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What do we mean by “the meaning of life?”
Posted: 03 February 2008 02:40 PM   [ Ignore ]
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Convinced atheist that I am, I can’t help but shake my head at the prevailing attitude in modern academia best summed up by Christopher Hitchens in his (haughty) assertion that “religion poisons everything.”  Religion, as it is practised by many if not most around the world is indeed, illogical and therefore dangerous when taken literally by its adherents.  We need not go into that here.  But religion does, I would argue, offer meaning where science cannot.  Science can answer every question but the why.
  For instance, it seems to me quite obvious that any possible “meaning” that can be gleaned out of or injected into life must, by definition be confined to symbolism - in other words, metaphor.  Meaning denotes purpose and purpose implies design, that is, an intended function.  Example, the purpose of a knife is to cut, the purpose of a house is to shelter, the purpose of a fire is to cook.  You will be hard-pressed to ascribe purpose to anything without reference to its designer or manipulator.  Example, fire has no purpose unless it is being used to cook, or heat, or light something; a knife is useless unless it is manipulated by an agent to cut or stab.  A house is not a house unless it is lived in.  So in the same way, the idea of God or Brahma or even the Tao, are narrative metaphors through which the universe and indeed life itself can be contemplated and understood is a meaningful way.  These narrative metaphors are used both to entertain and to motivate in just the same way that other art forms like literature, film and painting are used.  Consider the art form of Theatre:  in no way does the execution or observation of a play tell us anything about the nature of reality that psychology, science, history and philosophy cannot, but we still swarm in droves to see Hamlet, again and again and again and again.  Why?  By a purely scientific world-view, theatre is if not completely frivolous than at best, an entirely inefficient use of time.  But of course you object, “no, no, no, by reading, performing and watching Hamlet we learn life lessons about the dangers of over-scepticism, the dubiousness of certainty and the importance of action, among countless others.”  And you are right.  The lessons about epistemology and human psychology we can unpack from Hamlet (as Colin McGuinn argued on his POI interview) are much more vivid and comprehensible (and I would argue, meaningful) than let’s say, perusing a neuroscience text book for three-hours would be (unless you are pursuing a career in neuroscience or a related field) for the simple reason that humans are hard-wired to function according to purpose.  Take Maslow’s hierarchy of needs: our actions are based on our priorities and our priorities are in turn, based on acquiring those things with which we think we can improve the quality of our lives. 
What happens when one feels they have no meaning in life? They pursue a life of destruction either internally in the form of suicide, or externally in the form of murder, theft, ridicule etc…(let us for now exempt pathology or mental illness from the illustration.)  Even atheists must choose to ascribe some from of existential meaning to their lives whether it be the pursuit of happiness, the abolition of suffering, the fulfilment of desire or the pursuit of knowledge.  But if asked “why” they choose to pursue such goals they will be forced to offer up something more or less illogical and decidedly dogmatic such as “because that’s the way I feel” or “that’s just the way humans are.”  Recall Russell’s famous line when asked about the origin of the universe “it’s just there and that’s all!”  But since, religion offers a narrative structure to the order of the universe and of the human experience, it like Hamlet entertains and, even if only illusorily, instills an otherwise vacant mechanism with a heartbeat.  The ghost in the machine, if you will. 
In short, my argument is that we should look at religion as art and interpret its meaning in the same way that we interpret meaning in literature, painting, poetry, theatre, film and even sports a la Huston Smith, Joseph Campbell and Alan Watts have done.

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Posted: 03 February 2008 03:02 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 1 ]
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Baffledking, I have a different view of meaning, but first I’d like to address your discussion of purpose.  You may see this as nitpicking, but I see purpose and function as two concepts that sound similar, but have very different meanings.  I suggest that the function of a knife is to cut, and it was designed to do so.  Purpose, I believe, can only be ascribed to sentient beings, and, as such, it is self-assigned.  However, I prefer “meaning” to “purpose”.  In other words, I don’t see that my life has a specific purpose, but rather it has a meaning that I’ve defined by my actions and the morals I’ve developed by inculcation from my parents, my reading, and my experiences.

I believe that each of us should be taught social behavior and ethics at an early age.  And, I certainly don’t mean the moronic “morality” of the Decalogue.  We should be encouraged to develop our own meaning of our lives rather than the predigested drivel offered by religion.  If we hope to live in an increasingly civilized world, we must become intelligent, thoughtful citizens, not sheep led by the authoritarian structure of religion.

I agree with your last sentence except that I would replace “religion” with “philosophy”.  In addition, interpreting meaning is fine so long as we aren’t brainwashed to accept it uncritically.  We may decide to use parts of it in the construction of our own meaning, and that’s valuable.  I just don’t think religions have offered anywhere enough positive compared to the huge proportion of their negative aspects to justify even bothering with them.

