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January 27, 2015


This is an interesting question, but one that is ultimately not the most important one. If God exists, then obviously we will define meaning based on this God. If God does not exist, then we will try to look for meaning somewhere else. However, if I were an atheist, I think I would feel somewhat frustrated, as you have to find some sort of meaning in the backdrop of a world without objective morality and value, and without any direction. I really do wonder where atheists find meaning and a reason to live. Some proposed answers are: pleasure, children or propagation of the next generation, or asceticism, or living in the moment seeing beauty or something like that. I certainly don't envy atheists, but if that is where the data actually lead, I would have to face reality. But the date the way reality is do not lead to that, not even close.

This is right in line with existentialist philosophy in saying that we as humans define our own purpose in this life. Positing that we give ourselves this purpose implies that we also give our own definitions of what is true, right, wrong, good, bad etc. I believe there in lies the major issue with theists since objective truth, moral values and such are cornerstones for belief in a God. Saying that you can have a purpose in a world that is without a Creator God is essentially assuming that our universe is either eternal or it was self created. Well we know the universe had a beginning so it follows that one must adhere to the belief that we exist because of spontaneous generation and then we must ask the question "how can something be before it was"?
The only way one's life can have purpose is if it exists for a reason and there can be no reason for our existence apart from an intentional Creator. What true purpose can we have if life just arose from nothing for no apparent reason? We would live in a world ruled by opinion with no standard to measure morality or obtain any real truth. This way of thinking and living puts the only truth in the mind of the subject and is unacceptable for the believer since he or she believes in objective truth and values.
I think that some theists might want to live in this type of world where we determine our reality and give ourselves purpose. However this reasoning cannot be logical to anyone who believes in a personal God

It's not really the issue of one's self-derived purpose(s), but of ultimate purpose. I see my purpose is not my neighbor's. Everyone has a place in life where each can strive in different directions often towards the same goals. The purposeful father has a different path than a purposeful bachelor.

Purpose has such a motivating force in life. But there is a degree of purpose that runs from the shallow and immature to the deep and thoughtful. The child's purpose of looking forward to ice cream with grandma on the weekend will one day have to deal with the reality of grandma's passing. JBerr offers excellent alternate purposes an atheist could embrace, but they all have the problem of becoming old and irrelevant on occasion.

The challenge does pose an excellent question, and a thoughtful reading of Ecclesiastes only prompt us to admit: When people live to be very old, let them rejoice in every day of life. But let them also remember there will be many dark days. Everything still to come is meaningless. (Eccl. 11: 8) It is not so much a search for purpose, but for ultimate purpose. Noble purpose. Materialistic philosophy cannot offer this much.

Which is why Ecclesiastes concludes: That’s the whole story. Here now is my final conclusion: Fear God and obey his commands, for this is everyone’s duty. God will judge us for everything we do, including every secret thing, whether good or bad. (Eccl. 12: 13, 14)

The challenge is (directly) about meaning. A few points here which help us get there, though indirectly.

E. Feser touches (indirectly) on such lines with PART-ONE and PART-TWO.

Feser notes the problem of intractability and another commentator notes the problem of fiction:

“....In short, the scientific method “explains everything else” in the world in something like the way the “sweep it under the rug” method gets rid of dirt -- by taking the irreducibly qualitative and teleological features of the world, which don’t fit the quantitative methods of science, and sweeping them under the rug of the mind. And just as the literal “sweep it under the rug” method generates under the rug a bigger and bigger pile of dirt which cannot in principle be gotten rid of using the “sweep it under the rug” method, so too does modern science’s method of treating irreducibly qualitative, semantic, and teleological features as mere projections of the mind generate in the mind a bigger and bigger “pile” of features which cannot be explained using the same method. This is the reason the qualia problem, the problem of intentionality, and other philosophical problems touching on human nature are so intractable. Indeed, it is one reason many post-Cartesian philosophers have thought dualism unavoidable. If you define “material” in such a way that irreducibly qualitative, semantic, and teleological features are excluded from matter, but also say that these features exist in the mind, then you have thereby made of the mind something immaterial. Thus, Cartesian dualism was not some desperate rearguard action against the advance of modern science; on the contrary, it was the inevitable consequence of modern science (or, more precisely, the inevitable consequence of regarding modern science as giving us an exhaustive account of matter).” (E. Feser)

A comment by J. West afterwards reads as follows: “I think materialism can lead to a strange regress: fictional objects, fictional counterfactuals, fictional mathematics, fictional free will, until everything is fictional and we're back floating in a jar, hallucinating the world. Perhaps eliminative materialism is the final absurdity in the regress -- eliminating even the mind.”

