"What embitters the world is not excess of criticism, but an absence of self-criticism." - G.K. Chesterton

Tuesday, February 06, 2007

Some thoughts on living a meaningful life

For some theists, the ultimate consequence of an atheistic existence must be a sort of apathetic nihilism: there is no God to provide meaning to our lives, so therefore life must be meaningless.

However, this is true only if meaning has to come from an external source in order to be considered valid. Many atheists reject this.

For something to have meaning for an individual it simply has to “mean” something to them, the source of this meaning, be it internal or external, is irrelevant. For most of us, life has an inherent value and meaning simply because we’re living it – nothing more is necessary.

Insisting that meaning has to come from an external source is committing the “No True Scotsman” fallacy:

Theist: Life without God is meaningless.
Atheist: I find my life quite meaningful, actually.
Theist: Ahhh – but it’s not true meaning is it!

Alex adds:

Hey Matt,
I knew I shouldn't have checked the blog today... I'm still feeling quite ill and have very little energy, but if I don't at least respond to one of these I fear I will get no further rest! Thanks bud.

I'm glad you made a post of this topic as it is one we continually circle around and I admit I have probably been less than clear with my responses. It also ties in nicely with a comment by the good Dr. Rev. here that I was also procrastinating on.

Let me start with a restatement of our positions:

Atheist: I believe there is no God, but my life still seems to have meaning, therefore we can have meaning in the absence of God.

Theist: A meaningless cause cannot beget a meaningful effect. Since the first cause is God, who is meaningful and purposeful, we as effects of His first cause can live a life of meaning and purpose.

The reason I take issue with the atheist position that the known universe can be self existent and godless, yet we can live a meaningful life, is that there is a fundamental disconnect between what we feel and what we know when we take that stance.

If you adhere to the belief that that we are the product of a yet to be explained singularity that occurred by a mindless process and is proceeding to an equally mindless, homogenous end, there is no opening for the word meaning. The whole show simply is.

If you then pick out an incredibly brief sliver of time and zoom in to our current state as organic creatures on a rock we call Earth orbiting a star we call the Sun, you would find Matt and Alex debating their existence. Is there any room for meaning yet? If so where did it come from? The answer given from the atheist bench thus far has been: "Us". Meaning is real because we feel it.

To which my standard response has been: Then to the degree that you believe in your meaning you believe in a lie. Your meaning is a product of your feelings, which is a product of your chemistry, which is a product of chance + matter, which comes from who knows where. Sure you can embrace it and exult it as worthy, but in the end it's only as worthy of exultation as a baking soda & vinegar volcano. If there is no God our meaning is meaningless. If the atheist can stare that in the face and still try and maintain that their *meaning* is still valid and worthy, they must be willing to accept a life based on a foundation of self deception.

I have yet to find an atheist who is comfortable with this conclusion. All attempts I have seen to work around this problem start with the basis of our feelings, empathy, etc... At which point I always point back to the question: what do those stem from? I really can't see anyway out of this problem for the atheist.

If it's a purely materialistic existence you want you'd better be ready to accept the meaninglessness that goes along with it.

Labels: ,

14 Comments:

Blogger Matt M said...

Alex,

A meaningless cause cannot beget a meaningful effect.

I disagree.

Meaning can be an intrinsic property, rather than one which needs to be imposed by an outside cause.

In order for something to be meaningful it simply has to mean something to me - my life, purely through being my life, means something (quite a bit, actually) to me and is therefore meaningful.

By insisting that the cause of my life must be meaningful you're simply falling into the No True Scotsman trap.

3:48 PM

 
Blogger Alex said...

Matt,
That is a fantastic source! I'll have to spend more time and read the whole thing, but I just ran across something that made me almost laugh out loud! Remember when I was lamenting that that we are just continually rehashing old ground that has already been traveled? The following example was just too close to home! =)

It involves a very fundamental point of our discussion. You believe you have intrinsic value. I agree, but I disagree that the intrinsic value of ANYTHING can exist without God.

Begin Quote:
Suppose that someone were to ask you whether it is good to help others in time of need. Unless you suspected some sort of trick, you would answer, “Yes, of course.” If this person were to go on to ask you why acting in this way is good, you might say that it is good to help others in time of need simply because it is good that their needs be satisfied. If you were then asked why it is good that people's needs be satisfied, you might be puzzled. You might be inclined to say, “It just is.” Or you might accept the legitimacy of the question and say that it is good that people's needs be satisfied because this brings them pleasure. But then, of course, your interlocutor could ask once again, “What's good about that?” Perhaps at this point you would answer, “It just is good that people be pleased,” and thus put an end to this line of questioning. Or perhaps you would again seek to explain the fact that it is good that people be pleased in terms of something else that you take to be good. At some point, though, you would have to put an end to the questions, not because you would have grown tired of them (though that is a distinct possibility), but because you would be forced to recognize that, if one thing derives its goodness from some other thing, which derives its goodness from yet a third thing, and so on, there must come a point at which you reach something whose goodness is not derivative in this way, something that “just is” good in its own right, something whose goodness is the source of, and thus explains, the goodness to be found in all the other things that precede it on the list. It is at this point that you will have arrived at intrinsic goodness.

I think I just saw God wink at you.

5:04 PM

 
Blogger Matt M said...

Alex,

Yep, it's a great site for wasting time on. :)

While you're in your flu-addled state I have a question for you: why does God have meaning and value?

5:09 PM

 
Blogger Alex said...

Matt,
Brother please let me get some rest!

why does God have meaning and value?

It really does always come down to that question does it not? With every argument of this sort you come down to the then who created God sort of question. To which the theist replies God is eternal. He is the absolute, eternal, foundational Fact of all reality. He just is. He names himself I AM in the Old Testament to reinforce that reality.

Call it a cop-out if you must, but at the end of the day that position preserves our, worth value and meaning whereas a godless existence does not.

On another note...

After wandering around a bit stewing over what I wrote earlier I do believe I am going to have to modify my stated position slightly. I am no longer able to assert that people have worth and value in their own right. Humanity has worth and value only if God has assigned worth and value to us. He must be the end of the road on any value chain.

The atheist will then say "I am the end of the road on my value chain" To which I will restart my "meaningless causation = meaningless result" argument all over again.

5:56 PM

 
Blogger Matt M said...

Alex,

Hmmmm, maybe the flu is someone's way of telling you to take a break. :-)

that position preserves our, worth value and meaning whereas a godless existence does not.

Actually, it preserves your worth in your eyes. Mine isn't dependent on the existence of a divine being.

To which I will restart my "meaningless causation = meaningless result" argument all over again.

But this overlooks the intrinsic nature of meaning for an atheist (and, from past conversations, for many British theists as well). Life is meaningful and valuable in itself - regardless of what caused it. This is simply an undeniable fact for people like me. It's pointless telling us that our life is meaningless because my direct experience proves you wrong.

Trying to erode this with the "Ahhh - but... you see: God is eternal..." lines of reasoning is like trying to destroy a cliff by throwing paper aeroplanes at it.

7:52 AM

 
Blogger Rev. Dr. Incitatus said...

'... they must be willing to accept a life based on a foundation of self deception.'

You bring the discussion back to the root of the issue; it's about finding meaning. And as you correctly state, people regardless of faith/faithlessness have a tendency to engineer the way we perceive what is around us in a manner that is conducive to the comforting illusion of meaning. I would argue that religion is very much a part of that self deception.

It's vital that we have a sense of meaning, no matter how illusory it may be. If a sense of purpose and destiny did not evolve in parallel with our higher level of consciousness the human race would have surely wiped itself out in a despair-stricken mass suicide. As it is, we have evolved to feel good when we do good by others; to enjoy certain foods; to enjoy booze; to be in love; to laugh etc. That these things are all the result of natural selection doesn't strip them of meaning, because as Matt points out meaning is subjective but still tangible (like many of the illusions our brains have evolved to produce for us). It's worth living because living is fulfilling to us, regardless of how it came about.

BTW I find whiskey and Nightquil do best by me when I have the flu.

11:20 AM

 
Blogger Matt M said...

I think the heart of the issue is this: meaning is not a property of an object/situation, but a matter of perception - for something to have meaning it doesn't need to possess a certain, objective, quality, it simply needs to "mean" something to the perceiver.

