If I Didn’t Believe, Part IV: Meaning, Purpose, and Life in the Void

Dying Universe

Morality

In the absence of a faith I don’t think I’d have very strong opinions about abstract or moral concepts. This isn’t one of those “if you don’t believe why don’t you kill your grandma?” arguments that make good-hearted atheists roll their eyes. I have no desire to kill grandmas regardless of my beliefs, but if I was somehow convinced that it was all just atoms bouncing against each other I’d have a hard time articulating to a psychopath why he shouldn’t (and it’s not just me, read a graduate school-level meta-ethics text to see how hard it is). 

This doesn’t necessarily mean that I hold to “Divine Command Theory,” which is the idea that something is good because God says so. (As an aside, Alma 42’s “God would cease to be God” is a strong anti-divine-command theory scripture. It’s clear that there are some moral principles embedded in the universe that God Himself has to adhere to). But rather, that there is some moral, metaphysical scaffolding to the universe, which is a framework that is hard to get to if, again, everything can be reduced to atoms. 

If it’s all chemistry then in theory the fundamental difference between Jeffrey Dahmer and Mother Theresa could be a potassium molecule in the brain that didn’t quite make a complete electromagnetic connection. Of course, it’s more complicated than that, but the additional complexity doesn’t change the point. If it’s not free will but mechanics, it makes as much sense to be upset at Jeffrey Dahmer as it does to be upset at a boulder that fell down and crushed somebody.  

However, if you ask why that metaphysical moral scaffolding is itself justified, then I’m in trouble, but literally every belief system is in trouble from infinite regress if you continually ask for the whys of the whys of the whys, so at some point we just have to act according to feeling, and that’s okay, but it does limit the extent to which we can be judgey about other people’s intuitions. Logic can help us be consistent in our moral frameworks, but I’m generally skeptical about reason’s ability to construct a moral and meaning-making system from whole cloth. 

As I noted before, as a believer in moral “writing in the sky” but not in the Church, I’d be fuzzy on how morality applies to my life beyond the basics of not hurting people, since the “hurting people is wrong” instinct is so visceral. (That being said, there are contexts in which hurting people is the most natural thing in the world for Homo Sapiens).  

I’d try to be a nice dude, but I wouldn’t exactly give my body to be burned or live in some hut so as to maximize my ability to donate to anti-malaria bed nets

Meaning

In my family growing up we had a saying that “that which isn’t infinite is too small, and that which isn’t eternal is too short,” saying that the only things we should really be concerned about are things that in some way or another tie into the eternal. 

In his book Until the End of Time: Mind, Matter, and Our Search for Meaning in an Evolving Universe Columbia University physicist Brian Greene quotes an interesting thought experiment (paraphrasing, since it’s been a while since I’ve read it) where they ask how what we think is meaningful would change if the universe were ending tomorrow. He then asks whether it makes a difference whether the universe was ending in a year, 10 years, 100 years, or a million years and then drives home the point that, since those increments are really basically the same compared to the eternal blackness afterwards, the end of the universe raises uncomfortable questions about why anything matters. (Contrast this with the very Latter-day Saint cosmological point made by non-Latter-day Saint scientist Freeman Dyson that “no matter how far we go into the future, there will always be new things happening, new information coming in, new worlds to explore, a constantly expanding domain of life, consciousness, and memory.”)

A similar note is struck by PD James’ fictional book Children of Men, that takes place in a world where a disease causing mass sterilization is causing humanity to amble towards oblivion. If there is no future, how much would our strivings change? These thought experiments make one realize how much of our meaning making is pinned onto something continuing indefinitely into the future, even things we wouldn’t immediately think of that being true for. 

On that note, I’m still kind of surprised when some of my friends and colleagues in academia leave religious belief and then continue to be really preoccupied with their impact factor or what such and such top scholar thought of their work. If you think it’s all consigned to eternal black oblivion then it seems like the ozymondian nature of such clear artificial constructs as the honors of men should be obvious. With faith there’s at least the idea that such constructs are still attached to eternal verities and virtues that will continue after we’re all maggot food. I get that people need meaning in some form or another, but with just a little bit of introspection people would realize how hollow sacrificing for abstractions based on artificial constructs is.To be honest, I feel like my fellow millennials kind of grasp this, which is why older generations pull their hair out about us turning our back on the deal where we work hard for a half century with two weeks a year off for the pyramid-scheme chance at the C-suite and a well manicured lawn in a nice neighborhood. 

In terms of specifics, all of this is to say that if I left belief in an afterlife or some other eternal meaning, I would basically strive to have a fun life (again, without hurting anybody). I score pretty high in sensation seeking, so for me personally I would to stuff as many unique and novel sensation experiences as possible into life. 



3 comments for “If I Didn’t Believe, Part IV: Meaning, Purpose, and Life in the Void

  1. Eight or nine years ago, all religious belief seemed to dissolve in the wind for me. Because of my situation as a gay man, I had to start questioning things to survive. As I slowly continued to lose my belied, I felt terrified looking into the void. During that time, I spent months watching videos about the cosmos, and Carl Sagan’s voice became so soothing to me. I began to feel more peace as I learned that my happiness came from living in the now, especially since I spent so many years suppressing the things that I legitimately wanted for myself for some unsubstantiated reward where I would be changed into something I wasn’t–a straight man.

    I think that homo sapiens survived because we can be good to one another. We still have tribes and individuals who rape, pillage, murder, exploit, and dismiss other humans. I think much of morality is pretty obvious, and the Golden Rule applies to most situations (especially when phrased in the negative–don’t do things to people you wouldn’t want done to yourself). Some people just clearly think they are superior to others, so they are entitled to treat them badly.

    I now try to live every day like it’s my last. To love others while they are here. When my mom died, I was devastated, but I felt peace about the inevitability of death and our eventual extinction. Love, live, laugh, and treat others well. Give to humanity in whatever way you can. I feel very sorry for people who feel like they can’t have their own moral compass. I sympathize with it.

  2. I think there’s something to be said for a morality of empathy. I don’t think it’s robust enough to cover all the bases of mortal life–but it does a pretty-good job of helping us understand why we should try to live by the Golden Rule.

    In wrestling with the idea of oblivion there are two things that are very difficult for me to come to terms with. First, that my loved ones would at some point become extinct; that they would no longer even be found in the “queue” of existence so to speak–just gone–as if they never existed in the first place. And second, that the vast majority of human souls who have lived as paupers, peasants, servants, or slaves, or any who had suffered though severe disabilities or disabling circumstances should not get a second chance–living a life in better circumstances with opportunities for fulfillment.

  3. Jeremiah: Thank you for your perspective; I’m glad you’re in a good place now. You make a good point about the golden rule being phrased in the negative. The bar of not hurting people in most circumstances is pretty low, but if rephrased in a positive sense, then it has all sorts of implications that may be extremely difficult to actually carry out, like giving up everything we have to the extremely impoverished, since that is indeed what we would want a relatively rich American to do if we were living in extreme poverty (here of course I’m kind of channeling Peter Singer). That’s harder to pull off, but the negative version of the golden rule not so much.

    Jack: Your “as if they never existed” thought is very haunting.

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