Can There be a Purpose to This Post?

EvangelistsA few weeks ago Josh brought up some good points about meaning and purpose in life at this link on Nate’s post.  We hashed through some of that over there but I thought I’d try to add a few more of my thoughts on the subject.  I actually agree with a lot of what Josh wrote (although I’m not sure he realized that), but there were some things he wrote that I thought could be looked at from a different angle.

First I’d like to explore what in the world is meant by “life’s meaning”.  For this I’d like to start with a quote from Loyal Rue:

When individuals articulate the meaning of life they are attempting to specify why they value life. 1

I believe this hits the nail on the head, and I believe it explains why atheists are actually correct when they say that their life is still meaningful to them even without a transcendent purpose.  They have their own reasons why they value living: perhaps relationships with friends and family, or the sheer joy of helping others, the enjoyment of learning, looking on a breathtaking vista, breathing in the fresh cool air of a new fall season, or all of those and more.  Whatever it may be, living is important to them (i.e. they value it) and they have many reasons to continue living.  That is what atheists are trying to express when they say “my life is meaningful” or “we can create meaning”.  This is why I believe that part of Josh’s last comment is not entirely true:

I do think it covers up the deeper reality that there really isn’t any reason to continue living the life we live without ultimate purpose.

There are reasons to continue living.  We have those reasons ourselves.  And my reasons for living aren’t even only within myself.  I know there are others who love me and want me to continue living as well.  So there are actually reasons to live even external of myself.  However, where I agree with Josh (and perhaps he just didn’t word the above carefully) is that outside of the desires of human beings there are no transcendent reasons to live if the more popular forms of naturalism are true (I say it that way because not all naturalists are alike in their beliefs).  What I think theists don’t realize though is that many atheists realize this and their response is “so what?”.  This actually is similar to the Buddhist response and relates to the parable of the poisoned arrow I explained in this post.

I’d like to dig even a bit deeper.  I think there may be a distinction between “meaning in life” and “meaning of life”.  What I mean is that usually when someone asks “what is the meaning of life”, I believe they are asking what meaning there is above and beyond humans (a.k.a. transcendent, ultimate, or cosmic). I’d like to share with Josh and others that I can relate to their need to have some “higher purpose”.  Feeling like I could be a part of something bigger than myself was a big draw for me before I became a Christian, and was a significant loss for me when I left.

Now when theists say “there is no meaning of life without God”, I believe there is actually a hidden premise in there.  The premise is: “meaning must come from a thinking, intentional mind” (because that’s how the monotheists who push this argument define God).  This seems to be a foundational belief, but I don’t see any logical reason that this must be true.  Perhaps there is somehow meaning built-in as a basic property of reality.  I believe this is a bit more of an eastern way of looking at things (perhaps Taoist), but Spinoza, Einstein and others seemed to also express such ideas.  But my western mind has the same bias that theists have, so while I’m open to possibilities I lean toward agreeing that “meaning can only come from thinking, intentional minds.” But think about that – where does that premise come from?  I believe it comes from our own experience that purpose and meaning are generated from human minds.  So there you have it – it comes full circle.  The very argument itself shows that humans can create purpose and meaning (which some theists, including Josh, agree to). They may not be eternal, but that’s not the point.

Further, I’d like to ask my readers to think and comment on 3 thought experiments. Theists will probably learn the most about themselves from them, but I believe some atheists can benefit as well.  Keep in mind that the experiments may not be possible scenarios, but that’s how thought experiments go:

  1. Consider a world where there is an all-powerful, all-knowing, all-loving God who has created human beings for a purpose.  However, God tells all of us that absolutely nothing (including himself) is eternal.  All will come to an end at some point in the far future.  But he tells us that he still has a purpose for all of us to be alive.  Could this scenario be meaningful to you?
  2. Consider a world where we all know for sure that there is no God (don’t ask me how – it’s a thought experiment!), and there also is no transcendent meaning beyond human minds.  However, we also know for sure that human beings will exist for eternity.  Could this scenario be meaningful to you?
  3. Last consider a world where we all know for sure that there is no God and there is no transcendent meaning beyond human minds, but in this last world human beings all die like we do in our real world.  Also, we all know that humanity will come to an end at some point far in the future.  Most traditional monotheists would not find this kind of life meaningful.  But really think about it – what would you do if tomorrow scientists, philosophers, and theologians all got together and came to a 100% consensus that this is the way the world is?

