philosophy

Restoring Meaning to a Meaningless World

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The Bible describes Jesus as the Telos, the Goal, the Final Point where all lines converge. To see the point, think of that word “for.” Most of us use this three-letter preposition everyday when we want to express the teleology of something, that is, its purpose, why it is. ‘Why are there lawnmowers, daddy? What are they made for?’ ‘Well my boy, lawnmowers are for mowing lawns.’ Dad has offered Junior a teleological answer. If Junior asks, ‘What are lawnmowers made of, daddy? then dad faces a very different question, one that calls not for a teleological but a material answer, something to do with motors, wheels and steel blades.

We know more about something when we know what it’s made of and what it is made for. Both are important to knowledge-seeking. Imagine Junior again asking his dad why lawnmowers exist and Dad responds, ‘Well son, lawnmowers have plastic wheels, metallic frames, steel blades.’ ‘Hmmm. Ok, but why are there lawnmowers?’ ‘Well, once upon a time there was a simple single blade at the end of a stick called a sickle. Eventually three or four blades were twirled together around an axel with two wheels. Then came two more wheels, a metal frame, a motor, and eventually we got the lawnmowers we have today. Get it now?” Junior scratches his head. He wasn’t asking what lawnmowers have been made of through the centuries; he was after their meaning. If this goes on long enough, a lawnmower’s meaning will be buried under an ever-growing pile of knowledge about a lawnmower’s mechanics.

Ignorant of a lawnmower’s actual meaning Junior might as well make up his own. One blistering summer day, he props one up sideways in his room, fires up the motor and gets the blade whirling as a makeshift fan. A few missing fingers and a minced housecat later, the lopsided-ness of Junior’s education becomes clear. For all of his encyclopedic knowledge of lawnmower mechanics, he has become too teleologically thick-headed to realize that lawnmowers and their sharp blades were never designed for indoor cooling.

The moral of the story is that it is possible to be an expert and a blockhead about something all at the same time. In the era before the 17th century, before Galileo, Kepler and Newton, a fixation on meaning questions often left our understanding of the material world dragging woefully behind. In the era following the Scientific Revolution, we have come to understand the mechanics of the universe far greater than ever before. Yet it appears more meaningless to us than ever. We know more and more about matter but less and less about why matter matters.

The meaning void left swirling at the center of a materialist’s cosmos will be filled with something. The human heart, like nature, abhors a vacuum.

It is not as if we carried out an open-minded investigation and finally reached a scientific consensus that there is no meaning out there. No scientist’s list of material facts, no matter how long, could ever warrant a philosopher’s conclusion like cosmic meaninglessness. Rather, we presuppose meaninglessness for non-scientific reasons. We wear anti-teleology goggles into the laboratory, then look under the microscope and exclaim, “Behold, it’s meaningless!” Evolutionary biologist, Richard Lewontin, explains,

 …we have a prior commitment, a commitment to materialism. It is not that the methods and institutions of science somehow compel us to accept a material explanation of the phenomenal world, but, on the contrary, that we are forced by our a priori adherence to material causes… Moreover, that materialism is an absolute, for we cannot allow a Divine Foot in the door.

Such close-minded materialism has ushered us into a kind of teleological Dark Ages. We have become just as naïve about the meaning of the universe as the medieval alchemist was about the mechanics of the universe. But the meaning void left swirling at the center of a materialist’s cosmos will be filled with something. The human heart, like nature, abhors a vacuum.

Dr. Loyal Rue offered the American Academy for the Advancement of Science three possibilities for filling the void:

  1. Each individual can become the centerpoint of meaning for his own universe of personal fulfillment. Rue calls this “the madhouse option,” which abandons all hope for social cohesion.
  2. The State can make itself the centerpoint of meaning in an otherwise meaningless cosmos. Rue calls this “the totalitarian option” where all individuality and freedom are lost.
  3. We can say that the universe has meaning even though it doesn’t. Rue calls this “the Noble Lie,” which “deceives us, tricks us, compels us beyond self-interest.” In Rue’s bleak trilemma, either the Me destroys the We, the We destroys the Me, or the Lie saves them both, but only by destroying the Truth. (Rue himself defends option three, since “without such lies we cannot live.”)

Alex Rosenberg offers a fourth option in the concluding line of his book, The Atheist’s Guide to the Galaxy: “Take Prozac or your favorite serotonin reuptake inhibitor, and keep taking them till they kick in.”

The last time people took Jesus seriously as the Telos a Scientific Revolution happened.

So take your pick: Would you rather live in Rosenberg’s Pharmacy of chemically-induced meaning, Rue’s Church of the Noble Lie, the totalitarian’s Prison of State-imposed meaning or the relativist’s Madhouse of self-made meaning? But those are not our only options if (and it is a massively hope-filled “if”) Jesus is, in fact, the Telos. What if he really can break into our Teleological Dark Ages and cast infinite beams of meaning on everything? ‘But wouldn’t that plunge us backward into some kind of scientific Dark Age?’ some might worry. Why be so pessimistic? The last time people took Jesus seriously as the Telos a Scientific Revolution happened. If everything exists for Him, then we have all the more reason to explore what things are made of. Probing the mysteries of the natural world is no longer a matter of what Nietzsche called “staring into the void,” but of Kepler’s “thinking God’s thoughts after Him.” 

This article is adapted from REFLECT: Becoming Yourself by Mirroring the Greatest Person in History (Lexham Press, 2019) by Thaddeus Williams.

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Thaddeus Williams

Thaddeus Williams (Ph.D., Vrije Universiteit, Amsterdam) serves as associate professor of systematic theology at Biola University in La Mirada, CA. He has also taught literature at Saddleback College, jurisprudence at Trinity Law School, philosophy at L’Abri Fellowships in Switzerland and Holland, and ethics for Blackstone Legal Fellowship and the Federalist Society in Washington, DC. His books include 'Love, Freedom, and Evil: Does Authentic Love Require Free Will?' (Brill, 2011) and 'REFLECT: Becoming Yourself by Mirroring the Greatest Person in History' (Lexham, 2019). Thaddeus resides in Orange County, CA with his wife and four kids.

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