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#179 Is Life Absurd without God?

September 20, 2010

Dr. Craig,

Though I respect you as one of today's most rational Christian thinkers, I passionately disagree with your assertion that life without God is absurd. The arguments you proffer to support this are quite superficial, and it is unfortunate that intelligent philosophers like yourself have fallen prey to accepting these monstrosities. In your work on the subject, you seem to put forth two basic contentions, (1) that life without God is devoid of ultimate meaning, purpose, and value and (2) that theism can provide ultimate meaning, purpose, and value. Now I think that the issue of human value can be considered separately from the other two (none of which you bother defining first); but regarding the meaning and purpose of life, I believe that Thomas Nagel has eloquently refuted (1) and (2) in his paper "The Absurd."

In defense of (1), you appear to argue that life on atheism is absurd because God and immortality  conditions you declare are necessary for an objectively meaningful life  are absent on such a view. You give some informal quasi-arguments for this grand claim, namely by contending that (a) life is absurd on atheism because of the man's inability to evade the heat death of the universe, (b) his insignificance in the cosmos, and (c) his ultimate death. Regarding (a), you ask, "Suppose the universe had never existed. What ultimate difference would that make? The universe is doomed to die anyway." Nagel poignantly replies in his paper as follows:

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

Whether what we do now will matter in a million years could make the crucial difference only if its mattering in a million years depended on its mattering, period. But then to deny that whatever happens now will matter in a million in a million years is to beg the question against its mattering, period; for in that sense one cannot know that it will not matter in a million years whether (for example) someone now is happy or miserable, without knowing that it does not matter, period."

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

On (b), you suggest man's spatial and temporal insignificance with the universe, which is far larger and older than humanity, stating that "[m]ankind is thus no more significant than a swarm of mosquitos or a barnyard of pigs." Again, Nagel argues that such egocentric notions are false:

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

Finally, concerning (c), you allege that atheism teaches that: "You are the accidental byproduct of nature, a result of matter plus time plus chance. There is no reason for your existence. All you face is death." Nagel responds admirably:

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

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

Even if someone wishes to supply a further justification for [things], that justification would have to end somewhere too. If nothing can justify unless it is justified in terms of something outside itself, which is also justified, then an infinite regress results, and no chain of justification can be complete. Moreover, if a finite chain of reasons cannot justify anything, what could be accomplished by an infinite chain, each link of which must by justified by something outside itself? [Note: you ought to believe that such a regress is impossible, given your stance on actual infinites in the context of the Kalam Cosmological Argument.]

Since justifications must come to an end somewhere, nothing is gained by denying that they end where they appear to, within life or by trying to subsume the multiple, often trivial ordinary justifications of action under a single, controlling life scheme. We can be satisfied more easily than that. In fact, through its misrepresentation of the process of justification, the argument makes a vacuous demand. It insists that the reasons available within life are incomplete, but suggests thereby that all reasons that come to an end are incomplete. This makes it impossible to supply any reasons at all."

For these reasons raised in Nagel's paper, then, I cannot bring myself to rationally accept your arguments for the supposed absurdity of life sans God.

Now, concerning (2), Nagel offers a brilliant argument against a theistic foundation for the meaning of life. First, he defines absurdity as the conspicuous discrepancy between pretension or aspiration and reality (e.g., as you are being knighted, your pants fall down). According to Nagel, the absurdity of life arises from the clash "between the seriousness with which we take our lives and the perpetual possibility of regarding everything about which we are serious as arbitrary, or open to doubt." To understand this, it first helps to distinguish between the engaged and detached perspectives of life. In the engaged perspective, we assume that life is meaningful as we strive to survive, reproduce, and enjoy ourselves. However, according to Nagel, one can always step back "out of life" and examine it from the third person viewpoint, entering the detached perspective. From there, he can then ask, "Why is this meaningful?", and if he receives an answer to that, he can continually step back, enter the detached perspective, and repeat the process infinitely.

