The Essential Dishonesty of Purpose Arguments

One of the most annoying arguments against atheism is the claim that if there is no god then life, or at least any particular life, has no purpose or meaning. Russ Douthat recently made that argument and Jerry Coyne points out that there is a rather blatant bit of sleight of hand going on here:

Cosmology doesn’t give one iota of evidence for a purpose (it could!) or for God. Most of the universe is cold, bleak, airless, and uninhabitable. In fact, such a cosmology harmonizes far better with a secular moral picture than a religious one. Secularists see a universe without apparent purpose and realize that we must forge our own purposes and ethics, not derive them from a God for which there’s no evidence.

Yes, secularism does propose a physical and purposeless universe, and many (but not all) of us accept the notion that our sense of self is a neuronal illusion. But although the universe is purposeless, our lives aren’t. This conflation of a purposeless universe (i.e., one not created by a transcendent being for a specific reason) with purposeless human lives is a trick that the faithful use to make atheism seem dark and nihilistic. But we make our own purposes, and they’re real. Right now my purpose is to write this piece, and then I’ll work on a book I’m writing, and later I’ll have dinner with a friend. Soon I’ll go to Poland to visit more friends. Maybe later I’ll read a nice book and learn something. Soon I’ll be teaching biology to graduate students. Those are real purposes, not the illusory purposes to which Douthat wants us to devote our only life.

But there’s another response to this claim: So what? It’s not an argument for why this god who provides us with meaning and purpose does exist, it’s an argument for why the person making it hopes such a god exists. If it does not, should we pretend it does and create some diving meaning and purpose that does not exist? Should we all just agree to tell a big lie? Or should we do what we have always done, whether one believes in such a god or not, and find meaning and purpose in the living of our lives?

The lack of some universal meaning or purpose does not mean that our lives don’t have meaning or purpose. It just means that we have at least some opportunity to determine meaning and purpose for ourselves rather than having some non-existent divine being decide it for us. And far from being a depressing fact, that is a liberating one.

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  • Michael Heath

    Jerry Coyne writes:

    Yes, secularism does propose a physical and purposeless universe . . .

    Secularism does not, “propose a physical and purposeless universe”, perhaps atheism does. What is it with atheists who attempt to deny the fact there are many religious people who are also secularists?

  • http://howlandbolton.com richardelguru

    God was invented for the benefit of those whose lives would otherwise be purposeless.

  • http://www.facebook.com/set.v.kouwenhoven Set Kouwenhoven

    I think the problem here is that religious folks want to have a solid, metaphysically purposeful life. Like it or not, the foundation of various non-religious values are really quite arbitrary; they are dictated by the whims of particular societies at particular times,* and we’d be foolish indeed if we predicted that “secular humanist” values will be the same 500 years from now.

    These people feel unsafe without some sort of “anchor” that universalizes morality. Of course, no such anchor exists, and if it did, I don’t see it making a whole lot of difference. There’s also the fact that the Christian and Islamic god (Jew-god has a slight advantage in that he’s pretty much an asshole all the time) is relativistic as all hell, requiring different behaviors from followers at different times (you don’t even have to be a dispensationalist to recognize this).

    *The obvious exception to this rule is Kant’s ethical theory, but that’s about as unappealing as Old Testament “morality,” albeit for different reasons.

  • http://www.ranum.com Marcus Ranum

    if there is no god then life, or at least any particular life, has no purpose or meaning

    I don’t really understand how it has any purpose if there is a god, either. Other than trying to avoid terrifying eternal punishment and whatnot, or eternal boredom and prayer. Unbelievers just have to worry about cancer or cholesterol. Seems like the premise of abundant meaning through god isn’t such a hot deal when you really think about it.

    I like to ask creos how their belief in god gives them meaning; what’s the mechanism by which that works, and how is it any different from not believing in god and deciding that pizza gives them meaning.

  • http://howlandbolton.com richardelguru

    “non-religious values are really quite arbitrary; they are dictated by the whims of particular societies at particular times,”

    As are religious ones.The only difference is the lag-time. (Consider. as just one example, that at one time quite a few Muslim states were leaders of science and learning)

  • Synfandel

    God was invented for the benefit of those whose lives would otherwise be purposeless.

    God was invented to make people obedient to the dominant social power structure.

  • http://howlandbolton.com richardelguru

    Synfandel there are some who would claim the two statements to be functionally equivalent.

  • matty1

    The gods (all of them) serve all sorts of functions in human thought from social control to pre-scientific ‘explanation’ of how things work. They are also the result of a long history of ideas combining and changing and the idea that any God was consciously invented wholesale for a specific goal seems unlikely. Even blatant con artists like Joseph Smith worked with existing material that was the result of cultural evolution.

