Class Warfare Blog

October 31, 2019

The Meaning of Meaning and Purpose of Purpose

I have been having a running disagreement over two words with John Branyan. This disagreement emerged, I think, from my opinions that life has no intrinsic purpose, nor an intrinsic meaning either. These opinions were mocked by Mr. Branyan, who is very good at mocking. (Hey, some opinions should be mocked . . . yes, I am talking about you, Flat Earthers.) He apparently wanted to debate those opinions and I did not, which created another point of disagreement.

Actually, to clarify my opinion I expanded upon my original comments and shared that I thought all “purposes” and “meanings” were quite synthetic, that is fictional, that we make up such things to provide a narrative for our lives.

Consider the following scenario.

*** Start of Scenario ***

The Earth seems to be about 4.543 billion years old. If some aliens happened to fly their spaceship by 300,000 years after Earth’s Birthday (EB hereafter) they would have seen a planet still very, very hot but also covered to some extent with water containing possibly some monocellular life. Puzzled, they wondered what was the meaning of this? What was the purpose? They decided to come back later.

When Earth had it’s 1500 millionth anniversary of its birth, the aliens dropped by again. Their records showed their prior visit and now this planet had cooled considerably and the surface water, much in abundance, was teeming with monocellular life but nothing else. Again, they wondered what was the meaning of this? What was the purpose? . . . and decided to come back later, which they did 3 billion EB. Everything was much the same: no plants, no animals, vast oceans, but now they discovered that there was some multicellular life present. And, as before, they wondered what was the meaning of this? What was the purpose? . . . and decided to come back later. This time they waited until 4 billion EB and voila, there were plants and animals, some very, very large. Some of the animals ate the plants others ate the animals that ate the plants. Some animals walked, others ran, some swam and some even flew. The land was very green, the animals multitudinous. What was the meaning of this? What was the purpose? . . . they decided to come back later. They did so 4.542 billion years EB (1 million years ago). Life had become very much more diversified. The very large land animals were largely gone and smaller animals had grown much more numerous and varied. But none of these species possessed a language they could comprehend so communication with any of the denizens did not seem possible. Wondering what all of this meant and what its purpose was, they decided, since the pace of change seemed to be accelerating, to come back shortly, which they did just now. They found the planet covered by this one species of mammal, which had languages and cultures, oh my. Excited, they established communication with several of these cultures independently so they could compare notes afterward. Once mutual communication was established, each contacted group understood the questions “What was the meaning of this? What was the purpose?” but had completely different answers to those questions, so no consensus existed as to why this planet existed the way it did and what its future might hold. Puzzled, the aliens decided that they had better things to do and decided not to come back.

*** End of Scenario ***

So, just when did the meanings and purposes of “all of this” get created? Did they exist earlier than that last visit? Is great puzzlement.

John asked (I am paraphrasing) “If meanings aren’t real, what are dictionaries, then?” Words have meanings, otherwise we would not be able to communicate. A word I thought “meant” one thing and you thought “meant” another would make communication difficult, especially if there were a great many words being used that fit into this situation. But do your meanings and my meanings line up, exactly or even at all? Are they the same? If you ask college students to write definitions for a list of words, you will find amazing variation in those definitions, almost to the point of unintelligibility. If you ask two of those students to defend one of their definitions to one another, a conversation would take place, information exchanged and usually the two agreeing that they “meant” the same thing or that the word “means” different things in different contexts.

As an example of this consider the following hypothetical conversation:

Mom: How was the game DeSean?
DeSean: It was okay.
Mom: How did your friend play?
DeSean: He was bad, very bad!
Mom: Oh, I am sorry to hear that.
DeSean: No, we won, and he was great!

So, for at least a sizable fraction of this culture, “bad” has become “good,” the usual exact opposite of what bad “meant” at some point in recent time. Apparently we allow people to make up meanings, even contradictory ones, as they wish.

And dictionaries, well, they are for when we encounter words whose meanings are obscure or just unknown. But, if you read a dictionary definition of a word, do you then know what it means? How about when “bad” meaning “good” hadn’t showed enough legs to get included in a dictionary? And, you may have noticed that all of the definitions found in dictionaries use words found elsewhere in dictionaries! These meanings are not objective, they are subjective! Oh, my, oh, oh, oh. . . .

