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Author Topic:   The meaning of "meaning"
Blue Jay
Member (Idle past 889 days)
Posts: 2843
From: You couldn't pronounce it with your mouthparts
Joined: 02-04-2008


Message 1 of 152 (572264)
08-05-2010 2:37 AM


I would like to discuss an idea that Marc brought up in Creationists think Evolutionists think like Creationists. about the meaning of life for Atheists.

I would like to argue the position that Atheism* is actually a philosophy of meaninglessness.

Well, actually, no... no, I wouldn’t.

Rather, I would like to argue that what Atheism calls “meaning” is fundamentally different from what Theism calls “meaning,” such that the common line that “Atheism has meaning” is really just a semantic point.

The word “meaning” is like the words “science” and “sport”: society perceives these words are badges of honor or legitimacy, so every intellectual pursuit wants to be called a “science,” and every competitive pursuit wants to be called a “sport”; and it’s taken (and often intended) as an insult when the badge is not given.

But, as is generally the case, the words themselves are not literarily badges of honor or legitimacy. Our tendency to perceive them as such has often caused us to lump things into unnatural groupings, and to consequently fail to recognize important distinctions between different things.

For a religious person, like myself (sometimes), “meaning” implies an actual purpose or significance in the grand scheme of things. This is a purpose or significance that is defined externally (by some outside agent), and could (if it were true) be objectively verified by other observers.

For a non-religious person, like the other (smaller) half of me, “meaning” implies a feeling or sense of purpose or significance. This is a purpose or significance that is defined internally, and could exist even if no other observers could verify it objectively.

I’ll grant that, from the Atheist’s perspective, religious “meaning” is also just a feeling or sense of meaning. But, from the Theist’s perspective, this amounts to a denial that Theistic meaning exists, accompanied by a redefinition of the word “meaning” to reflect that denial. There is something beneath the feeling of significance in the Theist’s view.

For the Theist, an actual meaning causes one to have a sense of significance.

But, for the Atheist, nothing external is claimed to be the cause of the sense of significance, so there is no equivalent concept in Atheism to what the Theist calls “meaning.”

Thus, I don’t think Theists are strictly wrong when they say that Atheism is meaningless: it’s just offensive to say it because of the emotional value we place on the word “meaning.”

*I will capitalize "Atheism" and "Theism" because it makes them easier to distinguish, so readers won't get confused.


-Bluejay (a.k.a. Mantis, Thylacosmilus)

Darwin loves you.


Replies to this message:
 Message 3 by Dr Jack, posted 08-05-2010 12:33 PM Blue Jay has responded
 Message 4 by Stile, posted 08-05-2010 1:07 PM Blue Jay has responded
 Message 5 by Straggler, posted 08-05-2010 1:30 PM Blue Jay has responded
 Message 6 by nwr, posted 08-05-2010 1:47 PM Blue Jay has responded
 Message 11 by Modulous, posted 08-05-2010 2:38 PM Blue Jay has responded
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Message 2 of 152 (572366)
08-05-2010 11:51 AM


Thread Copied from Proposed New Topics Forum
Thread copied here from the The meaning of "meaning" thread in the Proposed New Topics forum.
Dr Jack
Member (Idle past 297 days)
Posts: 3507
From: Leicester, England
Joined: 07-14-2003


Message 3 of 152 (572368)
08-05-2010 12:33 PM
Reply to: Message 1 by Blue Jay
08-05-2010 2:37 AM


Both Theists and Atheists mean the same thing by meaning, it's just that Theists pretend to assign their self assigned meaning to a imaginary third party.
This message is a reply to:
 Message 1 by Blue Jay, posted 08-05-2010 2:37 AM Blue Jay has responded

Replies to this message:
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Stile
Member
Posts: 3564
From: Ontario, Canada
Joined: 12-02-2004
Member Rating: 4.2


(2)
Message 4 of 152 (572372)
08-05-2010 1:07 PM
Reply to: Message 1 by Blue Jay
08-05-2010 2:37 AM


What do you mean?
This topic couldn't have been started by a better poster, good to chat with you again, Mr. Jay.

