Archives for posts with tag: Meaning of life

What does it mean to be an atheist? Many people conflate atheism with scientism, the unabashed fellatio of scientific idealism. The universe is provably more ancient than 6000 years old, therefore God does not exist. Beyond scientism, atheism is often confused with Western-centrism. Women wearing head coverings are being oppressed, therefore God does not exist. However, being an atheist isn’t simply being a contrarian who establishes their beliefs solely as oppositional to religious and cultural dogma, it is its own unique belief set. And I do mean a full set of beliefs because true atheism requires more than just a belief in the lack of a God or gods.

Friedrich Nietzsche, as I’m sure everyone knows, is the guy who said that God is dead. Unfortunately, this has become a meaningless phrase to be scribbled on the inside of a bathroom stall, typically followed by the equally useless retort, “Nietzsche is dead – God.” Taken out of context, the quotation just seems like a badass way of saying there is no God, but the ‘death’ motif is not used simply because Nietzsche is metal as fuck. It is very deliberate. Let’s look at the full context, from the book The Gay Science:

THE MADMAN—-Have you not heard of that madman who lit a lantern in the bright morning hours, ran to the market place, and cried incessantly: “I seek God! I seek God!”—As many of those who did not believe in God were standing around just then, he provoked much laughter. Has he got lost? asked one. Did he lose his way like a child? asked another. Or is he hiding? Is he afraid of us? Has he gone on a voyage? emigrated?—Thus they yelled and laughed

The madman jumped into their midst and pierced them with his eyes. “Whither is God?” he cried; “I will tell you. We have killed him—you and I. All of us are his murderers. But how did we do this? How could we drink up the sea? Who gave us the sponge to wipe away the entire horizon? What were we doing when we unchained this earth from its sun? Whither is it moving now? Whither are we moving? Away from all suns? Are we not plunging continually? Backward, sideward, forward, in all directions? Is there still any up or down? Are we not straying, as through an infinite nothing? Do we not feel the breath of empty space? Has it not become colder? Is not night continually closing in on us? Do we not need to light lanterns in the morning? Do we hear nothing as yet of the noise of the gravediggers who are burying God? Do we smell nothing as yet of the divine decomposition? Gods, too, decompose. God is dead. God remains dead. And we have killed him.

“How shall we comfort ourselves, the murderers of all murderers? What was holiest and mightiest of all that the world has yet owned has bled to death under our knives: who will wipe this blood off us? What water is there for us to clean ourselves? What festivals of atonement, what sacred games shall we have to invent? Is not the greatness of this deed too great for us? Must we ourselves not become gods simply to appear worthy of it? There has never been a greater deed; and whoever is born after us—for the sake of this deed he will belong to a higher history than all history hitherto.”

Here the madman fell silent and looked again at his listeners; and they, too, were silent and stared at him in astonishment. At last he threw his lantern on the ground, and it broke into pieces and went out. “I have come too early,” he said then; “my time is not yet. This tremendous event is still on its way, still wandering; it has not yet reached the ears of men. Lightning and thunder require time; the light of the stars requires time; deeds, though done, still require time to be seen and heard. This deed is still more distant from them than most distant stars—and yet they have done it themselves.

It has been related further that on the same day the madman forced his way into several churches and there struck up his requiem aeternam deo. Led out and called to account, he is said always to have replied nothing but: “What after all are these churches now if they are not the tombs and sepulchers of God?”

“God is dead” is not a celebration, nor even is it an exclamation of God’s ultimate non-being. Consider the Thomas theorem – If men define situations as real, they are real in their consequences. God most certainly exists since people do define Him as real, and through that definition, His presence has material consequences on humanity unconditional to whether or not He is objectively ‘real.‘ God had been the foundation of Western civilization for centuries, and arguably still is, and therefore His non-existence is not a simple void to be filled by smug self-righteousness as shown by the townspeople in this parable (and in many atheists today, even); it is the destabilization of our entire world, plunging us into darkness. The prime basis for morality, purpose, hope, identity, and even society itself, the measurable ‘consequences’ of God, are no longer relevant; this is not some triviality to be approached with condescending mirth. This is a dirge.

Without God, our morality is flummoxed by David Hume’s Is/Ought problem. We cannot look at a state in the world and derive a moral obligation from it without first imposing a human value. For example, economic inequality is a thing that exists. Any ethical action must first be based on a value statement: equality is good, therefore measures must be put in place to redistribute the wealth, or competition is good, therefore there must be losers, therefore inequality is not inherently bad so long as competition is allowed to flourish. If there is a disagreement, it is entirely possible that no middle ground could ever be reached because each party may be working from entirely different foundational premises. If there is no objective measure of value, such as through God, then subjectivity infects moral decision making and clouds the process.

