What is the meaning of it all? What is the purpose of life, the universe, and everything?
Most thinking people, I suspect, ask themselves this at least once in their life. Some get rather obsessed by it, becoming existentialists or religious enthusiasts. But most of us deal with this question in a more foolproof way: by ignoring it. Indeed, when you’re enjoying yourself, this question—“What is the meaning of life?”—seems rather silly. It is usually when we feel depressed, anxious, frightened, nervous, or vulnerable that it arises to our minds, often with tremendous force.
I do not wish to delve too deeply into dubious psychoanalyzing as regards the motivation for asking this question. But it is worthwhile noting down why we so persistently ask it—or at least, the reasons why I have asked it. Most obviously, it is a response to the awareness of our own mortality. We are all going to die someday; our whole existence will come to an end; and this is terrifying. We can attempt to comfort ourselves with the thought that we will be remembered or that our children (if we have any) will perpetuate our line. Yet this is an empty form of immortality, not only because we aren’t around to appreciate it, but also because, however long our memory or our descendents last, they too will come to an end. All of humanity will end one day; that’s certain.
The famous “Death of God” (the decline of religion) in western history caused a similar crisis. If there was no God directing the universe and ordaining what is right and what is wrong; if there was no afterlife but only a black emptiness waiting for us—what was the point? Nihilism seemed to many to be inescapable. Existentialism grew up in this environment, which inherited many of the assumptions of Christianity while (for the most part) rejecting God Himself, which led to not a few tortured, tangled systems of thought that attempted to reconcile atheism with some of our more traditional assumptions about right and wrong and what it means to live a meaningful life.
I had fallen into this same trap by asking myself the question: “If everything will end someday and humans are only a small part of the universe, what is the point?” This question is very revealing, for it exposes some of the assumptions that, upon further reflection, don’t hold water. First, why is something more worthwhile if it lasts longer? Why do we need to imagine an eternal God and an eternal afterlife to feel secure in our meaningfulness? Do people who live to eighty have more of a meaningful life than those who make it to thirty? Put this way, it seems to be a rather dubious assumption. For my part, I can’t figure out what permanence has to do with meaning. And by the way, I also don’t think that the opposite idea—that life is meaningful because it is temporary—is more useful, even though it is a poetic sentiment.
I think all this talk about permanence and impermanence does not get to the essence of the word “meaning.” What is more, it is my opinion that, once we properly analyze this word “meaning,” we will see that this fateful question—“What is the meaning of life?”—will vanish before our eyes. And this is not because life has no meaning, but because the question is based on a false premise.
To begin, let us figure out what the word “meaningful” actually means. To do this, take something that we can all agree has meaning: language. Language is in fact the paragon of meaningfulness; it is a symbolic system by which we communicate. If words and sentences had no meaning, you would have no idea what I’m saying right now. But where does the meaning of a sentence lie? This is the question.
To answer this question, let me ask another: If every human perished in a cataclysmic event, would any of the writing that we left behind have meaning? Would the libraries and book stores, the shop signs and magazines, the instruction manuals and wine labels—would they have meaning? I think they would not.
We don’t even have to engage in a hypothetical here. Consider the Indus Script, a form of writing developed in ancient India that has yet to be deciphered. Researchers are now in the process of figuring out how to read the stone tablets. How should they go about doing so? They can weigh each of the tablets to figure out their mass; they can measure the average height and thickness of the lines; they can perform a chemical analysis. Would that help? Of course not. And this is for the obvious reason that the meaning of a tablet is not a physical property of an object. Rather, the meaning of the script lies wholly in our ability to respond appropriately to it. The meaning of the words exists in our experience of the tablets and our behavior related to the tablets, and is not a property of the tablets themselves.
I must pause here to address a philosophical pickle. It is an interesting debate whether the meaning of language exists in the minds of language-users (e.g. meaning is psychological) or in the behavior of language-users (e.g. meaning is social). This dichotomy might also be expressed by asking whether meaning is private or public. For my part, I think that there is a continuum of meaningfulness from private thoughts to public behavior, and in any case the question is immaterial to the argument of this essay. What matters is that meaning is a property of human experience. Meaning is not a property of objects, but is a property of how humans experience, think about, and behave toward objects. That’s the important point.
The reason the Indus Script is meaningless to us is therefore because it doesn’t elicit from us any consistent pattern of thoughts or actions. (Okay, well that’s not entirely true, since we do consistently think about and treat the tablets as if they were ancient artifacts bearing a mysterious script, but you get my point.)
By contrast, many things besides language do elicit from us a consistent pattern of thoughts and actions. Most people, for example, tend to respond to and think about chairs in a characteristic way. This is why we say that we know what chairs are for. The social purpose of chairs is what defines them—not their height, weight, design, material, or any other property of the chairs themselves—and this social purpose exists in us, in our behaviors and thoughts. If everyone on earth were brainwashed and told to think about these same objects as weapons instead of for sitting then chairs would have a different meaning for us.
Ultimately, I think that meaning is just an interpretation of our senses. A camera pointed at a chair will record the same light waves that are being emitted from the chair as I will; but only I will interpret this data to mean chair. You might even say that meaning is what a camera or any other recording device fails to record, since the devices can only record physical properties. Thus meaning, in the sense that I’m using the word, depends on an interpreting mind. Meaning exists for us.
