The Meaning of Life

4 Dec 2012 Dr Donald Cameron Details It is extraordinary that we live our lives in great detail, yet we still have to ask what is its meaning. The religious say that it comes from God while the secular have trouble in defining it. Maybe the meaning of our lives eludes us because it does not exist, but we find that both emotionally unacceptable and a contradiction of our instincts. Science can throw some light on the question.


Tuesday 4th December 2012
Dr Donald Cameron, BRLSI Convenor & Trustee

I must apologise for giving a talk on such a hopeless subject. People have always felt that there must be some meaning to their lives, but never quite seem able to put their finger on it. Monty Python made an amusing film with that title; it entertained splendidly, but did little to offer any serious solution to the problem. I do not know whether we can do any better tonight, but I suspect that the question can at least provoke a good discussion. Maybe it is a good subject for the festive season – or perhaps I should have kept it for the first of April?

The Religious Model

When I was a child I absorbed from the adults around me a relatively coherent picture of the meaning of life. It was essentially a Christian religious one and it was that our life here was a trial run to decide what would become of us for eternity.

It seems that the universe existed as three flat domains one above the other. The middle one was the earth that we are familiar with, but there is a place above called Heaven where everything was as nice as nice could possibly be. [Chicken was relatively more expensive treat in those days and I remember once asking whether there would be chicken for dinner there; I was assured that there would be.] God and the Angels lived there, together with all the dead people who had been good during their lives on earth. Then down below, there was Hell where the Devil and various demons lived and they took charge of the bad dead people whom they tortured with everlasting fire for all eternity.

It seemed pretty important to be in the good group and we were told what goodness consisted of. Certainly we should be nice and do unto others as one would be done by. But it was also important to believe. Atheists, no matter how nicely they behaved, were bound for Hell and no mistake. John 11:26 tells us “And whosoever liveth and believeth in me shall never die.” This doesn’t quite tie up, of course, because although everyone dies, everyone apparently has an afterlife whether he believes or not – it is just a question of where you go – up or down.

I am reminded of the sermon of an old Scottish clergyman who said from the pulpit
Ye’ve all sinned and ye’ll all go down to Hell
And ye’ll look up to the Almighty Lord and ye’ll cry out
Lord, Lord – we sinned and we didnae ken – we sinned and we didnae ken
And the good Lord in his Infinite Mercy will look down on ye and say
Ah weel, ye ken noo.
{On one occasion I had to give an address at a UWE graduation ceremony from the high stone pulpit in Bristol Cathedral. I have to admit that, when looking imperiously down at the congregation, this quotation flitted through my mind on that occasion, although I stuck to my script and resisted the temptation to recite it.)

So that was the picture. This life is a short testing phase to decide where you will go for the rest of time. We even learned nursery rhymes:
1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7,
All good children go to Heaven.
When they die their sins forgiven
1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7.

My mother had died when I was two years old – but I was assured that she was certainly in Heaven. I remember wondering where it was exactly and why I couldn’t talk to her. I remember an older child telling me Heaven was up in the sky and I visualised it a little way above the house roof.

Of course, keeping track of how good or bad someone has been is not a simple task. It seems that God (or perhaps some team of his subordinates) keeps an amazing record of every good and bad thing we do in our entire lives – quite a feat (but no bother for God, of course, because he is magic). Also, people spoke of a day of judgement, but it is never quite clear whether we will all have our individual judgement, soon after we have died, or whether it is one single day at the end of time and we all stay asleep until then.

This picture may be of relatively recent origin. It seems to be a change from an earlier theology in which everyone was damned by original sin and only a few elect would be called to Heaven, no matter what their behaviour record might be. Please excuse another Scottish quotation, but the Scots seem to have a talent for extremes in both religion and scepticism. In the poem “Holy Willie’s Prayer” Burns mocks some of the self-righteous people of the church with an imagined prayer of one of them. The first verse says:

O Thou, that in the heavens doth dwell,
Who as it pleases best Thysel',
Sends ane to Heaven an' ten to Hell,
All for Thy glory,
And no for onie guid or ill
They've done afore Thee!

We can be sure that the earth is a sphere, more or less. That seems to destroy the three-storey universe, but it is possible that we could still bend the model to fit the facts. Hell would be near the centre of the earth and science does tell us that it is hotter there, but astronomy and space flight mean that Heaven must be really, really far away. This does not tie in with the Bible story of God getting angry with some people from Babel who were trying to build a tower to reach Heaven

Of course at the time of my childhood, everyone knew that the earth was a sphere, but seemed willing to forget it when talking about religious matters. The flat-earth, three-storey universe is presented many times in the Old Testament and sometimes in the New, but even when this was being written by priests in Palestine, it was already known in Greece that the world was a sphere.

