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Dec 13 2011

The meaning of life

In a comment on my latest post at Evangelical Realism, advenioadveritas writes,

It also appears that in your zeal to dismantle Craig’s argument you fail to provide any meaning to life in place of the Christian one he is arguing for. The Dostoevsky quote is especially apt for Craig’s argument because it recognizes the ultimate end point of life without some reason for it. Contrary to your strong belief you cannot arrive at any other logic conclusion to the meaning or life morality other than meaningless nihilism without some truth that is never changing. Which I’m guessing doesn’t fit in your worldview, I could wrong about this though.

I’ll admit I’m not entirely clear on what this person is trying to say, but it sounds like he’s saying that our only two choices are faith in God or meaningless nihilism. And that’s clearly wrong.

The problem I see is that people too often tend to think of things like meaning and purpose in some kind of universal/ultimate sense, as though meaning and purpose aren’t real unless they are in some way transcendent and infinite and sublime. But that’s a romanticized and unrealistic view of meaning and purpose, which are better understood as more “local” phenomena.

Let me give a couple illustrations of what I mean. Imagine growing up on what you think is a flat earth. The sky is up, the earth is down, and that’s just the way it is. “Up” is a universal truth, and so is “down,” and up and down are the same for everyone everywhere.

Then you find out that the earth is actually round. “Up” relative to where you are isn’t quite the same direction as “up” relative to someone a few hundred miles away. In fact, someone on the other side of the planet has an “up” that’s the same direction as your “down” and vice versa.

Does this mean there is no up and no down? Of course not. There is no universal up or down, but that’s because up and down are local phenomena. If you want to know whether something is up or down, you must first determine “up or down relative to where?”

Of course, if you blast off into outer space, then there is indeed no up or down, except by arbitrary convention. In that case, though, a better analogy would be “the way home.” If you blast off towards Mars and I blast off towards Jupiter and someone else blasts off towards the sun, the way home is going to be a different direction for each of us, but we’ll each have a direction that points back home.

There does not need to be some universal, absolute, authoritative direction that is The Official Way Home in order for each of us to have a true, valid direction towards home. Even if we meet some friendly alien race, and I’m standing side-by-side with the alien, and his way home is completely different from mine, those are not mere arbitrary conventions, they are objectively real and valid directions that can legitimately be called “the way home” for each of us.

The point I want to make is that some people think that if we define meaning and purpose in local terms, relative to the person finding them, that somehow we’re talking about a meaning and a purpose that are not real—that because they exist relative to the individual experiencing them, that means they’re subjective, imaginary, arbitrary and meaningless. But that’s not the case. There does not need to be a universal, one-size-fits-all meaning and/or purpose to life in order for my life to have meaning and purpose. Meaning and purpose are inherently local phenomena, like “up” and “down” and “the way back home.” And that’s all we really need.

16 comments

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  1. 1
    NathanDST

    The “up” and “down” bit makes sense, but I’m not so sure about “the way home.” One could still say that this means there is nonetheless a “home” to get to, and it’s the same, ultimately, for everyone (until you bring in the alien, which probably helps). This is like the new agers saying that there are many paths up the mountain, but it’s still the same mountain. A pretty thought, but it still points to non-personal, objective meaning.

  2. 2
    davidct

    Your explanation seems a bit like the explanation of how relativity proves that there is no absolute time. I am not sure that would convince a theist. I grew up without the concept of life needing god for meaning. The concept of needing god for anything is so foreign to me as to have not meaning. This point of view is inconceivable to a theist who has been taught to place his imaginary friend at the center of his life. They cannot understand how irrelevant god is to a non-believer. They cannot understand that we do not miss god but find that the natural world and our interaction with other people is all that is necessary to live a fulfilling life.

  3. 3
    grumpyoldfart

    advenioadveritas writes:

    you fail to provide any meaning to life in place of the Christian one

    I’ve always been an atheist and I have never looked for any special meaning in my life. I take the good with the bad; usually remember only the good times, and look forward to experiencing more of them in the future. Keeps me happy. If the Christians have got something else to offer, well I don’t actually need it.

  4. 4
    Randomfactor

    Your commenter seems (to me) to make a rather common error on The Meaning of Life without realizing it. He seems to think of a MoL as being worthless unless it is being provided TO you.

    You didn’t give your readers an alternative MoL because that’s not your job. You could share the one YOU have as a working start, but as you pointed out, local mileage may vary.