Now, suppose that theism is true and God created man to glorify him and enjoy him forever. While this first might sound meaningful from the engaged perspective, one can always step back into the detached perspective and ask, "Why is glorifying and enjoying God meaningful? Is this really it?" In other words, (2) is incoherent; the desire for an ultimate meaning to life might be just as irrational as the desire for married bachelors. Moreover, following the orders of God does not seem like a very fulfilling or satisfying meaning to life. If instead God was simply bored and decided to create humans to watch them mercilessly slaughter one another for his pleasure, I would do everything I could to promote peace and love to actively stop this evil being's capricious demands. That would be my meaning of life in such a world. [Note: you cannot appeal to God's omnibenevolence to dismiss this issue, since you say in your article on the Canaanites that God does not have moral duties since he cannot command himself.] Nagel further adds:

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

But finally, even if you think these unanswerable problems can be resolved, I think its a bit disingenuous to argue in this fashion, for even if you're right that life really is absurd without God, that does not imply in the slightest that God exists. One cannot simply change reality by wishing something to be the case; propositions must be supported by epistemic arguments, not pragmatic ones.

So, ultimately, do you think Nagel's response succeeds? Or it is absurd(!)? And in either case, why?



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Dr. craig’s response


Thank you for your comments, Bennington! These are questions to be passionate about, for they touch us at the core of our being. I felt deeply the absurdity of life and its attendant despair during my non-Christian years. When I later encountered the French existentialists, their message struck a chord in me. It does seem to me that if atheism is true, then life is, in the final analysis, absurd.

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

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

Now in your question you tend to run my arguments together and omit others. With respect to (a) what I claim is that without personal immortality our lives ultimately have no meaning or purpose. (I also argue that the same would be the case without God, even given immortality.) I find Nagel’s response to this point to be confused. He seems to be using the phrase “does not matter” equivocally, to mean either “is ultimately insignificant” or “makes no difference.” When we clarify the meanings, then his argument makes no sense: “If what we do now is ultimately insignificant because it will make no difference in a million years, then what happens in a million years is also ultimately insignificant because it makes no difference to what we do now.” That doesn’t make sense because the arrow of time is from past to future. To see if what happens in a million years makes any difference, you don’t look to its impact on today but to its impact on the future, and there isn’t any in the end. So, of course, in the absence of backward causation, it makes no difference now what will happen in a million years. The point is that what happens now or in a million years makes no ultimate difference on the outcome of the universe.

So in a sense Nagel is right that what happens a million years from now is ultimately meaningless and so never matters and so doesn’t matter now. But the point remains that without immortality nothing we do makes any ultimate difference. Maybe Nagel’s claim is that it doesn’t matter that nothing matters; but that doesn’t deny my point that it doesn’t matter, that there is no ultimate meaning. I agree with him that immortality alone is not sufficient for ultimate meaning: mere prolongation of existence isn’t enough. But it is a necessary condition.

As for your point that past facts always remain past facts, that does not invest those facts with any ultimate importance in the grand scheme of things. It will always be the case that the Third Reich went down to defeat in World War II, but so what? Everything is doomed to end up in the same lifeless, featureless condition of the cold heat death of the universe. It is ultimately insignificant who won the Second World War (don’t say that it mattered because good triumphed over evil, for then you’re assuming the reality of objective moral values without God).

As for (b), my point in the passage you quote was rather that in the absence of God we were not created with a purpose in mind; we are the blind byproduct of the evolutionary process. That seems to me undeniable on atheism. I do also make the point that we are insignificant specks and so it is hard to see why our lives have any ultimate importance (again, you can’t say that our moral worth overcomes our insignificance). Here Nagel misses my point entirely. He asserts that if we were extended throughout all space and time, that would not invest our lives with ultimate significance. But I agree with that! He’s confusing necessary with sufficient conditions. Immortality is a necessary but not a sufficient condition for ultimate meaning; we also need God, as I have argued.

