August 06, 2007

Keep Your Mitts Off My Meaning

Though it is often disputed by atheists, it seems to most Christians a self-evident truth that if there is no God there is no meaning to life. There can only be a purpose if there is a planner — someone to establish that purpose and equip us and the creation to that end. Of course, you could always appeal to evolution as our maker, but then you are stuck with only a meaning that chance has wrought: to survive and breed. This is deficient both in its banality and in the nature of its ultimate origin. It is not the kind of answer people have in mind when they ask, "What is the meaning of life?" And if they ask the further question of what meaning there is to reproduction and survival they quickly fall into the pit of nihilism.

The thoughtful atheist's reply, having the all too common allergy to nihilism, is to admit the lack of meaning in any objective sense but to point out our resulting freedom to define life's "meaning" for ourselves. How very glorious! We get to dream up our own answer to the most foundational question of existence. Best of all, since there is no right answer, there is also no wrong answer. Who is to say to another, "No, you have picked the wrong meaning; you must choose some other"? There is no supposed objective standard in play to constrain one in crafting a personal meaning — no principle to demand that it must be according to, say, scientific truth. If there were, then that in itself would suggest some form of objective meaning to our existence.

Even though the atheist's meaning of choice is often some form of secular humanism and scientific triumphalism, it is not to say that this is the correct meaning for all mankind. It may seem preferable to live boldly according to the truth that there is no God and to soldier on for the glory and survival of the human race, but that attitude is not ultimately better than those who think that humanity is a blight on nature and we should permit ourselves to go extinct. We may not like some people's invented meaning, but it is theirs to make nonetheless. That is, if atheism is true.

The problem is that many atheists do not have a live and let live attitude about metaphysical beliefs (though I admit that some do). They feel that religious adherents are wrong, foolish, delusional, or even downright wicked in some cases. Of late, some rather high-profile atheists have even been so bold as to suggest that a war must be waged against religion. It is not enough for atheists to (understandably) seek to partition themselves from religion so that they can be free to follow their own values; they want to disabuse religionists of their wrongheaded metaphysical ideas. They want them to live according to the atheist's own idea of "truth" and how we ought to respond in the face of it. They want to preach it in the schools and from every media pulpit that they can command.

Ironically, it is the atheist's version of truth that entails, at the outset, that there is no truth regarding meaning and moral principles. It is the prerogative of humanity to identify value and meaning for itself, and there are many who are busily doing just that who do not happen to be atheists. At least the theist believes, rightly or wrongly, that his truth is a real Truth that matters for all parties. He may be deluded and bothersome, but he is at least logically consistent in his attempts to proselytize others.

The atheist is like the bully who tells his little sister, enjoying her tea party, that her bear and doll guests are just dumb, stuffed creatures and that she's a silly girl living in a fantasy world. If she does not run off sobbing to her bed she might at least abandon her game, the spell broken and the fun evaporated. You see, it is in the illusion that the fun is to be found. Likewise, it is in the belief that Christianity is actually true that the comfort and meaning lies.

The typical atheist means to purge the Christian of his religion if possible or at least the propositional truth of it. All this in the name of the "truth" as he sees it, cold and hard as it may be. He may just as well tell our little tea party princess that she is a chance byproduct of a meaningless natural process; the only reason her parents appear to love and care for her is because of biochemical mechanisms meant to insure the survival of their own DNA; and when she dies she will return to the nothingness from which she came and no one will remember her in 200 years or so. When she runs off sobbing to her bed he can feel justly satisfied that the truth has been served and that he's made a contribution toward insuring that she does not grow up to continue having juice and crackers with dolls or in memory of imaginary crucified deities.

The evangelizing atheist is a metaphysical bully who presses his own truth upon the religious for his personal amusement and self-interest. He is certainly not doing them any favors, since I am not sure that any atheist has ever gone to the grave with a smile and many have gone by their own hands. The sad dilemma for the atheist is that if he is right, then there is no right, from morality to meaning. He can lobby and vote and whine all he likes for his cause, but the last thing he can do is sell it as the truth to which all the world should submit. In doing so he only compounds his sin of actually being wrong about the existence of God. But that is another discussion.

