Friday, February 23, 2007

Discussion: Desires, Value, and Meaning

Welcome to my 5th weekend writing on the presentations given at Beyond Belief 2006. This posting covers about an hour of dialogue in Session 3 on the subject of religion and meaning.

In this period, Francisco Ayala, University of California, Irvine said,

People need to find meaning and purpose in life, and they find meaning and purpose in religion. . . . This allows the billions of people in the world to live a life which makes sense. They can put up with the difficulties in life, with the hunger and the sickness and the like, and I certainly do not want to take that away from them.

Richard Dawkins seemed to agree with this to an extent.

I can see and, of course acknowledge that a lot of people do get something from [religion] . . . I do agree with Professor Ayala that no doubt there are many people who need religion and far be it for me to pull the rug from under their feet.

Proposition. No person has ever found meaning in religion. Thus, no life has ever been robbed of meaning by demonstrating that religious propositions are false. Many people believe that they have found meaning and purpose in religion, but, like their belief in God, they are mistaken.

The Basics

Desires are the only reasons-as-ends (goals) that exist.

A desire is a propositional attitude. A person with a desire that 'P' for some proposition 'P' has the attitude that 'P' is to be made or kept true.

Value exists as a relationship between states of affairs and desires. If an agent has a desire that 'P', and 'P' is true in a state of affairs 'S', then that agent has a 'reason-as-ends' to bring about S. That is to say, S has value for that agent.

So, what about these people who find meaning in 'serving God'?

They have a desire that 'P' where 'P' = 'I am serving God'. This means that they have a reason-as-ends to bring about any state of affairs in which the proposition, 'I am serving God' is true. Those states of affairs have value to the agent. Bringing about those states of affairs is what gives that agent meaning or purpose.

However, there is no real-world state of affairs in which the proposition, “I am serving God” is true. Therefore, there is no real-world state of affairs that has value, meaning, or purpose for the agent whose key desire is a desire to serve God.

Consider the state of a parent who cares deeply for the well-being of his child. In fact, his child is suffering and dying. However, he has convinced himself that his child is well. His child being well is so important that he cannot stand the idea of his child being sick and dying. So, he refuses to believe it. He says that his life has meaning and purpose because he is caring for his child, ensuring that his child is healthy, while blocking out the fact that his child is sick and dying. He claims that he could not stand to live in a universe where his child was sick and dying, but that fortunately his child is healthy.

Is there any sense at all to saying that his life has meaning?

Also, I invite you to consider a case where an agent has a desire that ‘P’, where ‘P’ = ‘my only child is healthy and happy.’ Then the child gets blown up in a terrorist bombing. Now, there is no state of affairs in which that person’s desire that ‘P’ can be made true. From that point on, this person’s life is truly empty, with living itself hardly seeming worth the effort. It will remain that way until the person adopts a new desire – a ‘desire that Q’ where ‘Q’ = ‘that there be fewer terrorist bombers,’ for example, that will give the life a new purpose and renewed meaning.


This has two implications.

The first implication concerns the idea that convincing a person that God does not exist deprives their life of meaning and purpose. This is false. For the person who has a desire that, “I am serving God,” their life is already meaningless. They just do not know it yet.

Their life only has meaning in a state of affairs where, “I am serving God,” is true. This is never true, so their life can never have meaning or purpose. Nobody can take away from a person that which the person never had to start with.

This is not a matter of my forcing my (godless) values on those who value serving God. Those who desire to serve God also state that if there is no God, life would be meaningless. They themselves cannot see value in things that do not involve serving God. They, themselves, describe such a life as meaningless. They simply deny the claim that the description applies to them (though, in fact, it does).

This leads to the second implication. If a person has a desire ‘that I am serving God’ imagines a world without God, he will imagine a world that has no value – that is empty and meaningless. There is no state of affairs in the godless universe in which the proposition, “I am serving God” is true, so there is no object in the godless universe that interests him, has value for him, or fills provides him with meaning and purpose.

The Possibility of a Meaningful Life

However, it would be a mistake for the theist to argue that because he sees no value in such a universe, that nobody can find value in such a universe.

A person with a desire ‘that my children are healthy and happy’ will find the same value in a universe where the proposition ‘my children are healthy and happy’ is true, that the theist would find in a universe where the proposition, ‘I am serving God’ is true.

The meaning that a person with a desire ‘that my children are healthy and happy’ finds in her life is not qualitatively different from the meaning that a person with a desire ‘that I serve God’ would find. Only, the former person actually has a chance for a meaningful life – if she can create a universe where ‘my children are healthy and happy’ is true. The latter person has no chance; since she can never create a state where ‘I am serving God’ is true.

