Atheism and the Meaning of Life

A secular humanism group I’m a member of recently had a structured but largely unbounded discussion about the meaning, value, and purpose of life from a secular perspective. The organizer summarized the discussion leaving out the majority of what I took to be my contribution. Here are 3 excerpts from his summary:

Most of the group was in agreement that we don’t find meaning in life, but rather create or discover it for ourselves.

One person mentioned AI and his work in programming and that exploring unique possibilities and then sharing them with others gives him meaning and purpose in life.

Whether there is purpose in life was more contentious. Many said looking at the universe and life as it really is points to no ultimate purpose. The universe just is and does not care about us. Some mentioned that this was hard for them to accept and they were not satisfied with this. Others stated that you can bring value to yourself and others, but ultimately there is no meaning or purpose in naturalism.

The middle excerpt refers to me. However, it’s a misunderstanding of what I said. The most basic point is that I don’t (really) work in AI, but ALife. The distinction is important, especially for this discussion. I mostly reject AI as a method for realizing generalized intelligence. There are myriad reasons for my rejection. But a big one, again in this context, is that carving intelligence (whatever that means) from life seems like nonsense, to me. The route to AI is through ALife, if it exists at all.

A more relevant point to make, here, however, is that I did not imply (as others had at the meeting) that I get my own idiosyncratic meaning of life from my work in ALife or exploring and communicating possibilities. What I said was that we all, from pond scum to humans, inherit our meaning from the exploration and exploitation (E&E) of reality by all life. The meaning of life for a bacterium is the same as the meaning of life for me. Evolution provides such meaning and purpose, which directly contradicts the third excerpt above. (A criticism of my position might be that evolution can be thought of as an optimization process, maximizing fecundity or somesuch, rather than the more agnostic E&E of every possible nook and cranny. But I maintain that local optima are just resting waystations where life gathers its energy to launch out into the void to continue its exploration. It’s a purely local optimization for those simplified objectives.)

Indeed, there have been speculative propositions that such E&E is fundamental to the universe, implying that it’s not just part of what we currently identify as “alive”. Anyway, while I’m a bit disappointed that I was misunderstood so badly, the conversation was fun.

Another thing that came up after that meeting was the usual disagreement about the meaning of “atheism”. One guy stayed behind to talk and we eventually came around to my insistence that I’m not an atheist, but an agnostic. As usual, he defines them as synonyms, for the most part, excepting a few who call themselves “agnostic” but who are really just “on the fence”. I tried to make the point that atheism is a metaphysical assertion, regardless how trivial. Hence, it’s like other metaphysical assertions (like God or the anthropic principle). Just because atheism is a “smaller” assertion, requiring much less commitment, that doesn’t mean it’s a neutral position. The neutral position is agnosticism. We are ever so slightly more skeptical than atheists. And please note that I do not claim atheism requires the equivalent of religious faith, which is a common claim. (It is a type of faith, but a trivial type, like the faith needed to take a drink of water or pick your nose. Everything we do/think requires that sort of faith. So, I’m not making the strong claim many theists make about atheism.)

The metaphysical assertion made by atheism can be a very practical one, a “stopping criterion” that prevents one from engaging in infinite regress. Since every testable concept of gods has failed its tests, it’s efficient to simply jump to the end of the series and assert that all testable concepts of gods will prove false. It’s akin to proving that an infinite series converges to a fixed value. You don’t need to evaluate infinite terms to see what’s going to happen.

But this sort of thing is a metaphysical assertion along the same lines that many people rejected Cantor’s assertion that we can reason (mathematically) over infinite sets. For practical work, it’s easiest to assume the assumption and move on. But when considering weighty ideas like the meaning of life (or the foundations of math), it’s best to admit that you’re making an assumption and allow challenges to that assumption.

Hence, agnostics are not atheists and vice versa, although distinguishing amongst us takes a certain amount of … patience.