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The Meaning of Life - for comments (about 5k words, conclusion to follow)

GOD, RELIGION AND THE MEANING OF LIFE (for my Oxford University Press Very Short Intro to Humanism) This is a first draft. Comments please. Conclusion is missing.

According to some, questions about the meaning of life are inextricably bound up with questions about God and religion. Without God, it is suggested, humanity amounts to little more than a dirty smudge on a ball of rock lost in an incomprehensively vast universe that will eventually bare no trace of us having ever existed, and which will itself collapse into nothingness. So why bother getting out of bed in the morning? If there is a God, on the other hand, then we inhabit a universe made for us, by a God who loves us, and who has given us a divine purpose. That fills our lives meaning.

But is God, or religious belief, really a necessary condition of our leading meaningful lives? And how is the existence of God supposed to make our lives meaningful? If meaningful lives are possible whether or not there is a God, what makes for a meaningful existence? This chapter examines these and related questions.

What do we mean by a “meaningful life”?

One of the difficulties we face in giving an account of how humanism, or any other view for that matter, can allow for the possibility of a meaningful life is in identifying what constitutes a meaningful life in the first place. It is clear that certain answers won’t do.

First of all, there is obviously more to leading a meaningful life than, say, feeling largely happy and content. Someone continuously injected with happiness-inducing drugs could enjoy such a pleasurable life, but that wouldn’t guarantee a particularly worthwhile or significant existence.

Secondly, there are presumably more ways of leading a meaningful life than just doing morally good works. While leading an exceptionally virtuous existence is one way in which one might, perhaps, have a meaningful existence, it is not the only way. Many great artists, scientists, explorers, musicians, writers and sportsmen and women have, surely, lived rich and meaningful lives, despite not being noticeably more moral than the rest of us (indeed, some have been rather selfish and immoral).

Moreover, it seems that not only is a lifetime spent performing good deeds not necessary for a meaningful existence, neither is it sufficient. Consider a man living under a totalitarian regime who devotes his entire life helping sick children. However, while believing this to be good, he only does it because he fears the terrible consequences of not obeying. Has this individual led a meaningful life? Despite his countless good acts, it is by no means obvious that he has. What this example, illustrates, perhaps, is that, in order for a person’s life to be genuinely meaningful, that person has to exhibit a kind of autonomy. You must be self-directed, rather than just following the instructions of another. The freely-chosen pursuit of your life’s projects is, perhaps, a condition of life meaningfully.

Presumably, someone might bow out thinking their life had been a pointless waste of time when it was in fact highly significant. Conversely, someone might consider their life highly meaningful when in truth it is not. Someone who tirelessly devotes himself to leading a white supremacist movement has not, in truth, led a particularly meaningful existence, whatever they, or indeed their many followers, might happen to think. It appears to be a condition of leading a meaningful life that our projects have some genuine worth, and we can, of course, be gravely mistaken about what is really worthwhile.

Notice that a meaningful life can also end in the failure of its central project. Consider Scott of the Antarctic, who struggled valiantly to be the first to reach the South Pole. Scott did not, because of his failure, lead a meaningless life. Indeed, Scott’s life is held up as a shining example of a life well-lived despite his dramatic failure. It was the manner of his failure that gave his life particular significance.

There are, perhaps, certain features a life must possess if it is to be meaningful – a fairly worthwhile project or goal pursued in a self-directed way, for example. But is even this sufficient? Perhaps not, as a lifetime spent pursuing a worthwhile goal by an enthusiastic incompetent is often rather more farcical than it is meaningful.

Is the search for *the* meaning of life a wild goose chase?

The above section illustrates the point that it is notoriously difficult to provide a clear characterization of what makes for a meaningful life.

Part of the difficulty we face, here, perhaps, is that we assume that in order to explain what makes for a meaningful life we must identify some one feature that all and only meaningful lives possess: that feature that makes them meaningful. But why, if meaningful lives are possible, must there be one such feature? Perhaps the search for the meaning of life – this single, elusive, meaning-giving feature – is a wild goose chase. Perhaps lives can be meaningful in a variety of ways. The concept of a meaningful life may be what the philosopher Wittgenstein calls a family resemblance concept. The members of a family may resemble each other, despite there being no one feature they all have in common (e.g. that big nose or those small ears). Wittgenstein supposes the same is true of, for example, those things we call “games”. Activities such as backgammon, solitaire, football, chess and badminton resemble each other to various degrees. But is there one thing all and only games have in common, in virtue of which they are all games? Wittgenstein suggests not:

Don’t say: “There must be something common, or they would not be called ‘games’— For if you look at them you will not see something that is common to all, but similarities, relationships, and a whole series of them at that. To repeat: don’t think, but look!— Look for example at board-games, with their multifarious relationships. Now pass to card-games; here you find many correspondences with the first group, but many common features drop out, and others appear. When we pass next to ball-games, much that is common is retained, but much is lost. — Are they all ‘amusing’? Compare chess with noughts and crosses. Or is there always winning and losing, or competition between players? Think of patience. In ball-games there is winning and losing; but when a child throws his ball at the wall and catches it again, this feature has disappeared …[T]he result of this examination is: we see a complicated network of similarities overlapping and cross-crossing: sometimes overall similarities, sometimes similarities of detail. I can think of no better expression to characterize these similarities than “family resemblances”; for the various resemblances between members of a family: build, features, colour of eyes, gait, temperament, etc. etc. overlap and criss-cross in the same way. — And I shall say: ‘games’ form a family.

If Wittgenstein is correct, the search for the one feature all and only games possess is a wild goose chase. There is no such feature. But of course that does not entail that either there is, after all, no such thing as a game, or that what makes something a game must be some further mysterious characteristic we have yet to identify.

Perhaps we make the same kind of mistake if we assume that, if meaningful lives are possible, then there must be some one feature that all and only the meaningful lives share. Our inability to identify this feature amongst warp and weft of the Earthly features of our lives may then lead us mistakenly to conclude that either our lives lack meaning, or else the elusive meaning-giving feature must be other-worldly.

When we look at lives that are meaningful, and compare them with those that are not, we may find, not a single feature possessed by all of the former and none of the latter, but a great many factors that have an impact on meaningfulness, including some to which we have already alluded: a worthwhile goal, a goal freely-chosen, a goal pursued with some dedication and skill, engagement in activity that helps or enriches the lives of others, and so on. The impression that none of these worldly features are sufficient – that some further, magical, other-worldly ingredient is required if our lives are really to have meaning – may in part be a result of our failing properly to register that the concept of a meaningful life, like that of a game, is a family resemblance concept. Talk about “the” meaning of life may be symptomatic of this confusion.

Is God required for a meaningful life?

While we might struggle to provide a watertight philosophical characterization of what makes for a meaningful life, most of us tend to agree about which lives are meaningful and which are not. There’s a broad consensus that Marie Curie, Socrates, and Scott of the Antarctic led highly significant and meaningful lives, whereas a mindless jobsworth, or someone who has passionately devoted their life entirely to kicking other people in the shins, has led a rather meaningless existence.

