Session Four, Topics for Conversation

“It is true that humans are social organisms, embedded in and influenced to a significant degree by their cultures and families on the one hand and their biological foundations on the other. Yet what is unique and critically important about humans, and what makes our capability for autonomy all the more powerful, is our capacity for reflective awareness,through which we have the possibility of making choices that allow us to better satisfy basic needs, to care for others, and to have fuller and more meaningful existences.” Self-Determination Theory, Ryan & Deci, Epilogue

Propose: There are two formulations of the question about meaning & purpose:

A. What is the meaning of life?
B. What is a fit purpose in my life?

1. Question:

Should we dismiss version (A) as having no answer or only having answers that cannot be verified?

2. Question:

Should we explain motivation in terms of a desire for Autonomy, Competence and Human Relations? (Self-Determination Theory)

3. Question:

a. Is it sufficient to test a proposed purpose against what the individual perceives to be “fit” for her life?

b. Should a proposed purpose be tested or assessed against a standard that is independent of the individual?


Psychotherapy and Psychology are both concerned with human motivation, but the approaches they follow are driven by different practicalities. The psychotherapist will see those who are troubled and need help. The psychologist will work to understand motivation and behaviour in places like schools, stores and factories.

4. Question:

Should we keep motivation for psychotherapy and for psychology separate, or should there be one basic theory of human motivation?


Elaine Graham was impressed by an audio podcast by Jungian analyst James Hollis -  The goal of life is meaning not happiness. (By minute 17 the focus settles on meaning/purpose.)

I went to look and found a 10 minute video introduction by James Hollis on Living an Examined Life.

5. Question:

Do you find the Jungian approach to be appealing and/or compelling?


Philosophers have toiled for millennium on questions about meaning and human purpose. In the 20th century there is almost a consensus that many of the “big” questions are meaningless or have no answer or have answers that cannot be verified. And in the 20th century a whole self-help industry has arisen wherein an easy path to all your important questions is promised.
References ...
a. Provides an overview of the easy answers: On Purpose, P. Forese
b. Atheist view of meaning & philosophy: What’s It All About?, J. Baggini
c. Spiritualist view of philosophy & meaning:On the Meaning of Life, J. Cottingham

6. Question:

a. Is it reasonable to just dismiss the easy answers books, lectures and videos?
b. If you’re an atheist, should you read the spiritualist views on meaning?
c. If you’re a spiritualist, should you read the atheist views on meaning?


I have drawn on a limited range of published comments, opinions and conclusions. Google Search ( provides a way for you to “survey” available material by searching on a phrase such as “meaning of life”, or refine the search to “meaning of life spiritual/atheist”, and if you would like a proper document to read, try “meaning of life pdf”.

Next Week (June 2nd)

By proposing this course I knew I would be forced to think as clearly as I can about meaning and purpose in my life. My hope is that our conversations will help you find meaning and purpose with which you cam feel comfortable. Issie Lyon sent me a thoughtful half-page – Some thoughts on the meaning of life.

Future Question:

How far have you moved towards answers that make personal sense to the “big” questions about meaning and purpose?


I am moved by the music of Johann Sebastian Bach. He served for many years as the head of church music in Leipzig. His compositions were offered in service of his God. I’m not led to his God by hist music, but I am led to patterns that are deeply satisfying. One explanation: We experience the world as patterns recognized by our embodied minds. I’m attracted to the hypothesis that our deeply satisfying experiences draw on our earliest and most fundamental patterns – they resonate deep within us.

To Ponder:

Is there a link between deeply satisfying experiences and patterns that have developed deep within us? Do we come equipped with some fundamental patterns that we all recognize, ... and some (almost as deep) patterns that we have learned?