The first 2 scenarios actually have an interesting story to them. In my blogging I’ve actually been surprised to find that some theists have desires which are very different from the ones I had as a Christian.  When I was a Christian it was more about feeling like I was a part of something grander than myself, so I would have answered with a resounding YES to question #1.  Eternity really had nothing to do with it.  In fact living eternally has never been much of a big draw for me.  I obviously wouldn’t want to live eternally in sadness, and I’d be ok with an eternity of bliss, but to be honest never-ending consciousness just seems a bit too much to me.  What I was very surprised to find however in an online discussion I had with Brandon was that the idea of “something(s)” being around in eternity and being affected by his life was an important factor for him in regards to meaning. I believe there is a lesson to be learned from this – all of us should know and recognize that we are all built differently, with different needs and desires.  While there is a great deal of overlap in many of our needs, when it comes to our desires related to questions of meaning it really does span the map.  My wife is the perfect example of this – she is the most content person I’ve ever met and it boggles her mind why anyone would ever care about or need any kind of ultimate purpose in their lives.  So theists should keep in mind that if they are trying to sell their worldview with the “meaning card” their effort may very well be wasted.

And in regards to eternity, this quote from John McTaggart is worth thinking about:

If we do not start with the certainty that love for an hour on earth is unconditionally good, I do not see what ground we should have for believing that it would be good for an eternity in heaven. 2

Lastly, given that I have a bit of agnosticism in me, in my mind there is still the possibility that there really is some meaning to the universe, be it from gods or from some basic properties of the universe.  While I’ve fully faced scenario #3 and already dealt with the fact that there is likely no transcendent meaning, I see no reason to completely dispense with the idea.  I talked more about that as well as other related things in this post.  I think it’s good to face all different kinds of possible scenarios in similar ways.  We can never remove our preferences, but it can help in reducing bias.


Footnotes:

  1. “Nature Is Enough”, by Loyal Rue
  2. Quoted by Erik Wielenberg in “Robust Ethics: The Metaphysics and Epistemology of Godless Normative Realism”
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Morality Posts – Euthyphro Dilemma

The Euthyphro dilemma is a question that can be traced back to one of Plato’s writings where Socrates and Euthyphro are talking about morality and the gods.  The dilemma can be summarized in simple terms as such:

Something can be defined as good one of 2 ways:

1. It is good because God declares it to be good.

2. It is good independent of God and God loves it and commands it because it is good.

The above 2 options (sometimes called “horns” of the dilemma) are called a dilemma because each option offers problems for the theist.  Let me start by saying that I believe that horn #2 poses less of a problem for theists.  The main consequence stated for option #2 is that there is no longer a need for God if moral truths exist independently of God.  Actually, to be fair, I believe it could be argued that there would still be other needs for the existence of a God (and those could be debated as well), but it is correct that the full force of the moral argument would be gone.  Remember that the whole point of the moral argument is that objective morals could not exist without God, and because it seems that there are objective morals therefore God must exist.  If a theist were to accept option #2 above then they would clearly have to dispense with that strong form of the moral argument (because option #2 admits objective morals do exist apart from God).  As I noted in my previous post, there are theists who believe that there are standards of goodness apart from God.  Some of these theists believe that all moral standards exist as truths apart from God and others believe that only some moral truths exist apart from God, but either way, they are running into the consequence of the second horn, and some readily admit to that.

