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Posted by on Dec 23, 2013 in Featured, Naturalism, Philosophy, Skepticism | 25 comments

Meaning is an Illusion

This is an excellent essay which the author has given me permission to repost here. Please check out his blog. He is Daniel Miessler at danielmiesslter.com. I really like this:

checkershadow_illusion

A and B are the same shade of gray.

This is likely the most important thing I’ve ever written, as I think I’ve found nothing less than the meaning of life, or the lack thereof that leads to the beginning thereof. If you’re a smart/educated person the beginning of this essay will sound rather common. Stick with it.

The Basic Argument

Meaning << Emotion << Chemistry << Physics

The “meaning” of life comes purely from emotional experience, which is chemically based. We know that emotion, and even spiritual experiences, are chemical in nature. It is already possible, using current science, to use drugs and/or direct manipulation of the brain in order to induce “spiritual” experiences.

Of course, it’s possible that these modifications simply make us receptive to signals from an actual spirit world, but I find that possibility remote enough to be dismissed with little discussion. This is the same way I dismiss the possibility that a “floor demon” used telekinesis to pull a cup of coffee to its bosom when I accidently let it slip from my grasp and it falls to the ground. In short, when there’s a transparent, scientific explanation for something there’s little reason to buy into another one that requires the supernatural.

My assertion is that all goals and aspirations, regardless of how lofty or “selfless” they may be, are little more than ultimately equal illusions based in biology, which is based in chemistry, which is based in physics.

In short, meaning is contrived by humans as an explanation for why we do what we do. We build this illusion because the alternative is too unbearable.

Goals

All of my goals, and all anyone else’s goals I’ve ever encountered in person or via extended experience, are based on emotions. Let’s take me for example, since I can speak to that authoritatively. Speaking very honestly, here are the primary things I desire in life (not necessarily in order):

  • To feel in control of my life and my destiny
  • To be respected by those around me, both at work and away from it
  • To have love and romance with one woman, but be sought by others
  • To be knowledgeable and wise enough to understand the world
  • To use said knowledge to help improve the lives of others
  • To share beautiful experiences with smart, interesting people

The first ones are pretty standard, and most agree they have these to some degree. The latter ones are generally considered “higher” goals, reserved for those who are more selfless in nature.

But they aren’t.

We’ve all heard the concept of altruism being selfish because it brings pleasure to the person doing the giving. Well, this is a model that explains that observation. Just as the desire to be powerful is natural and emotion-based, so is the desire to help others. In both cases the result is a chemical squirt of pleasure into the brain of the person who accomplishes their goal.

The only difference in selfish and selfless desires is whether the outcome of the desire is positive for others in addition to you, not whether or not it’s positive for you at all. Desires are always for you. Even when you desperately want to sacrifice yourself for someone you love you are still doing so because not doing so would cause you even more pain. This is not a selfless act; it’s the result of being compelled to do something-just like being compelled to seek food, shelter, or a mate.

Animals have desires too. They desire to control their territory and kill competitors, to mate, to reproduce, etc. Many animals even like to masturbate, and mourn the loss of loved ones. Our desires are no different, really; we’ve just conned ourselves into believing they are through elaborate self-deception.

As an example, go and ask the average parent why he or she had kids. You’ll get the same answer as if you asked an ape why it threw poop at someone. “Um, because you’re supposed to?” And if you’re lucky and get a “higher” thinker he/she will respond that kids give them a strong feeling of accomplishment, or even that they provide a way to live after they’re dead. In all cases it’s for the parent’s benefit.

But if you think about it there’s really no other option. Unborn kids care very little about the fact that they aren’t born. People have children for themselves, not for their unborn children. People have children because chemicals tell them to, which manifests as emotion, i.e. “I just really want children…” Yes, of course you do.

And we call this our identity?

Higher vs. Lower Goals

So let’s be more forward with this. I believe that all human goals–whether they are base and overtly selfish (to have enough money to be able to have sex whenever a person wants to), or are higher-order such as (I want to help Africa, even if it means my career…)–are fundamentally the same. They are all chemically-based and offer chemical rewards.

The desires of a 45-year-old accountant with a paid off house, a beautiful wife, two children, and a healthy 401K are no different than the desires of a 17-year-old drug dealer who still lives at home and is trying to get his ex-girlfriend back.