We make up the meanings of things to be able to communicate. Enough good will exists that if there are misunderstandings we negotiate what was “meant” so as to be clear about that . . . and this happens a lot because what one person’s meaning for a word is can be quite different from another’s. (Especially when you consider there is more than one language.)

Christian and religious apologists believe that each of our lives has a purpose. This is linked to their belief that we have been “created” as only created things have purposes and only the creators know what those purposes are, although they may try to communicate, aka share, that purpose with the curious. When sentient entities create things, they often do such things “for a purpose” that is “for some reason or use later.” Other times we create with no purpose (doodling, noodling, whittling, etc.) A whittler may be making shavings of wood for the purpose of using the shavings to kindle a fire . . . or . . . they may be just passing the time doing something rather than nothing . . . or . . . they wish to create something pleasant to the eye to give as a gift . . . or. . . . The very same activity could have a multitude of purposes and no one by the whittler can tell you which was the “actual purpose.”

So, the belief that “life has meaning” that “life has a purpose” is tied to life being created by someone or something that can articulate what their purpose was in making the creation, but . . . but just because the creator had a purpose, the creation doesn’t inherit that purpose as its own. A painting, deemed to be a lovely piece of art, originally was created to get paid and satisfy the aesthetic senses of the painter and patron, can become an investment or a gift or symbol of a decadent society or whatever. Similarly, if we were created by some creator god, that god’s purpose in creating us also puts us under no obligation to accept that as a guiding principle to live our lives. We are not bees or ants, we are not created to be anything in particular.

And, for those of us who cannot believe the fairly tales that are our creation myths, any of them, since there was no creator, there is no purpose coming from the outside to inform our lives. If we want our life to have a purpose, an inner, conceptual guide for our life, we are free to create one . . . or not. But, unlike “meanings” no one has compiled a “dictionary” of generally accepted purposes for us to consult when we are confused. We are on our own.

And that is good . . . or bad . . . or, well, you know what I mean.

October 21, 2019

Brilliant Thought on the Meaning/Purpose of Life

I have written a number of time on the “purpose” or “meaning” of life. This answer to a question on Quora really rang a bell for me. Enjoy!

What is the purpose of life?

by  Richard Muller, Prof Physics, UC Berkeley, author “Now—The Physics of Time”

Updated Dec 21, 2017 · Upvoted by Elsa Álvarez Forges, B.A. Philosophy, University of Barcelona (2006) and Ingrid Harris, Ph.D. Existential Phenomenology & Hermeneutics, Philosophy (1996)

Let me answer the closely related question: Why do we seek to find a purpose in life? The pursuit of purpose, in my experience, is found only in individuals who are overly self-centered. Sometimes I joke that the search for purpose in life is God’s punishment for those who care more about themselves than about others.

I once suggested to a student who felt his life was meaningless that he volunteer at a local kitchen that feeds the poor, just one day a week. He gave it a try; a few months later I spoke to him, and he had not found his purpose in life; he just no longer cared about the question.

Parents who focus on their children, above career and success (except to the point that some level of success helps in the rearing of children) don’t ponder the purpose of life. Nor do people who are deeply interested in others. It’s not that they’ve found the purpose, but (like my student) the question no longer bothers them.

Seek out others. Try to help them. It doesn’t have to be a lot of people, just a few will do. Listen to them. Interact. Take their thoughts and concerns seriously. Be a part of a larger community. It’s remarkable how the deep philosophical and bothersome search for meaning in life fades and itself becomes meaningless.

 

September 15, 2019

More on Meaning

In a recent post I said this: “I suggest that ‘meaning’ doesn’t really exist. Whenever someone asks ‘But what does it all mean?’ they are asking for a comforting story to wrap around events that makes them feel ‘better.’” That this opinion irked John Branyan is to its credit, I think, although I may have been too subtle; “doesn’t really exist” refers to the common understanding of the term. I offered a better definition of the term in my quote, so it “exists” to that extent.

People make good money dispensing “meanings” and I am not just referring to the religious. Our current political commentariat is riddled with people who are constantly telling us what really is going on, what this or that really “means.” We end up feeling as if we understand the political situation and thus feel more in control of our lives.

