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Wednesday depends on us.

1 Post author: byrnema 29 April 2009 03:47AM

In response to Theism, Wednesday, and Not Being Adopted

It is a theist cliché: you need religion to define morality. The argument doesn't have to be as simplistic as “you need God to impose it”, but at the least it is the belief that your community needs to agree on what is ethical. When a community starts talking about what is ethical, they quickly depart from anything strictly fact-based. As a community, they need to figure out what the morality is (e.g., love your neighbor), construct a narrative using symbols that make sense to everyone (there’s this external entity God, someone like your father, who wants it this way) and enforce it (if you don’t go along, you go to Hell.) This is probably 40% of what religion is.

While the development of a religion is a community effort to some extent (communities choose among competing religions and religions evolve), the main work is done by the priests. The priest is usually an exceptionally good thinker/reasoner/philosopher – maybe 4-7 3-5 standard deviations from the mean. [Correction]

There are a few things that are very confusing to Wednesday when you try to convert her. First of all, she understands on at least a subconscious level that religion is her community’s ethical system. When you say you don’t believe in God, she thinks you’re saying, ‘it’s OK to torture babies’. What’s scary is that she’s somewhat justified here: without an externally applied ethical belief system, individual ethics can vary widely from what she accepts as ethical (and what you accept as ethical).

 If morality is something that humanity protects, can we blame Wednesday for that?

Fortunately, Eliezer assures us: Anyone worried that reductionism drains the meaning from existence can stop worrying.

This brings us to the second problem for Wednesday. While I believe Eliezer about rationality not denying morality and meaning, I believe him in the same way Wednesday believes her priest: because he’s been right before and I figure I probably have something to learn.

 Rational arguments sound just as good to Wednesday as her Bishop’s theological arguments. What is she to do? Wednesday’s priest has warned her of this with some well-chosen examples appropriate for her level of sophistication and he explains: when you get confused, just trust your intuition: Is it really OK to torture babies?

I think the average person needs some help to defend from wanton intellectual argument. Here's the handy heuristic: Choose to preserve a meta-truth (i.e., the truth you are committed to protect) over a fact-based truth that has proven, again and again, to not be reliable when you factor in that you're not a great thinker and thus can be easily mislead by “facts”.

 On some level Wednesday is aware her religion contradicts facts (God is a mystery, etc) but she is comfortable with the idea that there may be a hierarchy of truths: truths about whether it is OK to torture babies is more important to her than knowing how many years old the Earth is.

Don’t you agree with Wednesday? If Eliezer had not already ascertained that there’s still morality after rationality, would you be willing to go there? I wouldn’t, personally. (If that makes me irrational, that is also what makes me human. Typical sci fi theme – but science fiction, like religion, has many symbols that ring true tones.) 

But among two presented belief systems, an intellectually unsophisticated Wednesday is just choosing the belief system that has falseness AND “meaningful” truth over a belief system that (certainly, historically) has no falseness (in theory) BUT no meaningful truth. So you should accept Wednesday as rational: she values the value of truth, which is better than valuing valueless truth at whatever cost.

 Maybe you’re surprised (or skeptical) that Wednesday values truth. But I’m not. I have evidence that valuing truth is a pretty universal human quality. Alas, often second to valuing security and power … But still: another reason to accept Wednesday. She is typical humanity. Some of you have a lot of anger towards religion, with good reason, but it would be a mistake to define ourselves antagonistically against 99.99% of humanity. Even if we are right and they’re wrong, whose side are we on?

 I think we’re on their side. Religion – defined now as the set of ways the community defines our relationship with each other and with the world – is supposed to evolve with our understanding of those relationships. Wednesday is stuck in a religion and a moral code that hasn’t really changed in 2000 years! (35% true, but point left for dramatic effect) She depends upon us to figure out how to draft a new belief system based on science that is also human: an ethical science. Don’t leave her with the choice of having to choose between either rejecting science or rejecting the meaning and value of being human.

 Instead of complaining about how idiotic humanity is, we have some work to do:

 (1)            decide whether meaning exists, if it important, and if it can be brought into a scientific view of the world without making stuff up

(2)            develop a scientific view of the world that accommodates the meta-truth, if it exists

(3)            explain it to Wednesday in a way that makes sense to her (symbols and analogies are OK, but they must be honest ones)    

I think we should debate about whether meaning exists, whether a scientific view of the world accommodates meaning, and whether it is our responsibility to help Wednesday. But if yes to all three, we should define ourselves in service to her, and bring her along.

