Ask the Atheist (round 8)

by Luke Muehlhauser on April 18, 2010 in Ask the Atheist

Because I know everything, obviously.

Because I know everything, obviously.

Earlier, I invited my readers to ask me anything. You may ask more questions here, but please read the instructions first. Or, submit an audio question! Here is my eighth round of responses.

Question 031

Rhys asks:

Do you think the pursuit of objective intrinsic meaning in life is ultimately absurd? Are we better off just accepting that we are ultimately a byproduct of mindless forces, creating our own meaning to our lives and living it to the fullest? In other words, is there some truth do what existentialist philosophers have been saying since the early 20th century?

It depends what is meant by the terms ‘objective’ and ‘intrinsic.’ If by ‘intrinsic’ you mean ‘having value apart from being valued by a being’, it’s hard for me to grasp what that could mean, or how something could exemplify that property.

Let us say that nothing has intrinsic value in the sense I gave above. Does that mean life is absurd? Again, it depends what you mean by ‘absurd.’ If by ‘absurd’ you mean ‘incapable of producing value,’ then life is not absurd: value is produced by way of things having value for certain beings. If by ‘absurd’ you mean ‘having no ultimate purpose’, then I would respond that the very idea of ultimate purpose may be incoherent (see Nagel), so crying about a lack of ultimate purpose may be like crying about a lack of square circles. If by ‘absurd’ you mean ‘incapable of being enjoyed’, then life certainly is not absurd: there are many enchanted naturalists like myself.

Question 032

Jacopo asks:

I think it’s probably fair to say that most people [can't read] academic philosophy. This includes natural theology. The New Atheists are often criticized for not engaging with the ‘best in the field’. But the ‘best in the field’ often requires at least undergraduate level philosophy training. Often, it requires still more, with wider knowledge of cosmology or physics… to understand an argument. Given this barrier, how far would you have liked to see the New Atheists engage with contemporary natural theology?

Lots of other people criticize the New Atheists for not engaging the best of the field, but I usually complain about something else: for example their misrepresentations of theistic arguments, or their proposal of many bad arguments of their own.

I’ve already agreed with P.Z. Myers that the New Atheists need not engage ‘sophisticated theology.’ If God doesn’t exist, then sophisticated theology is irrelevant.

What about not engaging the best of the field? It’s best practice in philosophy to first (1) present your opponent’s argument in it’s strongest form, and then (2) examine its weaknesses. In contrast, the New Atheists typically go after the weakest types of theistic arguments that nobody defends anymore. For example, Dawkins spends most of his theistic arguments time on the syllogisms of Aquinas – from 800 years ago! One need not unpack the details of Robin Collins’ Bayesian teleological argument to do better than that. Let’s at least engage the syllogisms of William Lane Craig. Those are pretty easy for people to follow, by design.

Moreover, the New Atheists often simply misrepresent the theistic position. A spectacular example of a bad, invalid argument that misunderstands the theist’s position is Dawkins’ main argument against God.

I won’t say much more now, as I’m writing a book on the subject. But I will answer your question about how far I think the New Atheists should have gone in responding to Natural Theology. It’s an easy question to answer because, of course, other books have already done what I would like to see being done. David Eller’s Natural Atheism, for example, is suitable for laymen, but engages theistic arguments and the religious landscape far more accurately than do the works of the celebrated New Atheists. Another winner is The Christian Delusion.

Question 33

Rhys asks:

What is your opinion on psychedelic drugs such as DMT, Mescaline and Psilocybin? Do you think they can be used as a serious tool for introspection and philosophical utility or are they just chemicals which induce non-veridical spooky experiences?

I am curious about your thoughts on this since most freethinkers I know actually are quite open to them and think they have alot of potential to increase understanding of the human mind and reality.

Drugs can increase our understanding of what kinds of experiences humans are capable of having, and they might even trigger a revelation that happens to correct, but then so can giving blood or undergoing some really horrible experience. Psychedelic experiences are just as likely – and probably, more likely – to distort a person’s view of reality as to clarify it.

Question 34

Rhys asks:

Do you have an opinion on the War On Drugs? For, against or neither?

I know very little about the war on drugs except that the government has obviously lost this war, and that locking people in prison for smoking weed seems silly. Disrupting the supply is probably a good thing. The hard drugs – cocaine, meth, heroin – certainly destroy lives. But really, I don’t know enough to comment.

