Meaning of Life

Tuesday, January 18, 2005
First Aired: 
Tuesday, May 18, 2004

What Is It

Does life have a meaning? If we were created by a powerful God, would that give our lives meaning? Who gave God's existence meaning? What if we were created by a crazy scientist wholly for the purpose of irritating their spouse? John and Ken search for meaning with Howard Wettstein from UC Riverside.

Listening Notes

What is the meaning of life? To that end, what is meant by the meaning of life? Is it the meaning of human life in general, or the meaning of life to each particular person living it? Many people find the question of the meaning of life a religious one. As John argues, our lives could stand for something or be given meaning by a deity just as we give meaning to the words we utter. But, Ken objects, why should we have meaning simply because we were created by God? There is always the question of how God got his/her meaning. Furthermore, as Kant argued, human beings could just as plausibly be ends in themselves with the autonomy to define their own meaning for their lives.  Even if there isn't an answer to the question of life's meaning, there is still the need to get through the day to day. Perhaps the question is not so much about the meaning of life, but about living it; answering the question “How should I live?” and finding something beyond yourself to help discover an answer.

Howard Wettstein studied at Notre Dame where he became an atheist. Soon after leaving the college, however, he found religion in the midst of personal loss. When his mother died, Wettstein found comfort in a God—not in terms of life after death or the unreality of death which he feels are illusions, but in terms of meaning. So, Ken asks Wettstein about the meaning he was seeking in reflecting on his mother's death. What did he mean by “meaning”: what does meaning mean? In philosophy of language especially, this question is hard to pin down. Wettstein argues that it is better to talk about significance or its derivative, importance, rather than meaning itself. Whether or not someone attaches importance to something beyond herself she must still need to find significance in who she is and what she is doing.

While he was at Notre Dame, Wettstein met a professor studying the philosophy of religion. In one of their conversations, the professor spotted an ant hill and remarked that without God, his life would be as meaningless as the lives of the ants on the hill. But for Wettstein, this didn't seem like a case of meaninglessness at all. It occurred to him that people who believe strongly in God could still feel their lives are meaningless. On the other hand, atheists who have significant projects and relationships could feel their lives are full of meaning. So, it seems to still be unclear as to how religion helps bring meaning to a person's life.

  • Roving Philosophical Reporter (Seek To 00:04:21): In San Francisco, Amy Standen takes a poll of various men and women on the meaning of life. There are, she says, as many different types of people as there are philosophies.
  • Sixty-Second Philosopher (Seek To 00:49:59): What is the meaning of life? Throughout the millennia, different philosophers had different answers. Existentialists think life has no meaning. Wittgenstein believed that the question itself was meaningless. Darwinians, of course, thought the meaning of life was to produce more life. If we change the question to be how to gain satisfaction from life, we get a whole new set of answers.