bookmark_borderWhat is Christianity? Part 15

In his book Naming the Elephant (hereafter: NTE), the Christian apologist James Sire raises various objections against his analysis of the concept of a “worldview” that he had presented in his earlier book The Universe Next Door (hereafter: TUND).
I have reviewed three of Sire’s objections to his earlier cognitivist analysis of the concept of a “worldview” and argued that those objections were unsuccessful (see previous posts 10, 11, 12, and 13).
I plan to review more of Sire’s objections from NTE, but for this post I will simply re-iterate and reinforce a basic argument against Sire’s proposal in NTE that we take a worldview to be “a way of life”:

  1. Sire (and nearly all Christian apologists) believes that “The Christian worldview is true.”
  2. The belief that “The Christian worldview is true.” makes sense ONLY IF a worldview is something that can be true or false.
  3. But, if a worldview is “a way of life”, then a worldview is NOT something that can be true or false.


4. Sire (and nearly all Christian apologists) must either give up the belief that “The Christian worldview is true.”  or else he must reject the belief that a worldview is “a way of life”.

It is clear in TUND that Sire believes that a worldview is something that can be true or false.  In the “Preface to the Third Edition” he speaks of worldviews as being “true” and as needing “justification”:
…I am convinced that for any of us to be fully conscious intellectually we should not only be able to detect the worldviews of others but be aware of our own–why it is ours and why in light of so many options we think it is true.  I can only hope that this book becomes a stepping stone for others toward their own self-conscious development and justification of their own worldview.  (TUND, p.10, emphasis added)
Furthermore, his very definition of “worldview” in TUND includes a clear reference to the idea of truth:
A worldview is a set of presuppositions (assumptions which may be true, partially true, or entirely false) which we hold (consciously or subconsciously, consistently or inconsistently) about the basic makeup of our world.  (TUND, p.16, emphasis added)
But it is not just in the earlier book TUND where Sire speaks of worldviews in terms of truth and falsehood.  In the very first paragraph of the Preface of NTE, we find Sire still talking about worldviews being true or false:
Moreover, developing a cognizance of my own worldview has provided a way of orienting not just my own thoughts but my whole take on life itself.  I have, in short, long been interested in detecting the basic intellectual commitments we make as human beings, reveling in their variety, delighting in the depth of their insight when they have grasped the truth and despairing over their disastrous consequences when they have proven false.  (NTE, p.11, emphasis added)
And, at least initially, Sire more or less repeats the definition of “worldview” from his previous book, including the reference to truth:
A worldview is composed of a number of basic presuppositions, more or less consistent with each other, more or less consciously held, more or less true.  (NTE, p.20, emphasis added)
But in later chapters of NTE, Sire raises objections to his previous cognitivist analysis of the concept of a “worldview” and rejects that previous analysis:
First, a worldview is not fundamentally a set of propositions or a web of beliefs. That is, it is not first and foremost a matter of the intellect.  (NTE, p.123)
Despite rejecting his previous cognitivist analysis of the concept of a “worldview”, Sire persists in speaking about worldviews in terms of truth and falsehood.  At the end of Chapter 6, for example, Sire speaks of a worldview being “objectively true”:
Traditional Christians in general are not about to give up the idea of objective truth.  I do not think I speak only for myself when I say that every fiber in my being cries out for a worldview that is not just my own story, my own set of propositions, my own interpretation of life, but one that is universally, objectively true (NTE, p.118, emphasis added)
In Chapter 7 of NTE, Sire uses the words “true” and “false” and “accurate” of worldview “assumptions”:
The presuppositions that express one’s commitments, may be true, partially true or entirely false.  Since there is a way things are, the assumptions one makes about this may be more or less accurate.   (NTE, p.129, emphasis in original)
Sire illustrates this point with the important example of the Christian-worldview belief that “there is a God”:
If there is a God, and we believe in God, our belief is a true belief.  (NTE, p.129, emphasis added)
Later in Chapter 7, Sire speaks about the possibility of having “contradictions in our worldview” and the need to “eliminate” such contradictions:
One inconsistency is quite common.  Some self-confessed Christians believe in reincarnation.  I am convinced that those who do this have not understood very well what Christianity teaches.  For if it is true that each person is made in the image of God, then each person is unique.  The doctrine of the resurrection of the body at the end of human history assures that each person is that same person and that person alone.  But reincarnation involves the notion that one individual at death reverts to a state in which he or she can return as another individual in another body.  This happens not just once but over and over.  The two concepts of what happens at death–resurrection and multiple, perhaps eternal, reincarnations–cannot both be the way things are.   One precludes the other.
If we are to have a Christian worldview, we will want to eliminate the contradictions in our worldview.  (NTE, p.131, emphasis added)
Concern about contradictions in a worldview implies a concern about TRUTH of the beliefs or assumptions that constitute the worldview.  Note that Sire explains the problem or contradiction here by using the concept of truth: “For if it is true that each person is made in the image of God, then each person is unique.”  Worldviews can contain contradictions, because worldviews are composed of beliefs or assumptions which can be true or false.
Near the end of Chapter 7, Sire speaks about “errors” in worldviews:
Some errors in worldview will become apparent and be eliminated only with much prayer and supplication.  That will be true of our own errors as much as those of others whose views we try to change. (NTE, p.135, emphasis added)
The idea that a worldview can contain “errors” supports the previous statements by Sire where he speaks of worlview “assumptions” being “true, partially true or entirely false.” (NTE, p.129).
At the end of Chapter 7, Sire re-iterates his view that ontological assumptions, such as belief in the existence of Godare the most basic and important aspect of a worldview:
…because the mainstay of one’s worldview is ontological, a commitment to a specific notion of fundamental reality, we will take a person’s notion of God or nature or themselves to be the most important aspect of their character.  Their support or rejection of any ethical principle–say prochoice or prolife–is less fundamental than the notion of what is ultimately real.  Christians proclaiming either ethical principle will do so primarily from an understanding of who God is… A change of position on this issue [i.e. on their understanding of who God is] will mean worldview change at a deep level. (NTE, p.135-136, emphasis added)
The primary ontological belief in the Christian worldview is that God exists.  As we saw earlier, this belief or assumption is one that Sire thinks can be true or false:
If there is a God, and we believe in God, our belief is a true belief.  (NTE, p.129, emphasis added)
Although Sire raises many objections against his earlier cognitivist analysis of the concept of a “worldview”, and although he rejects this cognitivist analysis, he continues to speak of worldviews in terms of “assumptions” and “presuppositions” and “beliefs” which are to be evaluated as  “true, partially true or entirely false.”  (NTE, p.129).  And since Sire also continues to speak of worldviews as potentially being “objectively true” (NTE, p.118), Sire is caught in a significant self-contradition: he must either give up his claim that a worldview is “a way of life”, or else he must give up his view that a worldview is something that can be true or false.