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38 Comments:

At 8/07/2007 9:57 PM, Blogger ephphatha said...

I don't understand why it isn't more obvious to people that if there is no God, then there can't be any meaning or purpose to life other than our own subjective feelings and thoughts about life. There can't really be any right or wrong--just varying preferences. It's just as clear and obvious to me as 2 + 2.

 
At 8/08/2007 7:13 AM, Blogger Psiomniac said...

Paul,
You and ephphatha seem to both make the same error. This is revealed in ephphatha's '2+2' comment. Statements like '2+2=4' can be regarded as tautologies. What you are doing is simply defining meaning in a way such that statements of the kind: 'meaning depends on god', are tautologies.
This post contains an astonishing paragraph. This section is revealing:
You see, it is in the illusion that the fun is to be found. Likewise, it is in the belief that Christianity is actually true that the comfort and meaning lies.
I couldn't have put it better myself.

 
At 8/08/2007 1:25 PM, Blogger Paul said...

That's right, Psio, the concept of "meaning" is what's at stake. If you are free to define meaning for yourself (which is what I indicate that atheists claim and the premise underlying my post), then anyone can have "meaning." Heck, by that methodology, "meaning" can equal "having a pulse" or "using the restroom." If you want to affirm that the meaning of life is whatever you decide, then that is fine, but it is certainly not the conventional usage of the word or what people have in mind when they query after the meaning of life. I may just as well call myself an "atheist" because I am free to define it as I choose, and I choose to define it as believing in a personal God.

This post contains an astonishing paragraph. This section is revealing:
"You see, it is in the illusion that the fun is to be found. Likewise, it is in the belief that Christianity is actually true that the comfort and meaning lies."
I couldn't have put it better myself.


I had some apprehension about this post because it could be taken to be saying something that I do not believe. I suppose I am arguing that, hypothetically, Christianity could be untrue but it still be an act of hubris for atheists to challenge. If there is no objective meaning, then so long as something works for a person...

The problem is, Christianity doesn't "work" for someone like me unless it happens to also be true, or I at least earnestly believe it to be true. So, for an atheist to argue against its truthfulness, and win the argument, basically spoils the "party." What I am not saying is that I believe Christianity to simply be a placebo that can bring comfort and meaning to someone's life. It does that as a side-effect of actually being true. But by your apparent means of defining "meaning," for the Christian, it is legitimately the "meaning of life" whether true or false.

 
At 8/09/2007 12:47 PM, Blogger ephphatha said...

Psiomniac, I don't think I've made any error. I don't claim that "God is necessary for objective purpose, meaning, values, and morals" is a tautology, and I the comparison I made between that and 2+2=4 was not meant to say that one is the same kind of statement as the other. I only made the comparison to say that one is just as obvious to me as the other.

 
At 8/09/2007 4:23 PM, Blogger Psiomniac said...

Paul,
If you are free to define meaning for yourself (which is what I indicate that atheists claim and the premise underlying my post), then anyone can have "meaning."
I think this premise is false. Your argument is therefore invalid.

I suppose I am arguing that, hypothetically, Christianity could be untrue but it still be an act of hubris for atheists to challenge.
It is not hubris to question what we regard as a flawed conception of meaning based on what we see as a falsehood.

The problem is, Christianity doesn't "work" for someone like me unless it happens to also be true,
I would expect nothing less from you because you strike me as someone with integrity. What we have in common, is that the truth matters to us. We just happen to differ on what we think it is.

But by your apparent means of defining "meaning," for the Christian, it is legitimately the "meaning of life" whether true or false.
The problem is yet again in language in my view. You have defined the atheist 'meaning of life' as whatever the individual decides it is. Therefore your statement above follows from this premise. I am sceptical about the meaning of the question: what is the meaning of life?

 
At 8/09/2007 4:29 PM, Blogger Psiomniac said...

ephphatha,
I am saying that the reason it is so obvious to you is that you have defined the terms in such a way that "God is necessary for objective purpose, meaning, values, and morals" is a tautology. It is not necessary for you to claim it is a tautology and since you think it is true it will not strike you as erroneous.

 
At 8/09/2007 5:25 PM, Blogger ephphatha said...

