Philosophy & Ideas

A.J. Ayer and the Meaning of Life

Philosophically, Sir Alfred Ayer was in a very awkward position: it was 1988, he was seventy-seven, and he was dead. Indeed, he’d “passed to the other side”, as he later put it. It was awkward because, as a very prominent and militant atheist, he shouldn’t be there, shouldn’t be anywhere, indeed he shouldn’t be at all; and yet here he was. What was this place and what was going on?

These were very important questions for Ayer. A brilliant intellect, he credibly estimated that he was in the vanguard of the second rank of all philosophers, rating only below Plato, Aristotle and a few others. He’d been a King’s Scholar at Eton, had taken a first at Oxford, had spent the Second World War as an agent in the SOE and MI6, and had gone on to be the Grote Professor of the Philosophy of Mind and Logic at University College London, and then the Wykeham Professor of Logic at New College, Oxford.

Most importantly for our present concerns, he had made a name for himself at twenty-five when he published Language, Truth and Logic (1936). Extremely influential, this was the first exposition in English of Logical Positivism, the radical school of philosophy developed by the Vienna Circle, with whom Ayer had spent a year studying after his graduation. About the book and Logical Positivism, Bryan Magee in Talking Philosophy (1978) observed that “the aggressiveness of the book was typical of the movement as a whole. They self-consciously organised themselves like a political party, with regular meetings, publications and international congresses propagating their doctrines with missionary zeal.”

This essay appeared in July’s Quadrant.
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Their mission was militant, explicitly iconoclastic, and had significant implications for any inquiry into the meaning of life, especially where this involves the idea that any such meaning is derived from a supernatural source, such as God, or the promise of Heaven or the threat of Hell. Ayer himself (The Meaning of Life, 1988) declared that he considered the meaning of life to be contingent upon the possibility of an afterlife and he stressed that the Logical Positivists campaigned vigorously against all such metaphysical notions, “any suggestion that there might be a world beyond the ordinary world of science and common sense, the world revealed to us by our senses”. He went on:

Already Kant, at the end of the 18th Century, had said that it was impossible to have any knowledge of anything that wasn’t within the realm of possible sense experience; but these Viennese people went further. They said that any statement that wasn’t either a formal statement (i.e., a statement in logic or mathematics), or empirically testable, was nonsensical. And so they cut away all metaphysics, [and] this had some further implications. It was, for example, obviously a condemnation of any theology [and of] any notion of there being a transcendent God.

It also disposed of any possibility of an afterlife, and this was clearly a matter of concern for Ayer, fifty-two years later, as he lay physically moribund in a hospital bed, while mentally he was in another place altogether.

He had been dead for four minutes. He had been suffering gravely from pneumonia, had been admitted to intensive care, and had been recovering, but had then gobbled up a piece of smoked salmon that his family had brought him:

It went down the wrong way and almost immediately the graph recording my heartbeats plummeted. The ward sister rushed to the rescue, but she was unable to prevent my heart from stopping. She and the doctor subsequently told me that I died in this sense for four minutes, and I have had no reason to disbelieve them.

Ayer quickly recorded the subsequent experience in a famous article in the Sunday Telegraph on August 28, 1988, titled “What I Saw When I Was Dead”, which was later reprinted as “That Undiscovered Country” in The Meaning of Life and Other Essays (1990). What it reported caused so much consternation amongst his fellow atheists and other members of the British Humanist Association (of which he had been president), that he later attempted, vainly, to re-interpret them. However, as they stood, they indicated that Ayer’s near-death experience had led him substantially to retreat from his conviction that there was in fact nothing “on the other side”.

Ayer first reported his experience to a friend visiting him several hours after his “return to life”. To her he explained enigmatically: “Did you know that I was dead? The first time that I tried to cross the river I was frustrated, but my second attempt succeeded. It was most extraordinary. My thoughts became persons.”

This was the River Styx, and once across, Ayer “was confronted by a red light, exceedingly bright, and also very painful even when I turned away from it. I was aware that this light was responsible for the government of the universe.” He went on to explain that within this administration, there were:

two creatures who had been put in charge of space. These ministers periodically inspected space and had recently carried out such an inspection. They had, however, failed to do their work properly, with the result that space, like a badly fitting jigsaw puzzle, was slightly out of joint [and consequently] the laws of nature had ceased to function as they should.

