Can humans create meaning? Can God?
Sean Carroll is an excellent scientist and philosopher. One of his greatest virtues is that he understands both the important role that philosophy must play in the scientific enterprise and that there are some questions that science is not situated to answer and that are the province of philosophy. It is always worthwhile to listen to him discuss scientific and philosophical issues. In the following clip, he talks with Robert Lawrence Kuhn about whether there can be meaning and purpose in a godless universe.
Some of the things that Carroll says in this video are very insightful. For example, he says that it is wrong to think of meaning as a separate kind of thing that must be added to the universe. However, I think that his larger point about meaning and purpose is, at best, ambiguous and, on the most natural interpretation, completely wrong.
In the video (at the 5:17 mark) Carroll says,
“Any person who has wants or desires brings meaning into existence.”
“The question, ‘Is there meaning in the world?’ is just the question, ‘Are there human beings who care about things?’ and the answer is obviously yes.”
These statements are ambiguous. There are two things that Carroll might be indicating. First, he might be saying that persons are themselves valuable and that, because of this, the existence of persons makes the world meaningful. Second, he might be claiming that persons create value in virtue of wanting and desiring things. While there is this ambiguity, I think it much more likely that Carroll means to indicate the second rather than the first.
If I am right, then Sean Carroll is here offering a subjectivist account of meaning. He is claiming that there is meaning so long as there are humans who care about things and that this is because, by caring about things, humans make them meaningful. A subjectivist view of meaning claims that meaning is dependent on the goals, interests, desires, reactions, or attitudes of subjects. On such a view, it would be correct to say that human subjects create meaning by making things meaningful. We make things meaningful, on Carroll’s view, by caring about them. Thus, their being meaningful depends on our attitudes. Is Carroll right about this?
Emptiness: Leela has lately been preoccupied with the thought that life is probably not worth living. Her friends Philip and Amy are trying to help her through this existential crisis. Leela says that she suspects that life is ultimately empty of all significance, merely an unfortunate and meaningless accident. Philip and Amy remind Leela that there are many things that she cares about: her friends, her career, her charity work helping orphans. Leela says that it is true that she has cared about those things, but now she wonders whether she should concern herself with them at all. “All of these people and all of these things,” Leela says, “are just tiny, insignificant specks in the unfathomable and infinite depths of the indifferent universe. And, like Roy Batty, I am acutely aware that all of them will be lost in time like tears in rain. In such a world, in which a human life is but an infinitesimal fleeting instant compared to the vastness of time and space, can anything really matter?”
When Leela wonders whether she should care about what she used to care about, she is not wondering whether, in fact, she still cares about these things; she is wondering whether there are reasons for her to care about these things. It would be no help to her and no answer to her question to insist that she does care about them. She suspects that life is meaningless not because she doesn’t care about anything (and certainly not because there are no humans who care about things; she knows that there are plenty of people who care about things). She is worried that life is meaningless because, she suspects, there are no reasons to care about anything.
Consider now the statement,
(M) There are things that matter to Leela.
This statement is ambiguous. (M) might mean
(N) There are things that Leela cares about.
(O) There are reasons for Leela to care about some things and Leela recognizes those reasons and responds to them by caring about these things.
(N) is a psychological claim about Leela. It says that Leela has concern for certain things. But (N) does not tell us whether there are reasons for Leela to have such concern. And Leela’s worry is that there might not be such reasons. According to Carroll, Leela can make her life meaningful just by caring about things. But telling Leela that there are things that she cares about (or at least that she has cared about) will not help her; this will not enable her to see that life is meaningful. This is because the problem facing Leela, the problem of whether her life is meaningful, is precisely the problem of whether she has reasons to care about anything.
We cannot create value, significance, or meaning because we cannot make it the case that there are reason to care about things. We can make things that are worth caring about, but we cannot make it the case that they are worth caring about. As Derek Parfit says,
We cannot, however, make things good by commanding or willing that they be good. Though we can sometimes change people’s evaluative beliefs, that is not a way of creating new values. Nor can we make anything matter. When something matters to us, in the sense that we care about this thing, that is merely a psychological fact. Something matters only when, and in the sense that, we have object-given reasons to care about this thing. (Parfit Vol.2, 601)
Carroll is wrong about meaning. Though we can make our lives meaningful in the sense that we can choose to bring things into our lives that matter, we cannot make things valuable, we cannot make things matter, and we cannot make things meaningful. This is not because we lack the power to do so. It is not because humans are small and weak; even God cannot make things matter. God can make things that matter (but so can humans) but God cannot make the things that he makes matter. In the same way, humans can produce some of the things that matter in life (though not all of them and maybe not even the most important of them), but we cannot make these things matter. Whether the things we make matter, whether anything matters, is something over which we have no control. Humans cannot make things matter because it is impossible to make things matter.
In what sense can God create meaning?
Near the beginning of the clip (roughly the 1:43 mark) Carroll says that our conception of meaning changes when we leave theism behind since we are not given instructions from God and that “it is, at the very least, up to us to create these things.” This is a significant error. The conception of meaning is not altered by whether God, or any other supernatural entity, exists. Whether life is meaningful depends on whether there are, in our lives, things that matter. And whether there are things that matter is a matter of whether there are things that are worth caring about. The question of whether life has meaning is not the question of whether anyone cares about things but whether there are things such that there are reasons to care about them.
The claim that God makes life meaningful is ambiguous. There are two different things that it might mean:
(A) God creates the things in life that are valuable and worthwhile (and that, in virtue of being valuable and worthwhile, give our lives meaning).
(B) God makes it the case that the things in life that are valuable and worthwhile are valuable and worthwhile. Thus, by making these things valuable and worthwhile, God makes it the case that our lives are meaningful.
