Category Archives: Meaning of Life

You Make Your Own Meaning?

In a recent episode of Unbelievable entitled Is Heaven For Real? Hemant Mehta, the “Friendly Atheist” repeatedly referred to belief in Heaven as “silly.” According to Mehta, belief in heaven is silly because he does not think there is any evidence in support of its existence. He drew an analogy to unicorns, Thor, and Allah, asking his interlocutor, Randal Rauser, whether he was willing to admit that belief in those sorts of beings is silly. Rauser didn’t take the bait and pointed out that heaven is only silly within Mehta’s world-view, and that it is a bit unfriendly for the “friendly atheist” to be so condescending when it comes to beliefs he personally doesn’t think the evidence supports. Indeed.

About 50 minutes into the conversation the host, Justin Brierley, directs the conversation to the question of ultimate meaning and purpose. He raises the specter of the eventual demise of the Earth and the heat death of the universe. Brierley asks if the inevitable heat death of the universe, from an atheistic perspective, ever causes Mehta to wonder whether there was a point to everything. Mehta says that this scientific fact doesn’t make his life any less meaningful. He focuses on how it is amazing to be alive and conscious now and that we must cherish what finite life we have. Better to have lived and lossed than to never have lived at all (a claim that some atheist philosophers seriously question). Perhaps Mehta is correct that life is worth living on an atheist perspective, but he then gives the following account of meaning:

…[I]n terms of the meaning, I mean, you make your own meaning of life, you give your life its own whatever… Whatever makes you happy, you can find your own meaning to life. It doesn’t get cheapened by the fact that ultimately in billions of years we won’t even be around to experience any of this.

Now I obviously think there is meaning to life. And a good deal of that meaning is tied to my belief in God, the immortality of the soul, and the hope that I will one day be reunited with loved ones. Mehta has pointed out that such a belief is “silly” because it lacks evidence. He thinks that most people only believe in an afterlife because it is optimistic and gives them hope. So presumably he must modify his claim from the rather silly notion:

(A) One is permitted to make one’s own meaning based on whatever makes one happy.


(B) One is permitted to make one’s own meaning, so long that meaning makes one happy and isn’t a silly belief, i.e. a belief that lacks (sufficient?) evidence.

Clearly Mehta does not endorse (A) since his entire point during the podcast was that it is silly and wrong-headed for someone to organize her meaning for life around a belief that lacks evidence. (A) permits of such silliness, so it must be dismissed.

So we are left we (B) as the organizing principle for finding meaning. But it is not entirely clear that (B) is coherent. For it advises us to “make” our own meaning rather than, say, “discover” our own meaning. Presumably whatever is made does not exist prior to its creation, and whatever doesn’t exist certainly could not be sufficiently evidenced. So there will be no evidence that a belief in, say, the meaningfulness of friendship, will be a meaning-producing belief prior to the creation of that belief in Mehta’s mind. Anyone who doesn’t happen to share Mehta’s belief, will lack the evidence made apparent by holding the belief, and so infer that the belief is silly. And that makes (B) a rather silly principle.

Perhaps we could say this, Mehta wants us to believe that some state of affairs, call it x, is meaningful. He isn’t demanding evidence for the meaningfulness of x per se, but only for the existence of x. So we might modify what Mehta is claiming to this:

(C) One is permitted to take some state of affairs x as meaningful if there is sufficient evidence that supports x and x makes one happy.

Now this might be a bit more precise. Mehta can say that there is no evidence for a state of affairs where my soul lives an everlasting life of community and bliss, but there is evidence that the mountains and beaches exist, or that family members and friends exist. Mountains, beaches, friends, and family can be meaningful so long as they are a source of happiness for an individual.

Some issues with (C) as a principle of meaning: it is far removed from Mehta’s rather Sartrean über-liberated view that we are free to make our own meaning. Rather, we are restricted to find meaning only in states of affairs for which there is sufficient evidence. Also, rather than an active and free creation of meaning, it sounds as though the states of affairs are meaningful if they create a feeling of happiness in the person. In other words, we are passive in the determination of meaning. So there is tension in what Mehta is saying since he wants to say that we make the meaning, but he bases this on whatever (state if affairs) happens to make us feel happy. Unless Mehta wants to endorse some form of libertarian free will, it’s hard to imagine how “we make our own meaning” is anything like “if there is evidence for x, and x has the effect of making us feel happy, then x has meaning for us.”

