A few weeks ago I wrote a post on suffering. Resulting from a thoughtful critique of that post, by Andrew S, and a recommendation (in the following discussion) to read Emmanuel Levinas’ essay on ‘Useless Suffering’, I have decided to present a re-formulated version of my comments; because my thinking has moved on. I hope that this is not redundant, it certainly has not been for me. I actually hope to write a third post based on a more detailed survey of Levinas’ arguments but that will be in the future.
I enjoy the TV show ‘House’. Aside from his acerbic wit I often enjoy the program’s discussion of issues of atheism and the explanation for suffering that exists in the world. There are two episodes in particular that relate to this topic of suffering. In one a girl comes into the surgery who has been raped and asks to have House treat her. There is nothing wrong with her (medically) and so he sees no reason to treat her. As a ‘Theology Major’ the episode develops through their dialogue on whether God exists and how he could let this happen. Their approaches reveal an almost dichotomised view of the world. House attempts to find the meaning behind her suffering in the randomness of the world and the psychology of the attacker. She sees meaning in her suffering as something which exists, but which is beyond her understanding.
The second episode brings a magician into House’s diagnostic department. They discuss the need to know versus the need for wonder and mystery. The Magician seems almost to relish the mysterious nature of disease and would rather die from an unknown source than be saved from a known diseases. The episode concludes with House finding the reason for the sickness and curing the Magician. The final line from House is: ‘knowing is way cooler’.
For me this highlights a tension in thinking about suffering that I had not appreciated fully before but which I think Levinas describes aptly. He writes that suffering is suffering because of ‘the denial, the refusal of meaning’ that attends it . What I think Levinas is trying to get at here is that suffering is different from pain. Pain can be explained. The magicians pain was not mysterious any longer because the explanation was given for that pain. Yet pain becomes suffering when the explanation (House’s explanation) seems to break down or fracture under the weight of the suffering. Thus the strength of House’s rationality seems more facile and weak in the case of the rape victim. That type of pain causes suffering because it resists an explanation and meaning.
Yet, this is not necessarily the point at which religion or theology sweeps in and begins providing discrete meaning for all suffering. For suffering resists all type of meaning, even religious. Thus any explanation, even one provided by religion still seems to have fractures and breaks were the explanation does not fit, as Levinas demonstrates in the essay. Religious explanations fail to console just as easily as Medical or psychological or any other explanantions.
Therefore if suffering resists meaning, then can meaning be found in suffering as I previously argued. I think it can, but it can only ever do it imperfectly. Our explanations will never be generalisable nor will they fully satisfy or console. C.S. Lewis wrote, after the death of his wife, that he believes there is truth in religion, there is religious duty; but if you talk ‘to [him] about the consolations of religion’ and he will ‘suspect that you don’t understand'.
If we expect religion or God to provide answers any more satisfactory than any other ideology or explanatory-structure then perhaps we have mis-understood. What then is the role of religion in such suffering? Levinas provides one possible explanation, which I hope to discuss in a future post. But I want to offer a suggestion here which uses faith.
Alma describes faith as not having a perfect knowledge. Faith can involve contradiction (see my previous posts on Kierkegaard and on Worship). Religion then can provide people (and other institutions can do something similar) with a context for living out our lives beneath the weight of useless and unexplained suffering. The contradiction built into meaningless suffering is so great that many have turned toward religious explanations to provide satisfactory answers when perhaps all that was required or expected by God, was to continue to seek out a relationship with Him in the midst of such contradiction. A faith that is more about faithfulness and relationships (of trust and love) than about doctrinal explanations. A faith that does not require a future meaning for the suffering of the present.
I am not saying that we should not seek to find meaning in our suffering, I think there is some value in that process, especially if we involve God in it. Yet, what I am arguing is that by its very nature, suffering refuses to be circumscribed by a meaningful explanation. As such, the response of religion, should be in part an acceptance of this contradiction and an attempt to utilize the dynamism of such contradictions to direct us toward God. Yet, the passivity and activity of these two movements is a contradiciton in itself.
1. Emmanuel Levinas, Useless Suffering in Entre Nous [London: Continuum, 2006], p. 78.
2. C.S. Lewis, A Grief Observed [London: Faber & Faber, 1961], p. 23.
Beautiful. This post has affected me more than any other in a long time. Thank you.
Rico. Thanks for this post. The basic problem with the atheistic or “naturalistic” or “scientific” explanation of pain is that it doesn’t explain the role of pain in human lives — as you well articulate. The problem remains, however, when we look to something outside of our own lives and hearts to provide the meaning for our lives. In a sense, we choose what our suffering means and what value it will have for us — it cannot be given by another. I love the power of the LDS worldview in particular to give a context in which meaning can be found — or created in the interaction. For me, the context of the plan of salvation and the premortal life open up insights and breakthroughs into the context of my life and what can be suffering.
The greatest challenges in my life have turned out to be the greatest blessings. I find meaning in the lessons that I learn along the way that open my heart to love beyond its prior capacities. Life stretches me and I find meaning in the fact (or at least a fact for me) that no growth takes place inside my comfort zone. I am stretched by pain, suffering and evils of all kinds waaaayy beyond my comfort zone. Like everyone else (I suppose) it sucks while I am going through pain, or suffering or witness the kinds of mindless evil in rape, incest, abuse and forth. But I always ask, “what is there in this experience that can teach me to be a better person, more loving, more supportive and open”?
The meaning of these events and contexts is not ready made and I am the one who “finds” the meaning of my experience. I wouldn’t dare “find” that meaning for anyone else. Naturalistic explanations don’t provide meaning — they provide impersonal explanations of events. In a sense, the atheist and believer are talking past each other because the “explanation” given for the same event isn’t really explaining the same thing at all. The theist or believer is finding a personal meaning in the context of his or her life. The atheist is just describing the event from a third-person perspective. It is the difference between being in pain and diagnosing the cause of the pain. The one diagnosing is not in pain and cannot provide a personal meaning at all.
I feel contrary today, but I don’t know where to begin.
I guess I’ll start with Rico. You’ve officially lost me, lol. It’s not that hard though, so don’t congratulate yourself.
