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#250 Is Life Absurd without God?

February 10, 2012

Dear Dr. Craig,

I recently listened to your podcast "Immortality and Meaning," which prompted me to ask you this question on the supposed absurdity of life without God. After reading through your chapter on the subject in Reasonable Faith, the accompanying article on your website, and some commentaries on your work by atheists, I now question whether life really is absurd on atheism. Particularly, Stephen Maitzen's paper "On God and Our Ultimate Purpose," written as a rejoinder to your work on the matter as well as your answer to Question 179, has raised many serious objections to your case that life without God and immortality is absurd. Unfortunately, your case here lacks the characteristic clarity with which you present your arguments for theism. Nevertheless, I think that you are asserting something similar to these four conditionals:

a. If life and the universe will come to an end, then there is no ultimate meaning or purpose for them.
b. If God does not exist, then there is no prudential reason to behave morally.
c. Even if life and the universe did not come to an end, there still would be no ultimate meaning or purpose because they would be the result of cosmic accidents.
d. If God does not exist, then objective moral values and duties do not exist.

Except for (d), the other three suffer from many problems.

First of all, (a) looks provably false. The fact that things go out of existence seems to do nothing to make them insignificant. Maitzen objects,

[Craig] goes further: our lives have significance at all only if they have ultimate significance, and they lack ultimate significance if they ever end. If we cease to exist when our bodies die, our lives mean nothing.

Why? Because apparently nothing that comes to an end is ever significant, and all things that end are equally insignificant. Unless we are immortal, says Craig, 'Mankind is ... no more significant than a swarm of mosquitoes or a barnyard of pigs, for their end is all the same.'

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

Furthermore, even if it is the case that certain things will lose meaning over time, they will always have been meaningful, just like a great play is meaningful at the time in which it is presented (though it may not be meaningful 1000 years later). Since we all are living in the present, why can't the atheist hold that what we do has meaning because it matters right now?

Next, with respect to both (a) and (d), the terms "ultimate," "meaning," and "purpose" are ill-defined. I understand that you have cashed out their definitions in Question 179 as follows:

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."

In spite of this, I think that you still could be clearer. First, what do you mean by "significance or importance"? As I understand it, concepts like significance and importance are relative terms: things are important relative only to other things. Are you saying that on theism that our lives are the most important things? This seems difficult to fathom given that God is the greatest conceivable being and, intuitively, is more important than us. Second, using "purpose" to refer to "telos or goal of life" is question-begging because it is obvious on atheism that a telos or goal of life does not exist. But no atheist would find this disturbing or problematic. Third, both "significance or importance" and "telos or goal of life" are subjective concepts even on the divine scale, they are relative to and assigned by God. Therefore, it makes no sense to speak of objective meaning and purpose. Finally, as Maitzen makes clear in the paper, your use of the term "ultimate" is vague and can mean either "unending" or "unquestionable." Maitzen has rejected the former definition as given by his critique of (a), so perhaps you are using the latter definition: that ultimacy is unquestionability. This much is clear from the way you criticize atheistic answers to the problem of meaning and purpose. Maitzen offers in my mind a devastating refutation against this definition, and I find it easiest to simply quote him at length:

This version of the argument starts with the question "What's so great about feeding starving children?" An answer comes pretty easily: "It relieves suffering by innocents and gives them a chance to flourish." But notice that we can use our imagination to "step back" from that answer: imagine looking at Earth from a billion miles away or looking back from a billion years in the future. Having stepped back, we can ask: "What is (or was) so great about doing that?" Step back far enough and any purpose can begin to look small and trivial in the vastness of time and space. It's a familiar enough idea that you can make something look insignificant, or even reveal its true insignificance, by stepping back from it. Think of parents who try to convince their tearful child that an embarrassing incident at school isn't really a reason to stop living.

The argument exploits our ability to take the long view--to occupy a standpoint that makes any purpose questionable, no matter how significant it seems: Why bother pursuing that purpose? It's not hard to get going down this path, as we've seen, and soon we may find ourselves seeking a purpose that transcends the limits of our earthly existence. "Our lives can't have significance," we may conclude, "unless their significance goes beyond our time on Earth."

This version of the argument, then, encourages us to conclude that an ultimate purpose requires God's existence and is secured by God's existence, because only God's existence puts a stop to questions of the form "What's so great about that?" The atheistic worldview never puts a stop to them, and hence it sooner or later leads us into despair. Theism, on the other hand, gives us a satisfying stopping point: God's purpose in creating us, or maybe God's purpose in creating the universe. When it comes to God's purpose, it no longer makes sense to ask "What's so great about that?" It's a purpose that can't be diminished no matter how far back from it you step. Or so the argument goes.

