It’s been a while. Though I’m sure the absence has gone by largely unnoticed on your end, I’d like to offer my apologies to that single reader who surely must be out there, checking back each week, only to find that no essay has been posted. She’s a real special woman and I’m sorry to have let her down. I’ll make it up to you, mom.
Anyway, as it turns out, writing a two thousand-word essay every week, on top of a senior year course load, is occasionally difficult. Who knew. I wasn’t always happy with the arguments I offered you, or else thought that I just didn’t explain them well enough; but time would often prevent further revision. All to say, I’ve decided I’m going to forego weekly regularity in favor of quality. I’m going to share an idea with you only when it’s ready.
Okay, let’s dive into something more interesting.
I’ve previously talked about being an agnostic atheist, and what I believe to be the opportunity for the ‘beautiful commonality of opposites’: a sort of spiritual understanding and respect that I would argue is a deeper form of multiculturalism than those assemblies you went to in high school.
If such a possibility has any chance of becoming a reality and not some Utopian ideal, we need to make further strides in understanding the notion of ‘meaning’—that is, the macro, big-picture, ‘what is life?’ notion of meaning. Experiential meaning: the sense of purpose we get out there in the world, living our lives. I’m not looking for a metaphysical meaning, floating out there in the ether, because (as you’ll see) I think that pursuit is meaningless. Huh, defining the meaning of meaning… Who’d have thought?
There’s an ill-informed assumption that I want to discourage. Since such a vast majority of people derive meaning from God (a way that may very well be entirely justifiable), a common claim is that a life without God is somehow meaningless. I want to show you why I believe this idea to be wrong, or at least based on misunderstood premises.
To start, let’s look at what a believer of any denomination of any major religion with an anthropomorphized, omniscient and omnipotent deity (so, most importantly, the three Abrahamic religions: Christianity, Judaism, and Islam) thinks about meaning, and how meaning is derived from God. (I’m not a theologian, so this should not be seen as a critique of a particular religion, where I would be woefully under-qualified. However, I am confident in my understanding of the arguments of what such a God, in the abstract, means for us, relationally speaking.)
In questioning how a life without God can have meaning, we are accepting the implicit premise that God gives life meaning. But how? God is all-knowing and all-powerful and, given his anthropomorphic nature, he loves us. So, if he’s always right, and he can make everything as it should be, his love for us gives us value—that is, God’s loving us provides us with meaning since his loving us indicates our state and nature as deserving love. And that makes us feel all warm and tingly.
In response to this justification of meaning, I’d like to offer you an argument from analogy (which is just a philosophy term for offering a simpler example that allows us to get to the meat of what we’re trying to discuss).
Put yourself back in high school for a minute. You’ve been dating your high school sweetheart for two years—let’s call him Joe. You guys are seriously in love. Like, people-don’t-understand-me level in love. You love Joe so much that the fact that he loves you makes you feel better about yourself.
Then college comes around. Life gets in the way. You two break up. Joe starts dating some floozy named Cinnabuns. You hook up with Astronaut Mike Dexter (because you go, girl). But maybe a few years down the road he comes back around and tells you he still loves you and wants to get back together. Aside from some serious pride at ‘winning the breakup’, and maybe a side of Schadenfreude at discovering Cinnabuns gave him an STD, you feel nothing in recognition of this proclamation of love. The meaning and self-worth you once found in receiving his affection no longer surfaces.
Despite the portrait I’ve painted of Joe, let’s assume that he probably hasn’t changed all that much; that he is still the same person, at the very least. If anything, your perception of him has changed (perhaps as a result of maturity, or evolved expectations).
This is the important part. The sense of worth you received was a reciprocal (and self-fulfilling) effect of the worth you placed in him. Once your esteem of him dwindled, his esteem of you ceased to provide you with self-esteem. Say esteem again.
In other words, you provided your own sense of worth and meaning. He was a real and actual conduit of that meaning, and you would likely cite him as the source (surely we feel down on ourselves when it seems there is no one who believes in or cares for us); but, as we have seen, it is a necessarily relational meaning that has been derived. That’s why they call it a relationship.
I’m sure you can see where I’m going with this. Without making any claim about the nature of the God someone believes in, or whether or not that God exists, (and certainly not comparing God to Joe) we can better understand the nature of the meaning derived by a believer: it is an experiential meaning that we feel as a result of the worth that we have placed in our deity. And this, again, shouldn’t be seen as a critique of the quality of the belief or the deity in which one believes. Rather, it is merely an explanation of the nature of meaning derived from an outside source.
Rousseau, (the Enlightenment Era philosopher, not the character from Lost), once made this pithy remark: “God created man in his own image. And man, being a gentleman, returned the favor.” We don’t need to be quite so snarky about it, but if I were to summarize my argument, I would say that God has only been able to give man experiential meaning insofar as man, being a gentleman, has returned the favor.