However, some Theists argue that, if there is no God, then none of our lives are meaningful – not even the lives of Curie, Socrates or Scott. Let’s now look at three such arguments.

1. A moral argument

One very simple line of argument that may tempt some is: a meaningful life is a morally virtuous life; but morality depends on God; thus there cannot be meaningful lives without God.

We have already seen two reasons why this initial line of argument won’t do.

First, the lives of many great artists, musicians, explorers and scientists have surely been highly meaningful, despite the fact that the individuals in question were not particularly moral – indeed, some were rather selfish and self-obsessed. While moral lives can be meaningful, meaningful lives need not, it seems, be particularly moral. In which case, even if there were no such thing as morality, meaningful lives might still be possible.

Secondly, the above argument in any case just assumes that morality depends on God, a claim we have already seen is very dubious (see chapter 4).

2. The ultimate purpose argument

A second argument for the conclusion that meaningful lives require God focuses on ultimate ends or purposes. Surely, the argument runs, a life has meaning by virtue of its having some sort of final aim or goal. We must be here for some purpose. And only God can supply such an ultimate purpose.

Some religious people, for example, maintain that our ultimate purpose is to love and worship God. They believe that without God, there can be no such purpose, and with such a purpose, life is meaningless.

But is God required in order for us to have a purpose? Not necessarily. Each living organism has a purpose, to reproduce and pass on its genetic material to the next generation. We each exist for a purpose, a purpose supplied by nature, whether or not there is a God.

What this example also brings out, of course, is that merely having a purpose is not, by itself, sufficient to render a life meaningful. Discovering that nature has designed me for no other purpose than to pass on my genetic material to the next generation hardly makes my life seem terribly significant. Indeed, my life is, on this measure, no more significant than that of a worm, which has the exact same purpose.

In reply, it may be said that I am overlooking a crucial difference between purposes: those for which we have evolved and those bestowed on us by some higher, designing intelligence. It is only the latter, they may maintain, that can render a life meaningful. But is this true? No. It is notoriously easy to construct counter-examples involving super-intelligent aliens.

Suppose, for example, that it turns out that humans have been bred on this planet for a reason – to wash the smelly underwear of a highly advanced alien race. The aliens will shortly return to pick us up and take us to their enormous alien laundry. Would this fact, or its discovery, fill our lives with meaning? Hardly.

Perhaps it will be conceded that merely being designed by some higher intelligence for a purpose is not enough to render our lives meaningful. The purpose must be one that we positively embrace and that makes us feel fulfilled. Washing alien undies is neither something we would positively embrace, nor something that would makes us feel particularly fulfilled.

But suppose it did. Suppose our hypothetical aliens have designed us so that we discover we profoundly enjoy washing their underwear. Indeed, once we start work in their laundry, we finally feel fulfilled in a way that we have never felt before. Our sense that there was something “missing” from our lives entirely disappears. We rest each evening with an enormous sense of satisfaction that we are now doing what we were always meant to do. Would this make our lives meaningful? It’s by no means obvious that it would.

In reply, it may be said that I am focussing on a silly purpose, certainly not the sort of purpose God would have for us. God made us for a very specific purpose: to love him. It is this particular purpose that makes our lives meaningful.

But, again, this seems dubious. Suppose a woman wants to love someone who loves her unconditionally in return. It occurs to her that she could have a child expressly for this purpose, and does so. Does the purpose for which this new person is created automatically bestow meaning upon their life? Not obviously. Some of us probably were conceived for such a purpose. Yet few would point to that fact in order to explain why their lives have meaning. I cannot see why God’s creating me for the purpose of loving him would give my life any more meaning.

In fact, isn’t creating human beings solely for a particular purpose actually a rather demeaning and degrading thing to do, as a rule? But then why is God’s doing it any different? It is debatable whether, if there were a God of love, he would even want to create human beings for some particular purpose.

So the question of how our lives can have meaning is not, it seems, easily answered by appealing to divine purpose. In particular, the question of how our possessing a God-given purpose makes our lives meaningful has not, so far as I can see, been adequately explained. Often as not, we are offered, not a clear account of how God’s existence is supposed to make our lives meaningful, but merely a promissory note that, in some mysterious and unfathomable way, it just does.

In short, the suggestion that our lives are made meaningful by virtue of God having created us for a divine purpose appears, on closer examination, to raise at least as many difficulties as those facing non-religious views about what makes life meaningful.

3. A divine judgement argument

Here’s a third argument. It seems lives don’t have meaning just because we judge that they do. Presumably, a life devoted solely to kicking other people in the shins at every available opportunity would not thereby qualify as meaningful, not even if we all thought it did.

But, the Theist might now add, if lives aren’t meaningful simply because we judge them to be so, then they can only be meaningful because God judges them to be so. So a meaningful life requires God after all.

This is a popular argument. Unfortunately, it runs into difficulties similar to those that face the parallel argument that if things aren’t morally right or wrong because we judge them to be so, they must be right or wrong because God judges them to be so (see pages XXX). The Euthyphro dilemma crops up here too. We can now ask our Theist:

Are lives meaningful because God judges them to be so, or does God judge them to be so because he recognizes that they are?

The first answer seems ridiculous. Surely, had God judged that kicking people in the shins at every available opportunity is what makes life meaningful, that wouldn’t make it so. But the second answer – God merely recognizes what makes for a meaningful life – concedes that there are facts about what makes for a meaningful life that obtain anyway, whether or not there is a God to make such judgements. But then these are facts to which humanists are as entitled to help themselves as are Theists. God is not required.

Does meaning require immortality?

We have not, as yet, found a good argument fro supposing a meaningful life requires the existence of God. Let’s now set such arguments to one seide, and consider a slightly different claim: that, whether or not meaningful lives require God, they do at least require that we possess immortal souls. How, Theists sometimes ask, can a life have any meaning or point if it ends in death? True, we may have achievements that outlive us, such as books written, buildings designed, and children well-raised. But those books will eventually be forgotten and those buildings will crumble. Our children will soon wither and die. Indeed, the human race as a whole will eventually disappear entirely without trace. But then, without immortal souls, isn’t our existence all for nothing – a pointless waste of time?

As it stands, this is a poor argument. Notice, first of all, that it is not true of other forms of meaning, such as linguistic meaning, that if that which is supposed bears meaning ceases to exist, then it never had any meaning in the first place. The language I am using to communicate my thoughts to you right now has meaning – if it didn’t, you would not be able to understand me. Yet these words, and indeed this entire language, will eventually disappear without trace. That doesn’t entail that my words are, after all, meaningless. But if languages don’t need to last forever in order to have meaning, why should we suppose lives are any different?

While a longer life might be desirable, it is not necessarily more meaningful. True, if you live longer, you may achieve more, do more good works, etc. But is a long life exhibiting such virtues thereby more meaningful than a shorter version? Presumably not. Nor is it obvious why extending such a life to infinity imbues it with any more meaning.