“Wishful thinking spill cleanup on Aisle 8, Please!”

As further evidence for my opinion, please consider . . . dreams. For all of human history (and I must assume the rest of human existence), people have felt and claimed that dreams “mean” something. Kings and other potentates took major actions based upon their dream interpreted meanings. An entire cottage industry, sometimes breaching over into academic psychology, was created to help people decipher the meanings of their dreams (and has done so for thousands of years).

But we have come to the realization that dream sequences are cobbled together from our very own memories. People have actually exerted some control over what occurs in their dreams (I have done this myself). Dreams seem to play a role in reinforcement of the memories we feel to be important and the pruning away of memories not thought to be important. A hypothetical process for this is for memories to be replayed in a dream and our emotional state is monitored by a subsystem. If there is a significant emotional reaction, the memory is kept, if not it is pruned. Pruning is quite important as it provides capacity for future memories. (Memory pruning has been observed as has memory reinforcement but this entire process is not fully understood as of yet. We are also aware that memories are very, very malleable and change more often than not.)

So, what do dreams mean? They mean absolutely nothing. The fact that people did and still do think they have “meaning” is evidence that “meanings” are what computer science calls “vaporware,” which is software for which there is marketing material, but there actually is no code operating.

If you want there to be meaning in your life, you need to create it. (You certainly do not want to leave this exercise to others, just as those who fear the biographies that might be written about them, often rush to get an autobiography into print.) This is a fiction writing exercise which creates a comforting story that you can wrap around the events of your life. It also has to ring “true” to your inner ear, so you can’t bullshit yourself in a major way, but minor exaggerations are always acceptable.

If the meanings most people think are real actually were real, the odds are we wouldn’t recognize them anyway. In a fit of retrospection I reviewed all of my speculations regarding why “so-and-so did what.” Somebody at work, for example, did a thing. On the way home or at home I would speculate upon why they did that thing. In reflection, I could not remember a time when my speculations were right (and I do enjoy being right so if I had been I am sure I would recall that). I was “oh-fer . . .. many” in this regard. After that, for many years, I continued to speculate as to why “so-and-so did such-and-such” and to date I have been oh-for-a-zillion, I think. I also tried to check on how good others were on determining the rationale or motivation for others’ actions and I didn’t find anyone any better at that than I was, which was abysmal. “Meanings,” as others claim them to be, seem much like reasons to me and as such are as opaque to others as I found them. This means we have no way to check whether another’s “meaning” is valid or even coherent. No fact-checking here, so I have very low expectations regarding what anyone says about the “meaning” they find in X, Y, or Z. I accept that they said something. What they believe and what is actually the case is not readily available.

 

September 4, 2019

The Meaning of Life and the Problem of Evil

Filed under: Philosophy,Religion — Steve Ruis @ 10:45 am
Tags: , , , ,

It is not a rare occurrence that when theists are chatting with atheists, the theists claim that “without their god, life has no meaning.” This atheist answers, yes, that is the case. I wish to expand upon this a bit and then address another, separate topic.

I suggest that “meaning” doesn’t really exist. Whenever someone asks “But what does it all mean?” they are asking for a comforting story to wrap around events that makes them feel “better.” To support this opinion, I suggest that if you ask people from various walks of life, “what is the meaning of XYZ,” you will get answers quite different from one another, answers that tell you more about the people supplying them than the events themselves. Here in the U.S. you don’t have to wait very long for there to be a mass shooting. Ask a staunch supporter of the NRA what one of those means and they may shrug and say that “it is cost of having freedom.” Ask a soccer mom, and she might say “It means our gun laws are too lax and people with mental instabilities find it too easy to acquire massive firepower.” That different people see different meanings in the same events indicates that those meanings are not embedded in the events themselves. And, if they were impressed from without by some deity, why would people receive different messages?

Life does not impress meanings from without, either spontaneously or being force fed by a supernatural entity. Meanings are human constructs . . . period. If we ever meet an alien species and are able to communicate, they may find the concept bizarre, or have their own meanings, quite different from ours.