A religious person might indeed take offense to this depiction of meaning derived from faith. Perhaps she would respond that the meaning is actually imbued in us through divine grace: we receive meaning as a gift from God.
This is a tough one to critique. To be honest, I don’t really know what it means. It makes sense at a poetic level. But how do we actually conceptualize the state of being imbued with meaning?
I’ve got another argument from analogy that may resolve the tension. As a child, your parents raised you to accept certain values and beliefs, to perform certain acts. They gave these things to you, instilled them in you through repetition and a combination of gravitas and ethos, and then taught you how to live them out in the real world. It’s not quite divine instillation, but it’ll work.
Now, I want you to think about those values. Let’s say your parents taught you to love those around you, to be generous, to be compassionate to those worse off than you, and to practice the piano for an hour a day (they say ‘write about what you know’…). Whatever comes to mind, meditate on the values you have, and why, exactly, they are valuable to you.
I think you’ll find that the values you hold dear have worth because of your belief in them, because you enact them in your life, and because of the effects they create. The source of the values and beliefs—the traditional process of parents educating children—has experiential worth, certainly. But you will be hard-pressed to show that the values are good because your parents gave them to you. They are good because of the worth we give them and because of the effects they engender, not because of where they came from. Moreover, I believe an argument can be made that there is more value in self-volitional actions than imposed beliefs (i.e. continuing to learn the piano because you love music as opposed to mechanically hitting the keys to make your parents get off your back).
Again, our religious interlocutor might suggest that this only holds true to the extent that the analogy holds up: since God is all-knowing and all-powerful, he creates the original value in a way that parents, who are merely messengers and teachers, do not.
I do not find this criticism to bear much strength. I am not talking about a metaphysical sense of meaning. I am talking about experiential meaning. There may indeed be a heaven and hell, or there may not. So the values that exist out in the world may have independent meaning based on the fact that living by them will get you into heaven while not doing so will damn you to hell. But that doesn’t explain how a belief in God gives us meaning that we experiencein this life. And remember: we’re trying to explain how life without God can still have meaning, so experiential meaning is the only ground on which we can have any commonality.
This, of course, leads us to the main (and probably obvious) snag. If meaning is self-motivated, why not just invest meaning in terrible but advantageous values? Why not accept Objectivism and declare selfishness to be a virtue? Why not take a reductionist approach to the problem and embrace full-blown relativism; where it’s okay if a society kills ugly children, because those are the values that that society has settled on (and hey, the kids are really ugly)?
A refutation of each of these philosophies will have to wait for another day. What I’ve hoped to show is simply that there are several options available for arriving at meaning: religion, existentialism, humanism, relationships with Joe, etc. We should not set a polarity between religion on the one hand as providing us with beautiful, pure meaning; and all of the other options presenting only a bleak landscape filled with nothing but relativistic, empty existences.
Rather, if meaning is self-referential (and therefore self-created), each of us has the freedom and responsibility to act in accordance with some perceived good. This may be God. This may be a belief in Kant’s Categorical Imperative (more commonly known as the Golden Rule). This may be another form of deontology or a refined rule consequentialism. You know, if that’s your thing.
Positing self-imbued meaning does not mean that all bets are off and it’s every man for himself. Rather, it places upon us a great freedom and responsibility to choose for ourselves the sources from which we receive meaning, the values we hold dear, and the nature by which we guide our relationships.
To return to our analogies: recognizing that the feeling of esteem you get from your boyfriend (or God) is actually self-created doesn’t mean the quality of your partner doesn’t matter. It doesn’t mean you should go date Chris Brown (or worship Cthulu). He still seems like a kind of crappy person, and the partner (or squid-like devourer of worlds) you choose to journey with is still immensely important for the type of esteem you’re likely to get.
Likewise, recognizing that the worth you get from values arises from living them yourself (and not from the source, full stop) doesn’t mean that your parents (or God) are suddenly worthless. It just creates a greater responsibility for you, as a conscious, volitional being, to stop slamming the keyboard like an obnoxious toddler and seek value in practicing the piano on your own terms, even if your parents are making you. In other words, don’t just run through the motions because you were told to. And don’t be the kid who insists on playing drums.
If I’m right, we are the moral arbiters of our immediate vicinity (read: the observable universe). Which is really scary and a huge responsibility, but also pretty flipping cool. We can write our own melodies and learn at our own pace, but we’re working towards being able to play a song that is so beautiful our parents will feel like they got their money’s worth for all those years of lessons. In other words, we can still find a heaven on earth, but we’re going to have to build it here, with our own values, our own meaning.
So, to quote Ralph Fiennes in the latest (and awesome) installment of the James Bond franchise:
Don’t cock it up.