13 December, 2006

Making The Point

Believe it or not, people have actually asked me the question, ‘If you don’t believe in God, what is the point in anything?’ It’s usually people who didn’t know me very well. Once they get to know me better, they learn to avoid giving me an opening for a two-hour rant.

Behind this question are the assumptions (a) that ‘point’ (or purpose, or meaning) is set by some supernatural force outside the world of mere mortals, and (b) that without this supernatural point-setter, only living forever, in a Universe that lasts forever, can allow there to be a ‘point’ to it all.

To me, it seems bizarre that anyone would think this because I can’t see that the words ‘point’, ‘purpose’ or ‘meaning’ mean anything at all outside of an individual’s own mind. Certainly, the everyday world of physical reality – the one that makes your bicycle work and your kettle boil – has no meaning or purpose. It just is. We can talk about it as if it did have a point but if we do, we are only being beguiled by language, we are not reflecting the true nature of things. Stars and planets to not have any meaning. They are just big balls spinning around and around in the void. As purposeful as water swirling down a plug-hole. As pointless as photons bouncing off a wall.

When I go out for lunch, on the other hand, I am full of purpose, my every movement has meaning, there is a point to every step I take, every corner I turn, every coin I hand over. I, like every one of you, am just brimful of it. Even my cat – which is about as close to inanimate as a living creature can get – is just bursting with purpose. There’s a point to everything he does. He may not be aware of it – in fact, I’m pretty sure he has only vestigial self-awareness at best – but he does things for a reason. People (much more than most other living things) have purposes, goals, objectives. What they do has ‘point’, it has meaning. Why? Because the whole idea, the whole concept of there being a ‘point’, is one that has been made up by people’s minds to explain what they do.

And that is not to denigrate it. We can each live lives choc-a-bloc with purpose, and steeped in meaning. We can feel the thrill of achievement, we can exercise our wills to succeed, we can revel in the high moral value of our endeavours and scorn the lack of it in others’. In short, we can live the full, rich lives we have always led without the point of them having to be given to us from outside. And what is wrong with accepting the human scale of our purposes, the personal scope of our meanings? If you make a sacrifice for love of your child, that is worth something to you and to all of us. It doesn’t need supernatural sanction. If your life is dedicated to the pursuit of truth, it matters to you and to everyone your life touches. What does it matter if no-one knows about two billion years’ from now?

These are our lives and this is our time and we are the ones who give them meaning.

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