  • doublereed

    I never understand what this has to do with God. How does God give people purpose and meaning? At best, it gives you purpose the way a slave has purpose to a master.

    The problem of a meaningless/purposeless existence is still there, regardless of the existence of God. In fact, I’m a bit confused on how the question changes at all. And when you this out to believers, the best they can do is trot out a nonsense platitude. When you actually pin them down, they realize that their answer actually doesn’t make much sense. Certainly it’s not realistic.

  • dugglebogey

    All Atheists are not Existentialists.

  • Reginald Selkirk

    This is just one of a category of absolutist arguments. Theists want their purpose to be ultimate, their afterlife to be eternal, their morals to be objective. Quite frequently I run across religious people making the assumption that since atheists do not have objective God-given morals, they may as well have no morals at all.

    This fallacious argument is easily defeated. I have $10 in my pocket. This is not enough to feed me for eternity. It is not eeven enough to feed me for a lifetime. But it is enough to buy me lunch today, and that is better than nothing.

    In a debate setting, get the theist to take money from their wallet, and since it does not have infinite and eternal value, say that they may as well give it to you.

  • Shatterface

    Sometimes I wake up and just think ‘what’s the point?’ But that’s nothing to do with the non-existence of god, that’s because the weather is shitty, I can’t shift this cold and I still have to go to work.

  • Shatterface

    In a debate setting, get the theist to take money from their wallet, and since it does not have infinite and eternal value, say that they may as well give it to you.

    Tried it once but they told me to consider the lillies.

  • Shatterface

    I never understand what this has to do with God. How does God give people purpose and meaning? At best, it gives you purpose the way a slave has purpose to a master.

    As with the ‘explanation’ of the origin of the universe, rooting morality in God doesn’t answer the question it supposedly does: it just pushes it back further.

    Why should we accept God’s law even if he existed? His ‘morality’ is as arbitrary as anyone else’s – and he doesn’t have to face the consequences of his choices.

  • Sastra

    But there’s another response to this claim: So what? It’s not an argument for why this god who provides us with meaning and purpose does exist, it’s an argument for why the person making it hopes such a god exists.

    This is sometimes called the Argument from Boo Hoo. As in:

    If there is no God, then life has no meaning.

    Boo hoo! (sob)

    Therefore, God exists.

    If there is no God, then death is the end.

    Boo hoo!

    Therefore, God exists.

    If there is no God, then there is no ultimate justice.

    Boo hoo!

    Therefore, God exists.

    As readily apparent when set out this clearly, the Argument from Boo Hoo assumes the premise that reality has a serious obligation towards the person making the argument , who is clearly the center and focus of the entire universe. If you don’t like it, then it can’t be true. When people who make an Argument from Boo Hoo complain that atheism leads to arrogance, irony meters break.

    Of course, they’re really pleading for why they emotionally feel that they need to believe in God, but that’s a much weaker stance. Or they may be even more confused and think that cosmic meaning, an afterlife, and ultimate justice are uncontroversial facts already in evidence which need to be explained.

    As for God providing meaning, consider this thought experiment:

    Assume for the moment that God exists, but it turns out that the more clearly and deeply you understand God, the more boring, depressing, and/or disgusting you think it is. It is completely different than what you expected and you want nothing to do with it.

    Now — does it still provide a “meaning” to life?

  • eric

    I never understand what this has to do with God. How does God give people purpose and meaning? At best, it gives you purpose the way a slave has purpose to a master.

    Or the way a parent gives purpose to a child. Sometimes that works out well (I’m thinking of Venus and Serena), but most of the time, I expect the results are pretty horrible. I expect most parents, like me, are very proud or will be very proud when their kid(s) find their own purpose in life. We don’t want them to follow ours. Seems to me that even under the theist model of the universe, the same would be true; why expect that god intends for you to follow his purpose, rather than find your own?

    Of course I’m probably going much deeper than I need to to respond to Douthat. My guess is that when he talks about God’s existence giving us purpose, he simply means that trying to reach heaven and avoid hell is a pretty rational goal under christian theology. I agree, but I don’t really define my purpose in terms of avoiding incarceration or getting nicely buzzed. Those are things I certainly do, but my purpose is what I want to accomplish beyond simply avoiding pain and experience pleasure. My purpose is my mark upon the world. Achieving heaven is an extroadinarily self-centered, narcissistic concept of purpose.

  • http://heb712.blogspot.com heddle

    Michael Heath,

    Secularism does not, “propose a physical and purposeless universe”, perhaps atheism does. What is it with atheists who attempt to deny the fact there are many religious people who are also secularists?

    Spot on.

  • Sastra

    Michael Heath #1 wrote:

    Secularism does not, “propose a physical and purposeless universe”, perhaps atheism does. What is it with atheists who attempt to deny the fact there are many religious people who are also secularists?

