Saintly Essays & Discussions

Meaning & Nihilism

Is there any meaning in a world without God?  There is a cheap answer to the question based mostly on semantics.  If by God we mean, along with Tillich, that which is an individual person's ultimate concern, then the question may become mostly irrelevant (or merely tautological) in that God becomes synonymous with mankind's search for meaning itself.  I suppose, in this case, mankind must still have a "sense" of God (or at least, some persons must.  It appears likely that this "sense" is attributable to some brain structures and not others), and thus cannot merely shrug the God impulse off as irrelevant, but the question of God becomes mostly a question of mankind's mysterious dialogue with his innermost self.  Now, this is a real process, and I would argue that--at least from an experiential point of view--this process is necessarily part of our experience of God (whether or not any such God exists); but we need to go further, for such a conceptualization of God strips God of an aspect which is uncomfortable to us living in the modern world, but nonetheless demands our attention--that is, that a necessary attribute of God is that He is a Being of terrible Power and Majesty and Righteousness (speaking in terms of ontology, and obviously biasing our conceptualization to reflect the Judeo-Christian conceptualization; obviously, other valid conceptualizations exist, but this is a useful starting place). 

Well surely, you say, life can have meaning without such a conceptualization of God.  Mankind can continue to live his life, to seek for those things that are beautiful and good and pleasurable and necessary.  We go on living and loving and dying in this strange and mysterious world which we reach out and feel with our fully human and free senses.  We construct (for we are before anything else storytellers) what meaning we may find for ourselves and nothing but the imprint of our actualized freedom may make it so. 

What a beautiful sentiment, I respond; you have convinced me that there are meanings to be found without God.  But is there a shared sense of meaning possible for mankind or do we exist in a solipsistic universe by which each actualized meaning by each individual human is equally valid even if it exists in contradistinction to the meaning and value of another? 

Of course, you respond, we all live in the same world, are subjected to the same stimuli of the senses (at least, mostly, granted some are color blind and some cannot taste salt, etc.);  there are limits, it isn't all one side or the other; it is a dialectic between man and the world. 

I see, I respond.  But, is it not so that one man may see a forest and see what may be built using the timber and the foliage and another man sees the forest and wonders at the beauty of the unmolested trees? 

Of course, you respond, what of it? 

Surely, I respond, there is some good in both visions, for the one provides sustenance and shelter and fills men's stomachs and the other provides beauty and enjoyment and fills men's souls. 

Of course, you respond. 

Both visions cannot be actualized in the same place at the same time, can they, I ask? 

No, you respond, but that is why we have policies and laws in place by which many men and women may come together and deliberate as to the best means by which these competing goods may be reconciled. 

Ah, I reply, but suppose such laws were not in place and one man or the other was the stronger.  Would he not effectuate his will to the exclusion of the good of the other? 

Yes, you respond, what of it? 

Does this seem right to you, I ask? 

It seems unfortunate, you respond, and on some level there seems to be some justice lacking. 

Even if there was no law declaring the validity of the one competing claim against the other, I ask? 

Even without such a law it appears unjust, you respond. 

But if meaning is all about the individual actualizing their preferences based on their own individualized experiences, and even granting that we can agree that certain things are necessary (such as food and shelter and art as in this situation) how can we judge this situation unjust if the end itself results in a good either way, I ask? 

Because, say you, the one exerted his will over the other by means of power unavailable to his opponent.  His self-actualization occurred at the expense of the other by means of a naked power grab and is thus unjust.  If their power had been equal, and the fight had been fair, it would not have been unjust. 

You keep reverting to an appeal to justice and fairness, I respond.  From whence does this sense arise? 

From the right of every man to actualize his own sense of meaning to the extent that he can do so without trampling upon the actualization of others, you respond.  All we have is a brief moment in time upon the earth to effect what we can of our existence.  We must be patient with one another and help one another or we are lost, for no man is an island. 

Again, I say, your speech elicits such beautiful sentiments that I am almost convinced.  But tell me; it seems that you speak as one who has not the power to actualize your meaning fully because you are not so strong or rich or brave or brash as some other men.  It is well for you then that you should convince men to think as you do, else you are lost.  But why should the strong man, who is rich and powerful and strong and brave, listen to your sense of justice, which serves your interests but not his?  Is he not stifled in actualizing his sense of meaning (which is to exert his power over as many of you as is possible) by your moralizing?  Why should he pay heed to you and your "justice"? 

Because it would be unjust for him to do otherwise, you respond. 

That is not an answer, I say. 

[Of course, this example is somewhat unfair to the argument from moral nihilism.  It may justly be responded that "no one", correctly understood may be so powerful as this person that I have suggested.  Many may "think" they are this powerful, but ultimately, because any man may be killed by any other man no matter how apparently "weak", there are none who are this powerful (this is basically Hobbes' argument for radical equality).  Still, it is hard to deny that such an argument for justice is, at best, "unsatisfying".  Should we not continue to seek so long as the explanations we discover continue to be so "unsatisfying"?  I honestly do not know.]