Great Throughts Treasury

A database of quotes

Julian Baggini

British Philosopher and Author, Co-founder and Editor-in-Chief of The Philosopher's Magazine

"A life which is lived only in the present is inherently unsatisfactory, for the very reason that the moment always eludes us. The present cannot be grasped: it always melts through our fingers and becomes the past."

"A goal-oriented life locates the purposed of life in the achievement of a goal, which is necessarily tied to a discrete moment in time… But we also exist across time, and when our life’s goals are fixed so narrowly on moments that are only briefly the present, we fail to do justice to the enduring aspect of human life… Moments slip away and so if life’s purpose is tied to moments. Although moments can play a part, in order to find a purpose which is truly fulfilling, we also need to find a way of living which is worthwhile in itself. Life is rarely an undiluted pleasure that our own attitudes are themselves important to our sense of well-being."

"A belief that we were created by God for a purpose does not then provide us with the kind of adequate account of life’s meaning we might expect. Religions are not clear about what this purpose is. The idea that it is to serve God seems deeply implausible and contrary to most conceptions of God’s nature."

"Faith is by its nature non-rational. Having faith does not in any way remove responsibility for one’s own ethical and existential decisions. Faith is about `opting out’ of the need for rational justification rather than a deliberate attempt to act contrary to reason."

"Life’s meaning has to be found in the living of life itself, and the promise of eventual death is necessary to make any action worthwhile at all."

"If the meaning of life is not a mystery, if leading meaningful lives is within the power of all of us, then we do not need to ask the question `What’s it all about?’ in despair. We can look around us and see the many ways in which life can be meaningful. We can see the value of happiness while accepting that it is not everything, which will make it easier for us at those times when it eludes us. We can learn to appreciate the pleasure of life without becoming slaves to appetites which can never be satisfied. We can see the value of success, while not interpreting that too narrowly, so that we can appreciate the project of striving to become what we want to be as well as the more visible, public signs of success. We can see the value of seizing the day, without leading us into a desperate scramble to grasp the ungraspable moment. We can appreciate the value in helping others lead meaningful lives, too, without thinking that altruism demands everything we have. And finally, we can recognize the value of love, as perhaps the most powerful motivator to do anything at all."

"If we see life’s purpose as the achievement of future goals, several problems arise. If we are mortal, the problem is simply that there will come a time when we have no future. Life would end with meaning unfulfilled, since death would eventually rob us of the future where the purposes for our actions lie."

"Making the most of our lives might mean expressing ourselves creatively or artistically rather than just keeping our heads down and working."

"Love also sheds light on our desire for happiness. The desire for love is connected with the desire for happiness. But no one who truly loves can in good faith reduce love to the pursuit of happiness. Love is more bittersweet than that. True love, be it romantic, familial or platonic, persists through happiness and has as its subject the welfare of the persons loved, not the lover. Love, then, reflects the important role of happiness in the meaningful life, but also the shallowness of seeing happiness as all."

"To see altruism itself as the purpose of human life is confuse means and ends. We need to know whether good deeds are essential for life to be meaningful or whether they just comprise one possible road to fulfillment. Helping others cannot be the purpose of life, because helping others is just a means to an end… Altruism is thus not the source of life’s meaning but is something that living a meaningful life requires."

"Perhaps the biggest danger is the way a culture of self-help fosters both feelings of inadequacy and hopes for unattainable ideals… foolproof prescriptions for fulfillment and meaningful lives. The futile quest to become a complete all-round wonderful person, fully in control of our health, wealth and happiness."

"The recognition of the fragility of human life and all in it, as well as the ever-present possibility of tragedy, is essential to understanding the role of love in the meaningful life… Altruism cannot be motivated by pure reason alone. The desire to do good is rooted not in reason but in the varieties of love: the love for a partner, familial love or a kind of general love or fellow feeling for others. Without such love, all the rational reasons in the world would not motivate us to do good."

"One reason why the unexamined life can still be worth living is that it can be a life full of love."

"We need to confine our hopes to what we can achieve in our lifetime, always mindful of the fact that the span of life is not guaranteed. The traditional saying `Live each day as thought it were your last’ should thus be adapted to `Live each day as if it could be your last, but could equally be just one more in your short life.’"

"We need to find a form of life that is valuable in itself. What can make a life meaningful? Candidates for this role need to be worthwhile in themselves and not just means to future ends. They need to treat each human life as an autonomous being-for-itself, not merely a being-in-itself to serve some cause beyond it. They need to satisfy our aesthetic and ethical needs, as being both tied to the present moment and existing across time. And there is no reason why such meaning should not be found in this life and not only in a supposed life to come."

