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Jan 16 2010

In defense of my “meaning of life”

A better question: what is the meaning of ice cube LEGO?

A while back, someone thought they would be smart and take on my Formspring challenge, wherein I said, “go ahead, try and stump me. I dare you.” They asked, “what is the meaning of life?”

I actually had an answer for them, one I thought was pretty good and pretty explicit in declaring the question itself as a category error — a question along the lines of asking “what does the sound of a train whistle smell like?” or “what shape is love?” Life is a state classified as a grouping of biochemical reactions acting in a self-perpetuating manner, and doesn’t have a “deeper meaning,” any more than “what’s the meaning of ice?” or “what’s the meaning of stars?”. It’s a mangled question, one that actually conflates a few similar questions into one seemingly sensible question, one for which most religions claim to have an answer. That theists generally have a better answer for an incorrectly formulated question is no big surprise, but I decided to take a stab at it anyway. Here’s what I answered.

What is the meaning of life?

THAT’S the kind of nigh-unanswerable question I was hoping for! Good for you!

It’s also a bit of a mangled question, which no matter how often it’s repeated I still can’t parse. It seems to be asking “why is there life”, but it’s actually not — it’s sort of presupposing an agency and a purpose to our existence specifically. At the same time, it’s asking what reason we have for living our individual lives the way we do. So let’s break the question down.

*rustle rustle*

Life itself has no meaning, any more than purple has a taste (unless you’re synaesthetic). Life on Earth is the culmination of a very long series of cause-and-effects starting when the quantum foam first fluctuated and kicked off the Big Bang. We don’t know how many universes or how many shots at this particular universe there has been, so we don’t know how likely or unlikely life is. We do know that we wouldn’t be around to think about it if it wasn’t possible (thus the anthropic principle), but there’s no specific agency to it that we can detect (despite people suspecting as much, since we’re evolved to detect agency in every rustling bush).

So, that covers “why is there life”. On to “what meaning can we impart onto our own lives, to give us reason to go on existing”, which is a smaller, and more personal, question. My life has meaning in finding comfort and happiness, and increasing the comfort and happiness of those around me. I also like rooting for human progress, and have a fascination with just how far we’ve come as a species in a mere ten-to-twenty-thousand years.

Of course, if this doesn’t answer your question, feel free to narrow it down some more.

Last week, this answer was used in a sermon by a Southern preacher by the name of Steve Davis. I’ve been following him on Twitter for some time — I had started following when we had a brief but civil exchange on theology, and he seemed like a fairly reasonable and sensible person whom I might want to converse with again in the future. In his sermon this past week, Steve referenced an abridged form of my answer to compare/contrast a theist’s “meaning of life” with an atheist’s.

Here comes a new challenger!

Bear in mind this appears to not have any sort of functional archiving despite a tab being available for that, so it may only be up for a while, though I have archived a copy for my own purposes.

I made it clear to Steve over Twitter that the price he pays for borrowing my words without first checking with me is that I get to do likewise in rebuttal (and honestly I don’t mind it as long as he doesn’t), and he was okay with that. I plan on going a bit deeper into his sermon than the part where he specifically addressed my answer, though, because there is much that needs answering. In fact, I might even chunk it up into several posts, depending on how my interest holds out, because there is much grist for the mill.

Quoth Abel: “Well then. Let’s begin.”

Thanks Digital Kontent, this says it all.

First twenty minutes of the sermon is Christian pop rock sung by some slightly off-key parishioners, though they’re certainly better singers than me. This is not much of a bar to have hurdled, mind you. Skip through to 19:30 to hear the “be seated” and a smattering of light applause, followed by an expectations-setting “Dangerous Church” logo, and you’re at the start of the sermon. Steve talks about some questions that his flock has written in, and once I answer them myself (in a wholly different manner than our good pastor has), I’ll link them appropriately here.

Your average three-year-old. I promise he has more curiosity than your average Goddidit choruser.

He begins his answer with the division people make between their faith and reality, and how to make church “dangerous” one has to bring together facts and faith. And no, not in the way you’re thinking — it means, you have to accept the articles of faith as facts. Despite there being precious little evidence for Jesus’ existence outside of mythology, if you call Jesus’ existence, death and resurrection facts, then church is more dangerous. I happen to agree with this wholeheartedly. When you accept fiction as fact, you become dangerous, because you have short-circuited the natural human skepticism and curiosity that doesn’t accept pat answers and demands proof and evidence. Just look at any three year old that asks “why” repeatedly, and understand that religion makes you stop asking that question outright — because the answer is invariably “because of God”.

