What do you mean “What does it all mean”?

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James K

James is a government policy analyst, and lives in Wellington, New Zealand. His interests including wargaming, computer gaming (especially RPGs and strategy games), Dungeons & Dragons and scepticism. No part of any of his posts or comments should be construed as the position of any part of the New Zealand government, or indeed any agency he may be associated with.

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106 Responses

  1. Avatar Burt Likko
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    says:

    Wouldn’t the theists among us argue that a meaningful emotional relationship with the supernatural Creator can and should be a source of happiness and fulfillment? Granted that this requires several irrational and baseless assumptions to be made about the Creator — the Creator ever existed, the Creator still exists, despite being supernatural the Creator is able to somehow manifest within nature, the Creator cares or at least potentially cares about you, the Creator is both capable of meaningfully communicating with you and willing to do so, the Creator is benign rather than malign, and so on. (Perhaps those assumptions are not so uncommon or irrational as to not be a natural part of the human experience; I tell myself that my cat loves me all the time when the objective evidence would suggest that in fact she is a parasite upon my household.) If you’re willing to make those assumptions, then at minimum this Creator is another entity with whom a relationship can be forged, a relationship from which meaning and happiness might be derived.Report

    • Avatar James K in reply to Burt Likko
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      says:

      I’m not suggesting that the life of a theist is inherently meaningless, instead I’m trying to refute the proposition that life without a supernatural component is meaningless.Report

      • Avatar Shack Toms in reply to James K
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        says:

        Awareness itself appears to be a “supernatural component”. It doesn’t seem to have any objective consequences (not even my claims of my own awareness can be taken by you as proof that I am aware).

        Although I may know that I have awareness, if I look for this awareness as an object I cannot find it. That which I am aware of is not that which is aware (in some religions this is called “neti, neti”). So it has all of the hallmarks of the supernatural in that it is not an observable phenomenon, not even by those who find it to be undeniably self-evident.

        I understand that there are many who believe that awareness arises as an emergent property from the objective properties of matter, but the idea doesn’t seem to hold much water. If a computer simulated the appropriate objective properties of matter, would awareness emerge? How would you know?

        Presumably, awareness is the meaning-providing difference between a human life and that of an android which merely behaves as though it is aware. Wouldn’t life lose meaning if people lost their faculty of awareness, but their bodies just went through the motions?

        This is not off the subject of theism. I think that the crux of mystical religious thought, whether theist or non-theist, comes down to the idea of awareness being something of a self-evident non-phenomenon. I think that is why the spiritual path so often involves kenosis. Some religions use the word “soul” for the faculty of awareness. Others identify it with God. Others simply refer to it as a void. Since it isn’t an object, it can only be hinted at with metaphor, not directly pointed at.Report

        • Avatar Murali in reply to Shack Toms
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          says:

          I would be sympathetic to dualism except that it has at least one major intractable problem (if not two)

          When we are talking about consicousness and the mind etc. We are also talking about the subjective phenomenology of agency. When I decide to lift my hand, my hand lifts up. So, it would be generally unacceptable to us if our bodies do their actions on their own and our minds just thought that it was deciding to do it. (and coincidentally thinking of doing the thing that our bodies would automatically do anyway) i.e. epiphenomenalism is out. This is especially the case if you are going to argue for the distinction between mind and body by appealing to introspection.

          But now, you have a problem at two levels. At one level, you have to ask how it is possible for the mental to cause the physical. i.e. At some point our brains have got to be involved in some way. How does our mental activity cause particular neurons to be fired? well, we know that neuron firing is a result of the build up of an action potential. i.e. there must be a movement of charges against a potential gradient in order to build up the requisite potential. When it comes to neural transmission, we know precisely how it happens. However, if we thought about it, the ability of mental activity (if mental is materially distinct from physical) to cause physical activity in this way would violate the conservation of mass/energy.

          Here is a deeper question. Let us say that we do settle the above question. How is it that the mental which is not physical can have an effect on the physical. Or to put it differently, why do we think that something that can interact with physical systems without violating physical laws is anything but physical?

          Another way people phrase this is in terms of causal closure. Conceptually, the physical world seems causally closed. At least, that what would seem to be the case once we spell out what our common understanding of the meaning of cause and effect. However, under this conception, only physical things can have an effect on other physical things.

          The challenge for the materialist is the question of how it is that the content of an idea can matter in terms of whether we acept it or not. i.e. if the mental is just physical, then how is it that we are able to reject beliefs that contradict our exising ones? He will have to say what the relation between one brain state casuing other brain states and logical entailments are. The absolute impossibility of conceiving that a proposition and its contradiction be true does not seem to translate well into causal machinary talk.Report

          • Avatar Shack Toms in reply to Murali
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            says:

            It was my struggle with that very problem that ended (for me) in idealism.

            You ask how the mental causes the physical.

            The physical is just a label for terms in a mathematical model of patterns of perception. For example, mass is a relationship between perceptions of force and acceleration. We notice that the models of mass are conservative, and thus come to think of mass as a substance, but the necessity of that thought is thwarted by the idea (even if it turns out not to be verified) that mass is an artifact of the Higgs field and not a substance at all. The possibility of explaining it with the Higgs field shows that it is really just a name for that pattern in our observations, and not necessarily a substance in itself.

            To see that conservation laws do not imply a substance, think of conservation of momentum. Few people think of momentum as a substance.