 

Comments (37)

Comment author: AlanCrowe 29 April 2009 04:12:50PM *  12 points [-]

There is something wierd happening in the realtionship between God and the various mad old books. It looks at first as though Deism is harmless and it is the mad old books that stir up trouble in the real world. A second look reveals a strange one-way linkage.

People believe in God and a particular mad old book. Problems with the book do not discredit their belief in God, he is above the details, and yet somehow belief in God works as a powerful endorsement of the the chosen mad old book.

I've written elsewhere that

"Belief in God" is a social word game. The way it goes is this: A young man grows up in a faith community and starts to doubt. The elders crystalise his discontent around the issue of "belief in God". They do this because they know they can win. They win by watering down the concept of God to an unmoved prime mover who takes credit for the good things in life and blames others for the bad. The young man cannot explain the origin of the universe and does not wish to deny the good things in life, so he caves.

Then he rejoins his faith community, accepting all the particular details of his religion, even though they were never justified. He has been distracted from the crappy, disorganised, distinctively man-made nature of religion, and worn down in a labyrinth of abtruse philosohpical speculation.

The choice is not believe versus disbelieve. It is play or don't play.

Well, maybe. The point to which I keep returning is that intellectually it is easy to see that the vague generic God of philosophical debates about the existence of God has no creed, no book, no prophet. If one concedes His existence because of upbringing and social pressure, then that concession is, in theory, a very small one.

How large can the gap between theory and practise be? Huge! For a great many persons God and the Bible or God and the Koran are a package deal. It doesn't make sense logically, but the emotional ties that bind up the package are strong.

What would it be like to drive a wedge into the crack between God and the mad old books? That is: what kind of rhetoric would help persons feel that the vague God of philosophy endorses no mad old book. Thinking it without feeling it doesn't seem to give humans any protection against social pressures.

In my efforts to follow through on this idea I wrote a very strange web page. What though is so strange about it? I think that most of the weirdness lies in the total rejection of the link between God and mad old books, and I think this is telling us something about the distorting lenses through which we all see the world. We live immersed in the linkage between Gods and mad old books. There is a huge gap between the vague God of philosphy and the mad old books, but no-one, theist or atheist sees it.

Look at what we do to protect our biology books from certain Christians and protect our towers from certain Muslims. It is not our A-mad-old-book-ism that is aroused, but our A-theism. Why? It was not Deism that caused the trouble. It is specific to the mad old books. If they went, the sanity water level would be high enough to float all boats and God would be no more troubling than the SCA.

How have we been seduced into accepting the God/mad-old-book link as unbreakable and forced into fighting the vague God of philosophy when all we want of others is that they stop taking mad old books so seriously that they lose their reason?

Comment author: Alicorn 29 April 2009 04:21:48PM *  6 points [-]

Beautifully put. On more than one occasion I have wondered why people who have crises of religious faith, and then fall on the side of theism again, seem to fall on the side of whatever sort of theism they are already used to, instead of suddenly endorsing an obscure African tribal religion or affiliating with a Spinoza-esque idea of God or something else.

Comment author: thomblake 29 April 2009 05:29:35PM 1 point [-]

This isn't so strange - there are 'secular churches' popping up, where all of christianity is taken symbolically, and you'll actually hear the preachers say things like "Well of course I don't mean anything supernatural happened". Climbing the same hill from the opposite side.

Comment author: mattnewport 29 April 2009 06:37:18PM *  0 points [-]

There is a huge gap between the vague God of philosphy and the mad old books, but no-one, theist or atheist sees it.

Saying no-one sees it is a bit of a leap. It's an argument I've often made when people resort to the god of the gaps type arguments - the god they're describing is not the god of their professed religion. I've seen the argument in other places as well - theists often claim Einstein as supporting their position which is a gross misrepresentation since what Einstein meant by 'god' was nothing like the god of any major religion. A number of prominent atheists have pointed that out.

Otherwise I agree with everything you say.

Comment author: Cyan 29 April 2009 05:29:12PM *  0 points [-]

I love your very strange web page. I wish the internet had a wikipedia-style "what links here" button to see what connections exist to it.

