Monday, August 24, 2015

Is God the source of meaning in life? Four Critical Arguments

(Previous Entry)

Theists sometimes argue that God’s existence is essential for meaning in life. In a quote that I have used far too often over the years, William Lane Craig puts it rather bluntly:

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 2007, 72)

It is clear from this that, for Craig, God is essential for meaning. Without him our lives are absurd. Is this view of the relationship between God and meaning correct? Is God the source of meaning in life? Or could our lives have meaning in His absence?

In the previous entry in this series, I looked at Megill and Linford’s recent argument about the relationship between God and meaning. To recap, they argued that God’s existence is sufficient for meaning in life. This is because God, being omnibenevolent and omnipotent, would not create beings with meaningless lives. To do otherwise would be to create a sub-optimal world in which people are susceptible to gratuitous suffering, and since it is widely-accepted that gratuitous suffering is incompatible with the existence of God it cannot be the case that He would create such a world. Megill and Linford also argued that this conclusion could be used to craft a novel argument for atheism, viz. if there is at least one meaningless life, then God does not exist.

This is an interesting and provocative argument, and it clearly suggests that God might be important for meaning. But it does not vindicate Craig’s position. It shows that God’s existence is sufficient for meaning; it does not show that God is necessary for meaning (i.e. that God is the source of meaning). This is an important distinction. If there is no necessary relationship between God and meaning, then it is possible to have a purely secular theory of meaning. And if it is possible to have a purely secular theory of meaning, then it is also possible for their novel argument for atheism to work (as I explained at the end of the last post).

The second half of Megill and Linford’s paper is dedicated to defending the view that God is not the source of meaning in life. They present four different arguments in support of this view. I want to look at each of them in the remainder of this post. I have given these arguments names, but be warned, in case you want to read their original paper, the names are my own invention. One other forewarning: the claim that God is sufficient for meaning is taken for granted in the following discussion. This does have an effect on the plausibility of some of what follows, though this will be flagged when appropriate.

1. The Possible Worlds Argument
The first argument asks us to imagine two different possible worlds:

G: A world in which God definitely exists and which is a perfect duplicate of the actual world.
NG: A world in which God definitely does not exist and which is a perfect duplicate of the actual world.

Both of these worlds are identical in terms of the lives that pass in and out of existence; the events that take place; and the outcomes that are achieved. The only difference is that God exists in G but not in NG. Linford and Megill suggest that both worlds are epistemically possible, i.e. for all we know we could be living in G or NG. What effect does this have on the meaning of our lives?

If we live in G, then our lives definitely have meaning. This follows from the argument in part one: if God exists, he would not allow us to live meaningless lives. That’s obvious enough. What if we live in NG? Well, then it depends on whether God is necessary for meaning or not. If he is necessary for meaning (i.e. if he is the source of meaning) then our lives in NG are meaningless. But if he is not necessary, then there is some hope (it depends on what the other potential sources of meaning are).

Let’s assume for now that God is necessary for meaning. This forces us to conclude that our lives in NG are meaningless. Is that a plausible conclusion? Megill and Linford argue that it is not. If it were true, then it would also follow that the actual content of our lives had no bearing on their meaningfulness. Remember, our lives are identical in G and NG; the only difference is that God exists in one and not in the other. But surely it is implausible to conclude that what we do (the actions we perform, the events we participate in etc) have no bearing on the meaningfulness of our lives? This gives us the following argument:

  • (1) Imagine two (epistemically) possible worlds: G and NG. God exists in G and not in NG, but otherwise both worlds are identical to the actual world in which we live. Thus, the content of our lives is the same in G and NG.

  • (2) If God is necessary for meaning, then our lives are meaningless in NG; if God is sufficient for meaning, then our lives meaningful in G.

  • (3) Therefore, if God is necessary for meaning, the actual content of our lives has no bearing on whether or not they are meaningful (from 1 and 2).

  • (4) It is implausible to assume that the content of our lives has no bearing on their meaningfulness.

  • (5) Therefore, God must not be necessary for meaning.

For what it’s worth, the basic gist of the argument being made here — that if God is necessary and sufficient for meaning then what humans do with their lives would make no difference — has been exploited by others in the recent past. Still, the argument can be challenged from several angles. The obvious line of attack is to take issue with premise (1). That premise assumes that our lives really could be identical in G and NG, but surely that is false? Surely, if God exists, his existence would have to make some difference to the content or shape of our lives?

