What’s it all about? Philosophy and the Meaning of Life

Julian Baggini, co-editor of The Philosopher's Magazine, was one of the featured speakers at our 2006 London Conference, "Is there a Me?". Rob Wheeler, who led the conference organisation committee, reviews Julian's book What's It All About? Granta Books (London). 2005. 224 pages. Pbk. £7.99. ISBN: 1862077800

A topic like The Meaning of Life does seem to suggest that some kind of deep mystery is going to be unveiled and Baggini is anxious to disabuse us right from the outset. If there were a big secret then it is likely it would have got around by now and, he might have added, that since the advent of the internet it would probably have been in everyone’s inbox. It’s not that kind of a question. What’s it all about? is a place-holder for a number of other questions: Why are we here? What is the purpose of life? Is it enough just to be happy? Is my life serving some greater purpose? Are we here to help ourselves or others? etc. Furthermore ‘...the question is not one that can be solved by discovery of new evidence. It is rather to be solved by thinking about the issues on which the evidence remains silent’.

The answer that the book gives is ‘deflationary’. By this the author means that ‘...it reduces the mythical, single and mysterious question of ‘the meaning of life’ to a series of smaller and utterly unmysterious questions about various meanings in life.’ That said, the message of the book is far from being a series of simple platitudes consonant with everyone’s intuitions. There are some serious and worthwhile insights offered here.

Baggini begins by considering the idea that we can discover the meaning of our lives by determining our origins. For instance if we are made by God, that must guarantee our meaning while if we are the simply the result of the impersonal DNA in our genes mindlessly reproducing themselves, that seems to trivialise our lives and rob them of meaning. He draws an interesting parallel here between our own predicament and that of the monster created by Dr Frankenstein. The monster comes across the journal of his creator and discovers exactly why he exists but that does not enlighten or console him. The creator may have a purpose in mind for my life but it only becomes my meaning if I own it and commit myself to it intentionally.

Baggini then goes on to consider how our mortality affects the meaning of our life. It is often supposed that if there is no afterlife then our present life is rendered worthless. Baggini asks that if our present life is meaningless how extending it infinitely can render it meaningful? On the other hand if it can be meaningful now it does not require immortality to render it more so. Indeed the very fact that certain experiences are fleeting and time-bound can be essential to their value to us.

All questions about meaning and purpose follow a chain of why/because. The questions children ask are often of this interminable kind. Each answer is never accepted and leads to yet another question in an infinite chain. In practice there is an end to the chain when we arrive at something that is said to have intrinsic value or is an end in itself. Baggini argues that when we seek the meaning of our lives then we are looking for something here and now that has value for us.

He examines six values that are commonly held to offer purpose and meaning in our lives. These are helping others altruistically; the notion of serving the human species as a whole; enjoying each day as if it were our last; losing your ego by surrendering to a wider reality; seeking personal success and simply pursuing happiness. All are rejected as insufficient to give our lives meaning but all are affirmed as containing an ingredient of the good life.

If you have ever lain in bed in those dark, lonely tea-times of the soul and asked yourself ‘Why are we here?’ and ‘What’s it all about?’ then this is the book for you!