Why are we communicating? I am typing these words for you to read and you are reading them. But why are we doing this?
We might say we are communicating to better understand each other, to pass the time, to learn different viewpoints, and so on. While the answer may not be entirely clear to us, we will likely have a general idea of why we engage in this sort of behavior. We are social creatures, we enjoy each other, we have an interest in these subjects… whatever the case, most of us would agree that these are all quite valid explanations for why two people would communicate.
Now imagine that someone else approaches to inform us that our answers are no good. “You can’t be the source of your own purpose,” he says. “Unless that purpose comes from some external, objective standard, your answers are meaningless and there really is no reason for why you are communicating with each other.” Perhaps he would even enlighten us to the true purpose of communication, founded on the will of Aphrodite, who wants everyone to talk more so they will fall in love. “I don’t want to think of how hopeless interacting would seem without Great Aphrodite’s purpose for communication,” he’d lament.
How many of us would do anything other than laugh at this gentleman? It seems intuitive that we who are communicating are in the best position to know why we are communicating. There is no need to appeal to an outside party or to a divine being. True, external sources may hit on some correct answers, because we humans are complex animals that aren’t always aware of our thought processes. However, the idea that communication is without meaning or purpose, or that it’s somehow less fulfilling without recognizing Aphrodite’s will, is not just devoid of evidence but overly complicates something easily explicable on our own terms.
Many people in the world today believe that life lived apart from the will of their god must be a purposeless and meaningless existence. Fortunately, though, there is no more of a reason for seeing things in this way then there is to see communication in the same way as the imaginary Aphrodite worshipper.
I. Where Did We Come From?
You are reading these words right now because many years ago your parents exchanged genetic material that created you. Their parents did the same to create them, as did your great grandparents, and so on with everyone else back through your family tree. The species you and your relatives belong to, Homo sapiens sapiens, evolved from ancestral humans about 200,000 years ago, according to recent estimates.1 We human beings are primates descended from other extinct primates such as Homo erectus, Homo heidelbergensis, and Australopithecus afarensis. The evidence for human evolution is overwhelming,2 and genetic research has shown that other primates, like chimpanzees3 and bonobos,4 have a remarkably high percentage of DNA similarity to human beings.
Scientists estimate that the universe began about 13.7 billion years ago with the event known as the Big Bang. After 9 billion years, the earth was formed by accretion of dust particles, gases, and heavy elements forged inside of stars. Life arose around 3.5-4 billion years ago, with the appearance of simple celled organisms called prokaryotes. 1-2 billion years later, complex cells known as eukaryotes began to form, followed by multicellular organisms, which gradually gave birth to the Animalia biological kingdom of fish, birds, mammals, reptiles, and insects. In the mid-1800s, Charles Darwin formulated his theory of evolution by natural selection, explaining that organisms change over time because of genetic mutations (which he called “variations”) that are favored based on how they aid an organism’s survival or adaptation to its environment.
Naturalists believe that the universe operates by unguided natural processes. On this view, the natural world that we find ourselves in is the only world. We have not come from any gods, spirits, or supernatural beings, but from ancestors who were fortunate enough to survive and pass on their genes. We are not a separate creation living in the universe, we are the universe, formed from the very stars. There is both humility and beauty in this view.
II. Who Are We?
Despite having evolved from other organisms, we are not “just monkeys”, or “biological accidents”, as a number of theistic apologists portray the naturalist position. In fact, such an argument constitutes a logical fallacy, as explained by philosopher and historian Richard Carrier:
The modo hoc fallacy is a type of the fallacy of composition, where one assumes that what is true for part of something must also be true of the whole. A wall made up of short stones will not necessarily be a short wall, and even if we are made up of atoms and nothing else, it does not follow that we only possess the same value and meaning as a cluster of atoms. As Dr. Carrier points out, we are a specific and distinct arrangement of atoms, and it would be unfair and irrational to reduce us to as ‘low’ a status as rocks, slime, bacteria, and other, different arrangements of atoms. We are still human beings, regardless of what strawman arguments are thrown at naturalism.
What does it mean, though, to be human? We are self-aware and conscious creatures, high in intelligence, yet rife with emotion. We are capable of both great feats of creation and harrowing acts of destruction. We have the ability to reflect on the past, ponder the present, and plan for the future. We harness the world’s resources to serve our needs and desires, while some of us strive to conserve the environment for the sake of other species as much as our own. In these ways, but also in others, we stand apart from the rest of the organisms on this planet. Similarly, you stand apart from the rest of your fellow human beings, having your own unique assortment of traits, thoughts, and feelings.
If evolution is a reminder of our lowly origins, then what we have become is a testament to our potential. We are not made in the image of a god, but neither are we the hopelessly sinful wretches of a fallen creation. No magic words, sacrifices, or beliefs, will save us from ourselves or condemn those we disdain. We are what we are – moral and immoral, responsible and irresponsible, kind and unkind, wise and unwise, loving and unloving.
