THE MEANING OF LIFE

(Toward the end of his life, A. J. Ayer, British philosopher and the father of Logical Positivism, gave a lecture on the Meaning of Life. Following his death in 1990, the lecture was published as an essay in a book of the same name.)

An open letter to A. J. Ayer (posthumous):

Professor Ayer, I have just re-read The Meaning of Life. While I have great respect for your significant contribution to 20th century English philosophy, I profoundly disagree with the conclusions you reach in this essay.

In the course of your lecture, you suggest four possible ways in which life could have meaning:

  • In itself: “…A person’s life may come of have meaning for him in itself. He may find fulfillment…”
  • In the intensity with which it is lived: “…If we take the intensity with which a life is lived as a criterion of its being meaningful.”
  • In its possible continuation beyond the boundaries of mortality: “…A question which has strong bearing upon what I have chosen to call the meaning of life, namely that of the possibility of the continuance of one’s existence, in one form or another, after death.”
  • In its contribution to a collective enterprise: “…Most people are excited by the feeling that they are involved in a larger enterprise, even if they have no responsibility for its direction…most English people enjoyed the war (WW II).”

But you begin your lecture by critiquing an idea attributed to Nietzsche: “God is dead and therefore everything is permitted!” You were right to begin here.

Nietzsche’s statement implies that ethical norms depend for their authority on the existence of God. You correctly point out the circularity of such an argument. In order for a phrase such as ‘God is good’ to be meaningful, there must be a concept of ‘good’ that is distinct from our concept of ‘God’. Otherwise, ‘God is good’ just means ‘God is God’ and ‘good’ is reduced to whatever God arbitrarily wills it to be.

Your argument is ingenious…but ultimately also circular. You implicitly assume that moral values can have no objective source other than God and then you prove that God cannot be such a source. Perhaps you have in mind another statement of Nietzsche’s: “…There exists nothing which could judge, measure, compare, condemn our being, for that would be to judge, measure, compare, condemn the whole…But nothing exists apart from the whole!” (Twilight of the Gods)

Nietzsche understands that for values to be objective (and therefore normative) they must transcend the events they ‘judge, measure, compare, condemn’. They cannot be located within the world of events, ‘the whole’; but only God (by definition?) transcends the whole.

By your reasoning, the question of God’s existence becomes irrelevant.  Nothing but God could be the source of objective values and God cannot be that source. Therefore, regardless of whether God exists or not, you are justified in concluding that “there are no such things as objective moral values.” Ingenious!

But there is a problem! Objective values do in fact exist. Beauty, Truth and Justice, for example, enter into our experience of the world on a daily basis. We may not always agree on how to define these values, or on how to apply them in concrete situations, but for the most part we take for granted that they are real. They are something to be strived for, if not achieved, in everything we do. In fact, without them, we would have little motivation to do anything, except perhaps satisfy our most basic biological urges.

Professor Ayer, if you and I and our dear reader, whoever she may be, were asked to define justice, our respective definitions would undoubtedly differ. Nonetheless, there would be substantial overlap and it is that overlap that testifies to the objective character of justice (and beauty and truth).

Of course, the fact that the three of us share a sense of justice does not make us just persons. We may deliberately choose to act unjustly in pursuit of wealth or power or in order to satisfy biological or psychological urges; or we may strive to act justly but fall short due to the temptations we encounter along the way and our own personal weakness. Finally, we may pervert the concept of justice for our own purposes; but none of this changes the objective character of justice (or beauty or truth) itself.

Beauty is not in the eye of the beholder, Truth is not determined by the currently fashionable intellectual elite and Justice is not defined by the reigning government, be it tyrannical or democratic. In fact, we use the concepts of Beauty, Truth and Justice specifically to evaluate works of art, scientific theories and social structures. They are the objective yardsticks by which we measure subjective paintings, theories and laws.

You are right, Professor Ayer, God does not make objective values: “Morals cannot be founded on authority…human or divine.” But they do not need to be. They exist sui generis and their ‘authority’ is inherent in their objectivity.

