The Challenges of Living in a Meaningless Reality

We live in a meaningless reality.  By that I mean we have no prescribed purpose.  There is no God telling us what to be, nor does the universe expect anything from us.  Our awareness of the universe is an accidental byproduct of evolution, and when we die that awareness will cease to exist.  I know religious people will strongly object to the assertion that our lives are without purpose and there is no God that’s personally involved with each of us.  But religion is a psychological response to not understanding reality by a developing consciousness.  Once a critical level knowledge of reality is attained it becomes obvious that God and religion is all in our heads and not part of the external reality.

Beliefs in gods are universal in the human condition because psychologically we do not like living without a sense of purpose, but with enough education it become abundantly clear that we’re living in a universe in which our species has no special purpose or protector.  Once we accept that it becomes obvious that we face a number of challenges.  People can live perfectly happy lives knowing there is no meaning in the universe but the very first challenge we deal with is wanting to define our own meaning.  We have a deeply seated need for meaning.

Challenge #1 – Existentialism

Existentialism is the philosophy of living in a meaningless universe.  It’s mostly an atheistic philosophy, but there is a theistic branch, which says God created the universe and then walked away, but in ether flavor, existentialism is about existing in a universe with no prescribed purpose.  Existentialism basically says everyone has to invent their own purpose.  This is both good and bad because people can choose very selfish pursuits, or even amoral pursuits.  Counter to what religious believers think, atheists tend to be more moral and ethical when we work at creating our own rules about living rather than accepting them from imaginary beings.

The universe does not demand that we don’t kill – if you look at nature, the rule would seem to be:  thou shalt kill or be eaten.  We have decided that we shouldn’t kill – and that’s deeper than religion. Even atheists believe murder is wrong.  Even without a God defining right and wrong we can instinctively develop morality.  The faithful fear a meaningless universe because they fear absolute chaos, but even without God we can find order.

Existentialism succeeds for the individual but not for the human race.  There is no universal system of belief that all people accept.  If we want law and order it must be created by consensus that’s not tainted by any belief system.  As a species we all want order, justice, security and civil rights in society, and they require a consensus to achieve.  We could collectively pursue a delusion.  If everyone was a pure Muslim or Mormon we could create a clean orderly society where most people were happy, but we’d be living a delusion.  Thus the first challenge is to create a society that allows all its citizens freedom to pursue their own created purpose, but still protects the rights of all other citizens.

Challenge #2 – Delusional Imperialism

We all have a psychological defense mechanism to impose meaning onto reality.  If we are poorly educated about reality, we will make up an explanation that makes sense to us and then share our delusion with others as a way to rationalize we’re right.  This is an extremely common neurotic behavior.  This is not a problem when populations of shared delusions stays small, but when they grow very big like the over billion Christians clashing with the over billion Muslim it becomes quite a danger.  Historically it has always been a danger when one delusional group tries to rule the entire population.  No mass delusion has ever achieved 100% penetration because the desire for personal freedom is always stronger, and the fact that no delusional system has ever explained reality correctly.  True details of external reality always brings inner and outer criticisms to a delusion.

Challenge #3 – A Delusion Free Government

Whether it’s Christian, Muslim, Confucius, Capitalism or Communism, most governments are tainted by a philosophical system that doesn’t actually explain reality.  They always fail.  The challenge is to create a government that is not tainted by ideology.  Some of the founding fathers of the United States may have attempted this but time and again their plans have been thwarted by delusional groups.  Any religious group that can’t understand the concept of the separation of church and state is a threat to a purely free government.  There are no exceptions to this.

Throughout the world all governments fail because they are under attack by special interest groups.  Our challenge as humans living in a meaningless universe is to create governments that are equally meaningless but offer the maximum freedom and protection to its citizens.

