Sunday, 19 February 2017

"New Scientist" And The Meaning Of Life

A recent issue of New Scientist has a headline article on "The Meaning Of Life". It describes research showing correlations between a sense of purpose and various positive attributes such as health and happiness. It then touches on a few ways people can try to enhance their sense of purpose.

Unfortunately the second paragraph gives the game away:

As human beings, it is hard for us to shake the idea that our existence must have significance beyond the here and now. Life begins and ends, yes, but surely there is a greater meaning. The trouble is, these stories we tell ourselves do nothing to soften the harsh reality: as far as the universe is concerned, we are nothing but fleeting and randomly assembled collections of energy and matter. One day, we will all be dust.

Quite so --- assuming a secular worldview. In that context, the question "what is my purpose?" has no answer. The best you can hope for is to grab hold of some idea, make it your purpose and refrain from asking whether you have chosen correctly.

To me, even before I became a Christian, that approach seemed unsatisfactory --- too much like intentional self-delusion. To conclude "there is no greater meaning" and carry on as if there is didn't seem honest.

Later I came to believe that Christianity is objectively true. That means God has created us for a specific (yet broad) purpose --- "to glorify God and enjoy him forever", in the words of the Westminster Shorter Catechism. The question has an answer. We'll spend eternity unpacking it, though.


  1. In my freshman English course, we were required to read Ernest Becker's "The Denial of Death". Ostensibly it was as a means to motivate and analyze character development. It's very dense, very difficult stuff, but it completely changed the way I look at human motivations.

    The central thesis is that man is so terrified of his own mortality that he is constantly searching for a symbolic means of achieving immortality. He uses this to explain all kinds of psychological phenomena, from neurosis to fetishism to transference, and outlines several possible solutions: creating an enduring legacy of good work, serving a greater cause, devoting oneself to a lover. But he essentially concludes that only religion offers a solution that can withstand scrutiny: good works are forgotten, causes may not turn out to be so great, and lovers are mortal, too. In particular, he singles out Christianity as being particularly well-suited to solve this problem:

    "Little did it matter that the earth was a vale of tears, of horrid sufferings, of incommensurateness, of torturous and humiliating daily pettiness, of sickness and death... Little did it matter, because it served God and so would serve the servant of God. In a word, man's cosmic heroism was ensured, even if he was as nothing. This is the most remarkable achievement of the Christian world picture: that it could take slaves, cripples, and imbeciles, the simple and the mighty, and make them all secure heroes, simply by taking a step back from the world into another dimension of things, the dimension called heaven. Or we might better say that Christianity took creature consciousness---the thing man most wanted to deny---and made it the very condition for his cosmic heroism." [Emphasis in the original.]

    It was a very startling thing to read in an introductory English class.

    1. Thanks!!! I should read that.

      The Wikipedia summary suggests that he rejects religious solutions for being false, or worse, obsolete. But I think everyone should ask themselves: what if one isn't? Not to get too Pascal's Wager-ish, but isn't it worth seriously looking into?

    2. Well, the book was written in 1973. Against the backdrop of the Sexual Revolution and other things, the influence of Judeo-Christian ideology in the West was clearly waning. So I do think he believed that the world was turning away from religion, and perhaps that it was "obsolete" in that sense.

  2. "The best you can hope for is to grab hold of some idea, make it your purpose and refrain from asking whether you have chosen correctly."

    Wouldn't it be better to make something your purpose, then regularly verify that it is still appropriate? Refraining from asking questions seems too close to intentional self delusion for me.

    1. I agree. The problem is that --- assuming the secular worldview --- there is no objective way to "verify it is still appropriate".

    2. I consider subjectivity to be inherent in the meaning of "worldview". So yes, regularly (subjectively) verifying that your purpose is appropriate.

      Verifying your worldview involves painful existential dread. So I understand avoiding it.

      The only alternative is to grab hold of some idea, make it your purpose and come to believe it is objective.

    3. "subjective" and "verify" don't go together, in my mind.

      > The only alternative is to grab hold of some idea, make it your purpose and come to believe it is objective.


  3. >> The only alternative is to grab hold of some idea, make it your purpose and come to believe it is objective.

    > Self-deception.

    AKA: Religion.

    Not saying that religion doesn't have a purpose. Religion has played the role of Google for thousands of years, and still gives you pretty good answers for lots of things. But to declare religion to be an objective truth, and then turn around and assert that taking hold of an idea (other than religion) and making it an objective truth is self-deception, seems to be the epitome of hypocritical self-deception.

    1. You seem to be asserting that "everyone knows" all religions are not objectively true and therefore any religious believer is necessarily self-deceived.

      But I believe that Christianity is objectively true and I don't think that's the result of self-deception. (E.g. I think it's true partly because I think it's the best explanation for certain historical facts.) I could be wrong, but that doesn't imply self-deception.