bookmark_borderDoes God Exist? Part 3: Believe Whatever Makes You Happy

In my humble opinion, the question “Does God exist?” is best answered by taking a particular approach:

We should answer this question by means of philosophical investigation, especially by critical examination of philosophical arguments for and against the existence of God.

However, this is NOT the only way to approach the question “Does God exist?”.  Here are a couple of alternative ways of answering this question:

2. Believe whatever religious or ideological ideas make you feel happy and content.

3. Try out different religions/worldviews to see which one works best for you.

If the point or purpose of a religion or ideology is to make one’s life better, then why not take the very practical approach of trying out different religions and worldviews, to determine which one does a better job of improving one’s life?
People often assume that happiness or contentment is what makes a life good.  The more happiness and contentment a person has, the better the quality of his or her life.  On this assumption one could experiment with different religions and worldviews, and determine which one resulted in the most happiness and contentment in one’s life.  The principle this thinking supports is approach #2:

2. Believe whatever religious or ideological ideas make you feel happy and content.


But happiness and contentment are not the only goals for life.  These are not necessarily what everyone is seeking in life.  Some people want fame and honor, and some people seek acheivment of difficult goals in sports, science, engineering, music, literature, or other areas.
People who seek acheivement of difficult goals are often willing to sacrifice happiness and contentment for the sake of acheiving their chosen goals.  For such people a life that involves sacrifice of their chosen goals in order to obtain happiness and contentment would NOT be a good life, at least NOT a better life than one where there was less happiness and contentment but where their chosen goals were acheived.   So, a slight modification of approach #2 would be to focus on what “works for” the person who is trying out various religions and worldviews:

3. Try out different religions/worldviews to see which one works best for you.

A life with lots of success at acheiving difficult chosen goals would be one that “works for” some people, even if that life does not maximize their happiness and contentment.
 
APPARENT ADVANTAGES OF THESE PRACTICAL APPROACHES
One advantage of approaches #2 and #3 is that one might be able to find an acceptable religion or worldview after exploring only a few alternatives.  This appears to be a practical approach, one that does not demand perfection of a religion or worldview, but only that a religion or worldview helps one to be happy or that it works for a person, given his/her primary goals in life.
A more philosophical approach appears to be seeking “the TRUE religion” or “the TRUE worldview”,  and to do so in a careful and objective manner.  That would seem to require examination of all religions and worldviews, or at least a large sample of religions and worldviews, in order to avoid bias and to increase the likelihood of discovering the one TRUE point of view.
The more practical approaches referenced above don’t assume that there is only ONE religion or worldview that will “work for” a person, nor that there is one religion or worldview that will work for EVERY person.  Different strokes for different folks.  We have different needs and desires, so why not have different religions and worldviews for different people?  A religion that makes one person happy and content might not make some other person, who has different needs and desires, happy and conent.
A worldview that works for one person might not work for another person.  John Stuart Mill praised LIBERTY for individuals because each of us is, in general, the best judge of what makes us happy.  I know best what makes me happy, so I am the best judge of which religion or worldview makes me happiest, or which religion or worldview works best for me.  A more philosophical approach seems to be in search of the ONE TRUE worldview, a worldview which it would thus be tempting to force everyone to accept.  A philosophical approach appears to seek a one-size-fits-all solution to this problem.
Another advantage of these practical approaches to religion/ideology is that it does not require that one be intellectually sophisticated.  To base the choice of a religion or worldview on analysis and evaluation of philosophical arguments, requires that one be somewhat intellectually sophisticated, requires one to have some knowledge and skill in logic and critical thinking, and some knowledge of philosophy and conceptual analysis.
But to determine whether a religion or worldview makes one feel happy or content seems like a simpler and less demanding task.  Aren’t we all naturally good and figuring out whether we are happy and content?  We don’t need any special knowledge or skills in order to figure out whether a religion works for us, or helps us to acheive our main goals.  The practical approaches seem to be easier and less demanding that a philosophical approach to religion and ideology.
 
SOME DISADVANTAGES OF THESE PRACTICAL APPROACHES
We can already see disadvantages just by the previous comparison of approach #2 with approach #3.  Using happiness and contentment as the standard will incline people towards the path of least resistance.  For example, who would want to be a supporter of liberal democracy if born into a nation filled with Nazis or fascists?  Your fellow citizens would beat you silly, throw bricks through the windows of your house, and kill your cat or dog, so there would be very little happiness or contentment for supporters of liberal democracy in such circustances.
There is more happiness and contentment to be had in just going along with the crowd, at least in that sort of situation.  So, if you happen to be born in a fascist country, or a country filled with mindless and spineless followers of “dear leader”, then if happiness and contentment is your goal, you will probably just follow the herd and learn to praise and obey “dear leader” (and watch only Fox News).   This is, at the least, a moral problem with approach #2.
Conversely, although approach #3 does not incline a person so strongly to conformity with the masses, it does have the disadvantage that one might well end up miserable following this approach.  The best chance of success at most difficult to acheive goals is to focus almost exclusively on the goal(s), and sacrifice all other aspects of one’s life, including happiness and contentment.  Most high-acheivers are never satisfied with any particular success or acheivement.  They are driven for perfection and excellence, and set their sights higher than what they can realistically acheive.
Really big goals and projects require multiple generations of effort, so when one kicks off such a grand project, there is little hope of actually seeing the project completed in one’s lifetime.  Personal relationships are often sacrificed by people who are focused on obtaining a difficult-to-acheive goal.  Health and safety are often sacrificed by people who strive to acheive a lofty goal.  Comfort and pleasure are often sacrificed by high achievers.  So, it is not unusual for a person who is focused on acheiving a difficult goal to be a sad, lonely, and generally miserable person.
Although it seems like we are naturally good at figuring out what makes us happy and content, and naturally good at figuring out what “works best” for ourselves,  these practical approaches are not as easy to carry out as it might intially seem.  First of all, you can try out a dozen different flavors of ice cream in one day, but you cannot try out a dozen different religions or worldviews in one day, nor in one week.  You have to learn about the religion/worldview.  You have to learn about its various concepts, beliefs, and practices.  You need to get to know some people who live their lives in accordance with that religion/worldview.  You have to experience a wide variety of events and circumstances over a significant amount of time, to be able to make a reasonable assessment of how living and thinking in accordance with that religion/worldview makes you feel and helps or hinders your plans and goals.
I don’t see how being a Christian or a Buddhist for a week or a month would give one enough information and experience to make any sort of reasonable assessment of how those religions impact one’s life.  But if you have to spend a year or two trying out a religion or worldview in order to have “walked a mile” in someone else’s shoes, then these “practical approaches” are actually very demanding on a person.
Even if one were to spend just one year as a Christian, one year as a Muslim, one year as a Jew, one year as a Buddhist, and one year as a Hindu, that would just scratch the surface of the world of religions.  There are also secular worldviews to try out, like Secular Humanism, and Marxism.   One could easily devote one’s entire adult life to exploring different religions and worldviews, so that even if one was able to determine that religion X or worldview Y “works best for me” or “makes me happiest and most content”, there might be only a few years left of one’s life to fully embrace and enjoy that religion or worldview.
Another difficulty with these practical approaches is that the central aspect of a religion or worldview is what one believes, but beliefs are not easily changed or altered, especially not the basic sorts of beliefs involved in religions and worldviews.   An atheist cannot simply decide to believe in God for a week or a month or a year, nor can a Christian simply decide to stop believing in God and in Jesus for a week or a month or a year.  We don’t have that kind of control over our most basic beliefs and values.  We can try chocolate ice cream and then try vanilla ice cream without any effort or hesitation, but we cannot try out atheism and then immediately switch to trying out faith in God and Jesus.
Furthermore, to the extent that a person does manage to switch temporarily from one religion to another religion, or from one religion to a secular worldview, or from a secular worldview to a religion, the seriousness and legitimacy of that person’s beliefs are cast into doubt.  If you can change your basic beliefs and values on a whim, then presumably you never really had much commitment or involvement with those beliefs and values.
Religious and worldview beliefs are supposed to be part of a person’s character and self-identity.  A person who can simply decide to stop believing in God and stop following Jesus is not much of a Christian believer.  So, someone who “tries out” Christianity for a year, and then on the very last day of the year, immediately stops believing in God and stops praying to Jesus, and stops following Jesus, is NOT someone who has sincerely and seriously been a Christian believer for a year.  It is not clear that it is really possible to “try out” a religion or worldview, at least not as an intentional experiment.
Another difficulty with making “happiness and contentment” the standard by which to judge a religion or worldview, is that it is far from clear what “happiness and contentment” means.  The question “What is happiness?” is a PHILOSOPHICAL QUESTION, and it is NOT a particularly easy question to answer.  So, although it seemed initially that no particular knowledge or skill or intellectual sophistication was required to follow approach #2, this may not actually be the case.  It makes no sense to spend years of one’s life trying out different religions and worldviews in order to determine which one does the best job of producing “happiness and contentment” if one is UNCLEAR about what “happiness and contentment” mean.  So, a degree of philosophical and intellectual sophistication may be needed just to get this project started, to get it headed in the right direction.
Similarly,  approach #3 assumes some goals or purposes that are cherished by the individual who is setting out to investigate various religions and worldviews.  But what if a peson’s goals or purposes are bad or foolish?   Suppose a scientist wants to make a bomb so powerful that it could destroy our galaxy? or destroy the entire known universe?  Do we really want to encourage that scientist to find a religion or worldview that HELPS him or her to acheive this horrible goal?  So, it seems like there is an additional first step needed with this approach as well: determining whether the goals or purposes that a person seeks to acheive are truly good and valuable and reasonable goals or purposes.  But this is, once again, a deeply PHILOSOPHICAL QUESTION, one that requires some intellectual sophistication to have any chance of arriving at a solid and thoughtful conclusion.
Approach #2 is of little use if one is UNCLEAR about what “happiness and contentment” mean, but that is a PHILOSOPHICAL QUESTION requiring some intellectual sophistication.  Approach #3 is of little use if one is UNCERTAIN about the wisdom or value of the basic goals that one seeks to acheive in life, but evaluation of basic goals in life is a PHILOSOPHICAL QUESTION requiring some intellectual sophistication.  So, the initial appearance that these practical approaches do not require any intellectual sophistication, in contrast with my favored philosophical approach, was misleading, and now it appears that the practical approaches also require a degree of intellectual sophistication in order to have some reasonable chance of success.
 
