Using Science to Find the Meaning of Life (For Free)

When you think of deep, philosophical questions, the one that is probably the most quintessential is “What is the meaning of life?” At the very least, we want to know what makes our own lives meaningful or have purpose. While religious institutions have for centuries tried to provide the structure to give answer to that question, it seems like it is not working for many people today, given the drop-out rate in the US, not to mention the secularization of many other modern nations. There have been plenty of spiritualist movements that you can point to that do the same. Heck, even Ancient Aliens is really about that as well with its mix of “science”, “history”, Theosophy, and New Agerism.

On the other hand, science is often considered to be separate from values, so it’s hard to say in any way that science could tell us what is the purpose of our existence. That’s not correct from the research I have seen because science can tell us what does and doesn’t work towards living a fulfilling life. And fortunately, that academic study isn’t tucked away in a corner. Recently Gleb Tsipursky at Ohio State (who I have met and conversed with) has done a lot of work to do research-based workshops on helping people find that elusive sense of purpose. He now has a book to do the same, and I was fortunate to get a copy earlier. I like its approach since it also follows my own educational philosophies, and it is clearly following the consensus of the best knowledge we currently have on what makes people happy and fulfilled. That includes forms of meditation, though you hardly need to be a Buddhist to do it.

The book, Find Your Purpose Using Science, was crowd-supported and now up on Amazon, and for the next few days it’s free for Kindle/digital download. I found the book interesting in its use of not just scientific research but also some insights from how the Soviet nations were able to find meaning even though my own image of the communist regime is covered in the bleakest of greys. The book also not dryly written nor is it filled with platitudes. If you have a copy, compare it to Rick Warren’s The Purpose-Drive Life and see how different Gleb’s approach is and how more universal and useful it should be. (Of course, I would also recommend Robert M. Price’s response to Warren’s book, The Reason Driven Life).

The free book offer is only for a few days, but even after it should be worth the price. While I would claim that my life feels meaningful right now, I think I can use the exercises in there to get even more out of life. Why not?

Then again, you could get the answer to it all at the end of Monty Python’s The Meaning of Life

Then again, know your place in the world

Thanks again, Gleb, for the copy of the book. I hoping to make my personal insights a little more intentional. 😉


Honestly, Atheists Have Meaning in their Lives

I may need to add another atheism book to my library after learning that philosopher AC Grayling is publishing a new book, The God Argument, which has the dual goal of arguing against religion and for a humanistic philosophy of life. I already have his previous book, The Good Book, which tries to be a sort of Bible with chapters and verses, but with modern scientific and philosophical understandings. (PZ Myers also has a book coming out about atheism and being fulfilled/happy, called The Happy Atheist. Oh, and happy birthday, PZ.)

But it looks like the volume is being attacked before it’s even published by Damon Linker (his website here) over at The Week. But with an article title of “Where are the honest atheists”, one already loses patience with his critique. Linker things that the arguments against gods and religion are already worn-out and that atheism already leads to nihilism, and to argue otherwise is dishonest. Yeah, so if you’re an atheist and you’re happy, you’re a hypocrite unless you admit all that gives you meaning and hope is an illusion, I guess.

Then again, it seems that Linker hasn’t really thought this through very well. Hell, he hasn’t even read the book, can’t even get the title right (he calls it “The God Question”), and yet he things any arguments for meaning in life are a moral failure without theism. Unfortunately, his argument consists of a bunch of quotes from various authors, most treated in a very superficial way.

Take his treatment of Nietzsche, who proclaims “God is dead” and that this was an “awe-inspiring catastrophe” for us. So panic(!), because a snippet of a 19th century philosopher’s works means it’s true, especially when you don’t read the rest. There was a book by Nietzsche that argued against the sort of pessimism that Larkin talks about and was supported by Schopenhauer in Nietzsche’s day; that book was The Gay Science (gay as in happy), and it was against the nihilistic/pessimistic view. For example, when Nietzsche talks about God being dead or dying in Europe:

Even we born guessers of riddles who are, as it were, waiting on the mountains, posted between today and tomorrow, stretched in the contradiction between today and tomorrow, we firstlings and premature births of the coming century, to whom the shadows that must soon envelop Europe really should have appeared by now—why is it that even we look forward to the approaching gloom without any real sense of involvement and above all without any worry and fear for ourselves? Are we perhaps still too much under the impression of the initial consequences of this event—and these initial consequences, the consequences for ourselves, are quite the opposite of what one might perhaps expect: They are not at all sad and gloomy but rather like a new and scarcely describable kind of light, happiness, relief, exhilaration, encouragement, dawn.

Indeed, we philosophers and “free spirits” feel, when we hear the news that “the old god is dead,” as if a new dawn shone on us; our heart overflows with gratitude, amazement, premonitions, expectation. At long last the horizon appears free to us again, even if it should not be bright; at long last our ships may venture out again, venture out to face any danger; all the daring of the lover of knowledge is permitted again; the sea, our sea, lies open again; perhaps there has never yet been such an “open sea.”—

We are to embrace this brave, new world according to this German thinker. And we are to fill it with our creativity and power. Continue reading

The Sublunar Armstrong

Many have become familiar with the work of a religious scholar named Karen Armstrong, a former nun as well who studied at Oxford though not receiving a doctorate in her field of interest. She has written widely on the subject of the history of major religions, especially highlighting the spiritual aspects of the faiths. Most popular is probably her A History of God, but it is her most recent statements and her book, The Case of God, that sparks this post.