Nietzsche’s solution can be summed up quite succinctly in his own words, “Must we ourselves not become gods simply to appear worthy of it?” This is in reference to Nietzsche’s problematic Übermensch: the being who has ascended their own humanity to become something greater. We Übermensch create our own values and disregard other opinions because we’re super great and other people are only ever means to our own ends. While certainly a solution to the problem of a now deceased diety, the sociopathy and narcissism of the Übermensch makes it less than appealing in a broad application.

There are, of course, other solutions. I have already written out my perspective on secular morality, as well as on finding meaning, so I won’t bother going over those again. For our identity, we must consider Jean-Paul Sartre’s theory, existence before essence. If our essence (the you-ness that defines you) precedes our existence, for example if we are made for a divine purpose, or we are built in such a way that we are driven in a particular direction (eg. toward God/goodness), then we as individuals can never define ourselves as we are limited by an essence predetermined by outside forces. If existence precedes essence however, then we can fully define ourselves based on our conscious choices and freedom. We must endure the responsibility of building ourselves, which is no small task to bear.

This is why agnosticism cannot work. If there is no God, then answers to these questions must be found through secular means, and if there is a God or gods, then the answers would be provided there. Agnostics, those who sit on the fence between these two positions, cannot offer any solution because there is no solid foundation of faith upon which it can be built. Descartes was only able to overcome his doubt to build the infrastructure of his philosophy when he realized there was an all-powerful God whom he knew would never deceive him. How can you build an identity if you are ambivalent as to whether your purpose has been predetermined by some divine force (God, fate, etc.) or not? If there is a God or gods, then presumably their impact on the universe ought to be acknowledged, and answers would need to be derived from within that paradigm. Even Nietzsche, despite his often harsh criticism of religions, admired that they at least offered answers, even if those answers were now obsolete.

New Atheism, as proselytized by the likes of Richard Dawkins and company, is partially responsible for this diversion away from building identity, hope, meaning, etc. toward an atheism that mostly insults the intelligence of religious individuals, possibly as a continuation of the post-modernist trend to deconstruct ideologies rather than create solutions. Really though, people have been complaining about the inconsistencies and implausibilities in religion since Xenophanes 2500 years ago. Criticizing religion based on reason achieves little because what separates religion from atheism isn’t the illogical myths, it’s the promulgation of answers to these existential questions that atheists must answer for themselves if they wish to maintain coherence in their godless world view.

Post-script: Yes, atheism is a faith. Consider our senses, and how terrible they all are. Our eyesight is poor, our hearing is garbage; none of them are remotely close to being the best in the animal kingdom. We rely on our massive brains to distinguish ourselves from an otherwise entirely mediocre body. However, it is incredibly naive to think that our brains are perfect considering how sub-par the rest of us is. To think that we even have the capacity to have full, universal understanding is beyond egotistical. More likely is we don’t. If we consider that there must be something that exists beyond our cognizable capacity, as there quite reasonably may be, then to claim complete atheism requires just as much faith as there does to claim that there is a God that exists within that realm. You might reasonably claim that because this realm by definition exists outside our capacity to understand it, we could never coherently speak about it, and you’re right. That’s where faith comes in.

Everyone wants to be happy. Being happy is so critically important that the pursuit of it is literally a right guaranteed by the American Declaration of Independence. Thousands of books have been written about that pursuit, and given their continued publication one can only assume that the pursuit has yet to be concluded. Happiness is always just one more life-affirming meme away, ever out of our grasp. Perhaps this is due to the elusive definition of happiness, for what does it mean to be happy? Wikipedia defines it as “a mental or emotional state of well-being defined by positive or pleasant emotions ranging from contentment to intense joy.” So, accordingly, happiness is varying degrees of synonyms for happiness. That is super helpful.

Since I’ve already ragged on memes once, let’s see if they can redeem themselves, and we’ll try to learn what they can teach us about defining happiness since the ever-infallible Wikipedia ended up being a disaster. This website has a collection of “Happiness Is” memes that describe various instances when the word ‘happy’ seems appropriate, such as not having to set your alarm clock for the next morning, or finding an old family album. These examples give quite an accurate depiction of how many people view happiness: ephemeral events that elicit an upswell of positive emotion. Happiness can’t be defined linguistically because it exists beyond descriptive vocabulary as an almost spiritual experience, and it arrives in a way that we only recognize when we feel it.