Now, the person with a desire ‘that my children are healthy and happy’ is not guaranteed a meaningful life. Some lives are tragic. They never obtain the things that are important to them.

In some cases, an individual might acquire a desire such as, ‘that I reduce the amount of terrorism in the world and make the people safer,’ only to discover that his actions have increased the amount of terrorism and made others far less safe. This person’s life would be particularly tragic.

Yet, as long as one has a desire that ‘P’, where ‘P’ has a chance of being true in the real world, then that individual has at least a chance for a meaningful life.


Would it be correct to say that only atheists can obtain meaning and purpose in their lives – since they can desire things like, “that my children are healthy and happy,” that can actually be made true?


A person with a desire “that I serve God” can also have a second desire, “that my children are healthy and happy” that can provide true meaning and purpose.

A theist can even have a belief that God exists with no desire to serve God – but a desire to care for the misfortunate. This person can have a fulfilling life. However, this person would not be upset over the prospect that no God exists because his desire to care for the misfortunate can be fulfilled regardless of whether God exists. “God exists” has no value for such a person.

Similarly, an atheist can still have desires for states of affairs that cannot be made real. He can desire to ‘maximize intrinsic value’ – which is as bad as desiring ‘that I serve God’ insofar as intrinsic value is no more real than God.

The atheist can even have a desire ‘that I serve God’ (perhaps learned during his prior life as a Christian). This agent’s belief that no God exists means that he will have to live with the angst of knowing that nothing he can do can fulfill his desire to serve God. He is like a paralyzed person who desires to walk, and who cannot convince himself that he is walking when, in fact, he is not.

A scientist can have a meaningful life because it is possible to make real-world discoveries. An engineer can have a meaningful life because he can build real-world structures. A teacher can have a meaningful life because he can help his students learn. There are a great many ways to have a meaningful life. All you need to do is to want to make or keep some proposition true that has a genuine chance of actually becoming or remaining true. All of these are possible regardless of whether the scientist, engineer, or teacher believes in God.

Though, the teacher cannot have a meaningful life if the things he “teaches” he students are not true. If he ends up making his students dumber by teaching them falsehoods and fictions, than his desire to educate has not been fulfilled. He is like the person who desires to keep his children safe and happy, only to act in ways that (unintentionally) kill those children instead.


So, what of the person who has evil desires, such as a desire ‘that all the Jews be eliminated’ or ‘that I am an evil overlord’? Can this person find meaning and purpose in his life?

Well, such a person will certainly find fulfillment in eliminating all of the Jews – this much is true by definition. However, there is another question to answer – whether it is a good thing that a person find fulfillment in killing all the Jews. The answer to that question would be clearly not. For the desire to kill all the Jews to have value, it must be a desire that tends to fulfill other desires. A desire to kill all the Jews is not a desire that tends to fulfill other desires. Therefore, such a desire counts as evil. It is a desire that others – that good people = have reason to respond to with condemnation, contempt, and even violence if such a person should act on such a desire.

Indeed, the very essence of evil is a person who finds fulfillment in things that are harmful to others – more, more directly, finds fulfillment in harming others. To deny that people can find fulfillment in such activities is to deny that evil exists. To deny that others have reasons to respond with condemnation, punishment, and even violence is to deny that such people are evil.

This creates a potential problem with the idea of allowing people their religions. What if the religious finds meaning in what he thinks of as serving God, only he thinks that God wants him to do things that are harmful to others. Those options range from terrorist attacks and religious genocide to legislation outlawing important medical treatments and forcing people to live lives that the are contrary to the (harmless) nature of their victims? The unwillingness to pull the rug out from somebody who thinks (incorrectly) that he finds meaning in religion has to depend at least in part on the harms that person is inflicting.


This part of the conference was devoted to the subject of, “If not God, then what?”

The context of this discussion can be captured by, “If not a desire to serve God, then what?”

To give a person’s life meaning, give that person a desire that ‘P’ where ‘P’ is capable of being true in the real world.

To give a person virtue, give that person a desire that ‘P’ where the desire tends to fulfill other desires.


Anonymous said...

What do you think of the proposition that the concept of meaningful, as applied to human life, is inappropriate?

You seem to feel that one must be fulfilling a realistic desire for one's life to be meaningful. Why must one be fulfilling any desire for life to be meaningful? Is a life of being and experiencing the universe without trying to make any propositions true less meaningful than trying to play chess better than everyone else?

Is the existence of a rock meaningful, or the life of a virus meaningful? Why should humans be any different?