"Whatever it is that we value in life – relationships, creativity, learning, aesthetic experience, food, sex, travel – the call to seize the day is the call to appreciate these things while we can and not to put them off indefinitely. Some things require work and time, and often the best choice is not to do today everything you want to do before you die. The true spirit of carpe diem is not to panic and try to do everything now, but to make sure every day counts. The wisdom of carpe diem is that time is short, this is the only life we have and we should not squander it."

"When we contemplate the meaning of life, we are thinking on the plane of action, of practical decisions and choices we have to make. No matter what the metaphysicians say about free will, we have to experience the world as one with choices and dilemmas and we have to resolve them as beings able to think them through and make decisions"

"It is not that life has not meaning, but that it has no predetermined meaning. This requires us to confront our own responsibility for creating meaning for ourselves."

"I find it hard to imagine why God would want creatures like us solely to serve him: it's not as though he's in need of domestic help or anything like that. It also seems unnervingly close in attitude to the people who for many centuries thought it was simply their role in life to work for the aristocracy and the upper classes. To take pride in one's lowly position and to see that as confirming meaning on one's life seems to me indicative of what Nietzsche called 'slave mortality': sanctifying what is in reality an unfortunate position so as to make that place seem much more desirable than it really is."

"The atheist unequivocally accepts human mortality, with no belief in after-life, reincarnation, or even dissolution of the ego into the world spirit. So, it is thought, if life is short and death is final, what is the point of it all?"

"If we pretend or imagine that life's purpose lies outside living itself, we will be searching the stars for what is underneath our feet all the time."

"This is one reason why atheists can claim that life is more meaningful for them than it is for many religious people who see this world as a kind of preparation for the next. For these people, life isn't really that valuable in itself at all. It is like a coin which can be exchanged for a good that really does count: the after-life."

"We may regret death while at the same time knowing that its inevitability is what makes life so valuable in the first place."

"For me, atheism’s roots are in a sober and modest assessment of where reason and evidence lead us. That means the real enemy is not religion as such, but any kind of system of belief that does not respect these limits on our thinking. For that reason, I want to engage with thoughtful, intelligent believers, and isolate extremists. But if we demonise all religion, such coalitions of the reasonable are not possible. Instead, we are likely to see moderate religious believers join ranks with fundamentalists, the enemies of their enemy, to resist what they see as an attempt to wipe out all forms of religious belief."

"A church could be Norman, classical, neoclassical, gothic, rococo, modernist and so on. Postmodernism rejected these neat distinctions."