The fundamental mistake with the challenge in the OP is that it is missing that oh-so-necessary embrace of words like Fiction, Wish Fulfillment, Autohypnosis, Pretend, Make Believe, Fairy Tale, and so on. Except for that, the challenge makes a “valid” point….. whatever “valid’ is supposed to “mean”. In doing so the challenger plays the role of the ostrich – his head in the sand while pretending – perhaps while chanting – that reality just sort of magically stops at the interface between “eyeball” and “sand”. Reality, of course, laughs.

If a tree falls down in the woods and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound? I've always felt the best answer to that question is, "who cares?" We can debate whether or not true meaning is possible in a godless universe, but ultimately a temporary existence can only achieve temporary meaning, which on an eternal time line reduces to no meaning at all.

The atheist commenter also seems to connect size with importance, a principle which is both common and ridiculous. I believe CS Lewis addressed this fallacy in Mere Christianity. Lives matter, size does not. If our pale blue dot is the only to contain living creatures, then it is by far the most important place in the universe, and the rest of the universe only achieves significance by being observed by us.

In a materialistic worldview a person has only the purpose that he or she creates. Is that truly a purpose? The definition of purpose is the reason for which something is done or created or for which something exists. Someone would need to know your goal to know your purpose. Purpose is outward it is for other people to know about you, otherwise purpose doesn't exist.
In a subjective world I can't know your true purpose because I am not you. You can tell me what it is but from my subjective point of view your purpose can be something totally different. That is why there has to be an objective purpose.. an objective truth. Otherwise we would live in a world where a person's purpose is completely subjective and pointless.
Hitler had a subjective purpose he wanted to make the world a better place by getting rid of lesser humans. We all know looking at it that his subjective purpose was wrong because we know from an objective truth that killing a human just because they are genetically inferior is wrong. His end goal was a better world, his purpose from his mind was to rid the world of people that didn't help with this goal.

If there is no God and there is no objective moral truth then we are relegated to the idea that anyone's subjective purpose can be right. We are relegated to the fact that if everything is subjective then people like Hitler could be right and you can't have two truths in that situation. Either it is good to kill innocent people or it is bad to kill innocent people. If it is bad to kill innocent people then that truth exists outside of the subjective realm and in the objective. If objective exists then God has to exist because in order to have common objective truths then those truths would have had to exist from the beginning, outside of our subjective understanding.

Let's say that the entire universe will end in 20 seconds. No life after death, no future generations, We're all just going gentle into that good night.

It is utterly true that I would want to spend that last gasp in the embrace of my wife and children. Given the specification of the case, I can't think of any reason that I would want to do this. It will mean nothing to anyone, because in the end, there is no one for it to mean anything to. Given the specification of the case, my final embrace is a pointless and futile gesture. It would be as pointless and futile as to decide to start learning French at that time.

Doubling the time left to the world doesn't improve matters. Neither does doubling it again help. Or again. Or again...

Rage against the dying of the light all you like, but in the end, if the light really does die, you might as well rage against a bag of rocks.

Solomon had all this covered.

If I say my purpose is to:

Stay drunk, have lots of extra-marital sex, do lots of drugs, not work (I have a trust fund), have fun, not hurt anyone, and just plain be me. The non-theist has to say, “Good for you”. The non-theist doesn’t want to define my purpose after all.

But’s that’s not good for anyone, is it? Why?

The non-theist doesn’t know.

In my opinion, William Lane Craig's addressing of this topic is the best I have read--you can find it at:

It depends on what one means by "meaning". In this context I think many people use the expression to refer to a visceral sense of their own value. Many Christians unfortunately use it in this sense as well.

This begs the question as to what we base our value or meaning. If we say there is one who created us, then we can attribute any visceral sense of value to that one, whether that one is the true God or not. If we desire, for whatever reason, to say there is no one who created us, then we need a different foundation for value. Without a self-revealing creator of some sort, then whatever answer anyone comes up with has serious epistemological problems. It's possible to simply claim to make up one's own value, but how does someone know even then that there isn't something greater? And if that's the case, then the Christian worldview is just as likely. So there is no authoritative challenge that can be made to the Christian idea of "meaning".