Couldn't the idea of a "meaning" for life be just as incorrect as the idea that a god exists?

If god is an inappropriate projection of a human father into a fatherless universe, could meaningful life not also be an inappropriate projection of our "what does this mean to the continued life of me and my species?" to life itself, where the question makes no sense?

Anonymous said...

i must agree with the atheist observer: i think you are taking an overly epistemological approach to religious belief/meaning. Why can we not view, say, prayer as a healthy practice that sets the brain back into balance? The praying father need not actually hold the proposition that is child will be better after he prays (many religious people i know wouldn't) but holds the proposition that it is somehow good for all concerned if he does sit quietly and unburden himself. In this sense prayer is just like playing chess: it's not a propositional attitude, but a good habit, just like doing your pushups every morning, practicing your piano or smiling at yourself in the mirror.

atheists tend (unsurprizingly) to interpret religion along atheist lines, thinking its all about knowledge. religious propositions are indeed usually false, but that doesnt mean they aren't useful.

However, saying (rightly) that religious propositions are most all scientifically false, will indeed upset many a religious person and perhaps throw them into despair. But those are religious people who do not understand their own use of religion and have swallowed the enlightenment view that religion is an epistemological endeavour. Meaning will be restored to such people not by getting them used to atheism, but rather by showing them that religion doesn't deal in propositional truth but is a practical institution that gives meaning and fulfillment primarily through action and not through scientific-sounding truths.

Alonzo Fyfe said...

Atheist Observer

The Meaning of Meaning

I believe that a lot of people speak about a life having 'meaning' and 'purpose', and that they consider this as having such value that without such things is no better than death.

I also think that a principle of charity requires interpreting their claims as making sense rather than nonsense - that a nonsense interpretation is one that an individual should be forced into as a last resort.

There are certainly definitions of 'meaning' that would turn the claims that people make into nonsense and absuridty. However, one then has to ask why a person would use those definitions. It would be like hearing somebody say, "I came in second at the race," and answering, "A second is a unit of time. Your sentence that you came in 1/60th of a minute at the race makes no sense."

An interpretation that makes sense is to be preferred to an interpretation of nonsense.

The interpretation that I give to "meaning" and "purpose" is simply a generalized application of "value" - a way of saying, "this life is important".

Of course, no life can have intrinsic value (since intrinsic value does not exist). No life could possibly have value in the sense of, "God is pleased with how I live my life," because no God exists. However, a life can still have value in the sense that anything else in the real world has value - in terms of 'being such as to fulfill the desires in question.'

Intentional Action and Desires

A "life of being . . . without trying to make any proposition true" is a life without intentional action. Such an agent will not voluntarily move.

An intentional action is an act that aimst to make or keep true the propositions that are the objects of an agent's desires - following the formula:

(beliefs + desires -> intentions -> intentional actions)

An agent who acts without seeking to make or keep any proposition true is like an object in space that changes direction or velocity of movement with no forces acting upon it.

Alonzo Fyfe said...


A healthy practice that sets the brain back in balance is something that I would call 'meditation' not 'prayer'.

Your account seems unable to handle the observation that athiests do not pray. The reason that atheists do not pray is because there is nobody listening. Atheists play chess. Why do they not pray.

Your statement that "atheists tend (unsurprisingly) to interpret religion along atheist lines" also is difficult to support.

Atheism is not a church and atheists are not raised in a commune separated from society. We learn to speak English by listening to common English speakers - the vast majority are Christian. So, there is no distinct 'atheist' way of interpreting things. We speak the same language that Christian America speaks.

That language is one that treats religoius claims as propositions having a truth value. Attempting to convince people that religious claims are not propositions dealing with truth would be convincing them of a fiction.

One can perhaps try to transform religion into something that does not deal with propositional truth. However, that is not true of religion today. That claim fails to explain and predict how religious people actually behave.

As for your last claim, that "religion . . . is a practical institution that gives meaning and fulfillment primarily through action and not through scientific-sounding truth," I would agree with this.

I would also hodl that "meaning through . . . scientific-sounding truth" is an absurdity. Truth is a property of beliefs. Value is a property of desires. Associating 'meaning' and 'purpose' to 'truth' is a category mistake - one of linking 'desire' properties to 'belief' states.

Action, as I wrote above, is attempting to make or keep true those propositions that are the object of one's desires. So, associating meaning and purpose to action (or intentional inaction, if this is the best way to make or keep these propositions true) does make sense.

In fact, this is what I am arguing for.

However, nobody can succeed in making or keeping a proposition true if the propositions that are the objects of their desires are propositions incapable of being made or kept true.