I was recently engaged in a discussion about the disappointment that some people feel when life doesn’t make any sense. In particular, my interlocutor had been explaining how she lived her life in accordance with the rules but seemed never to benefit as a result and then stated that perhaps her faith was being tested. Noting the implication of agency, I responded that things might seem that way if one saw the universe as being imbued with meaning – a particularly personalised form of meaning at that. I further explained that for me the universe doesn’t have this characteristic.
Then I was asked a question which I have to admit I struggled to answer adequately:
What is it like to live in a universe like that?
The problem is that I have to properly interpret the question, then frame the answer in such a way that a person with a totally different worldview can comprehend what I am trying to convey. As far as I am concerned, I don’t live in a different universe, and I am not ignorant of an existent meaning. Instead, there are people in my universe who are mistakenly convinced that there is a meaning to everything that happens.
I am able to empathise with this notion of events having meaning since I impose agency and structure on random events like everyone else. For example, if I see an accident on a particular intersection, I am likely to take more care at that intersection as a consequence – even if it’s not particularly dangerous. At some sort of primeval and irrational level, I expect a third bad thing to fill out a sequence of three bad things. Both these examples imply a structure in the universe that I know to not exist.
Now, I might be completely wrong on this, but I suspect that for some believers, the structure that keeps track of bad things to ensure they come in threes and which lets you see an accident in order to warn you to be a little more careful (or which adjusts the likelihood of you having an accident in line with the number of accidents you see) is their god. While I am susceptible to occasional superstitious proto-thoughts, when I put some mental effort into it I am able to clearly see the nonsense in such things.
A believer doesn’t see any nonsense when attributing apparent meaning in the universe to their god.
Now, there may be disagreement between believers as to the level of agency behind certain events. Some think that their god is behind every single decision, killing soldiers in protest of biblical infractions or using tragedies to make some esoteric point, while others see their god as being very hands-off such that events are merely consequences of a high level plan. I liken this to the effects of mundane legislation. Some may see a spike of deaths that followed the introduction of seat-belt legislation as intentional while others can see that it was an unintended consequence caused by people driving less thoughtfully, erroneously thinking that wearing a seat-belt is some sort of panacea.
So, my sort of thinking is closer to that of people who believe in a hands-off god than it is to the divinely micromanaged.
Even the hands-off believers are likely to share my point of view when it comes to things like astrology, ailuromancy, batraquomancy and kephalonomancy. They might think that a god is guiding their fortune, but not that their fate is decided by a cat.
Perhaps, therefore, the best way to explain how it is to live in a universe without an inbuilt plan is to point out that much as most people do not believe that their lives are dictated by tea-leaves, the state of animal livers, the lines on their palms (or elsewhere for that matter) and so on, I simply do not believe that there is a god performing that task. Much as there might be a plan crafted by Zeus, but it has no impact whatsoever on the average Christian, the supposed plan of the Christian god has no impact on me. I don’t think there is a plan; if there is one, I don’t know what it is – therefore I don’t need to worry about the plan not making any sense and I am not going to get disappointed when the plan runs off the rails.
That all said, even though I don’t believe that there is inherent meaning in the universe or any grand plan, this does not mean that I don’t have a meaning in my life. It’s just that any meaning I see is personal, grounded and mundane rather than being transcendent.
I choose my path, and if I am convinced to do so, I can change that path. I might follow my path because it is part of a grander personal plan, or I might follow it because following that path is my plan. The point is that the plan, such as it is, is mine.
So, what is it like to live in a universe like mine? It’s like freedom.