Megill and Linford consider two versions of this response. The first appeals to a necessarily interventionist God:

  • (6) Objection: God is necessarily interventionist, i.e. he changes the course of events in the world. Consequently, G and NG could not be identical.

Megill and Linford respond to this by defending a narrower version of premise (1). They concede that God could intervene in some people’s lives, but point out that it is accepted (by ‘most’ theists) that there are at least some individual lives that aren’t affected by divine intervention. Those lives would be identical across both G and NG and the argument could still go through for the people living those lives. Similarly, if the claim is that God’s intervention is itself necessary for meaning, you run into the problem that God does not intervene in all lives. That means that those lives will lack meaning, which is inconsistent with the argument presented in part one (i.e. that if God exists, all lives must have meaning).

  • (7) God does not intervene in all lives hence those lives could be identical across G and NG; furthermore, if such intervention is necessary for meaning, you run into the problem that lives in which God does not intervene would be meaningless, which is inconsistent with the claim that God is sufficient for meaning.

Some of that seems plausible to me but I wonder whether a theist could wiggle out of it by insisting that God does intervene (in some minimal way) in every life (e.g. through creation or at the end of life). Some people may not appreciate it or be aware of it, but that doesn’t matter: his minimal intervention is still the secret sauce that saves us from meaninglessness.

The other version of the objection focuses on the afterlife:

  • (8) Objection: G and NG are not identical because the afterlife would exist in G and the afterlife is what confers meaning on our lives.

This is certainly a popular view among theists. The earlier quote from Craig made a direct appeal to the importance of immortality in our account of meaning. Megill and Linford offer two responses. The first is to argue that an afterlife is epistemically possible on atheism. In other words, there is at least one epistemically possible atheistic universe in which humans live forever. So God isn’t necessary for immortality. The other response is to argue against the notion that immortality is necessary for meaning. They do this by appealing to the fact that some events of finite duration appear to have value, and that sometimes the value that they appear to have is a direct function of their brevity. They give the example of one’s days as an undergraduate student, which are probably more fondly remembered because they don’t last forever. They could also give the example of lives that go on forever but seem to epitomise meaninglessness, e.g. the life of Sisyphus.

  • (9) It is epistemically possible for their to be an afterlife in NG; and it is unlikely that immortality is itself necessary for meaning.

I suspect theists might respond by agreeing that immortality simpliciter is not necessary for meaning. What is necessary is the right kind of immortality and God provides for that kind of immortality (e.g. through everlasting life in paradise). In doing this, theists are making appeals to some feature or property that God manages to bestow on our lives to make them meaningful. To help us distinguish such claims, Megill and Linford appeal to something they call the fourfold distinction:

The Fourfold Distinction: When discussing the overarching ‘meaningfulness’ of our lives, it is worth distinguishing between four phenomena:
(i) The significance we attribute to our own lives;
(ii) The purpose to which we devote our lives;
(iii) The significance God attributes to our lives;
(iv) The purpose for which God created us.

The theist might concede that life in NG could have (i) and (ii), but it could never have (iii) and (iv). They are what make the crucial difference. They come from outside our own lives and confer meaning upon us. The other arguments presented by Megill and Linford try to deal with these sorts of claims.

2. The External Source Argument
The next argument is something I am dubbing the external source argument. It works like a dilemma involving a disjunctive premise (i.e. a premise of the form ‘either a or b’). The disjunctive premise concerns the possible sources of meaning in life. Megill and Linford suggest that there are only two possibilities: (a) the source is intrinsic/internal to our individual lives, i.e. human life is meaningful in and of itself; or (b) the source is extrinsic/external to our lives, i.e. what we do and how that relates to some other feature of the universe is what determines meaningfulness. The problem is that neither of these possibilities is consistent with God being the source of meaning.

The full argument works a little something like this:

  • (10) If life has meaning, then that meaning is either intrinsic/internal to life or extrinsic/external (i.e. dependent on what we do and how that relates to something external to us).

  • (11) If the meaning is intrinsic/internal to life, then God is not the source of meaning.

  • (12) If the meaning is extrinsic/external, then God might be the source of meaning (though that depends on what else we know about meaning and God’s relationship to it).

  • (13) We know that if God exists, then every life must have meaning (the sufficiency argument - from the previous post).

  • (14) Therefore, we know that if God exists, every life must have meaning irrespective of how that life is lived and how the person living it relates to God (from 13 and previous discussion).

  • (15) Therefore, God cannot be the external source of meaning.

  • (16) Therefore, either way, God cannot be the source of meaning in life.