Let’s evaluate the desires:

Banker

  • Be a good father
  • Be respected at work and at home
  • Make the wife happy
  • Get the next promotion
  • Keep bad guys away from his family (he votes Republican)
  • Get his kids in good colleges
  • Get that summer home

Drug Dealer

  • Make enough to get my own place
  • Get a nicer car so I can impress my ex
  • Get a gun so people will know not to mess with me
  • Get some nicer clothes
  • Go to the gym more so I’ll be more attractive/menacing

Ok, so now for the real fun. Let’s do a gopher (yeah, a real gopher):

Gopher

  • Get more sticks for a better house
  • Find more food
  • Attract that female
  • Protect the babies
  • Get more sticks for…

Now let’s do a Buddhist Monk.

Monk

  • Abandon meaningless connections to the material
  • Learn to let go of a sense of self
  • Focus on the immediate moment, not before, not after

What do all these things have in common? They all result in the same thing if they are attained.

Squirt.

That’s the sound of pleasurable chemicals being injected into your brain. It’s pretty much the same chemicals for the banker, the drug dealer, and the monk. And it’s being received by pretty much the same hardware within the brain. That squirt is the source of happiness.

Everything else, e.g. spirituality, meaning, purpose, etc., is added to the mix after the fact. Animals don’t have meaning in their lives because they aren’t complex enough to create it as an explanation for what they do. We are, therefore we have it.

I’ve written before about my belief that free will does not exist. Interestingly enough, the concepts of “meaning” and “free will” are identical in one crucial sense: neither of them really exist, yet we desperately need them in order to maintain a healthy society.

So What Do We Do With This Knowledge?

Once you are awake, and you realize that all of your desires and pleasures ultimately reduce to chemical interactions, there are a few different ways you can go.

  1. Realize how depressing that is and immediately cast it from your mind and go on pretending that meaning is real. Go back to sleep, essentially.
  2. Realize how central emotion is and abandon all “higher” aspirations. Dedicate your life to seeking pleasure, since it’s the only source of meaning anyway.
  3. Maintain dual awareness. Realize that this is an illusion, but participate in it for your own sanity. Pursue a path in life that allows more people to experience happiness, and fewer people to experience suffering.

I’ve chosen three. I’ve chosen with meaning, just as I have with free will, to accept that it doesn’t really exist, but to operate as if it does because there is no practical alternative given my limitations as a human being (or as a society).

An interesting question rises to the surface here: how many other people who are asleep have simply chosen option one?

Implications

The most staggering realization that comes from this knowledge is that the ignorant and deluded in life are fundamentally no different than I am. The fact that I’m awake doesn’t change the fact that I derive meaning from chemicals. So when I’m in an elevator full of Bush-supporting Christians, and I’m looking down at them for being so foolish, I’m really not much different.

Yes, I’m aware of my own limitations, but this doesn’t make them go away. I received pleasure from realizing how superior I was, right? Like knowing I’m in on a secret that they don’t get. Well, how different is that from them receiving pleasure in church on Sunday? Or from eating a nice bowl of ice cream. It’s no different.

A squirt is a squirt. It’s all the same.

I can tell you that this realization gives me a different outlook on the religious. Religion and spirituality is the ultimate manifestation of the illusion because they create alternate worlds where meaning comes from. Again, I wonder how many have done so because they’ve seen through the illusion, and it was too much to bear.

Another interesting point is that being a non-spiritual atheist who believes in intrinsic meaning is even more absurd than being religious. At least a religious person has a backing to their claim–even if it’s a false one; an atheist who believes in intrinsic meaning has no such support. The only atheists with any solid ground to stand on in terms of meaning are those who create it within the context of the illusion.

And when the CEO gets in the elevator with us, and then a monk on the next floor, the same sorts of things are going on in each of our heads. I say the monk doesn’t get it because he’s abandoned too much that is pleasurable in the this material world. The CEO doesn’t think any of us get it because we don’t have two vacation homes and a yacht. And the Christian looks down at us because they know that Jesus is the answer.

We’re all subscribed to our own little fantasies, and they all result in squirts of pleasure. We like knowing that we’re part of a small group that “gets it”.

Still, I say I’m better of because I get that none of it’s real, which brings me to my next point.