I will say that it’s quite interesting that Blake takes the position that he does. He says:
I take an almost flipped view; isn’t that funny? My contention with Rico’s earlier post (which I guess we got cleared up) was that I got the sense that he and some others in the conversation felt that if God didn’t do it, then there could be no meaning in suffering. I THINK this is summarized well in the following lines from this article (but I could be way off…I don’t think I understand Rico at all here):
The implied answer was, “No, meaning cannot be found. The personal meanings that people find are illegitimate because they did not come from God, but I won’t tell someone that they are deceived in case they have come up with a meaning.”
I got the impression that theists look to provide impersonal explanations of events. The theist is describing the event from a third-person perspective…where the third-person perspective is deemed to be the ultimate, omnipotent, omniscient God. It is utterly impersonal in the sense that it doesn’t really matter the pain the individual feels; he just “leaves it up to God” or “trusts in God’s eternal plan.” (What’s wrong with this? Well, if an individual FEELS and LIVES an experience contrary to the explanation given by a particular religion, then he will face a deep conflict, because lived reality doesn’t seem to mesh with what he’s heard about God’s plan. I imagine Blake would argue similarly that individuals FEEL and LIVE experiences contrary to the explanations given by “science” and “naturalism,” so they face deep conflict because lived reality doesn’t mesh with the sterile explanations provided by these things.)
The atheist, on the other hand, does not and cannot accept these explanations. He must have a personal meaning in the context of his life.
…But I think I’m playing fast and loose with words. The real contention I have is this juxtaposition of “theist” and “atheist” or “naturalist” or “scientist.” These words actually mean very little, and they don’t stretch as far as we want to use them. Theism just is a set of all concepts that involve some formulation of deity or deities, while atheism is a set of concepts that do not. Naturalism fails to involve the supernatural. These alone don’t say anything about the meaning or role of experiences. Theism is an umbrella for several DIFFERENT concepts that may provide meanings (e.g., Mormonism, Hinduism, etc.,) and atheism is another umbrella for several different concepts that may provide meanings (e.g., absurdism, atheistic existentialism, etc.,) So, it is not a “problem” for atheistic or “naturalistic” or “scientific” explanations if they do not “explain the role of pain in human lives.” They were never billed to do that.
Also, while I do not disagree with the overall theme of Blake’s second paragraph (e.g., trial and tribulation make us stronger…and this requires us to exit our comfort zones), I think the issue is (that Rico picked up well in the first article…and maybe with this one too…I dunno…I’m lost) is that there is a distinction between the trial that makes us stronger and the suffering that cannot even be classified in a similar light. Suffering is suffering because it seems to all of us too intense for character building. You can ask “what is there in the experience of rape that can teach me to be a better person?” but VERY QUICKLY, you will probably also ask yourself, “Couldn’t I learn that thing from something less severe than rape?” I’m sure there’s a way for you to get out of your comfort zone without needing to experience (or watch someone experience) something like rape. OTOH, even this can be a treasure trove for meaning. Gratuitous and seemingly nonsensical suffering doesn’t say, “This is meaningless.” Rather, it leads us to a very important meaning: Reality/the universe/God kinda doesn’t care what we think about suffering. We should adjust accordingly, however we see fit to do so.
ULTIMATELY THOUGH, this is all just quibbling. I agree with Blake where it counts (I think):
I think Andrew is right in a sense. Meaning is something personal, and isn’t necessarily monopolized by theists. I think the only main difference, really, is whether meaning matters or not. As Marvin the Manically Depressed Robot says in the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy: “Does anything really matter? And if it does matter… does it matter that it matters?”
So basically, if we see suffering as “sharpening the saw” if you will (improving yourself through fire and trials in a way that, when it’s over, you are better suited to the task at hand, which is life), then the atheist might prefer short bouts of suffering followed by lots of life, whereas the theist could “sharpen the saw” his whole life (suffer) and still feel he has a useable item when he dies. For the theist and the atheist, suffering could be viewed in a utilitarian light, but the theist feels that the “tool” in question is still useful at death.
I believe perhaps more in the Buddhist philosophy of karma than anything else. Sometimes things happen because of something in the past. Sometimes they just happen. I think looking for God as a “cause” of things breaks down when we attempt to understand any of it. Good things happen to good people and bad. Bad things happen to good people and bad. Sometimes prayers are answered, which we ascribe to God’s will. Sometimes prayers aren’t answered, which we also ascribe to God’s will.
The thing I like about the post the most is talking about how the test in life is keeping a belief in God independent of actual “consequences”. If we take a Pavlovian response as one extreme (ie. get a treat EVERY time we push a lever, etc.), look at the next level. When treats are given more randomly than every time, the response lasts longer. Looking at the other extreme, we are to develop faith in God whether or not we get a “response”. If good things happen or bad things happen. If prayers are answered or prayers are not answered. Our challenge is to have faith in God anyway.
#5. Hmm, this is interesting. I like it. This is why, to me, “proof of God’s existence” wouldn’t really change things for the better. In fact, it would probably make things worse. Suddenly, we’d have a cruel taskmaster. We’d all feel “forced” to be good because God is watching. We’d all sit around, waiting for God to give us meaning rather than making it ourselves. We’d have willful rebellion rather than ignorant rebellion. Suddenly we’d become like the atoms in the Earth. God just says “be moved” and they move.
The whole point is that we have a place where we can make meaning ourselves, independent of God’s existence.
Of course, there are people that view God in the same way above already. However, there’s something about Him not being a scientific certainty that protects us, I think.
Great article. Very well thought out, and well written. Thanks.
I have liked the discussion so far, and agree generally with the sentiment. In my own life, as I went through my faith crisis and sought meaning outside of Mormonism, I experienced what Andrew S describes – I had to find my own meaning outside of the “meaning” handed to me via Mormonism. I don’t know that this validates any one particular viewpoint as I’ll explain in just a moment. It seems to me that the distinction between theist, atheist, naturalist, etc., while well intentioned, is slightly missing the point.
This, I think, is the answer. Our experience with suffering is a personal journey of sorts. The “answers” may be found in theology, or philosophy, but this does not make them real for any one individual. Even when a Mormon “knows” the doctrine regarding suffering it may or may not provide the relief associated with finding “meaning.” As Andrew S has said, the arguments seem to go both ways – in favor of atheist, or theist viewpoints.
But the happiness, the relief, the real personal growth is found via the process of searching for the meaning, not in the meaning itself. I think, in general, in our lives we focus too much on the destination, the answers, the certainty that comes with various theories. Yet, I think it is the journey, and search that defines us, shapes us, and teaches us.
