27 October 2006

God and the Meaning of Life

The Objectivist
Dunkirk-Fredonia Observer
October 25, 2006

The Theist argues that if atheism is true then life is meaningless. I think he's wrong. The question of what constitutes a meaningful life is ambiguous. The question might be asking what makes a person's life go well for him. Alternatively, it might be asking what about a person's life makes the world a better place (that is, what makes it morally good). Let's focus on the first question.

There are two general types of theory about what makes someone's life go better. The internalist theory says that how well someone's life goes depends solely on what goes on in our head. Usually these theories focus on pleasure. The externalist theory says that how well someone's life goes depends in part on things outside of our head. Usually, this involves things like meaningful relationships, true beliefs, etc. On this second theory, a life consisting of laughter, Hostess products, and sex with Paris Hilton is not a great one, even if it is very pleasurable. Now let us ask ourselves whether on either theory the existence of God would make our lives great. That is, would the presence of God lead to greater pleasure, more loving relationships, or true beliefs? No. God might cause these things to happen but his mere presence doesn't bring them about.

Even the notion that God causes these things to come about is doubtful. After all, how happy someone appears to be is a result of how healthy he is, how well his relationships with his family and friends go, whether he is free from violence, and so on. Unless one thinks that God constantly intervenes in our lives, it is hard to see why someone would think that God affects these factors. Even on the usual theist account, persons' relationship with God is so plagued by guesswork, unfamiliarity, and faith that it is hard to see how it could have much affect on how well persons' lives go. For example, whether Princess Diana had children and got divorced had a much bigger effect on her happiness during her lifetime than her personal relationship with God.

If we instead focus on what about a person's life makes the world a better place, it is still hard to see how God's existence affects this issue. We often think that persons whose lives go well make the world a better place, whereas suffering ones do the opposite. This idea might have to be tweaked a little bit to take into account what people deserve. For example, it might be better if bad guys like Joseph Stalin and Adolph Hitler suffer rather than flourish. With regard to the living, it is again hard to see how God comes into play here. Unless he is, like Santa Claus, constantly handing out pleasure to good boys and pain to bad ones, he doesn't seem to affect these factors. And if he did frequently intervene, then he would be making a mockery out of the notion that we should live with the consequences of our freely chosen actions, a notion that lies at the heart of contemporary theism.

A theist might object that a meaningful life depends on God because it is God who decides what is meaningful. However, this doctrine generates the absurd consequence that God has no reason to make some things meaningful (for example, love and knowledge) and other things not (for example, prison rape and Spam). He could have just as easily decreed the opposite since there is no answer to what is meaningful before he laid down standards. Since no theist wants to sign on to such absurdity, this objection isn't helpful.

Other objections based on flaky views of what makes the world a better place don't help the theist's case. For example, on Christopher Hitchens's interpretation, Mother Teresa viewed suffering as something that is good for the world because it is an expression of affiliation with Jesus Christ and his ordeal on the cross. Others view lives lived in fellowship with God as the only way that persons make the world a better place. Such views are less helpful than an anvil is to Wiley E. Coyote.

The theist's best response here is to acknowledge the above arguments but claim that a meaningful life is closely tied to immortality and it is only through God's efforts that persons live eternally. If this claim were plausible, then the theist would be in a strong position. But why think that a meaningful life is closely tied to immortality? A finite life (for example, Ronald Reagan's life) can include love, laughter, and knowledge that make it a successful one. Also, such a life seems to make the world a better place. For example, we would prefer world-creators who bring about more of these lives and fewer lives that are nasty, brutish, and short. Certainly, an ecstatic life that is infinite is better than a finite one, but the latter is still good.

In short, atheism doesn't result in life being meaningless. Luckily for the theist, he need not sign on to such a claim. However, like the Egyptian Pharaoh, the theist is still subject to plagues, in this case the plague of having a contradictory and unscientific world view.


The Theist
Dunkirk-Fredonia Observer
October 25, 2006

Many theists say that a life without God is meaningless, or that if atheism were true, human life would have no meaning. In a sense, these claims are true, but we must be clear about what we're saying and what we're not saying--"meaning" is a very ambiguous term.