ONE BIG DISADVANTAGE
Perhaps the most important problem with these two practical approaches is that they are UNCONCERNED with truth.  False ideas can be comforting and make one feel good.  The truth is often painful and unpleasant.  So, if we judge religions and worldviews in terms of what makes us feel happy or content, then we are very likely to FAIL to discover what is TRUE or FALSE in terms of religious beliefs and worldview beliefs.
Similarly, ideas and beliefs that help one to acheive a particular goal might well be FALSE.  There is not a direct and constant connection between true beliefs and beliefs that help one to achieve a particular goal.  In any case, even when people focus their best and most intelligent efforts at figuring out what is TRUE and what is FALSE, they still often fail, so if we focus on some other goal besides figuring out the truth, then we are almost guaranteed to FAIL to arrive at the TRUTH.  So, the main problem with these two practical approaches to evaluating religions and worldviews, is that they give up on the search for objective truth.
If there is no such thing as OBJECTIVE TRUTH in matters of religion and ideology, then I suppose a practical approach is as good as any other approach.  But before one gives up on OBJECTIVE TRUTH in religion and ideology, one should first put some serious thought into the question “Is there such a thing as OBJECTIVE TRUTH in matters of religion and ideology?”  This, of course, is a PHILOSOPHICAL QUESTION, and if you want to have any chance of arriving at a solid and well-considered conclusion on this issue, you will need a degree of intellectual sophistication, a degree of skill and knowledge in logic, critical thinking, and philosophy.
So, it makes no sense to jump on board the “happiness and contentment” bus, nor the “it works for me” bus, at least not in order to avoid getting onto the PHILOSOPHY BUS, because you are going to have to take a ride on the PHILOSOPHY BUS before you can reasonably decide whether to get onto one of those practical-approach busses.

bookmark_borderOn reasons and what they do

This post is something of a follow-up to my recent post about Sean Carroll’s views concerning meaning and purpose. As I indicated at the end of that post, I used some concepts and made some claims that require development and defense and I promised that I would provide that development and defense in a future post. The current post is part of the fulfillment of that promise. I hope that I can clarify some of the claims I made in that post, specifically claims concerning reasons. I also hope the remarks I make here can serve as a basis for a more robust discussion, about not only meaning but also rationality and morality, here at the Secular Outpost.
As I indicated, most of what I have to say concerns the nature of reasons and their role in justification. Let me start by providing the quote that I took from Volume 2 of On What Matters by Derek Parfit:

We cannot, however, make things good by commanding or willing that they be good. Though we can sometimes change people’s evaluative beliefs, that is not a way of creating new values. Nor can we make anything matter. When something matters to us, in the sense that we care about this thing, that is merely a psychological fact. Something matters only when, and in the sense that, we have object-given reasons to care about this thing. (Parfit Vol.2, 601)

I want to explain what Parfit means when he talks about object-given reasons. I would also like to defend the claims he makes about such reasons (and Parfit’s meta-normative view more generally), but the defense will have to wait for a future post. It is enough if I am able to make his view about meaning and reasons more clear.
A reason is a factor that counts in favor. There are factors that count in favor of beliefs (commonly called epistemic reasons) and factors that count in favor of decisions, desires, and actions (commonly called practical reasons). When we say of some factor, that it is a reason, we say that it tends to favor the belief, decision, desire, or etc. Importantly, for this discussion, we are talking about reasons pro tanto, i.e. factors that, taken by themselves, count in favor but which, when considered in the complete context of all relevant factors, might themselves be overridden. In other words, when we say that something is a reason, we say merely that it counts in favor, not that overall and all things considered, we should respond to this reason. Any conclusion about what we should do, want, believe, etc. depends on more complete consideration and weighing of all relevant factors. For the purposes of the present discussion, we are not engaged in drawing conclusions about what we should want (or do, etc.), i.e., what we have overall reason to want (or do, etc.), but only what counts in favor of wanting (or doing, etc.).
The above concerns normative reasons. Normative reasons are contrasted with motivating reasons (or motives). A motivating reason is a factor that serves as the basis for an agent’s decision (to act, desire, approve of, etc.). Importantly, not all factors that serve as the basis of an agent’s decision really do count in favor of that decision. In other words, it is possible for agents to get things wrong; an agent can believe, of some fact, that it counts in favor of her decision and yet it not be the case that the fact does count in favor of that decision. We can make the same point by saying that not all motivating reasons are normative reasons. Sometimes the factors that we believe count in favor of our decisions really do count in favor of them (in such cases, our motivating reasons are also normative). However, often the factors that we believe count in favor actually do not count in favor (and hence our motivating reasons are not normative). For the remainder of this essay (and in general), when I use the word ‘reason,’ I am talking about normative reasons. When I want to talk about motivating reasons in a context in which I do not want to assume that they are also normative, I will call them motives (or motivating reasons). I think that this linguistic practice is an important one that we all ought to adopt as a means of eliminating ambiguity. Discussing and thinking about reasons is notoriously difficult and fraught with potential intellectual dead ends. To facilitate a more robust and fruitful discussion, we need to be as clear as we can. So,

Reason means normative reason. A reason is a factor that counts in favor (of some act, desire, belief, reaction, emotion, etc.).

Motive means motivating reason. A motive is a factor that an agent believes counts in favor (and thus serves as the basis of action, desire, belief, etc.). When an agent has such a belief and this belief guides her decisions, the factor is a motive for her.

One of the most important things that reasons do is justify; i.e., a reason tends to provide justification for actions, beliefs, desires, etc. I am going to talk about justification in the context of practical reasons, but most of things that I say about the practical sphere transfer to the epistemic sphere. An important aspect of justification involves universalizability. When one of my actions is justified, then it is based on some reason(s). Further, if my action is justified, then if some other person acted in the same manner in appropriately similar circumstances, this person would also be equally justified (i.e., justified to the same extent that I am justified) in acting in this way. And the factor that counts in favor of my action would also count in favor of this other person’s action. This point generalizes to all persons. So, the reason(s) that justifies my behavior is universalizable in this sense: it counts in favor not just of my action but of any similar action performed by any other person who is in circumstances similar to mine. [Important: the fact that some reason justifies my action does not mean that I am obligated to engage in that action, nor does it mean that I ought to do it. Just as with the case of reasons, I am here talking about pro tanto justification rather than overall justification.]
Let’s look at a simple example to see how these concepts work in context. Suppose that I am walking down a city street and encounter a homeless person who asks for my assistance. Suppose further that I decide to give him $20 and that I do this because I believe that he needs help. My motive for giving him the money is that he needs help. Let’s grant, at least for the sake of this discussion, that he really does need help and that the fact that he needs help counts in favor of giving him $20. If so, then my motive is also a normative reason. This entails that my action is justified (at least to some extent) and that any other person who was in similar circumstances (that is, with this man or any similarly situated homeless person) would be equally justified in giving a person in need of help $20. And the factor that counts in favor of my act of giving $20 would also count in favor of any other person’s similar act.
When Parfit talks about object-given reasons, he is talking about facts about objects that count in favor. [Importantly, ‘object’ here is given a wide meaning such that states, such as the state of being in pain, or of experiencing pleasure, count as objects.] A good example is suffering. Suffering has features that provide us with reasons to want to avoid it and to engage in avoidance behavior. These features are intrinsic to the object in question, e.g., suffering in this case. Thus, the nature of suffering gives us object-given reasons to want to avoid it and to engage in actions that enable us to avoid it. [Again, this is not the same as claiming that, overall, we always should avoid suffering; only that, in all cases, there are factors that count in favor of avoiding suffering.]
Some moral philosophers believe that there are no practical object-given reasons. According to subjectivism, all practical reasons for a person are dependent on features of that person’s motivational set. Subjectivists typically hold a desire-based view of reasons (DBR). On this view (famously attributed to David Hume and defended in the twentieth century by Bernard Williams, among others), our reasons are generated by our desires. I have reason to do what is necessary for (or at least the most effective way of) satisfying my desires. More carefully, we can articulate this view as follows:
DBR: For a person, P, to have a reason to engage in some behavior, F, P must have some desire (or desire-like state) d, such that F-ing tends to promote the satisfaction of d.
If DBR is true, then there can be no (practical) object-given reasons to care about (or do, or want) anything since all (practical) reasons would be subjective. ‘Subjective’ means ‘dependent on the subject.’ To say that some feature, f, is subjective is to say that f constitutively depends on the desires, interests, attitudes, or reactions of a subject or subjects. To say that some feature, f, is objective is to say that f does NOT constitutively depend on the desires, interests, attitudes, or reactions of any subject or subjects. A subject, in this context, is a being that is a bearer of conscious states, such as beliefs, desires, emotions, and attitudes. So, if DBR is true, then all (practical) reasons are subjective since whether I have a reason constitutively depends on my desires.
I mention DBR here only to contrast it with Parfit’s view so that the most significant aspect of Parfit’s view comes to the foreground. Importantly, on Parfit’s view, all normative reasons are object-given. In addition, his view implies that desire-based reasons are not normative. Saying that a reason is object-given is another way of saying that it is not desire-based. Thus, to say that there are object-given reasons to care about something is to say that there are factors, intrinsic to the object, that count in favor of our caring about this thing and that in no way depend on our (or any other person’s) desires. If there are such object-given reasons, then they are objective and thus apply to all rational agents, regardless of our goals, interests, desires, or attitudes.