Those who, like Carroll, think that our conception of meaning and purpose must change when we abandon theism are assuming (B). Any atheist who thinks either that humans can create their own meaning even in the absence of God or that, in the absence of God, life is objectively empty of meaning, are implicitly assuming (B) as well. And I think that many theists also believe that (B) is the case.
If you believe that God is the creator of Heaven and Earth, then you believe that (A) is true. In creating things like human beings, and the planets and stars, and natural landscapes, and plants and animals, and happiness and love, God creates things that have value. God, if he exists, creates the things that are worthy of pursuit, preservation, and appreciation; and, in doing so, he makes it possible for human lives to be meaningful. If God exists, then, because of God and his activity, there exists things such that we have object-given reasons to care about them. However, if (A) is true, God does not make any of these things valuable; he does not make it the case that these things are worthy of pursuit, preservation, and appreciation.
If life is meaningful, if there are object-given reasons to care about things, then, even on theism, the things that are valuable and worthwhile (the things that make life meaningful and worth living) must be valuable and worthwhile even if God does not exist. Now, it is always open for a theist to claim that, on her worldview, nothing can exist in the absence of God. Well, in that case, if God did not exist, life would not be meaningful but for the trivial reason that life would not be. I am not here trying to rule out or defeat the claim that all concrete things (including the things, like people, and nature, and happiness, and joy, that make life meaningful) depend for their existence on God. What I am trying to rule out is the claim that the value of these things depends on God.
(B) is false. And everyone, theist and atheist alike, should be able to agree that it is false. We know that God cannot create value and meaning because we know that there are some things that God cannot make valuable, worthwhile, or meaningful. And if there are some things such that God cannot make them valuable (etc.), then this implies that God does not have the power to bring value into existence where it does not exist. In other words, God cannot take something that, in the absence of God and his activity, would be worthless and make it worthwhile. Let’s expand this argument.
We know that there are things that God cannot make good or worthwhile. God cannot make suffering good. He cannot make wanton murder worthwhile. Each of these cases involves something that is intrinsically bad and so the thought that God could make these things good involves the thought that God could take something that is intrinsically bad and make it good. This thought is absurd. The nature of suffering gives us reasons to avoid it and God cannot change that. If the nature of suffering were different, such that we no longer had reasons to avoid it, then it would no longer be suffering (and thus talk of the nature of suffering being other than that of providing us with reasons to avoid it is absurd). Wanton murder results in significant suffering and involves the cutting short of a worthwhile life. God cannot make such activity good.
Now, since there are some things (e.g., suffering and murder) that God cannot make good and worthwhile, it follows that God lacks the capacity to make bad things good. This shows that God’s power is limited in this domain, that is, the domain of value, significance, and meaning. If we agree that God cannot make awful things good, then why would we think that he can make anything good?
This same reasoning implies that there are things that God can’t make bad. Consider happiness. The nature of happiness gives us reasons to pursue it, promote it, and appreciate it. God cannot change that. What could God do to make happiness be something that we have no reason to pursue? The question answers itself.
The recognition that it is the nature of suffering that gives us reasons to avoid it and it is the nature of happiness that gives us reason to pursue it yields the following generality: It is the nature of things that provide us with reasons to desire, pursue, preserve, appreciate, care about them. (This is what Parfit means to indicate when he speaks of object-given reasons.) God can create things with a nature, but it is in virtue of that nature (rather than the fact that it is created by God) that these things are significant, insignificant, worthwhile, worthless, etc. God cannot take something whose nature gives us reasons to avoid it and make it something that is worthwhile to pursue. Similarly, God cannot take something, like a piece of refuse, whose nature gives us no reason to pursue, preserve, appreciate, or care about it, and make it the case that this piece of refuse, with this nature, is worthy of pursuit, is desirable, (etc.). And God cannot take something, like happiness, whose nature gives us reason to pursue it, and make it the case that this thing (something, e.g., with the nature of happiness) is something that we have no reason to pursue, preserve, appreciate, or care about.
God can make things that are valuable, but he cannot make it the case that they are valuable. So, let’s compare two universes. The first, which we’ll call G-universe, is one in which God exists and in which life is meaning and there are things that matter. The other universe, NG-universe, is one that is just like G-universe but in which there is no God. Since the things in G-universe, such as planets, stars, human beings, animals, etc. would exist in NG-universe and would have their same nature and properties, there would still be things that matter in NG-universe. For example, there are human beings in NG-universe and human beings have the same nature and properties in NG-universe as they have in G-universe. Since it is the nature of things that provide us with reasons to pursue, preserve, appreciate, or care about them, if humans matter in G-universe, they matter in NG-universe. Suffering and the relieving of suffering exist in NG-universe. So, if suffering has negative value in G-universe, it has negative value in NG-universe. If the relieving of suffering is worthwhile in G-universe, then it is worthwhile in NG-universe.
Since God has the unlimited capacity to create concrete objects, if he exists, he can create things that are valuable. He can also provide states of affairs and experience that are of significant value and such that, in the absence of God, would not be possible. For example, God can provide humans with the opportunity to have a meaningful relationship with a perfect being. If God does not exist, then such a relationship may not be possible. So, God can add meaning to our lives by creating or making possible things that matter a great deal, but God cannot create meaning.
In the same way and for the same reasons, we humans cannot create meaning. We can pursue meaningful things, activities, etc., and by pursuing and achieving good and worthwhile things, we can bring meaning into our lives. But we cannot make a thing or activity be meaningful. If something is meaningful, then there are object-given reasons to care about it. We cannot and God cannot make it the case that there are object-given reasons to care about anything.
**Note: In this essay, I have used some concepts and claims (especially about reasons) that require more development and defense than I have been able to provide here. In a follow-up essay, I will endeavor to provide these.