Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Life's Meaning and the Death of God

Sean Kelley is the chair of the Harvard philosophy department, and he's written an essay on, as far as I can tell, the meaning of life now that God is dead. Or something like that. I'm not sure because the piece isn't entirely clear, which may, of course, say more about my comprehension skills than Kelley's writing ability.

At any rate, Kelley seems to be saying that even in the absence of God life can still be pretty meaningful:
The meaning that one finds in a life dedicated to “the wife, the heart, the bed, the table, the saddle, the fire-side, the country,” these are genuine meanings. They are, in other words, completely sufficient to hold off the threat of nihilism, the threat that life will dissolve into a sequence of meaningless events. But they are nothing like the kind of universal meanings for which the monotheistic tradition of Christianity had hoped.

Indeed, when taken up in the appropriate way, the commitments that animate the meanings in one person’s life ─ to family, say, or work, or country, or even local religious community ─ become completely consistent with the possibility that someone else with radically different commitments might nevertheless be living in a way that deserves one’s admiration.

The death of God therefore, ... leads not to a culture overtaken by meaninglessness but to a culture directed by a rich sense for many new possible and incommensurate meanings.
Well, maybe, but I doubt it. After all, just because someone considers their life meaningful doesn't make it so. The question I'd like to see Professor Kelley address is this: If death is the end of our existence, if the fate of every living being is annihilation, why and how does anything we do really matter?

Almost everything we do in our day to day lives we do in order to stay alive, and we strive to stay alive so that we can perform those day to day tasks. We're inescapably caught in a cycle of meaninglessness. Even the pleasures that some are able to enjoy before they die are like a prisoner's last steak before he's executed. None of what we do matters unless it lasts forever, but unless there's a God nothing lasts forever. A couple of generations from now 99% of the people who have ever lived, along with everything they did in their lives, will be utterly forgotten. How can any of it have meaning? What does it matter that you went to college, worked at a job, had a family, loved your dog, collected stamps, baked cookies, suffered an illness, and ultimately died? What difference does any of it make once we're gone and forgotten?

At the blog The Philosopher's Magazine there's an essay on this topic titled Meaning Machines. The commenters weigh in with their views on what the purpose of an individual life is, and from these folks we learn that it's in fact nothing more than reproducing and "creating protein".

That's where atheism leads us. Man can't live without meaning, but according to the atheist there just isn't any meaning to be found. There are only activities that we enjoy while we wait around to die - like condemned men playing checkers to pass the time until they're marched to the gallows. Atheists themselves can't live with this. Their reason tells them there's no meaning to their life, but, unable to bear the existential burden of nihilism and wishing to avoid despair, they abandon reason and live irrationally as if there's some point to it all.

Writers like Kelley are simply doing philosophical cosmetology. They're trying to cover and soften the ugly truth by pretending that it's not really there. Perhaps the following quotes will give a sense of the despair felt by some of those who are willing to face the consequences of the "death of God" honestly:
  • Life is a short day’s journey from nothingness to nothingness. – Ernst Hemmingway
  • All we are is dust in the wind. – Kansas
  • The only absolute knowledge attainable by man is that life is meaningless. - Woody Allen (from Hannah and Her Sisters)
  • God is empty and so am I – Smashing Pumpkins (Zero)
  • In all of our searching the only thing we’ve found that makes the emptiness bearable is each other. – Carl Sagan (Contact)
  • There is but one truly serious philosophical problem and that is suicide. – Albert Camus (Myth of Sisyphus)
  • The only plausible answer to the problem of the meaning of life is to live, to be alive and to leave more life. – Theodosius Dobzhansky
  • Let me summarize my views on what modern evolutionary biology tells us loud and clear – and these are basically Darwin’s views. There are no gods, no purposes, and no goal-directed forces of any kind. There is no life after death…There is no ultimate foundation for ethics, no ultimate meaning in life, and no free will… - Cornell biolgist Will Provine
  • The universe we observe has precisely the properties we should expect if there is, at bottom, no design, no purpose, no evil and no good, nothing but blind pitiless indifference. - Richard Dawkins
  • Life has no meaning the moment you lose the illusion of being eternal. - Jean Paul Sartre
  • Ah, mon cher, for anyone who is alone, without God and without a master, the weight of days is dreadful. - Albert Camus
  • Life is an unpleasant interruption of nothingness. – Clarence Darrow
  • Neither the existence of the individual nor that of humanity has any purpose. – Bernard Rensch
  • Life is a poor player who struts and frets his hour upon the stage and then is seen no more. It is a tale told by an idiot; full of sound and fury, signifying nothing. – William Shakespeare (Macbeth)
  • If death ends all, if I have neither to hope for good nor to fear evil, I must ask myself what am I here for….Now the answer is plain, but so unpalatable that most will not face it. There is no meaning for life, and [thus] life has no meaning.” Somerset Maugham (The Summing Up)
  • I was thinking…that here we are eating and drinking, to preserve our precious existence, and that there’s nothing, nothing, absolutely no reason for existing. Jean Paul Sartre (Nausea)
The worldview of the atheist is pretty bleak. Modern man is dying of spiritual inanition, and the atheist offers him a piece of dry leather to chew on. Indeed, that's all he can offer him. It's all he has.