Is There Meaning and Purpose to Life?
Recently, while watching television, I saw a commercial for the program “Through the Wormhole” hosted and narrated by actor Morgan Freeman. Although Freeman has played God in one movie, he is neither a philosopher nor a theologian. Although he hosts and narrates a television program about science aired on the Science channel he is not a scientist. He is an actor.
During the commercial for “Through the Wormhole” Freeman muses about the perennial search for life’s meaning and how almost everyone asks about the meaning of life at some time. Then he says (paraphrasing) that he does not believe life has any meaning but that it can have purpose. Finally he concludes this little monologue by saying that life’s purpose is up to each individual to decide.
I have often complained here that too often scientists and non-scientists talking about science step over a line into philosophy without admitting it and people who do not know any better often think what they say is warranted by science. In fact, science cannot tell us whether life has meaning or purpose or not. And an actor’s opinion about it should carry no more weight than anyone else’s. And yet, as host and narrator of “Through the Wormhole” on the Science channel, and with his deep voice and serious look and acting ability, I fear many people take Freeman’s opinion as more than mere opinion.
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I do not think the “meaning of life” can be discovered apart from its being revealed by life’s Creator. Lacking such a revelation all theories about that will remain nothing more than opinions without proof or even evidence. However, not all claims about revelations of the meaning of life are thereby rendered equal. Some are more reasonable than others. That there is no meaning of life, however, is at least depressing and at most nihilistic. And, in my opinion, such a claim lends itself to “anomie.”
But I want to hone in especially on Freeman’s claim that life’s “purpose” is up to each individual to decide.
The other day I saw an episode of a movie or television program (I was only half watching) in which a young man defended a victim from a deadly attack by picking up a hammer—the only “weapon” at hand—and hitting the attacker on the head with it. Now, does that make the “purpose” of a hammer “to hit someone on the head?” Nobody would say so. That would be at the very least counterintuitive and at the most absurd.In ordinary language we would say that hitting an attacker on the head with the hammer was its use in that immediate context but not its purpose for existing. A hammer’s purpose for being a hammer includes a range of things, but hitting someone on the head is not in that range. It can be used for that and it can be useful for that, but that does not fall within its purpose.
My point is that if the “purpose of life” is truly only up to each individual to decide, then life has no purpose—not in the ordinary language sense of “purpose.” Saying that life’s purpose is up to each individual to decide is the same as saying life’s use is up to each individual to decide, but reducing “purpose” to “use” is to empty “purpose” of its ordinary meaning; it is to misuse it.
Even more, I would argue against Freeman that the claim that life’s purpose is up to each individual to decide is to empty life of any real purpose at all. It is nothing more than saying life has no purpose.
When adolescent boys (for example) are taught in school—via pseudo-science film clips like Freeman’s—that science says life has no meaning and its purpose is up to each individual to decide–the first thing that pops into their heads is a thought best summed up by the occult credo “Do what thou wilt shall be the whole of the law.” And the adolescent boy who connects the dots that way is not wrong.
Fortunately, we can say with confidence that Freeman’s opinion is not supported by science; it is nothing more than his opinion and he is not even a philosopher, let alone a scientist. He’s only (so far as I know) an actor.
The effect of Freeman’s statement, made in that way and in that context, reminds me of the old television commercial in which an actor promoting an over-the-counter medicine says to the audience “I’m not a doctor, but I did play one on television.” Of course, even then, that was satire. Unfortunately, Freeman’s statement is not (I assume) satire.
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