Bob Sharpe (1935-2006), Emeritus Professor of Philosophy at the University of Wales, Lampeter
Philosophy Now 24:15-15 (1999)
Forget about the meaning of life for a moment! Think about the normal use of ‘meaning’. I can ask “What does this sentence mean?” and the answer is something I find out. Equally I might ask “What did he mean by saying that?” and again discover the answer. The same goes for an action such as a gesture. That gesture is insulting; what he meant by that gesture of dismissal was precisely that, a rude dismissal of what you say. These are actions whose meaning I discover.
What light does all this throw on the question of the meaning of life? At first sight, the question as to what life means looks absurd. Remarks made in a language have a meaning; language itself does not. Actions within a life have a meaning; life does not. So since a life is neither an utterance nor an action, the question “What is the meaning of life?” must be understood rather differently – as “What is the point of life?” or “What is the purpose of life?” The characteristic use of the definite article here suggests that life is presumed to have a single overall purpose and one which is something we might discover. To ask for the meaning of life is presumed to be no odder than to ask “What did he mean by doing that?” or “What is that tool for?” or “What is the significance of that obelisk?” Religious authorities are, of course, on hand to tell us the answer. Thus the shorter catechism tells us that the purpose of life is to glorify God. But why, you might ask, should that confer value on my life? Unless this is something which is intrinsically worthwhile, this will not make my life valuable. And even in the unlikely event of my finding this to be of intrinsic value, it is worth pointing out that the Lord did not consult me before allotting me this purpose. After all, I would not be mollified if I found out that the purpose of my life and that of all the other human beings on the planet was to provide light entertainment for some race of celestial beings. I would not think that that gave a value to my life.
This is not to say that my life might not have a purpose which was instrumental. For example, I might decide to devote my life to the care of AIDS sufferers and, at its end, I might look back with a measure of satisfaction at what I had used it for. But the point surely is that this purpose derives from my values and choices and other people have different values and choices.
Now in both these cases, certain assumptions are made which I intend to question. It is assumed that if life has an overall purpose, then it has a value and that if it has no overall purpose, it has no value. Neither assumption seems to me tenable. Perhaps the problem ultimately stems from the fact that ‘meaning’ is ambiguous. It can either be equivalent to 'significance' or it can connote ‘purpose’. The first implies value, the second does not. To say that life is meaningless may be to say that it is purposeless or it may be to say that it is of no significance or value. The two claims are distinct and I shall suggest that the first does not entail the second.
My life might have an overall purpose which I fulfil and which makes it valuable or it might not. It depends. The man who devoted his life to the care of sufferers from AIDS had a single overall purpose, the fulfilling of which we would say gave value to his life. But it seems that Hitler also had an overall purpose in life which he went a long way towards fulfilling. He all but destroyed European Jewry. But we would not conclude thereby that his life had positive value. Perhaps fortunately, most lives have no overall purpose or point. It certainly does not follow from this that they are valueless. There is no one aim for which I have lived my life. I have had a diversity of aims and purposes, some of which are more important, some of which are less so, some of which I have accomplished and some not. The lack of an overall purpose does not deprive it of value. In any case, it is not particularly uncommon for a man or a woman who has some overriding purpose to fail in that but to succeed at something else which is of value. Sir Arthur Sullivan wanted to be a great composer of heavyweight music and was not at all pleased when told by Ethyl Smyth that his masterpiece was The Mikado.
Most human lives are meaningless in that they have no overriding purpose. It does not follow that they have no value or significance. Indeed they may achieve more and do less harm than those who are devoted to some grand plan.