Is “Ultimate” Meaning and Purpose Even Possible?

by Luke Muehlhauser on January 3, 2011 in General Atheism,William Lane Craig

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

One of Craig’s arguments goes something like this:

  1. Nothing which comes to an end has ultimate meaning or purpose.
  2. On atheism, life comes to an end.
  3. Therefore, on atheism, life has no ultimate meaning or purpose.

But what does Craig mean by “ultimate”? He uses the word 21 times in his chapter on this subject, but never defines it.

Steve Maitzen, in his article On God and Our Ultimate Purpose, responds:

Craig never defends his claim that nothing temporary has any significance, or its implication that all temporary things are equally insignificant. He only repeats it, many times, as if it should be obvious. But is it true that nothing temporary has any significance? Think about great music or drama. Does a world-class performance of Aida or King Lear lack all significance just because it lasts only few hours? Would it have more significance if it never ended? Hardly. Its significance in fact depends on its having a finite arc; it would lose its significance and become unbearably tedious if it went on forever. Nor does its finite length make it just as insignificant as an equally long nap. Clearly, then, we need a better measure of significance than mere duration.

So what could Craig mean by “ultimate”? Maitzen has some thoughts:

I think a less obviously flawed argument must lurk below the surface of Craig’s article, one that interprets “ultimate” to mean something like “unquestionable.” We know that people often try to make their lives significant by seeking purposes “greater than themselves.” Consider any purpose that might lend significance to an atheist’s life – maybe she devotes her life to feeding starving children. What more noble or more significant purpose could you have, after all? Still, Craig might challenge the atheist on her own terms: how significant is it, really, to postpone for a relatively short time the deaths of particular members of one terrestrial species on a tiny planet orbiting an undistinguished star in a vast, uncaring universe?

The argument begins with a question like “What’s so great about feeding starving children?” The obvious answer appears to be: “It relieves innocent suffering and gives these children a chance to prosper!”

But of course we could step back to a perspective of four billion years from now, after our Sun has exploded and incinerated the Earth. We could then ask, “But what was so great about relieving their suffering and giving them a chance to prosper?”

Supposedly, the theist thinks that God’s existence can put a stop to the regress of asking “But what’s so great about that?” But, they say, atheism cannot put a stop to those questions, and thus leads to despair.

But, says Maitzen, the argument doesn’t work:

You can’t put an end to those pesky questions no matter what you do. Any [proposed] purpose we can begin to understand we can thereby step back from and question.

Consider the supposed final answer to “What’s so great about that?” that is offered by the theist: “Glorifying God and enjoying his presence for ever!” But of course this does not stop the question. We can certainly ask of this: “What’s so great about that?” This remains a perfectly sensible question, unlike the question “What time is it on the Sun?”

There is no final answer to the question “What’s so great about that?” because as soon as you are able to understand any proposed answer, you are already capable of asking, “But what’s so great about that?” So if “ultimate meaning” means “unquestionable meaning,” then neither atheism nor theism can offer that kind of ultimate meaning.

So “ultimate meaning” in the sense of endless duration doesn’t work for Craig’s argument that life is absurd without God. And “ultimate meaning” in the sense of unquestionable meaning doesn’t work for Craig’s argument that God can provide ultimate meaning for life. So what could Craig intend by the phrase “ultimate meaning”?

Perhaps he might say that life without God has no “ultimate meaning” by definition, because Craig defines ultimate meaning with reference to God. “Ultimate meaning” then means “God-based meaning,” or something like that. But why should this worry the atheist? If God’s purpose for life was to produce as much carbon dioxide as possible, should we care about that, just because it was God-based meaning? It seems it is not the source of a purpose that matters, but its quality. Producing carbon dioxide is a purpose of low quality, no matter whom it comes from.

So it’s not clear to me how Craig’s argument can succeed.

Previous post:

Next post:

{ 72 comments… read them below or add one }

Polymeron January 3, 2011 at 4:48 am

I still think this is based off of the intuitive (read: Evolutionarily-driven, and therefore unreliable) dissatisfying feeling that accompanies reversals of desired states.

We all know this feeling; it’s the feeling that makes Sisyphus’ task seem so, well, Sisyphean: We don’t say “ah, but at least the rock was somewhat closer to the top than if he wasn’t rolling it” – the sense of futility there is very intuitive.

It is this sense of closure and irreversibility that makes us say that a chess match has been won and the board was reset for a different match; rather than that one player was “victorious for 30 minutes, at which time the game pieces were reset and the victory was again undetermined”.

It’s also, I suspect, what makes people seek “immortality” in having their name engraved in unforgettable achievement – obviously no one thinks that having a chemical element named after them is equivalent to staying alive for centuries, obviously those are very different things, but the thought that one’s impact will last “forever” has a certain appeal.

So, one can reason, if a reversal of desired states of affairs gives us a sense of missing purpose; then the solution to that is clearly a desired state of affairs that can never be reversed. And thus you get the notion of heaven: Bliss that is eternal and irreversible.

To me, personally, this still lacks something; I don’t know that heaven is something that I could feel I am working toward, so it does not really qualify for what I consider purpose. But, I can see how others might take it as just that: Your entire life is a struggle to get to that one last desired state of affairs which cannot be reversed.

The main flaw with this argument is that it stems from some sort of vague intuitive feeling, that appears to be universal. Just because we have the evolutionary hardwiring to have negative feedback (unpleasant emotions) from our actions being reversed does NOT automatically imply that this reflects some sort of state of the universe. As some would be all too happy to remind us, the map is not the territory.

This is probably the closest I’ve come to making a theist’s case on this site. But hey, strive for DH7, right?
I’m interested to hear further objections to my line of reasoning (as well as objections to the flaw I pointed).

(Second, minor quibble: In the chessboard example we would still take note of the players’ score. So even if we were to use the second interpretation it would still be irreversibly 1-0, which undermines this argument that irreversibility is somehow rooted in a temporally unchanging state.)

(We would probably have less cognitive comfort trying to count Sisyphus’ iterations of rolling the rock up the mountainside as “successes”, though. But here’s a fun thought experiment: Suppose in your mind’s eye, you see him rolling the rock up, actually reaching the top, resting there for half an hour with a face beaming with pride, and then pushing the rock down HIMSELF because he knows he’ll enjoy bringing it back up another time. Does the action suddenly seem more intuitively fulfilling?
It does to me. There is probably a bunch of evolutionary psychology to be uncovered in this.)

