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.

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About Taner Edis

Professor of physics at Truman State University

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/03859405216390259275 Intergalactic Hussy

    In my experience, I was dark, confused, often depressed, agnostically (so to speak) struggling with what god is or could be. Going up to my teen years, I considered myself agnostic and believed in the Einsteinian version of god, if anything. But with the talk of religion in the news, by politicians, some musicians/artists, etc, I could not help but often be aware of the big god question.

    Then four years ago I met my current amazing boyfriend, who’s basically been an atheist his entire life. After a few plain ‘n simple conversations, I finally realized and said “I’m an atheist” aloud…and my life has never has had so much “meaning”.

    The awesome wonders of nature, biology, technology, space, and knowledge in general have inspired me to be the most optimistic and happiest person I know.

    Personally, I don’t need a “higher purpose” to have meaning. Being apart of the amazing evolutionary process should be something to get you up in the morning feeling good about living your one and only life. Without that, life’s meaningless (to me, anyway).

    Thanks for the great post!

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/09010421115826273321 Rourke

    I was just thinking about this concept the other day, and I came to the (temporary) conclusion that a religious “higher purpose” or “divine plan” is limiting. If you truly believe in a deity that deterministically has a Master Plan for you that *will never change*, it means that whenever you get an idea that you like, you call it “God’s plan” and then stick to that, forever. Even if there was a god (and there isn’t) there’d literally be no way to know what the deity’s so-called “Master Plan” was, other than a vague feeling that comes from yourself, meaning the whole idea of “religion = life’s meaning = God’s plan” is simply a form of self-serving stubbornness disguised as a good thing.

    Personally, life can have meaning in the form of human relationships and individual freedom — I agree with you; I don’t need a “higher purpose” to have meaning, either.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/11338993634025153018 Bruce

    I’m not even sure this is something to argue about, even.

    I’ll second this motion. I couldn’t care less about finding a “meaning of life”, and not having one does not affect me in any way whatsoever. I’m here and I make the best of it and try to enjoy what I do.

    I actually kind of feel sorry for people struggling with this whole “meaning of life” thing they seem to need answered so badly. They are so desperate that they are willing to give up common sense and reason in order to find it, but deep down I think most of them know that they are merely fooling themselves. I don’t think they ever truly find the answers they are looking for, so instead of just accepting life for what it is they spend their entire lives struggling with this non issue. Not the way I’d want to go through life.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/05275899305949454964 hardindr

    If the student is still around and you feel comfortable, I would have you recommend Julian Baggini’s What’s It All About? Philosophy & the Meaning of Life. It does a good job of explaining how people can find/create meaning in a secular life. It also has the advantages of being lite, easy to read and full of pop culture references.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/16826768452963498005 Jim Lippard

    Robert Nozick’s book _Philosophical Explanations_ has an excellent discussion of meaning in life, which also looks at the question of what, if he exists, would be *God*’s meaning.

    His later book _The Examined Life_ also is a great book for such issues.

    And so is Thomas Nagel’s _Mortal Questions_.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/04022279877478982898 JohnNC

    Discerning the meaning of life for the religious is a methodology used by the various churches the individual may belong to (I use the term “church” generically in this post). Almost exclusively, the individual’s “meaning” is derived from something “god” wants from them, which of course is something the churches have developed over the years in order to maintain control and retain membership. Generally, this “meaning” boils down to “live by our/god’s rules, or your life will have no meaning.” “Spreading god’s word and your life will have meaning/fulfillment/inner peace/whatever”, is the ultimate in circular logic that keeps individual’s tied to their faith.

    In my experience, most people have not done much introspective analysis about their own thoughts on how the universe really operates and their place in it. This may be due to many factors: they grew up in a particular faith environment, they lack the capacity for such thought, they are afraid it may lead to “sin”, etc.

    Of course, some people actually like being told what their “meaning” is. It is easier for them and allows them to feel a part of their community regardless of how poisonous that community may be. Really digging deep into your own ideals and examining closely what it is that matters most to you is difficult. It’s hard work. It would be much easier for me if someone came along and said, “You sir, your purpose is blah. Now go about your business.” Being who I am, this would be an impossibility, but I can see how it would be very attractive to many people.

    This is especially true for those who live in under-developed parts of the world where the daily fight for survival, lack of educational resources, lock of adequate housing or medical facilities, and the acquiring of life’s basic necessities supersedes the time, energy, and thought required for such introspection. Re-evaluating my own life and goals, what I want out of life, is something I do on a regular basis. I often change what these goals are or sometimes just the method by which I will get to them. These changes aren’t drastic, but like a ship righting itself, they are small but necessary. The problem with the deeply religious who find their meaning through their faith is that change is deemed as “bad” or against god’s plan since it would cause them to shift away from church teachings. Unless the church initiated the changes (and wars have started this way) the individual would not think to change. Digging deep inside yourself and understanding that change is necessary requires independent thought and might not be possible for the deeply devout. And that is a shame.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/06394155516712665665 CyberKitten

    A search for meaning in the universe – especially a transcendent one – personally bemuses me.

    Why should there be any meaning to life outside that which we give it? Why should there be any ‘meaning’ at all?

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/12261570792556240107 Action

    Why do religious people constantly confuse their beliefs with faith? This simple – but obviously confusing thing – causes more heartache and division than anything else on the planet. Beliefs necessarily change. We learn new things about the world constantly. Faith (you know – that Jesus is your personal savior) is something you know, or feel. Science and facts are irrelevant to faith – spirituality.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/09468191085576922813 David B. Ellis

    I, for one, think it drains life of meaning far more to have the universe ruled by a God who intends to torture the majority of humanity for eternity than it does to believe life simply ends at the death of the body.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/17047791198702983998 bpabbott

    “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.”

    Ouch! … what a sad testament. I can’t imagine living a live avoiding the enlightenment of science.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/15647211317186049289 Karlo

    Such comments about life lacking meaning without Christianity show a lack of imagination. If a person truly believed that altruism is meaningful, why would it be become less meaningful if it weren’t coerced, if it weren’t declared to be one’s religious duty. It strikes me that the ability of a person, in the truly existentialist sense, to create meaning is, in itself, truly meaningful.