Thursday, February 05, 2009

Meaning of life apologetics and the Keith Parsons rebuttal

Here is an account of a new debate by Bill Craig in Canada. One thing to notice about this debate, however, is that Craig is defending a proposition here about which he and Richard Dawkins profoundly agree. Both of them, emphatically, think the question of God is enormously important!! While the idea that the question of God doesn't matter is popular in the general public, there is something a bit strange in an atheist arguing the negative side of that issue.

Craig says: But I noticed that in the debate I was watching, he actually said exactly what I was going to argue that evening, namely, that if there is no God, then “the universe is devoid of any absolute meaning or moral sense.” I decided to camp on that point and added his quotation to the end of my opening speech.

A couple of points. First, while I think the question of God is profoundly important, and I do think that the type of meaning we might find in life is going to differ whether we are theists or atheists, I question whether these sorts of considerations are as devastating to atheism as Craig makes them sound. Keith Parsons, in his debate with Craig and in his essay on misconceptions of atheism, suggests a line of defense against this "meaning of life apologetics" that I have yet to see answered effectively.

The first point is that many atheists lead what they consider to be meaningful lives. They have friendships and other close personal relationship, they pursue the truth, they watch football games and eat pizza, etc. The meaning of life apologist then answers that this isn't "absolute" or "ultimate" meaning. The second point in the Keith Parsons rebuttal is to point out that this need for "absolute" or "ultimate" meaning is one that is imposed by a theistic or especially Christian world-view, and need not be accepted by an atheist. We can, to use C. S. Lewis's phrase "rub along quite well" without it. The typical next step in meaning of life apologetics is to bring out various nonbelievers who bewail the lack of meaning in life without God. Russell's "firm foundation of unyielding despair" is a typical one that Craig actually quoted in his debate with Parsons; a few quotes from existentialists like Sartre and Camus (the most important philosophical problem is the question of suicide) will do the trick also. But here Parsons can (and did) point out that the Russell quote is taken out of context if viewed from the perspective of the philosopher's total life, and the emotional reactions of people like Camus are surely not logically necessary for atheists, in fact, as Eric Koski suggested to me in correspondence, these reactions may be temper tantrums on the part of people who long for a lost faith, but hardly normative for atheists in general.

OK, so where does the Meaning of Life Apologetic go from here, in response to the Keith Parsons rebuttal? Maybe something like the Lewis-style argument from desire might be tried at this point. But I am claiming that, so far as I can tell, the Meaning of Life Apologetic as developed by Craig doesn't seem to me to have a good answer to the Keith Parsons rebuttal. Unless there is something I missed in Craig.

20 comments:

Clayton said...

Agreed. I think that it's important to remember that if it's fair to pull out the quote from Russell, it's fair for the atheist to pull out the quote from Dahmer. Craig, I suppose, endorses Dahmer's assertion, "If a person doesn’t think there is a God to be accountable to, then—then what’s the point of trying to modify your behaviour to keep it within acceptable ranges? That’s how I thought anyway. I always believed the theory of evolution as truth, that we all just came from the slime. When we, when we died, you know, that was it, there is nothing…"

The atheist can say to Jeff and WLC that it should only take mundane things to justify refraining from eating a delicious looking pizza delivery guy. But, apparently WLC thinks there's nothing on Earth that justifies resisting the urge to be a cannibal. That's scary (to me).

Edward T. Babinski said...

I desire to live forever. But I also know death is inevitable and that I don't know what happens after death. I don't have personal first hand knowledge of an afterlife. Neither do I see corpses leaping out of graves, alive. Neither do I feel that I know much about any resurrections that allegedly happened in Jerusalem during the first century. "Appearances" can be deceiving, and people seem prone to believe lots of different weird things.

I also feel frustrated by the bodily ascension story in Luke-Acts. Jesus eats and tells them he is not a spirit, and then Jesus "led" them from a room in Jerusalem to a mountain just outside Jerusalem in Bethany. No record of them stopping to show themselves to anyone. "Hey look at that guy eating fish! Didn't we exectue him a day and a half ago?" A quiet progression out of town through the big city of Jerusalem, probably still packed with pilgrims, and then this flesh and bone body of Jesus rose into the sky and vanished behind a cloud? According to Acts only the apostles saw the bodily ascension. After which, no body.

