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God as “Meaning Assigner”

July 11th, 2008 · Posted by Hugo · 18 Comments

It’s 2:45am, I’m back from a long conversation with a good friend, who’s been thinking/seeking/investigating/philosophising for some time, following a religious experience, in the context of a Christian background and culture and possessing an open and inquiring mind. Very philosophical, and digging down to the very basic axioms of meaning and value in life.

The conversation was great. It rotated around the meaning of life, the source of values, “why be good”… And it helped hack out some terminology and ways of expressing ourselves in order to bridge philosophical divides. Bring two thinking people together, coming from somewhat different perspectives, and figure out the language that you could both agree on, leads to increased ability to communicate the ideas to others.

So that’s what I’ll be trying to do soon: namely, trying to share all the ideas from that conversation (discussing the likes of theistic existentialism, atheistic existentialism, absurdism and nihilism, referring to the table)… but it will take me some time to get there. I will make some run-up posts (stalling for time?), and maybe tie up loose ends of previous “threads” if I feel I need to do so first.

Here’s a thought to start off with then, another attempt at “defining God”, :n the general sense: god as the source of meaning in your life, the source of your values, the source of your concept of what is right and what is wrong, especially including the reason that you stick to doing right and avoid doing wrong. (The answer to “why be good?”… and “why bother living?”)

God: the assigner of meaning and value in life…

Categories: Worldviews
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18 responses so far ↓

  • 1 miller // Jul 11, 2008 at 6:34 am

    There are a couple problems with that definition. For one thing, you’ll either end up equating atheism with nihilism, or thinking that atheists treat reason or themselves as god. Both of these views are pernicious, IMO.

    Another problem is that there are all sorts of different answers to that question that have no obvious analogue when we think of god. People might answer that they live for others, or because of a philosophy, because the alternative seems worse. There may be many reasons in a complicated hierarchy or perhaps no reason at all.

    Lastly, since different people could give different answers that are correct for themselves, you’ve confined god to subjective reality.

  • 2 Hugo // Jul 11, 2008 at 2:54 pm

    That is the definition that emerged in our conversation, that proved useful for our conversation. Some nuances and details of the conversation are necessary to justify/explain what that implies.

    One: it doesn’t equate atheism with nihilism, it rather states that most atheists “have a god”. And they don’t treat themselves as god. The person that treats themselves as god would be the nihilistic narcissist. Most atheists are not narcissists, they do not willy-nilly decide what is good and bad. Reason without some basic accepted axioms also leads to nihilism, you need some basic axiom. For example: the golden rule. And there, then, you have a “god”, in the sense I’m using the word.

    I appreciate the problems with that definition, and realise that it plays directly into the fundie theist’s classic argument that atheists are treating themselves as their own god. But that’s too bad. :-P I’ve written about this in the past as well, in an attempt to explain in what sense most atheists “do have a god” (or even, do “obey god”, given the above approach/definition). In particular, my first touching on this subject was an attempt to explain to the theist, in my three-post series on “How to Convert an Atheist”… the third was this: Language Differences.

    There may be many reasons in a complicated hierarchy or perhaps no reason at all.

    Aka “there are many different understandings/perspectives as to what God is”…

    Lastly, since different people could give different answers that are correct for themselves, you’ve confined god to subjective reality.

    Your last thought is written from a non-theistic perspective. That’s existentialism. That’s great. The theist has a different understanding of the “giver of meaning/values”, and believes it comes from a particular entity. That entity is, in typical monotheism, considered to have authority over what is meaningful/valuable on the grounds that it is the creator of all that is. There are many other notions of god, that particular “creator god” idea came into existence during Israel’s banishment in Babylonia. It was a way to affirm their culture’s value, and helped their cultural/tribal identity survive. Before that, in henotheistic tribal warfare, when you lose, your god lost to another tribe’s god. And you become rather dejected, clearly your god wasn’t a good assigner of “meaning and value”, and you maybe convert to the victor’s god…?

    See what I mean? Your last perspective “betrays” your existentialist outlook, that each is free to find meaning in their own lives. The definition still sticks for the monotheist though, because the monotheist believes only the creator-god has the authority to assign meaning.

  • 3 Hugo // Jul 11, 2008 at 3:00 pm

    My philosophical stance on the matter has a somewhat “unified” perspective with regards to “atheistic existentialism” and “theistic existentialism”, which I’d maybe label “non-theistic or post-theistic existentialism”. :-P The “theistic-existentialists” have a more explicitly “shared” value system. Humanists have a somewhat shared value system as well, bringing them somewhat closer to “theistic existentialism” than the more “individualistic atheists”.