  (Quote)

Charles January 3, 2011 at 4:55 am

I think what Craig means is that, for the atheist, there can be no significance that lasts. The concert is significant not because it goes on forever, but because of the effect it has on you. Human life is finite, but if the atheists are right then our choices are ultimately meaningless because at some point the sun is going to die and when that day comes it will be as though we never existed.

We can argue about the details, but I think that’s the point he’s making.

  (Quote)

Polymeron January 3, 2011 at 5:09 am

Charles,

I think what Craig means is that, for the atheist, there can be no significance that lasts. The concert is significant not because it goes on forever, but because of the effect it has on you. Human life is finite, but if the atheists are right then our choices are ultimately meaningless because at some point the sun is going to die and when that day comes it will be as though we never existed.We can argue about the details, but I think that’s the point he’s making.  

Can you explain why the sun going to die will make it “as though we’ve never existed”? Clearly we still will have existed, whether or not the sun dies or not.

Let me see if I can reformulate what you’re saying more coherently.

1. (On atheism) At some point the sun dies, the universe reaches a heat death, etc. etc. All humans are dead.
2. At this point in time or thereabouts, the universe is not in a different state of being – or not significantly different – than a state of things in which humans have never existed.
3. We would only have ultimate purpose if the universe were different for us living in it, at all points in time later than our coming into being.
Therefore,
(2&3) On atheism, there is no ultimate purpose.

Can you see where I’m struggling here? Try as I might, I can’t make #3 to come out coherent. It doesn’t seem to have anything justifying it at all. And it seems integral to the argument.

  (Quote)

Kevin January 3, 2011 at 5:40 am

Would this work?
1. On atheism, there will be no conscious creatures (i.e. heat death of universe).
2. If there are no conscious creatures, then previous actions lose meaning or purpose (since the universe will have no meaning or purpose?).
3. If actions lose meaning, then they have no ultimate (ever-lasting) meaning (def.).
4. Therefore, on atheism, our actions (lives) have no ultimate (ever-lasting) meaning or purpose.
However, in the end, I would have to ask, “so what?” Seems like an exercise of futility.

  (Quote)

xavi January 3, 2011 at 5:47 am

“”Glorifying God and enjoying his presence for ever!” But of course this does not stop the question. We can certainly ask of this: “What’s so great about that?” This remains a perfectly sensible question”

I dont know what the point of this article is as it basically whittles down to this line above.The question above is of course sensible but maybe you knowledge that you arent necessarily entitled to.

  (Quote)

xavi January 3, 2011 at 5:48 am

sorry typo ; should be -

The question above is of course sensible but you expect knowledge that you arent necessarily entitled to.

  (Quote)

Mike Gantt January 3, 2011 at 5:55 am

I’m no philosopher, so I’m ill-suited to break up this quarrel, but it seems to me that Maitzen fails to refute Craig at the outset of your post.

Either wittingly or unwittingly, Maitzen subtly redefines Craig’s term, does battle with the straw man, declares victory, and moves on.

Had Maitzen been true to Craig, Maitzen’s first two sentences would have read as follows…and from there he would have had to argue differently.

“Craig never defends his claim that nothing temporary has any [ultimate ] significance, or its implication that all temporary things are equally [ultimately] insignificant.”

Certainly a world-class performance of King Lear could be declared significant (at least by a person who had an interest in that sort of thing), and that significance would last as long as the person’s memory of it lasted. However, when the last memory of that performance is extinguished, the performance then loses whatever significance it may have held. Thus it has no ultimate significance.

Perhaps Craig didn’t define his terms because their meaning is indeed self-evident.

  (Quote)

Polymeron January 3, 2011 at 5:59 am

Would this work?1. On atheism, there will be no conscious creatures (i.e. heat death of universe).2. If there are no conscious creatures, then previous actions lose meaning or purpose (since the universe will have no meaning or purpose?).3.If actions lose meaning, then they have no ultimate (ever-lasting) meaning (def.).4. Therefore, on atheism, our actions (lives) have no ultimate (ever-lasting) meaning or purpose.
However, in the end, I would have to ask, “so what?”Seems like an exercise of futility.  

This is very succinct, thanks. However premise #2 does not seem to have any justification. Why is purpose contingent on there being conscious creatures, rather than them having existed at any point in time?

“”Glorifying God and enjoying his presence for ever!” But of course this does not stop the question. We can certainly ask of this: “What’s so great about that?” This remains a perfectly sensible question”I dont know what the point of this article is as it basically whittles down to this line above.The question above is of course sensible but maybe you knowledge that you arent necessarily entitled to.  

Good point. You know, I noticed with some unease that this is exceedingly similar to Luke’s article on why Dawkins’ “who created the creator?” semi-argument fails in requiring an infinite regress because “only physical things require a designer”; however here Luke seems to reach the opposite conclusion. One could use the same argument – that a being transcendental to the universe did not require a purpose. Or maybe that by vitrue of being eternal it is not subject to the recursion.
OR, one could conclude that both arguments succeed.

I am rather baffled by this seeming contradiction. Luke, can you explain why you think why one argument fails and the other succeeds? I don’t see the real difference between them.

  (Quote)

Charles January 3, 2011 at 6:08 am

I make no claims to coherency. These are, after all, Craig’s views.

But to answer the question, I think it’s a definitional thing. Craig realizes he has lost the battle and so has shifted the goal posts. Meaning. No, that’s not important. Ultimate Meaning. Now that’s what you really ought to care about.

The New Oxford American Dictionary defines ultimate as, “being or happening at the end of a process; final.” The concert has ultimate meaning not because it goes on forever, but because you heard and were changed. And if all of humanity is a concert that no one ever hears, then it could be said we have, in the end (ultimately), no meaning.

But I did forget one thing and that is that this discussion was also about purpose. My comments have nothing at all to say about purpose, “ultimate purpose”, or anything in between.

  (Quote)

Charles January 3, 2011 at 6:13 am

Correction: …but because you heard it and were changed…

  (Quote)

Kevin January 3, 2011 at 6:59 am

“This is very succinct, thanks. However premise #2 does not seem to have any justification. Why is purpose contingent on there being conscious creatures, rather than them having existed at any point in time?”