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{ 40 comments… read them below or add one }

Chris Hallquist April 18, 2010 at 8:23 am

Hasn’t the Dennett thing already been addressed in a previous thread? The version he discusses may not have ever gotten past the referees for peer-reviewed journals, but as someone else here put it, it’s the sort of version you hear over the dinner table, or coming out of your local Campus Crusade member if you’re in college. I’ve had to deal with someone coming up to me while I was working at booth at a student organization fair, presenting me with a rambling series of questions about causality, apparently convinced that if you talk to an atheist about causes long enough, he will be forced to accept God. Admittedly, I’m not sure my interlocutor had Dennett’s version of the cosmological argument in mind, because I had no success figuring out what the point of his questions was and he himself may not have known. But Dennett’s attempt at stating the cosmological argument is as good a guess as any at what he may have had in mind. It’s also a reasonable guess at what people have in mind when they toss out the question “why is there something rather than nothing?” as if that question alone made it obvious that God exists. (Oddly, even Craig does this in live debates, usually just before presenting Kalam, which doesn’t actually address that question.)

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lukeprog April 18, 2010 at 8:44 am

Oops, fixed. I wrote this post months ago and have changed my mind about the Dennett thing since then. Thanks for the catch.

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ayer April 18, 2010 at 9:05 am

Luke, from the post on Nagel: “For as soon as we understand an alleged purpose for our lives well enough to see how it could count as our ultimate purpose, we thereby become able to question it and hence make it non-ultimate.”

Why would the mere ability to question an ultimate purpose make it non-ultimate?

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Alec April 18, 2010 at 9:13 am

Roughly when do you think that your book might come out?

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Steve Maitzen April 18, 2010 at 10:37 am

Luke, from the post on Nagel:“For as soon as we understand an alleged purpose for our lives well enough to see how it could count as our ultimate purpose, we thereby become able to question it and hence make it non-ultimate.”

Why would the mere ability to question an ultimate purpose make it non-ultimate?

Ayer,

Since those are my words you’re quoting, I should respond. Maybe your question is best directed at William Lane Craig, whose article “The Absurdity of Life without God” I interpret as saying this: Any purpose P is non-ultimate if we can “step back” from P and sensibly ask “What’s so great about P? Why be satisfied with P as our ultimate purpose?” I interpret Craig this way because otherwise his only argument for the absurdity of atheistic life is that nothing truly meaningful ever ends, a proposition Craig never defends and one that’s falsified by every great staging of King Lear. Not only can temporary things be truly meaningful; endless things can fail to be. We wouldn’t be satisfied to learn that God created us only to supply carbon dioxide to plants and trees, even if we learned that he’d keep us around forever for that purpose.

So I interpret Craig as saying that any atheistic purpose, no matter how noble, is ultimately meaningless because it can always be questioned, stepped back from, and thereby made to look relatively insignificant. Yes, it can, but so can any purpose (including glorifying God) once we understand it.

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Justfinethanks April 18, 2010 at 10:40 am

Why would the mere ability to question an ultimate purpose make it non-ultimate?

I’m a little confused as to why this is the case as well. Perhaps he is arguing that is a meaning is truly objective, then it should be impossible to be dissatisfied with it.

Though I reject the idea of objective meaning as being cohreent on different grounds. That is, as soon as a meaning or purpose becomes “objective” it ceases to be a “purpose” as we usually understand it and instead transforms into a “duty” or moral obligation.

For example, Christians say that the objective meaning for humans is to enter into a saving relationship with God. But actually, on Christianity, humans are under a moral obligation to enter into a saving relationship with God. Rejecting God is actually deeply immoral. To say that this is the “objective meaning” is like saying refraining from murder is our “objective meaning.” It’s just something we ought to do.

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Justfinethanks April 18, 2010 at 10:54 am

Thanks for clarifying Dr. Maitzen.

I interpret Craig this way because otherwise his only argument for the absurdity of atheistic life is that nothing truly meaningful ever ends, a proposition Craig never defends and one that’s falsified by every great staging of King Lear.

That’s true (and a pretty funny way to put it). To say that that mortality leads to meaninglessness on the basis that it makes life temporary is something theists never seem to apply to any other part of their life. For example you never see a Christian baseball player collapse on the field in a fit of existential despair at the thought that the game will eventually come to an end.

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Eric April 18, 2010 at 11:16 am

“For example, Dawkins spends most of his theistic arguments time on the syllogisms of Aquinas – from 800 years ago!”

And, as professor Ed Feser demonstrates in “The Last Superstition,” Dawkins doesn’t even come close to understanding any of them, a problem that somewhat limits the effectiveness of his “refutations.”

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lukeprog April 18, 2010 at 11:31 am

I don’t doubt it. Sometimes I think Feser wishes it were still the Middle Ages.