As a young child, I suppose I soon put this terrifying image to the back of my mind and was just as naughty as I would otherwise have been. But as I grew older, I began to suspect that this was not quite correct and by the time I reached my older teens I felt that the religious picture was so full of holes that it could not be true.

For example, I learned that there are many different and contradictory religions in the world, all fervently believed by their adherents. A few days ago I listened to “Thought for the Day” on Radio 4. The speaker described how he had visited a museum and had wandered into a section which showed representations of gods. Among the artifacts showing historical and eastern gods were images of Jesus. The speaker said that his first thought was to express offence because, he said, “we Christians believe that Jesus is our saviour” and he went on to describe why he thought Jesus special. His unspoken question was “why is our one true god included among all these false gods?” But where is seeing the other fellow’s point of view? What had happened to “doing to others as you would be done by”? Surely all the followers of these other gods believe in them just as sincerely and have much the same standard of evidence to prove their existence?

Richard Dawkins has said, "We are all atheists about most of the gods that humanity has ever believed in. Some of us just go one god further."

I have studied religion for many years, because it would be an unfortunate mistake, if my teenage rejection of it were wrong. But I have found nothing but confirmation. Here are just a few of the reasons why I have reached this conclusion:

There are so many differing religions with contradictory beliefs.
Even the same religion evolves and changes with time.
The Devil is hardly mentioned nowadays although he was a significant character 200 years ago.
The Devil – who created him? For that matter, who created God?
We no longer believe in witchcraft, despite biblical justification for it. (Exodus 22:18)
Terrible cruelties were carried out in the 1600s until eventually the Act of 1725 made it an offence to accuse anyone of malevolent magic.
Christianity is only 2000 years old, but humanity is perhaps 2,000,000 years old
Faith is a process of believing without evidence – so you could have faith in anything.
My teachers said God withheld the evidence to test our faith
If God exists, he goes to great lengths to hide (he is invisible, but even makes false fossils).
If he wants to hide so badly, why does he allow priests to proclaim his existence?
Attempts to prove that prayers are answered with results better than random are all inconclusive.
The history of scripture shows uncertain provenance.
Many of the stories about Jesus are copied from similar earlier stories about other gods.
The Gospels were written from oral traditions long after any witnesses were dead.
The decision of which texts were canonical and which apocryphal was a very human one.
Evolution has shown the falsehood of Genesis; animals were created by natural selection.
Geology has shown the falsehood of Genesis; the earth is 4.5 billion years old; not 6500 years.
Navigation has shown the falsehood of the biblical flat earth.
Astronomy has shown the falsehood of the earth being static at the centre of the universe.
Aviation and space flight has shown that there is no heaven within a tower-building height range.
Neuroscience and the electrochemical function of the brain leave no room for the concept of a soul.
Personality change following brain injury or mental illness are also difficult for the soul theory.
Biology’s discovery of vast numbers of species shows the falsehood of the Ark story.
The human body shows many flaws – it has unintelligent design.
People often die from crime or their own or other’s blunders – not a divine call to judgement.
More than 250,000 people die every day; you could “meet your maker” for less than 1/3 second.
If God is all-good and almighty, why does he allow so much evil and suffering?
The creator must be sadistic (carnivores and prey, ichneumon wasps, parasites, viruses).
If the Bible is true, God committed genocide by flooding.
God killed many people and ordered many murders and slavery is acceptable! (Lev 25:44-46)
Does God really have such a massive appetite for praise as is supposed? Would he deserve it?
The idea of original sin over some apples is absurd.
How did he die for our sins, if we had not done them yet?
If they were preordained can we reasonably be blamed?
Why did God need Jesus’ very unpleasant death before he could see his way clear to forgive us?
At other times, people speak of God and Jesus as the same person.
The idea of the Trinity was deliberately made incomprehensible as a political fudge.
The pain of childbirth has been described as punishment for Eve’s sin.
(Really, it is a consequence of a recently evolved large brain!)
Some priests declare that earthquakes etc. are God’s punishment for liberal politics.
And why is so much hatred and violence inspired by religion?
What I find hardest to believe about religion is that intelligent people continue to believe it!


The Materialist Model

So I abandoned the religious explanation, but that still leaves a problem. We instinctively feel that our lives are important and meaningful, but, if we reject the religious meaning then what is it? The evidence only supports the materialist model, but to many people, perhaps to some people here tonight, even to myself, that is very hard to accept. Of course, our strong instinct that life has a meaning is not proof that it has. Maybe it has no meaning. Maybe we are simply animals produced by the evolutionary process that will be extinguished by a dying sun in a few million years time?