bookmark_borderWhat is Christianity? Part 11

Shortly after the turn of the century, the Christian apologist James Sire revised his understanding of the concept of a “worldview” and wrote a book advocating this revised understanding: Naming the Elephant (hereafter: NTE).  Some of the the key changes that Sire makes to his conception of a “worldview” are defended in Chapter 5 of NTE:
…the discussion so far has proceeded as if a worldview were a set of propositions or beliefs that serve as answers to a systematic set of [basic philosophical] questions.  This certainly is how I understood the notion of worldview as I wrote The Universe Next Door.  I still believe that this is a useful way to define the concept, but I have become aware that it both overemphasizes the systematic nature of worldviews and misses some other important aspects.  So what is inadequate?  And what is missing?  Those are the subjects of this chapter [i.e. Chapter 5].   (NTE, p.91)
In Chapter 1 of NTE, Sire summarizes the issues covered in Chapter 5 of NTE this way:
Is a worldview primarily an intellectual system, a way of life, or a story? (NTE, p.22)
One of his key conclusions from Chapter 5 is clearly stated in Chapter 7:
First, a worldview is not fundamentally a set of propositions or a web of beliefs. That is, it is not first and foremost a matter of the intellect.  (NTE, p.123)
If Sire is correct, then my cognitivist view of religion is wrong, and if my cognitivist view of religion is correct, then Sire’s revised understaning of the nature of worldviews is wrong.   So, I am attempting to defend Sire’s earlier conception of worldviews against his own objections, the objections that led him to revise his understanding and definition of the word “worldview”.
In the previous post in this series,  I defended Sire’s earlier concept of a worldview against the objection that it unrealistically requires that a worldview consist of a carefully thought out complete and systematic philosophy of life.   I agree that this would be an unrealistic requirement or definition of “worldview”.   However, neither his previous definition of “worldview”, nor his previous description of the nature of worldviews had this implication, so there is no need to modify his previous definition or account based on this concern.
The next objection raised by Sire against his older conception of a worldview, is presented in a subsection of Chapter 5 called “The Right Questions” on pages 94 to 97 of NTE.  Sire compares his seven basic questions (see the previous post for his list of questions) to questions proposed by others (mostly Christian theologians) who have attempted to analyze worldviews by means of a small set of such questions.  After briefly comparing his questions with the questions proposed by a few other key thinkers, Sire draws this conlcusion:
It appears, therefore, that my seven questions are in fact fairly comprehensive.  They include in some way the essence of all the questions others have formulated.  This should not be surprising, since the questions address ontology, epistemology, and ethics.  What else besides aesthetics is left?  
What is missing from my seven questions is not content but existential relevance.  True, the fourth question (“What happens to persons at death?”) is existential, but the others are not. …  (NTE, p.97, emphasis added)
Is there a problem with a lack of “existential relevance” in Sire’s previous account of worldviews?  Before we can answer this question, we first need to understand what “existential relevance” means.  The meaning of this phrase is best understood in terms of this specific context, namely in relationship to the contrast that Sire makes between his conception of “worldview” and that of others in this particular subsection of Chapter 5.
In the subsection of Chapter 5 called “The Right Questions” Sire begins by comparing his questions with a similar series of questions in a quote from Wilhelm Dilthey (emphasis added by me):
The riddle of existence . . . is always bound up organically with that of the world itself and with the question of what I am supposed to do in this world, why I am in it, and how my life in it will end.  Where did I come from?  Why do I exist?  What will become of me?  This is the most general question of all questions and the one that most concerns me. (NTE, p.95; quoted by David Naugle in Worldview: The History of a Concept, p.83)
I take it that the question “Why do I exist?” is NOT a scientific question.  This question would not be answered by explaining the biology of sexual reproduction and the historical circumstances that led to one’s parents having sexual intercourse, which then resulted in one’s conception and birth.  Such a scientific or causal explanation is not what is desired here.
Rather, this question is about the purpose or meaning of one’s life.  A clearer expression of the intended question would be “Why should I continue to exist, as opposed to killing myself?”  That is a question with “existential relevance”.  I have also emphasized the phrase  “the question of what I am supposed to do in this world” because, as we shall soon see, this is at least an important part of what Sire means by “existential relevance”, namely relevance to practical decisions concerning what actions one should take or what choices one should make.
Sire also considers another list of questions that James Orr asks in relation to the analysis of a worldview, and Sire makes a general comment about those questions:
James Orr notes that two types of causes–speculative and practical–are involved in the formation of worldviews.  Both “lie deep in the constitution of human nature.”  On the one hand, we want a comprehensive theoretical understanding of the “origin, purpose, and destiny” of the universe and our lives.  But we also want a practical understanding of these issues so that we can properly order our lives. …  (NTE, p.95, emphasis added by me)
Sire notes that Orr views the basic questions that define a worldview as encompassing both theoretical and practical issues.  This is another indication that “existential relevance” is closely related to practical issues and concerns.  (The first indication was the phrase quoted from Dilthey “…the question of what I am supposed to do in this world…”).  Also, among the list of questions from Orr quoted by Sire is this one: “By what ultimate principles ought man to be guided in the framing and ordering of his life?”  (NTE, p. 96)
I find the worldview questions that Sire quotes from the theologians Brian Walsh and Richard Middleton very appealing.  Walsh and Middleton ask only four basic questions, and two of them are, in my view, of particular importance:
(3) What’s wrong?  Or, what is the basic problem or obstacle that keeps me from fulfillment? …
