Sunday, Nov 21, 2010: “Questions of Value: Session 9”

St. Mark’s Adult Education Meeting Summary
“Questions of Value, Session 9”
An In-Depth Discussion Led by Wayne Harper
Sunday, November 21, 2010


* NOTE:  The materials offered were borrowed and adapted for our use from two primary sources: ‘Questions of Value’ taught by Patrick Grim and ‘The Quest for Meaning: Value, Ethics, and the Modern Experience’ taught by Robert Kane. Both are courses produced by The Teaching Company.


                                                      Questions of Value*

Meaning, Purpose and Belief

Take a moment to relax, clear your mind, and ponder this eternal question. 

Question: Why am I here?

Surely, there must be a reason, perhaps many reasons. I am here thanks to my parents’ ability and willingness to procreate, and their parents, and so on through the generations. If my lineage had been interrupted for some reason, I would not be here. 

Some prefer to take a much broader view. Humans are here as a result of ‘creation’. It started with the ‘Big Bang’, followed by the formation of stars and planets, followed by the emergence of life on planet Earth, followed by a highly improbable ‘random walk’ taken by a series of ancestral life forms over the course of billions of years – evolution for short – that managed to avoid numerous extinctions, and culminated in you and I. 

The late paleontologist, Stephen Jay Gould, wrote on page 175 of his 1996 book, ‘Full House’: “If we could replay the game of life again and again … the vast majority of replays would never produce (on the finite scale of a planet’s lifetime) a creature with self-consciousness. Humans are here by the luck of the draw, not the inevitability of life’s direction or evolution’s mechanism.” Gould makes the point over and over in his book that humans – you and I – are nothing more than a statistical outlier in the full distribution of life on Earth. Gould credits bacteria as the dominate life form on Earth. Bacteria constitute the bulk of life on Earth today as they did billions of years ago.

Gould’s claims – probably not what you wanted to hear – are backed up by science. Still, Gould implies humans are ‘special’ insofar as we are an extremely complex and rare life form, the only life form ‘blessed’ with self-consciousness. But that’s about it.

Question: So, given these ‘facts’, can we say there is any meaning or purpose to our lives? Without meaning or purpose, what value do we have? Lastly, do you agree with Gould that self-consciousness is a ‘blessing’?

Our efforts so far point out that values are inescapable for creatures like us. A life guided by some form of value is inescapable. Contrast this with the rest of the animal kingdom. Animals, for all intents and purposes, live in the present. Humans live in the present but also possess the mental ability to ‘live’ in the past and future.

Question: Without a past to reflect upon or a future to anticipate, what values, if any, are diminished or lost? 

The early 19th century philosopher Soren Kierkegaard, posthumously regarded as the father of existentialism, maintained that the individual is solely responsible for giving his or her own life meaning and for living that life passionately and sincerely, in spite of many existential obstacles and distractions including absurdity, angst, alienation and despair. Kierkegaard seems to be on to something. After all, most of us claim to value personal responsibility and quickly grow weary of ‘whiners’ in our midst. But bad things happen to all of us; frustration is an all too common emotion. Life can wear you down. 

Question: How might we rise above our circumstances, and give our lives meaning?

Let’s turn our attention to belief, specifically religious belief. Two trends have made religious belief problematic in this day and age. One is the fact of a plurality of religions which creates uncertainty. Two is the pervasive secularization of everyday life, a trend that often undermines the sense of sacredness essential to religious belief and life. Two opposed reactions to these trends are common in today’s world. One is fundamentalist retrenchment. Two is a secular drift toward skepticism that rejects religion altogether. The big question is whether these two responses are the only options open to us.

A religion is not just a theory of reality, though it is that. It is also a theory of value embodied in a way (or path) of life. Buddhists speak of the Noble Eightfold Path or Way. The central notion of Chinese religious tradition is the Tao, which literally means Way. The Hindu tradition speaks of different yogas, or paths toward liberation. Christ said, “I am the Way, and the Truth, and the Life…” 

At the summit of religious theories of reality and value, the supreme reality and supreme good tend to converge. In Christianity, the supreme reality is God, the supreme value is love; and we’re all familiar with the claim, ‘God is Love’. A consequence of this convergence of reality and value – differently construed in different religions – is that one can seek to know the supreme reality by seeking the supreme value, by living a certain way, since the two ultimately converge. To seek is to embark on a mission or quest. In the present context, it suggests a quest for meaning, purpose, and value. 

Question: Do you see yourself embarked on any sort of quest? 

Summing Up

Up to now we’ve spent a lot of time and effort addressing questions of value. I hope it’s been worthwhile. Though answers may continue to elude us, there’s value in asking the questions. Whether or not you’re aware of it, you’ve been asked to open your mind (at least temporarily), encouraged to entertain contrasting viewpoints, and compelled to think more deeply in pursuit of understanding and clarity. Socrates would be proud.

Last Question: What have you learned?