Your Reality is the Placebo

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My thesis is meant to give you power over what your mind conjures up as “reality”. All too often, we hold beliefs that are detrimental to our well-being. However, through conditioning, resetting our expectations and finding new meaning, we can alter the narrative we find ourselves in; and bring more internal hope and peace. I’m not saying that you ought to make up or pretend that reality is different so that you will be happier. Rather, every (real) experience, (real) belief and (real) worldview can be re-interpreted and re-contextualized so as to bring out of the dark shadows: wisdom, joy and gratitude. My contention is that our reality is akin to a placebo pill: we put our power into a reality that conditions us, gives us an expectation of our future, and provides meaning.

Your Reality is the Placebo

Let’s just dive right into my argument … Your reality functions as a placebo effect that conditions you to accept a belief as worth pursuing, followed by an expectation that it will produce the same future results based on the heightened positive results experienced in the past, thus solidifying it as meaningful belief that is worth embodying as true.

We commonly think of a placebo as pill or injection used to trick people into believing something that isn’t true. Thus, we reduce it to simply a trick. What is often left out of the conversation is that when the patient takes the pill, if they truly believe in the supposed outcome, there can in fact be physiological and psychological changes that move the patient towards the presumed outcome. In other words, the patient creates a reality based on the belief that the pill will work. To minimize it as only a trick or delusion is to ignore the objective evidence that the placebo effect can work. Before moving on, allow me to explain in greater detail just how the placebo works.

The Elements of the Placebo

The placebo effect has three vital elements: conditioning, expectation and meaning. First, if a person keeps taking the same substance, his brain keeps firing the same circuits in the same way – in effect, memorizing what the substance does. The person can easily become conditioned to the effect of a pill or injection from associating it with a familiar internal change from past experience. Because of this kind of conditioning, when the person then takes the placebo, the same hardwired circuits will fire as when they took the drug. As associative memory elicits a subconscious program that makes a connection between the pill or injection and the hormonal change in the body, and then the program automatically signals the body to make the related chemicals found in the drug.

Second, expectation is formed around what we’re conditioned to believe will happen when we take the pill, and what we think that everyone around us (including our doctors) expects will happen when we do, thus affecting how our body responds to the pill.

plplLastly, the process of expectation elevates the meaning of the experience by which you consciously marry your thoughts and intentions with a heightened state of emotions, such as joy or gratitude. Once you embrace that new emotion and you get more excited, you’re bating your body in the neurochemistry that would be present if that future event were actually happening. It could be suggested that you’re giving your body a taste of future experiences. Your brain and body don’t know the difference between having an actual experience in your life and just thinking about the experience – neurochemically, it’s the same. So the brain and body begin to believe they’re actually in the new experience in the present moment. Quite simply, the conscious mind merges with the subconscious mind. Once the placebo patient accepts a thought as reality, and then emotionally believes and trusts in the end result, the next thing that happens is a change in their psychology and physiology.

Beliefs Are Placebos

My contention is that by connecting the placebo effect with the beliefs we hold, we can thus uncover the architecture of belief. We can define belief as trust and confidence in the acceptance that a statement or concept is true or exists. While belief consists of many trivial things (i.e. I’m typing on a laptop right now, and, I believe I am wearing a gray shirt, etc.), for the sake of brevity I will focus on the concepts that deal with life’s deepest existential questions such as: why should I not kill myself, and what is my highest aim on this planet? To answer these questions requires some kind of a belief-system that offers explanations or guidance.

gtgtgThe beliefs we hold, concerning one’s existential condition in the universe, follows the pattern of the placebo effect just mentioned: conditioning, expectation and meaning. The two examples I will simultaneously use to demonstrate this claim will be identified as (1) and (2), and explained as such:

(1) the religious belief of the justice of God provides hope in the midst of suffering

(2) the secular belief/goal in the pursuit of human flourishing provides gratitude in working together for a common good.

Both (1) and (2) conditions the person to the experiential effects in holding (1) and (2). The effects are varied but not limited to:

-Feeling of security in having a “why” deep life’s deepest concerns

-Feeling of hope and purpose with life

-Feeling of intentionality with life

-Positive feeling in having a plan/perspective to life’s challenges

It’s important to note that these feelings impact the neurochemistry of its adherents with hormonal changes that effect one’s physiology. As evidence of this claim, simply think of the emotions that rise when you think about how someone you care deeply for went out of their way to help you when you needed it most. The pleasant hit of dopamine in your brain is much different from the stress hormones of cortisol released when your flight/fight reflexes kick in. In essence, you get conditioned to accept that this is, well, good! The conditioning is further solidified in the environment when you surround yourself in a community of other fellow adherents, thus reinforcing that this belief is worthy of pursuing.

The expectation of (1) and (2) is grounded in the mental rehearsal in past experiences that creates the future reality that you will indeed receive the same dose of joy, security, hope, etc. Now (1) and (2) gain anticipatory feelings that look like, for example, (A) resting in God’s love will give me peace, and (B) a deep concern for the well-being of others will bring me happiness. Thus, expectation in now grounded in one’s psyche. The end result is that the conditioning and expectation gives the belief meaning. Now, the belief is concretized and justified as a noble pursuit.

kkmkmJust as the patient gives power to the external agent (the pill), you and I give power to beliefs. The power we give to the pill or belief will mold our reality. This is crucial when it comes to worldviews that we adopt to help guide us through life’s most perplexing existential questions. For example, hope and gratitude, at an existential stratum, are two psychological pillars of emotionality that – at a fundamental level – keep one from killing oneself. Hope gives the good, bad and the ugly a positive, optimistic or guiding context. Gratitude gives us the attitude and disposition for all of the good, bad and ugly.