    The Christian take on it seems as silly as valuing an inheritance from your father more highly than a self-made fortune. That seems backwards to me–leaving out the fact that the Christian “inheritance” is a black box. It should mean MORE that your MoL is hand-crafted to your own specifications.

    Atheists have examined the black box to the best of our ability and decided it’s very probably empty. To us, it makes more sense to pile up our own real wealth–not money, but real-world progress of all types.

  5. 5
    jacobfromlost

    Hitchens makes a great point about this. How, exactly, is life purposeful if we accept Christian claims? It isn’t. They just CLAIM it is and rarely does anyone ever challenge this implicit assertion.

    A purpose is something to be achieved in the future, a goal to be reached for some specific end (ie, a reason) in reality. If our purpose is to believe in, worship, and praise a god so that we can go to heaven and believe in, worship, and praise that god for all eternity…then our lives right now are by definition purposeless, as that end (in heaven) is in itself purposeless. It’s reaches no achievement–it simply spins its own wheels forever never getting to any end, for no reason BUT itself, which is not a purpose.

    For a simpler example, if we say the purpose of a hammer is to hammer nails so that someday the hammer can hammer nails forever, that is by definition purposeless, as you are claiming the reason we are hammering nails now is not to build a house, barn, birdhouse, etc, but to get to the point where we can just hammer away mindlessly forever. Why? Because hammering away is wonderful and its own purpose (and perhaps the basic purpose of everything) because we said so? That’s not a reason, and it makes no more sense than claiming our purpose on earth is to achieve heaven in order to do or be in any way eternal, as eternal things are by their very nature purposeless (so achieving something that is purposeless can’t be a purpose!).

    Purposes are by definition finite things attempted to be accomplished in reality. Purposes are not magic things woven into the fabric of things (or people, or the universe). We can say a hammer was made to hammer nails, but in reality we can use it as a lever, a mixer, a smasher, a weapon, a hard surface on which to break nuts with a rock, etc, and the purpose of it depends on how it is used in reality. To talk of purposes divorced from achieving finite ends in reality is to talk nonsense, and thinly veiled nonsense at that.

  6. 6
    jakc

    Christians claim that they will live eternally in the next life, a claim that if true, makes this life meaningless. It is simply a brief interval. The only choice in this life is whether to accept Jesus – and lots of them claim you don’t have to do this if you’re under a certain age. So what possible meaning does this life have for a 2-year old in Heaven? Meaning has to be created, and the fact that this life is finite means that it has to be created now. Meaning has

  7. 7
    jakc

    (hit the wrong button or something). To finish: life has meaning for atheists because you have to do things NOW. I can’t apologize to someone in the next life, or tell someone I love them. You have a limited amount of time to do something in this life, and then you’re done. No do-overs. That’s harsh, but life isn’t fair.

    1. 7.1
      NathanDST

      I fear I must at least partly disagree with you jakc. If you were to somehow become immortal, say if science found the cure for death tomorrow and it was cheap, would you turn it down, on account of it taking away the meaning of life? I wouldn’t. I’d sell my house if that’s what it took to afford it.

      Come to think of it, I probably completely disagree with you on this issue. My life has Less meaning because it is finite, because I have less than eternity to do things. I would find more happiness and joy in my life, more meaning, if I didn’t have to contemplate the ending of my wife’s existence, or my best man’s existence, or (should we manage to have any) the ending of my children’s existence. To know that I cannot see the fruit of my efforts 300, 3000, or 30000 years from now, to know that NO ONE can see the results of their work centuries from now, is horrible. Being forced into doing everything I want to do “NOW” is no great thing.

      The meaning I gain in this life comes from the interactions I have with others, the work I do to improve life, and the hope for success. Deadlines don’t help with that.

      1. jacobfromlost

        Nathan: If you were to somehow become immortal, say if science found the cure for death tomorrow and it was cheap, would you turn it down, on account of it taking away the meaning of life? I wouldn’t. I’d sell my house if that’s what it took to afford it.

        Me: Are we imagining a hypothetical in reality, or are we imagining a whole bunch of other hypotheticals (all ideal) that accommodate the primary hypothetical? The first is rife with problems, while the second simply defines itself as wonderful. (And believe me, if such a thing were possible, it would cost FAR FAR more than your house, unless your house is in the hundreds of millions of dollars. The poor, as usual, would have to sacrifice their resources to a priviledged class of people, a class who should have died long ago.)