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ayer April 18, 2010 at 4:22 pm

Steve Maitzen,

Regardless of Craig’s views, I still don’t see how the concept of ultimate purpose is incoherent. If God created the universe with an overall purpose, then it has one (beyond the subjective purposes created by human beings within that universe), even if that purpose does not entail that the universe (or anything created within it) lasts forever (i.e., perhaps it comes to an end like Shakespeare’s King Lear narrative). I just don’t see the alleged incoherence here.

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Steve Maitzen April 18, 2010 at 6:02 pm

ayer,

I take it you do see the incoherence of “ultimate purpose” as I defined that term based on my reading of Craig, namely, a purpose it makes no sense to question once we understand it. No purpose could have that feature. The context (for Craig, and I assumed for theists in general) is finding a satisfying purpose for our lives. Craig, by his own admission, wants to sow dissatisfaction among atheists: he says (as I read him) that no purpose is satisfying unless it’s ultimate — ultimate in the sense I argued is incoherent.

Now, you can assign a different meaning to “ultimate” if you want: our ultimate purpose is whatever the creator of the universe says it is. But that invites the question “Why be confident that our ultimate purpose, in your sense, will be satisfying?” Suppose the creator says that we’re here only to feed the plants; surely that’s unsatisfying. To avoid that worry, we need a purpose that can’t be diminished by asking “What’s so great about that? Why regard that as satisfying?” But, again, no purpose (not even glorifying God) could have that feature.

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Rob April 18, 2010 at 6:51 pm

“Hallucinogens Have Doctors Tuning In Again”
http://www.nytimes.com/2010/04/12/science/12psychedelics.html?partner=rss&emc=rss

Psychedelic Science in the 21st Century
http://www.maps.org/conference/

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Richard Wein April 19, 2010 at 3:04 am

One problem with discussion of purpose is that the word can have two different meanings, and these often get conflated. The purpose of a hammer is (roughly) what its creator made it for, to knock in nails. My purpose in going to the shops is (say) to buy something. In the first case the purpose is an intention towards the object having the purpose (the hammer). In the second case the purpose is an intention of the object having the purpose (me).

These two meanings tend to get conflated when people ask “what’s my purpose in life?”. This can be understood as meaning either “what was I made for?” or “what are my goals?”. Either way, there’s no need to invoke God. The answer to the first question is that my parents may have had a purpose in “making” me, but going back further I was not made for any purpose (on an atheist view). And my goals in life are whatever they happen to be: since I’m an atheist they don’t include promoting the goals of an alleged God.

As Luke says, it’s hard to make sense of the phrase “ultimate purpose”. That phrase doesn’t seem to fit with either of the meanings I’ve just given. If God really made the universe, then the purpose of the universe is what God made it for, in the same sense that the purpose of a hammer is what its human creator made it for. Why add the word “ultimate” in the former case only? What does it signify?

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ayer April 19, 2010 at 5:46 am

To avoid that worry, we need a purpose that can’t be diminished by asking “What’s so great about that? Why regard that as satisfying?” But, again, no purpose (not even glorifying God) could have that feature.

Your take on Craig’s view is interesting, I may submit that as a question at his website http://www.reasonablefaith.org (unless you prefer to submit it yourself; he does a pretty good job of answering the higher-quality questions).

But I just don’t agree that we need a purpose about which the question “what’s so great about that?” cannot be asked. If the purpose is “glorifying God and enjoying him forever”, then human beings are free to embrace or reject that purpose (indeed, hell can then be seen as the destination of those who reject that purpose and thus prefer eternal separation from God). The fact that the ultimate purpose can be questioned and rejected does not detract from its nature as ultimate.

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Steve Maitzen April 19, 2010 at 6:13 am

ayer,

Please go ahead and submit the question to Craig’s website, and please let us know how he responds.

But I just don’t agree that we need a purpose about which the question “what’s so great about that?” cannot be asked. If the purpose is “glorifying God and enjoying him forever”, then human beings are free to embrace or reject that purpose (indeed, hell can then be seen as the destination of those who reject that purpose and thus prefer eternal separation from God). The fact that the ultimate purpose can be questioned and rejected does not detract from its nature as ultimate.

I take it you’d be unsatisfied if our God-given ultimate purpose were “Make carbon dioxide for the plants!” I don’t expect you’d say, “That’d be enough for me.” So there must be something different about the purpose you do suggest: glorifying God and enjoying him forever. How does the latter purpose make our lives meaningful if the former doesn’t? Because it’s really enjoyable? (Surely that’s not enough, or else an endlessly pleasant drug trip would do the trick. And frankly the “glorifying” bit sounds megalomaniacal on God’s part.) How does the latter purpose make sense out of (for instance) millennia of human suffering and much longer prehuman suffering? I don’t think we can begin to see how, in which case we should find the latter purpose no more satisfying than the former.

