A Universe Without Meaning

Posted by on June 20, 2010 in Thoughts | 13 comments

We as a species tend to think of ourselves as pretty special. We have mental abilities that far surpass those of any other creature on earth, and we have social structures that we can maintain without constant infighting or always resorting to violence and territorial squabbles. We have a natural tendency toward togetherness and community where each of us can be included as a part, and we have created governments and infrastructures to make our lives easier and more comfortable. We have the ability to think beyond the now, to plan ahead and to fit these plans into our concepts of what we want our futures to be. We also have a very acute sense of self, a consciousness of our own identities and the ability to extrapolate that sense of self onto others via empathy.

This really does make us unique in our world. No other animal on earth has these abilities to the degree that humans do.

NASA - Spiral Galaxy NGC 1300

NASA - Spiral Galaxy NGC 1300

But with this uniqueness comes the misguided belief that we, unlike any other animal on earth, are more deserving of our place in this universe, and are so special in fact that once we have shuffled off this mortal coil, that there is more out there for us, that our lives somehow are a precursor for the “main event” and that we are here on earth as a test to see if we are fit to continue onwards. We also have the tendency to think that there must be more to a human life than just being born, living and dying. This tendency to place ourselves above all else in the universe as not only unique, but as special, brings with it the audacity to selfishly think that each one of us is so important that there must be more than just one life. If humans as individuals are so important, then surely just one lifetime is not enough for us. There must be more.

I think one of the most pointless question people have ever asked is the question of “What is the meaning of life?” or “What is the meaning of the universe?” These questions presuppose a few things:

  1. That our existences as individuals are part of a “divine plan”, that what we do here on earth is just a cog in a bigger wheel which strives toward some predetermined destiny.
  2. That we as individuals are so important that our actions have been mapped out for us.
  3. The idea of fate, and that no matter what we as individuals do, the outcome is always going to be what was intended by an unseen timeline of events.
  4. Without the idea of “meaning” life is not worth living.
  5. It implies that the universe is deterministic.
  6. In order for there to be a “divine plan”, there must be a “divine planner”.

People do ask these questions and have for centuries, because without the feeling of “meaning” or “purpose” in an individual’s life, one might believe there is nothing to live for. But I put to you this; there is no more meaning in the universe than there is in a rock or in the air, or a plant, or a dog. If someone were to ask you “What is the meaning of a dog?” or “What is the meaning of a rock?” you would look at them like they were delusional. Rocks and dogs and plants do not have meaning in and of themselves, so why should the universe?

Rocks, dogs and plants have implications, geomorphological, biological and botanical. They also have histories. But they do not have an innate meaning. We can ask questions about these things, like when did this rock originate, what is the evolutionary path taken by this dog, or where can this plant grow, but they are devoid of meaning if not put into a context of an actual question with a desired outcome.

It is the same for the universe. If we ask “What is the meaning of the universe?” what we are really asking is “Why am I here on earth now? I must be here for something, when will this greater purpose reveal itself to me?”

It is a product of human selfishness to ask questions like this. When we place ourselves so high in this world as to make ourselves the reason for the earth’s existence, and then suppose that we have a meaning for being here, we become blindly focussed on ourselves. The consequences of this anthropocentric viewpoint can be seen all around the world in the way we treat this planet and its inhabitants.

Having established this, I know people will say something like “But how can you have a life without a purpose? Does this not mean that your life is without meaning?” Life has no meaning, but each of us as individuals can have a “sense of purpose” in our lives to be driven towards what makes us excited, or makes us happy, or makes us feel like we’re making a difference in the world. A “sense of purpose” is very different from the idea of a “divine meaning”  because each of us create our own “sense of purpose”. The reward for the “purpose” is often the action doing our role in a given situation.

Some people say that without God life would not be worth living, as if somehow being given a role to fulfill on earth makes it all the more rewarding. Historically people have used the statement “God’s divine plan” or “God’s will” as an excuse to do any number of things. To say “It is God’s will that I do this (action)” is in actuality a way of stating “I want to do this because I feel it is right and doing this gives me a sense of purpose.” World leaders such as George W Bush have used such rhetoric to justify positions that he himself held such as:

“I believe that America is called to lead the cause of freedom in a new century. I believe that millions in the Middle East plead in silence for their liberty. I believe that given the chance, they will embrace the most honorable form of government ever devised by man. I believe all these things because freedom is not America’s gift to the world, it is the Almighty God’s gift to every man and woman in this world.”

In this speech from September 2004, Bush not only incited God’s Will, but also his own sense of divine purpose as given to him by God directly. And many state and church leaders worldwide do this on a regular basis. Bush even went so far as to say that God spoke directly to and through him.

