Meaning and Death

by Luke Muehlhauser on December 13, 2010 in General Atheism,William Lane Craig

We are examining William Lane Craig’s 6 assertions about “the absurdity of life without God.”

His first assertion is, in my own words:

If life and the universe come to an end, then they are without ultimate meaning.

Craig’s 5th assertion is similar (again in my own words):

If life and the universe come to an end, then they are without ultimate purpose.

A famous 1971 article by philosopher Thomas Nagel responds to these claims:

It is often remarked that nothing we do now will matter in a million years. But if that is true, then by the same token, nothing that will be the case in a million years matters now. In particular, it does not matter now that in a million years nothing we do now will matter. Moreover, even if what we did now were going to matter in a million years, how could that keep our present concerns from being absurd? If their mattering now is not enough to accomplish that, how would it help if they mattered a million years from now?

…What we say to convey the absurdity of our lives often has to do with space or time: we are tiny specks in the infinite vastness of the universe; our lives are mere instants even on a geological time scale, let alone a cosmic one; we will all be dead any minute. But of course none of these evident facts can be what makes life absurd, if it is absurd. For suppose we lived forever; would not a life that is absurd if it lasts seventy years be infinitely absurd if it lasted through eternity? And if our lives are absurd given our present size, why would they be any less absurd if we filled the universe?

…Another inadequate argument is that because we are going to die, all chains of justification must leave off in mid-air… All of it is an elaborate journey leading nowhere…

There are several replies to this argument. First, life does not consist of a sequence of activities each of which has as its purpose some later member of the sequence… No further justification is needed to make it reasonable to take aspirin for a headache, attend an exhibit of the work a painter one admires, or stop a child from putting his hand on a hot stove…

Even if someone wishes to supply a further justification for [things], that justification would have to end somewhere too. If nothing can justify unless it is justified in terms of something outside itself, which is also justified, then an infinite regress results, and no chain of justification can be complete…

Those seeking to supply their lives with meaning usually envision a role or function in something larger than themselves. They therefore seek fulfillment in service to society, the state, the revolution, the progress of history, the advance of science, or religion and the glory of God.

But a role in some larger enterprise cannot confer significance unless that enterprise is itself significant… If we learned that we were being raised to provide food for other creatures fond of human flesh [then] even if we learned that the human race had been developed by animal breeders precisely for this purpose, that would still not give our lives meaning, for two reasons. First, we would still be in the dark as to the significance of the lives of those other beings; second, although we might acknowledge that this culinary role would make our lives meaningful to them, it is not clear how it would make them meaningful to us.

A reader on Craig’s website named Bennington adds another response to Craig:

It is also worth noting that your entire argument is a non sequitur, for even if one concedes that our actions will lose their meaning, it is undeniable that they will always have had meaning in the past; facts about the past like these cannot be obliterated with the passage of time. Moreover, one could go even further and adopt the mainstream B-theory of time, in which the past is as real as the present, meaning that human actions will always have meaning!

In response, Craig offers some helpful clarifications:

I’ve tried to analyze the absurdity of life in terms of life’s lacking ultimate meaning, value, and purpose. The word “ultimate” is important here, for obviously we can have subsidiary purposes and conditional values without God, but my claim is that ultimately nothing really matters if there is no God. It seems to me that there are two pre-requisites to an ultimately meaningful, valuable, and purposeful life, namely, God and immortality, and if God does not exist, then we have neither.

By “meaning” I mean something like significance or importance. By “purpose” I mean a telosor goal of life. By “value” I mean objective moral values and duties. We mustn’t separate off the question of value from meaning and purpose, as you try to do in your question, for if there are objective moral values and duties, then life is likely to be meaningful. So the atheist can’t say that life can be ultimately meaningful in the absence of God because there are truly valuable things in life, since if I’m right, there aren’t any objective moral values in the absence of God. These three elements, while distinct, are interrelated and hang together.

Even still, I must say I find Craig’s arguments concerning the absurdity of life without God difficult to discern. He does not offer numbered premises or explicit definitions as he does with his arguments for the existence of God.

Now, how does Craig reply to Nagel and Bennington?

[Nagel] seems to be using the phrase “does not matter” equivocally, to mean either “is ultimately insignificant” or “makes no difference.” When we clarify the meanings, then his argument makes no sense: “If what we do now is ultimately insignificant because it will make no difference in a million years, then what happens in a million years is also ultimately insignificant because it makes no difference to what we do now.” That doesn’t make sense because the arrow of time is from past to future. To see if what happens in a million years makes any difference, you don’t look to its impact on today but to its impact on the future, and there isn’t any in the end. So, of course, in the absence of backward causation, it makes no difference now what will happen in a million years. The point is that what happens now or in a million years makes no ultimate difference on the outcome of the universe…

Maybe Nagel’s claim is that it doesn’t matter that nothing matters; but that doesn’t deny my point that it doesn’t matter, that there is no ultimate meaning…

As for your point that past facts always remain past facts, that does not invest those facts with any ultimate importance in the grand scheme of things. It will always be the case that the Third Reich went down to defeat in World War II, but so what? Everything is doomed to end up in the same lifeless, featureless condition of the cold heat death of the universe…

Nagel and Craig also discuss whether theism can provide life with ultimate meaning, value, and purpose, but we shall return to that discussion later.

