One of the things which has a firm hold on human experience is the question of meaning. By using this term, there are what I would offer as two main facets of meaning. First, we are talking about significance. What gives my life significance? What makes my choices, actions, and thoughts significant? The second facet is purpose. Is there a point (purpose) to life? Or is life just a cosmic accident?
Let’s look at how the three main world-views tackle this issue, or at least how they answer these issues raised.
ATHEISM: Where does significance come from on the atheistic view? Well, the universe as a whole is without universal or objective significance – that is, the universe just is. There’s no intention involved, it’s just there by chance – or even for absolutely no reason. And of course, this also means that the universe has no ultimate purpose.
Philosophers such as Sartre, Camus, Russell, etc. all realized this. For example, Sartre said that once you loose the infinite, anything finite has no ultimate meaning (significance). And on atheism, everything is finite therefore nothing has any ultimate meaning.
Now, it’s worth noting that an atheist can create his own purpose to life. Whether that’s to become famous, to love people, to be a basketball player, etc. But in the end, whatever choice one makes, it doesn’t change the fact that the universe will eventually die in a heat death and all existence will cease. So you exist now, you can choose what has subjective significance and purpose, but in the end it all ends up the same. For some atheists, such as Huxley, it’s a welcomed view since once can choose to live however one pleases. However, many atheists realized that a life of ultimate misery is the ultimate conclusion.
MONSIM: Monism has an interesting view. Not all forms of monism necessarily have this exact answer to the issue of meaning, but this will be a majority view on the monist’s front. The following is more-so of a Buddhistic view, but much applies to monism at large.
One thing monism teaches is that we all cycle through different lives – reincarnation. You live and then you die. If you aren’t at a certain moral position, then you come back to life. What you come back as depends on your previous moral position.
So eventually one gets to the point where they’ve reached a certain moral position (or realization), and then that person (who actually turns out not to be an actual individual – individualism is an illusion) gets absorbed into the impersonal oneness – that person now ceasing to exist.
So, significance on this view comes from realizing that what we call “reality” is actually a huge illusion. So nothing in this life has, let’s say, positive significance unless it leads to that realization and to the goal of non-existence.
For example, the original Buddha left his family – wife and children – because his family was ultimately an illusion. Because he was “attached” to his family, he was attached to this world (which is ultimately an illusion). So, this view basically leads a person to the point where all relationships are only meaningful when they are forfeited and denounced as immoral – since they end up keeping a person from reaching nirvana (ceasing of existence and absorption into the impersonal oneness). Ironically (as we’ll see) even the notion of moral distinction is an illusion.
THEISM: Theism says the universe has an ultimate purpose. In general, that purpose comes from the creator (God) of the universe and is usually something like having knowledge of God and worshiping Him. How worshiping God plays out does depends on the particular view (such as Judaism or Christianity).
Where does significance come from? The theistic view posits that God is the source of all significance. The existence of persons doesn’t cease, therefore the choices which are made in this life determines what life “beyond the grave” will look like. In other words, in respect to what Sartre said, the infinite exists therefore we have ultimate meaning (significance).
In contrast to monism, relationships are not things to be denounced and flushed away, but to be cherished and considered sacred. Of course, as a Christian, I think only the trinitarian view can give an adequate explanation for the grounding of this – but all theistic views at least hold a similar view (and whether they can justify it is a different story).
So we have a basic outline of how these views answer this question of meaning. Next time we’ll look at applying these answers to the standard we’ve been using in this series. We’ll see how they measure up and whether we can further our look into which one view surpasses the rest in their meeting our criteria.