Conclusions

There are only two types of people: those who know they are participating in an illusion, and those who still believe in intrinsic meaning. These are the two fundamental classifications of animal. Animals and 99% of the world are on one side, and people who are awake are on the other.

The question of “why?” is simple: we are chemical machines being driven by evolution. We desire power and attractiveness and happiness all because those who achieve those things are successful at propagating themselves. Perhaps meaning itself is a meme “employed” by evolution to coax us into doing its bidding. It’s a method of obscuring the tedium of day-to-day life. Meaning is a necessary illusion.

So the question isn’t whether you can shed your worldly, selfish desires. You can’t. No matter what you desire, regardless of how selfless it is, fulfilling it will still result in happiness for yourself. That’s the nature of an animal, and that’s what makes them yourdesires. The real question is whether or not you can evolve your goals into being helpful to others while they fulfill you as well.

This is morality in this new world of awareness. Increasing happiness and reducing suffering isn’t something to do for another world; it’s something to do just because we know what both feel like, and we should try and make others feel happiness just as we would like to.

This is also the definition of an advanced society. An advanced society is one that works from within the illusion and strives to attain linkage between the world’s happiness and suffering. In other words, when one person suffers the world suffers, and when people are happy the world is happy.

Awareness of the illusion also makes the concept of virtual worlds quite a bit more interesting. Once you embrace this illusion it becomes significantly less weird to seek pleasure from within alternate worlds of fantasy. Those other worlds are ultimately achieving for us the same thing as we get in the “real” world, i.e. a squirt. What’s the fundamental difference in where that squirt came from?

In summary, I don’t see this awareness as completely depressing, which I know will be the main complaint (and hence the reason to reject it). But instead of seeing this as evidence of a complete lack of meaning in our lives, let’s make the distinction between intrinsic meaning and meaning we can make for ourselves. Let’s use it to create our own. ::

  • kraut2

    What about realizing that “meaning” is meaningless when it comes to life and how you live it, accept that meaning does not exist and just enjoy being alive and do what you like to do without harming others? I like to spent time on lakes with my wife, a boat and fishing rods…no meaning but fun. I like to have children, but they are on their own now, but still connected – no meaning but feeling good.

    I did a lot of thing in my life to get out of crap safely that I got ourselves into – i.e. a trip with horses through the Canadian northern Rockies for almost six month following trails or no trails, just for the enjoyment of living in nature with little help except of the stamina of my wife, immigrating to a foreign country at the bottom of an economic downturn (early 80′s) creating my own company to stay alive…etc. etc..I did not search for meaning, I or we tried to stay alive, and while doing so treat it as a learning experience, learn how to deal with what live throws at you and manage survival as best you can and enjoy the experience at the good moments, when you think you succeed.

    All we are: the product of a long line of evolution, who are able to actually perceive and actively manipulate our environment, to be aware of self. Good enough for me.

    I can live happily with no meaning, no beliefs, not knowing a lot of things in depth. I try to understand how this universe works on a conceptual level, but the math is beyond me, barely having understood and used calculus.

    • http://www.skepticink.com/tippling/ Jonathan MS Pearce

      Amen to that. Totally agree. It is the difference between “objective” or “ultimate” meaning and subjective meaning.

      • kraut2

        “What about realizing that “meaning” is meaningless when it comes to life
        and how you live it, accept that meaning does not exist and just enjoy
        being alive and do what you like to do without harming others?”

        Meaning as well as morality is subjective, any rejection of a law giving and ruling deity of whatever construct makes it so.

        Meaning of your existence only makes sense in relationship to the life of others. Which can in the utilitarian sense either be negative or positive, depending if it increases overall welfare or destroys it. Your live achieves meaning in the reflection of it in the other.

        Their giving meaning to your live – children appreciating your raising them to become their own personalities, your partner loving you, your work being valued – gives your live meaning,

    • http://www.danielmiessler.com/ Daniel Miessler

      So you agree that there’s no meaning then, and simply say that it doesn’t matter because you can be happy without it. Isn’t that the conclusion made in the essay as well?

  • Montana_Bret

    I enjoyed this essay. This part made me wonder:

    “There are only two types of people: those who know they are participating in an illusion, and those who still believe in intrinsic meaning. These are the two fundamental classifications of animal. Animals and 99% of the world are on one side, and people who are awake are on the other.”