Conceptually, they must exist independent of God, but God still has a crucial role to play. It is God who makes those objective values operative in our world. If God did not exist, beauty would still be beauty, truth would still be truth and justice, justice; but we would have no knowledge of them. They would exist outside our world; they would have no influence in our world.

God is the bridge. It is God who takes these conceptually transcendent values and makes them relevant to each and every event in our world. Values are objective and normative in their own right. God’s function is to incorporate these logically pre-existent values into a single event, himself, that exhaustively and perfectly instantiates those values.

Indeed, our world would not exist in any recognizable way without the influence of objective values. There would be nothing to coax events into becoming. All possible states of affairs would be effectively equivalent so there would be no impetus to move off of status quo, to change or to grow.

Our world would for all intents and purposes be still born: “…without form or shape, with darkness over the abyss and a mighty wind sweeping over the waters” as Genesis puts it.

Yet that is not the case! Our world most definitely has form and shape, darkness is not universal and the so-called abyss teems with highly ordered material structures.

In fact, change is just about the only constant in this world. The British philosopher Alfred North Whitehead, a contemporary of yours, began his systematic philosophy (Process and Reality) by specifying three undefined terms: one, many and creativity. For Whitehead, creativity was an absolutely universal characteristic of our world.

There seems to be a principle of unrest, a fundamental hunger, at the core of being itself. That hunger is induced by and directed toward the objective values as instantiated by God. As a result, potential entities become virtual entities and virtual entities become actual entities. Actual entities in turn interact with one another, “exchanging bright colors” (Parmenides), seeking to ‘be all that they can be’ (US Army). Such purposeful activity is proof positive of the immanence of objective values in our world.

Value are values independent of God but God is the actual entity that perfectly instantiates every objective value. As an actual entity, God participates in our world and makes his qualities (i.e. the objective values) available to all other actual entities. God’s values act as a lure, drawing potentiality into actuality and guiding its development. Ultimately, completed matters of fact are ‘judged’ in terms of those values.

It is fashionable today to question God’s omniscience or his omnipotence (or both); but this rests on a misunderstanding of the nature of these qualities. It is because God is both omniscient and omnipotent that he freely but surely chooses the objective values as his essence. As Pope Leo XIII observed, no entity, all knowing and all powerful, would do otherwise. That’s what knowledge and power mean: the ability to know what is right and to choose what is right, every time. All entities strive to instantiate the good ab initio; only God has the means to do so surely and perfectly.

Professor Ayer, you write “…there are no such things as objective moral values”; but you also write, “I think that acts of cruelty or kindness are ugly or attractive in themselves.” But if there are no such things as objective moral values, how can any act be ugly or attractive in itself? On what authority are we justified in making such judgments?

You write, “If I say that there are no such things as objective moral values, this is not to be taken as a profession of moral nihilism.” Really? It seems to me that ‘moral nihilism’ is exactly what you are professing here.

You continue, “On the contrary, I have strong moral sentiments and am anxious that other people should share them and act upon them.” What then is the source of those ‘moral sentiments’?  Are they merely personal whims? If so, why should we pay attention to them? Are you arbitrarily defining ‘the good’ as you accused God of doing (above).

On what grounds is your concern that others ‘share them and act upon them’ justified, or even reasonable? What entitles you to judge your moral sentiments as superior to anyone else’s?

You complete this train of thought with an astonishing flourish: “In saying that moral values are not objective, I am maintaining only that moral terms, while as it were, commenting on natural features of the world, do not themselves describe them.” Of course they don’t! That’s the whole point. Robert Kennedy said, “I dream of things that never were and say why not.”

The 2500 year old Book of Job is a treatise on how unjust the world actually is. But the conclusion of the book is not that justice does not exist; rather the book poses this question: since the concept of justice is real and objective, how is it that the real world can be so unjust?

Our world is a world in the process of becoming. That process is guided by objective values, driven by universal unrest, and powered by Whitehead’s ‘creativity’.

Turning at last to the topic of your essay, and mine, ‘the meaning of life’, we need to ask what it would ‘mean’ for life to have ‘meaning’ in the first place. Something can have meaning only in terms of something other than itself, something beyond itself, and something that itself has meaning. Furthermore, to confer meaning, that ‘something beyond’ must of a different ontological order.

