XFiles Weekend: The absurdity of “ultimate meaning”

(Book: On Guard, by William Lane Craig. Chapter 2: “What difference does it make if God exists?”)

Last week, Dr. Craig tried to argue that, without God, life has no meaning, no value, and no purpose. In doing so, however, he seems to have overlooked the fact that meaning, value, and purpose are all subjective qualities that only exist relative to the person perceiving them. That’s important, because it raises the possibility that we can be wrong about the meanings, values, and purposes we perceive in life. As even the Bible says, “There is a way which seems right to a man, but its end is the way of death.” Just because we find some “meaning” that we find pleasant, or satisfying, or reassuring, doesn’t guarantee that our meaning accurately reflects what’s really true in real life.

It’s rather sad to watch Dr. Craig in this week’s installment, as he tries to cloud our reasoning with scare tactics, emotional appeals, and some rather blatant appeals to the fallacy of wishful thinking. He’s trying to zoom in on the idea of “ultimate meaning,” which in his view means a meaning that exists for all eternity. It’s a rather illogical concept, because unless people themselves are eternal, it’s nonsense to talk about eternal meaning, since the meaning will not last longer than the people who perceive it. And if we assume that people are eternal, then it’s pointless to try and use this argument to show that people are eternal, because that’s just circular reasoning. But Dr. Craig’s argument is even worse, because he’s not just arguing immortality, he’s using it to try and prove the existence of God, which is a complete non sequitur.

He begins with a section entitled, “The Absurdity of Life without God,” thus continuing his categorical error from last week’s installment. He wants to argue that if you do not believe in a Christian-style God, then your life is absurd and devoid of meaning.  “If God does not exist,” he argues, “then both man and the universe are inevitably doomed to death.” This is a style of argumentation that professional philosophers and theologians categorize as “bullshit.” He is combining two unrelated ideas in a way that makes it sound like there’s some kind of connection between the two. But both man and universe could still inevitably die even if there is a God, and likewise we can at least speculate that some non-divine natural or supernatural force might enable man and/or the universe to survive forever, even without there being any God. Dr. Craig’s argument is a nonsensical appeal to a purely emotional fear of death, which he uses to manipulate his readers into believing that God must exist.

He follows this up with stories about how scared and sad he was as a child, when he first learned that he would die someday. Again, an appeal to emotion: we’re supposed to associate fear and despair with the condition of being a non-Christian. But he doesn’t stop there. His next point is about the eventual heat death of the universe itself (as though any of us were going to be around to worry about it!), painting as bleak and hopeless a picture as he can.

Eventually all the stars will burn out, and all matter will collapse into dead stars and black holes. There will be no light; there will be no heat; there will be no life; only the corpses of dead stars and galaxies, ever expanding into the endless darkness and the cold recesses of space—a universe in ruins.

This is not science fiction. This is really going to happen, unless God intervenes. Not only is the life of each individual person doomed; the entire human race and the whole edifice and accomplishment of human civilization is doomed. Like prisoners condemned to death, we await our unavoidable execution. There is no escape. There is no hope.

Personally, I think he should have written this part in blood-red ink, slightly drippy, with an embedded sound chip playing funeral marches, just to really lay on the doom and gloom and despair. Not surprisingly, he skips over the part where the Bible predicts that God’s “intervention” is supposed to consist of a powerful, universal fire that consumes the entire universe. He wants us to associate negative feelings with secularism, no matter how far-fetched and irrational such feelings are. He forgets that, if we are not immortal beings, we’re not going to be here for any of this. It’s all totally irrelevant to us, and it’s completely irrational for anyone to feel bad about it.

But that’s what Dr. Craig is after: the irrational, emotional response. He wants us to feel that life without God has no meaning, so that we forget the fact that real life is filled with meaning—meaning that has nothing at all to do with God or eternity or any of that. But of course, these meanings are what life means to us. And that’s not how Dr. Craig is using the term “meaning.” He wants to talk about some kind of nonsensical “meaning” that exists independently and eternally apart from anybody whose life experiences might otherwise create it.

If each individual person passes out of existence when he dies, then what ultimate meaning can be given to his life? Does it matter in the end whether he ever existed at all? Sure, his life may be important relative to certain other events, but what’s the ultimate significance of any of those events? If everything is doomed to destruction, then what does it matter that you influenced anything? Ultimately it makes no difference.

Mankind is thus no more significant than a swarm of mosquitoes or a barnyard of pigs, for their end is all the same.

Lucky for us there are some reasonable non-Christians around to point out all the meaning and significance that Dr. Craig is so helpless to discover while he is wallowing in his self-induced hysteria of despair. Sure, his view of life is absurd, but it’s absurd because of his fundamental mistake in treating meaning and significance as though they somehow existed on their own, apart from the person who is perceiving them. “Does it matter—“? To whom? “Is it important—“? To whom? “What ultimate meaning—“? For whom? As soon as you answer the question “Who is considering the meaning of this person’s life?”, you find that the meaning once again becomes readily available. The only absurdity lies in Dr. Craig’s false isolation of the concept of “meaning” from its correct context.

He closes his section on “ultimate meaning” with the non sequitur I mentioned before.

[M]an needs more than just immortality for life to be meaningful… If man and the universe could exist forever, but if there were no God, their existence would still have no ultimate significance.