(4) What is the remedy?  Or, how is it possible to overcome this hindrance to my fulfillment? …  (NTE, p.96)
Like me, Walsh and Middleton conceive of worldviews in terms of problem-solving.  The basic problems being practical in nature: How should I live my life?  What do I need to do to live a good life or to live my life well?  These are basic questions in the sub-discipline of philosophy called ethics.
When Sire sums up the comparisons of his seven questions with the questions put forward by Dilthey, Orr, and Walsh & Middleton, he closely associates “existential concerns” with questions that have a “practical” focus:
With Dilthey, Orr, and to some extent, Walsh and Middleton, the questions focus on existential concerns.  They are all about us.  While the answers will involve God and nature, the emphasis is practical.  What are the implications for us as human beings looking for a satisfying life?  (NTE, p.97, emphasis added by me)
Based on the particular context of the comparisons made between Sire’s seven worldview questions and similar sets of questions proposed by Dilthey, Orr, Walsh & Middleton, we can clarify this objection to Sire’s seven worldview questions:
What is missing from my seven questions is not content but existential relevance.  (NTE, p.97)
This objection can be re-stated in terms of practical concerns:
Sire’s seven worldview questions lack a proper emphasis on practical and ethical concerns.
If this is a good interpretation of the objection, then I would concede that there is some truth to this objection.
Sire’s intention behind his seven basic worldview questions was to capture the basic and most important issues of metaphysics, epistemology, and ethics.  To the extent that Sire succeeded in this intention, his seven questions would include one or more basic questions of ethics, and in doing so he would have provided a proper emphasis on practical and ethical concerns.
However, it seems to me that Sire’s seven questions do not do a great job of capturing the basic questions of ethics, so there is room for improvement by adding one or two basic questions of ethics and/or by revising one or two of his questions to make them more clearly questions of ethics or more clearly questions about practical concerns.  I believe that some minor changes to Sire’s seven worldview questions would be sufficient to resolve this issue.
Three of Sire’s seven questions appear to be related to ethics (from NTE, p.94):
3. What is a human being?
6. How do we know what is right and wrong?
7. What is the meaning of human history?
Question (3) relates to metaphysics (e.g. Do human beings have souls or spirits?  What is the relationship between a human mind and a human brain?).  But question (3) is also related to ethics: Do human beings have free will?  Are human beings moral agents who can be worthy of moral praise or moral blame?  Do human beings have a right to life?  Is the life of a human being of more value than the life of a non-human animal, like a dog or a deer?
Question (6) attempts to get at the heart of ethics but fails to do so.  This question is too narrow in two different ways.  First, it is focused on epistemology (“How do we know…”).  Other questions in Sire’s list deal with epistemology, so this one ought to be more about ethics.   Second, this question focuses on morality, but ethics is broader than just morality.  The basic question of ethics is “How should I live my life?”.
One partial response to this question could be “You should live your life in a way that is morally good and morally responsible.”  But morality, even if it is an important aim for life, is not the ONLY thing that can make a life a good life or a bad one.  What about pleasure and creativity and obtaining knowledge?  In addition to being a fair person, and being a considerate person, and being an honest person, isn’t it also good to enjoy life? to make use of one’s imagination and creative abilities?  to learn about history and science and art?  Perhaps being morally good is more important than enjoying life or being creative or learning new things, but to live a life that is focused exclusively on morality seems like it would make a person rather narrow and uptight and unhappy and difficult to live around.  In any case, it begs important questions to simply assume that the only goal that one ought to aim at in life is to be a morally good person.
Question (6) is Sire’s attempt to get at the heart of ethics, and his intention was a good and proper one, but question (6) does not fully capture the heart of ethics because it is a bit too narrow.  If we broaden (6) just a bit, then that would help Sire’s seven questions to have a proper emphasis on practical or ethical concerns.  Here is my suggested alternative:
(6A)  How should I live my life?  (What are the main criteria for judging that a life is/was a good life, a well-lived life? What are the main obstacles to acheiving such a life?)
Questions of morality and right vs. wrong actions are obviously relevant to this general question, but so are other important values and considerations, such as pleasure, creativity, and knowledge.
Question (7) asks about the “meaning” of human history.  This question relates to ethics in that the goodness of a person’s life can be judged, in part, in relation to their contributions or impacts on human progress or on the acheivement of valueable goals that occur after the death of the person in question.
A military officer’s actions in a battle might help his country to win a war, but the winning of the war might happen years after that officer’s death.  The discoveries of a scientist might help other scientists to find a cure for cancer, but the cure might not be found until decades after the death of that scientist.  In such cases, we often think that there was some good or value in that person’s life because of the positive impact their actions had on the lives of others long after that person had died.
We want our lives to be meaningful and significant, and part of that desire involves a desire to have a significant impact on people and events beyond the limited scope of the people we meet and the events we experience in the limited time that we are alive.  These sorts of concerns and desires are all relevant to the basic question of ethics that I spelled out in question (6A).
Although Sire’s seven questions might not have done a great job in capturing the heart of ethics, I think if we revise his question (6) to (6A), and if we understand that there are ethical aspects to questions (3) and (7), then Sire’s set of worldview questions would provide a proper emphasis on practical and ethical concerns.  Thus, the objection that we were considering, represents only a minor problem that can be corrected with a minor change (or two) to Sire’s questions.  There is no need for a major revision to Sire’s seven questions.