When invoked in a political sense, is a great way for politicians to manipulate people into believing or doing something they may not otherwise do, such as go to war to kill people in the name of your country and God. This is very useful for a state that wants to control someone else’s land or oil, because if they have a higher purpose but have not yet found it, what better one to choose than to fight for God? It is no wonder that the idea of living for a “higher purpose” has not been squashed earlier in history, it’s far too useful.

But the idea of “higher purpose” and “meaning” is a selfish construct which places each individual above the needs of others in a community. To think that you have been hand-picked to carry out a role on a cosmic stage is self-centred and egotistical. Even when someone says they have a “higher purpose” to help the poor or comfort the sick, it is still a selfish act, claiming that an almighty creator-God has hand-picked them for that job. And of course people who claim “higher purpose” also bring along with them the doctrinal baggage of the God-figure they serve. Yet people do the same thing without claiming “higher purpose”, secularly and because it is the right thing to do. More often than not this is the better way to go about things such as charity because the services to the people are done without the underlying dogma attached to missionary workers.

Questions like “What is the meaning of the universe?”, “Why am I here?”, “Why does anything exist?”, “Why are things the way they are?” et al, are bad questions, because the question is not really asking anything. It’s pseudo-philosophical and often hopes to debase facts by muddying the waters of real debate. The questions are infantile while pretending to be intellectual. They are bad questions.

The only actual purpose for people to be here is to perpetuate our own DNA, to breed and to extend ourselves. And this is the same for ANY and ALL living creatures on this earth. We are here to try to continue to be here. No meaning, just plain biological facts.

People need to realise the difference between what they perceive to be a “higher purpose” and what is their own drive or purpose in life. Sure you have to feel your life has an effect on things, we all do. We all want to be loved, needed and wanted by those around us. We all want to feel that what we do in our lives is not “all for nothing”. But the effects of your actions and mine are real, on this earth, in this universe, and reason, purpose or meaning you extract from that is your own doing.

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13 Comments

  1. Really insightful, Marty! Definately something that I have questioned myself. But I live by my own little motto; Life is the best thing you will ever do. It’s here, you’re here, take it and run. If you’re too busy planning for the unknown, you will totally miss out and in the end it’s your loss pretty much. Haha.

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  2. Evolution isn’t teleological.

    So, our purpose isn’t even to “perpetuate our own DNA, to breed, and to extend ourselves.”

    I think the weakest part of this essay is how instead of reasoning why existential questions are “bad” or “infantile” questions, you just say that they are.

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    • I don’t think he was being literal. I think it’s more like a selfish gene kind of thing.

      Our genes “want” to perpetuate their existence.

      Although I don’t agree that questions of existence or meaning are bad, I believe he provides evidence for his POV with this sentence, “It’s pseudo-philosophical and often hopes to debase facts by muddying the waters of real debate.”.

      Sure, that point could’ve been expanded on, but it wasn’t the main point of this post.

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    • No evolution isn’t telological, you are correct. I mean this without determinism, our purpose is, as driven by our biological wants, to perpetuate our species. I said nothing of evolution. Evolution and DNA are two totally different topics. By extend, I mean to spread out, not to get better. You are reading things into my words that simply aren;t there Andrew.

      Furthermore, I say that these questions are infantile, because, in essence, they are. It’s like a child asking “but why?” Since there is no meaning to the universe, the question itself is bad. You cannot have an answer without first giving a premise. “What is the meaning of a rock?” There is none. Not without the right context.

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    • Ralph,

      He doesn’t provide evidence for that POV with that sentence. That sentence “It’s pseudo-philosophical, hopes to debase facts by muddying the waters of real debate” is another baseless claim. Sure, that point could’ve been expanded upon is the ENTIRE point.

      Why are the “waters of real debate” not concerning things like meaning?

      If he wants to say there is no meaning, he can debate that. If he wants to say that asking questions about meaning is pseudophilosophical, that’s another thing he would have to back up.

      atheistclimber,

      OK. Well, enough, you did not mention evolution. But in your response, you confirm the very problem I was pointing out. You say, “our purpose is, as driven by our biological wants, to perpetuate our species.”

      But you have to arbitrarily choose “biological wants” as the thing that determines our purpose.

      I say that biological wants aren’t our purpose. Especially not a genericized version of biological wants.

      But how could you say something like this? IMO, the only way is that it would end up being some form of determinism. (Because we deterministically have certain kinds of wants based on our biology..?)

      it seems to me that the human being is something decidedly more than a rock. The rock never asks questions about itself (or others). Humans have the capacity to ask these sort of existential questions about rocks and everything else — including ourselves. Instead of looking into why this might be and what the significance of it is…you throw it away and encourage others to throw such away, so that we can ultimately become similar to rocks. You say the question is infantile because “it is.” But maybe infants ask questions like these because they are human, and these are human questions? Instead of calling the mass of humans infantile, perhaps you should consider reclassifying the nature of these questions.