That is a nice start to this. But you know what? I’m going to jump ahead to the part that the meaning of life bit comes in, because I’m actually a lot less patient tonight than I thought I’d be. I’ll come back to the “order” stuff, because there are excellent answers to every one of Steve’s points, seeing as they are relatively similar to Michael Behe or Stephen Meyer’s “information in the cell” stuff and Ray Comfort or William Lane Craig’s argument from morality (the “lawgiver” line of argumentation), and that execrable line of argumentation that atheists are actively rejecting God (as opposed to being unconvinced by the “evidence” presented), and thus have been debated to death by greater minds than myself.

So, jumping ahead to 45:00 or thereabouts, I transcribe the relevant bit here:

[...]we all have that tendency to look for that higher purpose. To look in everything for a higher purpose. Because if you take us out and we’re nothing but “dirt in transition”, transitioning from dead to dead, there’s no purpose. But we all believe we have more purpose than that.

Let me read you something. I’ve got this — on Twitter some weird things happen — I’ve got this Canadian atheist who follows me on Twitter. I don’t know how. Every once in a while he’ll shoot me a message — I don’t argue with him because I know that arguing doesn’t work, he’s actively rejecting God. I’m looking for opportunities to insert stuff – I may tell him to listen to this message since I did mention him. But somebody asked him the question, “what’s the meaning of life?”

Err, didn't this dog ask exactly that, then suggested that God did it all? Check and mate!

Now, before I go there, isn’t it weird that dirt in transition caused by an explosion cares about the meaning of life? That dirt in transition reaches the point where that even matters? Matter of fact, does your dog ever do that? “What’s wrong, boy?” “Rrow meaning of life rwhy am I here?” Cats don’t even care about that, you know? *lick lick whatever*. That’s an entire species, code word is “whatever”.

Though I'm partial to THIS answer as well.

He says this: “Life itself has no meaning any more than purple has a taste. Life on Earth is the culmination of a very long series of cause-and-effects starting when the quantum foam first fluctuated and kicked off the Big Bang.” That just, just happened. And he says, on the second level though, what is the meaning of life, “what meaning can we impart to our own lives to give us reason to go on existing? My life has meaning in finding comfort and happiness, and increasing the comfort and happiness of those around me.”

You’re okay with that?? You’re okay with making sure that you’re sorta comfortable, and making sure that the people around you are sorta comfortable? Wow, boy, that’s worth living for right there. But the fact that we simply asked the question makes that answer look stupid, doesn’t it?

I mean, I guess not stupid, it’s very logical… if you have learned to reject God. I’ve said this recently, I’ll say it again. Remember what the definition of an adult is. Two definitions of an adult. An adult — number one — is someone who wants to take a nap. Kids never want to take naps, adults always do. The second thing is, an adult is someone who can rationalize anything. And what you see whan you hear somebody like that, it is someone who started out by rationalizing the fact that they didn’t want a boss, they didn’t want to admit that there was a lawgiver, they didn’t want that, they reject God, intentionally.

Speaking of rationalizing... *ahem*

And they rationalize their way down to where they’re perfectly okay with living to make themselves and the people around them comfortable. And most of us, if we haven’t gone through that rationalization process, even if you’re not sure about God, you could be sitting in here today and you’re not even sure if there IS a God, but when I say the purpose of life is to make the people around you a little bit better — you go “well that’s just as empty as empty can be. Wow. That’s like wrapping paper on the floor after Christmas. What’s the point of that…? No presents… what’s the deal?”

Cause we have that in a value order that God has placed within us. Now obviously people take this — I could tell this guy all three of the things I told you about a created order, a moral order, a value order, and he would probably still look at me and say, “ah, ah, ah, that’s not, that’s not real evidence.” But here’s the cool part about it. Cause God doesn’t force us. If God made it too obvious it would force us to faith. Can’t force somebody to faith, that doesn’t make sense.

He goes on to talk about viewing things through a lens of faith, swearing in coffee shops, and talking about chaos and disorder, thankfully without explicitly mentioning the 2nd Law of Thermodynamics, saving himself a lecture on the sun.

