Over the years I’ve had many conversations with believers in god, where the topic of purpose or the meaning of life has often been raised. Monotheists seem to believe it is not enough to merely seek purpose within their own lives, thus, they look to god to provide them with meaning. To the contrary, atheists and other secularists are opposed to the idea that life can have any purpose or meaning beyond those we subjectively assign. However, I take a third option, for as I began to more closely examine the objective basis of secular morality, I found that an objective purpose can also be found within human life that is not derived from a god.
I have yet come across another atheist, either in literature or on YouTube, that has argued from this perspective, but in the following presentation I will demonstrate that life does have objective meaning. Although I expect to receive a fair amount of backlash from other atheists, still, many of you might be surprised with the obviousness of this argument. I also find this topic to be of importance because, for me, objectivity signifies the empirical. I don’t concern myself with arguments from subjective opinion, because every opinion is equally as valid as the next. I am only concerned with facts, therefore, when discussing any topic, such as evolution, scripture, philosophy, morality, or even the meaning of life, it must be approached from a purely objective standpoint.
It is for this reason I took great effort in detailing the scientific basis of morality as a follow up to Episode 23. However, in my attempt to alleviate confusion with my proposed logic of Secular Morality it appears I have sparked further criticism over my characterization of how life is “supposed to” properly function. In the follow up I stated, “The way we know patients suffering from medical conditions such as terminal diseases or even forms of psychoses, are not functioning within the “norm” is due to the culmination of many centuries of research into how human physiology is supposed to properly function.”
My critic, who I assume to be an atheist, claims that I am not allowed to assign natural phenomena “supposed to’s”, meaning, or purpose, because, to do so, implies there is a purpose-giver. Nature just behaves the way it behaves, without motive or intent; thus, there can be no objective purpose or meaning in natural phenomena themselves. To illustrate this point my critic provides the analogy of the evolution of a tiger’s stripes. This characteristic feature of tigers did not evolve for the purpose of camouflage, but rather, random mutations were selected by the environment that conveyed an evolutionary advantage, namely, tigers that developed stripes more easily secured prey and thus more easily survived to pass on these advantageous genes.
Although this explanation is scientifically accurate, my opponent commits the fallacy of False Analogy. The evolution of a tiger’s stripes lacks an essential quality that is found in every single cellular component involved in the pathology of disease: necessity. A tiger does not necessarily require stripes in order to live. Of course, this feature certainly aids the tiger in survival, but even if a tiger were born without stripe-producing genes it would not result birth defects or even cause a failure to thrive. Therefore, stripes are not necessary for a living tiger to continue living.
A correct analogy is the comparison of a functioning cell with a functioning engine. If the engine of your vehicle is to function, then it requires a number of components, such as a spark plug, serpentine belt, pistons, gasoline, and so on. Without any one of these necessary components your engine will cease to function. Similarly, your body requires many necessary components, such as neurotransmitters, hormones, enzymes, cofactors, and so on, that if absent will cause your body to no longer function.
For example, without oxygen there would be no final electron acceptor in the Electron Transport Chain. Therefore, the process by which Adenosine Triphosphate (ATP) is produced can no longer be maintained. ATP is an extremely important energy molecule required in countless cellular processes throughout the body, from the transport of various substances across the cell membrane to binding muscles filaments, enabling you to move. It may be of some interest to note that upon death the absence of ATP prevents movement of the myosin and actin filaments, causing a temporary stiffening of the muscles, known as rigor mortis. As we can plainly see, it is an objective, scientifically verifiable fact that oxygen is necessary for all forms of aerobic life to continue living, from obligate aerobic bacteria, to human beings, and yes, even tigers.
However, my opponent insists that, just like purpose, the quality of being “necessary” is also assigned in the mind of sentient beings. He argues that humans are the only ones that can assign subjects with necessity or purpose, and the purpose of a subject can even change according to our subjective desires. For example, a hammer is an efficient tool for the purpose of driving a nail, but, if we so desire, a hammer could just as easily serve our purpose as a paperweight. However, once again, the subject in this example lacks the essential quality of necessity.