So who is right? We have some clarifying to do, next time.

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{ 41 comments… read them below or add one }

Kaelik December 13, 2010 at 4:44 am

Craig is using the wrong term. Instead of “ultimate meaning” he should be saying “gibberwock meaning.”

I am really tired of people inventing a new definition of a word that has nothing to do with existing definitions, and then trying to hijack the connotations and associations of the word from it’s actual definitions.

Not just Craig, also looking at you Luke/Alonzo.

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Pedro Amaral Couto December 13, 2010 at 6:01 am

I think I understand what Craig means with “ultimate meaning”. I’ll use the cloud computing as metaphor.

Suppose that I’m writing a document on a computer but the power turned off. When I turn on the computer I learn that the data is completely lost. What I have done didn’t matter at the end: the creation of the document was not important for the state of the computer memory after the power off. But with cloud computing, the computer could explode, but what you’ve done would be somewhere else.

The point is that what we do now is important for me now and might be important for others on the future. But “important” also means «strongly affecting the course of events or the nature of things». If the universe “resets” and it’s all that exists, all that we’ve done will disappear like a lost document. That’s the lack of ultimate meaning.

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PDH December 13, 2010 at 7:05 am

I think I understand what Craig means with “ultimate meaning”. I’ll use the cloud computing as metaphor.Suppose that I’m writing a document on a computer but the power turned off. When I turn on the computer I learn that the data is completely lost. What I have done didn’t matter at the end: the creation of the document was not important for the state of the computer memory after the power off. But with cloud computing, the computer could explode, but what you’ve done would be somewhere else.The point is that what we do now is important for me now and might be important for others on the future. But “important” also means «strongly affecting the course of events or the nature of things». If the universe “resets” and it’s all that exists, all that we’ve done will disappear like a lost document. That’s the lack of ultimate meaning.  

The problem with that is that writing a document is a pain in the ass. It’s not something we do for its own sake, it is a means to an end. The reason we do it is because we have a deadline or whatever. It’s frustrating to lose all your work when you haven’t achieved your goal. If, OTOH, you handed it to your boss and then your computer died and took your data to the grave with it, it wouldn’t be so bad (it would be bad for other reasons but if you don’t need your document any more, you’re not going to be too bothered about that).

I don’t give money to charity so that I can get into heaven and live forever. If my money helps people who need it to live full and happy lives then I don’t mind if they eventually pop their clogs like everyone else inevitably will. They’ve had a good run. Arguing against this point will ultimately put you in the situation of saying that you would just let innocent people suffer if you couldn’t get anything out of helping them.

Craig might be right that our lives don’t have ‘ultimate’ meaning. If that is the case then we have different goals. My goals are taking advantage of this astonishing opportunity I have lucked my way into and helping other people do the same. If your goal is to achieve salvation so that you can live forever with all of the people you’ve lost then I guess it probably does suck to find out that it ain’t gonna happen. Since I’ve never considered that to be an option I can’t say that I’m especially bothered that heaven doesn’t exist. Nor do I find the idea appealing.

To quote Freddie Mercury, ‘Who wants to live forever?’

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Patrick December 13, 2010 at 7:30 am

Every theistic argument ever:

1. X is a major problem in philosophy and/or science.
2. This problem will never be solved, because either I’m a pessimist, or because the problem relies on a flawed understanding of itself or of the universe.
3. Oh noes! That’s a huge problem for some reason!
4. Theism doesn’t solve this problem, but it does deny that the problem exists.
5. Therefore theism.

1. The explanation of objective morality is a major difficulty for philosophy.
2. It will never be solved, because objective “oughtness” isn’t a logical concept.
3. Oh noes!
4. Theism doesn’t solve this problem per se, but it does deny that objective oughtness is illogical in the first place.
5. Therefore theism.

1. Finding “ultimate purpose” is a major difficulty philosophically.
2. It will never be solved, because “purpose” isn’t an objective trait of an action, its a statement of that action’s relations to other values.
3. Oh noes!
4. Theism doesn’t solve the problem, but it does deny that “purpose” isn’t an objective trait of an action.
5. Therefore theism.

1. Figuring out how *stuff* started happening, given that usually stuff is started by other stuff, is really tough.
2. It will never be solved, because any solution we find will reference other *stuff,* and just push back the problem to another level.
3. Oh noes!
4. Theism doesn’t solve the problem, but it does deny that all stuff needs an explanation, specifically, it claims that God is *stuff* that doesn’t need an explanation.
5. Therefore theism.

We could do this all day.

