Saturday, May 26, 2007

Neil DeGrasse Tyson: Meaning

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.


vjack said...

"Tyson’s experience relates to real-world events. It is an appreciation of something that is actually happening – a part of the real world."

Yes, and I agree that being a part of the real world makes it so much more meaningful than any superstitious form of self-delusion can be. If one compares two powerful forms of meaning, one of which is real and one of which is fantasy, it is hard to argue that the real one doesn't have an overwhelming advantage simply by being real.

Martin Freedman said...

How does meaning relate to your theory of value? I would say without value taken broadly (not just morally) then there is no meaning. If all values are relational (we agree that they are) then is all meaning relational?

Anonymous said...

Christians keep challenging atheists to come up with an alternative source of morality and meaning. This isn't my question. Rather my question is: how can one find morality and meaning in the Bible? I just cannot understand it. The Old Testament is a litany of injustice, war, an arbitrary god who plays favourites in the most astounding of ways and invites his chosen people to rampage and ravene all over the place. The new testament has a small part in it about Jesus being humane, and the rest of it is more of the same old same old. Slavery, sexism, infanticide, ethnocide, war...
If Christians want some street cred, I strongly suggest that they begin to assure us that they have taken important steps to repudiate the Old Testament, and that furthermore they also find Paul's teachings, at least, as obnoxious as the rest of us do. Failure to which, they remain scary people who cannot be relied upon to stand up for justice, for the weak, for the poor, for all those who are on the losing side of power. By their actions we shall know them. Indeed. They're the ones with the nice clothes on Sunday mornings, and given half a chance, they'll tell you why you are going to hell. I'm glad they get all dressed up on Sundays: it gives me a way to identify them from a distance and keep away. That's about it.

olvlzl said...

Many of the religious people I've known, the ones who lead a convincingly religious life, not the ones who only talk about it, seem to find the meaning of their lives in trying to help other people and living beings. Of course, the atheists I've known who led convincingly moral lives did exactly the same thing. Oddly, they didn't ususally find it necessary to sneer at religious people unless they were being hypocrits. I find that it's fundamentalists who find what they substitute for meaning in that activity.

anonymous, Jesus said that the law led to death but it was the spirit that leads to life. He also said, "by their fruits you will know them". Looks like morality to me.

Alonzo Fyfe said...


I am not certain if you meant the "sneer at religious people" to apply to me or to others.

I try to limit my sneering to those who engage in behavior harmful to others. Some are religious, some are athiests.

At the same time, I would not qualify the claim, "You are mistaken" to be sneering. If it were, then, would you be sneering at me when you claim that I am mistaken?

Such a definition would have me "sneering" at anybody who is not a desire utilitarian - which would be a very large number of people to sneer at, many of whom I admire.

I just happen to think that they are wrong, and that I have the arguments to back that position.

olvlzl said...

Alonzo, while I believe you look down at times, you don't sneer. If you did I'd have quit you after getting the feel of the place. While I think you're making some of what I believe to be self-defeating mistakes found often in atheists who professionalize their chosen non-credo, I do actually like you.

However, the attitude I mentioned does show up in your comment threads and is endemic within hard line atheism.

Hume's Ghost said...

I find Olvlz's comments, myself, to be sneering and his remark a few threads ago about not wanting to blame a rumored atheist pope on "you guys" rubbed me the wrong way kind of like how Hannity's remark rubbed Alonzo the wrong way.

I especially found Olvlz's comment that Carl Sagan was prone to making statements out of ignorance and prejudice about things CSI doesn't like to be sneering and somewhat defamatory.

I also found Olvlz's assertion that anyone who is familiar with Paul Kurtz who does not agree with Olvlz that Kurtz is a fundamentlist (akin to Pat Robertson) who enforces his orthodoxy with zeal via his "media empire" must themself be a fundamentalist to be insulting, slanderous, and bigoted. There just so happen to be some writers around these parts that are familiar with Kurtz ... Taner Edis and Massimo Pigliucci come to mind ... I would guess that they disagree with your characterization of Kurtz, which would make them fundamentalists in Olvlz's book. I find that to be sneering.

Since we're speaking candidly and what not.

olvlzl said...

Hume, I'm from Maine, you can't see the dead pan look, but that's called "humor" here.

About Carl Sagan, the guy was held up to be an example of rigorous adherence to "reality" or whatever they were calling it that week. He was also an "exobiologist", a "science" pretty much made of speculation. He made a number of rather absurd statements stereotyping other peoples' beliefs and even, on occasion, attributing entire psychological profiles to them on entirely no evidence. I don't find that to be entirely unique among the "realists". If you don't think that's fair game you're asking for a deck marked and stacked to your specifications. Sorry, no game.

olvlzl said...

Oh, and as to Kurtz. The literature on him seems very oddly one sided, almost all of it his side. I'm left to judge by observations of his long and interesting career in propaganda, much of it of the most amazingly lurid nature, for a "realist" and at times the very model of McCarthyism. I have noticed what I believe are traces of his empire extended well into the atheist blogosphere, though that just might be the general culture fostered by his frat-boy style and celebrity cultivation. My statement about his operation being "star-driven" is relevant to what I just posted above and to his latest pole star, Richard Dawkins.

