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Is There Meaning To Life?

April 08, 2018     Time: 24:55


Dr. Craig talks about the recent dialogue on Life and Meaning he had with Jordan Peterson and Rebecca Goldstein.

KEVIN HARRIS: Dr. Craig, I think people are going to be looking at this debate on YouTube and other resources for quite some time, and that is a dialogue that you had with Jordan Peterson and Rebecca Newberger Goldstein, on the meaning of life, something that you are well known for. This was a real treat, I think, for you to be in front of such a large audience. Talk about the event.

DR. CRAIG: It was a real opportunity because of the prominence of Jordan Peterson. He has a huge following in Canada and a huge opposition arrayed against him as well and so has become a very popular and hated, at the same time, public figure.

KEVIN HARRIS: His speeches are interrupted, shouted down. He talks in between the shouts.

DR. CRAIG: Right. For listeners who aren't familiar with him, he is a professor of psychology at the University of Toronto and has become famous for championing the rights of free speech at Canadian universities. He has opposed the University of Toronto's imposition of transgender pronouns for certain people. He says that he should not be required to use such pronouns if he does not want to and that his rights to free speech should not be abrogated by the university in the name of political correctness because some people might be offended. He has quite a following especially, he told me, among young men because they are looking for a role model of someone who is strong, who stands up to opposition, rather than being cowed and who isn't afraid to be masculine. He has become very inspirational to a lot of young men particularly in Canada. So by having the opportunity to appear on stage in a dialogue with Jordan Peterson I had the opportunity of expressing a Christian perspective and a defense of the Christian view of meaning in life in a forum that would gain a great deal of attention. In order to have more opposition among the participants the organizers wanted to add Rebecca Goldstein because they knew she was a determined naturalist whereas Jordan Peterson is more agnostic and indeed very open, almost a kind of seeker spiritually, and so they wanted to have someone who would be the counterpoint for me. That was Rebecca Goldstein actually, with Peterson in the middle. So it turned into this three-way dialogue that I thought was very, very instructive

KEVIN HARRIS: She is married to Steven Pinker. When I think of Steven Pinker I can't think of anybody more radical for the most part. Is she as radical as he is, you think?

DR. CRAIG: I am not sure. She certainly is a naturalist. She made that very clear. She was very straightforward about that. But it is hard to know if she thinks that these humanistic values that she champions are merely the contingent byproducts of evolution and social conditioning or whether she thinks they have some sort of objective validity. That wasn't entirely clear.

KEVIN HARRIS: You spoke first in your twenty minute opening speech.

DR. CRAIG: Yes. That wasn't decided until just before we went on stage. They decided that they would go alphabetically! So I was the one to lead off. That was just fine with me because in that sense I got to set the tone for the evening and put out my case. So I felt very good about going first.

KEVIN HARRIS: You feel like you stayed pretty much with your case that you have spelled out many times? Did you put in anything new?

DR. CRAIG: Yes. I did make some adjustments. I’ve given this talk before. It has typically been entitled “The Absurdity of Life Without God.”[1] But in this case the question was, “Is There Meaning in Life?” I made the same sort of move that when we examine what many atheists themselves have to say about a godless universe that they themselves affirm that life is absurd and that involves three components: no purpose, no value, and no significance or meaning. I change the order in which I presented these events. I began with purpose and I changed the word “meaning” to “significance” because the title of the event was, “Is There Meaning?” and I wanted to say “significance” is a component of “meaning.” So the three elements that I emphasized were purpose, value, and significance. The reason I changed the order of presentation is that it occurred to me that my interlocutors might well say that if there are objective moral values in the world then our lives are significant despite the fact that they all terminate in the heat death of the universe so that no matter what we do everybody winds up the same. They could say nevertheless, given the objectivity of moral values, it is significant that you lived a good life rather than a bad life. It is not significant in terms of outcomes but it was morally significant. So I wanted to deal with the value question before I dealt with the significance question. I was glad I did because this did come up in the dialogue portion where someone said something doesn't need to have an eternal consequence in order to be meaningful or significant. I said that would only be the case if you were presupposing it has objective value. But that was my second point. If things have no ultimate or objective value then you can't use value to rescue significance.

KEVIN HARRIS: Peterson and Goldstein seem to both hold to objective moral values.

DR. CRAIG: Certainly Peterson did. He was very clear about that. He said that moral values are discovered and not created. That was very encouraging. I wanted to camp on that because in the dialogue I wanted to align myself with him as much as I could so as to try to draw him into the Christian orbit. That was a very important point of commonality. With Goldstein it wasn't as clear because she did seem to think that moral values are just sort of based in human feelings. You remember her example of being stepped on on the beach. She wouldn't like it if someone stepped on her on the beach. She is not special in any way. That would be true of anybody. Nobody would like to be stepped on on the beach. If she feels it is wrong for her, that means it is wrong for everybody. So there was an attempt there to universalize moral values, but it seems to me they are still contingent. They are still rooted in just the fact that she doesn't like it.

