The Meaning of Life

The Meaning of Life February 22, 2010

This is the first of a four-part exclusive interview with Professor A C Grayling, first published in 2010

PETER BRIETBART meets world-renowned philosopher, humanist and atheist A C GRAYLING, Professor of Philosophy at Birkbeck, University of London and a supernumerary fellow of St Anne’s College, Oxford. He is a prolific author, whose works include Against All Gods, Liberty in the Age of Terror and Ideas That Matter, and he is a regular contributor to the Guardian newspaper. Their discussion ranges from burqa bans to circumcision, free will, great literature and the right to die.

The interview is split into four parts. Here in part 1, we ask Grayling about purpose in life, what inspires him, if he thinks a ban on the burqa would be justified and how he responds to the idea that science is “unweaving the rainbow”.
PB: The universe can be a difficult and confusing place. How are we to find direction or purpose?
ACG: The direction and purpose of individual lives are a function of the work that an individual puts into creating them. When people ask “What is the meaning of life?”, the answer is that it’s the meaning you impose on it. It’s the aim you set for yourself. There are many different kinds of good lives, and many kinds of valid meaning in life — as many as there are talents for living them. We’ve all got different such talents.
The challenge we’re offered is as old as Socrates and probably older. Socrates said that the “considered life”, in effect meaning the “chosen life”, is the good life — always of course, under the government of principles that stop you from harming other people or preventing them from being able to form a good life for themselves.
So the idea is that we have to think about what we want to achieve, why we want to achieve it, what our capabilities are for achieving it, what we value — and then the pursuit of those values is what makes our lives good to live.
PB: And personally? What gets you out of bed in the morning? What drives you, what inspires you?
ACG: Lots of things! I’ve always wanted to try to understand this world of ours and the human predicament: how best to live, how to form good relationships – for these lie at the heart of good lives – especially friendships and affectionate relationships.
The business of thinking philosophically also involves reflecting on literature and the other narrative arts, which can tell us so much about human experience, helping us to reflect on our own experiences and our efforts to create something of value from it.
We’re all equipped with an ability to create value. In my case the effort is made through teaching and writing, trying to make a difference to if possible by taking part in the conversation that humanity has with itself about what matters.
So that’s what gets me up in the morning, because there’s a lot to be done! There are a lot of problems in the world, and one would like to try to be involved in understanding them and to making some contribution, however small, to solving them.
PB: A change of tack now, from the philosophical to the political. France is currently considering banning the burqa. Do you consider such an act justified, and would you support the UK doing likewise?
ACG: First it’s important to note that what is meant by “banning the burqa” is that any French citizen who accesses public provisions of the French state, such as education or welfare, is required to do so as a French citizen, rather than as a member of one or another self-selected identity group such as constitutes a religion. I don’t think France is asking anybody not to wear their religious symbols or their religious dress in their own private time.
What it’s saying is, if you want to access public provision in some way, don’t come disguised, masked, or wearing any major religious symbol, which seems to give the message that you’re demanding you be treated differently. So in principle I’m very much with laïcité, the idea of having a neutral, equal public domain, where you’re not going to listen to attempts by people to say, “look, I’m wearing a big crucifix” or, “look I’m covering my head” so, “you’ve got to treat me differently.”
I think the same should be true here. We’ve already had some similar difficulties about a woman wanting to wear a full veil while serving as a primary school teacher. Or people wearing visible crucifixes while providing a public service, or refusing to help gay people in an adoption agency because of their religious principles. The same principle applies in all these cases. Public provision is equal to all, and so one shouldn’t try to distort the relationships in the public sphere by means of these major assertions of religious identity.
PB: Religious believers have been known to accuse those of a scientific mindset of “unweaving the rainbow”. That is, taking the mystery and wonder out of the universe and replacing it with a set of dry mathematical or logical laws. How might you respond to such a critic?
ACG: Usually people who say that are quite ignorant of what’s involved in scientific research and of the wonder, the beauty, the amazement that comes out of encountering things in the exploration of nature through science. Such a person must obviously never have had the experience of solving a problem in mathematics or logic and realising how beautiful those rational structures are.
Also, it’s a silly and rather shallow view, because someone might be a technical geologist or physicist during the working day, and in the evening hugely enjoy music or writing poetry and reading it to his beloved, and the like. It’s a rather trivialising view that completely misunderstands the richness and complexity of human responses, probably all the richer in very intelligent people, people of the kind of intelligence that can do science seriously.
In Part 2, we ask Grayling how he’d combat extremism if he were the Prime Minister of the UK, how we can have morality in a godless world, whether circumcision is ever morally acceptable and why religions are so common and varied.
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  • Adi

    Ah, A.C.G espouser of great wisdom. Bonkers hair.