Bluejay writes:

Thus, I don’t think Theists are strictly wrong when they say that Atheism is meaningless: it’s just offensive to say it because of the emotional value we place on the word “meaning.”

I agree if you intend to say "I don't think Theists are strictly wrong when they say that Atheism is meaningless to Theists..."

Now, I'll go through your posts step-by-step to show all the little subtleties I'm attempting to describe. Hopefully we'll come to an understanding.

Rather, I would like to argue that what Atheism calls “meaning” is fundamentally different from what Theism calls “meaning,” such that the common line that “Atheism has meaning” is really just a semantic point.

I agree. However... do you agree that one can use the same premise (the two "meaning"'s are fundamentally different) to come to the opposite conclusion that "Theism has meaning" is also "really just a semantic point"?

If not... why not? If they really are 'fundamentally different'... from what basis can you claim either one to be 'superior'?

For a religious person, like myself (sometimes), “meaning” implies an actual purpose or significance in the grand scheme of things. This is a purpose or significance that is defined externally (by some outside agent), and could (if it were true) be objectively verified by other observers.

For a non-religious person, like the other (smaller) half of me [and like Stile], “meaning” implies a feeling or sense of purpose or significance. This is a purpose or significance that is defined internally, and could exist even if no other observers could verify it objectively.

Agreed. Now, which one is "correct". Which one is "the definition" as in 'science' or 'sport'? Who gets to decide which one gets the (useless) badges?

For the Theist, an actual meaning causes one to have a sense of significance.

I agree. However... do you agree that "For the Atheist, an actual meaning causes one to have a sense of significance." as well? Because it's true for me...
I admit that the Theist's intentions of "meaning" and "significance" are different from the Atheist's intentions of the same words... but how does that help in determining which is better or superior? Again, who gives out the badges?

But, for the Atheist, nothing external is claimed to be the cause of the sense of significance, so there is no equivalent concept in Atheism to what the Theist calls “meaning.”

I agree. No equivalent concept for what the Theist is looking for, only the superior concept of purely self-initiated "meaning"

...it’s just offensive to say it because of the emotional value we place on the word “meaning.”

The emotional value from (as I attempted to play turn-a-bout just above) the arrogance required to assume that "objective meaning" is somehow superior to "subjective meaning" (and visa versa).

I contend that any attempts to claim either meaning as "superior" is useless because "superior" has it's own meaning which will be inherently connected to the original term and therefore it becomes a circular arguement.

Or, perhaps, we can compare objective-things vs. subjective-things?
(But, if we cannot know whether or not the Theists "meaning" is actually objective... is this worthwhile?)

Objective Things
-lead us to the truth about reality
-very fundamental in a "the way things are" sense
Therefore, an objective meaning would have more "signifigance" in a reality-based system of thought

Subjective Things
-unlimited growth potential (love, kindness, courage...)
-extremely personal
Therefore, a subjective meaning would have more "signifigance" in a romantic/poetic-based system of thought

Huh... strange, I would think that a Theist would be more inclined towards romantic/poetic/boundry-less ideas and an Atheist more towards reality/foundational-truth sort of ideas...

Anyway, what do you think?


This message is a reply to:
 Message 1 by Blue Jay, posted 08-05-2010 2:37 AM Blue Jay has responded

Replies to this message:
 Message 10 by Blue Jay, posted 08-05-2010 2:22 PM Stile has responded

  
Straggler
Member
Posts: 10285
From: London England
Joined: 09-30-2006


(1)
Message 5 of 152 (572374)
08-05-2010 1:30 PM
Reply to: Message 1 by Blue Jay
08-05-2010 2:37 AM


Relative Vs Absolute "Meaning"?

This seems to me to be a question of relativist Vs absolutist thinking as applied to “meaning”. You seem to be suggesting that atheists necessarily take a self defining approach to what constitutes meaning (i.e. a relativist position) and that theists necessarily take an absolutist approach. An approach whereby some external entity is ultimately the objective arbiter of that which is or is not meaningful.

Is that right?

For a religious person, like myself (sometimes), “meaning” implies an actual purpose or significance in the grand scheme of things. This is a purpose or significance that is defined externally (by some outside agent), and could (if it were true) be objectively verified by other observers.