Challenge #4 – Achieving a Consensus about Reality

Because our lives have no prescribed purpose means we can prescribe any meaning we want to ourselves.  We become self-programming entities.  Ethically there is nothing wrong with believing that Jesus will bring about personal immortality, even if it’s 100% inconsistent with reality.  Ethics are the way we define right and wrong, or morality, if you will, in a meaningless universe.   The universe has no ethical intent, nor does it care what ethics we create, it’s 100% indifferent.  But because we are a social species we’ve invented ethics as a way to create fair play between individuals and groups.  However, there are no 100% consensus on any ethical idea.  Probably the one ethical ideal that is the most universally held is the golden rule.

In the entire history of the world there has only been one system that seeks to understand reality in a consistent way and that’s science.  Science is a system of exploring reality and not a philosophy or belief system.  Science is the study of reality by consensus.  People study an aspect of reality, create a hypothesis, create more experiments, collect data, and finally propose a theory that is shared around the world, where other scientists will test that theory.  If everyone creates experiments that validates the theory, the theory is considered true for everyone.  Religious people have trouble with the word theory – they think it means a hypothetical idea.  No, it means a proposed explanation about how reality works to be tested.  Theories become true after years of consistent testing.  The theory of gravity or the theory of evolution or the theory of relativity are now considered facts about reality because they’ve maintain decades or centuries of consistent experimental validation.  We keep the name “theory of whatever” as just a label and to give credit to the person who first proposed it.

Through science we know a gigantic amount of information about reality.  Yes, we don’t know everything, but we know a whole lot.  Most humans have never taken the time to study science so they are suspicious of it, or even consider science arrogant for thinking it has achieved so much knowledge.  But science is consistent, and it’s the only system that has explained reality in a consistent manner.

The reason why there is such a tremendous conflict between science and religion is because they explain reality differently.  Actually, science explains reality in one way, and religion explains reality in an infinite number of way, all inconsistent.  Of course religion is thwarted by other thought systems such as logic, philosophy and mathematics.  Any person with a good education in science and psychology will understand that gods and religion are a mental coping mechanism inside people’s heads.  The unpleasant reality is the scientific minded must live with the mass of delusional people.  The delusional people have inconsistent views about reality and try to impose them onto other delusional believers and non-believers.  This means it’s very hard to have a consistent view of reality by all humans living in it.

Challenge #5 – Living with Delusional People

To the faithful, they see reality composed of believers and nonbelievers.  To the scientific, we see reality inhabited by clear thinkers and people possessed by delusions.  I know that sounds arrogant.  However, a really good education just clears away the delusions so it doesn’t feel arrogant, it just feels like the freedom to see clearly.  Don’t get me wrong, no matter how smart you are, there are always delusional traps of various kinds.  Our minds are not computers.  Our thoughts are overwhelmed by biological impulses, and it’s very easy to forget what we’ve learned.  It’s like that movie Charly based on the book Flowers for Algernon, about a mentally retarded man who is given an experimental cure and he becomes a genius for a short while, but in the end, it wears off.  I can imagine losing my clarity of thinking as I get old and de-evolving into delusional thinking.  It’s not arrogance, just fleeting clarity.   It would be fantastic if society as a whole was delusional free so I wouldn’t be tempted by delusional thoughts as my mind ages.

The delusional in recent years have sensed that science is a powerful tool for understanding reality but without understanding how science works.  They have even created fake science in attempt to justify their delusions not understanding that their theories have to be tested scientifically and they always fail.  I have even heard of faithful people getting Ph.D.s so they can claim to be scientific in their attacks on science.  The sad fact is delusions are extremely hard to escape.  It is very hard to accept that reality has no meaning, that we are mortal, and our lives are subjected to the whims of chance.