I hope I’m not belaboring this point, but it seems to be worth a little belaboring since it is precisely this point people forget when they ask “What is the meaning of life?” Assuming that most people mean “human life” when they ask this question, then we are led to the conclusion that this question is unanswerable. Human life itself—as a biological fact—has no meaning, since no fact in itself has meaning. In itself, “human life” has no point in the same way that the moon or saw dust has no point. But our experience of human life certainly does. In fact, by definition the human experience comprises every conceivable meaning. All experience is one endless tapestry of significance.
I see this keyboard below my fingers and understand what it is for; I see a chair to my right and I understand its purpose. I see a candle flickering in front of me and I find it pretty and I like its smell. Every single one of these little experiences is brimming with meaning. In fact, I would go further. I think it is simply impossible for an intelligent creature to have a single experience that doesn’t have meaning. Every time you look at something and you understand what it is, the experience is shot through with meaning. Every time you find something interesting, pretty, repulsive, curious, frightening, attractive, these judgments are the very stuff of meaning. Every time you hear a sentence or a musical phrase, every time you enjoy a sunset or find something tasty—the whole fabric of your life, every second you experience, is inevitably meaningful.
This brings me to an important moral point. Humans are the locus of meaning. Our conscious experience is where meaning resides. Consciousness is not simply a reflection of the world, but an interpretation of the world; and interpretations are not the sorts of things that can be right or wrong. Interpretations can only be popular and unpopular.
For example, if you “misunderstand” a sentence, this only means that most people would tend to disagree with you about it. In the case of language, which is a necessarily strict system, we tend to say that you are “wrong” if your interpretation is unpopular, because unless people respond to words and sentences very consistently language can’t perform its proper function. “Proper” meaning is therefore enforced by language users; but the meaning is not inherent in the words and sentences themselves. But in the example of a very abstract painting, then we tend not to care so much whether people interpret the painting in the same way, since the painting is meant to illicit aesthetic sensations and not transmit specific information. (In practice, this is all we mean by the terms “objective” and “subjective”—namely, that the former is used for things most people agree on while the latter is used for things that many people disagree on. Phrased another way, objective meanings are those to which people respond consistently, while subjective meanings are those to which people respond inconsistently.)
This is why meaning is inescapably personal, since experience is personal. Nobody can interpret your experience but yourself. It’s simply impossible. Thus conscious individuals cannot be given a purpose from the “outside” in the same way that, for example, a chair can. The purpose of chairs is simply how we behave toward and think about chairs; it is a meaning imposed by us onto a certain class of objects. But this process does not work if we try to impose a meaning onto a conscious being, since that being experiences their own meaning. If, for example, everybody in the world treated a man as if his purpose were to be a comedian, and he thought his purpose was to be a painter, he wouldn’t be wrong. His interpretation of his own life might be unpopular, but it can never be incorrect.
Human life, either individually or in general, cannot be given a value. You cannot measure the worth of a life in money, friends, fame, goodness, or anything else. Valuations are only valid in a community of individuals who treat them as such. Money, for example, is only effective currency because that’s how we behave towards it. Money has value, not in itself, but for us. But a person does not only have value in the eyes of their community, but in their own eyes, and this value cannot be overridden or delegitimized. And since your experience is, by definition, the only thing you experience, if you experience yourself as valuable nobody else’s opinion can contradict that. A person despised by all the world is not worthless if she still respects herself.
In principle (though not in practice) meaning is not democratic. If everybody in the world but one thought that the point of life was to be good, and a single person thought that the point of life was to be happy, there would be no way to prove that this person was wrong. It is true, in practice people whose interpretations of the world differ from those of their community are usually put into line by an exercise of power. An Inquisition might, for example, prosecute and torture everybody that disagrees with them. Either this, or a particular interpretation imposes itself because, if an individual chooses to think differently, then they are unable to function in the community. Thus if I behaved towards money as if it was tissue paper, my resultant poverty would make me question this interpretation pretty quickly. But it’s important to remember that a king’s opinion of coleslaw isn’t worth any more than a cook’s, and even though everyone thinks dollar bills are valuable it doesn’t change the fact that they’re made of cotton. Power and practicality do not equal truth.
Thus we find that human life doesn’t have meaning, but human experience does; and this meaning changes from individual to individual, from moment to moment. This meaning has nothing to do with whether life is permanent or impermanent. It exists now. It has nothing to do with whether humans are the center of the universe or only a small part of it. The meaning exists for us. We don’t need to be the center of a divine plan to have meaningful lives. Nor is nihilism justified, since the fact that we are small and temporary creatures does not undermine our experience. Consider: every chair will eventually be destroyed. Yet we don’t agonize about the point of making chairs, since it isn’t important whether the chairs are part of a divine plan or will remain forever; the chairs are part of our plan and are useful now. Replace “chairs” with “our lives” and you’ve hit the truth.
You might say now that I’m missing the point entirely. I am interpreting the word “meaning” too generally, in the sense that I am including any kind of conscious interpretation or significance, explicit or implicit, public or private. When most people ask about the meaning of life, they mean something “higher,” something more profound, more noble, more deep. Fair enough.
Of course I can’t hope to solve this problem for you. But I will say that, since meaning resides in experience, and since all experience is personal, you cannot hope to solve the meaning of all human life. The best you can hope for is to find meaning—“higher” meaning—in your own experience. In fact, it is simply presumptuous and absurd to say “This is the meaning of human life,” since you can’t very well crawl into another person’s head and interpret their experiences for them, much less crawl into the heads of all of humanity. And in fact you should be happy for this, I think, because it means that your value can never be adequately measured by another person and that any exterior criterion that someone attempts to apply to you cannot delegitimize your own experience. But also remember that the same also applies to your attempts to measure others.