These are perhaps minor complaints. The larger issue is whether (C) is really strong enough to prevent something like the belief in God or heaven from being an organizing principle meaning in one’s life. For instance, Mehta might say that there is no evidence that heaven exists, so even though belief in heaven makes one happy, one is not permitted to hold such a silly belief. But one might reply that having a belief in heaven is itself a state of affairs, and the evidence that there is such a belief in one’s mind is self-validating (in the Jamesian sense). Now Mehta might have to modify the principle again such that the state of affairs is restricted to non-mental states of affairs… Perhaps a bit of an ad hoc move, and given what I am about to say, a move Mehta might not want to make…

The most problematic aspect of this theory would be that any such principle would be, in itself, a belief held by Mehta that helped him to determine when it is permissible to take something as meaningful. Presumably a finely honed principle that leads to a non-silly meaning filled life is a meaningful principle to have… One that would that make a person happy, no doubt. Ah, but then we need evidence that this principle correlates with some sufficiently evidenced state of affairs. We can’t just say that the state of affairs is the apprehension of (C) itself, since we are restricting mental state of affairs from being counted (the ad hocmove bites us in the rear). Now let’s suppose Mehta has evidence that supports (C). It is not clear what that evidence would be given our restrictions, but let us suppose it exists. Another problem still looms. Mehta would have to justify his principle of meaning as a “non-silly meaningful belief” by invoking the very principle he uses to justify meaning. So in order to justify that his belief in (C) is permissible to take as meaningful, he must assume that (C) is the right principle by which permissibility of meaning is determined. But that just begs the question, which is, of course, silly. Yet it is clear that (C) would have to be considered meaningful, if it is a principle for determining meaning. So, it cannot be a universal principle. At best, Mehta could call it a rough guide to meaning-making. If it’s just a guide, we can’t know if the guide should restrict meaning formed via religious belief.

Now this is all speculation. I’m really not sure what Mehta meant when he said that we are free to make meaning for ourselves while criticizing those who take religious belief as meaningful. Perhaps his point is that we are all free to make meaning in what ever why we choose and he, as a “friendly atheist” is free to take a condescending posture to the way some people choose to live a meaningful life. If so, I offer the following:

If Mehta grants that we really are free to determine meaning, then I can select Christian doctrine as a set of beliefs that make my life meaningful. Since there is no objective meaning, my appeal to these doctrines is as warranted as any other that a naturalist might invoke. If Christianity is true, then there is a set of objectively meaningful values one must embrace. Those values cannot be fully embraced by a naturalist, since Christian meaning involves belief in God and the soul/after-life (non-natural things). So selecting Christianity is a permissible move whether I am right or Mehta is right. But selecting a naturalist set of meaning and values is valid/right/permissible only if Mehta is correct about naturalism.

Now, you might note that this is something of a wager move. And I can hear the protests! “What about other religious world-views?” My response is to ask the following: why organize my values and ultimate cosmic meaning around any religion that does not posit an immortal soul, or after-life? Why organize meaning around any God who is capricious enough to judge me and not provide sufficient revelation for me to form the relevant sorts of beliefs? Why form meaning around any religious system, which would require the impossible from me, i.e. to merit my own salvation and communion with a perfectly holy being? If there is no soul or afterlife in a religion, then there are no objective cosmic consequences for our beliefs about meaning. If God fails to properly reveal religion by remaining utterly hidden, then I have no chance of selecting the appropriate set of values anyways. So, I wouldn’t concern myself with an unrevealed or long dead religion of the past. So we sweep away unknown religions, and religions that lack souls and after-lives. We are left with a handful of religions to consider. And the majority of non-Christian religions require a set of behaviors to merit heaven/salvation. I don’t think I could ever merit communion with God, so I’m taking those religions off the table. They ask the impossible of anyone who has sinned once. It seems to me that once you work through the alternatives, Christianity is the best bet one can make when it comes to a meaning-generating belief system. At the very least, it offers advantages over any naturalistic system, given that naturalists grant the permissibility of making Christianity the basis for one’s meaning in life. And if they don’t grant that, because it’s a “silly belief,” then we are back to my previous critique of any principle that seeks to prevent one from forming meaning out of a “silly” religious belief.