Even if atheism were true, life might still have "meaning" in several senses. First, if a "meaningful" life is a morally good one, then yes, even if God doesn't exist, people's lives can be more or less meaningful. One who raises responsible children lives better than one who becomes a serial rapist. Second, if a "meaningful" life is one filled with activities which you desire or value, then sure, even if God doesn't exist, your life may have meaning. You may, if you're lucky, mostly get what you want. Of course, you may place a high value on, say, stealing, rather than on something obviously good, such as loving personal relationships. But either way, yes, your life may have meaning, in this sense, even if God exists but you ignore him, and even if God is simply a fiction. Third, when some people talk about a "meaningful" life they mean one which significantly benefits others. Again, even if God doesn't exist, your life may benefit others; for example, without God you may relieve suffering, help to mend broken relationships, and promote tolerance and kindness. So in any of these three senses of "meaning," if someone says "If there's no God, then life is meaningless," she speaks a falsehood.

It would be highly premature, though, to stop here, declaring that God's existence isn't relevant to the meaningfulness of our lives. If God exists, then he has a purpose for creation as a whole, for the human race, and for your life. Let's focus on this last one. If God exists, then there is a purpose for your life--one which neither you nor any other human created, and one which you can't just will to go away. And this isn't just any purpose--it was picked by a perfectly good, all-knowing being, who is in charge of history. Your life was meant to fit in with his project in history, with his aims--what the Bible calls his "Kingdom." Moreover, this purpose is a perfect fit for you, as it takes into account all those things which together make you unique; an all-knowing being doesn't try to cram square pegs into round holes.

Further, you might think that a "meaningful" life can't be one which has always been doomed to utter loss. But if atheism is true, then you, your family, the human race, and every cause you've ever worked for, is ultimately doomed--all of these things will cease to exist, and the universe won't miss them as it reverts to a lifeless state. Not so, for the theist--she looks forward to life everlasting.

Even our concessions in the second paragraph need qualifying. Theists (especially Christians) hold that there's a deep, consistent, self-sacrificing kind of moral goodness which is out of people's reach unless they deliberately accept divine help ("grace"). If they're right about this, then in an atheistic universe, or a theistic one in which you're a mistaken non-theist, there's a kind of beyond-the-norm goodness which is beyond your reach. Further, theism is an enormous help to moral motivation. If I believe that God is always watching, and will some day hold me to account, I'll be motivated to behave even when no one else is looking.

Even more importantly, if God exists, there can't be a conflict between my self-interest (what is beneficial to me) and what morality requires. If I get into a situation where only I can jump on the hand grenade, saving five other lives, I'll be fully motivated to jump on it--it is moral, and it'll be a net gain for me as well, thanks to God. Of course, atheists are capable of such heroic goodness as well, but it seems to them that self-interest and moral duty frequently conflict, which tends to reduce their motivation to do what is right.

Second, how do we know which things are worthy of being valued by us? Some projects are futile (e.g. the Walter Mondale campaign), and others, if they succeed, prove to be disastrous, despite the noble intentions of their promoters (e.g. the so-called Cultural Revolution in China). Others are simply a waste of time (e.g. completing your collection of “Family Guy” paraphernalia). But a person who actually cooperates with God promotes a project (God's Kingdom) which is guaranteed to succeed, and which will be supremely and purely good when it does. This project is the assembling of a group of people, from all corners of human society, who above all love God and their neighbor. These people freely cooperate with God, and by his grace become increasingly like him.

No--we're not talking about electing more Republicans, people. Or Democrats. We're talking about something which works by love, friendship, and rational persuasion, not coercion of any kind, and so transcends politics, and accomplishes more than merely political means ever could--which is inviting people to become God- and other-centered, and then (here’s the kicker) actually making that possible.

Is this the only way to make the world a better place? No. But it's the only way which has no significant downside and which is destined to succeed long-term.


Josh said...

The meaning of life and "how well a persons life goes" are two different topics. My life can be very horrific does this mean that life is meaningless? or that my life was meaningless? To go about this reasoning is in essence to say that anybody that has a horrid life is meaningless. Poor people must be meaningless. When meaning becomes subjective so to does the value of life.

When it is said that without God life is meaningless it is refering to life in general. God is a unifying principle in this universe, therefore removing God removes the "principle" of the Universe.

Interesting articles none the less.

The Objectivist said...

Dear Josh:

Thank you for the comments. I deny that there is a sense of a meaningful life distinct from the following two issues.
(1) What makes my life good?
(2) What makes my life good for me?

I do think that a person whose life goes very poorly does not have a life that goes well for him.

Whether it is a life that makes the world a better place depends on what effects he has on others, since his life has little intrinsic value.

The Objectivist said...

