Meaning and Moral Matters

This is the seventh article in a new nine-part series entitled “Evidence for Agnostics.” New articles in the series will be published each Monday.

What is the meaning of life?  Or, to frame it in a more skeptical and agnostic fashion: Is there any meaning to life?  Well, regardless of the degree of your skeptical tendencies or your agnostic convictions, the meaning of life has not only ultimate implications, but immediate implications, as well.  For that is the point of meaning.  The daily practical things are how the ultimate meaning of life is made manifest: how the immediate things are informed by and fulfilled in most of life’s immediate moments.

So, this question of the meaning of life, being, existence is truly significant, not only in its ultimate importance to all of life, but simultaneously it is of immediate practical value and effect in living day-to-day.  For the ultimate meaning of life does and should touch everything we do, think or say, though much of the time this effect is implicit.

And, everyone, be they atheists or agnostics, deists or theists, religious or irreligious, must deal with the question of the meaning of life, ultimately and immediately.  And inevitably and inseparably, life’s meaning touches questions of morality, as well.  For the very idea of the ultimate meaning of life touches almost every facet and feature of our daily lives and being, our personality and our priorities, our relationships and our professions, our culture, our media, our laws and even our political persuasions and our artistic preferences. 

And, all those dimensions are manifestations of life’s ultimate purposes and meaning, as well as matters of morality and practical moral living.  And, that is how it should be, when we consider the many dimensions and aspects of life in light of our existential meaning and its many implications, most importantly its moral ones.  For meaning and morality are intimately bound together.  There is an implicit and inherent unity between meaning and morality, just as there is between our primary purposes for living and our practical living. 

For morality’s purpose and goal is “goodness.”   Morality is part of the larger purposes of life, but it is a constant practical imperative too.  For we are all manifestations of life’s purposes in our fulfillment of the ethical demands of full-bodied moral perfection.  Becoming, being and behaving as ever-improving models and embodiments of goodness, of virtue, of perfection is certainly an implicit issue of practical life and living, as much as it is a significant part of life’s meaning and purpose.   

Purpose is often worked out in practical moral matters, regardless of their scale or significance.  For that is the point and meaning of primary purposes.  They guide and inform, analyze, evaluate and judge our practical priorities and decisions, as well as our thoughts, ideas, attitudes and behavior.  That is the meaning of meaning.  It is the purpose of purpose. 

And yet, all that is inherently moral too.  So, it is a crucial component of life and living to figure out what life’s ultimate meaning is.  For that informs and affects what we do, how we think and who we are.  And, virtually all of that has a moral component, be it implicitly or explicitly, be it deliberately or incidentally.

But what does all this mean to agnostics?  Do agnostics even recognize the possibility of primary purposes, let alone the many moral implications derivative of such purposes?  Where does their doubt and their disbelief, their confusions and their convictions leave them in terms of life’s ultimate meaning and its many moral matters of practical purposeful living?  Those are crucial, but hard questions to answer, given the individuality of each and every agnostic.  

But, some universal generalities do apply for many such agnostics.  Many modern agnostics believe there really is no discernible, ultimate purpose to life.  And, not surprisingly, some of them do not see a strong connection between ultimate meaning and moral matters.  Given their doubt or their disbelief about God, this is almost predictable. 

Yet, such agnostics are often sophisticated moral analysts and scrupulously moral people, despite their convictions about God, His nature, His activity and His plan.  Despite their confusions and convictions about God and life’s ultimate meaning, they are not typically amoral sociopaths nor immoral pragmatists.  Oddly, they are often secular utopians who seek to improve themselves and the trajectory of humanity by advocating for cultural and political programs designed to improve collective human life and to assist those who struggle with the daily challenges of living. 

In these types of endeavors and convictions, the followers of God and His Church often find common cause.  For their moral convictions can and often do align with ours.  They follow the “Golden Rule” just as we do.  Though we have a philosophical and theological grounding for our moral principles and mission, whereas theirs arises from some form of utopian ideal that has no real grounding or purpose outside of this temporal life and living.  And, that difference makes all the difference. 

Or, at least it should.  Because the moral ideals they pursue in their many utopian ideas or their many practical programs of individual or collective improvement must be explained and must be a function of first order truths, as a function of moral perfections.  Otherwise, all they are left with is merely matters of personal perception and pragmatic preference.