This was a dire situation that Ayer, as an eminent philosopher, public intellectual and knight of the realm, felt himself capable of rectifying:

I felt that it was up to me to put things right. I also had the motive of finding a way to extinguish the painful light. I assumed that it was signalling that space was awry and that it would switch itself off when order was restored.

It was apparently some sort of warning light and Ayer felt that all he needed to do was locate the faulty mechanism involved and fix it, so that space would return to order. But now, “I had no idea where the guardians of space had gone and feared that even if I found them I should not be able to communicate with them.”

Fortunately, Ayer felt he was up to the challenge, drawing upon a lifetime of high-level study into the relationship between philosophy and science:

It then occurred to me that whereas, until the present century, physicists accepted the Newtonian severance of space and time, it had become customary, since the vindication of Einstein’s general theory of relativity, to treat space-time as a single whole. Accordingly, I thought that I could cure space by operating upon time.

And this he set out to do. Ominously for the space-time continuum, Ayer found he was unable to find the ministers he had first noticed, even though he felt they were nearby. He hailed them:

I was again frustrated. Either they did not hear me, or they chose to ignore me, or they did not understand me. I then hit upon the expedient of walking up and down, waving my watch, in the hope of drawing their attention not to my watch itself but to the time which it measured.

But again, “this elicited no response”. It seemed the situation was becoming critical, that space would sink further into disjointedness and that the laws of nature would cease completely to operate. Increasingly frantic, Ayer “became more and more desperate”, but at that point “the experience suddenly came to an end”.

As we’ve noted, there was nothing unthought out or unsystematic about the atheism of Ayer or the Logical Positivists. Indeed, strictly speaking, even the term “atheist”, as well as “agnostic”, weren’t strong enough. They were to be rejected as meaningless and question-begging. This is because such sentences as “God does not exist” or “The existence of God cannot be either proved or disproved”, are themselves meaningless, as they invoke the concept of “God”, which is a purely metaphysical notion about which nothing can be known or verified by any empirical evidence whatsoever. In other words, such sentences are literally “nonsense” because their subject is simply a vacuous utterance. Technically, Ayer’s position was a species of “ignosticism” or “igtheism”—terms devised to make this distinction clear.

Equally illegitimate, according to this approach, are any claims that might be made about an “afterlife”. Just as “god-talk” is vacuous, so is any talk about “heaven” or “hell”, places whose existence is totally beyond any form of empirical verification. It is for this reason that Ayer’s near-death experience created significant problems for him and for those who shared his militant atheism. As Ayer concluded his account:

So there it is. My recent experiences have slightly weakened my conviction that my genuine death, which is due fairly soon, will be the end of me, though I continue to hope that it will be.” He then hurried to reassure his followers: “They have not weakened my conviction that there is no god. I trust that my remaining an atheist will allay the anxieties of my fellow supporters of the British Humanist Association, the Rationalist Press Association, and the South Place Ethical Society.

But it didn’t. This reassurance was only partly successful, and Ayer was obliged six weeks later to publish a further article (Spectator, October 15, 1988) that served as an addendum clarifying his position. He stressed that his conviction remained that his “genuine [physical] death … will be the end of me” and explained that his near-death experience had only “weakened my inflexible attitude towards [the] belief” that there is an afterlife. He went on:

Previously my interest in the question was purely polemical. [In previous work] I wished to expose the defects in the positions of those who believed that they would survive [death] … my experiences caused me to think that it was worth examining various possibilities of survival for their own sakes. I did not intend to imply that the result of my inquiry had been to increase the low probability of any one of them, even if it were granted that they had any probability at all.

Ayer had backtracked because of the negative reaction of his fellow atheists, some of whom had misrepresented his account of his experience. Consequently, he felt obliged to counter “the incoherent statement, which had been attributed to me, that I had discovered nothing on the other side”. This raises some interesting points from the Logical Positivist perspective, and apparently Ayer’s interlocutors were hoping to catch him out.