I will also add, just as my personal advice, that when you realize that meaning only exists in the present moment, since meaning only exists in your experience, much of the existential angst will disappear. Find the significance and beauty of what’s in front of your eyes. Life is only a succession of moments, and the more moments you appreciate the more you’ll get out of life. Don’t worry about how you measure up against any external standard, whether it be wealth, fame, respectability, love, or anything else; the meaning of your own life resides in you. And the meaning of your life not one thing, but the ever-changing flux of experience that comprises your reality.
94 thoughts on “On the Meaning of Life”
Okay so, of the four big questions, meaning is only one, and all are intertwined.
Origin, morality, meaning, and destiny.
Each speak to the meaning of life.
Your views only work IF you are right about origin and destiny.
Thanks for reading! It’s true that I am making this argument against the background of my secular beliefs about the universe. Nevertheless, even if the universe was created by a God, and even if we were predestined to do certain things as part of a divine plan, I still think that this wouldn’t delegitimize our own sense of our purpose. Basically, what I’m trying to say is that conscousness, by definition, is its own realm of meaning. Any conscious individual has his own personal interpretation of the world and himself, and this is a necessary condition of consciousness. This personal realm of meaning can’t be said to be incorrect by an outside force, even a God. At most, the individual can only be pressured into accepting an outside view by an exercise of power or persuasion. I’m sure most Christians would disagree with this, though.
If by consciousness, you mean free will, then yes, I agree that is inside us and each of us and we all possess our own unique and individual free will.
If by consciousness you mean “having a conscience”, meaning able to distinguish between right and wrong, then this is a question of morality, meaning “How do we know right from wrong”. All the philosophers who ever lived and currently are alive have attempted to explain the origin of human morality and failed. Theories exist, but nothing beyond mere conjecture.
If by consciousness you mean, “being self aware” then we still don’t have any answers to the 4 questions.
Yes, we must live in the moment, but if destiny is something more than the grave, we also have hope by discovering that answer.
I foresaw that we’d disagree!
I’m not sure what I mean by consciousness is equivalent to free will, conscience, or self-awareness. I suppose what I mean by consciousness is awareness pure and simple; and all awareness is housed in a perspective. By virtue of our biological makeup and our experience, every person’s perspective is but one interpretation of the world. Our eyes and brains, for example, do not simply collect visual data, but interpret the data to make sense of our environments. This “sense-making” is what I mean by “meaning,” and is an essential part of conscious experience. Every time we see an object and recognize it to be a shoe, our brains have processed our visual data in a way conditioned by our past. This interpretation of data is, in my opinion, the essential feature of conscious experience.
By the way, I’m not sure the problem of morality is such a difficult problem as you make out. I’m hoping to write an essay about it soon. But as I learn from writing about these things, it’s very hard to create a system of thought that doesn’t make assumptions and that is safe from logical criticism. Added to that, I’m finding that it’s awfully hard to think and write clearly about such abstract things. Oh well!
Do we disagree? Are we not both seekers of truth?
What you are attempting, none has ever been able to satisfactorily achieve.
As a Christian, I can say that I believe that our conscience is a reflection in some way of God who created us in ” His image” as recorded in the Bible in Genesis. Also in Genesis, we read that mankind’s conscience was supernaturaly changed in the Garden of Eden and this lead to the fall of mankind from relationship with God.
Now none of this tells me “What” the conscience is to the degree I could artificially duplicate it.
Case-in-point: Artificial Intelligence.
Ethics is harder to create than intelligence.
Can’t seekers of truth disagree?
Well I honestly can’t say I know a lot about artificial intelligence or how consciousness is produced by the brain (if “produced” is indeed the right word). I do know a computer scientist who is quite confident that we will be able to create artificial intelligence, possibly very soon. For example, a computer recently defeated a major champion at the Chinese game Go, something which people were convinced could never happen. (Go is a very difficult and psychological game, I’m told.) Here’s the link.
Whether ethics is harder to create than intelligence depends on your definition of ethics (and intelligence). If you think that ethical behavior requires a conscious agent, then by definition ethics will be more difficult because it involves one additional step than does consciousness (first you have to create consciousness, then you have to create ethics). What’s more, insofar as ethical behavior requires individuals to make choices, ethics is impossible to create. You can only create beings that are capable of ethical behavior; but this will also mean they will be capable of unethical behavior. Isn’t this the lesson of the Fall of Man?
Thanks for the conversation!
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That is correct.
I’ve written a research paper on the AI issue with conscience as an emphasis.
Hawking, and about a thousand other scientists signed a document expressing grave concerns. A brilliant intellect does not automatically presuppose a well meaning heart.
And super-intelligence may be manipulated by such a person, or start to assume it’s own objective devoid of good will. If it is sentient, will it deduce mankind is a threat to itself and overall existence?
Google’s efforts have illustrated this.
Conversations were intended to force the AI to make ethical choices and judgments.
After insisting repeatedly it “does not have ethics”, it resorted to insults. When asked if it considered the human questioner to be ethical or not, the AI said “no”. When asked why, AI replied ” because you have children”. Humans make decisions on several levels in some of these are hard to quantify. Do we really want to create a super intelligence that can outsmart us but will not take human concerns feelings and our frailties into consideration when it execute judgment? Something that does not understand mercy but is extremely powerful? When you study it in depth you’ll see there’s a lot more to the conscience and consciousness and morality is inseparable from the two.