Ok, so now option #1, usually called divine command theory.  The problem with this option is sometimes described as morality becoming “arbitrary” because it is solely based on the whims of whatever God chooses to declare as good, even if they do not line up with what the vast majority of humans believes is good.  Examples might be the best way to show how this could cause major difficulties.  1 Samuel 15:3 and 1 Timothy 2:12 are both passages which express commands which do not jive with what the vast majority of humans would agree is good (unless they are interpretively manipulated of course).  1 Samuel 15:3 is particularly bad because what is described is clearly genocide (slaughter of infants is even included in the command).

I personally believe that theists do have an underlying feeling that option #2 is really what is going on, but they don’t realize it.  This came out in a debate I had with one of my Christian friends when I told him I had decided I could no longer believe in the Christian message. My friend told me that the truth of Christianity was obvious, and that all one needed to do was examine the major faiths to see this. What do you think was the first religion he chose to prove was obviously false? Why it was Islam of course. Why? He said it was obvious because just look at Jihad and suicide bombers!  Now this friend of mine actually believed in option #1 of the dilemma above, but this is very inconsistent with the fact that he felt that he was able to judge the truth of religions by moral standards.  Because if divine command theory is true then we would have no way to judge any religion by the morals that it espouses.  Suicide bombing could actually be morally good if we believe that God can declare it to be good.

Louise Antony in her debate with William Lane Craig also hit on another very important observation – many theists try to re-interpret bible passages like the ones given above.  If theists truly believed in divine command theory then there would be no need for interpretive gymnastics, they would simply leave the passages the way they are and accept that what they describe are good because God has commanded them.  The simple fact that theists try to re-interpret them shows that there is some moral standard that they are using to judge what is written.

Now another popular apologist response to the dilemma is that there is no dilemma at all because there is a third option: God’s nature or character is what is good, and he can only command whatever lines up with his good nature.  This is hard to think through, but it really is just a bit of sleight of hand trickery in moving the problem somewhere else.  The dilemma and it’s consequences still stand and it simply has to be re-worded:

Something can be defined as good one of 2 ways:

1. It is good because it is consistent with God’s nature.

2. It is good independent of God and it is part of his nature because it is good.

Personally, if I were to be a theist, then I would believe in horn #2 simply because the consequences of the arbitrary nature of divine command theory are so very ugly. Goodness would lose it’s meaning for me if absolutely anything commanded by a god or gods can be defined as good.

Morality Posts – Part 3

At the end of part 2 of this series I briefly discussed Shelly Kagan’s view that moral laws objectively exist and are universally valid independent of human choices.  This view is called moral realism.  Louise Antony and Erik Wielenberg are other atheist promoters of this view.  You can easily find others by googling “atheist moral realism”.

I mention this partially in case some of my readers are interested in pursuing these ideas further, but also to go on to show why it defeats a part of the moral argument for the existence of God.

William Lane Craig uses this argument in many of his debates, and one of his main premises is that “If theism is false, we do not have a sound foundation for morality”.  He further states that given atheism, morality is just an illusion.  I am not arguing here whether or not morality is an illusion, however I am very convinced that his statement in quotes above is false.  Moral nihilism is a possibility under atheism, but it is not at all a logical necessity, and Kagan and other atheists have clearly shown that in their description of the possibility of moral laws simply existing in the universe much like the law of non-contradiction exists.  To me this is a very real possibility and I haven’t heard theists properly respond to this objection to the theist premise above.