Your most famous student, Ludwig Wittgenstein, wrote, “No statement of facts can ever be, or imply, a judgment of absolute value…all the facts described would, as it were, stand on the same level.” Meaning can only come from something that stands on a different level, a level that is both transcendent and inclusive.

As mentioned earlier, your essay suggests four possible ways in which life might have meaning. Let’s see if they meet our criteria.

  • Meaning in terms of personal fulfillment would not seem to meet the criteria since it is apparently self-referential. But wait! If by ‘life’ we mean the day to day events that constitute our existence and if by ‘fulfillment’ we mean our lives taken as wholes, then indeed the collected parts could find meaning in the integrated whole (which is of a different ontological order from the parts). The elements of the set could find meaning in the set itself.
  • Meaning in terms of intensity would be subject to the same critique…with the same possible resolution.
  • Meaning in terms of a continuation of life beyond the borders of morality will only work to the extent that that life-continued is of a different ontological order than life-lived. If immortal life is merely an infinite extension of mortal life, it will not confer meaning.
  • Finally, meaning in terms of a collective enterprise will work only if that enterprise is of a different ontological order. World War II (see above), for example, is of the same ontological order as our personal lives…and therefore cannot confer meaning on those personal lives.

Our lives are not only haunted by the specter of personal mortality; they are also haunted by the ultimate demise of the universe itself.

Many of us claim to find meaning in the influence our lives may have in the broader world. Long after we are gone, the things we have done will continue to ripple through that world. However, this does not constitute meaning. Nothing of me will survive Heat Death…or Big Crunch. Meaning cannot be conferred by something that itself lacks meaning. If the universe is meaningless, so is everything in it. Entropy is the guaranteed annihilation of all meaning in the historical world.

“My name is Ozymandias, king of kings. Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair. Nothing beside remains. Round the decay of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare the lone and level sands stretch far away.” (Shelley)

Others claim to find meaning in relationships with their mates or with their offspring. We seek to shape our children’s lives by loving them, teaching them, being a role model for them. When they are very young, we imagine that they will live forever; but they will not.

In Genesis, God promises Abram that his descendants will be more numerous than the stars in the sky. Poetic, yes; meaningful no! Someday all of Abram’s descendants will have perished.

So by itself the perpetually perishing historical world cannot provide life with any meaning. Without going into the details of your arguments, you categorically reject all four of the possibilities you name. You ultimately join with Shakespeare (Macbeth) in concluding that life is “a tale, told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.”

On the other hand, I think that all four of the possibilities you mention, rightly understood, can indeed confer meaning. Ultimately, it is precisely the objective values that you reject that give that meaning to life.

First, objective values always refer to a whole rather than a part. At its end, each of our mortal lives will be measurable in terms of those values. We will be defined, not by the day to day incidents that form our lives, but by the way and degree to which our lives, as wholes, instantiate the objective values. That’s the true meaning of ‘fulfillment’. Therefore, fulfillment can confer meaning on our lives after all.

Second, ‘intensity’ ultimately boils down to the passion with which we embrace and project the objective values. ‘Sound and fury’ do not confer meaning; beauty, truth and justice do! Therefore, the level of intensity that characterizes our lives does confer meaning on those lives. As Barry Goldwater famously said, “Moderation in pursuit of justice is no virtue.” Intensity is!

Third, objective values do not arise or perish in time. They exist independent of space and time. Whitehead refers to them as “eternal objects”. Therefore, to the extent that events incorporate (‘positively prehend’ in Whitehead speak) these values, those events too exist eternally. Eternal life is obviously ontologically different from mortal life; it transcends it and includes it and therefore it confers meaning on the mortal lives embedded in it.

Finally, values are objective and therefore normative for every single event in our world. Therefore, we are all involved in one great corporate enterprise whose direction we did not directly determine: the universal instantiation of the objective values.  In the context of that project, our lives have meaning to the extent that they instantiate and project those values.