He could ask that given that there is no life, what is the meaning of those previous actions? It would be awkward to say that they give meaning to someone who doesn’t exist. While those actions may have had a purpose, they no longer serve a purpose because there would not be any conscious creatures for those purposes to serve. I wouldn’t really waste time contesting the premise, considering the conclusion is basically trivial to me. I would only ask what his point is. Atheism doesn’t have ultimate meaning, so what? It only works as an emotional ploy, not an argument.

I tend to agree with Charles that Craig is trying to create a problem within atheism so he can sell his solution. He’s basically saying that humanity will go extinct one day, which creates an opportunity to make an appeal to our emotions and point out how nihilistic atheism is. See how depressing life is on the atheistic view, why not believe in an afterlife?! ::rolls eyes::

  (Quote)

Reginald Selkirk January 3, 2011 at 7:12 am

Mike Gantt: Either wittingly or unwittingly, Maitzen subtly redefines Craig’s term…

Since Craig never defined the term in the first place (which is the basis of the criticism), how can it be that Maitzen is “re-” defining it?

  (Quote)

Reginald Selkirk January 3, 2011 at 7:15 am

Perhaps Craig didn’t define his terms because their meaning is indeed self-evident.

Perhaps porcine entities will initiate aviational activity from your posterior gastro-intestinal orifice.

  (Quote)

Luke Muehlhauser January 3, 2011 at 7:52 am

Mike,

The meaning of Craig’s term ‘ultimate purpose’ is far from self-evident for me. If it’s self-evident for you, would you share with us what the precise meaning of that term is?

  (Quote)

Polymeron January 3, 2011 at 8:35 am

Mike,

Perhaps Craig didn’t define his terms because their meaning is indeed self-evident.  

This seems to fit very well with my hypothesis that this is basically an argument from intuition, which is fallacious.

Can you please explain why something ceasing to exist / influence makes it devoid of ultimate significance? Or to rephrase, what is different between an event that ceases to influence and an event that does not cease to influence?
Sure, it makes some *intuitive* sense. But I can’t really grasp the fundamental difference here – right now this seems like an arbitrary tyranny of temporally advanced states, insofar as purpose is concerned.
It makes even less intuitive sense to say that climbing Mount Everest serves no ultimate purpose, because *ultimately* it will still be true that I had climbed it, whether or not this impacts anything else.

Luke – still waiting on how the infinite regression defense in this case is different than Who Designed the Designer. I still see an equivalence here.

  (Quote)

Steve Maitzen January 3, 2011 at 8:51 am

Mike Gantt: You wrote, “[W]hen the last memory of that performance is extinguished, the performance then loses whatever significance it may have held.” Can you explain why we should accept that claim? Is it because (1) nothing has significance at a time unless its significance is recognized at that time? I think there are clear counterexamples to (1), but even if we grant (1), it doesn’t imply (2) nothing has significance at any time unless it has significance at all times, or even (3) nothing has significance at any time unless it has significance at all future times. None of (1)-(3) are plainly true, but I can’t think of any other reasons that might lie behind your claim.

  (Quote)

JNester January 3, 2011 at 8:58 am

I don’t know how to link with html but the blogger Cl has a better response to Craig than this it is the most recent post over there right now. You guys are just jerking off with words. Mike Gantt makes the most sense here so far and Reginald Selkirk seems like a troll. All an atheist really needs to say here is “so what.” It’s one value judgment over another big fuckin deal.

  (Quote)

Reginald Selkirk January 3, 2011 at 9:05 am

JNester: Mike Gantt makes the most sense here so far

I will calibrate my opinion of you accordingly.

It’s one value judgment over another big fuckin deal.

Oh, but Craig claims his judgment has a ultimate status, that his judgment carries more weight. Simply stating “it ain’t so” is certainly not as effective as if you had given us a rational argument why it ain’t so.

  (Quote)

Mike Gantt January 3, 2011 at 9:38 am

Polymeron: You asked, “Can you please explain why something ceasing to exist / influence makes it devoid of ultimate significance? Or to rephrase, what is different between an event that ceases to influence and an event that does not cease to influence?”

I see “enduring” as a useful synonym for “ultimate” in Craig’s context. Therefore, when something ceases to to exist/influence it then loses whatever significance it may have had.

  (Quote)

Mike Gantt January 3, 2011 at 9:45 am

Steve Maitzen: I do not hold to (1), (2), or (3). I distinguish between significance and ultimate (or enduring) significance. That is, significance can be lost.

  (Quote)

Polymeron January 3, 2011 at 9:51 am

Steve Maitzen:I do not hold to (1), (2), or (3).I distinguish between significance and ultimate (or enduring) significance.That is, significance can be lost.  

I’ll ask again, what is so special about this “enduring” significance? Based on what do you distinguish between them? Whence cometh the value in this equation?
I am not asking to be difficult. I am asking to try and understand.

  (Quote)

JNester January 3, 2011 at 9:58 am

Dipshit: “I will calibrate my opinion of you accordingly.”

Take your hard-on for ten dollar words and go fuck yourself.

“Simply stating “it ain’t so” is certainly not as effective as if you had given us a rational argument why it ain’t so.”

Did I “simply state it ain’t so?” No, I didn’t, fuckstick. Try listening instead of being the resident know it all.

  (Quote)

Garren January 3, 2011 at 10:04 am

So it’s not clear to me how Craig’s argument can succeed.

It succeeds rhetorically by being unclear.

His goal doesn’t appear to be convincing non-believers so much as reassuring Christians who have started to doubt, but who aren’t demanding a rigorous justification of Christian belief ‘Outsider Test’-style.

And, for the record, I’m never going to be depressed about the eventual end of life in the universe when the alternative is everlasting torment for most of us. What does that say about humanity’s ultimate purpose and meaning?

  (Quote)

Polymeron January 3, 2011 at 10:24 am

Dipshit: “I will calibrate my opinion of you accordingly.”Take your hard-on for ten dollar words and go fuck yourself.“Simply stating “it ain’t so” is certainly not as effective as if you had given us a rational argument why it ain’t so.”Did I “simply state it ain’t so?” No, I didn’t, fuckstick. Try listening instead of being the resident know it all.  

