Note – this is part three of a three part series.
In the previous post, Biological and Existential Meaning, I took the claim that the universe is without meaning and explored it strictly from a biological and existential perspective. This investigation into meaning cannot be complete without considering metaphysical meaning, which might also be called Cosmic Meaning or Spiritual Meaning.
I think the world’s many religions are one of humanity’s most beautiful expressions of the mystery of existence. Many of the world’s religions attempt to give voice to some of the most fundamental questions of existence: why are we here? What purpose are we to serve? Does the universe have meaning?
The third and last kind of meaning I would like to discuss is Metaphysical Meaning, which inevitably involves a theistic god whose authority provides meaning.
What Would a Universe of Meaning Be?
When someone makes the claim that the universe is without meaning, I wonder what the opposite of that is. In other words, what would a universe OF meaning look like? I think it is very easy to say that the universe is without meaning; the absence of any sort of imbued meaning is not difficult to conceive if a person takes a materialist view of the universe. But if an idea exists, there must be an opposite of that idea, even if it is just theoretical, so in this case, if something does not exist, then that nothingness must have a counterpart.
Perhaps this is a dualistic way of looking at the problem, but sometimes dichotomies are helpful. If there is light, then there is dark; if there is hot, then there is cold; if there is nothing, then there can be something, so if the universe has meaning, what does it look like? What would that be? I have a difficult time answering that question, and questions that are difficult to answer intrigue me because it generally means there is something very interesting is going on.
There are, I believe, three basic claims related to meaning and the universe:
- there is no meaning in the universe
- there is no meaning in the universe except for the meaning we create for ourselves
- there is inherent meaning in the universe
There Is No Meaning in the Universe
This particular stance justifies its claim by observing that there is only an objective, physical universe. This is a Materialist view, that nothing exists but matter and that all events in the universe are physical events. This applies just as much to something like the Earth orbiting the Sun as it does to your consciousness. To elaborate briefly, a Materialist would say that your consciousness or your Mind, which some religious adherents might identify as your soul, is simply the result of physical events occurring in your brain, just as the Earth orbiting the Sun is simply the result of how the mass of each interact with each other.
There is nothing more to it; there is a physical universe and any events that occur in the universe are the result of other physical events. Theists might argue that while this might be true, something created the Laws of Nature which govern the universe, such as the Law of Universal Gravitation that explains the way the Earth orbits the Sun, and that thing is called God. While this might be an interesting argument (see Teleology), if this were so, a designer god who created the universe, does design imply meaning?
The way things work is very different from why things work, so for me, there must be something more than a design argument to justify that claim that the universe has meaning. Again, meaning implies purpose, and while one might say the universe functioning according to a set of laws is a type of purpose, what is that purpose meant to lead towards? So I think this particular dead end supports the claim that the universe has no meaning.
There Is No Meaning in the Universe Except for the Meaning We Create for Ourselves
The approach to this claim was covered in Part Two of this series, so I will not address it in depth here but rather quickly summarize it.
The claim is that if any meaning does exist in the universe, we (humans) create it. This is a clever way to avoid complete nihilism, and many Existentialists embrace this notion. For the Materialist and non-theist, it avoids admitting that the universe is completely without meaning while side-stepping having to rely on a Supreme Being for that meaning. While this does provide meaning to our existence, at least in the here and now and as long as humanity exists, it does not provide ultimate Metaphysical or Cosmic Meaning.
Because I think Existentialism is often misunderstood, for the theists in the crowd, I always like to point out that there is such a thing as Christian or Theistic Existentialism. Not so much that Theistic Existentialism is its own philosophy, but that being a theist does not preclude one from being an Existentialist.
There Is Inherent Meaning in the Universe
This particular stance is predicated on the belief that there is something greater than ourselves (a Supreme Being, ie God) that created not only humanity but the entirety of the universe, thus imbuing the existence of the universe and humanity with meaning.
If we are to say the created universe has meaning, then it must have a purpose. If that is the case, what could it possibly be? Typical answers to that question is that God created the universe so that we might wonder and be in awe of his powers and beauty of creation. But if this were the case, to what end? What is the purpose of that?
Some might suggest that God is simply mysterious and unknowable, and while I agree with that view, it can lead towards a convenient explanation of any action attributed to God that might be construed as logically impossible according to God’s ascribed omnipotent qualities. Something akin to,
“You’re friend died tragically in a car crash? That’s terrible, but why would God allow that to happen?”
“Who can truly know? The ways of God are mysterious.”
Additionally, the same argument could be made of any awe inducing natural wonder here on Earth, such as The Grand Canyon, but if this were the case, we must then ask why did God bothered making 100 billion plus galaxies if what we have here on Earth is awe-inducing enough?
Perhaps a better approach to the claim that the universe is without meaning is to make it more anthropocentric, that human existence is in and of itself meaningless. Is there any meaning outside of the anthropocentric view? Let us try.
Does Creation Imply Meaning?
If God created humans, by whatever means we came to be brought to exist in the way we exist right now, that means we must have been created for a purpose. So what is that purpose? Maybe we were created to love one another, or to enrich each others lives, or to bring glory to God, or lead others to God’s salvation, or to have dominion over the Earth, or to be fruitful and multiply, or to “tend the Garden”, and on and on. These are all fine purposes, but following each one ultimately ends up with at the same question which only God can answer: why create in the first place? Now, that’s an intriguing question.
But perhaps just having been created by God in the first place is meaning enough. Does creation imply meaning which implies purpose? If I create a painting, there is a meaning or a purpose (a reason) for me having done so, no matter how small or seemingly unknown to whomever might experience the painting.
Maybe all this leads back to a kind of Existential Meaning. Can we believe God created us if we cannot determine for what reason?
What we CAN determine is that we are here, which leaves us with the question, since we are here, what should we do with it? It is said that God made us in his image, so existentially we should attempt to understand what that image implies and how we can best embody it. This also, I believe, is a kind of meaning.
This has been the most difficult portion of the series to write. The many aspects and implications have led to very few firm conclusions, if any. And trying to cover the varied, complex ideas and questions that result in a succinct way was challenging. I certainly posed far more questions than I answered, and left many stones unturned, but this is sometimes the work of philosophy. Hopefully you have engaged with the questions as well.
I wrote this series to specifically address the claim that the universe is without meaning, and I think I have done that, though not as effectively as I would have liked. I think the issue of the universe having meaning is very different than our human lives having meaning, but I think very often when people say that the universe is without meaning, what they are really saying is that our human existence is without meaning.
Why we are here and for what purpose are some of the most fundamental questions of human experience. There have been many answers to these questions posed by persons with much greater experience and qualifications than I, but I believe the wrestling with such questions is a kind of honoring the problem, and if I may be so audacious to say so, a way to honor God, even if the answers are difficult to come by.
Does the universe have meaning from a Metaphysical perspective?
You can find Part One at the following link Does the Universe Have Meaning?
You can find Part Two at the following link Biological and Existential Meaning
Compliment this post with another post from the Being and Existence category.