In fact, it is sometimes in the manner of our death that our lives acquire particular meaning and significance. Someone who deliberately sacrifices their own life to save others is often held up as an example of a person whose life is particularly meaningful (I might add that, if we compare the sacrifice of someone who lays down their life thinking they will be resurrected in heaven, and someone who lays down their life thinking that death is the end, surely it is the latter individual who intends to make the greater sacrifice, and whose action is, for that reason, the more noble and meaningful).

Even when a life is not sacrificed for others, the manner of its end can often be what marks it out as particularly significant. We rightly admire those who face death with courage and dignity. Consider the death of Scott of the Antarctic, for example. Death is often an important episode of the story of our lives, an event that completes the narrative of a life in a satisfying and meaningful way. The fact that we die, and that death really is the end, does not make our lives meaningless. In fact, the finality of death actually gives us an opportunity to make our lives rather more meaningful.

Religion vs. shallow, selfish individualism

Let’s now turn to religious practice. Setting aside the issue of whether God exists, perhaps it might still be argued that religious reflection or observance is required if our lives are not to be shallow and meaningless. Here is one such argument.

It is sometimes claimed, with some justification, that religion encourages people to take a step back and reflect on the bigger questions. And many people, including many non-religious people, maintain that a life lived out in the absence of any such reflection can be petty and shallow. Contemporary Western society is obsessed with things that are, in truth, comparatively worthless: money, celebrity, material possessions, cosmetic surgery, and so on. Our day-to-day lives are out often lived out within a fairly narrow envelope of essentially selfish concerns, with little or no time given to contemplating the bigger questions. It was religious tradition and practice that provided the framework within which those kind of questions were addressed. With the loss of such traditions and practices, we have inevitably slid into selfish, shallow individualism. If we want people to enjoy a more meaningful existence, we need to reinvigorate those traditions (and some would add that we need, in particular, to ensure young people are properly immersed in such practices in school).

There is some truth in the above argument. Religion can encourage people to take a step back and contemplate the bigger issues. It can help break the hypnotic spell that a shallow, selfish individualistic culture can cast over young minds.

However, in chapter one we saw that there is another long tradition of thought running all the way back to the Ancient world that also addresses the big questions – a secular, philosophical tradition. If we want people, and especially children, to think about such questions, we are not obliged to take the religious route. We can encourage them to think philosophically.

Indeed, as I point out in chapter XX, there is growing empirical evidence that introducing philosophy programmes into the curriculum can have a dramatic impact on both the behaviour of pupils and the ethos and academic standing of their schools.

Most contemporary humanists are just as concerned about shallow, selfish individualism as are religious people. They too believe it is important we should take a step back and consider the big questions. They simply deny that the only way to encourage a more responsible and reflective attitude to life is to make children religious.

The suggestion that we have, in effect, to choose between religion and shallow and selfish existence is an example the fallacy known as false dilemma. The dilemma is often employed as a sales tactic: “Either you buy the K1000, or you put up with inferior sound quality! You choose!” Salespeople often attempt to railroad us into purchasing their product by presenting us with just two options, when there are others available that may be better. The religious sometimes present us with similar dilemma: “Either you promote religion, or else you end up with a society of shallow individuals who never think about anything but themselves. You choose!” The truth is that there are other alternatives.

In fact, if we really want to encourage young people to think about the big questions, philosophy is, arguably, a better alternative. True, the religious often ask the big questions. For example, the Church of England advertises its Alpha Course by posting questions such as “Is this it?” on the backs of buses, promising those who sign up “An opportunity to explore the meaning of life”.

However, when the religious pose such questions, they are presented for rhetorical effect only. They are asked, not in the spirit of open, rational enquiry, but merely as the opening gambit in an attempt to sign up new recruits. Unlike religion, philosophy does not approach such questions having already committed itself to certain answers (though it does not rule out religious answers, of course). Philosophy really does encourage you to think and question and make your own judgement – a tendency, that, in truth, religions have often been very wary of. That claim that only religion encourages us to think about the big questions is not just false, it is particularly ironic when made by religions with a long and sometimes violent history of suppressing independent thought.

Do humanists miss out on something?

It may be that we do miss out on something if we give up religion. Consider belief in Santa Claus. For the child who comes to believe in Santa, the universe appears wonderfully transformed. From within the perspective of their bubble of belief, the world, come December, takes on new meaning and significance - a rosy, magical glow. There is something it is like to inhabit this bubble of belief - to be a true believer in Santa - something its very hard to understand if you have never experienced it yourself.

When the child grows up a bit and the Santa bubble pops, it can be rather distressing for the child: rosy glow surrounding December vanishes leaving the world seeming rather sad and drab by comparison.

There’s no doubt that popping the bubble of religious belief can also be distressing for its occupant. The magic and meaning may appear to drain out of the world, leaving it seeming cold and barren. Isn’t it better to live inside such a religious bubble, if we can?

I don’t believe so. If there is no God, then the magical glow the world seemed to take on when viewed from inside the bubble was always an illusion. Once the bubble has popped, the world might seem a little drabber for a while. But, personally, I would rather see the world as it is, than as I would like it to be.

In fact, isn’t an appreciation of what is really important in life actually likely to be obscured by such a bubble? Compare belief in Santa, the elves in his workshop, the flying reindeer and so on. When the bubble pops, they vanish, but what was always most important come December 25th - love, getting together with our friends and family, and so on - are still all in place. In fact, for us grown ups, wouldn’t belief in Santa - and the accompanying activities of writing to the North Pole, putting out the mince pie and milk - threaten to be a disabling distraction, preventing us from recognizing what is really important?

I believe the same is true of belief in a dimension of Gods, angels, demons, and so on. It is true that, without religious belief, we may miss out on something – e.g. on seeing the world as a divinely-ruled kingdom, or on the comforting promise of everlasting life and of being reunited with loved ones after our death. But we may gain rather more – including a more mature and clear-sighted view of what is actually valuable and significant in life.

Conclusion (to follow)


Chris said…
is the characterisation of religion here entirely fair? could you engage with the wider sense of religion as something other than divine superbeings?
Stephanie said…
This comment has been removed by the author.
Aw Stephen please come on ! This is lazy .
You fail to address the 'ultimate futility' of heat death within the second law of thermodynamics ; together with the presumed purpose of entropy - to accelerate this end in an 'almost intended' cosmic 'suicide'.
Trying to play the harp with this circle of life and passing on of genetic code romanticism is ludicrous if all physical laws are directed towards everything's self-destruction.
The most you can conclude is you're upon the titanic ; and while the band still plays you might as well dance...

You also didn't address an objective 'worth' of an action ; irrespective of motive or coercion ; which is highly remiss of you.

