Eternal meaninglessness

It is often the cry of theists that atheism makes everything meaningless. They equate and conflate it with nihilism, claiming it reduces all of human existence to nothingness because life will eventually end and no one will remember anything. To this I have two responses, one pragmatic and one philosophical. First, let me quote the late Christopher Hitchens in Hitch-22:

It could be that all existence is a pointless joke, but it is not in fact possible to live one’s everyday life as if this were so.

Go ahead. Try and live life as a nihilist. See if that is even possible. See if one’s interactions with others somehow cease to have any meaning.

On the philosophical end, what is this nonsense that assumes that for something to have meaning, it must also be remembered? Of course life still has meaning without some external entity remembering it forever. Saying otherwise is an additional, unnecessary attachment to what “meaning” itself means. Moreover, those who argue that for something to have meaning it must never be forgotten are gaming the issue. They are defining “meaning” itself to mean unending; it’s circular. That is, they are trying to argue that for something to have meaning it must be unending, but they seek to prove their point by effectively defining “meaning” to mean “unending and eternal” in the first place.

So let’s get our definitions and arguments straight and linear. “Meaning” simply refers to the level and sort of value and importance one places on something. I place value and importance on many things, including science and writing. They hold great meaning to me. No one can say otherwise. Furthermore, the fact that I will end does not magically disappear the history of that meaning. It will still have existed because, unless someone has evidence to the contrary, the Universe exists independently of me. That means that every event which has happened, whether consciously remembered or not, has happened no matter what I do, no matter what anyone remembers, and no matter whether there is a god or not.

Now let’s flip the coin. The theistic argument is that for meaning to be meaning, it must also be eternal. This is really no more than a value statement on their part; it is not a descriptive argument of reality and can thus be dismissed as actually being factual. But let’s pretend it is correct. What does that mean?

For something to be eternal means that it has no reference to time. It is not possible to look back on something that has happened because “has happened” holds no significance. This means that it is impossible to compare to events. Indeed, it is impossible, under this scenario, to compare two emotions or thoughts or feelings. Happiness will hold no meaning if it cannot be contrasted with sadness. Anger is incoherent if there is no pleasure or joy. Literally every single human concept is rendered meaningless by the claim that eternity is how something derives meaning. That is, “meaning must be eternal to mean anything” is inherently self-contradictory.

The theistic argument is wrong in its wrongness. First, atheism (which is not nihilism) allows for meaning because “meaning” itself refers to the importance and value placed on a thing or idea by humans (or any conscious being). Attempts to play semantics and redefine “meaning” aren’t going to fly. Second, even if we did allow theists to game the argument, what they are saying still fails because eternity takes all meaning from everything. It inherently disallows and denies reference, providing an incoherent path for arguing in favor of something (“meaning”) which is itself premised in reference.

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14 Responses

  1. I don’t think I’ve ever heard anyone say that if consciousness, that is what we are talking about here, is not eternal, then life is meaningless.

    I have heard people say that if we simply cease to exist upon dying, than there is no point to life. Only after hearing that, have I heard people claim life is meaningless.

    That might sound just pure semantics, but I don’t think it is.

    You seem to be saying that meaning is a personal thing and one doesn’t require God to find meaning. Since finding meaning is completely dependent on the individual, I think you are wrong to say that the lack of a hereafter, or a God, doesn’t make life meaningless.

    It does make life meaningless, just not for you, or for any atheist. If it does for me, my finding life to be lacking meaning without an afterlife would be just as valid as your finding that your life has meaning even if there isn’t one.

    So I feel this falls under the category of no one being able to speak for anyone else, any party that does so with regard to assigning meaning is wrong, religious or atheist.

  2. When I speak of “consciousness” I include God’s own consciousness, or whatever way in which one wishes to describe how God is aware and knowing.

    So long as a person attributes meaning to something – that is, places value and importance on anything – it has been established that life has meaning within it. If we’re to say, however, that that person finds no meaning in the idea that life ends and we cease to exist, then you are correct. However, that only applies to that specific idea, not to life itself.

  3. I meant human consciousness.

    You seem to have required the “so long as” to make it work, and that is what I’m talking about.

    My position simply is that life doesn’t have any meaning in and of itself, except what an individual assigns to it. If a person can’t find meaning without religion, than they will find life meaningless.

    It has to go the opposite way as well though. One could be religious and still not find life in any way meaningful. Going back to what I had said, a religious person is wrong if they look at your life and claim you can’t have found any meaning. Just as wrong as an atheist would be to discount religions role in many individuals discovery, or lack thereof, of meaning.

    I think we are roughly on the same page.

  4. I see a difference between a person saying they see no meaning to life because it ends and a person saying there is no meaning within life. Provided we’re talking about something more than an infant, I don’t see how anyone can claim they don’t attribute value and/or importance to something.

    I agree, though, that life has no meaning in and of itself.

  5. At least it doesn’t have to have any meaning.

    Do you mean:

    “I don’t see how anyone can claim [they don’t] attribute value and/or importance to something.”

    ?

  6. Yes, corrected.

  7. The meaning that God gives to your life? Your entire life was just a test to get into the after-party. Some meaning!

    God makes your life LESS meaningful.

  8. In your view, but you just did the moronic thing, you can’t speak for other people. God makes you’re life less meaningful. That’s all you can make for a determination.

  9. The idea of God certainly gives meaning to people’s lives, but it isn’t difficult to see how all that is entailed in that concept is meaningless by virtue of being incoherent. As I said in the OP, eternity (which is implied by virtually every definition of God) destroys meaning because the idea makes no sense without a temporal reference.

  10. I’d concur with my favorite punching bag WLC that without God (regardless of eternity), life is not *objectively* meaningful. Atheists aren’t hesitant to point out that the universe is indifferent to our existence, as are the vast majority of living things on this planet.

    But the idea that life has to be objectively meaningful, or even that anyone could ever coherently define such a thing, is just wishful thinking. Ricky Gervais said it best: “I don’t need a reason to exist, just a reason to live.” Well, you certainly don’t have to believe in God to find countless reasons – family, friends, nature, science the arts, making fun of people who wear Affliction, etc. – to enjoy the shit out of life.

    So, who gives a flying fuck whether life is “objectively meaningful”? Since no one has direct, objective access to God we’d never have any way of objectively knowing exactly what that meaning was anyway. Theists end up defining life as what is meaningful to them, which is exactly what we atheist do.

  11. Hey, all I’ve been getting at is, if you claim that no one needs God to find meaning you are no more correct than when a zealot of some other stripe says that you must believe to find meaning.

    In other words, I’m saying the only meaning we can get is subjective.

  12. With the exception of beer from which everyone derives meaning. Exceptions to every rule you know.

  13. I think the claim you’ve been making is that if a person says that God has no meaning, they are incorrect. I would agree. However, that does not address whether or not someone needs God to find meaning. In fact, I would say people can’t help but find meaning long before they ever know anything of the big sky fairy.

  14. I just kind of assume that the the truth lies somewhere between the two extremes. In this case no one needs God and everyone does.

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