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    • @Andrew

      I think we have a problem of semantics here. I will reiterate what I have said.

      You call yourself an atheist, so I’ll put it this way: You cannot ask “What is the meaning of the universe?” and expect an answer because the question is baseless and has no context from which to derive an answer. Again, it is like asking “What is the meaning of a rock?” If you were to say “The universe is expanding, what is the meaning of this?” then you could extrapolate a meaning. It is pointless to ask a question like that of an object such as the universe because there is no answer. The other problem with this question is the presupposition that by asking “What is the meaning of the universe?” you are by implication saying that there is a “meaning”, and in order for there to be a meaning then there must be a creator which has bestowed this meaning upon the universe.

      As I said, “…your actions and mine are real, on this earth, in this universe, and reason, purpose or meaning you extract from that is your own doing.”

      “He doesn’t provide evidence for that POV with that sentence. That sentence “It’s pseudo-philosophical, hopes to debase facts by muddying the waters of real debate” is another baseless claim. Sure, that point could’ve been expanded upon is the ENTIRE point.”

      I need to give you examples of people using questions like this to try and draw out the conclusion that there is a masterplan to the universe? It would not be difficult at all, I encounter this a LOT, but if you wish I can go and find some examples.

      “Why are the “waters of real debate” not concerning things like meaning?”

      See my first answer.

      “OK. Well, enough, you did not mention evolution. But in your response, you confirm the very problem I was pointing out. You say, “our purpose is, as driven by our biological wants, to perpetuate our species.” But you have to arbitrarily choose “biological wants” as the thing that determines our purpose. I say that biological wants aren’t our purpose. Especially not a genericized version of biological wants.” But how could you say something like this? IMO, the only way is that it would end up being some form of determinism. (Because we deterministically have certain kinds of wants based on our biology..?)”

      Of course there are characteristics that are backed by our biological needs and to say otherwise is just silliness. The need to eat is not just because we feel hungry for instance, we feel hungry because it is in our best interests to feel the need to eat when we need energy. I’m not going to write an essay on biology here, that is off topic. What I am saying is the only thing we can call a “purpose” that applies to every human on earth, that we all share, is the propensity to passing on our genes. You are reading too much into this statement. It is meant to be a simple illustration of what we as humans might be able to truly call purpose. I think it is a symptom of our tendency to place ourselves above all other life that causes us to believe he have higher purposes, and this tendency we have makes us believe we are more important than the rest of life on this planet.

      “it seems to me that the human being is something decidedly more than a rock. The rock never asks questions about itself (or others). Humans have the capacity to ask these sort of existential questions about rocks and everything else — including ourselves. Instead of looking into why this might be and what the significance of it is…you throw it away and encourage others to throw such away, so that we can ultimately become similar to rocks.”

      Again, your interpretation, I said nothing of the sort. I was talking about the “meaning of the universe” as opposed to the “meaning of a rock”. I go on to talk about higher purposes as supposed by certain humans as opposed to the feeling of purpose humans have in their lives. I have not said ANYWHERE in this piece “come join me for I am right” so for you to say I am encouraging others to join me is just plain false. I write this blog because i have a certain understanding of the universe and I like to work this through by writing about it. I am not proselytising anyone.

      You equate “meaning” with “significance”. Can you answer the question “How is the universe significant?” Significant of what exactly? Significant if its own existence? Even so I cannot see how you can extract meaning from something like the universe, which can only answer questions which have a possible answer like “Why is the universe the shape it is?” or “How old is the universe?” or “What is the meaning of background radiation in the universe?” The question needs context.

      “You say the question is infantile because “it is.” But maybe infants ask questions like these because they are human, and these are human questions? Instead of calling the mass of humans infantile, perhaps you should consider reclassifying the nature of these questions.”

      I backed up what I have said:
      “You cannot have an answer without first giving a premise. “What is the meaning of a rock?” There is none. Not without the right context.” I seem to have struck a nerve with the implication that these “existential” questions are infantile. Is this because you yourself are asking these questions and I thereby have called you infantile?

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  3. Haven’t had time to read this yet, but you are stealing all my blog topics before I’ve wrote on them! ;)

    Good onya.

    Jonathan

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  4. Nicely written. If I can respond to a few points?

    AC “The idea of “higher purpose” and “meaning” is a selfish construct which places each individual above the needs of others in a community.”

    I respectfully and cordially disagree :)

    Is it possible to think of people who believe in higher purpose that also try to promote the needs of a community? If we can think of even one, it invalidates this point.

    Secondly, surely the individual has some valid interests as well as a community? Most ethical systems try to balance the two I think.

