The question for this week is whether the meaning of life depends on there being an afterlife.
Like most questions raised when discussing the topic of supernaturalism versus naturalism, the question contains a hidden and deeper question which must be first answered, namely, what is the meaning of life?
Naturally, that question depends on two yet deeper, namely (1) what is life? And (2) what is meaning?
The answer to the second question depends on what life is. In the modern age, there are two major contenders offering opposite answers, the theist and the atheist.
If human life is a gift from a divine creator, created for a purpose, it can have in innate meaning, that is, a point, a direction, a purpose, and a living message which exists whether we like it or not.
If human life is basically the same as animal life, except that a blind and unpurposeful process of natural eugenics accidentally inflicted on a certain band of hairless apes a number of convolutions of the brain which granted us not only the desire to search for meaning in life, but the ability to seek it. This, of course, was unintentional, caused by a hiccup during a genetic Xerox-process, and existence of this desire has no intrinsic meaning.
It is neither cruel nor kind that the Xerox-hiccup created this desire in the race; it is merely a fact with no innate meaning, like the number of potatoes in Dublin on the first Tuesday in January, 1961. Neither does the existence of the desire prove that the desire is fitted to any satisfaction to be found in nature.
While some might make the argument that the blind process of the survival of the fittest must have discovered some evolutionary advantage to this desire, this merely means, if the argument were proved, that there is an accidental utility to the nonhuman ends favored by blind Darwinian statistics to the fact that we have the desire, not that the desire itself is worthy of being pursued, worthy of being avoided, worthy of being noticed, worthy or being ignored. Indeed, it has no meaning of any kind whatsoever, except what meaning we and we alone grant to the Darwinian utility of fecundity and preservation of the selfish genes we carry as benevolent parasites within us.
Hence, under this view, the search for meaning is an illusion as meaningless as seeking for law higher than manmade law, as seeking beauty beyond manmade standards of beauty, or as seeking rules of reason and logic more fundamental than what emerges from arbitrary human linguistic patterns. The thing cannot be done. It is an illusion as meaningless as seeking for scientific regularity in the phenomena of the ever changing, ever degrading cosmos.
If such a case, the meaning of life is exactly nothing, aside from what human willpower arbitrarily imposes on it. Hence, in a godless world, by definition, human life can have arbitrary meaning, but not innate meaning.
Those terms need explanation, as does the answer to our second question. What is meaning?
A straightforward answer to the second question is to say that the difference between a garble of noise and a plain language is the difference between meaningless and meaningful. The difference between a remark clearly understood and a remark one is unready, unwilling, or unable to understand is the difference between meaningful and unmeaningful.
However, we must make two distinctions: first, we must distinguish innate meaning from the mere illusion; and second we must distinguish innate meaning from personal meaning.
If an owl hoots, and the noise to an English speaker reminds him strongly of the question who? this so-called question is meaningful in his ears only, and only for the moment of confusion before he turns and sees that an owl, and not a person, is behind him. The images seen in clouds or the inkblots of Rorschach are not meaningful properly speaking. They are something that looks, at first, like it might have a meaning, but which, upon examination, does not. So, here: when we speak of innate meaning, we do not mean a subjective impression that imposes a meaning on a chaos where none exists.
Again, it is clear enough that if a man addresses you in Greek, his words may be meaningless to you but not to someone fluent in that language. In that sense meaning is subjective, that is, the receiver must have whatever decoder ring of experience, wisdom, or inner knowledge to receive the meaning of what is being said to him in order to savor it and understand it. Wagner’s Ring Cycle can rightly be said to be more meaningful to someone familiar with the conventions of opera, with the legends of the Norse (and with the German language) and European music than to an untrained ear, or unlettered eye. Also, someone who lacks poetry in his soul cannot receive the meaning of Wagner’s work, for the same reason a eunuch cannot judge a beauty contest. He has no antenna to receive the radio waves, as it were. Such a eunuch can indeed apprehend with his reason that Wagner’s work has an innate meaning, without being able to experience it. Let us call this a personal meaning.
