The Meaning of Life: An interview with Professor A C Grayling

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, which will be published across the week. 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.

Professor A. C. Grayling

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.

Tomorrow 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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