The responses to the question “As An Atheist, Can Your Life Have Purpose and Meaning?”, are quite varied.
Some say that the only ‘purpose’ to be had is our biologic purpose to assist in reproduction.
“My only maker is my parents”.
Some say that our only ‘purpose’ or ‘meaning’ here is to observe reality.
“Why do I think life has meaning? -Chocolate!”
Some say that ‘meaning’ is arbitrary and subjective and doesn't carry much weight. We simply choose a meaning for our life, either following it from a beginning or reflecting on it from the end.
“The only meaning of my life is to live the best I can and do good in the world.”
And many realist would say that we weren't made by anyone for any purpose and therefore there is no ‘meaning’ to be had, —deal with it.
“Any meaning we might prescribe to this life is simply ourselves trying to fill an awful empty feeling and is not real.”
We’re inclined to take a serious look at the realist conclusion that there is no ‘meaning’ to be had. Just because it feels unsavory doesn't mean that it is incorrect. I like the way Frankl (my hero) put it, “Either all life has meaning, or none of it does”.
As a student of chaos and complexity theories I would like to put forth a grander idea:
Real ‘meaning’ is an emergent property of the complex system that is the mass of conscious, cognitive, thinking beings.
*** A quick lesson in complexity and emergence.
“Emergence” is when something new and structured pops into existence after the complex levels below it have reached some critical point. The caveman who invented the wheel had no way of fathoming traffic jams on the 405 freeway. But traffic jams are an emergent property of the levels below it, wheels, engines, roads, economies… Our very human minds are said to be an emergent property of when the number of neurons, connections, and modules in the brain reached a critical point. A “small world network” structure then became more efficient, and a rapid rewiring of the modules occurred—and conscious thinking minds began.
Complex adaptive systems are hallmarked by these aspects:
They have many agents working in parallel.
Nerve cells in the brain, species in the ecology, nations in international trade.
Each agent finds itself in an environment produced by its interactions with other agents.
They have a highly dispersed structure.
There is no master neuron in the brain, No head anchovy leading the school.
They have many levels of organization.
Cells form tissues, tissues form organs, organs form organisms, organisms form ecosystems…
They are constantly revising and rearranging their building blocks as they gain experience.
Species evolve, neural pathways strengthen and weaken, companies restructure
They make predictions about what’s to come, either consciously or non-consciously.
They occupy niches
From this we could say humanity fills all these aspects. And what is emerging from this new substrate of self aware, conscious, thinking beings are finer but more abstract structures. Do words actually exist? The value of money? How about the past & future as places—do they really exist? What about love? All of these and many more examples didn’t exist before conscious thinking minds could contemplate them. One may argue it’s just our own categorizing and pigeon holing of concepts that makes them seem tangible. But these concepts will be the catalyst for the next level of complexity. They are the airs of THIS level.
Does ‘meaning’ exist? We could say that the kneejerk realist notion, “we weren’t made by anyone for anything therefore there is no meaning” is correct initially. Initially, but once we had conscious, thinking beings that became perplexed with that question, “is there a meaning”, then ‘meaning’ begins to emerge from our latest level as we sort it out, as we are still sorting it out.
Theistic religion can be seen as response to a niche to be filled -”what purpose and meaning is there?”. Sky Father is the simplest rut that humanity fell in. We easily fall into the rut, and it’s hard to get out of it. The niche which naturally wants to be filled is a proper group-think—the way for everyone to come together, get on the same page, to achieve higher orders of complexity.
Going back to our original views of what meaning is…
Biologic purpose is the lowest of the purposes. It comes from the animal level below us. Let’s remember some people have taken it upon themselves to be human breeders of human livestock.
Observe reality is a universal purpose that we should agree with. A fine source of internal-private meaning. Let’s experience something.
Arbitrary and subjective purpose & meaning is the most intriguing to us because this is where we get to use our big brain. We choose our own purpose and if it is a ‘meaningful’ purpose, it will be an external-public meaning.
*Also, choosing a purpose for one’s self and following it is a key factor in achieving a sense of contentedness and happiness in one’s life.
No ‘meaning’ to be had is a penurious position. It soberly claims that life actually is absurd. Therefore we each should have no problem eliminating ourselves from this life—there’s no point to it. Unsavory as it is, it does make sense (except that we do go on).
Meaning as an emergent property means that there was no meaning initially, but it became possible as soon as conscious thinking beings we were able to notice its absence.
"First there was no universe —and then there was.
There was no life to speak of —and then it began.
Conscious, thinking beings never existed —and yet, here we are.
First there was no meaning to it all —but now there can be."
It's clear where I'm going with this; Your purpose & meaning are very real and very important. If you disagree... well that's not what the rest of us are doing.
© JP Carey
Some examples were paraphrased from the book Complexity: The Emerging Science at the Edge of Order and Chaos by M. Mitchell Waldrop
I wrote a bit on this in my piece On Why Materialism Matters. The quote is here:
Notice the sense of emergence that is presupposed in materialism. We believe that, first, there are atoms and molecules, then progressively more complex things. We believe that from inert matter emerges living matter, and that living things evolve by developing complex symbiotic relations with each other, and only then there emerges egoism, the self, the me versus another in struggle or cooperation, identity and consciousness.
But for the idealist, consciousness is a mysterious word that gets thrown around as if it automatically evidenced a non-natural or supernatural realm. Worse yet, and in spite of all the evidence that can be attained from the study of nature, they believe that consciousness came first (although it is more complex than inert matter). While it’s true that living entities have the power to influence their environment, this influence only occurs once they have emerged, once they have evolved consciousness. But all the living entities emerged from progressively simpler forms, all the way down to the stardust at the dawn of all things.
As for the emergence of properties like meaning, I'm not sure about that but Polystratus, one of the Masters of the Epicurean tradition, wrote in defense of moral realism and his approach was saying that things had inherent / conventional qualities, but that they also had relational or dispositional qualities and that it was THESE qualities that were either good or evil based on their effects. Here's the link and quote:
He then argues that fair and foul are relational or dispositional properties. In other words, that they are tendencies exhibited by things in relation to other things. A magnet may only attract metal and not cement, but it remains a magnet insofar as it attracts metal. Peanuts can be nourishing or deadly (to some who are allergic), but they’re not inherently deadly: this is arelational property, not a conventional property. Colors and flavors are relational properties: we only see the color of an object when light reflects against it.
Rotten meat is good for vultures and lions who have the enzymes to digest it, but bad for humans who do not and may die after eating a carcass. It’s the same carcass, conventionally, but the relational property of the carcass with regards to predator makes it good or bad. Polystratus argues that this does not make good and bad less real. The experiences are real: good and bad are experienced as real pleasure or aversion in the body and mind of the predators or humans, but they are relational properties.
Another example deals with the various curative properties of a single drug, all of which are effective and real. If we suffer from one disease, the drug will treat the symptoms of that one disease. If we suffer from another disease, it will treat the other disease, but it’s the same drug (conventionally).