"12 Rules for Heathens: (1) Why we are heathens? It has long been recognized that the term "atheist" has unhelpful connotations. It has too many dark associations and also defines itself negatively, against what it opposes, not what it stands for. "Humanist" is one alternative, but humanists are a subset of atheists who have a formal organization and set of beliefs many atheists do not share. Whatever the intentions of those who adopt the labels, "rationalist" and "bright" both suffer from sounding too self-satisfied, too confident, implying that others are irrationalists or dim. If we want an alternative, we should look to other groups who have reclaimed mocking nicknames, such as gays, Methodists and Quakers. We need a name that shows that we do not think too highly of ourselves. This is no trivial point: atheism faces the human condition with honesty, and that requires acknowledging our absurdity, weakness and stupidity, not just our capacity for creativity, intelligence, love and compassion. "Heathen" fulfills this ambition. We are heathens because we have not been saved by God and because in the absence of divine revelation, we are in so many ways deeply unenlightened. The main difference between us and the religious is that we know this to be true of all of us, but they believe it is not true of them. (2) Heathens are naturalists. Heathens are not merely unbelievers: we believe many things too. Most importantly, we believe in naturalism: the natural world is all there is and there is no purposive, conscious agency that created or guides it. This natural world may contain many mysteries and even unseen dimensions, but we have no reason to believe that they are anything like the heavens, spirit worlds and deities that have characterized supernatural religious beliefs over history. Many religious believers deny the "supernatural" label, but unless they are willing to disavow such beliefs as in the reality of a divine person, miracles, resurrections or life after death, they are not naturalists. (3) Our first commitment is to the truth. Although we believe many things about what does and does not exist, these are the conclusions we come to, not the basis of our worldview. That basis is a commitment to see the world as truthfully as we can, using our rational faculties as best we can, based on the best evidence we have. That is where our primary commitment lies, not the conclusions we reach. Hence we are prepared to accept the possibility that we are wrong. It also means that we respect and have much in common with people who come to very different conclusions but have an equal respect for truth, reason and evidence. A heathen has more in common with a sincere, rational, religious truth-seeker than an atheist whose lack of belief is unquestioned, or has become unquestionable. (4) We respect science, not scientism. Heathens place science in high regard, being the most successful means humans have devised to come to a true understanding of the real nature of the world on the basis of reason and evidence. If a belief conflicts with science, then no matter how much we cherish it, science should prevail. That is why the religious beliefs we most oppose are those that defy scientific knowledge, such as young earth creationism. Nonetheless, this does not make us scientistic. Scientism is the belief that science provides the only means of gaining true knowledge of the world, and that everything has to be understood through the lens of science or not at all. There are scientistic atheists but heathens are not among them. Science is limited in what it can contribute to our understanding of who we are and how we should live because many of the most important facts of human life only emerge at a level of description on which science remains silent. History, for example, may ultimately depend on nothing more than the movements of atoms, but you cannot understand the battle of Hastings by examining interactions of fermions and bosons. Love may depend on nothing more than the physical firing of neurons, but anyone who tries to understand it solely in those terms just does not know what love means. Science may also make life uncomfortable for us. For example, it may undermine certain beliefs about free will that many atheists have relied on to give dignity and autonomy to our species. Heathens are therefore properly respectful of science but also mindful of its limits. Science is not our Bible: the last word on everything. (5) We value reason as precious but fragile. Heathens have a commitment to reason that fully acknowledges the limits of reason. Reason is itself a multi-faceted thing that cannot be reduced to pure logic. We use reason whenever we try to form true beliefs on the basis of the clearest thinking, using the best evidence. But reason almost always leaves us short of certain knowledge and very often leaves us with a need to make a judgment in order to come to a conclusion. We also need to accept that human beings are very imperfect users of reason, susceptible to biases, distortions and prejudices that lead even the most intelligent astray. In short, if we understand what reason is and how it works, we have very good reason to doubt those who claim rationality solely for those who accept their worldview and who deny the rationality of those who disagree. (6) We are convinced, not dogmatic. The heathen's modesty about the power of reason and the certainty of her conclusions should not be mistaken for a shoulder-shrugging agnosticism. We have a very high degree of confidence in the truth of our naturalistic worldview. But we do not dogmatically assert it. Being open to being wrong and to changing our minds does not mean we lack conviction that we are right. Strength of belief is not the same as rigidity of dogma. (7) We have no illusions about life as a heathen. Many people do not understand that it is possible to lead a meaningful, happy life as a heathen, but we maintain that it is and can point to any number of atheist philosophers and thinkers who have explained why this is so. But such meaning and contentment does not inevitably follow from becoming a heathen. Ours is a universe without guarantees of redemption or salvation and sometimes people have terrible lives or do terrible things and thrive. On such occasions, we have no consolation. That is the dark side of accepting the truth, and we are prepared to acknowledge it. We are heathens because we value living in the truth. But that does not mean that we pretend that always makes life easy or us happy. If the evidence were to show that religious people are happier and healthier than us, we would not see that as any reason to give up our convictions. (8) We are secularists. We support a state that is neutral as regards people's fundamental worldviews. It is not neutral when it comes to the shared values necessary for people of different conviction to live and thrive together. But it should not give any special privilege to any particular sect or group, or use their creeds as a basis for policy. Politics requires a coming together of people of different fundamental convictions to formulate and justify policy in terms that all understand, on the basis of principles that as many as possible can share. This secularism does not require that religion is banished from public life or that people may not be open as to how their faiths, or lack of one, motivate their values. As long as the core of the business of state is neutral as regards to comprehensive worldviews, we can be relaxed about expressions of these commitments in society at large. We want to maintain the state's neutrality on fundamental worldviews, not purge religion from society. (9) Heathens can be religious. There are a small minority of forms of religion that are entirely compatible with the heathen position. These are forms of religion that reject the real existence of supernatural entities and divinely authored texts, accept that science trumps dogma, and who see the essential core of religion in its values and practices. We have very little evidence that anything more than a small fraction of actual existent religion is like this, but when it does conform to this description, heathens have no reason to dismiss it as false. (10) Religion is often our friend. We believe in not being tone-deaf to religion and to understand it in the most charitable way possible. So we support religions when they work to promote values we share, including those of social justice and compassion. We are respectful and sympathetic to the religious when they arrive at their different conclusions on the basis of the same commitment to sincere, rational, undogmatic inquiry as us, without in any way denying that we believe them to be false and misguided. We are also sympathetic to religion when its effects are more benign than malign. We appreciate that commitment to truth is but one value and that a commitment to compassion and kindness to others is also of supreme importance. We are not prepared to insist that it is indubitably better to live guided by such values allied with false beliefs than it is to live without such values but also without false belief. (11) We are critical of religion when necessary. Our willingness to accept what is good in religion is balanced by an equally honest commitment to be critical of it when necessary. We object when religion invokes mystery to avoid difficult questions or to obfuscate when clarity is needed. We do not like the way in which "people of faith" tend to huddle together in an unprincipled coalition of self-interest, even when that means liberals getting into bed with homophobes and misogynists. We think it is disingenuous for religious people to talk about the reasonableness of their beliefs and the importance of values and practice, while drawing a veil over their embrace of superstitious beliefs. In these and other areas, we assert the right and need to make civil but acute criticisms. And although our general stance is not one of hostility towards religion, there are some occasions when this is exactly what is called for. When religions promote prejudice, division or discrimination, suppress truth or stand in the way of medical or social progress, a hostile response is an appropriate, principled one, just as it is when atheists are guilty of the same crimes. (12) This manifesto is less concerned with distinguishing heathens from others than forging links between us and others. Our commitment to independent thought and the provisionality of belief means that few heathens are likely to agree completely with this manifesto. It is therefore almost a precondition of supporting it that you do not entirely support it. At the same time, although very few people of faith can be heathens, many will find themselves in agreement with much of what heathens belief. This is what provides the common ground to make fruitful dialogue possible: we need to accept what we share in order to accept with civility and understanding what we most certainly do not. This is what the heathen manifesto is really about."

"A second feature of atheism is that it is committed to the appropriate use of reason and evidence. In order to occupy this intellectual high ground, it is important to recognize the limits of reason, and also to acknowledge that atheists have no monopoly on it. The new atheism, however, tends to claim reason as a decisive combatant on its side only. With its talk of ?spells? and ?delusions?, it gives the impression that only through stupidity or crass disregard for reason could anyone be anything other than an atheist. ?Faith is the great cop-out, the great excuse to evade the need to think and evaluate evidence,? says Dawkins, once again implying that reason and evidence are strangers to religion. This is arrogant, and attributes to reason a power it does not have. This is most evident when you consider the poverty of the new atheism?s ?error theory?, which is needed to explain why, if atheism is indeed the view evidence and reason demands, so many very bright people are still religious. The usual answers given to this are not good enough. They tend to stress psychological blind-spots and wishful thinking. For instance, Dawkins says ?the meme for blind faith secures its own perpetuation by the simple unconscious expedient of discouraging rational inquiry.? But if very intelligent people are so easily led astray by such things, then shouldn?t the new atheists themselves be more skeptical about the role reason plays in their own belief formation? You cannot, on the one hand, put forward a view that says great intelligence is easily over-ridden by psychological delusions and, on the other, claim that one unique group of people can see clearly what reason demands and free themselves from such grips. Either many religious people are not as irrational as they seem, or atheists are not entitled to assume they are as rational as they seem to themselves."

"Active character is the set of dispositions that we have because we?ve worked on developing them."

"Agency ? the individual?s capacity to act ? can perhaps explain some of the unity of self over time that a standard bundle view makes problematic."

"Although in some ways philosophers are fond of the answer ?It depends?, they can?t stand it when what it depends on can?t be rigorously formalized. They hate vagueness, to the point of being incertophobic."

"Alone, the image we may hold of ourselves may be no true reflection, but a flattering portrait produced by the magic mirror of vanity."

"Although Zimbardo argues we have underestimated the power of social situations because we overestimate the power of individual dispositions that does not mean he thinks people are not accountable for their behavior. All the situational approach says is that we must take account of the mitigating circumstances."

