Bridging a Great Divide

I had a post about morality planned for February but it’s taking longer than I thought to write.  Instead, I’d like to share a video which to me relates very much to morality.

I found the video on one of Eva’s posts and I was very moved by it:

In the video, Naomi Feil, a Jewish woman, makes a connection with a woman who suffers from Alzheimer’s by singing Christian songs.  I think this made an even deeper impact on me given that I know of the aversion to Christianity that exists in the Jewish community.  This was very clear to me growing up in a Jewish home, and I also found it to be true, albeit to a lesser extent, in a more liberal Jewish congregation I attended several years ago.  There’s a lot of history causing that aversion, but happily I believe it is dissipating.

To me this is just one example of someone crossing over the boundaries of religion to make a beautiful connection with another human being.  I have always highly valued all human beings no matter what their beliefs are and my beliefs about ultimate questions have never changed that.  This was one of the things that attracted me to Christianity back in college – I believed that it represented true goodness and that it matched this value that I had within my heart.  That strong value didn’t go away after I left Christianity though, and no matter what my beliefs are about the existence of gods, that value of mine will remain unchanged.  To me this is an important part of what morality is all about.

Bravery to end the year

My 9-year-old daughter had been waiting for several months for this moment.  We planned it for the winter school break, and when it came she first decided against it.  But early this morning my sweet baby girl changed her mind and walked into the mall scared out of her mind.  Her mother, aunt, brother and I were all there by her side but she was still thinking about turning right around.  I was so proud that she went through with it and now she has 2 beautiful earrings in those freshly pierced ears of hers.  She was so brave!  She’s been running around the house all day giddier than a girl on the first night of Chanukah.

I believe it’s moments like these that happen all the time in our lives that rise so high above any topic that I’ve ever written and ever will write about on this blog.

Wishing you all a Happy New Year!

Can There be a Purpose to This Post?

EvangelistsA few weeks ago Josh brought up some good points about meaning and purpose in life at this link on Nate’s post.  We hashed through some of that over there but I thought I’d try to add a few more of my thoughts on the subject.  I actually agree with a lot of what Josh wrote (although I’m not sure he realized that), but there were some things he wrote that I thought could be looked at from a different angle.

First I’d like to explore what in the world is meant by “life’s meaning”.  For this I’d like to start with a quote from Loyal Rue:

When individuals articulate the meaning of life they are attempting to specify why they value life. 1

I believe this hits the nail on the head, and I believe it explains why atheists are actually correct when they say that their life is still meaningful to them even without a transcendent purpose.  They have their own reasons why they value living: perhaps relationships with friends and family, or the sheer joy of helping others, the enjoyment of learning, looking on a breathtaking vista, breathing in the fresh cool air of a new fall season, or all of those and more.  Whatever it may be, living is important to them (i.e. they value it) and they have many reasons to continue living.  That is what atheists are trying to express when they say “my life is meaningful” or “we can create meaning”.  This is why I believe that part of Josh’s last comment is not entirely true:

I do think it covers up the deeper reality that there really isn’t any reason to continue living the life we live without ultimate purpose.

There are reasons to continue living.  We have those reasons ourselves.  And my reasons for living aren’t even only within myself.  I know there are others who love me and want me to continue living as well.  So there are actually reasons to live even external of myself.  However, where I agree with Josh (and perhaps he just didn’t word the above carefully) is that outside of the desires of human beings there are no transcendent reasons to live if the more popular forms of naturalism are true (I say it that way because not all naturalists are alike in their beliefs).  What I think theists don’t realize though is that many atheists realize this and their response is “so what?”.  This actually is similar to the Buddhist response and relates to the parable of the poisoned arrow I explained in this post.

I’d like to dig even a bit deeper.  I think there may be a distinction between “meaning in life” and “meaning of life”.  What I mean is that usually when someone asks “what is the meaning of life”, I believe they are asking what meaning there is above and beyond humans (a.k.a. transcendent, ultimate, or cosmic). I’d like to share with Josh and others that I can relate to their need to have some “higher purpose”.  Feeling like I could be a part of something bigger than myself was a big draw for me before I became a Christian, and was a significant loss for me when I left.