Arthur, I don’t think I quite agree. I may be misunderstanding you, though.
I sense (please correct me if I’m wrong) that whereas people before were putting the meaning itself on God, you’re now putting this idea of “mattering” on God. So, the implication I got from you is that while meaning is personal, things can REALLY matter if you have God involved. And but they can’t or don’t matter if you don’t believe.
If this is what you mean (or close to it), then I don’t agree. I think mattering is also subjective and personal. Things matter if they matter to you. The difference between the theist and the atheist, then, is not whether one believes that suffering matters or not, but really, the time scale…as you pointed out. The theist believes in a timescale that includes an afterlife and divine scoresheet, so to speak.
I didn’t make myself clear, and you make a very good point. The timescale is really what I was getting at. For instance, one could say “I find meaning in my University studies because I enjoy learning.” And another could say, “I find meaning in my University studies because I enjoy learning… plus afterwards it will help me find a job that I enjoy too.”
The second person might persevere even if they lose their love of learning, or realize how expensive it is, or suffer in their classes, etc.
I feel compelled to comment on this. I believe in a naturalistic God that is a God that is as much a part of the universe as self existent matter is. I reject the atheistic naturalism only insofar that it does not acknowledge the spiritual world. But the spiritual world is just another dimension of that which is natural. So at the core of spirit is just another part of nature. So God is bound by nature, and does not break nature or circumvent it, and is bound by natural law. So we are bound by natural law being natural beings just as God is a natural being. The nature of the universe is suffering, just as much as anything else. So we cannot be unnatural expecting to be exempt from nature. We are therefore bound to suffering, and if we want to know the natural God, we can choose to learn more about him through suffering, and we can choose to accept our suffering as a matter of existence. We can assign meaning to it insofar as it allows us to become more Godlike, or we can kick against the pricks and just be bitter about it. Either way, we are bound by nature to suffer in this stage of our metamorphosis, being natural beings. We are the larva that hasn’t moved on to our cocoon of the grave from which we metamorph into our ultimate form where nature no longer exacts suffering. Nature molds us through suffering to prepare us for that ultimate metamorphosis.
Asndrew S: “The atheist, on the other hand, does not and cannot accept these explanations. He must have a personal meaning in the context of his life.”
Here is where I disagree. It is as clear as anything can be that the atheist need not find any meaning at all. The atheist is fundamentally committed to the world view that, in the end, there is no enduring meaning. Everything is the result of blind chance without any teleological (mind dependent) meaning to human life or lives. In the end, all pretense to meaning is snuffed out by the overriding reality of heat or cold death of the universe. It began in less than dust and ends in less than dust and has less meaning than the dust we encounter.
Now that doesn’t mean that an atheist couldn’t attempt to find meaning — after all, I believe that the atheist is self-deceived about God’s existence. The atheist believes the theist is self-deceived — but an atheist ought to more properly hold that there is no guarantee or even reason to believe that our mental faculties give us a grasp on meaning or on reality given that they are merely the result of mindless (dis-teleological) evolution.
Further, Andrew, there couldn’t possibly ultimately be a personal explanation to the meaning of life because the universe is necessarily impersonal in the atheistic or naturalistic world-view. Everything is described by the mind-less and impersonal events that preceded any given event. On the other hand, if the theist is correct then there is ultimately a personal (or more properly and interpersonal) explanation for the order of the world and the framework of mortal life. If theism is true (or some close variant), then life can be set up as a testing ground or a school for our ultimate good. If atheism or naturalism is true, then there cannot be any such purpose to life and looking for such purpose and meaning in life is a failure to grasp what one’s world view ultimately entails.
Further, your assertion that “the theist is describing the event from a third-person perspective…where the third-person perspective is deemed to be the ultimate, omnipotent, omniscient God.” Since I don’t believe in an omnipotent or omniscient God as those terms are used in the tradition, such an assertion seems like a failure to grasp what is at issue. In fact, if we throw in free will, such an assertion is seen to assume a kind of Calvinist deity that may hold true for some theists (perhaps most given that all Islam seems to be fatalistic).
I stand by what I said — humans are meaning creating animals of a peculiar sort. We create the meaning of our experiences. God cannot create for us what our lives are about — he leaves that to our free will to choose. He cannot create the meaning of our experience. That too is for us to choose. However, in the end the belief that life is set up as a school for learning or for testing or for stretching only makes sense if it is organized to be that way by an intelligent mind. For the atheist, all such pretensions to find that kind of meaning in life is ultimately exposed as mere failure to grasp the implications of a mindless and unsponsored universe.
To go with your analogy though, I think losing the love of learning isn’t so much the potential issue. I mean, that would be pretty strange or terrible conundrum indeed if someone lost the love of learning.
However, isn’t it more plausible that there are some people who never loved what they were learning and were *only* going to the university with the hope that they would find a good job? And then, from here, isn’t it plausible (especially in an economy like this) that they might lose hope that their studying will help them find such a job that they enjoy? Or, maybe, at worst, they’ll lose hope that they’ll be able to find a job at all!
I think this kind of event would be pretty disastrous.
#12. True. And it’s also possible that there are those in the University who don’t believe it’s a University at all. And there are those who know it’s a University and just like partying more. The analogy can only go so far of course. The “University” analogy assumes there ARE jobs in the end. I was going to say more but I don’t want to look stupid in front of Mr. Ostler.
Then I would say the same thing to your theist. “It is clear as anything can be that the theist need not find any meaning at all.”
The reason? You’re playing fast and loose with connotations still. You have this idea of an atheist, but you’re not really speaking about atheism. You are speaking about one particular subset. The atheist has few if any requirements for beliefs. It’s just that, whatever his belief systems are, they do not include deities. That is all. Similarly, the theist has few if any requirements for beliefs. It’s just that, whatever his belief systems are, they do include some formulation of deities or deity. But this by itself doesn’t say anything about the nature of meaning and whether it endures.
But…I’ll humor you. So let’s say that the atheist in our situation is committed to the view that “in the end, there is no enduring meaning.” What impact would this have? Well, it wouldn’t have much. Enduring meaning is not all that important, it seems, because the meaning that matters is subjective and personal. We need to be conscious for this to work.
