Monthly Archives: December 2014

Meaning of Life Answers and Other Philosophical Views

A recent post provided a taxonomy of the answers to the meaning of life question. It may be helpful if we note at the outset how answers to meaning of life questions are extensions of other views in philosophy. Thus:

Negative answers – These are extensions of metaphysical, epistemological, and moral nihilism. If one argues that nothing ultimately matters—not reality, knowledge or morality—then one is probably committed to nihilism regarding the meaning of life. This view can be further divided between those who positively affirm that life is meaningless, and those who begrudgingly accept life’s meaninglessness.

Agnostic answers – These are extensions of metaphysical, epistemological, and moral skepticism. If one is skeptical of our ability to ask or answer pertinent questions in metaphysics, epistemology, or ethics, then one is likely to be skeptical of our ability to ask or answer questions about the meaning of life.

Positive answers (theistic) – These are extensions of metaphysical, epistemological, and moral supernaturalism. If one holds there to be a supernatural basis for metaphysical, epistemological, and moral truth, then one is probably committed to a supernatural basis for meaning.

Positive answers (non-theistic) – These are extensions of metaphysical, epistemological, and moral naturalism. If one holds there to be only natural metaphysical, epistemological, and moral truth, then one is surely committed to a naturalistic view of meaning. This view can be further subdivided between objectivists, who think you primarily discover value and meaning in the natural world; and subjectivists, who think you primarily create your own value and meaning in an otherwise meaningless cosmos.

This connection between metaphysical, epistemological, ethical issues, and questions of meaning should be self-evident. It is easy to see that the question “is meaning objective or subjective?” is similar to the questions: “is reality objective or subjective?” or “is truth subjective or objective?” or “is value subjective or objective?” Again the question “what is meaningful?” is similar to the questions “what is real?” or “what is true?” or “what is good?” Thus we find striking parallels between answers to the question of meaning, and answers to other basic philosophical questions.

Such parallels suggest that answers to the meaning of life question must await answers to these other philosophical issues. Unless we know which metaphysical, epistemological or ethical view is correct, how can we know which view of the meaning of life is best? So the problem with choosing between our various answers—nihilism, skepticism, supernaturalism, and naturalism—is that they are parts of differing philosophies of life or world views. And if our view of the meaning of life follows from our world view, then our question becomes: how do we choose between world views? This suggests that answers to the meaning of life question depend on our choosing a world view. In that case, we could dispense with the meaning of life question and investigate the philosophical world views upon which our view of meaning rests. Then, after determining which world view is best, our view of the meaning of life would inexorably follow.

But we should not draw this conclusion too hastily. It is not certain that our view of meaning follows from our world view. Furthermore, the process may work in reverse; perhaps our view of meaning comes first, and then leads us to our world view. Yes, it will be difficult to answer questions of meaning first, but it is difficult to answer other philosophical questions as well. Our question may be no harder to answer than the other questions to which philosophers devote effort. If investigations of other philosophical questions are worthwhile, then so is this investigation. In fact, an analysis of the question of meaning may tell us something important about what is real, what we can know, and what we should value. Thus there is no a priori reason to postpone our pursuit.

Depression: Whose Fault Is It?

A man diagnosed as suffering from melancholia with strong su Wellcome L0026693.jpg

I was recently involved in a discussion about someone who had committed suicide. I don’t know the details but evidently, the victim was a successful, mid-career man, suffering from depression. A major contributing factor was job stress.  Here is how the dialogue went. (I’m CG) :

A Tough Guy (TG)- The guy was stupid and weak-minded. He needed to master his thoughts. If his job was stressful, he should have gotten another one. If his thoughts were troubling, he should change them.  If you can’t stand the heat get out of the kitchen.

A Compassionate Guy (CG) – Depression can strike anyone, it is a disease. If you experience enough stress you can have a mental breakdown. Just spend a few hours in a war zone or a few years in a stressful job and you can find out for yourself. If possible you should avoid bad situations, but you can’t always do that. Depressed persons need compassion and professional help.

TG – If you really care about someone tell them not to put themselves in situations where they might get hurt.

CG – Sure. But if they’re already suffering from mental illness it’s too late.   By that time they are then in a situation which is beyond their control.  At that point free will, if it exists, can’t intervene.