Moreover, the psychological benefits of hope and gratitude prove to be the placebo that dampens the dread of death and tragedy, so much so, that religious people call it by another name: the justice of God. The justice of God is a conceptual placebo packed with propositions that has morphed throughout history to give man a “why?” to the most difficult questions. Therefore, the justice of God helps the religious person psychologically posture themselves before, during and after tragedy strikes, with the presupposition that whatever happens – no matter how bad – is part of God’s perfect and good plan.

Even secular man tackles the “why?” with other placebos that are, like the justice of God, rooted in hope and gratitude that are purely conceptual. For example, hope in leaving behind an altruistic legacy and hope in the progress of compassion and love. All of this with an attitude of gratitude that civilization has astonishingly blossomed from hominoids all the way to vast democracies where people cooperate and flourish. Herein lies the placebo of hope and gratitude, that function as the scaffolding and architecture of the reality we create. This is what gives belief power and meaning to life’s deepest existential questions.

In closing….

Your reality functions as a placebo effect that conditions you to accept a belief as worth pursuing, followed by an expectation that it will produce the same future results based on the heightened positive results experienced in the past, thus solidifying it as meaningful belief that is worth embodying as true.

A deeper point I wish to glean from my premises is that your reality is the placebo. Your reality is the placebo that shapes your attitudes and beliefs, thus altering your neural and physiological chemistry. The goal, however, is to realize that the placebo is not in the external pill, but in what your mind produces.

Just like a patient given a placebo pill who places their power in the external object (the pill) to bring about change, there is an internal placebo (e.g. beliefs/reality) that we give power to, that brings epigenetic changes. The internal placebo is the power we give to beliefs through conditioning, expectations and meaning. The power we give to beliefs change our physiological and psychological disposition.

 

My thesis is meant to give you power over what your mind conjures up as “reality”. All too often, we hold beliefs that are detrimental to our well-being. However, through conditioning, resetting our expectations and finding new meaning, we can alter the narrative we find ourselves in; and bring more internal hope and peace. I’m not saying that you ought to make up or pretend that reality is different so that you will be happier. Rather, every experience, belief and worldview can be re-interpreted and re-contextualized so as to bring out of the dark shadows: wisdom, joy and gratitude. My contention is that our reality is akin to a placebo pill: we put our power into a reality that conditions us, gives us an expectation of our future, and provides meaning.

gvgv

**Possible Rebuttals**

My essay is done, but…..

It’s here that I can imagine someone quoting some positive psychology of “The Secret” that basically says: dream it and it will come true. Again, my argument is not centered on dreaming up your reality, or, faking it till you make it. Rather, it’s recognizing that our lives function as a story, and we are the lead actor in our life-long drama. And the way that we interpret our life depends on the beliefs and worldviews we hold dear. We alone are the one’s who give power to those beliefs and worldviews, just like the patient who gives power to the placebo pill. Moreover, the beauty of the placebo reality is that it can really change our psyche and physiology, thus improving our well-being.

I can also hear the secular person saying, “but at least my naturalistic worldview is more real than the religionist worldview.” By this, I presume he is meaning that the naturalistic worldview is more ‘objectively real’ than most (or all) religions. This, however, is a reductionistic argument on the part of the secular person, for it presumes that what is real is that which can only be objectively demonstrated. My claim is that reality has innumerable layers that lay subterranean beneath that which can be only falsifiable or testable.

For instance, we can say that the numbers 9 and 11 are objectively real – timeless symbols that are part of a mathematical system. However, they are so much more than that. One layer deeper, and we form a calendar whereby 9 stands for September and 11 stands for the days in September. A layer deeper than that triggers emotions of sadness, for it symbolizes tragic loss. Moreover, a layer under that is a shift in perception of “ground zero” in New York, and terrorism in general, since it hit so close to home. On the other hand, I have a friend who’s birthday is on September 11, so for her, her reality of those numbers are not all sad. My point is that “reality” is a multi-varied metaphor that is not necessarily objective, rather, it is subjectively experienced.

 

Meaning and Purpose: Pre-Determined or Self-Created

Finished at Los Gatos Starbucks with EDM (Bassnector) on Pandora and a coffee I killed with lots of cream and sugar. This essay was inspired after reading Terry Eagleton’s book on Meaning and Purpose and Julian Baggini book called ‘What It’s All About’.

For millions this life is a sad vale of tears sitting round with really nothing to say while scientists say we’re just simply spiraling coils of self-replicating DNA.’  – Monty Python’s The Meaning of Life

The worry many people have is that if the naturalist account is true, then life can only be a meaningless accident of nature. If there is any meaning at all, then it only concerns the grander unfolding of the universe’s destiny and human beings are irrelevant. As Bertrand Russell put it, ‘The universe may have a purpose, but nothing we know suggests that, if so, this purpose has any similarity to ours.’ Uncharitable readers interpret his words as: life is therefore meaningless and without purpose. This was not his intention, for there is a surmountable difference between purpose of life and a purpose filled-life. We need not confuse the two.