            Physicalists perform an interesting psychological trick. Although the subjective perception of force and acceleration form the basis for the definition of mass, they refer to mass as the fundamental quantity and to things like force as derived quantities. By mislabeling the fundamental as the derived, they encourage people to think of their self-evident qualia as illusions.

            But even in a mirage, the qualia are real. Even in a dream, the qualia are real. The illusion is never the qualia, but the misinterpretation of the patterns in the qualia as external, independent, material objects. True awareness of a false idea.

            So why are there patterns in awareness? I don’t know the answer, but I suspect it has to do with the simplicity of awareness. I think that the apparent diversity of nature arises from a simple source, something like the way the apparent complexity of a fractal pattern can arise from simple rules. Reality has simple rules (despite the apparent complexity of the way these rules play out) because it is a manifestation of a simple source.

            But can you get complexity from a simple source? I think so. You can derive the integers starting only with the empty set and set inclusion (the empty set corresponds to 0 and each successor integer corresponds to the set of all preceding sets). There is something theologically satisfying about associating God with the empty set. Godel showed that all theorems are reducible to arithmetic statements about integers, even the arithmetic statements themselves are reducible. So you can go pretty far starting from a simple foundation.

            Even in materialism, there are a countable number of synapses, and thus a countable number of brain states. So you really can’t need to go beyond the integers to model all of the objective facts about everything of which we are aware.

            In any case, the only things I ever observe directly are thoughts, feelings, and perceptions—all mental states. The so-called physical world is never observed except as patterns in these mental states. So there is no problem at all with the idea that the mental causes the physical, even if there is no objective evidence of the mental in the physical. The patterns of perception are distinct from, but related to, the perceptions themselves.

            So idealism is possible. Dualism is possible (under the interpretation of the physical as dependent upon the ideal, essentially this is the idea that the patterns in awareness are real in themselves). But materialism has this unbridgeable gap that awareness is both inconsistent with the materialist view (under the guise of the objection against dualism) and yet undeniable.

            You say ask about what happens when you decide to lift your hand. I think that what happens is that you are aware of the desire and you are aware of the pattern of perception that you model as “lifting the hand”. These things are all interrelated patterns. And a detailed model of these patterns includes terms that we call “neurons”. But the awareness of the desire and the awareness of the lifting are not perceived, they are known (and that knowledge is perceived) but the awareness itself is not perceived. So the awareness is not a part of the objective model.

            The physical world fits neatly into a model based on the reality of awareness, but awareness does not fit into a model based on the independent existence of the physical world. Thus materialism fails the most basic objective test.Report

            • Avatar Murali in reply to Shack Toms
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              says:

              Oh… you’re an idealist! Then, that’s fine. My only complaint was against substance dualists and materialists.Report

              • Avatar Shack Toms in reply to Murali
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                says:

                Your agency point is still very interesting to me.

                I think that dualism can avoid it by siding with materialists that “intent” is an emergent property, and just leaving awareness on the metaphysical side of it. We are metaphysically aware of the intent, but the intent arises causally from the physical side of it.

                I may have free will to choose the flavor of ice cream that I prefer, but I don’t choose the preference itself. So there is something unsatisfying about making agency a central concept. I am not sure that anything is lost if we give up on the concept of agency (which relates to the other argument about “grace” vs “works”).

                I agree with you that the world seems causally closed.

                But then again, so does a well-written mystery novel in which all of the clues are mutually consistent.

                If reality has a simple source, then one would expect the manifestation to have a fundamentally simple structure (e.g. appearing in each instant to have evolved according to “simple” laws of physics from a simple origin). Maybe the present is caused by the past or maybe (as in the case of the novel) the present, complete with the “history” implicit in the structure of the present, is the creative product of the source.

                Given that existence is not an objective property, I am not sure how it is possible to decide between these possibilities.Report

              • Avatar Tom Van Dyke in reply to Shack Toms
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                says:

                Shack Toms, you seem to be arriving at a “hylemorphic” dualism. You might find a google rewarding.

                Good comments.  Hope you’ll stick around.Report

      • Avatar Jonathan in reply to James K
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        says:

        That’s a perfectly valid argument to make, James. It’s one that I completely agree with. However, it is quite possible that, for some people, a life without a supernatural component is meaningless.

        The excerpt you quote is written about the individual, and maybe for that individual it is absolutely true (I don’t have time to read the entire article right now, so I’m just talking about the bit you quoted – I can’t comment on any larger points in the article).Report

  2. Avatar Koz
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    says:

    “So why does it matter that chemicals are the cause of your emotions? You are your brain and chemicals are what your thoughts and emotions are made out of.”

    I think you’re glossing over causality here. The idea is that I am the cause of my actions. You could say it’s incorrect to think that just because my brain is a physical-chemical object that my actions are determined by its physical-chemical nature. On the other hand, there are a fair number of people who want to argue exactly that.

    Also, I suspect that your thoughts on “mystery” have some assumptions of omniscience that don’t hold up.Report

    • Avatar Jason Kuznicki in reply to Koz
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      says:

      The idea is that I am the cause of my actions.

      It is precisely the nature of this “I” that we are attempting to define.  A pendulum is the cause of a pendulum’s actions, too, yet neither of us find that a particularly interesting or revealing statement.

      Carbon is the cause of carbon’s actions.  Oxygen is the cause of oxygen’s actions.  And so forth, for all of the chemical elements, in all of their configurations.

      The crucial question is:  When you put them all together in the human form, does something else intervene?  It’s possible that this isn’t a question we can ever satisfactorily resolve.  (Note that the answer here may be anything from “god” to “qualia” to “emergent properties,” and a whole lot else besides.)