Plus - this 'God as judge of worthwhile life' thing ?
That's a terrible distortion of a beautiful hypothetical - even for an atheist there might be an objective value to the life only perceived through a glass darkly that inadvertently wrought wonders - while the person was oblivious to all these benefits [s]he'd wrought on others. The inference you evoke is that God could be some partial or injudicious whimsical arbiter irrespective of life lived. Not even the most ultra-calvinist or maniacal born-again christian believes such things...

you commit the same intellectual offence as you did previously - inventing a branch of theistic society who deem God as the judge of life - other than the theists believing there's an objective reality and life upon which to be judged by the omniscient, omnipotent one who sees the whole picture and can make it known.

You'll also have a bit of a problem categorising theists into a single batch when determining the 'quality of a life worth living or well lived' - when Catholics and Orthodox Christians have an underlying principle which von balthasar referred to as 'the democracy of essence' where value and worth are not debatable in regard to any human being - the genius, the supreme athlete, the great artist, the world leader, the aborted foetus , the alzheimer's victim, the tetraplegic or person severely mentaly handicapped - they all share within this equality of dignity and respect to be afforded them on an essential level.

This is pretty shabby so far...sorry
Stephen Law said…
"You fail to address the 'ultimate futility' of heat death within the second law of thermodynamics."

Darn, I knew I'd missed something.
Stephanie said…
Stephen, I like that you're tackling this instead of brushing it off, as Dawkins has (life has no inherent meaning, move along now). Also, your use of analogies is excellent.

"There are presumably more ways of leading a meaningful life than just doing morally good works." Do you have an earlier reference to morally good works? Because this seems to come out of nowhere.

"Consider a man living under a totalitarian regime who devotes his entire life helping sick children." I might say, "is forced to devote his entire life ..." to make your point clearer.

"Scott’s life is held up as a shining example of a life well-lived despite his dramatic failure. It was the manner of his failure that gave his life particular significance." I'm not sure I really get this. How does it follow, from this failure, that his life was well-lived? How did his failure provide significance? Your next point, "as a lifetime spent pursuing a worthwhile goal by an enthusiastic incompetent is often rather more farcical than it is meaningful" seems to contradict the point about Scott ... unless THAT is your point. If so, it's a little confusing to this reader.

"The above section illustrates the point that it is notoriously difficult to provide a clear characterization of what makes for a meaningful life." So maybe you want the reader to be confused by that section? I would think rhetorical questions — framing the Scott analogy as a question — would help the reader follow better.

I love how you use Wittgenstein's family resemblance here, and you summarize nicely (and poetically) with this: "Our inability to identify this feature amongst warp and weft of the Earthly features of our lives may then lead us mistakenly to conclude that either our lives lack meaning, or else the elusive meaning-giving feature must be other-worldly."

"We may find, not a single feature possessed by all of the former and none of the latter, but a great many factors that have an impact on meaningfulness." Makes me think of reductionism vs. emergence.

"While moral lives can be meaningful, meaningful lives need not, it seems, be particularly moral." I imagine critics will jump on this, pointing out that being selfish or self-obsessed doesn't really make one "immoral."
scott roberts said…
@ Stephen

In your unwrapping of what is meant by "what is a meaningful life", it seems to me that you have shifted the question to
"what is a good life". As I see it, the issue of finding meaning in one's life is a psychological one, not a moral one. It is not possible for me to judge whether or not your life (or Einstein's) is meaningful, because meaningfulness is something one finds, or doesn't, in one's own life. Hence, I would not say that the white supremacist's life is meaningless, since (one presumes) he finds it meaningful.

But to get to my usual criticism, I would point out that "immortality", for the more philosophically inclined religionist, is not "life everlasting". Rather, it is eternal life, meaning non-temporal. Hence, it is a completely different state of reality than what we as physical beings are currently in, so your arguments there completely miss the point. From this idealist point of view, it is the belief that the physical, spatio-temporal world has inherent self-existence (as opposed, perhaps, to an existence contingent on consciousness) which is the illusory bubble that needs to be popped. That is, you see people like me living in an illusory bubble, while I see people like you doing so. Which is why I continue to maintain that arguments over God or meaning are futile unless and until one addresses the metaphysical starting points of the arguers. Your arguments (here and in your earlier chapters) make sense if they are argued against those whose metaphysics consists of materialism plus God (which, I admit, is that of most believers). They are simply strawman arguments if made against a metaphysical idealist.


Yes, the majority of religious believers are superstitious believers in superbeings. Why it does not make sense to work with that idea is that (a) such people are impervious to philosophical argument, so it is a waste of time arguing with them, and (b) for those who have more sophisticated religious viewpoints, the arguments are (as noted above) misdirected.
wombat said…
Possible typo -
"vast universe that will eventually bare no trace "

Shouldn't that be "bear no trace" in the sense of have it as a visible characteristic rather than in the baring of fangs sense?

On a more serious note, is there not a sort of variant on the God as Judge line in that aside from the Euthyphro issue, it may be thought that only God as omniscient observer can actually tell. You point out that to the protaganist their life may seem futile but history may judger otherwise; also that meaning does not depend on immortality. If Picasso had worked in seclusion on a desert island and believed he was just doodling to pass the time between fishing and then been swept away art and all in a tsunami then neither he nor historians would have thought much of him.
Tony Lloyd said…
I have a question on the proof-reading. Do OUP proof-read, or is the author required to proof-read? I ask partly because I noticed a few typos and wondered whether I should point them out. The rest of my reason for asking is the response to a complaint I made to the OUP about a collection of a philosopher's papers I bought. The papers had obviously been scanned, OCR'd and published without further proof-reading. The end result was that the book was full of errors that an OCR would make (confusing the numeral “1” with the letter “l”). The OUP didn't give a **** but the editor was very apologetic. This surprised me because I would have thought the editor's job to be choosing the papers and writing the introduction (which was excellent), but not the proof-reading and production.

Actual comments on the actual chapter later: to include “42” and Popper (well, you mentioned Wittgenstein).
wombat said…
Scott - I tend to agree that possibly the most important type of meaning is internal to oneself but then again I wonder whether this could be drug induced. Seems less convincing then. Is it simply the case that the term "meaningful life" is so amorphous and confused that it does not in itself have much useful meaning left, family resemblances notwithstanding, unless it is qualified in some way "historically-" "morally-", "artistically-", plus a suitable adjective for the internal version.
Stephanie said…
"The Atheist's Way" by Eric Maisel is entirely dedicated to the idea of meaning. It's a bit self-helpy, but still good.
scott roberts said…

I think in this context (that is, debate over the role of religion with respect to finding meaning in life) only the internal perspective is relevant. It is the question of why I may or may not be feeling suicidal, or inclined to drown my boredom in heroin or TV, or being eager or not to go to work in the morning. Religion, that is, whether or not one is religious, can and often does make a difference in how one reacts in these situations. But that, I admit, says nothing about whether one's religion is true or not. Nor does it deny that an atheist can find meaning in what he or she does. So basically I agree with Stephen that finding meaning does not require religion, at least in our day-to-day living. Where we would disagree is how we address the question of overarching meaningfulness, which is a philosophical question. That is, someone like Sartre might say that since there is no ultimate meaningfulness to our existence, we are then obligated to work out our own meaning for ourselves, while someone like the Buddha might say: the reason we sometimes find our lives to be meaningless is a consequence of having a false view of reality, so work on changing that view.
Tony Lloyd said…
“Do humanists miss out on something”

I think this would be best kept for an end chapter, for your “There is grandeur in this view of life” (the last chapter of Dawkins’ “The Greatest Show on Earth”). A view of life stripped of “ultimate”, “certain” and “immortal” pretensions. A view of life that is not the great march of the faithful/das Volk/the proletariat but one were we enjoy ourselves, solve immediate problems (Popper), busy ourselves with the everyday (Voltaire and tending cabbages), take responsibility (Sartre). We do not pretend to deal with the issues of gods but concern ourselves with the grubby evolved monkey that are humans stranded on this “pale blue dot”. We use the tools we have developed, philosophy, reason, science, technology, art and do not pretend to the powers of the gods.