Crucially, there should have been no “other side” to go to, and therefore no opportunity to discover anything at all—there should have been no “there” there. Consequently, it also should not have been possible to discover that there was “nothing” (or anything else) there. Moreover, any talk about this “nothing” in this fashion could be construed as granting it some existential status, and that therefore what Ayer was reporting was not only that he been to “the other side”, but that once there he had discovered some identifiable state or entity called “nothing”. This opened up a serious philosophical can of worms that has been writhing about since the early days of the Vienna Circle.

The problem of concern here had been pointed out by a leading member of the circle, Rudolf Carnap, in a dispute with Martin Heidegger over a lecture by Heidegger that proved to be very influential for subsequent discussions of the meaning of life, as we will see in future articles. In “What is Metaphysics?” (1929), Heidegger announced that “Das Nichts selbst nichtet” (approximately: “The Nothing nihilates/nothings.”). In this fashion, Heidegger granted “nothingness” not only agency, but a similar existential status to “being”, proposing that it was only through a confrontation with “nothingness” that “being” comes fully to know itself; more specifically, it is only through an encounter with abysmal dread (“the Nothing”, das Nichts) that Dasein (the uniquely human mode of being) comes fully to know herself.

This was metaphysical nonsense, insisted Carnap in his rejoinder, “Overcoming of Metaphysics through Logical Analysis of Language” (1931). According to Carnap, Heidegger was wilfully misusing the term “nothing”, as if it stood for a particular entity, when its correct use is simply to point out an absence of anything or everything. Consequently, if Ayer could have been construed, forty-six years later, to have been claiming that he went to “the other side” and found “nothing” then he could be guilty of Heidegger’s metaphysical sleight-of-hand. Recognising the danger, Ayer indignantly dismissed the imputation and went on to discuss possible ways in which an “afterlife” could be conceived.

First, however, he stressed that he’d come to the view that the “most probable explanation” for his experience was that while he’d been “heart dead”, he’d not yet become “brain dead”, that his mind had continued to operate to some degree, and that it had hallucinated the details of his near-death experience.

In the rest of his addendum, Ayer explores how an afterlife might be possible. He begins by rejecting the possibility that human beings might “live on” as spiritual entities. After all, he observed, “Descartes has few contemporary disciples”. It seemed clear to Ayer that if an afterlife was there to be enjoyed (or endured, as he saw it), it would be in material form. Consequently, he considered the Christian doctrine of the resurrection of the body, only to note that it “encounters a mass of difficulties”. For example, what form will the resurrected bodies take: old, young, decrepit, or in the condition they were in at the point of death? And “What are the prospects for infants, cripples, schizophrenics and amnesiacs? In what manner will they survive?” Possibly, we would all just get a “generic” or “standard model” body with perhaps the choice of age and sex.

Ayer goes on to consider the possibility of reincarnation, focusing on the retention of memories of past lives, but ultimately he also thinks little of this model, although both it and the resurrected-body concept do at least provide for the material basis of mental states, an essential requirement for any afterlife, in his view.

The prospect of an afterlife is important in Ayer’s philosophical outlook because its existence or otherwise provides a framework within which various aspects of the meaning of life can be considered. Most obviously, the perception of an afterlife in the form of the promise of heaven or the threat of hell can give a very urgent meaning to one’s life, as the history of Christianity has demonstrated, and such concerns have periodically reached extremely intense levels amongst believers, especially in Puritanism and some other branches of Protestantism where the principle of predestination applies. As an atheist, Ayer was rejecting not only the concepts of God and an afterlife, but also what he and other militant atheists see as the brutality and unfairness of any religious regime that consigns people to such places, perhaps quite gratuitously. Of course, a believer might simply shrug and wish Ayer good luck upon his death, and here the implications of Ayer’s near-death experience become clear.

Ayer can be seen as implicitly making a sort of inverse Pascal’s Wager. As formulated by the seventeenth-century French philo­sopher and mathematician Blaise Pascal, this argument proposes that people wager with their lives on the existence of God. A rational person should live as if God exists because if He doesn’t exist then all the person will have lost are some pleasures and indulgences that she has forgone in order to conform to God’s will; but if He does exist and the afterlife is as Christianity claims, then the person who hasn’t lived as if God existed will suffer an infinite loss upon death, either in being denied an eternity of heavenly bliss, or even more extreme, by being consigned to an eternity of hellish punishment.