So it turns out, Professor Ayer, that you (and Shakespeare too…good company) were wrong. Life does have meaning after all! You identified all the key elements: objective values, God, fulfillment, intensity, eternity and community; but you put the jig saw puzzle together incorrectly. You missed out on the beautiful image on the cover of the box.

EDUCATING CHRISTIANS

We are good parents. From infancy we teach our children ‘the facts of life’ –how the world came to be the way it is and how it works. We certainly mean well. But do we do well? Let’s see.

We teach them that we live in a world of space and time.

Space behaves according to the postulates and theorems of Euclid. Time consists of the past, the future, and an ill-defined border region we call “the present”.

We teach that space and time contain mass and energy, which are manifested as matter and force, resulting in what we call ‘events’.

We teach that events consist of things and acts. Entities may be either subjects of an action or objects of an action; actions may be either active in nature (acting on the object) or passive in nature (acting on the subject).

We teach that current events are caused by past events but never by future events.

We teach the concept of scale: a ‘smaller’ entity or event may be included in a ‘larger’ entity or event, but not the other way around. If a is an element of b and b is an element of c then a is an element of c; but then c cannot be an element of b nor can b be an element of a.

Collectively, we can say that the world we teach to our children is linear and one-directional. Time moves forward, not backwards; the past determines (or at least conditions) the future, but not the other way around; entities (wholes) consist of ‘smaller’ parts and are themselves parts of larger wholes.

These are the basic tenets of the world view known as ‘naïve realism’: what you see is what you get!

So what can we say about the things we teach our children?

  • Either that they are entirely wrong;
  • Or that they are approximations of reality, useful in certain circumstances;
  • Or that they are true but only as special cases of a much more complex reality.

In the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus asks, “Which one of you would hand his son a stone when he asks for a loaf of bread, or a snake when he asks for a fish?” Apparently, all of us would! Our sons and daughters ask us to teach them about the world and this is the nutritionless fare we serve up?

Of course, some of our children will grow up, go off to university, study physics or advanced mathematics and discover on their own that what we taught them was fraught with limitations and errors. But what about all the others?

Well, we send them to church or Sunday school, usually once a week for about an hour. There they are exposed to stories that suggest a wholly different model of reality: people rise from the dead, walk on water, change water into wine and wine into blood. This beats any Zombie Apocalypse thriller hands down! But how are they to reconcile this with what we’ve taught them about the world they seem to live in 24/7?

Of course, some will say that religion is about the supernatural while we have been teaching our kids strictly about the natural order of things. But that argument falls apart when we attempt to draw ‘real world’ ethical lessons from these ‘supernatural’ stories: “Why should I behave as though this far-fetched stuff was real?”

Plus, I am not comfortable with a ‘dualist’ model of reality that envisions two realms, one natural, one supernatural. There is but one reality; either it includes God or it doesn’t! Deal with it!

Prior to puberty, children’s minds are extremely democratic; they can juggle competing models of reality with little difficulty, believing all of them at once. Scientific curiosity and religious faith walk hand in hand.

Later on though, thought patterns harden. Balancing contradictory models of reality is no longer praised as a sign of imagination but is condemned as a remnant of infancy.

Is it any wonder then that our teens and 20 somethings lose their religious faith?

Oddly though, this seemingly insuperable paradox has a relatively simple solution. The world of naïve realism that we teach our kids is NOT the ‘real world’ at all. Naïve realism is fantasy, pure and simple. Relativity, quantum mechanics, non-Euclidean geometries, etc. have demolished forever the idea that ‘what you see is what you get’.

Ironically, few serious thinkers today hold with naïve realism – not even Marxist materialists. Yet it remains the enshrined ideology of our time.

So far as possible and as soon as possible, we need to teach our children the truth about the world we live in, as we now understand it. But this will not be easy! Our own grasp of these truths is tenuous at best and they are anything but intuitive.

For epistemological and cultural reasons, a world of space and time, energy and mass, force and matter, entities and events, subjects and objects, parts and wholes seems intuitively obvious. So we will undoubtedly continue to take the easy way out.