In short: humanism not godism.

I’ll do the “42” and Popper tomorrow when I’ve sobered up.
Martin said…
I think you have missed out a large chunk of what meaningfulness is in that you don't cover interconnectivity. What I mean is that as I seek meaning for my own life, I create meaning for others.

As an example, I'd like to learn how to paint and draw. These things would give my life meaning. When I set about achieving my aim by buying materials from a shop, I create meaning for those who work in the shop. It is only worth them working in such a shop, if there are people like me who want to do art.

And so it is for every single activity, and every single moment we live. One person seeking meaning, directly creates meaning for others in an utterly interconnected manner.

Suppose I want a cup of tea, but I am careless and I badly scold my hand. My very humble meaning to drink tea can spark a huge chain of events for telephone operators, ambulance workers, hospital staff, concerned relatives, employers etcetera, etcetera, etcetera. These people in their own ways are seeking meaning through following their vocations. They make it possible for me to call on a telephone when I scold my hand, so they have already created meaning for me.

I notice a couple of references to Sartre. My understanding of existentialism is that it states that existence precedes meaning, or reality comes before God, if you like. My own belief is that there is no meaning to any part of the Universe, except that which we are willing to create for those around us.
Anonymous said…
Two typos: 'a good argument fro supporting', 'arguments to one seide'.

'Either you buy the K1000, or you put up with inferior sound quality!' Is this a reference to AKG K1000 headphones or the Kurzweil K1000 keyboard? Either very subtle product placement or coincidence.
Paul P. Mealing said…
Hi Stephen,

I think, in essence, what you are saying is that finding meaning in one’s life and how one lives one’s life are mutually dependent. Other philosophers have made similar arguments, albeit not so explicitly perhaps; the best known probably being Aristotle’s treatise on Ethics and his idea of ‘eudaimonia’ (which I would roughly translate as leading an ethical and meaningful life, though there are other interpretations).

But the best example I can think of is Viktor Frankl’s Man’s Search for Meaning, written after his experience at Auschwitz. Frankl’s take on this is that it is something innate in our human nature, and his conclusion could probably be best described as ‘existential’. The point is, I feel, that a belief in God is not relevant one way or the other.

Life is like a quest for each individual, and each has to deal with their own challenges and tribulations. A belief in God is not mandatory, but it’s not a cop-out either. It simply depends on the individual’s own experience, and, to a lesser extent, their cultural heritage. Some people’s meaning includes a belief in God and some don’t – it’s not a litmus test one way or the other.

I think the point you made about death is a particularly good one – it’s the best argument in the entire post.

I also think Martin has raised a very pertinent point: I believe that we only find meaning in our lives by our interaction with others. This is ultimately what life is all about, for all of us humans.

Regards, Paul.
Given your theme I'm surprised you don't engage with Wittgenstein's comments in his notebooks: "To believe in a God means to understand the question about the meaning of life. To believe in a God means to see that the facts of the world are not the end of the matter. To believe in God means to see that life has a meaning."

I may have missed it in an earlier post, but are you going to do something constructive about humanism as a source or focus of a meaningful life?
Tony Lloyd said…
I think you give too much away at the start by allowing the theist question “what is the meaning of life?” without further analysis.

“One of the difficulties we face in giving an account of how humanism, or any other view for that matter, can allow for the possibility of a meaningful life is in identifying what constitutes a meaningful life in the first place.”

This rather assumes that “a meaningful life” is a coherent concept. If A challenged B to explain how belief-system-x gave an answer to how one could live “a grammatical life” B could just retort that A was blathering. In fact B should retort that A was blathering: if B started trying to justify himself in terms of a grammatical life he would, necessarily, be blathering aswell. I think there is a strong element of blather in this “meaning of life” business and that “42” may be just as good an answer as “to know God and to love him”.

I think there are two elements to the “blather”. One is the Wittgensteinian objection you raise. Another is a Popperian objection: that the “meaning of life” seeks to be an ultimate explanation. We know why we get up in the morning: we have to get to work, we need to get the kids off to school, if we don’t get up we wont be able to get to sleep in the evening. Someone may ask “why go to work?” and we’d probably have an answer. At which point they’d ask why-that-reason etc. and start sounding like Sye. We can give many reasons but we can’t go on forever: we either have to give up or find some explanation that needs no explanation: an ultimate reason. But we have good reasons for believing that “ultimate” reasons don’t exist: the Euthyphro being one of the best. So a question asking for an ultimate explanation is blather. It sounds like a question only because it follows the grammatical form of a question (and Popper might have said so if he weren’t so prejudiced against Wittgenstein).

It does worse, in that the search for ultimate things prevents tackling the here and now:
“(M)y criticism tries to show that whether (ultimate explanations) exist or not the belief in them does not help us in any way and indeed is likely to hamper us” Conjectures and Refutations p. 105

We can see this with the child abuse scandal in Ireland. Part of the reason the bishops failed to act was that they had their mind on the “greater” purpose of the Church rather than the incidental and mundane problem of a child being raped.

The Wittgenstein argument criticises the narrowness of “what is the meaning of life”, the Popper argument criticises the depth.

Allowing ourselves to be drawn into the blather of one single ultimate meaning of life prevents us from dealing with the whole family of everyday, but important, reasons.
wombat said…
Scott -

"...only the internal perspective is relevant."

That is my gut feeling too but am uneasy about it in the face of two cases -

(i) I can conceivably take a drug to give me that feeling. Don't know which one would do it but there would certainly appear to be some that can take away this feeling so it seems plausible. Knowing that the feeling of meaningfullness is at least in part dependent on the chemicals marinading my brain doesn't seem very satisfying. But maybe I can take another pill to get over that...

(ii) My perspective may be informed by what others tell me. For example if everyone assures me that kicking shins is having a great effect on the world then even though I myself cannot see the use of it, I can convince myself that it's a worthy enterprise. It's not much of a stretch then to take the "informed expert opinion" of clergy that some ritual activity is beneficial in some way. e.g. living in a monastery and spending all my time praying for something which I have to take on trust.