That we exist (and whatever the method of our coming into existence) simply precedes everything else. It does not define us and it does not make our essence — this is true whether it is a completely naturalistic process or whether it is divine intervention). Instead, now that we are here, now that we perceive, that means *we* are able to define our essences. It misses the point to talk about “overriding reality” or the “heat or cold death of the universe” snuffing out our pretense of meaning that we project…because meaning was *never* in terms as grand as this. Meaning was *always* in terms that we could perceive and project. So it doesn’t matter what happens when we are all dead and gone…if we are not there to project meaning (and to interact with it), then yes, we will have “overriding reality”…but who cares? We certainly won’t, because we will be too dead to care. THAT really won’t matter (because we won’t be there for it to matter.)
Talking of deity and souls doesn’t really get around this, you know. Instead, it just proposes to extend our subjectivity beyond death. So the afterlife matters why? Because we are still conscious to perceive it. So, there is “overriding meaning” why? Because we believe in some kind of deity who has inlimited, eternal subjectivity to project that meaning. If our souls could be blinked out of existence at some point, that meaning would seem a lot less important. But still, the meaning creation takes place with subjective minds projecting and perceiving it.
Your paragraph about self-deception is interesting. I’m not quite sure what you mean by “self-deception,” but I don’t know if I would say that theists are self-deceiving themselves, and so I lament that you feel that way about atheists. Of course, maybe I don’t understand what you mean, and I actually agree with you.
I think that theists genuinely have experiences and are inclined to interpret them as pointing to some sort of divinity. I don’t think they are lying to themselves about it. I think that if someone did try such a self-deception, their core would immediately recognize it…they would face extreme misery from this inauthenticity.
Similarly, I think atheists are simply not inclined to interpret experiences as pointing to some sort of divinity. So, I don’t think we are lying to ourselves about this either. Again, I think that if someone tried such a self-deception, they too would face extreme misery from the inauthenticity.
Also, I don’t think we need to believe that our mental faculties do give us a grasp on reality (which is external, objective)…however, since meaning is subjective, I would think that our mental faculties would give us a grasp on this. To the extent that you are referring to an objective meaning, I would agree, I don’t necessarily think we should have reason to believe that our mental faculties are geared toward this. But again, this is just a question relating to the “existence” part. It says little about the “essence.”
If we are perceiving things that “ultimately” are not true, yet these untruths are consistent, persistent, pervasive, and reliable, then the real issue is that the truth is not useful (general authorities come in useful sometimes). So, the lies, in this case, are more valuable that the reality, as far as we can perceive. So talking about reality (or things like “ultimate,” “enduring,” etc., etc., as if it corresponds with reality) misses the mark.
I have already said what I have about terms like “ultimate.” The meaningful point is that our *subjectivity*, although its *existence* is due to naturalistic causes, *is* personal. So again, our personal explanations can and do hold.
Misunderstanding of atheism and/or naturalism, if you think that looking for such purpose and meaning in life is a failure to grasp what one’s worldview ultimately entails.
Atheism simply is a marker. “does not believe in god/gods.” So, as an umbrella, it includes all the worldviews that do not involve god or gods. No more and no less. It doesn’t even necessarily concede “does not believe in “ultimates””, although for the sake of this conversation, I have conceded that because I personally don’t think ultimates are all they are cracked up to be.
What I’m pointing out is you keep on pointing out “ultimately” as if that’s what is important. But it is not and it NEVER was. So, people will still continue to look for meaning and value and they will be quite successful at it. Why? Because it turns out that meaning and value was subjective and personal all along.
Your continued use of words like “ultimate” or “ultimately” is what makes me say that you are describing events from a third-person perspective. Then, you also wrap up these “ultimates” with “theism.” So it doesn’t matter what parts of the classical construction of god you eliminate…STILL, you have some concepts that allow you to feel that this third-person perspective is “ultimate.” It is YOU who has constantly belittled the individual’s search for personal meaning. You say, “Without theism/God (e.g., “ultimate”), your personal search is “ultimately” overriden by reality.” You say this as if this de-legitimizes the personal search (e.g., “looking for such purpose or meaning is a failure to grasp what one’s worldview “ultimately” entails.) What I have said instead constantly is that the individual’s personal search, rather than being overridden by reality, scoffs at and triumphs over whatever “ultimate” reality may throw at it. Death’s sting ends perception, so really, what is meaningful is that it *has* no sting. Once you’re dead, you don’t suffer any more.
What I want to know is…why do you take this position about “ultimate” reality, “ultimate” meaning, “ultimate” this and “enduring” that when, as you state in your final paragraph (and in other comments), you truly believe in the power of the *individual?* Why do you think that a mindless and unsponsored universe negate that humans are a meaning creating animal? Do you doubt that a mindless and unsponsored universe — even accidentally — cannot produce a meaning creating animal? Do you doubt that such a meaning creating animal could create meaning without regard — or in spite of — his mindless unsponsored parent? Why do you insist that God cannot create for us what our lives are about, yet, without God, we cannot create for us what our lives are about?
Arthur, I would never get ANYWHERE if I wasn’t afraid of looking dumb in front of intellectual celebrities.
I guess our question should be…what do we want the goal of the university to be? Now, I’m sure that we can have disagreements (in this analogy *or* in what we are analogizing it to), but I wonder if we can’t have SOME agreement as to what it should be not.
I’d personally prefer if people didn’t go to university just because of some future job. Now, I know, I know, gotta pay bills; gotta feed kids, but…being in a job that one hates just for the money? What a miserable and lamentable phenomenon.
Studying a field one does not like for the prospect of good money? Again, a lamentable and miserable phenomenon.
…I should probably brace myself as Blake pulls out the big guns and totally destroys me, shouldn’t I?
Andrew: An atheist can find some transient meaning in life. Let’s grant that. But there isn’t meaning that is coherently achieved in such a world view. The atheist is committed to ontological naturalism — there is no overall meaning. Now why do I use terms like “ultimately”? Because the atheist’s meaning is simply short-sighted failure to follow thru the implications of the world view. Beliefs have implications. Whatever transient meaning can be achieved by an atheist must be denied when the entire world view is considered. Another way of putting it is that the atheist’s “meaning” is not justifiable — in the end, when the logical implications are considered, it is all really just a meaningless blip of consciousness that would be cruel if it weren’t meaningless in the end. It is like the patients who had the 1918 flue and lapsed into a coma for 45 years only to awoke momentarily and to realize that they were slowly slipping back into a coma state of vegetable-like existence. Their consciousness was nothing but cruelty to realize that it had only transient and meaningless existence because it couldn’t go anywhere or lead to anything goal-directed meaning. You can see it in the movie Awakenings.
