Sunday, June 26, 2005

Life Has No Meaning

A depressed atheist friend hates living without meaning. He says, "It seems very unnecessary, and very unfair."

It's VERY hard to be an atheist to the core, and though you may be speaking figuratively, your language suggests that -- like most atheists -- you cling (maybe against your will or even your knowledge) to some subtly theistic beliefs.

If the universe is truly un-controlled -- if it's all random or following some "robotic," deterministic rules -- then it's a little odd to say that anything that happens to you is "unfair."

I suspect that we develop the notions of fair and unfair when we are small children. We're good and yet our parents don't give us a treat. They are treating us unfairly. The very idea of unfair (or fair) implies a controller (parent, God, etc.) who is treating us poorly.

If you truly embrace a non-theistic universe (or a universe that isn't controlled by some plan or intelligence), then nothing is really unfair. Stuff just happens.

I think it's pretty easy (for most atheists) to accept this intellectually, but I'm talking about accepting it on a gut level. Really FEELING it.

When I was younger (but already an atheist), I still found that when something really bad happened, I would blame or beg some force (“How could you let this happen? " or "Please, please, PLEASE don't let this happen!") I knew it was a fiction, but it was a very strong feeling. Slowly it faded. I DO think it was intellectual at first. I would beg or plead and then say to myself, "That's silly. There's no one to plead TO..." And eventually it penetrated beyond the intellectual. Now I never find myself talking to even an imaginary force. It feels natural for the universe to be impersonal.

And it's SO hard to escape anthropomorphism in language. "Impersonal," conjures up the image of a person who is aloof. But I don't mean that. I mean that the universe doesn't have a mind or any sort of relationship to you (other than one of sub-atomic particles interacting with each other via random or determined rules). The universe is like a rock or a sheet of paper. It can’t be unfair. It’s just an object.

Anyway, I no longer care that my life doesn't have "purpose" or "meaning," because nothing has purpose or meaning (except for human constructs, like novels or songs). A rock just IS. A person just IS. I'm in the same boat as everything else.

Which isn't to say that life is empty. Evolution endowed me with the ability to think and feel, so I can still get perplexed by a crossword puzzle, savor a bowl of split-pea soup, etc. It feels good to eat, to love, to dream because ... because it FEELS good. And that's as profound or as banal as it may seem. But it DOES feel good.

To be truthful, I am skeptical that anyone could really be deeply concerned about whether or not their life has meaning -- IF they are living it fully. If you cook gourmet meals, drink fine wines, make love, listen to beautiful music, etc., your senses will be so full that you won't care if any of it means anything or not. Why does it have to mean anything? It feels SO good. If you crave meaning so much, could it be that there's something else missing from your life? Are you lonely? Do you hate your job? Maybe you should work on THAT stuff and leave the universe to itself. (You live in a house. Does the house have to have meaning? Of course not. Who cares. It’s just where you live. But living in that house gives you the fun opportunity to sit on the sofa and eat a big bowl of ice cream!)

The result of this type of feeling is that the "romance" is taken out of death. Death isn't DEEP or SPECIAL or tragic. No unfair parent doles it out to me. It's just is what happens. And it no longer scares me.

Here's what DOES scare me: pain and losing loved-ones. And this ties in with what I wrote above, because those both involve FEELINGS. No one wants to feel pain. No one wants to be lonely. So I don't care about my own death. But I DO want to die without pain. And (selfishly) I want to die before my wife dies, because I can't imagine a happy life without her. And I know of no solution to those problems -- except not to love or not to live.

[Incidentally, though I have been able to pretty much banish ALL theistic feelings -- even very weak ones, I have not been able to rid myself of the feeling of free will. I don't believe in free will, but I FEEL like I have free will. I used to think it was impossible to avoid that feeling, and it may be. But psychologist Susan Blackmore claims to have done it. She said she very gradually lost the feeling -- much in the same way that I lost all feeling of even a fictional controlling force. It was intellectual at first -- then it sunk it.

Even if God and will are fictions, is it healthy to totally avoid them? Interesting question. I wish I knew the answer.]

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