Perhaps (ii) is still an internal meaning - "I will strive to do what my Bishop tells me." Am I allowed to delegate it in this way? I might as well just draw something out of a hat and strive for that as my life's goal in that case.
wombat said…
Martin -

Re connectivity.

Surely the thing that creates meaning for the hospital workers and the people running the art shop is the possibility that their services may be required. That is they would still believe it worthwhile manning the casualty department even though they do not know that anyone will be injured. I'm sure they would be happy to go home at the end of a shift having had no calls.
Tony Lloyd said…
I've just realised that my comments on the bit I quoted make it sound like I have completely missed the point. Of course I may have but what I was trying to say there is that

1.the chapter makes the point that we may not have an answer to "what is the meaning of life" because there is no (simple or singular) answer but
2. the chapter could do with a bit more on discussing whether we don't have a meaningful answer to the question because the question itself is just blather.

I suppose it's the distinction between
1. "what is a game?" And

2. "what is a transgression of the purple boundary?"
Tony Lloyd said…
Sam said: Given your theme I'm surprised you don't engage with Wittgenstein's comments in his notebooks: "To believe in a God means to understand the question...."

I suppose I should forgive him because it's from a notebook but it's these sorts of things tht totally turn me off Wittgenstein. The "family" stuff is pure gold: the existence on concepts we may not even in principle analyse. But isn't that quote just exactly the kind of tricking ourselves with language that W was always banging on about?

Sam also said:

"are you going to do something constructive about humanism as a source or focus of a meaningful life?" Don't go there, Stephen! It's just a more sophisticated version of Sye's "and how do you account for...".

BTW Sam, where were you when Sye was about? I'd have loved to have seen Mr. If-your-not-a-christian-you-can't-criticise-me's reaction to a dog collar.
scott roberts said…

In case (i) I think you have a point. Suppose I find my life to be meaningless, and not liking that, I spend my life taking a drug that makes that negative feeling go away. I would still reflect on my life that it is meaningless, but now I don't care that it is. That is, I am now content to be leading a meaningless life.

Now the religionist and the humanist may both condemn me for that, but their grounds for condemning are moral, which is my original point. And I would say that in this case, the religious condemner has an easier case to make, but I suppose that is tangential.

On case (ii), yes, I see it as internal. In both cases, the person finding meaning in kicking shins or in a lifetime of prayer has internalized what the authorities have said. If not, and he is just doing it to avoid getting in trouble with the authorities, then I would presume that he finds the activities to be meaningless.
Tony - it was an innocent question to Stephen. I don't expect him to impersonate Homer Simpson, smack his forehead and go 'D'oh! of course there's a God' ;-) I'm just interested to know what SL makes of the quote as it seems relevant (and he's talking about Wittgenstein).

As for Sye, I've been a bit busy recently and unwilling to get stuck into any comments. (Still not really)
wombat said…
Scott -

I had something a bit different in mind.
What if we are using the feeling itself to judge whether something is meaningful rather than rational thought? Something like the feeling that comes with successfully accomplishing a challenging task. Now if I am the only available judge of the validity of what I am doing as in the case of the solitary artist on the desert island would I not be deluded into thinking that I was producing good work. After all my reason tells me producing great art, which will be enjoyed by anyone who discovers it, is a worthwhile thing to do.
Martin said…
Paul, thanks.

Wombat, if you run an art shop and you don't sell anything, you go bust. Anyone who has run a failed business will tell you that they start to question the meaning to their life at that point. A casualty worker who never saw a patient would hardly claim that they had had a magnificent career. Besides, I am reliably informed that they only do that job for the buzz, and after one shift with no patients they would be chaffing at the bit.

People who live alone on desert islands are few and far between. Far more common are prisoners who are held in solitary confinement. Why is this used as a punishment when all other sanctions have failed?

I have been trying to think of an example of an activity which gives meaning in itself, without needing reference to other people, or the facilities and opportunities provided by other people. I think meditation is one. Walking could be another. The only problem I could see in allowing meditation to be classed as a meaningful activity to such a strongly atheist audience as is found here, is that we would also have to allow prayer as meaningful too.

Sam, I am not sure how your Wittgenstein quote could prove any of the following: that W believed in God; that only God can get you beyond facts; and that God is necessary for meaning. So what is there to engage with here?
Paul P. Mealing said…
There is one thing that seems to be missing from this discussion, that is highly relevant, and that is hope. Everyone lives with some sort of hope, and it is only when one loses hope that they become suicidally depressed. It is only a very short step from hope to the meaning of life.

Frankl, whom I mentioned in my previous comment, survived an environment where hope was deliberately eliminated, which is what makes his autobiography both relevant and particularly informative to this discussion.

Frankl concluded that there are 3 things that give meaning to one’s life: a relationship, a project and adversity. The third reason is the most anomalous and paradoxical, but it’s also universal. It’s also why literature thrives, to reference another post that Stephen wrote last year. All the world’s best stories, both fictional and non-fictional, deal with people losing hope and dealing with it. This is where we find meaning in our lives, and religion may or may not play a part in that.

Regards, Paul.
Psiomniac said…
"Trying to play the harp with this circle of life and passing on of genetic code romanticism is ludicrous if all physical laws are directed towards everything's self-destruction."
It's nothing personal...
Psiomniac said…

Although I agree with a lot of the arguments you presented here, I do wonder whether the problem is addressed if we remind ourselves that meaning has an indexical element.

So if you ask a question about the meaning of life, you have to consider the parallel question: meaningful to whom?

To suppose that the white supremacist's life wasn't meaningful because of a commitment to an objectively false ideology is to say that their life isn't meaningful to us because we have judged the ideology false. It doesn't follow that it wasn't meaningful to them or their followers.

If you want to reply that meaning is not relative in this way, then what is your alternative? Do you want to propose objective criteria for what constitutes a meaningful life? You seem to imply this when you mention Scott and his doomed antarctic escapade. Really you are appealing to the jugement of the reader and assuming they will agree that his life was meaningful. Yet as a reader I don't immediately see that Scott's life was especially meaningful, to me. It might seem so to you, but then we are back to relativism, and in that context the question seems to dissolve doesn't it?
wombat said…
Martin -

Re going bust in the art business.

Well at any time before despair sets in they will if asked reply that their lives have meaning. Perhaps this is the hope aspect Paul mentions. I think it certainly illustrates that if we seek certain kinds of validation there is an element of luck involved.

As to the rarity of desert islanders - well brains in vats are pretty uncommon in everyday life but philosophy examples are full of them!
Stephen Law said…
Thanks for all your comments - v helpful. Sam's question was almost answered in the morality chapter. It's easy enough to adapt it to meaning. Here is what I said:
This by no means exhausts all the arguments a theist might offer for the conclusion that there cannot be good without God. Here’s a slightly different approach. Suppose that moral value is non-arbitrary and non-relative. Suppose that there is, as it were, an objective moral standard or yardstick. “God” refers, not to the creator of this yardstick, but to the yardstick itself (or, if you prefer, to one end of it – the good end!). But then to admit that there is an absolute standard of right and wrong is just to admit that God exists.