Challenge #6 – The Meaningless of Life

If you’ve seen many Woody Allen films then you’ve seen many stories about characters trying to deal with the meaningless of life.  Living with the truth can be hard, but it can also be empowering.  It’s like giving up childhood and living on your own.  The universe becomes more magnificent when you get beyond religion.  Reality is incredibly far out, and there seems to be no end to discovering more about reality.  Once you get past the idea that there is a God telling you how to act and believe it’s very freeing to feel the responsibility of thinking for oneself.  Sure, it’s bummer that we’re going to die, but it’s a real miracle that we’re here at all and it’s awe inspiring to contemplate that.  Trust me on this, religion has very small ideas about reality, it’s very limiting and tiny compare to the real reality.  When a religious person is inspired by the miracle of life they are just  seeing the tiniest of the surface of things.  It’s a shame they hate evolution because evolution is only an explanation about how the miracle of life works.

If you read a hundred books on evolution and then compare it to the phrase in the Bible “and God created life” you will see there is no comparison.  If you want to believe in God, read one hundred books on evolution and think this is how God created life.  The theory of evolution is the Bible written with a billion more details, that’s all.  Rejecting evolution is the refusal to look at reality directly and in detail.  The ironic thing is probably the people who wrote Genesis were more aware of the workings of reality than the true believers in the Bible today who live so far away from nature.  Early religions are always nature worshipers.  Science is the ultimate form of nature worship.

Challenge #7 – The Evolution of Man

Humans can’t evolve as long as a majority of humans are mired in their religious delusions.  Those who are free of delusions are being held back by the people who are possessed by ancient superstitions.  Even though reality is without meaning doesn’t mean that humanity can’t decide its own purpose or purposes, but that can’t happen as long as most people cling to their religious delusions.  I’d like to think that given enough time we’ll spread stable governments throughout the world and develop ever improving educational systems that will one day lead to a delusional free population, but I have grave doubts.  Religions destabilizes governments.  However, that might be part of our evolutionary progress.  Without chaos in our lives we never would have evolved into such powerful thinkers.  Neanderthals lived for hundreds of thousands of years without changing.  It’s weird, but religious strife might be the generator of free thinking.

But still I worry that there’s a barrier to total freedom that humanity is incapable of passing.

Conclusion

For us people who want to live in a society where everyone sees reality with a scientific rationality our only choice is to support stable governments that strongly support the separation of church and state, and spends lots of money on education.  The Christian and Muslim fundamentalists instinctively know that liberal education is bad for their view of reality.  This is why I believe many Americans hate paying for public schools – they see them as attacking their beliefs.  It’s also why fundamentalists want to influence the content of school textbooks.  And I can’t help but wonder if the conservatives who want a smaller government isn’t because they see a big government spreading scientific knowledge.

Liberals tend to be less religious and assign a purpose to government to uplift all people, whereas conservatives tend to be religious and dislike government being in the purpose business or making what they consider moral decisions that belong to their churches.  Essentially, non-religious people see government as the highest form of social organization and purpose, where religious people see their particular religious group being the supreme authority.  This is quite a conflict, but it does define the battle lines between the two groups.  Atheists want big government and big education.  Theists want small government, controlled education and a big universal religion.

Right now most people have to evolve through many delusions stages in childhood before they get enough education to see clearly.  I wonder what society would be like if we taught our children right from the start to see reality clearly and never allow them to be confused by the many delusional systems that exist.

I sometimes wonder if fiction is a danger to our development.  I love fiction, and we pursue a lot of fiction through novels, movies, TV shows, video games, comics, etc.  If we read more non-fiction and watched more documentaries, would that help to free us sooner?  I also worry that fiction is the escapism that people pursue when they have given up on faith but do not want to work to understand science.  You can reject religion and still find many other sources of delusion.  If you want to know how reality works you have to study science, and that’s not very popular.

There are many ways of living in our meaningless universe.  Most people cope by believing in various delusions.  Others ignore reality by chasing after hedonistic pursuits.  Art has always been a major alternative for some.  A few can’t take the lack of meaning and kill themselves, which is very tragic.  The real challenge is to accept the realities of the reality and find your own purpose that reflects the best knowledge we gained through science.

