Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Morality and meaning

I'm reposting some comments I left over at Justin Taylor's blog:

steve hays October 8, 2011 at 7:40 pm
Mike B.

“Dr. Craig’s discussion seems very confused. He seems to be talking about a number of different topics. First, there’s the difference between objective and subjective meaning. The problem here is that meaning delivered from on high is not really objective. It’s just someone else’s subjective desires and purposes. Instead of the subjective desires of humans, it reflects the subjective desires of God. You could say that it’s transcendent meaning, in the sense that it goes beyond our individual preferences, but it’s still not objective.”

Actually, Mike is confused. Even at a human level, an author or engineer generally has a better understanding of what he intended than a second party. He knows the purpose of his artifacts. He’s the best interpreter of what he meant.

steve hays October 8, 2011 at 10:37 am

“Just because meaning in life is subjective does not in itself make that meaning unimportant or not powerful. The meaning that people give to their lives and experiences can produce inspiring journeys of thoughtful endeavour, relationships and sacrifice that are every bit as meaningful to the person and their community as in the case of someone who sees meaning more closely related to what happens after death.”

Actually, a fundamental way to evaluate a journey is to judge the journey by the ending. Take a birthday party with a clown, balloons, sunshine, cake, nice presents, smiling laughing kids at play. But suppose the party ends when the kids are killed or wounded in the crossfire of a drive-by shooting.

We wouldn’t say that, overall, it was a swell birthday party except for that little thing which happened at the end. No, the way the party ended completely changes our evaluation of the party as a whole. It erases all the good stuff that came before the bullets began to fly.

“You are presupposing that there is an afterlife and also presupposing that what we do in this life affects that afterlife and also presupposing that we can reliably know what those things are that we can do in this life that affects the afterlife.”

Actually, I’m not presupposing any of that in my response to you. Indeed, you’re now moving the goalpost. Rather, I’m discussing the ramifications of your own presuppositions.

“My conclusion – whether you see your life’s meaning and purpose as objective or subjective, whether you are trying to influence the here and now or whether you are trying to influence eternity – we should try to wring as much value out of our existence as possible and learn from the lives and journeys of others in order to make ours better.”

What if cannibalism gives Jeffrey Dahmer a subjective purpose in life. Something to live for?

“It is hard to imagine how cannibalism could make our lives and journeys better unless we are starving. ”

Your imagination isn’t the relevant frame of reference. Remember, you were discussing subjective meaning. So that’s person-variable. Doesn’t matter whether it’s meaningful to you. It was subjectively meaningful to Jeffrey Dahmer. You can only take issue with his perspective if you shift to what’s objectively meaningful. But your worldview lacks the internal resources to ground an objectively meaningful viewpoint.

“The meaning that people give to their lives and experiences can produce inspiring journeys of thoughtful endeavour, relationships and sacrifice that are every bit as meaningful to the person and their community as in the case of someone who sees meaning more closely related to what happens after death.”

i) That expresses the viewpoint of the living, not the dead. 

ii) If there is no afterlife, then death doesn’t merely dissove individuals, but relationships.

iii) How is sacrifice meaningful if we’re all going to die sooner or later, and that’s the end?

“Is your relationship with your family meaningless?”

i) If there is no afterlife, then–yes–that’s meaningless.

ii) And it’s not just the absence of an afterlife that renders life meaningless–if atheism is true.

For if atheism is true, then the value you place on relationships is just a projection. Natural selection has programmed your brain to value family and friends. A mindless physical process has conditioned you to feel that way. But it’s just chemistry. There is no intelligent, benevolent agent behind the process.

“It also could be argued that in the case that you believe that you are chosen for eternity in heaven from the beginning of creation, then whatever you do in this life is ultimately pretty meaningless in terms of influencing eternity – the outcome will be the same, 70-80 years of character growth and relationship development with God can’t have have that great an impact in light of eternity. So meaning still ends up being, in practice, about our mortal lives, even if we have heaven to look forward to.”

i) You seem to be confusing predestination with fatalism. They’re not the same.