       Report

      • Avatar Koz in reply to Jason Kuznicki
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        says:

        “It is precisely the nature of this “I” that we are attempting to define. A pendulum is the cause of a pendulum’s actions, too, yet neither of us find that a particularly interesting or revealing statement.”

        Actually, no. A pendulum is almost never the cause of the pendulum’s actions. A clock, a person, or some other outside criteria determines a pendulum’s actions. A pendulum never thinks, “I’m going to sit here and swing for a while cuz that’d be cool.”

        Otoh, a person does that all time for actions that are highly meaningful or highly banal. Once, we’ve gotten that far, it may or may not be important to know how it’s done.Report

        • Avatar Jason Kuznicki in reply to Koz
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          says:

          If I push a non-pendulum, it will not exhibit pendulum-like properties.  The pendulum plays a necessary role in the causality.

          When we turn to thinking, the question is — what is the part that plays the analogous role?  Is it the brain?  Is it something outside the brain?  If so, what is it?Report

          • Avatar Morat20 in reply to Jason Kuznicki
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            says:

            Some research indicates conciousness is, often times, an illusion. Free will, for one.

            After all, it’s kind of a kick in the pants to find out that you’ve already committed to a choice before you’ve made it.

            Recent work has shown that your brain makes choices for you, before your conciousness even gets a vote. Admittedly, the tests were simply picking a button to push (left or right), but the scanners indicated subjects had already picked one several seconds before conciously choosing.

            Kinda freaky to read about scanners watching your brain’s activity and predicting your choice before you make it.Report

            • Avatar James K in reply to Morat20
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              says:

              I think it depends on your definitions.  I’d argue that you are your brain, so if your brain has made a decision, you have made a decision.

              Similarly, I think a reasonable definition of free will can be made compatible with what we know of neurology.  Sure, your brain determines your choices, but your brain defines who your are.  If you had a different brain, you wouldn’t be you any more.Report

              • Avatar Tom Van Dyke in reply to James K
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                says:

                Are our brains wired from without [indisputably true], or from within as well, not just by our natures but our consciousness?  Think, man, think!

                [That last bit is only applicable if you are more than the sum of your atoms and neurons and DNA.  Otherwise, nevermind.]Report

              • Avatar James K in reply to Tom Van Dyke
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                says:

                That last bit is only applicable if you are more than the sum of your atoms and neurons and DNA.  Otherwise, nevermind.

                Right now there’s no reason to believe otherwise.  That brain alone seems perfectly sufficient to explain human behaviour.   It would be hard to square the existence of some hitherto undiscovered extra-neural force affecting our behaviour with some of the observations from neurology.Report

              • Avatar Chris in reply to James K
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                says:

                brain alone seems perfectly sufficient to explain human behaviour.

                That statement is perhaps more untrue than any that suggest supernatural causes (and not just because you threw that superfluous ‘u’ into “behavior,” you silly Kiwi). A statement suggesting supernatural causes is unproven, and perhaps unprovable. Your statement is empirically false. The brain is necessary, but hardly sufficient.Report

              • Avatar James K in reply to Chris
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                says:

                Your statement is empirically false. The brain is necessary, but hardly sufficient.

                I don’t follow, can you elaborate?Report

            • Avatar Chris in reply to Morat20
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              says:

              Some research indicates conciousness is, often times, an illusion. Free will, for one.

              What research is that? That is, what research shows that consciousness itself is an illusion? None that i know of. The free will stuff is a bit more nuanced. It shows that we are, on some occasions (at least in the lab, though I suspect it generalizes), mistaken about whether we consciously will something to happen, because the way we figure out whether we consciously willed something to happen involves consciously attending to environmental cues. This (and the other research you mention) shows, if anything, that consciousness is not an illusion, because even for us to have an illusion of freely willing something to happen, we have to be conscious of what’s going on in the environment.Report

            • Avatar Roger in reply to Morat20
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              says:

              On free will, Morat writes;

              Some research indicates conciousness is, often times, an illusion. Free will, for one…. Recent work has shown that your brain makes choices for you, before your conciousness even gets a vote.

              I’ve followed this research but always come to a different conclusion than the philosophers and psychologists. They seem to imply that I believe I am my consciousness.  If that was true (and for most people it MAY be true) they would have a point. The point is that I can be whatever I define myself as being.

              I define free will as the alignment of my self, my desires and my actions. The tricky thing is that I can define my self in lots of ways. When I open the refrigerator and see a piece of cake I can identify my skinny social self and my desires as “don’t eat the cake” or I can identify with my hungry self and my desire as “yum yum, that looks great!”

              If I eat the cake I can view it as an act of free will or as a compulsive act that I was unable to control. If I don’t eat the cake I can view it either way too (though I admit we feel less comfortable with identifying our self with our base hunger than our social self). Afterward, whether I eat or don’t eat, whether the consciousness of the choice was before or after I can consider the act voluntary or involuntary based upon my definition of self.  In other words, the same act can be both free and determined.

              I guess what I am saying is that the researchers (and most of us) seem to believe in an objective self. I think that is the weak spot in the theory. There is no objective self.

               Report

              • Avatar Roger in reply to Roger
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                says:

                Odd coincidence, In WSJ today, there is a review of Michael Gazzaniga’s new book “Who’s In Charge?”

                Unlike many in his profession, Mr. Gazzaniga is philosophically sophisticated. He believes that, while the brain “enables” the mind, mental activity is not reducible to neural events. While he states that thoughts, perceptions, memories, intentions and the exercise of the will are emergent phenomena, he adds that “calling a property emergent does not explain it or how it came to be.”