Now when we live by the maxim that “if it’s in a meme then it is factually improbable,” as we all should, we’re forced to analyze this version of happiness more discerningly. If happiness is as laudable as the profit-driven self-help industry claims it to be, then we’re dedicating all of our life goals to a fix. We hop from island of bliss to island of bliss, desperately searching for that next dopamine rush, dreading the moments in between. That sounds a lot less like a fulfilling existence and more like Jennifer Connelly’s character at the end of Requiem for a Dream. Is most of life utterly without value? Discounting the feelings outside of happiness is the pinnacle of delusion. Creativity requires a good deal of personal suffering and frustration. Inside Out taught us that even sadness has its own virtue, and anger is often the healthiest response to unjust events. Happiness has never once moved the world forward, and if we only celebrate positive emotion then we are putting pacification above progress.If our sole focus is maintaining a happy persona, we may even disregard warning signals of an impending crisis simply because to acknowledge it would get in the way of our placid, happy thoughts.

Regardless of my argument, people will still pursue happiness. Not because they’re meme-loving sycophants abstaining from reasonable thought to endorse the epidemic cult of positivity, but because as human beings we intrinsically strive for it. Even a curmudgeon like myself still seeks to find the light in this world of darkness. The Founding Fathers were not dumb, and their inclusion of happiness was not a mistake. Even Aristotle suggested that a life of happiness ought to be a person’s ultimate goal. Aristotle, however, had a different definition of happiness from today’s life coaches peddling their snake oil. He believed that a happy life was one of virtue, and happiness was derived from adhering to the golden mean rather than embodying the hedonistic platitudes of fucking internet memes.

Of course there are plenty of faults in Aristotle’s Virtue ethics, but he began a philosophy of happiness where it wasn’t understood as an emotion, but as a way of life. Nietzsche expanded on this philosophy by saying that the happiest people were those who thrived in suffering, and could create meaning through it. Have some irony:

Wisdom without context. The highest plateau a meme can achieve.

Wisdom without context: the highest peak a meme can achieve.

Here is a happiness that could weather any negativity, for it is a way of life that thrives in any emotional state. It is a happiness that demands value and purpose to enhance our life, rather than a narcotic high to dull it. Nietzsche’s philosophical meaning is somewhat controversial, but the brilliant Viktor Frankl survived the culmination of Nietzschean values, and in doing so, created his much more widely accepted interpretation. According to Frankl, a meaningful life is found through our works, our connection to others, and/or our attitudinal outlook.

This last point may seemingly endorse a meme-spirited happiness delusion, so let’s address that nonsense before it gets out of hand. Have another meme:

This post is now officially my least favourite blog.

This post is now officially my least favourite blog.

I sincerely doubt that this meme is referring to a meaning-based form of happiness, given the message of its sister-meme here:

It's because I hate memes. That's why it's my least favourite blog. I really shouldn't have to spell this out.

It’s because I hate memes. That’s why it’s my least favourite blog. I really shouldn’t have to spell this out.

but we’ll give them an intellectual boost and just assume that some degree of intelligence went into their production, and that they are in fact referring to Frankl’s attitudinal outlook dictating happiness as the representation of purpose.

Frankl viewed the attitudinal approach to meaning as the absolute last resort. He saw it as the only option in approaching the Nazi gas chambers with either dignity or shame. This isn’t a Godwin argument; look him up. He says that if there is even a chance at overcoming a negative situation, to adopt a positive outlook in spite of it is to embrace irrational masochism. The solution is always to change the circumstances, not the attitude.

There is also an underlying tone of condescending individualism in these insipid and ridiculous memes. To say that the person who is wealthy and employed has the same choice to be happy as the broke bum who just lost their job is statistically wrong. Saying happiness is a choice is being oblivious to the countless circumstances that have a direct impact on our well-being. Oh, you lost your baby in a miscarriage after five years of trying for a child? All you need is a change of perspective, and you’ll feel better! That’s an asshole thing to say. Like the worst thing. Never say that. To reiterate: other emotions are necessary parts of our lives, to demand happiness at all times is unnatural and cruel, and to call emotions a choice is completely ignorant of our instinctual reactions. It’s wrong no matter how you define happiness.