So I believe that life has meaning and the atheist can find such mind by momentarily forgetting what his or her world-view logically entails. Once the logical implications are followed through, then the ultimate lack of meaning is grasped and it is nothing but nausea and angst — just like the existentialist meaning that attribute to the existence before essence mantra. In the end, life is a an ironic tragedy without meaning on such a view. The failure to see it is the failure to follow the logical implications to their ultimate conclusion. And that is what I mean by “ultimate.” It is like the person who is committed to determinism and sees that we can still choose as we wish and concludes that we must be free. It is a failure to follow thru to the ultimate causes and to see that our wishes aren’t our own because they are ultimately fully explained by causes outside of our control. It is just incoherence for failure to follow thru on the implications of the view — and that is why your refusal to see that there is an ultimate lack of meaning is a failure to see that the ultimate conclusions is the logical extension of such a view –and why the view you espouse is incoherent.
Blake, just to make the point I’ve been trying to make for a while, an atheist isn’t necessarily committed to ontological naturalism. After all, there are some atheists who are “spiritists” or being in “ghosts” or other supernatural entities (although you’re right in that many other atheists probably wouldn’t be too “proud” of these people). Atheists only do not believe in deities. So, as cringeworthy as it might be to other atheists, whatever other things fit in that category but which do not involve or concern deities can be atheistic.
Next, you say that ontological naturalism means there is “no overall meaning.” This is silly. Ontological naturalism doesn’t necessarily mean or imply that. Rather, the naturalist would reduce whatever meaning he has found to *natural* sources.
So, heck, let’s say you had an ontological naturalist who believed that the being we call “God” is a natural being. (So, you can have this ontological naturalist who is still a theist)…and then he argues the same argument you do, just that that deity, for example, organizes materials, etc., so through whatever way, there is overall meaning.
Or there could be other “meanings” that don’t involve such things. After all, you suppose that a lack of teleological (mind dependent) meaning means no meaning. Someone could easily argue otherwise, and come up with a ridiculously scientismic viewpoint.
I bring these up not because I necessarily believe these points, but because when you use terms like “atheism” or even “ontological naturalism,” you really have an umbrella of quite a few viewpoints…and yet you seem to think there is only one way…that there are necessary “commitments,” and so on.
So you continue to talk about “short-sighted failure to follow through the implications of the worldview,” but you haven’t even really nailed what the worldview is. In the same way, you could say that a theist is supernaturalist, but can’t nail the implications of his worldview because you haven’t picked out his worldview. You don’t if he’s Sunni Muslim or Mormon Christian or whatever else. You have these vague broad umbrellas.
So, it does not follow that “whatever transient meaning can be achieved by an atheist must be denied when the entire worldview is considered.” Because what if the worldview places a primacy on that transient meaning? What if the worldview places a primacy on the seeking of that transient meaning? Whatever the case, you haven’t even addressed what the worldview is. You keep on talking about “in the end,” but this assumes a worldview that you take (whatever it is).
So, you keep on talking about this world view that you don’t even seem to be able to identify, and then you say that atheists must momentarily forget about it and the logical entailing of it.
And then you mischaracterize my position. You say that I refuse to see that there is an ultimate lack of meaning? No, no, no. I don’t refuse to see that. I simply call on you to point out why anyone should care? You have yet to show that and yet you still want to call people’s views incoherent.
#15. Nah, you’re doing fine. I guess.
“I guess.” I GUESS?!
That means what you really think is, “wow, that Andrew S never saw it coming. RIP”
Andrew: “Next, you say that ontological naturalism means there is “no overall meaning.” This is silly. Ontological naturalism doesn’t necessarily mean or imply that. Rather, the naturalist would reduce whatever meaning he has found to *natural* sources.”
I fail to see how noting that naturalists reduce everything to natural sources in any way suggests an overall meaning or supports your assertion. Natural sources are disteleogical — so I think this must be a failure to grasp the meaning of what a natural source is. It is explanation by prior events and circumstances — and reduced to a non-purposeful or end-directed meaning.
You’ll have gto explain to me what you mean by a “natural being” and how such a being could God. If you mean that God always exists, fine. But if god is just another being subject to naturalistic forces then theists by definition don’t accept such a being. If you mean a being that is the sourced of order by organizing reality (as Mormons believe) then the order of the universe is the result of a mind-driven and end-driven purpose that is explained by teleological purposes. So by definition an ordered universe is not an atheistic universe explained solely by naturalistic explanation. It seems to me there is a simple failure to grasp the terms and concepts involved. God is prior to the order of the universe on such a view and not anterior to it.
Andrew: “I simply call on you to point out why anyone should care? You have yet to show that and yet you still want to call people’s views incoherent.”
Well I should think that whether the universe is set up to serve us and our ultimate good or a mere accident without purpose would be the ultimate question of the possibility of meaning. So for the record, let’s get clear. You are the one with the non-standard definition of naturalistic atheism to include things like the possibility of fairies and so forth. A naturalistic atheist obviously doesn’t accept such things. If you missed that we were talking about a naturalistic world view then I see little reason to continue the conversation because such a dialog is indeed without coherent meaning.
#19. No, you’re doing fine Andrew. I’ve always admired your intelligence and your ability to articulate it. But I do think Blake is right in that this doesn’t seem like an issue the two of you can really talk through. When I read his comments about how bleak the Universe is without God, well, I feel them. As in, when I consider your viewpoint, I feel in my heart a deep kind of despair. Because for all my talk about finding meaning in my own life independent of God’s existence, I really do feel that “meaning” only makes sense in the context of a larger Universe created and organized by God. As in, we are permitted to give our lives meaning only if God permits it.
A planet is not free to give itself meaning. It follows a path around a star, and it always takes the shortest path given that the star warps space-time around it. The Universe seems to be rather deterministic in this way. There are non-deterministic elements to the Universe as well (in quantum physics), but things like particle spin seem to be completely arbitrary, based on probabilities. And so believing in God is believing that we have been de-coupled from this deterministic/in-deterministic Universe, and we really CAN take a different path if we wish. The planet or particle never can do this. And, to me, the Universe doesn’t have the power to de-couple itself from itself, and create beings that truly do make meaning. I don’t know how that would be possible.
