How to Write a Philosophical Bucket-list

Recently I had a crack at writing at a bucket-list: that defining list of things that you must do before you “kick the bucket”. I don’t know why it occurred to me to do this. Perhaps I’m dying and only three neurons in my hippocampus have yet noticed. Either way I think I messed it up. Majorly.

You see, I looked at other people’s lists for inspiration. Loud as a gong my mistake became clear. “Oh no!” I said. “What have I done?!”

You see, I’d written Become wise; they’d all written Go scuba diving.

Gosh! Dang! Jeepers!

Am I wasting my life? What am I doing?

Trying to live wisely, apparently. That’s according to my half-assed never-to-be-finished scuba-free bucket-list anyway. So let’s have a crack at that. Wisdom. And bucket-lists.

Why are bucket-lists so full of trivial crap? This crap is supposed to be the crap you must do before the Grim Reaper pops over for dinner and death. Yet 99% of bucket lists contain the following: write a novel,  learn a language, travel the world, and run a marathon.


Marathons must be pretty bloody amazing.

These bucket-list cliches are all nice. Yay for you. You went for a run. Good one. Nice.

But do you want a nice life? Or a meaningful life? Because all these cliche goals, this menagerie of the nice,  does have a certain meaning. They are the expressions of a certain philosophy – a poorly thought through philosophy.

The typical bucket-list philosophy is this:

  • juvenile hedonism,
  • drive-by altruism,
  • mushy sentimentality,
  • and rub-the-Jone’s-face-in-my-glory one-upmanship.

It’s the life philosophy of a Facebook photo. Look at me. I shook the president’s hand. I’m so cool. Now I can die.

Jeepers! Dang! Gosh!

This all got me thinking. What would a philosophically sound bucket-list look like? Here’s some thoughts.

First, the over-riding motivator behind bucket-lists is this idea about “living life to the full”, whatever that means. As a result recommended items include:

  • Jump in a puddle,
  • See a sunrise,
  • And watch the clouds go by.

This is nonsense! Do you really plan on watching a sunrise only once in your life? Are you a vampire who wants to go out with a bang?


Living life to the full is not for bucket-lists. It’s a habit. You do it everyday. You see a puddle. You jump in it. Life lived.

Second, although typical bucket-lists are insipid, they do allow you to see the classes of activity you can do in life. Here’s ten rough categories to help spur your imagination:

  • Becoming: change your character.
  • Learning: gain knowledge or skills.
  • Experiencing: see, touch, hear, lick it for yourself.
  • Achieving: succeed at some prestigious project.
  • Creating: make something.
  • Acquiring: get stuff.
  • Helping: make life better for other Earthlings you know.
  • Changing: make a difference in the world.
  • Locations: be somewhere.
  • Relationships: make and shape social bonds.

Pick items from each class. That way your bucket-list is more than just a bloody road-trip itinerary.

Third, please-please-please know why you are adding an item to the list. Do you really want to run a marathon? Or does that just sound cool? Item #1 on your list should be this: figure out what matters in life. Nothing else makes it on the list until you’ve answered that question.

Fourth, choose goals that take time. Seeing the Eiffel Tower can, technically, be achieved in 0.01 of a second. How is life any better for that?

In contrast, becoming fluent in French will take you a lifetime. You will soak in the language. You will be changed by the language. You’ll have to go to France anyway. Remember – these are things worth doing. They are worth taking some time. So, even if you simply must see Gustave Eiffel’s pile o’ steel, then at least do this: draw a picture of it. You will be forced to stop, slow down, and be changed.

Fifth, be careful with random trivial goals. They risk sucking the meaning from the entire enterprise. Instead give your list structure. Begin writing the grand and noble, then work down to the small and trivial. Let the lesser serve the greater. For example:

  1. Be as psychologically healthy as humanly possible
  2. learn meditation
  3. visit a Buddhist temple

Each goal flows one from the other. The otherwise trivial YOLO goal of getting selfies with a bald monk is given meaning by being part of a series of greater goals. The trivial is lifted to greatness, rather than the great  brought down to triviality.

Lastly, you might want to consider calling this list something other than a bucket-list. As soon as you say “I have a bucket-list.” you’re going to get asked, “So when are you going scuba diving?”

More troublesome, the “kick the bucket” idiom comes from either slaughtering pigs, or maybe from committing suicide. Yeah. Grim. Nihilistic gallows humor isn’t a great start for finding meaning in life.

I prefer the image of a list of plot points. Imagine you are writing a novel. Look at the main character. Certain things need to happen to this person. What  must they learn? How must they change? Where must they go? For the story to make sense – to have meaning – each question must be answered. Each answer must be brought to fruition. Otherwise the story will be incomplete. You just couldn’t kill off the main character yet.

