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.