Total Meaninglessness

quote-the-man-who-regards-his-own-life-and-that-of-his-fellow-creatures-as-meaningless-is-not-merely-albert-einstein-312313“If where you came from is meaningless, and where you’re going is meaningless, then have the guts to admit that your whole life is meaningless.”
-Timothy Keller

Materialism demands that there’s no truth outside of physical truth. And, yet the materialists I encounter also demand that their lives are meaningful. Of course, they recognize that this is a purely subjective statement. Still, it’s hard to see what it is the materialist could call a subjective truth when he insists that all truth is physical.

I’ve been told, many times, that one can have a sense of meaning without there being objective meaning and that subjective meaning is something altogether different from physical reality. Apparently, the two are simply not the same. But this leads one to wonder, is the materialist proposing something other than physical reality? Or is he simply using “subjective meaning” as a polite term for a chemical reaction inside the skull?

Presumably, the latter. Indeed, materialists, in my experience, have insisted upon this. Their only real complaint here is with my idea that we should be concerned about this fact. Apparently, there’s nothing unhappy to be found in the statement that meaning is simply a chemical reaction that induces a feeling–and that any notion of actual meaning in life is simply a lie.
The problem, they say, is with my idea that this is even remotely unhappy.

It is unhappy, of course; it is tragic. But I’m not concerned about happiness. Not here. Rather, my concern is with logical consistency. And there is something deeply inconsistent about finding meaning in a life that one announces to be meaningless. To set-aside questions of meaning, and reduce one sense of purpose in life, and all the decisions that entails, to a matter of feeling, of emotion, is not rational.

Likewise, to insist that those of us who are concerned with true meaning should simply abandon the question is bluntly anti-intellectual. It is disbelief, not on the basis of thought, but on the basis of a lack of thought.

Simply put, anything short of  nietzschean abandonment of all meaning is out of touch with pure materialism. Those who claim to have a “scientific mind” contradict themselves to speak of meaning, right, wrong, or any other value.

To say, then, that religion is evil, and that materialism is good, is to abandon materialism.

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13 responses to “Total Meaninglessness

  • violetwisp

    You really like to put things is pre-defined boxes, don’t you? Why does it matter if life has meaning? We’re here, we feel animal urges to do certain things that ensure our survival (relationships with other people or animals we care about being prime factors). Sometimes we can work out why we have certain instincts and urges, and even overrule them with logic and reasoning. But there’s no need, and indeed probably no possibility, for us to understand everything. Maybe being comfortable with the unknown is the key to acceptance.

    • Debilis

      Everyone argues from a perspective. I don’t see how mine is any more “predefined” than anyone else’s.

      In fact, let me respond by pointing out one of your apparent predefinitions: Why does it matter if life has meaning? I didn’t say that it does. I claimed that quite a bit, perhaps even most, of what materialists have said and written to me assumes that life has meaning–and that this contradicts materialism.

      But, if you reject the idea. Why is it important that atheists be accepted in society? If things are simply a matter of animal urges, what are we to say to the person who says she feels no urge to be kind to an atheist? We could try to appeal to her emotions, of course. But, we wouldn’t have a rational argument for her.

      And, with respect to emotions, I personally doubt that a philosophy that rests on indifference toward questions of ontological meaning (and, consequently, morality) will never spread past the comfortable classes. If the New Atheists really do mean to see the world scrubbed clean of religion–the same “animal urges” you mention are a big problem for this approach.

      But, of course, that’s simply a side observation. My actual argument was about the self-contradictions I see in the materialist worldviews I’ve encountered. Whether nihilism or theism proves to be the more credible, that would require turning to other arguments.

      • violetwisp

        I’m wondering if I should clarify that I don’t speak for other atheists (because all we have in common is that we don’t think there is any evidence that supernatural deity beings exist) and that I don’t know much about materialism.

        “Why is it important that atheists be accepted in society? If things are simply a matter of animal urges, what are we to say to the person who says she feels no urge to be kind to an atheist?” I don’t even understand why you feel that would ever be a logical question. And like many religious people who struggle to understand basic empathy, my ‘sociopath’ alarm bells are ringing. I can never tell whether you people are too far down the argument to refer back to actual human behaviour, or if you actually feel like that.

        “I personally doubt that a philosophy that rests on indifference toward questions of ontological meaning (and, consequently, morality) will never spread past the comfortable classes.” I agree to some extent. I think when humans are truly struggling for life and survival, they are probably more likely to cling to the nearest superstitious avenue available to them for comfort. I’m sure as general standards of living and education continue to go up, we’ll see a drop in those accepting their local cultural religion, or any other for that matter.

