In this latest instalment of my series of articles on fundamental philosophical issues, I go beyond discussing the issue of whether there is a supernatural being, and move on to the next logical step, formulating a paradigm for how we can find meaning, purpose, and morality in a world without such a being.
What is the Meaning of Life?
The meaning of life is simply life itself. There is no meaning beyond our existence and our life experience. There is no greater meaning to it all that can somehow transcend our world. This is it.
So now what?
The all too unfortunate side of this realization is the potential for nihilism or hedonism. Nihilism is the idea that because there is no greater meaning to it all, we should live with the attitude that life is hopeless and pointless. The nihilist would spend life sitting around, moping, and waiting for the inevitable end.
The opposite of the nihilist is the hedonist. The hedonist believes that since there is no greater meaning to it all, he is free to do as he pleases, when he pleases, without any regard for others, and with the only goal of seeking maximum personal pleasure. The hedonist would spend life committing crimes, doing drugs to excess, and walking over others for his or her own benefit.
There is nothing intrinsically wrong with either of these attitudes. There is nothing universal that would preclude someone from living a life as such and feeling perfectly content. However, most people would probably be more content not living with either of these attitudes. We do live in a real world with real consequences, and living without regards to others will subject a person to the consequences that individuals in our society have created to deter such attitudes (i.e. laws, social isolation, etc.).
These are not the only options available for living a life in a godless world. There is a “light at the end of the tunnel” for the rational person, and it’s not in the form of a supernatural being.
The amazing thing about there being no greater meaning to life beyond life itself is that we have the power to create meaning. Everyone has a blank slate to work with to craft a story that will please himself or herself. We craft a meaning by choosing a purpose. We have the power to decide our purpose, or even several purposes that we will work to fulfill. By fulfilling a purpose, and working to do so, we can live our lives in such a way as to become content with our own existence and the world around us. After one purpose has been fulfilled, we can choose a new one. The meaning of life can be to find and fulfill life purposes.
A purpose can really be anything. It can be to do works of art, start a business, help the poor, enforce the law, help the sick, or create scientific developments. It can even be to start a family, travel, or to spend time with friends or a significant other. Whatever makes us content with our lives. Although this paradigm is very simple, it is also very empowering. Life is ours for the taking. We are in control of our own destiny.
One of my purposes is to create a legacy that will live on after my death. Why would this matter if I don’t believe that I will have the ability to experience that legacy? It is for the same reason that someone would send a check to a charity to help a group of people that he will never see or never meet. Or, from a more selfish perspective, why a celebrity would want to be considered famous to a person that he will never encounter. We as humans share the common experience of life, regardless of the time or place we live in. If there is one way we can transcend our own existence, it is through the life of another. Although their life experiences may have ended long ago, historical figures constantly remind future generations of the experience they had by cementing their names in the history books.
The hedonist or the nihilist lives a life without purpose, and will likely never find spiritual fulfillment. The hedonist could say that his purpose is to do whatever he feels like. If he can truly find meaning in fulfilling that purpose, then perhaps that will create content. But there are very few people who would find such a meaning.
The Religious Paradigm
Under most religions, the meaning of life is simply that each individual life amounts to some minor part of a greater plan by some invisible being or beings. Many questions remain unanswered. What is the meaning of the greater plan? What is my meaning within the greater plan? Why would such a greater plan include suffering? What is the meaning of the creator, and where did he come form? These questions create more confusion and despair than the theories pacify.
The purpose of life in most religions is to follow a list of rules (many of which are ridiculous and inconsistent with contemporary life) that an invisible being wants us to follow in order to gain access to a better afterlife. What is the purpose of the afterlife? What is the purpose of each particular rule? What if the purpose I would like to fulfill conflicts with one of the rules?
The religious paradigm is incomplete. It simply makes up a story and calls it a meaning. An existentialist paradigm may not be as fantastic or magical, but it is rational and complete. The meaning of your life is whatever you want it to be.
An obvious argument against the concept of choosing your own purpose in life is that someone could choose the purpose of hurting or killing other people. What would make this purpose wrong if it made that person content? Would there not be something universally wrong with hurting others?
