Meaning Without God

August 31, 2008

EDIT: Preface – If you’re ever going to approach the question of “the meaning of life,” it is only fair to admit that life may be the sort of thing that has no “meaning.” I don’t think that is the case, as you’ll see, but we shouldn’t blow past this assumption unannounced.

I’ve been asked how I find meaning in life apart from God. This is a really interesting question and could go several different ways. Assuming that we don’t mean “definition” when we use the word “meaning,” I can think of two other senses that one might find meaning in life. One is the purpose of life—the “intentional meaning.” The other sense of meaning is like a moral of a story—the lesson to be learned.

When it comes to purpose in life, I used to be wholly dedicated to “the cause of Christ.” As a seventeen-year-old, I remember considering the path of my life and thinking that I could either contribute to this world and follow my interest in the sciences, or I could do something that has eternal value. There was a single moment I still remember when I decided that people’s souls were the only thing that would last forever and thus, the best object of my efforts. So I dedicated my life to the cause of Christ and became a pastor.

This worked for a while until I finally concluded that this story wasn’t true. Jesus wasn’t the son of God, didn’t die to take us to heaven, and there is no heaven (in the traditional sense) which is open only to those who believe in Jesus. Then I was beset with a strong sense that I had wasted so much of my time trying to persuade people to believe those things. In fact, I had wasted my life.

Taking my new beliefs to heart, a strong awareness fell on me of how short life is if there is no pot-of-eternal-life at the end of the rainbow. I have only a few dozen years left to have whatever impact my life was to have. After that, there is nothing more. This came as a very strong feeling and shook me out of a complacency I didn’t realize had set in. While assuming my real life was the one yet to come, there isn’t much sense of urgency or value to what we do here—other than saving as many souls as possible. Giving up my blind belief in a life yet to come, I found the time I have left to be of ultimate importance. I must use it well! But what can I do if there is nothing that lasts?

My answer came in the way that it has in so many myths throughout history, from Gilgamesh to Genesis. We do have a kind of immortality in this life. It’s not to be had for any one person but for our society as a whole—the human society is immortal. C. S. Lewis had it exactly backwards, when he said “Nations, cultures, arts, civilizations—these are mortal, and their life is to ours as the life of a gnat.” But rather, what Hamlet said with irony, I would echo with distinction: “What a piece of work is a man[kind], how noble in reason, how infinite in faculties, in form and moving how express and admirable, in action how like an angel, in apprehension how like a god!” For the marvel that is each single person, what a truly magnificent thing we make when all together. Look at the heights to which mankind has soared through the brilliance of his creation and even in overcoming the undercurrent of evil that rears its ugly head. If I can contribute to this society, I will have played my part and made my eternal mark. So to the extent that my life needs meaning, I see no greater thing to gain than the contribution I can make to this grand society.

As for the last sense of meaning I suggested, that of a “moral to the story,” I think this is something we never have under our control or even for our own use. My life may or may not be of interest to other people at other times for various reasons, but it’s not for me to say. I can indeed look at the lives of those who have gone before me and gather meaning of all sorts—lessons to be learned—but for the final analysis of my own life, only the history of a further society can be my judge.


God Cannot Care About You

August 27, 2008

Is this world arbitrary? Christians almost always feel compelled to say no. If we believe this world is arbitrary—if it just as well could have been some other way—it seems to undermine the very thing we come to the religion for: meaning in life. If God might just as well have made the world a different way—say, without you—then it seems to imply that you’re not a very important part of the world, or at least not significant in God’s plan. In fact, you are arbitrary.

So instead, Christians want to say that the world isn’t arbitrary. God had a very good reason to make it just the way he did. In fact, this is the best world that could possibly be. (We’re not talking about evil here. See earlier posts.)

If this is the best world that could possibly exist, then making a lesser world when this one is possible would not be fitting for so great a god as He of the Christians. In fact, He wouldn’t be a very great God at all if he choose to create a world that wasn’t as good as another one He might make, right? So by God’s very nature, he would have to create the best of all possible worlds.

So before God ever sets out to create this world (universe, etc.), he has been handed a blueprint for universe building. It is directions for the best world that is possible. Since God didn’t arbitrarily pick this plan, but it was in a sense, chosen already since it’s the best possible plan, God simply functions as the force behind putting it into practice. God is, in a sense, carrying out orders. At best, He is middle management.

So if the plan is already determined (being the best one possible), and God is the force which brings it about, we might look for God from our own point of view and meet him half-way. Is there any force in the universe which carries out its task and formed the world as we know it? One might easily say: the laws of nature. Between the speed of light, Planck’s constant, the law of gravity, etcetera, we have found an omnipresent and omnipotent force which is responsible for the creation of the world. Have we not found “God?”

