Thursday, August 6, 2015

Does God guarantee meaning in life? A Novel Argument for Atheism

Meaning is important. People want to live meaningful lives. They want to make a ‘difference’. They want for it all to ‘matter’. Some people think that this is only possible if God exists. They say that if God does not exist, then we are doomed to live finite lives on a finite planet in a finite universe. Everything will eventually collapse, crumble and die. It will all be for naught. But if God does exist, there is hope. He will save us; He can guarantee our eternal lives in the most perfect state of being; He can imbue the universe with purpose and value.

But is this traditional picture of the relationship between God and meaning right? I have written numerous posts challenging it over the years. But I am always keen to find fresh perspectives. That’s exactly what Megill and Linford’s recent paper ‘God, the Meaning of Life, and a New Argument for Atheism’ provides. They make an interesting, two-part case. The first part argues that God’s existence would indeed guarantee meaning in life. The second part argues that even though God’s existence would guarantee meaning, it is highly unlikely that God himself is the source of that meaning.

As I say, this is an interesting juxtaposition of arguments. On the one hand God is said to be sufficient meaning; on the other hand he is not thought to be necessary for it. I want to look at both sides of this equation over the next two posts. Today, I look exclusively at the first part of the argument. As we shall see, Megill and Linford think that this argument has an interesting consequence: it allows us to formulate a new argument for atheism.

1. Why God’s Existence Should Guarantee Meaning
Let’s get something straight first: ‘meaning’ is a tricky concept. It denotes a property of human lives that is thought to be valuable and worth having. It is distinct from the property of well-being, though it may be related to it (i.e. well-being may be necessary or sufficient for meaning, according to some theories). It is also likely to be distinct from similar properties like significance or purpose or worthwhileness, though oftentimes the term ‘meaning’ is used interchangeably with these other terms. Another important point is that meaning is usually understood to come in degrees. It is not a purely digital phenomenon. It is not the case that you either have a meaningful life or you don’t. Rather, you can have degrees of meaning in your life, though this is consistent with the existence of some threshold of meaningfulness that is needed to make your life worth living.

There are many theories of meaning. I have covered some of them in previous blog posts. One of the most popular is that God somehow provides or imbues our lives with meaning. Megill and Linford’s first argument agrees with this. They say that God can indeed ensure that our lives are meaningful. The argument is pretty straightforward. If we assume that God is omnibenevolent (or maximally benevolent); and if we assume that meaning is something that makes human life better than it would otherwise have been; then it looks like God would only desire to create lives with meaning. Of course, desire is one thing, practical realities are another. To ensure that our lives have meaning God would have to have the ability and power to actualise meaningful lives. Fortunately, those powers are also part and parcel of the traditional concept of God. He is, after all, also said to be omnipotent and omniscient.

That gives us the following argument:

  • (1) If God exists, he is omnibenevolent, omnipotent and omniscient (or maximally good, powerful and knowledgeable, or whatever variant on ‘perfect being’ theology you happen to prefer)
  • (2) An omnibenevolent God would not create meaningless lives.
  • (3) An omniscient God would know whether or not lives had meaning.
  • (4) An omnipotent God could actualise a world in which our lives had meaning.
  • (5) Therefore, if God exists, our lives must have meaning.

We’ll run through a few critiques of this argument below, but a couple of points are worth noting before that. First, in relation to premise (2), it might seem intuitively obvious that a perfectly good being would, if possible, create lives with meaning. But this intuitive obviousness can be underscored by another argument that draws explicit links between meaning and the problem of evil. The problem of evil claims that God’s existence is incompatible with the existence of certain types of evil. One of the most problematic types of evil is gratuitous suffering. This is a type of suffering that seems to be pointless, or not contributive to the greater good. One of Megill and Linford’s main arguments — one that they return to over and over again in their article — is that a life with any degree of suffering, and which also lacks meaning, would consist of gratuitous suffering. If the life lacked meaning then the suffering within it would not be contributing to any larger purpose or good. Consequently, if it consists of any suffering whatsoever, it follows that this suffering would be gratuitous. But given that people do in fact suffer in life, and given that gratuitous suffering is incompatible with God’s existence, it follows that if God exists our lives must have meaning. As the authors themselves put it:

If our lives lack meaning, there would be no greater meaning for our suffering either, and so it would be gratuitous. But then, given that we do suffer, and that God’s existence and gratuitous suffering are not compossible, if God exists, our live must have meaning. 
(Megill and Linford 2015)

The other point worth noting about this argument is that it is very expansive in terms of its scope. It is not simply claiming that if God exists some lives must have meaning; it is claiming that if God exists, all lives have meaning. This becomes important below when we consider how this argument provides the basis for a new argument for atheism.

2. Objections and Replies
Let’s now consider five objections to the argument. This follows the discussion in Megill and Linford’s article, but I’m going to number both the objections and replies so that I can plug them into an argument map at the end of this section. As I run through these objections and replies, you will start to see how important the ‘gratuitous suffering’ argument is to their case.

The first objection claims that God need not guarantee that our lives are meaningful; rather he can simply create the conditions in which our lives have meaning and let us exercise our own free will in guaranteeing whether or not they actually have meaning. This is similar to the move made by many theists in the debate about the problem of evil. They claim that God need not guarantee an absence of suffering and evil in the world so long as he provides us with conditions in which we can exercise the great good of free will:

  • (6) Objection: God merely has to create the conditions in which meaning is possible; he need not guarantee that our lives have meaning.

Megill and Linford’s response here is to appeal to the gratuitous suffering problem. They point out that if some lives lack meaning, and if there is suffering in these lives, then that suffering is gratuitous. This would be incompatible with the existence of God as traditionally conceived. Thus, if there is going to be suffering in our lives, God really does have to guarantee that life has meaning. There is a conditional built into this reply: it is only if our lives involve suffering that God must guarantee meaning. If there was no suffering, this would not be a problem. However, this is pretty cold comfort to the theist since in the actual world — i.e. the one we actually live in — our lives do involve suffering. Summing up:

  • (7) If our lives involve any suffering (as they actually do) then God must guarantee meaning in order to ensure that our lives do not involve gratuitous suffering.

(For what it’s worth, I think a theist might be able to craft a response to this along the lines of Anderson’s defence of sceptical theism. I haven’t thought it out in full detail but you can read my critique of Anderson’s defence here.)

The second objection focuses on the distinction between well-being and meaning. As mentioned above, many philosophers think that meaning is distinct from subjective happiness or contentment. Maybe God could exploit this distinction? Maybe he could compensate us for a lack of meaning by providing us with an overabundance of well-being?

  • (8) Objection: God could compensate us for the lack of meaning by providing us with an abundance of well-being.

Megill and Linford think that there are a number of problems with this objection. First, it is not clear that it is conceptually coherent. If a life is devoid of meaning then arguably one cannot be truly happy. Second, it is hard to see why God would actualise an inferior world. If it is possible to ensure that lives have both meaning and happiness, then surely God would actualise those lives over lives with merely superficial happiness. Finally, we have once more the problem of gratuitous suffering: a superficially happy life with no meaning, and a mere tincture of suffering, would involve gratuitous suffering and that would be incompatible with God’s existence.

  • (9) There are three problems with this objection: a happy but meaningless life may be conceptually incoherent; God would not actualise an inferior world; a superficially happy but meaningless life would have to involve no suffering.

The third objection is a little bit more serious. It is similar to the classic objections to the problem of evil. It argues that God simply does not have it in his power to actualise a world that is devoid of meaningless lives (just as some theists maintain that God does not have it in his power to actualise a world that is devoid of suffering). So God is not to blame for the fact that some lives lack meaning.

  • (10) Objection: It is impossible for God to create a world in which all lives have meaning.