Why rise into the sky anyway? Even if Jesus continued rising as fast as the speed of light he wouldn't be a hundreth of the way out of our single galaxy yet. Makes no sense cosmologically speaking. Unless of course they were sure "heaven" was fairly close "above" the earth. Then God might "put on a show" of "rising" up and vanishing "behind a cloud."

So God likes to "put on shows?" But no show for the people in Jerusalem the night the raised Jesus showed himself only to a few apostles, after which Jesus quietly left town. How unlike Jesus' entrance into Jerusalem, which was supposedly greeted by Hosannas and crowds waving leaves and shouting, Blessed is He! Surely Jesus' exit should have been at least as grand as his exit. No, instead we have to take it all on faith.

And why go through all that show in Luke's tale about the raised Jesus eating fish and telling them he was definitely "not a spirit," but instead had "flesh and bone," when Paul said that Jesus was raised in a "spiritual body?"

And why should I take this first century story as the Gospel truth, when according to the last written Gospel, one of Jesus' own apostles refused to believe the story unless he first met the raised Jesus personally and put his hand in his side? Of course that story itself sounds like it arose or the church invented it in order to get people to believe "without seeing."

I'd have more reason to believe if people rising from graves was more common. Such stories are rare indeed, while death is incredibly undeniably common.

What is also common is fear of death. Hence the attraction to religions that promise you will live forever if only you "believe" like they do, and read what they tell you is "God's word," and perform certain communal acts like the "Lord's supper." All to help erase one's fears of death.

Martyrdoms of course also build on prior martyrdoms. "If HE was so brave as to face death for his beliefs and actions, then I will too! And we'll all live together in happy afterlife land!" I think martyrdom is also part of that individual's attempt to convince HIMSELF of the certainty of his own beliefs and to lead others down that same path, since the knowledge that you have led other minds to agree with your own beliefs is in itself an attractive thought to the martyr, another goad to lead him toward martyrdom.

Such martyrs have also been taught to believe they are going to live forever and escape from this transitory world with death, etc. So to them martyrdom appears to be the most attractive choice.

SteveK said...

"The meaning of life apologist then answers that this isn't "absolute" or "ultimate" meaning. The second point in the Keith Parsons rebuttal is to point out that this need for "absolute" or "ultimate" meaning is one that is imposed by a theistic or especially Christian world-view, and need not be accepted by an atheist."

This works in reverse if I'm not mistaken to the detriment of Parson's (presumed) belief that naturalism describes ultimate reality. In other words, yes, naturalism may paint the picture of ultimate reality, but the theistic worldview 'rubs along quite well'.

I don't actually believe that naturalism is the ultimate explanation, but few atheists/relativists I've run into would agree with this line of reasoning enough to leave the so-called meaning of life apologist live as they please - yet they want theists to accept the same reasoning from Parson's. Why?

unkle e said...

I'm not surprised at your conclusion. Who ever thought God could be proved or disproved anyway? I think the argument from meaning, ethics, etc, works differently.

One New Testament scholar (Prof F Watson, Aberdeen University) suggests that "Jesus' public ministry imposes itself on the populace of Galilee in the form of a question rather than an answer, and it permits a range of answers."

I think these arguments work the same way. They ask questions, such as .... Are you happy to believe that all ethics are subjective and relative? Are you happy to live a life that has no ultimate purpose? Do you think you can honestly live consistently with these conclusions (e.g. never get morally outraged that something really wrong has been done)? Do you think that these questions make a little more open-minded consideration of God worthwhile?

If a person is willing and able to "harden their heart" and mind against these clues that there may be more to life than naturalism suggests, then they are making the choice God allows them to make. Much as we regret it, that is their choice. But the arguments have done their part, just as Jesus' ministry did.

normajean said...

Good word, unkle e!

Anonymous said...

I don't think the 'meaning of life' apologist's response is simply "Well, that's not ultimate or absolute meaning". The argument seems meant to play on (what I think they suspect is) an inconsistency in the worldview of atheists. Is morality merely the stuff of subjective invention? Then accept that any moral judgment you make or perspective you take is not speaking to a greater, ultimate truth of the matter - it's subjective, period. Nothing you value has value beyond the subjective either, whether it's a particular person, a concept, or otherwise. Not only are you mistaken if you think otherwise, but - if you accept atheism from the outset - you have no chance of ever being truly correct about what you value.