Really? Why not? Unfortunately, his only answer for this is to tell a sci-fi story about an astronaut, marooned on a dead planet, accidentally swallowing a magic potion that makes him life forever. Ok, it would suck to be alone, with nothing to do, for all of time. What does that have to do with real life, or with God? Suppose all we had were the eternal fellowship of our friends and family in a universe that continually renewed and refreshed itself apart from any God? What “meaning” would God supply that this kind of eternal Eden would lack without Him?

Dr. Craig doesn’t even attempt to provide us with anything like a rational answer to this. We’re supposed to be so mired in an irrational, emotional funk that we just blindly buy into whatever he feels like selling us. It’s not even subtle. He’s glorping it on with a giant spatula, from a 55-gallon drum.

In point of fact, Dr. Craig has things exactly backwards. An endless life would not give this life any significant meaning, and would in fact have the opposite effect. Life has meaning because it is short. If you had infinite time to do things in, you wouldn’t have to consider the meaning of various alternatives. You could do them all, eventually. Hey, you’ve got all the time you need, right? Did you commit a crime and spend 20 years in prison? What’s 20 years compared to six hundred trillion centuries? A tiny, insignificant fraction, but six hundred trillion centuries is an even smaller fraction compared to eternity as a whole.

And what are we supposed to do in heaven for all eternity? We have no temptations to resist, no obstacles to overcome, no evil to fight. According to the Bible, all we have to do is praise Jesus, day after day. Sounds like a pretty meaningless existence to me, just doing the same thing over and over again. But maybe that won’t be eternally boring for us by then, right? Maybe God will have transformed us into “praise-bots” programmed to desire nothing more than to do the same thing over and over for all eternity. On the other hand, if that’s the sort of creature we’re supposed to be transformed into, what do any of our mortal experiences have to do with eternity? What does it matter whether we raise a family instead of staying single, or whether we just “get by” instead of working hard? Our mortal experiences have nothing to do with what our experiences in heaven are supposed to be, so really, what ultimate significance do they have?

And let’s not forget, Jesus promised that most of us would be spending eternity in Hell. How significant are your earthly, mortal experiences relative to an eternity of suffering and torment?

Consider, too, what Christians have to offer when trying to explain what sort of “meaning” God supplies to their lives. Ever notice how this “meaning” turns out to be a projected continuation of the mortal experiences people like having? “Oh, we’re going to live forever”—meaning a continuation of the material functions of the brain, without the brain. “We’ll sing hymns and praises”—meaning a continuation of the earthly church services that the believer enjoys. “We’ll be with our loved ones”—meaning a continuation of the earthly relationships they already enjoy.

In every case, the meaning they superstitiously apply to God turns out to be a meaning that is actually derived from our material, mortal existence. The believer imagines these physical experiences continuing on past physical death, but the actual meaning of these experiences is the meaning they get from the secular, physical experiences of real life.

Dr. Craig is trying to scare his readers into an irrational and hysterical despair over the fact that our mortal lives lack some kind of “ultimate” (i.e. eternal) significance. But that’s nonsense. Things do not need to last forever to be significant, meaningful, and worthwhile. Would you despair of the meaning of cleanliness just because you know that your body is only going to get dirty again after you shower? Do you consider eating a delicious breakfast to be “hopeless” just because you know you’ll be hungry again by lunchtime? Is your preschooler “no more significant than a barnyard of pigs” just because he’s not going to be 4 years old forever?

The true meaning of life is not lacking, it’s everywhere, and it derives from the fact that truth is consistent with itself. The self-consistency of the truth is what connects one true fact with another, building the complex chain of meaningful relationships that constitute the meaning of life. As we experience the truth of real-world existence, we encounter these interconnections, and follow them, and thus discover the true meaning of things, within the limits of our mental abilities.

Unfortunately, those abilities are neither omniscient nor infallible, even when we make our best effort to find the real truth. How much worse is our understanding if we deliberately try to fog our own thinking with irrational and irrelevant fears and despairs, like Dr. Craig does? Superstitious appeals to a mythical God only rob life of its true meaning, as Dr. Craig himself consistently demonstrates by his inability to find any meaning apart from God. And what little meaning he can still discover, he misattributes, giving the credit to a God Who does not show up in real life, instead of correctly identifying the earthly and material sources of the meanings he is using.

I had hoped to find William Lane Craig a more reasonable apologist, but I have to say my respect for the man plunged precipitously during the course of reading this chapter. For him to start off with such obviously irrational snake oil as the basis for his later discussion—well, it does not bode well.

2 Responses to “XFiles Weekend: The absurdity of “ultimate meaning””

  1. mikespeir Says:

    “If there’s no God, life has no meaning.”

    Any time somebody uses an appeal to consequences like that I want to scream, “Fine! So maybe there’s no meaning to life. Now, show me your God exists like you promised you would.”

    But life does have meaning–and purpose and joy. Our “survival instinct” doesn’t consist in merely an aversion to extinction. That’s only negative. The guts of it is the joy of living. We want to live–innately. It’s a positive emotion. Unless swamped by some overwhelming contrary emotion, we are born with a propensity to enjoy enjoying life. We would rather just keep on enjoying life. It feels good. Meaning? Purpose? Foundationally, it’s to enjoy life. Then we can build other structures on that.

  2. pboyfloyd Says:

    ”If God does not exist,” he argues, “then both man and the universe are inevitably doomed to death.”

    This, it seems to me, is like saying, “If everyone I meet doesn’t just love me, I couldn’t take it, I just wouldn’t be able to stand it..”

    Grow up little Billy Craig!

    “We’re ALL DOOMED!!”

    What a laugh.

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