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From the Archives: Atheist Meaning in a Small, Brief Life, Or, On Not Being a Size Queen

Since I moved to the Freethought Blogs network, I have a bunch of new readers who aren’t familiar with my greatest hits from my old, pre-FTB blog. So I’m linking to some of them, about one a day, to introduce them to the new folks.

Today’s archive treasure: Atheist Meaning in a Small, Brief Life, Or, On Not Being a Size Queen. The tl;dr: In an atheist/ materialist view, human life is unbelievably tiny and short, an infinitesimal eyeblink compared with the immense size and timespan of the universe. But this doesn’t make it meaningless. It just means we have to scale down our sense of meaning, and see value in small, brief things. In fact, conscious life on Earth could easily be seen as the most important thing in the Universe, by definition… since “importance” is a concept that only makes sense to conscious beings. The fact that it’s finite doesn’t make it unimportant: we don’t have to see longevity is the truest measure of importance or value.

A nifty pull quote:

Can there be meaning and joy in a universe where human life is essentially an unusual chemical process on one hunk of rock orbiting one of a hundred billion stars in one of a hundred billion galaxies… a chemical process that’s only been going on for about 200,000 of the Universe’s nearly 14 billion years, and that’s pretty much guaranteed to end in another billion years, if not sooner, while the Universe continues to expand forever into an enormous expanse of mostly nothingness?

I think there is.

But it means letting go of a big chunk of ego.

I think this can be one of the hardest things about letting go of religion. It certainly was for me. I hated the idea that my soul wasn’t going to live forever; that there was no God or World-Soul animating the Universe for all eternity who nonetheless cared about my little contribution to it. I found it profoundly upsetting. (Yeah, so I have a bit of an ego. I like to think of myself as important. What’s your point?)

When you let go of religion, your life can still have meaning. You just have to let go of it having meaning on an immense, universal scale. You have to let go of the arrogant belief that the very source and guiding hand of the Universe cares about what you do. You have to scale down the sense of where your life is lived: down from the cosmic, eternal scale, and onto a human, finite scale.

But it’s not like the human scale is any less real for being relatively small and relatively brief.



  1. Dhorvath, OM says

    These sorts of ideas comes up often and they always bring the same thoughts to my mind. How far into the future can I live and still be me? At what point does the experience that I represent become so diluted in memory as to be effectively dead? I don’t even identify strongly with who I was five years ago. So a cosmic me holds no attraction, I find it basically synonymous with oblivion, and would instead focus my attention on worldly me and those who are in my world. That’s what matters. I don’t feel I am settling for less, but embracing more in doing so.

  2. DSimon says

    How far into the future can I live and still be me? [...] I don’t even identify strongly with who I was five years ago.

    I don’t think this is a good reason to be against immortality, though. After all, would you be okay with dying sometime during the next five years, since in five years you’ll again be a person that current you doesn’t identify with, and vice versa?

    There’s lots and lots of problems with religious and spiritual ideas of heaven, but “not dying” isn’t one of them.

  3. says

    Related points made in this essay (which I didn’t write but wish I had):

    To say that some event means something without at least some implicit understanding of who it means something to is to express an incomplete idea, no different than sentence fragments declaring that “Went to the bank” or “Exploded.” Without first specifying a particular subject and/or object, the very idea of meaning is incoherent.

    Yet too often people still try to think of meaning in a disconnected and abstract sense, ending up at bizarre and nonsensical conclusions. They ask questions like: What is the meaning of my life? What does it matter if I love my children when I and they and everyone that remembers us will one day not exist? But these are not simply deep questions without answers: they are incomplete questions, incoherent riddles missing key lines and clues. Whose life? Meaningful to whom? Matters to whom? Who are you talking about?

    Once those clarifying questions are asked and answered, the seeming impossibility of the original question evaporates, its flaws exposed. We are then left with many more manageable questions: What is the meaning of my/your/their life to myself/my parents/my children? These different questions may have different answers: your parents may see you as a disappointment for becoming a fireman instead of a doctor, and yet your children see you as a hero.

  4. Dhorvath, OM says

    I am not against immortality, it just makes no sense to me so it holds no attraction. Yes, who I am right now isn’t amenable to dying today and that is liable to be true for who I am tomorrow and for who I become as time passes, but who I am now will still be dead in twenty thousand years barring some absurd imagination of how memory and identity works, so it doesn’t engage me.

  5. DSimon says

    Dhorvath, okay, that makes sense, actually. :-)

    I still would prefer to be immortal, if only because I feel like I have fractional shared identity with myself in the future, even the distant future; the amount of shared identity decreases as delta rises, but it’s still there.

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