This is a nice sleight of hand with words. If all that the theist means by “God” is an objective moral standard, then of course, by admitting there is such a moral standard, one thereby admits that God, thus understood, exists. However, this is a very thin understanding of what it is that “God” refers to. Many atheists will happily concede that they believe in “God” if that’s all the term refers to. Theists typically operate with a much thicker notion of “God”. They typically understand “God” to refer, not just to such a moral standard, but also to any number of the following: the creator of the universe; a designer; an intelligence; an agent who knows things, has intentions, and feels emotions such as jealousy, rage, love, etc.; a person in whose image we are made; a worker of miracles; an historically situated human being that died and came back to life; an oracle or revealer of truths; someone offering us the promise of eternal life, a commander of angels, and so on and so forth. To claim that there is an absolute moral standard is not to commit oneself to the truth of any of these other claims, whether they be literally, or merely analogically, understood. But then to accept that there is an absolute moral standard is not to accept that “God” exists, on any thick understanding of the term.
Paul P. Mealing said…

If I can be so bold as to submit my modest contribution to this topic.

Early last year, with an indirect reference to your own blog, I responded to William Lane Craig's assertion that 'Atheism is a philosophy without hope'.

I apologise for the lengthy preamble before I get into the meat of the argument.

Not surprisingly, Craig never posted my argument.

Regards, Paul.
Stephen - I'll have a look at the morality chapter, thanks. What I'm really after is a positive description of humanism that doesn't mention God, religion, theism or theists anywhere.
Stephen Law said…
"What I'm really after is a positive description of humanism that doesn't mention God, religion, theism or theists anywhere."

Well that would kind of miss out an a key aspect of humanism, wouldn't it? But anyway I give various positive claims in the intro.
scott roberts said…

You said:
Well that would kind of miss out an a key aspect of humanism, wouldn't it? But anyway I give various positive claims in the intro.

But as I pointed out in commenting on the intro, the positive claims are shared by some religious believers, so I fail to see how the anti-religious aspects are "key".
wombat said…

Perhaps in the light of Scott and Sams comments you have simply skipped over something seemingly obvious - that the positive claims made by humanism are justified sufficiently with reference to the natural world and humanity within it. Not that I'm trying to put words in your mouth but something along those lines seems worth spelling out if only to distinguish humanism from just being plain atheism.
Stephen Law said…
Scott and Sam. Atheism/agnosticism are "key" in the sense that they are necessary conditions. But they are not sufficient to qualify you as a humanist. There are various other positive claims involved too, as set out in the intro.

I am still baffled at your bafflement. What's your objection, exactly?
Stephen Law said…
wombat - I think that even that is too strong. Humanists don't *have* to be naturalists/materialists/physicalists.

But their rejection of gods/angels/demons etc. is based on reason and evidence, of course. They emphasixe the importance of reason - another positive.
scott roberts said…

I am baffled as to why you are joining two "isms" that have no necessary connection, namely "atheism/agnosticism" (points 1 and 2) and some "ism" that claims points 3 through 7 (for convenience I'll call it "rationalism", not to be confused with Cartesianism). Since -- as I claim -- one can uphold rationalism while being religious, then saying that upholding the first is a necessary condition for upholding both is just to say "I am a rationalist and I am an atheist", and of course it is necessary to be an atheist for that to be true. But politically, it is counterproductive. So unless you can show that being non-religious is a necessary condition of being a rationalist, then you are just drawing lines between people based on dogma.

Now as I see it, the only way to show such a necessary connection is to show that some sort of materialism is true. That's why I maintain that the argument needs to be played out on the metaphysical level, and not on the "do gods/demons exist" level.
Tony Lloyd said…
"All that is very well" answered Candide, "but let us cultivate our garden."

Perhaps you do need that "there is a grandeur in this view of life" chapter just to make it explicit that having care for humans, morality and reason is "positive" and to deny the impositions of external "meanings" that would compromise that is even more so.

Candide saw James the Anabaptist drowning and "was just going to jump after him, but was prevented by the philosopher Pangloss, who demonstrated to him that the Bay of Lisbon had been made on purpose for the Anabaptist to be drowned."

Telling Pangloss to "get stuffed" only sounds negative.

Sure many religious people are concerned with humans, morality and reason (many would say that these concerns were a big part of why they are religious). But the humanist is concerned that if one is loyal to something else that something else might get in the way. Just as Pangloss' nonsense got in the way of saving the Anabaptist.

Those concerned for humans morality and reason will be concerned not to discriminate. Those concerned for humans morality and reason will be concerned not to discriminate unless were talking about lesbians in high office. I don't think dropping lesbians-in-high office restriction is a "negative".
Tony Lloyd said…
Those concerned for humans morality and reason will be concerned not to discriminate. Those concerned for humans morality and reason will be concerned not to discriminate unless were talking about lesbians in high office. I don't think dropping lesbians-in-high office restriction is a "negative".

Should have previewed it. The second lot of people referred to should read "humans, morality, reason and religion". I was thinking about the proposed lesbian bishop in America. Most people, for most positions wouldn't think twice. Appointing a lesbian is, at most, excuse for puerile snickering. But appointing a lesbian for the CofE was a step too far. I dont think this was because they're a bunch of bigots, it's that they have respect for things other than people, the planet and being all round good guys. They have respect for a religious tradition and, in obeying that, they reject what is the good course of action.
Stephen Law said…
Scott. I am still baffled.

A commitment to (i) the use of reason, and a commitment to (ii) atheism or agnosticism are both required for humanism.

We can argue about whether reason does lead to atheism/agnosticism, of course. Perhaps we atheists are mistaken about that.

But a commitment to both (i) and (ii), and a belief that ones commitment to (ii) is grounded in ones commitment to (i), is surely a respectable position to defend. It might turn out one is mistaken in supposing (i) grounds (ii). But then one might be right that it does(it does!). It is, at least, the one I'm defending.

You seem to want to find some "problem" for humanism, as I characterize it, here. But it's completely mysterious to me what the "problem" is supposed to be.

Perhaps what's really pissing you off is that you are used to dismissing atheists and humanists as materialists (it's a standard rhetorical move), and I just pulled the rug out from under you?
wombat said…
Stephen -

Too strong? - well I thought it might be, hence the comment about not putting words in your mouth (that and the fact that it is your book after all) and I quite thought an idealist might pop up here at some time.
Paul P. Mealing said…
Don Cupitt has just published a book, Jesus & Philosophy, with the premise that Jesus was the first humanist, but that's entirely incidental to the point I want to make.

He uses an imagery of 'vertical' and 'horizontal' to distinguish what he calls morality from God and morality from the 'heart' (which is his description of humanist morality).

So, for Cupitt, humanist morality is about our connection to others and not our connection to God, and I would agree that that's a good definitive distinction. It doesn't mean, by the way, that you have to be an atheist to agree with that.