God is meaningful to theists because He is significant to their outlook. Life is meaningful to people because it is significant to their outlook.

The actual nature of God or life is, in many respects, completely irrelevant.

11:40 AM

 
Blogger Alex said...

Incitatus,
people regardless of faith/faithlessness have a tendency to engineer the way we perceive what is around us in a manner that is conducive to the comforting illusion of meaning.

Are you agreeing with me that, if there is no God, not only do the religious deceive themselves, but the atheists as well? Are we in agreeance that without God there can be no meaning worth or value to anything in this life?

BTW I find whiskey and Nightquil do best by me when I have the flu.

whiskey AND Nyquil??? Why do I get the feeling your tying to rub me out? Sounds like a recipe for a coma to me!

6:38 PM

 
Blogger Alex said...

Matt,
meaning is not a property of an object/situation, but a matter of perception - for something to have meaning it doesn't need to possess a certain, objective, quality, it simply needs to "mean" something to the perceiver.

Well put. This is central to my disagreement. On one level my problem is that I can find no way to convince myself that an eternal source of pure energy can, with no assistance, "evolve" into a form that can perceive ANYTHING — let alone, perceiving things as complicated as the physical laws that make up our very existence.

Now if one was to say that the eternal source of pure energy was it's self conscious, then I don't believe I'd be making such a stink about all this, but as it stands naturalism asserts that our beginnings are irrational and our ends will be irrational. This brief window of what we call consciousness is a fluke and will only last for fraction of a moment.

My point is that I find it more reasonable to believe that we stem from an eternal source of conscious energy, than that an eternal source of irrational energy just happened to create consciousness only to quickly snuff it out and go on it's irrational way.

9:28 PM

 
Blogger Matt M said...

Alex,

My point is that I find it more reasonable to believe that we stem from an eternal source of conscious energy, than that an eternal source of irrational energy just happened to create consciousness only to quickly snuff it out and go on it's irrational way.

And I'm exactly the opposite. That consciousness arose from purely natural forces seems far more likely to me than the existence of some eternal mystical force guiding it all.

Reading something like 'The Selfish Gene' is a case of: "Ahhh - that makes sense", whereas reading something like the Bible is more a case of: "What? But if that's true then why is...?" and "That just doesn't make sense!".

Until I have direct experience of the divine, it's existence will always seem extremely improbable to me.

6:54 AM

 
Anonymous Anonymous said...

One fails to see why life ought to have meaning. With or without meaning good lives are always enjoyable and bad ones, excruciating.

Billy Coconut

12:06 PM

 
Blogger Rev. Dr. Incitatus said...

'Are you agreeing with me that, if there is no God, not only do the religious deceive themselves, but the atheists as well?

Yes, essentially. I believe self-deception is an integral part of our development. Again, I don't hold myself superior to a theist. I believe we're both equally misguided as to what is actually 'going on'.

Are we in agreeance that without God there can be no meaning worth or value to anything in this life?

No. I'm with Matt on this. Meaning is purely subjective. It is what we think it is, and if we're self-deceived into thinking life has a meaning (and I think everybody regardless of faith is hardwired to believe this), then that's all that matters. Even if God does turn up, life is still arguably meaningless in the purely objective sense. Why is God here, we might ask? What's He doing? Does He have a sense of meaning? Or is He just as self-deluded as the rest of us?

As Paul Westerberg sings, "It's a beautiful lie, we can all get by on those..."

2:46 PM

 
Blogger Alex said...

Matt,
eternal mystical force guiding it all.

What's the difference between some eternal mystical irrational force that mysteriously creates consciousness and an eternal, mystical, conscious force that also creates consciousness?

My point is, your mysterious view of origins is as unfathomable as my view that the eternal engergy is conscious. Either way it comes down to eternal scenarios using spans of time (or lack thereof) and conscious agents either imbuing meaning, or struggling to find it. We each take on faith our positions that we feel makes the most sense in light of all the other information we have. But is that all we are doing here? (see new post here.)

My apologies, it's a bit rambleing.

2:56 PM

 
Blogger anticant said...

"If there is no God our meaning is meaningless." What a meaningless remark!

5:50 AM

 

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