Perhaps the most popular objection to naturalism is the claim that without a God life is meaningless. Let’s take a look at it. This is actually a two-part claim
- under a natural world view life has no meaning
- God provides meaning to life
But right away we notice something strange about this: it implies that we must obtain our meaning from something outside of us, namely God; and yet apparently there is no need for God to obtain meaning from something outside of himself. There is an unspoken assumption here that God is inherently meaningful. Or else the assumption is that God doesn’t have a need to be meaningful.
Why wouldn’t either of those options apply not just to God but to us as well?
Perhaps because God is eternal and we are not.
But this line won’t work, since it turns meaning into a matter of longevity. We are meaningful only if we live forever. Therefore it is not God but eternity in heaven (or, one could infer, eternity in hell) which makes us meaningful. But how can this work to make today meaningful? This moment meaningful? After all, the future has not yet been written. At the very least, I can’t know how many future days I shall have, or with certainty whether I shall end up in eternal heaven or not. Since I can’t know what kind of longevity I will have, therefore I can’t know with certainty if this day or this moment is meaningful or not.
Furthermore, unless each moment is meaningful in itself, it makes no sense to say the whole series of moments is meaningful. Can you have an on-and-on series of meaningless moments that somehow become meaningful simply because they go on and on? I doubt it. Years ago I wrote
How can immortality make life worthwhile, if mortality can’t? If a minute, a moment, isn’t sufficient to imbue life with value, what use is an infinity of them? Endless time is then only endless failure.
It still holds. Meaning cannot be a matter of longevity. If anything, it would make more sense to tack in the opposite direction. If I have an infinite number of days ahead of me, how important can this particular day or this particular moment be? If I waste it, it doesn’t matter at all. On the other hand, if I only have a few days left then this moment and this day become vitally important.
It is not longevity but brevity which makes our day important.
Did God Create Us Meaning-Deficient?
Perhaps God derives his meaning from us, just as we derive our meaning from him. But if so, then the objection to naturalism self-destructs. We could just as easily get our meaning from each other and leave God out of it. We already saw that meaning can’t be due to longevity, and that means that another person can be the source of our meaning as effectively as God can. This in fact is the natural answer: that meaning is social. It is human.
Perhaps it could be asserted that we derive our meaning from the fact that God authored us. But this has already been shown to be inadequate, for no one authored God yet we don’t go around bemoaning God’s meaninglessness.
Perhaps, the supernaturalist might argue, God deliberately created us with a deficiency which makes us reliant on him for meaning. God would have no equivalent deficiency and therefore would be self-sufficient as far as meaning goes, but as for us sons of Adam, God would be essential. Perhaps it is even punishment for humankind’s original sin as depicted in Genesis.
First it should be noted that this is an attempt to make God necessary by postulating a deficiency which makes us need a deity in order to feel meaningful. But is there really such a deficiency? How do we explain atheists, for example, who do not seem to have the deficiency? Did God not create atheists? Did he not punish atheists along with everyone else?
Perhaps atheists are people who have discovered that God doesn’t exist and suddenly — poof! — their “meaning deficiency” vanished with God. My suggestion, in other words, is that the theistic feeling that life lacks inherent meaning may simply be a bugaboo due to confused notions theists have — notions which atheism can resolve.
What Does Meaning Mean?
How can becoming an atheist make the problem of meaning go away? If there is some secret here, what is it? To answer that, we need to look carefully at the subject. What, for starters, does the word meaningful mean?
It means, of course “to have a meaning.” Okay, so if we say something “has a meaning” what are we in fact saying?
We can clarify this by considering words. Words indisputably have meaning — at least usually. If I say “look at that tree” my sentence has a meaning: turn your eyes toward that particular tree, the thing I’m looking at or pointing at. And what is the meaning of a word like “tree”? It is a reference to something actually out there in the world, something we designate as being similar to a number of other things which we classify as “trees”. By saying “that tree” I reference one of these tree-like things in the real world.
Words are meaningful because they reference something, they point at something we can identify, either something conceptual — that is to say a concept (“trees”) — or an action (“look”) or an actual something in the world (“that tree”). Words are meaningful because they point elsewhere: they refer to something.
The words “that tree” point to an actual something in the world, therefore they are meaningful. But what does the actual something — the tree in question — point to? What does it mean?
The answer is that the tree is not a word. It is simply itself. It is a real object and therefore does not mean anything. It is a referent not a reference, a source of meaning and not itself meaningful. This is actually to the tree’s glory. It is real, and not merely a bit of language pointing to something else.
If words are meaningful, it is because there are sources they point to — like our tree — which are real things and give those words meaning. Words can be references to other words which are references to more words still. But ultimately there have to be real things, final referents that bring to an end the sequence of pointing, or else language is nothing but a game of mirrors. Trees, and all the other real things in the world, are those final referents.
Being meaningful, in other words, is something appropriate to words, but not appropriate for real things.
From this we see that to ask what our lives mean, or what makes us meaningful, is to make the mistake of thinking that we are like words, rather than like the tree — that is to say, like real things. We ought to dance and be glad our lives are meaningless, for this means we are sources for meaning, not mere references but actual referents for meaning.
The objection to naturalism based on lack of meaning is, in other words, entirely misconstrued and therefore bogus. If we are wise, we should adamantly object to being “meaningful”.