First up, it’s very nice to know that where I thought we might have respectful conversations, you were only interested in keeping me on your Twitter feed to try to convert me. Considering that you’ve done it exactly once since our initial encounter, about the Rapture, you’ve obviously not found enough opportunity to “slip stuff in”, which is sad, because I do feel as though I’ve given you ample opportunity.

I’ll deal with the “dirt in transition caring about philosophy” bit in a later post — let’s start instead with humans’ tendency to want to understand what deeper purpose this universe has (or rather, stated more elegantly, why there is a universe when there could instead be nothing). I confess to believing in a mechanistic universe — everything about the long chain of events since the Big Bang has followed natural physical laws that appear to be constant (though they could actually differ significantly under different states, e.g. at the speed of light or under high compression). The fact that these laws exist does not imply anything more about this universe than that a certain set of emergent principles have come from the initial seeding of this universe, about which we can understand precious little presently.

This image is a lot like the universe. Especially the part about your worldview.

Think about this universe as a fractal, for instance. IF there is a deity that started things — and as an agnostic atheist I admit that there is a small possibility — he did little more than write the very simplistic equation then press “go” on the graphics calculator. The laws of physics, the elements that came from the nuclear chain reaction of stars, the chemistry that emerged from those various elements interacting, the biology that emerged from the chemistry in the presence of a life-giving star, the sapience that emerged from the biology — these are all emergent principles. They were not designed from the top down, they came from the bottom up. The reason I explicitly reject Yahweh without explicitly rejecting *any* deity, is that any deity that could have kicked this whole thing off, has none of the properties of Yahweh, or of any deity that’s ever been proposed by any religion since the beginning of humanity.

Every last one of us human beings is an endpoint on a long chain reaction of biochemical reactions that started at the very beginning of the universe. That means every one of us has something resembling free will, but we all act as machines — machines that are programmed through our experiences with the rest of humankind to be able to communicate with one another, to expect respectful treatment from one another in exchange for us treating them with respect, et cetera. We act as we are programmed to act. My writing this blog post is a result of my inability to take a verbal slap in the face and simply walk away — I must have my say to feel that my part of the social contract of “do unto others” is fulfilled.

And why is it never about THIS god? Why always Yahweh and not Ram?

My chief concerns with Steve’s passage are the assumption that I rationalized myself out of a perfectly natural belief in God that is / should be the “default” position. This is not the case. Take any infant child, raise them in such a way that you never expose them to any religion, and see if they come up with the idea of a god or gods all by themselves. It’s certainly possible they might. But if “there’s a God” was the default position, they would always come to the same conclusion on their own. No, it’s not the default position — the default position is ignorance of the question of “is there a God”. Exposure to specific religions, with their specific deities, causes belief in God in children. When reinforcement of the belief in an invisible deity stops, it evaporates naturally.

The rich tapestry in all its splendour

I had faith at one point in my life, but only after I was taught to have it by everyone around me. I was sent to Sunday school, I was made to say my prayers, I was told to read Bible passages in front of my peers, I was told to have my confirmation (in which I was informed it was my decision to remain a Catholic for the rest of my life, but I was never actually given much of a choice in the matter to be perfectly honest). I started questioning the inconsistencies in the Christian dogmas early on, and it was those inconsistencies to which I was unwilling to blind myself as was demanded of me by the religious people in my life. When I pulled at each loose thread, the tapestry unwove itself and the word of God became little better than any other work of fiction I loved and revered. The words of Shakespeare were more internally consistent to me than the words of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, each of which having their own unique accounts of Jesus’ life, none of which matched up with one another save for a scant few details that could come from cribbing off the same source.

I read the Bible three times. The very first time I did so, was when I started questioning my faith. And in the very first few pages, the concept that an all-powerful, all-knowing God had to search Eden calling out to find Adam because he was hidden to him, completely astonished me. I only read my King James again because I was certain I had to have misinterpreted it. In my early teens, with my favorite book being a well-used Complete Works of William Shakespeare, I couldn’t parse a book on which millions of people staked their eternal souls, and this bothered me to no end.

And it’s not even just the specific issues that came from straight reading of the Bible. Then came the apologists, who reinterpreted the texts, who struggled with specific passages to make them make sense. This was God’s supposed inspired word, perfect in every letter, and it couldn’t be parsed in its original form because it made no fucking sense whatsoever.

