21 August 2014

On the meaning of life

Steven Jake had a post over at his blog The Christian Agnostic in which he quotes Thom Stark in an exchange with John Loftus on the nature of faith and the meaning of life. You can read the full post at Steven's blog, but my comment ended up being long enough that I thought I'd just repost it here.

And, just to shamelessly plug myself a bit, I discussed these issues not long ago in a post On death and dying.

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Why is the alleviation of human suffering the right thing to do? If the universe is a cosmic accident (and it may very well be just that), I can’t figure out why human beings should have impetus to behave morally, other than when it helps us to preserve ourselves or our species or to make us happier in some way. When morality conflicts with self-preservation or self-gratification, I just don’t know why morality should win out. [Stark]

I confess that even in my days as a Christian, this type of view (which is pretty standard boilerplate for religion, in my estimation) didn't make much sense to me.What difference does it make whether the universe has some grand cosmic purpose? How does that change what I find meaningful in my life or what my moral imperatives are?

My life is meaningful to me in large part because it is so rare and special, an infinitesimal spec of space and time in an incomprehensibly vast universe that is almost entirely a lifeless void, one that contains more black holes than it does humans that have ever existed. Whatever this life of mine is, one thing's for sure – it is mine to live. Regardless of how I live my life, I'll almost certainly be soon forgotten, and the universe will continue on without me, just as it got along fine without me for billions of years prior to my brief existence. If there is some grand cosmic meaning, it's certainly well-hidden beneath our utter cosmic insignificance.

So, I have this time to make of my life what I can. I can try to live a good life, to enjoy life's pleasures great and small, to learn and grow, to pick myself up when I stumble. I can enjoy a twilight walk with my fiance, or wrestle with our new puppy, lose myself in guitar for hours, or expand my mind with literature or science. The world is at my fingertips waiting to be experienced and discovered, and that is enough for me. I don't need to be told I'm a special snowflake, that all this was put here with me in mind. I make my life's meaning for myself.

Why be good, then? Because I do not exist in a vacuum. I am an interdependent conscious creature living in a cooperative social hierarchy. I do not have the luxury of moral autonomy, because my actions impact the well-being of others and because, as we all are, I'm dependent on the cooperation of others for my own needs. I'll never meet the farmer whose crops have fed me or the people who logged the wood that built my house, but I can recognize that if I don't wish to respect others' needs and interests, others have no reason to respect my own. And again, that is enough for me. I do not need to be told there are eternal consequences for my actions, because I can see the consequences of them in the here and now. How many cheating spouses never felt the joy of truly loving and trusting their partner? How many oppressed and marginalized people could have been great leaders, doctors, teachers, or innovators?

To me, the finality of death or the relative brevity of my existence is not depressing; what's depressing is the thought that this life is not good enough. There can't just be the wondrous universe — there must be gods and angels and magic, too. There can't just be this life — there must be something more, something that never ends, in which I'm free from failure, from the pain and losses that have allowed me to grow and appreciate the time I have, from new beginnings and from bittersweet endings. It's like a book that never ends, or the perfect crescendo of a piece of music that goes on forever. Those things are meaningful to us precisely because they are so fleeting and precious. I don't need or want eternal life. I don't need or want the promise of eternal reward or the pithy threat of eternal torment. My life is meaningful to me because it's all I have.

The irony is that Thom seems to recognize this in his last paragraph. If there is some grand cosmic purpose to our existence, no one seems to have it figured out. Sure, some people claim they have, but really all they've done is declare meaning for themselves. So whether you believe, as I do, that death is the end and life is what we make of it, or that we are reaching for some elusive transcendent purpose that will outlive our Earthly bodies and indeed the universe itself, we're all ultimately forced to do the same thing — find meaning for ourselves. I suppose where I part ways with Thom is his phrase "and hope we get it right". I don't believe there is a "right way" for us to exist. There are better ways and worse ways, but only we can decide what is right for us both individually and collectively. I neither need nor care whether I "get it right", beyond the simplest interpretation of the phrase — that I've spent my life sharing in happiness with others, that I've appreciated the beauty and wonder of the universe, that I've done my small part to make the world a better place for the many others who are like me in our shared humanity, and that when I go, I go smiling back on a life well-lived.


You know that pain and guilt can't be taken away with a wave of a magic wand. They're the things we carry with us, the things that make us who we are. If we lose them, we lose ourselves. I don't want my pain taken away! I need my pain! - Captain Kirk

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