Robert asked:

Dear Geoffrey,

What is your answer to the question, “What is the meaning of life”?

Answer by Geoffrey Klempner

No, I don’t know what’s happened to the other panel members either, your guess is as good as mine. (Except for Gideon, of course, who is related to me by Leibniz’s Law.)

Well, it’s summer. Maybe they’re enjoying a well-earned holiday at some fancy continental resort. Except — damn! — one minute you’re out there having a wonderful time getting suntanned and sampling the local cuisine, and the next minute you’re spreadeagled on the promenade with your skull smashed to bits.

It makes no sense.

I’m not going to answer your question because, logically, it cannot have an answer.

Suppose life has a meaning. Let’s call the meaning ‘X’.

X is the meaning of your life, X is the meaning of my life, X is the meaning of everybody’s life. Why is X the meaning? Who said? Maybe you got it from some Holy Book. It doesn’t matter. Suppose I don’t want the meaning to be X. I want it to be Y. That’s my bad luck, because the fact is that the meaning is X and not Y, and that is that.

If there is some person or entity that set the meaning of life to be X, I want to kill that person or destroy that entity. I refuse to have the meaning of life prescribed to me. Is that not a perfectly reasonable position to take? An eminently philosophical view, I would have thought — insofar as your philosophy allows for killing or destruction in a worthy cause.

The very fact that life has a meaning would render life meaningless. Human beings are reduced to actors on a stage, all our thoughts and actions scripted for a purpose that we didn’t choose.

If life has a meaning, then it has no meaning.
If life has no meaning, then it has no meaning.
Ergo, life has no meaning.

If life has no meaning, then why bother to get up in the morning? Generally, when I wake up, I need to pee. There is only so long I can hold it in before I simply have to get up. That’s basically the answer the Stoics gave: you follow nature. You do what you want or need to do. Or, as Hume said, “Reason is, and ought only to be the slave of the passions.”

If there is nothing you want from life, then that is very sad and the best thing you can do is kill yourself. But make sure first that you really know what you want, or rather don’t want. (It’s much more likely that there are lots of things you want, but they are all deemed impossible. That’s never stopped me.)

I woke up today and realized that I was 65 (and have been for a few months). Only a short while ago, I was 21 and setting out on a course of philosophical study that has extended for 44 years and still counting. It’s a choice I made, and continue to make, every day of my life — for no reason except that the questions of philosophy interest me, and I have not yet answered them all.

Least of all this one. I have just given you my view — take it or leave it.