In Neil DeGrasse Tyson’s second presentation at Beyond Belief 2006, he spoke about the process of assigning meaning to things.
He spoke specifically about his attitude when he is on a mountain top with a telescope attempting to discover what is going on at the center of the universe. He attempted to express a particular sense of awe and wonder at capturing a photon that left the region around the center of the universe 30,000 years ago, travelled all this distance past stars and through interstellar dust clouds, to crash into his digital detector carrying information about the center of the universe 30,000 years ago.
As it turns out, Tyson picked something that is particularly easy for me to relate to. When I was young, one of my first interests was astronomy. I bought myself a telescope, and I read avidly about the subject. I remember seeing a map of the galaxy that showed what we knew then of the spiral arms. Only, the region towards the center of the Milky Way was not mapped, because our techniques did not allow us to gain information from that direction.
So I assumed, with sadness, that I would not get to see what the center of our Milky Way looked like.
I was wrong. Scientists have since looked at wavelengths of radiation that can make it through the dust and clouds from the center of the Milky Way. Just within this last year I have seen the images that were created, and computer simulations created out of that data. It turns out that there is a black hole with 3 million times the mass of our sun, and stars that orbit it like comets orbit our sun, coming in close, then zipping back out. Whole suns, acting like comets.
Actually, these time-lapse simulations tell me what I really wanted to know about the center of the Milky Way. Though I would definitely like the opportunity to look on it with my own eyes, my real interest was in knowing what was happening, which the simulations tell me far more accurately than I could ever learn from direct observation.
Tyson wants somebody to attach electrodes to his head (or do similar experiments) to determine if the sense that he gets when he marvels at the fact of his studying the center of the universe is anything like a religious experience. If it is, he says, then this is something that he, as an educator, can offer people.
However, Tyson’s experience will have one important quality that will separate it from any religious experience. Tyson’s experience relates to real-world events. It is an appreciation of something that is actually happening – a part of the real world.
In earlier posts, I have compared the so-called ‘meaning’ that a person gets from religion to The Matrix or some sort of experience machine. It is like the person who is tremendously proud of himself as he (imagines himself) doing great things in providing the starving and thirsty people of a remote village with clean water and nourishing food. Only, the ‘good’ this person does is purely illusionary. There is no village. There are no villages. There is no food or water. The agent is simply laying in a cot with a machine hooked up to his head making him believe he is providing villagers with food and water.
Yet, our agent refuses to be woken up from this illusion because, he claims, it gives his life meaning. He would see himself and his life as a waste if he were doing something other than providing villagers with clean water and nourishing food.
But you are NOT providing anybody with clean water and nourishing food! You are laying in a cot doing absolutely nothing, merely imagining yourself providing villagers with clean water and nourishing food.
And so no person serves God. “You are only imagining yourself to be serving God when, in fact, you are promoting ancient myths and superstitions that, for the most part, are not even good for the people you convince to accept them. This has the moral quality of warning a group of thirsty people to stay away from clean drinking water to please God, or to force starving people to sacrifice their food at a religious ceremony.”
Even here, we may find some who report to be providing food and medicine to the poor for religious reasons. However, we can divide these up into two groups, depending on how they answer one simple question.
“If there was no God, would you still continue to feed the hungry and cure the sick?”
If the person says, “No. If there is no God then everything is worthless. The only reason that I feed the hungry is because God wants me to – so, if there is no God, then I have no reason to feed the hungry.”
People such as this live a meaningless existence. If they are alive, aiding the poor and the sick, then this is a mere accident. What they truly want is something that they can never achieve in the real world. What they have the capacity to achieve in the real world is something that they do not care about.
Others might answer, “Yes. Even if no God exists, I would still feed the hungry and cure the sick, because . . . well, because the sick and the hungry are suffering.”
These people can leave a meaningful life, even though they claim to be serving God. This is because something that they really want – to feed the hungry and cure the sick – is something that they can accomplish in the real world. They are never going to get the God thing they always wanted. The only potential problem is if their religious beliefs prevent them from effectively feeding the hungry and curing the sick. If their religion bans the eating of foods that the hungry are in need of, or prohibits medical procedures that the sick need, then, even here, the religion gets in the way of a meaningful life more than it contributes to such a life.
Specifically, the person who lives a truly meaningful life is somebody who does something real with his life. The person who spends his life plugged into a fiction – to whatever degree his life depends on the fiction – is somebody whose life is wasted.
I am discouraged, to some extent, when I hear atheists answer the challenge to provide meaning to one’s life by being defensive. “We atheists find meaning in life. Honest we do. Over here. I’ll show you. Here, we have meaning. See? Can’t you see how meaningful this life is?”
Of course, to the person whose ‘meaning’ is locked into having some sort of relationship with God the answer is, ‘No.’ They will not see meaning in such things unless it is something that they already care about.
I would argue that a far more meaningful response (pardon the pun) is to point out how worthless a life is if it is spent hooked up to a lie. To spend a person’s one and only life hooked up to a lie, without getting a chance to do anything real, truly is a wasted life. Indeed, it is about the only way that a life can truly be wasted.
Of course, it is possible for a theist to still find value in things that are real. However, it is possible to find value in real things as well. So, between these two people, there is not much of a difference in their capacity to have a meaningful life. Those who have truly wasted the one and only life they will ever have are those who spent that life dedicated to a lie and, in particular, a lie that causes harm to others.
Unless you are talking about something real, it does not even make sense to start talking about something being meaningful.