                Crucially, the true locus of this activity is not in the isolated brain but “in the group interactions of many brains,” which is why “analyzing single brains in isolation cannot illuminate the capacity of responsibility.” This, the community of minds, is where our human consciousness is to be found, woven out of the innumerable interactions that our brains make possible. “Responsibility” (or lack of it), Mr. Gazzaniga says, “is not located in the brain.” It is “an interaction between people, a social contract”—an emergent phenomenon, irreducible to brain activity.

                If the mind really were identical with activity in individual brain-bits, which were themselves machines causally wired into the material world, free will would be an illusion. One purpose of Mr. Gazzaniga’s book is to reveal the implications of this mistaken notion…

                I better read this one.Report

  3. Avatar Tom Van Dyke
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    says:

    This one looks like another epistemological dead end.

    http://news.discovery.com/human/religion-happiness-social-bonds.html

    “Science” can—and must—explain away these things.  Like John B. Sebastian famously said, it’s like tryin’ to tell a stranger ’bout rock’n’roll.Report

  4. Avatar Renee
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    says:

    You already referenced the best book about the meaning of life.  I highly recommend Victor Frankl (Man’s Search for Meaning) as a second place.  Even if you don’t buy the logotherapy angle, his first-hand account of the holocaust is incredible.Report

  5. Avatar ted whalen
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    says:

    I think that “meaning” when deployed in arguments of this type is something teleological, more akin to “purpose” or “value”. Physicalist reductionism is that it puts one in the position of saying, “The ‘point’ of life, if you can call it that, is balancing brain chemicals in a way that the mind subjectively experiences as pleasurable.”

    Right? Either you’re capable of bathing your brain in pleasure-producing chemicals or you might as well commit suicide. Those are the options on the table?Report

    • Avatar Burt Likko in reply to ted whalen
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      says:

      No.

      First of all, don’t confuse “pleasure” with “happiness.” Happiness is more than pleasure. It includes (at minimum) achievement, morality, relationships with others, and self-esteem. You might argue that these are simply different kinds of pleasure, in which case I should dismiss the discussion as intentionally semantic to the point of meaninglessness. Instead, do what you’re going to do with your life. If you find that what you do fails to make you happy, try to do something else more likely to induce happiness.

      Second, don’t concern yourself overmuch if happiness (or, if you prefer, pleasure) has as one of its physical manifestations the phenomenon of washing your brain with chemicals that produce responses subjectively interpreted as pleasure. James K’s analogy to the cookie is both clever and wise: happiness is happiness, regardless of how science dissects its physiological manifestations.

      Third, ending your own life is foreclosing forever the possibility that you will ever again experience pleasure or happiness in the manner that you are capable of doing now. Your life is finite, unrepeatable, and innately contains at least the potential for happiness. Your life is therefore valuable, and much to be preferred to its opposite.Report

      • Avatar ted whalen in reply to Burt Likko
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        says:

        I’m interested in what you think “achievement, morality, relationships with others, and self-esteem” are, other than stimuli that bathe the brain in chemicals with a subjective pleasure correlate? Do these things have a “meaning” or a “value” outside of the mere physical?Report

        • Avatar Burt Likko in reply to ted whalen
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          says:

          This is the part where I dismiss this facet of the discussion as intentionally semantic to the point of meaninglessness. If you want to view these things all as different stimuli inducing release of chemicals to the brain, go right ahead. Makes little difference to my primary point — reducing everything to the point of “pleasure or suicide” is a shallow approach to the subject.Report

    • Avatar James K in reply to ted whalen
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      says:

      I think that “meaning” when deployed in arguments of this type is something teleological, more akin to “purpose” or “value”.

      But that still leaves me with questions.  Purpose implies some goal i.e. the purpose (well, a purpose) of a car is to transport people from one place to another.  So I ask, purpose for what?

      Equally, value is only a coherent concept relative to some set of preferences or evaluative criteria.  Water is very valuable in the desert, but not to someone who’s drowning.  So I ask, value for whom?Report

  6. Avatar Jaybird
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    says:

    The Sumerians had this figured out a while back:

    The cup-bearer, she says to him, to Gilgamesh:
    “Gilgamesh, whither runnest thou?
    Life, which thou seekest, thou wilt not find.
    When the gods created mankind,
    They allotted to mankind Death,
    But Life they withheld in their hands.
    So, Gilgamesh, fill thy body,
    Make merry by day and night,
    Keep each day a feast of rejoicing!
    Day and night leap and have thy delight!
    Put on clean raiment,
    Wash thy head and bathe thee in water.
    Look cheerily at the child who holdest thy hand,
    And may thy wife have joy in thy arms!”

     Report

    • Avatar Jason Kuznicki in reply to Jaybird
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      says:

      And the Epicureans hadn’t managed to forget, either:

      ‘God holds no fears, death no worries. Good is easily attainable, evil easily endurable.’Report

      • Avatar Tom Van Dyke in reply to Jason Kuznicki
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        says:

        The Stoics are far more interesting and influential, relevant to the OP re Fulwider.

        “The Stoics were some of the Western history’s best active mystics who emphasized following God’s will in everyday life.  They had a very perceptive theory of the emotions that has been influential till the present day. They were the dominant philosophical movement for five hundred years from the death of Aristotle to the rise of Christianity. They heavily influenced Western philosophy till around 1900.  Parts of the Christian Bible were influenced by Stoic ideas as were later Christians such as John Calvin. Prominent Stoics include the Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius, the Greek slave Epictetus, and Nero’s tutor Seneca.

