The Meaning of Life

One sometimes encounters people who assert that, unless there is a
God, life has no meaning.   Now, as soon as we ask what they mean by God and by the meaning of life we enter a quagmire from which it is impossible to get out. As to God, its meaning changes with time and location.   It has been a cloud, a mountain, an eagle, a woman, a man, a spirit.

Suppose that someone said: “Unless the Divine Eagle exists, life has no meaning.”  If you don’t believe in the divinity of the eagle you may see that the “meaning of life” has nothing to do with such birds. If you are an Ancient Greek you will believe that God is Zeus and will think that life is meaningless if Zeus does not exist.  But contemporary Europeans, who do not believe in Zeus, have other views. God, they may say, is not material but a Pure Spirit.  When you try to find evidence in favor of this God the confusion becomes debilitating.

First of all the believers in any god, be it material or spiritual, profess that the universe must have had a beginning.  They tell us that the universe cannot have always existed.  “Therefore,” they
continue, “something must have created it.”  If one asks for evidence of this they may say:  “We never see anything that pops out of nothing.  A watch exists because someone made it.  The universe, which is more complicated than a watch, must have been made by someone.
This someone must be an infinitely superior Being.  It must be concerned with its creation and, particularly, with man.  Because of this the life of man has a meaning.”

Let us consider this argument.  First the statement of never seeing things come into existence out of nothing.  This belief, for better or for worse, is not the type that unsophisticated people hold.  On the contrary you will find that it is very common among the primitive peoples of the earth.  Even science accepted it for a long time till Lavoisier in Chemistry and others in other areas found that whenever there are chemical or physical reactions the amount of matter and
energy is constant to the limits of accuracy of the measuring instruments.  This is an empirical observation based on countless experiments.  So far we have always observed that anything comes out of either matter or energy or a combination of both.  If one day a scientist were to notice a particle created not by pre-existing matter or energy the strength of the argument in favor of a Being who created the universe will disappear, for, in that particle we would have an
example of “something that pops out of nothing”.  The universe also may have come into existence out of nothing.

However, so far, it appears that anything existing is the result of some pre-existing matter or energy.   But, this, instead of leading to postulate the existence of God as the Being who created the universe, leads to the contrary.  For, if God exists, it must also be the result of  pre-existing matter or energy, which, in turn, should also be the result of other matter or energy, and so on, and so forth.

So the existence of the universe cannot be adduced in favor of the existence of God, for, either the universe came into existence out of nothing or it did not.  In the latter case we have no reason to suppose that God was not created by something else, which was created by still something else, ad infinitum.

We sometimes hear that God is Pure Energy or Spiritual Energy but it is never advisable to attempt to clarify an obscure issue recurring to meaningless terms.  Is Pure Energy the thing that physicists deal with?  No.  Is Spiritual Energy the energy of the brain?  No.  What is it then?  Here we run into difficulties.

The more we investigate the topic of God the more we find it hopelessly vague and confused.  And yet, this nebulous God must be concerned with man and must be infinitely powerful and benevolent.  If we met a believer in the Divine Eagle who thinks his god is infinitely
powerful and benevolent, how, in good conscience, can we win him over to our cloudy, foggy belief?  “At least”, he may say, “the Divine Eagle exists, it is made of flesh and blood, whereas your God is a mere nothing.”  We soon forget our former difficulties and declare that our God is a Spirit.  We are lucky that he is innocent of analysis and that he does not ask us “What do you mean by a Spirit?” The reason is that he and his people believe in spirits and ghosts. They think that diseases come because evil spirits invade our bodies in punishment for not having made scarifications on the face of their offspring, or some other terrible trespass.

But our Divine Spirit is not like theirs.  It does not account directly for birth defects or cancer, although, come to think of it, we believe that these things would not happen if God did not want them to happen.  This opens the door to the famous problem of the existence of evil.  How can evil exist in a universe that is supposed to have been created by an infinitely powerful and benevolent God.  Why did God create evil?

The answer given to this is that what we think evil here on earth is not really evil.  A child with leukemia, whose days are filled with terrible pain, cannot be presented as a case against the existence of an infinitely powerful and benevolent God because all his pain will be amply compensated in heaven.   This is a disingenuous answer.  Is it impossible to this infinitely powerful and benevolent God to create a life, here on earth or elsewhere, without pain and evil, followed or not followed by another life in heaven?

Some people, after being perplexed by so many obstacles, attempt to assuage their theological unrest by believing that God is the universe.  But the universe is indifferent to human destiny, to the earth where we strut and fret and to our sun, a mediocre star lost among billions of other stars and existing for a finite period of time.  The universe does not take sides between its component parts, between man and virus, between men who delight in torturing innocent
victims and men who are pained by this torture.  The universe will continue unaffected if, due to stupidity and/or cruelty, the human race kills itself after a nuclear war.  The universe will not mind if humanity, consciously or not, destroys the ozone layer and the  ultra-violet light obliterates the living organisms on the surface of the earth, including man.