But wait! There is a model of reality that we all know (to one degree or another) that undermines the lazy mental habits associated with naïve realism and that is at least compatible with the latest scientific and mathematical thinking. It’s called…drum roll please…Christianity!

The recent rapid decline in Christian belief can be attributed to many things but none more so than its incompatibility with secularism and the pseudo-science of naïve realism. The decline is usually dated from an historical period that we shamelessly call The Enlightenment. Talk about assuming the conclusion in the premise!

It is true that Christianity is incompatible with naïve realism but it is also true that naïve realism is incompatible with science. And yes, the enemy of my enemy is my friend: Christianity is, at least in general, compatible with contemporary scientific models.

Ironically, we are often told that people no longer believe in ‘the supernatural’ – this just as science has discovered that the world we live in IS supernatural (if by ‘natural’ you mean ‘what you see is what you get’)!

The doctrines of our Christian faith point toward a model of nature that is radically different from the standard model we parents and grandparents tend to teach.

Let’s consider some examples from scripture:

“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God…All things came to be through him…And the Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us…” (Gospel of John)

The Word (Logos, Christ, Son of God) exists eternally, outside of historical time, and participates actively in the creation of everything that comes to be within historical time. But the Word also enters into historical time as one of its ‘quantum’ elements.

The doctrine of Incarnation demolishes the twin tyrannies of ‘scale’ and ‘time’ in one fell swoop. Begin with scale:

“Christ is all (whole) and in all (part).” (Colossians)

“Believe me that I am in the Father and the Father is in me.” (Gospel of John)

“Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood remains in me and I in him.” (Gospel of John)

Game, set, match! In Christian logic, A can be a proper element of B and that same B can be a proper element of A.

Move on to time:

“The one who is coming after me ranks ahead of me because he existed before me.” (Gospel of John)

“Amen, amen, I say to you, before Abraham came to be, I AM.” (Gospel of John)

Earlier we referred to “an ill-defined border region we call the present”. In fact, the present is not part of historical time at all. To be in the present is to step out of continuously flowing historical time; it is to participate in the eternal.

Historical time is a linear continuum. It consists of past and future but no present. The fact that there is a present (We’re living in it!) proves that there is another, eternal dimension to time. The present and the eternal are one!

In Exodus, God tells us that his name is “I AM”; in the Gospel of John, Jesus, the Christ, uses the same formulation. In several passages, Jesus refers to himself as I AM. In fact, God (or Christ) never “was” or “will be”. God always just is. God lives in the eternal present, he is the eternal present, and when we experience ‘presence’ we participate in God’s time, aka ‘eternity’.

The spatio-temporal is embedded in the eternal (God) via creation but the eternal (Christ) is embedded in the spatio-temporal via incarnation. Incarnation takes rigid rectilinear space-time (think jungle gym) and turns it inside out (think sock)!

Modern physics constitutes an all out assault on the primacy…or even the real existence…of time. Why then is the idea of linear, one-directional time so pervasive and so intuitive? Stephen Hawking, not always a friend of Christianity, suggests that it may be an artifact of the biological substrate of human mental processes interacting with the phenomenon of entropy.

This would explain why entropy seems to be a hard wired feature of historical time yet plays no role in eternity  (the burning bush in Exodus 3 doesn’t burn!). In fact, as we shall see below, eternity is a process of ever increasing order, not disorder.

Christianity also disposes of the dualism of subjective or objective nouns and active or passive verbs. Instead of the hierarchical and vectored relationships of naïve realism, Christian ontology is based on the idea of reciprocal relations:

“Remain in me as I remain in you.” (Gospel of John)

“For we are his (God’s) handiwork, created in Christ Jesus for the good works that God had prepared in advance, that we should live in them.” (Ephesians)

The good works that we do of our own free will also exist independently of us and help make us who we are. The works and the worker relate reciprocally; neither is subject nor object of the other. We do what we do and what we do does us!

The Trinity is a dynamic and reciprocal relationship between three persons, each of whom is God. Our lives are first and foremost participation in the life of the Trinity; therefore our relationships are also dynamic and reciprocal. What we do unto others, we do to ourselves as well. All action is bi-directional, never vectored.