But Christians have a God who is self-revealing. We couldn't know about him unless he revealed himself, which he has done. And because he has created all things, he has the right to assign value and tell us what that value is. That's where we get meaning for our very existence, from the one who created us.

It's like the value of gold. Gold isn't practical to eat, drink, wear, or use in construction. For most of history, it's practical value lies in its shiny appearance, and only until recent times has found some practical use as an electrical conductor. So why do people treat it like it has value? The reason is because for millennia enough people have been convinced that it is worth trading enough to have trade value. So it's worth whatever it's selling for in the market. What happens when there is no food, wares, or services to buy? The gold becomes worthless. Imagine now, a kingdom. There are people and the king has taken all the gold from the the lands and minted coins. He then declares that each gold coin is worth a day's wages. After specifying what that is, he declares that all goods can be traded at the King's market for gold coins and that those gold coins can be traded for other practical goods and services at the King's market. So that king has declared that gold is worth something practical. The value is in the King's word as well as the produce of the kingdom. That's the way it is with us. Our Creator is our King and he has determined our value, both to him as well as in his Kingdom. To claim to have something of value that isn't the King's gold is to sow counterfeit currency in the Kingdom. Someday the King will recall all the gold coins and throw out what is counterfeit.

This question seems to be attempting to move the goal posts a bit.

Let's back up. If we are saying God does not exist [and this is currently an assumption base on the comment], then the alternative explanation is that we are simply a random accident, a clump of cells that through time an chance evolved over eons WITHOUT any design, purpose or meaning.

So the very worldview this person is putting forth denies the very existence of meaning in and of itself as such a proposition has an implicit sense of meaninglessness.

But the theistic worldview states we were created. Implicit in this is a design, a purpose a meaning. The person making the comment is only proposing a view from their perspective, but the moment they step outside of themselves and say that things have meaning - even if it's in an atheist sense, they have given an objective view that requires a design, a purpose and a meaning that defeats the atheist view. So this statement fails on it's own merits.

If there is no God, then there is no meaning to life in the ultimate sense. We are all just cosmic accidents--molecules just bouncing around. In an purely materialistic universe, morals are all relative. If all we have are these 70-80 years of existence, why not be as selfish as possible? Why care about society or other people? There is no reason not to in a world devoid of God. If there is no God, then we might as well just "eat, drink, and be merry for tomorrow we die."

God is what gives our lives meaning. He is the grounds for our meaning. Everything we have is grounded in God--our purpose, our morals, etc. Without God, like I said, we are all just molecules. Just purely physical beings with physical appetites. Without God, our purpose becomes satisfying those physical appetites at all costs. There is no way around this. There is no reason to be charitable, there is no reason to care about other people. It would be a nihilistic and narcissistic society. That is the only logical conclusion to a universe without a God.

But, we are not just physical beings. We are made in the image of God. We have a purpose and that purpose is to know God and glorify Him in all that we do. Because there is a God, we can love our neighbors and attempt to better the world for future generations. Why bother to do this if there is no God--no ultimate meaning to life? Why should you care what happens to the universe once you blink out of existence in a universe without God? From a logical and rational standpoint you shouldn't. One might counter and say that it's our common duty as a member of the human race to care about future generations in a godless universe. To that I say, why? If you really think about it, to not be selfish in a purely naturalistic world would be an insane thing to do. It would be an extreme waste of your time to care about a future in which nothing matters ultimately. There is no ultimate point in a purely physical universe.

The reason why it isn't insane to care is because there is a God who made us. There is a God who wants us to love our neighbors as ourselves. There is a God who wants the best for those who believe in Him. That's why there is meaning. He's the only reason there is one.

These are some thoughts that exploded into my head recently;

There is a theory that we and all that we are, including our thoughts and personalities are the out workings of the Big Bang.

So in an atheistic sense, folks might find meaning in that they are just a part of nature, doing their part for better or for worse. There is no right or wrong, no free will, just that some of our choices place us on a collision course with others as we jostle about in our part of the explosion.

Then there is the predestinarian view that could agreeably say; that if all of this is true, then the Big Bang emanates from intelligence and design, that is, God who determined that everything, including our thoughts and actions would result in fulfilling His purposes.

So we like the atheist, would feel that we are a part of something profound. Only we would stager trying to comprehend the mind and power behind this. If the effect points to the cause, we would collapse in awe and worship. This would be the highest level of our meaning.

If there are others in the universe, (angels etc.) we would find meaning and purpose as we serve to illustrate the glory of God. Much like the Old Testament rituals and ceremonies served to illustrate the glory of God to spiritually enlightened.

