When I was in the 6th grade my friends and I were obsessed with collecting Pokemon cards and playing the latest video games. As you can tell, I was a nerd. I was also a fortunate nerd, because one of these friends loaned me his pirated copy of a wonderful game: Age of Empires II.
For this 12 year old boy it was the most immersive and captivating experience he had ever encountered. I played it over and over again, probably thousands of times. I would pretend that I was an ancient ruler trying to actualize my ambitions. Even when I was not playing I would constantly think up new strategies and plans on how to achieve my in-game goal: to build up my marvelous, yet imaginary, empire. It was loads of fun!
After over two years of playing this game, I stumbled upon a list of cheat codes. Typing in one of these cheats would instantly give me unlimited in-game resources. Normally one has to try really hard to collect these resources, and work towards some kind of in-game goal, but with cheat codes, everything that I wanted, was immediately available!
It was fascinating for the first ten minutes. And then I stopped playing the game, forever. Once everything I wanted was instantly achieved without effort, there was no point. Winning no longer had any meaning, because it was as effortless as breathing. In fact, I felt like a fool for even playing in the first place. I had devoted so much time to various strategies, when all I needed was a couple of quick keystrokes and the game won itself.
A great terror overcame me.
I realized that the idea of heaven was just like that. Heaven was one giant “cheat code”! All of your goals are instantly achieved without effort, and there are no more goals to work towards! Everything you want, is instantly yours. Everything is unlimited! In heaven, the person who spent 40 years studying the Bible will be not be any smarter than the illiterate drunk who barely repented on his deathbed. Why should I study the Bible for 40 years, if those who don’t study will instantly attain the same knowledge? What’s the point of playing the game of life, if heaven is just like that cheat code, instantly giving you everything you had to struggle towards, whether you worked hard for it or not? And once you’re in heaven, and the game is won, what’s the point of continuing to play? If there are no more goals to attain, what’s the point of doing anything at all? If a painting is perfect, what’s the point of continuing on painting? And heaven, they said, was perfect.
Lo and behold, a video game had brought me to my first serious philosophical crisis. I was twelve. All the other boys were busy discovering the peculiarities of puberty, but I was thinking about the meaning of life.
I’ve been told that my problem is that I think too much.
In this post I would like to share my curse and think out loud with you about the human quest for meaning and purpose. I will first examine what Christians really mean by these ideas, whether there are flaws in their view, and then explain how I, as someone who doesn’t believe in any gods or an afterlife, can have meaning and purpose in life.
A Critique of the Christian Way
1. Do we need an afterlife to have meaning?
Most Christians believe that without an after-life, there can be no meaning to our current-life. It’s common to hear sermons saying “if we live 70 years, and then die, never again to exist, it is like we have never existed!” While I recognize that thinking about death feels absurd and existentially frightening, I don’t think the argument can stand logically. There is no reason something needs to exist eternally in order to be meaningful. Must a great film be eternal for it to have meaning and convey a beautiful story? Must a novel have no ending, for it to be worth reading? No. Every day we engage with things that are not eternal, and we find these things to be very meaningful, even if they don’t last forever.
Lets do a quick thought experiment. Imagine that tomorrow we discovered a new race of gentle childlike beings on some distant island. These beings lived short, yet beautiful lives, filled with music, dancing, giggles, hugs, and other happy emotions. Lets assume that even though you had an afterlife to look forward to, you were absolutely sure these small-yet-happy creatures did not. As you observed these childlike creatures singing a merry song, you saw a large volcano showing signs of eruption. When this volcano erupts, it will spill smoldering lava on these beings, burning off their gentle skin. It will spew forth ashes, choking their small lungs, causing them immense pain, and then death. Would you try to save them? Or would you let them perish? I imagine you would try to save them. But why? After all, they have no afterlife, so according to Christian theology their lives are meaningless. If their lives are meaningless, why not let them suffer and die, it’s no different, right?
Except you would rescue them, because deep down you understand that they would feel pain and lose the ability to enjoy the rest of their lives. You would rescue them because you understand, even if tomorrow doesn’t come, their experiences today do matter, to them! It matters because they feel pain, pleasure, sorrow, and joy. Life matters because we have these experiences, not because of its length.
For an infinitely long life to have a meaning, a finitely short life needs to have meaning. Because if you take a zero and multiply it infinite times, you will still have zero. If you take a 100 year long lifespan, and say it’s it is meaningless, and then simply stack up an infinite number of these lifespans, the sum will be just as meaningless as each of the parts.