If our understanding of life is correct, life began when some molecules began to form on similar molecules which were acting like templates. On the face of it, this is little more remarkable than crystallisation, but unlike that, it led to complexity. Replication, given that random variation also occurred, meant that some replicators reproduced themselves more than others and became more numerous. But that had no meaning, no purpose; it was just a chemical reaction that happened to happen.

For the first billion years or so, life (if we can call it that) probably remained at the scale of molecules, leaving not much in the way of fossilised traces. But eventually more complex structures began to evolve; cells and then groups of cells. Organisms that could react more appropriately to different conditions had some advantage and so were selected. Over billions of years the ability to process information and take action were selected more and more. Nervous systems, sense organs and brains developed.

Although some other animals exceed our powers in certain skills, our own brain is probably the most powerful of any species. We can think of the sense of smell of a dog and its ability to create an odour map of its surroundings or the echolocation of a bat. It is difficult to visualise that the bat’s brain can construct a picture of its environment, perhaps as good as we can get from vision, by reflected sound, although I have been told that blind people develop a small amount of this ability.

But it is not a false claim to say that the human brain is the most advanced. It has allowed us to extend our range far from its African birthplace by building houses and clothes and domesticating animals and plants to serve our purpose. We are so successful that we are multiplying with the proportions of a plague and we are causing many of the world’s other species to go extinct. Our numbers, and the things that we do using our brains, are so great that we are even poisoning the environment that is needed for our own existence.

But we must remember that our brains were formed in all their vast complexity to satisfy a very simple criterion. Some brains caused their owners to transmit their genes better to later generations; those genes became more numerous in the population. The ones that didn’t, didn’t. It seems a natural conclusion from this that there is no meaning, no purpose. We are simply a rather complex chemical phenomenon which will be of temporary duration. We are built to transmit our genes to future generations; no other criterion has contributed to our design.

Obviously an evolved animal with an information processing capacity will develop a sense of purpose. Objectives such as survival, reproduction and many minor objectives contributing to these will, of course get programmed into their brains. But there is no purpose beyond these instincts.

So perhaps I should end there. There is no meaning to our lives except to play out the role that has been programmed into us to eat, survive and reproduce before dying and leaving the world to our offspring. So nothing really matters, although we can understand why we think it does, because evolution has programmed our brains to think so.



I cannot remember who said, “If it’s true that we are here to help others, then what exactly are the others here for?” But seriously, we must ask, what could be the natural or materialistic basis of morality?

We all have an in-built instinct to morality, anybody who doesn’t would be quite abnormal, even the worst of us have this sense. But where do these instincts come from? Like every other part of our physical and mental equipment it comes from our evolutionary past.

Some people have dismissed this by assuming that evolution would produce only selfishness – “nature red in tooth and claw”. Evolution works by natural selection, so it should produce organisms that try to get their progeny to survive. They should be neutral to others or even try to destroy them because they are competition. By this logic, my attitude to my fellow human should be to destroy him, and since he is made of ideal nutrients, to eat him.

But this is very far from the real human nature that we observe. Certainly there are cultural differences, but no humans think like this. It only takes a few moments of reflection to understand why the nature-red-in-tooth-and-claw argument does not work. Think about the environments in which our ancestors have evolved. Imagine that you are a member of a tribe of hunter gatherers or that you live in a small agricultural village. Would you really leave more progeny by being totally selfish and aggressive? Of course not.

So how could our moral sense have evolved? We have heard a number of talks touching on this in our recent Philosophy Programme and we should be familiar with the concept of the prisoner’s dilemma and the payoff matrix. In essence this sets out the fundamental problem of cooperation.

Let us suppose I am playing a game with a partner. If we both cooperate we each receive 8 points; If we both defect we each receive 2 points. But if one cooperates and the other defects, the defector will receive 10 points while the cooperator is a sucker who receives zero.

How can we work out a strategy for this game? Does it depend on my partner’s choice?
Let us suppose he cooperates; then I would get 8 points, if I cooperate, and 10 points, if I defect. So it is better for me to defect.
Now let us suppose he defects; then I would get two points, if I defect and zero, if I cooperate, making me a sucker. So, in this case too, it is better to defect.
Whichever choice my partner makes I get more points by defecting and, of course, my partner can work out the same answer, so it looks as if both of us will defect and we will receive two points each.
Yet what a sad conclusion, because we could have had 8 points each had we both cooperated.