There is nothing universally wrong with hurting others. But, a world in which people hurt others would be worse than a world in which people did not. Although there is no ultimate arbiter of right and wrong, or universal moral code that we should adhere to, the fact remains that there are several independent beings in the world whose interests will inevitably collide. Morality is simply a set of rules that we create to organize human interactions. There is no hard and fast set of rules, but we as a species have been very successful at crafting rules that provide all individuals with the opportunity to fulfill their purposes.
If there is one thing I learned in law school, it’s that there is a solution in law to almost any possible problem resulting from human interaction. The law is constantly evolving as new problems are solved, and old solutions are replaced with better ones. Of course, laws can be bad. For example, a law permitting the killing of someone for having the wrong religious belief. Why would we say that such a law is immoral? It is because such a law is a bad solution to a problem, and there are better solutions that will create more opportunity for happiness.
Many philosophers have searched for a unifying theory of morality. For example, the utilitarian theory states that morality is simply the solution that provides the greatest good for the greatest number of people. The theory attempts to measure levels of good and compare them. This theory fails when you start trying to measure levels of good. Is the value of a great scientist’s life more important than a bum’s? How about two bums? What of a law that provides a huge benefit to a large group, but a serious detriment to one or two people? The world is simply too complex to determine values for every possible interest and measure those values against the values of others.
Another theory is Kant’s categorical imperative, which basically states that an action taken by an individual in any situation should be such an action that should be Universally taken by any person in such a situation. If I see another person’s house, it should be a Universal maxim that I should not break in and steal that person’s TV. The problem with this theory is that it only works for simple human problems. What if there are several competing good things to do. Should I take a good job in a far away city, or stay home to help my ailing mother? There is no universal maxim to solve this problem. A similar situation arises if there are two bad choices.
We as a society have made rules to guide people to make better choices, and to punish choices that we think are bad. We create morality to try and shape the best possible world, but there is no perfect world.
Of course politics is an inevitable factor in discussing morality. Is the United States moral code the best for regulating human interactions? Or is a more socialist European nation like Sweden’s better? Who should determine what is the best moral code for the people of all nations? There is no easy way to make such determinations. Settling who has the best moral code and what it should be is a great goal of humanity that will involve inevitable conflicts in opinion. However, there is no room for moral relativism in this theory. That is to say, there are certain moral codes that are vastly inferior and should not be considered acceptable forms of organizing a society simply because they are accepted by the individuals in that society. For example a society that permits ritual human sacrifice would be vastly inferior to one that did not. It may be for the good of humanity for a more powerful society to enforce its superior moral code on the society committing ritual sacrifice in order to provide a better life for the individuals in that society.
In any discussion of morality and atheism, Hitler and Stalin will inevitably be discussed as examples of what happens when atheists are given the power to enforce their moral views. These individuals led their nations based on what they believed were moral principles. Under skewed forms of utilitarianism, both believed that they were acting for the greater good by killing political dissidents, the mentally ill, Jews and other ethnic minorities. These dictators had inferior moral codes by which they organized their societies. It was not their atheism that led to their horrible deeds, but rather their skewed versions of morality. We have realized that these moral codes were absolutely abhorrent, and should never be allowed to exist again.
These examples of immoral atheists should also be compared with the hundreds of immoral actions by dictators and societies acting around religious foundations of morality. The problem with religious morality is that religions set a moral code based on the prevailing views of morality at the time and in the society that the writers of the religion were living. The Jewish moral code is based on the sections of law in the of the old testament, which were written approximately 2600 years ago (read up on the documentary hypothesis for more information on the origins of the old testament). The Christian moral code is based around morality from 2000 years ago. Islam 1500 years ago. Of course religions generally have their own case law, or religious scholarly writings, interpreting the primary sources and allowing some change. However, these writings are bound by rigid books written by ancient people. The books cannot be amended or changed to reflect changes in prevailing views of what is right or wrong.
Contrast with the US constitution. The US constitution provides a moral code from approximately 250 years ago. However, the constitution permits amendments, meaning that the primary source of law can change as morals change. This flexibility permits change and evolution.
Realizing that there is no god and that our existence is simply a great fluke may be a scary experience, but it does not mean that life cannot persist without spiritual enlightenment. There is opportunity to find meaning in life, fulfill a purpose, and act in a moral way. We have the power to shape our world and our own destiny. We must take control of the power while we are here, for it will not last forever.