Friday, November 2, 2018

Meaning and the Broken Myth: Maintaining a Sense of Value and Purpose During a Faith Transition

(This paper was also presented at the 2016 MTA Conference, April 9th, 2016)
Traditionally, Religion was the vehicle that provided both a sense of truth, and a sense of meaning for mankind.


Hugh W. Nibley, the brilliant Mormon apologist liked to talk about what he called the “Terrible Questions”, namely:

-Who am I?
-Why am I here?
-Where am I going?

He proposed that without answers to these questions, life was essentially barren and meaningless. The brilliance of Mormonism, he said, was in providing answers to these very questions, answers that he thought could be attained in no other way.

Joseph Campbell famously thought that the myths of religion provided the vehicles whereby the psychological principles for how to live a good life could be conveyed. And, he thought that this could best be done when the myths are no longer seen as historical or literal realities, but are seen more like dreams, with symbolic and psychological import.

However, the literal interpretation of these myths can also be a powerful vehicle for finding a sense of truth and meaning in life. For example, the belief in a literal creator can cause us to believe that the world was created for a purpose, and thus, meaningful. Belief in a literal life after death and an eventual resurrection can also give people a sense of meaning and value by convincing us that this life, with its failures and imperfections, is not all there is. 


I grew up a member of the LDS Church (the Mormons). They are very good at using these ideas to generate a sense of meaning and purpose. A literal and fundamentalist belief in the LDS Church’s teachings seems to provide a set of answers to Nibley’s terrible questions

-Who am I?
A Child of God, heir of divinity.
-Why am I here?
To get a body, to be tried and tested, to see if I am worthy of becoming like our Eternal Father.
-Where am I going?
Into an Eternal Life of eternal progression, to live with our heterosexual cis gendered patriarchal families forever, and to grow to become a God, like God our Father, then to give this same opportunity for eternal progression to our own children, for eternity.
Modern psychological research has taught us just how important this sense of meaning and purpose really is for both our physical and mental health. Without it, people tend to suffer from lethargy, depression, disconnection, and sometimes suicide.

All indications are that we are living through a time when many members of the LDS are beginning to question the literal narrative that they have been taught. What happens to people who have based their sense of value, meaning, and purpose on a myth that they now begin to doubt? The results can be traumatic, and utterly devastating.

During my own faith transition, I reached out to a wide community of x-Mormons, hoping for help and solace. What I saw in their lives demonstrated just how devastating the loss of a fundamentalist religious faith could be. It seems that the more immersive and essential was the initial religious experience, the more severe the negative reaction can be when that faith is lost. While some few came out the other side of their faith transition in a much better state, almost all of them at first found themselves crushed by anger, depression, and even despair. Life suddenly seemed harsh, and often even absurd. Nearly all faced a crisis of “existential angst.”

My goal today isn’t to tell people what they have to believe about the truth claims of Mormonism, but to try and help people to establish a sense of purpose and meaning that can survive a faith transition if one should come, or to re-establish a healthy sense of purpose and meaning after a faith transition if you have already had one. Hopefully, what I say will be relevant whether or not you believe in the literal truth of the LDS Church’s teachings.

As someone interested in artificial intelligence, I have spent a certain amount of time contemplating how to mathematically formalize the concepts of truth, meaning, and purpose in order to impart them to an AI. I have found that such formalizations have enriched my own sense of truth, meaning, and purpose. I hope it won’t be too technical to share my thoughts from that mathematical perspective. 



Let me start with a formalization of the concept of truth.

You can think of the entire universe as a large state space, S, representing the quantum information fully describing each particle in the universe. There is also a transition function, T, that dictates how these particles will evolve into the future. You can think of the state space as the arrangement of matter in the universe, and you can think of the transition function as the laws of physics that dictate how that arrangement will evolve over time.

If we treat this transition function and state space as unobserved random variables, then we can use the laws of probability and statistics (which we sometimes call science) to infer how things were in the past (history), how things are now (reality), and how things will be in the future (prediction).

And that means that truth is, indeed, a knowledge of things as they really are, as they really were, and as they really will be. And it means that statistics and the scientific method is the best tool for determining truth. So while that quest for truth may be difficult, it seems to me that this element of the existential problem is comparatively simple.

But what of meaning and purpose? You will notice that in the above equations, there is no place for meaning or for purpose. Nor is there any mechanism for preferring any one possible state over another. With this formalization alone, a state where mankind flourishes is just one more state the universe might be in, while the state where mankind is exterminated is also just one more potential state, neither any more preferable than the other! Meaning, purpose, and value are so far nonexistent.