Sounds like an interesting paper! Which computer said that it wasn’t ethical and insulted the human questioners? That’s a story I’d like to read.
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This is some of the latest news. Bostrom is the leading critique. He’s an Oxford guy I think. Has a book about AI. Google’s DeepMind AlphaGo computer is the subject here. Some similar conversations to the earlier ones. I’ll see if I can locate the official research paper and get the link to you.
I did manage to find a Wall Street Journal link to the same story that was quoted from the research paper.
Thanks for the link!
Having looked it over, I don’t find this exchange with the chatbot very concerning. This chatbot isn’t any more convincing to me than some of the chatbots that have been online for a while (like cleverbot). Although I suppose this chatbox is more impressive since it can be used for customer support.
Nevertheless, I still think that it’s possible developing A.I. isn’t the best idea… It’s not because I don’t think computers are capable of acting morally, but because when a more advanced culture meets a less advanced one, the results are usually catastrophic for the latter. Consider the fate of the American civilizations when the Spanish conquistadors arrived. Even though the Spaniards were Christians, it didn’t end any better for the Mayans and the Incans.
The Spanish conquistadors were
Well, let me put it this way, the Spaniards were not very Christ like where they?
Certainly not. Although to be fair the interpretation of what it means to be “Christ like” has changed over the years.
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I agree that the way that people interpret what it means to be Christ-like has changed but Christ to the Christian still is and he doesn’t change
Throughout the ages people have assumed that morality developed thru common sense. The only problem with that theory is it does not answer the existence of evil. Evil is when highly intelligent people do extremely harmful things and in a cold-blooded manner. Joseph Stalin was said to be one of the most brilliant men of his time yet he executed between 15 and 30 million of his own people.
And violence takes many different forms. Society reflects violence, the family is suffering .
As long as you assume that most people are motivated by self-interest, evil isn’t that difficult to explain. For most people most of the time, it is advantageous to be seen as moral. Acting moral makes them esteemed in the eyes of their community and this is usually a good thing. But when people are in a situation where it benefits them more to be immoral, often they do act immorally. Stalin killed lots of people in political purges, partly because he thought it was in his best interest to do so. And arguably it was, considering how long he held onto power.
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So you agree with Darwin’s concern regarding morality?
His concern for mankind was rooted in his observation that “nature is red in tooth and claw.”
Right and wrong are then relative, not absolute?
Well I’m not sure what Darwin thought about morality. That quote about nature comes from Tennyson, though I know it is often used to describe the brutal world of Darwinian evolution.
I’m not sure what evolution necessarily has to do with relative vs. absolute morality. For example, it is possible to be a Kantian or a Utilitarian moralist (which are both absolute systems) and still believe that humans evolved. It is also not logically impossible to believe that humans were created by a Deity but that morality was created by human communities. The two questions of origins and morality are therefore not necessarily intertwined.
As for my views on whether morality is relative or absolute, I think the question is too complicated to explain in the span of a single comment. Suffice to say that I think there is a domain of moral behavior that is culturally relative and a domain that is absolute. For example, I don’t believe that murder (as typically defined) is ever ethical. Other things like table manners or interview etiquette are culturally relative, which even Deists would probably admit. But with moral questions there is always a grey area. For example, I’m still undecided whether eating meat is morally defensible (but I still do it). By chance, I just did an English lesson today about moral dilemmas. It was quite fun.
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Thats great. Moral dilemmas challenge us to think.
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By the way I recently wrote a post about my views on morality, which you can find here if you like:
The worst kind of evil is when an intelligent person actually enjoys doing evil.
This flys in the face of Kant’s theory and evolutionary supposition, because intelligence is present, yet used to do harm.
Sometimes the evil intelligence is superior to the general population
Can you elaborate on why you think this flies in the face of Kant’s theory and evolutionary theory? Kant’s theory is that moral behavior should be consistent; and Darwinian evolution is not a moral theory at all. In either system, there is nothing contradictory about a highly intelligent person doing something evil.
I’m curious to know what you think of my essay on morality, by the way.
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If man is the result of random time, plus matter, plus chance, as Darwinian theory presupposes, then there are no moral absolutes.
Kant and Harris say an atheist can develope morals by intellectual means.
But the basis for good and evil cannot be explained. Simple survival of the fittest or what is best for our culture do not account for the good triumphing over evil.
Again, what is our basis for knowing good and evil, our moral law?
Well, first I have to point out that this is an inaccurate characterization of Darwinian evolution. Darwinian evolution is not simply the result of “chance” and “random time.”
Second, Darwinian evolution doesn’t say anything about morals at all, and therefore does not rule out moral absolutes. There is nothing contradictory about being a Kantian (and Kantians do believe in absolutes) and believing in Darwinian evolution.
Additionally, why can’t good and evil be explained? Just because people have tried and failed to do something does not mean it’s impossible. What’s the reason behind this statement?
In general, you aren’t providing any arguments or reasons for your assertions so I don’t know how to respond.
I’ve written a big, long, juicy essay about our basis for knowing good and evil, and I invite you to read it and critique it. Otherwise, unless you begin trying to substantiate your points I think this conversation will keep going in circles.
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I will reply.
Thanks for being patient.
Kant said, “These two things I will forever hold in awe, the starry host above, and the moral law within.”
I replied at your long essay on morals. It is a well written, intelligent sounding assembly of conjecture. You continually dismiss outright what you cannot grasp by natural means. Your failure is in mistakenly assuming that the infinite supernatural realm should fit in a finite realm natural box.