Anyway, welcome to the forum, Baffleking.  Glad to have you, and your ideas, here.

Occam
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Posted: 03 February 2008 03:30 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 2 ]
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Thank you for the warm welcome, Occam.

Your point about the totalitarianism intrinsic in religion is well taken.  Religion, if used as dogma is indeed, poisonous to our intellect and our survival.  I defend religion not as an institution but as a valuable source of symbols.  Going to church should be thought of and willingly participated in in the same way that we go to the theatre or the movies.  If religion were to be completely eradicated from the face of the earth, kept out of schools and the newspapers than I think we would be depriving ourselves of a fascinating and vivifying interpretation of the universe and of the human condition.  For instance, I think deep study of any and all religions would be beneficial intellectually and aesthetically to any individual in any discipline.  It would help us understand culture, history, old and modern philosophy, and psychology.  For that, I think it is important to maintain some respect for religious traditions and religious people.  The problem with religion is that it puts forth its symbolism as reality which causes us, as Alan Watts creatively put it, to “eat the menu instead of the food.”  But my worry is that in all our passionate and determined attempt to discredit religion for its logical and ethical fallacies, we are throwing the baby out with the bath water.

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Posted: 03 February 2008 03:51 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 3 ]
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I understand your concern, but there’s a difference between studying religion for its aesthetics, the philosophies of some of it’s members, its history, place, and effects on the progress of societies over recorded history, and using it as a brainwashing tool to maintain obedience and stifle independent thought. 

A number of years ago I was the advisor for a teen group.  One of the kids gave me a paper he had written for a highschool class he was taking.  I was surprised that his subject was his rationale for being an atheist and the fact that he had gotten an A on the paper.  It certainly deserved it, but still. . .  I asked what the class was and he said it was on comparative religions.  I was shocked that the local highschool would offer that so I asked more.  He said that they studied the history, beliefs, and effects on their societies of a wide variety of religions.  The teacher was careful to point out that there would be no attempt to judge the adequacy or value of any belief system, only a presentation of each of them.  He said each student should make up his/her own mind and choose that faith or non-faith s/he felt comfortable with.  Unfortunately, few highschools offer this kind of course.

I agree that study of religions may offer insights as you mention, however, I think it’s equally important to discredit their logical, ethical, and social fallacies and the damage they have done.  I don’t want to throw the baby out with the bathwater, but I do want to wash all the dirt off of the baby.

Occam

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Posted: 03 February 2008 04:18 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 4 ]
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...and forums such as these are excellent baby-washing facilities. smile

I suppose another point I wish to stress is that any statement one can make about the “meaning” of life is almost exclusively metaphorical.  We shouldn’t criticize religions for being illogical any more than we should criticize Shakespeare for being unscientific.  In other words God, Jesus, Buddha, Brahma, Allah and the Tao DO work as metaphors.

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Posted: 03 February 2008 04:34 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 5 ]
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Normally the question ‘why’ is a solicitation of an explanation of something by some kind of general theory.  The theory of most people is that at the most general level questions about the meaning of life and the meaning of existence is that for some reason God wanted it.  Even the most general scientific theory (such as the much sought “theory of everything”) does not seem to satisfy those who seem implicitly, if not explicitly, to assume an intelligence with the capacity to create all this.  Then the question ‘why’ is answered by reference to Divine intent.  This kind of reasoning can lead to an infinite regress.  Why is there a God who created this?  Did some bigger God create him?  Etc.

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Posted: 03 February 2008 04:48 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 6 ]
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Valid point about the meaning of “why”.

Baffledking, the problem is that a great many people take things very literally.  They don’t see metaphors but assume that the story is to be used as an edict to be followed exactly.

Occam

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Posted: 03 February 2008 05:35 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 7 ]
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Then the question ‘why’ is answered by reference to Divine intent.  This kind of reasoning can lead to an infinite regress.  Why is there a God who created this?  Did some bigger God create him?  Etc.

The infinite regress only appears if you take GOD to be a literal, scientific fact.  If it is understood as a story or image, then it solicits no further explanation which would be redundant anyways given that the metaphor is referring to the beginning of an infinite universe which is a paradox in itself no matter how you look at it.  My point is that any explanation of the meaning of the universe must be stated in metaphorical terms.  The problem is that religion bit off more than it could chew and declared its metaphors to be scientific truth.  But I think most people realize that religion is just metaphor deep down inside.  Extremists aside, if you REALLY believed in Christianity you would be screaming in the streets.