At what level are we responsible, if at all, for the happiness of others? Meaning is entirely unique and subjective, so we can’t exactly create it for other people. However, Frankl’s second aspect of meaning is a connection to others, which does suggest that if we are open and caring then we create meaning both for ourselves and for those with whom we come into contact. That sounds like a good start.

What about collective responsibility? If we recognize happiness as meaning, and Mazlow’s hierarchy of needs puts “self-actualization” at the top of the pyramid, wouldn’t that mean that a country that promises its citizens the right to pursue happiness must accommodate all the underlying needs in order for that promise to be fulfilled? Happiness can’t even begin to be pursued until the third level of “love and belonging,” and even then there would need to be a societal agreement and plan to abolish discrimination of all kinds. The progress on that 240 year old promise is a little slow. Way to make liars out of the Founding Fathers, America.

Happiness as an emotional state is nice, I guess, but when planning out one’s life that version should only play the most minor of roles. Pursue meaning. Pursue purpose and value. Treat the happiness that we strive for as a way of being that incorporates the full spectrum of emotion. Live a fulfilling life, and allow that life to connect with others. Define happiness properly, and stop learning how to live from fucking memes!

Have some links:

Say No to Happiness – Ideas with Paul Kennedy: A CBC radio show investigating the philosophical implications of happiness and meaning, and which is more important.

Smile Or Die – Barbara Ehrenreich: The social implications of the cult of positivity.

Why Be Happy When You Can Be Interesting? – Slavoj Žižek: Žižek is a combination of popular neo-communist philosophy and that one scene from Dazed and Confused. These are his thoughts on happiness.

“When you come to think of it,  almost all human behaviour and activity is not essentially any different from animal behaviour. The most advanced technologies and craftsmanship bring us, at best, up to the super-chimpanzee level. Actually, the gap between, say, Plato or Nietzsche and the average human is greater than the gap between that chimpanzee and the average human. The realm of the real spirit, the true artist, the saint, the philosopher, is rarely achieved. Why so few? Why is world history and evolution not stories of progress, but rather this endless and futile addition of zeros? No greater values have developed. Hell, the Greeks 3000 years ago were just as advanced as we are. So what are these barriers that keep people from reaching anywhere near their real potential? The answer to that can be found in another question and that’s this: which is the most universal human characteristic? Fear or laziness?”

This is a quotation from the film Waking Life, and to me, it really explores what it means to be human. All these aspects of human life that we do in our day to day lives, even in our most exceptional days, can often be found in the animal kingdom. The film goes further in its observations of the relationship between our daily existence and the so-called lesser evolved beings:

“Excuse me.

‘Cuse me.

Hey, could we do that again? I know we haven’t met, but I don’t want to be an ant. I mean, it’s like we go through life with our antenna’s bouncing off one another, continuously on ant autopilot with nothing really human required of us. Stop. Go. Walk here. Drive there. All action basically for survival. All communication simply to keep this ant colony buzzing along in an efficient, polite manner. “Here’s your change.” “Paper or plastic?” “Credit or debit?” “Want ketchup with that?” I don’t want a straw; I want real human moments. I want to see you. I want you to see me. I don’t want to give that up. I don’t want to be an ant, you know?”

What it means to be human: our creativity, our intellect, our imagination, these are what separate us. For the most part, we do live our lives as an ant, with the good days being the ones where we get move slightly up the evolutionary ladder to sun ourselves on a rock like a lizard. The first quotation is actually somewhat optimistic because it assumes that all of us possess the same capacity to achieve human-level greatness, with only mental barriers keeping us from pursuing them. A more pessimistic outlook would be to assume that human beings simply aren’t as developed as we believe ourselves to be, save for the few aberrations that launch new cultural, social, and scientific paradigms who drive us forward.

Which is it? Are we lazy and afraid? Do we all have the drive to think, to create, to explore, but we don’t because we worry others might think it’s stupid? Or that no one will care? Or that we just can’t be bothered? Or do we just simply not have the capacity, and so we live our lives as bestial creatures content with mediocrity because that’s all we’re capable of? I don’t have the answer because I haven’t quite resolved the conflict between my cynicism and idealism just yet.

I don’t mean to suggest that our animal nature is inherently abhorrent. Some of our finer instincts are our more primal ones. But I think we need to prove our superiority; we need to justify our dominance over the planet. What I’m hoping for is that people will genuinely make the effort to explore their distinctive humanity and express that humanity, because fear and laziness are not an excuse to avoid the duty of our species.