        Nathan: Come to think of it, I probably completely disagree with you on this issue. My life has Less meaning because it is finite, because I have less than eternity to do things.

        Me: I’ll disagree right back (even though you weren’t talking to me). What gives a game (and a life) meaning are the rules, the limits, and the fact that the game at some point ends, and that the opponents are roughly evenly matched. If the game never ends, it has no meaning. Moreover, the fact that you have a time limit to get anything done heightens the stakes (and, hence, meaning) of your life. If you have all the time in the world, or any world, what is your motivation to do anything? You’ll always have an eternity to do whatever, so why bother? (Besides, if we’re talking about a hypothetical immortality in REALITY here, what if a peon mortal in some way ticks you off, and you end up in jail for “life” for murder? What if you are in a plane crash and all the bones in your body are crushed, but you just go on living, in agnonizing pain, forever? Ultimately, at some point you will realize that the price of your immortality is taking up resources of newly born mortal children, and eventually you will have to start killing off mortals so there will be enough room for you and your kind–a kind that is not human kind, as humanity is defined by death. Death and time is the engine that defines our existence.)

        Nathan: I would find more happiness and joy in my life, more meaning, if I didn’t have to contemplate the ending of my wife’s existence, or my best man’s existence, or (should we manage to have any) the ending of my children’s existence.

        Me: So in your hypothetical all of YOUR loved ones get to live forever? What about their children? And their children? And their children? Do they all get to live forever also? Where are you getting this extra land, food, resources, etc, to sustain them? And at what point do you say, “No more!”, and how do you enforce that if they say, “No, I’m having children who will have children who will have children who will all live forever”?

        Nathan: To know that I cannot see the fruit of my efforts 300, 3000, or 30000 years from now, to know that NO ONE can see the results of their work centuries from now, is horrible.

        Me: Only if you are emotionally immature. Life is filled with hard truths. If you take the hard truths out of life, you’ve just reduced its meaning. You’ve, in essence, started a game and then decided there are no rules and no one can lose, no one will win, and the game never ends. Such a game has no meaning, and neither does such a life.

        Nathan: Being forced into doing everything I want to do “NOW” is no great thing.

        Me: But it is fair, as in everyone else is in exactly the same boat–the rules are roughly the same for everyone, making the game meaningful. If you and your loved ones get to live forever, then some people are NOT going to get to live forever…or, worse, fewer and fewer children will be had by virtue of not having enough resources for them (eventually, all mortals will die out, as any “fight to the death” between immortals and mortals can have only one outcome). Also, being forced into doing everything “NOW is a great thing, as if you DO accomplish something now, everyone can recognize it as a meaningful accomplishment. If you waited a million years to win an Oscar…who cares? You probably have dozens of them from 750,000 years ago when movies were popular.

        Nathan: The meaning I gain in this life comes from the interactions I have with others, the work I do to improve life, and the hope for success. Deadlines don’t help with that.

        Me: Deadlines do help with that. That’s how things get done in reality. Deadlines are goals in time that we set for ourselves and those we work with to hold ourselves accountable for our goals (it’s a measuring stick to help us see if we’ve failed or succeeded). If we had a certain class of immortals, they’d be sitting around on their duffs knowing they can do this or that later, while the rest of us would be working our asses off knowing life is only so long.

        Consider this hypothetical in reality: Say such a discovery was made in 1850, and the richest among us all clammored to become immortal and make all their loved ones immortal. Over a short period of time, immortals would have taken over the globe, their attitudes and beliefs informed by the 19th century, and their numbers alone dominating all political discourse and laws (remember life circa 1850?). Becoming an immortal would then be as difficult as becoming a billionaire today. If you were born a average, unconnected mortal on your birthday (whichever year that is in reality), you would have just as much chance to become an immortal as you would to become a billionaire in the world as it is.

        In essence, you’ve tailored your hypothetical to allow for a priviledged class that you AS YOU ARE NOW would be able to sneak into (by selling your house, even though that wouldn’t be nearly enough to pay for such a service if such a service were real). If such a class were possible, you, as you are now, would not be allowed into that class. You’ve pretty much done the same thing as the poor often do now–indicate sympathy for policies that benefit the super rich in hopes that someday you, too, will be a billionaire…when there is no chance of that happening in reality, therefore, in reality, you’ve just indicated sympathy for a view that is utterly against your own interests, shooting yourself in the foot.

