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God’s Love and the Meaning-Making Brain

April 11, 2014

What is the meaning of life? In The Brain and the Meaning of Life (Princeton Univ. Press, 2012), Paul Thagard, a philosophy professor who directs the cognitive science program at the University of Waterloo, Canada, explores how the human quest for existential meaning is related to the functioning of the brain. Thagard contends that existential meaning is a goal-directed function of the brain: life is meaningful ‘to the extent that [a person possesses] coherent and valuable goals that they can strive for and at least partially accomplish, yielding [the reward of] satisfaction and happiness’. To be meaningful, goals must be coherent, valuable, and at least partially accomplishable. Thagard identifies love, work, and play as three realms of life which are particularly significant for providing coherent, valuable, and at least partially-accomplishable goals for a meaningful life. He describes how all this happens at a neurological level.

I find Thagard’s proposal helpful; however, I wish to add a number of points from a theistic perspective. First, it needs to be said that meaningful and satisfying goals are not necessarily moral goals. A criminal might highly value, and successfully accomplish, the effort to pull off a string of untraceable bank frauds. The criteria for what counts as a moral goal are separate from the criteria for what counts as a meaningful goal.

Second, in addition to work, love, and play as particularly significant for meaningful lives, I would add three equally-significant meaning-giving goals: engaging in personal interests (creating and engaging in meaningful activities for one’s life); discovering one’s origins (creating meaning from the past, at four possible levels – biological, familial, ethnocultural, and as a species); and, the converse of one’s origins, leaving a personal legacy (making meaning from the future). In each of these ways we construct meaning for ourselves.

Third, Thagard’s account is missing a fundamental element (in addition to goals) for life to feel meaningful, namely self-value or self-worth—a sense that my life, my existence, is valued by me and by others. In other words, life is most meaningful when we possess not just goals that are coherent, valued, and at least partially achievable, but when we possess such goals within a sense of positive self-value—when I feel valued, cared for, affirmed, included, and befriended by others, including God, family, friends, colleagues, and the wider community. The less these are present, the less life feels meaningful.

From a neurological perspective, making existential meaning for one’s life is a constant neural activity. I propose that we have two ‘existential meaning’-making (EMM) circuits in our brain—the goal-directed circuits and the self-worth circuits, both of which run through the pre-frontal cortex. Like so many of our neural operations, meaning-making operations are grinding away all the time, sometimes consciously but mostly sub-consciously, continually shaping the objectives, choices, and activities we find meaningful. In effect, Homo sapiens have evolved to be inveterate meaning-makers. I suggest this constitutes a fundamental part of what it is to be human. I would also suggest that this is not sufficiently appreciated in our anthropologies, whether theistic or materialist.

I propose that God intentionally launched the creative processes of the universe(s) such that meaning-seeking and meaning-making beings would come about. In part this means that God intends us to construct meaning for our lives. Yet, contrary to what constructivists (such as Thagard) claim, the fact that we are able to construct meaning for our lives does not remove God from the picture. For God has also provided an ultimate meaning for our lives, a source of existential meaning that fulfills our EMM and neural-reward circuits more profoundly than any other form of meaning—namely agapao-love (that is, self-giving for the benefit of others). Galatians 5:13 is my favorite statement of this in scripture.

The greatest challenge to human meaning is nihilism, typically represented by Nietzsche’s The Birth of Tragedy. The problem with constructivism is that it merely keeps nihilism at bay; in contrast, it is only God’s agapao-love, historically manifested in Jesus, that destroys nihilism. Here I will invoke these words from Hugo, the mechanically-gifted boy in Martin Scorsese’s film Hugo, set in 1930s Paris: “Maybe that’s why a broken machine always makes me a little sad, because it isn’t able to do what it was meant to do…Maybe it’s the same with people. If you lose your purpose…it’s like you’re broken.” When we lose God’s agapao-love purpose for us, then we are broken, despite the many other worthwhile meanings we may construct for our lives. Which always makes me more than just a little sad.

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