Your tone is not appreciated here. I might have also criticized the content but you included none in your post.

Either make well-reasoned arguments to make or refute a point – respectfully so if possible – or leave us to it. But don’t presume we will tolerate you barging in here slinging abuse at people.
I wouldn’t try to guess which moral system, if any, you work by, but I fail to imagine one in which that would be ok. And I wouldn’t presume to set norms or rules by this (poorly-defined) community, but the thought that such behavior would be tolerated is equally ludicrous.

Now. Can we get back to discussing what, if anything, makes enduring influence a source of purpose? I still haven’t seen any strong attempt at an explanation.

  (Quote)

JNester January 3, 2011 at 10:39 am

Polymeron: “Your tone is not appreciated here.”

Let me fix that for you: YOU don’t appreciate my tone here, but guess what? I didn’t appreciate Reginald’s, so now what? You the hall monitor or something? Grow some thicker skin. I wouldn’t have said shit if Reginald didn’t strike me as an asshat and last I checked speech was still free. It’s my right to ridicule whoever I think is an idiot.

“I might have also criticized the content but you included none in your post.”

Since there isn’t really any content in Craig’s argument, I didn’t need to say much. Sorry that you focused on tone trolling instead of what I did say but that’s your mistake not mine.

“I wouldn’t try to guess which moral system, if any, you work by, but I fail to imagine one in which that would be ok.”

Ah, I get it: another atheist is going to get all uppity and tell others how to roll, and that with a veiled, pussy-ass attempt at an insult. Who the fuck are you again? Take a number and jump in line with the rest of the atheists who take cues from Xtians.

“Now. Can we get back to discussing what, if anything, makes enduring influence a source of purpose?”

You can get back to discussing whatever the fuck you want. I wasn’t talking to you in the first place, hall monitor. Like I said, Craig’s argument is bullshit because it’s one value judgment against another. Vanilla vs. chocolate. That sort of thing. If you can’t figure that out without a bunch of ten-dollar words, you’re overthinking shit and jerking off with words, just like I said.

  (Quote)

Alexandros Marinos January 3, 2011 at 11:03 am

It seems it is not the source of a purpose that matters, but its quality.

Luke, this line here puzzles me. How would one measure the quality of a purpose, if not by some other purpose? For instance, filling the earth’s armosphere with CO2 is a low-quality (in fact, negative-quality) purpose only if you desire to keep humans alive. If however, you wish to populate it with CO2-breathing aliens, then it’a a great high-quality purpose.

  (Quote)

PDH January 3, 2011 at 11:10 am

JNester, I think maybe you’re setting the bar for ‘overthinking’ a bit low.

  (Quote)

JNester January 3, 2011 at 11:20 am

PDH: Yeah, well, think what you want. I know it when I see it. It doesn’t take a Mercedes to beat a Volkswagon.

  (Quote)

JNester January 3, 2011 at 11:33 am

Uh, on second thought, hey Polymeron the tone troll: why didn’t you say

“don’t presume we will tolerate you barging in here slinging abuse at people.”

when Reginald said

“Perhaps porcine entities will initiate aviational activity from your posterior gastro-intestinal orifice.”

Is it that you’ll tolerate abuse when couched in academic jargon but not street talk? If so, go fuck yourself. If not, explain why dipshit gets a free pass.

  (Quote)

Luke Muehlhauser January 3, 2011 at 12:56 pm

Alexandros,

You’re right that’s kind of a throwaway line. Currently, the only way I know how to naturalize ‘purpose’ or ‘meaning’ has to do with brain states, and I have a theory about how to interpret a ‘quality’ purpose in those lights, but that takes me far afield of this particular post so I did not elaborate.

  (Quote)

Hendy January 3, 2011 at 1:39 pm

Interesting post. Reminds me of a recent post on LessWrong, Choose to be happy and another linked in the comments, The scourge of perverse-mindedness. Both were quite interesting and discuss the common view (which is from what I can tell what Craig is piggybacking) that materialism entails some form of despair/meaningless/nihilism/etc.

This whole argument seems like one big hidden mask of unstated premises to me. Many are mentioned in the second LW link above, but from the hip, they are like so:
- “ultimate meaning” is so amazing it’s not possible we don’t have it
- believing in god can alter reality to make ultimate meaning real vs. an imagined possibility
- it is better to believe in ultimate meaning than not

The “trick”, as far as I can see, in this argument is to propose a conclusion based on a huge, huge premise (god exists as described by religion variant x) and then to hope the target is scared enough about the unestablished conclusion (both because it’s not a given that nihilism follows from atheism, nor that god x exists anyway) that he/she becomes convinced that belief in god x is justified.

While (free speech or not) I could do without the stream of profanities and hostility, I agree with JNester that this is probably an argument based on non-uniform word definitions and subjective views… but I’m not so sure that the universally prescribed answer should be, “so what?”

I’d like an effective response and I think dialogging about what’s going on in the argument helps. I appreciate helpful criticism and suggested adjustments in thinking patterns to see the hidden premises more clearly and be able to respond. I don’t think I’ll be able to change anyone’s mind, but perhaps I can win the small battle of requesting that the argument never be used again in its present form.

This “argument” seems most like a form of empty threat. It’s based on fear-mongering via a fairy tale; since what I can imagine (god + “ultimate” meaning) is better than what you enjoy in reality (“regular” meaning), you’d better subscribe to my dreams to escape your miserable life.

  (Quote)

Reginald Selkirk January 3, 2011 at 1:59 pm

Jnester: when Reginald said
“Perhaps porcine entities will initiate aviational activity from your posterior gastro-intestinal orifice.”

Why do you choose to interpret that as abuse rather than as a statement of unlikelihood?

If not, explain why dipshit gets a free pass.

You haven’t been kicked out yet because Luke believes in freedom of speech.

  (Quote)

Charles January 3, 2011 at 2:42 pm

The reason this argument looks so awful is because we are seeing it from the outside. For a believer, it works rather well.

  (Quote)

JNester January 3, 2011 at 2:59 pm

Dipshit: “Why do you choose to interpret that as abuse rather than as a statement of unlikelihood?”

Why did tone troll interpret my calling you “fuckstick” as abuse rather than a statement of opinion?

Dipshit: “You haven’t been kicked out yet because Luke believes in freedom of speech.”