        The Stoics had a cosmic religiosity and an acceptance of God’s will which they often expressed in hymns like this one:

        Lead me, O Zeus,

        Unto that place where you have stationed me:

        I shall not flinch, but follow.

        Stoic philosophy said that if a person was virtuous and followed God, she would always be happy, no matter what happened to her.  The Stoics said the important thing determining whether a person was happy was not what actually happened to her, but her response to the external situation.  Because a person could change her responses to external events through psychological reframing of the situation and changing her values, a person could always be happy.”

        http://www.josephwaligore.com/greek-philosophy/stoicism/Report

        • Avatar Renee in reply to Tom Van Dyke
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          says:

          I’m not as familiar with Seneca or Aurelius but what I love about Epictetus is that, although his theism is clear and integral to his philosophy, meaning seems to come from one’s reaction to events and attitude, not to a blind acknowledgement of a higher power:

          “Faced with external circumstances that we judge to be bad, we cannot help to be frightened and apprehensive.  ‘Please, God,’ we say, ‘relieve me of my anxiety.’  Listen, stupid, you have hands, God gave them to you himself.  You might as well get on your knees and pray that your nose won’t run.  A better idea would be to wipe your nose and forgo the prayer.  The point is, isn’t there anything God gave you for your present problem?  You have the gifts of courage, fortitude and endurance.  With ‘hands’ like these, do you still need somebody to help wipe your nose?”Report

          • Avatar Tom Van Dyke in reply to Renee
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            says:

            Renee, I brought up Stoicism because it was incorporated into [Christian] western religion, a philosophical theism not dependent on revelation [the Bible].

            In Fulwider’s article, she mentions being opened to Catholicism by Augustine and Aquinas, in other words, via reason, since they both incorporate [and subsume] Hellenistic philosophy/monotheism.  Hers is not a revival tent thing, it’s more a journey both of the mind and the emotions, induction or intuition, if you will.

            This, I think, Will Wilkinson drives right past, and instead we’re left with the materialistic view of man on one hand [that we are no more than the sum of our atoms and synapses] and direct religious experience [I feel Jesus] on the other.

            But there’s an ocean between the notions, and most of us are on a boat somewhere between those two points.

            Leaving aside even if God really exists, the Stoic conception of happiness per Waligore above serves as a reply to JamesK’s OP.

            But can one be happy without this comfort of God, false or otherwise, he asks? Certainly in any short term, and many have affirmed on their deathbeds that they’re just fine going to their terminus alone, with no God or anything waiting on the other side, because there is no “other side.”

            We shall take them at their word, I reckon.  But the “studies” indicate religious people are happier on the whole, and back in this empirical mortal coil, it’s OK to take a closer look at that even if we abolish the metaphysics of it.Report

          • Avatar DensityDuck in reply to Renee
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            says:

            “You have the gifts of courage, fortitude and endurance. With ‘hands’ like these, do you still need somebody to help wipe your nose?”

            You put those words in the mouth of a Republican and suddenly it’s total nonsense, white privilege talking about bootstraps.Report

  7. Avatar Steve S.
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    says:

    Since we’re using a Christian essay as the jumping off point I would answer your question as follows:

    1.  The central promise of Christian dogma is that, in exchange for certain actions on our parts, a deity will grant us continued personal existence for eternity.

    2.  This existence will be in the presence of that deity and supremely satisfying.

    3.  Most Christians also believe this existence will reunite us with earthly loved ones.

    The meaning of life for a professed Christian, then, is that there is an emotionally satisfying and eternal endgame to everything we must endure in this life, provided we follow certain steps the Deity has laid out for us.

    Now, I scrolled down the page of the linked essay and saw that it’s reeeeeeeally long, so I only read a couple of paragraphs, but in response to that individual’s search for meaning I will say that my own personal journey took me to two places.  First, I made peace with there being no ultimate meaning to all this.  Second, the basic guidelines for living life in the absence of ultimate meaning were skillfully summarized by western civilization’s greatest philosophers here:  http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qBArMmngVH4Report

    • Avatar wardsmith in reply to Steve S.
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      says:

      Steve, I think you’re a bit off on Christian dogma.

      1) The central promise is we are saved by the sacrifice of the Lamb. John 1:7 (old method was Lev 17:11)

      2) This is grace – not something earned Eph 2:5,8

      3) Accepting Jesus causes you to be born again. Peter 1:3, John 1:12-13, Cor 15:54, Gal 6:15

      14 years of Catholic education wasn’t entirely wasted on me.Report

      • Avatar Steve S. in reply to wardsmith
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        says:

        Thing is, all these things are paraphrases of what I just said.

        “1) The central promise is we are saved by the sacrifice of the Lamb.”

        Yes, as I said, we are “saved”, i.e. recipients of eternal life.

        “2) This is grace – not something earned”

        An absurdity.  See your own #3 below.

        “3) Accepting Jesus causes you to be born again”

        i.e. you will only receive this grace if you take the step of accepting Jesus.  Hence, you earn it by taking that step, as I said.

