Saturday, August 14, 2010

The Enduring Question

The Philosopher's Magazine is surveying philosophers' opinions on the 50 best ideas of the 21st century. John Cottingham nominates as #9 the renewed interest among philosophers in trying to provide a cogent answer to the question whether life, or anything else for that matter, can have any real meaning or purpose in the absence of God. Cottingham writes:

The current intellectual landscape is exciting because many philosophers are finally, more than a hundred years after Nietzsche and Darwin, seriously addressing the challenge these two giants posed for our human self-understanding. Essentially that challenge is whether we can accept that all our values are merely the result of a contingent chain of events - the series of cosmic accidents and evolutionary pressures that shaped us. In place of the traditional religious idea that our deepest aspirations reflect the source of goodness that gives ultimate value and purpose to human life, the Nietzschean and Darwinian framework concludes that we have to find meaning and value for ourselves. In a godless universe, there are no "eternal" or "ultimate" values, merely whatever temporary goods we can secure from the projects we decide to pursue.

It's perhaps no accident that, against this background, the "God question" is also back on the agenda. Philosophers, to be sure, have always discussed arguments for or against God's existence, but the militancy of the so-called "new atheists" has brought religion to the foreground of debate, not just as a series of abstract academic puzzles, but as a question that lies at the centre of our human search for meaning and value. This makes philosophy more interesting, more connected to the wider concerns of ordinary thinking people, than it has been for some time.

This question does indeed deserve a lot more attention than it often receives. Many nontheists simply assume that life is full of meaning and that they don't need God to confer that meaning. Yet when asked in what sense life can be meaningful if ultimately nothing awaits us but nothingness, both as individuals and as a species, their answers seem less than satisfying.

It's true that in the best of cases (which only a relative few get to experience) we can manage to put our eventual fate out of our minds and occupy ourselves with the projects that fill our days - raising a family, working a job, learning, creating - but when we stop and step back from this activity and ask ourselves what's the point of it all, we realize that there is no point. We realize that our lives are sisyphean and most people just don't want to face up to that unpleasant reality. They avoid the existential pain of the answer by refusing to ever confront the question.

I say that only a relative few get to experience the best case scenario because for most people alive today, or who have ever lived, life has been nasty, brutish and short. Most people in the world have no work to speak of or their work is mind-numbingly tedious. Most people never create anything that lasts. Human life is as ephemeral as the light of a firefly. We're born, we struggle, we suffer, and we die, often due to some meaningless accident, illness, or crime. What's the point?

Even for the lucky few who are able to live a life of relative comfort and productivity the same question lurks in the interstices of their awareness. A man builds a big corporation or a housing development. He drives a nice car, takes nice vacations, eats in nice restaurants and then dies. What's the point? What does it matter that he built houses or made money or wrote books when his life is extinguished?

Perhaps the point is to love others and to have rich relationships, but even if one succeeds in this - and many don't - what do these things mean when everyone we've loved is dead?

I sometimes ask my students to tell me something, anything, about their great great grandparents. Most of them can't. They know nothing about them. It's as if their ancestors were anonymous, as if they never lived. Then I suggest that someday someone might ask their great great grandchildren to say something about their great great grandparents, i.e. my students, and those future descendents will just shrug their shoulders like my students did. It will be as if my students never lived. It's that way for all of us.

So here's the take home message. Our lives can only matter, life can only have meaning, if death is not the end, if what we do in this life somehow matters for eternity. If God exists life may have a point and a purpose, even if we don't have any idea what it is. But if He doesn't exist then we can be certain that our life, as Shakespeare puts it, is nothing more than "a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury signifying nothing."

If atheism is right then life is an empty exercise in absurdity. If theism is right then life is, or could be, a richly meaningful prelude to eternity.