The philosopher David Hume noticed this problem long ago. He expressed it as follows: “You cannot determine ought from is”. What is doesn’t tell you what ought to be. It only tells you what is. In order to find meaning in life, in order to determine “ought” from “is”, we need some other assumption, another axiom, beyond simply the truth. 

One possibility for this additional axiom is to turn to God, and to appropriate His purpose and desires as our own. This approach proposes that “ought” exists outside of what is, because ought involves God’s sovereign will. God created the world for a purpose, therefore, the purpose of life is the purpose for which God created the world.

But if this is our source for meaning, then what happens if we begin to doubt? Perhaps even to doubt the existence of the creator? Whether or not you believe in God, it’s worth considering whether there really is any less potential for truth and meaning without the belief in God.

Again, I want to turn to an analogy from my work in Artificial Intelligence.



As part of my Master’s thesis in Reinforcement Learning Artificial Intelligence, I created an artificial world, this simple grid world, and I placed an artificially intelligent agent inside that world that my wife affectionately called my DOT. I had a purpose in this creation, I wanted to study which algorithms for transferring information from one type of problem to another would function best. From my DOT’s perspective, there was a God (me), one who had created the world for a purpose. This is the simulation hypothesis, and the creation principle of Lincoln’s New God Argument in action!

But does the existence of a creator solve the “ought from is” problem for my DOT? The answer is surprisingly no! My goals differed from those of my DOT, whose purpose and goal was to maximize its own reward structure, not to answer my meta questions about machine learning algorithms. And consider, if there wasn’t ALREADY a way for me to have purpose, then I couldn’t transfer purpose and meaning to my DOT, even if our goals had been more aligned.

If there is a creator, then it may be wise for us to align our sense of meaning and purposes with that of the creators. However, for that meaning to transfer to created beings, there has to be a way for meaning and purpose to already exist within the mind of the creator. Therefore, the existence of a creator does not produce meaning and purpose for created beings in and of itself, and it never did! Something else is needed.

But what?

Some derive a sense of meaning and purpose from their belief in life after death and eternal life.

When I was a believer, I gave the Mormon funeral sermons for both my mother and for my maternal grandmother. Back then I said that without eternal life, seeking pleasure in this life is ultimately meaningless because the memories of our temporary pleasures will fade, and our joys will all end at death. I said that even helping others cannot provide meaning without a belief in eternal life, because those others we help will also die, and eventually our influence will fade away into nothingness. A bleak thought indeed! Without eternal life, I argued, life was ultimately meaningless.

Somewhat ironically, I had already begun to lose my faith when I spoke those words at my mother’s funeral. And it is easy to imagine the depths of sadness and heartache caused by this simultaneous loss of life, love, and faith!

But is it true that life must last forever before life can be meaningful?

Simple reflection indicates the error in what I said then. If our lives are not already of value, then tacking “eternal” onto our lives does not create meaning out of nothing, it only creates an eternity of meaninglessness. It is also not true that marriages have no value if they aren’t “eternal”. An bad eternal marriage is hell. A good temporary relationship is bliss, even if it eventually ends. Love is of value in the moment, even if that love lasts no more than a moment.

Yet again, we find that something else beyond “eternal” is needed to create value..

And it always was!

Apparently, while fundamentalist religion seemed to provide the missing ingredient needed to produce meaning, in reality, it simply pushed the ultimate need for something else down a meta level.

Concepts of meaning have always been explored in myths. Near the end of one modern myth, (Marvel's Avengers, the Age of Ultron), Vision and Ultron briefly debate existential philosophy before predictably trying to kill each other. Their interaction illustrates some of what I have been saying.



Vision: You’re afraid.
Ultron: Of you?
Vision: Of Death. You’re the last one.
Ultron: You were supposed to be the last. Stark asked for a savior, and settled for a slave.
Vision: I suppose we are both disappointments.
Ultron: I suppose we are.
Vision: Humans are odd. They think order and chaos are somehow opposites, and try to control what won’t be. But there is grace in their failings. I think you missed that.
Ultron: They’re doomed.
Vision: Yes. But a thing isn’t beautiful because it lasts. It’s a privilege to be among them.
Ultron: You’re unbearably naive.
Vision: Well, I was born yesterday.

