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Meaning
Posted: 15 October 2007 08:44 PM   [ Ignore ]
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What gives human actions and lives meaning?

One of the conventional arguments of the religious is that there is no meaning to life without a god and god’s plan to fulfill, or without a true outside set of moral rules to discover and follow, or without a soul, etc. I understand the argument, but I long ago came to believe it was false, and that really the universe is indifferent and human life has no meaning beyond what we choose to give it. Ultimately, we’re phenomenally fortunate to be here at all, and asking what it means beyond the experience itself isn’t necessary.

But lately I’ve been feeling even more strongly that religion actually sucks the meanng out of human experience. As I’ve mentioned elsewhere, a young girl at my daughter’s school died of cancer recently, and her parents and the members of the community most closely involved in helping the family through the experience were all very religious. I understand why they find comfort in their faith, but I feel as if by calling the girl’s suffering part of god’s plan and ultimately good in some inscrutable way, and by claiming her death is only temporary anyway, that they demean her experience. Likewise, crediting god for her unexpecedly long survival, instead of the doctors and all the people behind them, and crediting god and faith for the courage of her parents and the care and help of the community instead of the people themselves makes those acts meaningless. We’re all just cogs in god’s great machine acting out our destiny.

So does anyone think human life and acts have any meaning? Just what we choose as individuals and cultures to give them? Can faith really enhance the meaningfullness of lfie or does it take away from the meaning of our acts and experiences? Does anyone who is a commited atheist every feel something is missing in terms of the indifference of the universe and the arbitrariness of the meaning we assign to our experiences?

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Posted: 15 October 2007 09:02 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 1 ]
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In other words, it’s the age old question, “what is the meaning of life?”

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Vi veri veniversum vivus vici

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Posted: 15 October 2007 09:08 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 2 ]
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As I’ve said before on this forum, I believe there is no intrinsic meaning to anything.  The only meaning we have in our own lives is what we build into them by our actions.

Occam

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Posted: 15 October 2007 09:39 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 3 ]
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Morgantj,

More or less. I mean, I’m also interested in the relationship of religious ideas to meaning. I tend to think that rather than giving life meaning it takes it away. Any thought of your own on these questions?

Occam,

I tend to agree. So if we give our lives meaning through religious myths, is that any different than giving them meaning through other sets of cultural principles? I know you’re not a postmodernist, so do you think with regard to the menaing of our lives that all stories are equal?

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Posted: 15 October 2007 10:13 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 4 ]
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“Meaning” ... I understand what it is when we’re talking about words, signs, signals, etc., but about a life? A life doesn’t mean anything because it doesn’t represent anything.

The ancient Greeks, starting with Socrates, were interested in ethics in particular because they wanted philosophy to tell them what “the good life” amounted to. Looking for “the good life”, the ethical life, the happy life, the life we should live is basically aiming for the same end as those who look for “meaning”, or at least it seems to me. If that’s what motivates us, we should look to ethics, to psychology, maybe to certain meditative practices to find solace and happiness.

There is, of course, one standard theist interpretation of “meaning” which is that your life only has meaning if it’s understood a certain way by some perfect, everlasting person, who will remember you forever and know why you did what you did and where you fit into the scheme of things. But that is clearly only a fiction.

What perhaps may be hardest for us to come to terms with is that we will eventually be totally forgotten. Everything we do will come to naught, since I don’t think it’s reasonable to assume that humanity (or any life form) will go on forever, and even to the extent that they might, we will be no more than a tiny blip on the world’s stage.

This is the sort of awesome feeling I’m given by looking at the night sky, or by watching Cosmos or the like. It’s a feeling of awe towards the hugeness of space and time, and the smallness of our petty interests.

One can look at that “smallness” and despair, but that seems to me entirely the wrong attitude.

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Posted: 15 October 2007 10:22 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 5 ]
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I don’t think religion or some external source of morality has anything to do with it.  I truly believe one’s actions should come from the heart.

For example, the other day I was on the bus and this mother was alone with two little ones.  She was busy attending to the baby and the other not much older than a year to 18 months or a tiny 2 y.o. leaned over the side of the seat (there’s a little rail/arm rest on this one) and nearly fell head first towards the floor of the bus- if I hadn’t caught him and stopped his fall.  Internal instinct or compassion or just not wanting to see people get hurt, I don’t know, but it was an automatic reaction without thinking.  Once he was upright again, the mother said, “That’s what you get.  Not sit right.”

I didn’t do it for any reason except not see him get hurt.