Although there is no purpose of life – and it is wonderful that there is isn’t – you can still have a purpose-filled life. To say there is no purpose of life does not mean there is no purpose in life. Your life has purpose not because it is bestowed by an entity outside yourself but because you bestow it by your own mind. One is bondage, the other is liberty. Purpose is not something you search for. It is not something you find. It is not endowed by a creator or handed to you by your parents or government.

Several questions I will briefly address include:

What crises ensued from the cultural shift from Pre-Enlightenment to Modernity?

Were we created with a predetermined purpose or with no pre-determinant purpose?

Why should we think that assigned purposes are inferior to predetermined purposes?

And we think that only predetermined purposes can make life meaningful?

Is it a logical fallacy to assume that if we have origins in a Creator, it necessitates a pre-determined (current) nature?

The Crisis: From Pre-Modern to Modern

Historians agree en masse that the Enlightenment brought about a kind of crisis for humanity. The ‘discovery’ that there was no God created a sort of existential crises. All of the impenetrable structures previously known were now resting on soggy marsh. We can see this if we compare the twelfth-century philosopher with the twentieth-century philosopher. If you look closely enough, the talk of dread, anxiety and absurdity and the like are characteristic of the human condition a lot more for the twentieth-century philosopher. For the most part, the pre-modern period held God as properly assumed, self-evident, and anathema to question his very existence. With the cultural shift during the Enlightenment, science and reason began to distance itself from God and chart its own course. A telling reference point is when Napoleon read the hypothesis of French scientist Pierre-Simon Laplace and asked him, ‘you have written this large book on the system of the universe, and have never even mentioned its Creator?’ To which Leplace replied, ‘I had no need of that hypothesis.’

Scholar Terry Eagleton expounds on the modernist shift when he says, “What marks the modernist thought from one end to another is the belief that human existence is contingent – that it has no ground, goal, direction, or necessary, and that our species might quite easily have never emerged on the planet. This possibility then hollows out our actual presence, casting across it the perpetual shadow of loss and death.” Even in our most ecstatic moments, we are dimly aware that the ground has a marshy underfoot – that there is no unimpeachable foundation to what we are and what we do. This may make our finest moments even more precarious or it may serve to drastically devalue them.

Jean-Paul Sartre:  Paper Knife vs Flint

The paradigm shift to modernity climaxed with the European existentialists such as Jean-Paul Sartre, Albert Camus, Martin Heidegger and Friedrich Nietzsche. For sake of brevity, I will focus solely on several ideas of Jean-Paul Sartre that highlights our discussion.

A key question was thrown to the forefront during modernity: were we created with a predetermined purpose or with no pre-determinant purpose? Sartre explains his response to this question with an analogy of a paper-knife. A paper-knife has a determinate ‘essence’ by virtue of the fact that it was created by someone to fulfill a certain function. In contrast, a sharp object like a flint has no essence, even though it too could be used to cut paper. It just so happens that humans have found a use for it.  Sartre’s point is that we have assumed ourselves to be like paper-knives, not like pieces of flint. We believed that we had some kind of essential nature because God created us with a particular purpose in mind. But if God does not exist and the naturalist story is true, this picture is false. We are like the pieces of flint that just are.

There are two ways of responding to this bleak picture. One is to simply accept that life is therefore meaningless. The other is to question the assumption underpinning the pessimistic conclusion: that we need to be like paper-knives for life to have meaning. What the existentialists did was expose the false assumption that purpose for human beings came from God. For the existentialist, far from leaving life meaningless, this may simply lead us to conclude that the source of life’s meaning is not where we thought.

Uncharitable readers usually label the existentialists such as Sartre as nihilistic or propose that they think life as absolutely devoid of meaning altogether. To the contrary, Sartre (along with Camus, Nietzsche, Heidegger) showed that despite a lack of inherent purpose or inherent meaning to the universe, we can nevertheless create our own purpose and meaning. Far from bleak, the existentialist thought is built on liberating the individual from a totalitarian figure head (i.e. God) and using one’s freedom to maximize one’s potential for the greater whole.

For Sartre, the crucial truth we ought to recognize is that because purpose and meaning is not built into human life, we ourselves are responsible for fashioning our own purposes. It is not that life has no meaning, but that it has no predetermined meaning. This requires us to confront our own responsibility for creating meaning for ourselves, something which Sartre believes we would much rather not do. We would prefer to live our lives in ‘bad faith’, pretending that how we live and ought to live are not down to our choice but a product of fate, outside forces or supernatural design.

The views of Sartre sound very liberating and empowering to many, but to others, his views ring hollow. There are two important questions that come to mind at this juncture:

  • Why should we think that assigned purposes are inferior to predetermined purposes?
  • Why think that only predetermined purposes can make life meaningful?