      2. NathanDST

        What gives a game (and a life) meaning are the rules, the limits, and the fact that the game at some point ends, and that the opponents are roughly evenly matched. If the game never ends, it has no meaning.

        Couple things I see wrong with this analogy. The first is that life isn’t a game with a preset goal defined as “winning.” I, and I’m guessing you, have goals in life, things I would like to do and achieve. But when I accomplish those things, I don’t suddenly say “well, that was fun, but nothing left to do now.” I find something new to do, some new goal to accomplish. I also take the time to enjoy the accomplishment, something that can’t be done if I’m dead.

        Second, even if I accept the analogy, some types of games can keep going, if you want them to. Roleplaying games like Dungeon and Dragons can go on as long as you want them do. Complete one story arc, and you just move on with another. You can retain the same character, and continue developing and enjoying the game. Honestly, it’s one of my favorite types of gaming, and is probably closest to being like life in such an analogy as this.

        Moreover, the fact that you have a time limit to get anything done heightens the stakes (and, hence, meaning) of your life. If you have all the time in the world, or any world, what is your motivation to do anything? You’ll always have an eternity to do whatever, so why bother?

        My motivation is simply wanting it done. That’s why I bother. If I read a book, I generally do so because I want to, not because I have a deadline. To this point, I’m currently reading a book for work to further my training in the field, and I do have a deadline. While I’m finding the book interesting and enjoyable, I do not find the deadline to be adding anything to the experience. While it’s not particularly bothering me in this case, other times I’ve found deadlines to be a simple annoyance, detracting from, rather than adding to the experience.

        Besides, if we’re talking about a hypothetical immortality in REALITY here, what if a peon mortal in some way ticks you off, and you end up in jail for “life” for murder?

        Well, I would suggest that there may be ethical concerns with life imprisonment when one’s life is eternal, and such concerns should be dealt with. Otherwise, well, it is murder you’re talking about, one of the worst crimes possible.

        What if you are in a plane crash and all the bones in your body are crushed, but you just go on living, in agnonizing pain, forever?

        Ok, I brought that on myself. “Immortal” does technically mean “unable to die” in most cases, and in such a case, that would totally, completely, suck. I suppose I could hope that I would eventually heal. Ideally, it wouldn’t be such a pure immortality, but rather one in which a person could *choose* to die. I do support the right to die when someone wishes it, for whatever reason, and I would not care to take that away — not even from myself.

        Ultimately, at some point you will realize that the price of your immortality is taking up resources of newly born mortal children, and eventually you will have to start killing off mortals so there will be enough room for you and your kind–a kind that is not human kind, as humanity is defined by death. Death and time is the engine that defines our existence.

        The issue of resources is a problem, yes. But you seem to assume it’s an insurmountable problem without killing, and I’m not granting that. I don’t know what the solution would be, and would be surprised if we have the technology currently to provide such a solution, but I’m not willing to assume there is no solution. Rather than just seeing a problem, look for the solution. And if humanity is defined by death, then I have no desire to be human. I would prefer to improve on the model.

        So in your hypothetical all of YOUR loved ones get to live forever? What about their children? And their children? And their children? Do they all get to live forever also? Where are you getting this extra land, food, resources, etc, to sustain them? And at what point do you say, “No more!”, and how do you enforce that if they say, “No, I’m having children who will have children who will have children who will all live forever”?

        A problem, yes. But again, that doesn’t mean there is no solution. Virtually every technological advance I can think of has created new problems, even when the technology was created in order to solve some problem. For that matter, the life extension we’ve achieved already through vaccination, job safety measures, advanced medications, etc, could be argued to have created more problems. Over-population, geriatric issues that weren’t so common, aging workforces, and probably others. Still, I would not care to roll back the clock on that.

        Only if you are emotionally immature. Life is filled with hard truths. If you take the hard truths out of life, you’ve just reduced its meaning. You’ve, in essence, started a game and then decided there are no rules and no one can lose, no one will win, and the game never ends. Such a game has no meaning, and neither does such a life.