        Nothing you say here contradicts anything I said.Report

        • Avatar Jonathan in reply to Steve S.
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          says:

          Grace is not earned; it can’t be. It is, by definition, that which we do not deserve.Report

          • Avatar Steve S. in reply to Jonathan
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            says:

            Yes, that’s my point.  To say that one is saved by grace, then in the next sentence say that one must “accept Jesus” (and many Christians would add other steps as well) is a contradiction.  It’s like saying your cell phone is free provided you sign the two year contract.Report

            • Avatar wardsmith in reply to Steve S.
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              says:

              It’s a dichotomy to be sure. “Accepting” Jesus is a life changing event, therefore your life is changed. Not accepting means your life doesn’t change. It was grace that led you to be saved.

              God is wild you know. (CS Lewis)

              Humans aren’t able to impose our logic parameters on the creator.Report

            • Avatar Shack Toms in reply to Steve S.
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              says:

              The attitude you ascribe to Christianity is known as the “Pelagian heresy”.

              In orthodox Christian theology, nobody is saved without God’s “prevenient grace” (sometimes they say that God “prevents” them, but that is using an archaic meaning of “prevents” as “comes before”). Furthermore, there is no obvious act that divides the saved from the unsaved. It is mostly unknowable who is among God’s elect (exceptions being canonical saints) and completely unknowable who is not among the elect. So there is hope for everyone.

              There is a theoretical difference between “single predestination” and “double predestination” (depending upon whether works without grace could be effective), but no practical difference, as it is beyond human capability to be saved without grace.

              Free will means only that your destiny aligns with your innate nature. All of “your” decisions can be traced back to circumstances you did not chose, such as the content of your own innate nature. The notion of free will as meaning that your fate is random is widespread, but not theologically meaningful. That kind of free will is no more satisfying or meaningful than any non-free-will.

              In Christian theology, God is Love. Good works done out of compassion are thus inherently motivated by prevenient grace. Apparent good works motivated by underlying greed or lust are (in orthodox terms) deemed not pleasing to God and even as having the nature of sin.

              Maybe the deeper question is this, what does it mean to accept Jesus? Jesus said (paraphrasing) that “Whatever you do for the least, you do for me.” I don’t think there is a simple answer, except maybe for the centrality of love.Report

  8. Avatar James Hanley
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    says:

    While everyone is discussing the meaning of life, all I can think of is how delicious Mystical Essence of Cookie sounds.  I’ll leave the stoics to Tom and cast my lot in with the Epicureans.Report

    • Avatar James K in reply to James Hanley
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      says:

      Unfortunately Mystical Essence of Cookie can only be eaten by Platonists.Report

      • Avatar James Hanley in reply to James K
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        says:

        Ah, fish.

        Although that reminds me, I was at a conference some years back in a poster session, and started chatting with the guy next to me.  He asked some questions about my work on the evolution of cooperation, etc., etc., then paused and said, “well, that’s nice, but I’m an idealist.”  Thinking he meant starry-eyed optimist I was puzzled at first, then I realized he meant he was in fact a real idealist, not even a Hegelian one, but a Platonic one.  All I could think of to say was, “I didn’t realize there were any of you still around.”  (He didn’t seem pleased by that.)Report

        • Avatar Shack Toms in reply to James Hanley
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          says:

          Yeah, we exist.

          Given that:

          1. awareness is self-evident as are qualia,
          2. the only evidence of matter is a regularity of the relationships between qualia,
          3. a number of well-accepted scientific experiments contradict notions of local realism that seem necessary for materialism,
          4. patterns within qualia are such an ordinary experience that it is reasonable to think that the mathematical relationships we call physical laws might simply be examples of such patterns,
          5. yet we never see demonstrations of awareness emerging from mathematical formulas and other objective statements,

          doesn’t it seem far more likely that the correct resolution of an apparent dualism into monism is in the direction of idealism rather than physicalism?

          In principle, a mathematical simulation of reality could be devised in which simulated scientists carried out simulated experiments, but they wouldn’t be testing against reality. There would be no objective facts within the simulation that would reveal to the simulated scientists that there was no reality involved, but there would be no qualia. No qualia means no reality.

          Is there an objective test for the existence of reality? It seems to me that physicalism ends up testing only for coherence, not existence. But the existence of qualia is self-evident. Any test against reality, even scientific tests, turns out to be a test against qualia.Report

          • Avatar James K in reply to Shack Toms
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            says:

            How would an idealist world be observationally distinguishable from a physicalist one?  Because if there is no way I’m going to insist that idealism is just physicialsm with a different name.Report

            • Avatar Shack Toms in reply to James K
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              says:

              Existence doesn’t really mean anything in physicalism, because only facts with objective tests are meaningful in physicalism. Existence is a self-evident axiom in idealism, there is no test for it there either. As Augustine said, even if I am mistaken, I exist. But that is not a test, it is more of a realization.

              The distinction between idealism and materialism is also interesting. Both believe that reality arises from attributes of an unobservable source. The idealist believes that the qualia are awareness interacting with itself. The materialist likewise believes in matter as a substance from which observable attributes arise, and what we observe are measurements of the attributes, not the substance itself.
              So I think that the difference between idealism and materialism is that the idealist holds that awareness is inherent in this source and perhaps also that the source is unitary and indivisible. The materialist holds that awareness magically (or by some process indistinguishable from magic) appears out of some interaction between the attributes of an unperceived and unperceiving source, and also that the source is divisible and in fact divided into many parts.
              But aside from that, materialism is hard to justify given some of the results of quantum mechanics which are hard to reconcile with a reality that has a definite state. So physicalism arose to take its place. Physicalism, as contrasted with materialism, is the idea that all that matter are the objective facts, and there need be no independent material reality at all, that question really doesn’t arise.