Church morals

So I started looking elsewhere to find meaning in my life, though I “went through the motions” much as Pastor Steve did earlier in his own life, so as to prevent being socially unacceptable to my peers and family. Since the Bible made absolutely no sense as a storybook, using it to take your morals was right out — especially all those bits about sacrificing animals, genociding towns and whole peoples, and what was acceptable with regard to slavery. So I looked at society itself.

First, I looked at spoiled children. When they wanted something, they took it. When they wanted to do something, they did it. And because they were never taught not to do it, those spoiled kids grew up to be rotten to the core as teenagers. The same kids I had known growing up to be spoiled rotten brats, were malicious little bastards as teens, breaking laws, doing drugs, basically doing anything they wanted. All because they were raised incorrectly. All because their parents didn’t impress upon them the importance of society.

And yet, when they tried to bully other kids into getting their way, when someone stood up to them and wouldn’t be bullied, and when the kids couldn’t physically intimidate them, they folded. They couldn’t believe how unfair the whole thing was, that suddenly they weren’t getting their way, because their way intersected with someone else’s well being.

Codex Hammurabi, circa 1790 BCE. That means we got prior art on your moral authority.

All societies are built like this, whether human or otherwise. Adults teach children how to act in society if they are to get along with others, so that others will be more willing to cooperate to achieve goals. Without any lawgiver, chimps and bonobos have complex social structures emerging from individuals’ needs. Without any lawgiver, human society managed to live just fine for tens of thousands of years before any codified set of laws was ever written down. The Code of Hammurabi was a human achievement unparalleled to its time, defining a set of laws by which humans could expect to navigate social mores without incurring the wrath of the king. But even prior to that, people weren’t raping and pillaging one another, even when they were doing it to other tribes — because those tribes that raped and pillaged within its own ranks, would be unstable and die out.

Since we have morals as negotiated by human society over tens of thousands of years, even in the absence of a law-giver to suggest what’s right and what’s wrong, does this mean that right and wrong are codified into the very laws of the universe? Of course not. No other animal has the same sets of “right and wrong” behaviour in their unique societies. Most animals don’t even have societies to speak of. The ones that do, generally favor the fitness of their social unit and each individual member of the unit, so we don’t go around slapping one another because that would decrease the likelihood that the other person would help you when you needed it.

On the flip side, your life is a happy happenstance, another link in the great chain of being, and as a member of the human species, you’re expected to help humankind in whatever way you can. Most times, that means just staying out of humankind’s way, not doing grave harm to it by being a mass-murderer, rapist, or what have you. In some cases, it means identifying long-term humankind fitness dampeners, like our tendency toward short-sightedness when it comes to threats like global warming. In my case, it means fighting against what I perceive to be a gross violation of human intelligence in the short-circuit that is derived from assuming God a priori, without evidence; and fighting against all the injustices that derive directly from such.

Humankind is rather unique in the universe. And not just in our knowledge of the universe, but in the universe itself. I have no doubt that somewhere in the universe, other sentient and philosophical beings akin to us exist. But races like ours are obviously rare enough that we will likely not ever manage to breach the gap between us — we may very well be isolated islands of intelligent life so far apart from one another that communication is impossible. I hold out hope for a Star Trek like universe where we can seek out “new life and new civilizations”, but until such time, we’re all alone here, and we have to carry on as though we humans are unique.

Well that settles it! A+

“We humans” — an emergent phenomenon of biology, which is an emergent phenomenon of chemistry, which is an emergent phenomenon of physics, which is an emergent phenomenon of the universe’s sudden expansion from quantum foam, which is a phenomenon for which we do not presently understand the initial causes (and which I, unlike theists, am willing to say “I don’t know what caused it” and am not intellectually satisfied by saying “Goddidit”, as it seems like a cop-out). We are an emergent phenomenon of this universe’s rules. We can think, and we are here to think. We are this universe’s way of understanding itself.

Can you see why to say “God did it” with nary an examination of these rules and phenomena and events and laws of physics, is a cop-out, a non-answer that doesn’t actually explain or predict or ultimately MEAN anything? Can you also see now why I added that I liked watching humankind’s scientific progress, and that gives my life meaning?

Frankly, Steve, I like my meaning of life better than yours. We may all be machines programmed to act as we will act, but I am evidently programmed to prefer to help humankind reach its potential heights, than stymie it with backward beliefs in hypotheses with no evidence.

