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.

12 October 2006

Is God Possible?

The Objectivist
Dunkirk-Fredonia Observer

The best arguments for God presuppose that he is perfect. Some theists (persons who believe in God) argue that God exists because he alone can explain where the universe comes from. The underlying idea is the Stevie Wonder principle that you can't get something from nothing. The theist then argues that since the universe couldn't have come from nothing, God must have created it. The theists then note that because God is perfect he has to exist and hence was not created by something else.

Consider what a perfect being is like. He must be all-knowing, all-powerful, and all-good. The absence of one of these features would be a flaw and perfect beings don't have flaws. Unfortunately for theists, no being can have all three features.

Consider whether there can be a person who is both all-powerful and all-good. Many readers enjoy malicious pleasures. These are pleasures that accompany evildoing. For example, many of Stanley Kubrick's fans enjoy watching out-of-control criminals and abusive drill instructors wreaking havoc (for example, Clockwork Orange and Full Metal Jacket). Males who went to high school often snicker at the time-honored tradition of senior athletes giving wedgies to freshmen (pulling the top of someone's underwear until it hurts). An all-good person can't enjoy such pleasures and hence doesn't know something, namely what these pleasures are like.

A similar thing is true with regard to being all-powerful and all-knowing. An all-powerful person can't be harmed. If such a person had great knowledge, then he would know that he can't be harmed and hence can't feel fear. As a result, there would be something that an all-powerful person can't know.

A person also can't be all-good and all-powerful. For example, an all-powerful being can do evil. For example, he can kill and eat the weak just for the fun of it. An all-good being can't this because he can do something only if he can be motivated to do it and an all-good being can't be motivated to do such monstrous acts. Worse yet, given the importance that the theist assigns to free will--he needs it to account for evil--he has a problem in explaining why God has free will. A being that freely does good has the option of doing evil. However, since an all-good being can't do evil, he doesn't have that option, and lacks free will. Hence, an all-good being can't be all-powerful or have free will.

These results drive a stake into the heart of theism. The best arguments for God's existence depend on his being perfect and yet a perfect being is impossible. At this point, the theist has at three options: he can deny that God is subject to logic, he can deny that God is perfect, or he can claim that a perfect being need not have the above features.

The notion that God is not subject to logic reduces most religious doctrines to hash. For example, when persons say God is great, they mean to rule out that God tortures puppies for fun or has a temperament nearly identical to Roseanne. When they say they believe in God, they mean to rule out his not existing. However, if God is not subject to logic then neither thing follows. In fact, were this notion true, then human beings would not be able to reason correctly about God.

The theist might deny that God is perfect, perhaps by saying that perfection is no more possible than is a largest number. The problem with this move is that it undermines the best arguments for God's existence. For example, it undermines the argument that attempts to show that the existence of God explains why there is a universe.

The theist's best bet is to deny that a perfect being is all-knowing, all-good, all-powerful, and has free will. The problem with this is that the theist will then have to specify which features God has. For example, does the theist concede that God is a little bit evil or does he deny that God has free will? The problem with this escape route is that the choice of which features God has and doesn't have is arbitrary and his perfection can't rest on arbitrary things. If it did, then God's perfection would depend on chance or external causes and such dependence is a flaw.

Bad news for God, he doesn't exist. However, this doesn't prevent us from having great families, leading moral lives, and laughing at the politicians the devil has placed in Washington and Albany.


Defining God Out of Existence
The Theist
Dunkirk-Fredonia Observer

Atheists make poor theologians. Still, we find them telling everyone about how God would have to be, if there was one (but of course, there isn't). What is going on? They're searching for a simple, knock-down argument against belief in God. Let me explain.

If some claim is inconsistent with itself, it is false. Further, once we understand it to be contradictory, we all know it is false. If I tell you that I've got a brother who is five feet tall, and who is also (at the same time) six foot three, you don't need to go asking my family whether or not I have such a brother. As soon as you understand my claim to be inconsistent, you know it's false. And if I tell you that there's exactly one god, and that there's also exactly fourteen (using the word "god" in the same sense both times), I'm propounding a contradictory religion--one which couldn't possibly be true, and must be false. Now some claims may at first appear to be self consistent, but upon inspection, they turn out to be contradictory, such as "There's a square circle" or "I drew a right triangle with an interior angle larger than ninety degrees."

The atheist is tempted to argue that "God exists" is a claim of this sort. Wouldn't that be convenient? If that were true, the atheist could ignore what feels like the voice of God calling out to him through the glories of the natural world, and the testimony of millions of apparently sane and sober people who have experienced God’s reality--his love, his presence, even his voice. The atheist could also skip a serious, thoughtful look at the reported careers and teachings of people such as Moses and Jesus. What a time-saver! How does it work? Simply define the divine attributes so as to be inconsistent with one another, making the very idea of God a contradictory one. Presto! It will follow that there couldn't be a God, so defined. So, for example, if he's all-powerful, that means he can do anything at all, but that conflicts with his being perfectly good.

The problem with this sort of argument is that only a chump of a theist would accept the proposed definitions of the divine attributes. God is traditionally thought to be a bodiless being, the Source of the cosmos, with in some sense limitless power. But pretty much no theologian has wanted to say that God can do anything we can name. For instance, God can't lie, can't commit suicide, can't make square circles, and can't steal children's Halloween Candy just because he likes to hear them cry. Similarly, God is supposed to have unlimited knowledge, as he's in control of history, is present everywhere, upholds all things in existence, and is eternal. But, one may object, if he can't do evil, he therefore can't know certain things, such as, what it's like to rob a bank. This is a lame objection--as if God would have no imagination whatsoever, no ability to vividly imagine, in perfect detail, what it is like to rob a bank.

Divine freedom is a more difficult issue. The claim that a being which is free to do good must also be free to do evil is false. If I were perfectly good, I might be able to give a certain panhandler one dollar or five dollars, even though I'd be unable to insult him and push him down. And whether I gave one or five, I would still be deserving of thanks. Still, one might think that an important kind of freedom is freedom to form one's own character for good or evil, through a series of free choices, over the course of time. All of us believe that we have this sort of freedom, but does God have it as well? The traditional answer is "no"--a being who knows everything and has no pressing needs can't even be tempted to do evil, much less go through with it. I don't see anything wrong with this answer.

In sum, this atheist attempt at a home run is just a big swing and miss. Theists should call atheists' bluff on this sort of argument, and not take refuge in the easy out of disparaging "human logic." This is a silly reply, because there's nothing specifically human about the fact that contradictions can't be true. The idea may be that, given our finite minds, when we start thinking about something as far beyond us as God, we'll run into paradoxes. Maybe so, but that's no excuse to accept contradictions only when they provide easy escapes from atheistic objections. In the rest of life, as in religion, we all eschew inconsistent claims, because we want to get true beliefs and to avoid false ones. Our human minds are the most amazing thing in God's creation, and he expects us to use them well.