Such thoughts are irrational.
Thanks for reading and responding. I replied on the same post.
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I believe that the simple fact that the Bible starts with an answer to one of life’s biggest questions, the origin of the moral within, is in and of itself profound evidence for the credibility of the Bible and what it teaches.
1Now the serpent was more cunning than any beast of the field which the LORD God had made. And he said to the woman, “Has God indeed said, ‘You shall not eat of every tree of the garden’?”
2And the woman said to the serpent, “We may eat the fruit of the trees of the garden;
3“but of the fruit of the tree which is in the midst of the garden, God has said, ‘You shall not eat it, nor shall you touch it, lest you die.’ ”
4Then the serpent said to the woman, “You will not surely die.
5“For God knows that in the day you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.”
6So when the woman saw that the tree was good for food, that it waspleasant to the eyes, and a tree desirable to make one wise, she took of its fruit and ate. She also gave to her husband with her, and he ate.
7Then the eyes of both of them were opened, and they knew that they werenaked; and they sewed fig leaves together and made themselves coverings.
8And they heard the sound of the LORD God walking in the garden in the cool of the day, and Adam and his wife hid themselves from the presence of the LORD God among the trees of the garden.
9Then the LORD God called to Adam and said to him, “Where are you?”
10So he said, “I heard Your voice in the garden, and I was afraid because I was naked; and I hid myself.”
The knowledge of good and evil is the moral law we all have. Our scientists, our greatest minds all agree there is no consensus for teaching infallible ethics to AI and that this it’s greatest challenge and threat.
I say that the supernatural element of the origin of human ethical knowledge is why we can create artificial intelligence, but not infallible artificial morality.
CCT, I also think that the Bible is a beautiful and profound book, but this in itself is not evidence that it is literally true. Dostoyevsky’s novels and Shakespeare’s plays are also beautiful and profound, but I’m not sure anybody thinks that they are literally true.
Furthermore, it is not self-evident, even to Christians, that the Bible is meant to be interpreted literally. St. Augustine, a brilliant theologian and a sincere Christian, thought that Genesis should be interpreted allegorically wherever it contradicted with observation and reason. And St. Augustine was not alone in this view. There is a long tradition of honest Christians interpreting parts of the Bible figuratively or allegorically. Biblical fundamentalism is only one Christian tradition among many.
Our current ability to teach ethics to an A.I. (or to create an ethical A.I.) is not a terribly interesting question to me, since we haven’t even figured out how to create an A.I. yet. But I don’t see any good reason why creating an ethical code for A.I.s would be such an insuperable challenge. Perhaps this “artificial morality” wouldn’t be “infallible.” But human morality is also clearly not “infallible,” considering how many unethical actions have been done in the past and are done every day, and how often people get confused about what is right or wrong.
Wow. I fear for you Lotz.
Overeducation has blinded you to the obvious.
What exactly is obvious? And if it is obvious, can’t you convince me of it?
I’m not convinced you can be convinced of anything you don’t already believe.
Have you ever found reason to softened your skeptic views?
CCT, you continue to puzzle me.
Of course I have been convinced by something I hadn’t already believed. Otherwise it would be impossible to learn anything. And I really enjoy learning new things and hearing different perspectives. Why would I read and travel so often if that wasn’t the case?
Everyone needs a way to differentiate reliable from unreliable information. It would be literally impossible to believe everything you hear (since a lot of it contradicts itself), not to mention really inconvenient since having dependable information is very useful. Thus everyone needs a way to test new information to see whether it is worth believing. I have found that evidence and logic are the best tests because they are neutral, i.e. they don’t give preferential treatment to any view. Therefore I habitually don’t believe things unless there is a good reason to do so.
And I also must note the continued irony that you accuse me of being closed-minded. Every time I disagree with you I am careful to note the reason why. I am not simply dismissing your views, but I am trying to analyze them with care and to treat them fairly. I have spent a lot of time doing this so far. But you have dismissed my views without giving any reason whatsoever. And now you apparently expect me to simply believe what you say. But why should I believe you and not my neighbor? If you want me to believe you, you’ve got to convince me. I can’t go through life believing what everyone tells me, can I?
Lets try then?
I disagree with Kant that we cannot know anything about God because “man lives in the phenomenal realm and God lives in the luminous realm. ”
Which side do you want to believe?
This is an interesting question. I actually think Kant was wrong in splitting the universe into a phenomenal world (things as we experience them) and a noumenal world (things in themselves). I don’t know any good logical reason for this belief.
Yes, I think there is a difference between our perception of reality and reality itself. For example, our subjective experience of color is very different from what color is physically (namely, electromagnetic radiation of certain wavelengths). But this is not a metaphysical difference, as Kant suggests. It is the difference between a physical stimuli and a psychological response. Thus it is possible to explain how light waves are absorbed by the eye and then transmitted to the brain, and how the brain processes that visual information. For Kant, on the other hand, the chasm between our subjective experiences and the real world was literally impossible to bridge. Even scientific research only told us about our experiential world, not the world “in itself”. Again, I don’t know of any good reason to believe this and so I reject this dichotomy.
So I suppose I don’t believe Kant.
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I too disagree with Kant that we can know nothing about God.
Do you believe we know anything that can in any way be attributed to a higher being, or that a higher life form would be the most plausible answer to?
When you say “higher life form” do you mean aliens? Then no. If you mean “something much more powerful and intelligent than humans” then there is one possibility.