  • 4 miller // Jul 11, 2008 at 11:02 pm

    Huh, so I guess it does “betray” my existentialism. But I don’t normally think of myself as an existentialist, because I usually associate existentialism with a view of an “absurd” universe.

    I don’t think the many possible sources of meaning is exactly analogous to the many understandings of God. What is the relationship between different sources of meaning and different understandings of god? Can we not have a straightforward source of meaning, yet a complicated understanding of God? Of course, the problem here may be that I am combining your definition with the conventional ones.

    So in that case, I’d like to complain that your definition is at odds with the conventional ones. Not that there’s anything logically wrong with that, it’s just that I fear the sin of equivocation. :-)

  • 5 Hugo // Jul 12, 2008 at 12:35 am

    Fair enough… except existentialism and absurdism aint the same thing. And excuse my “labelling” of you, silly that, I was just looking for a word for describing “we each create our own meaning in life”, which is what I think your stance is. And I might be wrong.

    Yes, my definition is at odds with conventional ones, but that’s in part because I’m busy with a process of exploring particular aspects of various “god concepts”, and this is just one simple aspect of complicated god concepts that I’m focusing on.

    I guess you’d say liberal Christianity has definitions of “God” that are also at odds with the conventional ones… I’d then go for “conservative ones”, maybe. Liberal theologians all have definitions slightly at odds with the “traditional” definition, as does the more radical branch of the emerging church movement. I’m connecting to that.

    I suppose it might have been better to not have used the word “define”, or added some more words… Maybe I could have described it thus: “let’s investigate the consequences of the God-as-meaning-assigner thought”. How’s that? I can make a little update to the post.

  • 6 Hugo // Jul 12, 2008 at 2:33 am

    With some thought on what I want to accomplish and “who I’m writing for”, I’ve decided I’ll be running with this definition, so I probably will end up irritating the “non-theists”:

    There are a couple problems with that definition. For one thing, you’ll either end up equating atheism with nihilism, or thinking that atheists treat reason or themselves as god. Both of these views are pernicious, IMO.

    I will probably end up concluding that they treat something like the “golden rule” as god, or the law, or whatever ideology they might subscribe to. Those that live the materialistic/capitalistic dream of trying to amass wealth, will be considered to have made money their god.

    If I do this, I will still point out the nuances. Those that have been following for some time should have some idea of my writing style. I try to comment on where my take differs from traditional takes etc.

    Of course you do now have some chance of influencing how I handle things, by discussing them before I write the upcoming blog posts, but at the same time, I’m aiming towards the deeper philosophical discussion I had with my friend, who was contemplating “why be good? why choose life rather than suicide?” etc. We were contemplating and discussing solutions to the untenable nihilistic position, specifically with reference to how he sees things and feels about things.

    I’m not sure how I will present that conversation. “He said, I said… we discussed…”? That feels so uninspired. Maybe I’ll go with a fictional conversation based on ours, using two pseudonyms to represent characters based on him and I. I think many philosophers found that style useful?

  • 7 miller // Jul 12, 2008 at 5:22 am

    Okay, forget my previous misgivings, and let’s investigate the consequences of God-as-meaning-assigner.

    First, I’ll start with my own answer. The golden rule is important, but I wouldn’t place it at the top of the chain. I guess Christians would place Jesus above the golden rule, right? I think I might place intuition or empathy above it. And induction would definitely fit in somewhere around there.

    As for what we can tell from this… I don’t know… help me here.

  • 8 Hugo // Jul 12, 2008 at 10:29 am

    Hehe, you’re taking a very, um, “reductionistic” approach to looking for it then. I like it. ;)

    Here’s my flavour of liberal Christianity, a bit wishy-washy: there is an “abstract, divine ideal” with regards to a way to live your life, but it’s abstract, “in the spiritual realm”, “not real”. This idea, this “mythological source” of our morality, is quite to connect to. It is easier to work with a concrete example, if such a concrete example can be found. Jesus, then, is attributed divinity by his followers, is considered an incarnation of such divinity, a Son of this “source”, on the grounds that the example he set and the way he lived and died, and what he taught, demonstrates what a follower believes to be the best way to live a life. M’kay, enough of that…

    Darwinistically speaking, we evolved all the separate pieces that we pull together into our ethical and moral codes. I recently went to a talk by a “philosophical theologian”, who gave a talk titled Charles Darwin and Human Nature – should Christian Theology care? I have not yet written about the talk, but it was pretty cool. A whole hall full of Christians very aware that evolution gave us all the pieces of the puzzle of our morality, that the apes have the “beginnings of morality” as well. But I digress…

    Empathy, certainly. Through our feelings of empathy, we can place ourselves in another’s shoes, so the “emotion/feeling of empathy” is the “source” of the golden rule. Some would go and call it “love”, for one another. (Connect that to “God is love” or “love is God”? :-P )

    Intuition, another thing that connects to what we might call your “conscience”? The “little voice inside” (some people experience little “voices”, and some people call that voice “God”).