Well, I'm sure you would agree that tautologies are necessary truths. So given our definition, you'd have to agree that our position is necessarily true. So since you disagree with our position, you must disagree with our definitions. Is that right?

 
At 8/09/2007 5:40 PM, Blogger Paul said...

Psio,

Maybe this will help us clear up our miscommunications:

If you find yourself on a deserted isle and come across a clearing containing various arrays of smooth pebbles and apparent rows of divots in the sand, there are two relevant options. One, it is the work of nature signifying nothing but the effects of physical forces and random events. Two, it was put there by someone and represents a purposeful arrangement with an intentional use, perhaps for the game Mancala.

If option one is true, then there is no "meaning" to what has been found in the clearing. You can do with it what you want, and if you desire, you can play any game with it that you dream up, but there are no official rules to any such game other than what you agree to amongst yourselves. What you do has no consequences and makes no difference to anyone other than, perhaps, persons who are irritated by the silly use you've put it to.

If option two is true, then the arrangement has a history, origin, and designated purpose. It even has intended rules. It has a meaning in the traditional sense of the word. Now, you could still ignore it or play some other game with it, but you could not be said to be using it as it was "meant" to be used. And if the owner comes back and finds you chucking his pebbles at monkeys (according to your own chosen use of the game), then its meaning may become a very consequential matter to you.

Obviously, we feel that atheism is analogous to option one. So, from the atheist's perspective, if you want this "game" we find ourselves in to mean "getting along and indulging in sensual pleasures," then that is just as good an application as "following Jesus as lord and savior."

 
At 8/09/2007 7:58 PM, Blogger Psiomniac said...

ephphatha,
Yes that's right.

Paul,
If option 1 is true and it was the work of the inhabitants who then deserted the island, and then we come along and notice that we can play Pente with the stones then what can be said about meaning?
That humans as communities synthesise meaning from the raw materials of perception and cognition? Perhaps. The fact that the mancala game had meaning for the people that set out the game need not be dependent on anything outside humanity (other than the laws of physics). But to say that this just reduces to 'anything goes' is the same error that you make in the moral value argument.
We find meaning in the game of Pente, they in the mancala game. In order to do so we must learn from our peers and elders and cooperate and abide by the rules. It is not just our individual preferences that are important.

 
At 8/09/2007 9:17 PM, Blogger ephphatha said...

Psiomniac, if that's right, then we're not even talking about the same thing. We just happen to be using the same words with different meanings. There's no real disagreement going on, and you can't really say that we're wrong or argue with us.

 
At 8/10/2007 5:25 AM, Blogger Psiomniac said...

ephphatha,

I agree with you that we are using the same words with different meanings and the central problem is the meaning of 'meaning'.
It does not follow that I can't argue with you though because that is what I am doing: I am asserting that your definition of 'meaning' is wrong, or at least the definition that seems implicit in your use of the term is wrong even though you have not explicitly defined it.
Now you could say, as Paul has, that by my own implicit definition, since Christianity does give your life meaning, my criticism is unfounded. However, ignoring the fact that this would employ an argument that you cannot agree with, it is still possible from my point of view, for your life to be given meaning despite your own conception of what that means being flawed.

 
At 8/10/2007 6:06 AM, Blogger ephphatha said...

Psiomniac, I've never seen much point in arguing over the meaning of words. Words are just tools used to convey ideas. They're useful so long as we understand what the other person means by them. If somebody uses a word in a way that seems strange to me, I just try to figure out what they mean by it. That's all I need to know before I can understand what they're trying to convey. Do you understand what Paul and I are trying to convey? Because that's more important to me than that you agree with the words we're using to articulate ourselves.

 
At 8/10/2007 9:17 AM, Blogger Psiomniac said...

ephphatha,
That's a fair point.
I would say that I understand what you are trying to convey to a degree. I think that my life has meaning and that the existence of a personally involved creator god is not well supported either by evidence or argument. You think your life has meaning within the context of god's purpose. Paul would say that this is the only form of meaning that is real*.
If progress in the discussion is possible it might come from further clarifying our terms so that the fundamentals of why we can have such different conceptions of 'meaning' might be revealed.
*Sorry if I have that wrong.

