Let me start with a quick summary of my main point in my last post on meaning and purpose versus projects.
The concepts of 'meaning' and 'purpose' carry with them the assumption of a property that is to be found or discovered in things or, alternatively, to be assigned to things by the individual. In both cases I hold that this property is fictitious and has no place in discussions about the real world.
The article that I am using as my foil in this series, Atheistm 101: The Purpose of Life, contains language consistent with this interpretation.
Staks Rosch speaks of:
We can live the life of a slave to an imaginary Lord and Master or find our own meaning and purpose in life. (emphasis added)
We can choose the quick and easy path and do what others in our religion tell us God wants us to do, or we can learn and grow as people and find our own path and purpose.
The claim that there is something to find implies that there is something to be found – even if each of us has a different entity or property in need of finding (such as finding our birthplace or our birth parents). However, if there is nothing to be found, than it makes no sense to speak of finding something that does not exist.
It is tragic to give a person a desire that P, where P is a proposition that can never be made or kept true – where P refers to a work of fiction. Particularly when it is possible to give people desires that Q, R, and S, where Q, R, and S are desires that can be made or kept true because they refer to possible real-world states of affairs.
This leads to another issue that Rosch addressed in his article.
This brings me to the second part of the false dichotomy. Do atheists believe we are a product of random chance with no purpose in life?
But this is all beside the point. These facts about evolution do not address the question of whether human life is without purpose or meaning.
The relevant facts are that humans evolved a disposition to acquire those desires that, in the past, have tended to bring about our genetic replication. We also evolved malleable brains, with beliefs and desires that are shaped by interaction with our environment, allowing us to fit into a wider variety of environments and even alter the environment so as to make it one for which we are biologically fit. We see the proof of this malleable brain in the wide variety of beliefs and desires that can be traced to experience.
These desires are real. The capacity to change our environment is real. The malleability of desires is real. And so is the power to alter the desires of others through praise, condemnation, reward, and punishment – by altering the environment in which others live so that they acquire desires useful to us (and for them to alter the environment in which we live so that we acquire desires useful to them).
I can say all of this without bringing up the subjects of 'meaning' and 'purpose'. Those properties – whether they are to be found or assigned – do not serve any explanatory or predictive purpose.
However, it is also the case that 'meaning' and 'purpose' have no value except to a person who has a desire that their life have meaning and purpose. The only way any state of affairs has value is if it is such as to fulfill the desires in question. The only way in which a life of meaning and purpose can have value is if it is such as to fulfill a desire for a life that has meaning and purpose.
We do have desires – so there are certainly states of affairs that have value. Desires have an effect on the fulfillment or thwarting of other desires, so desires themselves have the capacity of being good or bad (desires that people generally have reason to promote or that people generally have reason to inhibit). If we substitute a desire to learn and to teach, a desire to help others, a desire to secure the current and future well-being of our children, a desire for truth and honesty, for a desire for meaning and purpose, nothing in lost.
However, something is gained. We remove a desire that P where P cannot be made or kept true because it refers to a fictitious property, and replace it with desires that Q, R, and S that can well be made or kept true because they refer to things that are real.