              As soon as the models of physics are made complete and self-consistent (which I think may be an achievable project), and we observe that the objective facts are consistent with our subjective experience (an idea I have no problem with), the physicalist asserts that the subjective experience that verified the model is an illusion which is explained within the physical model, and all that remains is the model itself.

              It is that last step that I have a problem with. Since the verification of the model is a test against qualia, it is no good to discard them as illusion or delusion. No real qualia means no real verification.Report

          • Avatar James Hanley in reply to Shack Toms
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            says:

            Is there an objective test for the existence of reality?

            Is there an objective test for the non-existence of reality?Report

            • Avatar Murali in reply to James Hanley
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              says:

              The fact that it is impossible to tell whether or not there is an external world out there is precisely the reason to reserve judgement on  the question. (As we should on similar questions about cthulu, zeus and unicorns.)Report

            • Avatar Shack Toms in reply to James Hanley
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              says:

              No there is no objective test that can decide if reality exists, because there is no objective test that can decide if awareness exists. Existence is not an objective attribute.

              The existence of reality (i.e. the qualia) and of awareness are not objective, they are self-evident and subjective.

              But there are objective tests of the hypothesis that reality exists as a collection of objects that operate independent of measurement.

              For example, Einstein was originally convinced that Quantum Mechanics had to be flawed because it violated local realism, the idea that the attributes of reality we observe arise from nearby aspects of an independent reality (e.g. we only see the distant stars because of nearby photons that traveled from those stars). The EPR paradox was proposed as a thought experiment to demonstrate the problem. However, when the test was done, reality took the side of Quantum Mechanics.

              Later, Bell proposed a simple way to demonstrate violations of local realism that did not depend on Quantum Mechanics. Aspect did the experiment and again the results contradicted local realism.

              But apply the reasoning of materialists and the reasoning of idealists to the reality we encounter in a realistic dream. The materialist should conclude that the objects encountered in the dream are material objects, with their own independent reality. The idealist concludes that the apparent objects are patterns in the qualia, and that the reality of the dream is the reality of the qualia themselves.

              On waking, the idealist is justified and the materialist realizes that any argument that leads to the materialist conclusion about the objects in a realistic dream cannot be a valid argument.

              In every virtual reality we find that awareness does not arise as an emergent property of the objective attributes that it observes. There is no need for the special pleading of materialists in the case of any particular reality. We don’t have to worry that we are dreamed beings in someone else’s dream, or that our awareness arises within a simulation in some super-intelligent being’s super-computer.Report

            • Avatar wardsmith in reply to James Hanley
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              says:

              I was going to bring this guy’s theory into the mix but thought better of it. Then thought better of that.Report

          • Avatar Murali in reply to Shack Toms
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            says:

            It is not clear that once we become monists, the difference between materialists and idealists is not just semantic.Report

          • Avatar Chris in reply to Shack Toms
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            says:

            That qualia are self-evident is disproven by the very existence of Dennett. Also, zombies.Report

            • Avatar Murali in reply to Chris
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              says:

              That qualia are self-evident is disproven by the very existence of Dennett

              What, the existence of Dennett disproves qualia? because he doesnt have them? maybe that’s because Dennett is the zombie in which case his existence proves dualism. Zombies are not merely possible, they are actual! *grin*

              (I know that that is not how the zombie argument works but… )Report

            • Avatar Jason Kuznicki in reply to Chris
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              says:

              Dennett could always be lying about his beliefs about qualia.  I don’t think he is, but we do need to cover the bases.Report

              • Avatar Chris in reply to Jason Kuznicki
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                says:

                I was mostly making a joke, though the zombies is actually serious: the metaphysical possibility of zombies makes qualia something distinctly different from self-evident. The Dennett point was simply that the fact that qualia is debated makes their self-evidency questionable, and Dennett is only one of the people who questions their existence. All of the eliminative materialists also do so.

                Also, not all physicalists see consciousness as an “emergent” phenomenon. Searle, for instance.Report

              • Avatar Jason Kuznicki in reply to Chris
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                says:

                Eliezer Yudkowsky even denies that there are such things as emergent phenomena.  I don’t agree with him there, incidentally.

                As to Dennett, I do think I understood you.  Many other things though are asserted to be self-evident — and then, when someone says they are not self-evident, the asserters will further assert that the non-asserters are lying. And that they, the non-asserters, know in their heart of hearts that they are speaking an untruth.

                I guess I had the self-evident nature of human heterosexuality in mind there, now that I think about it.  If it were up to me to establish customs and practices for the world, with no experience from human history to guide me, I might not even think to invent heterosexuality, let alone to make it the overwhelming norm.Report

              • Avatar James K in reply to Jason Kuznicki
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                says:

                I think Yudkowsky’s point about emergent phenomena is that emergent is an synonym for “I don’t understand the causality”.  I think he had a point.Report

              • Avatar Murali in reply to James K
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                says:

                I think Yudkowsky’s point about emergent phenomena is that emergent is an synonym for “I don’t understand the causality”.  I think he had a point

                No, he doesnt have a point. People dont just say something is an emergent phenomenon when they dont understand the causality. They say it if the phenomenon in question is in some way independent from the most fundamental facts. The truth of evolution through natural selection does not turn on whether quantum mechanics adequately describes the reality of sub-atomic particles. (excepting of course emergence of life issues etc but that’s a different story) Let us suppose that in twin earth, the laws of physics are such that everything at the even the most sub atomic level would have been purely and completely deterministic. Let us even suppose that in such a world chemical reactions are possible (this is not unreasonable, scientists prior to QM had a deterministic understanidng of how chemical reactions took place.) Now, there is nothing about that world that says anything about whether living creatures are possible or not. But given the existence of differentially reproducing living creatures and given any situation where a trait difference can contribute to reproductive success, that trait will spread throughout the population. The reason we call life an emergent fact is because we can attribute properties to life that we need not attribute to sub-atomic particles. Also, knowing facts about sub-atomic particles is not sufficient to generate facts about properties that fall out from particular highly specific arrangements of them.

