Monday, January 08, 2007

Purpose in Life?

This is roughly a bad paraphrase of something interesting that was said at church last night...

Many atheists / agnostics / philosophical materialists (people who say that matter is all there is) / etc say that believing in God is stupid.

But if you say that matter is all there is, then before too long (on the time scale of the universe), humanity will be extinguished, either by our own actions or by the slow death of the Sun. And everything that everyone has ever accomplished will be worth precisely nothing. There will be no memory of anyone; there will be no consciousness to observe our remains - nothing and the universe will carry on as if we had never existed.

In the light of that, it seems at least as crazy for an atheist to attach meaning or significance to anything ever done by anyone as it does to say there's a God who transcends it and who can provide meaning.


Simon said...

" at least as crazy for an atheist to attach meaning or significance to anything ever done..."

Well, wait a second, don't we also say that everything's ephemeral and mataiot─ôs? OK, we don't say it a lot, because we rather avoid Ecclesiastes, but it's there. If we take Ecclesiastes seriously, as you're doing, then actually there isn't that much clear water between us and atheists on that particular point.

And yes, the logical conclusion of atheism is that nothing is ultimate meaningful or significant - and therefore you have to scrape out as much transitory meaning and significance out of life as you can. Whether or not that's a crazy point of view is a value judgment which you're making based on a position (Christianity) that you already occupy.

I think there is something in the idea worth ekeing out, but I don't think it's worth much for apologetics as it is. But hey, I don't like apologetics anyway, so what do I know? :)

John said...

Ecclesiastes teaches that stuff in this life is transitory.

That's very different from everything being purposeless, precisely because God's actions last forever.

Glad that you agree that atheism should logically conclude, from its own premises, that everything is meaningless and pointless. But I don't see how they can even then construct transitory meaning or significance. Care to clarify how anything can have any meaning if everything ends in extinction anyway?

Simon said...

The conclusion for atheists would be same as the conclusion for Christians, since the starting points is the same, as you admit: God's actions may well last forever, but my actions do not. Why then should I imagine that anything I do has any significance? Adding "there is a God whose work lasts for ever", as the difference between Christian thought and atheist thought, doesn't actually change the significance of my transitory works at all per se. If you believe, however, that God somehow makes what I do significant, then the Philosopher and I would like some more proof!

If we keep this up, we'll soon have invented existentialism. :) Have you read any Soren Kierkegaard? I think you would like him.

As to constructing transitory significance, I'm afraid only a died-in-the-wool Christian could fail to see how people can do it. People take pleasure in their families. In their work. In their hobbies. People make things significant, all without reference to God. It's possible. I've done it, in the past. Actually I still do it; I see stuff as significant even if it's ultimately transitory and regardless of whether or not God thinks it is significant, (I dare to believe that he does) because it's significant to my life at the time.

This is pretty much why I don't have much truck with apologetics: because it's so rarely done in such a way that really appreciates the perspective (or the expected argument) of the other side. To be a good apologist, you have to be a really good atheist, since you have to be able to see the come-backs that you're likely to get, and really step inside the mindset of the people that you're talking to. And unfortunately, most Christians aren't very good atheists.

I think this comic says it best. :)

John said...

Two issues here.

In terms of how God's actions being eternal lead to a purpose for life for Christians, I think that's addressed in, for example Ecclesiastes 3:11-15, where revering God is seen as the purpose; 5:18-20, where God giving us things means that we should enjoy them; but probably supremely in 12:13-14:

Now all has been heard;
here is the conclusion of the matter:
Fear God and keep his commandments,
for this is the whole duty of man.
For God will bring every deed into judgment,
including every hidden thing,
whether it is good or evil.

As regards atheists constructing meaning - of course I observe [b]that[/b] they seem to do it, and in what they try to invest meaning. I'm simply saying that I don't see why that isn't crazily inconsistent with what they believe about the absolute futility of the whole of human existence.

Simon said...

OK, we're getting somewhere! The first issue, fine: if you want to try convincing atheists they can have purpose in life by fearing God and keeping his commandments, go for it. Let me know how that works out!

Second issue, it isn't crazily inconsistent because the idea - which I should point out that I don't agree with but I can understand! - goes like this: there is no ultimate meaning. Not just "we don't have an ultimate meaning to our lives", but "there is no such thing as an 'ultimate meaning'. It's a straw man concept you've introduced to try to refute atheism." (This is pretty much existentialism.)

That's why atheists don't suddenly all commit suicide because there's nothing to live for: there is something to live for, because you get to construct your own meaning. It's not an ultimate meaning, but that's because there no such concept.

Or so the story goes.

This is why I think you'd appreciate Kierkegaard, because he took this on head-on to produce Christian existentialism.