    Coyne’s not trying to deny that there are many religious people who are in favor of the separation of church and state. He’s using a term with ambiguous meaning — and meaning it the other way.

    I agree though that I’d prefer to see “secularism” confined to its political meaning, partly because it results in just this sort of confusion and leads to unwarranted implications — sometimes adopted as a tactic. Since Jerry sees the same problem with the term “spiritual” he would probably agree. If nothing else, he’d clarify.

  • Amphiox

    If purpose is produced by intelligence, if an intelligent god creates purpose in the universe, then intelligent humans can just as easily create purpose for their own lives.

  • oranje

    I don’t need a god or atheism to work out my lack of purpose. That’s what borderline personality disorder is for.

    Whee.

  • alvintheaardvark

    Sastra wrote:

    it’s an argument for why the person making it hopes such a god exists.

    This is the appeal to adverse consequences fallacy, rIght? It’s so obviously wrong, but it crops up all the time in lieu of evidence.

  • felidae

    So is Douthat’s purpose is to be inhabitants of some kind of cosmic ant farm for the amusement of a sociopathic deity who delights in our struggles and pain but demands that we bow down to it to avoid even worse suffering in the afterlife. The real purpose of life,applicable to all life forms: eat, excrete, reproduce, repeat

  • freehand

    The purpose of the Southern Baptist Convention – as best as I could tell from inside – is to qualify for those coveted spots from where you could spend all of eternity telling Yahweh how awesome he is.*

    * With occasional breaks at the Eternal Church Picnic in the Sky. Potato salad, yum! And that shredded carrots in orange Jello with canned mandarin oranges topped with Koolwhip surprise. I could eat that forever (not forever). I’m going to have to, because according to SBC doctrine, I am still born again from my conversion at age nine, and I’ve only spent the last fifty-plus years backsliding, and still qualify.

  • matty1

    A brief check suggests the original purpose of the SBC was to ensure slave owners could serve as pastors and missionaries, a rejection of earlier versions of Baptist Christianity, which tended to egalitarianism and called on members to free their slaves.

    So it seems it’s been a lovely organisation right from the start.

  • http://www.facebook.com/vinimarques vinimarques

    A theist I know recently presented a slightly different take on the “purpose” argument that I found difficult to immediately respond to. It’s not that god is the purpose-giver or we can’t have purpose without god, he says, but the very fact that purpose exists; that we are able to imbue ourselves with this thing called purpose. I suppose it’s on par with those who say, “so where does love from?”

    Any takers?

  • eric

    the very fact that purpose exists; that we are able to imbue ourselves with this thing called purpose. I suppose it’s on par with those who say, “so where does love from?”

    1. What is it about someone creating you that gives this ability? Unless he’s positing that “having purpose” is some metaphysical property that can only be imparted by an intelligent agent, I don’t see how this is any sort of good argument. And if he is positing this metaphysical property, then I’d say the same thing I’d say to people who claim we have a soul: show me.

    2. If it takes one god to impart one purpose to us, does that mean that multiple gods are needed to give a person multiple purposes? 😉 I bet he outright rejects polytheism, but accepts that people can have multiple purposes.

  • had3

    @25, how about a bio/chemical reaction? There are those for whom the biology just doesn’t exist for them to have love. With respect to purpose, I’m guessing you define it to be synonymous with “meaning?” I’m reminded of a cartoon that shows various animals repeating “eat, sleep, reproduce…” Until humans ponder, what’s the meaning of life?

    Your theist friend seems to have reproduced the “is something good because god does it, or does god do it because it is good” discussion. Instead of morality at play, he uses “purpose,” but same result methinks.

  • johnhodges

    In My Humble Opinion:

    What is the purpose of life for animals (and plants)? Promote the health of your family, where “health” is the ABILITY to survive, and “family” is “all who share your genes, to the degree that they share your genes.” This is called “inclusive fitness” by biologists. Most organisms pursue this because they follow their internal urges uncritically. Their internal urges are shaped by natural selection, and inclusive fitness is what natural selection selects for.

    What is the purpose of life for humans? The answer is (drum roll): We have our choice on that. We humans can talk ourselves into all kinds of things that are against instinct. From lifelong celibacy to mass suicide, you name it, some human beings have done it.

    “Meaning” is a little different. Humans are storytelling animals. “Meaning” is the story you choose to join.

  • EnlightenmentLiberal

    Even if there is a god who created the universe and me specially, even it had a design or purpose in mind while doing so, I fail to see how this has many meaningful impact on how I should live my life or how I will live my life. I don’t give a rat’s ass about whatever purpose he had in mind.

    Ok, I might care if he tries to impose it on me by force, but that’s a separate discussion. I would face the same problems if some unrelated space aliens used similar force on me.