And I’m not trying to persuade you to believe the way I do. I guess through all of this, I just wonder why you don’t feel that same bleakness when you consider that the Universe might be cold, cruel, and transitory. I am open to the possibility that I’ve been conditioned to believe in God, and the bleakness I feel upon considering God doesn’t exist is just like finding out that Santa doesn’t exist (my parents never taught me Santa existed, so I guess I don’t know what this is like). But I don’t think that’s it. For instance, when I was younger, the concept of “wind” was quite magical to me. Once I found out it wasn’t magic, but the movement of convection currents, that seemed even BETTER to me. A scientific explanation was more magical than “magic.” I guess it’s just that when I consider that God doesn’t exist, my whole “soul” (whatever that is) is filled with some kind of darkness that I can’t get rid of. So I wonder what on Earth it could be like to not have that feeling. It seems that Blake is struggling with the same thing.
And I guess this feeling is exacerbated by my complete understanding that you have confusion of your own, trying to get into OUR heads and understand what WE are feeling. It’s just this seemingly insurmountable and absurd brick wall. It’s like we’re speaking Arabic and you’re speaking Finnish.
If I perceive that I am joyful, then this has meaning to me. I associate a great many things with joy, and I can be motivated to seek it based on the many things I associate with it. But where does joy come from? Joy is merely a series of reactions with biology, and deeper down chemistry, (and deeper down, physics). These causes themselves do not have purpose, but I can still quite easily perceive meaning and purpose. These disteleological causes can matter to me.
And yet, the Mormon god isn’t quite the source of order through organizing reality…he organizes reality yes, and projects order, yes, but this is the same as when *we* project order. The question is what are the constraints on God? Mormonism still has some of these constraints (at least, enough that you would say he diverges from classical formulations.) So, let us say that we organized a reality (a simulation) and programmed it according to some physical (natural) rules. This would not make us any supernatural. It would not make God any supernatural either if he came from a system with its own rules.
Really? I would think that our ability to perceive meaning would be the ultimate question as to the possibility of meaning.
Now you are saying “naturalistic atheism” instead of simple “atheism.” Of course, “naturalistic atheism” wouldn’t include fairies (unless, of course, the fairies were deemed to be products of naturalism. Again, we could say that things which seem to be supernatural are simply natural concepts that we do not have the proper tools to describe and explain, but this is really getting off track). But the thing is that you have some other descriptors here (other than just atheism, obviously, and other than just naturalism) that impact your argument, and I wanted to tease out what those are. I guess I won’t be able to, because “such a dialog is without coherent meaning.”
Andrew: I’ve been speaking of naturalism thruout. You are the one who changed the parameters. You are quite correct that one who doesn’t believe in a deity per se could believe in all kinds of non-naturalized realities — but a reading of my posts hardly allows such a conclusion in good faith. You state that you can find meaning in joy. Fine. However, the question remains whether you can coherently be an atheist and find that joy is meaningful.
With respect to the LDS God who organizes, the notion that God organizes like we do on the LDS is a trivialization. D&C 88 for example states that God’s ordering power extends to ordering the laws that govern the movements of the sun, moon and stars — no mere human has such ordering power.
You have been speaking of naturalism…then of atheism…then of naturalism…then of something else. You want to lump all of these together (as if one necessitates the other), and I’m simply saying that that is not necessarily the case. However, in each case, I have gone along with the connotations in definitions that you’ve made. But what I’m thinking is that you have another connotation which you haven’t quite stated outright and which isn’t inherent in either naturalism or atheism.
You question whether someone can coherently be an atheist and find that joy is meaningful, but to me, it seems you haven’t shown anything to the contrary.
With relationship to D&C 88 and God’s organization, the question then becomes what is God’s level of knowledge and expertise versus ours? I can grant that the LDS God has such an astoundingly greater level of knowledge and expertise so that he can do things that “no mere human” can currently do. However, this doesn’t quite reach the level of supernaturality, whatever the case is. It seems to me to suggest a very educated, very progressed natural being…but if you want to interpret it as supernatural, I guess there’s nothing stopping you. The church actually seems surprisingly naturalistic and perhaps even materialistic to me though.
no, I have to admit I’m totally outclassed here. Blake here probably suspects strongly that I am an idiot and is taking mercy on me (…better than I can say about some people I converse with v_v). I am just really intrigued that Blake and I, on the surface, seem to have similar views, but they are also so starkly different. I will have to think about it.
I do think we all are speaking past each other. The thing that you talk about, this idea of your “soul” being filled with darkness when you consider the idea that God doesn’t exist…you’re right, I don’t understand it. It’s all Arabic to me, haha. Instead, what I see is this: trying to make God fit into this universe seems like a tremendous lie to myself. It feels like I’m trying to be untrue to everything I’ve seen, felt, experienced, and am. That is what makes me miserable. That is what is bleak to me. I tried doing that for years in the church. The trouble with Santa is that, for as long as people are serious about Santa, it is miserable trying to figure him out. It doesn’t seem right; it doesn’t seem plausible; it doesn’t seem believable. Trying to force myself to believe in it is torture. And yet, I have to grapple with the fact that everyone else around seems to believe in him deeply. The only break is *when* people start admitting that they didn’t believe Santa was real. When people finally admitted, “Oh, Santa doesn’t exist,” it was a great relief. “Oh, so things make sense after all!”
The thing that bothers me is that obviously, theism is not quite like Santa. People aren’t just “pretending” to believe for some social function (well, some are, but these aren’t the true believers). People who have these experiences genuinely believe in them and genuinely believe that their interpretation of them as being spiritual makes sense.
So honestly, I don’t want to do anyone to those people with genuine experiences. But I want to reach out to people who are miserable…who are living an internal lie, whichever way it may be…and say they don’t have to do that.
If that must be “incoherent” or whatever, then I have to side with incoherence. And if I have to face some god at some point and account, I will take whatever comes with it.
Just curious–I know you are very knowledgeable about philosophy. Do you tend to fall on the analytic or continental side of the divide? I only ask this because Andrew S.’s formulation and usage of terms seems to follow a very Sartrean formulation (see, e.g., <a href="http://www.marxists.org/reference/archive/sartre/works/exist/sartre.htm"this essay). I am just wondering if the two of you are using the same words to mean different things because of differences in your respective backgrounds.
