"A Universe Without Meaning" from Atheist Climber blog

We as a species tend to think of ourselves as pretty special. We have mental abilities that far surpass those of any other creature on earth, and we have social structures that we can maintain without constant infighting or always resorting to violence and territorial squabbles. We have a natural tendency toward togetherness and community where each of us can be included as a part, and we have created governments and infrastructures to make our lives easier and more comfortable. We have the ability to think beyond the now, to plan ahead and to fit these plans into our concepts of what we want our futures to be. We also have a very acute sense of self, a consciousness of our own identities and the ability to extrapolate that sense of self onto others via empathy.

This really does make us unique in our world. No other animal on earth has these abilities to the degree that humans do.

NASA - Spiral Galaxy NGC 1300

But with this uniqueness comes the misguided belief that we, unlike any other animal on earth, are more deserving of our place in this universe, and are so special in fact that once we have shuffled off this mortal coil, that there is more out there for us, that our lives somehow are a precursor for the "main event" and that we are here on earth as a test to see if we are fit to continue onwards. We also have the tendency to think that there must be more to a human life than just being born, living and dying. This tendency to place ourselves above all else in the universe as not only unique, but as special, brings with it the audacity to selfishly think that each one of us is so important that there must be more than just one life. If humans as individuals are so important, then surely just one lifetime is not enough for us. There must be more.

I think one of the most pointless question people have ever asked is the question of "What is the meaning of life?" or "What is the meaning of the universe?" These questions presuppose a few things:
  1. That our existences as individuals are part of a "divine plan", that what we do here on earth is just a cog in a bigger wheel which strives toward some predetermined destiny.
  2. That we as individuals are so important that our actions have been mapped out for us.
  3. The idea of fate, and that no matter what we as individuals do, the outcome is always going to be what was intended by an unseen timeline of events.
  4. Without the idea of "meaning" life is not worth living.
  5. It implies that the universe is deterministic.
  6. In order for there to be a "divine plan", there must be a "divine planner".
People do ask these questions and have for centuries, because without the feeling of "meaning" or "purpose" in an individual's life, one might believe there is nothing to live for. But I put to you this; there is no more meaning in the universe than there is in a rock or in the air, or a plant, or a dog. If someone were to ask you "What is the meaning of a dog?" or "What is the meaning of a rock?" you would look at them like they were delusional. Rocks and dogs and plants do not have meaning in and of themselves, so why should the universe?

Rocks, dogs and plants have implications, geomorphological, biological and botanical. They also have histories. But they do not have an innate meaning. We can ask questions about these things, like when did this rock originate, what is the evolutionary path taken by this dog, or where can this plant grow, but they are devoid of meaning if not put into a context of an actual question with a desired outcome.

It is the same for the universe. If we ask "What is the meaning of the universe?" what we are really asking is "Why am I here on earth now? I must be here for something, when will this greater purpose reveal itself to me?"

It is a product of human selfishness to ask questions like this. When we place ourselves so high in this world as to make ourselves the reason for the earth's existence, and then suppose that we have a meaning for being here, we become blindly focussed on ourselves. The consequences of this anthropocentric viewpoint can be seen all around the world in the way we treat this planet and its inhabitants.

Having established this, I know people will say something like "But how can you have a life without a purpose? Does this not mean that your life is without meaning?" Life has no meaning, but each of us as individuals can have a "sense of purpose" in our lives to be driven towards what makes us excited, or makes us happy, or makes us feel like we're making a difference in the world. A "sense of purpose" is very different from the idea of a "divine meaning" because each of us create our own "sense of purpose". The reward for the "purpose" is often the action doing our role in a given situation.

Some people say that without God life would not be worth living, as if somehow being given a role to fulfill on earth makes it all the more rewarding. Historically people have used the statement "God's divine plan" or "God's will" as an excuse to do any number of things. To say "It is God's will that I do this (action)" is in actuality a way of stating "I want to do this because I feel it is right and doing this gives me a sense of purpose." World leaders such as George W Bush have used such rhetoric to justify positions that he himself held such as:

"I believe that America is called to lead the cause of freedom in a new century. I believe that millions in the Middle East plead in silence for their liberty. I believe that given the chance, they will embrace the most honorable form of government ever devised by man. I believe all these things because freedom is not America's gift to the world, it is the Almighty God's gift to every man and woman in this world."

In this speech from September 2004, Bush not only incited God's Will, but also his own sense of divine purpose as given to him by God directly. And many state and church leaders worldwide do this on a regular basis. Bush even went so far as to say that God spoke directly to and through him.

When invoked in a political sense, is a great way for politicians to manipulate people into believing or doing something they may not otherwise do, such as go to war to kill people in the name of your country and God. This is very useful for a state that wants to control someone else's land or oil, because if they have a higher purpose but have not yet found it, what better one to choose than to fight for God? It is no wonder that the idea of living for a "higher purpose" has not been squashed earlier in history, it's far too useful.

But the idea of "higher purpose" and "meaning" is a selfish construct which places each individual above the needs of others in a community. To think that you have been hand-picked to carry out a role on a cosmic stage is self-centred and egotistical. Even when someone says they have a "higher purpose" to help the poor or comfort the sick, it is still a selfish act, claiming that an almighty creator-God has hand-picked them for that job. And of course people who claim "higher purpose" also bring along with them the doctrinal baggage of the God-figure they serve. Yet people do the same thing without claiming "higher purpose", secularly and because it is the right thing to do. More often than not this is the better way to go about things such as charity because the services to the people are done without the underlying dogma attached to missionary workers.

Questions like "What is the meaning of the universe?", "Why am I here?", "Why does anything exist?", "Why are things the way they are?" et al, are bad questions, because the question is not really asking anything. It's pseudo-philosophical and often hopes to debase facts by muddying the waters of real debate. The questions are infantile while pretending to be intellectual. They are bad questions.

The only actual purpose for people to be here is to perpetuate our own DNA, to breed and to extend ourselves. And this is the same for ANY and ALL living creatures on this earth. We are here to try to continue to be here. No meaning, just plain biological facts.

People need to realise the difference between what they perceive to be a "higher purpose" and what is their own drive or purpose in life. Sure you have to feel your life has an effect on things, we all do. We all want to be loved, needed and wanted by those around us. We all want to feel that what we do in our lives is not "all for nothing". But the effects of your actions and mine are real, on this earth, in this universe, and reason, purpose or meaning you extract from that is your own doing.

This article has cause quite a stir at my blog, go read the comments!

Views: 26

Comment by Andrew Lamb on June 21, 2010 at 11:24am
I liked this article. I realize that it reflects the foundation of existential philosophy and thereby unoriginal, but I sometimes feel certain atheists aren't educated in this aspect of philosophy. You are able articulate it clearly and broaden it to its social implications. Kudos.
Comment by Gerald Scott on June 21, 2010 at 1:30pm
Great post. Thanks.
Comment by Martin Pribble on June 21, 2010 at 6:52pm
@Andrew Oh I never claimed to be original ;)
BTW I haven't read too much about this school of philosophy either, I'm just taking my thoughts to their logical conclusions. And thanks!

@Gerald Thank you :)


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