Finish their story, then they can die.

Stories are how we make meaning of events. Life is a story we tell ourselves. So then, what are your plot points? What must happen for your tale to be complete? And yes, it can include scuba diving.






Why is New Atheism like Old Religion?

The New Atheists are so religiously anti-religious they even make atheists feel uncomfortable. Isn’t that a wee bit odd? How is that the most anti-religious people on the planet can resemble religion to the point that every other Tuesday they get accused of being militant fundamentalists?

The answer is fairly simple: when you fight a war of ideas and culture you will end up looking like everyone else who has ever fought a war of ideas and culture. No one has been fighting that fight longer than religion.

First we need to understand what New Atheism is all about. Then the oomph behind much of the apparent religiosity becomes fairly obvious. This thing we call New Atheism really got going after 9/11. Since then it has evolved into a collection of endeavors and interests mostly in orbit around a number of atheist authors, such as Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris. This solar system of atheism is roughly united by four beliefs:

1) The supernatural doesn’t exist. Gods, ghosts, and your daily horoscope are all wrong.

2) Religious belief is irrational. Believing in God isn’t just mistaken, it’s stupid.

3) Science is the best source of knowledge. Science disproves the ‘God-hypothesis’. Science can show us the best way to live.

4) A moral standard exists. Religion violates this standard. Therefore religion is immoral.

Agree with these points? Chances are you’ll like Dawkins and crew. So what’s new about all this? Approximately… nothing. Varieties of these arguments have existed for generations.

What is noticeable is the forceful emphasis on beliefs 2) and 4). Religion is irrational. Religion is immoral. Forget atheism, this is anti-theism. Religion is harmful stupidity.


This moral mission is the raison d’être for most of the apparent atheist religiosity: anger, intolerance, and evangelism. If you think religion is evil, then you’ll be angry at religion. You won’t be able to tolerate a culture of religion anymore than you’d be happy with a culture of pedophilia.

This moral war is a struggle for minds. Such a campaign requires publicity and propaganda. A mission needs missionaries. No wonder people are reminded of the world’s proselytizing religions.

A movement needs members. Accidentally or otherwise, the New Atheist mission has encouraged atheism as an identity. They compare their struggle to that of gay rights – the identity struggle par excellence. Atheist’s need to feel free to come out of the closet.

However, atheism is a single-issue philosophical position. Is there a God? No. In contrast, religion has always been about belief and identity.

The religious merger between belief and identity is why people go supernova when their religion is criticized. Dawkins’ insistence that, “I respect you too much to respect your beliefs,” always fails – “I am my beliefs!” Criticism is a knife to the gut. This is partly why New Atheism is unavoidably rude. You just don’t slam identity.

Making atheism an identity makes it religious. All that supernova-nastiness gets sucked on in. Echo-chambers. Touchiness. Leader-adoration. Infighting. Bigotry. (In fairness, atheists living in a religious lion’s den have little choice here. You are scandalously The Atheist whether you like it or not.)

So that’s the moral fervor.

Belief number two makes New Atheism act patronizing; Religion is irrational. Rational beliefs deserve debate. Irrational beliefs deserve a Sesame Street lecture on How-to-Think-Good with Socky the Sock-puppet, followed by a brain-scan.

This faith in universal religious stupidity also permits whomping great truckloads of over-confident ignorance. Do you really need to study Santa to disprove Santa? Do you really think Santa’s real? Do you? Same deal, says New Atheism, with Noah and his you-can’t-fit-four-hundred-million-animals-on-that boat. Why bother understanding religious nuance when faith is that silly?

Combined with the condescension this all comes across as dogmatic and simplistic, a little bit religiousy.

Speaking of dogmatism we have belief number 3). Science. New Atheism is infatuated with science to the point of abuse. Deep philosophical questions are swept away with a “Who cares? Science!” The official slur for this is scientism. There’s some things you just can’t ask science to do. It’s not right.

Put all these factors together and team New Atheism smells of strident triumphalism. Just like a religion. Yet, in the end we do need to remember one thing: the word religion is so nebulous that almost anything looks like a religion if you stare at it long enough.

This one word, religion, failingly attempts to cordon off the entire crash-prone intersection between culture and belief. Dare to be a human who believes stuff, and you will be stuck on the wrong side of that barrier. And in the middle of all this credo-cultural carnage, the New Atheists are waging war. They always were going to end up reflecting back a little bit of their nemesis, old religion.



Deeper Down the Rabbit-hole

A classic New Atheist discussion, “The Four Horsemen”, on Youtube  here.

An examination of the New Atheists on the Internet Encyclopaedia of Philosophy, here.

Atheist Church, yes there is Atheist Church. Here.

