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I have been an atheist for some time and I recently realized something that I am

I have been an atheist for some time and I recently realized something that I am curious about. Resulting from depression I have come to see that through resenting myself I create distance with those around me. At the same time I have no purpose to a creator (being an atheist) to live and life seems to become bleak. I began to wonder and feel that the more I begin again to care about people the more I realize how essential they are to an atheist life. When caring about people we find our God or purpose so to speak. Do philosophers say anything about how without God you must care about people to feel like life has purpose beyond hedonism? Any expansion to my question is fine since I am pretty hazy due to feeling down these days. Thanks

As a theist, I would love to welcome you back, but in all honesty I suggest that atheistic philosophers have worked quite hard to argue that life without God can be deep and satisfying and while pleasurable not hedonistic. In fact, one member of this panel, Louise Antony has edited a book called Philosophers without God which you might find hopeful and uplifting. You might also look for Robert Solomon's Spirituality for the Skeptic or The Really Hard Problem:: Meaning in a Material World by Owen Flanagan. Some atheists do place a premium on caring for other persons, but some also care about other things --for example, caring for nonhuman animals or wildlife areas, artwork, science, and so on.

If you want to compare atheistic and theistic views of values, you might check out a recent book I co-authored with the American artist Jil Evans' The Image in Mind; Theism, Naturalism, and the Imagination (Continuum, 2011). Sorry to hear that you're feeling down! I hope things turn around for you asap.

Recently, someone I knew of passed away, and was far too young. He was an

Recently, someone I knew of passed away, and was far too young. He was an incredibly good person, he was empathetic and caring and all the things that are considered "good". It made me realise that there have been many people that were inherently "good" who have died at a young age. I feel almost that I have a "duty" to these people to try to be "good" myself. In a sense, I feel all of a sudden a need to be worthy of life, to be deserving of existence, because so many people who deserved to exist, no longer do. In the past, I must have hurt people, made people uncomfortable, as I guess a lot of people have done. The problem is such a worth is not easy to quantify, and to quantify it would trivialise it. I don't know how to satisfy this yearning, nor do I know how to express it with great enough precision to figure out how to satisfy it. What do you suggest I do? Thanks a lot.

Thank you for this extraordinary question. The matter is quite profound and I feel quite unworthy to respond, but I will make a few observations that I hope are helpful (or not unhelpful)!

First, one might question whether it is best to see your response to those who have died prematurely as carrying out what is a duty to them. I know you qualify this by writing "amost" and putting the word "duty" in quotes, but perhaps what has taken place is that the deaths of such good persons has awoken in you an intense realization of the preciousness of life itself. Having just lost a friend who died in his early 50s, I am keenly aware of how Rick would have loved even very simple pleasures (walking the dog) that I can do know. I am made aware of how precious it is that I can spend time with my wife, realizing at the same time how deeply sad (tragic) it is that Rick and Angela are not together.

Perhaps this leads to a second observation. Except in some religious systems in which there is re-incarnation or in theistic religions in which there is a very strong view of predestination (God predestines that certain people exist), it seems that no one of us "deserved to exist." For myself, as a philosopher who is also a Christian but not one who believes in predestination, I think of life as a gift. For a nonChristian, secular treatment of life seen as something undeserved and contingent, you might check out the last chapter of Thomas Nagel's The View from Nowhere. In any case, one might take delight in the sheer undeserved nature of being alive, whether for a long or short time.

Maybe a sense of the preciousness of life and life being like an undeserved gift naturally leads to the drive to really honor and care for those around us. I agree that many of have hurt others, made people feel uncomfrotable and so on, but this should not obscure the desire to seek forgiveness when appropriate and to seek the good in all those lives linked with ours.

Why are certain endeavors typically considered to be more meaningful than others

Why are certain endeavors typically considered to be more meaningful than others? Volunteers like to say that their work adds meaning and a certain form of fulfillment to their lives. Why is volunteerism, in particular, seen to be "meaningful"? Why don't we hear the same claim as frequently from say, lawyers or tax accountants?

I wanted to add a few thoughts prompted by Amy's very interesting response.

First, if you're generally interested in the topic of the meaning of life, you might check out Albert Camus's retelling of the story of Sisyphus, which concludes: "One must imagine Sisyphus happy." This might lead one to think that Camus has fallen into the kind of objection advanced by Taylor, but it's not clear to me that he has. In any event, Camus's essay is tricky and complicated, but it is also well-written, rich, and rewarding, I think it well worth the time and effort.

Second, if you are interested in the way that a living philosopher grapples with this sort of question, I heartily recommend Susan Wolf's book, Meaning in Life and Why It Matters, which engages in an extended way unparalleled by the work of other recent philosophers that I know with this general topic.

