Sunday, January 13, 2013

The Meaning of Life

Sean Carroll's blog today features Owen Flanagan's thoughts on how a materialist can introduce meaning into their life. His book is called "The Really Hard Problem: Meaning in a Material World" and Carroll includes in his discussion the following quotation:

"Believe none of the theology or metaphysics. But be a cultural or ethnic Catholic (the way many Jewish atheists are). Go to Mass, meditate and pray in a Catholic way if you wish, consult the right saints depending on your needs, have fun, etc. 

"This is a reasonable way of affirming your identity, you can find wise moral guidance in places, and you can drop all the hocus-pocus stuff. That stuff is silly, unbecoming to thoughtful souls, and can be dangerous."

I was sufficiently interested to download a sample of Flanagan's text to my Kindle but I was soon disheartened by his philosopher-ese. After the usual statements of adherence to science and specifically Darwinism, Flanagan is soon fishing in the murkier waters of religions ancient and modern.

All these guys write in a very repetitive and meandering fashion: they have one idea and take hundreds of pages to drip it out.

If you are a Darwinian, then the purpose of life is to facilitate reproducing kin (children or extended family):  textbook stuff of course. For a smart, self-aware, social mammal, this central biological purpose throws up a more sophisticated issue: the significance of one's life - its meaning.

In the West, we live in comfortable societies with few natural predators, where food and shelter are in good supply. To create this rather high-quality environment requires the efforts of a global civilisation, the coordinated labour of millions of people. By contributing to this civilisation and its greater capability we improve the environment for our kin at many degrees of relationship. Our efforts to do so give meaning to our lives. (Different people may draw the circle of what counts as kin at different radii: for some people it's the whole of mankind; for others, merely their extended family: civilisation only works when most people incline more towards the former view).

Given that Darwinism provides the only framework for addressing this issue, it's pleasing that the stories of religion can be readily understood as historically and ethnically-constrained efforts to convey exactly the same point.