Saturday, December 20, 2014

Some Things to Read About the Meaning of Life

One of my MCCC philosophy students wrote this request to me: "I was wondering if I could get book suggestions about philosophy on life. Life in general."

Here are some thoughts I have.

I assume the request is for writings on the meaning of life. I don't take the request to be about the science of physical life (life as composed of cells, which are composed of nuclei, cytoplasm, mitochondria, etc.). 

So, assuming this is asking for readings on life's meaning (in my philosophy classes we talk about this), here are some thoughts I have. 

  • In philosophy life-questions are understood in terms of worldviews. Everyone has a worldview. A worldview shapes how one understands the meaning of life.
  • I define "meaning" as: fitness in a context. For example, one reason I do not understand a certain joke is that I don't share the joke's context. A worldview provides the broader context within which things have or don't have meaning. 
  • Many believe that, within the worldview of atheism, "life" has no meaning (ultimately). This is called nihilism. Or, perhaps, on atheism the meaning of life is that life has no meaning, to include no purpose, no telos. On atheism "life in general" is meaningless and purposeless. And, "life in general" is only physical. See Peter Watson's The Age of Atheists: How We Have Sought to Live Since the Death of God for atheistic attempts to find life's meaning, if there is any meaning to be found.
  • For life to have meaning there must be a "Narrative." Certain philosophies and all the world religions provide narratives, some of which are competing narratives and some of which are complementary.
  • On Christian theism "life on general" finds its meaning in the purposes of a Creator God. Like an artist creates a work of art to express meaning and purpose, so God has created the universe to express the same.
  • What's needed is to read and study worldviews. Two main intellectual disciplines that do this are philosophy and religion. 
  • For philosophy I would suggest Anthony Kenny's An Illustrated Brief History of Western Philosophy. I like Norman Melchert's The Great Conversation: A Historical Introduction to Philosophy. And Tom Morris's Philosophy for Dummies is excellent. (Morris is a very good philosopher.) 
  • For religion I recommend Derek Cooper's Christianity and World Religions: An Introduction to the World's Major Faiths. I also like Stephen Prothero's recent God Is Not One: The Eight Rival Religions That Run the World - and Why Their Differences Matter. See also C.S. Lewis's Mere Christianity on life's meaning as understood in Christianity. 
  • Art, music, and literature also provide narrative frameworks for life's meaning. In literature, for example, my Christian theistic worldview is represented in writers such as Annie Dillard, Flannery O'Connor, Frederick Buechner, and C.S. Lewis.