…entre nous soit dit…

between me you and the gatepost.

Philosophy Essay Two: The Meaning of Life.

“Human life can only have meaning if God exists and there is an afterlife.” Demonstrate why this claim is true or false.

Many people hold different beliefs as to what the meaning of life is, and for thousands of years, philosophers and theologians have pondered over the truth of it – some producing theories on the subject. Among them are Epictetus, a Greek-born Roman slave who developed theories on stoicism and Robert Nozick who wrote about ‘The Experience Machine’ [1] and held an anti-hedonistic viewpoint. While both of these philosophers developed different ideas, they both shared a common goal: trying to understand what the most important thing in our lives is. Many believe that through theology and belief we gain meaning to our lives, but what if there is no God and no afterlife? Can we still have meaning? Atheists believe that there is no meaning to our lives, but we seem to be unable to accept this so we ‘have to invent meaning (and as a result we create) religions and areas of study which help structure and give explanation and purpose to our lives.’ [2] Although some believe this – that we use religion as an explanation for the meaning of our lives – others such as Nozick and Epictetus developed other ideas and tried to prove that there can in fact be meaning to our lives if there is indeed no god or afterlife.

While neither philosopher directly denies god and religion, each one says that there are other things more important. Epictetus writes that what matters for a good life (for most) is a peaceful state of mind that is tranquil. He insists that ‘all your attention must be given to the mind’ [3] and that the ‘price of a quiet mind’ and ‘freedom from passion’ [4] is by only caring about the things that are within your control – this includes everything that is our own doing – and to ignore all that is not in our control. Robert Nozick, on the other hand, does not condemn passion and desire or focus on the tranquillity of the mind, but instead says that in our lifetime it is not only our experiences and happiness that give our lives meaning, but also the contact with reality that we have. Nozick states ‘What else can matter to us, other than how our lives feel from the inside?’ [5] He then proposes for the reader to imagine that there is a machine that can simulate any experience we want, and asks the question do you plug yourself in? Nozick takes the stance that it’s not merely the experience that creates meaning in your life, but the lessons learnt and how actually doing those things forms you as a person, however for this to occur you can not have a simulated and unrealistic experience. This is completely contrary to a hedonistic view, which dictates that happiness is the only thing that matters in life – no matter how it is gained. Other philosophies can be seen to draw from hedonism, such as utilitarianism, which believes in the maximisation of utility for a good life [6]. The common factor throughout all these theories, however, is that mankind can search for, or reach, meaning in their life without the necessity of God or an afterlife.

Nozick and Epictetus seem to clash on the ideas of the involvement of emotion, passion and desire. While Nozick is relatively ambiguous as to how much weight must be given to happiness and contact with reality, he is certain that they must both be present. It can be assumed that to be happy you must have passion and emotion, and care for things that are “not in your control” as Epictetus would say. Based on this, with this happiness comes the contact with reality that Nozick describes as necessary, and in turn the downside of life that balances the out the happiness we are granted through our experiences. Without this touch of reality, we would be plugged into the theoretical “experience machine” unknowingly and without any individuality. We would not form self-identities and we would not be able to question reality. Of all the things granted to humans, some would argue that the ability to question “Why?” is one of the greatest and we need this contact with reality in order to use this ability. However, these emotions that comes with Nozick’s ideas are not included in Epictetus’ idea of a good life. Epictetus believes that all we need to have is a tranquil mind at peace with nature, and in achieving this, we shall also achieve contentedness. In a modern day society, Epictetus’ ideas may be seen as being submissive and impassive, but this is how he intends them. He says that ‘you will only be harmed, when you think you are harmed’ [7] and that the signs of a person that is making progress at achieving this tranquillity ‘blames none, praises none, complains of none, accuses none, never speaks of himself as if he were somebody, or as if he knew anything’ [8]. All of these aspects, nevertheless, would go against Nozick’s ideas of experience and contact with reality, because they veto the person from both feeling and passion, as well as the ability to adeptly question “why?” Despite these differences, both theorists have created plausible theories that would give, what they consider to be, meaning to our lives without the need of god or an afterlife.

Both stoicism, as described by Epictetus, and anti-hedonism, as argued by Nozick, can produce viable theories about what gives meaning to mankind’s individual existence without the need of God or an afterlife. Each philosopher comes to his own conclusion through different ideas, both with their positive and negative aspects to the lifestyle. Stoicism disregards emotion and passion for contentedness and tranquillity of mind, and in return doesn’t allow the person to be either hurt, or conversely, experience the joys of life fully; and Anti-Hedonism, which allows both as much happiness as we can gain, as well as contact with reality through our real experiences, that help to shape the person we become. Both theories involve self-development and education of the mind, whether it be questioning reality and life, or disciplining it to be at peace with nature. Neither of the theories involves the blind following of a religion created to satisfy our need for meaning to our existence, and in turn the necessity of a God or an afterlife.



·      Manual’ extracted from: Oates, W.J. (ed), (1940). The Stoic and Epicurean Philosophers. (New York: Random House)

·      BonJour, L. (ed), Baker, A. (ed),(2008) Philosophical Problems: An annotated Anthology, (Second Edition) (United States: Pearson Longman)

·      The Experience Machine’ extracted from: Nozick, R., (1974). Anarchy, State, and Utopia. (New York: Basic Books)

·      Hawthorn, E., (1998). Atheism for Survival. (Australia: The National Library of Australia Cataloguing in Publication)


May 20, 2009 Posted by | essays, homework, life, morals, observation, philosophy, School Work, university | Leave a comment