bookmark_borderCan humans create meaning? Can God?

Sean Carroll is an excellent scientist and philosopher. One of his greatest virtues is that he understands both the important role that philosophy must play in the scientific enterprise and that there are some questions that science is not situated to answer and that are the province of philosophy. It is always worthwhile to listen to him discuss scientific and philosophical issues. In the following clip, he talks with Robert Lawrence Kuhn about whether there can be meaning and purpose in a godless universe.

Some of the things that Carroll says in this video are very insightful. For example, he says that it is wrong to think of meaning as a separate kind of thing that must be added to the universe. However, I think that his larger point about meaning and purpose is, at best, ambiguous and, on the most natural interpretation, completely wrong.
In the video (at the 5:17 mark) Carroll says,

“Any person who has wants or desires brings meaning into existence.”

and

“The question, ‘Is there meaning in the world?’ is just the question, ‘Are there human beings who care about things?’ and the answer is obviously yes.”

These statements are ambiguous. There are two things that Carroll might be indicating. First, he might be saying that persons are themselves valuable and that, because of this, the existence of persons makes the world meaningful. Second, he might be claiming that persons create value in virtue of wanting and desiring things. While there is this ambiguity, I think it much more likely that Carroll means to indicate the second rather than the first.
If I am right, then Sean Carroll is here offering a subjectivist account of meaning. He is claiming that there is meaning so long as there are humans who care about things and that this is because, by caring about things, humans make them meaningful. A subjectivist view of meaning claims that meaning is dependent on the goals, interests, desires, reactions, or attitudes of subjects. On such a view, it would be correct to say that human subjects create meaning by making things meaningful. We make things meaningful, on Carroll’s view, by caring about them. Thus, their being meaningful depends on our attitudes. Is Carroll right about this?
Consider,

Emptiness: Leela has lately been preoccupied with the thought that life is probably not worth living. Her friends Philip and Amy are trying to help her through this existential crisis. Leela says that she suspects that life is ultimately empty of all significance, merely an unfortunate and meaningless accident. Philip and Amy remind Leela that there are many things that she cares about: her friends, her career, her charity work helping orphans. Leela says that it is true that she has cared about those things, but now she wonders whether she should concern herself with them at all. “All of these people and all of these things,” Leela says, “are just tiny, insignificant specks in the unfathomable and infinite depths of the indifferent universe. And, like Roy Batty, I am acutely aware that all of them will be lost in time like tears in rain. In such a world, in which a human life is but an infinitesimal fleeting instant compared to the vastness of time and space, can anything really matter?”

When Leela wonders whether she should care about what she used to care about, she is not wondering whether, in fact, she still cares about these things; she is wondering whether there are reasons for her to care about these things. It would be no help to her and no answer to her question to insist that she does care about them. She suspects that life is meaningless not because she doesn’t care about anything (and certainly not because there are no humans who care about things; she knows that there are plenty of people who care about things). She is worried that life is meaningless because, she suspects, there are no reasons to care about anything.
Consider now the statement,

(M) There are things that matter to Leela.

This statement is ambiguous. (M) might mean

(N) There are things that Leela cares about.

Or,

(O) There are reasons for Leela to care about some things and Leela recognizes those  reasons and responds to them by caring about these things.

(N) is a psychological claim about Leela. It says that Leela has concern for certain things. But (N) does not tell us whether there are reasons for Leela to have such concern. And Leela’s worry is that there might not be such reasons. According to Carroll, Leela can make her life meaningful just by caring about things. But telling Leela that there are things that she cares about (or at least that she has cared about) will not help her; this will not enable her to see that life is meaningful. This is because the problem facing Leela, the problem of whether her life is meaningful, is precisely the problem of whether she has reasons to care about anything.
We cannot create value, significance, or meaning because we cannot make it the case that there are reason to care about things. We can make things that are worth caring about, but we cannot make it the case that they are worth caring about. As Derek Parfit says,

We cannot, however, make things good by commanding or willing that they be good. Though we can sometimes change people’s evaluative beliefs, that is not a way of creating new values. Nor can we make anything matter. When something matters to us, in the sense that we care about this thing, that is merely a psychological fact. Something matters only when, and in the sense that, we have object-given reasons to care about this thing. (Parfit Vol.2, 601)

Carroll is wrong about meaning. Though we can make our lives meaningful in the sense that we can choose to bring things into our lives that matter, we cannot make things valuable, we cannot make things matter, and we cannot make things meaningful. This is not because we lack the power to do so. It is not because humans are small and weak; even God cannot make things matter. God can make things that matter (but so can humans) but God cannot make the things that he makes matter. In the same way, humans can produce some of the things that matter in life (though not all of them and maybe not even the most important of them), but we cannot make these things matter. Whether the things we make matter, whether anything matters, is something over which we have no control. Humans cannot make things matter because it is impossible to make things matter.
In what sense can God create meaning?
Near the beginning of the clip (roughly the 1:43 mark) Carroll says that our conception of meaning changes when we leave theism behind since we are not given instructions from God and that “it is, at the very least, up to us to create these things.” This is a significant error. The conception of meaning is not altered by whether God, or any other supernatural entity, exists. Whether life is meaningful depends on whether there are, in our lives, things that matter. And whether there are things that matter is a matter of whether there are things that are worth caring about. The question of whether life has meaning is not the question of whether anyone cares about things but whether there are things such that there are reasons to care about them.
The claim that God makes life meaningful is ambiguous. There are two different things that it might mean:

(A) God creates the things in life that are valuable and worthwhile (and that, in virtue of being valuable and worthwhile, give our lives meaning).

(B) God makes it the case that the things in life that are valuable and worthwhile are valuable and worthwhile. Thus, by making these things valuable and worthwhile, God makes it the case that our lives are meaningful.