Craig isn't denying that someone can be happy or find subjective meaning while an atheist. His argument seems to be that that happiness (or other types of fulfillment) can only be attained by ignoring what's necessitated by an atheistic worldview, and typically results in a lot of apparent inconsistency. In one of Craig's talks on this, he not only points out that Sartre bemoans the state of humanity, but goes on to try and argue for something similar to an objective truth or purpose in life - and Craig's response is to immediately point out (rightly, in my view) that Sartre is being inconsistent.

So by Craig's measure, an atheist can, say, 'Devote their lives to fighting for justice'. But their worldview entails that justice is just a subjective thing, and reduces to fighting for what they or their peers personally favor. They can give their life and experiences meaning, but as William Valicella has argued, that comes with the recognition that life and experiences are devoid of meaning (which is why they have to 'give it meaning', and the only 'meaning' they can give is illusory and subjective). Craig's strategy, it seems, is to force this state of affairs out into the open to be confronted. If it highlights inconsistency on the part of some atheists, then those atheists have to choose whether or not to give up on the reality or even possibility of objective meaning, purpose, and value. For onlookers, inconsistency demonstrates an apparent flaw in the atheist perspective.

So if Parsons' reply is "Even atheists can still find pleasure or make their own meaning", that doesn't seem to be much of a reply to Craig. He doesn't deny this can be done - in fact, he seems to expect it. He just thinks it's happening by way of some cognitive dissonance, or a failure to understand what necessarily follows based on what worldview they adhere to.

Anonymous said...

and limbaugh dittos to Anonymous

Perezoso said...

""""So by Craig's measure, an atheist can, say, 'Devote their lives to fighting for justice'. But their worldview entails that justice is just a subjective thing, and reduces to fighting for what they or their peers personally favor""""


Craig seems to suggest only christian believers can know of justice, or preserve justice. Jerry Falwell, crusader for Justice.

The proof's in the pudding more or less--and the history of Christendom hardly establishes the premise that believers (whether christian, jew, muslim) are morally superior to non-believers. Belief in itself doesn't really matter: actions do.

For that matter, God, were He said to exist, has no problem allowing the greatest injustices of history to occur; indeed, He would have planned them (ye old POE, but somewhat relevant to Justice issue).

While Parsons may be a bit eager in terms of rejecting the idea that a sense of religious ethics may control behavior, Craig commits a similar intellectual sin in assuming religion does suffice to control behavior. Besides, many biblethumpers (especially of the calvinistic sort) uphold "dispensationalism" of some form, which basically means "do whatever you want, pilgrim, but attend church, and you're forgiven". The protestant Elect are like the Bush Administration: not bound by mere secular laws.

Perezoso said...

the emotional reactions of people like Camus are surely not logically necessary for atheists


Hmmmmmm. Camus's not a fave of mine, but "emotional reactions" doesn't really do existentialist writing justice: they were pretty cool, anyway, not that emotional. Camus's points on absurdity (including the absurdity of G*d) in the Myth of Sisyphus were not far from Ivan Karamazov's perspective (in Dostoyevsky's Bros. K). It should be remembered that Camus denounced leftist hypocrisy (ie stalinism) as well as the right (nazis). He broke with Sartre's gang.

Existentialism might not suit the tastes of a steinford logician--that's who it was meant to offend. Camus and Co were questioning the premises of technostructure, including analytical philosophy, really.


"""these reactions may be temper tantrums on the part of people who long for a lost faith, but hardly normative for atheists in general."""

Sort of trivial objection. The Stranger's no temper tantrum: au contraire---there's little temper or emotion at all, even when the protagonist pulls a trigger. Think like Humphrey Bogart: amoral characters, not passionate, in a godless world, lacking meaning or purpose.

Indeed the post seems nearly Calvinist-like in terms of french-bashing.

Rob G said...

'Anonymous's' reading of Craig's argument seems to me to be correct. What Craig is arguing is that is is far more consistent to be, say, E.M. Cioran if you're an atheist than it is to be Parsons. In other words, given atheism's belief that morality and meaning are purely subjective, if one holds that view one should be a philosophical pessimist, if not a nihilist, if you're to be consistent.

Anonymous said...

Also, I think Lewis's "Meditation in a Toolshed" applies. We don't usually perceive the light by which we all see. In the same way, the 'deeper magic' (to use another Lewisian phrase) of meaning is that we would expect everyone to have a common framework.
-Steve

Anonymous said...

Poor old God. No one is around to impose a meaning on his life. His life must ultimately be meaningless.