But isn’t that meaning at root defined by faith and personal belief? In which case it is as internal, personal and as unable to be verified as any atheistic equivalent. Yes there might be significant common ground between those of the same (or comparable) faiths. But any more so than the commonality of meaning that might be cited by atheists of common cultural background?

The main difference between the theist and the atheist in this regard would seem to be the conviction that ones own (or more accurately ones community) sense of “meaning” should apply to others.

For a non-religious person, like the other (smaller) half of me, “meaning” implies a feeling or sense of purpose or significance. This is a purpose or significance that is defined internally, and could exist even if no other observers could verify it objectively.

And yet what constitutes meaning for any given person is necessarily influenced by instinctive (i.e. species wide psychological) factors (how many people will cite their children as providing them with some sort of profound meaning?) as well as a complex web of social and cultural factors on top. So atheists are not defining meaning in some sort of internal vacuum. There are significant external influences. These influences are just less strident in imposing conviction than a more theistic approach whereby the community in question actively believes itself to have a more objective basis for imposing it’s sense of meaning onto others.

But, for the Atheist, nothing external is claimed to be the cause of the sense of significance, so there is no equivalent concept in Atheism to what the Theist calls “meaning.”

I think you are underplaying how much purely internal subjective influence there is on what theists would call meaningful (whatever they believe to the contrary) and also underplaying how much external factors play in determining that which an atheist would consider to be meaningful (whatever they believe to the contrary).

The whole thing is a heady mix of instinct, culture and (if it exists at all) free-will and individual personality. I think this is as true for a theist as it is an atheist. We just ascribe different labels to the causes of our sense of “meaning”. This in turn promotes different degrees of conviction that ones own sense of meaning is somehow more profound.

But ultimately I think there is little actual difference beyond conviction that ones own sense of meaning should apply to others.


This message is a reply to:
 Message 1 by Blue Jay, posted 08-05-2010 2:37 AM Blue Jay has responded

Replies to this message:
 Message 12 by Blue Jay, posted 08-05-2010 2:44 PM Straggler has responded

nwr
Member
Posts: 5585
From: Geneva, Illinois
Joined: 08-08-2005


Message 6 of 152 (572378)
08-05-2010 1:47 PM
Reply to: Message 1 by Blue Jay
08-05-2010 2:37 AM


You have opened a can of worm.

Bluejay writes:
Rather, I would like to argue that what Atheism calls “meaning” is fundamentally different from what Theism calls “meaning,” such that the common line that “Atheism has meaning” is really just a semantic point.

I agree with Mr Jack, that atheists and theists mean the same thing.

The word "meaning" is a bit tricky, because we use it in many different ways. Most commonly, we use it when discussing semantics of language. But the term is also used to mean "purpose" and even "consciousness." When marc9000 suggests that atheism is a philosophy of meaninglessness (in several of his posts in Creationists think Evolutionists think like Creationists.), he seems to be going with the use of "meaning" as "purpose."

This is really just an old "god of the gaps" argument. Because our concepts of meaning and purpose are somewhat vague, creationists imagine that they can find lots of gaps there in which to fit their god of the gaps.

There are some people who find their lives meaningless. This is usually taken to be a symptom of clinical depression. As far as I know, atheists are no more prone to depression than are theists.


This message is a reply to:
 Message 1 by Blue Jay, posted 08-05-2010 2:37 AM Blue Jay has responded

Replies to this message:
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 Message 13 by Blue Jay, posted 08-05-2010 3:00 PM nwr has responded
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jar
Member
Posts: 31056
From: Texas!!
Joined: 04-20-2004
Member Rating: 3.6


Message 7 of 152 (572382)
08-05-2010 2:00 PM
Reply to: Message 6 by nwr
08-05-2010 1:47 PM


nwr writes:

When marc9000 suggests that atheism is a philosophy of meaninglessness (in several of his posts in Creationists think Evolutionists think like Creationists.), he seems to be going with the use of "meaning" as "purpose."

And seems to be suggesting that he is so handicapped that he is unable to give his own life any purpose or meaning.

