Thursday, October 27, 2011

"Without a telos, there is no understanding."

This was said by my friend Scott Moore, a Baylor philosopher, at the Baylor University conference on "Wisdom and the Liberal Arts."

I think this is exactly right. If we believe that existence has an end that draws it on, we can hope to understand what it all means. If there is no telos, though, I don't see how any science, scholarship, philosophy, any manner of knowing at all can understand why existence, exists.

A good down payment on wisdom on day one of the conference.

7 comments:

Singring said...

I had thought it rather obvious that if there is no end or 'telos' to existence, we won't be able to discover one.

That doesn't mean a 'telos' exists, however.

Moreover, if this counts as 'wisdom', then so does the realization that if there are no unicorns, we won't be able to find one.

gruntled said...

And yet scientists and scholars of all disciplines, as well as the billions of ordinary people, do search as if they could find out the why of existence. Very few indeed accept the nihilistic conclusion that existence is meaningless.

I think many children of the Enlightenment project put themselves in the contradictory position of denying that existence has a telos, yet conducting their lives as a search for the meaning of life.

Singring said...

First, searching for a 'why of existence' does not imply belief in ultimate meaning. When I want to find out 'why' my car broke down, does that mean I have to assume there is an ultimate meaning to my car breaking down?

A physicist might investigate the big bang while fully expecting to find no ultimate purpose to why it happened. It just did. Maybe that's not good enough for you, but it may well be good enough for him. I now it would be good enough for me (if that turns out to be the answer).

Second, accepting that there appears to be no ultimate 'meaning' to the existence of the universe does not mean there is no proximate meaning to life and it certainly does not mean one can't derive a subjective proximate meaning for one's own life.

Throughout history and sadly still today, it appears, some people have felt and still feel the need to tell others what the meaning of life is according to some 'telos'. Their motive, of course, is to make others behave in a way that serves their ideology or dogma. Fortunately, the enlightenment project has demonstrated that those people have no retional basis for doing so. I, for one, am very grateful for that.

gruntled said...

Finding the "how" is not the same as finding the "why."

If you know that you are choosing a subjective meaning for yourself, how can you believe it to be true?

Singring said...

'Finding the "how" is not the same as finding the "why."'

You are presupposing that there even is a 'why' question that needs answering. That's fine, of course, but it doesn't show there's a 'telos'. It is quite possible (and the surrent evidence indicates) that the universe just is, with no ultimate purpose.

'If you know that you are choosing a subjective meaning for yourself, how can you believe it to be true?'

I reserve the label of 'truth' for beliefs that can be objectively verified. So obviously, calling a subjectively chosen meaning for one's life 'true' is not meaningful. Personally, I am secure enough not to require that the meaning I give my life is true in some ultimate cosmic sense that a telos would provide. You may feel differently - but again, wishing for a telos does not mean that one exists. Just like wishing for a unicorn because it would be really neat to have one does not make unicorns real.

gruntled said...

Certainly, wishing for a telos does not mean that one exists.

On the other hand, the belief that anything can be objectively verified, cannot be objectively verified.

Nearly everyone acts as if their life and actions were truly meaningful. Nearly everyone professes belief in God or at least a transcendent power capable of giving direction to existence. For them, acting as if life were truly meaningful is no contradiction or self-deception.

The few who proclaim that life is not meaningful, yet still act as if their actions were truly meaningful do, I think, either contradict or deceive themselves.

Singring said...

'Nearly everyone acts as if their life and actions were truly meaningful.'

Again, don't confuse people who find a proximate or subjective meaning to their lives with them believeing in an ultimate meaning or 'telos'.

'Nearly everyone professes belief in God or at least a transcendent power capable of giving direction to existence.'

Many people believe in UFO's and aliens and all kinds of other nonsense, too.

'The few who proclaim that life is not meaningful, yet still act as if their actions were truly meaningful do, I think, either contradict or deceive themselves.'

Maybe there are a very few people who actually profess to rejecting the notion that there is any ultimate meaning to life, the universe, what have you, but who proclaim the contradictory belief that their life has a meaning that is true in that very sense. I have never meat or heard of any such person, even among the most ardent atheists, so I do wonder whether engaging with strawmen and painting 'many of the children of the enlightenment project' with such a broad brush is very helpful.