Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Theism and the Meaning of Life (Part One)

Since I recently re-opened the William Lane Craig can of worms, I’ve suddenly found myself with the itch to write about some other arguments he likes to make. Today, I’ll take a look at (aspects of) his comments on the meaning of life. I’ll be using the following article as my guide:

Gianluca Di Muzio “Theism and the Meaning of Life” (2006) Ars Disputandi, Volume 6 
This article starts by critiquing Craig’s conception of meaning and then offers an alternative conception that does not depend on the truth of theism.

While I enjoyed Di Muzio’s article, I was frustrated by the lack of formality in it (this might just be an annoying idiosyncrasy of mine, for which I apologise). In particular, I was frustrated by the failure to formalise Craig’s argument and then to map out each step in the critique of that argument. Admittedly, this is not an easy thing to do. This is for two reasons: (i) in contrast to his other work, Craig doesn’t go to the bother of formalising his own argument on the meaning of life; and (ii) his comments on meaning are quite rhetorical and enthymematic.

Despite these difficulties, I want to try to offer a decent formal analysis and critique of Craig’s argument. So although I’ll certainly be using Di Muzio’s arguments as my guide — indeed, nothing I say will be original to me — I’ll try to increase the value of those arguments through my formal reconstruction. I shall divide this reconstruction project into two parts. In this part, I will outline Craig’s argument and Di Muzio’s basic critique of it. In the second part, I will discuss Di Muzio’s alternative analysis of meaning in life.

I should add that my formal reconstruction is very much a first attempt. If people think I misconstrue the argument, or if people think that there might be a better way to formalise the argument, I'd be very happy to hear from them.

1. The Meaning of Meaning
Before getting into the details of Craig’s argument, some comments on the terminology used in this debate might be in order. The debate is typically couched in terms of “meaning” in life. But in some ways, the use of the word ‘meaning’ is unfortunate because it can lead to the conflation of “meaning in life” with semantic meaning. This conflation may not be entirely inappropriate, if there is some overlap between the two concepts, but we need to be aware of it nonetheless.

Because of this problem, alternative terminology is sometimes floated. For instance, Craig, in Reasonable Faith uses the terms value and purpose somewhat interchangeably with meaning (although he does distinguish them as well) when presenting his case against atheism. “Significance” is also a term that is occasionally used instead of “meaning”. These other terms are arguably more apt, although there is a danger here as well since, for example, references to “a valuable life” might be conflated with “a life with moral value”, which is distinct (although, again, the presence of moral value may play some part in a valuable life).

I think these terminological difficulties can be overcome. It seems clear to me that all discussions of meaning in life are primarily concerned with the question: is life worth living? In other words, is there some property (or properties) that makes existence in this universe worthwhile? The quest for meaning can be understood as the quest for this property (or properties).

In addition to this, the debate over meaning in life can be seen to be concerned with locating the necessary and sufficient conditions for worthwhileness. Indeed, the necessary/sufficient distinction can be quite useful when it comes to understanding the debate between theists and atheists on this matter. Roughly speaking, there are two dialectical jousts taking place:

The Necessary Condition Debate: Theists, like Craig, are arguing that the existence of God is a necessary condition for a meaningful life. Whereas the atheists are arguing that God’s existence is not a necessary condition for meaning.  
The Sufficient Condition Debate: Theists, like Craig, are arguing that God provides sufficient conditions for a meaningful life. Whereas atheists are arguing either: (a) that God does not provide sufficient conditions for meaning because nothing can provide such conditions (nihilism; or (b) God does not provide sufficient conditions for meaning and something else does provide such conditions.

Using this framework, we can think of the overall structure of this particular atheist-theist debate somewhat resemblant of a decision tree. At the first node, we have to decide whether God is a necessary condition for meaning. At the second set of nodes we have to decide whether (a) God provides sufficient conditions for meaning; or (b) whether atheism does. The four endpoints of this decision tree represent the four possible views one can hold on the matter, although, as it happens, I’m not aware of anyone believing that theism provides necessary but not sufficient conditions for meaning. That said, it would be open to the non-theist to argue that this is true and hence that theism, even if true, still cannot provide an adequate account of meaning in life.

As useful as this framework may be in allowing us to understand the general structure of the debate, it is, as we shall see, an oversimplification. This is because the role of immortality in meaningfulness often becomes part of the debate. As a result, two distinct decision trees confront the participants, one concerned with whether God is a necessary and sufficient condition for meaning and another concerned with whether immortality is a necessary and sufficient condition for meaning.

2. Craig’s Argument about Meaning in Life
As I said in the introduction, nowhere in his writings does Craig present a formal argument defending the conclusion that God is both necessary and sufficient for meaning. So whatever argument he is making must be distilled from what he says. This is to be charitable, of course, but charity is an important virtue in these matters.

