What Does Death Have to Do with the Meaning of Life?
Levine (Michael P.)
Source: Religious Studies, Vol. 23, No. 4 (Dec., 1987) (pp. 457-465)
Paper - Abstract

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Author’s Introduction

  1. Philosophers often distinguish in some way between two (or more) senses of life's meaning. Paul Edwards terms these a 'cosmic' and 'terrestrial' sense. The cosmic sense is that of an overall purpose of which our lives are a part and in terms of which our lives must be understood and our purposes and interests arranged. This overall purpose is often identified with God's divine scheme, but the two need not necessarily be equated. The terrestrial sense of meaning is the meaning people find (subjectively) in their own lives apart from the place of their lives in any ultimate end or context.
  2. The question about 'meaning' in the ultimate or cosmic sense need not in any way deny or demean the significance, meaning and point that people's lives have in non-ultimate ways. Whether or not they think that life is ultimately meaningful, people who are puzzled about the meaning of life may acknowledge that happiness, love - many of life's most important and worthwhile features - depend upon life's having meaning and point in numerous non-ultimate ways.
  3. In Western religious traditions it is often claimed that life cannot be meaningful, in the relevant sense of 'ultimate' meaning, unless
    • (1) people's lives are part of some divine cosmic scheme, and
    • (2) there is eternal life.
    Some atheists (those Edwards calls 'pessimists') agree with theists and maintain that unless conditions 1 and 2 are met, life must be 'ultimately' meaningless (i.e. meaningless in the cosmic sense). Some believe that life can be worthwhile and have ultimate meaning even if these conditions are not met. Of course, in this case the ultimate meaning of life cannot be expressed in terms of any divine (theistic) cosmic scheme. Others claim that the only type of meaningfulness possible is the meaning that humans give to their own lives and that any larger or more 'ultimate' sense of meaning is illusory - or itself a meaningless notion.
  4. I shall assume that theists and atheists agree, for the most part, that life can be meaningful in the terrestrial sense even if it does not have ultimate meaning. This is not to deny that some people claim that life cannot be meaningful in even the limited 'terrestrial' sense if it does not have ultimate meaning. However, I think those who do think this are far fewer in number than is ordinarily supposed. Moreover, the prime candidates for such a view, those such as Camus, Tolstoy, etc. who are most often cited as holding this position, do not in fact believe this at all, though I shall not argue that position here.


Makropulos Case1; Pascal's Wager

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