    Though this is true, I have my doubts as to whether being on one side or the other in terms of meaning changes an individual’s behavior at all, and is a difference that makes no difference. In the same way that Free Will doesn’t exist, but thinking and behaving as if I have Free Will can be advantageous(necessary?) in certain situations, though intuitively, it seems the same applies to meaning. Pretty much option # 3 in the essay above. I don’t know if I do it “for my own sanity” as much as I do it because there is no other option.

    • http://www.skepticink.com/tippling/ Jonathan MS Pearce

      Interesting points, Bret!
      Good to hear from you. I think you are broadly correct there in what you say.

    • http://www.danielmiessler.com/ Daniel Miessler

      I disagree. I think it matters greatly.

      Accepting that the universe is the way it is (devoid of intrinsic meaning) immunizes you against most forms of superstition that can infect and malign humanity. It’s acceptance of truth that protects against false and dangerous beliefs.

      From there we can build our own scaffolding (knowing that it’s not TRUE meaning, but instead practical) and proceed to be happy from there.

  • Shatterface

    The question of “why?” is simple: we are chemical machines being driven by evolution. We desire power and attractiveness and happiness all because those who achieve those things are successful at propagating themselves.

    And presumably gays are just doing it wrong.

    The idea that ‘meaning’ exists just so that we can procreate is, itself, a teleofunctional illusion: it is ascribing meaning to biological processes that have none.

    This is morality in this new world of awareness. Increasing happiness and reducing suffering isn’t something to do for another world; it’s something to do just because we know what both feel like, and we should try and make others feel happiness just as we would like to. This is also the definition of an advanced society. An advanced society is one that works from within the illusion and strives to attain linkage between the world’s happiness and suffering. In other words, when one person suffers the world suffers, and when people are happy the world is happy.

    Nope, sorry. Once you’ve dismissed meaning as an illusion you can’t backtrack and use words like ‘should’. There’s no reason why you should make others feel happy because their happiness is an illusion too.

    And you can’t use terms like ‘advanced society’ either because that’s a qualitative description dependent on ‘meaning’. The whole ‘when one person suffers the whole world suffers, and when people are happy the world is happy’ bit is a non-sequiter based on your preceding argument.

    You seem to think you can derive a justification for altruism based on the nihilistic philosophy of Leopold and Loeb.

    • Shatterface

      Oh, and you can’t claim that the 1% of people who reject meaning and free will are ‘awake’ as they are, according to their own philosophy, merely reacting according to their genes and their environment.

      The ‘wakefulness’ you assume you have a monopoly on is just the firing of neurons as your zombie body carries out its pre-determined actions.

      • http://www.danielmiessler.com/ Daniel Miessler

        Obviously, yes. But the distinction is important within our world that it should be identified and encouraged. Just like kindness.

        In terms of the universe, kindness is the same as mass murder of infants. So what? That’s not the world we live in.

    • kraut2

      “And you can’t use terms like ‘advanced society’ either because that’s a qualitative description dependent on ‘meaning’.”

      No it is not. Advanced society can describe a society where the suffering of or the majority is reduced, strictlty for utilitarian reasons. The reason being the productiveness of its members which is higher when suffering is reduced.

      Creation of a human society as in any animal society i.e. in ant colonies is devoid of meaning. It is a structure to permit the utilization of resources and a quality of live (i.e. reducing suffering which includes access to food, health, breeding partners, security of person, permitting metafunction in human societies like thnking about society, technical advances etc.)
      Any society exists without meaning, it just developed through evolutionary processes because its mebers have higher survival rates than non members.

      • http://www.skepticink.com/tippling/ Jonathan MS Pearce

        Well said @kraut2:disqus . I would also like to add that in this piece (which is not mine but reposted with kind permission) doesn’t make too many claims with regard to morality.

