Transcript: Podcast 8- Argument from the Meaning of Life

20 July 2007

Ok, this week I want to look at the meaning of life for the main feature. Book reviews this episode will cover Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon by Daniel Dennett and Jesus’ Resurrection: Fact or Figment?, which is a debate between William Lane Craig and Gerd Ludemann. Before that, though, let’s take a quick look at the news.

News

The big news for the past week has been the release of a document approved by Pope Benedict on July 10th, which asserts that the Roman Catholic Church is the One True Church. Other churches, according to the document, are ecclesial communities that do not have the means of salvation.

One of the big controversies here has been to determine if the document claims that non-Catholics are not saved. Upon a closer look at the actual document, this doesn’t seem to be the case. After all, Catholics embrace a form of inclusivism, according to which even some non-Christians might be saved on the basis of their being ‘implicit Catholics.’

In any case, this is an issue which always annoys me a little bit, because it seems absurd for Catholics to think that non-Catholics are not saved, just as it is absurd for Protestants, including non-denominational Christians like myself, to say that Catholics aren’t saved. Catholics and Protestants easily fall under the broader spectrum of Christians, and as such, Catholics and Protestants both affirm a saving faith. There are indeed important doctrinal differences between the groups, and certainly these issues are worth discussing. But the fact of the matter is, both groups affirm that Jesus Christ is the Son of God, both affirm God’s Triune nature, both believe that Jesus Christ died to atone for our sins and was subsequently raised from the dead. And that, in a nutshell, is Christianity. Now, I personally think that Catholics believe and do some strange things which lack a sufficient logical or biblical justification, but I see no reason to think that any of these doctrines are essential to the Christian faith in the way those doctrines just mentioned are. Similarly, Catholics may be understandably frustrated by the fact that I don’t acknowledge the authority of the Pope or pray to the saints. Fair enough. But should these mistakes be enough to think that I don’t have a saving faith?

Many Protestants have reacted to this new document as though they are offended. I don’t personally have such a reaction. After all, I think that Catholics are wrong to say that they are the “One True Church,” and I certainly think that they are out of left field if they think that I’m not saved because I don’t ascribe to their denomination of Christianity. I am not offended, but I do think that the error here needs to be pointed out and corrected, because these types of views tend to get Christians fighting against Christians. We both believe in God. We both accept Jesus Christ as our Lord and Savior. Why can’t we recognize these important, essential points of agreement, and acknowledge that we are all Christians who are just trying to work out good doctrine, and live lives that are glorifying to our Lord? As mentioned earlier, we certainly should discuss differences of doctrine and practice. But let us do so while acknowledging that we are on the same team.

In other news, B and H Publishing Group is getting ready to release the brand new Apologetics Study Bible in October. You can check out some information about this Bible at bhpublishinggroup.com/apologeticsbible. In addition to study notes that explain supposed difficulties and book introductions that focus on apologetic issues, the Bible is going to have more than 100 featured articles written by top Christian scholars. This includes names such as Craig Blomberg, J.P. Moreland, William Lane Craig, and Gary Habermas. I’m really looking forward to it and it looks like it will be a great tool.

Main Feature: The Argument from the Meaning of Life

For the main feature today I want to take a look at the Argument from the Meaning of Life. This argument attempts to prove that we should accept some sort of theistic worldview because only theism can provide a meaning to life. Therefore, this argument doesn’t really argue for the truth of theism per say, it argues that one should, or at least should try one’s best, to believe that theism is true.

This is what I refer to as a pragmatic argument for God’s existence, as opposed to an epistemic argument. Epistemic arguments seek to demonstrate that there is evidence for God’s existence. Epistemic arguments are the most interesting to me, and two examples I have already discussed in previous podcast episodes- The Cosmological Argument in episode 2 and The Teleological Argument in episode 6. Probably the most famous pragmatic argument for God’s existence is Pascal’s Wager. I am a committed realist, and so I am much more concerned with the actual evidence for a view than with whether or not the view is beneficial to believe. For this reason, I am quite hesitant to use any sort of pragmatic argument for belief.

Nevertheless, I am persuaded that The Argument from the Meaning of Life is a good argument, for reasons that I hope to persuade you of in the course of this podcast. First, I will offer a simple formulation of the argument broken down into 4 premises:

1. We should always adopt a worldview in which there is at least a potential for meaning and worth.
2. Atheism provides no possibility for meaning.
3. Theism provides a possibility for meaning.
4. Therefore, one should adopt a theistic worldview.