Those who, like Carroll, think that our conception of meaning and purpose must change when we abandon theism are assuming (B). Any atheist who thinks either that humans can create their own meaning even in the absence of God or that, in the absence of God, life is objectively empty of meaning, are implicitly assuming (B) as well. And I think that many theists also believe that (B) is the case.
If you believe that God is the creator of Heaven and Earth, then you believe that (A) is true. In creating things like human beings, and the planets and stars, and natural landscapes, and plants and animals, and happiness and love, God creates things that have value. God, if he exists, creates the things that are worthy of pursuit, preservation, and appreciation; and, in doing so, he makes it possible for human lives to be meaningful. If God exists, then, because of God and his activity, there exists things such that we have object-given reasons to care about them. However, if (A) is true, God does not make any of these things valuable; he does not make it the case that these things are worthy of pursuit, preservation, and appreciation.
If life is meaningful, if there are object-given reasons to care about things, then, even on theism, the things that are valuable and worthwhile (the things that make life meaningful and worth living) must be valuable and worthwhile even if God does not exist. Now, it is always open for a theist to claim that, on her worldview, nothing can exist in the absence of God. Well, in that case, if God did not exist, life would not be meaningful but for the trivial reason that life would not be. I am not here trying to rule out or defeat the claim that all concrete things (including the things, like people, and nature, and happiness, and joy, that make life meaningful) depend for their existence on God. What I am trying to rule out is the claim that the value of these things depends on God.
(B) is false. And everyone, theist and atheist alike, should be able to agree that it is false. We know that God cannot create value and meaning because we know that there are some things that God cannot make valuable, worthwhile, or meaningful. And if there are some things such that God cannot make them valuable (etc.), then this implies that God does not have the power to bring value into existence where it does not exist. In other words, God cannot take something that, in the absence of God and his activity, would be worthless and make it worthwhile. Let’s expand this argument.
We know that there are things that God cannot make good or worthwhile. God cannot make suffering good. He cannot make wanton murder worthwhile. Each of these cases involves something that is intrinsically bad and so the thought that God could make these things good involves the thought that God could take something that is intrinsically bad and make it good. This thought is absurd. The nature of suffering gives us reasons to avoid it and God cannot change that. If the nature of suffering were different, such that we no longer had reasons to avoid it, then it would no longer be suffering (and thus talk of the nature of suffering being other than that of providing us with reasons to avoid it is absurd). Wanton murder results in significant suffering and involves the cutting short of a worthwhile life. God cannot make such activity good.
Now, since there are some things (e.g., suffering and murder) that God cannot make good and worthwhile, it follows that God lacks the capacity to make bad things good. This shows that God’s power is limited in this domain, that is, the domain of value, significance, and meaning. If we agree that God cannot make awful things good, then why would we think that he can make anything good?
This same reasoning implies that there are things that God can’t make bad. Consider happiness. The nature of happiness gives us reasons to pursue it, promote it, and appreciate it. God cannot change that. What could God do to make happiness be something that we have no reason to pursue? The question answers itself.
The recognition that it is the nature of suffering that gives us reasons to avoid it and it is the nature of happiness that gives us reason to pursue it yields the following generality: It is the nature of things that provide us with reasons to desire, pursue, preserve, appreciate, care about them. (This is what Parfit means to indicate when he speaks of object-given reasons.) God can create things with a nature, but it is in virtue of that nature (rather than the fact that it is created by God) that these things are significant, insignificant, worthwhile, worthless, etc. God cannot take something whose nature gives us reasons to avoid it and make it something that is worthwhile to pursue. Similarly, God cannot take something, like a piece of refuse, whose nature gives us no reason to pursue, preserve, appreciate, or care about it, and make it the case that this piece of refuse, with this nature, is worthy of pursuit, is desirable, (etc.). And God cannot take something, like happiness, whose nature gives us reason to pursue it, and make it the case that this thing (something, e.g., with the nature of happiness) is something that we have no reason to pursue, preserve, appreciate, or care about.
God can make things that are valuable, but he cannot make it the case that they are valuable. So, let’s compare two universes. The first, which we’ll call G-universe, is one in which God exists and in which life is meaning and there are things that matter. The other universe, NG-universe, is one that is just like G-universe but in which there is no God. Since the things in G-universe, such as planets, stars, human beings, animals, etc. would exist in NG-universe and would have their same nature and properties, there would still be things that matter in NG-universe. For example, there are human beings in NG-universe and human beings have the same nature and properties in NG-universe as they have in G-universe. Since it is the nature of things that provide us with reasons to pursue, preserve, appreciate, or care about them, if humans matter in G-universe, they matter in NG-universe. Suffering and the relieving of suffering exist in NG-universe. So, if suffering has negative value in G-universe, it has negative value in NG-universe. If the relieving of suffering is worthwhile in G-universe, then it is worthwhile in NG-universe.
Since God has the unlimited capacity to create concrete objects, if he exists, he can create things that are valuable. He can also provide states of affairs and experience that are of significant value and such that, in the absence of God, would not be possible. For example, God can provide humans with the opportunity to have a meaningful relationship with a perfect being. If God does not exist, then such a relationship may not be possible. So, God can add meaning to our lives by creating or making possible things that matter a great deal, but God cannot create meaning.
In the same way and for the same reasons, we humans cannot create meaning. We can pursue meaningful things, activities, etc., and by pursuing and achieving good and worthwhile things, we can bring meaning into our lives. But we cannot make a thing or activity be meaningful. If something is meaningful, then there are object-given reasons to care about it. We cannot and God cannot make it the case that there are object-given reasons to care about anything.
 
**Note: In this essay, I have used some concepts and claims (especially about reasons) that require more development and defense than I have been able to provide here. In a follow-up essay, I will endeavor to provide these.
 

bookmark_borderDoes anything really matter?

Does anything really matter?
Some people say no. Such people are proponents of nihilism, the view according to which nothing matters. According to nihilists, there is no reason to care about anything whatsoever. Nihilists do not deny that people care about things, they claim only that there is no reason to care about anything.
Other people say yes. Among the people who say yes, some claim that the only things that matter are the things that we care about and, by caring about them, we make them matter. These people are subjectivists. On the subjectivist view, something’s mattering is always a matter of it mattering to some person or other, or to some group of people or other. Something might matter to me (or to my group), but if you don’t care about it, then it doesn’t matter to you. Something can matter to me or to you (or to us or to them), but it doesn’t make sense to say that something can just matter, full stop.
Such a view is not a view according to which anything matters. Those who say that nothing can matter unless we care about it would express their view more clearly if they said that nothing really matters.
Other people who say yes reject this kind of subjectivism. Of these opponents to subjectivism, there are some who say that things matter only because God exists. If there was no God, these people insist, then nothing would matter. Such people hold,

(G) God’s existence guarantees that things matter. If God did not exist, then nothing would matter.

What would make (G) true? (G) might be true because something only matters because God cares about it. If so, then those who accept (G), despite their opposition to subjectivism, actually accept a version of it. According to subjectivists, something matters only when it matters to someone (or group) or other. Those who accept (G) think that something matters only when it matters to God. Their view is a version of what we might call individual subjectivism. On such a view something matters only when it matters to a particular individual. Those who hold (G) think that the only individual who can make things matter is God.
In order to find out whether such people are right, we should think about some of the things that matter and ask whether God has anything to do with their mattering.
Consider, for example, the agony of a small child who is suffering from hunger and malnutrition. Such agony matters. And it matters whether there are people who try to alleviate this suffering. And it matters whether they are successful.
Suppose now that God does not exist. Would this child’s agony matter any less? Suppose caring individuals successfully treat this child’s malnutrition and nurse her back to health. Would the fact that God does not exist make this successful intervention fail to matter? It is difficult to see how.
Theists who defend the view according to which nothing matters if God does not exist would express their view more clearly if they claimed that nothing really matters. If things matter only because God exists, then nothing really matters.
Let’s return to the more general subjectivist claim that something’s mattering is always a matter of it mattering to some person(s) or other. On this general subjectivist view, things matter to me only if I care about them.
This view is implausible. To see why, consider that I can ask, “Why does what I care about matter? Why should I care about that stuff? I know that I do care about it, the question is why I should.”
A subjectivist would say that the person who asks such questions has misunderstood what it means for things to matter. On this kind of subjectivism, something matters to a person precisely when that person cares about it. But suppose that someone now asks, “But do the things that I care about actually matter?” How should a subjectivist respond?
He could say, “Well, they matter to you” and hope that this ends the conversation. But this will not satisfy, as is revealed by the following reasonable reply: “Yes, I understand that they matter to me, but I want to know if they should matter to me? Telling me that they do matter to me does not answer my question.”
‘Should the things that matter to me actually matter to me?’ Might seem like a strange or even nonsensical question, but it is neither. The person who asks it is saying this: 
Yes, I understand that these things matter to me. But maybe I am wrong about them, maybe they don’t really matter and I should not care about them. I want to know if they really matter.
When we say such things and ask such questions, we are asking for reasons to care about the things we care about. We want to know whether the things we care about are worth caring about. To say that something matters is to say that there are features of the thing that give us reasons to care about it. So, to say that suffering matters is to say that suffering has features in virtue of which we ought to care about whether it occurs. What the person who asks the question above wants to know is whether there is anything that gives him reasons to care about it.
I think that the answer to this question is yes. For example, we ought to care about whether and how much suffering occurs; indeed, we ought to want that as little suffering occurs as is possible. The nature of suffering gives us reasons to want it to not occur and to do what we can to avoid it, to the extent that this is possible.
When the subjectivist says that only the things that we care about matter and that, by caring about them, we make them matter, he is saying that nothing has any intrinsic features in virtue of which we ought to care about it. It follows that agony has no intrinsic features in virtue of which we ought to care whether it occurs. It follows from this that there is nothing about the fact that if a nuclear weapon were exploded over Seoul, millions of people would experience severe agony that gives us a reason to care whether this event occurs. This is why I said that subjectivists would express their view better if they claimed that nothing really matters.
When a theist claims that if God does not exist, then nothing matters, she is saying that nothing has any intrinsic features in virtue of which we ought to care about it. It follows that agony has no intrinsic features in virtue of which we ought to care whether it occurs. It follows from this that there is nothing about the fact that if a famine struck a large swath of Africa, hundreds of thousands of people would suffer and die from malnutrition that gives a reason to care about whether such an event occurs. This is why I said that such theists would express their view better if they claimed that nothing really matters.