Megill and Linford don’t say a whole lot in response to this. They say that it is difficult to see why this is impossible, and I suppose they have a point here. When responding to the problem of evil, theists will typically point to some reason why God has to allow some suffering in the world (such as free will). So I guess you could say that the burden of proof is on the theist in this respect. It is up to them to show why God is justified in creating a few meaningless lives. There is also the danger that any justification they offer would end up being paradoxical. I’ll discuss this in more detail in a moment. The other point Megill and Linford make is to appeal, once again, to the gratuitous suffering argument. But I won’t repeat that anymore.

  • (11) No reason is offered for thinking that it is impossible for God to create such a world. The burden of proof is on the theist.

The fourth objection is a variation of the previous one. It is the sceptical theist response. This will be familiar to anyone who engages with the literature on the evidential problem of evil. The idea is that our minds are cognitively limited. We do not fully understand the relationships between different conditions of value and ultimate meaning. God does. Thus, it could be the case, for all we know, that God has some justification for allowing a few meaningless lives. The difference between this objection and the previous one is that it attempts to rationalise theistic ignorance. So there is some attempt here, however minimal, to discharge the burden of proof.

  • (12) Objection: It could be the case, for all we know, that God has some justification for creating lives that are devoid of meaning.

There are many possible responses to this. One is to highlight the epistemic costs associated with the sceptical theist position. I’ve written a whole serious of posts about those costs. I have also published two academic articles about them. Unique to this particular dialectic, however, there is the complaint that any purported justification would be incoherent. I hinted at this above. Now is the time to spell out the argument in full. The idea is that any purported justification for the existence of meaningless lives would, presumably, be to the effect that those lives are necessary for some greater good. But if those lives are necessary for some greater good, it seems to follow that they have some ultimate purpose/value/meaning. Therefore, if God has a justification for them they must be meaningful, which undermines the original objection.

  • (13) There are two problems with this: any purported justification for meaninglessness would imbue the life with meaning; and sceptical theism has other associated epistemic costs.

Megill and Linford discuss one final objection. I’m not going to get into this objection in any real detail though because I think it is an instance of philosophical overkill (i.e. identifying and responding to objections that aren’t really all that threatening just for the sake of being comprehensive). The gist of the objection is that there might be a particular theory of meaning that justifies some meaningless lives. But this looks very similar to the sceptical theism objection — which has already been dealt with — and Megill and Linford only really discuss it so that they can highlight what I take to be an obvious feature of their argument: it makes no appeal to any particular theory of meaning; if it works, then it works for all accounts of meaning (whatever it is that meaning turns out to be).

3. Conclusion: A New Argument for Atheism
That brings us to the end of this post. To briefly sum up, if Megill and Linford are correct, God’s existence would entail that all lives are meaningful. One interesting implication of all this is that the argument just presented can obviously be flipped around into an argument against the existence of God. As follows:

  • (14) If God exists, then all lives have meaning.
  • (15) There is or has been at least one human life that lacked meaning.
  • (16) Therefore, God does not exist.

Megill and Linford claim that this is a novel argument. It is not simply a rehash of the problem of evil because it is not just about suffering and pain. After all, meaning is distinct from well-being and happiness. I not so sure that this is so ‘novel’. I think the problem of evil already encompasses a broader set of disvalue than mere suffering and pain. I wrote a series of posts about this on a previous occasion.

Anyway, let’s quickly analyse the argument. The first premise is just the conclusion to the preceding argument and so should cause no controversy. The second premise is the tricky one. An atheist would need to point to at least one life that lacked meaning. It might be quite difficult to prove this since a theist will, no doubt, always appeal to the possibility of some ultimate meaning. Thus, even if you could point to lots of individual human lives that seem (for all we know) to be devoid of meaning, it is possible for the theist to argue that they all fit into God’s mysterious plan. To make this argument stronger, you would need to cut off this possibility (i.e. insist on a purely secular theory of meaning). That’s what the second part of Megill and Linford’s article tries to do. I’ll discuss that in the next post.

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