This formalisation is my attempt to make sense of the argument presented in Megill and Linford’s article. The first three premises should be relatively uncontroversial. The argument does not assume that life has meaning, merely that if it does, the meaning must be internal or external. It is pretty obvious that internal meaning excludes God as the source. That just leaves the external possibility. The problem is that the sufficiency argument seems to suggest that how we live our lives makes no difference to their meaning, which in turn seems to rule out the claim that how we relate to God (or how he relates to us) is what infuses our lives with meaning.

So far, this is very similar to the previous argument. The chief difference comes when Megill and Linford develop the argument by the considering fourfold possibilities: (i) that the purpose to which we devote our lives matches the purpose for which God created us; (ii) that the purpose to which we devote our lives does not match the purpose for which God created us; (iii) that the significance we attribute to our lives matches the significance God attributes to us; or (iv) that the significance we attribute to our lives does not match the significance God attributes to us. They argue that none of these possibilities is consistent with God being the source of meaning.

I’ll briefly summarise their reasoning. Suppose (i) is true: our purpose matches God’s purpose for our lives. There are two problems with this. First, it is not clear how one being creating us for a purpose necessarily makes our lives meaningful. When we consider analogous cases (e.g. a scientist creating a child for the purpose of organ donation) we often find something lamentable or problematic about the life in question. We think it robs us of proper autonomy and choice. At the very least, it would seem to depend on the nature of the purpose and not on the mere fact that another being has created us for a purpose. Second, we have the NG problem, outlined in the previous argument. We could imagine two worlds (G and NG) in which we live for identical purposes, albeit in one of these world’s God does not exist. Does this rob us of something important? Megill and Linford suggest that it does not: if our lives are directed toward the same end, they should be equally valuable. I suspect a theist would challenge this on the grounds that there are certain divine purposes that simply would not be possible in NG.

Suppose (ii) is true: our purposes don’t match. If that’s the case, then it seems like God would have created a particularly odd world. If he is rational, then he would want to accomplish his goals through his actions. And if he is truly omnipotent and ominscient, then surely he would not fail to create beings that matched his goals?

Suppose (iii) is true: we attribute the same level of significance to our lives as God does. In that case, Megill and Linford think that we once again have the G vs NG problem: “we would attribute the same importance to our lives regardless of whether we lived in G or NG. Therefore it is difficult to see what difference God would make in this scenario.” (Megill and Linford, 2015).

Finally, suppose (iv) is true: there is a mismatch in the level of significance we attach to our lives. There are then two possible mismatches. Either we attribute more significance than God or less. If we attribute more, then Megill and Linford argue ‘our lives would be imbued with a deep sense of importance (even if inappropriate) in both G and NG. So it is difficult to see why would need to be in G as opposed to NG for our lives to have meaning.’ (Megill and Linford 2015) And if we attribute less meaning, then we are confronted with a variant on the problem of evil: people would be made to suffer needlessly by thinking that their lives were less important than they actually are.

I have my problems with all of this. While I agree with the insight at the heart of the argument (if God exists, then what we do will make no difference to the ultimate meaning/significance of the universe), I think Megill and Linford do a poor job showing that God cannot be an external source of meaning. One reason for this is that they don’t spend enough time distinguishing between the different concepts (i.e. purpose, meaning, significance); another is that many of the points made here simply rehash or repeat points that have already been made in their article. The main reason, however, is that throughout this section of their paper they seem to assume a largely subjectivist standard of success for their argument. In other words, they assume that if we think our lives have meaning (or significance or purpose or whatever) then that’s good enough. This certainly seems to be the assumption at play in the two quoted passages in the two preceding paragraphs. In both instances, Megill and Linford rule out the importance of God on the grounds that if we attribute a high level of significance to our own lives, they must have that level of significance. They don’t seem to countenance the view that our subjective beliefs might be wrong.

This is problematic because it is then all too easy for a theist to take advantage of the distinction between objective and subjective standards of success. The theist could argue that, irrespective of what we think about the purpose or significance of our lives, what matters is that there is an objective standard for these things. They could bolster this argument by pointing to secular philosophers who have argued for similar views. And then they could argue that God is the only thing that could possibly provide the appropriate objective standard. In this sense, they could argue that the debate is very similar to that about God’s role in grounding objective moral truths. The problem with Megill and Linford's argument is that it too readily assumes the presence of meaning/significance when we subjectively perceive it to exist.

Now, don’t get me wrong: I think there is plenty wrong with the claim that God is the only thing that could ground the appropriate objective standard. I have tried to explain why I think that in several previous posts. I just don’t think that this particular argument, one of four in Megill and Linford’s article, is making the best case for this view.