Unfortunately for theism, however, the argument doesn't work. You can't put an end to those pesky questions, no matter what you do. Any purpose that we can begin to understand, we can step back from and question. Consider what theistic religions offer as God's actual purpose for our lives: glorifying him and enjoying his presence forever. Surely we can ask--I hereby do ask--"What's so great about that?" What is it about such an activity that automatically answers the question "Why is this ultimately worthwhile?" We're not asking a confused or senseless question like "What time is it on the Sun?" or "Why is here here?" It's the same question that Craig would aim at any life purpose an atheist might offer. We can sensibly question any possible answer to it in just the same way.

Granted, in the midst of an ecstatic post-mortem encounter with God it might not occur to you to ask, "Why is this ultimate?" But the question would persist even so. By the same token, you can avoid considering a question by getting stoned out of your mind or by committing suicide in the face of it, but you don't thereby answer the question, much less make it disappear. Following St. Paul, theists may reply, "In this life you see through a glass, darkly. You can't fathom how the state of contemplating God could answer every genuine question, but trust us: it does, as you'll see when you get there." The trouble with this reply is that it's just a promissory note. The same promise can be offered on behalf of anything someone might declare to be our ultimate purpose. . . .

. . . If, like Craig, we think that "Why bother?" requires an answer going beyond our earthly existence, we should admit that there's no nonarbitrary answer at all, not even the goal of glorifying and enjoying God forever. 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 an absolute stopping point in our quest for purpose and significance, we'll inevitably come up empty. Ultimate purpose can't exist even if God does; it's a fantasy that shouldn't draw anyone to theism. Atheists lead lives that lack ultimate significance. So do theists. It's unavoidable. And it doesn't matter which side is right about the existence of God."

It seems to me, then, that if Maitzen is right, then the idea of ultimate meaning and purpose is impossible on atheism *and* theism. I suspect that this is deeply inconsistent with Christian teaching, and I hope you can give me a hand with this problem.

For (b), you seem to be saying that prudential reasons and moral reasons are in conflict on atheism, which results in a lack of moral accountability. In your debate with Shelly Kagan, you say that only on theism can prudential and moral reasons be in harmony with one another. But, as Kagan pointed out, the moral realist naturalist can simply argue that moral reasons outweigh prudential reasons and that he should follow the moral reasons. Moreover, Kagan further argued that many Christians behave morally not out of the desire to be good but instead out of fear of the afterlife. With this in mind, the argument you give that atheism destroys moral accountability doesn't appear to work.

I hope that my objections made sense. I feel that the use of cultural apologetics is extremely useful in drawing atheists, agnostics, and apatheists to consider theism, but unless these questions can be answered, I can't bring myself to using them in conversation.



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Dr. craig’s response


These are vitally important questions, Pranav, ones that strike at the very core of our being. In responding to them, I want to make it clear that I have not read Maitzen's paper but am responding only to the questions as you pose them. I realize, too, that these are controversial issues but am convinced that if God does not exist, then life is absurd, that is, without ultimate meaning, value, and purpose. On my view there are two necessary conditions for an ultimately meaningful, purposeful, and valuable life: God and immortality—and if atheism is true, then, plausibly, we have neither.

First, consider your four conditionals.

a. If life and the universe will come to an end, then there is no ultimate meaning or purpose for them.
b. If God does not exist, then there is no prudential reason to behave morally.
c. Even if life and the universe did not come to an end, there still would be no ultimate meaning or purpose because they would be the result of cosmic accidents.
d. If God does not exist, then objective moral values and duties do not exist.

I confess that I'm a little bit shocked that you apparently agree with me about (d), since in the absence of objective values, the other points become even more perspicuously true! For example, if everything is objectively valueless, then how can anything be ultimately significant?

I do accept (a) and (c). I would re-word (b) more accurately:

b*. If God does not exist, then prudential reason and moral reason can and often do come into conflict, in which case there is no reason to act morally rather than in one's self-interest.

That's consistent with saying that in other cases it is, indeed, prudent to act morally.

OK, so what's the problem with (a)? (I'll be much more succinct in my answers than you were in your questions!)

First, "The fact that things go out of existence seems to do nothing to make them insignificant." I agree! If God and immortality are real, then temporary things in life, like a charitable deed or a beautiful concert, are ultimately meaningful and significant. It was no part of my argument that "nothing temporary has significance." What I do deny is that if mankind and everything else are finally going to be forever extinguished in the heat death of the universe, then nothing ultimately matters. No matter what we do, it all ends up in the same cold, dark, lifeless state.

Second, "even if it is the case that certain things will lose meaning over time, they will always have been meaningful." My argument is not that things lose value over time, but that they never were ultimately significant to begin with. Time only serves to give us the perspective to see that they were meaningless all along.

