Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Meaninglessness's Referent

Michael Shermer offers several reasons for the resistance to accepting evolutionary science, including this one:

The equation of evolution with ethical nihilism. This sentiment was expressed by the neoconservative social commentator Irving Kristol in 1991: "If there is one indisputable fact about the human condition it is that no community can survive if it is persuaded -- or even if it suspects -- that its members are leading meaningless lives in a meaningless universe."
Meaningless to whom? And how?

For what little it may be worth, this line of thinking -- "life is meaningful because god says so" -- is actually an infinite regress, or maybe something worse. If our memories, reflections, and feelings vis-a-vis one another are not enough to make life meaningful, what does god add?

More power? God is the ultimate social-moving dandy with invitations to all the big social scenes, audiences with all the world leaders, back stage passes to all the concerts, sporting events, upscale dinner parties. He runs in fancy circles, knows everybody's numbers, can cite charming anecdotes about anyone you can name. Or maybe this simply means he can squash us like so many gnats or make sure we never work in the industry again.

On this view, having a relationship with god is like having a relationship with Colin Powell or Bono or Paul McCartney, only a thousand times better. As we are social animals, this is a more or less valid picture of 'meaningfulness,' but it's pretty far from noble when regarded in the light of day.

More time? God was thinking and feeling about our lives before we were born and will be around to remember us after we leave sublunary life. So? If there is something meaning-endowing about being thought about, felt about, and remembered, I see no reason why the meaning-endowing powers of thinking, feeling, and remembering goes to zero if it does not last forever. What is 'forever' to us but a word, an abstraction built on the negation of our everyday experience of time? It's a phantasm.

Concretely, I don't know what to think of anyone who was thinking about my day-to-day three trillion years ago and will still be thinking about it three trillion years in the future. The idea of that bores me beyond imagining, and this is my own day-to-day I have in mind.

With or without god, and with or without evolution, we gain meaning by the experience of life and how we reflect on it. Any 'meaning' beyond this is guesswork, and we should take care that these guesses don't negate or occlude the meanings available to us. We should live for what we know, and this entails trying to expand what we know within our finite limits.

1 comment:

larryniven said...

"Concretely, I don't know what to think of anyone who was thinking about my day-to-day three trillion years ago and will still be thinking about it three trillion years in the future. The idea of that bores me beyond imagining, and this is my own day-to-day I have in mind."

Ergo your life is meaningless - QED, sucka!