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July 21, 2006

Atheism and Meaninglessness

Ecclesiastes makes much use of the Hebrew word hebel, הבל. This refrain begins and closes this book of the Hebrew Bible:

"Utterly senseless" says Qoheleth [the sage quoted in Ecclesiastes], "Utterly senseless, everything is senseless!"

The word translated here as "senseless" is hebel. You've heard it given as "vanity" -- but that relies on an out-of-date use of that word, one that doesn't imply a mirror fixation. "Meaningless" is another good candidate or, perhaps, "emptiness." "Vapor" or "vapors" would be more literal translations.

I'm thinking that this use of hebel introduces an important theme in atheistic thought -- one that may become the major theme of my third chapter. Surely, disbelievers have surrendered much meaning and sense: that good actions will be rewarded in an afterlife, for example; that we're all here for a purpose. What is left for the nonbeliever looking for purpose besides "vapors"?

Posted by Mitchell Stephens at July 21, 2006 1:24 PM


Being a nonbeliever frees you from the notion that there is such a thing as "THE purpose in life" that is carved in stone and binding on everyone. You can then go on to find your own purpose in life. Why should it be the same for everyone?

Posted by: No More Mr. Nice Guy! at July 22, 2006 2:10 AM

Agree. Letting go of causality as the only way to establish 'meaning' or 'purpose,' of the idea that 'sense' is always a result of deliberate intentionality, means that one might end up discovering multiple purposes for one's life. Human existence is really about aberration, errancy, accident, isn't it? All these efforts to lock the contingent into the known erode our potentiality to un-cover possibilities that may lead to meanings we never could have imagined for ourselves... I like the vaporous quality of that, personally.

Posted by: JM at July 22, 2006 1:13 PM

Meaning/purpose filters/mediates perception. Therefore the deepest possible awareness is achieved without meaning or purpose. Awareness is what is is, not what was was or should should be.

I think one falls right back into the same old rut of imprinting the present with the past when you look for "new" meanings. Meanings are boxes where we organize the chaos.

Posted by: Jay Saul at July 23, 2006 10:54 AM

JayS, agree w/ all you say. Yet, I wonder if 'meaning' is also a means by which we accomplish change ? 'awareness' doesn't necessarily cover it all, does it? thus achieving awareness somehow in my not-yet-zen brain holds, as one of its possibilities, a sense of stasis. I guess I'm still thinking that awareness of the kind you so aptly describe is what allows perception to alter & engage us in those human endeavors that lead to greater harmony with the planet... i.e., 'change' (since we are obviously so out of harmony w/ the planet)

Posted by: JM at July 23, 2006 12:23 PM

But we aren't out of harmony with the planet. And the changes are coming in an asymtotic curve, steepening as time passes. We've never been able to keep up before, I see no reason to think we will have any better control over things with these minds.

The only question is whether we evolve or become extinct (or both). But if we do not evolve we will most certainly self-destruct.

Posted by: Jay Saul at July 23, 2006 5:21 PM

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