In comparison, Ayer was betting that God doesn’t exist, that there is no afterlife, nothing to be gained by acting as if there is, but much to be forgone, such as the “earthly pleasures” that a believer feels compelled to forgo in order to conform to God’s will. And, more subtly, Ayer would also claim that his wager allows him to do something of value denied to the believer—to define for himself the meaning of life, rather than have it “dictated” by an outside force; an argument to which we will return.

Ayer may have been fortified in his belief that there’s no afterlife to be concerned about by the re-emergence in the twentieth century of the theological doctrine of annihilationism. This is the belief that after the Last Judgment, all unbelievers and the rest of the damned (including even Satan and all his demons) will not go to Hell, but be utterly destroyed and their consciousnesses extinguished—they will be spared the eternal suffering that their sins would otherwise require. It was a position held by prominent churchmen in the twentieth century of whom Ayer would likely be aware. These included the ninety-eighth Archbishop of Canterbury, William Temple, in Christus Veritas (1924), and Oliver Chase Quick, Chaplain to the Archbishop of Canterbury and Regius Professor of Divinity at the University of Oxford, in Doctrines of the Creed (1933). The prominent Cambridge theologian Basil Atkinson also argued for the doctrine in Life and Immortality: An Examination of the Nature and Meaning of Life and Death (1969), along with the related notions of soul sleep and conditional immortality. These doctrines relieve the unbeliever of any concern that they might have an afterlife, hellish or otherwise. In 1995 the Doctrine Commission of the Church of England reported that Hell may be a state of “total non-being”, not eternal torment.

Ayer would have had every right to feel quite secure in his comprehensive atheism right up until a moment after he ate the smoked salmon in his bed in the intensive care ward and plunged into his near-death experience. After that, everything was thrown into doubt. His resulting article and then the addendum record his immediate, somewhat awestruck, reaction, and then his desperate attempt to backtrack and mend his fences with the atheist and humanist communities, of which he had been a leading figure for decades. Nonetheless, the genie was out of the bottle (to use a metaphor that’s surprisingly appropriate in this case). Ayer passed away in 1989 and, presumably, if there was anything for him to find out about the meaning of life, he will have done so.

But philosophically, Ayer would have gone to his grave disputing that the meaning of life can be derived in any way from either God or any form of afterlife. In “The Claims of Philosophy” (1947, republished in The Meaning of Life, 1990), Ayer addressed what he believed was the public expectation that philosophers can reveal the meaning of life. In a characteristic Logical Positivist move, he insisted that the correct response is for the philosopher to point out that it is an impossible question and that once this is realised, “the problem is solved, so far as reasoning can solve it”. And it is an impossible question because even the meaning of “meaning” in this context is unclear. Beyond that, it cannot be shown that human existence as a whole has any purpose, and that perhaps the sense that it does have only arises because individual people can have plans or purposes that they pursue and that this causes some erroneously to project a similar overriding purpose onto the totality of life.

Ayer also points out that even if human existence has been arranged in such a manner as to facilitate the pursuit of some ultimate goal or destiny it would not be one chosen by us, but rather by God or some force external to that existence. Consequently, from the perspectives of individual human beings, the end towards which we are all travelling would be entirely arbitrary, and so any account of this would really just be a description of the process in which we are all caught up, and would not, in Ayer’s view, properly constitute the meaning of life. The latter would just be the name of the “cause” into which we have all been conscripted.

Moreover, the notion that existence is constituted in such a way as to further some transcendent objective would seem to entail that this purpose would be “built into” the very fabric of reality, and that human beings, if they are fully cognisant of their situation, would be very wise to identify and conform to all the forces and tendencies that arise inevitably from this. For example, those of a religious faith would seek to identify God’s will and act in accordance with it; while Marxists or others who believe that “History” is a quasi-transcendent force, would seek to conform to its demands (and not “be on the wrong side of history”).

