i'm reading through Erik Wielenberg's book Value and Virtue in a Godless Universe again and i figured i'd put down some thoughts here both for the benefit of the community and to help me order my thoughts better. so begins my series on Value and Virtue in a Godless Universe.
the description of the book begins as follows:
Suppose there is no God. Would the implication be that human life is meaningless, that the notions of right and wrong, virtue and vice, good and evil have no place, and that there are no moral obligations – hence people can do whatever they want?
and this will be a familiar enough question to most everyone here. we often hear it posed to us in some form by theists.
Wielenberg first tackles meaning. he rightly points out that there are a few ways a person may interpret the claim that human life would have no meaning if god didn't exist.
he offers 3 types of meaning that a life could have:
1. supernatural meaning- "for a life to have meaning is for a it to have a purpose that is assigned by a supernatural being."
2. external meaning- "for a life to have meaning is for it to bring goodness in to the universe. when a life has meaning in this sense, the universe is better off than it would have been had the life not been lived."
3. internal meaning- "for a life to have meaning is for it to be good for the person who lives it and for it to include activity that is worthwhile."
Wielenberg points out that external and internal meaning, while seeming similar, are actually distinct. he offers that it is possible for a life to have internal meaning yet lack external meaning.
Suppose a person engages in worthwhile activity that brings him pleasure and gives his life internal meaning. Suppose further that what gives his activity worth is that through it he accomplishes some meaningful goal. But suppose that if he had never lived, the same goal would have been accomplished by someone else who would have enjoyed accomplishing it just as much as he did. In this case, his life lacks external meaning because the universe would have been just as good if he had never lived. Yet his life has internal meaning. At least initially, it appears that it is also possible for a life to have external meaning but lack internal meaning. Such a life might be lived by someone who sacrifices his own happiness for the sake of others.
now we're ready to examine some arguments, the strength of which may indicate that human life has no meaning in a world in which god does not exist.
Wielenberg looks at internal meaning first and so shall we.
Wielenberg begins by looking at the final outcome argument. he enlists William Lane Craig's remarks from a 2004 talk titled “The Absurdity of Life Without God" to explain:
Scientists tell us that everything in the universe is growing farther and farther apart. As it does so, the universe grows colder and colder, and its energy is used up. Eventually all the stars will burn out, and all matter will collapse into dead stars and black holes. There will be no light at all. 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. The entire universe marches irreversibly toward its grave. So not only is each individual person doomed, the entire human race is doomed. The universe is plunging toward inevitable extinction. Death is written throughout its structure. There is no escape. There is no hope. If there is no God, then man, and the universe, are doomed. Like prisoners condemned to death row, we stand and simply wait for our unavoidable execution. If there is no God, and there is no immortality, then what is the consequence of this? It means that the life that we do have is ultimately absurd. It means that the life we live is without ultimate significance, ultimate value, ultimate purpose.
Wielenberg sets the stage for the argument by pointing out that, if a person's life is a series of events, and some of those events are brought about by the individual and some of those events are caused by external forces, "a life may be characterized as the sum total of all the things that happen to an individual while that person is alive." but, so argues Craig and others, the value of a series of events is determined by the very last condition of the series, caused by the string of prior events in the series.
as Wielenberg writes, "If that final outcome is valuable, then the events that led up to and contributed to it may have value. If that final state of affairs is devoid of value, then similarly all the events that led up to it are worthless."
so you see where this is going. on atheism there is no afterlife. on atheism, when we die there is nothing but annihilation. the final condition of our series has no value for it is simply nonexistence. so since, according to the argument, this last in our series is devoid of value, so too is the sum total of events in the series leading up to this final condition.
a second argument is called the pointless existence argument. it alleges that since a life lacks supernatural meaning (as it does on atheism), it also lacks internal meaning because without god there are "no criteria for evaluating whether your life is a success or a failure – which in turn implies there are no circumstances under which your life would be a successful one." since there is no one with the qualifications to assign purposes to human lives, no human life can have internal meaning.
a third argument is the no one of significance cares argument. Wielenberg points to a Susan Wolf paper, "The Meanings of Lives", as an exemplar of this type of argument (that Wolf ultimately rejects). he quotes Wolf:
[A] life can be meaningful only if it can mean something to someone, and not just to someone, but to someone other than oneself and indeed someone of more intrinsic or ultimate value than oneself. . . . If there is no God, then human life, each human life, must be objectively meaningless, because if there is no God, there is no appropriate being for whom we could have meaning.
on this argument, a life has meaning only if an appropriately significant being cares about or takes an interest in that life. so if an omnipotent, omniscient, morally perfect god doesn't exist then there is no appropriately significant being and life has no internal meaning.
the fourth and last argument Wielenberg points to is called the god as the source of ethics argument. Wielenberg writes that this argument will be dealt with in the next chapter (God and Morality) but explains that this argument "is based on the idea that God must be the ultimate source of all good and evil and of all right and wrong in the universe. If God does not exist, then nothing can be good or evil and nothing
can be right or wrong."
so those are the arguments for the assertion that without god life has no internal meaning. feel free to tear them apart as you like. in my next post in the series on Wielenberg's book i'll get into how the author addresses the arguments. (except for the fourth which i will follow Wielenberg in addressing when we get to the subject of morality)