        • Debilis

          I keep being told that atheists only have one thing in common. I’ve never taken a survey but, if that is true, then I don’t see why atheists should be insisting on “a place at the table”. Why should people with nothing else in common be considered a group in political circles?

          Regarding your “sociopath alarm bells”, it’s safe to turn them off. I have a great deal of empathy.

          My point wasn’t that I don’t, but that empathy isn’t a rational argument. I had an emotional desire to be a moral person long before I became a religious person. The difference isn’t that I’ll suddenly abandon morality if someone disproves God.

          Rather, the difference is that God is the only rational basis for reaching moral conclusions. Those who believe in moral truth should be theists–those who aren’t theists should be nihilists. That was my argument.

          The fact that I personally feel empathy for other humans is a good thing, but it doesn’t refute my argument.

          As for your prediction about beliefs. I disagree on three points:

          First, conflating theism with “superstition” shows a lack of understanding. Transcendence may or may not exist; but, either way, it is not a superstition.

          Second, I disagree with the implication here that “education” is always formal: as if those who have faced real struggle for survival couldn’t possibly know something that the comfortable classes don’t about the nature of life.

          Third, I don’t agree that formal education is a hindrance to theism, either. I really only meant comfort. That is, I’ve not seen any good academic reasons to embrace materialism over theism. As such, there is no reason why education, in itself, would favor the former.

        • violetwisp

          “Why should people with nothing else in common be considered a group in political circles?” I don’t know what you’re talking about here. Can you give me an example?

          “I had an emotional desire to be a moral person long before I became a religious person. ” I would disagree. You had a naturally evolved tendency to empathetic behaviour that works alongside and influences the normal cultural expectations of rights and wrongs.

          The use of the word superstition is a matter of a opinion. But it’s safe to say that all religions evolved on the back of fear of the unknown, and adherents maintain their beliefs despite evidence to the contrary e.g. studies on the effectiveness of prayer. In any case, you surely write off every other religion and belief system in the world as superstition, so you’ll probably accept the sentence if we exclude Christianity?

          You’ve drawn false conclusions from my agreement on atheism not spreading much beyond the so-called ‘comfortable classes’. It’s obvious from that statistics that people with higher levels of education are less likely to believe in deities.

        • Debilis

          The issue of representation was a side comment; I really shouldn’t have gotten into it. As such, I’ll let that alone unless you really want to pursue it.

          As to your second paragraph, I think we’re getting our wires crossed. It seems like we’re saying the same thing. I claimed to have had an emotional desire to be a moral person before I became a religious person. You claim to disagree, but followed that with a theory about how I might have developed a desire to be moral apart from being religious.

          I completely agree that the things you mention can motivate a person to be moral. The idea that they cannot was never my argument.

          Rather, my argument was that moral truth and materialism are incompatible. As someone who happens to believe in moral truth, I reject materialism.

          One is certainly free to reject moral truth in the name of materialism. With respect to my argument here, that is only a problem if one then tries to make pronouncements of moral truth.

          But I disagree that the use of the word “superstition” to describe religion is a matter of opinion. You are free to claim that I am wrong about the facts in this case, but it is not simply an opinion.

          Nor do I agree that “all religions religions evolved on the back of fear of the unknown”. This seems a very speculative approach to human psychological history. And much less credible is the implication that, if this claim were true, that this amounts to a reason to be dismissive of religious truth claims. I suppose that it could, in one sense, be said that science “evolved on the back of fear of the unknown” in that it is an attempt to answer questions, but that isn’t a reason to dismiss it.

          I don’t see a meaningful difference with respect to religion–unless one insists on a very prejudiced view of what theology actually is and does.

          But I completely agree that many religious people believe what they do for reasons other than evidence. I’ve seen it. My only disagreement here is with the implication that the non-religious are somehow immune to this psychological phenomenon. Whether or not the disproofs of materialism I’ve presented are correct, I’ve encountered (many times) very anti-intellectual responses to them from passionate materialists.

          But I don’t “write off every other religion and belief system in the world as superstition”. And I wouldn’t “accept the sentence if we exclude Christianity”. Superstition can certainly be attached to a religion, and I suppose there must be some religions that have superstitions as central tenets. But this doesn’t make religion, even a religion I’d agree was false, inherently superstitious.

          This really is key. One doesn’t have to believe the claims of a religion to differentiate between transcendence and metaphysical arguments on the one hand, and superstition on the other. Failing to do so is failing to reject what that religion actually teaches, and instead remain in ignorance about it.