    *Aside* I wonder if it’s possible not to conflate ‘higher purpose’ and ‘meaning’ if by the former you mean a religious-based higher purpose? One does not have to be religious to seek meaning. It’s the great quest of a few agnostic writers.

    AC “The only actual purpose for people to be here is to perpetuate our own DNA, to breed and to extend ourselves.”

    It appears from the rest you were merely meaning a selfish gene thing, as one other commenter suggests? If so then I think it’s best to leave out purpose altogether. If physical stuff is all there is, there is no meaning, no purpose (imposed from outside.)

    I think facing that honestly is very important. I do think many of us don’t take this seriously enough. We end up saying “Oh well, there’s no purpose or meaning. Too bad, I’ll make one for myself” without really reflecting on the “thrown-ness” of humanity. I think that’s Albert Camus’ term. Those (atheists and others) who struggle with these questions deserve some respect, imho. The spectre of nihilsm is something that has to be faced and it’s not “silly”. Some great atheist minds have tried to overcome it, notably Nietzsche.

    AC “Questions like ‘What is the meaning of the universe?’… are bad questions.”

    I don’t think they are bad questions in the sense that they are invalid, as you’ve indicated with your “a rock has no innate meaning” as you imply. However, I think that’s quite enough from me!

    Thankyou, this is very relevant to me at present and has made me think. Respectfully,

    Jonathan from Spritzophrenia

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  5. I would have to say that I’m on board with Andrew. I also do not think one can attribute “wants” to genes, even in scare quotes. Genes do not have intentions. They are mindless mechanisms. The four fundamental forces which have shaped our Universe are also mindless mechanisms. The driving force of evolution–natural selection–is a mindless mechanism. (Notably, sexual selection is not.) But these mindless mechanisms have produced sentient beings, including ourselves, with our most advanced intelligence. Mind has emerged from mindlessness and with it the possibility of “meaning”. Not divine meaning, but the meaning that can be experienced in sentience. I have not yet tackled the “meaning” question in my own blog, “The Spiritual Life of An Atheist” at http://sannejohnson.wordpress.com, but I do intend to get there.

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  6. I thing this is a good article and point of view. Those questions (Questions like “What is the meaning of the universe?”, “Why am I here?”, “Why does anything exist?”, “Why are things the way they are?” et al), it’s not that they’re good or bad. But they have been used by many to “lure” people into believing things that are not true (or things that there is no evidence of). IMO those questions can be answered by individuals on their own. “Why am I here?”… well some people find their vocation helping others (doctors, policemen…) and some people think only of themselves (greedy politicians and religious leaders) while duping people out of their money.

    The only good explanations we have, to answer our doubts and questions, are achieved by reasoning the facts before us, questioning everything and not believing things just “because I feel it in my heart”.

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    • I think I can see your point Miguel, but in my experience no-one “lured” me. This question came up for me ‘of its own accord’ when I was in my late teens, and it meant a lot for me.

      Not everything is a scam to get people to believe a religion. Sincere and honest people sometimes want to believe. (Naturally sincerity doesn’t mean something is true, but that’s not the point I’m trying to make.)

      I think it’s a common experience when contemplating the mysteries of life. I think it was Sartre who said “the only question in philosophy is ‘Why is there something rather than nothing?'” One of those European existentialists anyway. Might have been Heidegger.

      Perhaps I’m being overly pedantic ;)

      When I was a christian I definitely did not believe something “just because I feel it in my heart”. I despised the perspective of those christians who threw away reason, and the particular circle I was in really promoted the use of reason, which I have retained.

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    • That is true. Our main complaint, however, is with those who want to ‘impose’ their beliefs. You may find solace in ‘God’, ‘Jehova’, ‘Allah’, or even the ‘Flying Spaghetti Monster’ if you like, just make sure that your decisions are based on what is right and wrong from a humanitarian perspective and not a religious one. The same with medicine, education and politics. A past mayor from NY (Mario Cuomo) said on a speech, titled: “Religious Belief and Public Morality: A Catholic Governor’s Perspective.” –

      Excerpt: In addition to all the weaknesses, dilemmas, and temptations that impede every pilgrim’s progress, the Catholic who holds political office in a pluralistic democracy – who is elected to serve Jews and Muslims, atheists and Protestants, as well as Catholics – bears special responsibility. He or she undertakes to help create conditions under which all can live with a maximum of dignity and with a reasonable degree of freedom; where everyone who chooses may hold beliefs different from specifically Catholic ones – sometimes contradictory to them; where the laws protect people’s right to divorce, to use birth control, and even to choose abortion…

      In short… people should keep religion to themselves.

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  7. Oh… I see wordpress has already “commented” for me about my blog pieces on this subject. Hope that’s OK, Marty. Delete it if need be.

    *pours a beer for everyone and relaxes*

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Trackbacks/Pingbacks

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