I see no logical reason to prefer the theist’s divine command theory of morality over the atheistic view of moral truths simply existing in our universe.  The second belief does not require a god to exist, yet still believes objective moral truths exist.  It seems to me that both of these statements are faith statements, and I have seen it argued that the second is more simplistic and runs into less dilemmas than the first.  Simply given the fact that this atheistic view of morality states less than the theistic view lends credence to that claim.  Both views claim that objective moral truths exist, but the theistic view also claims the existence of an invisible conscious entity.  One could very properly argue that both of these views are not grounded in logical necessities, but I don’t see a reason why the god based view is any more plausible than the atheistic moral view, and in fact to me it is the other way around.  One theist objection is “how is it possible these abstract laws simply exist floating outside of a mind?”, but this is really no different from the question that we could ask theists: “how is it possible that an invisible conscious mind can exist outside of space and time?”  Both beliefs are transcendental to our human understanding so why is it that the theist has such a hard time with the idea of moral truths simply existing in our universe much like the laws of logic.

The strangest thing of all of this is that there is a growing number of theist philosophers (not sure of the percentage) who hold to the view that there actually are moral laws which exist outside of God.  I haven’t researched this fully, but it seems that what they claim is that some moral laws are true because they are commanded by God and some simply exist within our universe apart from him.  My understanding is that this view arose out of a response to the Euthyphro dilemma (which I hope to talk about in my next post), and Robert Merrihew Adams is a strong proponent of this view.  Richard Swinburne is also a proponent of this view, and interestingly enough Swinburne does not see the validity in the moral argument for the existence God.  My purpose here is not to appeal to authority but to have people realize that there are differing views regarding this among theists as well and it is certainly nowhere near as cut and dry as the debaters make it out to be (yes this could be applied to both sides).

William Lane Craig’s Holy Spirit Epistemology (continued)

In my previous post I was discussing William Lane Craig’s Holy Spirit Epistemology (which he describes as Reformed Epistemology).

Craig has expressed the following: “The way in which I know Christianity is true is first and foremost on the basis of the witness of the holy spirit, in my heart. And that this gives me a self authenticating means of knowing Christianity is true wholly apart from the evidence.”

So while I will at least give Craig some credit for not saying evidence is entirely useless he has clearly stated that this feeling “in his heart” gives him proof of Christianity “wholly apart from the evidence.”

Now while it is entirely possible that this feeling is caused by an objective entity that truly exists, all humans are painfully aware that all of our heartfelt feelings are by definition subjective experiences.  Again, I am not saying that all feelings cannot be caused by things that objectively exist, but what I am saying is that the feelings within the hearts of people have been shown to be terrible predictors of objective reality.

In fact in the case of religion this is so abundantly obvious due to the fact that there are so many opposing viewpoints of people in different religions / denominations which all use this exact same kind of “in my heart” logic to prove their belief to be true.  Can any of them really say that this is the “first and foremost” basis of finding what is true in our world.  I’m glad we live in a modern world where the majority of countries allow people to freely believe and state this as what they believe, and I am also glad that I am free as well to state very plainly that this is a terrible way to go about finding truth.  Yes, truth is elusive for sure, especially for the big questions of life, but I believe it is still worth it to pursue it in as honest and objective a way that we know possible.  Craig’s epistemology is based “first and foremost” on the things that we know can be incredibly subjective – our heartfelt feelings, and thus falls flat on it’s face as a method for finding truth.

So Craig believes that we can be rationally justified in believing in Christianity due to this Holy Spirit in our hearts even in the face of evidence that seems to prove it wrong.  When a Muslim says “I know Islam to be true in my heart because Allah has told me” how can Craig be consistent and claim that to be irrational.  Sure he can say it is, but to someone on the outside trying to determine which belief is correct sees both the Muslim and the Christian saying exactly the same thing with seemingly the same strength of faith.  And it gets worse, because these are not the only 2 religions that have this kind of logic of the heart.  And even factions within these 2 religions  have very opposing views due to these same feelings as well (Mormons, Seventh Day Adventists, Sunis, Church of Christ, Shi’ites, Jehovah’s Witness’, etc.)

Christian apologists rail on against post-modernists who claim that there is no objective reality.  I agree with them on this – I do believe there is an objective reality to be found, but using a subjective method to find it is not the solution.