"Nothing"


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© 2014 Robert Osburn

The most recent edition of Intelligent Life asks the perennial big question: “Does life have a meaning?”  The story graphic features long-dead American actor Buster Keaton staring dead-faced at the pavement in front of him, lost in concentration and vainly struggling for an answer. 

Neither he nor we will find one of value here.  In one word, Scottish poet John Burnside sums up how most of the other six invited contributors also answer the question: “Nothing.”  Oh, they dress it up, but the answer is still the same.

Phillip Pullman, novelist of darkness who believes that matter is all there is (the philosophy behind this idea is called naturalism), equivocates by suggesting that consciousness (being aware and awake) is the reason for life.  Since no one knows how to make rocks bleed consciousness, he’s merely ignoring the obvious:  Matter simply cannot generate meaning by itself.

Poet Burnside expands upon the absolute finality of nothingness, which goes by the term nihilism when discussed philosophically, and brews some hope for himself.  He says that in spite of the obvious answer that there is no meaning in a Universe of pure matter, humans will construct meaning “by the power of the individual imagination.”  In philosophical terms, we may call his answer a version of existentialism; educators may term it constructivism. But, at the end of the day, the half-awake student sees through the charade and says, “Oh, professor, what you really mean is, ‘Nothing, right?’” 

With the probable exception of philosopher Mary Midgley, the other contributors offer similarly gloomy and colorless variations on “Nothing.”  Elizabeth Colbert says we simply have to “make peace with pointlessness,” Stephen Grosz says the pursuit of meaning is pointless and that the only thing we can do to get ourselves through the cold, lonely nights of philosophical naturalism is to tell stories, and Ann Wroe in four words declares “love” the answer to the question “Does life have a meaning?”   If she were willing to consider the ever-loving Triune Godhead, Wroe’s answer might be pointing in the right direction, but not if she is merely leaping around trying to avoid the cold, relentless logic of naturalism.

So, if I’m a university student looking for answers to life’s big questions, this issue of Intelligent Life (published by the inveterate weekly magazine The Economist) will leave me cold.  Sadly, I’ll have little time to explore this question in the university, as well.  Unless I take a philosophy class or engage in a serious discussion over pizza in my dorm room or attend a religious student group meeting on campus, I will find that most courses concentrate on what I call small and medium-sized questions. 

I’m not at all convinced that the answers given by Pullman, et al are the only ones on offer.  In fact, I’m quite convinced that, rather than being a disenchanted universe of pure matter, ours is a Universe whose ongoing existence and possibility owes itself to the always-infusing, ever-loving personalities of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, that is, the Godhead Three-in-One that creates, delights in, and redeems life.   Sadly, the magazine’s editors (presumably based in Great Britain) must have never read books like those of C.S. Lewis or entered conversations with professors such as John Lennox or Alistair McGrath, both at Oxford University.

As I often point out in these blogs, human beings around the age of college students (18 to 25 years old, roughly) have an intense need to make sense of reality.  That’s one reason why campus ministries flourish.  Given the kinds of answers on offer (as exemplified, I think, by this issue of Intelligent Life), it’s no wonder that students drift into soft or hard forms of nihilism, including drug use, hooking up for sexual one night stands, or various versions of aimless drifting vis-a-vis endless experiences.  Some of those who resist nihilism will take the much bolder route of joining a radical Islamic group like ISIS, or “star” in mass killings like Columbine.  Others who resist nihilism and who are seeking the truth about reality will discover that Christianity is still the most rational and philosophically-sophisticated path to discovering the meaning of life. 

Knowing that by Jesus Christ “all things were created, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities” (Colossians 1:16) is a sign of true intelligent life. 

Note: The article "France's Oedipal Islamist Complex" (found 1/8/16 on Foreign Policy online) nicely captures the nihilistic roots of French-born Islamic terrorists.