No Discernible Purpose?

In his book 'Looking in the Distance' Richard Holloway quotes Nietzsche as saying:

"Becoming aims at nothing and achieves nothing."

Holloway comments: "The paradox is that, being gifted and afflicted with consciousness, we pay close attention to the universe, even though it is uninterested in us. We are creatures with a passion for discovering the meaning of things who find ourselves in a universe without any discernible purpose".

Do you agree with Holloway that the universe is without a discernible purpose?

February, 26, 2007


Maureen McNeill said...

In the Journal of Humanistic Psychology, Vol. 43 No. 1, Winter 2003 entitled ‘What Eminent People have said about the Meaning of Life’ the authors identified 10 common themes:

1. To enjoy or experience life. 17% of the sample including Ralph Waldo Emerson, Malcolm Forbes, Cary Grant, Janis Joplin, Thomas Jefferson, Helen Keller, Sinclair Lewis, and Eleanor Roosevelt. Sinclair Lewis wrote: “If I go to a play I do not enjoy it less because I do not believe that it is divinely created or divinely conducted, that it will last forever instead of stopping at eleven, that many details of it will remain in my memory after a few months, or that it will have any particular moral effect on me. And I enjoy life as I enjoy that play.”

2. To love, help, or serve others. 13% of the sample, including Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, Clarence Darrow, Albert Einstein, Mohandas Gandhi, Theodore Hesburg, the Dalai Lama, Albert Schweitzer, and Jean Jacques Rousseau. For example, Einstein stated that “Only a life lived for others is a life worthwhile”.

3. Life is a mystery. 13% of the sample, including Albert Camus, Bob Dylan, Albert Einstein, Betty Friedan, S”ren Kierkegaard, Napoleon, Stephen Hawking, and Martin Buber. Camus said, “I don’t know whether this world has a meaning that transcends it. But I know that I do not know that meaning and that it is impossible for me to know.”

4. Life is meaningless. 11% of the sample, including Joseph Conrad, Clarence Darrow, Sigmund Freud, Franz Kafka, H. L. Mencken, Henry Miller, Bertrand Russell, Jean Paul Sartre, Arthur Schopenhauer, and George Bernard Shaw. The pessimism implied by this theme was captured by Clarence Darrow when he compared life to a ship that is “tossed by every wave and by every wind; a ship headed to no port and no harbor, with no rudder, no compass, no pilot, simply floating for a time, then lost in the waves.”

5. To serve or worship God and/or prepare for the next (or after-) life. 11% of the sample endorsed by spiritual leaders such as Mohandas Gandhi, Billy Graham, Martin Luther King, Jr., Mother Teresa, and the Dalai Lama and more secular people such as Muhammad Ali, Nelson Mandela, Thomas Paine, and General William Westmoreland. Muhammad Ali referred to life as “only a preparation for the eternal home, which is far more important than the short pleasures that seduce us here”.

6. Life is a struggle. 8% of the sample, including Charles Dickens, Benjamin Disraeli, Edna St. Vincent Millay, George Bernard Shaw, and Jonathan Swift. In his book Nicholas Nickelby, Charles Dickens referred to life as “one damned horrid grind”. Jonathan Swift described life as “a tragedy wherein we sit as spectators for awhile and then act our part in it”.

7. To contribute to something that is greater than ourselves. 6% of the sample, including Will Durant, Ralph Waldo Emerson, William Faulkner, Benjamin Franklin, Horace Mann, Margaret Mead, Richard Nixon, and Mohandas Gandhi. For example, the philosopher Will Durant believed that the meaning of life “lies in the chance it gives us to produce or contribute to something greater than ourselves.”

8. To become self-actualized. 6% of the sample, including Marie Curie, Erich Fromm, Frederick Nietzsche, Plato, Elizabeth K├╝bler-Ross, Robert Louis Stevenson, and Henry David Thoreau. To develop or “evolve” as a person or as a species. To pursue truth(s), wisdom, or a higher level of being. Robert Louis Stevenson argued that “to become what we are capable of becoming is the only end of life”.