The theist's notion of God's project is an odd one. Consider why should we pursue this project?

If it's because it will maximize the good or aggregate welfare, then it is worth pursuing independent of God. The same thing is true if the project promotes justice.

In short, given our lack of a personal connection to God, the standard problem with divine command theory applies.

(A) If the project is valuable worth pursuing independent of God, then theism doesn't make the project worth pursuing or more worth pursuing.

(B) If the project is valuable because God commands it, prefers it, etc., then what is meaningful depends on the arbitrary choice of God. He might just as well have chosen to make raping and pillaging coastal towns the meaningful project.

In either case, the notion of the grand project is not tied to theism.

Also, why does it have to be among all and only those who believe in God? I can't see any reason to think that the project's goal can't be achieved via well-meaning atheists and by excluding some theists either because they're too hard to communicate with or because they have mistaken moral beliefs (e.g., opposition to abortion).

The Objectivist said...

Why does God want persons to join together? Unless this is necessary for maximal well-being, I don't see why this should be God's goal.

If God doesn't want maximal aggregate (or, perhaps, average) well-being among his creations, then he doesn't seem to have maximum virtue.

The Objectivist said...

I wonder how the notion of a grand project fits with the notion that some persons are going to hell. I realize that they might have independent explanations, but they nonetheless seem to have a different feel to them.

The Constructivist said...

Hey, O and T, please keep up your God blogging. The MSM, as represented by Time magazine, is totally ripping off your ideas. Take the recent God vs. Science cover story (I think this link will get you past the subscription wall)....

I have nothing on the ultimate meaning issue, except the obvious "constructivist" point that we make it.

The Objectivist said...

Dear C:
The notion that we make meaning is odd. Are you claiming that we decide what makes our life go well?

If so, then it seems that what makes our life go well is whatever satisfies our preferences and this is independent of our desires (although what specifically satisfies our preferences is not so independent).

If we must decide whether whatever we prefer makes our life go better, then this just appears to be a second-order preference (preference about a preference) and again this then seems independent of our mental states.

I don't see how this position is coherent.

That said, I appreciate the point about the debate in Time.

The Constructivist said...

Yes, badly-put point. Is this any less incoherent?

I meant something more like "meaning-making is a human activity." Throw in a little Marx--"people make history, but not under the conditions of their own choosing," and you get closer to what I think I mean.

Take someone killed by the Nazis during the Warsaw Uprising. Choosing that kind of death rather than other kinds could either be characterized as bravery or stupidity, heroism or cowardice. It could be characterized as something else entirely. Is there just one meaning to the life of someone who dies under those circumstances? Individuals will make it mean various things; communities will make it mean various things. I don't think this plurality is reducible to one true meaning of that person's life or death. Similarly, to try to identify the significance of that person's life or death is a radically subjective process.

Will humanity have a meaning if/after we go extinct? Only if some other sentient beings come across artifacts of our civilizations and try to make sense of them, assess them, debate their meaning and significance. I think postulating a consciousness that sees all and knows all is kind of like the desire for there to be an omniscient narrator in the world.

I'm curious about how you'd go about putting a value on someone's life. The ability to do that seems to underlie your sense that we can objectively determine whether a life is more or less meaningful.

The Objectivist said...

Dear C:
I don't see that the fact that different persons would attach different meanings to someone killed during the Warsaw Uprising shows that meaning is a human activity.

This leaves aside the notion that there is a fact of the matter and that some persons don't recognize the fact or recognize but mischaracterize it.

Here's how you can see this. If the truth of a person's opinions on whether a death is meaningful and how so depends on their desires, then meaning seems to be desire-satisfaction, conscious awareness of desire-satisfaction, or something along those lines. If it is independent of desire (or belief, value, preference, etc.), then it's not clear what the difference of opinion shows.

In this latter case the difference of opinion would be no different than the difference of opinion on an issue in science (which has right answers) or one on whether Santa Claus likes fluffer nutter sandwiches (a sentence which has no right answer because it refers to a non-existent thing).

The Objectivist said...

Dear C:

Let's assume that intrinsic value tracks on of the following two things.

(1) Pleasure (measured in hedons)

(2) Desert-adjusted pleasure

These allow for a cardinal scale (constant differences between numbers and a true zero point).

We can then use this notion to track the value of someone's life.

I would further claim that money is a reliable guide to this value. In that in general, we tend to prefer things which make our life go better and we tend to spend money in a way that tracks our preferences.

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The Answer Is X