Does your life have meaning? I don’t mean to pry. I am just trying to get you to think a little deeper about a thing that causes amateur philosophers and theologians to lose sleep at night. Christians seem to be convinced that all atheists are depressed nihilists constantly wallowing in the mire of meaninglessness, daily flipping a coin between life and suicide. Most uncharitably, Christians are often heard asking the question of atheists, “If there is no god and no meaning to life, why don’t you just kill yourself?” Indeed, that is a question that reveals more about the asker than the asked.
At the root of that question is the assumption that for life to have any value at all, it must have extrinsic, atemporal meaning. Sorry about the big words. But this is a big concept that needs to be unpacked. For the meaning seekers, it is not enough that life is intrinsically meaningful. For them, life must be validated by something outside of itself. Life is not meaningful in and of itself. Rather, it is given meaning by outside forces.
It is also clear that time cannot play a part in determining life’s extrinsic meaning because that would imply a self-contained meaning. Therefore, the meaning of life has to be divorced from the fact that life, as we currently know it, is temporary. If the meaning of life were tied to the temporary nature of life, then the meaning of life, itself, would be temporary. For the meaning seekers, that is unsatisfactory.
But I contend that the typical Christian view of meaning, and indeed, the search for meaning, is itself, meaningless. It is internally contradictory and logically unstable. In addition to exposing the flaws in the search for meaning, I will positively defend the claim that while life is ultimately meaningless, it is extremely valuable. And that value is, in and of itself, the highest form of meaning. Let’s dig in:
No Such Thing as Meaning
The main reason I don’t believe life has any extrinsic, atemporal meaning is that there is no such thing as meaning. It is a metaphysical construct imbuing the recipient with value beyond what is intrinsically and apparently there. Meaning also conveys a sense of purpose that makes a thing more vital and indispensable than it otherwise would be.
It is easy to see the obvious, evolutionary advantage to a species that is convinced of its own meaningfulness, above and beyond that which is available to anything else in the universe. Notice that Christians are not concerned with the extrinsic, atemporal meaning of other animals, stars, black holes, vacuum energy. These things have a certain value. But only human life has “real” meaning. There is a certain bias that places one’s self in the center of the universe, around which, everything revolves.
But none of that obscures the truth that meaning is nothing more than a useful, evolutionary construct. Quite apart from the meaning we decide we have, the very idea of meaning is a vestigial remnant of our lizard brain that justified our position as the center of the universe, nothing more.
Center of the Universe
There is a kernel of solipsism in everyone. We can’t help it. From our perspective, each of us, individually, is the center of the universe. What happened the day before you were born? From your perspective, nothing. The world created itself the moment you opened your eyes to see it. What happens the day after you die? Nothing. The world ends when you are no longer here to observe it. The only part of time you can experience is the part you occupy.
What is the world? The world is as it looks and sounds and smells and tastes as it does to you. Your perception of the world is the only truth of the world that matters. Because that is the only truth of the world you can access. That is why others who hear the voice of god are crazy, while you are perfectly sane, and genuinely hearing god’s voice in your head. The reason the possibility of mental illness applies to them but not you, is that it is your world. Your experience of the world is the only truth you can directly access. Because you are the center of your universe, if your perceptions are not reliable, then the world is unreliable.
To keep from admitting our solipsism, we manufacture a sense of meaning which tells us we’re special. If our lives have meaning, then surely, the universe will not allow our senses to fool us. The real reason our perception of the world is truest is that we are special. And while all human life has meaning, some lives have even more meaning.
The bible records Jesus as saying, “Many are called, but few are chosen.” Individually, every Christian believes that they are one of the chosen few: not just called, but chosen. This is a very powerful idea. It means that their extrinsic source of meaning has particularly marked them in a way not available to most others. When a lone survivor climbs from the wreckage of a plane, they are often convinced that they have been spared for a purpose.
Given that the other 399 passengers died a horrible death, how could the survivor not think her life was overflowing with meaning and purpose? Of course, the universal life-force has chosen her for something special. Why else would she have walked away without a scratch? How could anyone ever explain such a thing naturalistically? We all are aware that meaningless coincidence happens to everyone else all the time. But because our universe is the “real” one, and the only one we can access, we have a hard time recognizing meaningless events when they happen to us. Our experience of the world tells us that everything that we experience is highly meaningful, if only because we were chosen to experience it.
The Source of Meaning
For Christians, it is an open and closed case: Meaning comes from god. Value is assigned by humans. That is why we don’t debate the value of life. We are concerned with the meaning of life. What are we worth, is a fundamentally different question than, why are we here. The former is a “what” question. The latter is a “why” question. Theologians and philosophers eschew the known whats to major in the unknown whys.