          “It’s obvious from that statistics that people with higher levels of education are less likely to believe in deities”. Yes, it is my understanding that there is a correlation here. There is also a correlation between higher education and having enough wealth to pay for higher education, leaving one to wonder if it is the education or the wealth (or something else) that is the key factor.

          I can’t claim to know with certainty, but the lack of anything like a conclusive argument for materialism leaves me suspicious that education is not the reason (unless, of course, formal education is to be accused of a certain amount of indoctrination).

        • violetwisp

          “The issue of representation was a side comment; I really shouldn’t have gotten into it. As such, I’ll let that alone unless you really want to pursue it.” I’m genuinely interested to know what you meant by that – do you have a post on it?

          “I suppose that it could, in one sense, be said that science “evolved on the back of fear of the unknown” in that it is an attempt to answer questions, but that isn’t a reason to dismiss it. I don’t see a meaningful difference with respect to religion–unless one insists on a very prejudiced view of what theology actually is and does.”
          The meaningful difference is that all facts in science can be verified by anyone, not just someone who happens to share the same religion as you. All scientific theories are subject to testing and revision where required. Religions claim to hold unalterable universal truths and laws handed down from a higher power that no-one can communicate with or see, and the only verification religious people require is that a religious leader or text says it true. Science and religion have nothing in common in this respect – even if the motivation for answers comes from the same place.

          “One doesn’t have to believe the claims of a religion to differentiate between transcendence and metaphysical arguments on the one hand, and superstition on the other.” I’m afraid I don’t see much difference. I view the roots of all religion as coming directly from base superstitions being gradually formalised over generations. It’s all about the fear of the unknown and the little stories we tell ourselves (from others or made up) to alleviate these fears. I’m afraid it all feels baseless – even if it does comes with tomes of texts attempting to rationalise it.

          “There is also a correlation between higher education and having enough wealth to pay for higher education, leaving one to wonder if it is the education or the wealth (or something else) that is the key factor.” Well, from personal experience, reading the Bible myself and being disgusted with the way women were discussed, the way gay sex was discussed and trying to reconcile it with the message of love and equality Christians pretend to pedal was a starting point. So reading (education) is important. Access to key texts (education) is important. Studying maths and philosophy (education) to strengthen logic and reasoning is important. And the final straw for my deconversion was studying the horrible history of Christianity (education). You may want to convince yourself that the evils of money may be behind these figures but my personal experience suggests to me that without the benefit of a good education I would never have freed myself from the claws of religious indoctrination.

          But I must admit you have a point in some respect there, as we surely replace the gods of religions with something else in our lives – be that distractions through mindless entertainment, drugs or something else. The fear that breeds the superstitions that breed the religions will probably always be there. I don’t know if we can evolve out of it because it probably keeps us alive.

        • Debilis

          As to representation, I haven’t done a post specifically on that (it’s only been lightly touched on). The idea is that many atheists are requesting a “place at the table” in terms of political discussions. The Freethought Association of Canada uses just that phrase here, and Jessie Galef speaks of atheists as a political force.

          I don’t object to this talk in itself, but it contradicts the idea that atheists have nothing in common other than a lack of belief in God. This talk presumes that atheists have shared opinions about the relationship of church to state, whether or not the non-existence of God is a relief from worry, and quite a few other things (particularly if one includes the one-on-one encounters I’ve had with atheists on this subject).

          I’m not saying that every atheist agrees with this. (I’d say otherwise, actually.) Rather, I’m saying that this is a common enough inconsistency that it needs to be pointed out. I find that the New Athests I know, in particular (with their talk of themselves as a branch of the civil rights movement), are prone to getting tangled in this contradiction.

          But getting into the topic:

          I personally don’t see the difference you claim about science and religion. Surely, there are many differences between these subjects, but nothing I’ve claimed on this blog is private information–or requires adherence to any religion in order to be verified. Anyone capable of logical analysis, and with access to the internet or a library, should be able to verify the arguments I’ve given against materialism.

          Nothing I’ve said, for instance, rests on trusting anything written in a holy book–or having a spiritual experience. As such, this may be a good argument against a certain type of religious person (I’ve met that type, and I find him as irritating as you do, believe me), but it is not an argument against religion as a whole.

          With respect to the issue of superstition, you are certainly allowed to see religion this way–but that doesn’t make it the case. If you wish to offer a reason to dismiss all religion as superstitious, that is fine–but simply claiming that this is your perspective on the development of religion does not make it the reality.

          I, for one, would find it hard to believe that any narrative that simple could explain the development of a thing like religion.