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ayer April 19, 2010 at 8:08 am

I take it you’d be unsatisfied if our God-given ultimate purpose were “Make carbon dioxide for the plants!” I don’t expect you’d say, “That’d be enough for me.” So there must be something different about the purpose you do suggest: glorifying God and enjoying him forever. How does the latter purpose make our lives meaningful if the former doesn’t? Because it’s really enjoyable? (Surely that’s not enough, or else an endlessly pleasant drug trip would do the trick. And frankly the “glorifying” bit sounds megalomaniacal on God’s part.) How does the latter purpose make sense out of (for instance) millennia of human suffering and much longer prehuman suffering? I don’t think we can begin to see how, in which case we should find the latter purpose no more satisfying than the former.

I think you are dealing with two separate issues here: (1) whether there is an ultimate purpose and (2) whether we find it satisfying. It seems clear to me that there can be an ultimate purpose, and that the concept of ultimate purpose is not incoherent, whether we find it satisfying or not. And if that ultimate purpose must be freely embraced to be fully satisfying, then it must be capable of being freely rejected as well.

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Steve Maitzen April 19, 2010 at 8:36 am

I think you are dealing with two separate issues here:(1) whether there is an ultimate purpose and (2) whether we find it satisfying.

Yes, they’re distinct issues, but why care about (1) if we don’t care about (2)? My argument assumes that many people at least seem to care whether their lives have a satisfying ultimate purpose (Craig says everyone ought to care about it). It’s in that context that I argued for the incoherence of ultimate purpose.

If we don’t care about (2), then Craig’s appeal has none of the motivational force he wants it to have. As before: you can define our ultimate purpose as simply whatever God says it is, even if God says it’s to count each blade of grass. But if we don’t care about (2), the question of ultimate purpose won’t draw us toward theism as Craig wants it to.

About your last sentence: Is there something about “freely embracing” a purpose that would make it satisfying when it’s otherwise unsatisfying? I doubt it.

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rvkevin April 19, 2010 at 8:44 am

Replace God with extraterrestrial life and I think people would have a better understanding why some people laugh at the idea of ultimate purpose, at least in the way theists use the term.

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ayer April 19, 2010 at 9:06 am

Yes, they’re distinct issues, but why care about (1) if we don’t care about (2)? My argument assumes that many people at least seem to care whether their lives have a satisfying ultimate purpose (Craig says everyone ought to care about it). It’s in that context that I argued for the incoherence of ultimate purpose.

Ok, but then you are not arguing that the concept of ultimate purpose is “incoherent” but that it is “unimportant.” (Perhaps you could say that Craig’s apologetic is “incoherent”? But even here, I think it would better if you said it is “not compelling”.)

But if we don’t care about (2), the question of ultimate purpose won’t draw us toward theism as Craig wants it to.

I think the prospect of an ultimate purpose will certainly lead many people to investigate theism carefully, since the idea of an ultimate purpose is probably more appealing to most people than an existence that is ultimately purposeless. But I agree they will have to find the purpose offered by theism to be satisfying in order to accept it, since purposelessness might be preferable to a repulsive purpose.

About your last sentence: Is there something about “freely embracing” a purpose that would make it satisfying when it’s otherwise unsatisfying?

No, just that on traditional theism, the nature of the purpose is that it must be freely embraced. (Dogs also presumably have a purpose under traditional theism, but since they operate on instinct and not free will, their purpose can be fulfilled without freely accepting it.)

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Steve Maitzen April 19, 2010 at 9:24 am

Ok, but then you are not arguing that the concept of ultimate purpose is “incoherent” but that it is “unimportant.” (Perhaps you could say that Craig’s apologetic is “incoherent”? But even here, I think it would better if you said it is “not compelling”.)

Actually, I’m still arguing that the concept of ultimate purpose that I was assuming (i.e., “comprehensible but unquestionable”) is indeed incoherent. I agree it’s another issue whether Craig and other theists intend that concept; I think they do. It’s certainly the direction in which Craig’s debunking questions lead.

I think the prospect of an ultimate purpose will certainly lead many people to investigate theism carefully, since the idea of an ultimate purpose is probably more appealing to most people than an existence that is ultimately purposeless. But I agree they will have to find the purpose offered by theism to be satisfying in order to accept it, since purposelessness might be preferable to a repulsive purpose.

And I predict that the same debunking questions that Craig aims at atheistic purposes (“What’s go great about that? Why in the end does that matter?”) can be aimed at whatever purpose theists propose: it’s in the nature of purposes that they can always be questioned in that way.

Thanks for your comments! I’m thinking I might write something up on this topic, but only if I can convince myself I’d be saying something original.