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other eric December 13, 2010 at 8:18 am

this seems like a pretty obvious catch 22, and clearly WLC gives non-theists no possible way in to the conversation. if “ultimate” meaning is defined as meaning supplied by a god, then no, of course there is no ultimate meaning without gods. i supposed next he’ll define the universe as, “physical matter created by god” and make that conversation impossible as well. essentially his argument is: if existence is not how i wish it, then it is absurd.

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Joseph December 13, 2010 at 9:48 am

WLC says: “In particular, it does not matter now that in a million years nothing we do now will matter.”

Welcome to the real world. But of course that is not satisfying to him. So his solution is: Let’s invent God to give meaning to life. Okay, now pass the sugar.

@ Patrick

Thanks, it made me laugh.

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Reidish December 13, 2010 at 9:59 am

Patrick,

What do you define to be an “argument from ignorance”? Do you have any objections to them in principle?

Thanks in advance.

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Patrick December 13, 2010 at 10:30 am

I’m not in charge of the dictionary, so “my” definitions aren’t particularly important.

But I’ve heard “argument from ignorance” used in three different ways. I don’t know which is more correct.

1. If a proposition hasn’t been proven true/false, it must be the opposite.

or,

2. Any argument in which the lack of evidence for a proposition is actually used as evidence for that proposition.

or,

3. Any argument in which a premise is that we don’t or can’t know the truth of a proposition, but in which the conclusion is the very proposition we allegedly do not or cannot know.

Obviously those are problematic. Of course the fact that we don’t know something, or haven’t been able to disprove something, can be used in an argument, but not in these particular ways. And a sufficiently wily person can take an argument that would otherwise be an argument from ignorance and save it, though usually by creating other problems such as unexpressed premises.

I don’t know what relevance that has to my point, though.

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sly December 13, 2010 at 10:42 am

Patric, that was awesome!

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Garren December 13, 2010 at 11:12 am

Patrick has it right.

Atheists are expected to provide satisfying answers to everything or admit a problem with Atheism. Meanwhile, Theists tend to exempt themselves from the procedure. It’s similar to the way John Loftus challenges Theism with his “Outsider Test for Faith,” but exempts Atheism from the procedure.

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Patrick December 13, 2010 at 11:20 am

John Loftus needs to read himself some Rawls. I think the Outsider Test of Faith could be cleaned up pretty easily if he took advantage of similar thinking on other matters.

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JS Allen December 13, 2010 at 11:49 am

Agreed. Atheists sometimes take this bait, which is perhaps why Craig uses it.

Even if we accept his self-serving definition of “ultimate meaning”, I don’t think it’s very useful, since it’s possible that the “God” we are following is actually an impostor sent by a greater God to test us, and that all of our actions would turn out to be counter to “ultimate purpose”.

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Reidish December 13, 2010 at 11:58 am

I don’t know what relevance that has to my point, though.

Right, now that I see how you are using the term, I don’t think it’s relevant either. At first I thought you were recasting the arguments to expose their reliance on “ignorance”, which is a silly fetish used by many atheist commentators.

Thanks for the clarification.

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Kaelik December 13, 2010 at 1:12 pm

Okay guys, we need to talk. Like every single one of you typoed “ultimate” where you meant to type “gibberwock.”

Don’t indulge the people who invent new definitions for the sole purpose of associating it with real definitions of the word.

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AndrewR December 13, 2010 at 2:39 pm

Having read WLC’s ‘Reasonable Faith’ about a year ago and since followed discussions on apologetics on sites like this one I’ve come to the following conclusion:

Craig is a honeypot (in the computing sense http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Honeypot_(computing) ).

My journey through this stuff will I think be similar to at least some of you:

1. Read Dawkins, Hitchens etc. Realise eventually that reading books full of opinions you already agree with is entertaining but kind of a waste of time.

2. So, have a look and see what the best arguments for theism are. Being of a scientific/skeptical bent, look for evidence-based arguments (KCA) rather than emotional ones (“you must want Jesus with all your heart”).

3. A quick google turns up WLC (of course). Read and consider the arguments, read the rebuttals. Ultimately find them (KCA, ontological, moral, fine-tuning) pretty wanting but it’s kinda fun to argue about the details and explain why. I like to compare it to doing a crossword – it’s a diverting brain exercise.

At some point you realise the following:

A) No theist you’ve ever met is a theist because of the kind of arguments that WLC puts forward. The source of christian belief seems to be some combination of upbringing (haven’t realised other world views are possible yet), comfort (god is looking out for me and hearing my prayers) and fear (I will die some day). Hell, WLC _himself_ isn’t a christian because of his arguments, as he freely admits in the early chapters of Reasonable Faith.

B) You’ve pretty much chewed all flavour of apologetics by now. None of the arguments are new (some are more than a thousand years old). We’re arguing about the details or, even worse, about the meaning of words.

Here’s where I was wrong: I thought WLC and his apologetic compadres were all about using evidential and logical argument to evangelise christianity. I don’t think that’s it at all. WLC serves two purposes:

1) He’s a bulwark against doubt for christians who naturally think logically and scientifically about things. He gives the christian who feels that their faith should have some basis in evidence something to grab hold of.