In fatalism, the agent has the libertarian freedom to do otherwise, but every alternate route leads him to the same outcome. Whatever he does or doesn’t do has the same result.

In predestination, by contrast, we do whatever God decrees, but God has decreed us to be causal agents whose actions have consequences. Some events wouldn’t eventuate if we hadn’t done what we did.

ii) If, in the providence of God, I practice friendship evangelism, and God blesses my efforts with success, then the effect of my actions carries over into eternity. What I do here and now can have eternal results.

“A terrorist may think that the act of killing people today will be rewarded in heaven tomorrow and that this is the meaning of that act and their existence. However I would argue that there is no evidence that such reward will be forthcoming and that therefore they have foolishly wasted their life and caused great pain to themselves and others.”

At which point you shifted from subjective meaning to objective meaning.

“I propose the following agreement among us. ‘A theist worldview allows for the ‘meaning’ that we or others or God attributes to our lives to have ongoing existence beyond death but a non-theist worldview, even though not eternally significant, can still have great significance to the individual and others during their life regardless of how their life ends and regardless of whether of not others value or appreciate or agree with their attribution of significance.’”

I don’t agree with that.

“The central disagreement I have with Dr Craig is that he is redefining ‘meaning’ according to theist presuppositions when he says that the only meaning worth anything much is eternally relevant meaning. If there is no God then this is a nonsense statement.”

i) That’s not merely his presupposition. He argues for that presupposition.

ii) Moreover, that’s not merely a “theist” presupposition. There are atheists like Quentin Smith and Woody Allen who admit that atheism renders life meaningless.

“As I said earlier, just because meaning has only temporarily lasting effects does not make it meaningless…”

Yes, you’re repeating yourself. However, we’ve presented counterarguments.

“…and I personally would argue that following a theist religion for which there is little evidence is a grasping at certainty and meaning for our lives that is illusory.”

But that’s not an actual argument. That’s just an assertion.

“In relation to the moral argument, if you are a theist and are arguing with Hitler about his actions, you can say ‘don’t kill the Jews because God says so.’”

You’re confusing the epistemology of ethics with the ontology of ethics. It isn’t wrong to kill Jews just because God says so. Divine revelation is a way of knowing or confirming what’s right or wrong, but that’s grounded in divine creation. We are supposed to act in certain ways because God made us in certain ways.

“If you are a non-theist you can say ‘don’t kill the Jews because our community finds it immoral.’”

What community would that be? Can’t be Nazi Germany (or Austria or Poland). Can’t be the community which was killing Jews.

What you’ve just given us as moral relativism in the form of cultural relativism.

“In both cases Hitler can choose to agree or disagree and in both cases our response can be ‘if you don’t stop we will make you stop.’”

Disagree with whom? What makes you think Hitler chose to flout communal norms? Ever heard of the Nürnberger Gesetze?

“You can call the non-theists stand objective if you like, but in that case it is an objectivity not grounded in theism.”

You seem to labor under the illusion that moral relativism is a Christian caricature of atheism. Something that only Christians impute to atheism. You’re apparently oblivious to the fact that many atheists are avowed moral relativists, viz. Joel Marks, Hector Avalos, J. I Mackie, Michael Ruse, Taner Edis, Richard Joyce.


  1. steve what do you think of the moral argument by Christian apologists, do you think it is mostly rational or just emotionally appealing as they normally claimed. a consistent atheist(or nihilist) will just say that they will just live amoral lives and make the most out of their existence on earth since life is short, is that argument rational?

  2. In principle, moral relativism isn't self-contradictory the way alethic relativism is. Still, it highlights the inhuman cost of atheism.

    Moreover, it also lays an ax at the root of truth, for if there are no objective moral norms, then there's no obligation to believe truths and disbelieve falsehoods.