Luke already fucked up on that one when he banned that one asshat so your argument pretty much sucks ass there pal.

Hendy: “While (free speech or not) I could do without the stream of profanities and hostility, I agree with JNester that this is probably an argument based on non-uniform word definitions and subjective views…”

Sorry if I offended your virgin ears, but at least you’re not an obvious dipshit like Reginald. At least you can read.

  (Quote)

Patrick (not the Christian one in that other thread) January 3, 2011 at 3:25 pm

ITT, a youth thinks that using profanity demonstrates a sophisticated, worldly position that contrasts with the uptight nature of those he offends, but fails to realize that sophistication lies in transcending such fights instead of embracing them.

If The Man That’s Keeping Us Down did not exist, we would have to invent him.

  (Quote)

Kevin January 3, 2011 at 3:44 pm

“I agree with JNester that this is probably an argument based on non-uniform word definitions and subjective views… but I’m not so sure that the universally prescribed answer should be, ‘so what?’”

What it is saying is really trivial. Atheism doesn’t have X and theism does, in this case X is ultimate meaning. X could also be an after-life, a cosmic law-maker, or a cosmic judge. So what? It is only an emotional problem for someone who desires one of the above and an intellectual problem for atheism if one of the above is shown to exist and atheism cannot account for it. Since he does not argue for the existence of ultimate meaning, this would mean that it is a marketing tool for people who desire ultimate meaning. From a PR perspective, I suppose exposing how its just an appeal to emotions would be worth it depending on the context, but that notwithstanding, it is not an intellectual problem for atheism.

  (Quote)

Alexandros Marinos January 3, 2011 at 3:44 pm

Come to think of it, doesn’t this Craig argument also die a horrible death at the hands of B-theory of time, given that everything that happens is reflected in the timeless block universe?

  (Quote)

Luke Muehlhauser January 3, 2011 at 3:55 pm

Alexandros,

Perhaps, but Craig has written 400+ pages defending the A Theory.

  (Quote)

Alexandros Marinos January 3, 2011 at 4:59 pm

Alexandros,Perhaps, but Craig has written 400+ pages defending the A Theory.  

I know, but it’s interesting that at least two of his arguments are founded on a particularly shaky stone.

  (Quote)

Hendy January 3, 2011 at 5:03 pm

@Charles:

The reason this argument looks so awful is because we are seeing it from the outside. For a believer, it works rather well. 

I would agree only from an emotional point of view. In other words, for the believer, they get to feel better about their beliefs when this argument, which serves essentially as a content-less rallying cry, is used. As far as adding to the debate, however… I think it’s void. Again, all it does is say, “Look at the possibility that a supreme matter-less being exists who has omni-max characteristics. Now look at what we know exists. If you could choose between the two, you should choose the one in which superman rules.”

But… it does nothing to actually argue for or against any position. I could argue against Christians from a Muslim’s point of view by saying that 72 virgins for an eternity of playtime would be better than learning to play the harp and growing wings — thus the Christian’s life is devoid of ultimate meaning if Islam is true.

But no one using this argument, at least it seems to me, has done anything to argue for their position being reality. Again, I think the analogy I find most helpful is that of a very nice amazing fairy tale. Sure, reality might seem less lofty than various things we can imagine. But those dreams have done nothing to alter anything that actually is.

  (Quote)

David January 3, 2011 at 5:12 pm

Tentatively, not having RTFB and just going by what’s been presented here, I would think that Craig is using “ultimate” in its temporal sense, as a synonym for “terminal” or “final”. We, as anything but the most simplistic of hedonists, surely recognize that there are plenty of things we do (or refrain from doing) to serve some future purpose. What Craig seems to be doing is assuming that all purpose is of this nature – motivated by the future. Inside this framework there must be an eternity of some sort or any chain must end and, like an inductive proof without a base case, be ultimately meaningless.

Of course, in the first place, while the latest secular theories *expect* a lack of eternity, they by no means assure it. Perhaps the universe will not come to an end, or perhaps we will be able to avoid it when it does.

But the more immediate problem with the argument is still as the article describes; if Craig doesn’t consider that meaning could come from anything but future links in a causal chain, then his argument is incomplete and quite possibly incorrect.

  (Quote)

Hendy January 3, 2011 at 5:12 pm

@Kevin:

True, but what I meant by “so what” not being my preferred answer is that I would prefer to lead any proponent of this argument through how you and I understand the issue. That’s all. Sure, for those who understand this argument, it’s a non-issue. I agree 100% that it’s based on a whole lot of other things that haven’t been shown to exist.

My point is that I disagreed with JNester that we should therefore decide that this is “jerking off with words” and move on. It’s helpful to understand so that should such a claim arise, one may hope to show the theist why their argument is false. Case in point: I just received an email in response to one of my blog posts in which a friend asked about my deconversion, “So, where do you stand on nihilism?” In other words, “How are you doing with the fact that your position entails nihilism?” This is a common theme. I know of another doubting blogger who has a very difficult time with the nihilistic possibility of atheism.

I guess I just meant to say that clearly stating why this line of reasoning and the resultant (even effective) emotional blackmail is completely false is a worthy endeavor compared to the alternative of saying, “So what?” and walking away.

  (Quote)

JNester January 3, 2011 at 5:32 pm

MyFuckinNameIsTooLongToType: “ITT, a youth thinks that using profanity demonstrates a sophisticated, worldly position that contrasts with the uptight nature of those he offends, but fails to realize that sophistication lies in transcending such fights instead of embracing them.”

Ooh, so Zen. I didn’t say I was sophisticated but I can sure tell that’s what you want us to think of you. How I bow in worship of your enlightenment and charm! How the fuck old is George Lopez, and how clean is his mouth? If you don’t like my argument then bring some shit to the table if not fuck off with your silly little assumptions about youth and profanity because I’m a grown ass man thank you very much.

Kevin: “So what? It is only an emotional problem for someone who desires one of the above and an intellectual problem for atheism if one of the above is shown to exist and atheism cannot account for it.”

Exactly my point. Okay well maybe not exactly. The “so what?” part was Cl’s point but I thought the same thing. I think it’s only a problem if one can be shown to be better personally but hey I’m just the guy with the dirty mouth. Happy new year there.