2) He’s a honeypot for atheists who want to argue against the rationality of theism because it’s intellectually satisfying to do so. I’m not sure that debunking the KCA (for example) will topple anyone’s christian faith for the simple reason that no one is a christian because they think the KCA is sound.

PS: I may be wrong here, but I’ve sometimes wondered if Luke’s gradual shifting of the focus of this blog from theism/atheism to issues of moral philosophy might be because he’s come to the same conclusion :)

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JS Allen December 13, 2010 at 2:57 pm

@Kaelik – That’s what the “scare” quotes are for.

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JS Allen December 13, 2010 at 3:01 pm

@AndrewA – I agree with you about WLC’s function as a honeypot and a bulwark. But your assertion in A) seems incorrect to me.

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Andrewr December 13, 2010 at 3:10 pm

@JS Allen : I don’t doubt it’s true that there are christians whose belief is based on apologetics. I was saying that I haven’t encountered this position in any of the christians I’ve spoken to. I probably should have written that in the first person, not the second person to make that clearer.

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JS Allen December 13, 2010 at 4:33 pm

@Andrewr – Ah, OK. FWIW, I agree that vanishingly small numbers ever become Christians via apologetics. As far as I can tell, the Bible doesn’t endorse apologetics as a method of evangelization, anyway.

I was just skeptical about the other reasons given for people becoming Christian. Upbringing is obviously going to be a factor for *any* belief system, including atheism, but that’s orthogonal to the discussion of apologetics, since presumably we’re talking about people who haven’t been raised Christian. For adult converts who were previously non-Christian, I didn’t think that “comfort” of “fear of death” play heavily into the conversion. But I could be wrong.

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cl December 13, 2010 at 4:36 pm

…my claim is that ultimately nothing really matters if there is no God. [WLC]

Way to go WLC! Project your own opinions onto others as if you’re taking cues from Alonzo Fyfe! Honestly, I fail to understand why this argument appears to be seriously indulged.

This is why in the past, I’ve advised against Luke [or anyone] using value as a noun. To say that something “has value” is nonsensical if we posit – as Luke does – that value requires a valuer. Now, an agent can certainly value something, but note the verb tense. Some of you might laugh and chalk this up as “useless semantics,” but the strategy has enabled me to cut through many a specious argument – so I would disagree.

Craig’s claim is nonsensical. Invoking the word “ultimate” seems to only further obfuscate things. If something matters to an agent, then it matters – period. If not, then not. In the same way a stepladder doesn’t “have value,” the universe cannot “have meaning.” Of course, an agent can value a stepladder, just as an agent can find meaning in the universe. So, Craig can’t find meaning to life without God and immortality. Big deal? That doesn’t mean nobody else can.

By “meaning” I mean something like significance or importance. By “purpose” I mean a telos or goal of life.

That fares a little better, but doesn’t solve the problem. If there is no God, then there is no overarching telos that would apply to all. That is true, but so what? Even in God’s absence, one can imbibe overarching telos into their own life. So, instead of saying, “X has meaning,” say, “I find meaning in X,” then watch the legs fall right out from under WLC: “I find meaning in life and the universe, and I am an atheist.” What’s Craig going to say to that? Ah, but there is no overarching telos in your life? So what?

Craig’s argument here seems similar to the “you can’t be moral without God” argument. Unless somebody can illustrate a substantial difference, I see no need to spend further time on it. I only wrote this much because of the coffee.

Kaelik,

I am really tired of people inventing a new definition of a word that has nothing to do with existing definitions, and then trying to hijack the connotations and associations of the word from it’s actual definitions. Not just Craig, also looking at you Luke/Alonzo.

Ditto, ditto, and DITTO. I believe Luke and Alonzo deserve more reprimand along these lines.

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svenjamin December 13, 2010 at 8:17 pm
Darren December 13, 2010 at 9:12 pm

I agree with the honeypot idea. I think Craig and Plantinga and the like are just obfuscators. The average joe blow JF doesn’t give two tin sh!ts (how often do you see that beauty typed in a blog) about the crap Craig et al peddle. Think about it. We’re talking about people whose world’s revolve around Dancing With The Stars, Survivor, and vacation bible school. If Craig walked up to a religiot and said (from his site):

“God’s state of existing timelessly sans creation can serve logically as a sort of temporal index. So God exists timelessly sans creation is tenselessly true and therefore true at all times. So it is true now.”

They’d likely just nod and agree with him merely because he’s a christian and speaks in such a foreign language to them that they’d feel stupid to admit that they have not fraggin’ clue what this overread mook is saying. Most people are religious because they’ve always been religious regardless of how very little they know about their religion. That’s real faith. Believing in this crap even when you know next to nothing about it, and don’t even really care to look into it. A WLC wannabe, Frank Turek, says, “Christians don’t get brownie points for being stupid.” I think that’s the most BS statement of all time.

