Scott Adams (of Dilbert fame) has written a delicious post about the small pleasures in life:
“I love standing in the shower after all the cleaning is done, just rocking back and forth while the warm water massages my neck and shoulders. … I love the sound of a new can of tennis balls being opened: PH-SSSHHHT. … I love the smell of vanilla. I love the feeling of doing something right, no matter how inconsequential, such as guessing the exact right time it will take to warm a yam in the microwave. … I like being tired at the same time I have access to a comfortable chair and plenty of time to sit in it. … I like a pen that has good balance, opens easily, and leaves a clean line with no skipping, blotching or fussiness. … I like rubbing my head after I give myself a haircut. It feels good on my hand and my head at the same time.”
Great stuff. What interests me, though (with a hefty hat tip to Matt Murrell) is the puzzlement of a Christian commenter called Alex at how someone with an atheistic outlook (i.e. Scott’s) can find meaning in life at all. Alex says:
“This still leaves me with this question for the Atheists: How do you work around talking about meaning and beauty and purpose? How do you with honesty to your world view strive to do good things, treat people as you’d like to be treated, or try to make a difference in this joint? Please keep in mind that most every Atheist I have met has been generally very thoughtful, kind and concerned about living life ‘right’. Basically they are better than the world view they claim to hold. But I can’t understand why. …
“If we are from nothing, for nothing, to nothing, then nothing matters. The job you have, the hobbies you enjoy, the family you have, the way you treat people. It doesn’t matter at all. Sure, you can say that it does matter because you want to leave a good mark on the world etc... But what does THAT mean? Good? What’s that? It’s nothing! It’s an illusion. Your children will die. Your children’s children will die and they will all forget you. You don’t matter. You mean nothing. You count for nothing. You are an accident. An amazing accident beyond all odds. …
“…it seems to me that all the beauty, joy, love and happiness that we experience here is but a reflection of the one who put us here. Without God all the wonderful things we experience in this life really have no worth of value. Long after our species has passed from the scene and our planet ceases to exist, what will it matter weather or not we enjoyed the quality craftsmanship of a pen?”
This isn’t an uncommon view. And it merits a constructive response.
I’m an atheist: I think this life is all that there is and that we mortals are alone in the universe. We humans are intelligent and self-aware, which immediately gives us an advantage over the ants, the frogs, the sparrows and the daytime TV addicts: we can form our own purposes and make our own justifications. This counts for something – but why doesn’t it automatically lead to a self-centred nihilism?
I’ll try to explain. Justification or purpose, for a being like us, can come from two types of source: internal or external to them. Now, I quite accept that if all someone’s sense of purpose were focused internally, then they’d be utterly selfish and amoral. There’d be no scope for justifying anything they did other than ‘I want’. As a matter of logic, purely internal justification doesn’t take us anywhere beyond an individual’s own desires. Hold that thought.
But what about externally focused justifications? Religious believers would look outside themselves to god as a source of meaning and purpose. I can’t do that. But, even though I think humanity is alone, that of course doesn’t mean that each individual human is alone – we’re obviously not, there’s a planetful of us.
So I find my inspiration, my sense of moral purpose, in other people – my family, my friends, people I meet online or pass in the street, people halfway around the world I hear about on the news… That solves the immediate problem, if I can draw personal meaning from others. But then what makes them matter? Where do they get their purposes? You could trace lines from one person to another to another, but you’ll either go round and round in circles or eventually meet a dead end. The notion of a better world for my great-grandchildren is fine, but only goes so far. It’s not just that each human is finite – the whole species is as well. How there be an external justification for us collectively?
Let me reply with a different question. Say that our purpose derives from god. Where, then, does his derive from? (I guess this question is a little analogous to that other atheist staple: ‘If the universe must have been made by god because it couldn’t possibly just exist uncaused, then how did god come to be?’)
It won’t work here to say that he’s all-powerful, so he can provide his own ultimate purpose in a way that we can’t. Because we’ve already established, as a matter of logic, that purely internal justification doesn’t take us anywhere beyond an individual’s own desires – even for a god. Omnipotence may be able to create a physical universe and intelligent life, but it can’t break the rules of logic: it can’t draw a triangular circle, it can’t make a man who is taller than himself, and it can’t conjure non-subjective internal justification.