2. Do we need someone above us to have purpose?
Another thing Christians often say is that in order to have a purposeful life, you must live it for someone other than yourself. That someone can’t be an equal, but needs to be the kind of being that you can be subservient to. Other Christians simplify it like this: “if you only live for yourself, your life doesn’t have a purpose, you need to serve a being higher than yourself to have purpose.” So is this really the case? I don’t think so.
If the only way to obtain meaning and purpose, is to receive it from someone higher than ourselves, who does God receive meaning from? He has nobody above him. Does God not have a purpose for his existence? So if your purpose comes from a purposeless being, then isn’t your purpose, ultimately purposeless?
There are a couple of possible answers that Christians might give to this dilemma.
First, perhaps the Trinity explains this. Maybe each member of the Trinity is subservient to each other in order to find purpose. Perhaps the purpose of Jesus is to exist for the Father and so forth? If this is the argument, it demonstrates that ‘living for another being who is equal to yourself’ can provide meaning. So two persons living for each other can find meaning from their relationship, without the existence of a third being who is above them. If we allow this for divine persons in the Trinity, we must allow this for human persons as well.
Second, others might answer that God exists for himself and derives his purpose from his being. This is the classical Calvinist answer: “God exists in order to glorify himself.” The principle that follows is “self-promotion is a source of purpose.” But if we use this principle for infinite persons like God, there is no reason we cannot apply it to finite persons, like humans. Certainly Gods purpose would be infinite, because he is infinite, and human purpose would be finite, because we are finite. But accepting this answer regarding God’s purpose, lets us apply it to humans just as well.
Third, still others might say that “God doesn’t need purpose, it’s enough that he just exists.” If this is the answer, then why do humans need purpose? Perhaps it is enough that we just exist. After all, existence is a marvelous thing in itself, why should there be purpose for the primitive thing we can call human-existence, if there isn’t any for the most advanced form of existence, God-existence?
Fourth, (and be warned this is a bit technical, you may want to skip it) some might say that the answer lies in the metaphysically necessary nature of God’s existence, juxtaposed against the causally dependent nature of contingent beings like humans. The premise is that if God exists, he would be a necessary being, meaning that his existence would be causally independent from all other things. Humans, on the other hand, are contingent upon prior events and prior causes. Some might argue that God derives purpose from his necessity. However, this reasoning would also apply purpose to humans, albeit a qualitatively different kind of purpose. If God’s purpose, derived from his metaphysical necessity, is to be a necessary being, it would also follow that man’s purpose, derived from his metaphysical contingency, is to be a contingent being. To simplify this, if someone says “God’s purpose is to be God,” then we can just as well say “man’s purpose is to be man.”
A Presentation of the Humanist Way
1. The difference between meaning and purpose
Most Christians that I have heard speaking about this topic tend to equate ‘meaning’ with ‘purpose.’ I think this is a big mistake. Humans use words to express ideas, and these two words express uniquely distinct ideas. Let’s examine this in detail:
Steve, a distant relative of Sisyphus, works all day long, every day, in the world’s tallest hotel. There he functions as the elevator boy. His role is to open the elevator doors, allow guests to enter, and click on the button corresponding their desired floor. All day, every day, he rides up and down, countless times. He has been working this job for sixty years now, never taking a day off. During all this time, his purpose is to click the button, move guests up, and then move guests down. He is the elevator boy, his purpose remains very clear and well defined. But is it a meaningful purpose? Does he derive meaning from this dull and monotonous purpose? I don’t think so.
Bella has never been a lucky girl, she spent most of her childhood in poverty and alone, but one day she won the luckiest of all drawings. She received a ticket to the magical place they call Neverland. Upon arrival she was greeted by hundreds of wonderful children, all of whom were happy to meet her. She was lavished with many wonderful gifts, not the least of which was a beautiful pink dress that would never wrinkle or grow old. And so for the last sixty years she has been gleefully enjoying the marvelous sights, sounds, and activities of Neverland with her new friends. She does not have a clear or defined purpose there, but she does have lots of fun. She may not be able to say what her purpose is, but she is definitely having a very meaningful and happy life.
- So what do we mean when we talk about purpose? The word evokes ideas of a destination, goal, or function. A person may have a goal or function, but it may not be a meaningful one. For example, Christians believe that the vast majority of people alive will have only one function: kindling for the fires of hell. That’s a very terrible and meaningless existence, but yet, one that has an official purpose (people in hell have only one purpose, receiving punishment).
- What do we mean when we talk about meaning? This conjures up notions of significance and value. Something may be very significant and valuable, but not have an obvious or significant purpose. For example, think of the melody from your favorite song, does it not cause a swell of wonderful emotions? Is it not tremendously precious and meaningful to you? That melody may not have much of a purpose, if any, but it certainly has a great deal of significance. Listening to that song is worthwhile and very meaningful, even if it serves no grand purpose.