Notice that Vision speaks of the fear of death. Also notice the very subtle reference to purpose in life. Vision and Ultron were both created to be saviors. Is Vision really a slave because he chooses to serve that purpose? Or is there value and meaning in his choice to fill the purpose for which he was created? Vision says he finds meaning and purpose not through what is, or what won’t be (what I called “truth” earlier), but through more subtle characteristics such as “grace”, “beauty”, and “privilege.” And it is because of these things that he chooses to enact the purposes for which he was created.

Notice also his explicit rejection of the philosophy that meaning and value comes from permanence: “A thing is not beautiful because it lasts.” A thing is beautiful simply because we find it so. My mother’s life, and my relationship with her, was beautiful, regardless of whether or not it will continue after death.
I believe that the transhumanist quest for life extension is of value. But it is only of value because life itself, in this very moment, is already of supreme value.



The so called Mormon “Plan of Happiness” is only of value because we already desire happiness. Eternal life, the resurrection, becoming like God, living together forever with our families, are all things that provide meaning for Mormons, because those are things that we, as humans, desire to make us happy. As the Book of Mormon itself says: “Men are that they might have joy.”

It is my belief that this is the actual axiom under which the Mormon plan of happiness determines ought from is, and thereby establishes a sense of purpose and meaning for Mormons.

Today, I argue that if this desire for joy could provide meaning before a faith transition (as it did for so many of us), then it can also provide it after! That means that there is no less potential for a meaningful life now than there was then!
What is needed is something more than what "is". From the outside of our minds, all states are equally desirable, because there is no desire at all.

But from the inside of the subjective experiences of conscious creatures, all states are not equal. Our own desires provide a value function, a “utility” function, that pulls an “ought” out of the sea of that which “is”. 



I believe that if we are to find an ultimate source for meaning, it will be found somewhere within our various subjective experiences. Subjective experience and human desires provide the solution to Hume’s dilemma. But because we may all have slightly different subjective experiences, we may come to slightly different mechanisms for establishing meaning and purpose in our lives.

Ultimately, that means that I can’t tell you exactly how you can find meaning in your life. However, as Richard Feynman famously said: “I would rather have questions that cannot be answered, than answers that cannot be questioned”.

As I have said before, I no longer know for certain if there is a God. I have spoken here before about the transhumanist reasons why I think that there may well be. However, I no longer find meaning in my life to be directly connected to that belief. Meaning is something that I derive from living my life in a way that leads to humanities internal desires and preferences.

And while I cannot claim to have the final answers to the meaning of life, I can share with you a few of the things that I have found to provide my own life with meaning.

For example, take a moment to really feel your weight upon the char, to really listen to the sounds that surround us, to truly see the colors in the windows behind me! The miracle of consciousness is perhaps the least understood aspect of reality. And it is a miracle. I believe that there is sublime value and beauty in this very moment, despite (and perhaps even because of) its intrinsic impermanence.

As human beings, we all share some common preferences. For example, we all desire things like safety, security, pleasure, love, relationships, connections, compassion, joy, ecological sustainability, and social justice. Many of us will find meaning and value in striving to build a world that better matches those preferences. And we can find that meaning in the struggle, despite the imperfection and even pain that we encounter in the world around us. It comes from the struggle to make the world better, and to compassionately remove as much of that pain from others as we can. Far from inevitably producing despair, noticing these failings in the world can light within us a burning fire of purpose and motivation.

Finally, I am a finite being, but in forging deep and abiding relationships with the difference of the other, I feel like I touch the divine, connecting myself to something larger and more beautiful than myself. Loving others is thus the greatest of the sources of meaning that exist in my life.

The Buddha is said to have taught that if there is a life after death, then we can most likely attain a good rebirth by living a good and compassionate life here and now. However, if there is no life after death, then by living a good and compassionate life here and now, we would gain the advantages and joys that come from a life well lived.

There is peace, purpose, meaning, and yes, joy to be found, even after a loss of faith. I sincerely hope that I can play some small role in helping people to find it.

3 comments:

the Garden Mom said...

Thanks for this.
Very helpful.

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Unknown said...

James, This is James. You began calling it "faith transition" and then in the last sentence called it "loss of faith." It almost takes away the whole meaning of the piece. Despite all the limited knowledge about the nature of consciousness, I think we need not forget that "doubt" is still a form of belief. Doubt is the belief (hedge or wager) that a particular suggestion is untrue; where as faith could be a belief that the suggestion is true. Is this not just a matter of perspective? Somebody once told me, "we are capable of believing things which we know to be uncertain, and when proven wrong, capable of manipulating fact so as to show we are right." That might have even been you that taught me that, but I think you borrowed it from somebody else. How about that as an example of faith- being a teacher.