  (Quote)

Patrick (not the Christian one in that other thread) January 3, 2011 at 6:12 pm

“If you don’t like my argument then bring some shit to the table if not fuck off with your silly little assumptions about youth and profanity because I’m a grown ass man thank you very much.”

No, you’re not. At least, your internet persona isn’t. And welcome to the internet! That’s all that matters here.

Patrick

  (Quote)

ildi January 3, 2011 at 7:06 pm

Is that your new ‘nym, Patrick (ntConitot)? A bit awkward…

Wow, JNestor, way to make friends and influence people; I usually read the comment threads of a blog for a few days and decide who the regulars are before I fling accusations like troll indiscriminately – RS may be a fuckstick, but he’s OUR fuckstick.

Any-hoo; I think WLC is tapping into the same emotion that makes hoarders hold on to shit: once those items that tag the memories are gone, it’s like the events never happened at all. In his worldview, you get to sit next to the right hand of God for all eternity saying, “remember when I was six and my tooth fell out and Mom gave me this toy car to comfort me?”

When I was religious, I used to be sad ahead of time knowing vacations and holidays would end, so I understand what Mike Gantt is saying. For some reason, the value of things did lie in their duration. To quote Criminal Minds: “It’s not dying we fear, it’s that no one will remember us after we’re dead. (Well, that, and the pain of being tortured to death by some wackjob serial killer…)”

  (Quote)

Patrick (not the Christian one in that other thread) January 3, 2011 at 8:34 pm

I’ll go back to just being Patrick in a day or two. I really should use a more unique name… this has happened to me more than once.

Anyhow…

1. Anything that ends has no ultimate purpose.
2. Anything without ultimate purpose is ultimately purposeless.
3. Even under Christianity, charity and kindness towards others ends.
4. Therefore charity and kindness are ultimately purposeless under Christianity..

1. Any act of morality or immorality that is not ultimately rewarded is without value.
2. Under Christianity, only belief or non belief is ultimately rewarded or punished.
3. Therefore charity and kindness are ultimately without value in Christianity.

Those are probably bad arguments, but I suspect they’re bad for similar reasons to this ultimate purpose stuff.

  (Quote)

everettattebury January 3, 2011 at 9:02 pm

There is something that frustrates me in reading about all of these discussions of purpose, ultimate or otherwise. Purposeful to WHO? Who is assigning the purpose? What types of things are even capable of having a purpose?

If I take two sticks and whittle them down into chopsticks, I have given them a purpose for ME, the purpose of using them to eat stir-fry with. If I decide to use them to knit a sweater, then I’ve given them a new purpose.

They are of value to ME, because I have assigned them a value. That doesn’t mean that they have any intrinsic or ultimate purpose or value; they may not even be valued by any other person. And so what? Does that make them any less useful or valuable to ME?

  (Quote)

Taranu January 4, 2011 at 1:20 am

If ultimate meaning means enduring significance then I’m not sure theism can provide it. Think about a song that means a lot to you, but that get’s stuck in you head once you hear it. You can’t stop thinking about it. Even if you enjoy listening to the song for a week, a month, a year… at some point you will become fed up with it and you will want to get it out of your head. Now think about Heaven. For how long can someone put up with worshiping the same being or loving the same being or feeling the same feelings? 1000 years, 1 million, 10 billion? At some point during eternity you might just become fed up with these things and their significance will vanish. Just like an action that you perform on a daily basis for a long period of time it will become routine, something trivial.
Now perhaps in Heaven you will have more options available to choose from at any time just like you do now and enduring significance will be given by the everlasting memories of the actions you engage in. But these memories can become trivial and thus loose their significance. I mean you keep gaining wonderful memories from the things you do but all the memories you will have will be like that. No matter what you choose to remember you will always come across a wonderful memory and this makes the whole enterprise trivial. Such memories will become cliches.

  (Quote)

Polymeron January 4, 2011 at 1:55 am

Kevin,

What it is saying is really trivial.Atheism doesn’t have X and theism does, in this case X is ultimate meaning.X could also be an after-life, a cosmic law-maker, or a cosmic judge.So what?It is only an emotional problem for someone who desires one of the above and an intellectual problem for atheism if one of the above is shown to exist and atheism cannot account for it.Since he does not argue for the existence of ultimate meaning, this would mean that it is a marketing tool for people who desire ultimate meaning.From a PR perspective, I suppose exposing how its just an appeal to emotions would be worth it depending on the context, but that notwithstanding, it is not an intellectual problem for atheism.  

I think you’ve more or less nailed it on the head. Except, that I’m not sure it can be shown that theism even has ultimate purpose either. In fact I’m not convinced that “ultimate purpose” is even coherent in the context it was used. So it’s an emotional argument based on a bit of unproven intuition… Fairly bad intellectually, but unfortunately this works on a lot of people :-/

  (Quote)

The Atheist Missionary January 4, 2011 at 4:16 am

I wonder what Craig thought of the scene in Douglas Adams’ So Long, and Thanks for All the Fish when Marvin finally shuts off his circuits at an age “thirty-seven times older than the Universe itself”.

  (Quote)

JNester January 4, 2011 at 6:17 am

IdiotWithABloatedHandle: “No, you’re not. At least, your internet persona isn’t. And welcome to the internet! That’s all that matters here.”

What matters to me is making sense and you ain’t making shit Mr. I’m So Adult.

ildi: “JNestor, way to make friends and influence people;”

As if I give a fuck about a social network

” I usually read the comment threads of a blog for a few days and decide who the regulars are before I fling accusations like troll indiscriminately”

Well that’s fuckin’ lickety split for you ain’t it? But you really need to get with the program you polecat. If you spent a few minutes reading you’d know I’m a regular reader here, occasional commenter. Learn how to spell names right while you’re at it.

I love how many assumptions all you smart people make!

  (Quote)

ildi January 4, 2011 at 7:34 am

We had an old dog just like Jnester, got to snarling and snapping at everybody around him… had to put the poor thing down…

(or was that Old Yeller?)

If you don’t give a fuck what people think, why bother commenting? You must care, just a teeny-weeny bit, come on, admit it! It will greatly relieve your mind to know that I think you are true asshole and not just a poseur. Keep up the good work.