Just imagine if every sentient being were to collectively assign the spark plug some other arbitrary purpose based on their subjective desires. Now, does that have any bearing on the fact your vehicle necessarily require this component in order for the engine to function? Of course not! Likewise, our cellular requirement for oxygen is not assigned in the human mind. Even if human beings were unaware of oxygen’s existence, that still would not change the objective, scientifically verifiable, empirical fact that oxygen is necessary for cellular respiration.
Any necessary component that belongs to a functioning system serves a purpose to that particular system, namely, to maintain functionality. And there is nothing in the definition of words like necessity, purpose, or reason that dictate these concepts MUST be applied by sentient minds. The Oxford Dictionary defines the word “necessity” as: “the fact of being required or indispensable. ” The word “purpose” is defined as: “the reason for which something exists” (or, in our context, the reason something is present within a functioning system). And the word “reason” is defined as: “a cause for an action or event”. Therefore, though medical science we can provide explanations for the cause of pathological events that result from a failure to maintain levels of indispensable components within cellular processes. There is absolutely nothing within this statement that suggests the definitions of necessity, purpose, and reason MUST be subjectively assigned by sentient beings.
Of course, if human beings were to no longer exist, then oxygen would cease to be necessary to human beings, and thus, would no longer serve a purpose within this context. But again, the necessity of oxygen is not assigned in our minds. Oxygen plays an indispensible role within vital cellular processes, which would otherwise fail to function without its presence. Therefore, our cells must have the presence of oxygen in order to function. In other words, if it is the case that our cells are to function, then we are supposed to have the presence of oxygen.
I would like to reiterate that I am not proposing a type of ‘geocentric’ understanding of the Universe, where everything exists just for human beings. All of the components required for human life, from the atoms that comprise our cells to the very Earth and Universe we inhabit, do not exist for the purpose of human beings. Rather, it is the objective quality of being ‘necessary’ that designates these essential components serve a purpose to the functioning system that is human life. Therefore, these necessary components do not require an arbitrary assignment of purpose according to the subjective opinions of anonymous purpose-givers, which, even if they wanted to, could not change the role that indispensible components play within the greater system as a whole.
Now, the fact we can determine purpose though an examination of necessary components in a functioning system provides us with insight into an age-old question: What is the meaning of life? Just as the presence of oxygen and countless other components are necessary for living human beings to continue living, the very presence of human life itself is necessary for the continued existence of human life. Indeed, the objective purpose of any given life, whether plant, fungi, or animal, is to live, and with any luck, to live long enough to bring about the next generation of life.
As a side note, I am not suggesting an organism that is unwilling or incapable of reproduction to no longer have any purpose. The argument for the objective purpose of life is established on the axiom that all life is contingent, and thus, necessarily requires the existence of other life.
What’s more, the objective meaning of human life perfectly ties together with the objective standard of Secular Morality. Consider the following syllogism:
P1. If all human life is contingent upon other human life, then human life is necessary for (serves a purpose in) the continued existence of human life.
P2. If human life is to exist, then the necessary components involved in maintaining human life must be present in order for human life to optimally function.
P3. If human life is to optimally function, then actions or behaviors that improve the quality of life for living human beings are necessarily beneficial to the maintenance of these lives.
C. Therefore, actions or behaviors that necessarily benefit the maintenance of human life ought to be promoted over actions or behaviors that diminish the maintenance of human life.
Just as the actions of changing the oil, air filters, and other regular upkeep are necessary for an engine to optimally function, so too is acting in ways that improve states of human well-being necessary for a human life to optimally function. Therefore, if an engine is to continue functioning at optimal capacity, then one ought to act in such a way that is beneficial to the maintenance of the engine. Likewise, if a human life is to continue living at optimal capacity, then one ought to act in such a way that is beneficial to the maintenance of that human life.
And from here we are at liberty to subjectively assign any number of other purposes to our lives, such as the pursuit of artistic expression, engaging in entertaining and enjoyable pastimes, cultivating lasting relationships, raising a family, caring for and helping others, being successful at a given activity, and the list goes on and on. Not only do such actions and behaviors provide us with additional purpose beyond that of merely living, they all serve to enrich and add greater intrinsic value to the quality of our lives — an scientific fact that can be tested and measured. However, at the most basic, fundamental level, the answer to the age-old question “What is the meaning of life?” is found in the very question itself, entailing all the characteristics and qualities that promote this unique state of existence.