bookmark_borderAnother Christian Apologist Tears Down a Straw Man of Atheist Morality

My friend Wintery Knight (WK) has written another blog post on the topic of morality. Like so many other theists (and a few atheists), he manages to completely botch the topic of atheist morality.
Who Speaks for Atheists, Anyway?
If you want to determine Christian beliefs about something, you can see what the Bible and various representatives of the (Christian) church hierarchy have to say. So if you’re a Christian apologist trying to make sense of atheist morality, it follows that you should see what the Atheist Bible and various representatives of the (atheist) church hierarchy have to say. Right?
Wrong! There is no atheist Bible or hierarchy, so you’re going to have to do better than quote mining various atheists, even famous atheists. You’re even going to have to do more than write snarky summaries of your favorite debates between William Lane Craig and his (typically) clueless-atheist-debate-opponent-of-the-month. You’re going to have to temporarily stop bashing non-STEM degrees (see, for example, here) and actually study ethics (specifically, meta-ethics) and construct deductively valid or inductively correct arguments to support your claims. As we shall, however, WK fails to do this.
Rationally Grounded Morality
WK begins his post by listing 5 requirements for a “rationally grounded system of morality”:
(1) Objective moral values
(2) Objective moral duties
(3) Moral accountability
(4) Free will
(5) Ultimate significance
After reading his comments on these five requirements, I thought to myself, “He could have been much more concise by simply stating that a rationally grounded system of morality must be personally approved by William Lane Craig or, better yet, require that God exists.” If that seems snarky, it’s not meant to be. WK’s comments really are that question-begging. The fact of the matter is that WK has confused rational grounding with a plethora of other topics.
Regarding (1) and (2): Like WK, I consider myself a moral objectivist, but I think it’s a blatant straw man for WK to claim that a “rationally grounded system of morality” requires objective moral values and duties. An ontologically objective system of morality requires those things, but I don’t think a “rationally grounded” system of morality does. At the very least, WK has given absolutely no reason to think that it does.
Item (3) suffers from similar problem. WK has confused the grounding of morality with motives and reasons for moral behavior. Whether there are ontologically objective moral values and duties is logically independent of whether there is moral accountability.
Turning to (4), he simply begs the question against both determinism and compatibilism (the latter entails that moral accountability is possible even if determinism is true). For the record, I don’t have a position on the free will vs. determinism and compatibilism vs. incompatibilism debates. But to write as if no one has given any serious arguments for compatibilism is simply irresponsible and, I daresay, immoral.
As for (5), WK confuses the grounding of morality with the topic of the meaning of life. As I’ve argued before (skip down to the end of the linked post):

This claim confuses the distinction between purpose and value. 
To say that something exists for a purpose means there is a reason for its existence.  To say that something has value means that it has desirable characteristics.  Even if something was not created for a purpose, that thing can still have value if it has desirable characteristics.  Moreover, in order for a thing to be valuable, it does not have to be valuable to the person or thing that created it.  Therefore, although the human species was not created for a purpose (and so is not valuable to the impersonal forces of evolution), the human species is still valuable because it is valuable to humans: individual humans desire the existence of the human species.
Objective moral values and obligations do not depend on a ‘cosmic telos‘ or external purpose for the universe’s existence.

In fact, one may not unreasonably conclude that WK hasn’t given an argument for why a rationally grounded system of morality requires ‘ultimate significance’. Rather, he’s simply expressed his subjective desire that our lives have ultimate significance (in his sense). Furthermore, as John Danaher has summarized, Toby Betenson has written a forceful, internal critique of WLC’s claim that theism accounts for the significance of life.
Finally, although I’m not going to attempt to defend a complete list of desirable characteristics for a system of morality, notice what WK left out of his list. His list says nothing about moral epistemology. But if you think about it for a moment, what practical difference do objective moral values and duties ‘out there’ make, if human beings have no reliable method of knowing what they are? In fact, moral epistemology, as a whole, favors naturalism (including atheism) over theism. Why? Because naturalism explains moral disagreement much better than theism does.
Quote-Mining, Anyone?