 
At 8/10/2007 11:37 AM, Blogger Paul said...

Psio,

Can you see that the two scenarios in my story are analogous to human life? One, it is simply what chance and physics (assuming evolution) have produced. Two, it is an intentional creation with intended properties for an intended purpose. Option one is the atheist's lot. Only by hijacking and subjectivizing the word can you say that the sand patterns on the beach or the crystalline condensation of saltwater has "meaning." Now if you find words inscribed into the sand by a real author, this is a different sense of the word "meaning."

Before I say more, can you at least see the categorical distinction? One has us imposing our own invented meaning upon mindless, natural situations and objects. The other has the objects invested with a meaning that is independent of, though communicable to, ourselves.

Oh, and don't bother pointing out that a God could involve some hybrid of creation and chance where we are concerned (e.g., theistic evolution), because 1) I am not advocating such a God, and 2) it would still result in a categorically similar "meaning" to what I propose.

 
At 8/10/2007 12:13 PM, Blogger SLW said...

Psio:
Is your sense of meaning founded upon objective truth? It seems that Paul and Eph are pressing an argument that 1) there is objective truth, and 2) meaning (a sense of purpose and connection), must be founded upon it in order to be objective (real) itself. I take it that you do believe there is truth, i.e. reality that exists regardless of whether or not humans existed to define it. What I wonder is why you do not seem willing to anchor meaning to it. If you do not, than that meaning is illusion. If you did, your conclusion would be, as Paul has pressed, that life is chemicals and physics and the only meaning is survival, replication, and grabbing whatever sates the urges of mind and body.

 
At 8/10/2007 4:55 PM, Blogger SLW said...

Paul,
I have been contemplating your statement,

"It may seem preferable to live boldly according to the truth that there is no God and to soldier on for the glory and survival of the human race, but that attitude is not ultimately better than those who think that humanity is a blight on nature and we should permit ourselves to go extinct."

all afternoon (in between other things of course). Even the reproduction of the species has no meaning apart from some external value giving it such. Why bother? Why is it better than not reproducing? Chemicals would never come up with such a notion as survival and reproduction, they merely stop reacting when equilibrium is reached. Yet life from the simplest to most complex is driven by it, and it is not a simple thing for any life form to do. Reproduction is an incredibly complex activity. The drive to do so overwhelms even our lofty self-awareness. The fact that reproduction is so central to "meaning" for everything that lives, begs the question why. As a believer, I have an answer, God said, "be fruitful and multiply."

 
At 8/10/2007 7:33 PM, Blogger Paul said...

SLW,

Your words touch on several weighty issues that could each spawn a lengthy discussion (which I'm not proposing to do). Here are some that come to my mind:

The arguable nature of reproduction and its value in an atheistic worldview. Most (maybe all) of the couples I know who have chosen not to have children are atheists, or at least not notably religious. It is just something they're not in to. If meaning is objective (wherever it comes from), then I can't imagine how reproduction would escape being a substantial part of that meaning. So, does an atheist say that a healthy, wealthy, and bright childless couple is wrong about their priorities?

The astonishing complexity of reproduction (and directed growth of the offspring): perhaps the most complex activity found in all of nature, and yet another example if irreducible complexity.

The ultimate fate of the universe is complete entropy (heat death), so no matter what humans "achieve" and how much they may reproduce, in the grand scheme of eternity it is nothing more than a brief, localized increase in order and energy, like a star, destined to flare for a season and fizzle to dead matter. The mindless universe will then have no memory or concern for all the passion and purpose that fleeting individuals have dreamt for themselves.

One of the primary characteristics that define "life" is reproduction. This not only involves the biochemical processes to accomplish the task, but also the behaviors that bring it to fruition [I love that word]. Where the basic feelings of lust come from that brings intelligent creatures to devise ways to "get lucky" is one thing. But how a mindless low-order creature, like an insect, knows instinctively when and how to do its mating and maternal ballet only deepens the mystery. I have yet to find the science that explains where the detailed instruction sets lie in the DNA to drive the intricate and complex behaviors of weaver birds or honeybee communities.