bookmark_borderOne Christian Worldview? Part 4: Evangelical Denominations

Catholics constituted 20.8% of the adult population in the USA (in 2014, see the Religious Landscape Study), and Christians who belong to Evangelical Protestant denominations constituted 25.4% of the adult population in the USA (in 2014).  So, if we combine Catholics and Evangelicals, they constituted 46.2% of the adult population in the USA (in 2014).  Since 70.6% of adults in the USA were Christians (in 2014), the combination of Catholics and Evangelicals constituted 65.4% of Christian adults in the USA (in 2014):  46.2/70.6 = .654.  In short, in 2014 about 2 out of 3 Christian adults in the USA were either Catholic or belonged to an Evangelical denomination.
So, if the Catholic Church accepts and teaches the Four Basic Beliefs of Christianity (as I showed in Part 3 of this series), and if Evangelical Protestant denominations also accept and teach the Four Basic Beliefs of Christianity (as I will show in this post), then in 2014 at least 2 out of 3 Christian adults in the USA belonged to a Church or denomination that accepts and teaches the Four Basic Beliefs of Christianity.
The Gospel or “The Good News” is the heart of the Christian religion; it is to Christianity what the Four Noble Truths are to Buddhism.  Thus, if the Four Basic Beliefs of Christianity represent the Christian worldview (see Part 2 of this series), then they should correspond closely with the content of the Gospel.  A group of Evangelical Christian scholars and leaders formulated a statement spelling out the Gospel which was published in the Evangelical magazine Christianity Today in 1999.  The statement was called “The Gospel of Jesus Christ: An Evangelical Celebration“.   As we shall see, that statement clearly teaches and promotes the Four Basic Beliefs of Christianity.
Many major protestant denominations are considered to be Evangelical Christian denominations, and these Evangelical denominations occur within a variety of “families” of protestants (e.g. Baptists, Presbyterians, Lutherans, etc.).  This statement spelling out the Gospel from an Evangelical Christian point of view, was accepted by Evangelical Christian leaders and thinkers from a variety of Evangelical Christian denominations:
Appended to the Gospel statement are the names of some 115 evangelical leaders who have endorsed the document.  They include men and women; they include Presbyterians, Methodists, Lutherans, Baptists, Pentacostals, Charismatics, and people who belong to other churches.  Among the endorsers are African Americans, Asian Americans, Hispanics, and Whites.  They minister as presidents of colleges and seminaries, denominational leaders, pastors, evangelists, professors, television and radio executives, publishers, and leaders in parachurch organizations. …
 Since its appearance in July 1999, another eighty-five evangelical leaders have endorsed the Gospel statement, among them Dr. Billy Graham. (This We Believe, p.18; Zondervan Publishing House, 2000)
So, we have good reason to believe that this Gospel statement represents an understanding of the Gospel and of the heart of the Christian faith that is widely shared by Evangelical Christian thinkers and leaders from a wide variety of Evangelical denominations.  If the content of this Gospel statement lines up well with the Four Basic Beliefs of Christianity, then we can reasonably conclude that Evangelical Christian churches and denominations accept and teach the Four Basic Beliefs of Christianity.
I have just been reading this Gospel statement, and it clearly and repeatedly references and teaches all four of the Four Basic Beliefs.  The first half of the statement consists of 26 paragraphs, which I have identified by the letters A through Z.  The second half of the statement consists of short sections of “Affirmations and Denials” that are numbered (in the document itself) as 1 through 18.
In the first half, there is a three-page section called “The Gospel” (This We Believe, p.241-243).  This short section could, all by itself, be used to show that Evangelical Christian denominations accept and teach the Four Basic Beliefs of Christianity.  Some of the paragraphs in that section touch on all four of the Four Basic Beliefs, in a single paragraph.  Here is a small sample from that section:
Through the Gospel we learn that we human beings, who were made for fellowship with God, are by nature–that is, “in Adam” (1 Cor. 15:22)–dead in sin, unresponsive to and separated from our Maker.  We are constantly twisting his truth, breaking his law, belittling his goals and standards, and offending his holiness by our unholiness, so that we truly are “without hope and without God in the world” (Rom. 1:18-32; 3:9-20; Eph. 2:1-3, 12).  Yet God in grace took the initiative to reconcile us to himself through the sinless life and vicarious death of his beloved Son (Eph. 2:4-10; Rom. 3:21-24).
The Father sent the Son to free us from the dominion of sin and Satan, and to make us God’s children and friends.  Jesus paid our penalty in our place on his cross, satisfying the retributive demands of divine justice by shedding his blood in sacrifice and so making possible justification for all who trust in him (Rom. 3:25-26).  The Bible describes this mighty substitutionary transaction as the achieving of ransom, reconciliation, redemption, propitiation, and conquest of evil powers (Matt. 20:28; 2 Cor. 5:18-21; Rom. 3:23-25; John 12:31; Col. 2:15).  It secures for us a restored relationship with God that brings pardon and peace, acceptance and access, and adoption into God’s family (Col. 1:20; 2:13-14; Rom. 5:1-2; Gal. 4:4-7; 1 Pet. 3:18).  The faith in God and in Christ to which the Gospel calls us is a trustful outgoing of our hearts to lay hold of these promised and proffered benefits.  
(This We Believe, p.241-242)
This Gospel statement produced by a group of Evangelical Christian scholars and leaders repeatedly references and affirms each of the Four Basic Beliefs, as can be seen in the following table (click on the image below for a clearer view of the chart):
Evangelical Gospel Statement Chart
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
Based on my review of “The Gospel of Jesus Christ: An Evangelical Celebration” it is clear that this statement teaches and promotes the Four Basic Beliefs of Christianity, and thus it is reasonable to conclude that the various Evangelical Christian denominations in the USA accept and teach the Four Basic Beliefs.

bookmark_borderPodcast 3: What is Christianity?

I have published my third podcast in the series “Thinking Critically About: Is Christianity True?”
http://thinkingcriticallyabout.podbean.com/e/podcast-3-what-is-christianity/
Podcast 3: What is Christianity?
March 17, 2017
In this podcast the host examines five key claims about Christianity in order to clarify the meaning of the word “Christianity” in this context.
==========================
The two previous podcasts in this series are still available…
http://thinkingcriticallyabout.podbean.com/
Podcast 2: Objections to Thinking Critically about: Is Christianity True?
February 21, 2017
In this podcast the host critically examines and replies to ten objections against thinking critically about whether Christianity is true or false.
Podcast 1: Why Should Anyone Care Whether Christianity is True?
February 21, 2017
In this podcast the host introduces the main question at issue, and gives ten reasons why we should care whether Christianity is true or false.

bookmark_borderThe Christian Worldview – Part 1: Worldviews

1.Christianity is a religion (NOT a relationship with Jesus).

  • The word “Christianity” is defined in dictionaries as being a religion.
  • Sociologists, Philosophers of Religion, and Religious Studies scholars consider Christianity to be a religion.
  • A religion is something that could be true or that could be false, but a relationship cannot be true and cannot be false.
  • All, or virtually all, Christian apologists claim that “Christianity is true.”

2. Religions have several dimensions.

Ninian Smart is a widely respected expert in comparative religions. He asserts that religions are complex historical phenomena that have several dimensions, particularly the following six dimensions:

1.Doctrinal and Philosophical

2.Mythic and Narrative

3.Ethical or Legal

4.Ritual or Practical

5.Experiential or Emotional

6.Social or Institutional

(Worldviews, 3rd edition, pages: 8-10)

3. The Most basic and important dimension of a religion is the doctrinal and philosphical dimension (i.e. religious beliefs).

  • It is the religious beliefs associated with a religion that makes it possible for a religion to be true or to be false.
  • We can identify a religious experience, or a religious ritual, or a religious story ONLY IF we can identify religious beliefs.
    • We can identify a religious experience only if we can determine that an experience has a religious meaning.
    • We can identify a religious ritual only if we can determine that a ritual has a religious meaning.
    • We can identify a religious narrative (story) only if we can determine that a narrative (story) has a religious meaning.
    • We can determine that an experience, ritual, or story has a religious meaning, only if we can identify religious beliefs.
  • Error Theory: Religious Studies scholars tend to view religious experience as the most basic and important dimension of a religion.  I believe that they have this view because religious experience provides a plausible causal theory of religion.  Smart argues that numinous religious experiences provide an explanation for religious beliefs, such as belief in the existence of God, as understood in Western religions, and that mystical religious experiences provide an explanation for religious beliefs, such as the pantheistic view of some Eastern religions, where it is thought that the ultimate reality is a single being which is impersonal.  Religious Studies is basically historical and anthropological, and in both history and anthropology, causal theories are of great importance.  Even if religious experience does provide the basis for the best causal theories about religions, it does not follow that the concept of religious experiences is logically or conceptually more basic than the concept of religious beliefs.

4. The most basic and important religious beliefs associated with a religion are the religious beliefs that constitute the worldview associated with that religion.

  • A worldview can be thought of as a philosophy of life, which consists of basic beliefs in the following areas of philosophy:
    • ETHICS: How should we live our lives?  What constitutes a good human life?  What are the most basic and important goals of human life?
    • METAPHYSICS:  What kinds of things exist?  What is the basic nature and structure of reality?
    • EPISTEMOLOGY:  What can we know?  How can we know what we know? How can we determine which beliefs are true and rationally justified or warranted?
  • A worldview can also be thought of as a very general problem-solving scheme, which provides answers to these important questions:
    • What are the most basic and important goals for a human life?
    • What are the most basic and important problems that can prevent a person from acheiving those goals?
    • What are the most basic and important opportunities that can help a person to acheive those goals?
    • What are the best ways to resolve or mitigate those basic and important problems?
    • What are the best ways to utilize those basic and important opportunities?
    • What are the best ways to acheive the most  basic and important goals of a human life?

