Apr 20 2007


hanks for all the interesting responses to my blog yesterday. I think the response is an indication of how fascinating the topic of human consciousness is – and of course it is well documented that humans have an endless fascination with themselves. I want to respond to one comment, submitted by James Fox, who wrote:

“Then again if it’s all “matter” then nothing really matters…. Right??? Notions and ideas such as what is meaningful, practical, moral or even responsible can be nothing but fascinating constructs and derivative observable results of chemical reactions.”

In fact I agree. There is no truly objective morality or meaning to life. We are “just” bags of chemicals carrying out complex reactions. To make it worse, our perspective is completely subjective as well. If you think your life has objective meaning, or that human civilization means anything, try to imagine pulling back a bit to the scale of the universe over billions of years. There is nothing so significant that it does not shrink to imperceptible nothingness from a grand enough perspective.

Forgive my atypical philosophical musings, but this topic does come up frequently as a challenge to the materialistic world view. From this view our lives only have whatever meaning we impart to them, and then only from our chosen perspective.

Those who advocate a particular ideology with moral implications often take exception to this notion. They prefer to believe that objective morality is imposed upon humanity from on high. Such beliefs serve the psychological need for a sense of control and simplicity, but there is no scientific or objective rational basic for them. They are largely faith-based. What this means is that there is no basis for one person or group to impose their faith-based morality onto another. Also, faith-based moral tenets tend to be inflexible and rigid, by the very nature of the authority on which they are based. This has significant practical and historical implications.

While the materialistic subjective view may invoke feelings of insecurity and doubt, it has significant advantages and can be quite liberating. Essentially, we can make up whatever meaning has optimal benefit for us and also chose to take whatever perspective we deem appropriate.

Now I can just see the above paragraph quoted on “believer” web sites as evidence for the claim that the materialistic world view is selfish and amoral (perhaps even evil). But that is not the case. I am not advocating for the absence of meaning or morality, just a recognition of the reality that we do not have access to any objective meaning or morality (if such exists) and therefore we are on our own. But it is not true that our only option is to throw up our hands in resignation and embark on a hedonistic binge. We can, rather, derive our own sense of meaning and therefore morality from a particularly human perspective and based upon some rational first principles. For example, all things considered I would rather not be violently murdered. It turns out most humans share this basic desire. Life for all of us will be better, statistically, if we all mutually agree not to murder each other.

So common human experience, desire, emotion, and behavior can be thoughtfully used in a logical and rational manner to derive a set of flexible and evolving ethics that make life better for everyone. There are also personal value judgments that cannot be objectively applied to society, and it is important to recognize them as such. That way different people or groups can just “agree to disagree,” or respect each other’s diversity, without feeling the need to impose their choices on someone else.

In terms more specifically of “meaning,” we have to recognize that meaning is hopelessly subjective. I think we should all be free to decide for ourselves what meaning to impart to our own lives. Most of us, without specifically deciding to, embrace what it is to be human. For example, having children has been one of the most fulfilling, fantastic, emotional, and scary experiences of my life – a very human experience. The fact that my feelings are the result of Darwinian forces acting to maximize the probability of my genes existing in future generations has not diminished one bit the personal meaning of my parental experience. It does offer an intellectual dimension that perhaps others might not have – but that has only enriched, not diminished, the experience.

So meaning, like life, is what you make of it. You might as well make the most of it.

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