No, I know, this isn’t the meaning of life exactly, but I do think actions from the heart have a lot of meaning to them, with or without thought.  I do have a problem with the things you listed too, Brennen.  I really don’t like it when the doctors don’t get any credit for what happens to a patient nor do I like hearing, “Well pray about it” when one can come up with ways of solving the problem just by thinking and doing.  However, I do like Bishop Spong’s idea about life- “living life fully, loving wastefully, and being all we can be”.  Whether you see him as religious or not, that is something that does make sense and can apply to both the religious and non-religious.  It also fits my philosophy that if an action comes from one’s heart then the action has meaning and for me that gives life meaning.

OK I’m sure you’re asking “What if someone does harm to someone? Is that action from the heart?”  or something to that effect.  Depends if it’s intentional.  If it’s intentional then I would say that person needs helps, prison time, or something and it degrades the meaning of life too.

The meaning of life is a hard one, but the answer may depend on the individual too.  I don’t know.

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“Sometimes in order to see the light, you have to risk the dark.” ~ Iris Hineman (Lois Smith) The Minority Report

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Posted: 15 October 2007 10:36 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 6 ]
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Not being either a Theist or an Atheist, I’m not sure I can add anything “meaningful”  red face  that will be of use.

I don’t think there is any great plan of which each of us is a part.  I DO think that as long as I am here, I should at least do something constructive and leave this place in some small way better than it was when I arrived.  Raise my children so that they can lead happy and productive lives, etc., etc.  I can’t explain why I feel that that is important.  I just do.

Or perhaps it’s because humans have evolved to the point that our brains have developed a sense of right and wrong.  A conscience.  It varies with the individual of course.  And then there is:

“... that Action is best, which procures the greatest Happiness for the greatest numbers…”
(Francis Hutcheson, 1725)

Is that “The Meaning”?  I don’t know.  I just know I feel good if I’ve done something for someone else.

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Posted: 15 October 2007 11:10 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 7 ]
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One need not have the sort of “meaning” that we are talking about here in order to find direction in life or to take pleasure in it.  It is a mono-theistic fiction designed to scare away individualistic doubt and whip people into the line of authoritarian submission.  I would argue that the illusionary nature of this concocted sort of “meaning” interferes with rational judgment and clear headed ethical decision making.

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Posted: 15 October 2007 11:10 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 8 ]
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PaineMan - 15 October 2007 10:36 PM

I DO think that as long as I am here, I should at least do something constructive and leave this place in some small way better than it was when I arrived.  Raise my children so that they can lead happy and productive lives, etc., etc.  I can’t explain why I feel that that is important.  I just do.

I would link this “doing something constructive” and “leading productive lives” to a learned behavior and/or our instinct for survival of ourselves and the human race.

PaineMan - 15 October 2007 10:36 PM

Or perhaps it’s because humans have evolved to the point that our brains have developed a sense of right and wrong.  A conscience.  It varies with the individual of course.

I think the idea of “right and wrong” still come from conditioning rather then an evolved development of a sense. 

“... that Action is best, which procures the greatest Happiness for the greatest numbers…”
(Francis Hutcheson, 1725)


This quote scares me. Majority Rules. The religious seem to have great numbers and may claim to be quite happy. Therefore, they may argue that religion is the key to the greatest Happiness. Thus, by the quote, the best action would be to take religious action.

PaineMan - 15 October 2007 10:36 PM

I just know I feel good if I’ve done something for someone else.

This may support my argument that all acts are intrinsically selfish.

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Posted: 15 October 2007 11:31 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 9 ]
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mckenzievmd - 15 October 2007 09:39 PM

Morgantj,

More or less. I mean, I’m also interested in the relationship of religious ideas to meaning. I tend to think that rather than giving life meaning it takes it away. Any thought of your own on these questions?

Currently holding the position of a determinist, I can only conclude that I am “meant” to do what I do due to the the conditions before me. I think it’s a stretch to say that “religion” takes away meaning from life. If you are talking about how easily it misleads or misdirects peoples lives by conditioning them to believe in things in which there is little to no supporting evidence, yes, I find that to be quite unpleasant to say the least. However, it is also because of religion that has led many to become skeptical of it and to look for answers that are more logical and that have more evidence then what religion provides. In this case it would seem that the faults of religion actually sent you in a more positive direction which in turn could change how you view the meaning of life.

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Posted: 16 October 2007 12:20 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 10 ]
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morgantj - 15 October 2007 11:31 PM

I think it’s a stretch to say that “religion” takes away meaning from life. If you are talking about how easily it misleads or misdirects peoples lives by conditioning them to believe in things in which there is little to no supporting evidence, yes, I find that to be quite unpleasant to say the least. However, it is also because of religion that has led many to become skeptical of it and to look for answers that are more logical and that have more evidence then what religion provides. In this case it would seem that the faults of religion actually sent you in a more positive direction which in turn could change how you view the meaning of life.