I have enjoyed the discussion so far, thank you for your comments. Because I always miss so much I will just put in a few comments in response to what has been said so far.
#1 – I am glad there was something useful in it. But it is Levinas really and not me.
#3 – I would never congratulate myself on losing anyone.
“No, meaning cannot be found. The personal meanings that people find are illegitimate because they did not come from God, but I won’t tell someone that they are deceived in case they have come up with a meaning.” (Andrew S) I think you have the wrong end of the stick, what I was arguing was that there was no objective (god-did-it) meaning. Rather the meaning is something we discover, although what I have written here for me suggests something a little different, even though I don’t think what I wrote previously was incorrect, just poorly phrased.
#20 – Blake, when you wrote that ‘the order of the universe is the result of a mind-driven and end-driven purpose that is explained by teleological purposes’ is suggests that you leave no scope for randomness in the universe, whereas I got the impression that this was something that you were willing to accept. Am I wrong (perhaps I inferred this from the idea of contingent omniscience)? If you do accept this randomness, then this would suggest to me at least that an ontologically naturalistic paradigm would have to be used to interpret such events. The problem we face, of couse, is that we can never know what is random and what is intended, and therefore we try to develop a framework that deals with everything. This would suggest that at times Andrew S approach could be combined with your approach. But on the other hand, if you don’t accept randomness then I will have to go and re-read.
But thanks again for all the comments.
Rico: I accept that there is quantum unpredictability — but that isn’t the same as randomness. There are degrees of predictability. Further, I don’t believe that human events are unsponsored or merely random — I believe that all experiences can be for our good if we are willing to make them for our good. I believe that God has set up the world as an individualized stretch for us to learn what we came here to learn. I would add that having alternatives among which to choose and free will is a far cry from randomness. In fact, if our acts were random, there would be no room for free choice at all.
It is also crucial to note that I don’t believe in a naturalistic universe. I believe in a universe shot through with mind and teleology — and purposeful action. Humans act for end-driven reasons. Such end-driven reasoning cannot be explained by mere reference to prior events as naturalism seeks to do. In fact, the human mind seems to be an intrusion into the natural order to come up with all kinds of things that cannot be explained without reference to purpose and order that are not merely random. E.g. landing the Apollo 11 on the moon was not a random act that occurred as a result of natural laws merely causing it to fly there.
Andrew: “You question whether someone can coherently be an atheist and find that joy is meaningful, but to me, it seems you haven’t shown anything to the contrary.”
I have no desire to show anything to the contrary since I am a theist and believe that the atheist finds joy meaningful by failing to pay attention to the logical implications of naturalistic atheism — that on such a view the joy is a mere biological event that ultimately has no meaning and is, when seen in light of the implications of the position, a tragedy because all joy will be snuffed out and end in the heat death or wimper of the universe — and presently has no more meaning than that death. Now I sound like Heidegger.
Further, you’re missing the point of the entire post. The question isn’t whether we can find meaning in joy, but in the seeming surd evils that confront us and seem to be, for all that we can see on the surface of it, simple random acts of tragedy and victimization. It is this reality of unspeakable evil that remains without meaning in the atheist world view because it resists redemption and ultimate justice or resolution.
Nate: You are right that Andrew sounds very Sartrean — but he hasn’t grasped the tragedy of “throwness” and meaninglessness that Sartre did. I am neither continental nor analytic — I’ve studied them both and tend to use whichever best gets at the issues I address.
Thanks for the response Blake. I don’t usually insert myself into a moderator’s position, but I thought that both of you had such interesting things to say that it would be a shame for us reading it if your conversation were to fail due to lack of shared reference points. Anything I could do to facilitate your exchange would reap benefits for me, I think.
I find that when talking about philosophical concepts on blogs, especially concepts as ambiguous as the term meaning, it’s better to reference someone else’s ideas that have been fleshed out in several volumes and neatly summarized rather than try to muddle through in bite-sized colloquies, each time guessing as to your interlocutor’s background and scope of knowledge.
#28 – Thanks for the clarification. If you accept quantum unpredictability what, if any, impact does this have upon the lives that we live, or is it something that God alone deals with?
I certainly agree with your position that we can choose to find good in these experiences and turn them for our good, and my previous post on this issue tried to argue for this. Also arguing that we cannot ‘find’ that meaning for someone else, which where me and Andrew S seemed to talk past each other a little bit.
#28. Blake does make an interesting point about the Apollo landings. I like to study astronomy and one of the cool things about matter is how predictable it is. When you get a certain amount of hydrogen, you get a yellow dwarf. If you add lots more hydrogen, you get a blue giant. Quite predictable and deterministic. It’s very interesting, accepting the hypothesis of a random and natural law-driven Universe, that if you add certain chemicals together, you get the Apollo landings, income taxes, Handel’s Messiah, and Spice World. Good heavens.
This discussion so far is a bit advanced for me. But I wanted to comment on the randomness aspect.
I’m having a hard time understanding the difference in quantum unpredictability and randomness. Randomness can mean multiple things and I wonder if they aren’t being confused. Randomness can mean “having no definite aim or purpose,” but in a statistical sense can mean “governed by equal chance according to some distribution.”
I think I get your point, but it’s oversimplified especially when talking about randomness. Every process has error and/or noise in it. While it might take x amount of hydrogen to get a yellow dwarf in one system, it will take a slightly different amount in another. Physics makes generalizations based on averages, but the equations will most definitely be different in a real system. Or rather, any equation modeling something in real life will include a noise term that represents a probabilistic distribution. Matter is as unpredictable as anything can be, it’s just that we like to make nice tidy generalizations that tend to work most of the time and package them up as equations that make it feel predictable.
If randomness is defined in the second way, then I don’t see how assigning our acts as “random” takes away free choice?
I’m not following here either. Since the number of alternatives is infinite (for all intents and purposes) and if we assign these to any sort of probability distribution, this is the very definition of randomness. Economists have been modelling human decision making for years using probability distributions. However, I suppose if by “random” you mean “without purpose” then I can see your point.
#32. I think all matter has “error and randomness” only in our ability to model or understand it. On its own, matter follows definite patterns with no error or randomness. Just because there are too many variables for us to keep track of doesn’t mean they don’t all balance on their own. Anything we perceive as “error” or “noise” is still based on previous determined events.
