Bear with me. I think this makes sense.
I occasionally, in this lockdown world, play a game called World of Tanks. For those of you who don’t know this game (and probably don’t care), it is usually a fifteen on fifteen team game where you have to destroy the other team’s tanks to gain XP and coins. These then go towards “grinding” away at tank trees to gain the next tank along the tree, and then the next tank, and so on. What keeps you going is the constant grind to get to the next tank before starting the grinding process again. Let me keep it there for now before I return to this analogy (or, indeed, instantiation) of what I will talk about.
Meaning and Happiness
Theists always decry atheism for being ultimately meaningless. They are onto something there. There can be no individual meaning for a human, for them, that lasts beyond their own lifetime because when someone dies, they die. All of them dies. Yes, they live on in the memories of others, but for the person in question, there is no real existence of that person beyond their death.
Two things. First of all, this is not to diminish meaning through legacy. The impact of someone’s life can be keenly felt by those around them long after their death. Kant, Voltaire and, dare I say it, Jesus (whoever that may have been if, indeed, it was someone) have lived on in a meaningful way beyond their lifetimes.
Secondly, so what? That we have no meaning beyond our deaths simply requires that we derive meaning in the here and now and in the extensions of ourselves that we imbue in our children, family and society such that we want to safeguard futures beyond our own lives. It’s not just slash-and-burn (though to many, and even more so for Christians, ironically, it can appear so).
But, I admit, we don’t have ultimate meaning.
Thing is, that ultimate or overarching meaning can drive human behaviour in very strong ways.
There are different theories (both philosophical and psychological) of happiness, but one thing I think is fairly easily evident in our human behaviour is the need to have goals to drive us on and to maintain happy qua driven and fulfilled lives. It is advisable to set oneself goals to work towards to create a purposeful life. Without having a goal to work towards, we become listless and drift through life only ever gaining short-term hedonic pleasures. This is the case in work as well as outside work. We need to be working towards something in order to be driven to work. Whether it be a promotion here, or learning a skill there, or hitting some target there, we live for our goals and targets.
Otherwise, we just question, “why bother?”
If I enjoy a session of something, I don’t know, paintball in a short-term manner, then I will go again. After two or three times of enjoying it and wanting to keep on going, I would probably require of the hobby some kind of something else: maybe a league, or a way of measuring my improvement.
The Law of Diminishing Marginal Utility
In economics, there is something called the Law of Diminishing Marginal Utility that broadly states the more you have of the same product, the less utility you get from the consumption of each further product, ceteris paribus. Put in simple English: all thing remaining equal, if I was to be in a desert for a long time and found a pint of water, that first pint would be amazing. The second pint, less so. The third even less so, so on and so forth. Each successively consumed unit derived less pleasure.
This is very important in economics, product design and marketing so that companies can always keep their product current and desirable, perhaps through some sort of change.
World of Tanks
We need targets or, otherwise, why bother, right? If you don’t believe me, try playing World of Tanks. There are certain tanks that I get to that I really enjoy using and think “this is my favourite tank to battle with; I’m going to just play with this ad infinitum.”
Except that I don’t. Because once the next tanks I achieved in that tank tree, I suddenly don’t have the drive to use that particular tank. I literally say to myself, “Why bother?” It’s a really intuitive, instinctive reaction and not one I rationalise, other than afterwards. Occasionally, I might have the odd go if I still have it for short-term hedonistic pleasure, but there is no purpose or meaning endowed in doing so.
Life is like that for atheists. I know a few people who struggle with this, and who are atheists. They struggle with the lack of an overarching meaning and it can lead to an existential depression of sorts, to a nihilistic evaluation of life.
It depends what your base psychology is like, what heuristics and mechanisms you have for dealing with such challenges, and how susceptible you are to allowing these moments to consume you.
I always roll my eyes at theists who use this approach as an argument against atheism because it is such an obvious fallacy of wishful thinking. It has absolutely no purchase over whether or not the God hypothesis is true.
This is a very real challenge to atheists because we don’t have the promissory note of an afterlife (with all of its ridiculous incoherencies). There is absolutely no chance that an afterlife exists in light of OmniGod, at least not in the received manner in which heaven and hell are constructed.
We cope with these challenges by taking on those big tasks and targets, and committing ourselves to fulfilling our earthly objectives. This will never be enough for theists who demand something more, something ultimate. But, then again, as far as meaning and purpose are concerned, even these people have to guess what God’s is for them and take them on, subjectively, as their own.
God is Functional
Because we really (intuitively and instinctively) crave that overarching meaning or drive to give our lives momentum, and because (with atheism) there really is no ultimate form of this, we invent one. It isn’t a case of Early Man sitting around a campfire and thinking “We’re missing this thing, so let’s invent it” but more a case of ideas developing and pragmatically finding a niche. This is the evolution of ideas known as memetics. Memeplexes are huge networks of individual memes. In this case, the afterlife and a god providing ultimate meaning and purpose to transient humans is a useful meme that has helped us psychologically. So it stays and joins the memeplex that is any given god and religion. It has survivability through adaptive benefits that are selected in.
To continue this metaphor, God provides the endless tank tree so that we can, ad infinitum, grind out the next tank in the game of life and happily go about our business with drive and purpose.
Of course, to conclude, this plays merry havoc with ideas of eternal afterlife, heaven and boredom. But that’s another debate.
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