Bill Rose Thorn has a nice post up responding to my theses on Dark Ontology and, in particular, my claim that being is without purpose or meaning. A couple of folks have misconstrued what I’m saying on this point, so it’s worth making a couple words of clarification. What does it mean to say that the universe is without purpose or meaning? It merely means that there’s nothing inscribed in the order of things that has a meaning, purpose, or divine. Natural disasters aren’t rewards or punishments for how peoples have lived their lives. The stars have nothing to say about the destinies of peoples. History is not working towards some final goal. There isn’t a battle between good and evil. No divine being was trying to teach you a lesson when you lost a loved one or got cancer. These are all just things that happen. Nothing more, nothing less. There is no grand drama of being where humans are at the center and where some struggle between the supernatural forces of good and evil are playing themselves out. Humans happened as a result of random mutation and natural selection. Nothing more. We could have just as easily not happened and at some point we’ll evolve into another species that might be far more enlightened or far more brutal than us, or we’ll just disappear from the world altogether as a result of extinction.
What doesn’t it mean to say the universe is without meaning, design, or purpose? Obviously it doesn’t mean that humans and other critters don’t create meaning. We’re up to our eyeballs in meaning every minute of our lives. When I use a hammer to pound nails I’ve assigned a purpose to it and given it a meaning. When a person reflects on the significance of their cancer for their lives, they’re giving it meaning. We set all sorts of goals for ourselves. We wonder about the significance of Hurricane Katrina for culture. We wonder what the impact of 9-11 will be on society. We write novels and philosophies. In everything we do we do so in a world of meaning. The thesis of naturalism and nihilism is not that there isn’t meaning. It’s a thesis about where meaning comes from. The naturalistic thesis is that meaning arises from the play of the signifier and our embodied, lived, cognitive experiences. It’s the thesis that they aren’t in the things themselves. When my daughter sees ponies in the clouds, they’re not in the things themselves. We can only talk about the world meaningfully, but one of the neat things about meaning is that it can talk about the non-meaningfulness of existence itself. Obviously a person’s cancer means a lot to them, but in the order of nature itself independent of their cognition, relation to language, and so on, there’s no meaning to their cancer in the sense of some metaphysically inscribed purpose, plan, or meaning to that cancer. Nope. They just suffered a sad genetic mutation as a result of some substance like uranium they were exposed to. It wasn’t some divine being teaching them a lesson or placing them in some dire straits for some grand cosmic plan. What I’m saying is no different than anything Spinoza or the Stoics said: nothing in itself is beautiful or ugly, good or bad, purposeful or purposeless, only our evaluations make it so. Good/bad, right/wrong, and all the rest are purely relational predicates. My cats seem to take great delight in resting their little heads in my stinky shoes. Me not so much. Is the shoe’s odor loathsome? Apparently not to my cat. It’s my cat that gives value to that odor. It’s value isn’t in the shoe itself.