        @shatterface:disqus I think the OP makes passing mention mention of morality, but to set out a moral philosophy in light of such reductionism is a whole other task. I think the OP does a good job in exposing the problematic notion of objective meaning. Any should coming out of that worldview would need to be carefully laid out. The idea of some kind of utilitarianism is the obvious choice, and this is reflected in the prevalence of utilitarianism in naturalistic philosophy. It is hard to get deontic oughts (though people do hold to it) from matter and energy. It also depends how you define objective.
        Personally, from a similar or identical worldview to the OP, I espouse a universal subjective morality which comes out of conceptual nominalism. If we cannot establish a platoninc realm of ontologically objectively existing abstract ideas, then moral laws become problematic, since they have their ontology in the individual minds of the conceivers. As a result, we can come to some utilitarian style morality which will be arrived at universally by neurotypical minds who have a good knowledge of the world and logic. Obviously there is much to argue in that. Does it qualify as objective? Depends on the definition of objective. Does it qualify as morally real / realist? Depends on your definitions. I would stick my neck out and say my morality is actually a form of moral nihilism or error theory (though denying a correct one, so to speak).

        But pragmatically, and conceptually, morality does exist in some way, and using sound logic and good knowledge, and a non-derivative moral value currency such as happiness, we could all agree on what is moral and what is not.

        But I don’t think that was the remit of the OP. That said, thanks for the comment, Morality is always the battleground. My thoughts are that no moral philosophy does the business for every scenario, which stands at good evidence that it is a human construct and does not objectively exist, if by that we mean truly mind independent.

      • Shatterface

        No it is not. Advanced society can describe a society where the suffering of or the majority is reduced, strictlty for utilitarian reasons. The reason being the productiveness of its members which is higher when suffering is reduced.

        Except there’s no reason to accept utilitarianism in a meaningless universe.

        ‘The greater good for the greater number of people’ is a value based judgement

        • kraut2

          You do not have to accept anything.
          What does utilitarianism has to do with meaning? Maybe we have to clearly draw a line between objective meaning which can only exist if you have a supernatural creating agent, and subjective meaning that you create if you need meaning to continue living. I personally don’t need either.

          Utilitarianism is just one approach to help survive the individual and/or society as a whole. I do not see where meaning comes into play, unless you postulate something beside evolutionary success to survive.
          Evolution has no meaning, it is a process that started with the first cells able to procreate. It just is.

          The greater good for the greatest amount of people is a judgment that will be made by biology, by our success as a species, success only measured by the number of individuals surviving and able to procreate.
          Societies that do not have the wellbeing of the majority of its members as a basis have failed, sometimes completely eliminating that society as a functioning entity.
          Again, there is no meaning in that success, unless one gives it “meaning” from a personal perspective.
          To my understanding – meaning as a member of a society, tribal or national, makes only sense in the reflection of your achievements or the lack thereof in others, be it your partner, children colleagues at work. Their reflection and assessment of you and your deeds might give your life meaning.

          Can the live of a non religious or non spiritual hermit have meaning?
          Can he really create meaning?

          • Daydreamer1

            Shatterfaces argument seems to be that in a universe without meaning you cannot just make one, which seems a strange argument given that we do and so the argument is immediately disproved.

            We all argue over what meaning should be, which is a very big clue as to its nature. Looking around the world it can hardly be said that there is a poverty of ideas. Even if you believe in these absolute ideas about meaning there is no poverty of versions.

            And presumably gays are just doing it wrong.

            I’d recommend that Shatterface becomes more able at looking at the genes eye view since this statement betrays their lack of understanding about evolution and genetics in general.

            There’s no reason why you should make others feel happy because their happiness is an illusion too.

            Again, this fallacy that if something does not absolutely exist it cannot subjectively exist and that things that subjectively exist do not actually exist. It has been shown time and again that genes affect behaviour. The modified behaviour definitely exists – we can measure it. When a person takes drugs their behaviour changes – we can measure this too. It is all real, and it is all chemical. Get over it. What is it with this mindset that it cannot accept that cause and effect are real if they do not fit their paradigm, even when they are measurable! If you can identify the cause and you can measure the affect and you understand the mechanism then you are much further along than the person standing on the wayside with their fingers in their ears and eyes covered shouting ‘it isn’t happening, it isn’t happening’.

        • http://www.danielmiessler.com/ Daniel Miessler

          The only thing you have to accept is the nature of our subjective existence, and the fact that we experience happiness and suffering. You don’t have to accept ANY objective meaning.

          Once you accept that we feel and experience things within this reality, we can then set out to make it as positive as possible.

          This is all happening WITHIN the illusion. It’s all meaningless. We know that. But it still matters to us because of our limitations.

          My goal is to hold both views in mind simultaneously, and pivot to them when appropriate.

