Sunday, March 22, 2015

God, Immortality and the Futility of Life




William Lane Craig has a pretty dispiriting take on the atheistic view of life:
If there is no God, then man and the universe are doomed. Like prisoners condemned to death, we await our unavoidable execution. There is no God, and there is no immortality. And what is the consequence of this? It means that life itself is absurd. It means that the life we have is without ultimate significance, value or purpose. 
(Craig 2008, 72)
Embedded in this short quote are a number of important claims. The first is that in order to avoid futility and meaninglessness we need our lives to have ultimate significance, value and/or purpose. The second, perhaps more important, is that we cannot have these things unless two conditions are met:

Craig’s Two Conditions for Meaning: Our lives are without ultimate significance, value or purpose unless (a) there is a God (who, among other things, determines objective value, purpose and significance); and (b) we are immortal.

Over the years, I have written several pieces that call into question Craig’s claims about futility and the atheistic view. In particular, I disagree with his claim that God determines objective value, purpose and significance. I also disagree with the notion that “ultimate” significance is absent on the atheistic view, or that we need it in order to avoid futility.

Today, I want to consider another criticism of Craig’s view. This one comes from Toby Betenson who has just published a nice little article in the International Journal for Philosophy of Religion entitled “Fairness and Futility”. In it, Betenson mounts an internal critique of Craig’s view of God and the futility of life. In short, he argues that if we take Craig seriously in his views about God, it turns out that God actually undermines the meaningfulness of our lives. Betenson then uses this internalist critique to suggest that Craig’s focus on ultimate significance (as opposed to relative significance) is misconceived.

I want to go through the main phases of this argument. I have my own thoughts on it and I will insert those into the discussion as I proceed.


1. How might our lives be futile?
Betenson’s argument works by paying close attention to what Craig himself says about the futility of life under atheism and the meaning of life under theism. This close attention is what allows him to hoist Craig on his own petard. This means that several portions of Betenson’s article are given over to quoting Craig verbatim and then drawing out the implications of what Craig is saying. I don’t want to follow the same approach here, since that would end up with me simply repeating what Betenson has to say, but I’ll have to do a little bit of it in order to illustrate a key point in the dialectic.

This key point relates to Betenson’s claim that Craig’s account of meaning under theism implies the existence of a “causal relevance” condition for meaning. In other words, in addition to the two conditions stated above (viz. the existence of God and personal immortality), Betenson thinks that Craig’s account of meaning implies a third condition. This third condition stipulates that in order to live a meaningful life, one’s actions must make a causal contribution to events that are of ultimate significance. Betenson cites some passages from Craig in support of this. In these passages, Craig speaks repeatedly of the need for one’s life to ‘make a difference’. Here’s an example:

The contributions of the scientist to the advance of human knowledge, the researches of the doctor to alleviate pain and suffering, the efforts of the diplomat to secure peace in the world, the sacrifices of good people everywhere to better the lot of the human race—all these come to nothing [on the atheistic view]. In the end they don’t make one bit of difference, not one bit. Each person’s life is therefore without ultimate significance. And because our lives are ultimately meaningless, the activities we fill our lives with are also meaningless. 
(Craig 2008, 73)

Craig is here talking about the difference between a life filled with actions that make some relative difference (i.e. that have value relative to a particular person or time frame) and those that make some ultimate difference (i.e. have value from the point of view of the universe). The latter are what matter when it comes to meaning. So this gives us Craig’s third condition for meaning in life:

Craig’s Implied Third Condition for Meaning: Our lives have meaning (and they avoid futility) if our actions make some causal difference to events of ultimate significance, value or purpose.

It’s important to realise how this affects Craig’s complete account of meaning in life. It means that in order to live a meaningful life, you must have three things. First, you must have a God that brings into existence objective values. Second, you must live forever. And third, your actions must be causally relevant to events of ultimate significance (or ultimate “value” if you prefer).

There are already some peculiarities in this account. For instance, one could dispute the role of God in bringing into existence objective values. One could also puzzle over the importance of personal immortality in this account (why must I hang about forever in order for life to have meaning? Isn’t it enough for my actions to make a difference to something of ultimate value?). I puzzle over these things myself and as we shall see such puzzles reemerge in Betenson’s argument. But set them to the side for now.

Let’s focus, instead, on the consequences of Craig’s third condition. Granting its coherence, there are at least four possibilities when it comes to the state of the universe and the satisfaction of that condition. They are:


  • (i) The universe could contain events of ultimate significance/value, and our actions could make a causal difference to them.
  • (ii) The universe could contain events of ultimate significance/value, and our actions could make no causal difference to them.
  • (iii) The universe could contain events of mere relative significance/value, and our actions may make a difference to them.
  • (iv) The universe could contain events of mere relative significance/value, and our actions may make no difference to them.


These four possibilities are further illustrated by the diagram below.




For Craig, only the first of these possibilities allows for a meaningful life. The other three all lead to futility. Craig is well aware of the futility of (iii) — that’s what he is talking about in the passage quoted above, and that’s what he finds so problematic about the atheistic view. The fourth possibility (iv) is an example of what Betenson calls “futility overkill” since it involves a double failure. We can ignore it. The second possibility (ii) is the interesting one. Betenson wants to argue that Craig’s understanding of God actually supports this view. If so, then even by Craig’s own standards, the theistic view implies futility.


2. Betenson’s “Theism implies Futility” Argument
The argument for this is actually quite simple. It comes, once again, from paying close attention to what Craig says about God. As I have noted on previous occasions, one of Craig’s favourite critiques of the atheistic view is that it does not allow for “ultimate accountability” (or “ultimate justice”). In the atheistic universe, we can perform moral acts throughout our lives, including acts of great personal sacrifice, but in the end these acts count for nothing because they will not be rewarded or punished. We could have lived lives of debauchery and sadistic cruelty and the result would be the same.

In the theistic universe things are different:

[O]n the theistic hypothesis, God holds all persons morally accountable for their actions. Evil and wrong will be punished; righteousness will be vindicated. Good ultimately triumphs over evil, and we shall finally see that we do live in a moral universe after all. Despite the inequities of this life, in the end the scales of God’s justice will be balanced. Thus, the moral choices we make in this life are infused with an eternal significance. We can with consistency make moral choices which run contrary to our self-interest and even undertake acts of extreme self-sacrifice, knowing that such decisions are not empty and ultimately meaningless gestures. Rather our moral lives have a paramount significance. 
(Craig - quoted in Betenson 2015

Betenson thinks that there is something odd going on here. Craig seems to be saying that there must be ultimate justice in order for any of our actions to have moral significance (it’s the only way we can be sure that we “live in a moral universe after all”). He also seems to be saying that God is the only thing that can supply the necessary justice. He ensures that the moral scales will ultimately be balanced. The net result of this, according to Betenson, is that our actions don’t seem to be all that relevant on Craig’s account of ultimate significance. It is God as justice-giver, not us as moral decision-makers, who “makes the difference”. In short, if Craig is right about the importance of God in ensuring ultimate significance, he implies that our lives are not causally relevant to events of ultimate significance. But that was one his conditions for meaning in life. We have a contradiction.

To put this a little more formally:


  • (1) If our lives are not causally relevant to events of ultimate significance, then our lives are futile (devoid of meaning).
  • (2) If God exists, then God ensures that the universe has ultimate significance (by ensuring that it is ultimately just).
  • (3) If God ensures that the universe is ultimately just, then our lives are not causally relevant to events of ultimate significance.
  • (4) Therefore, if God exists, our lives are futile.


Is this a persuasive argument? Let’s consider some objections and replies.


3. Objections and replies
Betenson covers four objections in his article. The first two strike me as being fairly uninteresting. The last two are more important. I’ll briefly summarise what he has to say about each of them. Here’s the first objection (note: they are not set out exactly like this in the original article):

Objection 1: Even if God is responsible for the ultimate balancing of the moral scales (the ultimate Good), that does not mean that our lives are not causally relevant to lesser, but still significant goods.

This is an obvious criticism because Betenson’s critique seems to take an overly narrow view on the range of goods to which our moral choices must be causally relevant. It seems plausible to say that the decision of the doctor to cure a patient is a causal contribution to the good, even if it is not a contribution to the ultimate Good. Betenson argues that this objection is not available to Craig. This is because Craig repeatedly emphasises that a causal contribution to events of localised significance (like the curing of a patient) are not enough. Contribution to those sorts of events is possible on the atheistic view and Craig clearly doesn’t think it is enough.

The second objection is slightly more interesting:

Objection 2: On Craig’s view, our actions do have ultimate significance because our actions determine whether we go to heaven or hell, and since we live forever in heaven or hell, this means that our actions have everlasting moral implications.

But there are problems with this too. For starters, one has to accept a very traditional view of heaven and hell to find it at all persuasive (if you are a universalist, this option won’t be available to you). For another thing, it assumes that a causal contribution to an event of everlasting personal significance is equivalent to a causal contribution to an event of ultimate significance. This equivalence is dubious. As Betenson puts it, when assessing events in terms of their ultimate significance, you have to take the “point of view of the universe” (i.e. a depersonalised point of view). From that point of view, it is not at all clear that whether you get into heaven or hell is ultimately significant. It is important to you, for sure, but not from the universal point of view. All that matters from that point of view is that the moral scales are balanced: that good is rewarded and wrongdoing is punished.

As I say, I don’t find these first two objections to be particularly important. It is with the third objection that things really start to heat up:

Objection 3: Betenson’s argument assumes that ultimate reward and punishment are what matter from the universal perspective; but this is wrong. What matters is whether objective good is done. There are other objective goods and we can, as moral beings, contribute to the total amount of objective good.

This is a modification of the first objection, but it is an important modification. It highlights problems in Betenson’s original discussion of the ultimate good. It suggests that, from a universal point of view, ensuring that people are appropriately rewarded and punished is just one good among many. There are other potential, universally significant goods (e.g. pursuit of knowledge and understanding, or, if you are a Christian, the worship of God). We can causally contribute to the total sum of those other goods.

As it happens, this is pretty much my view of meaning in life (except I do not think the worship of God is an impersonal good). The problem with it is twofold. First, it is not at all clear why immortality would be required on this account. I could make my contribution to the pursuit of knowledge and understanding, then shuffle off this mortal coil and drift into eternal oblivion. The total amount of good in the universe would still have increased through my actions. Second, it is not at all clear why God is needed on this account. Craig thinks He is needed because God determines what is and what is not good, but if like me you think that standards of goodness must be independent of God the need for His existence dissipates.

The problems with this third objection lead to the construction of a fourth:

Objection 4: In line with objection 3, what matters from the universal perspective is that good is done and this conception of good extends beyond ultimate justice. But it just so happens that the most important objective goods require that you live forever.

This is effectively a slight modification of objection 3 that tries to explain why personal immortality is needed in order to avoid futility. It may seem a little ad-hoc right now, given the order in which I have presented these objections, but there is some independent motivation for it. There are those — and I believe Craig is among them — who think that eternal salvation or eternal worship of God are the most important objective goods. And it just so happens that both of those things seem to require personal immortality.

The difficultly with this objection is twofold. First, it doesn’t rule out the possibility of there being other objective goods to which we could causally contribute and which could provide some degree of meaning to our lives. Second, there are serious questions to be asked about whether these objective goods really are objective goods. I and others have written about the dubious nature of the obligation to worship God. It also seems pretty strange and arbitrary for God to create us and then decree that the ultimate objective good — the one which will allow our lives to have meaning — is our willingness to worship him forever. As Maitzen points out in another article on this topic, it is doubtful whether such divinely ordained purposes could rescue our lives from futility. They will always seem questionable and unsatisfactory. This leads to some doubts about the very notion of “ultimate” significance.

I tend to agree, but that’s where I shall leave it for now. To briefly recap, Craig holds that God, personal immortality, and a causal contribution to events of ultimate significance, are needed if we are to avoid a futile and meaningless existence. Betenson counters that on Craig’s conception of God, we make no causal contribution to events of ultimate significance. This is because God is the ultimate justice-giver, who balances the universe’s moral scales. There are responses to this, but they tend to create more problems for Craig’s account.

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