If Atheism Is True, Does Life Still Have Meaning?
Andrew Sullivan linked to my conversion story recently, and there’s been some interesting discussion in response. It was this particular part of my essay that generated the most controversy, and I can’t say I’m surprised:
If everything that we call heroism and glory, and all the significance of all great human achievements, can be reduced to some neurons firing in the human brain, then it’s all destined to be extinguished at death. And considering that the entire span of homo sapiens’ existence on earth wouldn’t even amount to a blip on the radar screen of a 5-billion-year-old universe, it seemed silly to pretend like the 60-odd-year life of some random organism on one of trillions of planets was something special. (I was a blast at parties.) By simply living my life, I felt like I was living a lie. I acknowledged the truth that life was meaningless, and yet I kept acting as if my own life had meaning, as if all the hope and love and joy I’d experienced was something real, something more than a mirage produced by the chemicals in my brain.
Will Wilkinson disagreed with my methodology for deducing meaningfulness, saying that “the best reason to think ‘life is meaningful’ is because one’s life seems meaningful. If you can’t stop ‘acting as if my own life had meaning,’ it’s probably because it does have meaning.” Over at the New York Times, Ross Douthat responded to Wilkinson by saying that we need to look at that idea a little more closely. Douthat offered a thought experiment in which he described soldiers in the trenches who feel like the overall war is meaningless, yet find purpose in their bonds with one another. Ultimately, he concluded:
This is a very natural way to approach warfare…and it’s a very natural way to approach everyday life as well. But the part of the point of religion and philosophy is address questions that lurk beneath these natural rhythms, instead of just taking our feelings of meaningfulness as the alpha and omega of human existence. In the context of the war, of course the battle feels meaningful. In the context of daily life as we experience it, of course our joys and sorrows feel intensely meaningful. But just as it surely makes a (if you will) meaningful difference why the war itself is being waged, it surely makes a rather large difference whether our joys and sorrows take place in, say, C.S. Lewis’s Christian universe or Richard Dawkins’s godless cosmos. Saying that “we know life is meaningful because it feels meaningful” is true for the first level of context, but non-responsive for the second.
Exactly. That’s smart-person speak for the point I was fumbling around to make: All of the atheistic arguments I’ve heard in favor of the meaningfulness of human life assume that our experiences are valuable. “I volunteered at a soup kitchen this weekend, and that brought others happiness and gave me a sense of fulfillment,” the thinking goes. “That gives my life meaning right here, right now, whether or not there’s a soul or an afterlife.” It sounds lovely. But I don’t think it works.
Let’s say we have the following equation, and I have the freedom to make X whatever I want it to be:
X * 0 = _____
I could do something cool like make X = (21 + 2 + 10 + 28 + 22 + 14 + 7), adding up the days of the month for family and friends’ birthdays so that their total is a number that represents the month and day my husband and I were married. Or I could carefully craft some other combination of numbers that was deeply significant to me. But the equation would still look like this:
(21 + 2 + 10 + 28 + 22 + 14 + 7) * 0 = _____
No matter how many or how few numbers I use, it would still yield the same result: Zero.
If consciousness is just a mirage produced by chemical reactions in our brains, and if the mirage permanently flickers out on the day those reactions cease, then do any of our conscious thoughts really matter? Sure, you can have an impact on others who will live on after you die, but one day they will disappear into thin air too. To my mind, all this talk of valuable life experiences adding up to something meaningful is like talking about how to make X add up to something meaningful in the above equation. In the end, it’s all for naught.
This, of course, does not necessarily mean that the atheist materialist worldview is false. Whether or not life has any meaning if atheism is true is a separate question from whether or not it is true in the first place. My intent here is simply to point out that you can’t have it both ways: Modern atheism denies that human consciousness is rooted in anything other than the chemicals in our brains, thus rejecting the idea that any of our experiences will last outside of time; yet it also tries to say that our consciousness and experiences are meaningful. I don’t see how both of those assertions can be true.
Interestingly, this is a debate I’ve had with atheists when I was an atheist, and with Christians now that I’m a Christian. It’s not only nonbelievers who argue that you can find meaning within the atheist worldview: I’ve talked to quite a few Christians who say that if there were no eternal life for the soul, they would still find life to be meaningful. Maybe there’s some gene that allows you to sense meaning even if you believe that you’re faced with complete annihilation? If so, I don’t have it, because that mindset is not one I’ve ever understood. To paraphrase Bertrand Russell: If all of our feelings and experiences take place in the ever-fleeting realm of time, they’re already as good as gone.