Thursday, January 6, 2011

What Does it Mean?

Hey all. It’s great to be back. I had a great Christmas holiday and New Year, and hope you all did too. I hope my atheist readers were convicted by the grace and mercy shown by our God by becoming a man in the person of Jesus of Nazareth for our sake. It is a humbling truth.

I was asked by a commenter to look at this post over at Common Sense Atheism, which is part of a larger project of critiquing William Lane Craig’s work on the absurdity of life without God. I must say, I haven’t been very interested in the content over there lately. While I was initially impressed by Luke’s ability to think more deeply about issues than most atheists I have encountered online and his superb ability to catalog resources both for and against his position, his deconversion account and his seeming unwillingness or inability to respond to objections to his arguments has been a turn off. He seems to be devolving into nothing better than another “new-Atheist” with the same type of ridiculous vitriol. That just gets boring. But since this was a request, I’ll take a look.

Luke starts by citing philosopher Steve Maitzen. Luke says that Maitzen complains that Craig has not defined what “ultimate” means in his chapter on the issue in Reasonable Faith.  In his first citation of Maitzen, I really don’t see that objection. I do see that Maitzen doesn’t think Craig has sufficiently argued that temporary things don’t have significance. But that isn’t Craig’s argument. He admits that temporary things may have some sort of temporary significance, but the argument is that significance disappears, and amounts to nothing once its influence has passed out of existence. With the death of all thinking things, all significance will have amounted to nothing and have proven to have no significance. Craig spends pages and pages arguing for that.
As far as what ultimate means, I think one of the common dictionary definitions would be appropriate; perhaps “basic or fundamental” (from or “Representing or exhibiting the greatest possible development or sophistication” (from Life, on the Christian view, has a reason and fundamentally objective purpose to which it was created. A reason implies a reasoner.  The final development of and most sophisticated a person can be is if they are glorifying God and enjoying Him forever. That is why He created us. That is His purpose. And since it is true for all in spite of what anyone thinks, it is objective. Without God, there is no transcendent and necessary being to have this reason for life, and therefore there is no real, ultimate, and objective purpose.

Maitzen is then cited again. He says that he thinks that Craig may mean “unquestionable” when he says “ultimate.” Well to avoid straw men, I think WLC is a better person than I am to answer this question. It seems to me that this isn’t a sufficient definition, but I don’t think it’s important in dealing with the rest of the citation. Maitzen continues,

We know that people often try to make their lives significant by seeking purposes “greater than themselves.” Consider any purpose that might lend significance to an atheist’s life – maybe she devotes her life to feeding starving children. What more noble or more significant purpose could you have, after all? Still, Craig might challenge the atheist on her own terms: how significant is it, really, to postpone for a relatively short time the deaths of particular members of one terrestrial species on a tiny planet orbiting an undistinguished star in a vast, uncaring universe?

That’s true. People do try to invent purpose for their own lives. Craig admits that fact willingly. He says in this post, which may clear a few things up for Luke and Maitzen, “obviously we can have subsidiary purposes and conditional values without God, but my claim is that ultimately nothing really matters if there is no God. It seems to me that there are two pre-requisites to an ultimately meaningful, valuable, and purposeful life, namely, God and immortality, and if God does not exist, then we have neither.” The issue is whether this meaning we invent for ourselves is really objectively meaningful. If it depends entirely on us, then it can’t be. When we die, any meaning we have conjured up for ourselves goes with us. When everyone is dead, there isn’t any meaning. Not only that, all of the meaning we invented hasn’t amounted to anything and hasn’t accomplished or changed the outcome of anything. Everyone is dead and the universe meaninglessly expands into the cold darkness.

So when this rare female atheist that Maitzen mentions decides that feeding starving children is meaningful to her, does that mean that it is really meaningful to feed starving children? No, only to this lady is it meaningful. It’s not meaningful to the kids to feed starving children. What may be meaningful to them is getting fed, but that’s not really meaningful to other people. Of course this is just an example.

Luke then says, “The argument begins with a question like ‘What’s so great about feeding starving children?’ The obvious answer appears to be: ‘It relieves innocent suffering and gives these children a chance to prosper!’... Supposedly, the theist thinks that God’s existence can put a stop to the regress of asking ‘But what’s so great about that?’ But, they say, atheism cannot put a stop to those questions, and thus leads to despair.” He says it is inappropriate for the theist to use this riposte: “Consider the supposed final answer to “What’s so great about that?” that is offered by the theist: ‘Glorifying God and enjoying his presence for ever [sic]!’ But of course this does not stop the question. We can certainly ask of this: ‘What’s so great about that?’”

Here I think Luke has derailed the course of the argument and entered straw man territory.  The question isn’t about why some action is great, it’s about why life has objective meaning. So we could say that the meaning of our lives is to glorify God and enjoy Him forever. But it’s silly to ask why that is objectively meaningful. Life has that meaning because God has created it for that purpose. Similarly, words have meaning because we create them for a purpose. To ask why certain words mean certain things beyond that they were simply created for that purpose is silly. They mean that because they were created for the purpose of describing something. God has set us up with an end goal in mind, and that means we have an ultimate meaning. Simple as that.

So, in answer to the questioner who inspired this post in summary form, what do I think of this article by Luke? I think it misses the point.


William Watson Birch said...

It's good to have you back : )

Musing Mama said...

"In Thy presence is fullness of joy" - what greater purpose for ANY human life than to develop our characters through encouragement and service to others, and to allow our hearts to become one with Christ's so we WILL have His joy here and certainly throughout eternity! Love this post!

Jc_Freak: said...

Excellent post!

Tony-Allen said...

Good to see you back!

bossmanham said...

Thanks, Tony.

TheGroothuisFactor said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
TheGroothuisFactor said...

Bro, you just got owned in this thread.

bossmanham said...

Um, are you kidding? I wouldn't call it "owned."