A Former Depressed Guy (FS) – When you are suffering from depression you can’t think rationally, just like when you are physically ill you can’t perform certain physical tasks. Friends helped me get help before I had my own breakdown, but many aren’t that lucky.
A Social Scientist (SS) – It’s problematic to insinuate that the fault with depression or suicide lies within the person. One million people decide to take their lives every year, that’s 1.5% of all deaths worldwide. The problem is the system. Many want to get out of the kitchen, but they can’t because the kitchen is the whole world.  So we should destroy the kitchen, and rebuild it so that it doesn’t burn us anymore.
An Economist (E) – It’s clear that the developed world faces issues related to stress—largely driven by capitalistic modes of production which have reduced the value of individual human experience.  Here is an article about South Korea that makes the point.
TG – Don’t blame the world; blame yourself. You decided to become stressed. So change yourself.
SS – We need societal structural change which leads to individual change, which in turn leads to societal change. We need a society based on a new social contract that meets people’s biological and psychological needs. A world where people aren’t forced into competitive environments.  A cooperative society based more on social capital than economic capital. A society with work that is stable and psychologically fulfilling.
TG – Until then if you can’t stand the heat get out of the kitchen.
CG – That’s what this talented man did.  He followed your advice. That’s not an indictment of him, even by your own standards. It’s an indictment of the world. We need to rethink the world.

A Taxonomy of Answers to the Question of the Meaning of Life

Answers to the question of the meaning of life fall into one of three categories:

  1. Negative (nihilistic) answers—life is meaningless;
    1. Affirmation—it is good that life is meaningless;
    2. Acceptance—it is not good that life is meaningless;
  2. Agnostic (skeptical) answers—we don’t know if  life is meaningful;
    1. The question is unintelligible;
    2. The question is intelligible, but we don’t know if we can answer it;
  3. Positive answers—life is meaningful;
    1. Supernatural (theistic) answers—meaning from transcendent gods;
    2. Natural (non-theistic) answers—meaning created/discovered in natural world;
      a) meaning is objective—discovered or found by individuals;
      b) meaning is subjective—created or invented by individuals.

Think of these responses on a continuum:

/                        \

  Unanswerable           Unintelligible


     Meaningless                            Somewhat Meaningful                               Meaningful
/                 \                                                                                                                /                \
Affirm         Accept                                                                                       Natural    Supernatural
/            \
Objective   Subjective

Agnosticism is placed above the continuum because it is a meta-view. Agnostics are not halfway between the two ends of the continuum; they do not think life is partly meaningful and partly meaningless. Instead they argue that the issue cannot be resolved either because the question makes no sense or, if it does make sense, cannot be answered, or, if it can be answered, we have no way of knowing whether that answer is correct.

Note that these divisions are not exclusive or exhaustive but guidelines to the plethora of views. Many philosophers’ views do not fall clearly within a given label. For example, agnostics may hold that the question is basically unintelligible, yet claim that a few positive things can be said, or that the question is mostly, but not completely, unanswerable. And naturalists typically hold that there are both objective and subjective components to meaning.

This latter distinction between objective and subjective naturalists is hard to draw. If philosophers emphasize subjective values that are dependent on individuals as the source of meaning, we categorize them as subjective naturalists. If they emphasize objective values that are independent of people as the source of meaning, we categorize them as objective naturalists. But many thinkers blur this line, arguing that we both create meaning, and discover it in objectively good things. The distinction between the two is that those I call objectivists defend the idea of objective value whereas the subjectivists do not.  At any rate, categorizing responses helps situate particular views within a broader context, although the specifics of various views must speak for themselves.

E. O. Wilson: Science Explains Religion

(This post was inspired by the thousands of comments and 66,000 Facebook shares about my recent article in Salon: “Religion’s Smart-People Problem.”)

Edward O. Wilson (1929 – ) is a biologist, theorist, naturalist, and two-time Pulitzer Prize-winning author for general non-fiction. He is the father of sociobiology and as of 2007 was the Pellegrino University Research Professor in Entomology in the Department of Organismic and Evolutionary Biology at Harvard University. He is also a Fellow of the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry, a Humanist Laureate of the International Academy of Humanism, a member of the National Academy of Sciences and one of the world’s most famous and important living scientists.