It is sad and pitiful, but does seem to be a common handicap.


Anyone so limited that they can only spell a word one way is severely handicapped!
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Replies to this message:
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Dr Jack
Member (Idle past 297 days)
Posts: 3507
From: Leicester, England
Joined: 07-14-2003


Message 8 of 152 (572384)
08-05-2010 2:10 PM
Reply to: Message 7 by jar
08-05-2010 2:00 PM


But he is giving his life meaning; he's just engaging in the delusion that it's actually a third party doing it.
This message is a reply to:
 Message 7 by jar, posted 08-05-2010 2:00 PM jar has acknowledged this reply

Blue Jay
Member (Idle past 889 days)
Posts: 2843
From: You couldn't pronounce it with your mouthparts
Joined: 02-04-2008


Message 9 of 152 (572385)
08-05-2010 2:12 PM
Reply to: Message 3 by Dr Jack
08-05-2010 12:33 PM


Hi, Mr Jack.

Mr Jack writes:

Both Theists and Atheists mean the same thing by meaning, it's just that Theists pretend to assign their self assigned meaning to a imaginary third party.

That's pretty much what I said here:

Bluejay writes:

I’ll grant that, from the Atheist’s perspective, religious “meaning” is also just a feeling or sense of meaning. But, from the Theist’s perspective, this amounts to a denial that Theistic meaning exists, accompanied by a redefinition of the word “meaning” to reflect that denial. There is something beneath the feeling of significance in the Theist’s view.

Except, that I said it while trying not to offend people

Edited by Bluejay, : Civility: not off to a good start. Sorry, Mr Jack.


-Bluejay (a.k.a. Mantis, Thylacosmilus)

Darwin loves you.


This message is a reply to:
 Message 3 by Dr Jack, posted 08-05-2010 12:33 PM Dr Jack has not yet responded

Blue Jay
Member (Idle past 889 days)
Posts: 2843
From: You couldn't pronounce it with your mouthparts
Joined: 02-04-2008


Message 10 of 152 (572388)
08-05-2010 2:22 PM
Reply to: Message 4 by Stile
08-05-2010 1:07 PM


Re: What do you mean?
Hi, Stile.

Stile writes:

This topic couldn't have been started by a better poster, good to chat with you again, Mr. Jay.

I think it could have been started by somebody better, but I think I'm much better than when I tried to deal with it before. At least it's progress, I suppose.

I knew I'd get Stile and Straggler on this: I just didn't think it would happen so quickly. Good to have you both!

-----

Stile writes:

If not... why not? If they really are 'fundamentally different'... from what basis can you claim either one to be 'superior'?

I don't think you can claim either one to be "superior": I'm sorry I didn't make that clear.

My OP favored the Theist side, but that was just because the demeanor of the board requires me to emphasize the minority side in order to get my point across.

My point is not that one is better than the other (you know me better than to think I could ever make up my mind like that), but that I think we're just talking past each other, and no real information is being conveyed in either direction.

-----

Stile writes:

I admit that the Theist's intentions of "meaning" and "significance" are different from the Atheist's intentions of the same words... but how does that help in determining which is better or superior? Again, who gives out the badges?

Anyone can give out whatever badges they want to. The point I want to make is that Theists and Atheists are giving the same badge to different things.

I should add that I'm not convinced that I'm right, but it seems right to me. Consider this sort of a peer review, I guess.


-Bluejay (a.k.a. Mantis, Thylacosmilus)

Darwin loves you.


This message is a reply to:
 Message 4 by Stile, posted 08-05-2010 1:07 PM Stile has responded

Replies to this message:
 Message 16 by Stile, posted 08-05-2010 3:14 PM Blue Jay has responded

Modulous
Member (Idle past 296 days)
Posts: 7789
From: Manchester, UK
Joined: 05-01-2005


(4)
Message 11 of 152 (572392)
08-05-2010 2:38 PM
Reply to: Message 1 by Blue Jay
08-05-2010 2:37 AM


What is the meaning of God/whatever?
A question that should be raised here is one of philosophical consistency.

By stepping back the 'purpose' or 'meaning' to an 'external' source or root or whatever...doesn't mean we should stick to asking the same questions as when we were considering these things from an internal perspective.