Armstrong has tried to save religion both from the conservatives of the faiths as well as the “New Atheists”, which includes usually the figures of Dawkins, Dennett, Harris, Hitchens, along with Vic Stenger and PZ Myers. She must claim that religion is not what it is for the vast majority of people in the United States and much of the Islamic world, where sciences such as evolution are denied, where people are abused for not conforming to scriptures–the lessening of rights for homosexuals, including death as could happen in Uganda, or death for apostasy in some Islamic corners–but that religious faith is something beyond this world. Her theology is more sophisticated than that attacked by Dawkins and company.

What does she actually believe though? Well, this is the real problem because her beliefs are rather vacuous. The spiritual is quite subjective for her, such that the reality of God or gods is not a requirement for her faith. Now, that sounds like weirded-out atheism to me, when the existence of gods is not needed for belief in God. God is a symbol of things transcendent to us, and because it is beyond our understanding we cannot say anything about God.

Well, if nothing can be said of God, then what does it mean to believe in God? Saying anything about what God is or what he/she/it wants and what happens to us because of such beings would certainly undo this stance. In reality, the position Armstrong seems to take is an attempt to make sure her theology cannot be criticized–there is nothing to critique, as there is nothing at all!

Recently, a great critique by Troy Jollimore, an associate professor of philosophy at California State, Chico, has pretty much laid her work to waste. By wanting to take away all attributed to God, including existence, but still finding the subjective nature as valid as anything else, she undercuts herself. To me, it looks as if the whole effort is a defense mechanism, trying to protect that special feeling she gets when she thinks about God. Even a meaningless word or statement can be powerful to a person, and protecting the idea, the feeling, of God is her mission. It is not about the facts of nature or deep philosophy, but the will to believe. Armstrong only has rhetoric and feels powerful, as demonstrated by a reviewer from NPR, Susan Jane Gilman, but there is no real depth.

Even religious scholars seem to scoff at her insinuations, and not simply from the conservative wing. Robert M. Price, a former evangelical, now an atheist-Christian and biblical scholar, simply cannot stand her, as he has made clear to me; and R. Joseph Hoffman, another New Testament scholar, finds her arguments as little more than cliche. Armstrong, in trying to make religion something new, seems to have dropped everything that made it worth while, all for some new-agey product.

It seems Armstrong is the religious homeopath–the less things you believe in when it comes to religion, the stronger the faith. No matter what is coherent or intelligible, for God is beyond all such things. But with such soaring rhetoric, there is nothing to latch upon, no being that is there, no essence other than shear desire. Armstrong, by her want of transendence, has left the wonders of what can be, which should be upsetting to someone of a Buddhist stance. The self-indulgent narcissism is something that will leave you in Samsara; Nirvana cannot be a state of hoped-for desire, but to be beyond such desires. That must include the desires of transcendence which cannot be articulated. Otherwise, you are stuck with the illusion of reality, that which the Buddha warned against. Armstrong has attached herself to that which is not anything at all, and that is worse than at least those that believe in things that can be seen.

Let’s compare this to another Armstrong or two. There is the biking-sensation, Lance Armstrong, overcoming both the competition and mortality to become something we admire. And how could we forget the Armstrong that was truly super-lunar? With our hopes and dreams of becoming more than just a species trapped on the surface of a spinning rock, we truly went beyond this world to touch another and understand our place in it. One day we will repeat this feat on the Moon again, and later to Mars and perhaps beyond. This is growth of the spirit, in the capacity of humankind that we can see. As the plaque on the lunar surface says: We came in peace for all mankind. Not bad, minus the sexist language.

Understanding who we are through the sciences has led humanity to an amazing position. We know that we have a history of 13.7 billion years from the fires of the Big Bang to the collection of dust and gas to form the Sun and the Earth. We have a four billion year history of life on this world, and each of us living today comes from an unbroken chain of the winners of nature, those that succeeded in making it to the next generation. We know that we are composed forged matter from stellar furnaces. We are children of the stars! This is all objectively known to be true, not simply a feeling or a desire.

We need no “deepity”, to use the phrase from Dan Dennett. In fact, he has given a wonderful lecture of this subject recently:

Note: Dan is the Man!

Seeing is Believing

Often I hear someone mention a line from the letters of St. Paul, namely Romans 1:20

Ever since the creation of the world his invisible nature, namely, his eternal power and deity, has been clearly perceived in the things that have been made.

That is, the ways of God are manifest in all the things of nature. Open your eyes and you will see the ways of the Lord.

Yet, I think it is important to remember how open things are to interpretation. For example, if signs from God are visible in nature, what is the message from this?

Perhaps one will say that this is just a random formation of birds, not a deliberate insult to humans who have randomly take the middle finger to be an insult. If that is so, then doesn’t that apply to all things? We see messages in the noise of existence and place purpose there–see the effects of pareidolia for example.

Perhaps instead it is better to make a purposeful noise in this universe rather than trying to find someone else’s, especially if they are rude.

The Reason

There have been a great number of blogs started, and I am now one more Johnny-come-lately, making an already dense and saturated field all the worse. This blog will not be about my life so much as about what is very important to me: my thoughts. Sometimes I will post things that are well evidenced or argued by logical analysis, and sometimes I just want to produce excellent prose that can cause as much thought as deep and dry non-fiction does. I hope it can be interesting for the reader.

As for subjects, I am most interested in the sciences, but by interests in scholarship, history, and philosophy will permeate this blog, so don’t expect nothing but science news, to which better outlets probably exist. Religious belief will also be played on, and even though I do not plan to have works that will be of the same value as the books that have in the past been printed, or the newest batch that has been created, there is here the possibility of extending those thoughts beyond those pages, or clarify those works against criticisms that are unjustified.

I hope you will enjoy these writings. Sometimes it will be serious, sometimes humorous, I should hope. Symbols will be flying and explanations for them will not be common, so be on your toes, especially since I many not even know what I am talking about.