In his Pulitzer Prize-winning book On Human Nature, Wilson extends sociobiology, the study of the biological basis of human social behavior, into the realms of human sexuality, aggression, morality, and religion. Deploying sociobiology to dissect religious myths and practices leads him to affirm: “The predisposition to religious belief is the most complex and powerful force in the human mind and in all probability an ineradicable part of human nature.”[i] Religion is a universal of social behavior, recognizable in every society in history and prehistory, and skeptical dreams that religion will vanish are futile. Scientific humanists, consisting mostly of scholars and scientists, organized into small groups which try to discredit superstition and fundamentalism but “Their crisply logical salvos, endorsed by whole arrogances of Nobel Laureates, pass like steel-jacketed bullets through fog. The humanists are vastly outnumbered by true believers … Men, it appears, would rather believe than know. They would rather have the void as purpose … than be void of purpose.”[ii]

Other scholars have tried to compartmentalize science and religion—one reads the book of nature, the other the book of scripture. However, with the advance of science, the gods are now to be found below sub-atomic particles or beyond the farthest stars. This situation has led to process theology where the gods emerge alongside molecules, organisms, and mind, but, as Wilson points out, this is a long way from ancient religion. Elementary religion sought the supernatural for mundane rewards like long life, land, food, avoiding disasters and conquering enemies; whereas advanced religions make more grandiose promises. This is what we would expect after a Darwinian competition between more advanced religions, with competition between sects for adherents who promote the religion’s survival. This leads to the notorious hostility between religions where, “The conqueror’s religion becomes a sword, that of the conquered a shield.”[iii]

The clash between science and religion will continue as science dismantles the ancient myths that gave religion its power. Religion can always maintain that gods are the source of the universe or defend esoteric arguments, but Wilson doubts the strategy will ultimately succeed due to the power of science.

It [science] presents the human mind with an alternative mythology that until now has always, point for point in zones of conflict, defeated traditional religion … the final decisive edge enjoyed by scientific naturalism will come from its capacity to explain traditional religion, its chief competitor, as a wholly material phenomenon. Theology is not likely to survive as an independent intellectual discipline.[iv]

Still, religion will endure because it possesses a primal power that science lacks. Science may explain religion, but it has no apparent place for the immortality and objective meaning that people crave and religion claims to provide. To fully address this situation, humanity needs a way to divert the power and appeal of religious belief into the service of scientific rationality.

However, this new naturalism leads to a series of dilemmas. The first is that our species has no “purpose beyond the imperatives created by its genetic history.”[v]In other words, we have no pre-arranged destiny. This suggests the difficulty human society will have in organizing its energy toward goals without new myths and new moralities. This leads to a second dilemma “which is the choice that must be made among the ethical premises inherent in man’s biological nature.”[vi] Ethical tendencies are hard-wired, so how do we choose between them? A possible resolution to the dilemmas combines the powerful appeal of religion and mythology with scientific knowledge. One reason to do this is that science provides a firmer base for our mythological desires because of:

Its repeated triumphs in explaining and controlling the physical world; its self-correcting nature open to all competent to devise and conduct tests; its readiness to examine all subjects sacred and profane; and now the possibility of explaining traditional religion by the mechanistic models of evolutionary biology.[vii]

When the latter has been achieved biology will explain religion as a product of evolution, and religion’s power as an external source of morality will wane. This leaves us with the evolutionary epic and an understanding that life, mind, and universe are all obedient to the same physical laws. “What I am suggesting … is that the evolutionary epic is probably the best myth we will ever have.”[viii]  (Myth here means grand narrative.) None of this implies that religion will be fully eradicated, for rationality and progressive evolutionism hold little affection for most, and the tendency for religious belief is hard-wired into the brain by evolution. Still, the pull of knowledge is strong—technologically skilled people and societies have tremendous advantages and they tend to win out in the struggle for existence. This all leads to another dilemma:

Our burgeoning knowledge of human nature will lead in time to a third dilemma: should we change our nature? Wilson leaves the question open, counseling us to remain hopeful. The true Promethean spirit of science means to liberate man by giving him knowledge and some measure of dominion over the physical environment. But at another level, and in a new age, it also constructs the mythology of scientific materialism, guided by the corrective devices of the scientific method, addressed with precise and deliberately affective appeal to the deepest needs of human nature, and kept strong by the blind hopes that the journey on which we are now embarked will be farther and better than the one just completed.[ix]


[i] Edward O. Wilson, On Human Nature (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1979) 169.
[ii] Wilson, On Human Nature, 170-71.
[iii] Wilson, On Human Nature, 175.
[iv] Wilson, On Human Nature, 192.
[v] Wilson, On Human Nature, 2.
[vi] Wilson, On Human Nature 4-5.
[vii] Wilson, On Human Nature, 201.
[viii] Wilson, On Human Nature, 201.
[ix] Wilson, On Human Nature, 209.

Einstein and Darwin Were Not Believers

Paul Henri Thiry, Baron d’Holbach, an 18th-century advocate of atheism.

It was, of course, a lie what you read about my religious convictions, a lie which is being systematically repeated. I do not believe in a personal God and I have never denied this but have expressed it clearly. If something is in me which can be called religious then it is the unbounded admiration for the structure of the world so far as our science can reveal it. (from Albert Einstein, the Human Side: New Glimpses from His Archivespage 43.)