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lukeprog April 19, 2010 at 9:35 am

Steve,

Originality is overrated, though of course it is required by philosophy journals. But most of us understand so little of what has already been said a hundred times. Clarity, brevity, and accessibility is what is needed. Almost nothing on my blog is original, but thousands and thousands of people take great value from it.

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ayer April 19, 2010 at 5:13 pm

Thanks for your comments! I’m thinking I might write something up on this topic, but only if I can convince myself I’d be saying something original.

No problem, should be an interesting paper. In my view an ultimate purpose originating in a God who is by definition morally perfect would have to be supremely satisfying for a being designed by that God for that very purpose. But just because it is satisfying does not mean it is beyond questioning, since that questioning would seem to be part and parcel of having the free will to reject the ultimate purpose by choosing what Augustine called “the lesser good.”

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Steve Maitzen April 19, 2010 at 6:21 pm

In my view an ultimate purpose originating in a God who is by definition morally perfect would have to be supremely satisfying for a being designed by that God for that very purpose.

“would have to be supremely satisfying”? Why? Wouldn’t it depend on the purpose? Suppose God said, “You were made to count blades of grass.” I can’t believe you’d be satisfied. You proposed, more seriously, “glorifying God and enjoying him forever.” I asked a question about that purpose that you never answered. Why regard that purpose as satisfying — including intellectually satisfying — when, as it stands, it makes no sense at all of the long history of human and nonhuman suffering?

To echo Luke’s earlier post, the quality of the purpose matters, not — or not merely — its source.

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ayer April 19, 2010 at 8:00 pm

“would have to be supremely satisfying”? Why? Wouldn’t it depend on the purpose? Suppose God said, “You were made to count blades of grass.” I can’t believe you’d be satisfied.

Assuming human beings were designed solely to count blades of grass, why wouldn’t they find it satisfying?

I asked a question about that purpose that you never answered. Why regard that purpose as satisfying — including intellectually satisfying — when, as it stands, it makes no sense at all of the long history of human and nonhuman suffering?

But I dispute your premise; I find that it does make sense of that long history. However, the fact that you disagree points up the limits of the “argument from purpose” for apologetic purposes, for it is difficult to see how you get pass the impasse of one person finding it “satisfying” and another finding it “unsatisfying” since whether one is “satisfied” seems to be a purely subjective standard.

My point is that if God created us with such an ultimate purpose, it is not incoherent, even if it is open to being questioned and rejected by the individual created being. Perhaps Dr. Craig disagrees and believes that such purpose must be unquestionable; hopefully we will find out!

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Steve Maitzen April 20, 2010 at 3:05 am

But I dispute your premise; I find that it does make sense of that long history.

Including the prehuman history, the millions of years of suffering before Homo sapiens even existed? I can’t fathom how. (Please don’t reply that there was no prehuman suffering, or no suffering at all before the Fall of Man. I’d no longer be able to take you seriously.)

whether one is “satisfied” seems to be a purely subjective standard.

But not whether one ought to be satisfied. We don’t think there’s nothing amiss with someone who finds grass-counting to be a fully satisfying life’s purpose.

My point is that if God created us with such an ultimate purpose, it is not incoherent, even if it is open to being questioned and rejected by the individual created being.

Yes, I know that was your point, which is why we’re still talking about which purposes ought to satisfy us.

Perhaps Dr. Craig disagrees and believes that such purpose must be unquestionable; hopefully we will find out!

If he doesn’t disagree, then the only argument of his I can spot depends on the false premise that nothing meaningful ever ends. Please keep us posted.

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ayer April 20, 2010 at 5:53 am

I’m just a simple non-Ph.D, but it seems to me you are conflating some side issues with the main issue, which is: is the concept of God designing human beings to fulfill an ultimate purpose incoherent? I don’t see any reason to think so. If we are designed with an ultimate purpose in mind, then we just have one, even if we can question it.

Now, you can ask: would we find that purpose “satisfying”? Well, if God designed us so that we would find it satisfying (even if were just counting blades of grass–are you a fan of John Rawls?), it would seem so. But even if one did not find it satisfying, the ultimate purpose would still exist.

And you can ask: why ought we to fulfill that purpose? That’s an interesting ethical question, but has no bearing on whether the concept of an ultimate purpose is coherent. (It seems to me that an interesting response could be developed under either virtue ethics or divine command ethics, but that would be a separate paper).

So I think I will hold off submitting your question to Craig’s website, since I don’t want to misrepresent what your exact question is. Perhaps one of the atheists here who is more on your wavelength could submit it more accurately? I would be interested in seeing Craig interact with your ideas. Thanks.