In trying to distill Craig’s argument, Di Muzio focuses on two paragraphs from Craig’s writings. These paragraphs are quite long, so I won’t quote them in full here. I’ll just try to extract the most relevant parts from them. The relevant extracts from the first paragraph are:

“If each individual person passes out of existence when he dies, then what ultimate meaning can be given to his life?…His life may be important relative to certain other events, but what is the ultimate significance of those events? If all the events are meaningless, then what can be the ultimate meaning of influencing any of them? Ultimately, it makes no difference.” 
(From Craig, ‘The Absurdity of Life without God’)

This paragraph contains two claims. First, that the events in one’s life form part of chain of significance or meaning: the first event has meaning relative to the second event and so on. Second, that if this chain of events comes to an end, it lacks meaning irrespective of the relative meaning within the chain. In other words, the paragraph is arguing that immortality is a necessary condition for meaning. Without immortality the chain of events will come to an end.

The second paragraph centres on a thought experiment (based, apparently, on a science fiction story) involving an astronaut in a godless universe. The astronaut is faced with a choice between taking a potion that will allow him to live forever or taking a potion that will cause him to die. The astronaut chooses the second potion, hoping he will die:

But then to his horror he discovered he had swallowed the wrong vial— he had drunk the potion for immortality. And that meant that he was cursed to exist forever—a meaningless, unending life. Now if God does not exist, our lives are just like that. They could go on and on and still be utterly without meaning…So if it is not just immortality man needs if life is to be ultimately significant; he needs God and immortality. And if God does not exist, then he has neither. 
(Craig, ibid)

This paragraph also contains two claims. First, that although immortality is necessary for meaning, it is not sufficient for it. This is shown by the story of the astronaut. Second, that God is the added ingredient that turns an immortal and meaningless life into a meaningful one (Craig adds that, in any event, one couldn’t actually be immortal without God but that’s a slightly separate point). So, in other words, the paragraph ends with Craig’s major claim: that immortality plus God is sufficient for meaning.

One thing that is absent from this second paragraph is an actual reason for thinking that God would provide the special ingredient needed for meaning. Di Muzio thinks it’s pretty clear what this is though: God would have some divine plan for the cosmos and one’s life and one’s actions would have some role to play in executing that plan (for good or for ill). Craig seems to support this view in the other things he says about purpose in a godless universe, which I won’t quote from here.

In sum then, Di Muzio thinks that, for Craig, one’s life is meaningful if it has some permanent significance (role to play) in a scheme or plan that transcends (is higher than) one’s existence. To put it more pithily: one’s life has meaning if it matters in a higher scheme. Assuming this to be the principle guiding Craig’s ruminations, I offer the following two arguments as being representative of what Craig is saying.

The first is what we may call the “pro-theism” argument:

  • (1) One’s life is meaningful if and only if it has some permanent role to play in a scheme that transcends (or is higher than) oneself. 
  • (2) If Christian theism is true, then God has a plan for all of creation, namely: to bring about an eternal kingdom.
  • (3) Individual humans will have a permanent role to play in God's plan.
  • (4) God’s plan transcends (is higher than) the lives of individual humans.
  • (5) Therefore, if God exists, one’s life has meaning.

The pro-theism argument has a natural bedfellow, the anti-atheistic naturalism argument:

  • (1) One’s life is meaningful if and only if it has some permanent role to play in a scheme that transcends (or is higher than) oneself. 
  • (6) If atheistic-naturalism is true, then there is no plan or scheme that transcends an individual’s life. 
  • (7) If atheistic-naturalism is true, then all life will come to an end, i.e. no one has a permanent role to play in the cosmic drama. 
  • (8) Therefore, if atheistic-naturalism is true, one’s life has no meaning.

The two arguments are illustrated below and, together, they capture Craig's basic position on meaning in life (as it happens, Craig spends far more time on the anti-atheistic argument than he does on the pro-theism one).

Now, there are a lot of premises flying around here, which means there are many fruitful avenues of investigation and critique that could be explored. However, that would take up far too time and distract us from the main points of interest. So, for sake of argument, I’ll simply assume that everything in the anti-atheistic naturalism argument, with the important exception of premise (1), is correct even though that may not be the case. Thus, the remainder of this post will be taken up with the evaluation of the pro-theism argument.

3. A Critique of Craig’s Argument
When it comes to critiquing Craig’s argument, there is one obvious point of attack: premise (1). While the other premises could potentially be challenged (e.g. one could challenge (2) by arguing that no coherent plan has been revealed or explained to us, with some careful exegesis of biblical and theological texts), premise (1) is what really motivates the entire argument. It, after all, is what states the necessary and sufficient conditions for meaning. And since we already know that immortality is insufficient in itself for meaning, and since Craig has already conceded as much, we dedicate most of our attention to the role that the higher plan plays in the provision of meaning.

