Argument from the meaning of life

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The argument from the meaning of life states that God must exist because without God, human life would have no objective meaning. Conversely, apologists sometimes assert that a meaning of life exists and that this implies God exists too. No one wants to admit that their life is void of meaning and purpose, which provides the emotional basis for the argument.

In 1843, Søren Kierkegaard wrote: [1]

"If there were no eternal consciousness in a man, if at the bottom of everything there were only a wild ferment, a power that twisting in dark passions produced everything great or inconsequential; if an unfathomable, insatiable emptiness lay hid beneath everything, what would life be but despair?"

More recent apologists have written:

"Without God, life has no purpose, and without purpose, life has no meaning. Without meaning, life has no significance or hope. [2]"
"If all the events are meaningless, then what can be the ultimate meaning of influencing any of them? Ultimately it makes no difference. [3]"

"If the universe is not governed by an absolute goodness, then all our efforts are in the long run hopeless."

C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity

"Why would you want to live in a purposeless chaos, in which none of your actions had any significance? In which there was no hope of justice? In which the lives of all those you love ended abruptly at death and had no further significance? Why would you want, desire, actively wish to live in a universe as disgusting as that? You would have to have a very good reason. And I think [atheists] have a very good reason and its what they never wish to discuss. They don't want justice. They do want the dead to be dead. They do want the universe to be purposeless. They do not want their own individual actions to have any other significance than their immediate effect. You have to discuss with them why they are so keen on that proposition."

Peter Hitchens [4]

"[...] does the search for the existence of a supernatural being, so pervasive in all cultures ever studied, represent a universal but groundless human longing for something outside ourselves to give meaning to a meaningless life and to take away the sting of death? [...] I can recall clearly some of those moments in my own life, where this poignant sense of longing, falling somewhere between pleasure and grief, caught me by surprise and caused me to wonder from whence came such strong emotion, and how might such an experience be recovered."

Francis Collins, The Language of God
"[to atheists:] Where do you derive an objective meaning of life?[5]"

Argument from justice is sometimes combined with this argument because it provides consequences to moral actions which is argued to be necessary for those actions to be meaningful. [3] This argument is related to the transcendental argument because both assert absolute things exist that depend on the existence of God.

What does the "meaning of life” mean?[edit]

The meaning of life refers to the significance or purpose of human existence. Ancient and Medieval philosophy in the West has tended to only consider "intrinsic" values, roughly meaning a value is "good for its own sake", [6] as potential candidates for the meaning for life. Similarly, most religions consider metaphysical notions such as ethics or our relationship with God to be the purpose of life. It is usually assumed that the purpose of life is uniform for all humans, invariant to time and is good no matter regardless of who attains it. This is the conception of the "meaning of life" used in the argument.

Enlightenment philosophy changed the focus of meaning to "natural rights" of humans, which do not necessarily depend on God. Humanism and utilitarianism are similar in that they are concerned with improving the overall "greater good of humanity". These views implicitly suppose that a significance for human life can exist without recourse to God.

Existentialism and other branches of modern philosophy have tended to consider absolute meaning of life as non-existent or conceptually meaningless. The possibility of a subjective or person specific "meaning of life" is accepted.

"This—is now MY way,—where is yours?" Thus did I answer those who asked me "the way." For THE way—it doth not exist! [7]

We know what it means for a human action to have purpose because we experience it every day. However, it is unclear if the concept of "purpose" can be properly applied to an entire life. [8]

Problems With This Argument[edit]

Appeal to emotion[edit]

The argument suggests that we should believe in a god, even if it does not exist, so that we can feel the self esteem boost of our lives having a higher meaning. If a conclusion is accepted solely on its emotional appeal or wishful thinking, it is a logical fallacy. A person can still have a subjectively meaningful, fulfilling and memorable life, even if absolute meaning does not exist. Existentialism is a branch of philosophy concerned with existence without absolute meaning, or the need to create one's own meaning. Conversely, some have argued that human mortality followed by non-existence is the only way for human life to have meaning. The rareness and uniqueness is thought to make it special.