For any such appeals to moral or philosophical ideals must be explained.  Such ideals’ very existence and its moral content require evidence for its existence.  For its gravity.  For its unity.  For its practicality and its universality.  For its certainty and sophistication.  For claims of this type require rigorous evidence, just as claims about God do. 

And, such claims must not appeal to cultural norms, nor personal preferences and proclivities.  For the justification of such moral ideals relies first on reason and commonsense, intuitive sensitivities and sophisticated, mature wisdom.  And, all that is true regardless of your belief in God.  And that is the point. 

These moral principles and the ideals for personal and social flourishing and improvement have much in common despite the nuances of personality.  Despite the methodological differences about the means for bringing about such ideals in the life of individuals or in our many relationships and collective endeavors.  For the moral ideals rest on a reality, a common experience we all seem to know to one degree or another, whether we are agnostics or Catholics.  Why, even the pagan Greek philosophers such as Plato and Aristotle knew this broad commonality of ideals, though they differed about some details.

This universal moral ideal and temporal persistence over the many centuries of human living is evidence of its very existence and substance.  And, that is no small bit of evidence, even for the more skeptical agnostic.  For just as meaning compels a moral vision consonant with its convictions, so too does morality strongly compel an abiding meaning within its many principles.  That is why the Greeks of old attributed all this to the gods. 

For they could know this within the natural lights of human reasoning and morality.  And, this natural rationality and morality inevitably leads to a form of natural theology.  A theology that reveals God’s very existence and life’s meaning and moral nature to mankind through the light of reason.  And, knowing all this, knowing His existence and His moral nature, leads inevitably to the possibility of a God who reveals Himself and the particularities of His plan to humanity.

That is why seventy Hebrew scholars were summoned to Hellenized Alexandria to translate the Hebrew Scriptures into Greek.  A document known as the Septuagint.  For there was the meeting of the natural theology of the prominent and rationally rigorous Greek philosophers with the revealed theology of the Hebrews, who followed the God who spoke to them directly.

And, all that is important to remember with agnostics.  For their moral impulses and ideals, their moral aspirations and inspirations are probably the most prominent and proximate evidence for the existence of God, once their previous predilections and their predispositions about God are breached.    

For the sum and substance of reason and science are often the most common and compelling evidence for God’s existence, once they are truly understood.  For agnostics begin with some form of scientific materialism that blinds them both to God and to the limits of the material world, as well as to the ubiquitous rational realities and rigors of an intangible order of thinking that is the true bedrock of all scientific inquiry and discovery.  For the need for evidence of God’s existence is, in fact, evidence of His existence.  For evidence is a rational imperative.           

So, with many agnostics who need “real” evidence, the very idea of right and wrong as inherent components of the human experience must be explained.  The very idea of morality, regardless of its specific content, can be a primary path to the question of God’s existence and nature, His purpose and plan, His practical moral plan for humanity. 

The existence and nature of God is the only way to truly know and prove the profundities and realities of love in all its beautiful forms, manifestations and rigors.  For, as we all know, love is truly and consummately meaningful and purposeful.  And, love is truly the consummate moral principle and practical ideal of life and living.

But, within the biochemical explanation of scientific materialism, love is reduced to neural activity and sensation, just as all morality is.  This materialism precludes the experience and content of love, just as it does with reason, logic and rationality.

So, for agnostics their deliberate or tacit scientific materialism denies all intangible experience and content.  They lose the essence and substance of reason and love, meaning and morality.  And, that is the death of all our noble virtues, all our rational and scientific prowess, all our humanity and all of the blessings and ideals of love in all its many forms. 

With all these many and profound losses, agnosticism and agnostics are left only with the matter and energy of the physical world.  And as an inevitable and inescapable conclusion, they lose even the science they so value.  “For if all we are is biochemistry, we have no way of (ever) knowing that all we are is biochemistry” – a reductio ad absurdum.  

So, agnosticism is really just an absurdity.  An inevitable absurdity arising from their doubt and their faulty presuppositions about science and their unexamined foundations in scientific materialism.  And, it is just that certain.  Just that clear.  Just that compelling.  And, just that surprising, particularly to the modern mind and all its hollow confidence.   

Photo by Noah Negishi on Unsplash

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Mr. Cronin has studied on a graduate level in education at Harvard University and at the University of Connecticut, in leadership at Columbia University and in theology at Regent University and Holy Apostles College and Seminary. He also writes regularly for The National Catholic Register and appeared on EWTN’s The Journey Home with Marcus Grodi following his 2007 reversion to the Catholic faith from atheism and evangelical Protestantism.

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