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What's it all about?

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Listen to Alfie right now. Click to comment. Why, then, was Russell left speechless by the taxi driver? Because the question itself is a hodgepodge. It defies a simple answer because it needs to be carefully unpacked and dissected before it even makes sense. That's why Douglas Adams' gag about the answer to the question of life, the universe and everything being 42 is so insightful. You can't expect to get a sensible answer unless you ask a sensible question.

But what the hell is "What's the meaning of life? They may be grammatical, but so are "What's the meaning of cheese?

We think of the quest for life's meaning as like a journey along a yellow brick road which will lead us to an awesome, mysterious source of all the answers. The truth is that, like the Wizard of Oz, the grandeur and remoteness of the meaning of life is all front.

What's It All About?: Philosophy and the Meaning of Life

Pull back the curtain and the mystery vanishes. If the meaning of life is not some esoteric piece of wisdom, a hidden key that, once discovered, will unlock the secrets of the universe and end our quest for understanding, then what is it? It might help to start by trying to imagine what the taxi driver really wanted to know. The most natural interpretation is that he was puzzled by why we are all here.

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But even that is ambiguous. Is that a question about where we came from or where we're going?

Compare that to a more mundane question, such as why on earth you are sitting in the front row waiting for a Celine Dion concert to begin. One answer is because you bought a ticket, took a train and then your seat. That explains why you're there in a backward-looking way. Another answer is that you're there because you want to hear Dion sing, which explains your presence in a forward-looking though somewhat baffling way.

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The explanation you are interested in depends on what you need to know. If you just wake up to find yourself in this nightmare scenario, it's the backward-looking explanation you need. If you're having last-minute doubts about the wisdom of your choice of entertainment, the forward-looking explanation is what should exercise you. I never thought I would say this, but in this very particular sense, life is like a Celine Dion concert: if we want to know why we are here, we can look backwards or forwards, and the answers we get, or fail to get, are very different and satisfy different needs.

It is perhaps surprising how often it is assumed that a look back to our origins will lead us to the meaning of life. Humanists believe that life ends at death, because the mind is part of the body and there is no evidence or reason to suggest that it can ever survive without the rest of the body.

What’s It All About?

People often fear death, but it is the fact of death that brings structure to our lives. Without death but with eternal life, what could motivate us to do anything, to care for others, to seek achievements — what would be the point? For humanists, the answers are present in humanity, in our relationships, aspiration and experiences. In any case, the belief that an external god is necessary for meaning is incoherent.

If for there to be meaning and purpose in human lives there needs to be something external, then we should ask what gives meaning and purpose to gods? There would need to be something further still, and the appeal to god as meaning simply pushes the ultimate question back a stage.