Albert Camus famously suggested that suicide is the central question of philosophy. We discussed this in the post Is Life Worth Living? There is no God, Camus believed, so there is no meaning to life. We are to live, according to Camus, acknowledging this fact, but finding a reason to live nonetheless.
Is life worth living?
Atheists and Meaning
A committed atheist is going to have a hard time with the question, if he’s honest. Most likely, meaning for life will be ascribed to things like the opportunity to discover more about the cosmos, and the world, and life. Or, to making the world a better place.
The first response–the thrill of discovery–relates to the “how” of the universe, rather than the “why.” It skirts the question of meaning. It avoids questions like: What is the point of discovery, if life ends in oblivion? Curiosity about facts of physical reality is good and proper, but meaning for our lives cannot be derived from our wonder at explanations for physical things, or amazement at what we observe. Meaning and purpose for our lives cannot be derived solely from having a better understanding of the mechanics of our environment.
The second response also skirts the question of meaning. Why make the world a better place? A better place for what? If human life is only a result of unguided physical processes, then the only purpose is survival, of ourselves and our progeny (and even that impetus is never explained). Survival is the purpose, in that case; not doing good. Doing good just points us back to survival. If we say the only purpose of life is to do good, we’re really only saying that the purpose of life is to continue living.
That is, by the way, undistilled existentialism. Meaning is not boostrapped from mere existence. We don’t say that a human has meaning because he exists. In fact, our instinct is that he exists because he has meaning.
Some atheists honestly accept the meaninglessness of life, and its resulting absurdity, as did Camus. They may then go on to erect philosophies to attempt to accommodate that meaninglessness. Again, as did Camus. But others shroud the question of meaning in ways to remove the question from view, as commented on in the post Is Life Worth Living.
Agnostics and Meaning
For many theists and atheists, prolonged agnosticism is a puzzlement. It would seem to be only a stepping stone along the path to understanding reality. It seems odd to stop short in the inquiry; to shrug the shoulders and ask “who knows?” How is it possible to not form a belief on this question? How does one rationally give up the effort?
Here’s one possible answer. Suppose I am disinclined to accept theism. Perhaps because religious people are weird or offensive; perhaps because I’m too sophisticated for “magical thinking;” perhaps because I can’t abide a challenge to my personal sovereignty. Now suppose further that I am similarly disinclined toward atheism. Perhaps because I recognize that it denotes meaninglessness, and therefore begs the question whether life is worth living. I might not want to “go there.”
Where does that leave me? I can’t really avoid that the atheism/theism question is binary. There are only the two possibilities for ultimate reality, by definition. So, I might be tempted to avoid the whole question. I might just say “I don’t know.” I would throw up my hands and call myself “agnostic.” I might go further, and say that the whole question is so hard that the answer is unknowable. That would help seal off the question from further inquiry, insulating me in my position of perennial agnosticism.
The problem with this position is that it is no position at all. If atheism is true, then theism is not. If theism is true, then atheism is not. There is no third alternative in reality. There is no in-between space. That in-between space we imagine to exist is not based in reality. Instead, it is based only in what we avoid thinking about reality. To continue in this belief is necessarily an evasion of the most important question there is. Perhaps a self-styled agnostic would persist in it because he mistakenly believes he is neutral, but he claims neutrality in response to a question for which there is no neutral answer.