Comment author: mattnewport 29 April 2009 07:09:40AM 6 points [-]

The priest is usually an exceptionally good thinker/reasoner/philosopher – maybe 4-7 standard deviations from the mean.

That's a fairly bold claim to make - you're saying that a priest is somewhere between a 1 in 15,000 and 1 in 400 billion thinker/reasoner/philosopher. My feeling is that that 4 standard deviations from the mean is an upper bound on how good a thinker/reasoner/philosopher you could be in the modern world and still be a priest.

Comment author: Vladimir_Nesov 29 April 2009 06:34:57AM *  8 points [-]

This brings us to the second problem for Wednesday. While I believe Eliezer about rationality not denying morality and meaning, I believe him in the same way Wednesday believes her priest: because he’s been right before and I figure I probably have something to learn.

That's something you should work on. Understand the material for yourself, don't just accept the conclusion without getting why it's so.

Comment author: Bongo 29 April 2009 12:44:27PM 3 points [-]

Reading Overcoming Bias has messed with my head to such a degree that I can't even understand anymore what people mean when they ask about the meaning of life. I can't imagine the feeling that would give rise to such a question. Worrying?

Comment author: ciphergoth 29 April 2009 12:48:03PM 4 points [-]

I think it's pretty straightforward: when you turn up at a workplace, or at school, you can ask what the plan is and what your part in it is. People would like to feel that there could be a top-level answer to this class of question that would put all of life in the context of an overall plan of some sort. Of course, there is no such plan. This is to my mind the central revelation of atheism and the one that most makes me evangelistic about it.

Comment author: Vladimir_Nesov 29 April 2009 01:55:28PM 1 point [-]

On the contrary, there is such a plan, it's just not assigned to you externally by a light in the sky. Technically understanding the meaning of life, that is what specifically "winning" is about, your own values or goals, is one of the central questions, along with developing skills for carrying that plan out.

Comment author: Vladimir_Nesov 29 April 2009 07:13:00AM *  3 points [-]

The priest is usually an exceptionally good thinker/reasoner/philosopher – maybe 4-7 standard deviations from the mean.

I hope you are not talking about normal distribution, because for it, 7 standard deviations means about 1 in 10^12, that is, 1 in 1,000,000,000,000, far too much for the humanity to date.

Comment author: Peter_de_Blanc 29 April 2009 11:11:57AM 1 point [-]

I've heard (in conversation) that distributions of human abilities (such as IQ) have fat tails compared to normal distributions, so +7 SD would be more common than 1 in 10^12. I haven't found a good reference for this yet... if anyone else has one I'd like to see it.

Comment author: steven0461 29 April 2009 05:25:03PM *  1 point [-]

Not an answer to your question, but according to this, at most about 1 in 200 people are at least at +7 SD if the distribution is unimodal and symmetric (unimodal for the theorem to apply, symmetric so you can divide by 2). 200 seems like a uselessly low number, so I'm now regretting having pointed people at that theorem previously. :-)

ETA: though, even the useless 1 in 200 bound seems like an unrealistically high level of reasoning ability for priests.

Comment author: Vladimir_Nesov 29 April 2009 12:07:14PM *  1 point [-]

I thought of that, but decided that the OP wasn't taking it into account, and so the error was worth pointing out (which turned out to be correct). On the other hand, I don't see how one can establish a linear scale of ability. IQ measure, for example, is often defined based on calibration in a form "1 in X", and then giving, say, 16 points above/below 100 for each standard deviation to the area in normal distribution weighting 1/X. This also allows to cross-check IQ tests with other g-factor tests, competitions, etc.

Comment author: byrnema 29 April 2009 08:05:48AM *  1 point [-]

Since I like Wikipedia, I probably looked at that exact table (showing percentages of values within one to 7 standard deviations) and thought, "the last 4 look good" (4-7 standard deviations) without actually counting the number of 9s after the decimal. While that describes my relationship with accuracy pretty well, I should have been more careful before posting. I did want to account for the fact that the best philosopher/priest figure in history (perhaps Aristotle, Jesus or Muhammad) would have a lasting influence on religion. Yet only about 100 billion humans have ever been born -- not that I remotely knew that.

Comment author: Jack 29 April 2009 10:38:50AM *  2 points [-]

Aristotle, Jesus or Muhammad...

