Help Me In My Unbelief

An unbeliever's first steps into a faithless world

Credo hoc: Meaning

This is the third in my ongoing series on things I now believe as an atheist and freethinker. See previous posts here and here.

One of the times I can recall really interacting with an atheist before I deconverted was actually during my education program in college, when I was doing a brief internship in a middle school language arts class. When I was actually doing some teaching – the experience was part hands-on teaching, part observation – I ran into a student who had a history of sparring with the regular classroom teacher, who was the wife of a minister, about religion. This student also had a propensity for challenging authority in order to avoid doing any work (and not because of a lack of ability or intelligence, either), and his anti-religious attitude became sort of a tool to that end.

So at one point, I had students doing some writing, and when I came around to check on this student (who wasn’t working), I asked the reason for the lack of effort. To my surprise – and it should be noted, this was a seventh grader – the student said, “If there’s no ultimate meaning in the universe, why should I do this?” I was slightly taken aback, since the notion of no ultimate meaning wasn’t a thought I even entertained at that time, but I was actually being observed by my university instructor, so I reacted quickly and said, “Well, even if so, there’s still meaning for you right here, right now, so get to work.”

That was my first practical experience with the idea of meaning in a secular outlook, although I had been exposed to existentialist ideas when I attended a Christian college briefly. Of course, the attempt of a seventh grader to avoid work by appealing to a common but misleading stereotype is not at all reflective of a more nuanced approach to meaning from a secular perspective.

The first issue to raise here is the distinction between the objective and subjective, which in terms of values doesn’t make a whole lot of sense to me. Objective properties are ones which are not relative to the subject, e.g. carbon-12 has 12 protons regardless of who is assessing any given carbon-12 atom. Conversely, subjective properties obtain only when held by a subject, such as beauty or worth. Currency, for example, is only worth something because it is valued by individuals; this is true of many things, even things we think have broader worth, such as gold.

Using that analogy, it is easy to see what an atheist friend pointed out to me long before I deconverted: the notion of objective values is nonsensical. Facts and values are separated by the objective/subjective divide, and values, unlike facts, only make sense within the framework of being perceived by a person. By this reasoning, even the kind of values that are held by a deity – say, that humans have intrinsic worth – are subjective, not objective (although one could argue that they would then transcend humanity, insofar as that even matters).

So we get to the question at the heart of the student’s complaint: Since the idea of objective values is incoherent, what value can life even have? The answer is simple: Whatever value we want it to have.

Now, I want to step back for a second here and note that values underpin morality, but since I’ve already talked about that, I want to ignore the moral question and focus on values alone. Much of what I have already said will be germane, and I don’t want to rehash those points.

Stepping back to the question, we can see an underlying assumption here: Things should be valued if and only if they are objectively valuable. This is of course nonsense; there is no reason to think that objective values (again, if the concept were even coherent) are necessary for subjective values. If a deity didn’t think that women held intrinsic worth, would I be wrong to think that they do? Clearly not.

But TCC, the eager theist may ask, doesn’t a lack of transcendent underpinning mean that people could value whatever they want and not value what they don’t want? What if people decided not to think that black people have intrinsic worth?

The first answer is that people can do that regardless of whether they should. Do I think that such a person would be (or is, for those who do actually believe that) wrong? Yes, but I also recognize that this is a difference of opinion. That doesn’t preclude me from trying to persuade others, but it does mean that I am limited in what means I have at my disposal. I could try making analogical arguments – for instance, that there is no relevant difference between black people and non-black people that would justify esteeming them different in worth, or perhaps arguing from empathy or reciprocity (e.g. “Would you like being told that you have no value as a person?”) – or social pressure, for instance, but I couldn’t appeal to a fact about people. We project values onto things, not discover them in things.

The second answer is that societies have a responsibility to establish values that have utility within the community structure. If children are valued, then education and supporting children more broadly should be reflected in that society’s policies and mores.

None of this is to say that establishing and reinforcing values is therefore easy – it’s not. Like morality, it involves a calculus on several different levels, and different societies and people make come to different conclusions. Overall, however, the fact that we can’t discern a universal meaning doesn’t mean that there is none: it just means that we have to try harder to support the most productive values that we can in order to make our lives better in the long run.

Readers: Does meaning have any more, er, meaning? Please leave your thoughts or further information in comments below.

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5 responses to “Credo hoc: Meaning

  1. Neil Rickert May 6, 2013 at 12:26 pm

    “If there’s no ultimate meaning in the universe, why should I do this?”

    I wonder what people mean by “meaning” when make that kind of statement. I am much concerned with objective reality as anyone else. but I can see that meaning is subjective. I’m not understanding why some people think that’s an argument against meaning.

  2. TCC May 6, 2013 at 2:42 pm

    It really isn’t a, um, meaningful argument against meaning. The underlying assumption, as I said above, is simply not true. Many people just prefer to go for the easy, thoughtless arguments, I guess.

  3. Howie May 6, 2013 at 8:07 pm

    You used the word “wrong” twice in your post, but I’m not clear what you actually mean by “wrong” in this context. If values truly are subjective as you describe, and there is no “fact of the matter” concerning values then I am not sure how the words right and wrong actually make sense when it comes to describing values. I can see how you could use those words in the sense that the values are “held by a great many people”, but I’m not sure that’s the way you are trying to use them. Or perhaps you just mean that you personally view such ideas as wrong, but others could equally and fairly call them right if they wanted to (if they did not share your particular value). Could you clarify a bit more?

  4. TCC May 6, 2013 at 9:15 pm

    I’m not sure that I was unclear (my second use of “wrong” explains it in the immediate context), but by “wrong” I really do mean by my own personal opinion. I do think that it’s possible to argue what people ought to believe (which gets us more in the realm of morality than meaning), but this has limitations, of course.

  5. Howie May 6, 2013 at 9:48 pm

    I did read your immediate context of your second use of the word and that doesn’t seem to resolve what is making me fuzzy in understanding. It seems that you are saying that values are subjective and that there is no “fact of the matter” when it comes to values, but then are applying words like right and wrong to those values. When you say “my own personal opinion”, it looks like you mean that you personally view such ideas as wrong; then the word “wrong” doesn’t mean too much, because to be consistent others could equally call those same things “right” if they wanted to simply because it is “their own personal opinion”. But again this doesn’t seem to be what you are saying because you are giving reasons for why such values that you hold are right, thus giving the sense that a person who holds a differing value is wrong. You also say that it’s possible to argue what people ought to believe. But this idea seems to be different from the idea that values do not have any “fact of the matter”. Do you believe that it is really a bit of a mixture of both in some way? I know you said you aren’t a meta-ethicist in your other post (I’m not either by the way – I’m just another average Joe (or Howie) trying to figure this confusing stuff out), and maybe my questioning goes into that realm of meta-ethics and we should just leave this as something to be pondered another day. (?)

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