As for (c), this is again the point that in the absence of God we are blind products of the evolutionary process and therefore have not been created with any purpose in view. But I do also make the point that in the absence of immortality there is no ultimate purpose for our lives, since whatever we do, we end up the same: utter extinction. I don’t see the relevance of Nagel’s first point. How does my claim require that everything we do is done purposefully? That doesn’t show that on atheism life has an ultimate purpose. Nor am I advocating an infinite chain of justifying purposes. Rather the chain ends in God. We were made to know God, and our ultimate fulfillment is found in being properly related to Him, the source of infinite goodness and love. I obviously don’t hold that “all reasons that come to an end are incomplete.” Rather the key question for us here is whether there is an adequate end for bringing the chain to completion. On atheism there is no such end. There is no reason for which we exist.

So Bennington, it seems to me that these aren’t very good responses. They confuse necessary and sufficient conditions and don’t even take account of my arguments that God, as well as immortality, is a necessary condition for ultimate meaning, value, and purpose.

Turn now to point (2), that on biblical theism life does have ultimate meaning, value, and purpose. Look at theism from a detached perspective. Does it supply conditions sufficient for ultimate meaning, value, and purpose? Well, it certainly seems to, and a good many atheists ruefully admit that it does. It invests our lives with eternal significance: by our free choices we determine our eternal destiny. Moreover, we come into personal relation with the supreme good, God Himself. Moreover, God supplies the basis for objective moral values and duties, as I’ve argued elsewhere. Finally, God created us for the purpose of knowing Him and His love forever. So from the most detached, philosophical perspective you can take, biblical theism supplies the conditions for a meaningful and valuable life. If you ask, “Is this really it?” the answer is “Yes, it can’t get any better than this!”

Now if you say that there cannot be a self-justifying end, then it is you who are assuming that the chain of justifications must be infinite and cannot be complete—a position you earlier rightly rejected. The point is that with God we have reached an end that is truly worthy and capable of being an intrinsically good and meaningful stopping point.

Now if you think the theistic answer is incoherent, like desiring a married bachelor, then you need to show some logical incompatibility in what I’ve said, which, so far as I can tell, you haven’t tried to do.

Now you say, “Moreover, following the orders of God does not seem like a very fulfilling or satisfying meaning to life.” Ah, ah, Bennington, you’ve left the detached perspective and lapsed back into the engaged perspective. From the detached perspective the theistic answer is entirely adequate, whether or not you find it satisfying or fulfilling yourself.

Besides, your engaged judgement is spoken as a true non-Christian. As someone whose life has been transformed by the love of God, I by contrast find from the engaged perspective nothing more fulfilling than knowing Him. Obedience to His commands comes, not grudgingly, but gratefully and eagerly from a willing heart.

Your hypothesis about God’s character is impossible, so it is pointless. Remember that on my view, although God does not act from duty He nonetheless acts in accordance with duty because of His essentially kind and just character. Therefore, His commands are not capricious but necessary reflections of His nature. When you say that the meaning of your life would be to oppose a capricious God, you have lapsed into thinking of meaning not objectively but subjectively. I’ve never denied we can invent subjective meanings for our lives (like hitting 60 home runs in a season). What I claim is that on atheism our lives would have no objective meaning.

Finally, as to Nagel’s point about humans’ being raised for food, that only reinforces my point that the end for which we exist must be adequate for the purpose. That is why I argue that God is necessary, as well as immortality. As the highest good, the greatest conceivable being, God furnishes an adequate ending point to our quest.

As for your final point, if you’ve read my work, you know that I never argue for God’s existence on the basis of the absurdity of life without God. I’m very explicit about this. Rather the purpose of this exercise is to arouse apathetic people from their stupor and get them to think about the importance of the question of God’s existence, to get them to be as passionate as you are! Then, perhaps, they will be interested to hear my arguments for the existence of God.

No, I do not think Nagel’s rejoinders are absurd. They are thoughtful, and worth considering. But in the end, I think they misfire and do nothing to show that on atheism life is not ultimately meaningless, valueless, and purposeless, nor that biblical theism fails to provide a framework for the affirmation of these same goods.

- William Lane Craig