Let us begin with the first question. To answer the question most simply: there is no general principle that purposes are more ‘real’ or important if they are introduced at the design stage. Eagleton points to an appropriate illustration if we consider the Post-it note. The repositionable adhesive that the notes use was discovered by a scientist working for 3M in 1968. However, neither he or anyone else in the company had any idea what possible use such an adhesive could be put to. Six years later, another 3M scientist, tired of losing his place in the hymnal while singing in his church choir, thought how useful a lightly adhesive bookmark would be. He then realized that the apparently useless glue was useful after all. Now Post-it notes are ubiquitous.

The Post-it note might seem like a trivial example, but it illustrates neatly the point that, when it comes to purpose, what matters is not necessarily what the inventor had in mind, but the uses or purposes the innovation actually has. The same logic applies to human beings, given that, what matters is that life has a purpose for us, here and now. Whether our purpose was dreamt up by a Creator or not is irrelevant. Given that we can make decisions that give our life meaning and purpose, in the here and now, shows that there is no obvious reason why this should be considered an inferior kind of meaning.

Moving now to the second question proposed, we ought to consider that predetermined purposes could in fact make life less meaningful. Imagine if you created your own creature, as in Mary Shelly’s Frankenstein. Now let’s say the sole purpose of your creature was to clean your house every day. Surely this life would have less dignity and meaning than the life of a person born into a naturalistic universe? I’d go even further and say that even if the sole purpose of your creature was to worship you (because you decreed it as his creator), this would still result in a less dignified life. Any purpose, when imposed on a sentient being, eliminates any ability for creativity with one’s life. It would be better for this creature to determine his own purposes than simply to fulfill your desires.

There is simply no justified reason for thinking that assigned purposes are inferior to predetermined purposes. To the contrary, the freedom and responsibility is with every human to carve out a life in which you are genuinely engaged in worthwhile activities that reflect your autonomous rational choice as an autonomous agent. To state that a predetermined purpose imposed on human beings is justified is to validate an authority (i.e. God) to rule over you as if you were as a slave.

There is, however, a fallacy that insidiously lies beneath the theistic notion that if are origin is found in God, then God is the [M]eaning of meaning and the [P]urpose of purpose. Theists commit the genetic fallacy by confusing the origin of a belief with its justification. The genetic fallacy describes any kind of confusion between an account of origins and an account of something’s current or future nature. Thus, it is logically invalid to assume that because our origin is with God, the nature of our current relationship is one with a predetermined purpose.

Julian Baggini points out that an obvious example of this fallacy is to think that the etymology of a word always provides vital insight into how it is now used. For instance, consider the origin of the word ‘digit’. It derives from the Latin dicere, which means to tell, say or point out. This gave rise to the meaning of a finger or thumb; and because these were used for counting, it also came to mean a numerical figure. This is all very interesting, but if you want to know what is meant when someone talks about a ‘three-digit figure’ your understanding is not best helped by considering the origins of the word ‘digit’. Indeed, if you think too much about origins you might be misled. With this in mind, here is my point: we cannot justify our current state of nature by harkening back to the beginning of time with a belief in a Creator.

Let’s use an analogy to make this point clear. Consider again the case of Mary Shelly’s Frankenstein. Unlike us, Frankenstein’s monster was able to discover why he was made and for what purpose. He chanced upon the journal Frankenstein kept in the four months leading to his creation. His initial reaction to reading it was rage and despair. ‘Accursed creator!’ he screamed. ‘Why did you form me as a monster so hideous that even you turned from me in disgust?’

But these revelations did not have any lasting effect. In many ways, he was in the same position after he discovered the truth about his origins as he was before: he was still an outcast, feared by humans yet longing for their company and affection. Nothing in his revelations about his creation helped or hindered him in his struggle to cope with these facts. Shelly was right to show that knowledge of the creature’s origins did not reveal his life’s meaning, for there is no reason why looking to the past will inform us about our present state and future prospects. When we think about the origins and purpose of life, a similar kind of genetic fallacy can be committed. The mistake is to think that understanding tells us its end goal or present purpose. But the one does not necessarily follow from the other.

Concluding Thought

We tend to look at the ‘meaning-of-life’ dilemma like the ‘fountain-of-youth’ quest. It’s out there, and once we find it, we will be satisfied. But there is no end-point or final answer to the meaning-of-life question. Meaning is not a destination, rather, it is something people do and engage in; but they do it in dialogue with a determinate world whose laws they did not invent, and they must respect this world’s grain and texture. To recognize this is to cultivate a certain humility. I like John Cottingham’s words mentioned earlier in which he says a meaningful life as ‘one in which the individual is engaged … in genuinely worthwhile activities that reflect his or her autonomous rational choice as an autonomous agent.’

We need to accept that it’s alright that we are flint rather than paper knives. Sartre gave us the word ‘facticity’ which means an acceptance of the way the world is whether we like it or not. We need to recognize the fragility of good fortune and the impermanence of things. But do we have the courage and honesty to take life for what it is and make the most of it? Or do we fear that if we do so it will prove to be a disappointment?