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Steve Maitzen April 20, 2010 at 6:51 am

it seems to me you are conflating some side issues with the main issue, which is: is the concept of God designing human beings to fulfill an ultimate purpose incoherent?

We’ve covered this already. There’s no conflation.

1. You and I define “ultimate purpose” differently: you define it as “whatever purpose God gave us”; I define it as “a purpose that puts an end to all questions of the form ‘Why does that matter?’.”

2. You and I agree that ultimate purpose as I define it can’t be had.

3. We disagree on whether Craig and other theists need to define ultimate purpose as I define it: I say they do; you say they don’t.

All of that is perfectly clear, so I think you’re well-positioned to submit the question to Craig, and I hope you will. If he needs the background, you could send him the link to this thread.

I also hope you’ll reply to the question I’ve asked now twice:

Including the prehuman history, the millions of years of suffering before Homo sapiens even existed? I can’t fathom how. (Please don’t reply that there was no prehuman suffering, or no suffering at all before the Fall of Man. I’d no longer be able to take you seriously.)

Cheers.

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drj April 20, 2010 at 6:53 am

Interesting exchange going on! A couple thoughts popped into my head though, that I’d like to share.

Ayer,

It seems relatively matter of fact to me, that being designed for a purpose does not entail, nor even necessarily make it likely, that one will find that purpose satisfying. If you’ve ever read the Hitchhiker’s Guide novels, Marvin, “the paranoid android”, comes to mind. One really would only expect to find his intended purpose satisfying, if the designer concluded that satisfaction is an advantage in fulfilling that purpose. But why wouldn’t anxiety facilitate purpose fulfilment better, in many instances? Or perhaps ignorance?

Let’s look at an example.

Now, suppose we suggest its the ultimate purpose of every human purpose to glorify God. Lets look at some of Craig’s beliefs for a second. He believes this world was engineered such that the maximum number of people possible will freely choose heaven. But he also believes many people will go to hell.

As for the folk who go to heaven, we can say its their purpose to directly glorify God, for all eternity in perfected existence. Good for them!

But, as for the folk who go to hell, it seems it was their purpose to glorify God indirectly, by facilitating the existence of this possible world, where the maximum number of people, other than themselves, choose heaven. Were they to learn of this purpose, should the person remain satisfied with it? I think not.

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ayer April 20, 2010 at 7:25 am

1. You and I define “ultimate purpose” differently: you define it as “whatever purpose God gave us”; I define it as “a purpose that puts an end to all questions of the form ‘Why does that matter?’.”

Ok, that’s helpful. Usually these disputes come down to a difference in the definition of terms. Suffice it to say that your definition seems inapposite to me. To take drj’s example, if I design an android with the purpose of doing manual labor around the house every day, that just is the android’s ultimate purpose, whether it “matters” to the android or not. Right? Or is there some reason an android (or any non-human being) cannot have an “ultimate” purpose?

All of that is perfectly clear, so I think you’re well-positioned to submit the question to Craig, and I hope you will. If he needs the background, you could send him the link to this thread.

Ok, I will do my best.

I also hope you’ll reply to the question I’ve asked now twice:

Including the prehuman history, the millions of years of suffering before Homo sapiens even existed? I can’t fathom how. (Please don’t reply that there was no prehuman suffering, or no suffering at all before the Fall of Man. I’d no longer be able to take you seriously.)

Isn’t this just a restatement of the problem of evil? This would have no bearing on the concept of “ultimate purpose” as I have described it, and thus from my perspective is another side issue. But to the extent I have studied it, I am in general agreement with Plantinga and Craig’s approach to it.

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ayer April 20, 2010 at 7:35 am

It seems relatively matter of fact to me, that being designed for a purpose does not entail, nor even necessarily make it likely, that one will find that purpose satisfying.

I generally agree with you. Whether the purpose is satisfying has no bearing on the coherence of the concept of “purpose.” I was only saying that, assuming the purpose of humanity is “glorifying God and enjoying him forever” then “enjoyment” implies “satisfaction.” But it is not necessary for the coherence of the concept.

But, as for the folk who go to hell, it seems it was their purpose to glorify God indirectly, by facilitating the existence of this possible world, where the maximum number of people, other than themselves, choose heaven.

Why would a creature with free will not be free to reject its purpose of enjoying God forever?

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Steve Maitzen April 20, 2010 at 7:48 am

Suffice it to say that your definition seems inapposite to me.

Your definition makes me wonder why anyone would care if we had an ultimate purpose (and demand that we have one, as Craig does), and it gives no reason to be confident that we’d find the purpose satisfying.

If I design an android with the purpose of doing manual labor around the house every day, that just is the android’s ultimate purpose, whether it “matters” to the android or not. Right?