WK then proceeds to quote three atheistic biologists who support his claims: Coyne, Provine, and Dawkins. (I’ve commented on each before; see here.) But, in what is becoming all too typical of Christian apologists, what we don’t find is any interaction with philosophers, especially those who specialize in metaethics–including both theists and nontheists–who reject his claims. These people include:

He also ignores the work of atheist philosopher Alonzo Fyfe (who is ABD) and who developed the theory of desirism. WK also ignores John Danaher’s formidable critiques of WLC’s arguments (see, for example, hereherehere, here, here, here).
In short, WK hasn’t even come close to charitably interacting with atheist morality.
A WLC-Style Case for the Autonomy of Ethics
Since WK is such a fan of WLC’s debates, I’d like to close this post with a WLC-style case for the autonomy of ethics, i.e., why ethics doesn’t (ontologically) depend on God.
First Contention. There are no good reasons to think ontologically objective moral values depend on God.
(1) The “laws require a lawgiver” argument is a weak reason to think that moral laws require a moral lawgiver.
(2) The “I can’t see how morality could have an objective ontological foundation without God” argument is a weak reason to think that morality cannot have an objective ontological foundation without God.
(3) The “I can selectively quote some famous atheists who agree with me” is a weak reason to think that morality without God is subjective. (Cf. here, here)
(4) The “Darwinian naturalism entails that morality is nothing but a biological adaptation” argument is a weak reason to think that morality without God is nothing but a biological adaptation.
(5) The arguments in (1)-(4) are representative of the kinds of arguments used to justify the claim that God is required for a rationally grounded system of morality.
(6) Therefore, there is no good reason to think ontologically objective moral values depend on God.
Second Contention. There are good reasons to think ontologically objective moral values depend on God.
1. In order to determine if objective values exist, one must first:
(a) have a rigorous definition of “objective values”;
(b) determine whether ontologically objective values require a ontological foundation; and
(c) determine if there are nontheistic ontological foundations available.
2. If objectivity is defined epistemologically, God isn’t needed for objective values.
3. If objectivity is defined ontologically, God isn’t needed for objective values. This is because:
(a) it’s far from obvious that ontologically objective moral values require an ontological foundation (some such values could be brute facts); and
(b) if they do, nontheistic foundations are available.
4. Therefore, ontologically objective moral values do not depend on God.

bookmark_borderAtheism and the Meaning of Life, Again
The above article by Jennifer Fulwiler, who converted from atheism to Catholicism, raises the perennial issue of the meaning of life for atheists. For me, the most engaging part of the piece is the quote from Ross Douthat. Douthat apparently concedes that an atheist’s joys and sorrows can feel as intensely meaningful as they do for the theist. However, he proposes an interesting analogy. In warfare, the motivation for a soldier to fight will be the bonds of comradeship formed with fellow soldiers, one’s “band of brothers.” You fight for your buddy, not some “ism” or other abstraction like king or country. Therefore, the soldier’s experience will seem meaningful, whatever the ultimate reason for the war. Still, as Douthat notes, it does matter why a soldier has been sent to fight and very possibly die. That is, the larger context, the overall point of the enterprise, matters as well as the motivation of the individual soldier. He says, “…just as it surely makes a (if you will) meaningful difference why the war itself is being waged, it surely makes a rather large difference whether our joys and sorrows take place in, say, C.S. Lewis’s Christian universe or Richard Dawkins’s godless cosmos.”
Of course, it does matter very much why soldiers are sent to war. It matters profoundly, for instance, whether, on the one hand, their mission is to destroy the monstrous evil of Nazism, or whether, on the other hand, they are sent to interdict weapons of mass destruction that exist only in the fantasies of ideologues. Sending soldiers to fight for an imaginary, trivial, or evil cause is fundamentally unjust. How, though, is this relevant to the question of the meaning of life?
First, let’s note that there is an ambiguity in the meaning of “the meaning of life.” On the one hand, to say that a life is meaningful can mean that a life matters. On the other hand, the phrase can refer to the meaning that life has for the individual. Clearly, a life can have meaning in the first sense even though it is badly deprived of meaning in the latter sense. Consider someone who is burned to death in a house fire in early infancy. Clearly, that life was meaningful in the sense that it mattered. It mattered very much. Yet such a life was tragically deprived of meaning for that individual. He or she died painfully at a very early age and never had the opportunity to experience those things that constitute the meaning of life for individuals. Meaning in the sense of mattering is independent of the experience of the individual; meaning for the individual necessarily involves the individual’s experiences.
I think, then, that Douthat’s implication is that theism has the advantage over atheism in that it can explain why a life matters, even one grossly deprived of meaningful experience, whereas atheism, viewing human life as the unintended product of an impersonal universe, has no good answer. For the theist, a life matters, even one tragically cut short, because each life is a part of God’s plan. The Campus Crusade for Christ used to publish a tract titled The Four Spiritual Laws. The First Law was, “God loves you and has a wonderful plan for your life.” Christians believe—and must believe— that this applies even to those for whom God’s “wonderful plan” is that they be burned to death as infants. In some manner, unknown or perhaps unknowable to us, that apparently wasted life will turn out, in the long run (sub specie aeternitatis, as Spinoza put it), to have been an essential element for the fulfillment of God’s supremely good purposes. The atheist, of course, can offer no such account.
The theist can also argue that theism does offer greater meaning for life as experienced. It does so precisely by offering the believer the comfort that events that appear to be pointlessly horrible are in fact deeply significant. John Hick notes that at the core of theistic religion is a cosmic optimism, the faith that, in the end, and despite all appearances otherwise, all things will be well (see Chapter 4 of An Interpretation of Religion). Further, religion offers a much more personal consolation. The believer is promised reunion with loved ones in the hereafter. Also, believers can be assured that their lives matter, however obscure their circumstances, and that, in the end, God will compensate the long-suffering believer for any pains and injustices endured in this world. In pagan Rome, intellectuals often disdained Christianity as “a religion of women and slaves.” To the extent that this was true, it is quite understandable that Christianity would appeal to the down and out. Those marginalized in this life can be assured of a crown of glory in the hereafter. Obviously, atheists cannot offer such comfort.
The atheist’s response must be straightforward and uncompromising: There is indeed no transcendent or cosmic significance of human life. We are not the purpose of the cosmos, or, indeed, any part of its purpose. It has no purpose. There is no grand, overarching, eternal Plan towards which each individual event is an increment leading to a glorious fruition. The existence of the human race is indeed an unintended effect of impersonal laws. We are neither gods nor the children of gods. We are children of the earth, products of natural selection and the manifold vagaries of earth’s history just as much as the lion, the whale, or the tapeworm.
But why would atheists insist upon seeing themselves in such a bleak, comfortless, seemingly inhuman way, a way that, surely, most human beings can never accept? We accept it because we think it true. We think that everything we know about the cosmos forbids us the false comfort of a spurious self-elevation. We see the theistic view of human meaning as wishful thinking at best, or, at worst, egocentric self-glorification. Undoubtedly, most would sympathize with the Victorian matron, wife of an Anglican bishop who exclaimed upon first hearing of Darwin’s theory, “Oh! My dear! Descended from apes! Let us hope that it is not true! Or, if true, let us hope that it does not become generally known!” That humans were not created a little lower than the angels, but are products of a natural process of descent with modification, leaving them a bit higher than the apes, is a thought so terrible that it should be suppressed. Surely, though, there is something craven and distasteful about refusing to acknowledge uncomfortable truths. Can illusions even genuinely comfort us if we suspect that they are illusions? Facts faced are always less terrifying.
Well, then, do people not matter for atheists? Of course they do. But why? Different atheists will give different answers. I will give mine: I see our concern for our fellow humans as based in human biology and completed by human rationality. Like our closest relatives among the great apes, we are by nature social creatures that form intense emotional bonds with each other. We naturally form strong attachments with relatives, friends, and tribe. We also care deeply about ourselves, of course. But how do we come to care about those whom we have never met? Why do we care about those who are not relatives, friends, or members of our tribe? We care about those others because, unlike the great apes, we are also capable of rational reflection. We can reflect that those whom we have never met have hopes, fears, loves, dreams, cares, curiosity, and other such personal characteristics just as we do. We care about these qualities with respect to ourselves and our loved ones, and we can value them in those we have never met. In short, we come to care about others when we perceive in them a shared humanity. God has nothing to do with it.
It seems then that people matter for atheists too, but atheists see no need for a transcendent or metaphysical grounding for human meaning. The natural qualities that humans share are sufficient to provide a basis for the fact that we matter to each other. If I am told that God loves me and has a wonderful plan for my life I have to wonder what God’s love could possibly amount to and why it should mean anything at all to me. Does God’s putative love for me mean that he will protect me or my loved ones from horrible suffering and harm? Apparently not. Every day people allegedly loved by God die in excruciating agony. Well, does God’s love mean that he will save my soul if I believe in him? But he will only be saving me from what he will do to me if I do not believe in him, right? What would you think of someone that said he loved you and would show his love by refraining from killing you if you love him back? Sorry, but none of this makes any sense to me. For me, the upshot is that my wife’s love matters the world to me, but God’s supposed love matters not at all.
So, humans matter for atheists and, as Douthat seems to concede, atheists can also have meaning in life in the sense that they have deeply meaningful experiences. Fulwiler, however, does not concede this. As she sees it, Atheists are living in a fool’s paradise. They may experience their lives as meaningful, but such experience is really a sad delusion if atheism is true. On the atheist’s view those experiences that seem meaningful are actually accidental products of a meaningless universe. Further, human life, whether considered individually or collectively, occurs during a negligible instant in the cosmic expanse of time and on what is effectively a geometric point in the vastness of space. Indeed, those seemingly meaningful experiences are nothing but the firings of neurons in a very temporarily-existent brain. The atheist, rather pathetically, clings to these experiences for a few years before surrendering to unending nothingness.
First, a tangential point: There is no reason why consciousness caused by a brain has to be less real than consciousness caused by a soul. Why would one be a mirage and the other not? Fulwiler just seems to be indulging in gratuitous rhetoric here.
The assumption behind Fulwiler’s argument seems to be that if something comes to an end someday it cannot have been meaningful. Why assume that? I see no rational basis whatsoever for such an assumption. Indeed, why not assume the opposite and see temporary things as more meaningful precisely because they are evanescent? Why not enjoy the blush of the rose even more because we know how soon it will fade? Likewise, knowing that life is short, are we not motivated to fill its days with the things that matter to us? Why not see the very finitude of things as making them all the more significant? For the atheist, the infant burned in the house fire or the life ruined by drug addiction or the mind wasted on irrational obsessions are true tragedies because there is only the one life, and if it is ruined, there are no more. The very limits of life are what gives it overwhelming meaning.
Homer knew this. Why are his Olympian gods petty, jealous, childish, cruel, and fatuous? Because their vacuous eternal lives make them miserable, and they can only get enjoyment by obsessing on the doings of mortals, whose lives are incomparably richer and more meaningful than theirs. Doomed Hector’s life is vastly more significant than any of the trivial lives of that ragtag rabble of gods.

bookmark_borderQuentin Smith on Bertrand Russell on “Unyielding Despair” and the Meaning of Life

Photo of Bertrand RussellIn his essay, “A Free Man’s Worship,” Bertrand Russell writes:

Such, in outline, but even more purposeless, more void of meaning, is the world which Science presents for our belief. Amid such a world, if anywhere, our ideals henceforward must find a home. That man is the product of causes which had no prevision of the end they were achieving; that his origin, his growth, his hopes and fears, his loves and his beliefs, are but the outcome of accidental collocations of atoms; that no fire, no heroism, no intensity of thought and feeling, can preserve an individual life beyond the grave; that all the labors of the ages, all the devotion, all the inspiration, all the noonday brightness of human genius, are destined to extinction in the vast death of the solar system, and that the whole temple of man’s achievement must inevitably be buried beneath the debris of a universe in ruins—all these things, if not quite beyond dispute, are yet so nearly certain that no philosophy that rejects them can hope to stand…
How in such an alien and inhuman world, so powerless a creature as man preserve his aspirations untarnished? A strange mystery it is that nature, omnipotent but blind, in the revolutions of her secular hurryings through the abysses of space, has brought forth at last a child, subject still to her power, but gifted with sight, with knowledge of good and evil, with the capacity of judging all the works of his unthinking mother.[1]

How should this passage be interpreted? Many writers, including and especially theistic proponents of a moral argument for God’s existence, interpret this passage as evidence that Russell believed the nonexistence of God goes hand-in-hand with the meaninglessness of life. In his history of twentieth century metaethics, Ethical and Religious Thought in Analytic Philosophy of Language, a book which most theists who write on moral arguments have ignored, Quentin Smith argues that that is a misinterpretation of Russell.
Before I can summarize why Smith thinks this, I first need to summarize how Smith defines his terms.

“Human life has an objective ethical meaning” =df. moral realism is true, that is, if and only if moral facts obtain independently of whether humans believe they obtain.[2]
“Human life has an objective religious meaning” = df. theism is true.[3] (p. vii)

With these definitions in mind, Smith argues that Russell’s essay is an expression of ethical meaning and religious meaninglessness:

There is no God but “the God created by our own love of the good” (57), and thus the locus of objective meaning in our lives must reside in “that energy of faith which enables us to live constantly in the vision of the good” (58). Thus, Russell suggests that the desire for an objective religious meaning is unsatisfied and that in this respect human lives must be devoid of fulfillment. But there are moral ideals of which we have knowledge, and whatever fulfillment, regarding objective meaning, we are capable of achieving must involve the valuation of these ideals.[4]

Furthermore, as Smith observes, “Russell offered little by way of argument for these claims about objective meaning and meaninglessness.”[5] But let’s assume that Russell is correct. What, then, would be the implications of his view? Once again, let’s turn to Smith.

If Russell’s and Moore’s position is correct, namely, that human life is religiously meaningless but ethically meaningful, then only part of the human desire for objective meaning can be fulfilled. We should side with Russell rather than Moore and hold that the emotional fulfillment of an ethically meaningful way of life should be built on “the firm foundation of unyielding despair” about religious meaning. But this also is not quite accurate, because the desire or need for religious meaning is not universal; if somebody has no desire for religious meaning, then God’s nonexistence will not produce despair in him. Accordingly, we should say that for any person who has a desire for a religious and an ethical meaning of life, the happiness he attains through his ethically meaningful life should coexist with his despair at the lack of a religious meaning. This appeared to be Russell’s attitude at the time he wrote “A Free Man’s Worship.”[6]

[1] Bertrand Russell, “A Free Man’s Worship,” 1903.
[2] Quentin Smith, Ethical and Religious Thought in Analytic Philosophy of Language (Yale University Press, 1997), p. vii.
[3] Smith 1997, p. vii.
[4] Smith 1997, p. 6.
[5] Smith 1997, 6. For a defense of these claims, Smith says that one must turn instead to the writings of G.E. Moore, which is beyond the scope of this essay.
[6] Smith 1997, 7.

bookmark_borderLink: Intended and Unintended Life by Brooke Alan Trisel

I am quoting the abstract of Trisel’s paper here, without comment pro or con, for interested readers who may wish to read the paper for themselves. Feel free to debate in the combox.

