CHAPTER 1: Projecting a Meaning

[Excerpt from Chapter 2: Solving the Dilemma]

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Many project a meaning onto the universe and their lives. For instance, at the close of his book Atheism and Philosophy, philosopher Kai Nielson writes,

That there is no Purpose to life does not imply that there is no purpose in life… There is nothing [man] was made for. But he can and does have purposes in the sense that he has aims, goals, and things he finds worth seeking and admiring… [These] can and typically do, give significance and moral ambience to our lives.[1]

While Nielson’s suggestion might put our minds at ease to some extent, projecting a meaning to life doesn’t solve the Desperate Dilemma. For example, consider the placebo effect. Doctors will sometimes prescribe sugar pills (or placebos) to patients, telling them that the pills are an experimental medicine. When people think that they’re taking medicine, minor ailments are often cured. However, there is just one problem: a placebo cannot work if we know it’s a placebo. The more you know you’re taking a placebo, the less it’s able to help you. In the same way, the more we know that our projected meaning to the universe is really just an illusion, the less it’s able to bring fulfillment.

In addition, projecting a meaning is absurd, when “meanings” conflict. For instance, someone might claim he’s found his purpose to life in saving the rainforests, while someone else might say her purpose to life is making copious amounts of money by cutting down the rainforests. If two people say they have both found a purpose to life, but they are contradicting each other, how can these both be true? Isn’t it obvious? They aren’t true! They are merely imagining a purpose for their lives within a universe that is numb to their desires and ambitions. Imagine if believers in God said that they found a meaning to life by projecting God onto the universe. Atheists would scoff: “You can’t invent God to give your life meaning. Either he exists, or he doesn’t!” Yet this is exactly what many atheists do regarding their meaning to life.

Projecting a meaning doesn’t give us a meaning.

Art project gone wrong

Having a subjective meaning to life is useless if there is no objective meaning behind it. For example, consider a prolific modern artist living in New York City. The Artist hosts an art show in his penthouse suite, and as a practical joke, he has his three year old nephew splatter paint across a canvas for a couple of hours. He takes the canvas and hangs it in the center of his show. That night, dozens of art critics pour into his flat to survey his most recent work.

After a long night of gourmet cheese and French wine, the Artist explains to everyone that he will be revealing a piece that has taken him over a decade to complete; he calls it his greatest work. Everyone in the soiree gathers in anticipation to view his masterpiece. A hush sweeps over the crowd as they stand in front of the piece of art, which is robed in a giant velvet cloth. In a loud, confident voice, the Artist declares, “Ladies and Gentlemen, I give you my most prized work. I call it, ‘The Meaning of Life.’” Immediately after he announces the title, he pulls the cloth away from the canvas, revealing his nephew’s chaotic splattering of paints.

The art critics quickly analyze the painting, attempting to discern its meaning, developing theory after theory. Some think it represents the plight of women in the workplace; others believe it has religious symbolism; others think it reflects the issues he had with his mother as a child. Their speculation goes on for hours, until finally the Artist can’t stand it any longer. After polishing off his second bottle of wine, he erupts with laughter, screaming, “You fools! This thing isn’t a valuable piece of art—it’s a steaming pile of crap! This ‘masterpiece’ is actually the result of a three year-old throwing globs of paint at a canvas for a couple of hours. The whole thing is meaningless! It’s all a big joke!”

The Artist’s “meaning” to the painting doesn’t go over well. Most of the critics feel embarrassed, as he laughs at their desire to find a meaning in the assorted splotches of paint on the canvas. They leave the party feeling betrayed and outraged, slamming the door behind them.

Others do not leave.

Instead, they continue to muse at the painting on the wall, developing more theories about its meaning. The Artist mocks them: “What are you doing? I just told you this thing is a bunch of random globs of paint. There is no purpose behind it. It arose from the chance tosses of my nephew.”

The art critics ignore him and continue to form theories about the piece’s meaning, undeterred by his mocking. They insist that they can find a purpose in the painting, even though he explicitly tells them that it is purposeless—the blind product of chance and necessity.

In a similar way, while we can each invent a meaning to life, this doesn’t mean any meaning actually exists. In an atheistic universe, we are not discovering a purpose; rather, we’re imagining one. In the absence of a Creator, we are simply projecting a purpose onto a universe that is deaf, dumb, and blind to our musings. It means absolutely nothing to say that I have found a purpose in the universe if the universe itself is without purpose.

What’s the best explanation?

Ask yourself: Is it more plausible to believe that purpose came from futility? Meaning came from meaninglessness? Freedom came from determinism? Love came from indifference? Morality came from an amoral universe? These basic human experiences are best explained by a personal and ultimate Being. In her 2012 CNN interview, famed atheistic blogger Leah Libresco explained her conversion to Christianity in this way:

It was almost the same thing as any scientific theory. [Christianity] had more explanatory power to explain something that I was really sure of. I’m really sure morality is objective and independent. It is something we uncover like archaeologists—not something we build like architects. And, I was having trouble explaining [morality] in my own philosophy, and Christianity offered an explanation, which I came to find compelling.[2]

Libresco is right. Of the four major worldviews, theism provides the best explanation for morality and meaning. Pantheism is an ultimate foundation, but it isn’t a personal one. Polytheism is a personal foundation, but it isn’t ultimate. Atheism, of course, is neither personal nor ultimate. However, theism is both personal and ultimate. It serves as the best foundation for these human longings, which we can perceive quite clearly.

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[1] Nielsen, Kai. Atheism and Philosophy. New York: Prometheus, 2005. 221-222.

[2] Leah Libresco CNN “Atheist Blogger Adopts Catholicism” June 22, 2012. See her interview on