Back of the North Wind

Discussions of theology, philosophy, religion and life inspired by the writings of George MacDonald (and perhaps others such as CS Lewis) posted by "recovering fundamentalists".

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I am a "recovering fundamentalist". The trick is to figure out how not to throw out the Baby with the bathwater. I learn through dialogue, and so invite commentary on my posts to Back of the North Wind.

Monday, November 15, 2004

The Source of Meaning for an Atheist

Cline provides, in his rebuttal to my post about the livability of a self-consistent materialist world-view, one argument for meaning in life: enjoyment of pleasant experiences:

As for myself, the lack of permanence isn't a problem. I doubt that it's normally a problem for donalgrant, either. I'll bet he enjoys good meals, despite the fact that each meal is temporary and has no possible final consequence. I'll bet he enjoys good movies, despite the fact that each movie (or at least the experience of viewing it for the first time) is temporary and has no possible final consequence. Even for non-materialists who believe in an eternal afterlife, most events in their lives are temporary with no possible final consequence — yet, for some strange reason, they don't abandon them as meaningless.

Why? Probably because they enjoy those experiences and value them for what they are, right then and there. I have the same perspective on life. overall It's not permanent. Someday, perhaps today, I'll die and that will be it for me — my memories and personality will disappear as my physical brain dies. Does this logically entail that I cannot value and enjoy what I have right now? Of course not.

In fact, yes I do enjoy good meals, and good movies too. (Are there any out there at the moment?)

One must distinguish between pleasure and meaning, however. Experiences need not be pleasurable to be meaningful. Many of the most meaningful life events are even painful: the birth of a child, a memorial service for a friend, the running of a marathon, fighting a battle, defending a thesis. (Okay that last one maybe doesn't rank up there -- but it was memorable and painful for me!)

So meaning is certainly not tied to pleasure. But Cline is just using this as an example. So let me enlarge his source of meaning in life to "valuing experiences for what they are, right then and there." Let's examine what those experiences are, right then and there, to a materialist.

"Meaning" is association, a way of connecting one thing with another. For example, the meaning of certain letters on a page is the concept of the word they spell. The meaning of a metaphor is the concept represented by it, and the connection between the metaphor and the concept. In other words, meaning is going beyond the mere appearance of a thing, to an implication behind it. "What do you mean?" we say, not when we didn't hear the words, but when we couldn't interpret the message behind the words.

"Meaning" is also provided by consequence and/or memory: this is another version of the "association" of the previous paragraph, where now the interpretation of the event is the consequence of the event, or the association it has in one's memory with other events.

Cline argues that meaning does not rely on permanence. I will counter that "permanent meaning" relies on permanence: survival of a memory of an event or a consequence to that event -- neither of which can be obtained in a materialist universe, as I argued in my earlier post: "We come from supernova dust, we end up as dissipated heat in the entropy death of the universe. What happens between is temporary and has no impact and no possible final consequence."

But what about temporary meaning? Here too the materialist has a difficulty. For there to be meaning in an event, as I have said, there must be an association. But one step more, there must be some truth in the association, or at least, some belief in the truth of the association. My wedding ring is meaningful because it means that my wife loved me when she gave it to me, or at least, that I believe she did. If there is no way for me to believe that there is a relationship (positive or even negative) between the gift of the ring and the love of my wife, then the meaningfulness of the ring ceases to exist.

However, if I am convinced of a purely materialist world-view, then all events, including my own actions and the consequences of those events and actions are either determined, or are random. Even my attempt to make an association between events is either determined or random. If the association is random, then (I assert) there is no meaning, no value to it, no expectation of truth in the association, just as a dictionary which made random associations between groups of letters and concepts would not provide meanings to the words. If, on the other hand, the association is determined, then I had no choice in whether or not to make the association. If I had no choice in making the association, it cannot be "my association", and cannot be a meaning for me.

I recognize that this is abstract, but the world of pure materialism is so far removed from the world of our ordinary experience that one has to be a little abstract. Let me try to illustrate:

The good meal that Cline and I both value (make mine a steak with some good wine!): what are some of the ways in which it might be postulated to be meaningful? Perhaps the meal is associated with the friend who shared the meal, perhaps the meal is associated with the pleasurable memories of taste and satisfaction, perhaps the meal represents my competence because I also cooked it skillfully? (Or maybe the meaning is my incompetence because I cooked it poorly!) Three (of many) examples which might imbue a meal with meaning. What happens when we approach this meal from a strictly materialist point of view?

As a materialist, I am allowed to hold that the association I have for the meal (its meaningfulness to me) is either a random event or was determined. This applies both to the objects of the association (for example, the meal and my incompetence as a cook) as well as the connection between the objects -- the association itself. In the case of the objects, if the meal was a random result over which I could not possibly have had any control, then I cannot maintain that the meal represents any connection to my competence as a cook. On the other hand, if I had no choice but to cook the meal in the way I did -- there was no way for me to "fail" (assuming the competent cook scenario) -- then there is no value in the success, and no meaning in the meal.

Moreover, and more fundamentally, if I understand from the materialist world-view that the association between the meal and my competence is a random event -- then the elements of the association cease to have any relationship to each other. Or if the association was determined without any choice on my part, it ceases to be my meaning for the event: if I have no choice over the associations that occur in my mind, then they are not associations with any particular meaning to me -- they are merely forced upon me.

In robbing people of the ability to choose their own associations, Materialism robs the world of even temporary meaning.

One can do the same analysis with any other postulated meaning of a meal, or any other event. But what really happened? In the beyond-purely-materialist universe, our atheist cooked a meal by making choices about what food to serve, making choices about whom to invite to the meal (perhaps I wouldn't make the cut), and by skillfully making decisions along the way about how to prepare the meal. As she reflects later upon the success of the meal (how much she enjoyed the taste and the compliments she obtained from the guests) she realizes that she hosted an excellent dinner party. She associates the meal itself with her abilities as a chef and the friendships she has. She chooses to maintain that association, and later, when she's depressed about some new ridiculous hate-mail from an irrational theist, she remembers that meal and the memory of her competence and friendships brightens her life.

All meaningful because of the choices she makes -- choices that she could have made otherwise, including the choice to impart meaning to the meal itself. Fortunately for her and for other materialists, she does not dwell day-to-day on the materialist implication that she had no choice in any of her actions. If she did, she would find that a completely self-consistent materialism is not a livable world-view.