I often wonder why I keep reading these blogs, this site and others. I think we’re all here and on other blogs trying to find that AH-HA moment where we put forth or read the post that is the ultimate killer of religion. But it won’t happen. People are just to damn mindless and yet heavily defensive when it comes to certain things. It’s like those shows about hoarders. People want to hold on to things even if they serve no purpose, even if they are harmful to them, and even if the only value it has is that they won’t let it go.

And now I go back to more Johnny Walker.

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Patrick December 13, 2010 at 9:50 pm

WLC serves two purposes:1) He’s a bulwark against doubt for christians who naturally think logically and scientifically about things. He gives the christian who feels that their faith should have some basis in evidence something to grab hold of.2) He’s a honeypot for atheists who want to argue against the rationality of theism because it’s intellectually satisfying to do so.

I basically agree. I’ve been arguing for some time that one of the biggest things atheists fail to understand about the Craigs of the world (and the entire theist/atheist debate circuit) is that the political and social context in which the debate and discourse happens is as important, if not more important, than the content.

For example, when an atheist is invited to a debate against an apologist and it turns out that the audience is almost exclusively the apologist’s coreligionists, what that usually means is that the *point* of the debate for the apologist is to beat up the atheist rhetorically in front of a friendly audience who attended for the purpose of seeing the theist win. Its practically professional wrestling: the theist is the face, and the atheist is the heel. And in that context you can’t *win* by making good arguments, because that wasn’t the game. If you want to *win* you have to engage the actual dynamic, and find a way to cast yourself as something other than the heel, because the number one rule of any face/heel confrontation is that the heel always loses- if the heel refuses to lose, that just makes the audience hate him more. If you aren’t prepared to go into the debate and overthrow that paradigm, you’re wasting your time and you’re helping your opponents. You’re losing before you begin.

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mopey December 13, 2010 at 10:02 pm

“What is there in heaven I desire to enjoy but thee? There is a twofold fruition or enjoying of God; the one is in this life, the other in the life to come.”

Granting WLC’s entire load, it sure seems that the back-end of this enjoyment will be boring as hell. Eternally boring as hell. If salvation is achieved and immortality/everlasting-life is awarded, it seems that the glorification/enjoyment will lose all of the normative force, leaving only the enjoyment. I suspect even the most worshippy religious person would cringe at doing so (and only so) for an endless duration. But I guess the idea is that enjoyment in heaven is the ultimate “thing” to do for ever and ever, or else it wouldn’t be such a great ultimate purpose.

http://www.puritansermons.com/watson/watson5.htm

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kaka December 13, 2010 at 11:15 pm

every atheist argument ever:

1. make a strawman based on ignorance/caricature
2. burn it
3. therefore atheism

come on patrick, you know it’s true :)

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kaka December 13, 2010 at 11:18 pm

“I basically agree. I’ve been arguing for some time that one of the biggest things atheists fail to understand about the Craigs of the world (and the entire theist/atheist debate circuit) is that the political and social context in which the debate and discourse happens is as important, if not more important, than the content.

For example, when an atheist is invited to a debate against an apologist and it turns out that the audience is almost exclusively the apologist’s coreligionists, what that usually means is that the *point* of the debate for the apologist is to beat up the atheist rhetorically in front of a friendly audience who attended for the purpose of seeing the theist win. Its practically professional wrestling: the theist is the face, and the atheist is the heel. And in that context you can’t *win* by making good arguments, because that wasn’t the game. If you want to *win* you have to engage the actual dynamic, and find a way to cast yourself as something other than the heel, because the number one rule of any face/heel confrontation is that the heel always loses- if the heel refuses to lose, that just makes the audience hate him more. If you aren’t prepared to go into the debate and overthrow that paradigm, you’re wasting your time and you’re helping your opponents. You’re losing before you begin. ”

so the audience composition affects the ability of atheist philosophers to form good arguments? um no. i think the simple fact is – there are no good arguments against theism. the end.

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Luke Muehlhauser December 13, 2010 at 11:39 pm

kaka,

Every Christian argument ever:

1. Point to something we don’t understand.
2. Therefore, magic!
3. Specifically, Yahweh.

:)

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Joseph December 14, 2010 at 1:40 am

AndrewR, good job.

I jus finished readingWLC’s reasonable Faith. While I was reading his material, I kept two burning questions in my mind: when is he going to prove that objective morality exists, and when is he going to show one moral law to be objective, like X is a moral principle which is objective, and X could be “thou shall not kill”, or “thou shall no steal”, or whatever. However, Craig never answers these two questions. He never delivers.