In focusing on the higher plan, we need to ask two separate questions: (i) is a higher plan, in itself, sufficient for meaning? and (ii) is a higher plan, in combination with immortality sufficient for meaning? We ask the first question because it’s possible that immortality is a red herring in this argument. And we ask the second question because, even if a higher plan is not in itself sufficient for meaning, there might be some synergistic effect such that, when combined with immortality, we have the sufficient conditions for meaning. If it turns out that the answer to both our questions is no, it will imply that Craig’s account of meaning is, at worst, flawed, or, at best, incomplete. In that event, we shall have to search for some other account.

So let’s look at the first question: is a higher plan, in itself, sufficient for meaning? The answer would clearly seem to be “no”. It’s quite possible for our lives to be inscribed within a higher plan (i.e. one that transcends our own lives) and for them to still lack meaning. Consider, if one were a Jew living in Nazi-occupied Europe during WWII, then it was true that someone had a higher plan for you, but in no sense could your life be said to be meaningful because of it. Admittedly, the higher plan in this instance is one that ends in your extermination but we’re leaving immortality to the side for now so it seems legitimate to include the Final Solution as an example of a higher plan. Nevertheless, there are examples that avoid this possibility. For instance, if one lives in a totalitarian state that has unscrupulous or oppressive aims (perhaps, North Korea) then one’s life may have a role in a higher plan, but once again that wouldn’t necessarily make it meaningful. Science fiction examples could be used to support this point. Say, for instance, the human race was bred as food or sport for some superpowerful race of aliens. Would that make the lives of individual humans meaningful?

If you are inclined to resist my interpretation of these examples, the problem may stem from confusing the sense of meaning that is being employed here. If one brings a semantic conception of meaning to bear on these examples, then it might be true to say that each of the lives in the examples has meaning because they “stand for something”. But, remember, that is not the sense of meaning that is at issue here. We are concerned with whether the lives in question are worth living. And when assessed from the standpoint of worthwhileness, these lives seem to acquire no meaning simply from the fact that they have a role to play in a higher plan. Indeed, we might be inclined to say that these lives acquire more meaning when they reject or escape the auspices of the higher plans in question. Thus, we are forced to conclude, that the mere presence or existence of a higher plan is insufficient, by itself, to provide meaning.

  • (9) The mere fact that one’s life has a role to play in a higher plan is, by itself, insufficient to make that life meaningful because one can imagine scenarios in which there is a higher plan but the higher plan does not make one’s life worthwhile.

This brings us to the second question: could the presence of a higher plan, in conjunction with immortality, be sufficient for meaning? The answer to this would also appear to be “no”. Suppose, for instance, that there exists an evil or wicked God who plans to torture each and every human being for eternity. Or suppose something like Calvinism is true but one is not among elect and is fated for perpetual purgatory or eternal damnation. In both of these cases there is a higher plan, and each individual human will play a permanent role in this plan, but in neither case could the individual lives be thought worthwhile.

  • (10) The existence of a higher plan, in conjunction with immortality, is insufficient for meaning since one can imagine scenarios in which both conditions are satisfied and life is still not worthwhile.

Taken together, (9) and (10) provide us with reason to reject premise (1). They show us that a higher plan is not sufficient for meaning either alone or together with immortality. However, they do not do two very important things. First, they do not show that the existence of a higher plan is not a necessary condition for meaning. And second, they do not show that specific higher plans are insufficient for meaning. So, a revised form of premise (1) might be possible, and this revision might provide some reason for accepting the theistic view over the atheistic one.

But let’s consider that second point for a moment. Could specific kinds of higher plan be sufficient for meaning? Sure, this is possible. But then the question arises: what kinds of specific plan? In the article, Di Muzio discusses this issue, but not quite in the same way as I do here. He suggests two ways in which higher plans could become meaningful:

(a) They could themselves part of some, still higher, plan; or 
(b) They could be intrinsically meaningful.

Di Muzio argues that (a) would lead to a infinite regress which would be unsatisfactory and would confer no advantages on the theistic position in this debate. Thus, he thinks (b) is the only live option. In order to determine whether this is advantageous to the theist, one might be inclined to assess different possible candidate theories of religious meaning (e.g. divine calling theory, redemption theory) and see whether they are intrinsically meaningful.

However, we shan’t do that here. Why not? Because the critique of premise (1) to this point, along with the suggestion that certain things can have intrinsic meaning, throws up an intriguing possibility: there could be something other than an eternal higher plan, which is compatible with the atheistic view, which provides sufficient conditions for meaning. If something like this exists, it would show that higher plans are not necessary for meaning. And if this is possible, the theistic conception of meaning in life would effectively be defeated.

We’ll consider this issue in part two.

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