Monday, June 29, 2009

An Atheist’s Teleology: A Progression

This will be a long post, and for that I apologize in advance. It is a reaction to one of the most common dilemmas faced by any self-aware atheist/agnostic.

What is the meaning of life? A cliché question, indeed, one which many atheist thinkers brush off as meaningless. However, I feel anyone who wishes to live their life well ought to have some philosophy, and one of the primary fields of philosophy is teleology: the study of purpose.

Below, I wish to highlight a few possible answers to the question of life’s meaning. The first is nihilism, which I believe to be perfectly acceptable, but which will invariably leave one with a bare foundation on which something is usually built. Nihilism finds itself as a stage in one’s philosophical growth, though sometimes it is the destination. This is an essay I wrote in high school which I think sums up the concept.



When people look around them, they see the world the way they imagine it to be. The problem is: the world is not what we make it. The world is what it is, and we can see what we want to see, but in the end we are powerless in our attempt to reconcile the two. This causes quite a bit of pain in the world; people don’t understand why things happen “all wrong.” They get anxious because they’re so confused. They even make the wrong choices because they ignore how things really work.

The truth is: there is no hope. This is a very positive outlook on things once one gets over the initial shock of the concept. People are inclined to change the world around them because it’s in our genetics. It’s why we developed a thumb. It’s why we came up with religion, science, and government. We yearn to explain.

And so, in our pursuit of knowledge, sometimes we take short cuts or fib a little. We hate not having the answers. But the truth is, we know nothing at all. All one needs to do is look back on history and see how absolutely certain people have been, only to turn out to be wrong.

Not long ago, we knew nothing of cells or genetics. The idea of germs, bacteria and viruses is only about a hundred years old. But our ignorance only begins there. We made Galileo recant his belief of the Earth revolving around the sun. If Christians took the time to actually read the Bible, they would notice many superstitions we have abandoned and find silly now [of course, because their faith instructs them to read the Bible, we can be assured none of them actually are].

Every belief we hold dear will be mocked by school children as they are taught about it in history class, if it’s even entertaining enough to remember. Even contemporary religions are in fact very new ideas with very old titles. Christianity has had so many different moral leanings it has splintered off into hundreds of different sects. People can be so certain of their beliefs, but in just fifty years people will look back on them and laugh, wondering how people could be so foolish.

Within this fact lies the key to happiness. We think of hopelessness as a negative, when in fact it is the ultimate good. It is not that we are powerless to improve the world around us. We are, in fact, empowered with the inability to screw things up. We are indeed part of something greater than ourselves, and we are completely and utterly hopeless in ever attempting to understand or explain it, let alone change it.
With no hope comes no responsibility, which has always been the brick of ignorance we have carried with us through history. We feel so compelled to change the inconsequential things in life, often making things harder on ourselves.
In the end, people are not bad or good, they are simply another organism inhabiting a wet rock flying through space at over a thousand miles per hour around a hydrogen fueled nuclear reactor. In the scope of the universe, we are a germ, a virus infecting a cell. Our existence represents a blink in time.
Relax, nothing matters.


There are massive flaws in this logic. For one, it is dangerous to believe human beings are “powerless to screw things up.” There is no reason to assume that humanity, or even our planet, is eternal.

Saying that we cannot change things is to reject the very idea of progress (which, though not assured, I believe can occur). We are advancing our knowledge in many ways, and it is seen most clearly through medical science (though not always medical practice, especially in the US of Ache).

This was the mindset of a child who was unaware of the monumental work being done behind the scenes of his life—and even before he existed. Giving up on improvement is not only sad, it is against the very notion of critical thought. Even skepticism acknowledges value judgments are applicable when making comparisons. If nothing matters, then every idea and result should be the same; this is not the case.

For other views of purpose, it might help to look to various sciences and schools of thought. From a biological standpoint, the winners are those who have children (or even the most children). This is not only an individual goal, but one for the entire species: perpetuation.

In art, one might say the purpose is to be remembered. Art and writing can be boiled down to nothing more than simple “I was here” graffiti, which represents nothing more than a more permanent form of urine marking. Indeed, to be remembered is a purpose acknowledged in many schools of thought. To be immortalized in memory may be a comforting thought to those contemplating the finite fate of the flesh.

These are all valid life goals, but it is ultimately up to each individual to determine what it is that will make them happy. Through the pleasure-seeking principle innate in all of us, we gravitate towards the things that make us happy, and usually leave purpose as an afterthought. Most people seem to unconsciously migrate towards the child-bearing route (perhaps through no forethought beyond getting laid, which is yet another reason for living). To say this is the ultimate purpose would be unfair and even rude—especially to those unable to do so.

In the end, there can be as many reasons for living as there are lives that have been lived, and even having no reason at all is a passive answer which may bring comfort to those who achieve nothing.

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