Perezoso said...

atheism's belief that morality and meaning are purely subjective

Ah Senor Atheism believes many thangs, but I don't think he's convinced that, as they say in Notre Dane, morality and meaning are necessarily subjective. Is the Declaration of Ind. purely subjective? Not rilly. Rights of the Peoples, man.

legodesi said...

I think the meaning of life argument is a close parallel to the argument from reason, that our ability to reason must be extensions of an original rationality, they cannot have been started from a non-rational source. Meaning in life, similarily, can be argued to only be the case given an original, objective meaning to life, not one that is constructed from things that don't have meaning. Consciousness, it is argued, cannot be derived by unthinking things. Likewise, purpose can't be ascribed to things that are inherently purposeless.

Eric Koski said...

Perezoso: “… the post seems nearly Calvinist-like in terms of french-bashing.”

Actually, French-bashing can be good clean fun: http://physics.nyu.edu/faculty/sokal/tls.html. (Of course, he’s not really French-bashing per se, although it’s probably not entirely a coincidence that so many of the figures revealed as fools are French.)

“… in a godless world, lacking meaning or purpose.”

The phrase “temper tantrum” was mine originally. It may have applied less to Sartre and Camus than to Sartre-and-Camus-as-parodied-by-Craig. However, the inference in your passage – from “a godless world” to “lacking meaning or purpose” is a theme of at least some existentialist writing, and I stand by my characterizing it as a “temper tantrum”. Part of Craig’s explication of this inference is that life is meaningless without immortality. In other words, life isn’t worth having if you can’t have it eternally. That’s just sour grapes on a cosmic scale.

Legodesi: “Meaning in life, similarily, can be argued to only be the case given an original, objective meaning to life, not one that is constructed from things that don't have meaning.”

Likewise, a thing’s being a truck has to come from some source of inherent truckness. A truck can’t be constructed from things that aren’t themselves trucks.

Anonymous said...

"In other words, life isn’t worth having if you can’t have it eternally. That’s just sour grapes on a cosmic scale."

No. Craig argues that immortality or some kind of actual continuing existence an important part of there being true meaning and purpose in life, but he also argues (and I believe cites Nietzche on this point) that this alone is not sufficient. In fact, the illustration he related in his video argues that eternal and meaningless life would be misery.

Eric Koski said...

Anon: “No. Craig argues that immortality or some kind of actual continuing existence an important part of there being true meaning and purpose in life, …”.

You’re evasively distorting what he says. He doesn’t say immortality is “important” – he says it’s essential. Craig writes, “First, there is no ultimate meaning without immortality and God. If each individual person passes out of existence when he dies, then what ultimate meaning can be given to his life? Does it really matter whether he ever existed or not?” [emphasis in the original]

My statement is a fair paraphrase. As for the rest of the argument, see Parsons’ original post.

Perezoso said...

Kotski, I've read Bricmont--Belgian, anyways, and not a friend of zionists-- for a few years. He's not a Dawkins-like reductionist, anyway, but a marxist, or near to.

The Bricmont/Sokal hoax wasn't about Camus, or the french (in fact it was mostly American leftists who fell for it). So your point has little to do with anything. But your racism and reductionism has been noted (temper tantrum....heh heh).

Like I said, those who don't know Ivan Karamazov from a matzo ball probably shouldn't write on existentialism (or even the meaning of life). Indeed, Ivan in Bros K. does not believe in G*d, and offers a fairly sound defense of the problem of evil in a somewhat reduced form (as anyone who read Bros K realizes, Ivan has "been around" and read french skeptics, including Voltaire's Candide. These days, few American techie-scientists could conjugate a french or spanish verb much less finish a novel).

Skepticism and atheism didn't start with that simpering oxford dandy Dawkins, or Sagan's simpleton-skepticism (really, they make Russell seem like Socrates in comparison). It started with people like Hume and Voltaire. Even SJ Gould, however crass he was on occasion, was not supportive of the Dawkins bottlewashers and neo-atheist gang.

Rasmus Møller said...

"Likewise, a thing’s being a truck has to come from some source of inherent truckness. A truck can’t be constructed from things that aren’t themselves trucks."

It is poetically true on so many levels - it so reminds me "The Little Prince by Antoine de Saint - Exupery" :)

However, I suppose it is meant to counter the reason / meaning argument, and I can only see it supporting it instead.

The "source of inherent truckness" is the creator's mind, without which they would not exist as "trucks". And if you say that "truckness" is in the eye of the beholder, it empties the content of "truckness".

Anonymous said...

Rasmus, to your last sentence, it sure as hell does, u are correct!