All three of the main premises are controversial, but first I would like to consider the 2nd premise, which states that atheism provides no possibility for meaning.

Premise 2

There are two implications of atheism that, I think, demonstrate that life cannot have objective meaning under such a worldview. The first implication is death without a possibility of resurrection. Under atheism, we will inevitably die and completely cease to exist. Once we die, we won’t have any memories of our life, our brief existence will be of no use to us at all. We might as well have never been born.

Imagine a doomed astronaut, stuck alone in an escape pod that is flying into deep space- hurtling towards a boiling star. Can his actions inside that pod possibly have any meaning? Nothing he does can possibly affect his eventual death. His actions, thoughts, and beliefs are meaningless. So too, are our lives, as we hurtle uncontrollably to certain death.

Death without resurrection is a big problem for atheistic meaning, but one could argue that it is not fatal. After all, our actions can have an affect on others. We can impact society, raise happy children, be good friends, and so on. The actions we take and the projects we pursue can have a ripple affect in the universe, whether for good or for bad, and through this our lives can have objective meaning.

This, however, simply brings up an even bigger problem, and it is the second devastating implication of atheism. According to all scientific evidence, we know that, under atheism, the entire universe will eventually run down completely, all life will end. We know this is true because of the second law of thermodynamics, which entails that the universe is running out of usable energy. Moreover, we know that the universe is expanding, and it will eventually expand so much that it will be impossible for any life to continue. Paul Davies explains in his book, The Last Three Minutes,

“The universe of the very far future would thus be an inconceivably dilute soup of photons, neutrinos, and a dwindling number of electrons and positrons, all slowly moving farther and farther apart. As far as we know, no further basic physical processes would ever happen. No significant event would occur to interrupt the bleak sterility of a universe that has run its course yet still faces eternal life- perhaps eternal death would be a better description.” [98-99]

The scientific evidence virtually guarantees that the universe is destined for lifelessness, and this is a serious problem for the atheist.

There is an analogy I like to provide here which I think forcefully demonstrates the point of these implications. Neurologists tell us that we dream frequently during the night. Personally, I only have any sort of awareness or recollection of dreams quite rarely. Apparently, though, I have dreams every night. This is fascinating, because at some time during my sleep I am consciously aware of the dream. Yet, it seems to me like it never happened. Apparently, by the time I wake up, I have absolutely no recollection of the dream.

I think that this is very similar to life itself under an atheistic worldview. After all, we are currently experiencing a brief period of conscious existence. Yet, we will soon die out, all of our memories of this life will be no more. It will be as if it never happened. Under atheism, then, our lives are merely a forgotten dream.

What sort of response can an atheist make to the problem of the death of the universe? Here, most nonbelievers will claim that we can make our own meaning for life. We can choose the projects and goals we wish to pursue, we can strive to be morally excellent people, and we can try to have a positive effect on those around us and for the world at large.

Unfortunately, however, we are interested in seeing whether atheism can provide an objective meaning of life, we are not interested in subjective claims of supposed meaning. Creating some sort of subjective meaning is little more than deluding oneself. There either is an objective meaning of life or there is not one.

So what do I mean here by objective? By objective, I simply mean actually existing in the real world. Something that is objectively true does not need to be known or perceived by anyone to be true, it is simply true. For example, a physical object like a table objectively exists, and it does not matter whether or not anyone knows about the table. Even if there are no conscious agents aware of the table, the table still exists.

Someone who sees a table when there is not one is simply deluded or mistaken. If the table doesn’t objectively exist, then it simply does not exist. It may exist in some sense as the projection of a mind, but this merely subjective experience does not make the table real. In the same way, meaning and value in life either objectively exist or they do not. If they do exist, then we humans should aspire to find out what they are. We should figure out how to live our lives with meaning and purpose. But if meaning does not exist, then we cannot simply create some sort of subjective meaning. This just doesn’t solve the problem, because even if we think our lives have meaning, that doesn’t necessarily imply that they do have meaning, just like our thinking there is a table in the room doesn’t necessarily imply that the table is really in the room.