I can't help thinking that if reproduction is so much a part of the story of earth, that there is something more to it in divine terms than mere functional necessity. It must surely at least mirror the creative nature of God within the creation itself, but I can't help thinking there is much more to it.

 
At 8/10/2007 9:17 PM, Blogger SLW said...

Yes Paul, I agree and also admit, shamefully, that I just never gave it that much thought before reading your above referenced comments. There is something incredibly profound in it.

 
At 8/10/2007 9:59 PM, Blogger Paul said...

I am convinced that we will discover in the end that every organ, every insect, every pattern, and every particle had a deep metaphorical and functional place in the great cosmic tapestry.

The reason we will praise and reverence God for eternity is, perhaps, because we will continue to peel the onion-layers on his nature and works.

 
At 8/11/2007 5:08 AM, Blogger Psiomniac said...

Paul,
Can you see that the two scenarios in my story are analogous to human life?
I did see what you were getting at yes, that is why I responded as I did to try to indicate the problems with your analogy, as I see them.

One, it is simply what chance and physics (assuming evolution) have produced. Two, it is an intentional creation with intended properties for an intended purpose.
I vote for option 1 on the grounds of evidence and reason.

Only by hijacking and subjectivizing the word can you say that the sand patterns on the beach or the crystalline condensation of saltwater has "meaning."
This is what I meant by your arguments being tautologous. You have simply defined the term 'meaning' to be that property of a created world which expresses the intent or design of the creator. All this does, as in the cosmological arguments, is move the problem one stage back. You can tell stories from your limited human perspective about what you think God is up to but I challenge you to say much that is meaningful and precise about God's intended purpose.

Before I say more, can you at least see the categorical distinction?
I can see a distinction between two types of invented meaning. From my perspective one of those involves a fictional character, namely God.

 
At 8/11/2007 5:22 AM, Blogger Psiomniac said...

SLW,
I take it that you do believe there is truth, i.e. reality that exists regardless of whether or not humans existed to define it. What I wonder is why you do not seem willing to anchor meaning to it.
I am willing to anchor meaning to it.

If you did, your conclusion would be, as Paul has pressed, that life is chemicals and physics and the only meaning is survival, replication, and grabbing whatever sates the urges of mind and body.
I just think this proposition is false. Anchoring meaning in reality is one thing, being literal minded is another. Denying that meaning has a subjective component would be incoherent from my perspective but even from yours the grand scheme of things has meaning to you. As I see it you have made the process of conscious agents making sense of reality into a noun with the label 'God's Plan'.

 
At 8/11/2007 6:17 AM, Blogger mattghg said...

It's always rather tedious arguing with someone who kicks meaning, purpose and value out of the foundations of their worldview and then is somehow surprised when someone calls them for trying to smuggle these notions back in again where they aren't warranted.

 
At 8/11/2007 8:55 AM, Blogger Psiomniac said...

mattghg
It's always rather tedious arguing with someone who kicks meaning, purpose and value out of the foundations of their worldview and then is somehow surprised when someone calls them for trying to smuggle these notions back in again where they aren't warranted.
I don't kick meaning, purpose and value out, rather I reject your notions of them because I regard them as based on false premises.
I can only suggest that if you find the process of arguing with me tedious, then you refrain from doing so.
As for your characterisation 'somewhat surprised' I can only say that if you intended that to apply to me then it is inaccurate. There is nothing at all surprising about Paul's view of meaning as it is logically consistent with his beliefs.

 
At 8/11/2007 10:12 AM, Blogger Paul said...

Psio,

I vote for option 1 on the grounds of evidence and reason.

Since I can throw as many failed predictions, anomalies, and counter-factuals at you as you can throw "evidence" at me, I think we will have to put this point aside until the next time we are in the mood to play that game.

You have simply defined the term 'meaning' . . .

I am using the word in its conventional sense. If I ask you the meaning of one of your sentences, will you first ask me to define the term or will you naturally just tell me what the ideas and intentions were that you were attempted to express through the alphabetic characters that you had assembled? If I pour Alpha-Bits Cereal out onto the table, those characters have no meaning, even if they happen to form a complete sentence. I take your words to have meaning because of the mind and intentions behind them. It takes a subject to ascribe meaning. You simply want that subject to be yourself. It is what I am saying: either there is an order and purpose — a meaning — to this universe, or it is up to us to assign it if we so choose. You can only be affirming the latter, which grants the premise on which the conclusion of my post is erected. You seem to want to blow past this self-evident dichotomy to press your grievances against the concept of God. That is a separate discussion, though valuable as it may be to you.