Those who believe that God is the universe and that the universe is God would be well advised, by the principle of economy, to avoid the use of the word “God” and always replace it by the word “universe” — or the other way round.  The word “God” is full of primitive connotations that are without fundament when God is merely the universe.  For instance, the statements  “God exists”, “God is just” convey something quite different from the statements “the universe exists”, “the universe is just”.  This is one of the reasons why Spinoza’s Ethics is at times misleading.  Spinoza believes that God is the universe and any time the word “God” appears in his book it should be replaced by the word “universe” without changing the meaning.

Now, what can we say about the meaning of life?  Can we find meaning in our personal life if we believe that God is the universe?  When we say we believe in the universe, we are obviously saying that we believe in everything that makes up the universe.  If I say that I believe in New York I mean that I believe in its skyscrapers, parks, garbage, bridges, museums, subways, cockroaches, Salvation Army recruits, scientific meetings, concerts and many other things.  The
collection that makes up the universe is many billions of times greater than that of New York.  These ingredients will not determine what I want to do with my life.  I may want to fight water and air pollution or to instill in others a reverence for life or to amass lots of dollars, to sell weapons to warring countries, to stop traditional cruelties, to collect stamps, to learn about impressionist painters, and a million of other things.  We cannot ask the universe what to do.  We have to decide by ourselves and, no matter what we choose, we will end up favoring some parts of the universe to the detriment of others.  If we do not want land life to be killed by ultra-violet radiation we will have to “defend” the ozone layer, and, since ozone is “destroyed” by chlorine in the atmosphere, we will have to “fight” it.  We have to take sides.

Almost all people are for the preservation of their lives.  Also they are in favor of helping those who help them and of opposing those who want to kill them.  And the majority of people desire to avoid being the victims of bacteria, viruses, poisoning, accidents and so on. This should lead them to science and to help science.

There are others who are not only interested in preserving human life, but also in making it painless, not boring and full of joys.  They prefer a planet where a modicum of people live happily than a planet where billions live deprived of food, fighting among themselves to get a mouthful of aliment.  It would appear a truism that a life full of joys is better than one full of misery and that zest and intelligent excitement provide more enjoyment than apathy and boredom.  Now,
beauty, be it natural or man-made, gives great delight.  This leads to desire the preservation of nature and the promotion of Literature and Art and Music.  The best way to fight boredom is to engage in mental activity.  The pursuit of learning is good, not only because it helps us to preserve life but also because it is an antidote to boredom.  It also brings with it the unique and wonderful experience of discovery and understanding.

It seems to me that finding life meaningful depends only in what we decide to do with it, what choices we make among the great variety of alternatives.  In these choices, of course, we must have in mind to avoid contradictory alternatives.  But that finding life meaningful is dependent on believing on a Divine Eagle or a Divine Spirit is incomprehensible to me.  For my part the contention that all human and animal suffering came into the world as the act of creation of an
infinitely powerful and good God is incredible and that only by believing in this can our lives have a meaning, astonishing.

What we need when confronted with suffering is to accept that some of it may be unavoidable and to struggle to eradicate the suffering that is avoidable. The acceptance of unavoidable evils can be achieved without distorting our moral values.  If we think that the death of people we love is bad we do not have to think it is really good in order to accept it.  But we should realize that there are many other things that are good.  We may even find an escape to our self-centered
pain by inquiring whether suffering is always part and parcel of any type of life.  We will find that even in our planet the great majority of life does not experience either pain or pleasure.  Viruses,
bacteria, unicellular organisms and all the forms of life that lack a nervous system, like plants, do not know what pain or pleasure are. Even among animals with a nervous system it is not a foregone conclusion that they should have the nerve endings and structures that interpret certain stimuli as painful.  Life on other planets, even intelligent life, may be entirely painless.  However, be it as it may, these and other considerations will help us to get over the personal aspects of our suffering, making it thus more bearable.

Our concerns, from being focused on ourselves, will expand to non-personal topics, increasing our range of interests.  We will want to find out not only about the actual world in which we live, but also about an array of possible self-consistent worlds.  If so the problem is not how to find life meaningful but the opposite, namely:  How is it possible to find oneself surrounded by an infinity of things that await exploring and not know what to do with one’s life?


The Meaning of Life — 1 Comment

  1. Luis,
    “How is it possible to find oneself surrounded by an infinity of things that await exploring and not know what to do with one’s life?”
    That is excellent. I am going to remember it. Should come in handy.

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