*lightbulb!*

The faults of religion actually providing for a more meaningful life in the long run eh?  Sounds like something I’ve heard before wink  No, really.  I think meaning is often a product of contrast.

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Posted: 16 October 2007 12:30 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 11 ]
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godblessgeorgecarlin - 16 October 2007 12:20 AM
morgantj - 15 October 2007 11:31 PM

I think it’s a stretch to say that “religion” takes away meaning from life. If you are talking about how easily it misleads or misdirects peoples lives by conditioning them to believe in things in which there is little to no supporting evidence, yes, I find that to be quite unpleasant to say the least. However, it is also because of religion that has led many to become skeptical of it and to look for answers that are more logical and that have more evidence then what religion provides. In this case it would seem that the faults of religion actually sent you in a more positive direction which in turn could change how you view the meaning of life.

*lightbulb!*

The faults of religion actually providing for a more meaningful life in the long run eh?  Sounds like something I’ve heard before wink  No, really.  I think meaning is often a product of contrast.

I like to refer to this effect as “complimenting contrast.”

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Posted: 16 October 2007 01:08 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 12 ]
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First, Doug, I sort of disagree with your definition of meaning.  Meaning can only occur when assigned by a sentient being.  So, there is no intrinsic meaning to the universe, to black squiggles on a paper, etc., until we call them words and define meanings on which we agree.  However, that’s a very different thing from what I believe Brennen is getting at.  Possibly what I call the meaning would more accurately be called the value of our lives.  Those things I’ve contributed to society, science, and individuals that helped or gave someone or some group a bit of pleasure or joy, I feel have added to the positive value of my life.  Those things that I’d done that were negative probably reduced that value. 

Like the time a number of years ago when I saw two and a half parking places across the street from the library so I made a U turn.  At that moment a woman in a new large shiny dark blue Mercedes pulled into the space and stopped so there was three quarters of a space in front and the same in back of her.  I called to her and asked that she move forward or backward a bit.  She said, “I park where I want,” got out amd went into the library.  I parked a block away walked back and as I passed her car, did something I had heard about.  I was surprised at just how effective keying a car was.  I left a deep very visible groove down to the primer in the beautiful blue paint along the entire side of her new, expensive Mercedes.  I’m sure that decreased the value of my life, but, boy did it feel good at at the time.    vampire

Occam

[ Edited: 16 October 2007 01:10 AM by Occam ]
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Posted: 16 October 2007 07:50 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 13 ]
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Occam - 16 October 2007 01:08 AM

First, Doug, I sort of disagree with your definition of meaning.  Meaning can only occur when assigned by a sentient being.

I’m not sure how that’s different from what I wrote.

I do believe that other animals can create meanings; birds, whales, cats, dogs, all make meaningful sounds to one another. Birds, cuttlefish, and octopodes make meaningful visual displays ... but the universe as a whole has no such meaning. What it does have is the capacity to awe us, and it seems to me that people are looking for something outside themselves when they are looking for “meaning”. So we can substitute the search for meaning with a search for grandeur. That’s basically Carl Sagan’s approach.

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Posted: 16 October 2007 08:22 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 14 ]
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morgantj says:

This quote scares me. Majority Rules. The religious seem to have great numbers and may claim to be quite happy. Therefore, they may argue that religion is the key to the greatest Happiness. Thus, by the quote, the best action would be to take religious action.

Interesting.  The quote has nothing to do with “Majority Rules” OR anything “religious”.  I sense a preconceived notion that anything not following Atheist thought must therefore be “religious”.  To me, “religious” means following the dogma of some religious sect and I don’t follow the dogma of ANY.  To me, it is nothing more than a “rule of thumb” for judging MY action.  Whether the majority thinks my action was the “greatest good” or not is not the issue.  In fact, the majority may think my action is the greatest evil.

For example, if I think an Atheist political candidate is the best person for a given office (for whatever reasons), my conscience tells me the greatest good can be done by voting for him/her.  The “religious majority” may be appalled, but I think it is for their own good.

I WOULD go along more with the continuation of the species line of thought.  Individually we are nothing.  Collectively, it seems “good” or “right” to do things that improve the species.

You believe good vs bad is learned and I don’t.  You say potato, I say po-tah-to.  I believe the jury continues to be “out” on that one.

I’m enjoying the conversation. cool smile

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Posted: 16 October 2007 08:51 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 15 ]
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I think the meaning of life, or rather the aim of life, is life’s continuation. Now, this doesn’t have to be done only through having children. People like Einstein, for example, who was not a good father or a husband, contributed enormously to our society.

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