    So there’s a “something inside”, which came about in the process of evolving into a gregarious species. A believer in “theistic evolution” would not consider the fact that we evolved the beginnings of our sense of morality (on which we then add “reason” for the harder problems) as a reason to not consider it, our conscience, a connection to God. John Shelby Spong (the “non-theistic Christian”) apparently wrote “God is something inside”.

    Chuck out philosophical cause-and-effect, we’re not talking about a philosophical, metaphysical god here, not talking about the “original cause”, we’re rather separating that idea from a “god of faith”… an idea Peter Rollins is investigating. In fact, that will be the basis of one of the future posts I’ll be making in the series — maybe the second. The first will be something like: Dan Dennett’s proselytizing for a “god”… though I hope to find a slightly better title by this afternoon/evening.

  • 9 miller // Jul 13, 2008 at 8:58 am

    I don’t think I would go any further than empathy. Evolution might be a more “ultimate” cause, but it’s not the right kind of cause. Evolution explains why we act morally, but it doesn’t explain why we should act morally. I mean, evolution also explains why we overeat.

    So empathy is my god now! :D

    Incidentally, I really do believe God exists in the same sense that love exists: as a powerful force within people’s minds. ;)

  • 10 Negate // Jul 13, 2008 at 10:13 am

    This entire god and morality issue is due to the perception of theists that an individual cannot be ethical without a supernatural being as ‘morality and law giver.

    In what way does the concept of god make us more or less moral? One can easily equate morality and values with a family or supportive social structure. The source of morality is humanity, if you admit
    to abide by god’s ethical rules to avoid punishment and judgment by a supreme being. Then you have exposed your own conscious inability to do what you know is right simply because you know it is right, which is the definition of being amoral and unethical.

    Morality can be more true when its basis is real and its concern is primary. Meaning of life goes deeper than god. One can get meaning through your own actions, actions of others. Knowledge, wisdom etc. What meaning and what values does god assign to your life?

  • 11 Hugo // Jul 13, 2008 at 10:35 am

    Sweet. How about humanity? Some sense of humanism? (As some kind of ideal…) Your empathy is typically between you and another human. Or do you feel some anthropomorphic empathy towards suffering animals? (Maybe towards other primates.)

    But empathy’s a good one, a good choice, I reckon. And yes, God exists… :-P depending on your ontology.

    So, now that you have a god, you godly man, you can read my post on The fool says in his heart, “There is no God”, and tell me what you think? Or not. I just discovered the KJV wording. I think I should stick that into the main post as an “update”, it seems to support my case.

    @Negate: no, you’re equating god with “supernatural being”. We are specifically talking of a different definition here. “Mammon” is not a supernatural being, it’s a personification of money, it is about “serving money”. And it could be a “god” to you, i.e. something you serve. By this definition, yes, everyone has a “god” — I’m effectively trying to explore “theological theory” as I understand it. “We all serve something, even if it is our empathy.” If we are only self-serving, we’d typically end up unhappy narcissists.

    We serve “something”, even if that “something” isn’t definable in a reductionistic way.

    BTW, yes, serving your god only because you want something out of it, e.g. life after death, or something like that, isn’t an example of the “truly faithful”. This is what the story of Job is about. In that sense, I’m sorry that Abusing the Story of Job is such a long post. Those committed to “value-in-life” (to morality/ethics) because things are going well, or because they are getting something out of it, can never be the “faith hero” that Job was.

    Job didn’t give up on his meaning in life, despite things going really badly, and not because he had hopes for an afterlife or that he would be rewarded for his faith. Christians often read that kind of “Conventional Wisdom” into the story, because it is “too challenging” to their world-view otherwise.