        So, eliminate cancer, AIDS, and the existence of rape, and the meaning of life has been reduced??? Seriously? Because those things are all hard truths that we have to live with, but people are spending a great deal of time and effort trying to reduce and even eliminate those things, as they should. I don’t really see life losing meaning because they’re gone. And if it somehow does, then fuck it, I’ll make the sacrifice! Dealing with and accepting the existence of hard truth is not the same as thinking it must be that way, or that it must stay that way. By your reasoning, we shouldn’t strive to eliminate suffering or misery, we should in fact fight against those who would do so! Otherwise, good-bye meaning.

        If you and your loved ones get to live forever, then some people are NOT going to get to live forever…or, worse, fewer and fewer children will be had by virtue of not having enough resources for them (eventually, all mortals will die out, as any “fight to the death” between immortals and mortals can have only one outcome).

        First, while I used me and my loved ones as the example, it should be understood that I would desire everyone who wishes it to live forever. And again, resource issues is a problem which may have a solution. There is no reason not to look for it.

        Also, being forced into doing everything “NOW is a great thing, as if you DO accomplish something now, everyone can recognize it as a meaningful accomplishment. If you waited a million years to win an Oscar…who cares? You probably have dozens of them from 750,000 years ago when movies were popular.

        Well, I might still care, which would give it meaning. If the rest of the world doesn’t, that’s their problem.

        Deadlines do help with that. That’s how things get done in reality. Deadlines are goals in time that we set for ourselves and those we work with to hold ourselves accountable for our goals (it’s a measuring stick to help us see if we’ve failed or succeeded). If we had a certain class of immortals, they’d be sitting around on their duffs knowing they can do this or that later, while the rest of us would be working our asses off knowing life is only so long.

        If the goal is learning French, a deadline does nothing to measure success or failure. Only fluency and communication ability measures that. If the goal is climbing Everest, deadlines don’t help. Success is measured by how far up the mountain you get. If your goal is being a good friend, that’s the sort of thing you do every single freaking day. There’s no deadline, because it’s something you do constantly (one hopes). Not everything is measured with deadlines, and the most meaningful things I can think of (good friend, good husband, good co-worker) definitely are not measured with deadlines. Would there be lazy immortals? Sure, just as there are lazy people now. Not everyone sees the shortness of life as a reason to get things done now now now, but rather as a reason to sit back, relax, and enjoy what they’ve got while they’ve got it.

        Consider this hypothetical in reality: Say such a discovery was made in 1850, and the richest among us all clammored to become immortal and make all their loved ones immortal. Over a short period of time, immortals would have taken over the globe, their attitudes and beliefs informed by the 19th century, and their numbers alone dominating all political discourse and laws (remember life circa 1850?).

        Are you forgetting that people can change their minds and attitudes? It might be easier for the young, but that doesn’t mean it can’t happen. And with an immortal, you would have a lot of time to be persuasive.

        In essence, you’ve tailored your hypothetical to allow for a priviledged class that you AS YOU ARE NOW would be able to sneak into (by selling your house, even though that wouldn’t be nearly enough to pay for such a service if such a service were real). If such a class were possible, you, as you are now, would not be allowed into that class.

        As I said earlier, I want everyone to have that option. But I also have enough trust and hope in humanity that if it were initially prohibitively expensive, there would be enough of a push for it being cheap that such a situation would not last long. Ethically, I think we’d be obligated to do so.

      3. jakc

        I’m reminded of something Isaac Asimov said when asked if he wanted to be reincarnated. He was appalled – he said that he couldn’t imagine a better life than the one he had and that any future life would be inferior. In a sense, your question is a restatement of Pascal’s wager. After all, it doesn’t take much to be a Christian and you get some tiny chance to live in paradise for eternity. And yes, I do reject that. I realize your example is less mystical, but because of that, it is even less likely. We know that the universe is not immortal, so you can’t offer me immortality, only long life. Eventually, stars die out, protons decay, black holes evaporate and whatever photons and other particles remained are completely isolated in an expanding universe and life as we know it is not possible …. But perhaps you only mean “long life” and not immortality. Would I like to live long enough to finally get my rocket car and moon colonies? Sure, but what if I wound up like my grandmother, who lived into her 90′s, but suffered from a profound senile dementia so that she was no longer aware of anything? What would be the point of living for thousands of years in a senile dementia? But you probably mean would I take a cure that gave me long life and youth? Now that’s something to think about, but it’s not immortality and eternity. Of course, I could do things to live longer. Rigorously reducing caloric intake is supposed to lead to longer and healthier life (I’m told that you’re doing it right if you’re always hungry). Doesn’t really sound that interesting. The point about eternity is that it’s really a boring place where nothing matters. No one moment matters because you can repeat that moment endlessly. You can be bad for an eternity and still have an enternity to apologize. Deadlines don’t make life better – it’s easy to live a bad life and have no time to make up for it. Deadlines do give meaning though. Know what the Bible says? Eat and drink, for tomorrow you’ll die. Not may die. These 30 or 50 or 70 years matter because they’re all you get. And of course, as Einstein pointed out, the past still exists. You can’t access the past, but it’s not gone. It’s a mystery as to why we see ourselves moving through time as we do, but Faulkner was right (though not in the way that he meant) – the past isn’t even past