"It's important not to confuse the notion of "pointless" in Premise 2 with notions like "not worth living" or "expendable." [...] But we can very well maintain that each human life is precious—is worth living, is not expendable—without maintaining that each human life has a purpose in the overall scheme of things. [8]"
"[Being] aware of our own mortality makes us aware of the value of life. We realise that life is too precious to be wasted and so feel invigorated. [...] We feel grateful just to be alive, to have been born into this world for a short time. We appreciate the beauty and wonder of nature, the people in our lives, and mundane everyday things, such as food, water and the weather. [...] Encounters with death also make us more present-centred. [9]"

Absolute meaning of life might not exist[edit]

The argument assumes there is an absolute meaning to life. However, this is not necessarily true and difficult to establish with any certainty. Although we might feel uncomfortable admitting that our life does not serve an eternal purpose, we should not simply assume that it does have a purpose. There is no evidence that any absolute meaning of life exists. While religious believers claim their idea of the meaning of life is absolute, without some way of verifying it, it is likely to be another a subjective concept. Simply claiming their concept of meaning is absolute does not make it absolute.

Free will and predestination[edit]

Main Article: Free Will vs. Predestination

If meaning is predestined, then either God is unjust and does not give atheists the same facility to meaning, or is impotent, and can't. Secondly, free will and "designed" meaning cannot exist together, as they are mutually exclusive.

Christian idea for the meaning of life is questionable[edit]

It is important to determine what the theist believes the meaning of life actually is. In some cases, they say the meaning of life is to worship God. Subservient worship is not going to be most people's idea of a meaningful life.

Alternatively, God may have determined the purpose of humans is to be quite different from what humans currently belief and, for all we know, is possibly unachievable. This would hardly be a comforting concept.

God and the absolute[edit]

If God exists, what makes that God's view of the purpose of human life more privileged than any other conception? Creating something does not automatically confer the creator's interpretation on the object, as seen with human creations. An object created for one purpose may be equally (or more) suitable for alternative purposes. God may set some criteria for what he considers to be valuable but that does not automatically imply those values have absolute value in themselves.

Spontaneous meaning[edit]

Various possibilities are ignored by the argument but are just as valid as the conclusion. The absolute meaning of life could have spontaneously created itself, be necessarily existent or created by a non-divine agent. It could be different for each person, even if there is a God.

Claim that Earthly life is worthless[edit]

According to Pascal's wager, the value of the Earthly component of life is zero. The Bible also teaches to avoid worldliness [10] e.g. 1 John 2:15-17 Bible-icon.png:

"Do not love the world or the things in the world. If anyone loves the world, the love of the Father is not in him. For all that is in the world—the desires of the flesh and the desires of the eyes and pride in possessions—is not from the Father but is from the world. And the world is passing away along with its desires, but whoever does the will of God abides forever."

Friedrich Nietzsche strongly criticised this view, claiming that absolute values do not exist but the creation of subjective values is a kind of meta-meaning of life: [11]

"To blaspheme the earth is now the dreadfulest sin, and to rate the heart of the unknowable higher than the meaning of the earth!"

If we only have Earthly life and non-believers consider there to be a subjective meaning to life, it is arguable that it is Christians who devalue Earthly life are the real nihilists.

No reliable means to determine absolute meaning[edit]

If God created an absolute meaning of life, we do not have reliable means to determine if it exists or what it entails. Holy books and testimony of revelation are contradictory, mythological and vague.

Begging the question[edit]

The argument is based on the premise that human life has purpose. If only God can provide meaning, it is begging the question: a purpose automatically implies an entity that determines that purpose, it effectively assumes its conclusion in a premise. [8] If something other than God can establish significance, then the argument also breaks down because the argument does not rule out the existence of this source.