Color-Blindness, Dualism, and Eschatological Verification

Raymond Smullyan (1983) imagines a fantastic world which, by analogy, sheds some interesting light on the mind-body problem:

Imagine (if you can!) a world with the very curious property that any two objects have the same color if an only if they happen to have the same shape.  So, for instance, all

red objects are spherical and all spherical objects are red; all green objects are cubical and all cubical objects are green; and so forth.  Imagine also that half of the inhabitants of the world are completely color-blind, and the other half see colors perfectly.  In this word, color is the analogue of mental and shape is the analogue of physical.  Hence, the materialists are the color-blind, and the dualists are the color-sighted. . .

Smullyan ponders the kinds of metaphysical controversies that might arise on such a world.  The color-blind would say that there are only two properties of an object: size and shape.  The color-sighted would say that there is a third property that could not be reduced to the other two–a property called color.  The color-sighted people would be dismissed as mystics or metaphysical cranks who blather on about non-sense.  For, whenever a color-sighted person is asked to demonstrate the existence of this third property by distinguishing two objects by color, the color-blind person could make the same distinction by way of shape.  The color-sighted could never prove that color existed.  Smullyan further notes, “. . . [a]ll statements about colors would be translatable into statements about shapes (at least in the opinion of the color-blind!).

Smullyan then considers the possibility that on this world the color-sighted develop a dualist vocabulary with words that describe shape and other words that describe color.  He wrties:

A color-sighted person would say, “This object is both spherical and red, which is saying two very different things about it.”  The color-blind person would reply, “I still cannot understand your distinction between the words spherical and red.”  Imagine the theories that the color-sighted people might invent to account for the dual phenomena of shape and color!   Some might regard shape and color as different aspects or modes of the same underlying substance.  Others might marvel that God has preordained some miraculous harmony between shapes and colors.  Then there would arise an identity theory that would maintain that despite the possible difference between the meaning of the words color and shape, colors and shapes themeseles were nevertheless the same things.  Of course, the color-blind people would have no idea what the metaphysicians were talking about. (Smullyan 1983, 77).

What is most interesting of all in this analogy is if one of the color-sighted individuals were to travel in a spacecraft to a normal world, like Earth.  This astronaut would see spheres of all colors, cubes of all colors, etc.  If the astronaut were to return to their home planet, he or she might exclaim, “On this alien world some spheres are cubical!”  In other words, the astronaut is saying that some spheres are green.  Smullyan imagines the response of the color-blinded to be, “What do you mean by this nonsense?  How can something be both spherical and cubical? . . . [w]hat kind of mystical, dialectical nonsense is this?  We all know that the statement, ‘A spherical object is not cubical,’ is analytic–it is necessarily true” (Smullyan 1983, 77).

This little thought experiment is supposed to give us a sense of what may be going on in the mind-body debates between dualists and naturalistic “monists”.  It brings to mind John Hick’s response to the logical positivism of his day, eschatological verification.  Hick believes that the claims of mystics and saints are not meaningless and can, in principle, be verified.  If, when we die, we have an afterlife, it is possible that we could test whether that which the mystics and saints claim is true.  If we die and that’s it, then nothing can be verified. The point is that supernatural claims could, in theory, be verified and so could not be utterly meaningless.

Smullyan’s thought experiment sheds new light on eschatological verification.  Dying may be like visiting another world where colors and shapes are not strongly correlated.  In death, the duality of nature may be revealed to us.  This might account for the perplexing descriptions of mystical experiences and why some mystical experiences are literally ineffable.  So if Smullyan’s analogy holds, even seemingly contradictory statements made by mystics could be true.  That’s amazing, if you ask me.

1R. Smullyan. 1983. 5000 B.C. and other philosophical fantasies. New York: St. Martin Press.

Secularism, Nihilism, and the God Shaped Hole

Sean Dorrance Kelly and Hubert Dreyfus have diagnosed today’s secular world with a problem: nihilism.  In a new book, All Things Shining they hope to remedy this problem.

The world has been stripped of meaning, according to the philosophers, through Cartesian rationalism and modern science.

From the Australian Paul Monk (7/30/2011).  Excerpt from “Re-enchanting the world in a secular age”:

Most of the book retraces what the authors see as the development of the malaise of disenchantment. Chapter three, Homer’s Polytheism, centres on the idea that “the Greeks . . . held the world in constant wonder”. This was the world before disenchantment and a version of this the authors want to argue we can recapture. Not through metaphysical belief, but through the phenomenology of experience…

The authors do not, however, offer the dubious prescriptions recklessly propagated by Nietzsche in the 1880s and are suitably wary of the gnomic work of Heidegger that too easily enabled the philosopher to embrace Nazism as a way out of this modern condition.

