Meaning

I’ve been involved in a number of debates as of late, whether via Facebook or in person, so I’m itching to work my way through some of the more stubborn points I hear. For right now, I want to address the idea of meaning.

When I debate my Christian friends, I often hear that everything is meaningless if there is no God. That is, there needs to be some eternal entity that will always care about our actions, behaviors, beliefs, etc, if they are to mean anything at all. I think this ignores what “meaning” actually is and does little more than seek to pigeon-hole the argument. So let’s define our term, beginning with the dictionary:

1. what is intended to be, or actually is, expressed or indicated; signification; import
2. the end, purpose, or significance of something
3. Linguistics
a.the nonlinguistic cultural correlate, reference, or denotation of a linguistic form; expression.
b.linguistic content ( opposed to expression ).
adjective:
4. intentioned (usually used in combination)
5. full of significance; expressive

Notice how often the word “significant” is used. This isn’t some objective term, but rather one where subjectivity is key. Because, how does one measure significance? We can define particular levels of certainty as significant – 5%, 50%, 75%, 99%, whathaveyou – but that isn’t anything other than relative practicality, as useful as it may be. In other words, when we deem something to be significant, we’re simply assigning it some sort of value. And that leads us to a new question: Can value exist without God?

There isn’t some special interpretation, some in-depth philosophy, or some odd perspective here; the answer is simply yes, value obviously can exist without God. Just as emotions or puppies or rocks can exist without him, so can value. None of these things are inherently dependent upon his existence. Let’s look at a specific example for value: I really enjoy watching hockey. I don’t enjoy it as much as, say, The Walking Dead, but I do rather like it. I place value on it as an occasional piece of my life – though I place a different value on a particular TV series.

Now let me connect the dots. For someone to value, as per my example, a TV program, God is not somehow inherently required for that. And what does it mean to place value on something than to assign it significance? For me, The Walking Dead is highly significant when I compare it to other shows. And this is nothing more than a way for me to say that it means something to me; that show holds some level of meaning from my perspective.

So the question for the theist is, does that meaning cease to exist if there is no God? That isn’t to ask if I will die, thus destroying my memory of that meaning. Of course that answer is yes. Rather, I am asking if that meaning ceases to exist right here, right now if we are to conclude that there is no God? If the answer to that question is “yes”, then what does it mean to value something? What does it mean for something to bear significance?

In essence, meaning is a subjective concept, something we define on the basis of our experiences, likes, dislikes, reasoning, and whatever else goes into how we determine what is significant and what is not. To say that it doesn’t exist if God doesn’t exist is to assume that it must be rooted objectively. Such an assumption is entirely divorced of the process by which we assign anything – absolutely anything – value.

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2 Responses

  1. I have come across this sentiment as well. I think it is more the permanence than the exaltedness of a god that people need to feel that something “matters.” If I can postulate a time in the future when nobody and nothing remembers that something existed, did it matter? I respond “yes” because the concept of value is human and we decide what matters. Things have value within a time scale. I think one of the things that most frightens theists is that EVERYTHING ends. Individuals, cultures, our species, planets, galaxies and the universe will end. Still, if it matters to us, it matters.

  2. Meaning is invented by humans and assigned by humans. There is no “inherent meaning” to anything beyond what we choose to assign.

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