In fact, even stuff like quantum indeterminism COULD be absolutely deterministic, and the factors making the determination are beyond our capacity to understand, test, detect, or keep track of, therefore they just appear indeterministic to us.
So when I say “predictable” I mean in a real or objective sense. Not necessarily predictable for humans.
#32 – I think jmb275’s comment has helped me clarify my questions.
I should therefore also add that when I made the comment about randomness I had the first definition in mind, in part. If we accept that we ‘find’ meaning we must also leave the possibility that sometimes we cannot ‘find’ meaning in a specific action, even though there was a reason for the actor. I may not understand why someone rapes for example. What resists meaning therefore becomes random, to an extent. I acknowledge that this is placed at the subjective level, but this is where we seem to live out our experience here. I assume that Blake’s view of randomness excludes the first definition because God is aware and understands these processes.
But for me then this still leaves the question I asked above, If Blake accepts quantum unpredictability what, if any, impact does this have upon the lives that we live, or is it something that God alone deals with?
#34. I don’t get it Rico. I don’t understand “finding” meaning in something. For instance, I don’t think a book has meaning. I think a person could use a book for a purpose and therefore a person GIVES it meaning (learning, propping open a door, kindling, etc.). Even the author gave the book meaning (to make money, to spread learning, etc.). But the book in and of itself is just atoms. The book can be like the Universe. God may have “written” the book, and have purpose and a goal with it. But he’s allowed us to create meaning for it ourselves, by learning from it or from propping open a door with it, etc.
#35 – I think we are using give and find in a synonymous sense. I am not trying to imply that we uncover some objective meaning that was already present. Moreover, I was trying to engage Blake as he used that same phrasing in #2. I think the reason I sense like ‘find’ instead of ‘give’ is that it suggests a process, perhaps even a dialogue, that I think give does not convey. But i take your point, unless I have totally mis-understood.
No, it’s just semantics. I guess I just misunderstood. To me, meaning is something we do, not something we discover. I’m not even sure it can be a dialogue. Perhaps God can have a conversation with us, maybe ask questions of us, but it’s up to us to answer. I think maybe Blake was getting at this in #2.
You know, so often, we think of prayers as 1) we ask God questions, then 2) He gives us answers, or stuff, or blessings. We never see it the other way around.
#37 – I don’t think it was a mis-understanding, I could have been clearer with my definitions. Actually, what you describe is kinda how I see prayer. A creative process of negotiation with God, which is why I think we can involve God in the process of finding/giving meaning in/to our suffering. I think this view has been influenced by Kathleen Flake from her Sunstone presentation in the Pillars of my Faith session.
JMB: The reason that randomness is inimical to free will is that free acts must be under the control of and up to the agent. If my arm just shoots out at random and I punch you in the nose as a result, I am not responsible for the act nor am I free with respect to it. Further, if whether my choices will result in my planned action happens along some continuum of probability, then I am not responsible or free with respect to that probability. What I am free with respect to and responsible for are my choices that are completely within control and up to me.
E.g, I can choose to move my arm, but if I am paralyzed I cannot translate my choice into action. I am still free with respect to that choice. However, if what I do is the result of events outside my control, say random neural events in my brain, then it seems rather clear to me that I am neither responsible nor free. After all, I don’t even know about the neural activity and it isn’t directly within my control.
BTW I agree with Rico in # 38.
Science can indeed explain the causes of pain. What it cannot explain is pain itself. Qualia are so far beyond the realm of contemporary science it is not even funny.
Blake & Mark D., this is a little like NCT.
Blake, sorry to be a pain but you did not respond to my question in #30 & #34. I completely agree with your argument in #39.
I really like this post, it has given me more to think about.
I agree that meaning can’t be found in all suffering and perhaps all we can do is turn to God, but to be honest opinions and teachings like blake’s #2 only cause greater suffering for those who seek to find meaning to their pain.
I don’t think that suffering can always make you stronger, better more faithful, if that was the case you would find GA’s to be the most unfortunates souls on the planet.
I’m not sure what I believe on this point; I believe that we chose some portion of this life, inc opportunity’s & trials, however there is also some part of me that feels much comes down to fortune & misfortune, Rico spoke of a negotiation in this life, I’m not sure I’m comfortable with that.
If the requirement is for us to negotiate with God it simply does not provide an opportunity to those who have received a disadvantaged life, either mollycoddled church involvement or atheistic upbringing.
#42 – You might have to explain in more detail why the idea of negotiation disadvantages some people. I am not sure I follow your logic here.
To confirm my understanding; we would negotiate with God to alleviate suffering?
There are some who would not have the opportunity in this life to negotiate with God, some do not know of God, others have not developed the relationship with God to negotiate sufficiently and sadly a few are so badly treated at such a young age as to destroy all confidence in even turning to a God who stood by and allowed such atrocities to happen.
I believe Christ when he said “ask and ye shall receive” however there are issues with this, that I can’t resolve.
Sorry the negotiation is to find meaning in suffering. I agree that not all know God, but as I said in the post I do not see this as excluding people from finding meaning in suffering. Levinas is an atheist as far as I can tell and yet he finds some meaning in suffering. I am speaking specifically from a Mormon context and therefore incorporate faith into my struggle to understanding suffering but others would not and I do not think that this excludes them from levinas’ insight.
I also agree that there is much that can be difficult to our coming to God, but this is not excluded. I suppose in this sense we are all disadvantaged and my role is to remove as much disadvantage as possible. so i can agree, but it is not a trong enough argument to show that this is wrong. It merely compels me to turn toward others. I don’t see a way disadvantage, in the sense, you outline can be removed from this issue.
#40. BINGO. It’s off-topic, but you’re absolutely right. Qualia are, and will forever be, immaterial and inaccessible to science.
to me finding meaning is a way to alleviate suffering,
“I don’t see a way disadvantage, in the sense, you outline can be removed from this issue.”
nor I, but I like your point about turning towards others.
#47 – On this issue we fundamentally disagree, I do not see how finding meaning alleviates suffering. Especially because, as I argued above, any meaning we can find never perfectly fits or covers the suffering. There are always points that it breaks down and we are aware of those and that in itself (esp. for believers) is painful. Merry Christmas though.