When people ask the question in the post’s title, or the roughly equivalent question, “What is the meaning of life?” my reply is that I don’t understand what is being asked. They both seem like category errors to me; universes don’t have purposes and lives don’t have meanings. If I were to attempt to give an answer, without any regard for whether the answer were true, I would have no idea what to say.
Perhaps there is some guidance to be gained from the answers others give. One answer I have heard is that the meaning of life is to glorify God in word, thought and deed. But that sounds like providing a meaning entails describing the sorts of things one ought to do in life. In that case my answer is that the meaning of life is to pursue those things that give you happiness and satisfaction, with some obvious deference to the rights of others, of course. Where’s the mystery?
So when I noticed this article over at HuffPo, entitled, “The Purpose of the Universe” and written by Rabbi David Wolpe, I perked up.
Here’s the setup:
In Puebla Mexico, the newly dubbed Ciudad de las ideas, (City of Ideas) the third annual Festival Internacional de Mentes Brillantes (International Festival of Great Minds) took place this past weekend. Along with two other theologians, I was assigned a daunting and fascinating task: to argue about whether the universe has a purpose. On one side stood Richard Dawkins, Matt Ridley and Michael Shermer — respectively, the biologist and scourge of religion, the science writer and the editor of Skeptic magazine. In my corner of the sky were William Lane Craig, scholar and author, and Doug Geivatt, author and professor at Biola University. We said yes, they said no.
Now, you might be thinking the proper answer is “no one can know.” That might be so, but none of us was willing to let it rest there. At first glance we could all agree that the universe has a purpose the way the kitchen has a meal — it offers the ingredients. You can make purpose in your life from the raw materials that the universe gives you. But the question was not plural — not does the universe contains purposes, but does the universe have a purpose?
To judge from the rosters on the respective sides, it would seem, “Does the universe have a purpose?” really just means, “Does God exist?”
So how does Wolpe answer the question?
My own argument was first: The universe is delicately poised on nothingness; change one of many cosmological constants by just a fraction and our world could not exist. In other words, it is extravagantly improbable for everything to be balanced perfectly for existence and yet it is so. Perhaps it was meant to be so. Moreover, it is astonishing that the universe has laws we can actually grasp. Indeed, the very practice of science presupposes there is some purpose, aim or meaning to all this. How can we investigate or understand nonsense or meaninglessness? I also argued that reason is not the only tool for investigation of reality. Our most basic beliefs are the rock upon which our reason is built, not the product of it.
Standard stuff. To judge from his answer, Wolpe construes the question to be equivalent to “Was the universe created by an intelligent agent?” But even if I grant there is a God, strictly for the sake of argument of course, I would still want to know what his purpose was in creating the universe. And then I would want to know why His purposes should necessarily be mine.
My compatriots, Craig and Geivett, hammered home the point that if there is a God the universe has a meaning, but if not, we would agree with our opponents that it was empty and doomed. They also carefully marshaled arguments for why God was the best explanation of the phenomenon of life. These included everything from the mystery of consciousness (how do you get self awareness if everything is just matter, stuff, the same as a rock) to C.S. Lewis’ claim that if we have yearnings that are not satisfied in this world, it is possible that is because this world is not the only one.
More standard stuff. Apparently “not having a meaning” (is meaning equivalent to purpose?) is equivalent to being “empty and doomed.” Whatever.
I don’t really care much about the fate of the universe, at least not during those moments when I am thinking about the meaning and purpose of my life. My concerns are far more localized in both time and space, and mostly involve non-eternity-directed activities that nonetheless seem plenty meaningful to me.