          • Daydreamer1

            Indeed, the age old question of whether an illusion matters to an illusion. Since we are of this same category we can say yes.

    • http://www.danielmiessler.com/ Daniel Miessler

      I do not see why you, and others, find it so difficult to hold both perspectives in mind simultaneously.

      We know there is no meaning, and then we build our own false one because it’s practical given our form.

      How much of that illusory meaning do we embrace? Just the right amount for the situation. When a puppy is lost and you rescue it, feel that joy to your core. Don’t deconstruct it. When an enemy wrongs you, release your anger because there is no free will.

      Why is this pivot so troubling to people? It’s contradictory, yes, but it’s a practical solution to a problem with no real solution.

  • labreuer

    Fascinating post! It seems to be a kind of inversion of 2 Cor 4:16-18, which I interpret to be saying that meaning and value (‘things that are unseen’) are much more important than particles and fields (‘things that are seen’). To say that particles and fields are ‘real’ and meaning and value are ‘illusion’ seems tantamount to saying that letters of an alphabet are ‘real’, but stories constructed with them are ‘illusion’. And yet, what use is an alphabet if it is not used? This begs the question of what we mean by ‘real’ vs. ‘illusion’—irony intended! (Or am I equivocating? I can’t convince myself that I am.)

    Interestingly enough, the concepts of “meaning” and “free will” are identical in one crucial sense: neither of them really exist, yet we desperately need them in order to maintain a healthy society.

    This seems entirely opposed to the general premise that we ought not believe false things because doing so will be bad for us, somehow. Science is generally justified as truth-seeking because it has results we judge to be good; why are we justified in being arbitrary about whether good results are indications of truth or illusion? If we aren’t justified in being arbitrary, then why might it seem arbitrary?

    In short, meaning is contrived by humans as an explanation for why we do what we do.

    I don’t understand the use of the word ‘contrived’, here. Consider a free market economy, where people get to decide what value to place on goods. The aggregate values people place very quickly shape reality. They aren’t fictional. Furthermore, different ways to assign values will produce different kinds of worlds. We tend to like certain kinds of worlds more than others. Furthermore, there seems to be something like a convergence of people of different upbringings, and what kinds of worlds they prefer over others. The convergence isn’t complete, but there was also a time during which there were multiple competing theories for how electricity and magnetism work.

    What meanings we ‘contrive’ determine how reality evolves. If it is the case that we like some realities more than others, then there is a link between meaning and our evaluation of the resultant reality. You seem to be using the word ‘contrive’ since this link is extremely complex—or you might even deny its existence.

    They are all chemically-based and offer chemical rewards.
    [...]
    That squirt is the source of happiness.

    I see that you wrote about Nozick’s Experience Machine, but you didn’t seem to develop a stance on it. If what you say above is true, and entirely representative of joy/happiness/contentment/etc., then why would it be wrong to plug into an experience machine? Are people deluded when they say they would prefer to accomplish real things in the real world, over and above plugging in?

    In other words, when one person suffers the world suffers, and when people are happy the world is happy.

    Wow, did you realize that what Daniel Miessler just said is extraordinarily similar to the following?

    If one member suffers, all suffer together; if one member is honored, all rejoice together. (1 Cor 12:26)

    What I’m not sure of is why he believes that. What is ‘the world’, and why do I care if it is suffering, if I can keep its suffering/happiness isolated from mine? The Bible contains plenty of laments of how the rich, who oppress the poor, die happy.

    • http://www.danielmiessler.com/ Daniel Miessler

      The fact that the Bible also mentions things that are obviously true, and have been for thousands of years, doesn’t make it special.

      It also talks about the sun coming up in morning rather than night. Does this somehow triangulate into its other claims having merit? Of course not.

      If you’re a Christian, my friend, with an intellect like yours, we need to talk. I have a few questions that I think may light the path out of your wilderness.