The other alternative is to say that God picked this world from a really long list of other possible worlds for no good reason at all—completely arbitrarily. Any other world would have been just as good as this one—including one where you don’t exist. But a religion of this God wouldn’t really provide much meaning for life, now would it? If God didn’t care, but arbitrarily chose to create this world, and it just happened to have you in it, it doesn’t communicate very well that God loves you and has a wonderful plan for your life, does it?

The Reason Against God

August 25, 2008

My reasons for leaving Christianity are exactly the same as Tim Keller’s reasons for why you should join it: There is no one overwhelming argument which can’t be denied; instead there are a lot of smaller reasons which, when taken together, provide an inductive force so compelling I couldn’t resist it. Also, like Keller, I like this story better.

Ironically, Keller’s book was fairly instrumental in my deconversion. As I’ve said other places, it was a long and gradual process which finally led me away from the faith. But the last lifeline I had was Tim Keller’s recent book, The Reason for God. I know and respect his work in many other places and was hoping that this book would provide me with the rationale I needed to counter credible unChristian arguments and sustain my Christian belief. The opposite happened.

Keller takes up a two-part strategy: First, he demonstrates how the objections to Christianity, or “defeater beliefs,” assume the same form which they intend to criticize. Second, the constructive portion of his argument can probably be accurately caricaturized1 as: “Christianity is a really nice story, so you should accept it.”

In the first half of the book, the “defeater beliefs” section, Keller astutely lays out the overall problem: there is no objective place from which to judge various worldviews. Kudos to Keller on this because many people never get this, especially many Christians! Unfortunately, the book is all down hill from here. Keller tries to illustrate the issue with his elephant analogy. A summary: Imagine several blind people touching a creature which they don’t know is an elephant. One says, “It’s long and flexible like a snake,” feeling the trunk. Another says, “No it’s thick and round like a tree trunk,” feeling its leg. Another touches the side and says, “No it’s large and flat.” Then Keller says:

In the same way, it is argued, the religions of the world each have a grasp on part of the truth about spiritual reality, but none can see the whole elephant or claim to have a comprehensive vision of the truth.

This illustration backfires on its users. The story is told from the point of view of someone who is not blind. How could you know that each blind man only sees part of the elephant unless you claim to be able to see the whole elephant? … How could you possibly know that no religion can see the whole truth unless you yourself have the superior, comprehensive knowledge of spiritual reality you just claimed that none of the religions have?

As someone who was wrestling with this very question, I was thrilled when it looked like Keller would say something profound about it. Excitement turned sour when instead of the profound and rational thinking I’ve come to expect from Keller (and I have read/listened to his work many other places with the highest praise), I was given a very flimsy straw man and logic-less pebbles hurled in its general direction.

My immediate response to this particular analogy was first that it is probably a good analogy, and the many different religions do “feel” different parts of a single great reality. But to answer the last question in this quote above: We would know by listening to each other charitably, thinking clearly, and not by a theological imperialism that claims the perspective of omniscient narrator simply because we already proved no one can hold that position (sic).

The rest of Keller’s first section on “doubting your doubts,” is filled with more of the same: straw man arguments weakly attacked. No person who actually holds the various positions Keller represents would agree with his caricatures—evidenced by each of the non-Christians and even my Keller-loving Pastor friend who made up our book discussion group. By the end of the first half, our group continued reading out of astounded disbelief at what could possibly be in the second half that would redeem the first.

The second half of Keller’s book is nice. He starts with a smart approach which finally recalls his admission in the Introduction that no one stands in an objective position to evaluate other worldviews. So he suggests that instead of looking for airtight arguments, we look at the gestalt of small indicators like: The origin of the Big Bang, cosmological constants allowing for life, the regularity of nature, beauty, and “the clue-killer [that] is really a clue.” This is not meant to be a long book review, so I must deprive you of specifics, but as Keller went through his clues for God, each of them struck me as either having a simpler explanation short of God, or even as full support against his Christian suggestion.

To close, Keller morphs the last six chapters away from almost any rational argument at all. Instead, he describes features of Christianity that are nice and appealing, expecting to make the sale on ideal virtues. Isn’t it nice that Christianity gives you paradise after you die? Isn’t it nice that Christianity gives you a justification for morality? Isn’t it nice that God did such a dramatic thing as sending his son to “write himself into the story?” If you’re ready to convert, see the epilogue.

So Keller’s project is actually three-part: 1.) give reasons to doubt objections to Christianity, 2.) Present Christianity as something that “would be nice if it were true,” then 3.) Invite the reader to believe it.