    And so I tip my hat to those moral and ethical individuals, who stick to it through thick and thin, despite not getting anything in return, despite life throwing the worst at them. They are the true Job’s, the true “faith heroes”. Sorry, that doesn’t go for the most of us, we are too well off to really be tested to that level. The question is: if you were stricken with poverty and suffering, would you compromise on your ethics, on your “god”, on your “value in life”, and fall into lying/stealing/etc? (Hmm… those with a family, might have that their ultimate goal, so stealing a loaf of bread to feed them could be considered the ethical/moral/faithful course of action.)

  • 12 Hugo // Jul 13, 2008 at 10:43 am

    @Negate, yes, there are two ways of building bridges, when one has two groups/communities with a “language” divide between them. You choose words from one side or the other, and learn how to use them. Some people choose the reductionistists’ words, and talk about finding meaning, and having morality or ethics, and pointing out you don’t need a supernatural Santa for doing that. They throw out Santa.

    I’m going with my tradition, going with the “emergent church” movement (the more radical branch), and sticking to my words, my stories. The story of Santa is about being good or bad. We can keep that story, but learn to understand what it is pointing to. To the adult, taking this path, the Santa story is no longer about getting presents, it is about living a good life. And Job is about whether you can remain faithful to the good, ethical, “godly” life, which can be described via the Santa narrative, despite no reward whatsoever.

    So that’s the path this blog takes.

  • 13 Negate // Jul 13, 2008 at 11:11 am

    >“Mammon” is not a supernatural being, it’s a personification of money, it is about “serving money”.

    This defenition is nothing more than a reality we all share and have to serve to survive. How does this concept of god contribute to meaning? For arguments sake, if I found meaning in life through the wisdom what did i serve? myself. Now my question is what view, feeling, realization do you see as giving meaning in life?(not being a narcissist?)

    > If we are only self-serving, we’d typically end up unhappy narcissists.

    Even serving yourself is serving something. Not all narcissists are unhappy. The fact that all humanity serves something stems from the fact that we need other people, food etc to fulfill our conscious and unconscious needs. The moral message you derived from the story of Job has a universal theme. Don’t give up on your dreams!

    I stand by my point that meaning, morality all have different, unique origins and sources.

  • 14 Hugo // Jul 13, 2008 at 12:26 pm

    First point: I do agree with all you say, I’m not arguing. We are in agreement. I believe the only battle here is in trying to communicate well.

    How does this concept of god contribute to meaning?

    It does not… it is defining. “Let’s call the origins of your meaning, your god”. And not in the monotheistic sense, rather in some sort of henotheistic sense then (and the Old Testament has henotheistic roots)… Ah, so I think I understand where the misunderstanding comes from: no, I did not mean to imply that we all have the same source, the same god. That is a whole ‘nother discussion. There are many gods in this world, many sources of meaning in life.

    There, does that clear it up a bit? Discussions about “The One God” ideae will come later.

    With regards to “having meaning” and not being “self-serving”, that’s a tough one when you interpret “having meaning” as a self-serving action. That’s taking too much of a “big picture” view, I’d say.

    In the wisdom of my favourite church (SG), Theo explained that first we love one another, and from that, we end up loving ourselves as a secondary effect. We find happiness in ourselves by not directly seeking that.

    Yes, ultimately one can argue it is self-serving, but break that link for this conversation. Climb into it rather than taking a third-person perspective. Don’t know if I’m expressing myself well.

    I’m busy with a post where we can discuss this further, right now I’m more interested in a good English translation for “sunum bonum”. Or I’ll just leave it as “sunum bonum”, quoting Dennett.

  • 15 Dan Dennet sez: Find Yerself a “god”! // Jul 13, 2008 at 2:07 pm

    [...] Blog | Comments ← God as “Meaning Assigner” [...]

  • 16 Pieter // Jul 19, 2008 at 2:02 am

    I believe we are designed to be empathic inside a group of approximately 150 people (hmm wonder if I can find a reference to that study).

    So to move from tribalism into our society of today, something additional was needed. Is that the golden rule, secular human rights or just the shared truths of our societal fabric? So I agree empathy is the god kernel. Then just add the ingredient to turn “your” people into “all” people.

  • 17 Hugo // Jul 20, 2008 at 12:07 am

    I believe you’re thinking of Dunbar’s number, named after the anthropologist Robin Dunbar, who found a correlation between the volume of a primate’s neocortex and the number of social group members it can attract. From this he estimated/extrapolated the group size for humans (150, but with a relatively high uncertainty)…

  • 18 Atheists Faithfully Follow the First Two or Three Commandments // Aug 21, 2008 at 3:07 pm

    [...] idea or principle according to which humans should ideally live their lives”, in the God as “Meaning Assigner” [...]

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