confusion how are we to discuss important subjects such as how to lead a good life? How are we to share complex and confusing ideas such as our dreams, loves and losses?

I'm not sure.

It might be best to merely act, observe, reflect and adjust. Know me by what I do, how I act and the way that I change myself rather than by what I might say (to be clear, the content of this article is covered by this assertion).

Like I said, file this under Nicholas-is-a-smart-arse.

As always, I'd love feedback, constructive critique and ideas about such raw thoughts.

:-)