A. J. Ayer: “The Claims of Philosophy”

 

I: Pontiffs and Journeymen [219]

II: Is this all that the philosopher is fit to achieve? [221]

III: The meaning of life [223]

How is it possible for our existence to have a purpose?

It is possible for a man to have a purpose:

It is a matter of his intending, on the basis of a given situation, to bring about some further situation, which for some reason or other he conceives to be desirable.  And in that sense it may be said that events have a meaningfor him according as the conduce, or fail to conduce, toward the end that he desires. [234]

BUT, how can life in general be said to have any meaning?

Suggestions:

1.      There is a single specifiable end towards which all events are tending, “so to understand the meaning of life it is necessary only to discover this end.”
BUT:

a)      No good reason to believe this

b)      Even if it were true, it would not “do the work that is required of it”, because, just like a mechanical explanation, this teleological explanation would not be a justification, because the end is not one that we have chosen.

2.      The world was designed by a superior being, and thus our purpose is the one he has for the world.
BUT:

a)      No good reason to believe this

b)      Even if it were true, it would not “do the work that is required of it”, because, from our point of view the course of events is still arbitrary, because it’s not our purpose.

c)      Either:

i)        His purpose is “sovereign” – that is, “everything that happens is necessarily in accordance with it”, or

ii)       It isn’t.
If (i), this doesn’t tell us how to behave, because we can’t help but conform with his purpose.  If (ii), there is no reason to conform with God’s purpose unless we independently judge it to be good.  “But that means that the significance of our behavior depends finally upon our own judgments of value”, and God becomes irrelevant.

The point is, in short, that even the invocation of a deity does not enable us to answer the question why things are as they are.  At the best it complicates the answer to the question how they are by pushing the level of explanation to a further stage.  For even if the ways of the deity were clear to those who believed in him, which they apparently are not, it would still be, even to them, a matter of brute fact that he behaved as he did, just as to those who do not believe in him it is a matter of brute fact that the world is as it is. [225]

Thus, there is no sense in asking what is the ultimate purpose of our existence or what is the real meaning of life, because

To ask this is to assume that there can be a reason for our living as we do which is somehow more profound than any mere explanation of the facts; and we have seen that this assumption is untenable. [226]

Moreover it is logically untenable, and thus it is misleading to say that life has no meaning, because that suggests that the statement that “life has a meaning” is false.  In fact it is “not factually significant” in the sense that it is taken in this context.

 

HOWEVER, there is another sense in which life can be said to have a meaning:

It has for each of us whatever meaning we severally choose to give it.  The purpose of a man’s existence is constituted by the ends to which he, consciously or unconsciously, devotes himself. [226]

BUT, there is no end that is common to all, not even happiness, so there is no single purpose for life.

 

IV: How ought men to live? [227]

 

V: Politics [229-232]