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

Tuesday, March 06, 2007

Deception loves to hide

I am about to undertake setting up "the problem of meaning" for the atheist. I am not here going to try and show how the theists are able to maintain their sense of meaning, but perhaps I will come back to it. Let's start with a few thesis definitions.

Let's call the first the 'meaning thesis':

{MT} = the emotional/intellectual reaction a conscious agent has to concepts, situations, surroundings or other conscious agents


It should be noted that MT is true for the theist and the atheist alike. However, my question is: Is this a valid argument if God does not exist?

The first assumption we must make is that one must be conscious to make such a claim. This may seem obvious, but it is an important subtlety to my argument. Let's devise a working definition for our purposes and call it the 'consciousness thesis':

{CT} = An agent that is aware of it's self and it's surroundings


Now if there is no God CT must be explainable by the 'naturalistic thesis'

{NT} = All existence is the product of mindless chance combined with the natural laws and time


The best atheist explanation I have yet heard on the reconciliation of CT & NT is the concept of emergence. Basically stating that our minds or what we call "us" or "I" should ultimately be explainable through emergent properties between the interactions of the elemental parts that form our whole. "We are more than the sum of our parts" the adherents of this philosophy will say.

Matt is also fond of saying that the experience of a situation is something more (or perhaps different) than the explanation of it.

But what exactly is meant by this? Surly it is not to be assumed that in light of NT there is an increase of some kind of substantial reality. All that can be allowed is that the result of situation or phenomenon X is inscrutable.

Therefore, if NT, then CT can not truly be 'more than' the summation of it's parts, it is then only inscrutable interactions of the lower essential parts.

So what then can be said of meaning? If NT, then MT is yet another emergent property of the system. The aurora borealis is also an emergent property of the system. Does it have meaning? The objection can then be made by the NT holders, "but we are different!" My response would be "well sure, but in what way?". If any fantastic occurrence can be explained purely in terms of emergence where does meaning come in?

The atheist will be tempted to reply that CT can preserve our sense of meaning, but if CT is purely an emergent property of NT where does meaning get smuggled in?

It would seem to me that though it is not disputed that you feel your life has meaning and that you find certain things to be meaningful, if one considers NT, you are forced to realize that you are simply a very small part of a fantastic, albeit meaningless, reaction. You may want to hold onto NT and MT in the worst way, but I do not see how one can allow the other.

One further point I'd like to make is that if NT I believe MT if fundamentally broken. If NT, then "I exist", in the strongest sense, cannot be upheld. "you" do not exist as a substantial reality. What you consider to be "you" is a temporary synthesis of sub atomic particles. "you" are but a phase in a reaction. Here again, the matter that you call "you" can only have as much meaning as the purpose you are meant to serve. Thus, according to NT your purpose and therefore meaning is null.

Let me be clear in my position that I do not believe this about you. I believe you are filled with meaning and your life has purpose to a degree that you cannot now even begin to realize. I am merely trying to help you see that the atheist position does not allow for the life you wish to live unless you feel comfortable living a life of fundamental self deception.

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23 Comments:

Blogger Matt M said...

I think you’re confusing meaning and purpose.

When I say that something is “meaningful” to me, all I’m saying is that I have an emotional or intellectual reaction to it. Nothing more. It's intuitive rather than rational.

Why I have that reaction is another – quite distinct – question.

The difference between experience and explanation is simply the level of emotional/intellectual investment I make.

What you consider to be "you" is a temporary synthesis of sub atomic particles.

That's me. That's all of us.

I think the problem is that you believe that meaning needs to come from "outside" us in order to be valid, whereas for me it's a completely internal process. It's purely subjective.

2:26 PM

 
Blogger Crushed by Ingsoc said...

I would simply say that there is one thing that can be said for sure.

Energy exists.

5:50 PM

 
Blogger Jeremy Jacobs said...

"Energy" certainly exists.

6:42 PM

 
Blogger Alex said...

Matt,
I think you are right about the interweaving of purpose and meaning. I am in the process of doing a total rewrite to address this. Though I might add the type of meaning you are using is not addressed under any dictionary I have seen. Even still I think it needs to be addressed in this way for our purposes. Stick with me.

