Tuesday, September 16, 2008

freedom in meaningless

There's a sublime freedom that comes from adopting an atheist metaphysics. In the Ivory Tower, one often hears intellectual explanations for human belief in God or gods, such as:

  • A belief in God provides people with a sense of security and control. A universe without a Puppetmaster, or at the very least, benevolent Observer, is frightening and disturbing to the fragile human psyche.
  • Theism not only provides us with a divine (and therefore, unassailable) source to a moral code but also a means of reward and punishment via the afterlife (or karma, if you're into that kind of thing). Without God, there is no objective basis to good and evil and man may as well do as he wishes.
  • Religious belief is comforting in times of despair - when one's life seems to be collapsing, and perhaps meaningless, one can turn to God or some manifestation thereof for guidance, comfort, and friendship.
  • Belief in the otherworldly soothes the anxiety we feel over our own mortality (see TMT).
  • etc.

While I suspect there's at least some truth behind these reasons for people's belief in God/gods, I'm not so naive as to think they're a complete explanation. More to the point, I've found that my belief in a "universe wild" provides just as much comfort.

Anytime I begin to worry about...
  • the number of publications I have out/should have out
  • how I made a mistake in lecture yesterday
  • the health of myself or family members
  • the economic situation of our country
  • the prospect of putting an HPU-communications major one fragile heartbeat away from our nation's highest office
  • the environmental state of our world
  • etc.
... I remind myself that one day, we're all gonna be just dirt in the ground. When I was growing up, it was commonplace at the dinner-table for my father to talk about how the dinosaurs dominated the earth for millions of years - and now, don't exist. Given his particular existential position, he interpreted this in a fairly pessimistic light: that life is fundamentally meaningless and that we should beware of hubris. I took his thoughts to heart, but as I have grown to adulthood I find the existential emptiness of the universe to be comforting not depressing. It lends itself to a way of being where each moment and event is taken individually and unto itself, rather than as a mark in some penultimate tally. I don't feel the chains or burdens of sentience as much as I think I would if I thought anything I did actually mattered, in the end.

dirt in the ground

I really don't need to worry about the number of publications I have, or am ever going to have, because one day, we'll all be just dirt in the ground. One day, the sun will burn out. One day, this galaxy won't exist. That level of perspective - of SCALE - really helps me deal with, on a day to day basis, the minor (and sometimes major) annoyances of being human. Everytime I remind myself of that, I find the anxiety and stress begin to lift away - much as I suspect it lifts away in theists who have faith in God's will and protection.

the Sombreo galaxy - and you're trying to tell me that Wall St. matters?

Furthermore, in times of greatest despair, I needn't worry about the philosophical quagmire raised by evil and pain existing in a universe created by an omnipotent & benevolent God. Pain simply happens, because we are alive, and should serve as a reminder that we are equally capable of experiencing joy and ecstasy. I don't derive my morality from a religious system, and so can feel an honest guilt when I behave poorly and an honest pride when I do good by my fellow man. For me, there is a greater sense of Reality and Meaning (to my actions) in a world without heaven and hell.

Sing it, Tom.


  1. Perhaps it is just the simple common-denominator act of understanding that something is bigger than the individual that gives us comfort? Maybe it doesn't matter if it's a manifest deity or a great grindingly infinite system of meaningless chaos, maybe it is enough to understand that there is something greater than "me"?

  2. totally. i think it sucks for most people who feel compelled to remain wedded to their models of the world. i understand it, but it seems a much harder way to live, especially in this modern age. plus individual appears to have a unique information processing system that ultimately provide divergent percepts across individuals despite stable environmental information (which percept is right?). throw on top of that a pervasive need for humans to constantly justify their existence (i'd wager it's a need for humans that's on par with food and sex) and you have the world we now all live in. it's not necessarily doomed, but how come it has to be the case that humans aren't evolutionarily flawed? not that i'm right on this one, but if we want to talk about the world 'the way it's supposed to be', i'd have to say it's all post-hoc. the world is the way it's supposed to be. the way it is now. and maybe it won't work for us. and that doesn't have to be depressing. because is that really going to stop you from doing anything, let alone anything that deviates from what you would normally do prior to that little epiphany? not bloody likely.

    "it doesn't matter. none of this matters."

    - Carl, on marrying Svetlana

    or for those non-linear, tribal learners who were raised by TV's: