In my lunch breaks I’m reading through Erik Weilenberg’s book Value and Virtue in a Godless Universe. In an earlier post, “Do Moral Facts Not Require an Explanation?” I commented on Wielenberg’s claims about moral facts not requiring any explanation.
When I first got the book, I first turned to the second section, which addresses the claim that atheism provides no basis of moral fact (yeah I know, I peeked). In “Confusing the Good and the Right” I commented on on the way that the book rather obviously confuses the idea of goodness with rightness. Now that I have begun reading the book from the beginning, I note that the first section of the book (there are five sections in total) likewise proceeds on the basis of a mere confusion of terms.
The first section is called “God and the Meaning of Life,” and it addresses a line of reasoning used by William Lane Craig, for example in his presentation on “The Absurdity of Life Without God.”
Craig says that if each individual passes out of existence forever at death, then it doesn’t have any ultimate meaning in the sense that in the long term it does not matter whether he existed or not. Granted, as some might immediately point out, it may have relative meaning in the sense that it influenced other lives or the course of history (all made up of people who likewise pass out of existence forever at death). But if the lives of others suffer from the same meaninglessness, then this reply does nothing to mitigate the force of this line of reasoning. In the end, all the relative contributions of each and every person who has ever lived with come to nothing when the universe fades into the heat death. Thus whatever subjective or relative meaning we may attribute to our lives or the lives of others, they are ultimately meaningless. The same presentation makes the claim that without God there is no ultimate truth about the values of right and wrong, and further that without God there would be no purpose of human existence. We’re not here for any reason, there’s nothing we are made for, and the species itself will vanish just as accidentally as it came about. There’s no telos to humanity or to anything in existence. Here’s Dr Craig’s article on the idea that life is in some sense absurd without God.
It’s important to stress the way Dr Craig repeatedly refers to life lacking ultimate meaning or ultimate value without God. This is because he grants the obvious fact that out lives can have relative or subjective meaning or value. People can value their lives or the value of others, we can find meaning in our lives or the lives of others by enjoying or cherishing them and so on. Dr Craig has commented on the meaningless of life without God a number of times in publications and public talks, and when someone raises the objection that we can still value our lives and those of others, he grants the point, but explains that he is talking about objective or ultimate value and meaning.
Dr Wielenberg himself (almost) nicely captures this distinction in the following way:
Under one interpretation, for human life to have meaning is for it to have a purpose that is assigned by a supernatural being. When life has meaning in the sense we can say that it has supernatural meaning…
Under another interpretation, for a human life to have meaning is for it to bring goodness into the universe. When life has meaning in this sense, the universe is better than it would have been had the life not been lived. We can say that the life of this sort has external meaning…
Under a third interpretation, for a human life to have meaning is for it to be good for the person who lives it and for it to include activity that is worthwhile. When life has meaning in this sense, the individual is better off having lived then had that person never existed at all. Moreover, the life is one in which something worthwhile is accomplished. It is a life that has a point all stop it is the urge to live a life like this that is revealed in the expression “I want to do something with my life.” we can say that a life of this sort has internal meaning. This concept may seem similar to external meaning, but the two are distinct. It is possible for a life to have internal meaning yet lack external meaning. Suppose a person engages in worthwhile activity that brings him pleasure and gives his life internal meaning. Suppose further that what gives his activity worth is that through it he accomplished in some meaningful God will. But suppose that if he had never lived, the same goal would have been accomplished by someone else who would have enjoyed it, pushing it just as much as he did. In this case his life lacks external meaning because the universe would have been just as good if he had never lived. Yet his life has internal meaning.
There is a certain degree of circularity or vacuousness here. It is not terribly informative to tell us that a life is meaningful or worthwhile if the person who lives it accomplished something worthwhile. After all, much of what we say about meaningfulness and value will determine what is and is not a worthwhile accomplishment! Still, we can simply remove these comments and still see what Wielenberg is getting at. Life has external meaning or value if it has meaning or value from a third person perspective. This is objective meaning all value. It is not a life that is meaningful or valuable only according to the tastes of the one who lives it, but a life that is meaningful or valuable all things considered. Internal meaning or value, by contrast, is subjective. When we talk about a life having meaning or value in the sense we are talking about relative value. Note, for example the way that Wielenberg incorporates the phrase “good for.” We are not talking about a life that is good in any absolute sense, but rather a life in which that person living it finds some value.
To understand Dr Craig’s comments about the absurdity of life without God is to realise that he is talking about external meaning and external value. He does not deny that if God does not exist (and yet somehow the universe and complex life managed to exist anyway), people might still attribute value to the lives that they and others live on account of internal or subjective meaning and value. And yet, observe how Wielenberg then proceeds to respond to Doctor Craig’s line of reasoning. First he summarises the argument:
Suppose we think of a person’s life as a series of events. Some of these events are brought about by the individual, while others are caused by external forces. Roughly, a life may be characterised as the sum total of all the things that happen to an individual while that person is alive. But, goes the argument, the value of a series of events depends entirely on the value of the very last stage of the fears to which the series causally contributes. If that final outcome is valuable, then the events that led up to and contributed to which may have value. If that final stage of the fears is to avoid of value, then similarly all the events that led up to it are worthless.
Without God there is no afterlife of any kind. Consequently, every human life ends with the permanent cessation of the individual’s conscious experience and mental activity (at least of any interesting sort). Without God, every human life terminates with the grave and the annihilation of the conscious self. The last outcome to which any human life contributes is an utterly static, lifeless, extropic, frozen universe. Since such an outcome is entirely devoid of value, it follows (according to this argument) that all human lives are entirely devoid of value and hence lack internal meaning. In a Godless universe that ends with a whimper, no human life is worth living. [Emphasis added]
Never mind the attempted rebuttal, Wielenberg goes wrong right at the outset, with the description of the position that he means to rebut. This is not Craig’s position at all. Just as he elsewhere confuses the good with the right, here Wielenberg confuses distinctions that he has already made, namely external and internal meaning. The confusion becomes all the more bewildering when Wielenberg quotes Susan Wolf, who rejects Craig’s position but who summarises a variation of it as follows:
[A] life can be meaningful only if it can mean something to someone, and not just to someone, but to someone other than oneself and indeed someone of more intrinsic or ultimate value than oneself … if there is no God, then human life, each human life, must be objectively meaningless, because if there is no God, there is no appropriate being for whom we could have meaning.
This is not Craig’s argument, it is merely a hypothetical argument. However, like Craig’s argument, it is not an argument against the possibility of subjective meaning all value in life if God does not exist. It is only an argument against the existence of objective meaning in life if God does not exist. Stated using the distinctions that Wielenberg made earlier, it is an argument against external meaning to life if there is no God.
But then look how Wielenberg summarises Wolf’s argument:
You might wonder why I find it important at all that this confusion is taking place. “OK, so Wielenberg is getting his distinctions around internal and external meaning muddled up. Big deal. Just address the point he is making.” But therein lies the problem. Dr Craig’s argument all along has been that whatever internal value or meaning life might still have even if there is no God, it would have no objective or external meaning, since power existence was never intended, was unmotivated, has no purpose, has no objective value, and there is no way in which we were supposed to live or not live, to say nothing of the fact that everything that we are or value is merely temporary. However, after obviously misconstruing this argument to be one that concerns internal or subjective meaning and value, Wielenberg then proceeds with his rebuttal, which consists of nothing more than a series of proposals as to how life might have internal meaning even if God does not exist.
Wielenberg considers a number of proposals as defeatist for Craig’s argument, he looks at Richard Taylor’s suggestion that our lives can have internal meaning just if we take the right attitude to our life. He considers Peters Singer’s proposal, interpreted by Wielenberg to mean that our lives can have internal meaning if we commit them to some worthwhile goal such as the elimination of suffering. He settles on Aristotle’s perspective, in which some activities are intrinsically good and that is that, and our lives have internal meaning if we live it in the pursuit of such activities. Wielenberg does not agree with Aristotle about which activities are intrinsically good or the best, but he nonetheless shares the view that they are intrinsically good activities, although he admits that he is unable to justify any claim about which activities are intrinsically good.
Wielenberg closes with an appeal to the reader with challenges along the lines of: Don’t you find some activities just worthwhile? Doesn’t it seem to you that there are some things that just to make your life worth living? In reality, all Wielenberg is actually doing is asking readers whether or not life is meaningful, he is certainly not giving reasons for thinking that it can be so without God. To the extent that he is, he is – by his own admission – talking about internal meaning.
I am not granting here that Wielenberg’s proposals succeed even in what they attempt to do. His favoured proposal is that life can have internal meaning even if God does not exist because there are things that we can do with our lives that are intrinsically good. His concept of the intrinsic goodness is open to serious question, but in responding to Wielenberg we do not even need to go this far. The crucial thing to note, is that Wielenberg’s arguments, however good they might happen to be, are not responses to Dr Craig’s line of reasoning about how meaningful life would be if God did not exist. A much more substantial response would be a concession and a counter challenge: Yes, life lacks objective meaning without God, and what of it? Reality does not owe us any comfort. Perhaps the best we can do is to simply add admit the futility of our own existence and tried to subjectively enjoy it as best we can. But Wielenberg simply will not do this. Hammering the proverbial square peg into a round hole, he offers up an argument for the subjective value of the lives we live, and presumes that in doing so he is answering the challenge about the objective meaninglessness of life without God.
Just as with his arguments about God and the relatively discussed elsewhere, the appearance of a substantial response to the theistic argument is no more than an illusion in Wielenberg’s book. If he is responding to any position it is certainly not one that Christian philosophers have actually offered.
Susan Wolf, “The Meanings of Lives,” http://www1.law.nyu.edu/clppt/program2003/readings/wolf.pdf, cited in Wielenberg, Value and Virtue, 17.