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Column 20
Of earthquakes and elephants

The Meaning of Life (i)

By © Martin Foreman
Word Count: 799 words
Publication date: June 19, 2005

Most people just get on with life. We wake up in the morning, head for the toilet facilities, grab breakfast if we can afford it, and make our way to the field, office, sweatshop or wherever we labor. In the evening we return home to argue or make love with our nearest and dearest, or we anesthetize our minds with television or we head out into the night in search of friends, alcohol, the cinema, love, sex or whatever.

Occasionally some of us ask, “Life, what’s it all about? Seventy years, if we’re lucky, of eating, sleeping and excreting. Is that it, or am I missing something?” That’s where the trouble begins. We start thinking, and thinking is something that most of us are not very good at. It usually means assuming we know the answer to any question and then looking for facts and arguments to confirm it.

But let’s do this properly. Starting with an open mind, can we work out if there’s a Meaning to Life in 800 words or less?

First rule of thought: be sure to understand the question. What’s the meaning of Meaning? To avoid confusion, let’s replace it with Purpose. What’s the Purpose of Life? Why are we here?

Second rule of thought – assume nothing. Why should we assume that Life has a Purpose? Purpose implies intention and intention implies consciousness. To say that Life has Purpose, is to say that some consciousness exists which has decreed that purpose. If there is such a consciousness, it can only be our own or God’s.

Before we look at these two options, we should remind ourselves that we’re looking at the question from a human perspective, and humans tend to over-interpret. We confuse cause and effect and intention and we assume consciousness where probably none exists.

Take two examples. The rain falls, the ground gets wet and flowers grow; a bull elephant covers a cow elephant and eighteen months later a baby elephant is born.

In both cases, these are cause and effect, nothing more. The rain doesn’t fall because it intends to or because it wants to help flowers grow. It falls because moisture builds up in the air. A bull elephant doesn’t mate because he wants to make a baby elephant but because the other elephant’s presence and smell excite him.

Cause and effect can be seen everywhere. Galaxies, stars and planets come into existence and eventually end. Tides ebb and flow, the sun shines, plants grow and wither, and animals are born, live and die.

But cause and effect does not mean consciousness or purpose. In animals, there is limited consciousness and purpose – a lion chases an antelope because it intends  to kill and eat it - but only humans are aware of their own consciousness and purpose.

Many of us are so accustomed to the idea of purpose that we are unable to accept a universe where it does not exist, We assume the existence of a god or spirits or karma to explain events that would otherwise seem arbitrary.

But nature is arbitrary. In earthquakes, some people die and some live not because of karma or God’s checklist but simply because in earthquakes some people die and others don’t.

When disasters occur, rationalists accept the randomness of the universe and sympathize with the bereaved. Believers are forced into the impossible position of reconciling their faith in God’s love with the random death and suffering that they witness.

Nevertheless, despite the evidence, let us assume that rationalists are wrong. God exists and gives our Life Purpose. What is that Purpose?

The first four of the Ten Commandments tell us that we must worship God. This is our goal, the Meaning of Life. We must worship our creator, even though we have no evidence that he exists. We must worship him even though he lets disaster and disease take our lives and the lives of our loved ones. We must worship him irrespective of our natural inclinations or desires.

That is one option. Life has Meaning, and that Meaning comes from an inhumane God (see last week’s column) who expects us to devote our lives to him.

There is another option - that Life has no Meaning, our existence is random, our lives are short and when we die our consciousness disappears. The first option is an illusion driven by a mixture of hope and despair, the second stands on the strong base of reason. 

To some, the idea that Life is meaningless is depressing. To the rest of us, it is liberating. It reasserts our freedom for each of us to give our own lives meaning, not in an artificial cosmic sense, but as the individuals we are. In next week’s column, we’ll take a closer look at what that freedom means.


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If God existed, he would...

admire the beauty of a universe that he did not create

recognize that eternity is meaningless

deny both heaven and hell

disown all men and women who speak in his name

denounce the harm caused by religious "morality"

help the human race to thrive without him

If God existed, he would be an atheist.



What is the difference between science and faith?

science is certain of nothing and requires proof of everything

faith is certain of everything and requires proof of nothing

Which do you trust?


"I know there is no God"
or
"I believe there is no God"
???


Check the answer


wear the Scarlet letter





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