Wolf, if I remember correctly--and I may well be misremembering--suggests a similar response to the question of what gives life meaning to that which Amy advances. The deep question, though, is what constitutes 'real worth'? I don't remember Wolf's answer, and I don't have her book at hand; I'll make a beginning on engaging this question by considering what I take to be Amy's response to it.

Amy's implied answer to the question seems to be that real worth consists in bringing about something outside oneself that makes the world a better place. Suppose, however, that one devotes one's life to a cause--say, promoting the independence of a nation from its king--that is not achieved in one's lifetime, or, for that matter, ever, and which even culminates in a revolt that leads to the death of all those involved. It's not clear to me that in such a case, one's life is thereby rendered meaningless. Now one might respond that this is because in such a case, although the project in question is not brought to fruition, nevertheless, its value comes from the fact that in undertaking it one was (1) looking outside oneself and (2) trying to make the world a better place. But suppose that the revolution in question was intended to replace a king with a theocracy. This project could, of course, result in making the world a better place, but it need not: whether it did would, to my mind, depend on the nature of the theocracy instituted. But even if the theocracy were a repressive totalitarian regime, bent on reducing all nations to its sway, the project doesn't seem to me thereby to be meaningless, although it may be misguided or open to criticism on other grounds. So it seems that in order for a project to meaningful, it need not make the world a better place. As for looking outside oneself, it's not clear how important that is. Venerable philosophical tradition has it that the contemplative life is best; the best existence of all, it has been suggested, is one of pure contemplation, one spent thinking and not doing anything at all. This doesn't seem like a worthless or meaningless life, although it may be difficult for human being to achieve, and although, to my mind, it's dubious that this is indeed the best life. Now it might be responded that insofar as one is thinking about anything, one is looking outside oneself. Depending on one's views of the content of thoughts, one may be more or less inclined to accept this claim. But suppose it were possible to have contentful thoughts completely unconnected with, or, better, even disconnected from, the world. Would such a life be worthless? It's not clear to me, at least, that this is the case, or, at least, that this need be the case. If that's correct, though, then we return to the question with which we began: what constitutes the meaning or the meaningfulness or the value of a life, or even a project? This is a deep and important question, one to which I wish I had the answer, but, sadly, I don't.

Is there any value in "thinking for yourself" on subjects that have long been

Is there any value in "thinking for yourself" on subjects that have long been thought about before? Regarding whether God exists, for instance, lots of people far smarter and more knowledgeable than I have been unable to come to a consensus. If they can't figure it out, I have little hope of finding the truth myself. And if they did happen to come to consensus, it would be silly of me to try and prove them all wrong. So why should I think for myself if smarter people have already thought for me?

I agree with Saul, but I also think that it can be very useful to think through a problem for yourself before reading what others have had to say about it. That way, you know what you think about the issue, and you can use your views to help you understand or question the views of others.

Does the belief that everything is matter lead to the belief that the most

Does the belief that everything is matter lead to the belief that the most important things in life are material goods? In other words does the philosophy of materialism lead to the other kind of materialism where money and goods are the most valued things?

I don't think that there is any reason that a materialist metaphysics should lead one to become materialistic. Historically, at least, one of the points of a materialist metaphysics was to bring agents to see that their highest good did not depend on God or an afterlife but could only be achieved in this world, by their own efforts: while there are differences about the nature of this highest good--materialists such as Epicurus, Hobbes, and d'Holbach,, for example, have different conceptions of ethics and also of the highest good--none of them thought that the accumulation of material possessions was the highest good, and although, historically, materialists have tended to espouse some version of hedonism (the best-known materialist ethics, advanced by Epicurus, is a version of hedonism), there is no reason to think that a materialist metaphysics is not compatible with a wide range of (non-theological) conceptions of the highest good, and, indeed, there is no reason to think that a materialist metaphysics is not compatible with an ethics of virtue or deontology or--of course--utilitarianism.

Hello, as a bit of background I grew up in a non-religious household and

Hello, as a bit of background I grew up in a non-religious household and consider myself agnostic. Recently, I've had trouble coming to grips with my own mortality and while I've read through both the religion and death sections of this great website, the more I read the more I've come to believe that Tolstoy was right when he concluded in his Confession that a simple belief in God is, for lack of a better word, the "best" way to find meaning in life. (I freely admit I could be wrong) I find that philosophy helps me deal with this issue on an intellectual level, but leaves me feeling wanting on an emotional or spiritual level. Can philosophy give spiritual meaning to people's lives the same way religion does for others?