This simple model captures much of the essence of our evolution of morality. If there is only a single trial, probably both players will defect and the benefits of cooperation will be lost, but if there are multiple trials and memory and perhaps communication, maybe it is possible to reap the benefits of cooperation. There have been computer simulations of populations of simple robots with different cooperate/defect rules in which reproductive success depends on the points earned. Cooperators tend to prevail in the end, although only those who punish defectors in the preceding trial. Suckers who cooperate unconditionally disappear quickly from the population.

The real world of morality is, of course, much more complex than this simple model. We have developed many mechanisms to prop up the unstable structure of cooperation. We have laws, contracts, money, policemen, locks, fences, passwords, entrance tickets and many other ways of combating the cheats. And we are not always in simple one-to-one games but are often playing a multi-person game. Display altruism is important, because reputation can determine the trust that others will allow and a bad reputation can cost dear. We can observe people making bigger public donations at a charity ball than they would do in private.

In this picture, we can recognise human nature as it is in our everyday lives. We all have a sense of morality, but we do not sell everything we have we have and give it to the poor. We approach each other with the aim of cooperation, but we have efficient antennae to detect cheats. A civilised country is one in which the mechanisms to ensure cooperative behaviour is efficiently set up, but our newspapers and televisions are full of reports of occasions where it has broken down.

We can also see elements of the cooperate/defect dilemma in our own society. People in small villages are more altruistic than people in large cities, because they will probably have to cooperate with the same people again. People living on poorer estates often seem to be the authors of their own misfortune by their bad behaviour. But if one is brought up in an environment where cooperative approaches are often met with defection, a habit and a culture of defection can build up. Yet even within criminal groups, there are codes of cooperation – honour among thieves.

We can see why this morality has evolved. It is a morality which we extend towards those who we believe will reciprocate. We do to others as we would have them do to us provided they actually do it, otherwise we lose patience with them.

This morality, which is a good approximation to what might evolve, leaves us a long way short of saintly behaviour. But it is evolution that has put it there and the optimum morality for evolution is that which transmits the maximum number of offspring of its bearers to the next generation. That is different to what we normally consider as ethics, yet it is the only way to understand it. There is probably no way to “improve” our underlying genetic morality, even if would be a good thing to do so, which I am uncertain about. A population of suckers would be very vulnerable to the growth of cheats. But, as history shows us, we can certainly negotiate better forms of cooperation and build better mechanisms to support them. And better education and training of our children can turn them into adults who are better cooperators.

Of course some will not agree with this. They will allege that our moral sense has been installed in our brains by God, but that argument does not stand up to examination. If he wanted our moral sense to be to a particular standard, why did he not just create us that way? Are we asked to believe that he did a less-than-perfect job of it and then he leaves us to risk damnation by following our created instincts?

[A questioner asked how our sense of sanctity of human life could have evolved. The answer was to consider a state of humanity in which this did not exist and consider what would be the evolutionary pressure. Obviously evolution would rapidly favour those who valued their own survival. There would then be a very big payoff in entering a treaty with others to desist from killing them in return for them doing the same for oneself. People who succeeded in establishing this cooperation would survive and reproduce more than those who didn’t. But, of course, we do not reestablish this cooperation anew in every generation because the advantage has been there for millions of years – that is why it is hard-wired into our brains.]



But this conclusion is very unsatisfying. I would guess that there will be a minority in this room who will be satisfied with it. I am not satisfied with it myself and I would much prefer that the religious model were true. The last YouGov statistics have shown that, in this country 55% of people describe themselves as Christian, 5% have other religions and 40% report no religion. We can be sure that there will be different views on the meaning of life which I look forward to hearing in a moment.

But I think we are all united in feeling an instinct that our lives have a meaning or purpose. Certainly it is not hard to understand how evolved life forms like ourselves have developed this belief, so we could, nevertheless, be wrong in that feeling. Our brains have not been designed as machines for discovering the truth; rather they are decision-making machines serving our survival and reproduction.

But we do not feel like simply reproducing machines which have no purpose other than to make more reproducing machines. We can point to many values that we hold dear which seem to have nothing to do with that. Surely there is more to life than simply passing it on? Of course, when people say surely is a sure sign that they are not so sure. Yet it does seem hard to explain.

Of course, to understand our instincts, we must not look at the world of big cities, financial systems and high technology. We did not evolve in this environment and are probably not very well adapted to it, but even then it is hard to explain.

Perhaps I will stop there and invite discussion. We live with the contrast and utter incompatibility of the religious model, the scientific model and our internal feelings. Where can we go from here?