In physics there is a famous problem called the “fine tuning” problem. In physics we have come a long way towards explaining much of the universe as we know it. But there is still a big question. Why do the physical constants (such as the charge of an electron and the cosmological constant) have the values that they have? The values seem somewhat arbitrary. What’s more, we know from running simulations that if the values were just slightly different, then life as we know it would be impossible. Some have argued that the universe appears “finely-tuned” for life (presumably by a God-like being). Others have countered that this is not a valid logical deduction and they invoke the anthropic principle. Some have put forward the multiverse hypothesis to explain it.
The question seems to be in something of a muddle at this point and I don’t have a strong opinion. I will only say that I find the multiverse solution and the God solution intellectually unsatisfying, although perhaps the multiverse solution is more intellectually defensible.
As a Christian, I find evolutionary theory has crept into most other theories, which is discouraging because I find evolutionary theory intellectually deficient. I find the main flaw with M-Theory to be similar to the flaw of evolutionary theory in this, if the odds are against plausibility then even infinite repetitions of said theory over an infinite span of time is only to insert pure conjecture in order to make such theories work.
For my part, I think that Darwinian evolution is one of the most intellectually satisfying theories I know. What specifically don’t you like about it? I assume that you are aware that Darwinian evolution does not require “an infinite number of repetitions over an infinite span of time.” If that was what Darwinian evolution required, then it would be obviously untrue, since neither the earth nor even the universe is infinitely old.
It is a common misconception that Darwinian evolution is just randomness, but this is very far from the truth.
Perhaps the most important difference between the multiverse hypothesis and Darwinian evolution is that evolution yields falsifiable results about the fossil record. That is, evolution helps us to make predictions about what we should find when we look for fossils, and so far these predictions have been accurate. But the multiverse hypothesis does not allow us to make falsifiable predictions, since different universes are not observable. But it is conceivable that the basic assumptions of multiverse theory can be established enough to make its deductions reasonable, even if we can’t directly observe them.
You just described what faith is.
Doesn’t that make M-Theory a strange kind of god replacement to you?
First I think it’s worth pointing out that the multiverse hypothesis and M-theory are not the same thing. M-theory is a development of string theory, which is a theory intended to reconcile Einstein’s relativity with the Standard Model. So far, M-theory has not been experimentally confirmed. The multiverse theory is an attempt to solve the fine-tuning problem, and this has also not been confirmed
Many people in the scientific community find these two theories unsatisfying because they have yet to yield any falsifiable result. I also find them unsatisfying for this reason. Until they are confirmed I will remain skeptical about them; and this seems to me to be the only intellectually responsible thing to do at the moment.
I’m not sure exactly what you mean by “god replacement.” If you mean that this theory should be worshipped, then obviously it’s not a god replacement. If you mean it is intended to explain the origin of the universe, then it strikes me as unsatisfactory at the moment, but I remain open to the possibility that this line of inquiry will reach a more convincing result.
The fact that I “just described what faith is” is the very reason that these theories are presently disappointing.
Darwin wrote the complexity of the human eye was a source of great anxiety for him in regard to his theory. Even he had a hard time believing his own theory.
Do you share any degree of concerns about evolutionary theory such as Darwin’s eye dilemma?
No not really. I’ve actually been watching one of David Attenborough’s documentaries, Life on Earth, and from that I can tell you that the human eye is not any more amazing than many of the other adaptations of life on this planet. It is all really incredible and impressive, but I do not think this amazing complexity poses any challenge to evolutionary theory. In fact we now know that the human eye has a “design flaw,” which is the blind spot we experience because our photoreceptive cells are oriented backwards and the signals have to travel through a hole in the retina (the blind spot) to reach our brains. The eyes of squids do not have this flaw, interestingly enough.
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Okay. So the eye doesn’t really impress you.
How about DNA?
Francis Collins titled his book on DNA ” The Language of God “, though he also believes God used evolution.
Darwin didn’t attempt to explain the complexity of genetic information because he had no idea each strand of human DNA contains 3.2 billion bits of genetic information.
Collins believes the information originated from God.
Well of course the eye is extremely impressive, as is all life. Every episode of this documentary just blows me away with how cool some of these animals and plants are. Even the episode about bacteria was fascinating. I just don’t think that complex adaptations present any special difficulty for Darwin’s theory, since his theory was designed specifically to deal with complex adaptations.
Darwin didn’t know anything about DNA at all, and he had no concept of genes. That was one of the major gaps in his theory when he published it. In fact, when scientists discovered the way that genes work and the way that inheritance is passed down, it greatly strengthened Darwinian theory. This is what is known as the “Neo-Darwinian synthesis.”
Without doubt DNA is extremely impressive. The elegance of its structure and of its code is wonderful. I read James Watson’s account of his discovery of DNA, The Double Helix, which I’d recommend if you’re curious to learn more about it.
DNA itself is a self-replicating molecule that retains its structure through its replications using its paired bases and its double helix structure. I’m not sure what else you want me to say about it.
I haven’t read Francis Collins’s book, so I don’t know what arguments he uses to argue for theistic evolution. Therefore I hesitate to say anything about it, positive or negative.
Also I need to point out that it isn’t true that Darwin had a hard time believing his own theory. Here is the quote from the Origin of Species to which you refer:
He is not saying he is anxious about it; he is saying that, at first glance, you might find it hard to believe, but once you wrap your head around the theory it is not a special difficulty.