"America is the well-known exception to the rule that the wealthier and better-educated a country is, the less religious its population. As a Pew Research Center report put it, when it comes to religiosity, ?the US is closer to considerably less developed nations, such as India, Brazil and Lebanon than to other western nations.? But what is less discussed is what this means for the minority who are not just apathetic about their faith, but have actively rejected it. The issue is somewhat neglected because it?s not usually perceptible on the coasts and in the larger cities, but the almost complete absence of overt atheism is striking at all levels of US public life, even in cosmopolitan areas. This week, Barack Obama was invited to speak at the 60th National Prayer Breakfast, an interfaith gathering which every president since Eisenhower has attended. In the history of Congress, on the other hand, there has only been one avowed atheist, Pete Stark, who has represented ultra-liberal Oakland in California since 1973 but only acknowledged he did not believe in a supreme being in 2007."

"Although it is wrong to rely on a subjective judgment if an objective one can be made, it is just as wrong to try to avoid subjective judgments when they are unavoidable."

"As the old saying goes, the plural of anecdote is not data."

"Atheism does not own the scientific method, and nor does good, secular thinking reduce to scientific reasoning. What is too often forgotten is that modern atheism was born in a humanistic way of thinking that drew as much on arts and humanities as it did natural science, if not more so."

"At root each of us is an ever-changing flux, not a never-changing core."

"Any creature, or even machine, that has the conscious capacities of a person is a person, irrespective of its species. That is why we recognize as people characters in science-fiction films who are human-like but of another species."

"Atheists have seemed rather keen in recent years to stress their jolly side. As well as the whole ?brights? movement, there?s the ?happy human? logo used by the International Humanist and Ethical Union, the British Humanist Association and several other humanist groups. Then there were the atheist bus posters telling us that we should stop worrying and enjoy life. Given how the atheist stereotype has been one of the dark, brooding existentialist gripped by the angst of a purposeless universe, this is understandable. But frankly, I think we?ve massively overcompensated, and in doing so we?ve blurred an important distinction. Atheists should point out that life without God can be meaningful, moral and happy. But that?s ?can? not ?is? or even ?should usually be?. And that means it can just as easily be meaningless, nihilistic and miserable."

"Being of good character requires self-monitoring and sensitivity to context, not just relying on automatic behaviors."

"Atheists have to live with the knowledge that there is no salvation, no redemption, no second chances. Lives can go terribly wrong in ways that can never be put right. Can you really tell the parents who lost their child to a suicide after years of depression that they should stop worrying and enjoy life? Doesn?t the appropriate response to 4,000 children dying every day as a direct result of poor sanitation involve despair at the relentless misery of the world as well as some effort to improve things? Sometimes life is shit and that?s all there is to it. Not much bright about that fact."

"Beliefs and desires you have actively arrived at are more truly your own than those which have simply arisen in you."

"Bodies are essential, but they are not our essences."

"Being put in a good mood, even by something small, makes people temporarily nicer."

"Building moral character is a challenge, so the fact that the majority don?t seem to have risen to it is not surprising."

"Broadly speaking, the problem is that the religious mainstream establishment maintains a Janus-faced commitment to both medieval doctrines and public pronouncements about inclusivity and moderation; agnostics and more liberal believers promote an intellectualized version of religion, which both reduces faith to a thin gruel and fails to reflect the reality of faith on the ground; while the new atheists are spiritually tone-deaf, fixated on the superstitious side of religion to the exclusion of its more interesting and valuable aspects. A plague on all their houses: all are guilty of becoming entrenched in unsustainable positions. For there to be movement, all are going to have to recognize their failings and shift somewhat. The battle lines need to be redrawn so that futile skirmishes can be avoided and the real fights can be fought. This is the first in a series of articles which together will attempt to do just this."

"But to be a person does not just mean to be whatever series of psychological connections and continuities endure; it is to commit oneself to making certain connections and continuities happen."

"But perhaps Kierkegaard?s most provocative message is that both work on the self and on understanding the world requires your whole being and cannot be just a compartmentalised, academic pursuit. His life and work both have a deep ethical seriousness, as well as plenty of playful, ironic elements. This has been lost today, where it seems we are afraid of taking ourselves too seriously. For Kierkegaard, irony was the means by which we could engage in serious self-examination without hubris or arrogance: ?what doubt is to science, irony is to personal life?. Today, irony is a way of avoiding serious self-examination by believing one is above such things, a form of superiority masquerading as modesty. It might be spotty, angst-filled adolescents who are most attracted to the young Kierkegaard, but it?s us, the supposed adults, who need the 200-year-old version more than ever."

"Character is not as powerful a determinant of behavior as most of us take it to be."

"Category mistakes are encouraged by conventions of language. When a word used to describe something is a noun, it is tempting to think that the word it describes is an object of some kind."