The Meaning of Life

Richard Carrier is going through the book “Unbelievable” by Justin Brierley, and one of his posts covered a chapter that talked about how Christianity can give people a meaning and purpose to life, when it doesn’t seem like atheism can do that.  This is, of course, a pretty common argument leveled against atheists, and most of them attempt to address it by saying that there is no actual objective meaning or purpose to life and so that’s something that every person has to determine for themselves.  In this manner, they deny that we have to be nihilistic and deny that there is any sort of purpose to our lives, but don’t have to provide any kind of objective grounding to this purpose or insist that everyone has to have the same purpose in life (although they tend to assume certain purposes are, at least, superior to other purposes).  And as I was taking in my walks, I was pondering it again — even though examining the meaning or purpose to life has never been a major philosophical interest for me — and I don’t think that the atheist approach will work, because a self-selected purpose cannot satisfy the reasons we’d need or want a purpose in the first place (which is also my objection to atheists who advocate for subjective moralities).

Let me start from the end … literally.  Imagine someone on their deathbed, looking back on their life to take its measure.  Now, with the standard idea of us having an objective purpose for living, what we’d expect them to do is compare how they’ve lived their life with regards to that purpose.  If they’ve managed to achieve it, they will feel satisfied that they managed to live according to that purpose.  If they’ve failed, then perhaps they will feel a sense of disappointment in themselves that they didn’t manage that, but they also might look back on their lives and note that they made a full effort, and as much of an effort as could possibly be expected of them, and it was only circumstances beyond their control that caused them to fail.  Regardless, all they are doing is looking at that set criteria and evaluating whether they managed to achieve that criteria or not.

This isn’t true for a self-selected purpose.  If someone on their deathbed looks back on their life given their self-selected purpose, they can’t simply evaluate their life based on how well they achieved that purpose.  If they managed to achieve that purpose, there will always be the nagging question of whether they only succeeded because they choose a purpose that was too easy to achieve, and that they should have chosen one that was more meaningful or more purposeful and shouldn’t have set their sights so low.  On the other hand, if they failed they have to ask if the issue was merely that they chose a purpose that was too difficult for them to achieve and so they should have chosen an easier one.  In all cases, they can’t simply evaluate their lives against that purpose, but always have to consider whether they chose the correct self-selected purpose, which since they have to believe that they chose the right original purpose before they can properly evaluate their lives wrt that purpose means that they are going to have to settle that first.  And as we’ve seen, unless we simply accept whatever it is we came up with, determining whether that purpose is correct or not is not easy to do.

As in death, so in life.  As we go about our lives, with a self-selected purpose we constantly have to ask ourselves if we’ve selected the right one.  If we stumble or encounter difficulties in achieving our purpose, it’s not simply a matter of doubling our efforts to achieve it, as we also have to ask whether that struggle is because we have the wrong one and need to choose a better purpose.  And if we are achieving it with ease, then we cannot congratulate ourselves on our achievement but instead have to ask if we have chosen a purpose that’s too easy for us to achieve.  So with every success and every setback we have to constantly examine and reassess our self-selected purpose to see if it still seems to be the correct one.

This isn’t what we wanted a purpose for.  We wanted a purpose to essentially be our lighthouse, to guide us through life with a light that we can trust to guide us properly if only we follow it properly.  Instead, our self-selected purpose ends up not being any kind of guide at all, or at least one that we don’t or at least shouldn’t trust.  If we don’t question this purpose to see if it is correct or reasonable when we know it is something that we chose (and could have chosen wrong), then what does having a purpose do for us?  We might as well simply just live our lives on the basis of our shallow and not-so-shallow impressions and not even think about any deeper purpose.

This is also what makes Richard Carrier’s normal approach of talking about how best to achieve our desires and wants problematic as well.  The purpose is supposed to determine what we want, not reflect it.  We are supposed to use it as the standard by which we evaluate what we want to determine if that’s what we should want or if we need to change our wants.  Carrier can try to argue that we should appeal to the deeper and “correct” wants in order to do that, but then we have to figure out what those are.  At some level, then, we always require having some sort of objective purpose and sense of value that we don’t select ourselves and so is more-or-less unchanging that we can use to evaluate our desires and, well, everything else in our lives.  We may not need God giving us that set purpose — even if we disagree with it — but we need something, and a self-selected purpose just isn’t going to work for that.

So we need an objective purpose and cannot just choose one for ourselves.  The only reason, I think, that atheists can get away with insisting we can is that they are running on the inertia of the objective purposes that we thought we had — in the same way as they can run with the objective moral ideas that they get from society while insisting that there are no such ideas — and so can even subconsciously take them as being set while insisting that they’ve “chosen” them, but this always runs into trouble when they try to justify it.  All they can do in response to such challenges is shrug and just go with what they have, but that is obviously a pretty weak response and is also a response that will not work if someone is a) struggling to find a purpose and wants to have one as “set” as theirs or b) is faced with them challenging their self-selected purpose on the grounds that the atheist’s purpose is better than theirs.  At this point, the idea of a self-selected purpose or meaning to life doesn’t seem to be doing what a purpose or meaning to life should be doing.

It can be objected — and often is — that what I’d be doing here is arguing for the existence of an objective purpose or meaning because I want there to be one, and it’s not the case that because I want something to exist that it has to.  I get that response from my comments on morality as well.  But as I mentioned above it’s not that I want to have such a purpose, but that a self-selected purpose or meaning to life cannot be used for any of the things we wanted that sort of thing for, so much so that it’s hard to imagine that a self-selected purpose could be a valid purpose or meaning to life.  At that point, it looks like the self-selected purpose they are talking about is something completely different that they happen to be using the same name for, and the only reason they don’t notice is because they’ve adopted as that purpose the old standard “objective” ones that we’ve had for centuries, and they don’t treat that purpose the way they really should treat a self-selected one.  They are using inertia and ideas that aren’t valid to make self-selected purposes seem like they can do what the ones that we at least believed objective did, but as we’ve seen they can’t.  So ultimately their self-selected purposes, at the end of the day, aren’t purposes at all.

So self-selecting our purpose won’t work.  Either we come up with something objective, or else we embrace nihilism.  But the attempt to embrace both worlds leaves us with a stated purpose that doesn’t work like purposes at all.

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