                Emergent facts are also not merely facts about particular arrangements either because it is not clear that different particles arranged in the same pattern would produce life either. Rather, emergent facts are products of the combination of  facts about the arrangement of particles (or probability amplitudes for the occupancy of particles if you will) and facts about the nature of the particles themselves (and maybe some other things)

                Yudkowsky is a brilliant auto-didact. The closer he comes to philosophy, the more I find that he is just wrong on certain things.Report

              • Avatar Chris in reply to Jason Kuznicki
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                says:

                Jason, I guess my response would be: if there are logically possible metaphysical systems in which something doesn’t exist, its existence is not self-evident. There are such systems for qualia, therefore…Report

              • Avatar Murali in reply to Chris
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                says:

                there are logically possible metaphysical systems in which something doesn’t exist, its existence is not self-evident. There are such systems for qualia, therefore…

                Not exactly. If there are logically possible metaphysical systms in which something doesnt exist, all that follows is that its existence is not necessary. The argument that qualia exists in this world is self evident because we are beings that experience stuff. Qualia just is the phenomenology of the things as experienced. i.e.
                1. Iff we are experiencing beings, then we nececessarily have qualia
                2.  We are experiencing beings.

                Conclusion: Therefore we necessarily have qualia

                Unless Dennett is claiming that it is non-obvious that we have introspectual and sensory experience, he and other eliminative materialists are just wrong on that. The other alternative is that they really dont have qualia and something we thought was universal to everybody is only a contingent fact of homo sapiens sapiens. If that is the case, the problem of other minds is more serious. Zombies are actual and we may not know whether zombies exist unless they themselves admit that they dont have qualia.

                That brings to mind this:
                http://lesswrong.com/lw/pn/zombies_the_movie/Report

          • Avatar Jason Kuznicki in reply to Shack Toms
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            says:

            we never see demonstrations of awareness emerging from mathematical formulas

            Actually, I do see this.

            I have an awareness of chess sufficient to beat many people.  (Note that I don’t dare say my opponents are unaware of the game.  That would be absurd.)

            Chess-playing computer programs are able to beat me.  They are also composed of mathematical formulas.  If I am aware of chess, and I think I am, then what other conclusion is there?  These formulas are also aware, and possibly more aware than I am.

             

             Report

            • Avatar Mike Schilling in reply to Jason Kuznicki
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              says:

              I have enough mathematical knowledge to predict the path of a thrown object, given its initial velocity.  But the object does an even better job, also taking into account secondary effects like wind resistance.  Does that make the stone more aware than I am?Report

            • Avatar Murali in reply to Jason Kuznicki
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              says:

              Jason, chinese rooms provide a plausible counterexample. The example of a conversation though mught have certain kinds of turing-related issues about computational impossibilities so we will not dwell into that. In fact, I can probably set up instructions in such a way that someone who doesnt understand the rules of chess can follow those instructions and play a believable game of chess (that would actually beat you) without actually understanding the game or that he is playing a game at all.Report

              • Avatar Jason Kuznicki in reply to Murali
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                says:

                It is a plausible counterexample, but I am prepared to say that the system as a whole then possesses the property of awareness, even if the person working it does not.

                I don’t find it a terribly difficult conundrum, myself, even as I’m aware that some people find my solution to it unsatisfying.

                ” In fact, I can probably set up instructions in such a way that someone who doesnt understand the rules of chess can follow those instructions and play a believable game of chess (that would actually beat you)”

                …I’d love to see this.  I suspect it would have to run to several thousand pages though at the least, and that navigating through it for more than a few hours would give even the mildly attentive human operator a stronger and stronger awareness of chess.  Additionally, the amount of time it would take to follow the instruction set would probably initially be on the order of several days per move, if the operator really was to beat me, and if he really did have no knowledge of the game at all.  And no, I’m not even all that strong a competitive player.Report

              • Avatar Mike Schilling in reply to Murali
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                says:

                I can probably set up instructions in such a way that someone who doesnt understand the rules of chess can follow those instructions and play a believable game of chess (that would actually beat you) without actually understanding the game or that he is playing a game at all.

                That is a precise definition of a chess-playing computer program.Report

  9. Avatar Zac
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    says:

    For my own part, I’ve always thought that the question “What is the meaning of life?” is nonsense, a category error. Lives are not things that have the property of “meaning”; it’s like asking “What is the color of geometry?” It just makes no sense.Report

  10. Avatar Robert Cheeks
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    says:

    We are beings created to worship and serve the One True God, and, thereby to live in HIs love.Report

  11. Avatar Brandon Berg
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    says:

    Do you often argue with ad copy?Report

    • Avatar Roger in reply to Brandon Berg
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      says:

      BB,

      Actually I find I do.

      Wanna know something else interesting? I enjoy watching spanish language channel commercials. I find I miss nothing. The music, the visuals and the tone tell you everything you need to know to run out and demand the product. (My wife speaks Spanish and will quiz me.)

       Report

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