First he distinguishes what is moral values from what is moral duties. I’m asking myself, why this exercise? After reading 6+ chapters, I was still wondering why. Just an exercise in sophistry. It amounts to a prop he can use to destroy the many strawmen that he builds. Yes, paragraph after paragraph, he brings up different strawmen: “the humanist believes”, “the naturalist believes”, “the platonist believes”, at one point, it’s even, “some philosophers believe”, but you get my drift. And then he proceeds to counterpoint his strawmen’s beliefs, constantly reminding his readers that if objective morals exist that means God exists. He doesn’t prove this statement, just asserts it as if repeating something so many times, it will make it true. Not once does he ever attempt to show in his first premise(1), if God doesn’t exist, that this implies that objective morality doesn’t exist, IOW, does P implies Q in (1), Not even a smudgeon of an effort. And I’m constantly wondering why. Is it because he can’t, and prefers to have a song and dance show just to dazzle his audience? I can only conclude after reading his stuff that I felt like someone who has been beaten on the head repeatedly by a mad man, left with nothing but bruises and the empty feeling that I wasted precious time.

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Kaelik December 14, 2010 at 3:06 am

so the audience composition affects the ability of atheist philosophers to form good arguments? um no. i think the simple fact is – there are no good arguments against theism. the end.  

Your reading skills leave as much to be desired as your syntax. He did not say that atheists cannot make good arguments, it is that no matter how good the arguments, theists will refuse to recognize them.

This is a fact of human beings. There are some situations in which people can be convinced by arguments, but in the middle a crowd of like minded fellows cheering at every opportunity isn’t one of them.

Some study that someone else will be able to link you to showed that if you give someone evidence that their belief is false, they often hold more fanatically to it than before. It’s merely the fact that those debates are set up for Christian debates to look pretty and practice rhetoric completely empty of actual sound (and in most cases valid) arguments.

If an atheist presents actual sound arguments, they will be ignored or mocked by being strawmaned in front of their face, and the theist will get away with it, because half the time the moderator is literally a theist puppet (See, Sam Harris vs Hedges being talked about on daylight atheism).

By shifting the form and taking a different roll, the atheist can, even using sound arguments, change the dynamic, But changing the dynamic is a necessary condition for winning such a debate.

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Kiwi Dave December 14, 2010 at 4:34 am

One of the more interesting threads. Thanks Patrick, Andrew and cl, especially.

Luke, your summary of every Christian argument is more or less why I can’t be bothered with the ins and outs of Kalam, the anthropic argument etc. My own bullet point addition to all this metaphysical hot air goes:

1. For any given situation there are many more false accounts than true ones.
2. The more ignorant we are of a situation, the more likely our accounts will be false.
3. We are completely ignorant of the situation before the universe.
4. All claimed knowledge of the pre-universe is extrapolated and inferred from the existing universe’s facts whose relevance is unknown and which has been chosen because it fits our existing prejudices and wishes.
5. Unsurprisingly, therefore, our ‘knowledge’ of the pre-universe confirms our beliefs.
6. If I were to ignore my own argument, the most salient fact from this universe I would extrapolate to the pre-universe is the decline of goddidit accounts at the hands of nature-did-it explanations.

On the whole, I think Luke’s 3 points are both more concise and more comprehensive.

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Tony Hoffman December 14, 2010 at 6:13 am

Kaeilik: “By shifting the form and taking a different roll, the atheist can, even using sound arguments, change the dynamic, But changing the dynamic is a necessary condition for winning such a debate.”

I agree with what you wrote in your comment (regarding the debate dynamic between atheists and theists), but I don’t know exactly what you mean by the above. Do you have an example of how an atheist would go about doing what you describe above (in a debate)?

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Kaelik December 14, 2010 at 6:50 am

Well, if I knew a fullproof strategy, there would be no more theists. But one thing I’ve been practicing is only posing questions, specifically asking for an answer (not rhetorical) that demonstrate the opponent has no fucking clue what they are talking about.

It has to be a more conversational style for this to work, but reasonable success has been achieved in informal debate.

For example, in dealing with Craig. You just keep asking him to define things, over and over, or argue for his premises, over and over, until is basic premise “My feelings of what are true are a good measure of reality.” is revealed. At that point, anyone even remotely sane will recognize him as a dumbass.

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Tony Hoffman December 14, 2010 at 7:04 am

Kaelik, okay, thanks — I think I see what you’re driving at now. So, if I understand you, you suggest that a productive tack in a debate that touched on the cosmological argument would be to doggedly inquire what the theist means by existence, rather than try to defend Occam’s razor. That seems like good advice to me.

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Patrick December 14, 2010 at 7:52 am

Kaelik, okay, thanks — I thinkI see what you’re driving at now. So, if I understand you, you suggest that a productive tack in a debate that touched on the cosmological argument would be to doggedly inquire what the theist means by existence, rather than try to defend Occam’s razor. That seems like good advice to me.  

I’m not Kaelik, but I started this line of discussion, so I’ll give a shot at answering.

There’s obviously no foolproof strategy. And I hasten to emphasize that the proper response might not be to try to customize your tactics to account for social context, but rather to JUST NOT DEBATE. In fact, *winning* may require you to debate in a way that leaves you feeling a little slimy, and you may feel that not participating at all is the course of action with which you feel most comfortable.