A great many philosophers today think that, yes, philosophy or a philosophical approach to life need not involve any religious beliefs or practices and yet it can be deeply satisfying in what may be called a spiritual manner. Among the panelists on this site, Louse Antony is in that position or that is what seems to emerge in the book Professor Antony edited: Philosophers Without God. Owen Flanagen and the late Robert Solomon have published books arguing for an explicitly spiritual approach to life on atheistic or non-theistic grounds (there is also the UK philosopher Grayling who has published in this area). For these thinkers "spirituality" does not suggest the transcendent, but it has more to do with living life with reverence, respect, love / compassion, and more. You might check out Solomon's book Spirituality for the Skeptic or Flanagen's The Really Hard Problem: Meaning in a Material World. There is also Wesley Wildman's Science and Religious Anthropology: A Spiritually evocative naturalist interpretation of human life.

Having said all that, I am personally far more with Tolstoy than these secular alternatives (as promising and impressive as they are)! Cambridge University Press published a book Jesus and Philosophy edited by Paul Moser a few years ago in which I more or less defend Tolstoy in the final chapter, and identify some of what I suggest are the shortcomings of secular naturalism. A very intersting, recent case of an atheist philosopher who is keenly aware of the challenge facing secular naturalism when it comes to spirituality is Thomas Nagel's collection of essays: Secular Philosophy and the religious temperament (Oxford University, 2010).

What is it that makes some things childish and others not? And why is it that

What is it that makes some things childish and others not? And why is it that most of the things we call childish are things we do for fun? Why are adults expected to have less fun and be more serious about everything?

Great questions! As for your main point or the point behind the questions, it does seem a great pity to think that adulthood must be defined in terms of a seriousness which frowns on fun, though I have some hesitancy about the way you are setting up childishness versus adulthood. I am not sure you are 100% right "that most of the things we call childish are things we do for fun." You may be spot on, but I suspect that we also call persons or actions childish when we believe they are immature, reckless, selfish, not thought through or naive. And in my experience children are sometimes just as serious, if not more so, than many adults I know. Also, the term "adult" has a pretty stable use in English for describing (perhaps inappropriate?) fun --as in "adult" films, bookstores, products.

Stepping back from the above observations, however, it is interesting to note that in the old days (e.g. industrial revolution) childhood was often not associated with fun and education, but labor, viz. child labor. Thank heavens, we today generally condemn child labor and seek to safeguard childhood as time for both fun and exploration. Hopefully (and here we may agree?) we can do more to continue that spirit into adulthood!

Is it immoral to spend your days playing World of Warcraft, just eating and

Is it immoral to spend your days playing World of Warcraft, just eating and sleeping at your parents' house? They have an extra bedroom and plenty of money so the food is a non-issue--they already have to feed 4, so 5 is not much different. Is it any different than playing golf every day trying to go pro when the likelihood of doing so successfully is very remote. Nothing else really interests me and I don't see why I have to live the way everyone else does if I don't want to. I could work and pay some rent but it would have a negligible effect on the overall finances and I can't find a job anyway.

Your rent-free lifestyle does not wrong your parents who can easily afford you and are apparently willing to do so. And there's also nothing wrong with refusing to live like everyone else does -- some of the most admirable people in human history did just that.

If everyone in this world were as well-off as you are, then there would be nothing immoral about your way of life. It would merely be lackluster, irrelevant, and boring for everyone but yourself. Pretty much everything worthwhile and interesting in this world is there thanks to human beings living with more than your level of ambition.

But then not everyone in this world is as well-off as you are. And in this case, I think, your lifestyle does qualify as immoral. There are lots of people in this country and even more so abroad who are vastly worse off than you are, and you have a moral responsibility to do your share to fight these deprivations -- as many others are doing, through volunteer work, donations, and so on. If you had a job, you could spend a little of your income to help people who have lost their homes in the recent financial crisis, to help children abroad suffering from malaria or unable to obtain even a minimal education. Even if you were really unable to find a job (how hard are you looking?), you could do some volunteer work in your community or by writing letters in behalf of political prisoners.

Now you may say in response that it might be good for you to do such things but that it would not be wrong not to. Many people are very badly off, but you have not contributed to their problems and so you have no responsibility to help fix them.

Let me make two points in reply. First, even if you didn't directly contribute to the burdens others are bearing, as a citizen you share responsibility for what we together do through our government. As citizens, we empowered the government that led us into the financial crisis, and as citizens we should work to ensure that those families hit hardest by it (domestically and abroad) can get through the crisis without too much hardship and lasting damage.

Second, it is not through merit -- even your parents' -- that you are as well off as you are. Income is very unequally distributed in this country and in the world. Your parents have "plenty of money" -- others are desperately poor, especially abroad where many families live on a few hundred dollars a year. Such huge disparities did not arise historically through differential work habits or even through luck. Rather, there were severe injustices -- such as slavery, colonialism, and genocide -- involved in the evolution of the existing distribution. As it happens, you are a beneficiary of these historical wrongs. To be sure, you bear no responsibility for these wrongs. Even if your ancestors were deeply involved in them, you cannot inherit their sins. But you should ask yourself whether it's right for you to claim the fruits of these crimes: the vastly superior start in life you and your parents have enjoyed while others grew up without adequate food, water, shelter, sanitation, education, medical care, and electric power. You should not simply take advantage of this extremely uneven and unjust distribution of starting places, but should use some of your privileges to protect others who had so much worse a start in life.

