Purpose, Meaning and Value as the province of religion and religious thinking

It’s exceedingly common, at least in the things I’ve read to, for “the religious” to assert one cannot derive purpose, meaning and value from scientific inquiry, naturalistic philosophy and a materialistic approach to understanding the world around you, yourself and your place in that world, or rather universe.The appeal is often made to Hume and the infamous “is ought dilemma” and to the “non overlapping magisteria” proposed by evolutionary biologist (among other things), and all round smart guy, Stephen Jay Gould.

Purpose, meaning and value are said to be critical for humans to function and are viewed as a natural inclination which must be addressed and which inclination itself is indicative that there must BE purpose, meaning and value inherent in the universe. Without it, humans would not be, well, human. They would be something else less human. I suspect there more being thought, that there is a hidden assertion that humans are indeed “something else”, something special that exceeds their evolutionary origin or perhaps even confounds it. It argues for a more supernatural origin or at least a sort of hybrid origin, an in-souling as it were at some point in their evolutionary rise.

For those who eschew the supernatural, consciousness replaces the soul. For them consciousness is not simply the natural development of the increasing complexity of the brain or an emerging property of a purer natural, organic evolution. Consciousness is so special it transforms this meager ape into an angel. Consciousness demonstrates there is a dimension beyond the natural and material. It is that dimension that is the dimension of purpose, meaning and value and is only ascertained through religious method. It is only understood “religiously” and is, once again, the sole province of religion. Not even philosophy can ascend to it’s rarefied heights.

So, there is a scientific method and a religious method. There is a scientific means and philosophical means of approaching the nature of reality, and a religious one. There is then scientific “truth” and religious “truth” and each is encapsulated in their respective pursuits.

Some will try to rig the game by claiming this realm is part of reality. It is just simply not attainable through scientific method. On this view Natural philosophy and materialist understanding truncates reality. So, this other realm is really just as natural, just as real, as the material world. You just have to change what you consider valid ways of perceiving and testing reality. One such view sees materialism and idealism as equally truncated views and proposes “realism” as the correct, full orbed map of reality. They thus seek to escape the accusation of supernaturalism. Often they even eschew being counted among the religious. The question then arises, by what method do you perceive this portion of reality. How do you go about observing and testing and validating this truth?

They thus carve out for themselves a realm of “truth” that is theirs alone immune to the claims and challenges of the scientific method. As I have asserted before, the method they use is essential that of revelation. It is either revelation from an external source and authority or from personal, subjective experience and often a combination of both. The revelation is either validated as authoritative by personal, subjective experience, or it can only be engaged subjectively and personal experience is judged to be inherently true because it is some immediate and powerful and direct.

This realm of truth they claim is the only realm from which you can derive purpose, meaning and value.

So. returning to the question. Why do religions and particularly Christianity, argue and believe they have a corner on the market for purpose, meaning and value? On what basis to they think this is true? How is it they think they escape the snare to which they thing naturalism and materialism and all thoughts non-religious is inherently heir? It is simply that they assert and believe that their construction of reality is true. Not only true, but authoritatively true arising outside human thought. It is almost entirely parallel to the “Argument from Morality”, which goes something like this.

  1. If (for there to be) there are Objective and Absolute moral truths, then God (my version of god or reality) must exist.
  2. There are (or must be) Objective and Absolute moral truths.
  3. Therefore, God must exist.

Just substitute Purpose, Meaning and Value (PM&V) and you have the same argument.

  1. If (for there to be) there are Objective and Absolute PM&V, then God ((or my version of god or reality) must exist
  2. There is (or must be) PM&V.
  3. Therefore, God must exist.

The problem must surely be clear. It is a form of begging the question. The problem is the first premise. If the first premise is not true then the argument fails. You have to assume your conclusion in order to reach that conclusion. As an argument, though logically valid, it fails.

What’s more, while we may desperately WANT Objective and Absolute PM&V or Morals for that matter, if they don’t exist, they don’t exist. We just have to make the best of it and do the best with what we’ve got. Crafting an alternate reality isn’t an option except for the willfully delusional.

Further, if religious beliefs are simply a subset of “thoughts” or “ideas” arising from human cognition and experience, then in what way does it differ from all other sets of thoughts and ideas? They are all equally the result of human cognition and naturalistic experience. When you elevate them to the status of absolutely true revelation, you are simply adding another idea to the subset. Like all ideas in all subsets, the true of the thought or idea must be proven or shown to be true. You cannot simply assume the truth of one idea and then argue that the ideas flowing from it are thus true. It my make for a valid logical argument but not necessarily a true one.

To say that God is outside “creation”, outside of time and space and not part of the material universe is to simply put forward and idea. To go on to say that God or the being of God is then the ground of all goodness, truth and beauty, is simply to put forward another idea which you think follows from the first, but neither have been proven to be true. You might come up with a wonderfully coherent set of ideas, but that is still all they are.

That being the case, you can’t conclude that religion (one set of ideas) is inherently capable of providing PM&V when another set of ideas cannot unless you presume before hand that your set of ideas is true and not just true, but cosmically, eternally true. As Dr Shelly Kagan has pointed out, you don’t have to have cosmic, eternal meaning to have meaning. Something doesn’t have to matter cosmically or eternally in order to matter.

I’ll address the “is ought” dilemma in another post.