Is there meaning to life?


A. Optimism and theism.

Let's start our quest by doing some fancy intellectual footwork and trying to conceive of what an ideal meaningful life would be like. Maybe, if we had an idea of what an ideal meaningful life would be, we could see how our lives may deviate from that ideal. In that case, we may be able to take steps to rectify our lives and make them more worthwhile.

1. In an ideal meaningful life, God explains everything including natural and moral evil.

A theist (remember, someone who believes that God exists and is active in the world) may say that an ideal meaningful life would be one in which it is CERTAIN that God exists and has created a good world, one which we can understand and appreciate as much as our capacities will allow. That is, He gives us a satisfactory explanation of everything which goes on in the world. There is no pain, evil, good, beauty, act or purpose for which God does not render a fully satisfactory answer, which answer is not ambiguous and is recognized as true by all rational persons.

Consider the following example and apology concerning moral evil (unnecessary suffering caused by human choice). Were our parents killed in a plane crash, God would be there to explain how the events led up to and caused the terrible event. He would explain not only how the event happened, but why it happened --that the wing on the airplane had a bad rivet that caused the wing to fail, and that the rivet was faulty because some mechanic was drunk on the job and installed the rivet improperly. The mechanic freely chose to get drunk, and, with a sad apology, God would say that since He does not interfere with the free choices of people, He could/would not rectify the situation. The accident was ultimately caused by a free choice made by a person, but because He does not interfere with the free choices of His creatures, He cannot be held morally responsible for the tragedy. The blame falls on the mechanic, not on God.

Or, were our parents killed by a tornado (natural evil: unnecessary suffering caused by natural forces), God may explain that He created the most perfect world for human beings, but that since humans require air to live, and since atmospheres give rise to convection currents which produce dreadful storms, tornadoes occur. Further, were He to tamper with the laws of nature preventing tornadoes, He would tamper with the very conditions which make life possible for persons; by tampering with nature, He would inadvertently remove persons from nature, which would be bad --worse than no tornadoes and no persons.

Thus, were we to ask for answers to any of the questions about life's meaning, God would provide them in a manner which we could understand. Globally, He would explain to us, as best we could comprehend, how the world works. We would see that events or things such as earthquakes, tornadoes, diseases and so forth are necessary factors to the processes of nature. And, He would explain to us why they are necessary; we would understand them not as bad or evil things, but as integral parts of a magnificent system.

2. Each person’s life is explained by God as best as that person can understand.

Individually, God may have a reply that each person's life is what he freely makes out of it and that those free choices affect what happens in the world. Since He does not interfere with our free choices, what we make out of ourselves is our own doing for which we should bear the responsibility. We would be satisfied with all this, at least rationally, once we were told how our being and actions and those whom we cared about fit into the "big picture," as it were. We would not be rationally upset by any set of circumstances because God's explanation would suffice to show that what happened was destined to happen by the way the world worked and/or by the outcome of free choices. Once we see (as best we can from God’s descriptions) how the “big picture” fits together, we understand the necessary “weave” among acts of nature, the acts of free persons and scenarios --how they merge together to form a world in which every event is related to every other. This world is created by God with the potentiality to be as rich in meaning as possible, and as such our lives can be the richest possible which we could have. What is essential is the right actions done by persons which will realize this potentiality.

3. Can’t the explanation of an ideal meaningful life work with just a belief in God?

Let's see if we can modify the theist's position just a little, here. So far, the ideal meaningful world involves the CERTAINTY of God's existence. But, is the certainty of God's existence necessary for the concept of an ideal meaningful world? In the theist's ideal meaningful world, it is certain that God exists. Could we do as well with just a belief in God's existence?

The answer looks to be, yes. An almost ideal (less than ideal, for the certainty of God's existence is absent) meaningful world need not have the certainty that God exists or that He be the direct agent to reveal precisely what makes life meaningful; that is to say, a meaningful world may exist without our knowing with any certainty that God exists or without knowing precisely what are God's answers to the questions. The current world, with the HYPOTHESIS that a good God exists, seems to be that case.

4. Science is compatible with the hypothesis that God exists.

How can this be? Answer. As long as there is the promise or hope that God exists to guarantee that the world is meaningful, then that hope could suffice to undergird meaning. The hypothesis that God exists enables man to construct theories which answer the questions about meaningful existence AS IF God would. If these explanations are satisfactory from a rational point of view such that the world no longer appears problematic, then a knowledge of God's certain existence is not necessary. What is necessary is a knowledge that God's existence is at least possible, and this hypothesis looks to be readily acceptable. To my knowledge, no one has shown that God is impossible. Thus, a belief that God exists and that we can discover truths about the world are all that we need to establish that this world has the potential to be as meaningful as we can make it. The explanatory theories which are established as if God would render them, whether they be scientific, aesthetic, religious or philosophical, bear the brunt of giving to us explanations for meaning in the world; they are not designed to support the hypothesis of God's existence. Rather, the hypothesis of God’s existence undergirds those explanations.

