Weariness that wants to reach the ultimate with one leap, with one fatal leap, a poor ignorant weariness that does not want to want any more: this created all gods and afterworlds.
-Friedrich Nietzsche, Thus Spoke Zarathustra
By Matt Steckle
“Look, I don’t see how you’re going to convince me that there is an objective purpose to life,” he said, growing irritated. “God isn’t real, I know you agree with me on that. At the end of the day there’s just atoms and void, that’s all there is—at least, that’s what science tells us. And the cosmos, just like the facts discovered by science, ultimately doesn’t care about what you or anyone else thinks. So, there’s no point in holding out for “objective” meaning in life. Meanings and values are “subjective”, science can’t study them, and we’d be further ahead as a society if we didn’t have to talk about them at all.”
That’s what my friend said to me around a year ago as we exited a lecture hall in the Chrysler building of the University of Windsor. The philosophy class we had been attending together covered a series of topics that included the question of God’s existence, the nature of creativity, and what such considerations might imply about the meaning of life. I left class feeling optimistic. I took up the task of trying to prove to my friend that it was possible for human beings to live truly meaningful lives. But I could tell he wasn’t convinced. He told me that, as an atheist, he was committed to the opposite idea, that life had no “objective” meaning. In fact, it seemed to him that meaning wasn’t the kind of thing that could be considered objective. To say so was to commit what philosophers call a “category mistake”. A good example of a category mistake is the kind of error someone might make if they were to ask which building on a university campus is the real university. Anyone who is familiar with a university knows that the question doesn’t have a proper answer because it is the wrong question to ask: a university isn’t the kind of thing that could be located in a single building. In the same way, my atheist friend supposed that the idea of “objective” meaning was a category mistake. For him, musing about the true purpose of one’s life was a waste of mental energy. Meaning and objectivity were like two opposite poles of a magnet. They belonged in separate categories and it was wrong to try to suggest there could be any overlap between them.
My friend went on to explain what he meant by "objective". Something is “objective” if it exists independently of one's private perspective or preference. If the meaning of your life is "objective" it means that, at the end of the day, it’s out of your hands. Since, for my friend, a Supreme Being was the only thing that could secure this specific type of meaning, a godless universe meant that there was nothing preordained or set in stone about the meaning of an individual person’s life. This also implied that meaning must therefore be “subjective”.
Fair enough, I thought. The idea of an ultimate "god-given" purpose wasn’t the type I was interested in defending. But something felt not quite right about my friend’s conclusion that the meaning of life must therefore be subjective. He might have been correct about the non-existence of God, but did that really mean that meaning was subjective? I was fine with the first part, I wanted to argue that meaning was a real, tangible aspect of human life, not that we needed a God or a saviour in order for meaning to be possible. No, what bothered me wasn’t that my friend denied the existence of God or the “objective” meaning supposedly secured by his existence; it was that, in place of God, he introduced the concept of a cold and indifferent world of scientific facts that “didn't care” what human beings thought or felt about them. As if facts were always there, waiting to be found by rational scientific minds. As if humans don't also intervene in and shape the very realities they come to know. No middle ground here, no shared space in which meanings and purposes can be understood as real, emergent features of the construction of knowledge.
The reference to “science” in place of religious sentiment told me that, for my friend, the “real” world was one without values or sentiments. If they existed, they existed only in a secondary sense as “psychological” or “subjective” impressions generated by the human mind. Values, meanings, and purposes didn’t exist in the same way atoms, bacteria, or the laws of nature did. My friend, it seemed to me, was on a mission to rid the world of religious ideology that he thought posed an imposition to the public acceptance of scientific truths. Meanings were among the “subjective” things that only existed in the most minimal and pathetic of ways. Just like all those scientifically illiterate "climate skeptics" or "anti-vaxers", religious people who believed in the idea of an “objective” value or purpose were closing their eyes to the truths revealed by modern science.