9. To create your own meaning. 5% of the sample, including Sidney Hook, Grandma Moses, Carl Sagan, Simone deBeauvoir, John Dewey, Viktor Frankl, and Carl Jung. For example, Grandma Moses stated “Life is what we make it, always has been, always will be”.

10. Life is absurd or a joke. 4% of the sample, including Albert Camus, Charlie Chaplin, Bob Dylan, Lou Reed, and Oscar Wilde. Charlie Chaplin once described life as “a tragedy when seen in close-up but a comedy in the long shot”.

I guess I find something in 2, 3, 5, 6 and 7 which rings my bell.


Neil said...

Re #4 and #10

Christians are handing secular humanists another free ride in permitting them to state scientifically that there is no such thing as ‘purpose’ and ‘meaning’ . Purpose and meaning are spiritual concepts (to be conceptualized with metaphor) and are not scientific concepts (to be conceptualized with model). Purpose and meaning are not amenable to a mathematical treatment or other similar scientific approach.

The secular humanists take a free ride on this question by their refusal to admit that they can not develop a ‘model’ for purpose and meaning. They try to reject metaphor with humor and scorn but the bottom line is that they can do no better. There is no ‘model’ for purpose or meaning and hence the topic is rejected out of hand.

Some time ago I took a look at what modern physicists were saying about ‘free will’. This is another concept that secular humanists reject from their perspective of model. But their position on this is very tenuous – modern physics is still struggling with the question. The best explanation – modern ‘string theory’ – is apparently tied up in knots!


Neil said...


Neat list! The only two that wouldn't fit me are #4 and #10. I would be surprised if that wasn't true for a lot of reasonable thinking people.


Victor Ince said...

Hello Fellow Travellers,

Just having another quiet ponder (after church) about the meaning of life. So here goes!

Pondering the meaning of life is one of the most interesting exercises as despite the depth of religious, agnostic or atheistic belief we may have there is not really one iota of proof to convince those on the opposing side (or those on one's own side for that matter).

For my part I was brought up strictly Presbyterian and was a regular church attendee as a child. After I started work I started to question all the issues presented - my RC pals at work did not seem to me to be "the evil empire". In fact there were Protestant bigots and Catholic bigots as well as a lot of Catholic and Protestant tolerance and camaraderie.

However as you all recall the vengeance, unrest and militancy grew dramatically in the early 60's and that was when I made two decisions. Firstly to bale out and be "ethnically cleansed" and secondly to cut my ties with organized religion.

Coming to Canada found me churchless but not devoid of thought about the who what and why of faith, the meaning of life, creation and so on. I had a great friend in Saskatoon (who now lives in St. Catherine's, Ont.) with whom I had many discussions about these and other issues.

Over time I decided that I just couldn't conceive of an ever expanding universe (into what??) or the creations resulting from a "big bang" (what exploded ??). Maybe the universe has to continually expand to accommodate all the souls of those departed?? Way too much for me!!

The other issue with my religious upbringing was the concept of immortality. That was a bit easier. Over time I developed my own theory which seemed to accommodate the biblical 10 commandments with the immortality issue. It goes something like this:

Throughout our lives we are continuously "interfacing" with vast numbers of people. Some are very transitory - a phone call at work, and e-mail, or a few minutes in a train station or airport. Others like parents, children, wives are at the other end of the spectrum and in-between are the huge range of more than transitory and less than lifetime folks.

Without doing a single thing we actually make changes in everyone we meet - from miniscule to huge. All this is done by our own projection of ourselves. We can be phoney, honest, nasty or kind. We can be helpful, obstructive, loving or hating. We do affect people in a big way. We may not think so but to illustrate, I'm sure that all of us have said to ourselves more than once "I wish I was more like ...."

At the end of the day - at the end of life - we have touched many thousands of people and they have taken on a little bit of perhaps a lot of me. Wow! Immortality for Dummies!!!!

Now if how we were (are) perceived is important to us then perhaps we should live a life where we try to do our best (all Scouts salute now!!). In simple terms the 10 commandments are a good place to start.