NOTE:  I am using the word “worldview” in a much narrower sense than Ninian Smart.  According to Smart, worldviews involve the six dimensions listed above.  I, however, take it that a “worldview” is the core of the doctrinal/philosophical beliefs of a religion (or of a secular analogue to a religion).
5.  The heart of a worldview (whether religious or secular) is ETHICS.

  • If we think of a worldview as a very general problem-solving scheme, then it is obvious that ETHICS is the heart of a worldview.
  • On the other hand, if we think of a worldview as a philosophy of life, which includes ETHICS, METAPHYSICS, and EPISTEMOLOGY, it still makes sense to see ETHICS as the heart of a worldview.
    • The most pressing and obvious philosophical issues for humans are ethical: How should I live my life?  What constitutes a good life? What are the most basic and important goals of a human life?
    • As soon as someone puts forward an ethical point of view, questions and challenges will arise about whether that view is correct or the best view, and this will lead those who agree with that viewpoint to put forward reasons in support of the correctness or worthiness of that point of view.
    • When one puts forward reasons in support of the correctness or worthiness of an ethical viewpoint, that involves making assertions or assumptions in METAPHYSICS and EPISTEMOLOGY.
    • ETHICS is thus the natural starting point of philosophy, and METAPHYSICS and EPISTEMOLOGY are thus natural developments that arise out of attempts to rationally justify an ethical point of view.

Click on the image below for a clearer view of the diagram:
Religions and Worldviews

bookmark_borderNaturalism, Theism, and the Meaning of Life

In the book Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, there is a funny scene in which an artificial intelligence is tasked with figuring out the meaning of life or, as it is called in the book, the Great Question of “Life, the Universe, and Everything.” The AI spends 7.5 million years working on the problem, until it finally reveals the answer is “42.” The AI says, “I think the problem, to be honest with you, is that you’ve never actually known what the question is.” Like many others, including philosopher Erik Wielenberg, I suspect that the question, “What is the meaning of life?”, is actually several questions in one.
Let’s start with some definitions, which we can use to make some distinctions. First, let’s consider “value.”
intrinsic value: something is intrinsically valuable if the thing’s value is inherent to the thing’s own properties, as opposed to its value being derived from the properties of another thing.
extrinsic value: something is extrinsically valuable if the thing’s value is derived from the value of another thing.
Something can be intrinsically valuable or extrinsically valuable, but not both.
 
Next, let’s move onto “meaning.” Following Wielenberg, one way to think about the concept of a “meaningful life” is to apply the intrinsic vs. extrinsic distinction.
intrinsically meaningful life: a life has intrinsic meaning if the life is good for the person who lives it overall.
extrinsically meaningful life: a life has intrinsic meaning if the life if it enables other people to engage in intrinsically valuable activities.
A life can be intrinsically meaningful, extrinsically meaningful, both, or neither.
 
Another way to think about the concept of “meaning” is to think about the placement of a life within the timescale of the universe. For lack of better labels, I shall call the options “intermediate meaning” and “final meaning.”
intermediate meaning: A life has intermediate meaning if the activities of a life contribute only to outcomes somewhere during the intermediate events of the universe, as opposed to events at the end of the universe’s existence.
final meaning: A life has finite meaning if the activities of a life contribute to the final series of events.
I don’t claim the above three distinctions are exhaustive. If I’ve missed any other relevant distinctions, please let me know in the comments box.
 
With these distinctions in mind, then, consider the following claim.

(1) If naturalism is true, then life has no meaning.

But the word “meaning” in this context itself has several meanings. (1) could be interpreted as any of the following.

(1.1) If naturalism is true, then life has no intrinsic value.
(1.2) If naturalism is true, then life has no extrinsic value.
(1.3) If naturalism is true, then life has no intrinsic meaning.
(1.4) if naturalism is true, then life has no extrinsic meaning.
(1.5) If naturalism is true, then life has no intermediate meaning.
(1.6) If naturalism is true, then life has no final meaning.

Let’s go through them one by one.
(1.1) If naturalism is true, then life has no intrinsic value.
Even if we clarify (1) by replacing it with (1.1), we’re still left with a muddled statement which blurs together crucial distinctions.
First, an objectivist about value (aka a ‘value realist’)–whether a theist or a nontheist–would almost certainly say that if anything has intrinsic value, life has objective intrinsic value. And notice that the truth of naturalism has no bearing on whether anything is objectively, intrinsically valuable. The concept of “objective intrinsic value” is either:
(a) coherent (and it is necessarily true that some things have it); or
(b) incoherent (and so it is impossible for anything to have it).
But neither of these possibilities have anything to do with whether naturalism is true. Naturalism (as I define it) is compatible with both of these options.
Second, a life can be subjectively intrinsically valuable, both to the person who lives it and to the people touched by it.
Furthermore, lurking in the background behind statements like 1.1 is a corresponding positive claim about theism:

If theism is true, then life has intrinsic value.

This statement has essentially the same problems as (1.1). First, if, as I think, life has intrinsic value, its intrinsic value does not derive from God’s existence. This follows from the definition of intrinsic value: if life is intrinsically valuable, its value lies in its own intrinsic properties, not the properties of God (such as God’s valuing life). Second, if value realism is true, then it seems highly plausible that life is objectively intrinsically valuable and, again, this value doesn’t come from God. Third, whether or not value realism is true, on theism life can still have subjective intrinsic value. In short,in the context of of whether life has intrinsic value (in any of the senses I’ve defined), naturalism vs. theism is a red herring.
(1.2) If naturalism is true, then life has no extrinsic value.
This version of (1) suffers essentially the same problems as 1.1: life can have extrinsic value, objective and subjective, whether or not theism or naturalism is true.
(1.3) If naturalism is true, then life has no intrinsic meaning.
As stated, (1.3) is false. A life has intrinsic meaning if the life is good overall for the person who lives it. Life can be good overall for the person who lives it, if theism, naturalism, or “otherism” are true.
But there is a more interesting version of (1.3) which cannot be so easily dismissed:

(1.3′) If naturalism is true, then a person’s life might have no intrinsic meaning.

Some lives can be overall bad for the people who live them; such lives could be said to have no intrinsic meaning. In contrast, if theism is true–more precisely, if certain versions of theism are true–then certain doctrines about the afterlife might make it the case that some of the lives that would be intrinsically meaningless on naturalism would be intrinsically meaningful on theism.
(1.4) if naturalism is true, then life has no extrinsic meaning.
It follows from the definition of “extrinsic value” that life can have extrinsic value, objective and subjective, whether or not theism or naturalism is true. Accordingly, (1.4) is false.
(1.5) If naturalism is true, then life has no intermediate meaning.
I don’t know of anyone who believes 1.5, but 1.5 is false. The activities of a person’s life can contribute to outcomes during their lifetime. By definition, such a life has intermediate meaning.
(1.6) If naturalism is true, then life has no final meaning.
This version of (1) is true. If naturalism is true, then nothing I (or anyone else) does during their lifetime will affect the extinction of our sun, the possible annihilation of Earth, any other astronomical event which might happen billions or even trillions of years from now, or change the ultimate fate of the universe, which many scientists believe will be the heat death of the universe.
I’ve had theists tell me that this is supposed to be a “bad” consequence of naturalism, but it’s never bothered me for one moment. Why should it? Putting aside the impossibility for any human to wrap their mind around just how far off into the future such events are, it’s not like I’ll be around to experience them. When I use this reply, the theists (mentioned at the beginning of this paragraph) seem to just repeat (1.6). It’s as if they want to me to believe that, on the one hand, “Absolutely nothing matters (if naturalism is true),” and, on the other hand, “The fact, ‘nothing matters (if naturalism is true),’ itself matters” and so I should be upset about that, not noticing the inherent contradiction in their message.
 