Regarding the Problem of Evil (see below), this is an argument against the existence of a benevolent god or gods (for those of you still claiming there are no arguments for the nonexistence of gods, viola), and the main thrust of the theistic response is that the ability to do evil comes from the existence of free will. If our “creator” were to have created us without free will, then we would just be robots, just doing the creators will because we had no choice. Since we have free will, then we have to accept that a small fractions of the free choices will be to do evil.

I have mentioned this before but this is a false dichotomy. If you put “the existence of evil” on one side of a balance, you don’t put “free will” on the other. (We are talking about human initiated evil, not natural evil here, that is another topic.) This is a standard apologetics approach equivalent to throwing out the baby with the bath water. I do not want to get into a protracted discussion about free will. Many people think of it as “the ability to do otherwise,” which suffices for now. If the creator god created us with the ability to do otherwise, except to do evil, we would find our lives virtually unchanged. We would be able to choose vanilla or chocolate at the ice cream store, choose this person or that to consider as a potential mate, choose a baseball team to follow, choose to buy a Chevy rather than a Ford, choose which occupation to follow, etc. The only choice we could not make is to do evil. We would just not want to do that. So, for example, we are really, really mad, so we go down to the gun store and buy an AR-15 and a bunch of ammo, but we don’t feel like gunning down a bunch of school kids, so we go to a local gun range and blaze away for an hour or so. Ta da!

We would not be giving up “Free Will” in totality were we to have been created without the will to do evil, we would just be giving up the will to do evil, which for the vast majority of human beings, is not a hard sell.

So, the Problem of Evil is quite free from the false dichotomy of the Free Will Defense (another zombie idea propped up by theistic apologists). And, there has not been an other successful refutation of this problem. (Much mealy-mouthed mumbling, but no successful logical refutation.)

The Problem of Evil
(Being an argument that gods do not exist.)

Originating with Greek philosopher Epicurus, the logical argument from evil is as follows:
1. If an omnipotent, omnibenevolent, and omniscient god exists, then evil does not.
2. There is evil in the world.
3. Therefore, an omnipotent, omnibenevolent and omniscient god does not exist.

February 7, 2019

Finding Meaning in Life

Many theists argue that without their god(s) life would have no meaning. This, of course, belies the efforts of many to establish their bona fides in their lives for themselves.

The current era of plutocracy in the U.S. shows the wealthy over and over acting upon the belief that they are rich for a reason, that their wealth makes them worthy, worthy of providing guidance (by funding philanthropic endeavors … of their choice, of course), and in funding political movements, e.g. the Koch brothers, because they know what is best for us.

All of these efforts bring to mind a quotation from a giant of social commentary: “The fortunate man is seldom satisfied with the fact of being fortunate. Beyond this, he needs to know that he has a right to his good fortune. He wants to be convinced that he ‘deserves’ it, and above all, that he deserves it in comparison with others … good fortune thus wants to be legitimate fortune.” (Max Weber, 1915)

In this I am reminded that for those “fortunate” enough to make over one billion dollars per year (there have been as many as over a dozen in recent years) that making a billion dollars of income in one year equates to making $532,000 per hour for every working hour of the year. This means one of these “worthies” made more in one afternoon than I did in almost 40 years as a college professor. I do not think of this as compensated labor as no one’s labor is worth that much. The only way one can “make” such an income is by scamming the system. If we need a name, we could call it “legitimized theft.”

So, if the theists are right and the meaning of our lives is granted by their god, why are these plutocrats scurrying around “cementing their legacies” or “managing their brand” or all of the myriad things they are doing to legitimize their wealth? These legitimized businessmen all claim that capitalism is based upon competition, but have acted to reduce the amount of competition in their area of business like beavers (think Bill Gates and all of his European monopoly law suits). I guess saying one thing while doing the opposite comes easy to those “of wealth” which is what they seem to have in common with the theists who support them.

October 12, 2017

The Meaning-Driven Life

I have been reading so much lately about finding meaning in life that I am now wondering if the term has any meaning at all. I am pretty sure they aren’t referring to the meaning of vegetable life (Why Portobello mushrooms?) or life in general (Is a planet with life somehow alive and are there others which form a giant constituency?), but rather lives in specific: your life, my life, a friend’s life. To many people finding meaning in their lives is a very, very (very) important quest.