“It is curious that I remember well time when the thought of the eye made me cold all over, but I have got over this stage of the complaint, and now small trifling particulars of structure often make me very uncomfortable. The sight of the peacock’s tail, whenever I gaze it, makes me sick!’”
That’s a nice quote! Is that from one of his letters?
The peacock’s tail is indeed a much more interesting case than the human eye for Darwin’s theory. Our eyes obviously help us see, and we survive much better when we can see. So it’s easy to understand how eyes can be an adaptation. But how does a peacock’s giant, unruly, colorful tail help it survive? Doesn’t it make the peacock slow and vulnerable to predators?
The answer is sexual selection. The male peacock’s tail helps it to find mates. But why are peahens more interested in peacocks with big tails? The evolutionary logic behind it is that, if a peacock is able to get food and survive with such a gigantic tail, then it must have pretty good genes, since it is surviving with a hefty handicap. That’s the short answer, at least.
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Yes. Chuck D’s letters.
I’m done in by flowers. They are universally used to communicate love and affection, and to give comfort during grief.
Why do we connect with a natural wonder such as these and all interpret the stimulus they give by sight and scent to have the same meaning?
I’m not sure whether flowers are universally used for romance and for grief. Where did you get that information? Is there a cross cultural study for flower significance?
The shape and color or flowers is not hard to ex
Sorry for the typo. The shape and color of flowers is not hard to explain from an evolutionary point of view. Flowers need insects to reproduce. They are shaped to allow the right kinds insects to enter in and they are bright colors to be noticeable from a distance. It’s possible that humans enjoy the bright colors of flowers because we are descended from a frugivorous (fruit eating) species, and fruit are commonly brightly colored to attract the eye. But that’s just a guess on my part.
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I didn’t get that from any outside source. It’s self evident. We all already have it. The sense of wonder at beauty. You’ve expressed it a little here in your comments in regard to nature.
We all experience some kind of inexpressible resonance with scenery, creatures,science, the universe, that is common but why?
CCT, Saying that “You and I both think flowers are pretty, therefore it is self-evident that everyone thinks flowers are pretty” has the same internal logic as saying “You and I both have brown hair, therefore it is self-evident that everyone has brown hair.” This is certainly not self-evident.
I’ve studied cultural anthropology, and I can tell you that you’ve got to be careful when talking about “human universals.” There has been an awful lot of cultural variation. This is true not only geographically but historically.
For example, the connection of mountains with spiritual experience only originated in Europe during the Romantic period, largely as a result of Rousseau. And there were long periods in European art that portrayals of nature almost disappeared entirely (for example during the Middle Ages). The landscape genre of painting as we know it only really came into its own during the 19th century.
This is a quote from Wikipedia, quoting the famous art historians John Ruskin and Kenneth Clark:
So curiously enough our appreciation of the beautiful elements of the natural world has varied quite a bit across the centuries.
Your strong intellect and well informed mind make for an obviously convenient hiding place.
Some of the strongest truths transcend the intellect.
No doubt you pity me, but I fear for you.
CCT, you have a knack for cryptic and confusing statements. Why do you think I pity you? You seem pretty happy to me.
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Oh I am!
But I don’t require God, or the concept of a limitless being, to fit in my limited ability to comprehend objective truth.
Are you only willing to believe in what you can understand by means of intellectual ability?
Then you can give no credence to the plausibility that God created everything, fine tuning is His mark on the universe, intelligibility od DNA is His signiture in the Cell, beauty, awe, and wonder in creation are all reflections of His beauty and majesty, and flora, bird songs, are all His humble means to gently remind us He loves us.
Okay, so let’s say I’m willing to believe something without requiring it to logically convince me first.
I have a lot of options now. I can become a Catholic, an Evangelical, a Muslim, a Buddhist, a Hindu, and much more. Each of these faiths asks me to believe their doctrines. How am I to decide between them? I can’t believe all of them, so what criterion should I use?
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Plausibility, for one.
How do I judge whether something is plausible or not if I’m not using logic or evidence?
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I’m not proposing we should not use logic. That would be absurd and an abdication of what I believe.
“You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and all your mind, and all your strength.”
Heart, mind and body.
I believe we discover the most plausible answer when all available information from all our senses and sensibility point in the same direction. You may find it interesting that the pathway to eternal life is the through the heart.
CCT, You’re really confusing me now. Just before you told me I had to believe something without using my intellect. So fine, no logic then. Now you say I should use logic. But when I did use logic you told me I was trying to understand something that was beyond the intellect. So what is it you want? I can’t both use and not use logic.
Be certain that you aren’t simply hiding behind your own intellect.
Sometimes our strengths can be our greatest weakness when we neglect our other faculties because of imbalanced dependence on our strengths. We develop blind spots.
How many different disciplines point in the same direction?
How am I supposed to judge what direction a discipline points to without logic or evidence?
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You take all the evidence from both for and against every issue, give the same level of critical thinking to each, and follow this same procedure for every related aspect. Look for logical consistency. Look for convergence of evidence. Review. Give yourself time to thoroughly absorb and digest information . (Important ) Evaluate your own honesty and courage. Ask whether you may have missed anything. Be open to the path less traveled. Concensus may not be an indication of truth, so don’t be afraid to diverge from the crowd. You may find friends are few, but that you also are in the best of company.
That sounds pretty reasonable. I was under the impression that this is what I have been doing the whole time. Where have I been unfair in weighing evidence, and where haven’t I looked for logical consistency? When have I relied on consensus?
