Does Life Have Meaning?

Each of us has meaning and we bring it to life.
It is a waste to be asking the question when you are the answer.
― Joseph Campbell

This post might seem to be something of a deviation from my theme of universal empathy and benevolent reciprocity, but it is not. It is a revision to the response I gave, concerning Campbell’s quote, at Kendall F. Person’s blog recently and it reminded me that, although I have held the same concept for many years, I had never thought to reconcile it with my philosophy of causal determinism (all events in the universe, including our actions and thoughts, are determined, not from any deity, but from nature). But if causal determinism is true and we have no free will, then how do we “give” meaning to life?

The meaning I try to give is unconditional empathy and benevolent reciprocity. Looking back at the horrors of history, I think humanity is evolving ever so slowly toward a world of brotherhood and sisterhood, and I desire to help the process, yet it may be coming about involuntarily–despite my meager and often flawed efforts, or the efforts of anyone else.

Involuntarily? How so?

Campbell’s quote suggests that the meaning of life is entirely existential (from within each individual)–that there isn’t a meaning other than what we give it. I think this is necessarily so. Plato recognized the existentiality of true social justice somewhere around 400 BCE. Indeed, looking back at my own intellectual evolution, I can see the causal factors that brought me to the world view I hold today, and I am virtually convinced that I had no choice but to evolve as I have.

So, if causal determinism is true, then the meaning each of us give to our lives was determined from an incalculable number of intertwining causes and effects going back to the beginning of the universe, and possibly back into infinity past.

To make my point more lucid, I offer you another excerpt from The Empathy Imperative:

* * *

[Scene: Jeff Hale, professor of evolutionary biology, is trying desperately to suppress an onslaught of grief caused by news of the death of his estranged, fundamentalist father. He stands at his office window, staring out in search for distractions.]

His attention was drawn to a wind-blown sheet of paper, loosely crumpled, trapped in the hedge by the sidewalk. He mused at how it seemed to struggle to free itself.

It might be a page from a philosophy paper, a rough draft, or even a graded paper, possibly from one of my own students. Discarded thoughts, once regarded by their perpetrator as brilliantly original arguments, but found on deeper reflection to be groundless assertions—conjecture without foundation—a desecration of sound logic.

Jeff smiled and nodded approval. Even if it were so, failure is often a good thing. From every attempt to elucidate an argument, fail or not, a student learns and progresses.

The paper freed itself from its prickly captor. Jeff watched as it joined the swirling leaves tumbling off across the quad, its unwilled course set by the capricious wind.

Capricious? No, even the direction of the wind has a cause, as does the wind itself. And was there not a cause that impelled the student to crumple and toss the paper? Anger? Disinterest?—an attempt to cast away his regret for not having studied sufficiently?

The paper was going to bounce across the quad long before the student crumpled it, long before he adorned it with his thoughts, long before the paper itself was made, and even long before the student was born. From the beginning of the universe, an unbroken chain of countless, intertwining events merged to cause that crumpled sheet of paper to tumble across the quad.

It reminded Jeff of Laplace’s Demon. Pierre-Simon Laplace penned the most cogent explanation of causal determinism, a concept that suggests the current state of the universe and everything therein is “the effect of its past and the cause of its future.”

He supposed that if there could be an intellect so immense as to know all forces of nature in the universe at a single instant, know the positions and trajectories of all particles, and could analyze that data, to such an intellect there would be no difference between the future and the past.

My standing here gazing out this window, every whip and whirl of wind, every deflected motion of the tumbling paper, indeed, every thought in my head and in everyone else’s head would be known to such an intellect from eternity past.

It’s the very definition of unqualified omniscience. But what an eternally boring state of existence such a being would have. What an unending, intellectual hell it would be.

Jeff grinned. How could such a being possess humor? It would know the punch line of all jokes in the universe for all time. No humor there. It also would be devoid of curiosity. It would be indifferent to all things.

The net effect on such a being would amount to eternal, intellectual paralysis. Is that why the god of the Old Testament was so angry and devoid of humor? He spent all of his prior existence trying to do something he would not know he would do before he did it? But, then, were the stories of the Old Testament even remotely true, he didn’t act as though he were omniscient.

Still, there is no need of a god or a demon. Take them out of the mix—remove the intelligence factor altogether—and you have determinism: cause and effect.

Thoughts of omniscience brought Jeff back to his father, who zealously believed that his god was omniscient and knew the thoughts of every soul on earth at every moment, even before the thinkers thought them, and even before the earth came into existence.

* * *

I welcome all points of view on this.


Max T. Furr is author of The Empathy Imperative, a philosophical novel of Justice, mercy, and love, written in the spirit of the BBC/WGBH Boston production, God On Trial

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ANSWERS IN GENESIS: A Profile in Parasitism (AN UPDATE)

—-Updated from my original post, Answers in Genesis: A Profile in Parasitism.—-

The State of Kentucky has decided to extend no further tax incentives to Ark Encounters, a Christian fundamentalist theme park.

The Mask of Deception

           The Mask of Deception

Now, I understand that some folks might think the following is a continuing attack against Christianity in general and Answers in Genesis (AiG) in particular. On the contrary. I am only suggesting how I believe empathy could be applied to this situation such that the solution is in the best interest of everyone. That is, by the way, the purpose of the religion clauses of the First Amendment.

Fairness requires empathy, and empathy can only be derived from within.