I have to ask, though, whether you can state the meaning of anyone’s life, say from your family. Every person has a direct line of descent. I, for example, had a father and mother and each of them had a father and mother (my grandparents), and they each had fathers and mothers, and so on for thousands of generations. (None of the people in your direct line of descent died in childhood, or didn’t live to reproduce. All of those people broke their lines of descent.) Just to supply some distance, let’s use a gap of five generations, so from you we would be talking about your grandparent’s grandparents. Do you know the meaning of any one of their lives? Do you even know their names? If you could trace them down (I can on my mother’s side but I cannot get past my grandfather on my father’s side), do you think you could research any of their lives and find out what the meaning of their life was? I suggest not.

There is something called the Great Man approach to history, namely that great men often make history. In this country George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, and Franklin Delano Roosevelt are considered as such. All, of course, were framed by great and terrible wars because without great challenges, we don’t even recognize great men. And people often say things like: “Without <fill in the blank> the world would be quite different,” or “without Churchill (or Washington or Lincoln), we would have lost the war.” This is actually impossible to say because, for example, since Washington was general of the Continental Army, the position wasn’t open to anyone else. If it had been, his replacement may have done better, worse, or about the same. People do rise to the occasion. So, saying that the meaning of Lincoln’s life was the preservation of the Union is, at best, glib.

If you ask a child where would we find “meanings” they would probably answer “in a dictionary.” Leave it to children to give the wrong answer. They would probably say the same if you asked them how to find the spelling of a word. Dictionaries are not spellchecking devices per se; to find a word, you have to already know how to spell it. If you are looking for the spelling of “zebra” and start reading on page one, it will be a long search. The best you can do is take a stab at it and hope to confirm your tentative spelling. If you guess that dog is spelled d-o-g and find at dog “a small hairy mammalian pet that turns dog food into dog shit” you will know you had it right. If you are dyslexic and spell dog g-o-d and find “a supernatural being who can’t even turn dog food into dog shit,” then you would have to guess again.

And the dictionary certainly doesn’t supply meanings. What it supplies are alternate sets of words that say the same thing, so “dog” and “a small hairy mammalian pet that turns dog food into dog shit” can be used interchangeably. The more expansive set of words is more definitive (note the clever use of words), showing us that a dictionary supplies definitions, not meanings.

Meaning and purpose seem to be comingled in many people’s minds. When Christians yammer on about how a woman needs to “cleave to her husband” and otherwise shut the fuck up, I can’t imagine any women sighing wistfully and thinking “At least I now have meaning in my life.” In the Christian dictionary, the definition of woman includes many important titles: Vessel of his Seed, Mother of his Children, Keeper of his House, Cooker of his Food, Changer of his Children’s Diapers, Wiper of his Children’s Snotty Noses, Fetcher of his Dry-Cleaning, etc. The purpose of women is clear. So, for Christians, I guess, that takes care of just over half of humanity. But what about the important half, you ask? (Yes, I am being sarcastic …. jeez!)

There is a reason that Rick Warren’s best-selling Christian book The Purpose-Driven Life uses the word purpose, not meaning. I suggest that anyone who claims to tell you your purpose in life is a con artist. I tried to read the book but the arguments are tortured, the scriptures cherry-picked and misinterpreted, and the writing not at all good, so I gave up rather quickly. I suspect this book enriched Mr. Warren because it is the ultimate Christian coffee table book. They all have a copy prominently placed on the coffee table but none of them actually read it. But I digress….

What does it mean to say your life has “meaning?” The dictionary says that, in this context, meaning is: a significant quality; especially implication of a hidden or special significance. So, to acknowledge that one’s life has meaning is to acknowledge one is special. (I think the Church Lady would have an opinion about that.) People want to feel they are special. Gosh … wait for it … wait for it … isn’t that special! (Sorry, I couldn’t help myself).