All this does, as in the cosmological arguments, is move the problem one stage back.

To ask what is the meaning of God? Since there is no person, or anything at all prior to, above, or outside of God, then God is not a contingent and created thing to which something else can ascribe meaning. This does not change the fact that we are the product of another mind with intentions to which we are subject. Even if you were a powerful being who had created a universe of its own, its inhabitants could rightly ask after its meaning. That universe would still have its meaning even if there were a God who had created you, yourself. In any case, the idea of an eternal, self-existent something is certainly not off limits to you, since materialism demands there be an eternal meta-verse (unless you are good with the idea that things can just pop out of absolute nothingness).

but I challenge you to say much that is meaningful and precise about God's intended purpose.

I could say very many things about God, since I believe he has revealed as much as I need to know in order to equip me for an eternity with Him. However, since you do not grant authority to that revelation, and personally find it distasteful and confusing, we cannot go this route just now.

I can see a distinction between two types of invented meaning.

So, whether I am right or wrong about this universe having an author and purpose you are granting the conclusion of my post — that Christians are perfectly in their rights to their own "invented meaning"? If that is true, then even our argument over the correct usage of the term "meaning" is irony, since I am perfectly free to insist that it mean anything I desire. But if I am not right, then tell me what principle I violate in any of my thoughts and actions that is not simply meaningful in your own subjective mind. It occurs to me that the atheist's objection to Christianity reduces to nothing more than, "I do not like your meaning."

 
At 8/11/2007 10:21 AM, Blogger Paul said...

And if I might answer one of your answers to SLW . . .

He said: I take it that you do believe there is truth, i.e., reality that exists regardless of whether or not humans existed to define it. What I wonder is why you do not seem willing to anchor meaning to it.
You said: I am willing to anchor meaning to it.


What I think you must mean is that in constructing your personal, subjective meaning you are willing to take the external world into the equation, not that you think the real state of the external world itself has a design or intended purpose. The alternative would be to construct your meaning out of pure fantasy, to the neglect of the outside world. Since if any have ever done such a thing they would not be long for this world, or interested in arguing with real people about it, then you haven't much choice but to wrap your meaning around the true world. As they say (or something like it): "Reality is what you bump into when you happen to be wrong." But for our purposes, it is the difference between bumping into a boulder and bumping into a basilica.

 
At 8/11/2007 11:32 AM, Blogger Psiomniac said...

Paul,
I think your last two posts move us closer to an understanding of our respective positions.
We still disagree, if not about the meaning of 'meaning' (as I too am using it in its conventional sense), then certainly on its scope.
I think your application of the term to the whole universe is mistaken because I think that the existence of the Christian god is not likely. (We will, as you say, have to agree to differ on what reason and evidence tell us here).
I still think that you have regressed the problem one step and despite your theologically nuanced objections I think this falls in the same way as the cosmological arguments. You are in effect stipulating your way out of the problem in the hope that this will mask the lack of content. You cannot actually say what the meaning, purpose or plan actually is.
I notice you tried an analogue of the 'self refuting nature of relativism' argument but I don't think it applies. This is because, as with morals, I don't think meaning is a construct of individuals, any more than language or morals are. So it still makes sense for me to say that I think you have it wrong-you are extending meaning beyond where its writ will run.
I liked your boulder and basilica comment. The world has another category of thing though-self replicators. So what if the entire universe is like that? Not a boulder fashioned by blind chance nor a designed thing but something else. If I bump into a bear I don't think it has been specifically designed at all. It will mean quite specific things to me though. They will not be entirely my subjective choice either.

 
At 8/12/2007 4:28 PM, Blogger Jim Jordan said...

I'm glad I don't have to argue against this post. Well done. Among other things, it points out the sharp contrast between what atheists practice due to their "allergy to nihilism" and what they preach, which can only lead to nihilism. The reason they have the same desire for order that theists do is that they come from the same Creator. What other explanation is there?

