Often people ask how there can be any possible meaning, purpose, or values if God does not exist. That would be the Nietzschean problem, I guess. The paradox is that if God does not exist then God never existed, so values, purposes, and meaning were never dependent upon him in the first place. The real question, then, is not whether or not values, purposes, and meanings are possible without God– we always had them –but rather how we can still sustain them once we become aware of this.
Yeah, I’m having an existential moment today. Materialism and naturalism are hard doctrines from the standpoint of questions about meaning and purpose. This, no doubt, is why people have such allergic reactions to these positions, even while implicitly, I think, knowing their true (if their responses and attitudes towards death are any indication).
In the television show Firefly, one theory of the Reavers is that they reached the end of the universe and went mad because all they saw was empty nothingness. This is how it is with materialism and naturalism. It invites madness borne from despair at the utter pointlessness of it all. Our curse is that we are capable of thinking something more than this, better than this, yet are trapped in this. We are trapped in our stinking, decaying, hungering bodies, caught in geography, in appetites, in yearning, in fatigue, yet able to glimpse beyond this condition.
Yet it’s not just our stinking, hungering, decaying, fatigued bodies that yield this horror of matter and nature. It’s also the bodies of others. We’re driven mad by the loss of loved ones, by watching them suffer as they die, by knowing that we can never bring them back, and by the distance we sometimes suffer in space from those we love and who give our lives meaning and value. Love is the positive side of our relation to others, even if it causes us such anguish and renders us so vulnerable. The dark side of our human relations lies in having to live in a world inhabited by others who act in stupid and cruel ways in their collective governance, forcing us to endure that stupidity and cruelty without being able to do much about it. We’re driven mad by the horror and cruelty of humanity, by a world where we glimpse things could be better, kinder, more compassionate, less stupid yet without being able to bring this world about. We’re driven mad by the manner in which our utopian strivings, based on the most noble of ends, so often lead to even more suffering and cruelty as nothing ever translates perfectly throughout a population due to stupidity and mendacity.
What tradition hasn’t hated the body? In Eastern thought we encounter either doctrines of reincarnation of images of sages able to escape all laws of physics and limitations of the body through spiritual discipline such as that Shaolin monks. In Western thought we have the fantasy of an incorporeal soul defined by intellect found in Plato, Descartes, in Christianity. Even in the post-religious frameworks we get the visions of the transhumanists dreaming of our selves being uploaded to computers and thereby freed of our bodies. And throughout philosophy we everywhere encounter a privileging of the idea, the ideal, the intelligible, of sense, of meaning, of all that is not physical over the material. Or we find the persistent claim that this world is really just an illusion, an appearance. A horror of the body, a horror of the physical. We’re mad from the body and its finitude, mad from the material, mad from the pointlessness of it all; and above all mad because we nonetheless have some form of transcendence– even if illusory –that can imagine something else. And as the ability to sustain these dualisms increasingly fails as the result of our ever growing knowledge of being– that is, of matter and the truth of monism –we’re left with little but despair. We’re then confronted with the question of how it might be possible to sustain some meaning, hope, and purpose where we are our bodies and nothing more.