If you have read any of my diatribes about religion you may know that I think religion is a mechanism to exert control. If you buy it, you give up control of something to other people. I think it is a dishonest means of control as nothing is really given in return for what you give up, as all of the rewards come after you die, safely out of anybody’s ability to confirm. (For people who claim that religions offer hope, and solace, and … think again. You are the creator of all that. They supply the hope and you imagine all of the rest.) As a member of various teams in my life I have willingly given over control over parts of my life to team leaders to accomplish important goals. In religion, there are threats, promises, and “words, words, words” but all are false, so this is a dishonest method of control. I think the promise that a religion will “give your life meaning” is one of the false promises. It is part of a con. It actually has no meaning that you yourself do not create.

* * *

It’s time to play Truth™ or Con!

Our first contestant is Steve! What do you say Steve?

Steve: I think all of you should worship me.

Well, what do you think studio audience? Is this the Truth™? Or is this a Con and we all should grab our wallet and back away? So, Steve, why do you think we should all worship you?

Steve: Well, I created all of this … and all of you.

What the …?

Steve: Yep. About 20 years ago now, I created all of this.

But, Steve, honestly, I am older than 20 years old and I have memories going back well past 20 years.

Steve: Yeah, I thought of that, so I created false memories for you when I created you. Then I realized that it would be really upsetting if you had a memory of grandma’s funeral but there was no grave, so I started filling in all of your back stories and, well, I kind of got carried away. I even went so far as to supply back stories for all of the animals. I invented this really cool process, called mineralization, that if an animal died and was covered with, say, mud really quickly the animal’s body would be turned to stone (no magic required!). I knew you would be mightily impressed when you found these details.

Okay, even if we grant that is true, why would we want to worship you? I mean what would that entail?

Steve: Well, for starters, I do have a personalized plan for each and every one of you, that will give your lives meaning, a very special meaning, and it starts with everyone would give me 10% of your income every month and then …

Okay, okay, studio audience? Oh, I see you all have grabbed your wallets and purses and are running for the exits. I guess this is a Scam! Stick with us, after the commercial we will …

 

 

 

April 9, 2017

Inquiring Theists Want to Know!

Theist apologists are always coming up with questions for atheists, kind of like the questions Catholic kids come up with for their Catechism teachers, e.g. “If God is all-powerful can he create a rock so big even he can’t lift it, Father?” Here is one of the latest:

Without a personal Creator-God, how are you anything other than the coincidental, purposeless miscarriage of nature, spinning round and round on a lonely planet in the blackness of space for just a little while before you and all memory of your futile, pointless, meaningless life finally blinks out forever in the endless darkness?”

Gosh, as an announced atheist, this makes me want to go slit my wrists, but I am laughing too hard to undertake that task with any skill, so I will just tackle this question first.

Underneath all of the snark embedded in this “question,” is a feeling of superior knowledge, that the questioner knows that without his creator god, life is just futile. (None of the other creator gods will do, don’t you know.)

So, “a coincidental, purposeless miscarriage of nature,” hmm. Well, I can’t be a miscarriage because I actually was born, but coincidental, I’ll own up to that. My parent’s believed in planning their family and I was the third of the two children they planned, so, coincidental I am.

Now, “spinning round and round on a lonely planet in the blackness of space.” I can detect no spinning. There is a gym nearby that offers spinning but I do not subscribe for that. The planet is “lonely,” that I do not get. The solar system has eight major planets, some minor planets, and myriad moons, etc. This guy makes it sound like there is the Sun and the Earth and little else. He must be reading his Bible. Maybe he means that I am lonely. Well, if I am, then I am very picky regarding having friends with over seven billion other humans to chose from, plus myriad other non-human companions I could entice to come live with me (for free room and board). No, I am not lonely; he got that wrong.

“In the blackness of space?” We seem to be quite well adapted to the light-dark cycles on our planet. The Scandehoovians who experience almost no “dark” during the winter go a little batty behind that, so “dark” is apparently a good thing for us. I like looking up at the dark sky and seeing all of the pretty lights, so not really dark at all, so he got this wrong, too.

But, yes, in a little while (littler all of the time) I shall die and kinda-sorta be forgotten. I still remember my parents and grandparents and other deceased relatives, so I expect to remain in memory of my younger relatives for some time. I am named in a family genealogy that goes back to the 1700’s and am recorded in a number of diverse histories, so will be “remembered” that way to some extent, and I have written close to a dozen books, which will remain available for a very long time, possibly many decades, but really I will not give a shit as I will be dead.