Now when theists say “there is no meaning of life without God”, I believe there is actually a hidden premise in there.  The premise is: “meaning must come from a thinking, intentional mind” (because that’s how the monotheists who push this argument define God).  This seems to be a foundational belief, but I don’t see any logical reason that this must be true.  Perhaps there is somehow meaning built-in as a basic property of reality.  I believe this is a bit more of an eastern way of looking at things (perhaps Taoist), but Spinoza, Einstein and others seemed to also express such ideas.  But my western mind has the same bias that theists have, so while I’m open to possibilities I lean toward agreeing that “meaning can only come from thinking, intentional minds.” But think about that – where does that premise come from?  I believe it comes from our own experience that purpose and meaning are generated from human minds.  So there you have it – it comes full circle.  The very argument itself shows that humans can create purpose and meaning (which some theists, including Josh, agree to). They may not be eternal, but that’s not the point.

Further, I’d like to ask my readers to think and comment on 3 thought experiments. Theists will probably learn the most about themselves from them, but I believe some atheists can benefit as well.  Keep in mind that the experiments may not be possible scenarios, but that’s how thought experiments go:

  1. Consider a world where there is an all-powerful, all-knowing, all-loving God who has created human beings for a purpose.  However, God tells all of us that absolutely nothing (including himself) is eternal.  All will come to an end at some point in the far future.  But he tells us that he still has a purpose for all of us to be alive.  Could this scenario be meaningful to you?
  2. Consider a world where we all know for sure that there is no God (don’t ask me how – it’s a thought experiment!), and there also is no transcendent meaning beyond human minds.  However, we also know for sure that human beings will exist for eternity.  Could this scenario be meaningful to you?
  3. Last consider a world where we all know for sure that there is no God and there is no transcendent meaning beyond human minds, but in this last world human beings all die like we do in our real world.  Also, we all know that humanity will come to an end at some point far in the future.  Most traditional monotheists would not find this kind of life meaningful.  But really think about it – what would you do if tomorrow scientists, philosophers, and theologians all got together and came to a 100% consensus that this is the way the world is?

The first 2 scenarios actually have an interesting story to them. In my blogging I’ve actually been surprised to find that some theists have desires which are very different from the ones I had as a Christian.  When I was a Christian it was more about feeling like I was a part of something grander than myself, so I would have answered with a resounding YES to question #1.  Eternity really had nothing to do with it.  In fact living eternally has never been much of a big draw for me.  I obviously wouldn’t want to live eternally in sadness, and I’d be ok with an eternity of bliss, but to be honest never-ending consciousness just seems a bit too much to me.  What I was very surprised to find however in an online discussion I had with Brandon was that the idea of “something(s)” being around in eternity and being affected by his life was an important factor for him in regards to meaning. I believe there is a lesson to be learned from this – all of us should know and recognize that we are all built differently, with different needs and desires.  While there is a great deal of overlap in many of our needs, when it comes to our desires related to questions of meaning it really does span the map.  My wife is the perfect example of this – she is the most content person I’ve ever met and it boggles her mind why anyone would ever care about or need any kind of ultimate purpose in their lives.  So theists should keep in mind that if they are trying to sell their worldview with the “meaning card” their effort may very well be wasted.

And in regards to eternity, this quote from John McTaggart is worth thinking about:

If we do not start with the certainty that love for an hour on earth is unconditionally good, I do not see what ground we should have for believing that it would be good for an eternity in heaven. 2

Lastly, given that I have a bit of agnosticism in me, in my mind there is still the possibility that there really is some meaning to the universe, be it from gods or from some basic properties of the universe.  While I’ve fully faced scenario #3 and already dealt with the fact that there is likely no transcendent meaning, I see no reason to completely dispense with the idea.  I talked more about that as well as other related things in this post.  I think it’s good to face all different kinds of possible scenarios in similar ways.  We can never remove our preferences, but it can help in reducing bias.


Footnotes:

  1. “Nature Is Enough”, by Loyal Rue
  2. Quoted by Erik Wielenberg in “Robust Ethics: The Metaphysics and Epistemology of Godless Normative Realism”

Is Meaning Possible in a World Without God?

I was going to do a series about meaning but as I was studying and writing the series on morality I realized that there is a whole lot of overlap in the 2 subjects.  They are both based on values which would explain that.  Many of the things I wrote about morality could also be written about meaning.

One example of this is in the question of God being the answer to meaning.  Just as in thinking about morality, the question is obvious here as well – where did God get his meaning?  If he is not disturbed by the fact that there isn’t something outside of himself that provides meaning then why should we be?  Why does adding another conscious entity to the equation solve the problem of meaning?  If it turns out that there is no God does that remove all meaning from our lives?  I discussed these kinds of questions when discussing morality as well.