So if a Theist pushes it back to God/afterlife the question then becomes What meaning does God/the afterlife have? What is the purpose of God? What is the purpose of the afterlife?

Instead the issue that you've moved scope gets overlooked. Sure, it gives our lives 'meaning' but if the meaning is meaningless (ie., there is nothing external to God that gives God any particular meaning with no purpose above the 'grand scheme') then ultimately the Theist ends up at the same place.

So the question is: Ultimately what meaning does your life have?

The answer is: Depends on the scope employed.

My life is a potential link between my ancestors and my descendants (or a sibling's descendants, or a cousin's etc) - it means the replication was succesful.

Or maybe my meaning is to generate happiness? To help make this strange experience of consciousness be as painless as possible? To protect those around me from the chaos?

All of these are 'external' to me, as much as 'To glorify god' might be external to the theist. If we start asking the atheist 'but what's the ultimate grand scheme purpose to making people happy and protecting your family?' we'd probably get the same answers as if we asked the theist about the ultimate purpose of God.

The only 'internal' things is deciding which purposes and meanings we wish to strive for, uphold, engage in, or view life through. This is the same for the theist and the atheist.

Thus, I don’t think Theists are strictly wrong when they say that Atheism is meaningless

No more than Atheists who retort their viewpoint has the same amount of meaning as the Theists at the same level of scope: If there's no meaning in one case, there isn't any in the other...


This message is a reply to:
 Message 1 by Blue Jay, posted 08-05-2010 2:37 AM Blue Jay has responded

Replies to this message:
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Blue Jay
Member (Idle past 889 days)
Posts: 2843
From: You couldn't pronounce it with your mouthparts
Joined: 02-04-2008


Message 12 of 152 (572396)
08-05-2010 2:44 PM
Reply to: Message 5 by Straggler
08-05-2010 1:30 PM


Re: Relative Vs Absolute "Meaning"?
Hi, Straggler.

Straggler writes:

You seem to be suggesting that atheists necessarily take a self defining approach to what constitutes meaning (i.e. a relativist position) and that theists necessarily take an absolutist approach.

Yeah, I suppose so. I think I'll step back a little from that and ask that the word "necessarily" be removed: I don't want to over-generalize. It does seem to be the typical, baseline response that Atheist’s pose when challenged on the alleged meaninglessness of their worldview.

But, it’s not so much the approach I’m getting at as the actual substance. I think there are actually several different elements of the problem that are closely related, but are not the same thing.

Let me try to show my idea a little more schematically. The way I see it, “meaning” is used to refer to three different pieces of the same puzzle: I’ll call them “cause,” “sense” and “role” (feeding of your usage of the words):

Cause: The “real” thing that causes someone to have a sense of meaning. (e.g., divine destiny)

Sense: The feeling of having significance or importance.

Role: The purpose that one fills as a result of their sense of importance or significance. (e.g., “save the whales” or “be a good father”)

Cause --> Sense --> Role

Where “-->” is read “leads to.”

I argue that, in an Atheistic worldview, there is a “sense” and a “role,” but no “cause.” The “role” can certainly feed the “sense,” but it’s a cyclical, circumstantial relationship, rather than a linear one.

I also argue that, in the Theistic worldview, the “cause” is what is most often thought of as “meaning.” Since there seems to be no corollary to this in Atheism, I argue that the Theist is not wrong when he says that Atheism has no meaning: he’s just not communicating in the correct medium.


-Bluejay (a.k.a. Mantis, Thylacosmilus)

Darwin loves you.


This message is a reply to:
 Message 5 by Straggler, posted 08-05-2010 1:30 PM Straggler has responded

Replies to this message:
 Message 14 by Straggler, posted 08-05-2010 3:03 PM Blue Jay has responded

Blue Jay
Member (Idle past 889 days)
Posts: 2843
From: You couldn't pronounce it with your mouthparts
Joined: 02-04-2008


Message 13 of 152 (572405)
08-05-2010 3:00 PM
Reply to: Message 6 by nwr
08-05-2010 1:47 PM


Hi, NWR.

nwr writes:

You have opened a can of worm.