-Wes Fornes

Ultimate Meaning and the Danger of William Lane Craig

“If there is no God, then man and the universe are doomed. Like prisoners condemned to death, we await our unavoidable execution. There is no God, and there is no immortality. And what is the consequence of this? It means that life itself is absurd. It means that the life we have is without ultimate significance, value, or purpose.”  – – William Lane Craig

William Lane Craig and His Claim of Ultimate Meaning

craigI wish to address a very disturbing essay that provides the Christian community with a dangerous arsenal for understanding purpose in life. I say it’s dangerous because it casts anything ‘non-Christian’ in a very damming light. In essence, William Craig’s essay entitled The Absurdity of Life Without God claims that ultimate values, ultimate meaning and ultimate purpose is impossible without immortality and God. Craig’s followers capitalize on these ‘ultimate’ claims by using it as a vehicle to get people to join the faith and show that those who do not believe are doomed to a life without real meaning. I will demonstrate in this essay how William Craig fails to provide sufficient reasons for ultimate meaning and how his argument leads to the polarization of large swaths of people.

As an humanist chaplain, William Craig’s claim strikes at my core. My career is spent in helping people understand meaning and purpose while in the midst of profound crisis in their life. Therefore, I cannot help but seek to understand the implications and rationale for Craig’s claims. Furthermore, I spent ten years in pastoral leadership in Christian churches so, according to Craig, I once had ultimate meaning but now I am doomed. That’s right, Craig states in his essay that “If there is no God, then man and the universe are doomed. Like prisoners condemned to death, they await their unavoidable execution.” By stoking the fears of existential distress, Craig constructs a simple argument in an effort to show how his ideology is supreme.

betterThe superiority complex and vitriol it engenders is quite distressing. His claim that only theists can have ultimate values, meaning, and purposes is polarizing. It unjustly elevates Christian ideals over all other altruistic non-Christian ideals. This means that a Christian who joyfully gives her life to serving the poor is experiencing ultimate meaning but a non-Christian who joyfully does the same is engaging in a meaningless and valueless endeavor. It follows, then, that purpose and meaning is easily minimized with non-Christians. It’s appalling when you take Craig’s thesis to its limits and you are compelled to acknowledge that all noble acts done by non-Christians are absolutely futile. Not only does it elevate Christian ideals over everyone else, but it emboldens Christians to view themselves on a higher moral plain. How could it not? When I was a Christian, I felt morally superior to others, as if I was on the winning team. And in my Christian communities, I saw and experienced the moral superiority all the time. It’s inevitable, but it’s also wrong and dangerous.

For the sake of brevity, I will focus on Craig’s notion of ultimate purpose rather than ultimate values; even though my logic runs consistently through purpose, meaning and values. The crux of Craig’s argument is this: we can have ultimate purpose and meaning because God is the ultimate being; and because his essence is good and just, then his purpose is ultimately best. Thus Craig concludes: if there is no God, then life itself is meaningless. I want to note here an extremely important observation in Craig’s essay: Craig does not simply claim that the non-Christian lives without “ultimate” meaning and purpose, but the non-Christian’s life is all-together meaningless and purposeless. In other words, the compassion and altruism that dominates the lives of Mahatma Gandhi and the Dali Lama which leaves an indelible and profound impact on the world was an ultimate waste of time.

The Word “Ultimate” as a Great Marketing Strategy

It is important that I acknowledge that Craig’s use of “ultimate” is his own marketing strategy. As a pillar of the theist camp, he has put out a product that has selling power. In marketing 101, when advertisements put “ultimate” in its verbiage, it sends a message that says, “The verdict is out and final! This deodorant is it! Interestingly enough, Craig uses “ultimate” sixteen times in his essay and never defines it. This complicates things because the dictionary defines “ultimate” as “final” or “last”, but that doesn’t seem to be Craig’s point. Judging by his argument I can only surmise that he means “unending”. Notice his words, “our lives can have ultimate significance only if they never end.” It seems that Craig uses “ultimate” to fit his wishes for an attempt at a successful conclusion. I got to hand it to Craig, his selling pitch catches your attention just like my favorite Old Spice commercials

wdwdThe Logic of Craig’s Claim

Notice Craig’s logic when he states, “we can have ultimate purpose and meaning because God is the ultimate being.” This is a logical fallacy of petitio principia (begging the question). In other words: claim X assumes X is true; therefore, claim X is true. William Craig is infamous for framing Christian arguments where the conclusion is assumed in one the premises. It’s similar to me saying, “Paranormal activity is real because I have experienced what can only be described as paranormal activity.” From the very beginning, his logic is fallacious. How can we know God is ultimate? Sure we can argue by definition and say, well, God is ultimate because God is ultimate. But this circular reasoning gets us nowhere. Perhaps because the Bible tells us so? The Bible tells us a lot of things, just as the Koran, Vedic texts, Hadith, and Buddhist Sutras do. Ancient writings shed light on how people at that time and in that place understood the world; it is not, however, a gateway to truth. I ask again, how can we know God is ultimate? We cannot. In order to buttress his presupposition, Craig is forced to insert in his premise a claim (that God is ultimate) which has no justificatory epistemic content.

Duration as a Measure of Significance

Craig’s argument hinges on duration and immortality. After all, if there is no everlasting afterlife then everything is pointless. Craig never defends his claim that nothing temporary has significance or its implication that all temporary things are equally insignificant. He only repeats it, many times, as if it should be obvious. But is it true that nothing temporary has significance? Does this mean, for example, watching the birth of your child is meaningless because it has a finite time? Would it have more significance if it never ended? Craig creates a false dilemma by leading you to believe that that anything that goes on for infinity is the only ultimate way to experience meaning. I believe we need a better measure of significance that duration of time.