In my later years (essentially after my divorce) I went back to church - not so much for the ritual, but for the sense of family. I enjoy the people. Mostly they are decent and selfless and great to be around. I am involved in the management of the church I currently attend and serve on a couple of committees as well as maintaining the church website.

Well, that was a bit of a ramble but that's my 2 cents worth on the meaning of life,

Victor Ince

Vinny Hall said...

The ‘non-thinking’ part of the universe can’t have a purpose – that much seems obvious. But part of the universe can ‘think’ – me, for example, I am a bit of the universe and I think.

I have read “Science, Religion and the Meaning of Life” which I see in the sidebar of this blog. The author has an interesting dialog between Bertrand Russell and Socrates in the book on page 36 which goes as follows:

What is the meaning of life to an agnostic?

Russell: I feel inclined to answer by another question: what is the meaning of ‘the meaning of life’? I suppose what is intended is some general purpose. I do not think that life in general has any purpose. It just happened. But individual human beings have purposes, and there is nothing in agnosticism to cause them to abandon these purposes.

Socrates: When death hangs over your head, the meaning of life is not academic, believe me! It is not found in the opinion of the many and what is important is not life but a good life. But even that takes us only so far. For myself, and though I do not always understand it, I have the blessing of what can only be called a keen religious sensibility that is founded upon the conviction that we must understand how we are ignorant. This leads me to pursue what is good and true and this is what life means to me.

I think that Socrates got it right – we should understand that we are ignorant and the fact that we pursue knowledge and think about our ignorance tells me that life does indeed have meaning and purpose.

At least it does to me!


Neil said...

Hi Everyone:

This is interesting .........

In a now-famous statement, at the end of his book "The First Three Minutes", the Nobel Prize-winning theoretical physicist Steven Weinberg wrote that "the more the universe seems comprehensible, the more it also seems pointless." In effect Weinberg was claiming that science paints a picture of our universe as a vast purposeless place in which we can see no evidence of a point for ourselves as human beings. Weinberg's statement was perhaps one of the coldest ever issued by a scientist, and not surprisingly it annoyed many religious believers. For Christians, and also for those of many other faiths, the universe is inherently purposeful and humanity's role is central.

Needless to say, religious believers have risen to the challenge. One Christian who disputes Weinberg's view is Charles Birch, an Australian biologist who is one of the founders of the modern science of ecology. Birch suggests that it is probably not surprising that Weinberg, as a physicist, should come to such a cold hard view of the universe, because he says physicists are "used to looking at the world in a very mechanist way". But where Weinberg sees a pointless world, Birch reads the evidence in a very different way. In particular, where Weinberg sees the universe from an impersonal perspective, Birch sees himself as an inherent part of the universal system that science describes. Looking at the universe from this personal perspective, he says, "I find meaning in it."


PRD said...

Neil: I just finished reading Dawkin’s book ‘The God Delusion’. He criticizes every philosopher under the sun for circular reasoning about purpose. He has been on TV here in London several times saying life has no purpose so “tough”. Then he talks about his “purpose” in writing books is to covert everyone to atheism. Now explain that – I am not a believer in any organized religion but when he talks about the “God Delusion” I wonder if he is living in the world of “Dawkins Delusion”? How can you say that the universe is purposeless and then end up say that you (as part of the universe) have a purpose.

BTW have you read any of Holloway’s books – he makes a lot of sense to me. He is quite well known as a religious humanist or maybe a christian agnostic. I think he would be happy with either term. I’m moving away from secular humanism towards the Holloway view. It seems to be very reasonable just to say that we have to deal with unknowns all of the time and that living there can be quite invigorating. The fundamentalists on the religious side and the atheism side turn me off – they claim to have an answer for everything but if you dig deeper you find that they are sinking in the swamp with the rest of us. PRD

Neil said...


Dawkins has got very poor reviews for this book. One of the top American philosophers demolished his arguments very effectively.


Also devasting was a review in the London Review of Books