I have to ask, are all of those people supposedly in Heaven and Hell enjoying their immortality? Are they “remembered” by the living? Is not everyone remembered by your God who cannot forget anything (otherwise He would not be all-knowing), so is not everyone, in your world view, remembered forever and ever? Very puzzling attitude then for for you, a believer, to have.

And “your futile, pointless, meaningless life finally blinks out forever in the endless darkness.” I am looking forward to the endless blackness, far preferable to the Lake of Fire you promise my kind. But where do you get “futile,” and “pointless,” and “meaningless” from? Are you saying that because you are a Christian, your life is automatically not futile, not pointless, and not meaningless? If so, you are going to have to provide some details. What is your purpose in life? If it is to end up in Heaven at the side of your God, isn’t that a little self-serving? It sounds a lot like “I am going to get mine and the rest of you can go roast in Hell.” Many of your ilk tell us that good deeds will not get us into Heaven, but faith will, so you exalt people who do not do good deeds by have faith over people who lack faith, like me, who do good deeds. Sounds a lot like “I am going to get mine and the rest of you can go roast in Hell.” It also sounds as if you believe that your God has a plan for you. (He believes in family planning, unlike our current GOP.) Can you tell me what your plan is so I can see whether or not you are meeting your quarterly goals? No? Another thing I just have to take on faith, I guess.

And, last, regarding “meaning” as applied to one’s life. Meaning is something that is created in the hearts, minds, and words of others. You can read about the meaning of people’s lives in Wikipedia, for example. These meanings are divined, if you will allow the use of that word, from others observing our deeds. So, one creates the meaning of one’s life by doing. I can live with that.

And, I can die with that.

 

May 16, 2016

Ow, Ow, Ow, It Hurts My Head

I have written often enough about the poor level of thinking I see, often associated with religion. I have recently been reading Sean Carroll’s new book The Big Picture, which I heartily recommend, in which Dr. Carroll addresses issues both scientific and philosophical (including the meaning of life!). Last night I read a principle I had forgotten about, created by German philosopher Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz (1646-1716), as stated by Dr. Carroll:

The Principle of the Best according to which God always acts in the best possible way, including in the creation of the world.

Leibnitz made the usual arguments that God is all-powerful, all-good, etc. and therefore he argued, essentially as an axiom, that everything God did was perfect and good, including His Creation.

So, if I understand the Book of Genesis right, God creates a great many animals, one of which is designed to be both his gardener and to worship him. The being and his helpmeet become disobedient quite quickly and incur God’s displeasure and banishment from his direct presence, so apparently God did something less than perfectly. Not only did he lose his worshipers but also his gardener. Then, his created beings went forth and populated the planet with animals of all “kinds” as well as people, but God was so disappointed in the behavior of the people that he decides to kill all but eight of them with a massive flood, incidentally killing the vast majority of the innocent animals at the same time. After doing that, he repents his action and promises not to do that again.

This is a shocking number of changes of mind from someone who can see the future like we can see the past. And the only reason we can think of for such actions is he looked at His Creation and thought “This is not good.”

Now, Leibnitz was no idiot. He also knew that the lifespan of an atheist in the 1600’s could be counted in days if that fact became known, so he had to espouse some sort of faith in the existence of a god. But, his Principle of the Best, seems irrational in the extreme and certainly is not supported by scripture. Did he design it as protection from potential critics or did he believe it to be true? If he believed it to be true, he must have had a very unusual reading of the first book of the Bible.

It also seems that a great many people still believe this Principle of the Best, even though it is irrational in the extreme. And while people are capable of wishful thinking, I know I am, this is massively counterproductive thinking, if one could call it thinking in the first place. If I may paraphrase Einstein, we cannot solve our problems using the thinking that got us into them in the first place.

May 11, 2016

Be Careful What You Ask For

Filed under: Philosophy,Religion — Steve Ruis @ 11:42 am
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Many of the religious state that without their god, life would have no meaning … and we would no longer have a reason to live. (Really!)

Snidely I would respond that most people find the unpleasantness of dying sufficient reason to continue living (I mean our bodies have autonomic process hardwired into them to avoid dying. Isn’t that a clue?), but what if we take this question seriously? What is the meaning of our lives?