On the other hand, such folk may choose to regard this as providing exactly the sort of meaning of life they’re seeking, and history is full of examples where this type of surrender of individual responsibility is the case. Leaving aside the history of Christianity, one only needs to look at the history of Marxist-inspired revolutionary movements in the past two centuries to find innumerable examples of people sacrificing their lives to the “inexorable” laws of history. This was usually taken to be exemplified by “the Party”, and it was on this issue that the famous mid-twentieth-century falling-out over Cold War politics occurred between Jean-Paul Sartre and Albert Camus, as we will explore in future articles. Ayer, in accordance with Humanist principles, rejects this type of capitulation, as he considers that any legitimate meaning of life must be something over which human beings can claim ownership and not be something assumed by them, or imposed upon them.

Ayer was very alert to the moral dimensions of this question. He had little time for those who assume that humanity is governed by an externally sourced meaning of life, especially when they presume to speak and act on its behalf, perhaps seeking to force other people to adhere to its demands. Such a presumption also has obvious negative political implications for liberal democracy, as it tends to force politics onto a pre-ordained track when what is most likely required is a process of compromise and incremental progress as humanity responds to the endless challenges that history throws up.

The classic argument for this was provided by Ayer’s contemporary Karl Popper in The Poverty of Historicism (1957). There he argued that teleological assumptions about the future will always be doomed to failure, along with any comprehensive or holistic planning based upon them, and this is because the course of human history is largely determined by the growth of knowledge, and this cannot adequately be predicted (as has recently been demonstrated by the phenomenal growth and expansion into every area of life of the internet, social media and artificial intelligence). As Popper explained, “we make progress if, and only if, we are prepared to learn from our mistakes: to recognize our errors and to utilize them critically instead of persevering in them dogmatically”. Consequently, he advocated “piecemeal social engineering”, which was, in effect, the application of his conception of scientific method in the realm of politics. None of this fits at all well with any notion that human history or existence has an externally ordained meaning or direction, according to which people should order their lives.

In his very last writings and interviews, Ayer concluded that the meaning of life was a very elusive notion, if not a dangerous chimera, the pursuit of which threatened to divert humanity onto the wrong path, and had indeed frequently done so. Above all, it couldn’t be derived from a transcendent source. He conceded that a sort of ersatz afterlife might just be possible using medical techniques verging on science fiction, as long as the issue of the prolongation of personal identity could be resolved. However, this was a rather bland and lukewarm prospect, especially for someone of an advanced age like himself. Certainly, if he was going to continue to exist, he would have much preferred to do so as a younger person, as one could then live with the high level of “intensity” that he had enjoyed throughout much of his life. This implies that if there were to be any meaning to be enjoyed it would be meaning in life, understood as “the satisfaction that people receive for the character and conduct of their personal lives”. But this is a far cry from the grand, over-arching comprehension associated with the meaning of life, understood in its classic, more cosmic sense.

Ultimately, for Ayer, death was a definitive end: there is no afterlife, and no God or transcendent force that could bestow an overriding purpose or point to life, and therefore no meaning of life. While this might seem to some to be pessimistic or nihilistic, for Ayer and others, like James Tartaglia in Philosophy in a Meaningless Life (2016), it is a liberating perspective, precisely because it frees humans to construct their own meaning in their own lives, free of outside forces seeking to determine it for them. But is this enough? As we will see in future articles, many other thinkers in the modern era have tackled the same problem that confronted Ayer, and they came to quite different conclusions about the meaning of life.

Mervyn Bendle will shortly have further articles on this philosophical theme


9 thoughts on “A.J. Ayer and the Meaning of Life

  • Searcher says:

    ‘The meaning of life’ is an odd choice of words. It’s like ‘the colour of the traffic’ or ‘the sound of a stone’, if taken literally a sort of category mistake.

  • Sindri says:

    Random hallucinations generated by a sputtering brain about to expire. Amusing that someone like Ayer invests them with so much significance.

  • Botswana O'Hooligan says:

    Interesting and thought provoking if you are in the last few years of your life as I am and wondering in the dark watches if it is better to have all your marbles and a beggared body OR to have a beggared mind and a good body. Does our mind live on or is it a case of “tilt, game over” a nanosecond after one quits breathing or whatever the scientific term is for buying the farm. Are there 72 virgins out there and of what use are they to an old bloke for we can’t prove that there are 72 virgins but we can’t prove that there are not 72 virgins. My practical Russian born and bred wife has suggested that she put a hip pocket in my shroud that can contain the wad of crisp USD I hauled around during my wanderings around the Globe during a working life to either get me out of trouble or to get me into trouble (and the wad still remains) in case there is an afterlife where there is some kind of go-go bar and I can continue paying for the odd cold beer whilst watching a troupe of Angels dancing on the head of a pin. One also supposes that “Quadrant” will be interested as long as my subs are paid up for some time to come for maybe Sir Alfred had a point and signals from the beyond may increase in a surge of Quadrant subscribers.

