Monday, 10 December 2012

Absolute Meaning (Guest Post)

Guest Post by D. Nesher 

Thanks Shilton for hosting the post – this is something I’ve wanted to write about for a while now, if only to organise my own thoughts more coherently.

I imagine that the feeling of an absence of meaning is fairly common amongst people who are coming to/ have come to the conclusion that they can’t intellectually buy in to the whole theistic organised religion thing. Indeed, at least in my experience, the “argument from meaning” (If there is no God then there is no meaning) is often raised by theists and those who are pro-religion, in discussions and debates.

Obviously this argument is fallacious; for starters,wanting there to be meaning is not sufficient criteria for that actually being the case. Of equal importance is the fact that “meaning” is subjective, and it is arrogant and rude to reject an individual’s claim that simply wanting to be a better person/raise kids/watch large amounts of TV grants meaning to his or her life.

Having said that, it is difficult to deny the fact that theism and organised religion ostensibly make a case for what can be described as “absolute” meaning, something that is a lot harder (though I suppose not impossible) to defend from a sceptical outlook.

In my own life, this perceived lack of “absolute” meaning has not been excessively troubling. While it may be true that I find it hard to argue against complete moral relativism or pessimistic nihilism from a reasoned and philosophical position, as a standard-issue human being I am equipped with a conscience, emotions such as sympathy and empathy, and a drive for success and advancement, and it is these things that dictate my day-to-day thoughts and behaviour, not the conclusions of my navel-gazing. I imagine that this slight discord between actual philosophical beliefs and normative integration into the world constitutes a part of themodus Vivendi of the average secular-minded person.

However, despite not being particularly bothered by this issue in a deep way, I have recently been questioning the notion of “absolute” meaning, wondering whether it can exist at all. To explain what I am driving at, I will quote a joke that I heard about a year ago that made a profound impression on me. The joke was said on the TV show, the Colbert Report, by Stephen Colbert (I am not sure if the joke is his own or if he was quoting it), and it is as follows:
 “OK. So a guy commits suicide. And he goes to heaven, he gets to heaven.And God greets him there, and the guy said, "I'm so surprised I'm here. First of all, I thought there was no God. Second of all, I thought if you killed yourself, you know, you were damned forever."God said, "You know, that's a complicated issue. Everybody at least thinks about ending it, you know, killing themselves at some point." And God says, "Even I've thought of it."The guy said, "Can I ask, why didn't you do it?"And God said, "What if this is all there is?"
 At the time I found the joke funny and thought-provoking, but I have only recently pondered the point it raises more deeply.  What makes meaning that ends with God and his commands “absolute”? Like an annoying kid (and I was that annoying kid), you can just keep asking “why?” – “OK. This is what God himself wants me to do..... but why? Now what? Why does God want that? What is the point of God?”.  You end up with an infinite regress situation which is, to my mind, reminiscent of the debate between those theologians who state that God must exist because of the issue of first cause, and those who reply that they have just created more problems because hey – who created God? Essentially people can call meaning that ends with God “absolute” if they want, but this is a semantic issue, and they haven’t really answered anything, they’ve merely pushed the question to a level slightly further removed from our everyday plane of existence.

Now I realise that I haven’t invented  the wheel here, but to my mind this whole line of thinking just somewhat validated the conclusions I have reached about life, and also made it just that much easier to live with the fact that I have to create my own meaning.  Previously I had a certain amount of angst about the fact that I can no longer bask in the simplicity of “absolute” meaning. Now, under my new paradigm, I realise that “absolute” meaning is a chimera, an impossible dream that is equally unavailable to the heretic and the devout believer alike.

I would love to hear other people’s opinion on the issue of meaning in general, and also critiques of my reasoning from those more philosophically knowledgeable than myself.


zensci said...

I think the "argument from meaning" or faith in an "absolute meaning" is just that - a component of faith in God and thus not provable or disprovable just as proofs for God's existence or non-existence and in this particular case the existence or non-existence of "absolute meaning" are not possible using speculative reasoning (See Immanuel Kant's 'Critique of Pure Reason').

Thus, whether one is a "believer" or a "nonbeliever," it still would have to be argued that everyone must create their own meaning. From a religious perspective, this would be embodied by the belief that humans have been given free will.

Ultimately, it is up an individual's subjective inclination, intuition, feeling, trust etc that will determine whether they can adhere to a belief in "absolute meaning" that emanates from God. Whether one is a religious person or a fervent atheist - both have to make the best of their situation in humility and live as best they can accordingly. one knows anything (regarding God or the lack thereof or meaning and what it all well...means) for sure with any certainty.

As for me personally, I find that the very tension between the "objective vs subjective". "Faith vs reason & physical observation" "meaning vs non-meaning" (especially in a context of the presence of evil and injustice in the world) is what has enabled me to grow religiously. But for others this same tension may also foster one's movement away from God and religion.

lost&confused said...

i would suppose the theist would tell you that firstly we can not understand what true meaning is just like we can not understand (if you belive in this kind of god)how god can be uncaused secandly the meaning one can get from religion is (if we define absolute meaning as a universal end to all means) i would guess would be somthing on the lines of ultimtly uniting with the truest "thing" out there which as i type i realize that doesnt really make sense to me

David S said...

Since we are limited beings we view things subjectively, but from a logical perspective, this is a binary question. Whether we can perceive it or not, either there is an ultimate meaning or their is not. Our subjective view is irrelevant to that question.

All this fluffy "life is what you make of it" crap is just about personal preference.

Anonymous said...

You may be right that there is ultimately a "right" answer. But we will have no way of verifying this one way or the other. Thus whichever answer you choose to live your life by is therefore subjective.

zensci said...

You may be right that there literally may be ultimate meaning or not. But because we will never have any way of adequately determining this for certain, whichever view one takes will inherently be a subjective one or as you say..a fluffy "life is what you make of it" kind of decision.

littlefoxling said...

As Bertrand Russell once said

"If you are quite sure there is a difference between right and wrong,
you are then in this situation: is that difference due to God’s fiat or
is it not? If it is due to God’s fiat, then for God himself there is no
difference between right and wrong, and it is no longer a significant
statement to say that God is good. If you are going to say, as
theologians do, that God is good, you must then say that right and wrong have some meaning which is independent of God’s fiat, because God’s fiats are good and not bad independently of the mere fact that He made them. If you are going to say that, you will then have to say that it is not only through God that right and wrong came into being, but that they are in their essence logically anterior to God."

Also, just to throw my own experience out there, I did not find going OTD to decrease my meaning in life at all. If anything, it increased my meaning in life for the reasons you articulated. Moreover, I don't think I know anyone who went OTD and found that it decreased the meaning in their life.

zensci said...

Yes but that is because those who go OTD usually do because they are not finding meaning in Judaism. So of course people would likely perceive to find meaning after going OTD because their experience with Judaism was obviously not fulfilling the needs of that person or allowing that person in any way to tap into something meaningful. A

Additionally, Judaism is not the only path that can bring about meaning..I just think that this tradition can have enormous positive impact on this world when transmitted from generation to generation in a healthy, honest but principled manner. But there may be some people, even those born Jews, who may need for their own souls to step outside of the Jewish tradition. But my hope is that some day the Jewish tradition can sometime return to being one that all Jews can connect with.

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