Which is why (see immediately above) I don’t think your definition of “ultimate purpose” captures what Craig and others need it to.

Isn’t this just a restatement of the problem of evil? This would have no bearing on the concept of “ultimate purpose” as I have described it, and thus from my perspective is another side issue.

It bears on the concept as I’ve described it, since it bears on whether the proposed purpose is (intellectually) satisfying. A “purpose to end all purposes” had better make sense of it all, including all suffering.

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ayer April 20, 2010 at 9:47 am

Your definition makes me wonder why anyone would care if we had an ultimate purpose (and demand that we have one, as Craig does), and it gives no reason to be confident that we’d find the purpose satisfying.

Ok, but I wonder why anyone would NOT care whether our existence is purposeless or whether we were designed with a purpose in mind. But to each his own. As I mentioned to drj above, whether the purpose is satisfying (to the extent it’s not a matter of subjective preference) would seem to depend on whether finding it satisfying serves to fulfill the purpose (e.g., enjoying God forever would seem to imply satisfaction).

Which is why (see immediately above) I don’t think your definition of “ultimate purpose” captures what Craig and others need it to.

The benefit of my definition is that it separates these two issues. First we accept that ultimate purpose exists; then we determine whether it matters to us. For a machine, it doesn’t matter. For a sentient being, it would seem to be of some interest. Again, I guess I’m not clear on why you don’t care whether you were designed for a purpose or not. Wouldn’t exploring questions in the philosophy of religion indicate some level of “caring” about the issue?

It bears on the concept as I’ve described it, since it bears on whether the proposed purpose is (intellectually) satisfying. A “purpose to end all purposes” had better make sense of it all, including all suffering

Requiring that a purpose “make sense of it ALL” seems to be an unrealistic standard for epistemically limited creatures such as ourselves. Why wouldn’t “make enough sense to provide meaning given our epistemically limited status” be enough? It is for me.

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Steve Maitzen April 20, 2010 at 11:38 am

Ok, but I wonder why anyone would NOT care whether our existence is purposeless or whether we were designed with a purpose in mind. But to each his own.

We really have come full circle. I’d refer you back to the long quotation from Nagel (1971) that Luke gives here, particularly the last two paragraphs of that quotation. In fact, I recommend the whole article; along with Craig’s, it was the impetus for my commenting at all on this topic. I can imagine two (mutually compatible) reasons we might want to know if we were designed for a purpose: in order to satisfy (a) sheer curiosity about where, if anywhere, we came from; in order to find (b) meaning or significance for our lives. I interpret (b) as Craig’s concern in “The Absurdity of Life without God.” I also interpret it as the concern of many who find themselves drawn to theism.

What Nagel says is relevant to (b). If we think that (b) requires an answer transcending our earthly existence, we should admit that there’s no non-arbitrary answer, not even glorifying and enjoying God, since the same question that made us seek transcendence in the first place (“Why does that matter?”) can be asked about glorifying and enjoying God. If we seek a non-arbitrary stopping point in our quest for (b), we’ll inevitably be disappointed; there can be no such thing.

As for me, I confess that (a) became pretty unimportant once I recognized that no ultimate (i.e., fully satisfying) answer to (b) is possible.

Requiring that a purpose “make sense of it ALL” seems to be an unrealistic standard for epistemically limited creatures such as ourselves. Why wouldn’t “make enough sense to provide meaning given our epistemically limited status” be enough? It is for me.

Maybe it’s a difference in temperament. I’d never be satisfied if I had to say, “I just don’t get how this supposedly ultimate purpose makes sense of X,” for any significant X (such as the suffering of sentient beings). I can’t tell from your last statement if you would be.

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lukeprog April 20, 2010 at 12:56 pm

Steve,

Your stamina here is amazing. Don’t wear yourself out!

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ayer April 20, 2010 at 2:38 pm

If we seek a non-arbitrary stopping point in our quest for (b), we’ll inevitably be disappointed; there can be no such thing.

Yes, this is the key difference between us; I believe that there is a stopping point, and theists are satisfied that that point is God, the necessary being “greater than which nothing can be conceived.” I also agree that once the atheist rejects God as the answer, then no “fully satisfying” answer is possible. This is what I think Craig was basically getting at in his article: the atheist must be resigned to “getting no satisfaction” in the area of ultimate purpose (of course I realize the atheist believes the theist is in the same boat and just doesn’t realize it).

Maybe it’s a difference in temperament. I’d never be satisfied if I had to say, “I just don’t get how this supposedly ultimate purpose makes sense of X,” for any significant X (such as the suffering of sentient beings). I can’t tell from your last statement if you would be.