Third, "the terms 'ultimate,' 'meaning,' and 'purpose' are ill-defined." It's admittedly difficult to give meanings to words so basic in our vocabulary. But I've tried to clarify how I'm using these words. What is the difficulty? You ask four questions:

1. "What do you mean by 'significance or importance'? I appealed to those words to cash out what I meant by "meaning." I think they're pretty clear. They have to do with why something matters. I don't know how to get more basic than that. Yes, these are relative terms requiring some sort of framework within which something can be seen to matter. Within the framework of a baseball game, it's pretty significant to hit a grand slam. But if everything ends in heat death, what does it matter, ultimately speaking, that you hit 100 grand slams? Atheism lacks the ultimate framework needed for our lives to have ultimate significance. No, I'm not saying that "on theism our lives are the most important things." "Ultimate" doesn't mean "supreme" but something more like "final."

2. "Using 'purpose' to refer to 'telos or goal of life' is question-begging because it is obvious on atheism that a telos or goal of life does not exist." You concede my point! Obviously, given atheism there is no ultimate goal of life. Being obvious doesn't make an argument question-begging. But you say, "no atheist would find this disturbing or problematic." Really? Have you read Bertrand Russell's "A Free Man's Worship"? Russell wrote:

. . . even more purposeless, more void of meaning, is the world which Science presents for our belief. Amid such a world, if anywhere, our ideals henceforward must find a home. That man is the product of causes which had no prevision of the end they were achieving; that his origin, his growth, his hopes and fears, his loves and his beliefs, are but the outcome of accidental collocations of atoms; that no fire, no heroism, no intensity of thought and feeling, can preserve an individual life beyond the grave; that all the labours of the ages, all the devotion, all the inspiration, all the noonday brightness of human genius, are destined to extinction in the vast death of the solar system, and that the whole temple of Man's achievement must inevitably be buried beneath the debris of a universe in ruins -- all these things, if not quite beyond dispute, are yet so nearly certain, that no philosophy which rejects them can hope to stand. Only within the scaffolding of these truths, only on the firm foundation of unyielding despair, can the soul's habitation henceforth be safely built.

Atheistic existentialists, too, testify to the despair atheism engenders because of life's purposelessness. Where do you think I got these points? From atheists!

3. "Aren't both 'significance or importance' and 'telos or goal of life' subjective concepts even on the divine scale, since they are relative to and assigned by God?" No. You're confusing "relative" with "subjective." "Relative" here designates a relational property, not a mind-dependent property. To illustrate: in the Special Theory of Relativity length is relative to reference frames, but it's not subjective! There is an objective fact about how long a measuring rod is relative to a certain reference frame. Similarly, all of these concepts of meaning, value, and purpose are relational properties dependent upon the existence of God. The objective purpose of human life, for example, is to know God.

4. "Does my term 'ultimate' mean 'unending' or 'unquestionable'?" Neither, I think. It means something more like "final," as in the final court of appeal. So what's the problem? You think that theism doesn't provide a final court of appeal: "Surely we can ask—I hereby do ask—'What's so great about that?' What is it about such an activity that automatically answers the question 'Why is this ultimately worthwhile?'" I think that theism does provide a final court of appeal. Not only is it logically impossible for there to be something beyond God, but God is the Summum Bonum, the Highest Good. Indeed, He is goodness itself. When you agreed with me about (d), Pranav, I hope that meant that you also agree with me that if God exists, then objective moral values exist. There can be nothing greater than knowing the greatest Good! Maitzen's question reflects a typical atheistic misunderstanding about who God is (some sort of a chap, perhaps!). Once we understand who God is, then we can see immediately why a theistic framework provides an ultimate answer to man's deepest questions. So you're right that the idea that ultimate meaning and purpose are impossible is inconsistent with Christian theism because it must deny that God is the Highest Good.

Now what's the problem with (b*)? You say that "the moral realist naturalist can simply argue that moral reasons outweigh prudential reasons and that he should follow the moral reasons." Sure, he can saythat; but his choosing moral reasons over prudential reasons is arbitrary. There's no doubt that on atheism moral reasons and prudential reasons can and do come into conflict, and there's no way of resolving the conflict except by personal preference. By contrast on Christian theism it's in your best interest to act morally because God holds you accountable.

You add, "many Christians behave morally not out of the desire to be good but instead out of fear of the afterlife." How does that undermine my claim that the absence of moral accountability from an atheistic worldview is de-moralizing because it saps one's interest in moral questions? At most, it would show that theistic belief can also be de-moralizing if people act for purely prudential reasons rather than moral reasons. But a realistic human psychology suggests that as fallen creatures who do not naturally do the good, we need both moral and prudential reasons to live a good life, especially when doing the right thing goes contrary to one's immediate self-interest or when temptation to do evil is strong. Then recalling that God will hold you morally accountable can help you to do what you know you should. Only self-righteous Pharisees think that they always act out of purely altruistic motives and so have no need of such incentives.

Thank you again for your questions, Pranav, and I hope my answers can give you the confidence to use these powerful means of pre-evangelism!

- William Lane Craig