Oh good: I was worried that it would be multiple worms.

-----

nwr writes:

This is really just an old "god of the gaps" argument. Because our concepts of meaning and purpose are somewhat vague, creationists imagine that they can find lots of gaps there in which to fit their god of the gaps.

I'm not following you on this.

Since we're not clear on what "purpose" means, creationists try to say that the "purpose" must be God?

When a Theist or creationist says Atheism is meaningless, Atheists usually say that meaning is defined individually. They don't ever mention anything more than that, so it sounds like they chalk it up to subjective, personal whims.

Perhaps this is where my (and other Theists') misunderstanding is?


-Bluejay (a.k.a. Mantis, Thylacosmilus)

Darwin loves you.


This message is a reply to:
 Message 6 by nwr, posted 08-05-2010 1:47 PM nwr has responded

Replies to this message:
 Message 19 by nwr, posted 08-05-2010 4:03 PM Blue Jay has responded

Straggler
Member
Posts: 10285
From: London England
Joined: 09-30-2006


Message 14 of 152 (572407)
08-05-2010 3:03 PM
Reply to: Message 12 by Blue Jay
08-05-2010 2:44 PM


Re: Relative Vs Absolute "Meaning"?
OK. I think I get what you are saying.

I argue that, in an Atheistic worldview, there is a “sense” and a “role,” but no “cause.”

And I guess I am saying that there is a cause. A social, cultural and instinctive "cause". Which is why so many atheists from similar cultural backgrounds would (I suspect) cite very similar things as giving meaning to their lives.

I also argue that, in the Theistic worldview, the “cause” is what is most often thought of as “meaning.”

I would say that the "cause" is the same as it is for the atheists. Where the religious beliefs are part of that social/cultural package.

Since there seems to be no corollary to this in Atheism, I argue that the Theist is not wrong when he says that Atheism has no meaning: he’s just not communicating in the correct medium.

The only real difference (IMO) is that the atheist considers those external factors to be part of what makes one be ones internal self whilst the theist sees himself and the "cause" as distinct things that can be separate from each other.

But I think cause, sense and role as you have described them are present in both modes of thinking.

Does that make sense (even if you disagree)?


This message is a reply to:
 Message 12 by Blue Jay, posted 08-05-2010 2:44 PM Blue Jay has responded

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Blue Jay
Member (Idle past 889 days)
Posts: 2843
From: You couldn't pronounce it with your mouthparts
Joined: 02-04-2008


Message 15 of 152 (572411)
08-05-2010 3:14 PM
Reply to: Message 11 by Modulous
08-05-2010 2:38 PM


Re: What is the meaning of God/whatever?
Hi, Modulous.

Modulous writes:

So if a Theist pushes it back to God/afterlife the question then becomes What meaning does God/the afterlife have? What is the purpose of God? What is the purpose of the afterlife?

Well, in Mormonism, the purpose of God is reciprocal on man, so perhaps there is more of a cyclical relationship than I said there was in my post to Straggler, which kind makes my distinction between "cause" and "role" pretty arcane.

This is an interesting point you've raised.

I see Theistic "meaning" like a puzzle: an individual piece fits where it fits, and is defined by its fitting there. But, what's the meaning of the puzzle? I have no idea: but it's where the piece fits. (Maybe this is a cyclical relationship, too, then?)

Atheistic "meaning," on the other hand, is not like a puzzle, because people are not formed specifically to fit in a certain place. Maybe it's more like LEGOs or something: they go where they think is a good place for them, and the resulting construction is whatever it is.

So, maybe it's more of a "top-down" versus "bottom-up" distinction. I'll have to sit on this for a bit to decide whether I still think this is a fundamental difference in what "meaning" refers to. I still feel like there's a fundamental difference there, but I'll need to work it out more.

Thanks.


-Bluejay (a.k.a. Mantis, Thylacosmilus)

Darwin loves you.


This message is a reply to:
 Message 11 by Modulous, posted 08-05-2010 2:38 PM Modulous has responded

Replies to this message:
 Message 20 by Modulous, posted 08-05-2010 4:08 PM Blue Jay has responded

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