Thursday, June 17, 2010

Wielenberg on the Meaning of Life (Part 1)

Albert Camus began his famous meditation on the absurd, The Myth of Sisyphus, with a rather pointed observation:
There is but one truly serious philosophical question, and that is suicide. Judging whether life is or is not worth living amounts to answering the fundamental question of philosophy. All the rest - whether or not the world has three dimensions, whether the mind has nine or twelve categories - comes afterwards.
There is some force to this. We live such tiny lives, rounded by a sleep, that we had better figure out if they are worth living in the short time we have available to us.

 Of course, the most popular suggestion is that life derives its meaning from God. But how could this be? And can there be meaning in the absence of God?

Erik Wielenberg's book Value and Virtue in a Godless Universe tries to answer those questions. As the title suggests, his goal is to show how meaning can exist without God but in the course of making this argument he has to deal with the theistic position.

The book is richer than I can hope to do justice to here. But an overview of the introductory chapter will give some flavour of his approach to the topic.

1. What is Meaning?
Wielenberg begins by distinguishing between three possible conceptions of the meaning of life.

The first, illustrated by the apology of Socrates and implicit in most religious views, is that of supernatural meaning. The idea here is that life only has meaning if some supernatural being has conferred or imbued with meaning.

The second is that of external meaning. The idea here is that life has meaning if it brings about some good that is external to the life of the agent. This good need not be supernatural nor rely on any supernatural forces. For example, alleviating the suffering of others might be said to give external meaning to your life.

Finally, there is the concept of internal meaning. A life can be said to have internal meaning when it is meaningful to the agent who lives it, when that agent derives satisfaction from what they do, irrespective of external or supernatural significance.

2. Meaning without God?
Having introduced those three conceptions, Wielenberg then considers four arguments suggesting that life without God has no meaning.

The first of these, arguably the most intuitive, can be called the final outcome argument. The infamous William Lane Craig likes to emphasise this one. The following being a representative quote:
If there is no God, then man and the universe are doomed. Like prisoners condemned to death row, we stand and simply wait for our unavoidable execution. If there is no God, and there is no immortality, then what is the consequence of this? It means that the life that we do have is ultimately absurd.
We may wish to quibble with the loaded analogy -- even if we are ultimately "executed" our lives are not necessarily like those of death row prisoners -- but the vision here is clear. Life is seen to be a sequence of events or stages, and what meaning it has derives from the final stage in the sequence. According to the theist, the final stage is our immortal union with God; according to the atheist the final stage is oblivion. WLC thinks it obvious that the former has meaning but the latter does not.

Before moving on to the next argument, I cannot help but include a bit of Shakespeare. Here is the famous "Seven Ages of Man" speech from As You Like It. It captures the vision of life just outlined:

The second argument, which is implicit in the quote from Craig, is the pointless existence argument. Craig acknowledges that immortality would not be enough to give life meaning. Instead, some criteria for establishing what a successful life would look like need to be set by a supernatural being. This being assigns purposes to our lives and judges whether we fail or succeed in fulfilling them.

The third argument comes with a self-explanatory title: the nobody of significance cares argument. Wielenberg takes this from a paper by Susan Wolf. The basic idea is that a life has to mean something to someone of more intrinsic worth that oneself. In other words, it has to mean something to God.

The final argument is the God as the source of ethics argument. To appreciate this argument we need to revisit the idea of external meaning. It was said that making the world a better place could give life with some meaning. But in order to do this one must operate from the correct moral foundation. If God's existence is necessary for the existence of morality, then a universe without God could never be made "better".

The premises of this final argument have been discussed many times on this blog (see the various articles on morality and religion in the table of contents) and Wielenberg dedicates subsequent chapters of his book to it. The remainder of Chapter 1 explores some potential non-theistic responses to the first three arguments. We will consider these in part 2.

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