Circular argument[edit]

How do we know we are significant? One apologist writes:

"we know we are worth so much to God, loved so enormously, that the Father sent His own Son to die for us. Not only that: we can look at ourselves in the mirror and know that, with all our follies and weaknesses, we are each, already, a unique masterpiece, from the greatest craftsman in the universe.[12]"

This argument is circular: God loves us therefore we are valued, we are valued therefore God exists.

Variant: argument from the intolerability of insignificance[edit]

A variant of the argument runs: [8]

  1. It is intolerable to be insignificant.
  2. Only God can provide significance (because he is eternal).
  3. God exists.

Like the argument above, is an appeal to emotion, argument from ignorance, etc.

Variant: everyone has the need to find meaning[edit]

Apologists argue that everyone has a compulsion to seek for meaning. A similar claim is that everyone has a "God-shaped hole" in their hearts, figuratively speaking.

"There is a godshaped vacuum in the heart of every man, and only God can fill it."

Blaise Pascal

The cause of this inclination is said to be either natural processes or God. Fulfilling this need is claimed to have psychological benefits, including happiness.

Variant: God is necessarily significant to meaning[edit]

"If there really is a being we can call 'God', He cannot be merely unimportant. Logically, if 'God' exists, He must somehow be fundamental to our universe. [...] To lose God, if He exists, would be to lose the coherence of life.[12]"

The existence of God or gods does not automatically imply their relevant to human affairs. They may simply exist alongside the universe but do not play a role in the meaning of human existence. Apologists are simply defining God in such a way that he is necessary for meaning to exist. This is similar to the tactics used in presuppositional apologetics in attempting to define God into existence.


  1. Søren Kierkegaard, Fear and Trembling
  2. Rick Warren, The Purpose Driven Life: What on Earth Am I Here for?
  3. 3.0 3.1 William Lane Craig, The Absurdity of Life without God [1]
  4. [2]
  5. Matt Stopera, 22 Messages From Creationists To People Who Believe In Evolution, Buzzfeed, February 5, 2014
  6. JW Gray, What Does “Meaning of Life” Mean? December 29, 2009 [3]
  7. Friedrich Nietzsche, Thus Spake Zarathustra [4]
  8. 8.0 8.1 8.2 8.3 Rebecca Newberger Goldstein, 36 Arguments for the Existence of God: A Work of Fiction, 2011
  9. Steve Taylor, Out of the Darkness, November 26, 2011 [5]
  10. OpenBible, 42 Bible Verses about Worldly Things [6]
  11. Friedrich Nietzsche, Thus Spake Zarathustra [7]
  12. 12.0 12.1 [8]

See also[edit]

External links[edit]

v · d Arguments for the existence of god
Anthropic arguments   Anthropic principle · Natural-law argument
Arguments for belief   Pascal's Wager · Argument from faith · Just hit your knees
Christological arguments   Argument from scriptural miracles · Would someone die for a lie? · Liar, Lunatic or Lord
Cosmological arguments   Argument from aesthetic experience · Argument from contingency · Cosmological argument · Fine-tuning argument · Kalam · Leibniz cosmological argument · Principle of sufficient reason · Unmoved mover · Why is there something rather than nothing?
Majority arguments   Argument from admired religious scientists
Moral arguments   Argument from justice · Divine command theory
Ontological argument   Argument from degree · Argument from desire · Origin of the idea of God
Dogmatic arguments   Argument from divine sense · Argument from uniqueness
Teleological arguments   Argument from design · Banana argument · 747 Junkyard argument · Laminin argument · Argument from natural disasters
Testimonial arguments   Argument from observed miracles · Personal experience · Argument from consciousness · Emotional pleas · Efficacy of prayer
Transcendental arguments   God created numbers · Argument from the meaning of life
Scriptural arguments   Scriptural inerrancy · Scriptural scientific foreknowledge · Scriptural codes