To date, the answers to this question are either incoherent or are quite different from one another, with no way to distinguish which of the possibilities are true and which are false.

I feel the problem with the question is it is a wrong question, a question that doesn’t need to be asked or answered, but once one has asked the question, one must be prepared for an answer.

I have discovered the true meaning of life and I will share it with you now. Humans were deposited on this planet by an advanced alien species as a self-propagating and self husbanding food animal. We grow our own food and distribute it and have expanded our population immensely, all without the aliens having to lift a finger or assign a shepherd or veterinarian. They will arrive shortly in spaceships to harvest their crop.

There, are you happy? You now know the meaning of your life.

Preposterous, you say? Compared with the Christian “reason” we are alive … that we were placed on this planet by an alien power to stumble around with almost no guidance and when we die we are taken to a place of torture for the rest of all time. That makes more sense to you?

Be careful what questions you ask; you may not like the answer.

May 6, 2013

An Imaginarium of Meaning

A recurring topic in this blog is the rabid thirst we seem to have for meaning. We have created tens of thousands of gods to be responsible for myriad things we could not describe at the time. We have had a god of lightning, a god of the wind, a good of good luck and one for bad luck, a god of a spring (not all springs, just one in particular, actually many of these). When the ground shook from an earthquake, we attributed it to some god’s message which had a particular meaning. “Uh, the ground god is unhappy with us. We must mend our ways.”

There seems to be no limit to this thirst for meaning. I remember a New Yorker magazine cartoon in which one psychologist passed another in the hall and said “Hello,” while a thought balloon over the second psychologist said “I wonder what he meant by that?” At the time I thought it was a comment about psychologists but now I realize it is a comment about human behavior.

Where did this desire to find meaning everywhere come from? I can’t know whether anyone will be able to prove this but, as Bob Newhart used to say, I suspect it went something like this: when we evolved our big brains we found a use for them while out hunting. There were distinct advantages to having multiple hunters working in concert. The problem involved how to coordinate the hunt, how to turn a bunch of individuals into a team. Presumably grunts and hand signals worked up close and louder vocalizations worked from farther away. The question, though is what did that particular grunt or whistle mean? So through pantomime they eventually developed a vocabulary of hunting instructions. You can see the modern equivalents in any action-adventure movie when a group leader, moving his group in silence, stops the group in its tracks by an upheld clenched fist. Then moves them again with a hand wave.

The greater the communication, the greater the success of the hunt and the greater the demand for more communication. You could also substitute plant gathering as the activity (Ugh, this one poisonous. Mmm, this one okay but tastes bad.) or a number of different things. Such ability to communicate became very important on those occasions in which one family group encountered another. The encounters, as archeoanthropologists have determined, could be quite deadly. A larger group of males may decide to kill a smaller group’s males and take their females, for example. So communication was very helpful to prevent misunderstandings and possibly to negotiate bribes.

The central issue, always, was what did those grunts, clicks, and other vocalizations mean. One tribe’s grunts might be another’s whistles.

And as we developed language, it became a more and more valuable tool, so we developed nuances. We could agree with somebody sarcastically, indicating we do not agree. This meant that the words themselves didn’t carry all of the meaning. Some linguists state that the words themselves carry less than 10% of the meaning of any statement now. Tone, inflection, affect all carry more meaning.

So when frightening occurrences happened, it became natural to seek meaning as well as inherent dangers. Lunar eclipses, thunderstorms, herbivore stampedes, all had meaning sought for them.

So, at least this tendency is imaginable.

But there is no limit to it. It is like a three-year old asking “Why?” The question cannot be answered.

One critique of atheism is that without a god, life would have no meaning. So, people who believe this have created an all purpose answer to the question: what is the meaning of life? Their answer is “God has a plan for you.” But you can’t question the mind of God, so that is the end of the question.* (Whew, I didn’t think there was one!)

Well, there is a answer to “what is the meaning of life?” That is: if you want your life to have a meaning, you must live it so that it does.

* According to the Catholic Catechism “He created us so that we would know, love, and serve him.” So God’s plan is that you be an informed infatuated servant.” It pays to not ask too many questions.

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