Instead, they suggest an approach they derive from the Homeric world, to which they give the Greek name poiesis: the crafting of meaning into objects and experiences. This is not, they emphasise, a mere throwback to Homer. Rather, it is a reframing of the experiences we have in terms of the phenomenology of perception, instead of the stark, depersonalised objectivity of natural science.

There is a good deal to be said for this approach and Dreyfus and Kelly are far less reckless than Nietzsche, far less gnomic than Heidegger and far less nihilistic than Sartre. “Living well in our secular, nihilistic age”, they conclude, requires a kind of meta-poiesis: an understanding of when to be immersed in flow and meaning and when to rise above it into autonomy. There is a good deal to be said for this.

The problem is that the book ends well short of articulating how exactly, on an everyday basis, the common citizen of the secular world – as distinct from the exemplary craftsman, philosopher or aesthete – can live the meta-poietic life.

I have my doubts that the book will succeed at all.  If the problem arose from viewing the world as a “mechanistic clock”, can we get back to meaning through a phenomenological perspective?  Can this even approximate the kind of wonder those Homeric Greeks once experienced, i.e. their awe before crashing thunder and dread before the vast sea?  Or would we just be obscuring and ignoring the hole that lies at the center of our culture?

In contrast, there is G.K. Chesterton’s philosophy: fairy tales.

…[W]e all like love tales because there is an instinct of sex, we all like astonishing tales because they touch the nerve of the ancient instinct of astonishment.  This is proved by the fact that when we are very young children we do not need fairy tales: we only need tales.  Mere life is interesting enough.  A child of seven is excited by being told that Tommy opened a door and saw a dragon.  But a child of three is excited by being told that Tommy opened a door.  Boys like romantic tales; but babies like realistic tales–because they find them romantic.  In fact, a baby is about the only person, I should think, to whom a modern realistic novel could be read without boring him.  This proves that even nursery tales only echo an almost prenatal leap of interest and amazement.  These tales say that apples were golden only to refresh the forgotten moment when we found out that they were green.  They make rivers run with wine only to make us remember, for one wild moment, that they run with water (Orthodoxy).1

I think I might be a “fairy-talist” rather than a phenomenologist.  Re-enchanting is remembering how weird it is that there should be anything at all.  Then, that it should be this way and not that way.

Ultimately meaning is not just found in wonder or enchantment, though I think this is a necessary first step.  It  is the recognition that there is a deep desire for meaning and purpose  naturally within each of us, something Kelly and Dreyfus recognize.  This is the desire reflected in Augustine’s prayer to God,

You arouse us so that praising you may bring us joy, because you have made us and drawn us to yourself, and our heart is unquiet until it rests in you (Conf. 1,I).2

The question, then, is whether we are condemned never to find rest, or whether our desire for rest corresponds to something real.  I don’t think Kelly and Dreyfus can offer us anything real.  They can only offer us a delusion within which one can, from time to time, be immerse.  But hasn’t the rug been pulled out from under us?  Can we make-believe in meaning?  Can we boot-strap meaning into existence within a world without ultimate purpose–a world headed towards a heat-death, or cosmic crunch?  Can we make-believe meaning while believing that all of our projects will turn to dust and memories of our existence will be forgotten within four or five generations?

At the same time, I don’t think the scientist can be completely blamed for our modern secular nihilism.  After all, science can inspire in us wonder about the natural world.  Yet science can also  lead us to forget the deeper questions of existence and to suppose that there is no ultimate meaning–that everything just is.  But if Chesterton is right, we can occasionally remember– and shudder.  And if Augustine is right, then our desire for meaning and enchantment will be satisfied.

Now to be fair, I have not read Kelly and Dreyfus’ book yet.  But when I do, I will let you know whether it is a tenable plan to reinsert meaning into this nihilistic age.

1 Chesterton, G.K. (2001) Orthodoxy. New York: Doubleday. 51.

2 Augustine. (1998) The Confessions. Trans. M. Boulding, O.S.B. New York: Vintage Spiritual Classics. 3.