Abstract. Some people feel threatened by the thought that life might have arisen by chance. What is it about “chance” that some people find so threatening? If life originated by chance, this suggests that life was unintended and that it was not inevitable. It is ironic that people care about whether life in general was intended, but may not have ever wondered whether their own existence was intended by their parents. If it does not matter to us whether one’s own existence was intended, as will be hypothesized, then why should it matter whether there was some remote intent behind the creation of the first unicellular organism(s) billions of years ago? I will discuss three possible scenarios by which life might have originated. I will then argue that, in regard to whether one’s individual life can be meaningful, it does not matter whether life was intended or arose by chance. If complex life was unintended and is rare in this universe, this is not a reason to disparage life, but a reason to appreciate and value our existence.


bookmark_borderKahane on Cosmic Insignificance

This paper is an absolute must-read.

Abstract: The universe that surrounds us is vast, and we are so very small. When we reflect on the vastness of the universe, our humdrum cosmic location, and the inevitable future demise of humanity, our lives can seem utterly insignificant. Many philosophers assume that such worries about our significance reflect a banal metaethical confusion. They dismiss the very idea of cosmic significance. This, I argue, is a mistake. Worries about cosmic insignificance do not express metaethical worries about objectivity or nihilism, and we can make good sense of the idea of cosmic significance and its absence. It is also possible to explain why the vastness of the universe can make us feel insignificant. This impression does turn out to be mistaken, but not for the reasons typically assumed. In fact, we might be of immense cosmic significance—though we cannot, at this point, tell whether this is the case.

LINK (HT: ex-apologist)

bookmark_borderThe Alpha course vs. Philosophy

Extract from my OUP book Humanism: A Very Short Introduction, which references the Alpha Course (it’s from chpt 7)

Religion vs. shallow, selfish individualism
Let’s now turn to religious practice. Setting aside the issue of whether God exists, perhaps it might still be argued that religious reflection or observance is required if our lives are not to be shallow and meaningless. Here is one such argument.
It is sometimes claimed, with some justification, that religion encourages people to take a step back and reflect on the bigger questions. Even many non-religious people suppose that a life lived out in the absence of any such reflection is likely to be rather shallow. Contemporary Western society is obsessed with things that are, in truth, comparatively worthless: money, celebrity, material possessions, etc. Our day-to-day lives are out often lived out within a narrow envelope of essentially selfish concerns, with little or no time given to contemplating bigger questions. It was religious tradition and practice that provided the framework within which such questions were once addressed. With the loss of religion, we have inevitably slid into selfish individualism. If we want people to enjoy a more meaningful existence, we need to reinvigorate religious tradition and practice (some would add that we need, in particular, to ensure young people are properly immersed in such practices in school).
There is some truth in the above argument. Religion can encourage people to take a step back and contemplate the bigger issues. It can help break the hypnotic spell that a shallow, individualistic culture can cast over young minds.
However, religion can itself also promote forms of selfishness – such as a self-interested obsession with achieving ones own salvation or personal enlightenment. And of course religion has itself been used to glorify material wealth, by suggesting that great wealth is actually a sign of God’s favour.
Is it true that only religion encourages us to think about the big questions? No. In chapter 1 we saw that there is another long tradition of thought running all the way back to the Ancient world that also addresses the big questions – a secular, philosophical tradition. If we want people, and especially children, to think about such questions, we are not obliged to take the religious route. We can encourage them to think philosophically.
Indeed, as I point out in chapter 6, there is evidence that introducing philosophy programmes into the curriculum can have a dramatic impact on both the behaviour of pupils and the ethos and academic standing of their schools.
Most contemporary humanists are just as concerned about shallow, selfish individualism as are religious people. They too believe it is important we should sometimes take a step back and consider the big questions. They just deny that the only way to encourage a more responsible and reflective attitude to life is to encourage children to be more religious.
If we want to encourage young people to really think about the big questions, philosophy is, arguably, a much more promising approach. The Church of England poses the question “Is this it?” on billboards and buses, promising those who sign up to their Alpha Course “An opportunity to explore the meaning of life”. However,when the religious raise such questions, they are often posed for rhetorical effect only. They are asked, not in the spirit of open, rational enquiry, but merely as the opening gambit in an attempt to sign up new recruits. Unlike religion, philosophy does not approach such questions having already committed itself to certain answers (though it does not rule out religious answers, of course).  Philosophy really does encourage you to think, question and make your own judgement – an approach to answering the Big Questions that, in reality, many religions have traditionally been keen to suppress.

Recommendation: If you are interested in exploring the meaning of life, an alternative to the Alpha Course is to get into Philosophy instead. Why not try this?!


bookmark_borderScalar Connection to Meaning of Life?

Because I’ve written so much about arguments from scale lately, the following statement in Dennis Prager’s op-ed on atheism and consolation caught my eye.

“‘And we promise to work for more gun control. But the truth is we don’t
have a single consoling thing to say to you because we atheists
recognize that the human being is nothing more than matter, no different
from all other matter in the universe except for having
self-consciousness. Therefore, when we die, that’s it. Moreover, within a
tiny speck of time in terms of the universe’s history, nearly every one
of us, including your child, will be completely forgotten,
as if we
never even existed. Life is a random crapshoot. Our birth and existence
are flukes. And you will never see your child again.'” (emphasis mine)

This sounds very similar to the temporal aspect of arguments from scale: humans do not enjoy a temporally privileged position in the universe’s history.

Continue reading “Scalar Connection to Meaning of Life?”