What do you mean “What does it all mean”?
Just to mix things up a little I thought I’d take a look at something a little different – the meaning of life. Well, we all know it’s 42, but a can’t write a full blog post on that, so I’ll talk about this instead: the story of an atheist who converted to Catholicism.
Before I get stuck in, first let me recommend Will Wilkinson’s take on this article and I think his point about Fulwiler’s whole crisis of not-faith is resting on an unsupported premise: That for life to be meaningful there must be some supernatural force behind the universe or humanity in specific. I would also point out that Fulwiler also seems to have fallen victim to the Appeal to Consequences fallacy – granting the premise that a supernatural entity is necessary for life to have meaning it is equally valid to conclude that life has no meaning and the feeling of meaningfulness she expereinced after the birth of her child was the mistake, and not her atheism.
But neither of these points gets to the heart of my issue here, which is what exactly do people mean when they talk about life having meaning? The word “meaning” usually denotes either information content (in the sense that a piece of writing has meaning in a way that a random string of letters does not) or emotional fulfilment (when people refer to a piece of art as meaningful). I’m not sure what the first definition would mean in this context (you want your life to have information content? What sort of information?) so let me focus on the latter – why would you expect the existence of a supernatural entity to determine whether you are emotionally fulfilled? Emotional fulfilment comes from relationships with others and the achieving of life goals. If your relationships aren’t fulfilling then seek out new ones. If you aren’t fulfilled by your life goals try to get help in figuring out how to achieve them. If you lack goals and want them, you need to figure out what you want. But all of those steps are either internal, or rely on dealing with other people. The lack of a supernatural entity doesn’t stop you from doing any of them. So what do people mean when they talk about the meaning of life? This was my primary justification for referencing 42 at the start of the post, I interpret that scene in the Hitchhiker’s Guide to mean that Deep Thought produced a silly answer to the Ultimate Question because there is no Ultimate Question; Garbage In – Garbage Out.
I also have to take issue with this:
By simply living my life, I felt like I was living a lie. I acknowledged the truth that life was meaningless, and yet I kept acting as if my own life had meaning, as if all the hope and love and joy I’d experienced was something real, something more than a mirage produced by the chemicals in my brain.
First off, why must it be a mirage if it’s produced by chemicals? Fire’s produced by a chemical reaction and if you think that’s a mirage try sticking your hand in it. The Apollo 11 flight was made possible by chemicals, that doesn’t make it less impressive (or meaningful, if you’d rather). 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. Complaining that your emotions are made of chemicals is like eating a cookie and complaining that it’s made out of eggs, flour and sugar and not some Mystical Essence of Cookie.
Secondly, it sounds like she feels that the fact that she understands the basic causality of thought cheapens it for her. All I can say is if your emotional fulfilment depends on something being mysterious to you then you have a problem. Things are not inherently mysterious, mysteriousness is merely the product of a state of ignorance. To take joy in that mystery is to worship your own ignorance, as Eliezer Yudkowsky once put it. If people discovering how things work distresses you then you needs to find some way of changing your emotional affect (I understand Cognitive Behavioural Therapy can help in this area, but consult a professional) because people are going to continue to figure out how things work (even things like people), and to pretend that this isn’t the case, to pretend that the brain is a black box full of magic smoke rather than a complex machine, is to truly live a lie.