Oh, did you have a point you were making? I lost track amidst all the thrashing and snarling…

  (Quote)

Paul King January 4, 2011 at 1:10 pm

It seems to me that Craig’s argument is that humanity is not important on a cosmic scale. But since we are humans we live on the human scale – so why should we not judge our actions on that scale ? Is Craig’s argument based on anything more than a proud refusal to accept the reality of humanity’s place in the universe ? (Maybe he needs a dose of the Total Perspective Vortex :-)

  (Quote)

Katie's mom January 4, 2011 at 1:34 pm

When I’ve seen WLC make this argument for ultimate meaning, I’ve actually felt kind of embarrassed for him. It always strikes me as sad that this man, with his superior intellect, vast knowledge and phenomenal debating skills, is persuaded by such an infantile, emotional argument.

  (Quote)

Polymeron January 4, 2011 at 1:49 pm

But since we are humans we live on the human scale – so why should we not judge our actions on that scale ?  

Coincidentally, this was the exact same realization that snapped me out of a very real depression I had when I thought that my reductionist approach mandated nihilism. It seemed satisfactory back then, and it still does now :)

  (Quote)

Timothy Underwood January 4, 2011 at 4:32 pm

Claims about significance are actually claims about how we feel about things. Craig feels a permanent duration makes something far more special, and he treats his feeling as an ontological property external to himself which he calls ‘ultimate significance’.

Of course it is just an emotion not everyone shares.

  (Quote)

other eric January 4, 2011 at 7:54 pm

so, does WLC present this argument as anything other than an emotional appeal?
i’m not sure how a life with ultimate meaning is more probable than one without, so i would kind of just accept this as one of those “but atheism is so depressing” arguments.
and it works in that way. and it strengthens the theist’s resolves against this depressing position.
as a social entity i feel like i get validation and purpose from being regarded, and i guess from being judged, by others. it does make me a little sad to think that all my actions and performances will be lost in time with no one to regard them. it would be really cool if there was an ultimate entity, who counted more than anything, to regard me, and for me to regard (there’s probably a better word than regard, but it’s not coming to me at the moment) infinitely.
but it seems really unlikely.
perhaps it is a duty (and probably already a goal) of enchanted atheists like Luke to form emotionally compelling responses to these sorts of arguments. maybe they already have them, but i can’t recall any knock-down ones off the top of my head. the sort of “live in the moment” stuff leaves me a bit empty as the past and future are still inescapably on my mind, and the present moment is often boring or painful. the enchanted position sometimes seems to demand spontaneous joy from everyone and thus alienates the many misanthropes, but god the infinite regarder is reassuring to the joyful and miserable alike, because we are like children and need constant and infinite attention, be it positive or negative. these are the emotional desires that need emotional alternatives.

  (Quote)

drj January 5, 2011 at 5:54 am

Pretty sure JNestor was one of the Vox Day regulars who started posting over here when Luke did the letter exchange (I think).

Which totally explains the ‘tude.

  (Quote)

Mike Gantt January 5, 2011 at 12:54 pm

@other eric

That is perhaps the most articulate, poignant, and vulnerable expression I have ever heard from an atheist on a subject like this. Atheists and theists both should respect such candor. For a person who thinks and expresses himself as honestly as that, truth cannot be far away.

  (Quote)

BenSix January 5, 2011 at 2:37 pm

Have you ever looked at antinatalism, Luke? I’d be interested in your take. Justifying life is surprisingly demanding.

  (Quote)

Luke Muehlhauser January 5, 2011 at 9:45 pm

BenSix,

I haven’t looked at antinatalism, but adopting the position would entail little direct cost to me, as I have no plans to turn my sperm into children. :)

  (Quote)

bossmanham January 5, 2011 at 11:16 pm

Luke,

It seems to me you’re conflating something here and missing the point of what the theist means by life having real and objective meaning. The question isn’t about why some action is great, it’s about why some action has objective meaning. So we could say that God’s meaning for us is to glorify Him and enjoy Him forever. But it’s silly to ask why that is objectively meaningful. Life has that meaning because God has created it for that specific purpose. Similarly, words have meaning because we create them for a specific purpose. To ask why certain words mean certain things beyond that they were simply created for that purpose is silly. They mean that because they were created for the purpose of describing something. God has set us up with an end goal in mind, and that means we have an ultimate meaning. Simple as that.

  (Quote)

Polymeron January 6, 2011 at 12:24 am

bossmanham,
This raises certain questions.

- Assuming this were true, what is this meaning to US? If I make sticks into chopsticks, should they be happy about being given purpose? (Apart from being inanimate, of course).
I think I can actually answer this one myself: I suppose that by embracing said purpose, one can share in it, just like a drafted soldier can decide that he wants to fight and win the war for its stated goals. But it then raises a second question:

- How is this meaning somehow different than other forms of meaning? Remember, WLC isn’t just saying that God’s meaning for us is quantitatively better to some degree, he rather argues that God’s meaning is qualitatively different so as to not be nullified by the passage of time – which he argues other meaning does fall prey to it.
I’ll try answering this one, as well: The difference is that God will remember our deeds and, being eternal, there would always be someone who is impacted by our deeds.

That does seem to clash with the idea of an unchanging god, however.

At any rate, I fully agree with other eric: This is an emotional argument. Whether or not ultimate meaning exists with god and is absent without god, has no impact whatsoever on whether or not god actually exists. It can only change our preference, but wishing something true does not make it true.

  (Quote)

bossmanham January 6, 2011 at 9:52 am

Polymeron,

Assuming this were true, what is this meaning to US? If I make sticks into chopsticks, should they be happy about being given purpose? (Apart from being inanimate, of course).

I think you answered your own question there. Whether one should be happy about having meaning is another question entirely. I would argue that it correlates to God’s moral nature to be happy about it, and therefore would be a morally good and appropriate act. We also seem to have moral imperatives to rejoice about our association with Christ (assuming one is associated with Him) and those that aren’t associated with Him are said to be in a bad situation. That would mean that it’s good to be happy about having objective meaning, and that we should be happy about it.

That does seem to clash with the idea of an unchanging god, however.

Of course you seem to be employing a rigid straw-man definition of what it means for God to be unchanging.

Whether or not ultimate meaning exists with god and is absent without god, has no impact whatsoever on whether or not god actually exists

Which is why WLC makes it clear that this is not an argument for the existence of God, but about the state of things if God does not exist. It shakes up the apathy.