  • colin_jory says:

    Thank you, Mervyn Bendle. What you tell brought to mind an episode in my first year at the Australian National University, during a lecture in a unit called “Introduction to Philosophy and Logic”. We had three lecturers during the year, one of whom had the accent and rhetorical method of a Southern United States revivalist preacher, but was an atheist. His theme was “The Existence of God”, and apropos of this he sought to demonstrate that talk of an afterlife is necessarily meaningless. He was, of course, applying Logical Positivism, although I can’t recall his ever using that term. As part of his argument, he posited a situation where one’s friend Fred has died, then a phantasm which looks and sounds like Fred appears to one, tells one facts which only Fred and oneself knew, and so on; and he put the question, “Would this not prove that there is an Afterlife, and that Fred is in it?” He answered himself by saying that it did not and could not, because to prove that the phantasm was Fred one would need to have Fred in his living material self on-hand so as to cross-check if the phantasm was indeed he, which would be logically impossible. He said that if one could not do this, one could not even be sure that the Fred-like phantasm which visited one week was the same Fred-like phantasm which visited the next week, rather than another phantasm of like appearance and with like knowledge. Although at that time discussion simply did not happen in lectures (as distinct from in tutorials), I put my hand up and politely asked, “How do we know that you are the same lecturer we had here last week, and not somebody else who looks like him?” He responded, “Come, come, we must have some basis in common sense to get anywhere!”. I did not press the matter, but thought, “Indeed we must!”

  • wdr says:

    Professor Ayer is currently outside of internet range, but wishes to thank Mr Bendle for his interesting article.

  • padraic says:

    I am with Sindri on this one. My own father had a near death experience which involved looking at a bright light at the end of a tunnel – no doubt a common experience in such a situation and hence the phrase “light at the end of the tunnel” (or perhaps derived from train journeys). He recovered, and it was considered as an hallucination caused by the chemical changes involved in such a situation. Anyway, Kerry Packer went “over the other side” and assured us when he came back that there was nothing there. As regards the concept of going to heaven or suffering eternal damnation a possible explanation is that you carry into death the psychological and mental state (unresolved or resolved issues, regrets, guilt etc) in which you find yourself at the given time. But does it matter?

  • lgroarke says:

    This was a fun (and fair) article. Remarkable that Ayer (who is analytic philosophy light) could imagine he was in the second rank of philosophers below Aristotle and Plato: I can;t think of a better demonstration of the hubris of academics. As a philosophical methodology (with some merit) analytic philosophy has failed to deliver the goods again and again. What Ayer believed was advanced thought was mostly David Hume and refried beans; it is remarkable that his position is largely an expression of the prevailing zeitgeist in a small subset of the academy; his perspective is simplistic, ahistorical, self-congratulatory and highly partisan (despite all that talk about logical rigor and scientific verificationism)… Nicely done by the present author; a good read…

  • norsaint says:

    Reading the quoted verbiage of AJ Ayer reminds me of Malcolm Muggeridge’s famous riposte to him on the BBC tv discussion program, The Question Why.
    From Richard Ingrams biography of Muggeridge:
    “A.J. Ayer had met Malcolm during the war in Algiers and had admired his journalism but took exception to his ‘growing religiosity”.
    When he ventured to argue on television against Malcom’s view that suffering was ennobling, Malcolm snubbed him: ”How you ever became Professor of Logic, Freddie, I shall never know”.
    Ayer was, for once, was rendered speechless.”

  • Searcher says:

    I think that the question ‘what is the meaning of life?’ verges on incoherence. It is of a kind of question favoured by Continental rationalists. It hints that it expects a semi-religious answer, but also hints that it expects an answer ‘nothing’. We have an instinct to search for meaning.

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