10 comments

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  1. 1
    Shannon

    Very interesting read, though in response to your first picture, what is the meaning of lego ice cubes, why to drive you nuts while you try to build a castle while drinking out of rather quickly melting lego ice blocks, of course. Also in response to your ability to sing, I personally thought you were pretty good.

  2. 2
    Jason Thibeault

    Thanks Shannon — being one of the few people to hear me sing, that means a lot coming from you. :)

    Mmm… ice cube LEGO water…

  3. 3
    Steve Davis

    Haven’t had a chance to do a full read-through (we’re between services) but the Archive tab should now have the message, and if not, the archive actually pulls from here:
    http://www.vimeo.com/8616743.

  4. 4
    Jason Thibeault

    Oh good, thank you. I was dreading the thought of hosting a 335mb file myself.

    Take your time on reading it. I wrote a wall of text — I tend to get a bit long-winded when I’m passionate about something. And who isn’t passionate about their own worldview?

  5. 5
    DuWayne

    You?!?!? Longwinded!??!?!? You are perfectly capable of making me look like the heart of brevity…

    Honestly, the simplification and assumptions he is making remind me a lot about “he who shall not be named.” (Lest like Sa–n, he appear) In particular, this reminds me a lot of the idea that all love is is chemicals – as though one could mix themselves up a batch with a chemistry set at home. Yet like that notion, the response that Steve Davis makes is just as shallow and simplistic as that of “HWSNBNed.”

    What is the meaning of life?

    A) Reveling in and doing my bit to foster human accomplishment and trying to make the world a better, more comfortable place. Or;

    B) Looking forward to dying and getting into the good bit, while encouraging as many other people as possible to do the same.

    What is love?

    A) An emotion born of neurochemistry that I was born with, combined with all the synaptic connections that have developed, based on my experience in life. Something that I cannot fully comprehend, but which is, nevertheless quantifiable. Something that causes compassion, empathy and a passionate desire to do what I can to improve not just my lot, not just the lot of my family, but to improve the lot of all people.

    B) An article of faith, something I cannot see, cannot even begin to comprehend, much less explain and something for which there is no evidence it even exists. Something that causes compassion, empathy and a passionate desire to do what I can to improve not just my lot, not just the lot of my family, but to improve the lot of all people.

  6. 6
    khan

    “You reject Godâ„¢!”

    I also reject leprechauns. Your point?

  7. 7
    Kelley

    Wow. This is an excellent post. I’m glad I stopped by!

    As you point out, the preacher seems to confuse “rationalizing” with “rational thinking”, i.e. thought that is driven by logic and reason. Or maybe he doesn’t and is just using the phonetic similarities as a rhetorical tool, assuming that no one will pay attention to the logical fallacy.

    Rationalization is dangerous – it ends up with people pursuing ends and posthumously justifying means. It ends up with people putting on blinders to facts. They’ve already arrived at their conclusion. This is very different from logical analysis, which omits things that aren’t fact. It omits our feelings and it precludes the ability to ignore certain aspects of reality because they make us scared or uncomfortable.

    Looking forward to more. :)

  8. 8
    Jason Thibeault

    It’s okay, he can’t appear. My “moderation” wards keep you from being able to summon him. (And yet, I still can’t bring myself to use his name…)

    And yeah, I noticed the similarities between the lines of argumentation. There’s a pretty good reason for that — repeating existing arguments, no matter how often or adequately they’ve been retorted, seems to be all they’ve got for ammo.

  9. 9
    Jason Thibeault

    I don’t know if you did that “blinders to facts” thing on purpose after having listened to the sermon proper, but if you did, nice one. “There’s facts, over here, and then there’s faith.” And there’s a reason for that. Reality is made up of facts. Faith is made up of wishful thinking.

    Glad you enjoyed the post!

  10. 10
    Jason Thibeault

    I realize you’ve had a rather busy week, Steve, but I was hoping you’d read this. You can skip to the parts where I explain how wrong you are about me and my worldview, and how it’s far more nuanced than you seem to believe.

  1. 11
    Why I do what I do, and where I get my moral code « Lousy Canuck

    [...] science had discovered. I was confronted with utter cluelessness, willful ignorance, and sometimes outright mendacity, repeatedly, until I said, “enough’s enough, these people need to be reined in!” [...]

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