KEVIN HARRIS: Just going over some of the things she said. She said, There is only one life. We got one shot at this, and that's it. My meaningful life may not be right for you. Then she said this, and it perked my ears up: Naturalism provides all the resources for a meaningful life. So I am going, okay, I want to know what they are.

DR. CRAIG: Yes, yes! Exactly!

KEVIN HARRIS: Then she really gave lip service to reaching out. We all need to do this, but then we need to do it after we say we are going to do it. Reach out to people who disagree and let's find some commonality. Yes, let's all get along. Let's do that.

DR. CRAIG: What was conspicuously lacking from her presentation was any sort of justification for the claim that naturalism provides all the resources, particularly the three aspects of meaning that I identified: purpose, value, and significance. I can't see that she said anything with respect to how, on naturalism, our lives have objective purpose, value, or significance.

KEVIN HARRIS: She said that reason is central, that epistemic responsibility was a key, and then the will to matter. There is the will to power but then there is the will to matter.[2] This will to matter – even arguments for God come after this will to matter. All of us need to (despite the chaos of it all) will to matter. Everybody wants to will to matter.

DR. CRAIG: So the will to be significant, do you think? Is that the idea? I will to be important?

KEVIN HARRIS: It is just an assertion though. We’re all matter but we do matter.

DR. CRAIG: I would argue that nobody can live as though his life didn't matter, as though his life were inconsequential. That is a recipe for depression and perhaps even suicide. I think that is one of the tremendous deficits of atheism – it cannot be lived consistently and happily. Nobody can live happily as though his life were without purpose, valueless, and insignificant or inconsequential.

KEVIN HARRIS: She tried to really make a point that, By the way, this doesn't lead to hedonism. I know what you are going to say. Then she said that life can add value to the universe. So we are talking about value now at this point. She said that at the very end that life can add value. Now we are back to standards which you asked her about. What standard do you use to gauge value? When Jordan Peterson got up he said we often get the questions wrong. We may be asking the wrong question here. If there is a child in pain or if there is a person who is in pain, that pain has a lot of meaning for them. There is a meaning in life for them – the pain. He said, What we need to be asking is: is there any positive meaning in life?

DR. CRAIG: His remarks were very puzzling to me. They seemed sort of rambling and not entirely well thought out. In some places, like this one, I wondered: is he responding to something I said? Is this supposed to be a response? Because if it is, he has really misunderstood what I was claiming. You may recall that he said things like this: It is of no comfort to tell the child in pain, well, in a trillion years it won't make any difference anyway, we will all be dead. Everything will be destroyed. And that is of no comfort to the person going through pain now. I thought: is that supposed to be a response to my claim? It failed to connect. I wasn't in any way suggesting that the fact that our lives on atheism are all doomed to extinction is supposed to be comforting to people!

KEVIN HARRIS: I think the only contention that he had with you was the time factor. He gave the illustration of a symphony. The symphony will end. You are listening to the symphony. It is beautiful. It will end. Do you say because the symphony will end and we will all walk out does that mean that the symphony wasn't meaningful or that it didn't have significance while it lasted?

DR. CRAIG: This would be the attempt to save significance by appealing to value – in this case not a moral value but aesthetic value. That is where my claim would be relevant. Without an absolute standard, without a transcendent source of value, everything becomes relative and there is no objective difference aesthetically between nails on the chalkboard and a symphony. They are just sound waves in the air produced by friction. So you can't save significance by appealing to value if your worldview has no basis for objective and ultimate value.

KEVIN HARRIS: I have been thinking about that a lot since he said that. That is about the third illustration I've heard about how things just because they are not permanent does not mean that they are not significant. There still seems to be a backdrop of permanence that gives that symphony value. The fact that you are going to remember it later. The fact that this can actually produce such a beautiful sound of harmony by these instruments coming together. There are all these things in the backdrop that doesn't make it just a fleeting thing.

DR. CRAIG: There you just presupposed objective standards of beauty in saying that.

KEVIN HARRIS: He seems to also say, and he did say, we discover rather than create eternal values. He said these are found in the Scriptures and literature and all these things.[3] He looks for these eternal values.

DR. CRAIG: Yes. He was remarkably open to Christian things. A number of people have remarked on how amazing it was when he began to narrate this dream that he had of Christ who arose and conquered all the tyrannical kings of the Earth and subdued them. I thought to myself, Why do I need to say anything more? Just let him go on! He was sharing the Gospel.

