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