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_borderChristian Pastor Writes in HuffPo, “There Is No Such Thing as a Good Atheist”

Pastor Rick Henderson wrote en editorial in yesterday’s Huffington Post provocatively titled, “Why There Is No Such Thing as a Good Atheist.” While he does correctly state, “it is true that there is no definitive atheistic worldview,” there is very little else in this article which he gets right.
Here’s Pastor Henderson:

While it is true that there is no definitive atheistic worldview, all atheists share the same fundamental beliefs as core to their personal worldviews. While some want to state that atheism is simply a disbelief in the existence of a god, there really is more to it. Every expression of atheism necessitates at least three additional affirmations:
1. The universe is purely material. It is strictly natural, and there is no such thing as the supernatural (e.g., gods or spiritual forces).
2. The universe is scientific. It is observable, knowable and governed strictly by the laws of physics.
3. The universe is impersonal. It does not a have consciousness or a will, nor is it guided by a consciousness or a will.

His first point is confused. Probably even most Christians believe the universe is purely material. Presumably what he has in mind instead is this statement: “Reality is purely material.” If that is what he means, however, he’s wrong. The belief that all of reality is purely material is called materialism. 
Atheism is not materialism. (I, for one, am an atheist but not a materialist.) In fact, atheism isn’t even about materialism. Atheism is simply about the (non)-existence of God/god(s). There are many atheists who are open to the existence of immaterial, impersonal entities (so-called “abstract objects“).
So Henderson could not be more mistaken when he writes, “Denial of any one of those three affirmations will strike a mortal blow to atheism.” A denial of materialism does not strike a mortal blow to atheism.
But let’s keep going and see where he goes from here.

Anything and everything that happens in such a universe is meaningless.  A tree falls. A young girl is rescued from sexual slavery. A dog barks. A man is killed for not espousing the national religion. These are all actions that can be known and explained but never given any meaning or value.”

Even the sort of materialism Henderson has in mind doesn’t lead to the conclusion, “the universe is meaningless.” In the context of his article, there are two kinds of meaning: objective/cosmic/meaning-with-a-capital-“M” and subjective/personal/meaning-with-a lower-case-“m.” Materialism does seem to rule out the first kind of meaning; it does not rule out the second. The second kind of meaning is all we need in order for life, the universe, etc. to be meaningful.

A good atheist — that is, a consistent atheist — recognizes this dilemma. His only reasonable conclusion is to reject objective meaning and morality. Thus, calling him “good” in the moral sense is nonsensical. There is no morally good atheist, because there really is no objective morality. At best, morality is the mass delusion shared by humanity, protecting us from the cold sting of despair.

Like many moral apologists, Henderson is confused about the distinction between entailment and consistency. Consider the question, “Which fast food restaurant is the best?” Suppose there are only two possible answers: McDonald’s and Burger King. Suppose I am a McDonalds-ist, i.e., someone who believes McDonald’s fast food is the best.
Now suppose someone asks me, “Which team will win next year’s Super Bowl?” There are thirty-two teams in the National Football League (NFL) and so thirty-two possible answers. McDonalds-ism is consistent with all thirty-two possible answers:

  • McDonaldis-ism could be true and Seahawks-ism could be true (i.e., the Seattle Seahawks could win);
  • McDonalds-ism could be true and Colts-ism could be true (i.e., the Indianapolis Colts could win); and
  • so forth.

My belief in McDonalds-ism tells us precisely nothing about what I must believe about the next Super Bowl if I want to be consistent. Thus, McDonalds-ism does not entail any answer to the question about the next Super Bowl winner.
Along the same lines, atheism tells us nothing about whether objective morality is true.  Atheism is neither moral nor immoral; rather, it is amoral. By itself, atheism does not make it obligatory, permitted, or forbidden to do anything. It is neither an ethical theory (like utilitarianism) nor a meta-ethical theory (like moral objectivism or moral realism). Atheism entails only one or two conclusions about ethics or meta-ethics:
(1) any theological ethical or meta-ethical theory (such as Divine Command Theory) is false; and
(2) depending on how atheism is defined, then atheism may also entail that noncognitivism is false.
If atheism is defined positively as the belief that God does not exist, then atheism presupposes that the sentence “God does not exist” expresses a proposition and so can be true or false. If, however, that sentence expresses a proposition, that in turn entails that the sentence “God is perfectly morally good” expresses a proposition. But if the latter expresses a proposition, then ethical noncognitivism is false. (See here.)
Let’s move on. Henderson writes:

For those of you who think you’re about to light up this supposed straw man and raze me to the ground, consider the following:

I do think Henderson is tearing down a straw man. His mistake, typical of many moral apologists for theism, is that he uncritically latches onto quotations from atheist nonphilosophers (specifically, biologists) who support his position, while revealing no evidence he is even familiar with the work of atheist philosophers who reject his position.

“Modern science directly implies that there … is no ultimate meaning for humans.”
–William Provine

We’ve commented on biologist William Provine’s claims about morality before. (See here.) I’ll summarize the most important here: It’s far from obvious why Provine thinks that “Modern science directly implies that there … is no ultimate meaning for humans.” At first glance, this seems very implausible because meaning lies within the domain of philosophy, not science. One can’t help but wonder if Provine presupposes scientism and that his statement about the purported conclusions of “modern science” are really just a statement about the implications of scientism. That really doesn’t matter one way or the other, however. All that matters is whether Provine has given a good reason to think that modern science leads to the conclusion that there is no ultimate meaning, which he hasn’t. Provine has provided nothing more than a mere assertion of bias for the non-existence of ultimate meaning for humans.

The universe we observe has precisely the properties we should expect if there is, at bottom, no design, no purpose, no evil and no good, nothing but blind, pitiless indifference. … DNA neither knows nor cares. DNA just is. And we dance to its music.”
–Richard Dawkins

What properties does Dawkins have in mind when he claims that the universe has the properties “we should expect” if there is no objective meaning or morality? And why would those properties be expected? Again, we have a biologist making sweeping claims about philosophy (specifically, metaethics) and, again, we are given no argument for those claims.
Finally, Henderson quotes E.O. Wilson:

“No species, ours included, possesses a purpose beyond the imperatives created by its genetic history.”
–Edward O. Wilson

Like Provine and Dawkins above, this summary sentence by Wilson offers no argument for thinking that its claim is true.
Moving on, Henderson then considers (and rejects) two ways in which atheism and objective morality might be reconciled:
(1) Morality is the result of socio-biological evolution. (I’ve commented on this before. See, for example, here.)
(2) Morality is logical, by which Henderson means that atheists can behave morally. I agree with Henderson that atheists who make this objection have completely missed the point.
What we don’t find in Henderson’s piece is even a hint that he’s aware of serious defenses of objective morality without God by philosophers who specialize in meta-ethics, such as Erik Wielenberg, Quentin Smith, or G.E. Moore (to name just a few).
In short, while Henderson has repeated all of the main talking points for a theist trying to score cheap debate points in a debate about morality without God, he hasn’t even come close to giving a logically correct argument for the claim that “There is No Such Thing as a Good Atheist.”
Related Posts:

bookmark_borderWilliam Provine on Evolutionary Naturalism and Morality

Cornell University biologist William Provine debated UC Berkeley law professor in 1998. (Click here for a link to the transcript.) In his opening statement, Provine made the following provocative assertion.

Let me summarize my views on what modern evolutionary biology tells us loud and clear — and these are basically Darwin’s views. There are no gods, no purposes, and no goal-directed forces of any kind. There is no life after death. When I die, I am absolutely certain that I am going to be dead. That’s the end of me. There is no ultimate foundation for ethics, no ultimate meaning in life, and no free will for humans, either.

I don’t know if Darwin would agree with Provine’s list of consequences or not, but I want to comment on the alleged ethical consequences of evolutionary naturalism.
Many apologists (see, e.g., here) have made an argument from authority, using Provine’s statement, to support the claim that atheism entails nihilism. While some arguments from authority can be logically correct, this one is not. Let P be the statement “If naturalistic evolution is true, then there is no ultimate foundation for ethics,” and let S be metaethics. Using Wesley Salmon’s schema for inductive arguments from authority,[1] we can then formulate the argument from authority as follows.