Put another way, faith or the pragmatic hypothesis that God exists may be all that is needed to support theories which deal with making the theist's world meaningful. These theories may be changed as they meet with failures of explanation, but, as with any rational procedure, there would be progress toward theories which are more and more sufficient. Note, however, the underlying faith in the possible existence of God need not be abandoned should any particular explanation fail. It would be understandable for us to hear someone who adheres to this position say, "I believe in God, but I think that the laws of science explain the world to me sufficiently. Inasmuch as God created the world as an ordered whole and created us as rational beings who can, through the use of reason, discover that order, the world has meaning through scientific explanation. I will be satisfied with the best scientific explanation possible at any given time until a newer explanation, which is more sufficient, is brought forward. We can read the great book of the world through the language of science and mathematics." What will not do is to support a theory which is faulty with the hypothesis that it must be true because it is a dictate from God. It would not be understandable for us to hear someone say, “The theory of evolution is faulty because it is incompatible with God’s word as given in the Bible.” The position about the hypothesis of God’s existence only maintains that in order for us to make rational progress, that hypothesis is necessary. Nothing follows from that hypothesis about what God says to be true, except that whatever we may attribute as coming from God must be subject to rational scrutiny.

But, as we can see, science may not need the hypothesis of God's existence to work as a satisfactory system of explanation of the mechanics of the world. In fact, much of contemporary science has left God out of the picture. Remember, Isaac Newton. He was the founder of contemporary physics, but his physics included the existence of God. Modern science found that Newton's presuppositions about God were not needed for the types of explanations they were interested in. But, modern science is beginning to see that more than physical explanations of the world are required. The metaphysics underlying modern science just may need God again to explain teleological questions --precisely the questions with which we are now dealing. Put bluntly, science may be able to do a good job in explaining the human race as mechanical androids, but such an explanation leaves out much of what we would want to say is being a person (consciousness and free will) and making one’s life meaningful.

5. An ideal meaningful life seems to also require the concept of a proper afterlife.

However, theism has another problem which we should investigate here. A meaningful world (again, one in which all problematics are sufficiently explained) may not be the best possible world (one which contains the most amount of good and least amount of unnecessary suffering); a debate concerns whether or not this world with its pains and hardships or some other world without those pains and hardships is, in fact, the best possible world. Some theists propose a heavenly afterlife to be necessary as a justification for this life of struggle; the world contains physical and moral hardships so severe that an after-life which compensates for these hardships, especially moral hardships, is necessary. An afterlife ensures that the good and innocent are rewarded and the bad and malicious receive their due in the form of suffering. Not only must there be the hypothesis that God exists, but there must also be the hypothesis that a proper afterlife exists.

Why is this hypothesis of the afterlife needed? We can understand that microbes cannot be punished for what they do, but the idea of terrible persons getting away with the torture until death of innocent persons pushes a concept of real world retribution (these bad persons being punished during their lives in this real world) to its breaking point; a best possible world without an afterlife in which persons were held accountable for their actions would have to account for bad persons doing well in real life, which conceptually is extremely hard to do. Our world may be meaningful, but may not be a world which is the best possible world, for it contains too many counter-factual examples of needless suffering which are unanswered in terms of retribution; in this world, bad people live well and innocent people suffer to no good.

The Christian God does not look to be compatible with such suffering ,unless somehow in an afterlife, bad people get what they deserve and victims are restored to well-being. The problem is trying to figure out what kind of afterlife is good or sufficient enough to compensate for all the suffering in this world, especially suffering by young children who never have much of any kind of life at all before they die.

So, let's ask the interesting question, what would heavenly afterlife be like which would rectify the needless suffering of this world?

The answer is that it would be a world in which there would be no pain, suffering, or evil. But, what does this concept mean with respect to our current real world or any world like it? The hard crux of the matter is that most "worlds," especially the one in which we live, have to explain away the problem of needless suffering (evil) either caused by natural events or free choices of persons, whereas a world-without-needless-suffering or any suffering at all does not have the problem to begin with. Put another way, the world in which we live could not be the best possible world because right away we are forced to explain why bad things happen to good people --an explanation which would not be required in a world in which those events simply did not happen. So, on a prima facie basis, a world without evil seems to be better, have more goodness to it.

We see from the above discussion that a truly meaningful world is possible and may be this world, but this world may not be the best possible world. Let me use the Garden of Eden as an example to assist the point made. In Eden, there was no suffering at all, no evil; everything was as good as it could be. It was the best possible world. Further, God explained everything; Eden was an ideal meaningful world. Whatever happened in Eden had a real objective purpose which God could recount to us giving by giving sufficient explanations to our questions of how and why. Thus, a best possible and truly meaningful world looks not only to be possible, but something that should exist as a creation of God now; our current world with evil should have been rejected as a candidate for creation. That being so, why do we live in this world and not Eden? Is all the pain and suffering of this world really necessary for some good end which justifies it? Again, the problem of evil surfaces with great impact.

Well, the debate is hot concerning this problem, and the concepts of a truly meaningful world and the best possible world turn out to be more elusive (perhaps even mutually incompatible) than we would suspect.

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