But my research into Kurtz is at a relatively early stage, perhaps what is to be revealed won't prove as consistent as what I've seen so far.

Imagine Marshall Dodge reading this rather slowly and maybe you'll get the idea, though Dodge wasn't a real Mainer.

Alonzo Fyfe said...


I try only to look down on those people who seem not to care about the harm they do to others.

In reading (or 'listening to') Richard Dawkins' book The God Delusion, one of the thoughts that came into my head was, "Am I supposed to condemn the person who does not have the time or the inclination to go through these arguments in painful detail?"

That seems a bit much to ask.

Yes, I believe that those who believe in God are mistaken. But, then, everybody is mistaken about something, even me. So, the question I ask is, "Is this a mistake that makes a person a threat to others."

In some cases some religious mistakes make a person a threat to others. Those I condemn. Yet, even here, it is not because they are religious mistakes, but because they are mistakes that will cost others their lives, health, and well-being.

And I have repeatedly said that atheists are also prone to mistakes. Recently, I revised my post If Atheists Ruled the World, which asserts the view that atheists clearly are not immune from the problem of making harmful mistakes.

Now, having said this, a certain amount of theist bigotry has cost me a great deal. I wanted to make the world a better place than it would have otherwise been, and wanted to do this by entering public service. Yet, anti-atheist bigotry keeps atheists out of these types of jobs. So, I am forced onto the sidelines.

It is not as if I will get a second life that I will be able to live as I wanted. That which anti-atheist bigotry has cost me is something that I will never get back.

Yet, worse things have happened in the world. The lives and liberty taken from slaves and native Americans, women living as property for thousands of years, inquisitions, famine, starvation, war . . . none of these great evils have happened to me.

So, I try to see if I can do something that will prevent them from happening to others. For which it does not matter at all to me if the person next to me is Christian, Wiccan, Buddhist or Atheist. My only concern is whether he is helping or doing harm.

olvlzl said...

I revised my post If Atheists Ruled the World, which asserts the view that atheists clearly are not immune from the problem of making harmful mistakes.

Alonzo, I have already said that I like your stuff, though I disagree with a good deal of it. You, like the rest of us, are trying to figure out how to be decent. I did mean it about the humor.

I wrote a post speculating what would happen if the Dawkinsites gained power. I'll pass over the implications for intellectual freedom and predict that if that happened the followers of Harris would find themselves as second class citizens. They would be mocked for the lack of a real science career of their master, his intellectual lightness of being, the incomplete and schematic mastery of "the meme". I predicted that those lesser souls would be referred to as "Harrisites".

Come on, Alonzo, you can smile. It's just between us.

Hume's Ghost said...

Yes, smile Alonzo.

The rest of us have fallen to deeply under the spell of the nefarious fundamentalist Paul Kurtz and his p.r. pseudo "realist" minions like Carl Sagan, Martin Gardner, Issac Asimov, James Randi, Philip Klass, Victor Stenger, and, of course, Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, and the rest of the pawns working in Kurtz's "profit making" empire which Kurtz created for reasons similar to why Pat Robertson created his media empire to be able to appreciate or understand Oglvlz's subtle rapier wit, as we are ourselves fundamentalists incapable of recognizing the humor in Oglvls's comment.

Smile, Alonzo. Olvlz has deemed that you're a good atheist. You're one of the "good ones", so to speak.

And you should thank him liking you despite you making self-defeating mistakes while profesionalizing "your chosen non-credo."

olvlzl said...

Hume's Ghost. Did I touch a nerve? Are these people you list supposed to be, you know, sacrosanct? Is that in keeping? Klass is another who interests me quite a bit more than the big glamor names of CSICOP. But I've got only so many hours of the day to try to cut through the Iron Kurtain.

Besides, I was just doing an experiment. Looks like a postive result.

Hume's Ghost said...

Yeah, you touched a nerve. I don't like kooks, and you are a kook. I'm faimilar with the way kooks argue, and you argue like a kook.

No, of course they aren't sacrosanct. But the fact that they aren't sacrosant doesn't make you defamatory and slanderous comments in less disgusting and your pretenious pomp any less grating.

Alonzo is a better person that me to have the patience to put up with you. I don't have it.

Congratulations on your experiment. Your genius at exposing the fundamentalists of the "realist" movement is quite impressive.

olvlzl said...

No, of course they aren't sacrosanct. But the fact that they aren't sacrosant doesn't make you defamatory and slanderous comments in less disgusting and your pretenious pomp any less grating.

Mind if I borrow this for the article I'm writing on CSICOP's propaganda? Though it would also do for "Skeptical Inquierer" or "Free Inquiry" too. I've always wondered if they didn't choose those names through some subliminal appripriation of the name of an even more widely circulated publication.

So you don't like kooks and I'm a kook. Guess I'll just have to live without your respect since I Kant have it. Besides, who are you to be calling a kook, Hume?