Anonymous said...

Another question would be do Christians not commit suicide simply because they are told not to in the bible?


John said...

Um - when have I ever said that I expect atheists to find meaning from knowing and serving God? I think that's the only source of meaning, therefore my conclusion is that atheists cannot have true meaning while they remain atheists.

The problem with atheistic existential construction of meaning is that you're always aware that it actually has no meaning. To pretend otherwise is to be intellectually dishonest, as far as I can tell.

I'm not an existentialist - I think there are ways out for Christians. But I don't see that there is an honest way out of existential despair for atheists.

So in reality, what most of them do is they live as if there is meaning and value in the world. The point of the speaker at church was that that from their point of view, there is no less of a jump to say that than to believe in God.

I find it striking that Sartre, while remaining an atheist, said
I do not feel that I am the product of chance, a speck of dust in the universe, but someone who was expected, prepared, prefigured. In short, a being whom only a Creator could put here; and this idea of a creating hand refers to God.

John said...

Which I guess is close to what Kierkegaard was saying, but I'm not aware that he turned it onto atheism that much.

As for why Christians don't commit suicide (though a few do), there are plenty of reasons. As far as I can see, the main argument against atheists committing suicide is that there's no point, just as there's no point to continuing to live, so they might as well continue to live in the hope that they're wrong.

Simon said...

"The problem with atheistic existential construction of meaning is that you're always aware that it actually has no meaning."

But again you're working from the (Christian) assumption that "ultimate meaning" is a meaningful (as it were) concept. If you're doing atheist apologetics, that may not be a good assumption to start from. When someone's mindset rejects the very terms of your argument, where do you go next?

You see, I am not talking about agreeing that there is no ultimate meaning or "actual" meaning or however you want to put it; I am talking about denying the meaningfulness of the concept altogether. Once you do that, you're not "always aware that it actually has no meaning". You're aware that some religious freaks would like to sell you the concept of "ultimate meaning" so that they could then claim that your life is meaningless.

If there is no God, then the very concept of "ultimate meaning" is bankrupt, empty, void, and anyone who brings it up is trying to sell something. And you can see why they want to sell you that, and you're not buying.

It's not that, as you claim, they continue in the hope that they're wrong about this concept you're trying to sell them. It's just, having ruled out the existence of such a concept, you make do with what you've got.

Christians who have been Christians long enough to forget what life was like before are convinced that the atheist existence is frustrating, futile, unsatisfying and riddled with existential angst. It's not. It can actually be jolly good fun, once you've dispensed with this silly notion of "ultimate meaning". You don't think about what the "meaning of your life" is because that's a non-existent concept. Existential angst only exists, as it were, if you believe in it. For most people, it's a mere distraction.

I'm a Christian because Christ rose from the dead, not because my life lacks purpose or integrity or "integrity". And if apologetics is going to be something other than gratification and validation, it has to stop pointing inward to self and start pointing outward to Christ.

Simon said...


Anonymous said...

That's a pretty scary idea, isn't it, that life is ultimately brief and without purpose.

OTOH, what meaning does the God concept give life?

What exactly does god get out of having billions of people worship him? Especially since according to your theology he's going to incinerate anyone who doesn't worship him the way he wants to, so those who do worship him do so out of fear and coercion. Also since he created these beings and can by virtue of his magical powers do anything with/to/through them that he wants. Whoopee.

It doesn't really matter whether you like life's meaninglessness or not. It basically has as much meaning as you care to give it.

"My candle burns at both ends;
It will not last the night; But ah, my foes, and oh, my friends—
It gives a lovely light!"

John said...

Simon - now that is interesting about people declaring even the concept of absolute meaning to be meaningless. And I guess it explains why that cupcake machine in Douglas Adams' HHG2TG made people go mad...

I'm agreed with you about the importance and centrality of Jesus to our faith and to how we defend it - thanks, that's a useful correction.

Daniel Hill said...

'everything that everyone has ever accomplished will be worth precisely nothing' 'That's very different from everything being purposeless, precisely because God's actions last forever' 'Care to clarify how anything can have any meaning if everything ends in extinction anyway?'
Some things are intrinsically worthwhile. For example, the things that God does (and that's why he does them). But mere duration, even eternal duration, doesn't make something worthwhile. Likewise, mere lack of duration doesn't by itself make something not worthwhile. (Just as might doesn't necessarily make right, neither does mere duration.) So there's no logical reason that the atheist shouldn't say that what he or she tries to do is intrinsically worthwhile, and therefore meaningful, for however long it lasts.

Daniel Hill said...

'But again it will not be good any the more for being eternal, since that which lasts long is no whiter than that which perishes in a day' (Aristotle; see