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What's It All About?: Philosophy and the Meaning of Life - Book Review

Updated: Feb 18, 2021

As with all reviews on this website, our goal is not to provide a complete overview of the book; rather, it is to examine how the book relates to the meaning of life. In this review, like the book, we’ll briefly break down the question “What is the meaning of life?” into smaller parts. This review will look at the author’s thoughts on the meaning of life in relation to origins, immortality, and hedonism; dispelling commonly held beliefs. The book provides some enlightening insights, but, if you are religious, you may find some of Baggini’s arguments offensive.

About the book: What's It All About?: Philosophy and the Meaning of Life by Julian Baggini was first published in 2007. The book aims to break down the question of the meaning of life into smaller parts and examine those parts in detail.

The book opens with a story about the famed philosopher, mathematician, and Nobel laureate, Bertrand Russell. A taxi driver asks him, “What is it all about?” Russell doesn’t have an answer for him. But, thus is life. The meaning of life is a question some of the greatest thinkers of our time have tried to tackle in a plethora of ways, many of which eneed up jus as perplexed and baffled as the rest of us. However, as noted in the book, Russell did leave us with the following words of wisdom, which aren’t very satisfying to those seeking answers:

The universe may have a purpose, but nothing we know suggests that, if so, this purpose has any similarity to ours.

Origins: One apologue that Baggini dispels swiftly is the idea that meaning and origins are related—or rather, our origins are not necessarily a predicate for our purpose. Baggini uses the example of a flint stone, which, until humans began using it for tools, essentially had no purpose. Then, flint stones’ purpose became that of blades, gun powder, stone walls, jewelry, and more! The origin of flint had no influence on its purpose. This may parallel to the origin of life itself: Why would the origins of life impact its current purpose, our purpose? It is a nice romantic thought, but the two should not be confused.

Baggini also references Richard Dawkins’ The Selfish Gene. Dawkins outlines that survival of the genes, not humanity itself, is important. If this is correct, even from an evolutionary standpoint, humans may not matter, only the “spiralling coils of self-replicating DNA” matter (as noted in Monty Python).

Baggini is relentless in his criticism of religion and concludes that there is just no evidence for religion inot themail grand scheme of things. This leads into the discussions on Nietzsche, Camus, Sartre, and others. Without religion, life has no predetermined meaning as far as we can tell. As such, according to Sartre, it is crucial that we recognize that “purpose and meaning are not built in to human life, we ourselves are responsible for fashioning our own purposes. It is not that life has no meaning, but that it has no predetermined meaning.”

Immortality: Several reviews and blog posts on this site have touched upon the idea that immortality adds or subtracts from the meaning of life. What Baggini adds to the discussion is this question: “Where does it all end?” Many religions often point to the idea that the purpose of life is to obey God and God’s commandments in order to go to heaven or paradise or to ascend in the next life. This line of logic naturally leads to a follow-up question: If the meaning of life is found in the next life, then what is the meaning of the this next life?

Baggini goes on to suggest, "An eternal life might turn out to be the most meaningless of all." As he also notes, how can an increased quantity of something, like the number of years one lives, increase or contribute to life’s meaningfulness? In contrast, one can only imagine the meaning of life for a fruit fly. Finally he concludes "To suppose, then, that a life after death would provide life with a meaning it would otherwise not have is mistaken. Life must be finite to have meaning, and if finite life can have meaning, then this life can have meaning."

Baggini’s line of logic is solid, and so is his conclusion. This, however, would naturally go on to upset those who are religious and who are looking forward to the next life. But, surprisingly, logic is not always correct. For example, one could easily conclude that serving God in this life is the meaning of life. So, what is the meaning of the next life? Serving God. Needless to say, although Baggini’s thoughts are intriguing, he rather unapologetically dismisses religion without considering this simple argument. Yet, how could one blame him? “Serving God” is an unassailable answer because the entity in question is intangible.

Hedonism: Another topic What’s It All About? covers at length is hedonism, or carpe diem. Seize the day, live as if there were no tomorrow—popular quotes and, as noted by Baggini, popular in pubs, carpe diem is the stuff of legends. But is it a good philosophy to live by? That really depends on how literally one takes it. Experiences are ephemeral—they easily slip through the sands of time, and, if not captured in the moment, they are soon forgotten forever. This much is true, without a doubt. But to live only in the moment is short-sighted. One can be a hedonist and still plan for the future. Although every moment should be lived to the fullest, one should still plan for tomorrow, in case that day may come.

What’s It All About? covers a lot of other subtopics that we cannot fully cover in this review, for example, helping others, advancing the species, love, etc., are also often considered as answers to the meaning of life and Baggini reviews these answers in this book. If you are interested in exploring these topics, consider purchasing the book through the link at the end of this blog post.

Grammatical Errors: In general, when reviewing a book, I don’t look at other reviews because my review may hencephalitis be influenced. However, in this case, I wanted to see if anyone else discussed the vast number of grammatical errors in the book. Normally, I would just ignore these because I feel that it distracts from the content, and I don’t feel that grammatical errors should be a factor when discussing ideas. Heck, even this blog is laced with errors. Nevertheless, this book could use some major editing to resolve grammatical issues. Take for example the two issues below that appear throughout the book.

Example 1 - That is to claim that life is not the kind of thing that can have meaning, and. so the whole idea of ‘the meaning of life’ is incoherent.

Example 2 - Such an approach is suggested, but not fully articulated, by the logical positivist and ordinary language schools of philosophy that flourished in the early part of the twentieth century in Vienna and Oxford respectively, (should end with a period not a comma)

After reading the reviews, I didn’t find anyone else commenting on the grammatical errors, so I am wondering if this is an issue with the Kindle version only. One person commented on Baggini’s use of the thesaurus. However, the book was written in a way the common reader could understand. That is, it is not overly verbose or academic (in the sense of technical jargon).

Conclusion: Although the author does an excellent job at covering topics discussed above and why these do not equate to a meaningful life, I feel that overall the book is lacking in tackling the main question: “What is the meaning of life”. As far as I can tell, Baggini concludes with the following as an answer:

"Hence the necessary and sufficient conditions of a meaningful life are that it is of value to the person living it and it is morally good."

Other notable quotes in the book include:

It is as futile to ask whether life has meaning as it is to ask whether a piece of music is written in the past or future tense. (on discussing the idea of Nihilism)

It sounds old-fashioned, and perhaps it is, but we have forgotten how to be thankful for what we’ve got and instead only know how to be resentful about what we haven’t.

Helping others cannot therefore be the meaning of life itself. But it is essentially tied to the meaningful life, because it is premised on the notion that life can be a good in itself. If this is true for one it is true for all, and so we have reasons for helping others. Altruism is thus not the source of life’s meaning but is something that living a meaningful life requires. We just need to remember that the purpose of helping others is to bring them benefits, not to engage in charity for charity’s sake.

We rate the book the following:

Overall - 7 (excusing the grammatical errors)

Meaning of Life Relevance - 10

Uniqueness – 6

What did we miss? Without an afterlife, can there still be meaning in life?

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