He also made the point that humanist morality only became part of common discourse through the novel. He argues that it is the introduction of the novel that changed our consciousness (in this regard) and not academic debate.

Regards, Paul.
scott roberts said…

So would you exclude from your club those Episcopalians who voted for the lesbian bishop (and the CofE laity and priests who applaud the vote, and are quite angry with the Archbishop of Canterbury over this issue)?
scott roberts said…

The problem is that "humanism" as you have characterized it is not just a group of people who believe (1) and (ii) and who think that (1) grounds (ii) and who like to get together and talk about it. It is also a political force, which is to encourage the policies (3) through (7) in your intro. Now some who believe in (i) but not (ii) are also a political force which encourages (3) through (7). So when you define "humanism" as requiring a belief in atheism/agnosticism, all you are accomplishing is to produce an unnecessary divide among people with a common goal. Why not, instead, restrict "humanism" to (3) through (7), and thus allow one to say that there are religious humanists and atheist/agnostic humanists? Which there are, of course, that is, people who describe themselves as Christian humanists.

As to the materialism bit, I am quite aware that a non-materialist need not be religious in any way that counts. What I am saying is that if you are going to convince me that (i) grounds (ii), then you first have to convince me that (i) excludes idealism, and implies that all mystics are liars or deluded. The only way that I can imagine doing that is to show that some form of materialism is true.

For clarity, by "some form of materialism" I mean any position that holds that all mentality derives from and is dependent on something non-mental, and by "religion that counts" I would say that it includes the possibility of a continuance of mentality of some sort after death.
Psiomniac said…

I agree. Coincidentally I recently neard a podcast in which Paul Kurtz (founder of the Council for Secular Humanism) makes the same argument.
Stephen Law said…
Hi Scott

"What I am saying is that if you are going to convince me that (i) grounds (ii), then you first have to convince me that (i) excludes idealism, and implies that all mystics are liars or deluded."

Why? Why does (i) excluding (ii) require that (i) exclude idealism? (In any case, the issue isn't what I can or cannot convince you of.)

"Humanism" as the term is used today by most self-styled "humanist" orgs, just does exclude religious belief. You might want to use the word another way, and indeed it does still get used other ways. You are of course free to do so.

That humanists like myself should team up with religious secularists and religious rationalists (who think their faith is underpinned by reason, e.g. Swinburne) is something I agree about, and in fact promote in TWFCM.

But that is not to say that a "humanist" orgs, as I define the term, are not a good idea, is it?
Stephen Law said…
Maybe what you are saying is - it would be better if people did not organize themselves as "humanists", as I define the term. It would be better if instead they just organized under the banner "pro-secular/rational" and left religion out of it?

That's an argument we could have.

But remember, I am characterizing "humanism" as the term is used by those who do actually organize under the term. As such, my characterization is entirely accurate. You may not approve of what I am characterizing, but that's not the same as aying its an inaccurate characterization. I am not sure which of these things you are critizising, the characterization, or the kind of movement it is a characterization of. Which is it?
Stephen Law said…
PS I asked "Why does (i) excluding (ii) require that (i) exclude idealism" Perhaps the answer is - because your kind of idealism requires God? (i.e. Berkeley style idealism, on which the physical is no just mind-dependent, but God's-mind-dependent).

Also note Scott, that the agnostic does not exclude even Berkeleyian Idealism. And so neither need a humanist, as I define the term. I merely exclude those who do believe in god(s), angels demons etc.
scott roberts said…

I am not sure which of these things you are
critizising, the characterization, or the kind of movement it is a
characterization of. Which is it?

Both, but on different levels. My criticism of the kind of movement is just my philosophical opinion being different, that is, I think that atheist/agnostic humanists are in error in being atheists/agnostics. Separately, I criticize the characterization as being politically divisive. The restriction of the term "humanist" to atheists/agnostics makes all religious people anti-humanist, or at least non-humanist, a characterization which at least some object to. So, yes, I think "It would be
better if instead they just organized under the
banner 'pro-secular/rational' and left religion out of it".

[Scott:]What I am saying is that if you are going to convince me that (i)
grounds (ii), then you first have to convince me that (i) excludes
idealism, and implies that all mystics are liars or deluded.

[Stephen:]Why? Why does (i) excluding (ii) require that (i) exclude idealism? (In
any case, the issue isn't what I can or cannot convince you of.)

(I assume that you meant "(i) grounding (ii) require...". That is, a commitment to the use of reason grounds a commitment to atheism/agnosticism)

You're right. I should have said that you would have to convince me that (i) excludes a commitment to idealism. Now even then it is possible for a committed idealist to be an agnostic, hence my additional reference to mystics.
Paul P. Mealing said…
I might be an exception here, but I don't see humanism and theism as mutually exclusive.

I expect, for many people, their God or their religion stems from their sense of connection to all of humanity. If morality is driven by our connection to each other rather than our connection to God, then I would call that a humanist morality even if one was a theist.

It is possible that one’s concept of God is derived from how one relates to humanity rather than the converse. The converse being that one’s relation to others is dependent on one’s perceived relation to God. It’s a subtle distinction but it explains the different levels of tolerance one gets from people of differing religious attitudes. Some people of religious persuasion embrace ‘others’, while some exclude them.

anticant said…
Anyone here heard of Erasmus?
anticant - shh! that raises all sorts of awkward questions...
Stephen Law said…
"anticant - shh! that raises all sorts of awkward questions..."

And they would be, er, that Erasmus is a described as a "humanist" using the term in its more 19th-Century sense. Problem?

Fact is, "humanism" is a term that has been employed in various ways, and this book is about humanism as the term is understood by those who currently organize themselves under that banner. I point all this out in the book.

Imagine someone writing a book on gays, who is constantly pestered by people saying "But what about people who are just happy and carefree? They used to be called "gay", and indeed, in some quarters, still are. So you must include them in your book about gays! This is a travesty!"

Awkward questions my arse, if you'll excuse the French.
19th Century? I was thinking more of the late medieval period myself. More than that, the humanist/ scholastic debates, out of which that humanism emerged, were characterised by a conflict between on the one side, a more rational, systematic and logical approach, and on the other, one that relied more upon narrative, metaphor and literary styles (ie dialectic vs rhetoric). Rather ironically, so far as I can gather, your position is the inverse of the medieval form of humanism! Which is fine - no doubt you define it all very precisely in your book. It just seems a bit Humpty-Dumptyish to me.
Stephen Law said…
Yeh those gays are really humpty dumpty-ish.
The Ranting Boy said…
This is a response Stephen:
Paul P. Mealing said…
Hi Edward,

I tried to post a comment on your blog, but the button doesn't work.

To quote Bob Dylan (albeit completely out of context): "I don't believe you."

Everyone looks for meaning in their lives, and we do it through our interaction with others. It's what makes us human.

To quote some Chinese philosopher from antiquity: "If you want to judge the true worth of a person observe the effects they have on other people's lives."

Regards, Paul.
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Plantinga's Evolutionary Argument Against Naturalism refuted

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