For example, you may need to make your opponent look more like a heel (I’m going to keep using pro wrestling terminology) in order to make yourself look like less of one. Or you may need to de emphasize strong philosophical arguments in order to spend time attacking your opponent for being a hypocrite- for some reason, people seem to find attacks on the internal consistency of someone’s positions to be more convincing than attacks on the positions themselves.

So if you’re discussing the Moral Argument, the former option is going to be less compelling than the latter, if your goal is to not leave the arena as a notch on your opponent’s belt:

1. A comprehensive argument attacking the idea that moral statements can be objectively true.

2. Pointing out that Craig would murder a baby for Jesus. That in fact Craig has spent time offering a spirited, public defense of why he would murder a baby for Jesus if Jesus ever asked. That Craig believes that people have murdered (lots of) babies for Yahweh in the past, even though it seemed really, really, really wrong to them, and even though it tore against the morality they *just knew* was true. Offer quotes.

The first option will be ignored by your audience, because they will just look to their own moral intuitions, ask themselves how certain they are of them, conclude that they are more certain of their own moral intuitions than they are of your arguments, and then reject your arguments.

The second option will appear as though its a refutation of Craig’s point, when in fact its an attack on Craig as a person, and by means of an attack on Craig as a person, it is an indirect attack on Craig’s point. The implication is that Craig is a hypocrite who doesn’t really believe that the morals we “just know” to be true are actually real. A further implication is that if you follow Craig’s theology too far, you cease to be a regular, decent Christian like everyone in the audience. It drives a wedge between them and him, reducing their emotional identification. He hopefully no longer looks like their champion, combating you, the monster, but more like one of two debaters, each trying to sell something to an audience.

And once you’ve done that, the argument can do its work. It conveys that what the audience believes to be “objective morality” isn’t actually what sophisticated philosophers believe it to be, and that even Craig believes that what they believe is wrong. Even if they don’t give up their point of view and agree with yours, they may leave the debate feeling two things:

1. Discomfited, maybe even like they need to read up on the subject.

2. Like you won. Even if they hate you, like you won. Because the standard for “winning” for you is to make Craig not win. If they don’t feel a sense of triumph by proxy from Craig’s domination of the match, you’ve won an upset.

I hasten to add that you may not feel comfortable doing this. Which is fine. In that case, you probably shouldn’t engage in atheist/theist debate before audiences.

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Kaelik December 14, 2010 at 9:04 am

Kaelik, okay, thanks — I thinkI see what you’re driving at now. So, if I understand you, you suggest that a productive tack in a debate that touched on the cosmological argument would be to doggedly inquire what the theist means by existence, rather than try to defend Occam’s razor. That seems like good advice to me.  

Yes and know. That might be a way to accomplish the goal, but there might be other, better ones. Instead I would say that, the thing to do is change the debate from “The Valiant Craig refutes the Mean Dogmatic Atheist’s Arguments with his wise and learned logic and reasoning!” to “Holy Fuck! Craig doesn’t even know what half the words he’s using mean, and isn’t at all talking about what I believe.”

You first have to have some idea of what the conception of the debate is, so that you can turn it on it’s head. I choose the question methodology because it generally makes my opponent look like a fool, while simultaneously destroying whatever initial conception the audience had of me. Christians rarely go into a debate prepared for the Atheist to spend almost their whole time asking questions and really trying to understand what their opponent is saying without ever presenting an opposing conception.

Jokes on them, because I already understand my opponents arguments better than they themselves do. I’m just directing the conversation towards their most heinous flaws.

The question method is also very useful in informal debates, because without rigid structure, the more practiced debater usually ends up taking all the time, and thus directing the conversation. By limiting yourself to questions, you still look like you aren’t dominating the debate, even though you are the secret master of the direction it takes.

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Joseph December 14, 2010 at 10:07 am

“Pointing out that Craig would murder a baby for Jesus. That in fact Craig has spent time offering a spirited, public defense of why he would murder a baby for Jesus if Jesus ever asked. That Craig believes that people have murdered (lots of) babies for Yahweh in the past, even though it seemed really, really, really wrong to them, and even though it tore against the morality they *just knew* was true. Offer quotes.”

Thanks Patrick. I hope you don’t mind but I’m going to steal it and use it wherever I can.

Many, many thanks

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Pedro Amaral Couto December 14, 2010 at 2:51 pm

@PDH

The problem with that is that writing a document is a pain in the ass. It’s not something we do for its own sake, it is a means to an end. The reason we do it is because we have a deadline or whatever. It’s frustrating to lose all your work when you haven’t achieved your goal.

It doesn’t matter why we do it or if we like it. Analogies and metaphors aren’t perfect, otherwise they would be examples instead. If you’d like it, replace “document” with “video game”.

The problem with the analogy is that you keep the memory of the game in your mind (it changed you and you still exist) thus it would not be a good example, but it might be used to explain what Craig might mean.

