Wednesday, December 5, 2012

Refelction on "Atheism and the Meaning of Life"

(Originally posted by Ryen in 1/2012)

As our Wednesday discussion about "Atheism and the meaning of life" drew to a close, several things that I had wanted to say were left unsaid. During the discussion I remained quiet and attentive - for I much prefer to listen and absorb than attempt a poorly improvised speech - and amidst all the raised hands I couldn't find an ideal foothold to express my analysis. So what follows is a short summary of what I would have liked to say.
Some people have defended the notion that life has no meaning, and perhaps can't have a meaning. Here were some specific points raised, which I am trying to represent as honestly as possible:
- What "obligates" a person to approach the world in a certain way? (This was mentioned in response to Mark's claim that meaning can be defined by a person's "highest goal.") Why can't a person's highest goal be to cause as much suffering as possible, or to "maximize the amount of blue in the world"? Why does a person even need a highest goal? If this matter is so subjective, we can hardly say that there is a consistent, overarching meaning - but then, if there is no consistency, how can we say that there is a "meaning" at all? People do what they do, for whatever whimsical subjective reason, but we can hardly ascribe to it any meaning or purpose.
- Does inanimate matter have meaning? What about single-celled organisms? If they have no meaning, then as evolution progresses, at which stage of evolution do the organisms begin to acquire meaning? Did humanity's immediate ancestors have meaning to their lives? If there is no meaning at any stage of our evolution, then there is no meaning to our existence - we are just in another stage of evolution. There is no magical leap from "non-meaning" to "meaning" - life is meaningless and absurd from beginning to end.

I think that many, if not most, problems in philosophy end up being problems of muddled terminology. In this discussion, the term "meaning" was never properly clarified, and has subsequently sustained serious abuse. To illustrate what I think went wrong, let me digress into an analogy with the term "free will." What do the religious, in general, think of when they use a term like "free will"? They imagine that there is some mysterious, immaterial thing called a "soul," which somehow has the property of free will, and is somehow able to influence the behavior of the body. The problem is that the more we examine human behavior, psychology, and brain anatomy, we find that this naïve notion of free will disappears entirely. (Even if we overcome the interaction problem, we haven't rescued the idea. If a behavior is not determined, even partially, by prior inputs, how is it to be distinguished from randomness?) This result leads nihilists to proclaim that free will is dead and gone, and along with it, accountability. But is this right? We seem to have no choice but to live believing that we have free will. Indeed, free will is not so dead after all - we are our brains, and thus what our brains want, we want. We are rational agents, and we should be glad that the possibility space of human behavior is immediately limited by rationality itself (otherwise we would behave chaotically, and probably not live very long). Perhaps "free will" itself is a misnomer - it is more like "rational will", as it is a (perhaps not entirely determined, depending on your interpretation of quantum mechanics) function of weighted inputs. As Patrick would say, we have "rational volition." We can rescue the will, and we can hold people accountable for their actions, on the premise that by doing so we can influence their decision-making process.
What has this to do with meaning? The nihilistic arguments against meaning (and religious arguments for meaning) presuppose a concept of meaning similar to the "soul-stuff" concept of free will. That it is some thing, which is somehow "out there", and somehow attaches itself to life-forms, or imposes itself over life-forms. This is clearly absurd. Upon close examination of life and existence, we find that, like the soul, there is no room for such a concept of meaning in the real world. Where is the meaning of an ant in all of existence? Why is it better that I should live morally, rather than live as a serial killer, or just die immediately, if it will not matter in ten billion years? We might as well ask, "why is there something rather than nothing?" If we insist on approaching the world in this way, pitting ourselves against the sum of all existence, we will never arrive at anything that looks remotely like meaning: everything that we do, whether we live or die, is just absurd. (Not even God rescues the idea. We can just ask, "what is the meaning of God?" On the nihilist's terms, no answer is possible). Thus the nihilist begins with an ill-defined, incoherent proposition, demonstrates that it is ill-defined and incoherent, and proudly declares that he has proved the nonexistence of meaning in the world.
In the way that we can resurrect a compatibilist account of free will (or "rational volition"), we can rescue a down-to-earth notion of meaning. Meaning is not a separate thing, but a relation determined by its consequences. Both the chair that I'm sitting on and my friend's life can have meaning to me. Similarly, my own life can have meaning to me.  We can perhaps build a skeletal definition of meaning as follows: the meaning of a thing to a conscious being is its effect on all the subsequent subjective mental states of that conscious being. I know, this definition seems very boring, cold, and abstract, but I also believe that it is accurate. Thus, if I say, "my life's goal is to be a well-known nihilistic philosopher", then the meaning of my life to myself is whatever I think and do in order to become a well-known nihilistic philosopher (whether I think my life has meaning or not), and the meaning of my life to others is whatever they think in response to my nihilism. So if an ant has any degree of consciousness at all, then it has meaning, both to itself and to other ants, but not so much to any human. To say anything like, "yes, all well and good, but does anything have meaning with respect to existence?" is to utter a non-sequitur.
But what about the objection that since meaning is a subjective experience, at the whim of the individual, then there can be no consistent overarching meaning for all people? As brought up in the discussion: why couldn't someone say that the meaning of his or her life is to maximize the amount of blue in the universe? But I just don't see how this objection is relevant to anything. It seems like a disguised attack on absolute morality; it also appears to be self-undermining: presumably the idea was brought up precisely because it would seem absurd to all of us. But if it was not absurd to us, in whatever odd universe, then we would not be making fun of it, but perhaps legitimately considering it as a meaning for our lives. (We might call this the "moral anthropic principle"). Furthermore, the argument seems to presume that we can freely choose to regard absolutely anything as meaningful (or nothing at all as meaningful, for that matter). Look around: do you see anyone whose life goal is to maximize blue? On the contrary, we do not choose our most basic moral and social intuitions. They have been chosen for us, millions of years ago, through the evolutionary algorithm. There is a reason we are not all sociopaths or blue-fetishists: neither of these things would have conferred an evolutionary advantage. Most humans are on the same page with regards to basic moral tenets and ideas of meaning. Through free speech, open inquiry, and rational dialogue, we can collectively discover what makes us happy and moral, and in so doing, arrive at a shared idea of meaning. Furthermore, we can criticize dissenting groups of people on the grounds that they actually want the same things we do, or would want what we want if they could see things from a different perspective. For example, a Muslim presumably wants to live a complete, moral, and excellent life, just as we do, only he thinks that the best way to go about doing this is to obey the Qur'an. If we can show him that his worldview is objectively wrong, then we can show him that his morality is objectively wrong. Perhaps we could even attempt to reason with psychopaths - if we could somehow cause a psychopath to subjectively experience the world as we do, then perhaps he would conclude that he would much rather not be a psychopath, even if this notion was absurd to him initially.
I realize that I have probably left many loose ends in my arguments (and perhaps typos and grammar errors; I didn't bother to do much proofreading). To tie them all up would likely require me to write a full-length textbook, or ten. I am not a formally trained philosopher, and I wrote this in relative haste. Am I right? Approximately right? Or have I committed some terrible act of philosophical hubris and argued nonsense? I would strongly appreciate feedback.

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