But, I thought, just like the religious and “subjective” sentiments he opposed, my friend also conceived of science in a religious way. His appeal to brute, "indifferent" "facts" suggested that science could transcend the world whose reality it alone was capable of representing. Of course he acknowledged that scientists were embodied, earthly, biological beings, but there was nevertheless something “exceptional” about the work they did that took them outside of and beyond the world itself. Unlike other forms of human activity and practice, science, like the religious paradigm it replaced, granted humans privileged access to truths that were immutable, eternal, not of this world. Yes, religion has been replaced, but its framework remains fixed in place. To know the "truth" we must escape the world and grasp it as if from nowhere at all. In the religious version of the story, God’s real “objective” existence out there in the true world secured the possibility of our salvation—the culmination of a meaningful life. But, in the scientific version, things do not improve much. We still have to choose between objects and subjects. Now, meaning is simply displaced from one unreality to another, no longer part of the “true world” above, but confined to the false and arbitrary domain of human “subjectivity”. Religion once asked us to escape our sinful, finite, and corruptible (“subjective”) natures and to seek salvation in the (“objective”) reality of God’s love. Too bad salvation always comes too late. “Science” now tells us we were mistaken all along. Meaning isn't found with a non-existent God, it's a non-existent human projection. Much better! It’s just in our heads. What’s real isn’t meaningful, and what’s meaningful can’t be real.
My friend was trying to convince me that by holding onto the idea of “objective” meaning I was deceiving myself about the cold hard truths delivered by science to the world. But I was trying to tell my friend that he was still endorsing an implicitly religious viewpoint. He had only left in place the dichotomy between subject and object that gave rise to a paradigm of modern thought that linked together the idea of meaning with the idea of escape. Moreover, he had confused the impulse to escape (which was the real enemy) with the religious impulse, and so re-inscribed the escapist attitude in his proposal that meaning was “merely” subjective. Therefore, rather than argue that atheists push their secularism too far, I think that they are not secular enough. The atheist remains a closet religious fundamentalist by accepting that the laws inscribed by a non-existent God should remain the measuring stick of human worth. They become truly secular when they learn not to look up to a non-existent God in the first place. Whether it is dressed up in scientific or religious garb, escapism is escapism. It doesn’t matter if your exit strategy leads upwards into some “truer-than-this” heaven or downwards into the “really” real material “facts of nature”. The direction doesn't matter. The point is that the atheist still gives secondary status to the only life they will ever live on the basis of a comparison to an “objective” concept of meaning secured by a God who they loudly declare not to exist. Unless we try to radically change our understanding of what it means to live a meaningful life, the escapist framework stays in place. My suggestion is that we should not fall for this sleight of hand. The hard-core atheist and the religious fundamentalist both want you to escape the world to which you owe your care and responsibility.
What happens when we learn to reject the escapist impulse? Or, better, can we find a way to transform the escape impulse into a different kind of pursuit, one that leads away from the safety and security of a “God” or “Nature” and toward a renewed understanding of the benefits which religion and science bring to human life? Such a proposal, far from being a rejection of the reality of religion and science, asks us to become more sensitive to the world-making processes of both activities. It asks us to look closely at what kinds of beings science and religion make manifest in our shared world, and how such forces enrich the lives of human beings and the environments they inhabit.
For now, I propose that one possible alternative way to conceive science and religion is to return to our lived experiences of those activities and to try to grasp how each constitutes creative projects in our daily lives. To deny escapism in this sense is to affirm the value of life and the capacity it has for generating deeper entanglements between living beings. To deny escapism is to reject the impulse to think human and non-human beings as isolated entities. This means, in the case of religion, looking to the community building elements of spiritual life. How do religious groups enrich the lives of their individual members? For science, on the other hand, it means thinking about knowledge building practices in ways that deny the tendency to think of scientific knowledge as disconnected from the world. Ask instead how modern Western knowledge intervenes in the lives of human and non-human beings around the globe. How does it shape those lives for better and for worse? Meanings are ultimately about the commitments we make to resolving the tangled mess of a world we have had a hand in shaping. They are what we choose to create in the face of adversity. Creativity means being with others who ask us to be more than what we are. These “others” should be broadly construed. The people in my life can ask me to be more than what I am, but so can the characters that come into being through the mediation of my pen or the typed words on the keyboard. Creativity is the answer to escapism because it is the most universal expression of human activity, that, when looked at in the right way, reveals to us how we have always, without knowing it, been living in defiance of the escape impulse.