bookmark_borderWhat is Christianity? Part 16

In his book Naming the Elephant (hereafter: NTE), the Christian apologist James Sire raises various objections against his previous analysis of the concept of a “worldview” that he had presented in his earlier book The Universe Next Door (hereafter: TUND).
I have reviewed three of Sire’s objections to his earlier cognitivist analysis of the concept of a “worldview” and argued that those objections were unsuccessful (see previous posts 10, 11, 12, and 13).
In post 15, I argued that Sire’s belief that the Christian worldview is true contradicts his belief that worldviews, including the Christian worldview, are “ways of life”.   A way of life can be neither true nor false, so on the assumption that the Christian worldview is just a way of life, it follows that the Christian worldview is neither true nor false.  The claim that the Christian worldview is true seems to be the most important belief to Sire, so he ought to give up the view that the Christian worldview is a way of life.
In this post I will consider some of Sire’s comments in support of the view that a worldview is a story or a “master story”.  The comments that I will now consider are all from a section of Chapter 5 of NTE called “Worldview As Master Story” (on pages 100-105).
Sire’s initial comment in the first paragraph of this section concerns the cross-cultural phenomenon of story telling:
Folklore, myth and literature around the world and from the ancient past to the present tell stories that put present human reality in the larger context of universal cosmic and human meaning.  They act as orienting patterns.  (NTE, p.100)
It is important to understand what Sire is saying about the function of stories found in folklore, myth and literature:
They put X in the larger context of Y.
In the case of such stories, X refers to “present human reality”, and Y refers to “universal cosmic and human meaning”.
It seems to me that whenever we put something “in the larger context” of something else, we are doing something that is essentially and necessarily INTELLECTUAL and COGNITIVE.  Furthermore, if we go beyond the vague and abstract phrases that Sire uses to describe X and Y here, it becomes very clear that he is talking about something that is essentially and necessarily INTELLECTUAL and COGNITIVE.
The very general phrase “present human reality” might refer to feelings, experiences, observations, or events in the lives of humans.  One example of a “present human reality” is death.  More specifically, the death of a parent or the death of a child.  The “present human reality” involved in the feelings, experiences, observations, and events concerning the death of a child can have a great impact on the human who is the parent of the child.
Religions, especially the Christian religion, provide stories to help and guide people in dealing with such difficult experiences and events.  A religious story can put such an experience “in the larger context of universal cosmic and human meaning.”  But in order for such a story to have any significant impact on a person, the story must have some meaning or significance, and the meaning or significance must have some logical relationship or relevance to the experience or event of the death of a child.  Otherwise, the story will be meaningless, insignificant, and irrelevant.
Some Christian beliefs are obviously relevant to such a difficult circumstance:

  1.  All humans die sooner or later.
  2. Death is the result of human sin and disobedience towards God, the creator of human beings.
  3. Although death puts an end to our ordinary earthly life, it also marks the beginning of another life in a spiritual realm.
  4. If one has faith in Jesus as the savior of mankind, then one can obtain eternal life in heaven, and upon death such a believer in Jesus will begin an eternal life of happiness.
  5. When a loved one dies, that is not necessarily the last time one will enjoy the company of that person, for if he or she had faith in Jesus as the savior of mankind, then that person will enjoy eternal life in heaven, and any friends or relatives who also have faith in Jesus will one day be re-united with that person in heaven.

Any stories from the Christian religious tradition that help to communicate some or all of these BELIEFS will obviously have some significance and relevance to Christian believers who experience the death of a child.  Any stories which have no connection with any of these (or other important Christian beliefs about death or loss) will be a story that either fails to have any relevance or significance, or that fails to have any specifically Christian significance.  We see from this specific example, that to “put X in the larger context of Y” is essentially and necessarily an INTELLECTUAL or COGNITIVE activity that involves connecting various beliefs to particular experiences or events.
In the remaining portion of the first paragraph in the section called “Worldview As Master Story”  Sire identifies worldviews with stories:
In short, they [stories that constitute “Folklore, myth and literature”] function as worldviews or parts of worldviews.  The worldviews of Buddhism, Hinduism and primal religion are embedded and embodied in stories.  …these are the stories by which societies interpret the universe and life around them. (NTE, p.100)
Once again, Sire’s language implies INTELLECTUAL and COGNITIVE activity: “by which societies interpret the universe and life…”  Interpretation essentially and necessarily involves the use of beliefs and the formation of beliefs.  Interpretation is an INTELLECTUAL and COGNITIVE activity.
Sire uses a metaphor here that is very similar to the previously discussed metaphor of “incarnation”.  My cognitivist analysis of the concept of a worldview fits very nicely with the idea that a worldview can be “embedded and embodied in stories”.   In other words, stories can be used to communicate beliefs, to teach or inculcate beliefs, and to reinforce beliefs.  So, beliefs and systems of beliefs can be “embedded and embodied in stories”.
But, it is also possible for a STORY to be “embedded and embodied in [other] stories”.  In fact, the idea of a “master story” suggests that a general overarching story can be incorporated into various other more specific stories.  So, it is not plausible to use my previous line of reasoning to dismiss Sire’s idea that a worldview IS a story.   Both my cognitivist view of worldviews as systems of beliefs and Sire’s proposed view that a worldview is a story fit with the metaphor of being “embedded and embodied in stories”.
Sire expresses doubt about his previous conception of worldviews, based on the idea that stories play a very important role in how we understand life and make important decisions:
Both in the works of most Christian worldview analysts–such as James Orr, James Ulthuis, Arthur Holmes and Ronald Nash–and my own Universe Next Door, worldview is first described in intellectual terms, such as “system of beliefs,”  “set of presuppositions” or “conceptual scheme.”  I want now to ask whether this is quite accurate.  Does it not miss an important element in how people actually think and act?  Isn’t a story involved in how we make the decisions of belief and behavior that constitute our lives?  Would it be better to consider a worldview as the story we live by? (NTE, p.100-101, emphasis in original)
I think the main objection I have to this comment by Sire is that stories must be interpreted and understood in order to have meaning and significance, in order to influence our thinking and behavior.  Interpretation, understanding, meaning, and significance are all essentially and necessarily intellectual and cognitive in nature.  Stories have impact and influence only if they are relevant to what we believe and what we value.
A second objection, or perhaps another way of getting at the first objection, is that at the heart of Christianity there are some non-fiction stories, and a non-fiction story IS a set of beliefs (that is organized in a certain way).  Therefore, to the extent that non-fiction stories are essential to the Christian worldview,  a “set of presuppositions” or a “system of beliefs” are essential to the Christian worldview.   The idea that the Christian worldview is a story (a non-fiction story) is NOT an alternative to the idea that the Christian worldview is a set of beliefs; rather, this IMPLIES that the Christian worldview is a set of beliefs.
There are two basic types of stories: fiction and non-fiction.  With a fiction story, such a story can have meaning and significance even though the story is not true, and it is not intended to be viewed as being literally true.  Jesus sometimes used parables to communicate his point of view.  Some parables are fiction stories, such as the parable of the Good Samaritan, and the parable of the Prodigal Son.  Those parables consist of short fiction stories that make a significant point in a memorable way.  So, clearly fiction stories sometimes play a role in communicating a religion or a part of a religious point of view.
However, for Christianity at least, the stories that are of greatest importance are non-fiction stories.  Non-fiction stories are put forward as being true,  as something that should be viewed as being literally true.  A non-fiction story can, however, turn out to be false.  People sometimes lie to detectives who are investigating a crime, and sometimes people misremember the details of an event and so unintentionally provide false information to detectives.  The accounts or stories that these people tell the detectives are false, or are partially false, but these stories are still non-fiction; they are non-fiction because they are stories that are put forward AS being true, AS being factual, even though the stories are not true, or are not completely true.
The Gospels tell stories about the life, ministry, and death of Jesus, and they also tell stories about Jesus coming back to life after being crucified and buried.   These stories about Jesus include theological claims and about events in the life of Jesus.  Almost all Christian believers, including liberal Christians, take the Gospel stories about Jesus to be non-fiction stories.  This is clearly the case with conservative Catholics and conservative Evangelical Christians.  Liberal Christians doubt some or all of the miracles in the Gospel accounts, but they do not doubt that there was an historical Jesus, and that Jesus gathered several disciples or followers, and that Jesus taught many of the things that the Gospels say that he taught, and that Jesus was crucified by the Romans.  Liberals will often accept the miracle of the resurrection of Jesus, they just shy away from the idea of a physical or bodily resurrection.  But liberal Christians generally believe that Jesus overcame death and that Jesus is active and alive today.
In any case, very few Christians are willing to say that the Gospels are purely fictional.   Christians sometimes reject some of the details of the Gospel stories.  Christians sometimes reject some of the miracles reported in the Gospels.  But Christians usually believe that the Gospels are at least partially true accounts of the life and death of Jesus, and of the teachings of Jesus.
The liberal scholars of the Jesus Seminar, for example, are very skeptical about the contents of the Gospels, but most of them believe that Jesus was an actual historical person, and that the canonical Gospels (as well as some non-canonical gospels) contain sayings and teachings that do in fact originate with the historical Jesus.   So, although the scholars of the Jesus Seminar reject a large portion of the Gospel stories about Jesus and a large portion of the sayings of Jesus presented in the Gospels, they still view some of the stories and some of the sayings as being historical, as being more-or-less true information about the historical Jesus.
News stories are examples of non-fiction stories.  A news story can, of course, be false, or be partially false.  But a news story is presented AS being a true story, as presenting information that is literally true.  Here is a recent news story that most of us have heard:

==================

Orlando shooting: 49 killed, shooter pledged ISIS allegiance

By Ralph Ellis, Ashley Fantz, Faith Karimi and Eliott C. McLaughlin, CNN
Updated 11:05 AM ET, Mon June 13, 2016
Orlando, Florida (CNN) An American-born man who’d pledged allegiance to ISIS gunned down 49 people early Sunday at a gay nightclub in Orlando, the deadliest mass shooting in the United States and the nation’s worst terror attack since 9/11, authorities said. …

Mateen carried an assault rifle and a pistol into the packed Pulse club about 2 a.m. Sunday and started shooting, killing 49 people and wounding at least 53, officials said.
After a standoff of about three hours, while people trapped inside the club desperately called and messaged friends and relatives, police crashed into the building with an armored vehicle and stun grenades and killed Mateen.
http://www.cnn.com/2016/06/12/us/orlando-nightclub-shooting/
=================

This story is composed of a series of claims:

  1. An American-born man who’d pledged allegiance to ISIS gunned down 49 people early Sunday at a gay nightclub in Orlando.
  2. This event was the deadliest mass shooting in the United States (according to “authorities”).
  3. This event was the nation’s worst terror attack since 9/11 (according to “authorities”).
  4. Mateen carried an assault rifle and a pistol into the packed Pulse club about 2 a.m. Sunday and started shooting (“officials said”).
  5. The shooting by Mateen resulted in killing 49 people and wounding at least 53 (“officials said”).
  6. After a standoff of about three hours, police crashed into the building with an armored vehicle and stun grenades and killed Mateen.
  7. During the three hour standoff, people trapped inside the club desperately called and messaged friends and relatives.