One of these people invented empirical science and formal logic and was, for the purposes of his own time, an atheist and materialist (in comparison to just about everyone else). The other two heard voices and started cults.

I suppose this is trivial but lets try to have pride in past rationalists who fought the good fight before it was popular. We need heroes for rationalist children and philosophers and scientists are all we got. (Not uncritical pride mind you, Aristotle was wrong about a great deal).

Comment author: MrHen 29 April 2009 04:01:26AM 3 points [-]

First of all, she understands on at least a subconscious level that religion is her community’s ethical system. When you say you don’t believe in God, she thinks you’re saying, ‘it’s OK to torture babies’.

I could be a random exception, but I never made the jump from someone saying God did not exist to them saying baby torture was okay. I understand the whole amorality thing from the religious perspective, but the jump is not a necessary one. If Wednesday, or humanity, jumps to this conclusion, she is at fault.

I suppose it could also have been my particular brand of religious upbringing.

Comment author: AdeleneDawner 29 April 2009 06:55:23AM 1 point [-]

I personally knew someone who has done that, so the example's not completely off the mark. He wasn't Mormon, and he posited pedophilia rather than torture, but he was pretty persistent about it.

I suspect most theists aren't so obnoxious as to actually say that kind of thing, whether they think it or not, so it's hard to guesstimate frequency, but it's not un-heard of.

Comment author: MrHen 29 April 2009 01:05:53PM 1 point [-]

I suspect most theists aren't so obnoxious as to actually say that kind of thing, whether they think it or not, so it's hard to guesstimate frequency, but it's not un-heard of.

I agree completely. I know there are some that act this way (I knew them) but I still say that the jump is a foolish and irrational one. The argument is that is appealing to someone's sense of morality by arguing that "if God was not true than this evil, horrible, thing is not evil or horrible." But, if by their own words, their morality comes from God and God alone, than their gut reaction is evidence that something is amiss. Their intuition is clashing with the nasty evil, not God's laws.

  1. If God is the root of morality...
  2. ... but when you imagine no God you see all sorts of evil prevail
  3. Then God is not the root of morality...
  4. ... or the evil is no longer evil and your predictor is broken

The argument tries to have its cake and eat it, too. Because of this, I do not consider this statement from the original post to be correct:

What if I said this: "If God was not true than skipping communion would be okay." Would anyone complain? No, because that particular rule is one directly attached to God. Eating babies is probably not. If I took the average theist and poofed away all belief in God, they would probably still think eating babies is wrong. They would have no idea why, but they would still think it is wrong.

When you say you don’t believe in God, she thinks you’re saying, ‘it’s OK to torture babies’. What’s scary is that she’s somewhat justified here: without an externally applied ethical belief system, individual ethics can vary widely from what she accepts as ethical (and what you accept as ethical).

Widely varying does not imply "think of a nasty did and say it is okay." The appropriate question would be "If God does not exist, from where does morality stem? I cannot imagine myself condoning these nasty evil things." If none of the responses seem correct, then I would be more sympathetic toward Wednesday's response. It is the jump straight to this conclusion that I find disapproving.

Comment author: byrnema 29 April 2009 03:19:17PM *  2 points [-]

I'm not sure you (a) disapprove of the theists that jump to this conclusion, or (b) if you disapprove of my post claiming that theists do this, or if (c) you are disapproving of my rhetorical technique of using a very extreme example about torturing babies.

If (a): Agreed. Many theists educated on this topic (for example, those that have taken an ethics course) agree that morality does not depend on God.

If (b): It is a very common theist objection to atheism, possibly the most common one.

For example, the first two paragraphs pasted from here:

Although Plato demonstrated the logical independence of God and morality over 2,000 years ago in the Euthyphro, the belief that morality requires God remains a widely held moral maxim. In particular, it serves as the basic assumption of the Christian fundamentalist's social theory. Fundamentalists claim that all of society's ills - everything from AIDS to out-of-wedlock pregnancies - are the result of a breakdown in morality and that this breakdown is due to a decline in the belief of God. Although many fundamentalists trace the beginning of this decline to the publication of Charles Darwin's The Origin of Species in 1859, others trace it to the Supreme Court's 1963 decision banning prayer in the classroom. In an attempt to neutralize these purported sources of moral decay, fundamentalists across America are seeking to restore belief in God by promoting the teaching of creationism and school prayer.

