Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Ultimate Meaning: Index of Posts

[Ultimate meaning here! Believe in my religion and your lives will have divine purpose! Divine purpose, I say!]

This series was inadvertent on my part, at least initially, but I think the results were good.
  • In "Materialism and All There Is," I seek to understand why the notion of materialism draws opponents into convulsions. I also look at one of the common ID arguments about materialism: that if it's true, then our minds cannot be relied upon to know truth. This is supposed to be a winning argument for the IDers, who of course wouldn't go after materialism using evidence and empirical data. I talk about why their argument fails.
  • "What Gives Meaning to Human Life?" begins my specific engagement with materialism and ultimate meaning. In this post, I try simply to define the key issues and the problems to be solved.
  • In "What's Better Than Ultimate Meaning?" I connect the dots from materialism to the question of gods and the natural origins of humanity. I also bring in ideas of happiness and significance because the question of ultimate meaning is also a question of what to do when personal happiness conflicts with a sense of universal purpose.
  • "Is a Meaningless Life Worth Living?" discusses the sad story of Mitchell Heisman, an apparently brilliant man and a nihilist who committed suicide.
  • I wrote "Understanding Ultimate Meaning" to focus specifically on the meaning of meaning. My thesis is that ultimate meaning refers to God's purposes for individuals in the context of his plans for humanity as such. People who worry about a lack of ultimate meaning are concerned that their lives are not part of a grand mission in the universe for all humanity.
  • In "Ultimate Meaning Is Not the End of the Story," I talked about why some might find materialism and its implications undesirable. Such people reject the idea that human lives really matter if they are not the special products of a divine being.
  • Finally, "Life Has No Need of Ultimate Meaning" strips importance from the idealistic and ethereal concept of ultimate meaning. It's just not a good or useful idea. I assert that "we don’t need the existence or the supervision of any gods for our lives to have meaning, purpose, value, and worth."
I'm glad I pursued this issue because the idea of ultimate meaning and the way it was used was very strange to me. I see the idea now as a cheap trick, as a kind of snake oil. Anyone trying to peddle their religion with promises of ultimate meaning ought to be given a heavy rhetorical slap.
  • Update: See "Information Doesn't Get You God; The Bible Doesn't Get You Science" for a significant challenge to materialism. However, as I had written before, there is no necessary connection between Atheism and materialism:
    Nevertheless, there's no necessary connection between either Atheism and materialism or Atheism and knowledge (i.e., epistemology). One can reject a god (any god) and not be a materialist. Similarly, whether one admits the possibility of deities is separate and distinct from how that person learns and knows with her/his mind. The human brain works, biologically and neurologically, regardless of any deity's state of being.
    Thus, although anti-Atheists like to conflate atheism and materialism, it just ain't so.


  1. Rambam3:19 PM

    This is classic Larry Tanner. What makes you different from the cacophony in the atheism/theism blogosphere is your earnest attempt to make the best possible case for the idea that you intend to dismantle.

    I asked another blogger (Jewish Philosopher) who exemplifies the opposite approach the following:

    two questions:

    What is the minimum piece of evidence / observation that would lead you to reject your religion?

    What do you consider to be the biggest obstacle to your convictions? In other words, what is the biggest weakness in your ship?

    His response:

    "What is the minimum piece of evidence / observation that would lead you to reject your religion?"

    I would be convinced of evolution if I would see credible evidence strong enough to support such an incredible idea: for example, millions of intermediary steps showing the development by trial and error variation from a worm to a fish. Considering the fact that marine animals are often preserved in sediment and for 200 years scientists have collected billions of fossils, the fact that we cannot find even one such example of evolution is the clearest proof Darwin was wrong.

    "what is the biggest weakness in your ship?"

    I don't think there really are any.


    I could go on about false dichotomies and intellectual honesty, but you get the point.

    I am not interested in confirming my biases. If theists are wrong, it is not because they are insincere or ignorant as a rule. I am of the opinion that there are deeply buried premises that lead us to see the same info in different lights. The interpretive frame as you would have it.

    We are so unable to identify these premises because everyone likes performing their analysis with home-field advantage. We get to pick and choose what evidence to consider and how we represent our straw men. Scrutiny by commenters can never push an author to an earnest search for truth.

    To close off, I too feel like I am interested in atheism because I am ultimately interested in theism, for whatever reason. I was raised to believe that rejecting the obvious truth of Judaism could only be the result of ulterior motives. Now I would very much like some theistic account to hold water, but I just can't find anything sound. We don't have to imagine insincerity or ignorance as it pertains to either side.

  2. Theism and atheism are interesting subjects.

    There's always a way to be wrong. If a premise or a premise-underlying-a-premise is flawed or inaccurate, then that affects the argument as a whole. For me, the real action is not in the arguments or the expressed opinions, but in the underlying assumptions.

  3. Hi Larry,

    I liked this series a lot. It is a topic that interests me too. I particularly liked the application of Grice's theory of meaning to the meaning of life. I think you've captured something important there and yet also quite obvious when you think about it (all the best ideas are like that: obvious after the fact).

    I'm not immediately aware of anyone else who's done the same sort of analysis so I thought it was quite original. That said, I can't claim to be "up" on the relevant literature.

    Keep up the good work


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