Premise 3

Well, it seems that hopes for an atheistic meaning are pretty bleak, but what about theism? Theism is in a good position to provide a meaning to life because it does not imply a lifeless universe in the distant future. Thus, our actions, thoughts, and beliefs can have an affect on the universe. Furthermore, many forms of theism (including Christian theism) maintain that our actions in this world directly or indirectly affect our afterlife. Thus, our lives are infused with tremendous meaning- because every choice we make could effect how we spend eternity. Furthermore, our choices could affect, for good or for worse, how other people spend eternity.

Theism also implies that God exists, who created us and to whom we owe our gratitude and praise. According to Christian theism, God also provides an objective ground for moral value. We can therefore meaningfully choose to behave morally and do what is good. So in all of these different ways, theism can potentially provide meaning and worth to the human life.

Premise 1

Having supported the premise that atheism doesn’t allow meaning and theism does, we are ready to return to the controversial first premise, which states that we should always adopt a worldview in which there is at least a potential for meaning and worth.

Before we can evaluate this premise, we must ask ourselves if it is ever justified for us to believe in something on the basis of beneficial reasons. Michael Martin, a staunch atheist philosopher, offers a scenario which seems to demonstrate that sometimes beneficial reasons should compel us to believe, or try to believe. On page 34 of his book, Atheism: A Philosophical Justification, he writes,

“Suppose you are an atheist and are kidnapped by a religious maniac with access to nuclear weapons who will kill you and blow up New York City, London, Paris, and Tokyo unless you accept God. You have good reason to suppose that if you undergo two months of rigorous religious indoctrination, you will accept God. To make the case crystal clear, let us suppose that few people will know of your conversion, that the fanatic will die in three months, that he has no disciples to carry on his work, and that the effects of the indoctrination will disappear in four months. Presumably in such a case there would be good reason for submitting to the religious indoctrination. Even the most militant atheist would admit that under this circumstance, refusing to convert would serve no purpose- indeed, would be an act of insanity.”

Martin’s case demonstrates clearly that, at least sometimes, it is ok for us to believe something for beneficial, or pragmatic, reasons. To be clear, Martin thinks that such cases are rare, as do I. The important question we must consider here is this- is the prospect of having a meaningful life adequate justification for us to believe, or try to believe, in the truth of theism?

The answer to this question, it seems to me, has to be yes. In fact, it is difficult to imagine anything more important than having a meaning to life. Any sort of thing we could imagine as really important, such as saving the lives of all the residents of New York City, London, Paris, and Tokyo, actually depends on the supposition that life has meaning. For if we admit that life has no meaning, then neither do the lives of these people matter, and nor does our decision to save them or let them die matter.

A meaning to life is, by its very nature, more important than any other thing we can possibly think of, because in order for anything at all to be important in the first place, life must have meaning. If life is meaningless, nothing matters, by definition. This is absolutely the most deplorable state of affairs possible.

Thus, the prospect of a meaningless life is even worse than the horrible scenario given by Martin, and so, if we admit that we should convert under Martin’s scenario, then we must admit that we should convert to theism, if in fact it is the only way to plausibly suppose that life actually has objective meaning.

Analysis and Objections Considered

If I am correct in my analysis so far, then we should try to believe theism. The argument does not demonstrate that we should believe Christianity. It does, however, show that we should try to believe in some form of theism that provides a possibility for a meaningful life.

But what should we make of the suggestion that we should try to believe theism? Is belief really a choice that we can make? If we cannot decide or choose to believe, then there is simply nothing we can do.

In my opinion, it is sometimes possible for us to decide to believe something. In fact, people decide to believe things all the time on the basis of emotional and non-rational factors. Once someone truly recognizes that theism is necessary for a meaningful life, it is entirely possible that they will be able to choose to believe simply on the basis of the strong emotional desire to believe.

Even assuming that beliefs are never a choice, we can still choose to participate in activities and expose ourselves to certain things in order to maximize the chances of our believing something. This was Blaise Pascal’s suggestion. For example, if one desires to be a Christian theist, then they can read Christian literature, attend church, hang out with Christian friends, and so on. This may greatly increase one’s chance of becoming a true believer.

Two final objections must be considered here. Have I really exhausted all the options? Are atheism and theism really the only two possibilities?