 
At 8/13/2007 6:34 AM, Blogger Psiomniac said...

Jim Jordan,
Are you really saying that you are incapable of thinking of other explanations?
The idea that atheism entails nihilism is false.

 
At 8/13/2007 9:35 AM, Blogger Paul said...

Perhaps it is true that atheism does not entail a self-consciously nihilistic attitude, but the claims upon which nihilism is based naturally arise from atheism. What you do with those materialistic conclusions is up to you, though, and the very freedom to manufacture your own meaning is but an additional doctrine of it. For example, one of the principle advocates of the philosophy, Nietzsche, proposed the "Will to Power" as his own response — his "meaning." Some choose hedonism. Some choose suicide. And some choose to borrow categories from a largely theistic cultural tradition. None are heresies in the church of nihilism.

BTW, Jim, thanks for dropping a comment. I should try to do the same more often at your thoughtful blog.

 
At 8/13/2007 10:51 AM, Blogger Psiomniac said...

Paul,
Although nihilism is compatible with atheism it is but one response amongst many.
You assume that meaning is only real if it is god given therefore from your perspective, atheists are nihilists whether or not they realise it. I think this view is mistaken.

 
At 8/13/2007 12:18 PM, Blogger Paul said...

And you seem to be assuming that the meaning that you have freely made (or are making) for yourself is "real" and not just a subjective construction permitted to you by a mindless universe. That would seem to make it objective and applicable to all people. Maybe we are at odds over the definition of the word "real."

More likely, you are confusing the idea of personal value with the concept of meaning. For instance, a composed song could have a certain meaning to you, just as the random notes of a wind chime could be meaningful to you. You can value these things and have certain emotions and associated memories relating to them. However, that would not negate the fact that the one is random and has no intrinsic "meaning," and the other is intentional, designed, and has a particular message the artist had in mind. You can ascribe your own personal meaning (value) to both, but if the tinkling of chimes meant "peace and relaxation" to you, you would not be wrong about it. However, if the song Amazing Grace brought to mind raping and pillaging, it could rightly be said that you had failed to grasp the correct meaning of the song.

 
At 8/13/2007 2:56 PM, Blogger Psiomniac said...

More likely, you are confusing the idea of personal value with the concept of meaning.
With all due respect I don't think that the confusion is mine.
I think you invalidly extend what applies to parts of reality and their interrelation, to the whole.
Suppose there is no God but I am given two things to listen to. One is a symphony, the other is random notes of a wind chime. Do you honestly think that in this godless scenario, I would be unable to detect the difference?
As I said, this mirrors one of the flaws in the cosmological argument. This is to assume we can deduce that the universe as a whole must have a cause because we observe events within the universe in a way tht lead us to see causes.
Similarly we discern meaning and you assume that we need a First Meaning of some kind. Unless God gives meaning to the whole thing, you assume that there can be no valid or real meaning for us within it. I think this is false and arises from a fundamentally dualist outlook which gives rise to a false objective/subjective dichotomy.

 
At 8/13/2007 3:34 PM, Blogger Paul said...

We are getting nowhere, but I keep getting hints it is in word definitions that we largely differ. Let me try once more.

Do you honestly think that in this godless scenario, I would be unable to detect the difference?

I'm not suggesting that there is a problem of detection here. It is in the fact that one is the product of agency that you can detect a difference. This is crossing boundaries into another discussion, though. I am not saying that order = meaning. Indeed, someone could create something in which you could not detect a pattern or any discernable agency (like an encrypted file) and it would still have meaning in the sense I mean.

The question is, does this universe (and we) have an intrinsic purpose or are we just fabulously lucky accidents who can do with our windfall whatever we like?

Unless God gives meaning to the whole thing, you assume that there can be no valid or real meaning for us within it.

Alrighty then, if there is a valid meaning for this universe, what do you propose? And why is it valid for us all and not just your meaning? If it is just your meaning, then we are agreed and we can move on.

 
At 8/13/2007 5:18 PM, Blogger Psiomniac said...

We are getting nowhere, but I keep getting hints it is in word definitions that we largely differ.