It is illogical that Craig creates an interdependency between immortality and meaning. If our solar system, is to be ultimately incinerated, we would still be concerned about meaning. What if experiences do pass into memory and then ultimately fade? What relevance does that have for meaning? That happens to the nature of experiences. How could it be otherwise? Experiences are temporal, and one cannot exist outside of time. When they are over, they are over, and nothing can be done about it. We are dealing here with value judgments, not with statements of fact. It is by no means an objective truth that nothing is important unless it goes on forever or eventually leads to something else that persists forever.

Meaning ought to be desirable on its own account; not because finality is imminent. If not ends were complete unto themselves, if everything had to be justified by something else outside of itself which must in turn also be justified, then there is infinitum regress: the chain of justification can never end. Certainly there are ends that are complete unto themselves without requiring and endless series of justifications outside ourselves.

lifesThe Impossibility of Ultimate Purpose

Craig’s argument simply doesn’t work. For any purpose we begin to understand, we can step back from and question. We have numerous theistic religions that offer God’s purpose for our lives that include (1) glorifying God and enjoying him forever and (2) having a relationship with God. Surely we can ask, “What’s so great about that?” What is it about such an activity that automatically answers the questions “Why is this ultimately worthwhile?” I am not trying to be difficult or ask a flippant question like “Why is here here?” In fact, Craig and any theist would surely question any life purpose that an Atheists proffers – and rightly so.

Suppose I said that our purpose on earth is to give 80% of all our income to those who earn less than $20,000 a year. I can easily make an argument that frames this purpose as a virtuous and noble act which leads to positive ramifications. Moreover, this purpose may even embolden my life with an all-consuming passion for goodness. However, you would be right in scrutinizing this purpose by asking “Why is that ultimately worthwhile?” Nor would I expect you to be content with the promise that someday you’ll see that purpose counting as ultimately satisfying. Such a promise merely appeals to mystery.

That Craig takes liberty to slap on “ultimate” in front of “meaning” does not nothing to revolutionize how humans confer meaning on experiences. The same is true for God being an “ultimate being” who is the arbiter of “ultimate good”. Just as an Imam at your local mosque may feel inclined to put ‘ultimate’ in front of Allah doesn’t substantiate anything by doing so. Atheists do indeed lead lives that lack ultimate significance; and so do theists. While lives of ultimate meaning are impossible, meaningful lives are not.

meaningfulWhy it’s Wrong

Secular morals and values have been denigrated and mischaracterized for millennia. But in the 20th century, Christian apologists capitalized on the notion that secularism has no basis for doing good. Like Dostoevsky writes in The Brothers Karamazov, “Without God, all is permissible.” This dangerous and unjustified meme has metastasized, such that, in recent studies rapists are described as more “trustworthy” than Atheists (see Azim Shariff’s study noted in USA Today). This type of false characterization has prompted Christian leaders to monopolize the entire panoply of morals to the point that even Presidential elections become a platform for Christian morals to show off their illegitimate superiority.

But the facts show differently, as atheistic Scandinavian countries continue to flourish, secular organizations lead the charge during disaster reliefs, and secular activists in America continue to fight for virtues such as women’s rights, economic equality, and rights of minorities. You may ask, “on what basis does the secular person fight for virtues?” Such a question is absolute nonsense. We use our senses to see and experience the positive impact when engaging in compassion, empathy and cooperation. We know what it’s like to see society thrive. Just as I thrive when my environment is taking care of my basic well-being, so do societies that share in the moral ethic of reducing needless pain by increasing the well-being of the whole society. The basis is not “out there” in the heavens; it’s all around us when consider the values, policies, and legislation that maximizes flourishing in the world.

William Craig, however, ignores the meaningful experiences that secular people possess and advocate for. Instead, he stages the game by inserting “ultimate” as if to say “game over, the final verdict is out.” Perhaps I would agree with Craig if, say, all non-Christians walked around depressed with suicide notes in hand. I mean, if absolute despair encompassed the psyche of every non-Christian to the point that they brought nothing of value or nobility to this planet, then, we could conclude: “Hey, maybe Craig’s got a point.” But this simply is not that case, in fact, far from it. Christians have just as much, if not more people with depressive disorders, high divorce rates and violent crime. But more importantly, both Christians and non-Christians have the benefit of living extremely meaningful lives that find peace, engage in loving relationships with their partners, and abstain from crime because they are in a society that is concerned about their well-being. The ideology that William Craig espouses unjustifiably segregates society while moving us farther away from moral progress.

meaningCraig’s ideology is the type of irrational thinking that weaponizes culture with an us vs. them mentality. It is an argument that simply does not hold up. It’s polarizing and only widens the divide that separates religious and secular citizens from having a rational dialogue about morals and values that impact our country. When you possess the dangerous belief that says a secular person has no basis for doing good, it easily follows that they also have no meaning in life. To the contrary, the secular person the same opportunity to love, flourish and thrive within a meaningful life. Craig is wrong, no one has privileged access to some kind of ultimate meaning.

~ Wes Fornes

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Finding the Meaning of Life in Albert Camus’ “The Plague”

 

 

I have lived in the pursuit of a vision, both personal and social.