In response to this, I would like to point out that the argument so far still shows that we should not accept, or at least try not to accept, atheism. In any case, theism here covers a broad range of viewpoints, as does atheism. Theism simply affirms the existence of God or gods, and atheism denies the existence of the same. So theism broadly defined includes polytheism, deism, Christianity, Judaism, Islam, and any other viewpoint which affirms the existence of one or more Gods.

Finally, what if an atheist wishes simply to deny universal or even personal death? It is logically possible under atheism, arguably, that the universe will continue to support life forever, and perhaps even possible that we survive the death of our bodies. For example, an atheist can theoretically believe in substance dualism and simply think that souls exist independently from the material world. Under this atheistic dualism, one can believe in the possibility of eternal life and therefore hope for a meaningful life under atheism.

The problem with this is that virtually no atheists hold to this sort of dualism, and the scientific evidence for an end of conscious life in the universe is so overwhelming that almost no atheists deny it. If an atheist wants to take such a view, they can do so, but only at the expense of throwing out any sort of respect for evidence. This would only be justified, in any case, if theism is more improbable than potentially meaningful atheism, which is highly unlikely unless one judges theism, of any variety, to have virtually zero probability.

An Epistemic Argument from Meaning

Now, in addition to this pragmatic argument from meaning, is there any way to formulate this argument so that it has epistemic force? In other words, can the Argument from Meaning be formulated to show that God exists, not simply show that we should try to believe?

I think it can, and I will lay out this version in 3 premises.

1. If atheism is true, then life has no meaning.
2. Life has meaning.
3. Therefore, atheism is not true.

And, as long as we are broadly defining atheism and theism, this would in turn demonstrate that theism is true. But is this argument a good one?

I’ve already given a defense of premise 1. How could we support premise 2? Here, we must appeal to our basic intuitions. Virtually everyone seems to think that life has meaning. It is an intuitively known truth, and in absence of a devastating rejoinder, we are justified to hold it.

However, this argument leaves open the possibility of simply rejecting the second premise and claiming that life has no meaning. If someone does not have the intuition that life has meaning, then they can easily reject the conclusion.

But can someone really truly claim that life has no meaning in good faith? This is a tricky question, because, after all, by their very act of bothering to make the claim they seem to imply that there is meaning to life. If they truly believe that there is no meaning to life, then they believe also that it is meaningless for them to speak at all. Then again, it is meaningless not to speak too. Everything is essentially arbitrary.

But, virtually nobody lives their lives as if everything is ultimately arbitrary. Almost everybody creates goals that they seek to achieve, they make plans and provisions for the future, they try to live moral lifestyles, and so on. A man who walks around claiming that life has no meaning is a walking contradiction.

Thus, this epistemic Argument from Meaning may be sound after all, but I think it is harder to defend than the pragmatic argument.

To sum everything up, I have argued that two implications of atheism, personal death and universal death, destroys the possibility for a meaning of life. Furthermore, since theism does not need to entail these implications, it is possible that there is a meaning of life if theism is true. At this point, we must decide if having the possibility for a meaning of life is important enough to justify accepting theism on pragmatic grounds. It seems to me that a meaning of life is the most important possible thing, and so it seems to me rationally justified to try to believe theism even if the evidence for it is inconclusive or detrimental. Thankfully, I believe that there is actually good evidence for theism anyways. Yet, even in spite of such reasons, a rational person should try to be a theist in order to possibly have a meaning of life.

Book Reviews

Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon

Daniel Dennett’s very popular book Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon, published in early 2006, tries to answer the question ‘Why are we religious?’ Looking at the issue from the standpoint of evolutionary biology, Dennett hopes to explain the origin and endurance of religion naturalistically.

Although Dennett’s work was enjoyable to read, and even though much of what he says is probably true, there are several big problems with his book. I was extremely disappointed with his half-hearted and lame attempt to deal with actual arguments for God’s existence. And he often makes sweeping claims or generalizations without offering sufficient evidence. In fact, throughout the book he acknowledges that most of his speculations require further research for verification, which is fine. But if Dennett admits that research is not yet sufficient to establish conclusions on these subject areas, then why doesn’t he take a more neutral stance? For example, one of the main issues Dennett tries to address is whether or not religion, as a whole, has a positive effect on individuals and society. He frequently admits that more research needs to be done to discern the true effects, be they positive or negative. Fair enough. But Dennett hardly seems neutral on this account, one gets the definite impression that he actually does think that religion is harmful in some significant ways. It seems as though he started with the assumption that religion is a completely natural, and frequently harmful, phenomenon, but even he must admit that the data to support such a hypothesis is simply not strong enough yet to take a definite stance on the issue.