The belief that morality requires God is not limited to theists, however. Many atheists subscribe to it as well. The existentialist Jean-Paul Sartre, for example, says that "If God is dead, everything is permitted." In other words, if there is no supreme being to lay down the moral law, each individual is free to do as he or she pleases. Without a divine lawgiver, there can be no universal moral law.

The view that God creates the moral law is often called the "Divine Command Theory of Ethics." According to this view, what makes an action right is that God wills it to be done. That an agnostic should find this theory suspect is obvious, for, if one doesn't believe in God or if one is unsure which God is the true God, being told that one must do as God commands will not help one solve any moral dilemmas. What is not so obvious is that theists should find this theory suspect, too, for it is inconsistent with a belief in God. The upshot is that both the fundamentalists and the existentialists are mistaken about what morality requires.

If (c), I don’t mind the criticism, I will weight the probability that it was an ineffective rhetorical technique. It was my intention to overstate the case – obviously theists aren’t worried that atheists are literally torturing babies or that they themselves would do that if they converted. It’s an extreme example just to explain how theists equivocate a challenge of their faith with a challenge of morality itself, because they imagine their faith explains morality. I used this technique because I wouldn’t have been very good at a precise description – thus signaling that my tone and approach is somewhat flippant/rough. Further, signaling that Wednesday is an extreme, hypothetical example, because I would get in trouble if I tried to say anything general about all theists.

Comment author: thomblake 29 April 2009 04:15:02PM 1 point [-]

I don't think you're doing justice to Sartre. He was pointing out exactly what you did - that most theists seem to believe in divine command theory, and so we should expect some sort of moral crisis if common people stop believing in God.

Comment author: MrHen 29 April 2009 05:57:14PM 0 points [-]

By the way, I like how you split the responses up. I think it helps solve any confusions.

(a) I am saying this and we agree, so cool.

(b) I agree that people do use this. I also understand the reason they do so (having used it myself at one point in my life).

(c) Specifically, this part of your post is what I disagree with:

When you say you don’t believe in God, she thinks you’re saying, ‘it’s OK to torture babies’. What’s scary is that she’s somewhat justified here: without an externally applied ethical belief system, individual ethics can vary widely from what she accepts as ethical (and what you accept as ethical).

I am saying she is not justified there. Switching the example to something less extreme does not make it more justified.

Perhaps I am focusing on what was intended to be a minor point. I do not mean to make a mountain out of a molehill.

Comment author: byrnema 29 April 2009 07:05:44PM *  1 point [-]

I see: I believe you are saying that Wednesday is not justified in being afraid that if God doesn't exist she will do something that is wrong because she should make the following deduction:

Either morality (i) depends on God or (ii) it doesn't.

(i) If morality depends on God, and he doesn't exist, then there's no evil to worry about.

(ii) If morality doesn't depend on God, and he doesn't exist, then morality is unaffected.

Comment author: MrHen 29 April 2009 07:41:27PM *  0 points [-]

Technically, I meant that when I say "God does not exist" it does not imply anything about morality. Whether Wednesday associates God with morality is irrelevant and the reason for this irrelevance is your (i) and (ii) tree explanation.

Comment author: Alicorn 29 April 2009 04:20:13AM 5 points [-]

I think I might be obliged to inform she-who-will-be-Wednesday's-mother that I have inadvertently made her as-yet-unconceived daughter a symbolic representation of the happily immersed theist on this website. I'm not sure if she will be pleased or not.

Comment deleted 29 April 2009 04:23:44AM [-]
Comment author: Alicorn 29 April 2009 04:25:04AM *  1 point [-]

I have no idea when Wednesday will be born. See "unconceived". I only know what her name is going to be because my friend picked it out well in advance, along with names for the other two kids she plans to have. Maybe she'll wind up with all boys and there will never be a Wednesday at all. Perhaps I should post a birth announcement here if and when she shows up for the convenience of anyone who wants to track her down later?

Comment author: Eliezer_Yudkowsky 29 April 2009 04:31:07AM 1 point [-]

I deleted my original comment upon reflecting that it was, on the whole, slightly too evil for a joke. (It was just "We'll track down Wednesday and deconvert her" but you shouldn't really mark the fates of unborn children like that.)