And it won’t work to say that god is morally perfect (one of his defining features), and that’s why he can act as the final source of purpose. Because if so, if we’re defining god in terms of morality rather than the other way round, then the morality we’re appealing to is something more basic, transcending even him in the same way that logic does. A moral principle isn’t the sort of thing that could be deliberately created.
Now, I don’t really know how to approach the notion of such an absolute, objective, foundational morality – but whatever we might think about that, if god doesn’t create right and wrong, then those ideas are something that an atheist can lay an equally legitimate claim to.
So the theist and the atheist are really in the same boat here. Whatever purpose we look for outside ourselves, we can only criss-cross through a network of beings with their own personal interests and attachments to others (whether or not this network includes god, the principle is identical). Whatever morality we aspire to, others – even divine others – can only advise and inspire us, not act as its creator.
This means that the choice isn’t between selfish, meaningless atheism and moral, purposeful religion. Rather it is, god or no god, between individual selfishness and reciprocal decency. I’m not going to try to argue against anyone inclined towards the first option; my aim is to suggest that this choice is the one we all face, and that the existence of god doesn’t affect the logic of this.
It’s true that believers in god very often do feel that they have a more secure moral basis than atheists, and (even though I’m arguing against this) I think I see why this feeling does have, for them, a kind of legitimate justification. This is rooted in the idea that god is omniscient. As such, then whatever ultimate, objective morality there may be, he understands it all and can therefore give the best possible advice – which can provide certainty. On the other hand, if we’re awkward about the idea of a metaphysically absolute morality, then our ideas about right and wrong will have to be forged through shared wisdom. And in this case, if we have a supremely wise being to guide us, that’s a reason for strong confidence too.
So perhaps these considerations make my case a bit less counter-intuitive for people coming from a different religious viewpoint. Indeed, in my experience, people who believe in god (whom I generally find to be no better or worse than atheists) do think that he knows what’s best and that his commandments are genuinely good moral guidance; they don’t at all take the sort of ‘might-is-right’ view that any arbitrary whim of a decree is worth obeying just because it comes from on high. (Some extremists seem to corrupt themselves by worshipping power alone, but I have nothing to say to them.)
Now, from my perspective, my existence is a spectacular fluke; so is the whole human race’s existence. Well, so be it. Here I am and here you are. I can either scowl and turn in on myself or smile and use you as the only kind of moral compass there could be – you and the billions of others. We have purpose not because we have ‘Made in heaven’ or ‘Property of god’ stamped on our backsides, but because it’s in our nature to make purpose: we have it because we can. There’s as much meaning in life as we make for ourselves and for each other (and the existence of god would only add one more other to the network). To demand more than this of an atheistic or humanistic worldview – but not of a religious one – is like one mechanic criticising another for failing to build a perpetual motion machine.
My attitude is that because this is the only life I get, it’s all the more important to live it well: to do right by myself and to do right by the people I come across. Saying that there’s nothing at the end is true enough, but for me the point of life is not the destination: it’s the journey. I can enjoy the beautiful scenery and the fascinating company, and help other people along when I can, and ask for directions now and again. The going may sometimes be tough, and many of us may not travel as far as we’d like, or in the direction we’d expected, but at least we can travel as best we can.
The journey is finite, but the limited quantity doesn’t mean a lack of quality. If you doubt this, if you feel that you need eternal life – go to hell. See if that enriches your existence. Me, I’d take oblivion.
And this finitude ties up with Scott’s small pleasures. They are fleeting, but I don’t think that invalidates them. I, too, love the smell of vanilla. But if I had to smell it all the time, I’d feel sick. A momentary sniff, though – that’s real. It counts. Even if I’ve utterly forgotten it the next day, that doesn’t mean it wasn’t great when it happened. Or a small act of helpfulness to someone with Alzheimer’s: even if they won’t remember it, it matters while it lasts; it’s a piece of goodness there wouldn’t otherwise have been.
One might say that such things as these don’t matter, because they don’t stand the test of time. But time is a constant series of tests. There doesn’t need to be an official point where the score is totted up and rewards or punishments dished out.
Happiness and goodness and purpose come in finite chunks. In a million years, it may well not matter whether I enjoyed some vanilla today, or helped out someone who was in trouble. But conversely, it doesn’t matter now that in a million years these things won’t matter. We’re chained to our own time. This means that we can’t inherit the distant future, but it also means that the distant future can’t disinherit us of our present.
Being human has its downsides, but it’s something. And something like this is enough.