Because most philosophies that frown on reproduction don't survive.

Tuesday, December 06, 2011

Assuming Meaning

A while back, Jennifer Fulwiler wrote a piece about her conversion from atheism to Catholicism, in which she talked about how Christianity answered the question of why we act as if life has meaning when in a strictly materialist world it would appear not to. This post drew a fair amount of criticism from atheists (and some believers) who insisted that even if we assume that humans are strictly material, deterministic organisms (with free will, goodness, etc. being mental constructs/illusions) that doesn't mean that life isn't beautiful and full of meaning.  After all, we naturally act like life has meaning, why not just assume that life has meaning to the extent that we act like it does? (via Leah) Ross Douthat tries to put together a thought experiment to address this line of argument:
Suppose, by way of analogy, that a group of people find themselves conscripted into a World-War-I-type conflict — they’re thrown together in a platoon and stationed out in no man’s land, where over time a kind of miniature society gets created, with its own loves and hates, hope and joys, and of course its own grinding, life-threatening routines. Eventually, some people in the platoon begin to wonder about the point of it all: Why are they fighting, who are they fighting, what do they hope to gain, what awaits them at war’s end, will there ever be a war’s end, and for that matter are they even sure that they’re the good guys?

…At this point, one of the platoon’s more intellectually sophisticated members speaks up. He thinks his angst-ridden comrades are missing the point: Regardless of the larger context of the conflict, they know the war has meaning because they can’t stop acting like it has meaning. Even in their slough of despond, most of them don’t throw themselves on barbed wire or rush headlong into a wave of poison gas. (And the ones who do usually have something clinically wrong with them.)… Instead, given how much meaningfulness is immediately and obviously available — right here and right now, amid the rocket’s red glare and the bombs bursting in air — the desire to understand the war’s larger context is just a personal choice, with no necessary connection to the question of whether today’s battle is worth the fighting.
One of the things that strikes me about this exchange is the extent to which it underlines different modes of thinking. From Douthat and Fulwiler, we have have an essentially teleological mode of thinking, one in which the question "why is that?" and "what does that mean?" in some final sense are the most important human questions. The opposing view in this case is a functional view which seems to draw a lot from engineering and scientific methods of the more procedural sort: "Okay, look, we're not really sure why we should think any of this has meaning, but clearly we do so that's functionally good enough to go with for now. Let's get on with other stuff."

I'm somewhat flummoxed as to how one would find it remotely satisfying to address a question such as "meaning" from a strictly functional perspective. Though perhaps that just shows how much in the former camp I am. However prone to skepticism I am, and it's a straing that runs strongly in me, one of the things that makes Catholicism so much more intellectually satisfying to me than the alternative of agnosticism is that I don't see how one can answer questions like "why do we exist" and "what is our purpose" with a shrug of "Well, we seem to be here, so who cares."


John Farrell said...

Absolutely. The older (and perhaps more cynical) that I get, the more it seems to boil down to a simple difference. The atheist (functionalist) takes existence for granted--and acknowledges no reason why he should not. (Cue modern analytical philosophers, 'existence is not a predicate', etc.)

The rest of us (including agnostics)...don't.

Andy said...

I had a friend from high school who went to a Methodist seminary to become a preacher. After a year he dropped out and has since become a vocal atheist. On his atheist group's website, he waxes lyrical about how he finds meaning in reading a good book, playing with his child and sitting in the son. While I also enjoy these activities, I don't think they have meaning in and of themselves, but are simply enjoyable to him. If we are using a happiness metric as a substitute for meaning, we are simply back to simple hedonism. If I had countered that I find meaning in building sand castles, picking my nose and killing red headed people, I'm not sure how he can logically poo-poo my choices.

Unknown said...

The line of argument taken by Wilkinson frustrates me, and frankly, I agree with his more vocal atheist counterparts (Dawkins et a.): if there is no meaning inherent in life, the universe, etc., then simply ascribing meaning where there isn't any (or "pretending" there is a God when there isn't) strikes me as dishonest and wrongheaded.

mary said...

Oh yes! This is it in a nutshell. So many of my friends and acquaintances admit (when pressed) that they just go to church to give their children some "structure" or "something" or some "moral training". I am absolutely the type of person who asks the former questions (to a mind-bending fault). I cannot understand how people get on without searching for meaning.