Hence I ask the reader to draw a distinction between what is meaningless and what is unmeaningful. It may be unmeaningful to a young Benedict who scorns marriage all sighs and sonnets of love, for the language of cupid is closed to him. However, there is a meaning to be had, even though he himself might not be ready to receive it. Once he falls in love, he will understand, hence he will see the meaning. To the contrary, there is no question for him to understand when an owl hoots, or should the Humpty Dumpty ask him how mimsy are the borogroves, all mimsy or just somewhat?
The difference between unmeaningful and meaningless is the difference between an unanswered question and a nonsense question.
But here we reach the utterly implacable paradox of godlessness. If life has no meaning, then that is the truth. Reason demands we live in accordance with the truth, for anything else is contemptible self-deception. But this demand is one, by definition, by the very nature of the case, no one can ever satisfy. There is no meaning to be found.
And it is simply a matter of fact, and one hopes entirely beyond dispute, that man cannot live without meaning. Even in his attempt to avoid meaning, meaning is found. A man can cover over his conscience with calluses, and try to learn never to enjoy beauty in any thing, and say nothing but lies and believe nothing, but he cannot do so consistently nor continuously.
An honest attempt to avoid all meaning whatsoever in life would be something even the most devout nihilist beatnik or sociopath could hardly encompass. His every act would have to be motivated by the lowest form of unreflective instinct, his eyes and ears would have to reject every star or flower, lest he be struck dumb with beauty, nor ever look at a child nor hear laugh, and the single note of a lute would blast his pretense to nothing. And for what would this great effort be made? He cannot seek it as a means to an end, because the relation between means and ends is a meaningful relationship, and ends are meaningful in and of themselves. He cannot seek it because reason demands it, because in a meaningless universe reason makes no demands. There is no philosophy because there are no words; there are no words because there are no thoughts; there are no thoughts because there are no ideas; there are no ideas because there is no meaning.
Since no honest attempt can be made to live according to the true nature of the meaningless universe in which we are trapped, to stay alive at all is an act of unparalleled dishonesty. It means you don’t believe what you think, you don’t mean what you say. Indeed, it means that nobody believes what he says save only those simpletons too stupid to realize life is meaningless or those fools too unwise or too craven to admit it.
Even a moderate few steps along this paths makes his life miserable, himself a burden to the earth, not to mention a danger to himself and others, and a wretch best put out of his misery.
At this point, surely the objection will be raised that in a godless universe one can live quite happily devoted to some diversion or distraction, such as by honorable military service to one’s country, or by entering the priesthood, or rearing a family, curing the sick, or by composing a symphony or writing a book of philosophy, or earning money by honest hard work, or stealing money by cunning fraud or brutal robbery, or hunting down human beings like game animals on an uncharted island to which your victims are lured, or abducting virgins to serve one’s lusts in one’s harem, or eating a ham sandwich, or smoking cigarettes, or cutting your own flesh with a knife, or chopping off your male member and calling yourself Caitlin, or strapping a bandolier of dynamite to one’s buttocks and igniting it in the emergency room of a children’s hospital in Jerusalem.
I trust the alert reader will notice what the difficulty is with all the items on this proposed list.
First, all of them, in a godless universe, are vain and pointless, mere distractions, because family, species, nation and planet alike will be eaten by entropy and dissolved into nothing. There is neither beauty nor truth in a meaningless universe, hence symphonies and philosophy alike must either be gibberish, or be arbitrary, merely expressions of personal taste.
Second, in a meaningless universe, there is no difference between the savior and a slaver, the man who lusts for money and the mad bomber who lusts for death. All these things can have no meaning – for there is none to be had – and they can only serve to distract the mind from that awful, terrible, soul-destroying and relentless final truth. It is all pointless.
This is not like the case of a man who learns Latin to read Virgil, and so gains the ability to understand a meaning that was there all along, merely hidden from him. This is more like the case of attempting to calculate the ultimate prime number, or trying to draw a four-sided triangle. The seeker turns the dial of the radio, as he experiments with his life, attempting one pleasure-seeking or duty-fulfilling devotion after another, but there is only static to hear, and no music.