Personal: to care for what is noble, for what is beautiful, for what is

gentle: to allow moments of insight to give wisdom at more mundane

times. Social: to see in imagination the society that is to be created,

where individuals grow freely, and where hate and greed and envy

die because there is nothing to nourish them. These things I believe,

and the world, for all its horrors, has left me unshaken.   – (Atheist) Bertrand Russell

Summary: The Plague by Albert Camus

In the small town of Oran, Algeria, dead bodies are multiplying exponentially. A strange virus has penetrated the town walls; it is causing people’s flesh to boil, their inside to curdle with fever and vomit. There seems to be no hope for a cure. Terror has taken over.

One doctor, a darkly handsome man named Rieux, may be the last hope the people of Oran have – or he may simply have lost his mind, He is working tirelessly to treat the victims. He not only puts himself in contact with the deadly contagion, he does so methodically, with tremendous energy and unflinching dedication.

Admirable: but why? Rieux, openly an Atheist, is confident he will receive no reward for selflessness after he dies. Furthermore, he reflects, even if he should succeed in curing the plague against all odds, all his patients and he himself will eventually perish. There will be no resurrection. All is temporary.

The doctor’s beloved wife, meanwhile, is stranded in a sanatorium a hundred miles away. Oran is under strict quarantine. Perhaps his strange dedication to his patients stems from the faint hope that if he cures them all, he can be reunited with her? No – if this were all there were to it, he would not help his friend Rambert the way he does. Rambert, a journalist, had recently come to Oran for a visit when the plague erupted, and its quarantine has trapped him there. With suffering and death all around him, Rambert can think of little but escaping to reunite with his own young bride, in Paris. He is self-righteous in his longing to break free. He is not a citizen of the town, just an accidental victim of fate. He deserves to get out, and he is willing to break the law and put others at risk to achieve it.

Obviously Rambert misses the point. Unless the plague is some purposeful, vengeful work of God – and the thoughtful, skeptical journalist is hardly the kind to believe such fairy tales – the residents of Oran, screaming and dying all around him, are no less accidental victims than a tourist such as he. We are all accidental victims.

Still, the doctor does not resent Rambert’s choice of selfish love over selfless service. The doctor does not attempt to persuade his friend to stay, despite the desperate need for more help in the “sanitary corps” that Rieux is organizing. Rieux encourages Rambert to follow his own heart. If the doctor were working for others only out of raw, calculated self-interest, surely he would calculate the need for Rambert’s participation and be no less understanding. Instead, Rieux simply persists in an endeavor that cannot but inspire us despite describing his own struggle as “a never ending defeat.”

The philosopher Albert Camus’s novel The Plague dramatizes one of the most foundational and challenging questions for umanism. We must explain why we should be good, without God. This is the question we can hear the character Jean Tarrou, a little bit later admiring and a little bit ashamed, asking his friend Rieux: “Why do you yourself show such devotion, considering you don’t believe in God?”

My Thoughts

How are we to live our lives? We allow ourselves into the vacuum of ideals, conventions, and authoritarians who tell us how to think. In doing so, we join a herd and allow the blind to lead us. Rieux states that the spirit of pre-plague Oran is one of empty commercialism. The lives of Oran’s people are entirely circumscribed by their habits. Every day, they follow the same routines not realizing that on the other side lays a plague that will call on them to make sense of the world. So will you make sense of it? Or will you act as if the plague won’t happen to you?

What we learn from the plague is that we are all in the same boat. No one can escape the pain, guilt, suffering, and despair that life brings. The plague doesn’t show special grace to the wealthy, educated, or elite. Dr. Rieux thinks it is unimaginable that a city with harmless people like Grand could be subject to a deadly plague epidemic. However, there is no rational or moral meaning behind a plague epidemic. Its choice of victims is completely impartial – there is no rational or moral reason why people like Grand should or should not die from the plague. During one encounter, Rieux gets rocked when he meets a 9 year old boy stricken by the plague. But even with his whole life ahead filled with such potential and virtue, this young boy cannot escape being a victim. He didn’t ask for it. We are all accidental victims. We don’t determine the country we are born in, our socio-economic class, or the competency level of our parents.

The question arises: who takes responsibility – given that we are all victims? We individually should take responsibility. But in Oran, responsibility is passed on. Just as with the rats in Oran, everyone considers it someone else’s responsibility to deal with the mysterious illness. The government officials and Dr. Rieux’s colleagues do not want to break with the status quo, so they waste time discussing whether the disease is definitely contagious and whether it is definitely the bubonic plague. Dr. Rieux’s stance is that they should act as if the disease were the bubonic plague. He does not relish the idea of waiting for new cases to prove his suspicions. His main concern is saving as many lives as possible.

People seem so surprised when they become victims. Dr. Rieux notes that wars and plagues have always existed in human populations, yet people are always surprised when they become victims of one or the other. Maybe it’s because we rely on our accomplishments or status in life to safeguard us from harm. Like fools, we put a dash of solipsism and a dollop of wishful thinking into our worldview and assume a position of self-entitlement and say, “I’ll be okay, I’ve got God on my side.” What does that even mean? With or without God, God still stands above humanity watching rape, torture, and genocide – with arms folded. We should not be surprised at evil, rather, we should respond. May our response not be one filled with wishful thinking, but with compassionate action.

