Once more, I venture into the realm of the obvious.

We atheists are often asked about meaning.  How do we find meaning in life without God?  For an atheist, what is the meaning of life?  For me, the answer to that is pretty simple: meaning is personal.  There is no inherent meaning to anything; something only has meaning to the extent that it means something to someone.  When asked, “What does it mean?” one can reply, “What does it mean to whom?”

Even words have no inherent meaning.  A word means what it means to those who use or hear it and, if a word means nothing to anyone, how can it be said to mean anything?  With no one to utter or hear it with comprehension, it is nothing.

Dictionaries are often mentioned when I tell people that words have no inherent meaning.  Well, dictionaries are more descriptive than prescriptive in that the definitions they provide are drawn from usage, not from some absolute, unchanging standard.  A dictionary of a living language is a snapshot.  Tomorrow, there will be new words in the language and the meanings of many of the old words will have evolved, because of the ways in which speakers of that language use and mean those words, and today’s dictionary meanings will be out of date.

My life has meaning to the extent that my existence means something to someone – especially to me but also to those whom I love.  This suggests to me that I would do well to consider what my choices and the consequences of those choices mean to me and to others, for that is what my life means. That is something I can control (at least a little) and, therefore, something for which I am responsible (at least a little).

Sometimes, when people ask about the meaning of life, they are trying to understand what their purpose in life might be.  Why am I here?  For what reason was I put on this earth?  Relax.  You weren’t put here for a reason, so don’t worry about it.  One of the consequences of the blind workings of this physical universe is that you came into being.

Some people will find that idea rather depressing.  If you are such a person, try looking at it this way: having no purpose preordained by some cosmic overlord, you are freed from having to worry about whether or not you might have missed your “calling”.  You were never called.  If you desire purpose, you have the freedom and responsibility to create that purpose for yourself.

Want a calling?  Call yourself.  What are you here for?  Well, what do you want to be here for and what do you need to do in order to fulfill that desire?

Personally, I find these answers satisfying.  This is mostly because, to the best of my ability to figure out such things, these are the answers that are most likely to be true.  I grew up with different answers – religious answers – which seemed more comforting at the time but which I eventually had to reject because I could no longer convince myself that they reflected reality.  This leads me to quote George Bernard Shaw: “The fact that a believer is happier than a skeptic is no more to the point than the fact that a drunken man is happier than a sober one.”  However, this skeptic finds himself happier now than he ever was as a believer.  I don’t miss the false comforts of religion.

8 Replies to “Meaning”

  1. If the battle is over, why keep fighting it? You are more evangelistic for a non-creed than I have ever been for the creed I still deeply hold. Bi-directional communication with God, undeniable miracles, and a history I still have good, honest reasons to accept as true have kept me on that path. I say this not to sway you, but to explain why I am not agreeing with you. I have at least two other friends who have found that a God concept was did not line up with their own personal data. I can accept that as a valid state of being. I cherish the hope that it is temporary — but you should only expect that of me as a Christian anyways. Whether I agree or not, seeing you in print again is friendly thing. Lots of ‘Red Bencher’ great memories there.

    1. Hi Ray. Nice to “hear” from you again. I don’t think I’m especially evangelistic (I don’t do anything to promote this blog other than just “putting it out there”) but I do enjoy writing down some of my thoughts and responding to some of the misconceptions out there.

      For me personally, the question is settled (or, as you put it, the battle is over). I tried; I really tried but, after years of thinking and reading (including apologetics), I eventually realized that I did not and could not believe in a God. I don’t know what could convince me. If God exists, he surely knows how to do it but doesn’t seem to be interested*. 😉

      I’m pretty sure that I’m aware of every major argument for the existence of God and can soundly refute each one. I reject and oppose belief in God and gods on rational and moral grounds.

      I’ve settled it for myself but I still see the harmful effects of belief in gods, the supernatural, the paranormal, etc., which I see as all aspects of the same sort of world view. I still have good friends who are Christians and I do understand that not all God-believers are gullible fools or evil manipulators. However, I do believe that all God-believers hold to their views for non-rational reasons. Very smart people can be very skilled at defending beliefs that they originally acquired for non-smart reasons**. The human brain is funny that way.

      You are free, of course, to hope that I will change my mind but I have to tell you that I think the probability is about as close to zero as any statement about one’s personal future can be. For me, getting to the place of letting go of God was a long and difficult journey. I didn’t arrive at this position wantonly or lightly. However, when I was finally able to admit to myself that I did not believe, that’s when I became free, intellectually and emotionally. I’m a better and happier person for it. That alone isn’t a good enough reason to be an atheist, of course. I only mention it to let people know that letting go of God can actually be a pretty nice thing.