I won’t write too much about the idea that we can create our own meaning in life – it has been hashed and rehashed many times, and I certainly agree that we can create our own meaning in life.  I think it is important in discussions with theists to make a distinction between a simple practical and “ordinary” usage of the word “meaning” versus a more “cosmic” or “outside of humanity” kind of meaning.  Most atheists including myself are willing to admit that there may not be this kind of cosmic meaning, but in practical terms we can still have meaning in our own lives, and the foundations for this are just our own values that we may have.  For example my children give great meaning to my life – I don’t see this as a cosmic, “outside of humanity” meaning, but just meaning in the sense that they are extremely important to me.

Also, just as in the discussion on morality, I believe there is a possibility (again the possibilian in me) that some kind of meaning exists in “the fabric” of reality, and perhaps it is even beyond the current capability of humans to understand (i.e. transcendant).  I do not see why It is logically necessary to believe in gods to believe in this kind of possibility.  Perhaps this is a bit mystic or spiritual, and I don’t mind getting “kicked out” of the atheist community for expressing this kind of idea. 😉  I don’t claim belief in this kind of meaning, but I do see it as possible.

And furthermore, on a bit less less of a mystic tone, for me, while the big questions seem unanswerable given what we as humans know at this point in time, and I have embraced that, I also can’t know for certain that there won’t be a day sometime in the future that this changes due to the increase in human knowledge about reality (as well as the changes that may occur from further evolution).  While this seems unlikely to me, I can’t deny the possibility that humans will obtain concrete answers to these questions, and therein lies a great deal of meaning and purpose for me.  The constant pursuit of truth and facts with the express purpose of helping the people who might live many many years from now is actually very inspiring for me and it is one reason why I blog about these kind of things.  But in the pursuit of truth, if it really is truth that we are seeking (and for me it definitely is), we must constantly apply rigorous objective methods, and also must question our most cherished beliefs and allow others to try and falsify the claims that we make about what truth is.  That is the primary way as humans we will get closer to what we are seeking, given that this kind of process will help to overcome the biases that all of us are so plagued with.  And the possibility that this leads humans in the future to real answers to these big questions is a huge driver for meaning in my life.

If you are an atheist, agnostic, or just plain doubter but are struggling with a sense of a loss of meaning, there are a lot of resources out there for getting a better grip of this subject.  As a small starting point I would recommend this post by Richard Wade on the Friendly Atheist blog.  There are a couple of other links to videos on there as well that you may want to watch.

Secular Humanism

In all of my previous posts I’ve focussed more on my methods and approach to finding out what is true in the realm of reality.  I’ve used some labels for myself such as implicit atheist, weak agnostic, and possibilian.  I haven’t yet mentioned a much more important description of myself which describes what I believe about morality and how to treat other humans.

I am a secular humanist.  This doesn’t mean I believe in every precept of the secular humanist movement, but since I don’t claim belief in any supernatural entities I fit into the secular category, and because I believe very strongly in treating every person as having inherent worth and dignity I fit perfectly into the humanist category.

I recently read “Good Without God” by Greg Epstein, and while I may lean more to the agnostic side in my openness to the supernatural or transcendant possibilities of reality, whatever differences I felt I had with his description of secular humanism was very minor.  His book is a good introduction to the subject for the layperson.  He didn’t dive deep into the epistemology of morality (although he did touch on it a little bit) and he did seem to go off on a few tangents, but otherwise I thought the book was a good intro.

The subject of morality is an essential one for a blog like mine and I think my next post will be the morality post (or series) that I have wanted to write for a while.  I’ve been procrastinating because I feel like I have only touched the surface of this very important topic, but I’m going to jump in because it is so important.

The importance of this cannot be underscored enough for me.  As I’ve described before, my doubts about the truth of Christianity grew as time went along and for maybe a year or more before I decided I could no longer call myself a believer anymore I was fighting very hard to push my doubts away.  While I’m sure there were a lot of factors for why I did that, I know very clearly of 2 – one was the feeling that if I left my belief I would no longer have my moral compass, and would in fact have no moral compass at all.  The other was a concern for the loss of meaning or purpose in life.

One just needs to peruse the blogosphere of Religious/Atheist dialogues (if it could be called dialogue 😉 ) for just a short time to see that these 2 things are very important big questions in humanity’s search for truth.

So not only do I have plans to post some of my ideas about morality I also plan in the future to post my ideas about meaning and purpose in life.