      4. NathanDST

        I’m reminded of something Isaac Asimov said when asked if he wanted to be reincarnated. He was appalled – he said that he couldn’t imagine a better life than the one he had and that any future life would be inferior.

        Lucky Asimov. I, however, can easily imagine a better life than the one I have currently.

        In a sense, your question is a restatement of Pascal’s wager. After all, it doesn’t take much to be a Christian and you get some tiny chance to live in paradise for eternity. And yes, I do reject that. I realize your example is less mystical, but because of that, it is even less likely. We know that the universe is not immortal, so you can’t offer me immortality, only long life.

        I’m not seeing how it’s a restatement of Pascal’s wager. But frankly, I would like to live long enough to see the universe die. If any point is an ok point for me to die, that’s probably it. Unless there’s a universe that follows, because now there’s something new.

        what if I wound up like my grandmother, who lived into her 90′s, but suffered from a profound senile dementia so that she was no longer aware of anything? What would be the point of living for thousands of years in a senile dementia?

        Not much of one, I’ll grant you that. I’ve instructed my wife that if she’s ever put in the position of making the choice, she’s to allow me to expire if the doctor’s believe there’s significant brain damage that would hurt my cognitive abilities.

        The point about eternity is that it’s really a boring place where nothing matters. No one moment matters because you can repeat that moment endlessly.

        I’m not seeing this. The eternity the Christians describe as heaven sounds pretty damn boring, but an eternity in this universe sounds rather interesting. And being able to repeat a moment over and over doesn’t mean it has to be less enjoyable. I’ve enjoyed the Jack Daniels Flat Iron steak at TGI Friday’s multiple times, and I don’t think repetition has made it worse (if it did, I could mix it up with a different entree for a while). On the other hand, if I knew that the steak I was eating would be the last one, I think that knowledge would taint the enjoyment I get, decreasing it.

        Deadlines do give meaning though. Know what the Bible says? Eat and drink, for tomorrow you’ll die. Not may die. These 30 or 50 or 70 years matter because they’re all you get.

        By this reasoning, the younger you die, the more meaningful your life. So, die at 50 instead of 90, and you get extra meaning. You get even more if you die at 30. Or 20. Or 10. Can we even measure the meaning of an infant that dies a couple hours after being born?

        And of course, as Einstein pointed out, the past still exists. You can’t access the past, but it’s not gone. It’s a mystery as to why we see ourselves moving through time as we do, but Faulkner was right (though not in the way that he meant) – the past isn’t even past

        Not really sure what you mean here, or what your point is. Are you suggesting that since the past still exists, that somehow makes it matter less if the future is cut off from our experience? If so, then that’s just silly. I don’t experience life as having a past that exists, I experience life in the present, with anticipation of the future, and the past as a memory, but as something that is gone, never to return. Maybe in some mathematical sense it continues to exist, but if so it’s static, and since it doesn’t exist for me as anything but a memory, I don’t see how that would alter my perception of life, the meaning of life, or the meaning of death.

      5. jakc

        1) as to Pascal’s wager: the fundamentalists tell me I can choose eternity, so why don’t I choose eternity? You propose a thought experiment allowing me to choose immortality, so why don’t I choose immortality? Slightly different premises: you don’t really believe you can offer me any such thing, but both strike me as variants of the same argument. One difference is that while I can’t disprove the possibility of a place (outside of this universe) where you can spend eternity, I can certainly disprove immortality in this universe. Doesn’t exist, except that perhaps the universe might never end. Life though, well, life will end long before the universe, and even if you could be there at the “end of life” moment in the universe, there isn’t anything you or I would recognize as life. So you’re only talking about long life, not immortality/eternity.