    Ok, I might also care because I’m curious, but it wouldn’t affect how I choose to live my life.

    Purpose is not some substance of our shared reality like mass, length, and color. You cannot measure purpose in a test-tube. It’s like morality in that way. It can be said metaphorically that we humans infuse things around us with purpose and morality. Gods have no greater power than that, and there is no reason why we should value the opinion of a god on this subject more than the opinion of Bob down the street.

    PS: However, read Sam Harris’ The Moral Landscape.

  • Nick Gotts
    In a debate setting, get the theist to take money from their wallet, and since it does not have infinite and eternal value, say that they may as well give it to you. – Reginald Selkirk@11

    Tried it once but they told me to consider the lillies. – Shatterface@13

    Ah, but if they’d given you the money, you’d have been able to buy some lilies to consider at your leisure!

  • http://polrant@blogspot.com democommie

    I’m an atheist. My life WOULD be without a purpose if I cowered in fear of non-existent divine retribution like the GODbotherers.

    What is “heaven”? To me heaven is that little place in my heart that glows with joy when I realize that all of these hate-filled, spiteful, spittleflecked fucktards will be looking down that long, dark tunnel in their last moments and realize that it doesn’t lead ANYWHERE. Well, heaven is that, and GOOD free beer.

  • Nick Gotts

    To me heaven is that little place in my heart that glows with joy when I realize that all of these hate-filled, spiteful, spittleflecked fucktards will be looking down that long, dark tunnel in their last moments and realize that it doesn’t lead ANYWHERE. – democommie

    So, apparently some atheists really are as mean-spirited as the Christian stereotype has it.

  • freehand

    Nick Gotts: So, apparently some atheists really are as mean-spirited as the Christian stereotype has it.

    Yes. Although the Christians who say that usually feel the same way. I remember being appalled in church as a young’n when I saw various congregants demonstrate glee when they talked of watching the tortures of the damned for eternity. They seemed to see that as one of the perks of going to Heaven.

    And democommie, I hate to burst your bubble, but there’s no reason to think that a True Believer would interpret that rush into the tunnel (a common perception of the dying) as anything but the trip to the light at the far end. Folks brought back from the dead* who are Christian often have their faith reinforced by what they perceive to be a brief glimpse of Heaven, and “proof” of the afterlife.

    It’s annoying, but I don’t see how these folks would ever find out that they were wrong.

    * For sufficiently low values of “dead”.

  • eric

    @25, how about a bio/chemical reaction?

    AIUI, the part of your brain that imparts importance to experiences and feelings is not the same part of your brain that experiences/feels. Thus humans can impart high importance to trivial experiences or vice versa, because it’s two separate biological functions. Sometimes they get disconnected, so that the importance given to some experience is wildly inappropriate to the experience itself. This helps explain both mundane things like why people who are drunk or high think their really stupid ideas are really good, and tragic things like PSTD where a person can’t get over some experience. And…it also explains religious experiences, where people see a vision and think it’s the most important thing they’ve ever seen in their life.

    While purpose isn’t exactly the same as the importance we give to experiences, its related. If I have a vision which strikes me as critically important, following it could become my purpose. In general, what we see as our purpose in life probably has a lot to do with the importance we attach to various experiences. So in a way, yes, our sense of purpose, of what is most important in our lives, comes from biochemistry.

  • http://ingles.homeunix.net/ Ray Ingles

    Well that’s weird. I linked to an essay (that I did not write) and I was pretty darn sure I hit the “Submit Comment” button but it seems the comment is gone.

    The best discussion I’ve seen of this issue is at the “Bad Idea” blog, “The Meaning of Meaning & Why Theism Can’t Make Life Matter”. I won’t link to it this time.

  • http://polrant@blogspot.com democommie

    Cleanup squad to comment 32, “Vapors Attack” @32, Cleanup squad, STAT!

    Jeez, Nick; I think you take things a little too seriously, at times.. OTOH, I stopped taking you seriously a while back. So, I’ll meet you halfway; stop pretending that everything other commenters say is an affront to human dignity AND I’ll start pretending that some of the things you say are not an affront to human intelligence. Deal–nah, I suspect not.

    Freehand:

    “but there’s no reason to think that a True Believer would interpret that rush into the tunnel (a common perception of the dying) as anything but the trip to the light at the far end. Folks brought back from the dead* who are Christian often have their faith reinforced by what they perceive to be a brief glimpse of Heaven, and “proof” of the afterlife.”

    Tis true, live in denial, die in denial, get revived to live in denial some more. Is feature of religion, not bug.

  • http://polrant@blogspot.com democommie

    “The Essential Dishonesty of Purpose Arguments”

    Shorter: “The Essential Dishonesty of Christianity”

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