The reason Christians look to god for meaning is that nothing else in the universe provides it. As far as the rest of the universe is concerned, humans are target practice. The universe is mostly out to kill us. As far as purpose is concerned, the universe does not need us. Even our planet does not need us. There is no symbiosis. The planet was doing just fine before we arrived. To the extent that the planet is sick, it is because of us, not in spite of us. If the planet had a say in the matter, it would probably be very happy to see the last of us go away. We don’t need to save the planet. We need to leave it alone.
If we want to find meaning, we have to look beyond the universe. If life were intrinsically meaningful, then it would have no more meaning than that which nature assigns it. And nature has assigned it no meaning whatsoever. Nature destroys as readily as it births. Nature is completely indifferent to life. But god creates life. God loves life. God is life: the ground of all being. If life has any meaning at all, it has to come from god. No other source elevates life beyond mere value.
The Problem with Extrinsic Meaning
Let’s say you have a seashell prominently displayed in your home. That shell has meaning to you because you and your spouse to be, bumped heads reaching for it at the same time. But what is that shell’s meaning when you later discover that the original shell was lost in a move. And the one you are displaying is just some seashell your kids picked up on one of their school field trips. The meaning you once invested in that shell no longer applies. You were never concerned about the intrinsic value of the shell (likely, next to nothing). You were only concerned about the meaning you poured into it.
That is precisely the problem with drawing one’s meaning from an outside source. You are only as meaningful as that source finds you to be at that particular moment. If you stop pleasing the source that gives you meaning, then you are no longer meaningful. When your source of meaning is as capricious as the god of the bible, then your meaning will always be in doubt.
At first glance, god is no more concerned about human life than nature. The second glance looks no better. The god of the bible destroyed human life by the millions. The Christian scriptures promise that he will do so by the billions once the gates of Hell are opened for business. This wholesale destruction is not just reserved for the atheist. It is also a reality for many believers who have devoted their lives to his work. The god from which you draw meaning can render you meaningless in a blink.
The Eternity Paradox
It is a lot easier to assign meaning to things that are temporary. Consider the meaning of the universe. It has been here for approaching 14 billion years. Had it burst into existence, quickly formed our planet, gave birth to humans, then changed modes to sustain and nurture our kind of life, one might be tempted to say that the purpose of the universe was to bring us into being. This would be a pretty easy call had those things happened within, say… six days.
Instead, what we have is a universe that has been doing more or less the same thing for about 14 billion years. It was around for about 9 and a half billion years before it got around to making our sun. From there, our ascension seems to be more luck than design. The universe has not stopped to notice our existence. It has not molded itself into a more friendly environment for our kind of life. It has deposited us on a planet, most of which is completely inaccessible to us. Of the parts we can access, most is hostile to our kind of life.
Not only did the universe not change modes, it does not seem to be going out of its way to make more like us. It is doing what it does like a mindless machine that continues to run until the batteries die, or the parts break down. As near as we can observe, the universe is a meaningless machine that is mindlessly expanding towards heat death. Its extreme longevity destroys the illusion that it has any meaning whatsoever.
Multiply that times infinity, and you will get the Christian’s expectation of what their lives will be in Heaven. If the meaning of this life is to fear god and keep his commandments (as the bible suggests), then what is our meaning after we have done that? Do we have to keep doing that forever without end in order to have meaning? What happens in Heaven after singing “Amazing Grace” for the first ten million years? Is it okay if we stop and maybe do something else? What happens when we’ve done that, and the next thing, and the next thing? Where is the meaning in that?
An episode of Star Trek Voyager explored this paradox. The Q Continuum was a race of beings that were eternal. They had been everything and done everywhere. At some point, there was simply nothing left for them to do. The only thing they hadn’t tried was dying. Every version of Heaven I have ever encountered is the ultimate definition of meaningless existence. Unlike the universe, it will never wind down. The parts will never corrode. The eternal life that Christians seek is the ultimate insult to meaning.
Life Without Meaning
One of the greatest existential crisis for the Christian is the contemplation of a life without meaning. They believe that you must either have extrinsic meaning provided by god, or commit suicide. They can see no other possibility. Bypassing all other problems with this way of thinking, I will focus on this one glaring fact: It is the Christian who is most often desperately searching for some sort of meaning for their lives. In general, the atheist couldn’t care less.
For centuries, believers have been trying to figure out what their calling is. They are convinced that all the chosen have a particular calling. But god has never been especially clear or helpful when it comes to letting the chosen know exactly what it is they are supposed to be doing. At this very moment, many Christians are ringing their hands over whether to go into the mission field, or pursue a promotion at work. Is the calling to be a good wife and mother, or a teacher of the word in Uruguay.