“Blessed are the merciful, for they will be shown mercy.” (Gospel of Matthew)

“Forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors.” (Gospel of Matthew)

Christianity makes clear that the universe of space and time, entities and events, ‘heaven and earth’ is relative, that it exists as one aspect of a larger, more ontologically general reality:

“At the beginning, O Lord, you established the earth, and the heavens are the works of your hands. They will perish but you remain; and they will all grow old like a garment. You will roll them up like a cloak…But you are the same and your years will have no end.” (Hebrews)

“Next I saw a large white throne and the one who was sitting on it. The earth and sky fled from his presence and there was no place for them.” (Revelation)

Some modern thinkers allow that God may have played a role in the creation of the physical universe. They give a theistic interpretation to Big Bang. Beyond that, they tend to be deists: after Big Bang, God rested.

Christianity, however, goes much further. First, the spatio-temporal world not only comes from God (Creation) but ultimately it returns to God (Parousia):

“…Then comes the end, when he (Son) hands over the kingdom to his God and Father…for he (Father) subjected everything under his (Son’s) feet…When everything is subjected to him (Son), then the Son himself will also be subjected to the one (Father) who subjected everything to him (Son), so that God may be all in all.” (Corinthians)

“In all wisdom and insight, he has made known to us the mystery of his will…as a plan for the fullness of times, to sum up all things in Christ, in heaven and on earth.” (Ephesians)

“Holy Father, keep them in your name (I AM) that you have given me…so that they may be one as we are one, I in them and you in me, that they may be brought to perfection as one…” (Gospel of John)

Regarding the spatio-temporal world, Shakespeare wrote (Macbeth): It is “a tale, told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.” But the ‘real world’ is not that. Rather it is a process of reconciliation and perfection in preparation for eternal participation in the life of the Trinity. Sorry, Shakes!

Second, God (Spirit) is an active participant in the world in every way and at every level:

“For in him (Christ) were created all things in heaven and on earth…all things were created for him and through him. He is before all things, and in him all things hold together…For in him all fullness was pleased to dwell, and through him to reconcile all things for him…” (Colossians)

“…One body and one Spirit…one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all.” (Ephesians)

“And he (Father) put all things beneath his (Christ’s) feet and gave him as head over all things to the church, which is his (Christ’s) body, the fullness of the one who fills all things in every way.” (Ephesians)

We take for granted that the universe as described by naïve realism is possible, even if unreal. But Christian cosmology suggests that even this is not so. A world of discrete entities and events and vectored relationships may not have the ‘glue’ needed to hold these elements together. Christian ontology holds that “in him all things hold together”, that an actual world requires an actual God ”who is over all and through all and in all.”

The words of Revelation, the final book of the Christian Bible, sum all this up:

“I am the Alpha and the Omega, the first and the last, the beginning and the end.” (Revelation)

“I am the Alpha and the Omega, the one who is and who was and who is to come… I am the first and the last, the one who lives.” (Revelation)

So where does this leave us poor beleaguered parents and grandparents? We cannot teach our kids the truths of our faith on top of the naïve realist, secular model of the ‘natural’ world.

We want to eat our cake and have it too. We want our kids to ‘fit in’ but we also want them to be Christians. These two objectives are to some degree at least incompatible. Christianity is incurably counter-cultural.

We must teach our children a totally counter-cultural model of nature. We must teach the doctrines of our Faith, not as exceptions to natural law, but as the highest expressions of natural law. To do that, we must show how natural law and Christian doctrine are two sides of one coin.

We must teach our children that the world is one and that that one world begins and ends and is infused throughout with God. We must teach them that we do not ‘live for tomorrow’ (which they will eventually discover disappears) but that we live in the present, which is eternal. We must teach them that our lives are part of a cosmic communal enterprise of creation and reconciliation leading to the Kingdom of Heaven.

Religious education and secular education are just education, pure and simple. As in the Middle Ages, so in the Modern Age: science is an extension of theology as theology is an extension of science. Try teaching that at Harvard!