As a society, I don’t know if we will ever cease from explaining evil by means of wishful thinking. All too often, people attempt to rationalize evil by using irrational methods. For instance, many intellectuals argue the genesis of the holocaust was due to Eve eating a piece of fruit and that hurricane Katrina was the fault of sexual immorality in New Orleans. We see shadows of this in the plague. Many people do not want to admit that the rats pose a serious health risk to human beings, so they resort to rationalizing the phenomenon. M. Michel states that pranksters planted the dead rats in the building where he works. Dr. Rieux’s asthma patient declares that hunger drove the rats out into the open to die. Both of these “rational” responses are actually completely irrational. Hunger does not explain the blood spurting from the rats’ muzzles. M. Michel’s explanation doesn’t explain why there are hundreds of death rats in buildings all over the city.

What’s the real cost of wishful thinking? The real cost, if not danger, I think, has to do with being out of touch with reality. It has to do with not having the mental discipline to see what’s really going on versus what one would like to happen. Wishful thinking is dangerous because it impairs our ability to properly see and understand reality. There is a reason why our senses generally give us accurate information about the world around us: without accurate information, we couldn’t hope to navigate our world with any expectation of safety or success. Dr. Rieux muses that his situation requires a certain “divorce from reality.” The beds in the emergency hospitals are full, and there is always an emotional scene when he evacuates patients from their homes to isolate them from their families. Pity has become useless, so he no longer indulges in it. We need to know what is going on around us if we are going to avoid danger or take advantage of opportunities.

Perhaps sometimes there are no rational reasons for instances of evil. Can you rest in the absurd?

The plague makes Rambert realize that he values love and happiness over his profession – that is, his means for making money. However, he is still preoccupied with his personal distress. Insisting that he doesn’t belong, he declares that there is a rational reason for his “right” to leave Oran. Nevertheless, he does not realize that there is nothing rational in his situation, just as there is nothing rational in the arrival of a plague epidemic in Oran. Shit happens, we make the most of our life, and then we die. Let us leave fairy tales and angry gods with the illiterate bronzed age peasants from whence they came … and pursue accepting the absurd.

If there is one thing that unites humanity, it is suffering. For Rambert, he desperately wants to escape the suffering in Oran and return to his love in Paris. The authorities state that they cannot set a “precedent” by letting Rambert leave. Dr. Rieux refuses to give him a certificate declaring him free of the plague. Rieux acknowledges that it is an absurd situation, but there is nothing to do but accept it. We must accept our plague. We must accept that babies will be born with disease, psychopaths will walk into school buildings and shoot whatever moves, and nations will engage in genocide. The plague lives on, and we are all participants in it. We touch the pain and admit that hearts will be broken and minds will be fucked. But within the chaos lies a great deal of joy and growth that leads to fulfillment. While we touch the pain, we never-the-less strive for fulfillment.

The slavish herd in Oran is quite pathetic. Only when they are imprisoned do the citizens of Oran realize the relative freedom they once enjoyed. Before, there was nothing restricting them except the force of their own habits. However, just as before the plague, they continue to be selfishly self-absorbed with their personal suffering. Each citizen believes his distress is somehow unique. They do not try to “find the right” words for their suffering because they are horrified to think that their listener pictures a common, mass-traded emotion. Partly, Oran’s people lack the imagination to communicate their suffering to other people; they were consistently “bored” before the epidemic.

Like Rieux, we must plow forward doing as much good and showing as much compassion as humanly possible. We do this by making the most of our time on this planet. In Oran, their narrow, circumscribed routines and their indifference prevent them from making the most of their finite existence – they are wasting their time. Tarrou’s concern about wasting time echoes Rieux’s own frustration with the Oran’s time wasting tactics in response to the swarm of rats and later with the rising epidemic. Tarrou is no different from any other human being. We were hurled onto this planet with no choice of our own, and now the choice is ours: Do you strive toward virtue or do we succumb to the plague? When honey touches your tongue … is it still sweet?

The central message to Rieux staying and fighting the plague was that he did what he had to do in order to be a human being. Being human is not about a celestial dictator in the sky sending down bronze aged commandments; it’s about an ultimate concern. An ultimate concern is humanly ubiquitous. It arises in all of us in the inner chambers of our being, in a moral center that you cannot abandon unless you abandon everything about your existence.

Towards the end The Plague, Camus allows the plague to pass. Perhaps this is Camus’s way of showing that pain and evil are cyclical, but never completely subside. Part of acknowledging the warp and woof of humanity is that we don’t live constantly in crises; we have moments of repose and gratification.

Many have wondered why Dietrich Bonheoffer left his professorship at Princeton to face an evitable death in fighting the resistance in Germany. Why did Jesus choose to go through Jerusalem knowing that it would prove fatal? Why does the Dali Lama turn a peaceful face toward the tyrants in China who subjugate his people? They engage in these brazen acts because it is their ultimate concern. They do what they have to do in order to be human. Bonheoffer pointed himself toward Germany because of his internal North Star. The Dali Lama points himself towards peace because of his moral compass. The plague is all around us, and the danger is when life becomes so routine, banal, and mundane that we become content with living in the kiddie pool. Therefore, the question is: will you take responsibility and pursue your ultimate concern?