The head shaman of the religious community Altan Serge (Алтан Сэргэ) in Buryatia.
(This article was reprinted in the online magazine of the Institute for Ethics & Emerging Technologies, November 12, 2015.)
1) Is Life Meaningful Even If Religion Is True?
Yesterday’s post discussed some problems with grounding the meaning of life on religious beliefs. However, there is another argument which severs the connection between religious truth and the meaning of life. And that argument is that the truth of religion is irrelevant to the question of life’s meaning. In other words, even if some religion is true, it does not matter for our concerns. We can see this if we try to state exactly how it is that religion gives life meaning, something surprisingly hard to formulate.
It does not take much thought to see the problem. For instance, if you are told that your meaning is to be part of a divine being’s plan you might reasonably ask, how does being a part of someone else’s plan give my life meaning? Being a part of your parent’s or employer’s or country’s plan does not necessarily do so. And if you are told that the gods are such that they just emanate meaning, you might reasonably ask, how do they do that? If you cannot be the source of your own meaning, how can something else be? Or if you are told that the gods’ love gives your life meaning, you might reasonably wonder why the love of people around you cannot do that. Or if you are told that life is meaningful because you will live forever, you might reasonably wonder how an infinite amount of time makes life meaningful. The point is not that it is impossible for the gods to give life meaning, but that it is not clear how they could do it. They may be irrelevant. If valid these objections completely undermine religious answers. Even if we became convinced there were gods we would still want to know if life had meaning.
In response one might claim that religious belief gives life meaning by positing a benevolent universe that is structured so as to provide meaning at its end or omega point. Perhaps it is eschatology—the branch of theology concerned with the end of the world or of humankind—more than anything else that most persons think of when they relate religion to meaning. So a believer might advance the following argument:
- Life is fully meaningful if there is a heaven;
- There is a heaven;
- Thus life is fully meaningful.
The problem with this argument is that it is circular; it assumes what it is trying to demonstrate. The argument reduces to life is meaningful because it is meaningful. For the argument to work, we need an assurance that premise 2 is true. However we have no such assurance. Moreover, as we have already noted, it is not clear that premise 1 is true either. Alternatively we might try this argument:
- Life cannot be fully meaningful without a (single?) god;
- There is a god
- Thus life is fully meaningful.
This is a valid deductive argument but again both premises are questionable. Moreover, the argument is blatantly question-begging, reducing roughly to the following: life cannot be fully meaningful unless something exists to make it fully meaningful. The upshot of both arguments and ones like them lands us back where we started in our discussion of religion. If religion is true, it may not provide meaning; if it is not true, it cannot ground meaning.
2) Why We Make No Religious Assumptions
For the foregoing reasons, I search for meaning in life without appealing to invisible, hidden, supernatural entities or other religious provisos. This is a natural starting point for those for whom religious answers are unavailable, but there are also reasons to adopt a neutral starting point even if one is a religious believer. That way, if we do find evidence and reasons for life’s meaningfulness, these reasons can appeal to believers and non-believers alike. Religious believers can always add gods to the equation if they think that makes life more meaningful; or they can invoke their gods to save meaning, if it appears life would otherwise be meaningless. But by starting with a thin set of assumptions, rather than with more philosophically problematic ones that includes gods, souls, and afterlives, we will be more assured of our conclusions and they will have broader appeal.
To better understand this, consider the parallels between our investigation of meaning in life without gods, and the search for a non-theistic, rational basis for morality. One might hold that morality, like meaning, is completely dependent on the gods’ existence or commands. In that case there could be no such thing as morality without a supernatural basis. However, this view has been rejected by most philosophers and theologians, who maintain instead that right and wrong are in some sense independent of the gods. The gods cannot make the right wrong or the wrong right. The advantage of this approach—as in natural law theory for example—is that all rational beings have access to morality simply by virtue of being rational beings, i.e., everyone has access to understanding the basis of morality.
If it is true that morality has a non-theistic basis—say in reason, sympathy, evolution, or a social contract—then by analogy meaning might similarly have a non-theistic basis. In that case the existence of gods would not make any difference for meaning, since the gods could not make a meaningful situation meaningless or the reverse. Meaning would exist, or not exist, independent of whether gods exist or not, and all individuals could seek meaning by using their rational, emotional, or aesthetic faculties.
In the same way that we all benefit when persons accept reasons to be moral that do not depend on problematic philosophical assumptions like the existence of gods, we would all benefit if persons believed that life was worth living without making extraordinary metaphysical claims. Of course the danger is that our investigation will reveal that there is no meaning, and this may have dire consequences for humanity.
But we can by no means be certain of this, especially when persons convinced that they know the meaning of life create all kinds of havoc in the world. For all we know the discovery of meaninglessness might propel human beings to create meaning, or it might not make any difference at all. People might just go along as they did before not being sure what life means. Since we cannot know what consequences will ensue from the conclusions we reach, I suggest we go forward seeking truth, making as few controversial philosophical assumptions as possible, and hoping that the truth will make us free.