In any case, I don’t actually object to very much in this book. Christians should not be scared of the idea that religion can, for the most part, be explained naturalistically. One cannot conclude from this that religion is false, because to make this leap would be to commit the genetic fallacy. Belief in God and specific religious doctrines must be considered on their own merit. But, once again, in the little time Dennett does spend addressing the ideas on their own merit, his response to the robust fields of natural theology and historical scholarship is very weak.

Dennett does point out, correctly I think, that religions should not be allowed to hide from criticism behind a protective veneer of the sacred. I have no fear allowing criticism and analysis of my religious convictions, because I think that they are objectively true. In fact, such criticism should be welcomed.

My rating for this book: 3 stars out of 5.

Jesus’ Resurrection: Fact or Figment?

In September of 1997, conservative Christian scholar William Lane Craig and atheist scholar Gerd Ludemann met at Boston College to debate the question, is Jesus’ Resurrection a fact or a figment? That debate led to the publication of this book in 2000, with supplementary responses by Christians Stephen Davis and Robert Gundry and skeptics Michael Goulder and Roy Hoover. The book ends with summary responses by Ludemann and Craig.

Gerd Ludemann is well-known in the field as a supporter of the hallucination hypothesis, according to which Christianity first arose because some of the original disciples hallucinated Jesus, and then erroneously declared that he was raised from the dead. This is one of the most popular naturalistic explanations for the emergence of Christianity, especially in light of the fact that virtually all scholars acknowledge that at least some of the disciples had some sort of vision or experience which convicted them of the truth of Christ’s resurrection.

Craig, on the other hand, argues for the Resurrection on the basis of four historical facts which he believes are amply supported by the evidence. These facts include:

1. Jesus’ honorable burial in a tomb.
2. Discovery of Jesus’ empty tomb by a group of women followers.
3. Experiences of Jesus alive from the dead.
4. A sudden belief of the original disciples that Jesus was risen from the dead.

Craig contends that these well-supported facts are best explained by the physical Resurrection of Jesus Christ.

Several facets of Ludemann’s performance are disappointing. First of all, he spends much of the debate discussing issues which are really outside the scope of the debate, such as supposed Anti-Semitism in the New Testament and supposed philosophical problems with Jesus’ ascension. But I fail to see the relevance of these things to the evidence for the Resurrection of Jesus. In fact, his actual presentation of the hallucination hypothesis is quite bare, though Michael Goulder thankfully takes the time to give it a fuller exposition in his essay.

Although one could probably make minor nitpicks, Craig does a great job in the debate. He sticks to the issues at hand and offers powerful arguments in favor of the Resurrection and against the Hallucination Hypothesis. One of the most powerful counters to the theory he offers is evidence that, even if the disciples had hallucinated visions of Jesus, they would have assumed that he was simply translated to heaven. Such a translation fit into Jewish categories of thinking, unlike the foreign notion of a physical resurrection before the end times. Thus, even if one grants Ludemann’s thesis, it still is not a good explanation of the Christian faith.

In any case, this book is a great read and very informative. The essays by the respondents are very useful, and the concluding essays by Craig and Ludemann are even more valuable. This book is highly recommended, and so I give it 4.5 stars out of 5.



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  1. Interesting argument, though I take issue with your defense of premise (1). I don’t think that a lack of objective meaning entails that all of our actions (specifically those actions which save human lives) are worthless.

    Human life can still have objective worth, in virtue of it possessing certain intrinsic goods. Even if I believed my existence would someday end, and I would someday be forgotten, I still believe my life would be of value. The things that I have experienced and any good that I have done—all of my joys (however small), sensations, participation in love and family, even any exquisite pain and misery I have experienced—is worthwhile to me, even if it all is for naught. Life has intrinsic value, even if all of it inexorably and permanently ends. Therefore, actions that preserve and enhance life have intrinsic worth, even if they are forgotten.

    (I talk about this in more detail on my blog.)


    Tina    Jul 22, 04:10 PM    #

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