The New Atheism has old roots. Try a Roman celebrating the freedom of knowledge over the tyranny of religion with De Rerum Natura, here.

An example of the criticism that New Atheism is religious, by an atheist. “Why Richard Dawkins’ Humanism Reminds me of a Religion“, by Michael Ruse. Here.



Thou Shalt Give up Bacon, Tasty, Tasty Bacon…

When it comes to food people get weird. It’s not what they do eat, it’s what they don’t eat. Think about it. Despite famines, despite high food prices, despite all the amazing eating opportunities on offer, people across the world have steadfastly refused to eat:

  • pigs
  • cows
  • rabbits
  • root vegetables
  • mushrooms
  • lettuce
  • fish
  • horses
  • insects
  • cats
  • alcohol
  • dogs
  • satay goat testicles
  • whales
  • hot beverages
  • uncooked food
  • guinea pigs
  • mice
  • pumpkins
  • beans
  • camels
  • garlic
  • your grandparents.

That’s just to name  a few.

Each of these foods has been proclaimed wonderful, or at least mouth-worthy, by one culture, and condemned as pig-swill and sin by another. How can we have such wildly different opinions about what counts as good food?

Here’s a few reasons why:

A) We Have No Imagination

Functional fixedness. A cat is a pet. A rat is a pest. A cow goes well with pasta. What it does is what it does is what it does.

That’s what it does.

A horse is a horse is a… tasty meal in France. But in England it’s just… no… you can’t… it’s a horse. You ride them. Horses. Riding. Don’t you get it? You don’t… no! Damn Frogs.

B) Philosophy and Religion

An environmentalist’s refusal to eat endangered sea turtles is easy to understand. Likewise a do-no-harm Jain’s refusal to eat animals, and your daughter’s refusal to eat her pet rabbit. And cannibalism is… do I really need to explain that one?

Other prohibitions get a bit stranger.  Believers in reincarnation might go vegetarian out of fear of eating grandpa in goat form.  Believers in animal spirits may only feed their children small animals, until the child’s spirit is strong enough to deal with eating bigger animal spirits. And believers in controlling one’s uncontrollable passions often dislike garlic because… garlic gets ya going?

When it comes to religious food taboos Judaism is head of the table. God said “Thou shalt not boil a kid in it’s mother’s milk.” and that was that. What can you do? It’s one of the Ten Commandments. (The other ten. Yes, there’s others.) No one’s clear why God said this. He just did. So Jews have been keeping their milk and meat kosher ever since. (P.S. ‘Kid’ here refers to a baby goat. Boiling children in mummy’s breast milk falls under that “Thou shalt not kill” bit. Just so we are clear.)

C) I Don’t Eat Garlic. Who Do You Think I Am?

What is it with garlic? Forget politics. You want a divisive issue, take a whiff of garlic. Go to the right time and place and “Garlic Eater” is a racial slur.

Food is community. Nothing sets you apart more than refusing to eat what others are eating. Nothing binds you together more than eating something no other group will eat. We are what we eat.

D) Power Games

Imagine if you could convince half the population that only you and people like you can safely eat chocolate. Wouldn’t that be great! All the chocolate for me!

Seems people have had this kind of idea before. Especially men. All the meat for me! And then, if they can, the rest of the group swings back around and slaps another taboo on you. Yes, you may get the chocolate and sausages, but we get the bananas and fish fingers! Ha! Social divisions end up getting written in food. Thus the elderly, chiefs, widows, children, and more end up with their own special taboos and rights of violation.

E) Conservation

Don’t eat the milk cow. You get milk from it. Seems sensible. Likewise, if each neighboring village has a different taboo for hunting a different forest animal then the chances of everyone driving these different creatures extinct is diminished.

F) Blame the Grim Reaper

Food can kill you. New food is suspicious. Is that really edible? Are the garlic eaters trying to poison us? They said it was the brown mushroom, right? That looks brown to me.

In the game of evolution, one bad experiment and you lose.

Our food taboo paranoia reaches a high point with pregnancy. Don’t eat fish. Do eat fish. Only eat rats if your husband done the butchering. And no hen’s eggs. You don’t want the baby to be too chicken to come out.


Us humans never do anything straightforwardly. Nothing could be more animalistically basic than food. Yet we can’t stop ourselves from squirting identity politics and religious dogma straight into the middle of your lunchtime sandwich. It’s enough to make you want to go get a plate full of bacon and horsemeat, garnished with extra garlic, gluten, and plus-sized animal-spirits, just to spite them. Mmm, yum!


Deeper Down the Rabbit-hole:

Food Taboos: their origin and purpose. Victor Benno Meyer-Rochow (2009) Journal of Ethnobiology and Ethnomedicine. Here.