Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Isaiah 55:9 (Or, the Meaning of Life)

Today while studying, I realized that I am definitely not choosing my future career in an attempt to make myself happy, or because I think I will enjoy it more than anything else.  That's just not the guiding principle here.  If it were, I'm not sure what I would pick.

Is that bad?

I have chosen my future career because I believe that easing human pain has some greater significance than just what we see.   I believe it has meaning beyond the material world, because I believe people have meaning beyond the material world.
I've chosen medicine as the antidote to the dark moments when I cannot see why any of it matters.

If I give life a long, hard look, I feel often like it's not worth living.  It's just bits of happiness and bits of pain, and in the end it passes away into darkness anyway.
Many people feel that those bits of happiness are somehow worth something for their own sake, but I have a hard time believing that.  I seem incapable of simply enjoying them without them having some value beyond what is obvious.
The existentialists deal with this.  If life is meaningless, then why bother?

So my panicky antidote to the existentialist conclusion arises, that there simply must be some meaning.  From there, I usually jump directly to an axiomatic acceptance of the transcendent value of human beings, moving if pressed into a conclusion that "if God thinks we matter then we do".

How I get from "I don't want to commit suicide" to "human beings matter" is not clear to me.

But if human beings do matter, then meaning can be had by benefiting them in some lasting way.  Some people choose to do this through teaching, some through medicine, some through research, some through art, and some through reproduction.

So I try, and I don't think about the leap too much.  I'm afraid that if I do, I'll decide it's not warranted and... well, it's not going to happen.

But sometimes when I'm down, it's hard to muster the energy to make that leap.  Then the meaninglessness I feel starts breathing down my neck, and I shudder.

The glorious reality, however, is that whether I feel there is meaning does not determine whether there is.  Logically, a transcendent God can give meaning to our existence.  A God who is God is capable of exactly that, a fact that is true whether I feel it or not.

(A "God who is God" is defined in my mind by, "My thoughts are higher than your thoughts, and my ways are higher than your ways, says the Lord".  He is not a weak-sauce god who thinks as we do.  He is not a slave to our wants, to our beliefs, or even to our logic.  He is a God who created the logic that produced our world, which produced our brains through natural selection.  He is not of this world.  Higher than my thoughts.  Higher than my ways. This is a God who is God.)

And if he could give meaning to our existence, who can maintain that he hasn't done exactly that? He certainly believed he had.


  1. Frankly, the idea of selecting a career because it seems fun or makes me happy in and of itself seems alien to me. Jen Fulwiler has written about this, (http://www.conversiondiary.com/2009/11/souvenirs-of-the-good-life.html for example) which I find enlightening since I think I just don't get this mode of thinking. The richness of life is embedded in how we touch other humans, not in events in time in our own lives.

    Rationally, I feel compelled to say that just because life without meaning wouldn't be worth living doesn't prove that life must have meaning. I'd argue a little bit differently. The experience of feeling that life is something worth living is so powerful in my mind that I would reject any philosophy that contends it's not worth living on those grounds alone. Experimental verification of metaphysics, if you will.

    From the viewpoint that life is worth living, it doesn't seem like much of a stretch to say that it has meaning as well. If you find compelling truths from understanding the Christian God as the source of this meaning, by all means, go for it.

    And if the sense of meaninglessness ever gets too overwhelming, I usually find that this helps:


  2. Well, my realization was that my default mode of thinking is a materialist one. It's a tough one to break out of. And so when I ask myself why my life has meaning, the materialist answer is that it doesn't. And then I just want to go off myself, because what's the point?

    In those dark moments, I've typically just taken a flying leap to "but that's silly; of course life has meaning. I'm gonna be a doctor!"

    What I was trying to say is that I don't have to take that leap anymore. In my lighter moods, God as the source of all meaning makes perfect sense. But I don't have to listen to my darker moods.

    Aside from that is the heretical realization that if God is transcendent, some of his actions and thoughts will not make sense to me and will seem logically impossible. This is not a vague possibility. This is a necessary consequence of believing in a God who is God.

  3. You say this idea is heretical. How so? As you've pointed out, logical impossibilities are the mark of a being that can transcend logic. I submit that the boundary conditions of the universe are such a discontinuity in logic. To be sure, linking this metaphysical idea to the Christian God takes a few more leaps of reasoning, but I think the principle you're talking about makes sense.

    Materialism seems like a failed hypothesis to me, for reasons I'm incredibly bad at articulating. Regardless, it does appear that the material world has some privileged status in reality given the predictive power of physical law and the like. How do you reconcile this privilege with the idea people are fundamentally more than the atoms that compose them? I have no idea.

    Maybe this is why I have a blog instead of a teaching position somewhere.

  4. I mean that it's heretical to the belief system of materialism. That seemed the only appropriate word, honestly.

    The biggest analogy I see to all this is quantum physics vs. Newtonian mechanics. They aren't opposed. They just describe different parts of reality. Our brains evolved in Newtonian physics, so that is where our intuition and classical logic work. Outside of that, we have little predictive power. Some parts of our logic still work, like math. But other parts of it just break down.

    As I learn more quantum mechanics, I think that comparing God to an electron might be more and more apt.