At this very moment, a million Christians are straining to hear the call just a little more clearly, to know what they should do next, and understand their place in the world. They accept god as the source of meaning because they believe it will be the answer to one of the perennial, existential questions. Instead, they just find that it opens the door to even more questions that no one can answer for them.
I contend that this desperate search for meaning is what opens so many believers up to abuse from fake representatives of a non-existent god. Surely, an existing god would not allow himself to be represented by fakes. But people lose their fortunes and families chasing the advice of people who claim to be shepherds of god’s flock. They set themselves up as the interpreters of life’s meaning. Believers would rather grasp at false meaning than accept the possibility that there is no meaning at all. For them, a life without meaning is a bridge too far.
I contend that this is an emotionally immature way to look at life. It is a lot like objective morality. With morality, we think it is too big a task for us to decide right and wrong for ourselves. We are convinced that we are not worthy to make such judgements. We need something bigger than humanity to sort it out for us so that everything works out to be equitable in the end. That is a very childlike idea. Children look to adults to set the rules because the adults know what they’re doing. And the adults will see to it that everyone plays by the rules. Carrying that idea into adulthood is emotional immaturity.
In the same manner, these same people believe that human life must have some ultimate meaning that is too big for humans to determine. We are not worthy to determine our own meaning for ourselves. We would just muck things up. Therefore, we look to the heavenly adult to sort it out for us, and tell us what our purpose is. Christians want to come to Jesus as little children because they can’t be trusted to make the big decisions. They will wait for the big guy to give them a sense of direction. There is a better way.
The Value Proposition
First, let me answer the question on the minds of so many believers: How can life be worth living without meaning? For the answer, just tune your TV to the Animal Planet. There you will see animals of every stripe living out their lives with zest and vitality, and nary a thought for the meaning of it all.
How does the universe go on without meaning? It has managed to do just that for upwards of 14 billion years. And every indication is that is only the beginning. The real question is, why is it that certain humans seem to be the only entities in the universe that require a sense of meaning as a prerequisite for enjoying a full and worthwhile life.
As I stated earlier in this post, meaning requires outside help from the supernatural. Value requires nothing more than human judgement. A life without supernaturally endowed meaning still has value. Moreover, that value is not the result of an outsider’s opinion. Every human value’s their own life. And their life has exactly the amount of value they place on it. When a human decides that her life has no more value, she ends it. No other human’s sense of her value can trump that of her own.
My cat’s life most assuredly has no meaning. She is fifteen years old. She sometimes occupies the toilet, and dares me to move her. She claws at my leg demanding to be petted. She screams her demands when I am trying to concentrate on work. She is insufferably annoying more often than not.
She has lost a step. She doesn’t heal as quickly. And she is antisocial to the point of being rude. She can’t possibly have many years to go. Yet she attacks life each day, and clearly values every moment of it. She hangs onto it tenaciously with an iron will. I value my cat. But she values herself much more.
For the most part, we all value our lives quite highly. There is an evolutionary advantage to valuing all life highly. In that way, everyone will also value your life. We have collectively decided that human life is worth something in the same way we decided that diamonds are worth something. Neither life, nor diamonds, nor vintage trading cards have any intrinsic value. They are worth only what we say they are worth. That does not mean they are worth nothing to us, and that we don’t value them very highly. We do.
Conclusion: A Life Worth Living
One of the differences between Christians and atheists is how we perceive a life worth living. As a non-theist, my life is worth living despite the occasional hardships. I try to consciously make a contribution to the world in an attempt to leave it in better shape than I found it. As for touching other lives, I believe that mine has been a net positive.
At this particular time in my life, I am as happy as I have every been. I am paid for doing what I love. And I love the people I am with. My cat sees me as a means to an end. But my dog seems to genuinely like me. And you can’t ask for much more than that. Financially, there is always room for improvement. But I have spent most of may life in worse condition than I’m in right now. My health could be better. But I still average three to five miles walking everyday.
I realize there is not a single thing I can do to make the universe notice my existence. I am simply too small and insignificant to matter to anyone except the few who are in my social graph. With my many accomplishments, Alpha Centauri remains unimpressed.I do not need the universe to notice me, or to live forever for my life to have been worth living in the space and time that I have it. Neither does anyone else.
The fact is, moving from belief to unbelief does not diminish a person’s perceived value one iota. In my experience, life’s value is greatly increased. The infinite is meaningless. It is scarcity that gives life its flavor. I am one of a kind. And I have fewer years in front of me than behind me. I can assure you, the universe can produce nothing more valuable than the life I have yet to live, except, maybe, your life.