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Can Life Be Meaningful Without an Immortal Soul

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“The Meaning of Life outside the Confines of Religious Belief”

There has always been a thread of wonderment that circulates within knowledge and understanding. This wonderment is derived from the miracle that is the human being. This wonderment is derived from the question of where man comes from and his purpose on earth. That question is “what is the purpose of life?” It has been witnessed throughout history that man has asked this question often in an attempt to ascribe some meaning to his existence. This cannot be answered through the accumulation of worldly goods, by claiming allegiance to an institution, or by just existing. To aid man in his quest for self- knowledge, various institutions were created. The most important of all institutions is religion. Religion has given man what he searches for inherently. Through religion, man not only asserts that there is indeed meaning to life, but that the meaning to life is tied to God and the immortality of man’s soul. This means that in order for one’s life to truly have meaning, he must believe in the existence of God and believe in an immortal soul. This then begs the question, “can life have meaning without an immortal soul?” Through Descartes’ Meditations on First Philosophy and Plato’s infamous Euthyphro, it is evident that this question still has yet to be answered, and the philosophy offered in both books leaves it open-ended.

It is not simple to assert an answer to the question of meaning in life in the absence of an immortal soul. This is most likely because in Meditations, Descartes does not give answers, but leads others to finding the answer that best suits the individual. First of all, Descartes must establish how people know what they know and that man knows he does indeed exist. In this book, he surmises “cogito ergo sum (I think, therefore I exist). The presence of the thinking mind gives understanding to the existence of the physical body. The mind can know itself better than it can know the body, and it has ties to reality through other means besides perception from the senses. Descartes’ theory that the mind and body are separate entities commences the book well, and sets the stage for his meditations to come. According to Descartes, people cannot be certain of anything, including existence. Perceptions are to be constantly questioned and knowledge is to be learned with great skepticism. Only through this skepticism does he allow man’s existence to be declared as fact. Because the mind can think in disregard to what the body is sensing, the two are inherently different and mind and body have little in common. The struggle therein lies in the symbiotic existence of the two and their interactions. The senses, Descartes argues, do not give way to finding and accumulating knowledge, however they are used to aid man throughout his life. They allow for the piecing together of information. Man exists because he is a thinking entity, using the various perceptions from life and the capacity of cognition to formulate knowledge in the most skeptical manner.

Having established these points, Descartes continues by attempting to explain the existence of a benevolent God. He declares that the existence of God is a clear and distinct perception. He asserts that he knows God exists because he can clearly and distinctly perceive of God’s existence. And in order for man’s perceptions to be trusted and his existence certain, then God cannot be a deceiver. God allows man’s perceptions and understandings to be quite accurate. Furthermore, Descartes’ proof of God’s existence is derived from his reasoning that there must be a cause for ideas: there must be a cause for the idea of God that is as grand and great as God himself. Despite his best efforts, however, Descartes’ concept of God’s existence is circular reasoning. It does not set forth any reasoning that morphs the idea of God into fact. God is still a notion; a concept to be questioned.

Can life have meaning without an immortal soul? It seems Descartes’ answer from the text leans towards “no”. However, further inspection of the text leads one to believe that Descartes’ circular reasoning about God is really what he believes about the soul and its place in man’s world. One exists because of the perceptions he encounters. Since God can be perceived, then God therefore exists. The Mediator, regardless of the thought process he utilizes, comes to the conclusion that God does exist, claiming that the idea of God can only come from God himself. In opposition to that theory, it is evident that the same reasoning can be used if one never thinks of God. If this stipulation were correct, not thinking of God would automatically negate his existence. Descartes deliberately does not address the circular reasoning in the book because it symbolizes his thoughts on the soul, God, and meaning in life.

Descartes intentionally sets forth this faulty proof of God’s existence in an ambiguous manner, not allowing the reader to come to any real conclusions. Descartes uses this method because he does not desire to tell people what to think, rather how to think. He speaks of questioning knowledge and perception in order to convey that preconceived ideas annihilate fundamental truths. Furthermore, Descartes asserts that the meaning derived from life is rooted in the perceptions of God that cannot be proven and their origin is unknown. God exists because one believes in his existence. There is no distinct evidence justifying man’s belief, but thinking of God brings him into existence for the believer. This shows that Descartes believes that life has meaning because one has ascribed meaning to it. This is why the circular reasoning about God’s existence is present in the book. It offers no universal answer, but asks universal questions which are fundamental to the human condition. Descartes is aiding the reader and the Mediator in the search for answers and the most logical way to search for them. If man does not believe in God, then his life has meaning only to the point of what man can conceive of and ponder. Cognition enhances man’s experience, but only to a certain point. All man really knows is that he exists. Meaning in life, therefore, is not derived from God, rather from man himself.

Plato is as ambiguous about the answer to the meaning of life in regards to an immortal soul as is Descartes. In fact, the soul is not one of the issues set forth in his dialogue, Euthyphro.



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