3. The No-Belief Argument
I’ll try to deal with the two remaining arguments more quickly. The first of these focuses on the role of theistic belief in any theistic account of meaning. I’m calling it the ‘no-belief’ argument because it highlights the potential irrelevance of belief in God for meaning, which is then alleged to be disturbing for the theist.

The argument starts with the supposition that God is necessary for meaning, i.e. that He is an external source of meaning in our lives. This means that we must stand in some sort of relation to God in order for our lives to have meaning. That relation could take many different forms. It could be that we have to achieve salvation with God in the afterlife. It could be that we need to follow a specific list of divine commandments. The precise details of the relation do not matter too much. What matters is whether belief in God is going to be an essential part of that relation. In other words, on the theistic account, is it the case that we must believe in God in order for our lives to have meaning?

You might argue that it is. If you are a theist, you would like to think that your belief makes some kind of a difference. But in that case you run into a version of the problem of divine hiddenness. There are some people who are blameless non-believers either because they were raised in a time and place where belief in God was not available to them, or because they have honestly tried to believe and lost their faith. Either way, if you think belief is necessary for meaning, it would follow that these people are living meaningless lives. This is incompatible with the sufficiency argument outlined in part one. Recall the conclusion to that argument: if God exists, all lives must have meaning. It follows therefore that belief in God cannot be necessary for meaning.

But then the theist is in the rather odd position of believing that God is necessary for meaning but belief in Him is not. This is certainly an odd view of meaning for people like William Lane Craig, who insist that achieving salvation through a personal relationship with God is the ultimate source of meaning and purpose. And it would probably be uncomfortable for many other theists.

My feeling is that although theist would be uncomfortable with this idea, this argument once again fails to really upset the view that God is a necessary, external source of meaning. I feel like a theist could bite the bullet on this one and accept that belief in God is not important, but continue to maintain that something else about God is important (e.g. that he will save us all in the end, irrespective of belief). I’ve certainly conversed with a number of liberal, universalist-style Christians who embrace this idea. Their views about God and meaning are often maddeningly vague, but they aren’t quite susceptible to this objection.

4. The New Euthyphro Argument
The final argument is a variation on the Euthyphro dilemma. As you probably know, the Euthyphro dilemma is a famous objection to theistically-grounded views of morality, such as Divine Command Theory. It is named after a Platonic dialogue. The dilemma poses the following challenge to the proponent of divine command theory: for any X (where is an allegedly moral act) is X morally right because it is commanded by God, or is it commanded by God because it is morally right? If it is the former, then it seems like the goodness of X is purely arbitrary (God could have commanded something else). If it is the latter, then it seems like God is not the true ontological foundation for the obligation to X. This is independent from God. Neither of these conclusions is entirely welcome.

Megill and Linford argue that a similar dilemma can be posed about the relationship between God and meaning. To anyone who claims that God’s existence is necessary for meaning, we can pose the following question: do our lives have meaning simply because God decrees that they do, or does God choose his decrees based on some independent standard of meaningfulness? To make this more concrete, suppose we accept the view that meaning is provided by God’s plan of salvation. We then ask: is this meaningful simply because it is God’s plan, or is it God’s plan because it is independently meaningful? If it’s the former, then we run into the problem that God could have picked any plan at all and this would have made our lives meaningful. For instance, God could have decided that rolling a boulder up and down a hill for eternity provided us with meaning. That doesn’t seem right. If it’s the latter, then we run into the problem that God is not the true source of meaning. It is an independent set of properties or values.

Megill and Linford develop this argument in more detail by asking whether any of the responses to the traditional Euthyphro dilemma can apply to this novel version. I won’t get into these details here because I have explored those responses before and I think they are equally implausible in this context. In other words, I think this argument basically correct. God cannot be the source of meaning and because meanings (like other values) are most plausibly understood as basic, sui generis and metaphysically necessary properties of certain states of affairs. I have defended this view on previous occasions.

5. Conclusion
This post has been quite long. Much longer than I originally anticipated. To briefly recap, the question was whether God was necessary for meaning. To be more precise, the question was whether God was the source or grounding for meaning in life. Megill and Linford presented four arguments for thinking that He could not be. My feeling is that only two of these arguments are really worthy of consideration: (i) the possible worlds argument, which is based on a thought experiment about different epistemically possible worlds; and (ii) the new Euthyphro argument, which is based on the classic Euthyphro objection to divine command theory. The other two arguments strike me a being more problematic.

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