JWH – 7/29/11

5 thoughts on “The Challenges of Living in a Meaningless Reality”

  1. the universe is – and our individual purpose or meaning is what we make of it – so it’s only meaningless if we allow it to be or we fail to give it meaning

    things do not inherent meaning, only meaning in relationship to each other

    life is meaningful because it is finite – an eternity afterlife would become meaningless – not to mention torturous

    if there were a god, then the universe would have meaning only to that god, the rest of us would be bit players of little consequence, playing the roles assigned to us in a play larger than we can comprehend – thus, no meaning

    it there’s a god who poofed the universe and walked away, then the god is not relevant or meaningful in the universe

    if there’s no god, then the meaning is dependant on each of us

    and meaning from within, is the only meaningful meaning

  2. I could object to some of your generalizations, Jim, but I think that reality is more complicated than any blog post could possibly describe. And people, including scientists, are certainly more complicated. But in general, I do agree with you, of course.

    I should probably note that ethics aren’t arbitrary, even without a god. Homo sapiens is a social animal, and our sense of ethics has developed from that. We compete – indeed, we fight – but we also cooperate. And cooperation has probably been the more essential to our survival.

    So it’s probably also true that the meanings we must create for ourselves aren’t entirely arbitrary, either. They must, first of all, be true to the real world. And they should probably fit with a healthy mind and a healthy society, don’t you think? That narrows things down considerably.

    As you say, science describes reality. The truth is paramount in science. It’s not just what feels good, but what really is. And so I think that science can tell us a great deal about ethics, and probably a great deal about meanings, too.

    So, long story short, I’m not sure that reality is entirely meaningless. We can, we must, create our own meanings, but any valid meanings must fit into a real world and a society of other human beings, and there are certain implications to that. Just as our ethics are, or should be, based in reality, so should our meanings.

    To my mind, all this fits together. And science is an important part of it, since we need to recognize and to understand the real world to have any hope of getting our ethics correct and our meanings valid.

    1. Yes, our lives and ethics might be a matter of form following function, but there is no designer. And whatever purpose we find for ourselves will come out of our inherent biological programming. A person might desire to be a great chef, and that would be tied to our urge to eat. We have doctors because we get sick, and military because we love to fight. What will be interesting over time are the people who choose purposes not related to our inherent nature.

      Someone who devotes his life to protecting another species is probably exploring new behavioral patterns. Evidently humans must be more curious than cats because we evolved scientists.

      My definition of meaning for this essay was based on the idea that God put us here for a purpose. Or to suggest that the universe has some purpose in evolving and we should discover it and help out. I think the rest of reality has no knowledge or care of us. I also think if humans became extinct the universe will go right on doing what it was doing without taking any notice that we are gone.

      The faithful believe this universe was created for us because of the Book of Genesis. To maintain that belief and rationalize it, they claim the universe is about 6,000 years old, and all the stuff in the sky is an illusion. That kind of thinking does support that humans are the reason the universe exists. But I think cosmologists are right and everything out there is real. Humans can’t be that special if we’re so well hidden in this reality.

      If you think about this, people’s views about the size of reality is a fascinating basis for what they believe. Most Christians have drawn the line at evolution, but cosmology is far more damning to their philosophy.

      Most primitive people who imagine the size of the universe come up with strange theories, like the one about the world resting on the back of a giant turtle. When asked what that turtle is standing on, they said another turtle. When asked about that one, they said it was turtles all the way down.

      Science does not explain why the universe exists, or even how, it just describes what we can see, and what’s consistent and how the parts relate. Some visiting alien with vaster knowledge might think our scientific explanations no more sophisticated than the turtle story.

  3. When science weds absurdism…alas! No cake for you. Not now. Not ever.
    The numinous inspired the invention of the microscope. Your yammering was hectic blah without a compass. My blathering is simply hubris.

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