Wednesday, June 8, 2016

Life's Meaning (Pt. I)

Since ancient times philosophers, poets, and other thinkers have pondered the question of what purpose there is, if any, to human existence, what meaning there is to individual human lives.

Meaning is a difficult notion to define. We usually think of it as a purpose or significance that endures and gives us satisfaction. If that's a helpful description then perhaps we can think of meaning as either proximal or ultimate. Watching daytime television may provide the viewer with a temporary or proximal purpose and satisfaction but it's ultimately empty.

The important question is, can there be ultimate meaning if death terminates our existence? Both theistic and atheistic thinkers have tended to reply in the negative. Both agree that if there is no God then there's no ultimate meaning to life. They differ, though, in that theists tend to think that if there's no ultimate meaning then the proximal meanings we impart to life are, at bottom, illusory. Unless what we do matters forever, the theist argues, it doesn't really matter at all. A lot of atheists agree with this, but not all. Some atheist thinkers want to assert that even if there's no ultimate meaning to our lives we can still have a satisfying life while we're here, and that's meaning of a sort, indeed it's all the meaning they need.

An example of this view can be found in a column by a former Seventh Day Adventist pastor by the name of Ryan Bell who discusses why he gave up belief in God and why he's convinced that one can have a meaningful life without God. I'd like to examine Bell's reasons for his latter claim in the next couple of posts.

He writes:
One question I've been repeatedly asked is how my life has any meaning without God. While I had heard dozens of Christian apologists claim that meaning cannot be found without God, I had a curious experience. My appreciation for life and its potential increased when I stepped away from my faith.

Atheists are often accused of being nihilists or absurdists. Absurdism is a school of thought arguing that humanity's effort to find inherent meaning in life is futile. Nihilism goes further and in doing so becomes a mood or a disposition as well as a philosophical frame of mind. Nihilism says that nothing matters at all.

"If there is no God, then man and the universe are doomed. Like prisoners condemned to death, we await our unavoidable execution. There is no God, and there is no immortality. And what is the consequence of this? It means that life itself is absurd. It means that the life we have is without ultimate significance, value, or purpose," writes William Lane Craig, a Christian apologist.
Craig is a Christian and might be expected to hold this view, but there are dozens of thoughtful atheists who have voiced essentially the same melancholy sentiments. Here, for example, is Czech writer Milan Kundera:
A life which disappears once and for all, which does not return, is like a shadow, without weight, dead in advance, and whether it was horrible or beautiful, or sublime, its horror, sublimity, and beauty mean nothing. We need take no more note of it than of a war between two African kingdoms in the fourteenth century, a war that altered nothing in the destiny of the world, even if a hundred thousand blacks perished in excruciating torment.
Nor is Kundera an isolated example. A sampling from the pens of other atheist writers could include the following:
  • "Life is a short day’s journey from nothingness to nothingness." – Ernst Hemmingway
  • "The only absolute knowledge attainable by man is that life is meaningless." - Woody Allen, filmmaker (Hannah and Her Sisters)
  • "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, biologist
  • "Our only significance lies in the fact that we can look out on the universe and it can’t look back on us." – Will Durant, historian
  • "Life has no meaning the moment you lose the illusion of being eternal." Jean Paul Sartre, philosopher
  • "Ah, mon cher, for anyone who is alone, without God and without a master, the weight of days is dreadful." Albert Camus, novelist
  • "Life is an unpleasant interruption of nothingness." – Clarence Darrow, lawyer
  • "Neither the existence of the individual nor that of humanity has any purpose." – Bernard Rensch, biologist
  • "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, philosopher (Nausea)
  • "The moment a man questions the meaning and value of life he is sick since objectively neither has any existence." Sigmund Freud, psychologist
So how does Bell respond to such depressing views held by his fellow atheists? He writes:
But my experience is that acknowledging the absence of God has helped me refocus on the wonderful and unlikely life I do have. This realization has increased my appreciation for beauty and given me a sense of immediacy about my life. As I come to terms with the fact that this life is the only one I get, I am more motivated than ever to make it count.

I want to experience as much happiness and pleasure as I can while helping others to attain their happiness. I construct meaning in my life from many sources, including love, family, friendships, service, learning and so on.
Yet if atheism is true the things he lists are nothing more than electro-chemical reactions occurring in his brain. How can chemical reactions generate true meaning rather than just the illusion of meaning? Nobel Prize winner Francis Crick disabuses us of our pretensions that our feelings and emotions are in any important sense meaningful:
You, your joys and your sorrows, your memories and your ambitions, your sense of personal identity and free will, are in fact no more than the behavior of a vast assembly of nerve cells and their associated molecules. As Lewis Carroll’s Alice might have phrased it: ‘You’re nothing but a pack of neurons.
Moreover, if death is the end, the most that the things Bell mentions can provide is some sort of proximal meaning, they cannot give our lives ultimate meaning. On atheism the universe is a random whirl of impersonal and purposeless atoms, but nothing comprised solely of the impersonal and purposeless such as ourselves can have any purpose or significance. Conscious beings can while away the hours engaged in diversions like work, collecting stamps, gardening, doing crossword puzzles, loving our families, or learning about how the cosmos works, but it's hard to see how any of it matters much if the footprints we make in life get washed away at death, as they assuredly do if death is the complete annihilation of the conscious self.

It's perhaps fitting to close with a quote from philosopher Bertrand Russell who wrote about this stark truth in an apologetic for his atheism titled A Free Man's Worship:
Such, in outline, but even more purposeless, more void of meaning is the world which Science presents for our belief. Amid such a world, if anywhere, our ideals henceforward must find a home. That Man is the product of causes which had no prevision of the end they were achieving; that his origin, his growth, his hopes and fears, his loves and his beliefs, are but the outcome of accidental collocations of atoms; that no fire, no heroism, no intensity of thought and feeling, can preserve an individual life beyond the grave; that all the labours of the ages, all the devotion, all the inspiration, all the noonday brightness of human genius, are destined to extinction in the vast death of the solar system, and that the whole temple of Man's achievement must inevitably be buried beneath the debris of a universe in ruins - all these things, if not quite beyond dispute, are yet so nearly certain, that no philosophy which rejects them can hope to stand. Only within the scaffolding of these truths, only on the firm foundation of unyielding despair, can the soul's habitation henceforth be safely built.
So far from life being meaningful, Russell argues that, in the absence of God, our lives are built on a foundation of despair.

More on this topic tomorrow.