My response to Keller’s book went like this: 1.) every single objection you raised has far deeper merit than you even begin to acknowledge, 2.) There are parts of Christianity which are great and really “would be nice if it were true,” but “want makes not.” 3.) I already want to believe Christianity is true, but it’s the real arguments which your straw men caricaturize that have twisted my arm away from belief.

After reading Keller’s book, I’m left at the last conclusion that Christianity is a nice story—and even my favorite religion—but it’s a long way from being true. But his book is very convincing: It has convinced many Christians that they should be Christians; and it has convinced many non-Christians that they should be non-Christians. But it has also convinced at least one Christian that he should be a non-Christian.

1 I use this word “caricaturize” several times despite my spell-check trying to make it “characterize,” because I mean it as: “a good natured exaggeration of the most significant features: to make a caricature.”



Thinking of God

August 22, 2008

The human brain is ideally suited for inventing God.

In his groundbreaking book, On Intelligence, Jeff Hawkings (the creator of the Palm Pilot) explains his very convincing hypothesis on how the human brain works. The problem up until Hawkins was that neuroscientists were concerning themselves with gathering data about the many complexities of the brain (a very important task) but not hypothesizing about what that data means. As we all know, the scientific method happens by hypothesis and falsification. So without the hypothesis, the science of the brain is only half-complete. So a big thank-you to Jeff from the rest of mankind.

Hawkins’ hypothesis is that the basic function of the human brain is “naming patterns.” Hawkins’ model has the brain organized as a tree-shaped hierarchy. At every stage in the brain’s analysis, the neurons of the neocortex receive input from several other neurons (structurally “beneath” it) and react by sending some kind of signal on to the next neuron (structurally “above” it). The processing done by the neuron in question, Hawkins suggests, is essentially the recognizing of learned patterns and passing the name of that pattern up in the hierarchy. This signal then becomes one of several inputs to the neuron next up in the hierarchy and the process happens again.

Let me give up my summary of Hawkins’ hypothesis with a hearty recommendation to read his book! A consequence of this model is compelling for thinking on religious matters: The human brain is ideally suited for inventing the concept of God. But before I explain what I mean, let me just say that if Hawkins’ hypothesis is found valid and my argument here also, it doesn’t necessitate God’s non-existence. This argument could equally be a rationale for how humans beings are intentionally created to find God, and thus without excuse. But I don’t find it as such.

The hierarchical human brain naturally categorizes. A glance around a coffee shop finds more than just one kind of thing (the coffee shop), but several: people, furniture, decorations, food. We can further categorize; pick furniture: tables, chairs, counter. Keep going; Table: legs, top, surface, edges. Etcetera, etcetera. But I still would mention only one thing if I tell you “I’m going to a coffee shop.”

We categorize in the other direction as well, getting to bigger things. A person is part of a family, which is part of a community, which is part of a municipality, which is part of a state, which is part of a country, which is part of the planet, etcetera.

This happens for events as well. “The ball is thrown; strike out; the inning is over; the Brewers lose the game. The Cubs win the world series. They are the national champions.”

This pattern happens very naturally for humans because it is how our brains function. We see patterns everywhere and we give them names. It’s how we create. Christians are prone to follow these created categories of mind in either direction, increasing or decreasing, and find God at each end. An educated Christian might hypothesize God’s action as the causal force behind superstrings, or even as a grand-unified theory of the cosmos—the next hierarchical category in either case. A Christian-on-the-street might cite God’s providence as the unifying category for several “coincidences” this week.

In any example I might give, it’s the basic suggestion of Hawkins that human beings are naturally inclined to take several disparate incidents and categorize them by finding (creating?) a common pattern. So of course, for anyone who tries, God can be found everywhere since he is by definition the ultimate category; and we are, by design, wired to create and name our categories.


POSTSCRIPT: Whether you find this line of thinking as an argument for or against the existence of God will depend upon your starting point. A Christian will see this as an explanation of how God works in the world: “God created mankind to seek and depend on Him; this is how He did it.” A non-Christian will read this as a simpler explanation for natural things observed: “See? We have an account to explain phenomena which doesn’t require God, so we shouldn’t add him in unnecessarily.” It comes down to a matter of which question you’re trying to answer: “How does God work in the world?” or “How God need not work in the world.” Is it any surprise that each side only ever succeeds in convincing people who already agree with them?


August 15, 2008

“Theocracy is the worst of all possible governments. All political power is at best a necessary evil: but it is least evil when its sanctions are most modest and commonplace, when it claims no more than to be useful or convenient and sets itself strictly limited objectives. Anything transcendental or spiritual, or even anything very strongly ethical, in its pretentions is dangerous and encourages it to meddle with our private lives.”

— C. S. Lewis, Lilies That Fester