      That being said, it’s sadder out here at times, so maybe I should leave you be. :)

      • labreuer

        I live in SF and have been looking for a thoughtful atheist or three. :-) You may find me an interesting case; I’m not sure I draw much in terms of comfort from the Bible, nor do I see it as merely a set of rules and regulations that, if I follow well enough, I get an eternal cookie. I wouldn’t say that I have much of a ‘personal relationship with Jesus’, although I get the sense that this is possible, even though you would perhaps characterize it as shaping the voice in my head to fit the words in the Bible. In a sense, I read the Bible as a promise that a kind of wonderful reality is possible, but takes a ton of work and seemingly-irrational self-sacrifice. To bring this back to the blog post, different ways of assigning value/meaning create different kinds of worlds. Some we judge ‘better’ than others, hinting at an objective set of values/meaning which we can approach but perhaps never arrive at. This is a different kind of ‘better’ than is used to say that one scientific theory is ‘better’ than another, but I question anyone who declares the scientific version of ‘better’ to be ‘real’, while any other version of ‘better’ to be illusion. On what basis is this claimed?

        I doubt you could lead me into sadder times than I’ve personally experienced. I don’t know if this helps, but I have a friend who witnessed his mother shooting herself in the head when he was five, and I’m one of the few friends of his who is able to get anywhere near that experience with him. The world is an extraordinarily dark place; I’m not sure I have much in the way of delusions about that. What sustains me is that I think I know of a way or heuristic for making it a bit less dark. Quite a few who observe its darkness and have well-characterized it have a tendency to kill themselves; David Foster Wallace is an example. I’ve actually been meaning to study such people—talk about a dark subject, heh.

        The fact that the Bible also mentions things that are obviously true, and have been for thousands of years, doesn’t make it special.

        I would say that if the Bible gets some things right in ways we can verify, we would be justified in suspecting that it might get other things right. This leads to tentative belief, actions predicated upon that belief, followed by an evaluation: do I judge the results (fruit) to be good? Like miracles, all the Bible can do is suggest that certain things might be true and worth trying out. It doesn’t ‘prove’. Proof seems to be permanently elusive, as if rationality is not sufficient. It’s as if any philosophical system is insufficient, although smaller ones can lead to larger ones.

        • http://www.danielmiessler.com/ Daniel Miessler

          I would say that if the Bible gets some things right in ways we can verify, we would be justified in suspecting that it might get other things right.

          Not if we know for a FACT that it got so unbelievably much wrong. The 10 commandments forgot to mention, “Protect children.”, but left in the “worship only me” part. A more perfect way to illustrate that it’s a manmade book would be hard to discover.

          • labreuer

            My apologies for the long responses; as we get to know each other, I’ll be able to shorten them.

            This gets into the topic of “What ought we expect from the Bible?” If you want perfect morality, I’m going to object and say that I’m not convinced that the optimal way to treat people is something that can be laid out in a finite number of words. I’m inclined to think that objective morality, as well as objective reality, are actually ‘infinite in description’—think Turing machine with an infinite number of states. But infinitude isn’t necessarily as important as being extremely wary of anyone who thinks he/she has figured it all out, or even most of it out. All we have are successive approximations.

            Just like we conduct research in science, I think we need to conduct research in morality. I’m not convinced that either type of research will ever ‘finish’, or even approach any kind of non-vertical asymptote.

            What I expect from the Bible is something that pushes us to conduct said research. Suppose that the Bible contained strongly worded passages urging us to protect children and not enslave anyone ever. You would be able to find a different command that the Bible ought to have made, and didn’t. Maybe it’d take another 100 years of moral research; no matter. So, how do we avoid this being a game of whack-a-mole?

            Remember that you are more ready for more advanced morality than the Israelites were. Ideally, society prepares each generation for better and better morality by setting a higher and higher ‘baseline’ for each generation, with the imbued value of making things ever-better. Suppose this happened; what was the optimal material to show a generation twenty generations ago, to help them improve? Would we consider it ‘silly’ or ‘outdated’ or ‘surely there was something better’, today? This reminds me of people who want to call proto-scientific methods ‘not science’—if one had such an attitude back then, science may have never developed to where it is today!

  • Jack_Ma

    I checked out Daniel’s blog and it looks like he picked option 1.

    For myself, I choose option 4.

    I choose to enjoy the truth that in the absence of meaning or purpose in nature, it is literally impossible that there could ever be anything wrong with me, no matter what. It immediately follows that the same is true of you, and everyone and everything else.

    Try it on for size. Let me know how it feels.

    Cheers,

    Jack

    • http://www.danielmiessler.com/ Daniel Miessler

      I’m a 1 and a 4–depending on context.