  • NeoWolfe

    Theadhead quote of a quote: “Religious believers have been known to accuse those of a scientific mindset of “unweaving the rainbow”. That is, taking the mystery and wonder out of the universe and replacing it with a set of dry mathematical or logical laws.”
    Let me call bullshit right there. Richard Dawkins wrote in his book that he was a six out of seven atheist. But, then when he did his interview with Bill Maher, he was suddenly a nine out of ten. He quoted as his reason that he could not definitively prove that unicorns do not exist. I suppose, that’s good logic, since quantum physics and quantum theory propose multiple, if not infinite universes existing in common in space, which may be inhabited by life, some of which may appear similar to a unicorn.
    What blows my mind is that quantum physics, quantum theory, built the French collider in search of the “god particle”, their words not mine. The arrogant scientific community wants to become our new “god”, but in comparison with what they think they know, and what they haven’t a clue of, is like a bacteria practicing for the “riverdance”. They have a hunch that the universe is an accident, and they treat it like fact. Carry on gentlemen, pretend you see what real freethinkers cannot. But, every turn of quantum theory makes a fool of you.

  • Michael Trussler

    Oh dear, Mr Wolfe, what small eyes you have.. You read some quantum theory and overlay its elements of mystery onto your own theology or one suspects one of the preexisting ‘classic ones’.
    Just because the French scientists have used the word God, do not be fooled that they are in search of an unsearchable sky God as spoken of in The Books.
    It is clear that such speak of the Einsteinian God – the underlying, mute, static, fundamental principals of physics. That singular mathematical description of which, if true alone can produce the laws and complexity of our matter and energy and all interactions between. It is semantically a God particle, and semantically alone.

  • karam

    ya…. its give me great pleasure to read your answers as a lover of wisdom. i am from india.

  • Angela_K

    What is the problem with “unweaving the rainbow” the further we look out to the universe or in at elementary particles, the more of nature’s beauty is found; there is for example beauty in bacteria and in DNA structure. I take issue with the statement “arrogant scientific community wanting to become the new god” The scientific community publish discoveries and developments for all to see and pick apart, then revises in the light of new data; scientists admit what they do not know and do not claim certainties, hence Richard Dawkin’s quip about unicorns. The pursuit of scientific knowledge is a never ending quest, quite unlike the arrogance of dogmatic holy books that claim certainties with no evidence.
    It requires little effort and intelligence to read a bible/Koran etc and say “well that’s it, all the answers are there and I need look no further” – exactly what the religious want everyone to do. However, it requires great effort and reasonable intelligence to dig deeper and push the boundaries of human knowledge forward. The LHC at Cern is not just about the search for Higg’s boson [god particle in common parlance] it is just one of many experiments at Cern. For example, it is hoped that smashing particles together may find new forms of energy generation. Quantum mechanics – which is highly mathematical if you’ve ever had to dabble with it – is currently the best way we have of explaining the behaviour of particles, if something better comes along – great we’ll revise. Surely it is better than the foolish “my god made it all”

  • Rog

    Tomorrow in Part 2, we ask Grayling how he’d combat extremism if he were the Prime Minister of the UK…
    I really wish he would stand for parliament! If not we could do with him in the house of lords.

  • Broga

    @ Michael Trussler I enjoyed reading your comments although on this site, in particular, I would have hoped that these views did not require spelling out. Clearly not. One problem is that the use of phrases such as “the god particle” and the singularly unfortuneate “when we understand that we will know the mind of god” are seized on by desperate religionists not as metaphors but as literal. Even sillier are the explanations for mysteries and postulating, in an attempt to fill in admitted gaps, The Higgs Bosun and so on as God. Their God, of course.
    Another manic diversion they introduce is the nonsense that “without god we wont know what is right and what is wrong.” I even had heard that one christian seized on Richard Dawkins choice of a piece from The Song of Solomon, as part of the 400th anniversary of the writing of stirring prose of the King James version, as “proof” that Dawkins was “suspect in his sceptism.”
    I thought A.C. Grayling’s comments were temperate, wise, measured and with a quite gravitas that you will not find in the mouths of the ranting bigots in the pulpits.

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  • rog

    besides, I kind of like his hair…

  • barriejohn

    Rog: The saving grace of the old House of Lords, before it was packed with political cronies, was that many of the peers were very well educated and very knowledgeable in specific areas. It seems a shame to me that we can’t fill the Second Chamber with academics, ex officio, who would represent a broad spectrum of political backgrounds, and bring their intelligence and expertise to bear on the political process without being beholden to any particular party leaders, but of course they wouldn’t be in the least bit interested, as they have better things to do!

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  • rog

    Have you considered signing up at the I thought if I can’t beat them I might as well join them 🙂

  • barriejohn

    There aren’t enough hours in the day, Rog!

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  • David-BARCA FC-Harris

    i dont agree with neowolfe, but i see where he is coming from. A C Grayling is only a human, and for many many years humans have believed in religeon (people far smarter that A C arrogant Grayling). i dont think any of us can 100% rule out the possiblites of the super natural or aliens or god because there have been so much that is unexplained and so much in the huge universe we cannot explore or wont. There are so many things like area 51, bermuda triangle and the loch ness monster (drain the lake and see if its there is my opinion). In my thought, if there was a god or many gods, he would give us science reason and logic as a way of letting us know something without giving us any evidence about god, like descartes demon argument “the world could be a trick by a demon and we wouldnt even know about it” or for the younger people WATCH THE MATRIX….you never know!!!- by the way if you dont like what i´ve said then well i´m only a human and im just trying to search for the undeniable truths which i dont think i´ll ever find. david harris, email me to discuss philosophy 🙂