      I wish you well, Ray.

      *According to the Bible, there are many beings who know that God exists but choose not to love him. So, the common Christian argument that God revealing himself convincingly would violate one’s “free will” doesn’t hold water.

      **To read more about this, see Michael Shermer’s Why People Believe Weird Things, specifically the new chapter in the second edition (or later), titled “Why Smart People Believe Weird Things”.

  2. Incisive.
    Yes. I hold to my belief in God for non-rational reasons. The fellow feeling of camaraderie I have right now in debate with you is a non-rational pleasure that is , I trust, more than a chemical event in my head. It’s data that’s akin to the data on God. Elusive, out of my control, very much the same as my experience of other persons.
    Anyhow, be free to what you are.

    1. Well, the evidence that we have available points to a very high probability that the feeling is electro-chemical events in your brain. That doesn’t change the fact, though, that you experience it the way you do and I don’t think it diminishes the experience. In fact, I think it makes it all the more interesting.

      To me, it is important here to point out that believing something for non-rational reasons is not analogous to having an emotional experience which is not necessarily rational (but which is, at least in principle, rationally explainable). Unless one thinks that one is a “brain in a box”, one’s experience of other persons is significantly different from one’s supposed experience of “God” in that one can test for the existence of those other persons in ways that are not solely dependent on personal, internal experience. The same cannot be said for one’s supposed experience of “God”. In both cases, the experience is personal (i.e. subjective) but the reasons for thinking another human being exists go beyond the subjective while the reasons for thinking that God exists do not*.

      I hope you don’t take this as a personal attack but that’s the sort of poor anaology I often get from believers in the supernatural/paranormal/divine. I’m always willing to engage in dialogue but I expect even my friends to accept the fact that, if I think they’re presenting me with something that is poorly thought out, I will let them know about it.

      We are both free to believe as we see fit and, I hope, able to express those ideas freely.

      *I’m willing to be shown otherwise but I think it’s unlikely in the extreme that it can be done by testable evidence or sound reasoning.

  3. Maybe I shouldn’t have said debate, because that’s not really where I’m going with this. A debate with you would be like a court case in which some of the (in my mind essential) evidence disallowed because of its source. If an idea comes from somewhere outside what is considered rational it will be dismissed out of hand. So yes, I can see from your point of view that my comment is lame as a debating point, but it’s perfectly OK as an allusion to a whole body of non-rational data that is an inextricable part of my life.

    1. It’s not that subjective experience is not valuable or useful, it’s that it’s personal. It’s directly accessible only to the individual having the experience.

      Emotional experiences and intuition enrich our lives and can provide insight into one’s inner state. The idea isn’t to become like Vulcans but, rather, to understand and appreciate the non-rational aspects of being human.

      Part of that understanding has to do with what such things are and aren’t good for. For example, some important scientific discoveries have been made as a consequence of intuition. However, it was rational/scientific investigation that validated those intuitive thoughts so that they could be legitimately added to a scientific body of knowledge. Intuition can lead to a better understanding of reality but it can also run counter to reality. Hence the need for investigative tools that can distinguish between what most probably is and isn’t true.

  4. Quote: “Even words have no inherent meaning. A word means what it means to those who use or hear it and, if a word means nothing to anyone, how can it be said to mean anything? With no one to utter or hear it with comprehension, it is nothing.”

    While words may not have inherent meaning in kids, they do have definite meaning in adults with a developed vocabulary. The more definitions we know of, the more certain the meaning of a word becomes. A kid will say: ‘that is a dog’ and an adult veterinary may be able to identify each of the many species. However, it will not be mistaken for cat by either one.

    Language is the key to understanding. Mathematics and other science are also languages. We can use them to better understand our environment and that is exactly why it is so many people come to the conclusions we could only come to today.

    What I most like about modern age, is that if you don’t agree, you can always consult the Google God

    1. If meaning is inherent, then the meaning is the same and equally present regardless of whether it’s in relation to a young child or an adult with a well-developed vocabulary. On the other hand, if meaning is personal, then the meaning of a word is dependent on that word meaning something to someone.

      Think of this: what does “uwsvlicn” mean? If it doesn’t mean anything to anyone, then it has no meaning and it’s really not even a word. However, if you or I assign a meaning to it or recognize a meaning in it, then it does have meaning.

      The more definitions we know of, the more certain the meaning of a word becomes.

      Dictionary definitions of words rely on usage. That is, they are dependent on what the words mean to the people who use them. That is the opposite of the meaning of those words being inherent.

      Historically, we see that the meaning of a word can change over time. Why? Because the meaning is not inherent but, rather, is dependent on the persons who use that word. Meaning is personal, not inherent.

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