I am one of various humanists asked about meaning in life on Buzzfeed today by Tom Chivers.
Like all these things, it’s been edited a bit so here’s the full version of my response!
I can’t see any trace of ultimate purpose or direction to the universe in which we find ourselves, so there’s no meaning to be had from that source. When we talk about meaning in life, I think we have to be talking about the meaning we give to our own experiences; the gloss we put on what happens to us and what we do; the bigger shape we give to all these things in our own heads. This is the meaning that we create individually and collectively. Human beings for thousands of years have exerted themselves to carve out safe spaces in an indifferent universe – camps and villages and towns and cities obviously, but also laws and philosophies and religions and stories.
People ask how you can find any meaning in life when you know that one day you’ll be dead and in due course nothing of you will survive at all – not even people’s memories. This question has never made sense to me. When I’m reading a good book, or eating a good meal, or taking a scenic walk, or enjoying an evening with friends, or having sex, I don’t spend the whole time thinking, ‘Oh no! This book won’t last forever; this food will be gone soon; my walk will stop; my evening will end! – and so on.’ I enjoy the experiences. Although it’s stretched out over a (hopefully) much longer time, that’s the same way I think about life. We are here, we are alive. We can either choose to end that, or to embrace it and to live for as long as we can as fully and richly as possible.
Obviously this means that we all have different meanings in our lives – things that give us pleasure and purpose. The most meaningful experiences in my life have been relationships with people – friends and family, colleagues and classmates. I love connecting with other people and finding out more about them. I enjoy the novels and histories that I read for the same reason and I like to feel connected to the people who have gone before us. I hope that the work I do in different areas of my life will make the world a better place for people now and in the future and I feel connected to those future people too, all as part of a bigger human story.