What is the role of religion in finding the meaning of life?

The next essay I am writing for the Meaning of Life course deals with the question whether religion can provide a grounding of values which make life meaningful. Here are some preliminary thoughts:

When searching for the meaning of life, this meaning needs to be grounded to something, it needs a vehicle. A vehicle for meaning is something that carries the value, the thing that is valuable, which in turn can provide meaning. The vehicles for meaning that religion can provide are numerous, for example: the church as a community, the relationship to a god, the promise of an afterlife etcetera. To answer the question whether religion can provide a grounding of values, we need to investigate what sort of vehicle religion is, compared to non religious values systems as means for providing meaning.

I believe that religion is not able to provide a solid foundation for values; religion as a foundation for meaning is a metaphysical sky-hook. It does not provide a solid foundation because it can not be rationally or empirically justified. The justification for religion is not based on rational thinking or observation, but on revelation. But, does this really matter?

Gödel’s Incompleteness Theorem shows that not every true statement can be proven through rational arguments. The incompleteness theorem thus leaves some space for religious and other non-rational statements to provide truth. Religious knowledge can, however, not be verified, as it is based on revelation. Revelation is a very personal experience and therefore neither open to verification nor falsification.

Religion can thus not provide a solid (rational) foundation for the meaning of life

Rational thinking, mainly in the form of science, can, however, also not provide a solid foundation. David Hume has shown that some very basic assumptions we make about the world around us can not be rationally verified. Gödel’s Incompleteness Theorem also limits the reach of rational reasoning, as not all truth can be rationally justified. Hume’s scepticism, combined with Gödel’s Incompleteness Theorem shows us that science is also not able to provide a solid foundation for meaning.

After 2,500 years of philosophical thinking we have come to a point were we are forced to realise that there are no rational justifications for the big questions (See my paper on Joske’s concept of futility).

For a lot of people, this understanding that life is essentially futile can be an agonising thought. The thought that life has no meaning whatsoever – the thought the our lives will end in blackness – has driven many people to suicide.

I think this typical human condition is something we have to live with and there are basically two possible reactions. First of all we can ‘invent’ – without any rational justification – a vehicle for meaning. This is what happens in religion. If there is no rational basis for these beliefs, how can we decide which vehicle is the better one, as there is no truth criterion. The individual systems can only be justified internally, as we have no value system outside religion to make a call.

The other option is to embrace the futility and meaninglessness of life. In this option we need philosophy to be able to cope with this. Our vehicle for meaning is a metaphysical hot-air balloon – not anchored to anything – enjoying a brid-eye perspective upon life.

Schools of Thought: Anglosaxon versus Continental Philosophy

I have now completed 75% of my undergraduate and can almost see light at the end of the tunnel. I started studying in 1996 at the Open Universiteit of the Netherlands, where I completed my first year.

I recently re-read some of the course material, as I was working on some Wikipedia articles. Reading the Dutch philosophy course notes, I realised the great difference between continental and analytical (Anglosaxon) philosophy.

The Dutch material is all about hermeneutics and refers to philosophers such as Friedrich Schleieremacher and Heidegger.

The Australian course is much more analytical and I am supposed to ‘untangle’ arguments in order to bit by bit analyse the text. There is no reference to the ‘melting of horizons’ of Gadamer or anything about the historicity of philosophy. Ancient philosophers are treated in exactly the same manner as contemporary texts.

The rational approach is I think sometimes too simplistic. By following strict logical rules you can only describe certain truths, those that form part of the logical tree that grows from the axioms one has chosen.

But, it can be argued that there are truths which do not form part of that tree, ones that can not be described by logic. The analytical philosopher would probably try to resolve this problem by introducing another axiom, so the tree covers more aspects. Kurt Gödel has shown that in number theory, it is impossible to find an axiomatic system that can derive all known truths.

Although his evidence is only applicable to number theory, many have argued that it should also be applied to all other forms of axiomatic system.

Philosophy is not a science, it is not a rational program aiming to unearth eternal truth by thinking very very hard. Philosophy is an art-form, a language game to describe the world. The more I study philosophy in the analytical tradition the more I realise that I am a continental thinker. I am the wolf in the sheep’s-pen.

Only if one thinks more crazy than the philosophers can you solve their problems (Ludwig Wittgenstein, 1949).