The thing sought simply cannot exist, except as an illusion created by words with no meaning, thoughts with no referents.
The word ‘meaning’ by definition means ‘intentional meaning’. If there is no God, then the coming into being of the race of man, and each and every member of the race, was an unintentional event, an accident.
If there is no one writing the book, the words in the book cannot form a story, except the way the cloud forms a face: in your eyes only, and only for so long as you can fool yourself. If there is no one speaking the word, it is not a word, but an owl screech you have mistaken for a word.
Yes, an atheist in a godless universe can have a happy life for a short while, that is, during the period while he successfully chases empty pleasures and busies himself with empty projects, meaningless crusades, vanity and wind. He can devote himself to others or to himself. Both idols will disappoint.
Because there is only one possible sequel in the godless world of entropy, decay, and death, and that is failure. For the man devoted to empty pleasures or busied with empty philanthropy or social activism either he will die, or cause fail, or his nation will crumble, his wife will die or divorce him or cease to amuse him, his children will die or go away, his symphony be forgotten, his philosophy book be unfinished, and even the cigarettes or slave girls or gladiatorial games, the feasts and orgies and self mutilations he uses to distract himself will thrill him less and less, and the emptiness grow more and more.
His only comfort is that if he dies young, these things might outlive him for a season.
The honest seeker of meaning would see that there is only one meaning: Only love makes life tolerable.
In the atheist universe, the universe does not love us. Indeed not! The universe is not even paying us the compliment of ignoring us. To speak of the universe ignoring mankind is an unjustifiable anthropomorphism. The universe does not even have the capacity to ignore, that is, to turn its attention away from us as unworthy, for it has no intention to turn. The universe is our word for a mass of disconnected events forming a vast but unintentional, directionless, and dead machine built by nothing for no purpose running onward by inertia until stopped by entropy.
No, even to call it a machine is anthropomorphism, for machines are tools build by design. Chaos is the absence of design.
The godless universe is a meaningless sequence of meaningless matter contorted in meaningless motions.
In the godless universe, there is no one and nothing to love except for other men, or their institutions, or pets, or some other object of sentimentality. Such love is only as deep as any sentiment: it lasts for so long as one’s digestion is sound. All such objects of love are changeable, fickle, mortal, and unreliable. In the long run they are unworthy, and a deep and sick self loathing, irony and cynicism pervades the lives of anyone who lives in this moral and mental atmosphere.
Love alone makes life worth living, and in a godless universe, mankind as a whole has no father, no king, no lover and no beloved.
Man cannot cease from seeking love, for it is his nature, and even he could, he ought not, for living loveless life is ugly and wrong. Driven to seek love, Man finds himself more alone than Robinson Crusoe. There is none to love him back. He can only love himself. Hence, Man can only perform acts that, in the end, are masturbatory, mere distractions, and fruitful of nothing.
The only reason why this vision of nothingness does not drive mad any atheist who contemplates is that he does not take it seriously. The sun still shines, he has work to do, a ball game to watch, a hot date to enjoy, or a hot ham sandwich to slake his momentary hungry him. No one lives as men in meaningless chaos would, nor attempts to. Hypocrisy is their shell and plastron.
In the theist universe, divine love created all, and will conquer all, and each life has more meaning that we can imagine, more than we dare imagine, for we shall outlive stars and galaxies by an infinite magnitude, in infinite joy, and bliss upon bliss.
In the theist universe, nothing is meaningless, nothing can be meaningless, because everything is a message from the creator via the medium of Creation itself to us, his creations. And the message is love.
John C. Wright is a retired attorney and newspaperman who was only once hunted by the police. He is a graduate of St. John College (home of Mortimer Adler’s “Great Books Program“). In 2004 he foreswore his lifelong atheism and joined the Roman Catholic Church. He has published over 10 SF novels, including one nominated for a Nebula award, and was described by Publisher’s Weekly as “this fledgling century’s most important new SF talent.” He currently lives in fairytale-like happiness with his wife, the authoress L. Jagi Lamplighter, and their four children.
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