8:38 PM

 
Blogger Matt M said...

Alex,

I might add the type of meaning you are using is not addressed under any dictionary I have seen.

It's in mine:

Meaning: what is meant; significance; importance;

('The Concise Oxford Dictionary')

8:55 AM

 
Blogger Alex said...

Question: In your opinion is the concept of awareness necessary for meaning to exist?

We should iron this out a bit now since I plan on blowing my lunch period trying to revise this posting. I'd hate to get to the end of it and realize our definitions are still not properly defined.

9:08 AM

 
Blogger Alex said...

Also... would you agree that "purpose" could be defined as:

What one has resolved to live their life for

9:20 AM

 
Blogger Matt M said...

Could you clarify what you mean by awareness?

9:21 AM

 
Blogger Alex said...

Pulled this from Wikipedia:

Awareness:
An agents perception and cognitive reaction to a condition or event. Awareness does not necessarily imply understanding, just an ability to be conscious of, feel or perceive.

9:25 AM

 
Blogger Matt M said...

What one has resolved to live their life for

I'm not sure.

I'd define purpose as the reason we act / live in a certain way

9:27 AM

 
Blogger Matt M said...

Okay: meaning is the emotional/intellectual reaction we have to something, so we'd need to perceive that something in order to react to it.

So, in that sense, awareness is necessary for meaning.

9:29 AM

 
Blogger Alex said...

So then considering the relationship between the moon and our planet. Can one have meaning to the other? If the earth and moon were conscious, would meaning then be able to be applied?

Is there a different word I'm thinking of here?

10:14 AM

 
Blogger Matt M said...

Self-awareness?

If the Earth were conscious - if it were aware (or self-aware) - then it seems quite likely that some events would be more meaningful to it than others.

10:16 AM

 
Blogger Alex said...

Sorry this seems to be getting a bit bizarre. I started a few revisions last night but this definition of meaning kept tripping me up. For instance, if one was to imagine a world that was physically exactly the same as ours yet no consciousness existed, could there be meaning? If humanity operated as our computers now do, with memory and all the rest yet were not conscious there would certainly be the appearance of meaning, but would it actually be meaning?

If one says yes, then all things that have some form of relatedness, whether conscious or not, are capable of meaning something to one another.

If one says no, then we have to reckon with why our meaning is any different and what allows for consciousness.

Either those two or we have to ask are we willing to bestow the title of consciousness upon the machines we create that exhibit interactions simmilar to conscious agents?

The question then comes, could we ever know if a machine we created was conscious or if it just had the appearance of consciousness?

Looking for some help here as I seem to be spinning.

10:40 AM

 
Blogger Matt M said...

Alex,

all things that have some form of relatedness, whether conscious or not, are capable of meaning something to one another.

I'd say that the reaction needs an emotional content in order to qualify as meaningful in the way most people use the term - but, other than that, I don't see a problem with this way of putting it.

My becoming emotional at a piece of music is on a far more complex level than the tides reacting to the moon's gravitational pull, but fundamentally they could easily be seen as the same thing.

could we ever know if a machine we created was conscious or if it just had the appearance of consciousness?

Welcome to the wonderful world of the philosophical zombie.

11:47 AM

 
Blogger Alex said...

Okay... well we still have a fair amount of gray area floating around here, but I will try and see what I can do within these new clarifications.

Heh... philosophical zombie... is there a such thing as a philosophical werewolf?

12:03 PM

 
Blogger Matt M said...

None that I know of - though it'd probably be quite possible.

I see I mucked up the link above, it should be:

Philosophical Zombie

12:22 PM

 
Blogger Alex said...

*sigh* It would seem I'm not as proficient of a philosopher as I'd like to be. I just spent my lunch hour cranking away on a revised post, but I fear it's getting way to complicated. I now have about five thesis statements and there should probably be about two more...

It's all boiling around a big "if". If consciousness can arise via NT then the conscious agent is capable of purposing things and feeling a sense of meaning towards X. However the conscious agent it's self is incapable of claiming a purpose for it's own existence. The agent may be able to show how it is related to the system, but it cannot claim a purpose. A purpose must be intended. If NT then nothing is intended.