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Posted: 03 February 2008 08:04 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 8 ]
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Baffedking,

I for one, think church makes great theater, and I enjoy going to mass for that reason, but I wouldn’t say religious theater is especially necessary. I agree that symbolic and metaphorical ways of looking at the human experience are valuable, but I see art as capable of providing that without any ostensible religious content being necessary. I agree with Occam that meaning and purpose are concepts we assign to our lives for our own psychological reasons, and that they have no inherent existence in things or beings themselves. I am confortable with the fact that there is no meaning except that which I choose to give to my life and the universe generally, and yet I live a happy, productive, socially engaged, moral existence. So I have to question whether what is gotten from religion is worth the dangers of it.

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Posted: 03 February 2008 10:57 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 9 ]
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mckenziemvd,

You pointed out that art gives enough meaning to our lives as it is and we do not need religion on top of that.  In other words, religion offers nothing that art (that is film, literature, music, painting etc…) does not.  I have considered this point too though it seems art itself, at least historically, is directly inspired by religious questions and even religious paradox.  Mythology/religion provides the “primary colours” if you will, for the artist to develop his art.  Archetypes inform all narratives and archetypes are more or less founded in cosmological mythology and religious metaphor.  Think of Star Wars, The Brother’s Karamazov, Lord of the Rings, etc…without religious symbolism to inform them.  My intuition tells me they wouldn’t be artistically possible, at least with the same themes and symbols as they have borrowed, evaluated and reinterpreted from religion.  Am I giving it too much credit?

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Posted: 04 February 2008 07:35 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 10 ]
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baffledking - 03 February 2008 10:57 PM

Am I giving [religion] too much credit?

I think so. Art helps us to communicate. We use love, sex, war, religion, etc., in art to express something we feel very passionate about, and cannot easily communicate through words. As such these are all merely tools to help us transmit our emotions. The meaning of life is to survive and art has served us well in this task. The two characters that have mostly appeared in films are Jesus and Hitler. It is not Christianity and the Nazis what we are after here: through Jesus people communicate hope, and through Hitler fear. Hope and fear are meaningful to us, and we use a religious fanatic and a troubled psychopath to carry across this message.

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Posted: 04 February 2008 07:49 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 11 ]
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I do think you’re giving religion too much credit.

I don’t think it is truly useful to our species anymore. It had its place at one time, now we have the scientific method and can explain the universe in proper terms, instead of superstition.

I can appreciate symbolism without the dangerous narcotic of religion. I just wish all the brainwashed masses that think they have to go to church or they’ll suffer for eternity thought the same.

I find the majority of symbolism of xianity, for instance, to be appalling and unnecessary. People eat their god and drink his blood—the zombie god that came back to life after being executed. I find the worship of his death (that is what it really is all about) to be horrifying. The threat of eternal damnation, even the threat of eternal reward, is abominable; it keeps people from living their lives well NOW for the sake of doing so, instead they do it for the benefit of the sky fairy and assume that nobody can live a good life without being watched by the invisible friend.

Worst of all, people use their religion as a way to feel superior to others and kill in the name of the imaginary.

Most people can’t handle symbolism for symbolism’s sake, they’re too caught up in the egocentricism of how the symbols apply to them personally and only.

Religion is a poison and I, for one, think the world would be a much better place without it.

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Posted: 04 February 2008 09:45 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 12 ]
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I also agree that art can do what it does without having to take its symbolic language from religion. It is true that historically art often has, but I think that’s due to the practicalities of who funds and approves or censors art more than a basic requirement. Just as artists in the Western tradition before the last century or two were overwhelmingly men, and yet now almost no one questions whether women have as much to contribute to the arts as men. It’s a function of how history has been, not how anything must be.

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Posted: 05 February 2008 07:52 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 13 ]
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I tend to agree with the idea that we need “narrative metaphors” to make sense of the world around us, but that sort of thing (myth) is not necessarily exclusively religious.  I like Star Trek, for example, and I think that it serves the same purpose to me to some extent.

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Posted: 05 February 2008 08:57 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 14 ]
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baffledking - 03 February 2008 02:40 PM

Religion, as it is practised by many if not most around the world is indeed, illogical and therefore dangerous when taken literally by its adherents.  We need not go into that here.  But religion does, I would argue, offer meaning where science cannot.  Science can answer every question but the why.

Religion does not address the matter of “why?”  “Because god” is no more an answer than “because I said so.”  It leaves us with the questions “why did god?” and “why god?”  And it really says nothing at all about “why?”  It merely stifles a good question and provides nothing.

Science may not answer the question “why?” yet.  But reason does help us to find meaning.  Because, if we really want to find meaning, we have to take a look at our own values.  After all, what we value is what we find meaningful.

If the sense of meaning that we need is that of social affirmation, then I would suggest that we look to ways of building healthy social lives and communities.  If it is aesthetic, then art needs no religion.

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Posted: 05 February 2008 09:56 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 15 ]
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erasmusinfinity - 05 February 2008 08:57 AM

If it is aesthetic, then art needs no religion.

Yeah, why play religious music on Christmas if we can have 50,000 different versions of Jingle Bells?

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