2. Where did ideas about meaning & purpose come from?
This may sound like a very strange question, but bear with me. What if you opened your eyes tomorrow morning to find yourself completely alone and outside of space-time. (Yes, that is a weird thing to imagine, but let us continue). Instantly you realize that you are an eternally existing being, a god, who has infinite power and knowledge, what would you do? Of course, you’ll want to protest, and say this is a stupid question and that you can’t answer it because you have never been a god before, and I’ll grant you that. But we are, after all, talking about how humans think about meaning and purpose, so we only need your human imagination.
So what would you do?
What would become the source of your meaning or the ultimate goal of your existence? What purpose would you devote yourself to? It’s a wildly frightening question. Wild, because of the infinite possibilities you can hardly begin to imagine; frightening, because you would have absolutely nothing to ground anything on, no script, no plot, and nothing to base your existence on. And you would have to figure everything out, all by yourself. There would be no father figure that would give you all the answers. If only you could push the difficult questions onto someone else? On someone wiser and stronger?
I would argue that the human quest for meaning was probably something just like that. If the naturalistic understanding of the world is correct, our ancestors long ago found themselves experiencing the world and having subjective experiences. It was thrilling and terrifying at the same time! They felt these strange things called feelings, emotions, sensations, and thoughts. They had no answers for these strange sensations and explosions of sentient thought. They had no answers for their own existence. They had no answers for anything.
And so, they began to push all the difficult questions onto someone else, the gods. At first these gods were little more than animal spirits, though over time, as philosophy advanced, so did the gods. Where does lightning come from? From the gods! Why does rain come from the sky? The gods! Where did the world come from? The gods! Why do humans exist? For the gods! And so “the gods” became the explanation for anything that humans didn’t know. Over time, most of these “god did it” explanations have been replaced with far better explanations produced by science and philosophy.
3. How does an atheist derive purpose?
- My purpose can be fundamentally derived from my nature. The kind of thing that I am, dictates my purpose, my goals, and my function. A calculator processes mathematical calculations. That is its purpose. It doesn’t matter if it’s made by aliens, evolves on it’s own in some kind of supercomputer simulation, or has always existed as a brute fact; its nature defines its function. If there were a God, it too would derive its purpose from its own nature, for it would have nowhere else to look!
- My purpose can also be established by my role among other sentient beings in the community I belong to. First, I am a part of the living creatures of earth. Second, I am a part of the species of sentient beings we call humans. Third, I am a part of the nation of the United States. Fourth, I am a member of various local communities, clubs, businesses. Fifth, I am a member of my extended family. Sixth, I am a member of an intimate romantic relationship. All of these roles define my purpose. If there was a God, it would also seek to define its purpose from his relationships with others, i.e. as a father, shepherd, judge, ect. These are all relational roles.
- My purpose also includes making our world a better place. I belong to a vast continuity of humans before me, that will also continue after me. As a member of this immense collective of sentient beings I can do things that (a) help, (b) hinder, or (c) don’t affect humanity. I am by nature a social being, who cares about the welfare of others, so it gives me great purpose to contribute to helping our human race.
4. How can an atheist live a meaningful life?
- My life is meaningful because I exist and I experience the world around me and within me. We can call this: sentience, self-awareness, or subjective experience. Descartes said “I think , therefore I am.” Well, in my case, “I experience, therefore it matters what I experience.” It matters whether I spend the next hour writhing in pain, or listening to a heartwarming musical masterpiece. It matters, because I feel that difference directly and in a significant way. Sentient experience is the fundamental grounding of meaningfulness. If God were to exist as a personal being, he would derive meaningfulness and significance from his own subjective experience of reality.
- The quality of my life’s meaning comes from engaging in activities that I find immensely satisfying and rewarding. I derive meaning from living an examined life, which includes spending time contemplating the nature of reality and existence. I derive meaning from helping others to overcome difficulty, pain, and various trials. I derive meaning from passing on my knowledge and skills to others. I find significance in many other qualitatively meaningful experiences. If God were to exist, the level of meaningfulness in his life would also be determined by the quality of his experiences. For example, if he decided to simply spend all eternity counting to infinity, that might be less meaningful than other, more creative activities.
- My life is made even more meaningful by inspiring others to make their lives more meaningful and significant. We all share in the sublime beauty that is our universe and our playground. But often our passion, excitement, joy, and triumph is extinguished by daily monotony and dull thinking; it is my personal passion to help people overcome this and discover the elegance of our curious existence.