(1) The vast majority of statements made by William Provine concerning subject S are true.
(2) P is a statement made by William Provine concerning subject S.
(3) Therefore, P is true.

This argument does not satisfy Salmon’s conditions for an inductively correct argument from authority, in two ways. First, even if we treat Provine as an expert on metaethics, the argument would still be evidentially worthless. As Salmon observed, an appeal to one group of authorities has no evidential value when another group of authorities who are equally competent disagree.[2] And there are many qualified experts on metaethics who believe P is false.[3] Second, with all due respect to Provine, he is not a reliable authority on subject S. He is an evolutionary biologist with a Ph.D. in the history of science, not a philosopher who specializes in metaethics. Therefore, premise (1) is dubious. The upshot is that this argument from authority provides literally zero evidence for statement p.
Even if we cannot accept P on the basis of Provine’s authority, however, it is still possible that Provine has a good argument for believing it. If he does, however, it’s not exactly clear how the argument is supposed to work. The only relevant statement I could find in the debate transcript is the quotation I provided at the beginning of this post. Here it is again.

Let me summarize my views on what modern evolutionary biology tells us loud and clear — and these are basically Darwin’s views. There are no gods, no purposes, and no goal-directed forces of any kind. There is no life after death. When I die, I am absolutely certain that I am going to be dead. That’s the end of me. There is no ultimate foundation for ethics, no ultimate meaning in life, and no free will for humans, either.

It’s far from obvious why Provine thinks that “modern evolutionary biology tells us loud and clear” that “There is no ultimate foundation for ethics.” At first glance, this seems very implausible because P lies within the domain of philosophy, not biology. One can’t help but wonder if Provine presupposes scientism and that his statement about the purported conclusions of “modern evolutionary biology” are really just a statement about the implications of scientism. That really doesn’t matter one way or the other, however. All that matters is whether Provine has given a good reason to think that evolutionary naturalism leads to nihilism, which he hasn’t. Provine has provided nothing more than a mere assertion of bias for moral nihilism.
The upshot is that Provine’s statements in his 1998 debate with Johnson provide no support whatsoever for the claim that atheism entails or implies moral nihilism.
Notes
[1] Wesley C. Salmon, Logic (third ed., Englewood Cliffs: Prentice-Hall, 1984), 100.
[2] Ibid.
[3] E.g., Adams; Hick; Moore; Morriston; Nielsen; Pojman; Post; Rottschaefer; Sagi and Statman; Shafer-Landau; Q. Smith; Swinburne; and Wielenberg.

bookmark_borderRyan Stringer on Nonbelief and Hope

Here is the abstract for Stringer’s new paper published on The Secular Web:

Many people hold on to supernatural beliefs because they feel that certain psychological needs could not be met without them–in particular, they feel that they would not be able to have any hope without such beliefs. However, nonbelief need not be the “recipe for despair” that it is often assumed to be; in fact, not only can it leave ample room for hope, but it can help people hope in a realistic, psychologically healthy way when it comes to important things in life. Because nonbelievers can hope for most of the things that people generally hope for, dispelling the myth that nonbelief is a recipe for despair can go a long way toward making nonbelief psychologically acceptable to those who might otherwise resist it.

LINK

bookmark_borderScalar Connection to Meaning of Life?

Because I’ve written so much about arguments from scale lately, the following statement in Dennis Prager’s op-ed on atheism and consolation caught my eye.

“‘And we promise to work for more gun control. But the truth is we don’t
have a single consoling thing to say to you because we atheists
recognize that the human being is nothing more than matter, no different
from all other matter in the universe except for having
self-consciousness. Therefore, when we die, that’s it. Moreover, within a
tiny speck of time in terms of the universe’s history, nearly every one
of us, including your child, will be completely forgotten,
as if we
never even existed. Life is a random crapshoot. Our birth and existence
are flukes. And you will never see your child again.'” (emphasis mine)

This sounds very similar to the temporal aspect of arguments from scale: humans do not enjoy a temporally privileged position in the universe’s history.

Continue reading “Scalar Connection to Meaning of Life?”