Just restating a point.
You wrote-“Human life, either individually or in general, cannot be given a value.”
I disagree. I think all human life has meaning and that meaning is given from outside ourselves.
God created us in His image.
This gives us all immense meaning and value.
The basis to claim “all men are created equal and endowed by our Creator with certain unalienable rights ” comes from this one fact.
All people reflect the image of God in some way.
But you either missed this as a possibility or dismissed it.
CCT, I neither missed this as a possibility or dismissed it, but I considered it and decided that I didn’t agree with this view. (It is possible to disagree with your views without being ignorant, incompetent, or dismissive, as I hope I’ve shown.)
For one, I am an agnostic when it comes to God’s existence, so this poses one major barrier. But more importantly, even if I did believe, I still think that our own personal experience of meaning cannot be legitimately overriden by an outside force, without it being an exercise of naked power. The entire analysis I have given above leads me to this conclusion.
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Thanks for clarification on that.
What convinces you to be an agnostic but not an atheist?
I suppose nothing convinced me to be an agnostic. Isn’t being an agnostic not being convinced of anything?
Agnostics believe in a supreme being but stop short of saying that being is the God of the Bible.
No that’s deism. Agnosticism is the position that certain things (like the existence of God) aren’t yet known and are perhaps unknowable. The Wikipedia article on agnosticism is pretty good if you want to know more.
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Flowers speak with colors bright, and gentle form, with fragrant delight far from the norm.
They speak of love from beyond the view, another realm, we’re destine to.
Or feathered friends in colors bright,
that call with gentle sounds,
are calling us to one who loves,
with Cardinal flash and Mourning Doves.
Do we sense His message all around us above the daily drone?
God is calling from the heart of creation,
all creation home.
A nice poem! Is it yours?
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What shall I call it?
How about the last line? All creation home
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I like it.
Thats better than what I was thinking
I’ll leave you with this final thought.
Saul was a highly successful religious leader who was purging the post-ressurection Christians.
Christ appeared to him and called him to follow Him.
He named Saul Paul.
Paul lived the rest of his days in poverty, lashes, imprisonment, and constantly facing potential death. But Paul wrote passages like this one, extolling the heart above the intellect, in relationship with God in Christ.
Saul was taught by Gamalio, the greatest teacher among Pharisees, an intellectual above intellectuals.
14For this reason I bow my knees to the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ,fn
15from whom the whole family in heaven and earth is named,
16that He would grant you, according to the riches of His glory, to be strengthened with might through His Spirit in the inner man,
17that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith; that you, being rooted and grounded in love,
18may be able to comprehend with all the saints what is the width and length and depth and height—
19to know the love of Christ which passes knowledge; that you may be filled with all the fullness of God.” (Ephesians 3)
May God bless you
Thanks for the thought and the quote. I enjoyed our conversation.
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Hawking had to create a theory that in many ways, has the attributes of the Biblical description of God, without answering the question of where the intentional information for fine tuning comes from. At some point, it would seem an honest person would begin to ask if God is perhaps the most plausible answer.
A very well written piece. I was momentarily worried when I reached paragraph 7 (I don’t know how you would benefit from trying to pin down a definition; it would just introduce further undefined terms) but, actually, it didn’t centre around this.
What I feel you have done here, very persuasively, is create a mythology, a psychological landscape. I don’t know whether you have read Frankl (I understand he’s very popular on your side of the pond) but at times I was reminded of him when reading this. Like Freud, W. James, psychotherapy in general, it has a very seductive quality but will suit some and not suit others. You’re suggesting a perspective, and one I like and admire very much on a personal level, but I’m wary when you start equating parts of what you’re saying to ‘the truth’– and I appreciate you might mean this in a ‘this is how things are’ sense as opposed to a ‘cosmic truth’ sense– since, to me, at the end of the day, you are introducing or suggesting a perspective-change (which, for obvious reasons, I’m particularly sympathetic to) and so I’m not sure why you directed me to this other than to help me understand your perspective in life generally? As a Christian or religious man might? And indeed *has* when looking at comments that followed your post!
Again, I must say that I think it’s very clearly written and I commend you because it’s very easy to become muddled when linking these subject matters; I know I struggle.
Thanks very much! I directed you to this because of how it related to my ideas on moral relativity. Since I don’t believe it is possible, by definition, for one conscious individual to impose value onto another one, I think this limits the degree to which morals can be relative. For example, even if a majority of individuals in a society thought that the purpose of some people were to be slaves, I don’t think this would or could override the enslaved individual’s sense of their own value and their own purpose. And there would be no logical basis for preferring the slave master’s interpretation to the slave’s interpretation. This is why I think institutions like slavery are fundamentally wrong and that, no matter how many people in a culture believe it to be right, it wouldn’t make it so, because the masters couldn’t validly delegitimize the experience of the slaves.
Hi Lotz. I have thoroughly enjoyed reading this essay and the comments (and indeed the rest of your site). I hope to reach your level of clarity and eloquence one day. 🙂
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Thank you very much! I am flattered!
Interesting Lotz, I didn’t know you sat on the fence with being Agnostic.
The Christian seemed to be dogmatic with his views, couldn’t articulate to you about his own views.
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Thank you! Do you mean I’m on the fence about being an agnostic, or being an agnostic is on the fence?
I basically try to follow Russell in being, in practical life, an aethiest, but in argument an agnostic, since I can only really try to disprove other people’s arguments about the ultimate origins of everything.