III. Why Are We Here?
As we’ve addressed them so far, the questions of who we are and where we come from are empirical questions. They have answers in the fossil record, in genetics, in biology, in psychology and social sciences, and in recorded history. The question of why we are here, to which we now turn, is different. It speaks to purpose and meaning, concepts that are not as readily discernible from empirical evidence. It’s interesting what we will often entertain as answers to this question. Most of us tend to focus on purpose and meaning that we think will bring a sense of fulfillment or completion to our lives, but why should our reason for being here have to do with our satisfaction at all? Imagine finding out that the reason you were born was because your parents wanted the tax credit of having a child, or picture a peaceful artificial intelligence discovering that the reason it was created was to be a weapon of war. There is no guarantee that learning our purpose should be, or will be, personally fulfilling.
Things don’t seem to be much better even supposing a god exists. The entire world could be an accidental consequence of divine action, as in one ancient Egyptian myth where the deity Atum sneezes out the gods Shu and Tefnut, whose descendants create the earth along with the first human beings. It could also be that humans were made to be slaves, and their personal fulfillment is of no concern to the gods, like in the case of Marduk’s creation of human beings in the Enuma Elish. On a more modern monotheism, god is taken to be perfect, yet this seems to imply that he would have no need or desire to create the universe. A perfect god is said to be “whole,” not lacking in anything essential to itself. Why would such a being decide to make a universe that it knows will become imperfect? Even an “act of love” would be arbitrary without some reason for it. Positing a god does not invest life with purpose, nor would the actual existence of a god necessarily mean we have purpose to our lives.
So is life just meaningless no matter which way you slice it? Perhaps not. Certain kinds of meaning may express little more than wishful thinking, but it’s not obvious that all notions of meaning can be dismissed so easily. Philosophers often distinguish between intrinsic meaning and extrinsic meaning.6 Someone can live an intrinsically meaningful life by participating in things that are intrinsically good for her. These valuable activities she chooses to fill her life with give meaning to her life, provided they are not outweighed by other things in her life that may be bad for her. An extrinsically meaningful life is a life that promotes the good by allowing others to participate in intrinsically valuable activities. Just as someone can live a personally meaningful life that does not promote the good of others, you can also live a life that is so focused on contributing to the good of others that it is missing personal meaning. A well-rounded life will have both these kinds of meaning.
Is there any reason to think a universe without god can’t have these kinds of meaning? One common argument suggests that because everything ends, and nothing we do in this life will prevent that end, there is no meaning to anything we do. William Lane Craig writes,
On this view, a life has meaning only if it makes a difference in how things ultimately end. A universe without god would indeed seem to lack this kind of meaning, but why think that this is the only way to lead a meaningful life? One can still engage in intrinsically valuable activities and promote the good of others even if none of what we do changes the ultimate end of everything. It’s worth noting, too, that Craig doesn’t appear to disagree that there are intrinsically valuable activities. He sees a loving relationship with god as just such an activity, so the disagreement he has rather looks to be with the notion that there are other intrinsically good things. But if a loving relationship with god can be intrinsically valuable, why not other sorts of loving relationships? Similar responses can be made to other arguments against meaning in a godless universe, such as the need for a perfect arbiter of meaning, or the need for a specifically supernatural kind of meaning.
We will look more at morality and its relationship to a meaningful life when we come to the question of why we should be moral.
IV. Where Are We Going?
Are we put on this earth for a reason? The naturalist will say no, there was no guiding hand that placed us here or set us down on this planet with any mission. Nonetheless, there can be meaning to life. There are things in the universe worth doing for their own sake, not because any deity instructed us to perform them. Some of these things are good regardless of how we feel about them, and so we are able to find meaning in them that transcends our personal attitudes. Perhaps then the question of why we are here is not as meaningful as the question of how we should live. Now that we find ourselves conscious and self-aware, able to reflect on the past and see ahead, what are we going to do with our lives?
This is a big question with a lot of different ideas on the table, and it’s one reason why this site exists and why this article exists. “The unexamined life is not worth living,” according to Socrates, and in similar spirit the apostle Paul encouraged his followers, “examine everything carefully; hold fast to that which is good.”8 Whether we find ourselves living godly lives or godless lives, we should live seeking understanding and striving for truth. It is my hope that this series, and everything on this site, will uphold this standard both in considering religious viewpoints and in presenting an atheistic perspective on a rational, meaningful life.
Next in the Big Questions: What Happens After We Die?
1. Fossil Reanalysis Pushes Back Origin of Homo sapiens, Scientific American (Feb. 17, 2005). Retrieved April 13, 2013.
2. Jim Foley, Fossil Hominds: The Evidence for Human Evolution, TalkOrigins Archive (May 31, 2011). Retrieved April 13, 2013.
3. Humans, Chimpanzees and Monkeys Share DNA but Not Gene Regulatory Mechanisms, Science Daily (Nov. 6, 2012). Retrieved April 13, 2013.
4. Kay Prüfer et al., The bonobo genome compared with the chimpanzee and human genomes, Nature (2012). Retrieved April 13, 2013.
5. Richard Carrier, Sense and Goodness Without God: A Defense of Metaphysical Naturalism (Prometheus, 2005), p. 130.
6. Erik J. Wielenberg, Value and Virtue in a Godless Universe (Cambridge, 2005), p. 14-15. Wielenberg refers to “internal” and “external” meaning, though the concepts are the same.
7. William Lane Craig, in Walter Sinnott-Armstrong and William Lane Craig, God? A Debate Between a Christian and an Atheist (Oxford, 2004), p. 18.
8. 1 Thessalonians 5:21, New American Standard translation.