Is “Ultimate” Meaning and Purpose Even Possible?

Originally posted at Common Sense Atheism: Luke Muehlhauser provides an excellent counter-argument to Craig’s assertion that without God life is meaningless. 1) He doesn’t specifiy what “ultimate” meaning means.  2) His argument should just make the atheist shrug and say, “so what?”

We are examining William Lane Craig’s assertions about “the absurdity of life without God.”

One of Craig’s arguments goes something like this:

  1. Nothing which comes to an end has ultimate meaning or purpose.
  2. On atheism, life comes to an end.
  3. Therefore, on atheism, life has no ultimate meaning or purpose.

But what does Craig mean by “ultimate”? He uses the word 21 times in his chapter on this subject, but never defines it.

Steve Maitzen, in his article On God and Our Ultimate Purpose, responds:

Craig never defends his claim that nothing temporary has any significance, or its implication that all temporary things are equally insignificant. He only repeats it, many times, as if it should be obvious. But is it true that nothing temporary has any significance? Think about great music or drama. Does a world-class performance of Aida or King Lear lack all significance just because it lasts only few hours? Would it have more significance if it never ended? Hardly. Its significance in fact depends on its having a finite arc; it would lose its significance and become unbearably tedious if it went on forever. Nor does its finite length make it just as insignificant as an equally long nap. Clearly, then, we need a better measure of significance than mere duration.

So what could Craig mean by “ultimate”? Maitzen has some thoughts:

I think a less obviously flawed argument must lurk below the surface of Craig’s article, one that interprets “ultimate” to mean something like “unquestionable.” We know that people often try to make their lives significant by seeking purposes “greater than themselves.” Consider any purpose that might lend significance to an atheist’s life – maybe she devotes her life to feeding starving children. What more noble or more significant purpose could you have, after all? Still, Craig might challenge the atheist on her own terms: how significant is it, really, to postpone for a relatively short time the deaths of particular members of one terrestrial species on a tiny planet orbiting an undistinguished star in a vast, uncaring universe?

The argument begins with a question like “What’s so great about feeding starving children?” The obvious answer appears to be: “It relieves innocent suffering and gives these children a chance to prosper!”

But of course we could step back to a perspective of four billion years from now, after our Sun has exploded and incinerated the Earth. We could then ask, “But what was so great about relieving their suffering and giving them a chance to prosper?”

Supposedly, the theist thinks that God’s existence can put a stop to the regress of asking “But what’s so great about that?” But, they say, atheism cannot put a stop to those questions, and thus leads to despair.

But, says Maitzen, the argument doesn’t work:

You can’t put an end to those pesky questions no matter what you do. Any [proposed] purpose we can begin to understand we can thereby step back from and question.

Consider the supposed final answer to “What’s so great about that?” that is offered by the theist: “Glorifying God and enjoying his presence for ever!” But of course this does not stop the question. We can certainly ask of this: “What’s so great about that?” This remains a perfectly sensible question, unlike the question “What time is it on the Sun?”

There is no final answer to the question “What’s so great about that?” because as soon as you are able to understand any proposed answer, you are already capable of asking, “But what’s so great about that?” So if “ultimate meaning” means “unquestionable meaning,” then neither atheismnor theism can offer that kind of ultimate meaning.

So “ultimate meaning” in the sense of endless duration doesn’t work for Craig’s argument that life is absurd without God. And “ultimate meaning” in the sense of unquestionable meaning doesn’t work for Craig’s argument that God can provide ultimate meaning for life. So what could Craig intend by the phrase “ultimate meaning”?

Perhaps he might say that life without God has no “ultimate meaning” by definition, because Craig defines ultimate meaning with reference to God. “Ultimate meaning” then means “God-based meaning,” or something like that. But why should this worry the atheist? If God’s purpose for life was to produce as much carbon dioxide as possible, should we care about that, just because it was God-based meaning? It seems it is not the source of a purpose that matters, but itsquality. Producing carbon dioxide is a purpose of low quality, no matter whom it comes from.

So it’s not clear to me how Craig’s argument can succeed.


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