I agree there’s no ultimate meaning, because I believe that all living beings and all other things created by them and the Universe will disappear, without a trace, as if they never existed. That’s what defines a lack of ultimate meaning. But a Heaven would be like a cloud computing, saving something that would be lost forever.

If we don’t understand what he means, we may try to refute something that we believe. First, we need to understand.

One of the real problems is when he tries to connect morality with that supposedly ultimate meaning. Carpe diem.

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Kaelik December 14, 2010 at 3:33 pm

“If we don’t understand what he means, we may try to refute something that we believe. First, we need to understand.”

We understand perfectly what he means. It’s just not what he’s saying, because what he means is obviously stupid, and won’t impress anyone, and what he’s saying instead is important sounding gibberish, which, when called on it, he will invent definitions for on the spot, and then revert right back to using words for the purpose of hijacking connotations.

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PDH December 14, 2010 at 5:40 pm

@PDH
It doesn’t matter why we do it or if we like it. Analogies and metaphors aren’t perfect, otherwise they would be examples instead. If you’d like it, replace “document” with “video game”.The problem with the analogy is that you keep the memory of the game in your mind (it changed you and you still exist) thus it would not be a good example, but it might be used to explain what Craig might mean.I agree there’s no ultimate meaning, because I believe that all living beings and all other things created by them and the Universe will disappear, without a trace, as if they never existed. That’s what defines a lack of ultimate meaning. But a Heaven would be like a cloud computing, saving something that would be lost forever.If we don’t understand what he means, we may try to refute something that we believe. First, we need to understand.One of the real problems is when he tries to connect morality with that supposedly ultimate meaning. Carpe diem.  

My point was that I would probably agree with him that what he calls ‘ultimate meaning’ does not exist if something like his religion isn’t true. However, if he extends that to, ‘life is absurd without God’ then he is equivocating because the definition of ‘absurdity’ is not ‘the lack of ultimate meaning.’ That’s just his assertion. I don’t really care whether I have ultimate meaning or not. What would I do with it if I had it? Once you unpack this and find out what he is saying, the things that are still possible without God turn out to include everything that I care about.

Your analogy implies that all of that stuff is the equivalent of typing a document up in OpenOffice – something that we didn’t even enjoy while we were working on it and then it vanished forever. I am saying that if you enjoyed yourself at the time then that kind of takes the sting off death.

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mopey December 15, 2010 at 12:54 am

I need some clarification about WLC’s intended meaning of the word “ultimate” here.

ul·ti·mate
adj.

1. Being last in a series, process, or progression.
2. Fundamental; elemental: an ultimate truth.
3.
a. Of the greatest possible size or significance; maximum: Has the ultimate diamond been found?
b. Representing or exhibiting the greatest possible development or sophistication: the ultimate bicycle.
c. Utmost; extreme: the ultimate insult.
4. Being most distant or remote; farthest.
5. Eventual: hoped for ultimate victory.
n.
1. The basic or fundamental fact, element, or principle.
2. The final point; the conclusion.
3. The greatest extreme; the maximum: actions that represented the ultimate in political expediency.

Whatever meaning he is talking about must be non-temporal, since he is talking about just one meaning which must transcend both this life and the next one. Many definitions of “ultimate” have temporal import.

His use of the word “subsidiary” in one of his replies seems to be a clue that he takes “ultimate” to mean ‘Fundamental; elemental’, as in definition #2 above. Does this seem to be correct? Is this how everyone else here has been taking it?

Somehow I find it easier to say that life and the universe lack an elemental meaning.

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mojo.rhythm December 30, 2010 at 1:20 am

Craig can make some very childish stuff sound academic when he dresses it up with philosophical jargon.

If you swap the term “God” for “Flying Spaghetti Monster”, you can really see how dumb his argument really is.

I’ve tried to analyze the absurdity of life in terms of life’s lacking ultimate meaning, value, and purpose. The word “ultimate” is important here, for obviously we can have subsidiary purposes and conditional values without the Flying Spaghetti Monster, but my claim is that ultimately nothing really matters if there is no Flying Spaghetti Monster. It seems to me that there are two pre-requisites to an ultimately meaningful, valuable, and purposeful life, namely, His Noodly Appendage and immortality, and if the Flying Spaghetti Monster does not exist, then we have neither.

By “meaning” I mean something like significance or importance. By “purpose” I mean a telos or goal of life. By “value” I mean objective moral values and duties. We mustn’t separate off the question of value from meaning and purpose, as you try to do in your question, for if there are objective moral values and duties, then life is likely to be meaningful. So the a-Pastafarian can’t say that life can be ultimately meaningful in the absence of the Flying Spaghetti Monster because there are truly valuable things in life, since if I’m right, there aren’t any objective moral values in the absence of the Flying Spaghetti Monster. These three elements, while distinct, are interrelated and hang together.

I think it was Jeffery Jay Lowder who said that, “the universe itself may not have meaning and purpose, but there is meaning and purpose in the universe”. I really like this quote; it is a gem.

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