  (Quote)

Steven January 7, 2011 at 9:32 am

I don’t care that the sun is going to one day explode and destroy all records of my existence. What matters it that the people I know and cared for knew me and I enjoyed my time here. What more can you ask? It all seems like a matter of perspective to me. Back as a Christian, when I was told that Heaven might be worshiping God for eternity, I despaired. It seemed so boring. But for my pastor, it was the grandest thing. I think it’s stupid to just push your belief that “life MUST continue after the sun explodes (or whatever natural disaster suits you) for life to have meaning.”

  (Quote)

cl January 7, 2011 at 12:08 pm

Luke,

Consider the supposed final answer to “What’s so great about that?” that is offered by the theist: “Glorifying God and enjoying his presence for ever!” But of course this does not stop the question. We can certainly ask of this: “What’s so great about that?” This remains a perfectly sensible question, unlike the question “What time is it on the Sun?”

This, to me, seems like a slight variant on the “why” regress.

bossmanham,

For what it’s worth, I find your arguments and comments here much more persuasive and even-handed than some of those left at my site on the post of the same topic. I think you successfully make your case without the need to appeal to the “p word” that tmp and I objected so strongly to.

The question isn’t about why some action is great, it’s about why some action has objective meaning. So we could say that God’s meaning for us is to glorify Him and enjoy Him forever. But it’s silly to ask why that is objectively meaningful.

I agree. This reminds me of the time Luke asked something along the lines of, “But why should the well-being of conscious creatures be the parameter of morality?” As I said then, anyone can ask “why” about anything, ad nauseum. Personally, I don’t see that strategy as useful. There comes a time when no further “why” questions make sense.

God has set us up with an end goal in mind, and that means we have an ultimate meaning. Simple as that.

I agree. Einstein reportedly said, “Any intelligent fool can make things bigger, more complex, and more violent. It takes a touch of genius — and a lot of courage — to move in the opposite direction.”

Polymeron,

How is this meaning somehow different than other forms of meaning?

In scope, applicability, objectivity, and normativity. God’s purpose would retain normative weight on all people, whether they choose to obey it or not. The purpose you or I make up for ourselves does not. I see them as two different beasts entirely.

  (Quote)

TRUTHOVERfaith January 8, 2011 at 1:36 am

@cl
“Gods purpose would retain normative weight on all people, whether they choose to obey it or not. The purpose you or I make up for ourselves does not.”

Aren’t assertions fun, boys and girls?
It’s so nice when you don’t have to bother with that pesky evidence.

  (Quote)

cl January 8, 2011 at 10:11 am

TRUTHOVERfaith,

Aren’t assertions fun, boys and girls? It’s so nice when you don’t have to bother with that pesky evidence.

Can you really not follow the logic to its conclusion? Or, are you simply trying to be provocative?

  (Quote)

Polymeron January 8, 2011 at 2:13 pm

cl,

In scope, applicability, objectivity, and normativity. God’s purpose would retain normative weight on all people, whether they choose to obey it or not. The purpose you or I make up for ourselves does not. I see them as two different beasts entirely.  

Thanks for the explanation. It certainly looks like WLC puts a lot of emphasis on scope for this particular argument, but I acknowledge that the others would also apply. Except for applicability – I don’t understand what you mean by that.

This, to me, seems like a slight variant on the “why” regress.

I’ve already taken Luke to task about this, especially in the Less Wrong post comments but also in this thread. I think his position regarding infinite regression could stand some clarification and, as a result, reconsideration of some judgments regarding certain arguments.

TRUTHOVERfaith,
I think that for the most part cl’s assertion is trivially true. I notice he’s using the word “would”, which I take to be “if God exists and has a purpose for us”. Again, I see no problems with the statement. If you see a problem with it, you should point it out.

  (Quote)

cl January 8, 2011 at 10:03 pm

Polymeron,

Except for applicability – I don’t understand what you mean by that.

I think I was just being redundant. The phrase “normative weight” seems to capture everything I was aiming for with “applicability.”

I’ve already taken Luke to task about this, especially in the Less Wrong post comments but also in this thread. I think his position regarding infinite regression could stand some clarification and, as a result, reconsideration of some judgments regarding certain arguments.

I agree. I find it frustrating that Luke chastises the “why regress” when he wants to criticize other atheists, but uses it himself when pressed into a corner about morality. It’s not consistent and reeks of special pleading.

I think that for the most part cl’s assertion is trivially true. I notice he’s using the word “would”, which I take to be “if God exists and has a purpose for us”.

Yes, thank you for the charitable read. Unlike Luke and Alonzo with their “God does not exist” propaganda, I really do strive for conservatively stated claims. In (a)theist discussion, I know it annoys many atheists when believers write and talk as if their beliefs are true. I respect the atheist’s desire to not be annoyed. It would be nice if Luke and Alonzo extended the same courtesy to theists, but hey. Alonzo actually writes — in Scams and Lies comment January 7, 2011 at 5:04 am — that he is not an advocate of being nice. So, who am I to judge him by my standards, eh?

  (Quote)

TRUTHOVERfaith January 10, 2011 at 1:50 am

@ Polymeron

It just sounds like cl is asserting that he knows the mind of god. What gods purpose could, would or would not do seems beyond rational speculation.

That’s one of the problems I see with it, Polymoron.

  (Quote)

Polymeron January 10, 2011 at 2:44 am

TRUTHOVERfaith

It just sounds like cl is asserting that he knows the mind of god. What gods purpose could, would or would not do seems beyond rational speculation.

I didn’t see something of this sort. All I saw was the (trivially true) assertion that human-made purposes do not retain normative weight on people if they choose to ignore them. Whereas a purpose imposed from outside, does.

This would be as true about a purpose assigned to us by creator aliens as it would about a creator god. I really don’t see where in this you see cl “asserting that he knows the mind of god”. Please check your assumptions.

That’s one of the problems I see with it, Polymoron.  

I will give you the benefit of the doubt and assume that was an error on your part rather than a directed insult. Please spell correctly.

And I think you don’t need to jump in with umbrage at every hypothetical theists make. There are enough legitimate problems in the theist position without having to resort to pointless attacks; and in the search of truth, we need to be careful to give legitimate arguments a fair examination.

  (Quote)

Leave a Comment

{ 4 trackbacks }