I wouldn’t say that “I just don’t get” at ALL how the ultimate purpose makes sense of all suffering. But I am satisfied that I “get” in a general way how a morally perfect creator would necessarily have morally sufficient reasons for allowing the suffering in the world, especially since to have complete understanding in a world governed by chaos theory of every single event of suffering would require an omniscience that human beings can never have.

But your point about different temperaments (or I might say “attitudes”) of theists and atheists is key. It’s probably why, although I enjoy hearing how atheists think on this blog, I never feel I can get on the same wavelength to fully empathize with their perspective. But I appreciate the dialogue; it has been interesting and helpful (although distracting in an enjoyable way from both of our day jobs, I’m sure!) I will let you know if Craig responds to the question. Thanks again.

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Steve Maitzen April 20, 2010 at 3:15 pm

Thanks again for keeping us posted on Craig’s reply, if any. In the meantime, just to end on a note of clarity:

I believe that there is a stopping point, and theists are satisfied that that point is God, the necessary being “greater than which nothing can be conceived.” I also agree that once the atheist rejects God as the answer, then no “fully satisfying” answer is possible.

I want to re-emphasize the last six words of mine that you quoted: “there can be no such thing.” Once we start challenging purposes with “Why does that matter?” there’s literally no principled (or fully satisfying) place to stop, not even God. That’s Nagel’s point. You may reject it, but let’s be clear on the point at issue. Cheers.

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anti_supernaturalist April 21, 2010 at 4:28 pm

Natura naturans: atheists restore to nature its “innocence”

The de-deification of western culture (including the sciences) is our task for the next 100 years.

1. we free culture from the dead hand of near eastern mythological speculation

A mishmash of near eastern magical texts makes spurious claims of being god-given. Their nihilistic dualism and androcentric understanding of the universe and paternalist model of human nature are too damaging to contribute to a humane planet-wide ethos.

2. we free culture from a death impulse characterized by “sin” and “guilt”

The universe evinces neither affect, nor morality, nor intellect. Neither physical nature nor human nature say anything about a superordinate, supernatural realm populated by creators or law givers.

Nature is silent. There is no concept of truth in nature. Indeed, there are no concepts whatsoever in nature. Nature obeys nothing. Nature knows nothing. Natura naturans. Nature acts.

Nature is neither meaningful nor meaningless. Neither a source of comfort (natural theology) nor a source of despair (existentialism). Both are rooted in the same mistaken presupposition that meaning can be found by searching “the starry heavens” for gods or by quarrying human inwardness for “the moral law within [us].”

3. we show that religion is a cultural artifact

Religions belong to cultures embedded in nature. And cultures are our distinctive human-all-too-human handiwork. Religions are obsolete, replaceable cultural artifacts.

Any specific religion reenacts and institutionalizes cultic myth. It gets spread through recruitment, custom and conquest — financially supported by tax code and state funding — enforced by indoctrination, intimidation or violence.

4. alleged god-given morality is rooted in ancient imperial propaganda

Xian mythology, like related big-4 monotheisms zoroastrianism, post-exilic judaism, and islam, posits a moralized universal order which never existed. No more can be found than the ancestors put there in the dream-time. (All commentary, aka theology is fifth-rate fan fiction.)

Some pseudo-meaning derives ultimately from Sargon I’s (2334-2279 BCE) imperial propaganda when the very first violent yoking together of disparate city-state cultures occurred in what is now Iraq. The first myth of divine status of the emperor and of an empire-spanning god-given morality turns out to be ancient political spin. (Still works today, doesn’t it?)

5. we present a “way” superior to world hating monster-theisms

Adjust your understanding, adjust your expectations, and you will have a right relationship with the only total reality there is natura naturans. Nature naturing —

the anti-supernaturalist

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Mark April 21, 2010 at 8:25 pm

Anti-supernaturalist, you baffle me but somehow I like you.

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Erika April 23, 2010 at 8:48 pm

Luke, question for the next round.

What book(s) would you recommend for a general introduction to Biblical authorship controversies? I want something to recommend to a Christian friend who seemed truly shocked that such controversies even exist, so nothing too scholarly. I am looking for, let’s say, 1-3 books of moderate length that summarize the best modern scholarship for all of the books of the Bible.

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Steve Maitzen June 3, 2010 at 6:21 am

ayer,

Still no word from Craig, I take it. I’ve just drafted a short essay tentatively called “On God and Our Ultimate Purpose,” and in a footnote I’d like to acknowledge you for some of the objections to which I reply. But I don’t want to acknowledge a pseudonym. If you agree to be acknowledged by autonym, would you please email me at the address given on my home page (linked to above left)? Cheers, Steve.

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