          But I agree with the views on equality you mention, in that I completely agree that homosexuals, women, and everyone else should be treated with equal respect. I also agree that Christians have done quite a bit to contradict the love we say we believe in–both with respect to those groups and everyone else.

          Where I disagree is with the idea that this is somehow what the Bible is teaching. I’m fully aware that some groups take that to be the case. But, as good as they are at claiming to speak for all Christians, and God himself, their ideas are controversial at best.

          And it is education that taught me that–angry fundamentalism (which is what you are attacking) is a modern phenomenon and a minority position (though not minority enough, in my opinion).

          That is to say that there are many types of indoctrination. There is definitely a pernicious kind to be found in many churches. There is an equally pernicious kind to be found in the writings of some angry secularists. In general, I find that the common denominator isn’t religion or irreligion–it is a spirit of rage that likes to imply that it is “those people” who are the problem with the world.

          Groups (both religious and secular) who are more apt to say “I first need to deal with the evil in myself” are the examples to follow. That’s what Christianity is meant to be. I know that people manage to turn it into “hate the non-Christian”, because we humans can manage to corrupt anything, but this wasn’t the original idea.

          But I’m going to have to go think on your closing statement. What I’ve already said about superstition aside, I definitely agree that we all make irrational choices–and that it isn’t really possible for a human to escape that.

          My experience so far has been that educated theism is the view containing the least superstition. But I don’t know what I think about this idea of making fear so central to the formation of irrational beliefs. I’ve always assumed that there were many factors, and the situation isn’t really reducible to fear.

          But I can’t claim to have a clear argument there. I’m off to think on that…

        • violetwisp

          “Anyone capable of logical analysis, and with access to the internet or a library, should be able to verify the arguments I’ve given against materialism.” But your arguments are your opinion, they’re not fact. Not everyone reading your train of thought would conclude it was logical. Any scientist can verify the work of another scientist, because it’s fact.

          I agree with a lot of what you say about the counter productive spirit of rage on all sides. It’s just basic tribalism and self-satisfied group behaviour. Always reminds me football supporters. However, I also wince when I hear Christians talking about ‘evil’ inside. I don’t think this helps anyone rationally analyse the roots of any problems they may have.

          On the fear issue, I don’t know if you follow John Zande’s blog. He did an excellent (although probably very cheeky for your tastes) post on this.
          http://thesuperstitiousnakedape.wordpress.com/2013/03/10/paranoia-meet-theism-theism-this-is-paranoia-youre-biological-father-6/

        • Debilis

          You are free to disagree with my arguments, but the simple act of disagreement doesn’t make them matters of opinion. People disagree about matters of fact every day.

          So, my arguments are either sound, or they are not. Their conclusions are either true or false. But in no case are they matters of opinion.

          I tend to assume that every aspect of Christianity has been abused at some point. And the idea that we all have evil in us is certainly no exception. I’ve seen a number of problems here, including the one you name.

          Still, it seems rather obviously true that none of us are perfect. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with saying so–only with the unwarranted add-ons (such as the idea that we should stop thinking there).

          I understand the idea that religion is based on fear. Here, I take a page from the atheist’s book and request evidence. So far, the response has simply been more explanation of what is meant by the concept.

          But I don’t need the idea explained to me. I need a reason to believe it. I can point to any number of emotions that motivate religious devotion, and could write a similar post painting any of them as the “father” of religion. Personally, I suspect that it is a mixture of many human traits that gave birth to religion.

          If someone wants to disagree, that’s fine. But that person needs to give me a reason to think that wonder, hope, anger, guilt, love, desire, conflict, and curiosity had no role to play in the origin of religion. I’ve not seen evidence of that.

          In any case, I completely agree with you that much of religion is very problematic. I agree that there is quite a bit that needs to be criticized, and much that should be ended.

          I only disagree with the idea that materialism is a better alternative. Rather, I think that what religious people need to do is actually act like we say we should.

  • paarsurrey

    @ violetwisp: February 12th, 2014 at 8:31 am
    “But there’s no need, and indeed probably no possibility, for us to understand everything”.

    Then why don’t Atheists believe the One-True-God naturally?

    • Debilis

      I’ve often worried about this. As a theist, I’ve been accused of mystery-mongering more times than I can count. How that can be squared with the very strong tendency to dismiss these questions with “we can’t know everything” and “I’m comfortable with not knowing” is beyond me.

    • violetwisp

      What a bizarre conclusion! We’re a relatively well developed animal. My point is that there are likely to be points of science beyond our grasp, not that there are ‘mysteries’ that point to any supernatural creator beings.

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