A recent repeat of the “meaning discussion” got me thinking on a slightly different track. The conversation was predictable:
Theist: But what do you believe in if you don’t believe in a higher purpose? Life is meaningless without it!
Atheist: I don’t need “higher” purpose to have purpose. I make my own purpose and so do you. Living is its own purpose. And it means that much more to me because I believe it’s the only shot I’ve got.
Theist: Yeah, but if that’s true, what if I decide my purpose is to kill you? If there’s no meaning, why aren’t you a nihilist?
We’ve all been through this, right? At this point, we have to go through the whole shpiel. We can choose to do anything we want, and we aren’t beholden to a heavenly policeman, but we are beholden to other humans and ourselves. There are consequences to our actions. I do the right thing because it’s right, not because I think I have to. The absence of “absolute meaning” doesn’t logically lead to nihilism.
There’s nothing wrong with that. It’s a perfectly good answer. But it’s also at least a century old, and I think perhaps there are better and more complete answers available to us today.
Our “Meanings” Are Not Arbitrary
The study of the human animal is teaching us that we are far from blank slates. Our genes have an enormous influence on us from conception, exerting great influence on everything from our sexual practices and preferences to our propensity for kindness and altruism. They probably even influence our susceptibility to believing in “higher purpose.”
The impact of this knowledge has direct bearing on the discussion of meaning. Specifically, it teaches us that meaning is not arbitrary. That is, we can say that we can choose any meaning we like, and that’s our meaning. But in reality, we can’t choose any meaning. Some things are valuable to humans, and some aren’t. I’ve been thinking about this in terms of broad categories, and though I’m sure I haven’t thought of everything, this is probably a very good starting list. Please feel free to add to it if you think of something I missed:
- Reproduction. This is one of the most common meanings for people. Whether we plan it or not, most humans reproduce, and most of us are genetically designed to care for our children and try to keep them from dying. Granted, there’s a large degree of variation in parental involvement, and lots of cultural norms, but like I said, it’s a broad category.
- Love. Maybe this is the most widespread meaning. And it takes many forms. Many of us try to find a mate to love. Some of us focus on family or friends. Some of us keep pets. Some of us focus on romantic love, and some are more interested in platonic love. We have as many definitions of love as we have cultures. At least. But as a broad category, it’s fair to say that practically every human wants to love and be loved.
- Knowledge. Humans like to learn. We don’t all like school, but it’s extremely rare to find a human who intentionally avoids learning anything. Instinctively, we all seem to understand that ignorance is dangerous. So we all try to learn things.
- Environmental Modification. For good or ill, humans modify their environment, sometimes to a startling degree. When we get a new place to live, one of the first things we do is place amenities and decorations. We are obsessed with making our environment more conducive to our lives. If you’ve ever flown in a plane, you’ve seen just how enormous is the impact humans have on our environment. And most of it is intentional.
- Entertainment and Play. We all seem to enjoy some sort of “diversion.” Whether it’s art, music, sport, working puzzles, acting, comedy, or anything else, it seems like virtually every human is interested in things that are often thought of as “killing time.” To put it more simply, we like to have something to do even if it isn’t directly “productive” in one of these other ways.
Like I said, this may not be a complete list, but I’m having a hard time thinking of many other categories. Things like making money, improving our image, and learning social skills are all arguably secondary goals which contribute to one of the above categories. We hear people say “I try to make lots of money so I can hook up with hot chicks.” But there’s really a bit of a void at the end of “I fall in love so that…” It’s kind of an end to itself. Yeah, we can fill in that blank, but any answer we give is almost circular.
And that’s my point in this entry. Find me a theist who doesn’t pursue at least three or four of these things. I dare you. Find me an atheist who doesn’t. The fact is, we all find meaning from things in these categories. And that’s not by accident. It’s genetics. It’s evolution. Our meaning is not arbitrary. It’s programmed into us.
So ironically, the theists are right in a way. There is such a thing as “higher meaning.” But not in the way they think. The “higher” meaning derives from the thing that makes us all human. The thing that has been acting on us for billions of years. The inexorable flow of natural selection that has put the weight of our entire ancestry on us has fitted us with the desire for specific meanings in life. And while there are hundreds, perhaps thousands of ways for us to actualize those meanings, and it’s possible for us to forgo perhaps one or two of them, we simply can’t be human without desiring some of the same things that every other human desires.
And this is why you never see a true nihilist. It’s why they still make friends and hold jobs and live in apartments. Why they tend goldfish and make origami swans. And why their arguments just never seem to make any sense.