I agree. I have said that the problem is our use of language.
ephphatha responded thus:
"Psiomniac, I've never seen much point in arguing over the meaning of words. Words are just tools used to convey ideas."
But I think he overlooked the fundamental problem of calibration there.

I think that when you say that there is not a detection problem you are confusing the epistemoligical problems associated with meaning, with the ontological status of meaning. This is shown when you say that:
"I am not saying that order = meaning. Indeed, someone could create something in which you could not detect a pattern or any discernable agency (like an encrypted file) and it would still have meaning in the sense I mean."
But the pattern is there, I just can't see it. So order might not be detectable due to encryption but it is a necessary property for meaning in your example. However, it is not sufficient. Crystals might form a pattern that has no meaning in the sense that we are using it.

The question is, does this universe (and we) have an intrinsic purpose or are we just fabulously lucky accidents who can do with our windfall whatever we like?
I think neither of these alternatives is true. I don't think it is meaningful to ascribe an intrinsic purpose to the universe as a whole but nor do I think we can 'do whatever we like' in terms of synthesizing meaning from raw perception and cognition. Again, I walk the beach.

Alrighty then, if there is a valid meaning for this universe, what do you propose?
I don't think this question is meaningful.

 
At 8/13/2007 8:06 PM, Blogger Paul said...

Why can't we do whatever we like in synthesizing our meaning? What principle are we in danger of violating and to what constraint must I yield?

 
At 8/14/2007 4:24 AM, Blogger Psiomniac said...

We can look upon meaning as heirarchical in structure. At the level of perception and cognition we make sense of the world. Higher notions of meaning must take account of that. These lower level things are not under voluntary control. If you doubt that this is so look carefully at some English text and try to 'turn off' those processes that make sense of it.
Further, meaning has a cultural dimension. As with language, we learn a lot from our host culture. Meaning is not a wholly private affair because we are social beings. Similarly, we have little direct control of our culture as we are brought up within it.

 
At 8/14/2007 11:14 AM, Blogger Paul said...

Okay, so our brains perceive the world and we "make sense" of it — whatever that means and however that relates to actual truth. And you say that our minds operate in "involuntary" ways, where you might include logic, order-perception, math, and moral intuitions — again, however that actually relates to truth. Then you say we "must take account of that."

Where'd you get that "must" from? It seems to me that the best you can do, assuming our senses and minds are finely-tuned truth detectors, is to derive data regarding the state of the universe. Deciding what to make of it and how to respond to it is another matter, not to mention asserting what meaning we "must" take away from it.

Regarding your comments on culture, that says nothing about what meaning is or must be. It only relates to where some people have acquired their meaning. You have not done anything to defeat the idea that meaning, in an atheistic world, is a matter of human construction by pointing out that some humans jointly define it. Nor have you said whether diverse cultures are right or wrong to have developed their diverse meanings.

 
At 8/15/2007 6:33 PM, Blogger Psiomniac said...

Where I get the 'must' from is the notion that reality is what you bump into if your fantasy is wrong.
We have no choice but to take account of reality because we are in a dialogue with it, those who cannot communicate with it are deemed mad. Our perceptions and cognitions form the phenomenal world from the traffic between us and reality.
Deciding what to do, within the parameters we are given, with our level of self awareness, is unique to our species as far as we know if we resrict ourselves to earth. Reality does impinge in unavoidable ways, suffering is worse than contentment and everybody knows it. We have the capacity for empathy, so we know what it is like for somebody else to suffer and we feel bad about it. We can use reason to think about these feelings and reflect upon our actions. Some people don't share our feelings or empathy, or our assessment of things, so what are we to do about them? One option would be to try to convince them that Jesus is their saviour. The evidence is not good for that claim though, so I prefer persuasion, rational dialogue and if all else fails, cooercion.
The world is redolent with meanings for us. It is a human construct but it could not be made by humans in the absence of our partner, reality, which hits its marks so dependably. You want meanings within reality to be underwitten by the whole thing having a purpose. I think that is a category error. Meaning is a process that humans engage in and as its context is the rather regular 'external' world, we do not have a free hand to just make it up as we go along. (Not that this stops some people trying very hard.)

 

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