What do you mean by “meaning”?

Last year, a student told me that he could never accept evolution because that would destroy his faith, and without his faith, life would have no meaning.

I think I remarked that that was interesting, and left it at that. I teach science, but I figure sorting out meaning-of-life issues is beyond my capabilities and not my job anyway. I guess I could have suggested that there are more liberal religious people who accept some version of evolution and seem to do fine in the religious meaning to life area as well. But this student clearly had a more specific religious commitment in mind; some vague promise of higher meaning was not going to be enough.

He may have had a point as well. Since I didn’t want to pry, I don’t know any specifics, but it’s not hard to imagine that his understanding of life was tightly wrapped around a more fundamentalist faith. His social environment, moral allegiances, and concept of what his life is all about may militate against taking evolution on board as if it were just another fact. There would be too much at stake. And I’d hesitate to say that getting the science right is so important that it justifies disrupting so much else that he considers valuable.

I don’t know if standard secular musings on the meaning of life help all that much in such situations. And this goes with strongly religious commitments in general, not just fundamentalism. Many religious believers are very invested in the notion of a higher purpose to life beyond worldly satisfactions. That’s a pretty important feature of religiosity, we might even say. And so, if we produce a standard secular response, saying that maybe there is no transcendent purpose of life, but we certainly have purposes within nature that can inspire us, that may come across as just not good enough. Ordinary goals fall flat.

I’m not even sure this is something to argue about, even. I’m fine with worldly purposes, and honestly, I am so hopelessly secular that I have trouble figuring out what this whole higher meaning thing is all about. But not just my perceptions of the world but my interests, my temperament, my way of life—all of this is very different compared to strongly religious people. We want different things out of life, and I suspect it’s demanding too much from any argument to expect an argument to change that.

About Taner Edis

Professor of physics at Truman State University