My article, “Religion’s Smart People Problem,” appeared in Salon yesterday. As of today it is still the most read piece, generating more than 2000 comments and over 66,000 facebook shares. I thank the readers for their interest. Here are a few more points about this big topic.

I do think that religion has a smart-people problem, as the religious themselves sometimes sense. Often I have heard defensive believers say things like: “Well, Einstein believed in God,” or “Darwin converted on his deathbed.” One problem is that both claims are false. Einstein’s religious views have been studied in detail and he was a pantheist or agnostic. The Darwin deathbed conversion story is an urban Christian legend discredited even on creationist websites. Although Darwin had originally studied for the clergy, he was an agnostic or quiet atheist by the end of his life.

The other problem is that appeals by believers to the beliefs of scientific luminaries seem desperate. It’s as if they’re saying: “Maybe I can’t give reasons for my beliefs, but some smart people also believe them so my beliefs can’t be stupid.” But if your beliefs are true, what difference does it make whether Einstein or Darwin believes them? If you are confident of your beliefs, why invoke the name of some great scientists? You likely invoke them to give legitimacy to beliefs that you worry may be indefensible. But a proposition is true of false independent of what anyone believes. Apollo is either real or he is not.

As I said in my Salon piece, there are smart, educated  people who have religious beliefs. Yet it is a fact that such belief decreases with education.1 This fact doesn’t make your religious beliefs false, but it should cause you to wonder what would happen to your beliefs if you had a better scientific or philosophical education. Your beliefs might remain unchanged, but the evidence suggests otherwise. That is why religious indoctrination tries to shield the faithful from contrary ideas.

The issue is similar if you consider your place of birth. If you were born in the United States you are probably not a Muslim, if you were born in Iran there is a good chance you are. If you were born in India you are probably not a Christian, if you were born in the United States there is a good chance you are. You might believe that your religious beliefs would be the same had you been born somewhere else, but the evidence suggests otherwise.

This indicates that you have been conditioned to hold religious beliefs by, among others things, your education and place of birth. Once conditioned you hold onto those beliefs with tenacity because, as the American philosopher Charles Sanders Pierce said:

Doubt is an uneasy and dissatisfied state from which we struggle to free ourselves and pass into the state of belief; while the latter is a calm and satisfactory state which we do not wish to avoid, or to change to a belief in anything else.

Why Do You Want To Take My Religion Away?

The best defense of religious beliefs and practices is that life is tough and people find religion soothing. I didn’t try to talk my now deceased 86 year-old mother out of her religious beliefs. For one thing it would have been pointless—she believed that her lighting a candle caused me to get my first academic job!  Another reason was that it helped her cope—it was her drug of choice. If religion soothes, if it make people’s lives go better or helps them treat others better, fine.

But religious beliefs come at a cost. These includes: inquisitions, intolerance, religious wars, human sacrifice, collaboration with despotic regimes, persecution of homosexuals, pedophile priests and countless examples of religious cruelty throughout recorded history.  As Voltaire said, “Those who can make you believe absurdities can make you commit atrocities.” Moreover, religious institutions are often anti-democratic, anti-progressive, misogynistic, medieval and authoritarian. Religion also leads to guilt, shame, and fear.

This doesn’t mean that religion is the worst thing in the world—some good has come from religious beliefs. But evolutionary biology implanted religious, tribalistic, aggressive and other tendencies within our brains that need to be abandoned. Human beings need to take control of their destiny. They need to become the protagonists of cosmic evolution. We need to make a better world. No one has more eloquently expressed these hopes than one of our greatest living scientists, E. O. Wilson:

The true Promethean spirit of science means to liberate man by giving him knowledge and some measure of dominion over the physical environment. But at another level, and in a new age, it also constructs the mythology of scientific materialism, guided by the corrective devices of the scientific method, addressed with precise and deliberately affective appeal to the deepest needs of human nature, and kept strong by the blind hopes that the journey on which we are now embarked will be farther and better than the one just completed.[2]


  1. In a 2008 study, researchers found intelligence to be negatively related to religious belief in Europe and the United States. In a sample of 137 countries, the correlation between national IQ and disbelief in God was found to be 0.60.[246] In a 2017 study, it was shown that compared to religious individuals, atheists have higher reasoning capacities and this difference seemed to be unrelated to sociodemographic factors such as age, education and country of origin.[248]

       2. Edward O. Wilson, On Human Nature (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1979) 209.