Naturalism, Knowledge and Ultimate Meaning

Naturalism, Knowledge and Ultimate Meaning December 14, 2018

The classic riposte to atheist success and happiness is that we have no ultimate meaning in our lives. The atheist rejoinder is that we’re fine with this, we have subjective meaning and this is just as meaningful. Indeed, I would add, subjective meaning is far nobler than having a third party, supposedly divine, being prescribe their meaning upon us. Actually, it’s worse than that because the meaning is concocted by believers who claim that they know the ultimate meaning and then prescribe it upon us or their fellow believers. I would far rather take the time and effort to analyse and evaluate life and existence to create my own meaning rather than have to receive someone else’s meaning and take it as my own.

But what, really, is ultimate meaning anyway? Ultimate, in these contexts, merely means transcendent of life. Ultimate really means temporally infinite. The meaning of life, therefore, extends past life and into death and infinite existence in heaven (or hell).

And atheists (generally) don’t believe in eternal afterlife is and therefore cannot have ultimate meaning.

So what?

I have my own meaning that takes into account the here and now, not some promissory note of an eternal afterlife; not some self-serving meaning that means I’ll be happy way past my earthly existence. My own meaning takes into account the people around me now, the world around me now, and the future generations of my family and people around me now in the world. It appears to me to be far more tangible and constructive.

So, given that we have don’t have ultimate meaning in this eternal sense, what effect does this have upon knowledge generation? And does knowledge have its own implicit (moral) value?

Why do we bother collecting and improving our breadth and depth of knowledge given that our existence is arguably ultimately meaningless? Theists would argue that our meaning is only transient along with our existence. And given the heat death or some other end to our finite universe, what is the point of collecting and improving our knowledge of the universe?

To me, knowledge has only consequential value. I’m not sure that truth or knowledge has a value in and of itself because I can only see that value manifest when it is used in order to bring about positive outcomes.

Of course, there is a pragmatic use for collecting knowledge because it will generally make our lives better in the short and medium term. The science of health care and technology that allows us to live safer and longer lives with a greater quality of life means that knowledge collection has a very real benefit for us (and some might argue, some collateral damage, too). We have to take, as humanity, the long-term view that these benefits are certainly gained over generations. Thus knowledge has a value that transcends an individual’s life. Marie Curie did a wonderful job of improving the knowledge base of humanity for the benefit of those generations who exist and will exist beyond her own life.

But the long-term prognosis for humanity is pretty bleak. Whether we live 1000, 10,000, 100,000, 1 million years or more into the future, using our latest understanding of physics, our existence as a species will pretty much certainly come to an end.

We are not very good at being fatalist or nihilistic and so we do things for the here and now. There is also a joy in collecting knowledge and finding out about things. In this case, there is a joy to find the out how the world around us and the universe works. But outside of this more immediate pleasure in doing science or gaining knowledge, there is a nagging question as to why we do it at all given the impermanence of humanity.

However, I just made a cup of tea because I quite fancy one now and it gives joy to me to drink at this instant.  We might decorate our lounge in a few months to give us an ongoing pleasure for the next 10 years. We know, my partner and I, that we are going to die at some point. But this doesn’t stop us doing things for the short and medium term. That’s not how we and it’s not how humanity works. We do everything to try to ensure that our children are prepared for their lives ahead of them in terms of education, life skills and whatnot. We know that they are going to die at some point but it is still something that is paramount for us to do. If we lived our lives with a constant sense of finitude and impermanence then we would let psychological fatalism takeover and we would simply cease to exist as a species. For a social and intelligent species such as ourselves, it is really important to be driven on with a collective sense of future that outlives our short lives.

It is potentially similar to libertarian free will. It obviously doesn’t exist but perhaps it is a useful tool to navigate our daily lives and, when we are forgetting about deeper philosophy, we live our lives as though we have it. We get angry at other people and praise other people even though they are merely living out who they are in a situation they are in. As PF Strwason said, we have these psychological reactive attitudes embedded so firmly in our lives that we cannot but live our lives as if free will exists. In the same way, we simply cannot live our lives as if we, and ongoing humanity, have only a short and finite existence in the universe.

As ever, let me know your thoughts.

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