Class Warfare Blog

February 8, 2020

The Bricklayers’ Parable

Filed under: Culture,Philosophy,Religion — Steve Ruis @ 9:54 am
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Have you heard of the Bricklayers’ Parable? If not, here it is:

* * *

The Bricklayer’s Parable
Three bricklayers are asked “What are you doing?”
The first says “I am laying bricks.”
The second says “I am building a church.”
The third says “I am building a house of god.”

The first bricklayer has a job, the second has a career, and the third has a calling.

* * *

Before I address this for the point I want to make, let’s explore what we are told. Is there anything in the text of this parable that tells you which bricklayer is more skilled? How about who works harder? Anything? There is not a single thing in the text that indicates anything of this kind but we bring certain attitudes along with us. Many of us assume that the bricklayer who just has a job is probably not doing work as good as the other two. But, I have known people who are in “skilled trades” who had a great deal of pride in doing high quality work. They hated being pushed to work faster than a high quality job required. They hated being given poor materials to work with, etc. If, at the end of a work day they felt they had done a good job, they came away feeling some satisfaction in that.

So, no, I don’t think the bricklayer who looks at his work as a job is doing any less of a quality job than the other two. He might be, but there is nothing in the text to indicate that. There is also nothing that indicates that the other two are doing less of a job.

So, What’s Your Point?
My point is that each of these three characters claims a different purpose for their work. For the first, his purpose is doing a good day’s work for a day’s pay. (A “good” day’s work is necessary or one might not have a job for long.) The second seems to be building an asset for this community (it may not even be his community, he may have driven in from a different county for this job). And the third is claiming a “higher purpose.”

Do these purposes change the job required? I can’t see how, but I guess it is possible. The relationship between bricks and mortar and taught alignment strings doesn’t seem to have even a whiff of the supernatural and I can’t think of a natural cause that would change the process of the work being done.

So, where did these purposes come from? Were they given to these three people or did they create them themselves? If they were given to them, who gave them?

My argument is that “purposes,” which are basically reasons for doing something, are sometimes given but almost always created by the person themselves. An example of one that is created by others is when parents ask their children how they are going to support themselves. This expectation of purpose may have its roots in our pay-as-you-go culture and the parents are just vehicles for its transmission. So this purpose can be considered to be given by the collective “us.” This is how we want our society to run.

Just because a purpose is pressed upon someone doesn’t mean they have to accept it. There are ne’er-do-wells in our society who have no “visible means of support,” who live through the charity of others, for example.

The bricklayer “just doing a job” has a purpose: supporting his family, putting a roof over his head, having something to eat, etc. Is this purpose any better or worse than any other?

If anyone claims they know the “purpose of life” I would grasp my wallet and walk away. That someone is making up a purpose for your life and will try to press it upon you. If you accept it, then it is indeed yours, but watch out, you may be being conned.

The third bricklayer is one of these folks. He is helping to build this building, he is not building it. He is, presumably, just laying the bricks for the walls, etc. but he will probably not be roofing the place, doing the floors, installing the windows, the HVAC, the plumbing, wiring the building, etc. He is putting on airs by saying “he is building a house of god.” And what if he were, say, a Southern Baptist by denomination and finds out after the building is finished that the church was being built for the Church of Scientology? Would he still think he built a house of god?

People who claim to know your purpose in life are putting on airs. Doing this makes them feel special, I am sure, but it is hardly something one can put any stock in it when so many people, doing the exact same thing are doing that thing for different reasons, which we call “purposes.”

You make your own. You are powerful!

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.


June 11, 2019

On Purposes, Destinies, and Lots in Life

I stated something a few days ago, to which I now return. It was this: “Anyone, theist or atheist, who thinks that ‘purposes’ exist anywhere but in our imaginations is sadly poorly informed.” It must have had a bit of a ring of truth about it as it was mocked by John Branyan.

The whole idea of there being a purpose in life (Branyan’s will take eternity to fulfill, according to him) is part and parcel of a whole load of rubbish regarding what we do and why we do it.

At the top of the list is the Divine Right of Kings. Kings have fashioned themselves as having been chosen by god to be his very instrument. This was obviously part of a power play. The religious elites and secular elites contested for power (Gilgamesh, one of the oldest stories in existence, makes this clear. Gilgamesh had to seize power from the religious elites who controlled his actions.) It had to become clear to someone that these two power centers would be better off allied than enemies. So, in return for state power protections, kings were granted “divine rights.” In earlier societies that were theocracies, these two powers were often vested in one and the same person (a “god-king”) and that person could use whichever weapon that better suited a situation. One could either send in the priests or send in soldiers to resolve a “situation.”

Right next to this is being Called by God. I am sure many Popes and others of high religious office state that god has called them to their office. Obviously anyone challenging them would therefore have to be criticizing god’s decision making abilities. Another power play.

At the bottom of this hierarchy is someone’s “Lot in Life.” Basically, no one wanted to clean out the cesspool, so we drew lots and well, it was your lot in life to have to clean the cesspool. Only poor people have these. Poor people and slaves have a purpose or a calling only in fictional tales designed to give the poor hope, so they won’t riot or rebel.

In the middle of this spectrum is where we find “purposes.”

All of these designations are fictional (not actual cases of drawing lots, like drawing the short straw, but metaphor ones, in which someone is told that being a slave was their “lot in life”) and serve to flatter/appease the receiver or con the audience. These are all parts of social control mechanisms.

By having clerics declare the divine rights of secular kings, the clerics get to perform the crowning ceremony, implying they were the ones giving the office (and in the machinations of history this proved true on more than one occasion). And also, the “state” collected their tithes for them, and enforced ecclesiastical commands (e.g. the Crusades). The royals had their power reinforced from the pulpit. Every one of the elites involved acquired greater power.

Christian life purposes are part of the con, also. Christians are often told that it is their job to “spread the Good News,” that is to spread the religion. So, once you have a mark who has embraced the con, they get to spread the con to others, kind of like a multi-level marketing scheme. In return for this, Christians get pumped up by being given a purpose for their live, one provided by God! And they are saved! Their afterlife will be more clouds than barbecue. Their god has a plan for each and every one of us, don’t you know.

Since people often display photos of themselves in the presence of celebrities (as proof they have actually met them or know them?) so, I wonder whether people have such photos of themselves hanging with Jesus or Old Yahweh in heaven? To believe that a god has noticed them and written their name in a big book and knows who they are and has gone so far as to help them with a career plan, well that is the biggest puff piece of them all. (Hint: how do you get people to work for you without paying them? Flattery seems to work.)

I have done a great many things in my life. As a youth and young man I played baseball and basketball, but apparently it was not my destiny to play those professionally. At a young age (16, I think) I chose my profession that I practiced for 40 or so years. Was that my purpose in life? If so, why did I retire and stop doing it? What I am doing now is quite different from what I did for those 40 or so years, so is what I am doing now my true purpose? I became a husband and father, were those my true purpose in life? The fact that no one can tell definitively tells you that this is all make-believe. It is what we tell one another to reinforce life changes we make or are made for us.

Now, if I can only figure out a way to get Branyan to mock my analysis, I will know it is true. (See, fictional bullstuff. We all do it.)

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 …




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