Monday, 21 December 2009

Part 1: Meaning

From the series: 6 Ultimate Reasons Not To Be An Atheist?

#1 Atheists cannot believe that there is purpose and meaning to life
It's quite the knock-out argument. The universe is nothing more than indifferent forces acting indiscriminately. Life itself is nothing more than one expression of those laws of physics, as are meteors, supernovae and black holes. For there to be meaning and purpose to life, there needs to be meaningful and purposeful creation.

The first question that needs to be asked, does there need to be purpose and meaning to life itself? Might as well say that a world-view fails because it doesn't have pink unicorns in it. The truth of the world-view is in no way affected about whether there is meaning to the process or not.

Consider the implications of arguing for what Daniel Dennett calls belief in belief. The argument isn't whether to believe in what is true, but what is desired to be true. To put it simply, one could believe that through psychics they can talk to deceased loved-ones. They could engage with psychics and have an overwhelming emotive experience where they come away believing they've connected with their dear departed. But in no way does it mean that physics can really communicate with the dead.

So the notion is dead in the water, it doesn't affect the notion that there's no god in the slightest. But it's hardly satisfying to leave it there.

The next question is what can an interventionist deity to do solve this meaning problem. Well to take the simple answer, by act of purposeful creation it gives inherent meaning to the process. But is it really that simple? I would contend not. Consider the following.

If this argument holds, then it would mean that robots would have meaning while people not because people created robots intentionally and purposefully. Indeed any creation of man would have meaning because of intentionality. We are purposeless beings that give a purpose by intentionally creating with purpose in mind.

But it goes further in its implications than just that. One wonders how there could be meaning in the first place. Is meaning inherent in god? Or is it something else? Is it the intentionality that creates meaning? If so, then all meaning needs is intelligent agents acting causally. Gods at best add that there could be meaning to life, but it is a huge concession and does nothing for meaning in our lives.

Which brings me to the third question, where does this leave the atheist? An atheist doesn't need there to be inherent meaning to life, nor does one need inherent meaning to lead a meaningful life. Richard Dawkins would object to the statement that he admits that it's all an accident, he would agree that there's no meaning but would argue against it being an accident.

If a brick is flying towards a window, is it an accident that the window breaks? No, it's just blind forces acting. The accident comes from intentionality, the thrower of the brick might have been aiming for a different target in which case the window smashing was accidental. But as for the physical forces at play, the forces did exactly as they do. Not accident, not purposeful, just are.

It's important to remember just how we got to be the way we are. The process of evolution works on reproductive success, thus those organisms better suited to life are going to have more offspring. In effect, the process of evolution creates purpose for the organism as it gears an organism towards reproductive success. No intelligent agent necessary, the process is going to inevitably make survival machines.

The meaning that we know to be meaning is not from our creation by an intelligent agent, but our interaction in the world. It seems a leap here so I'll explain. Since the way our minds work have been shaped to find significance in relation to the survival of our genes. We see purpose in relationships with others, in having and raising children, in making technology, in telling stories, in actions that affect others. To think of meaning as anything more is to anthropomorphise reality.

So how does an atheist see meaning in the universe? We see meaning in ourselves, in our actions and in our interactions as causal intelligent agents. Our actions have consequences for not only ourselves but for others as well, and we can recognise as such. So there doesn't need to be purpose to life itself because the process of life generates beings that have purpose.

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