Has Life any Meaning?

Year: 
1921

(Review of the edition currently in print under the title Debates on the Meaning of Life, Evolution and Spiritualism).

This is one of the few books with Harris recorded as author that are still in print, and perhaps the most unusual. Published as one of the volumes of the Freethought Library by Prometheus Books, an American publisher associated with the Rationalist Society, it is simply a record of three debates which took place around 1920. The first, between Harris and Percy Ward, is on the motion "Has Life Any Meaning?", Harris taking the affirmative and Ward the negative position. The debate itself is unremarkable. Ward takes the view that because the universe is random and chaotic, and has no moral dimension discernable - innocent babies die horrible deaths, greedy and lazy men live to a comfortable old age, and so on - there cannot be any meaning to Life.

Harris disagrees by interpreting the issue differently, as is customary in such debates. He redefines the question of the 'meaning of life' to mean whether one should be an optimist or a pessimist, and casts Ward in the latter rôle and himself in the former. Ward politely shifts the debate onto Harris' ground, and it meanders back and forth between them. Ultimately there is no winning such an argument: it is more a matter of temperament than reason. I declare it a draw: although Ward argues more coherently, Frank is more fun, and gives sounder advice on the way one should live, with relish for whatever pleasures are thrown one's way.

The other debates are between Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and Joseph McCabe, on Spiritualism, and between George McCready Price and Joseph McCabe again, on Evolution. In neither case is there much of a contest. That the creator of Sherlock Holmes was in life so pitifully irrational and deluded is rather tragic; but the debate on Evolution is still of interest, in that the kind of muddying of waters employed by Price in his opposition to Evolutionary Theory is still practiced today: taking the views of a few dissident voices as representative, and misrepresenting honest scientific disputes about the mechanisms of Evolution as if they were disagreements about its actuality.

Ultimately, while there is some modest food for thought in this volume there is not much here to explain why it happens to be in print; I assume that it is in some way seen as a proud part of the history of the Rationalist movement, that they once could get such famous names to debate at their meetings.

Selected editions: 
Publisher: 
Haldeman-Julius
Year: 
1921
Country: 
US
Notes: 
Little Blue Book No. 171.
Publisher: 
Prometheus Books
Year: 
1993
Country: 
US
Binding: 
Paperback.
Notes: 
Freethought Library. This edition also collects debates between George Mcready Price, Joseph McCabe and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.