First, with regard to AiG, note that no one is making any attempt to shut down its right to purchase property and have a theme park. First Amendment watchdog groups demand only that governments–federal, state and local–represent all of its citizens, without regard to their religious beliefs, their political opinions, or their financial standing. All working citizens pay taxes, thus, all citizens must have free access to commerce and must not be forced to subsidise sectarian religion.

Secondly, in the United States–as most of you know–all religions are to be treated equally under constitutional law. The only way this can be accomplished is for the government to remain neutral in matters of religion, (i.e., it cannot make laws respecting anyone’s religion).

When the courts attend matters of church and state separation, they reference the intent of the Establishment and Free Exercise clauses of the First Amendment, which may be found in Jefferson’s Virginia Act for Establishing Religious Freedom. Here is the excerpt pertinent to the AiG case.

Well aware that the opinions and belief of men depend not on their own will, but follow involuntarily the evidence proposed to their minds; that Almighty God hath created the mind free, and manifested his supreme will that free it shall remain by making it altogether insusceptible of restraint; that all attempts to influence it by temporal punishments, or burthens, or by civil incapacitations, tend only to beget habits of hypocrisy and meanness, and are a departure from the plan of the holy author of our religion, who being lord both of body and mind, yet chose not to propagate it by coercions on either, as was in his Almighty power to do, but to extend it by its influence on reason alone; that the impious presumption of legislators and rulers, civil as well as ecclesiastical, who, being themselves but fallible and uninspired men, have assumed dominion over the faith of others, setting up their own opinions and modes of thinking as the only true and infallible, and as such endeavoring to impose them on others, hath established and maintained false religions over the greatest part of the world and through all time: That to compel a man to furnish contributions of money for the propagation of opinions which he disbelieves and abhors, is sinful and tyrannical . . . [note that Jefferson was a Deist, not a Christian]

How could this be more empathetic and fair to all citizens?

Now, with regard to AIG’s ongoing efforts to have the taxpayers of Kentucky pony up 10s of million$ more in tax breaks for its restrictive, fundamentalist Ark Encounters theme park, after Americans United for Separation of Church and State (AU) reminded Kentucky lawmakers, many times, that they were elected to serve all the people and not just fundamentalist Christians, the State backed out of further tax incentives for the park. AiG is now resorting to revenge attacks for being forced to abide by the Constitution.

From AU:

Answers in Genesis (AiG), a creationist Christian ministry, had applied for a 25 percent sales tax rebate through the Kentucky Tourism, Arts and Heritage Cabinet for Ark Encounter, a theme park that will feature a 510-foot replica of Noah’s Ark. The application received preliminary approval, and since the project is expected to cost $73 million, final approval would have cost the state up to $18 million in sales tax revenue.

But the Ark Park sailed into stormy seas in August when Americans United informed the tourism cabinet that AiG had posted online an opening for a computer-assisted design technician to work at Ark Encounter. That job post has since been removed, but in the August description, AiG said applicants must submit a “[c]reation belief statement,” as well as “[c]onfirmation of [their] agreement with the AiG Statement of Faith.”

That “statement of faith” required potential AiG employees to affirm their belief that homosexuality is a sin on par with bestiality and incest, that the earth is only 6,000 years old and that the Bible is literally true. Anyone who doesn’t agree with those statements won’t be considered for the job. (Read more here.)

According to AiG’s own website, “The purpose of the Ark Encounter park is to point people to the only means of salvation from sin, the Lord Jesus Christ, who also is the only God-appointed way to escape eternal destruction.”

But after receiving word of the tax-break cutoff, according to AU, “AiG . . . said earlier this week that it would run 16 billboards throughout the state promoting Ark Encounter and attacking ‘intolerant’ groups like AU. AiG also said it bought a 15-second digital video display that will run in New York City’s Times Square.”

AiG feels that it has been attacked unfairly and is being denied its “right” to tax dollars from non-fundamentalist Christian people–the same folks they would bar from employment at the park, no matter what their qualifications.

I have to wonder, What would the politicians of Kentucky, who want to continue the tax breaks, do if a group of Muslim citizens wanted the State to give them tax incentives to establish a park dedicated to Islam? Would you think that the folks at AiG would object?

How do you feel about this? Does AiG have a right to tax dollars? Should all religions have that same right?

The Key Ingredient for Empathy is Understanding: Do Atheists Have Faith?

Do Atheists Have Faith?

tumblr_m81iz6Artd1qdbcn8If I had a nickel for every time someone told me that atheists have faith, too, I could quit my day job. Okay, so maybe that’s an exaggeration but I probably could at least afford a pretty decent steak dinner. It’s very frustrating to hear and it’s not for the reason the person saying it thinks it is.  This assertion doesn’t irritate me because it’s clever or insightful; it irritates me because it’s nowhere near as clever or as insightful as it sounds.  In fact, it’s a logical fallacy called equivocation.  I’ll explain what I mean by that in a second, but ultimately I’m not interested in talking about argumentation (well, maybe I am a little bit). I’m more interested in explaining how faith and reason represent two very different approaches to perceiving the world, and how they operate on very different principles.

Equivocation happens when . . .

read more at Do Atheists Have Faith?.

_________________________________________________________________________

— Max T. Furr is author of The Empathy Imperative, a philosophical novel exploring the nature of biblical, Divine Justice–as opposed to true justice. Was Descartes wrong and God was a deceiver, after all? What would the world be like if empathy, not self interest, were our primary motivating force?

JoAnn Chateau

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