        Look, this thread is about the meaning of life, not whether a long life is better than a short one. Which brings me to the second point:

        2) The length of this life does matter. I started on the premise that this life does not give meaning to the next life because heaven is apparently full of aborted babies and two-year olds. The short answer to how is it possible for their lives to have meaning is that they don’t. Life isn’t fair, and some people get screwed. Some people don’t live long enough to create meaning in their lives, and that’s sad. Ron Santo didn’t live long enough to see himself get elected to the Hall of Fame, and that’s sad, but it’s part of why things in this life DO matter. The HOF committee can’t make it up to Ron Santo, and that’s a bad thing, but this life is finite and if you don’t do something now, you might never get a chance to do it later. If you hurt someone today, you might not have a chance to apologize tomorrow. Even if everyone in eternity is happy and not bored, it isn’t as if their actions have meaning. Here on Earth, you’re always doing something for the last time (maybe the only time). Value, as the economists tell us, comes from scarcity and not abundance. Which brings us to the third point:
        3) Asimov wasn’t lucky. He was happy. He didn’t have a perfect life but he learned to appreciate the things he had in his life. More to the point, you don’t get to live billions, or millions, or thousands, or hundreds, of years. You won’t go to heaven. You won’t get reincarnated. You need to be happy with your life now, or change it. Asimov understood that if you can be unhappy with 72 years, you can also be unhappy with 144 years or 216 years. And, you have no guarantee of getting 72 years, so you can’t wait for happiness to arrive. Which allows me to traipse into point four:
        4) The only eternity that you’re going to get is that you exist in some series of moments that are utterly isolated from each other. Sorry, but that’s it. Unlike space aliens landing and offering immortality, it’s real. When Herman Melville was writing Moby Dick, he wrote to his friend Nathaniel Hawthorne that he didn’t want to be known as the man who lived among the cannibals – he was then famous for writing two books on that subject. 40 years later, when he died, he had long left writing as a career, and was known as a minor American author, with Omoo & Typee, the cannibal books, his best-known works. That he has achieved literary immortality since is of no consequence to him. He has achieved his dream – most Americans know of his “wicked book” Moby-Dick, and not his cannibal books, but is it really comforting to think “Maybe long after I’m dead I’ll be rescued from obscurity and people will know who I am”? At least you can know that your past selves exist; Melville could, and will, never know that he achieved literary success.

        so, thanks for the discussion

  8. 8
    Kevin

    jakc has it completely correct.

    “Meaning of life” is theist code for “after-death”.

    Nothing more and nothing less. Without their fictional after-death, these folks would sink into a bog of depression. Or instantly become baby-raping cannibals.

    The Christian concept of “meaning of life” basically is soul sorting. Life is nothing more than the filter by which your soul is sorted. Right-thinking soul carriers (ie, “true” believers) get to have their souls spend an eternity in pleasure. Wrong-thinking soul carriers (ie, everyone else) get precisely the opposite. An eternity in torment. Even the Catholic concept of limbo/purgatory seems to have been abandoned.

    Your life is good for one thing and one thing only: soul sorting.

  9. 9
    jacobfromlost

    I think you are right, Kevin. I also think the afterlife concept is a little selfish…or maybe a lot selfish. I have no problem with the concept of not existing (it didn’t bother me before I was born, as Twain said). And I think of my time alive as my only opportunity to help those around me as much as possible, and hope they do the same, so that when our time is over (as separate individuals and as a group of individuals) that our posterity can have a chance to have their time on the stage and set up their next generation for success as well.

    But this notion only seems noble to me if I know that helping those around me will ultimately serve to helping a group of people I don’t know and will never know, as I will certainly be dead at some point and the party will have to go on without me, hopefully better than it was when I lived.

    It seems far better, far more noble than an afterlife, to work to make life better for the next generation knowing that I personally will not benefit in any way…and that my death will actually help by making room for the young, and hopefully better, generation. How could an afterlife be better than that?

  10. 10
    NathanDST

    Look, this thread is about the meaning of life, not whether a long life is better than a short one.

    And the thing I object to, though I admit to getting sidetracked, is the idea that death gives life meaning. Meaning comes from what we do in life, with life, and our interactions with those we share life with. That would be true whether death existed or not. The presence of death doesn’t increase meaning, whether you treat it as a deadline or not. An apology means more when it’s heartfelt, whether you have eternity to give it, or one day. Saying “I love you” means more when you mean it, and not when you say it because you think it might be the last time you say it.

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