It can also be said that since this agent can feel meaning towards other conscious agents the agent it's self can be meaningful, but only insofar as there are other conscious agents to project that sentiment. Thus, if NT, we as a collective unit are incapable of claiming our lives are meaningful.

So if NT then we are left with the reality that I have no purpose and our lives are meaningless.

can you agree to that?

1:26 PM

 
Blogger Matt M said...

A purpose must be intended. If NT then nothing is intended.

You're still reaching for an external purpose - which a humanistic non-theist like myself would regard as meaningless. My life has no purpose in the sense of my being here for a reason, but it does have purpose in that I have certain (mainly intuitive) goals.

Thus, if NT, we as a collective unit are incapable of claiming our lives are meaningful.

If you mean external meaning, separate from human interaction, then you're right.

3:26 PM

 
Blogger Alex said...

You're still reaching for an external purpose

We'll let's be clear here, I do believe in the phrase, "my life has purpose". I back that up with my belief that there is a God who is working towards accomplishing something with this creation.

Now when I say: A purpose must be intended. If NT then nothing is intended.

I am simply working to establish a definition for what it means for something to have a purpose. Do you see the word purpose as pertaining to unintended consequences?

When you say your life does have purpose in that I have certain (mainly intuitive) goals. It would seem to me you are agreeing with me when I say: If consciousness can arise via NT then the conscious agent is capable of purposing things

Or to put it another way, you can resolve to do such and such, but as for why you are here to do such and such at all, there is no answer. Therefore your existence has no purpose.

So I ask again — and realize I am being very deliberate with my language here — do you agree with the statement:

I have no purpose and our lives are meaningless.

I am not asking you to agree that you cannot have purposes, or to admit that you as an individual are meaningless. The NT arousal of CT is being assumed here, thus we are working under the assumption that other conscious agents have an intellectual/or emotional response to you, thereby preserving your meaningfulness, at least in their eyes.

Can we agree on that much?

3:57 PM

 
Blogger Matt M said...

I have no purpose and our lives are meaningless.

I'm afraid I've stopped by on the way to bed, and I'm going to leave you with a nuanced answer which may or may not help you.

Sorry.

The problem is that when faced with that statement my response is: no, I don't agree with it.

My life has purpose and meaning, but they are things which come from within. Though - hopefully - others can find my life meaningful as well.

In the sense of an ultimate purpose and meaning which comes from an external source - be it God, evolution, etc. then: "I have no purpose and our lives are meaningless."

4:48 PM

 
Blogger Alex said...

I'm afraid I've stopped by on the way to bed

I've learnt that is a bad habit to get into. It seems every time I do that I end up staying up till midnight with my mind spinning over silly philosophical issues while never making an inch of progress! ;-)

My life has purpose and meaning, but they are things which come from within.

I think I see what you are getting at. You are basically saying that since you are conscious and self-aware you are able to perceive your own existence and to have a emotional/intellectual reaction to your own state of existence. Furthermore, you are able to project onto your own existence purposes thereby granting yourself a sense of purpose.

yes/no?

It would appear we are in agreeance with regard to your meaning and purpose in relationship to the universe. When one takes the long view you are inconsequential, without meaning or purpose. Even when you look at humanity as a collective you are forced to admit that the human race is without purpose and without meaning. Outside of the purpose and meaning we craft for ourselves we have nowhere to turn.

Can we agree on that?

6:30 PM

 
Blogger Matt M said...

yes/no?

Pretty much.

When one takes the long view you are inconsequential, without meaning or purpose.

If you step outside of yourself, of the hopes and fears which drive us forward, then yes.

Even when you look at humanity as a collective you are forced to admit that the human race is without purpose and without meaning.

Hmmm, only someone still clinging to the hope of some external authority would use the term "forced to admit" - being just a means to an end (even a divinely-inspired one) seems to devalue life to a considerable extent. So the lack of external purpose is something quite wonderful.

5:56 AM

 

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