KEVIN HARRIS: If I am getting him right here, he said that the Holocaust in Nazi, Germany, the Nuremberg trials, shows that there is actual evil. It shows it so starkly and plainly that it literally can't be denied. He extrapolated from that – he drew from that – so there must be good that is undeniable, too. He is almost trying to get to objective standard still apart from God.

DR. CRAIG: Oh, I don't think they are apart from God at all.

KEVIN HARRIS: No, I mean he is trying to say that.

DR. CRAIG: This would be a defense of the second premise of the moral argument: that objective moral values and duties to exist. You would appeal to things like the Holocaust to show that some things are objectively, truly evil. If that is the case then he is quite right. There must be certain things that are objectively, truly good. That is the second premise of the moral argument that then will lead to the conclusion that God exists.

KEVIN HARRIS: Whatever the good is, it is as far away from that Holocaust as possible. He said, For twenty five years I've been trying to figure that out. That must be what constitutes the good – the polar opposite. He quickly said polar opposites don’t always indicate something; there may not be any correspondence.

DR. CRAIG: When you think about evil, by its very nature evil is a lack of approximation to some standard. So to say that something is morally evil presupposes the existence of an objective standard of goodness from which the evil act falls away and to which it fails to approximate. It is entirely correct to say that if there is actual evil in the world then there must be objective good as well.

KEVIN HARRIS: One of the final things he said in that opening speech was we all want to copy what is most admirable. He points to Jesus quite often in that. He points to other things. We can really chase a rabbit here. It seems to get into Feuerbach – that God is just a projection of our most admirable qualities and things like that. We will save that for another time. It is a recognition though of objective standards.

DR. CRAIG: Absolutely, and that is what was so encouraging about the stance that he took in this dialogue. I think it gives hope that this man will draw the logical conclusion that he therefore needs some sort of transcendent standard to ground the objectivity of the moral values and duties that he so clearly experiences.

KEVIN HARRIS: Aren't you glad that your co-host here, Kevin Harris, has asked you so many times about the Euthyphro Dilemma because, lo and behold, it came up! Rebecca brings it up.

DR. CRAIG: I have had people who are Reasonable Faith listeners say that they just couldn't believe their ears when she trotted out the old Euthyphro Dilemma as though this were something new and devastating. It just shows the complete lack of engagement on the part of a very secular philosopher with Christian philosophy. The fact is that a lot of these people just don't read us. They don't read Christian philosophers. They are ignorant of what it says. So they rehearse these tired old objections over and over again. I recently had a debate with Erik Wielenberg on the best account for objective moral values and duties. Wielenberg is an atheist. He shared with me that one of the things that distinguishes his work is that he, unlike his colleagues, takes really seriously the work of Christian philosophers in this area – people like Robert Adams and William Alston and Steve Evans and others. According to Wielenberg, his secular colleagues just don't bother to read or interact with these Christian philosophers on these matters.[4] That was so well illustrated by Rebecca Goldstein's ignorance of the response to the Euthyphro Dilemma.

KEVIN HARRIS: You quoted her husband to her. That was a pretty firm moment, I think. You really pushed her there. You were polite but you certainly threw it at her.

DR. CRAIG: I know. I debated with myself whether to do it. Before leaving for the trip to Toronto I remembered in my files this marvelous statement by Pinker about moral values being similar to purely subjective phenomena like the fear of heights or the foulness of carrion. He had no good answer to why then events like the Holocaust would be objectively wrong rather than just personally distasteful. I thought given that she is married to Pinker does she hold the same view that he expressed so well here? Let me say honestly that Pinker tries to resist this conclusion. He doesn't want to be a moral nihilist. But I think he is completely unsuccessful in resisting the objection that he states so well. His answer is to say, We just basically live in a way that is mutually beneficial. You scratch my back, I'll scratch yours, and we will get along in that way. That is no answer to the question of the objectivity of moral values and duties. So I thought I will just read it to her and see what she has to say. She was a little miffed about that after the debate. She said, I want to see that out of context quotation! I said, OK, I've got it right here, but it is not out of context. I then gave her my copy of the quotation that I had brought with me.

KEVIN HARRIS: As we wrap up today, there is one thing that you said that struck me as, I thought, so reasonable and I hope that people will listen. You said, I want to help. We are talking about these objective moral values and that they are objective and that there is objective meaning. I want to help by showing that here is a solution. We do have at our disposal something huge that has been around forever, and that is God. I want to help!

DR. CRAIG: Exactly! I want to offer you something to help you ground the objective moral values and duties that we both believe in so that they are no longer just arbitrary or floating in the air. I want to help. I want to give you a metaphysical grounding for those values and duties that we share.[5]


[1]          5:00

[2]          10:00

[3]          15:01

[4]          20:09

[5]          Total Running Time: 24:55 (Copyright © 2018 William Lane Craig)