Meaning for Nerds
I thought there were a lot of strange statements (assertions, even) in this review in the New Statesman of a book by some fella named Baggini. Never mind who wrote the book in question, in fact never mind the book itself, which I haven’t read. The point is these odd statements or assertions, which kind of stand alone (which is part of the problem with them, if there is one). They’re odd because Edward Skidelsky (for it is he) doesn’t say why they’re true, why he thinks they’re true, why we should believe them, and because one can instantly think of counter-examples that make them seem quite dubious.
We may be free to give our life any meaning we choose, but this meaning is “valid” only in so far as it is recognised by others. Not for us the insouciance of Bunyan’s pilgrim, who, secure in his love of God, could afford to “care not what men say”. We care desperately what men – and women – say, because there is no longer any higher court of appeal. Failure in this world is absolute. The checkout girl is just a checkout girl, the tramp just a tramp…The terrors of hell have been replaced by the terrors of social and sexual failure.
Well, hang on. Is that true? Who says? Is it really true that if we don’t believe in a deity as a higher court of appeal, we therefore care desperately what people say? And is it really true that we care more than people did who believed (and do who believe) in that deity? Is it really true that in more unquestioningly theistic times, people did not care about social and sexual failure? I can think of a few plays, poems, novels, philosophical dialogues, essays and the like from religious periods, written by believers, that would seem to indicate people cared quite a lot about such things at the very same time as they believed in a deity. The peasant was just a peasant, the servant was just a servant – the curate was just a curate, the doctor was a mere doctor, and so on and so on. Read a single page of Austen or Fielding or Shakespeare or Chaucer or Homer and then try to claim that caring about social status is a novelty.
Remove the transcendental perspective, however, and why should anyone want to be anything other than what society deems valuable? If value is not cosmic, then it is social. The alternative to God is not a world of self-creating Nietzschean supermen, but universal conformity.
Same thing. One, is that true? Two, does history offer any evidence that it’s true? If so, what?
Even apart from the historical question, I don’t see why it should be true. Sure, I can see why social status and What People Say is one source of meaning, but I don’t see why it should be the only one apart from transcendent ones, and Skidelsky never bothers to spell it out. Another case of taking something to be self-evident that isn’t, I guess. He’s convinced of it in his own head, maybe, and doesn’t realize that we might not be, that we might require something further by way of explanation or justification in order to see what he means and possibly agree. (Of course, that may be partly because I’m deeply nerdy myself and I really don’t care What People Say,* but what of that? The world is full of deeply nerdy people. It’s possible that all people are deeply nerdy. That’s sort of a version of the Other Minds problem. We all have the same problem [that's why it's a problem], and in that sense we all are nerds, aren’t we. So why not make the most of it and accept our own self-created meanings? Eh? No reason, and to a considerable extent we do.) What of sources of meaning that are neither conformist and status-anxious nor transcendent? What of politics, various kinds of reform, art, learning, sport, adventure, travel? What of philanthropy, the built environment, nature, agriculture, astronomy, engineering, medicine? Don’t people find meaning in all those activities and others like them? Do any of them necessarily entail conformity or status-anxiety? Do not many of them indeed entail their opposites? Independent-mindedness and carelessness of self come in handy for those things, after all.
None of this would matter particularly, except that reducing the possibilities in that way is (surely) one way of trying to persuade people that religion is necessary. And a rather bogus way at that. It’s that old false dichotomy we’re always having shoved at us – without God there is no morality/no meaning/no arbiter of truth/no motivation to feel guilt/no difference between right and wrong. That’s a bad way to argue about facts, as we know, but it’s also not true.
*Yes I know, JS, just never mind, writing doesn’t count, that’s a different kind of thing. Yes it is. Is too. Is.