Dec. 8, 2011
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If atheism is true, is life meaningful? Fellow Register blogger Jennifer Fulweiler recently touched off some discussion on this subject with an essay on her conversion from atheism, which inspired criticism from Will Wilkinson and defense from Ross Douthat, and has now come home to Jennifer’s Register blog.
In the combox of Jennifer’s latest post, a correspondent writes:
I still haven’t seen a cogent argument from anyone on why a god (or eternal life, or some other factor) changes a meaningless existence into a meaningful one. Once again, it seems to come down to arbitrary “feelings” instead of reason.
I think this is a cogent commentary regarding the existential implications of “a god,” in the broadest sense of that term.
Let’s suppose that by “a god” we mean, not only a powerful, long-lived being, but one with whom the lives and fates of men are in some important way entangled—a being whose activity or nonactivity, favor or disfavor could mean blessings or curses for men, and with whom we may reasonably hope or expect to be on better or worse terms depending on how we live and how we dispose ourselves toward the god through acts of worship, piety, sacrifice, etc.
Let it be said that a divinity meeting this definition, if it existed, could be an important and practical part of our understanding of the world. It might well be advantageous to do whatever might be done to try to stay on the god’s (or the gods’) good side, just as it makes sense for peasants or peons to enjoy the favor of the local lord or strongman. If he were a benevolent god, we might naturally have feelings of veneration or piety toward him in much the same way that men have always venerated parents and grandparents, etc.
But I agree with Jennifer’s correspondent that such a god doesn’t necessarily offer any radical departure from the existential implications of atheism (or materialism, or naturalism, or whatever term you prefer). That’s why Buddhism is sometimes called an “atheistic” worldview even though Buddha never denied the gods and indeed spoke respectfully of them. Buddhism is perfectly compatible with piety toward the gods, but Buddha recognized that the gods were of no ultimate existential importance.
The existential upshot of atheism is that there is no absolute frame of reference with respect to such categories as “meaning” or “good and evil,” just as relativity theory teaches us that there is no absolute frame of reference in physics. Terms like “meaning,” “good” and “evil” can only be understood as reflecting the subjective perspective of the observers, and no two observers need share the same frame of reference.
It’s true that introducing a god into our worldview might offer a powerful localized, relative frame of reference, just as our proximity to large objects like the earth and the sun offers useful frames of reference in the physical world. But it’s still not an absolute frame of reference, because such a god is himself merely a contingent part of the universe just like we are.
The problem with relative frames of reference with respect to meaning and morality is that however useful we may find particular models for particular purposes, no model is ultimately any more or less valid or real than any other. It may be simpler and more useful for some purposes to say that the earth revolves around the sun rather than vice versa, but neither model is truer or less true.
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Wilkinson argues that “the best reason to think ‘life is meaningful’ is because one’s life seems meaningful.” But what about when life doesn’t seem meaningful? What about when people feel that they are worthless, that life is meaningless? Is their perception any less valid or significant than the opposite one?
A buoyant, comfortable atheist may be content to “feel” meaningful in a universe he intellectually regards as random. Sometimes, though, random events, senseless tragedies—more precisely, events we call “tragedies” when we are thinking in a meaning-oriented mode—or a diffuse sense of angst, absurdity or despair burden people with a crushing existential weight of meaninglessness.
In such a psychological state, it may or may not be helpful to reflect, or to urge others to reflect, on the fact that they are valued by other people. For one thing, it may not be true; for another, it may invite the inexorable response, “What makes them or their feelings more meaningful than me and mine?” Society may possibly mediate meaning if “meaning” has meaning; it cannot create it—and the same is true of the gods of much human religion. The meaning question is not a rhetorical or academic one.
Sometimes even in our happier moments—or even especially in our happier moments, when the world seems bursting with significance, and everywhere we look, beauty, goodness and truth seem to invite us to joy and fulfillment—the nagging thought that it is all a bioelectrochemical flutter in our nervous systems, that the perceived “significance” does not in fact signify, that the “invitation” comes from no one, that it is all a projection, a Rorschach response to the universe, like seeing faces in random patterns, seems to threaten to devour us.
The proposal “Just regard life as meaningful because it feels meaningful” can easily have a Heisenbergian effect on the reality it seeks to describe. Do we necessarily continue to feel that life is meaningful when we look at it that way?
C. S. Lewis expresses what many find an insuperable objection:
You can’t, except in the lowest animal sense, be in love with a girl if you know (and keep on remembering) that all the beauties both of her person and of her character are a momentary and accidental pattern produced by the collision of atoms, and that your own response to them is only a sort of psychic phosphorescence arising from the behaviour of your genes. You can’t go on getting any very serious pleasure from music if you know and remember that its air of significance is pure illusion, that you like it only because your nervous system is irrationally conditioned to like it. You may still, in the lowest sense, have a “good time”; but just in so far as it becomes very good, just in so far as it ever threatens to push you on from cold sensuality into real warmth and enthusiasm and joy, so afar you will be forced to feel the hopeless disharmony between your own emotions and the universe in which you really live.
While I’m aware that many atheists resist this sort of analysis, I confess the logic of their resistance escapes me; at any rate, it is unarguably the case that Lewis here puts his finger on something that feels inexorably true to a great many people, both believers and unbelievers—and if “meaning” itself is anchored only in our feelings, then the feeling of meaninglessness is an unanswerable difficulty.
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