Comment author: Alicorn 29 April 2009 04:36:53AM 1 point [-]

If using Wednesday as an example in the first place doesn't make my friend annoyed with me, I think that the example making a great big pack of atheists bound and determined to turn up and engage Wednesday in deconverting chats when she gets to be high school age certainly would.

Comment author: Eliezer_Yudkowsky 29 April 2009 05:02:47AM 1 point [-]

Well, yes. But the proper course of action here would be to track down Wednesday's mother, not Wednesday.

Comment author: Alicorn 29 April 2009 05:04:59AM *  -1 points [-]

I've gone up to and beyond the limit of Wednesday's mother's tolerance for discussion on this subject. She will almost certainly stop being my friend if I don't back off. I highly doubt that she would be any more receptive to anyone else.

Comment author: Eliezer_Yudkowsky 29 April 2009 06:12:01AM 4 points [-]

Of course. I am trying to say here, generally speaking, that for my own part at least, I should not advise anyone to try and track down Wednesday. People should make their own destinies, not have them made by their parents' friends posting on forums.

(Using the real name was kinda silly, though.)

Albeit...

I was talking with my mother recently and she mentioned that an old Torah study partner of hers, whom I'll call X, had stopped believing in Judaism.

Me (delighted): X turned to the Light Side? That is awesome!

Her (sounding taken aback and grim): ...no, not really.

So we can safely say that if Wednesday in the ordinary course of her life ever turns to the Light Side, it will be slightly more awesome than usual, and she should totally post about it here if anyone still remembers this forum then.

Comment author: MBlume 29 April 2009 04:57:22AM *  0 points [-]

sigh

if there were time and manpower to just deconvert everyone...

Sadly I think there are more pressing projects right now.

Comment author: Vladimir_Nesov 29 April 2009 06:50:45AM *  2 points [-]

Maybe you’re surprised (or skeptical) that Wednesday values truth. But I’m not. I have evidence that valuing truth is a pretty universal human quality. Alas, often second to valuing security and power … But still: another reason to accept Wednesday. She is typical humanity. Some of you have a lot of anger towards religion, with good reason, but it would be a mistake to define ourselves antagonistically against 99.99% of humanity. Even if we are right and they’re wrong, whose side are we on?

You grossly misinterpret the attitude here (or your rhetoric is confusing). Wednesday is a victim of her situation, not a different kind of human. She is not a mutant. The (moral) values are human universal. Picking sides is often silly, and may result in unfounded demonization of the other tribe, or the paralysis of reason when considering the qualities of thus outlined groups. There's more, but I'll stop for now. Read on the archives.

Comment author: Eliezer_Yudkowsky 29 April 2009 04:29:32AM 3 points [-]

1 and 2: Done.

3: My posts on this topic were a braindump, but a thorough one. With this done, the task of writing simplified explanations thereof ought to be performable by someone other than me; they don't have to invent the knowledge, only understand it thoroughly enough to explain it correctly.

Comment author: Z_M_Davis 29 April 2009 05:08:50AM 3 points [-]

[...] With this done, the task of writing simplified explanations thereof ought to be performable by someone other than me; they don't have to invent the knowledge, only understand it thoroughly enough to explain it correctly.

This phrasing makes it sound like you invented non-weepy materialism. Come on, this is standard stuff.

Comment author: Eliezer_Yudkowsky 29 April 2009 06:23:43AM 3 points [-]

Carl may be slightly overstating the standardness of my metaethics (which if you consider it as a false appeal to authority, is also a flaw). I've yet to see anything that I recognize as being exactly like my own version, and "irrealism" is not how I would describe it. In particular, I think I rescue more moral appearances than other attempted reductions I've seen (like "murder is wrong regardless of what you think of it").

Comment author: [deleted] 29 April 2009 05:59:44AM 1 point [-]

One of my friends, who is a Christian, once asserted, essentially, that without God, life is meaningless. The thing is, though, meaning (to use a synonym, purpose) is created whenever an optimization process, such as evolution or a sentient being, uses something. If you're a big fan of your genome or Darwinian philosophy, spreading your genes is your purpose. If you're the only doctor in your village and everyone comes to you for medical help, that's your purpose. An omnipotent guy doesn't have to tell you your life has meaning for it to have meaning.