Some of these claims are qualified with phases like “officials said” and “authorities said”.  In this case, these phrases function basically as evidence for the claim in question.  The intention is to ASSERT the claim, and to back up the claim with the evidence that the claim came from a reliable authority.  So, this news story IS just a series of factual claims.  It could be the case that some of these claims are false, or that some of these claims are inaccurate, but the intention of the reporter is to present this as a TRUE story, and that means that the intent of the reporter is to assert a series of factual claims as being true claims or true beliefs about some events.  This news story is an example of a non-fiction story, and we can generalize from this example to non-fiction stories in general.  A non-fiction story presents a series of factual claims as being true claims or true beliefs about a person or animal or place or thing or event.
Thus, to the extent that the Christian worldview is concerned with non-fiction stories about the life and death of Jesus, then to that extent the Christian worldview is concerned about a series of factual claims about the life and death of Jesus that are presented as being true claims or true beliefs about the life and death of Jesus.  If the Christian worldview is primarily concerned with non-fiction stories about Jesus, then the Christian worldview is primarily concened with factual claims about Jesus that are asserted to be true claims or true beliefs about Jesus.  Sire goes on to argue that the Christian worldview involves and is primarily concerned with a story or stories about Jesus.  I will have more to say about this in the next post.

bookmark_borderWhat is Christianity? Part 15

In his book Naming the Elephant (hereafter: NTE), the Christian apologist James Sire raises various objections against his analysis of the concept of a “worldview” that he had presented in his earlier book The Universe Next Door (hereafter: TUND).
I have reviewed three of Sire’s objections to his earlier cognitivist analysis of the concept of a “worldview” and argued that those objections were unsuccessful (see previous posts 10, 11, 12, and 13).
I plan to review more of Sire’s objections from NTE, but for this post I will simply re-iterate and reinforce a basic argument against Sire’s proposal in NTE that we take a worldview to be “a way of life”:

  1. Sire (and nearly all Christian apologists) believes that “The Christian worldview is true.”
  2. The belief that “The Christian worldview is true.” makes sense ONLY IF a worldview is something that can be true or false.
  3. But, if a worldview is “a way of life”, then a worldview is NOT something that can be true or false.

THEREFORE:

4. Sire (and nearly all Christian apologists) must either give up the belief that “The Christian worldview is true.”  or else he must reject the belief that a worldview is “a way of life”.

It is clear in TUND that Sire believes that a worldview is something that can be true or false.  In the “Preface to the Third Edition” he speaks of worldviews as being “true” and as needing “justification”:
…I am convinced that for any of us to be fully conscious intellectually we should not only be able to detect the worldviews of others but be aware of our own–why it is ours and why in light of so many options we think it is true.  I can only hope that this book becomes a stepping stone for others toward their own self-conscious development and justification of their own worldview.  (TUND, p.10, emphasis added)
Furthermore, his very definition of “worldview” in TUND includes a clear reference to the idea of truth:
A worldview is a set of presuppositions (assumptions which may be true, partially true, or entirely false) which we hold (consciously or subconsciously, consistently or inconsistently) about the basic makeup of our world.  (TUND, p.16, emphasis added)
But it is not just in the earlier book TUND where Sire speaks of worldviews in terms of truth and falsehood.  In the very first paragraph of the Preface of NTE, we find Sire still talking about worldviews being true or false:
Moreover, developing a cognizance of my own worldview has provided a way of orienting not just my own thoughts but my whole take on life itself.  I have, in short, long been interested in detecting the basic intellectual commitments we make as human beings, reveling in their variety, delighting in the depth of their insight when they have grasped the truth and despairing over their disastrous consequences when they have proven false.  (NTE, p.11, emphasis added)
And, at least initially, Sire more or less repeats the definition of “worldview” from his previous book, including the reference to truth:
A worldview is composed of a number of basic presuppositions, more or less consistent with each other, more or less consciously held, more or less true.  (NTE, p.20, emphasis added)
But in later chapters of NTE, Sire raises objections to his previous cognitivist analysis of the concept of a “worldview” and rejects that previous analysis:
First, a worldview is not fundamentally a set of propositions or a web of beliefs. That is, it is not first and foremost a matter of the intellect.  (NTE, p.123)
Despite rejecting his previous cognitivist analysis of the concept of a “worldview”, Sire persists in speaking about worldviews in terms of truth and falsehood.  At the end of Chapter 6, for example, Sire speaks of a worldview being “objectively true”:
Traditional Christians in general are not about to give up the idea of objective truth.  I do not think I speak only for myself when I say that every fiber in my being cries out for a worldview that is not just my own story, my own set of propositions, my own interpretation of life, but one that is universally, objectively true (NTE, p.118, emphasis added)
In Chapter 7 of NTE, Sire uses the words “true” and “false” and “accurate” of worldview “assumptions”:
The presuppositions that express one’s commitments, may be true, partially true or entirely false.  Since there is a way things are, the assumptions one makes about this may be more or less accurate.   (NTE, p.129, emphasis in original)
Sire illustrates this point with the important example of the Christian-worldview belief that “there is a God”:
If there is a God, and we believe in God, our belief is a true belief.  (NTE, p.129, emphasis added)
Later in Chapter 7, Sire speaks about the possibility of having “contradictions in our worldview” and the need to “eliminate” such contradictions:
One inconsistency is quite common.  Some self-confessed Christians believe in reincarnation.  I am convinced that those who do this have not understood very well what Christianity teaches.  For if it is true that each person is made in the image of God, then each person is unique.  The doctrine of the resurrection of the body at the end of human history assures that each person is that same person and that person alone.  But reincarnation involves the notion that one individual at death reverts to a state in which he or she can return as another individual in another body.  This happens not just once but over and over.  The two concepts of what happens at death–resurrection and multiple, perhaps eternal, reincarnations–cannot both be the way things are.   One precludes the other.
If we are to have a Christian worldview, we will want to eliminate the contradictions in our worldview.  (NTE, p.131, emphasis added)
Concern about contradictions in a worldview implies a concern about TRUTH of the beliefs or assumptions that constitute the worldview.  Note that Sire explains the problem or contradiction here by using the concept of truth: “For if it is true that each person is made in the image of God, then each person is unique.”  Worldviews can contain contradictions, because worldviews are composed of beliefs or assumptions which can be true or false.
Near the end of Chapter 7, Sire speaks about “errors” in worldviews:
Some errors in worldview will become apparent and be eliminated only with much prayer and supplication.  That will be true of our own errors as much as those of others whose views we try to change. (NTE, p.135, emphasis added)
The idea that a worldview can contain “errors” supports the previous statements by Sire where he speaks of worlview “assumptions” being “true, partially true or entirely false.” (NTE, p.129).
At the end of Chapter 7, Sire re-iterates his view that ontological assumptions, such as belief in the existence of Godare the most basic and important aspect of a worldview:
…because the mainstay of one’s worldview is ontological, a commitment to a specific notion of fundamental reality, we will take a person’s notion of God or nature or themselves to be the most important aspect of their character.  Their support or rejection of any ethical principle–say prochoice or prolife–is less fundamental than the notion of what is ultimately real.  Christians proclaiming either ethical principle will do so primarily from an understanding of who God is… A change of position on this issue [i.e. on their understanding of who God is] will mean worldview change at a deep level. (NTE, p.135-136, emphasis added)
The primary ontological belief in the Christian worldview is that God exists.  As we saw earlier, this belief or assumption is one that Sire thinks can be true or false:
If there is a God, and we believe in God, our belief is a true belief.  (NTE, p.129, emphasis added)
Although Sire raises many objections against his earlier cognitivist analysis of the concept of a “worldview”, and although he rejects this cognitivist analysis, he continues to speak of worldviews in terms of “assumptions” and “presuppositions” and “beliefs” which are to be evaluated as  “true, partially true or entirely false.”  (NTE, p.129).  And since Sire also continues to speak of worldviews as potentially being “objectively true” (NTE, p.118), Sire is caught in a significant self-contradition: he must either give up his claim that a worldview is “a way of life”, or else he must give up his view that a worldview is something that can be true or false.