Some people are comforted and secure by the idea that the Universe has inherent

Some people are comforted and secure by the idea that the Universe has inherent purpose or meaning, and are frightened by the notion that it might all be inherently meaningless. Others, however, feel empowered by the notion that they are ultimate source of value and meaning in their lives, and feel frightened by the idea that there might be some all-encompassing meaning or purpose that they would have to submit to or recognize. With people sitting on such seemingly distant sides of the river - not merely in such broad terms, but on every level from disagreements over what tastes good, through arguments as to whether one must always stand by one's people, all the way up to the problem highlighted above - how much can we allow ourselves to hope that one day we might finally agree on a common, general vision for humanity's future?

Excellent question! I wonder whether such disagreement entails that we lack a common, general vision for humanity's future. In your opening example of wide divergence, both parties probably agree on a huge number of points. Probably both groups believe in the importance of justice and compassion, the good of friendship and courage, the importance of intellectual integrity, the greatness of loving others, and so on. And probably both groups, at their best, are not driven by fear, but by what they passionately value. I imagine that those who see an ultimate purposive direction of the cosmos or value in it, are driven by an overwhelming sense that the goodness of the cosmos is too good (as it were) to have come into being by chance. And I imagine that the second group is probably humanist in orientation and share the belief that there is great goodness and value in human autonomy and creativity. In brief, I suspect that when one looks at the wide scope of values each group shares, one can see some common bonds. And if both groups respect each other and value collaborative inquiry, then one "common, general vision for humanity's future" could be the good of shared inquiry, in which groups with shared but also competing worldviews collaborate in arguments and productive dialogue in which we seek to enhance each other's search for the true, the good, and the beautiful.

Maybe the point can be made more forcefully in relation to your point that people disagree about "whether one must always stand by one's people." Imagine you and I disagree about this and we are from different nations (or represent different people). Imagine you believe we should all be cosmopolitan and internationalist, but imagine I am a self-described patriot. So long as we respect one another and value dialouge, I would have to try to make a case that I am justified in giving primacy to my nation (or people). But at the same time, I would (probably) be givine grounds for why you should be giving primacy to your nation or people. Whether or not I persuade you, we would in effect be creating a new people (as it were), namely people who are committed to inquiry about goods, rights and wrongs, loyalty and impartiality, across political communities. This dialogue would, then, not insure agreement, but it would mean that we would create "a common, general vision for humanity's future" in terms of having respect for one another's reasoning and values. And who knows, dialogue may produce frustration and tension, but it might be more likely (if pursued sincerely and over meals in which we each played the guest-host relationship) produce friendship.

We seem to take it for granted that some works of art or fiction have "aesthetic

We seem to take it for granted that some works of art or fiction have "aesthetic value", which is classed as being of higher value than mere "entertainment value". However, the two don't actually seem that different. Both are values mainly of pleasure, not usefulness or truth; both can criticize or reveal; both can be judged by fixed standards, or based on personal taste. So what is the real distinction between aesthetic and entertainment value, other than that we hold aesthetic value in higher regard?

The way you have framed the question makes it a little hard to answer, as the term "aesthetic" is often used to refer to a wide range of experiences. So, in the broadest sense of the word, the aesthetic properties of an event or thing are its affective or emotive properties, e.g. a melancholy field, joyful music, a haunting conversation. Perhaps most of our experiences have some affective dimension --even our exchange (which I hope is friendly and welcoming). In this broad sense of 'aesthetic,' entertainment films, books, plays all have aesthetic features and values (some are witty, joyful, insipid, sexy, etc). I suspect that the question behind the question concerns what some might call "high art" versus the works one finds in popular or mass culture (the world of entertainment). On this general topic, philosophers today seem to be having a field day doing philosophy in the context of popular culture. There are dozens (at least 50 and growing) books out now by professional philosophers on such topics as football, Harry Potter, Superheroes, the television show Lost, the Simpsons, the Beetles, Batman, James Bond, Narnia, and more. So, the current state of play in philosophy is to value doing philosophy with the classics (philosophers have done important work inspired by Dante, Dostoevski, Greek tragedy) but also with a wide range of books, films, television that many might think of as merely entertainment. We are, in other words, or many of us are, on your side in wanting to find value in as wide a source of creative endeavors as we can, including works of entertainment. Though there are limits.... I do not know of any plans for the publication of a book called People Magazine and Philosophy. Two presses that are very big on philosophy and popular culture are Wiley Blackwell and Open Court.