In the new issue of The American Scholar
, Nabokov biographer Brian Boyd
tries to explain how a universe unguided by divine purpose can still have meaning. Most of the essay, “Purpose-Driven Life,” is pure blather, largely unreadable. But his simple point seems to be that purpose bubbles up from below through the otherwise “mindless process” of Darwinian evolution:
Does evolution by natural selection rob life of purpose, as so many have feared? The answer is no. On the contrary, Charles Darwin has made it possible to understand how purpose, like life, builds from small beginnings, from the ground up. In a very real sense, evolution creates purpose.
I’m not sure but I think Boyd means that the illusion of purpose is generated in this way.
Richard Dawkins also has meaning on his mind. He’s been on a lecture tour speaking about “The Purpose of Purpose
.” The world’s chief celebrity atheist has invented a pair of neologisms, “archi-purpose” and “neo-purpose,” to designate respectively illusory purpose in nature and genuine mind-generated purpose.
Since in Dawkins’s understanding there’s no Divine mind outside nature, the only purpose-generating minds belong to people and maybe some higher mammals such as whales.
The question these two thinkers are nervously flirting with is simple and commonsensical: Does meaning in life depend on your believing in God? Or can life have real purpose, not pretend purpose, in a universe without a Deity standing outside nature and imparting purpose?
Certainly, the Bible sees meaning and purpose as being present right from the start of God’s creative activity. In some sense, barely comprehensible even in mystical terms, God spoke our world into existence. Before there was a world, His wisdom already existed, as Proverbs 8 tells us. The very first word in the book of Genesis, Bereishit or “In the beginning,” is rendered in an ancient and authoritative Aramaic translation as “With wisdom.” It is “with wisdom” that God created the heavens and the earth. That wisdom, enfolding His purpose and therefore the meaning of existence, underlies all creation.
Men like Boyd and Dawkins are registering an anxiety on the part of other secular folks, as well as that of the rest of us who daily breath in the atmosphere of secularism that pervades modern life. That anxiety arises from a reasonable unease that a world divested of God is also a world without meaning — that meaning necessarily comes from outside, and if there’s Nobody outside our world, then the only purpose in life is the purpose we imagine it to have. But an imagined purpose is no purpose at all.
I’ll give you a homely analogy.
When our two older kids were first learning to spell and write, they would compose strings of letters — total gibberish — and then come and ask my wife Nika or me what they had written and what did it mean. If Nika or I could pick out a few letters that made up a word, purely by chance — “cat” or “bug,” something like that — Ezra or Naomi would be thrilled.
By chance they had, seemingly, written a word. But had they really written the word or just the letters that, with intention and purpose, would have spelled the word? Without intention, you can’t honestly say that Ezra had written cat or that Naomi had written bug. They had written letters, but not a word. Prior intention is what was missing.
In a world without prior intention, the only “meaning” is ultimately chance-generated, and so, meaningless.
Yet most human beings would be depressed if not tortured by the thought of life without meaning. Ask an atheist if his life is meaningful, and he’ll probably tell you it is. He may say that he gives it meaning, bestows purpose as a choice, but yeah, sure it has meaning.
Our common-sense instinct that thinking like that is just bunk is what, I believe, underlies the choice of Boyd and Dawkins to talk so much about purpose. They seek to calm our anxiety by using a comforting word — “purpose” — but meanwhile giving it an eccentric definition distant from how most people think of it.
It’s like sprinkling an incense of meaning over a landscape of meaningless. While the incense is still in the air, it makes us feel better. When the lovely smell dissipates, we’re left alone, once again, in a lonely, random, meaningless world.