So it’s all based on how we interpret the same set of observations. We all find meaning in being an active part of the whole. Some just take it further and find a “Designer” behind anything designed.

From the Westminster Shorter Catechism:

Question. 1. What is the chief end of man?
Answer. Man's chief end is to glorify God, and to enjoy him for ever.

Why do theists insist that the universe, and my life and your life have actual meaning, why can't we settle for finding things in life that simply make us feel meaningful? Against the "magnitude of physical reality" I am aware that anything that only makes me "feel" significant is just an illusion. I don't need Douglas Adams' "Total Perspective Vortex" to make me aware of how utterly insignificant a six-foot tall bag of water grubbing around on an 8,000 mile diameter rock spinning around one of 10 hexillion stars in a 30 billion-light-year-diameter universe really is; I just need to go out on a clear night and look up. I don't need to imagine myself enjoying the evening's entertainment at Millyway's (the Restaurant at the End of the Universe) watching the last few stars in the universe burn out so I can return home no longer having to worry about the future of the universe safe in the knowledge that it hasn't got one to know that without a point, the universe and everything in the universe doesn't have a point.

Even Douglas Adams tried to mitigate the stark nihilism of his classic "Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy" with "local meaning" when he worked on the script for the 2005 movie before he died. But it fails to work. The very point of the book is that as meaningless as the answer "42" is to the question of "life, the universe, and everything", it still makes more sense than the question itself.

But this question, one of the Big Questions, has a long pedigree. Five hundred years ago Hamlet asked it in the famous "To be or not to be" soliloquy. Why put up with how rotten the world is, he asks, when one could simply quiet all the objections, injustices,problems, pains, and frustrations by slipping a knife between your ribs. Because, he concludes, we're all afraid that after we die we might actually discover there is a Meaning behind it all, and be held accountable.

My own problem with the idea of "relative meaning" is that it reduces the universe to population me. You and your feelings only have meaning as they impact my own feeling of significance. I'm not helping those poor, huge eyed, starving kids on the commercial because the kids are significant. I'm only helping them because it makes me feel bad to see them suffering and it makes me feel good to think that I'm doing something about it to send in my sponsorship check. But I can't look at other human beings and not think that there is something incomprehensibly important there.

The problem with the question is not that I insist on an "all or nothing" meaning for the universe, it's that I do see Meaning in the universe. I see Beauty in the universe. I see Truth in the universe. I see Good in the universe, and Evil too. If the universe is merely matter and energy banging around in time and space, then either I'm seeing an illusion or there's something to the universe that goes beyond mere matter, energy, space, and time. Either the meaning and purpose in the universe that humans across time and culture have perceived is simply an illusion created by a sentient brains so we can avoid our sheer insignificance against the "magnitude of physical reality" or our minds are "hard wired" to see meaning and design in the world and people around us, precisely because the Designer designed us to.

"I imagine the size of the universe
and then wonder what's out past the edges.
Then I discover inside me a space as big
and believe that I'm meant to be filled up with more than just questions.

So God, if your there, I wish you'd show me.
And God, if your there, then I need you to know me.
I hope you don't mind me asking such questions,
but I figure your big enough."
- Chris Rice

How can meaning possibly exist outside the mind of a subject who finds things meaningful? Imagine a king deciding the meaning of a subject is to clean the horse stable. What meaning can the king's decision have if not accepted by the subject? Only if the subject decides it is meaningful based on that subject's emotions and values does it carry any meaning. If some particular god decides that he wants you to worship him forever, but you don't find that meaningful, does it still have meaning? How? Because a slave accepts the plan of the master for his or her life, is that to say there is intrinsic meaning in the master's plan? How is that possible? It is only the attachment of meaning by a meaning-assigning mind that the plan is ever meaningful. Meaning therefore is not "out there" in objects or in plans independent of a mind that evaluates the object or plan to assess whether that object or plan is meaningful. To treat meaning as something magically imputed to objects or decrees or plans by masters or kings is ridiculous. Meaning only exists after a mind determines something to be meaningful. Looking for the will of a master to give you meaning is severely misguided, and is no way to live life.

How can meaning possibly exist outside the mind of a subject who finds things meaningful?
Good point, so no one's life is meaningful after they are gone. Life can only have any permanent meaning if the one who lives that life is immortal.

Which world-view is it again that endorses the immortality of the soul?

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