Atheism and the Meaning of Life

I would like to add a bit more to my earlier discussion of the charge often made by theistic apologists that life must be meaningless for atheists:

An argument frequently deployed in popular attacks on atheism is the claim that atheism makes life meaningless. Without God, without a transcendent source of meaning and purpose, human life amounts to little more than the life of a flea, so the argument goes. If there is no God, then T.S. Eliot’s despairing little ditty must have it right:

Birth, copulation, and death:

That’s all of the facts,

When you come to brass tacks.

Birth, copulation, and death.

Or, as the bumper sticker put it less poetically: “Life is a bitch. Then you die.” But, intuitively, we strongly feel that there is much more to life than birth, copulation, and death, and that a human life is, or should be, far more significant than a flea’s. So, atheism, by seemingly going against some of our deepest intuitions, seems highly implausible. Noted Christian philosopher and apologist William Lane Craig, puts the argument from meaninglessness this way:

If God does not exist, then both man and the universe are inevitably doomed to death. Man, like all biological organisms, must die. With no hope of immortality, man’s life leads only to the grave. His life is but a spark in the infinite blackness, a spark that flickers, and dies forever. Compared to the infinite stretch of time, the span of man’s life is but an infinitesimal moment; and yet this all the life he will ever know…. For though I know now that I exist, that I am alive, I also know that someday I will no longer exist, that I will no longer be, that I will die. This thought is staggering and threatening: to think that the person I call “myself’ will cease to exist, that I will be no more (Craig, Reasonable Faith, 1994, p. 57)!

My first reaction is that his objection seems to be motivated by a monumental degree of egotism. What possible excuse could you have for thinking that you are of such transcendent importance that you should be an exception to cosmic law and that you should survive when planets, stars, and galaxies are gone? Yes, says atheism, it is a fact: Someday the cosmos will be forced to confront the stark reality that you are no more. Amazingly, it will continue to tick along almost exactly as it did before. Your absence from the universe will matter about as much in the whole scheme of things as the removal of a single grain of sand from the Sahara. Deal with it.

The basic premise behind Craig’s argument seems to be that life is meaningless unless it is unending. What could possibly justify that premise? Why not draw the opposite conclusion and say that because life is short you had better make sure that you don’t fritter it away and instead strive to fill the days, hours, and minutes with meaningful activity? Further, the idea that all genuine meaning in life comes “from above” is not only false but degrading. Occasionally I used to encounter a tract, put out by the Campus Crusade for Christ, which contained “four spiritual laws.” Law One was “God loves you and has a wonderful plan for your life.” Of course, God’s “wonderful plan” for some people’s lives is that in infancy they are burned to death in house fires. But suppose God’s plan for me really is “wonderful”: Maybe he wants me to make billions managing hedge funds and then to use part of my fabulous wealth to fund right-wing think tanks and creationist institutes. Still, shouldn’t I have some choice in the matter? What if I do not care for God’s “wonderful” plan for me? It is no good telling me that God is much wiser than I and that I should trust his plans for my life rather than make my own. I want to make my own plans—and I’ll willingly suffer the consequences of my own mistakes—rather than have a plan given to me, even if it is given by an infinitely wise and loving being. Being allowed to discover one’s own meaning in life and make one’s own choices seems to be essential to human dignity.

In general, what sorts of things make life meaningful for the atheist? Pretty much the same things that makes life meaningful for the theist: A career that makes a contribution to human well-being and which offers you opportunities to employ your intelligence, talents, and creativity; close, loving, and mutually giving personal relationships with family and friends, and even with non-human animals; opportunities to serve our local communities, country, or the global community; fighting oppression, injustice, poverty, ignorance, disease, cruelty, or any of the other many ills afflicting human life; freedom to indulge our natural curiosity and use our minds in finding out about the natural and human worlds; occasions to enjoy the beauty of nature and of art; and enjoyable pastimes and hobbies that enrich our lives. Of course, atheists do not have the same sorts of spiritual rewards as theists (We have different ones). But, then, I observe that very many theists don’t really seem to get much meaning out of their religious activities. As Mark Twain observed, even an hour a week sitting in a pew is tedious for many believers. Having formerly been a church-goer myself, I used to notice that many would sigh, fidget, yawn, check their watches, and snooze during the minister’s homily—clearly anxious that church should end so that they could attend to the far more important matters of Sunday dinner and the big game. Further, during the 167 hours of the week when they are not in church, many nominally religious people don’t seem to think much about it at all. As for those who do take their religion seriously, for many it is an unhealthy obsession, a preoccupation that permeates even the most mundane considerations. Even the devout should be able to give it a rest every now and then. So, religious belief is neither a necessary nor a sufficient condition for finding meaning in life, and, in fact, too often becomes an unhealthy obsession that detracts from the quality of the believer’s life.

About Keith Parsons
  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/03034292023591747601 PersonalFailure

    “god has a wonderful plan for your life” is what broke the camel’s back for me. yeah! nerve damage! joint damage! i don’t want to know what’s going on with my liver. way to go god! and my health is still way better than the 6 year olds being raped 10 times a day by sex tourists in thailand right this moment.

    and how does “god’s wonderful plan” square in with “free will”? It’s free will if I’m sinning, but if things are going well, that’s god? huh? i have yet to hear a cogent answer on that one.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/13277740177798681117 Leannnnnnne!

    You put so eloquently what I’ve struggled to express to my religious friends for years. The religious friends who constantly attack me with that same, annoying “atheism: then what’s the point?” argument. Now I have an amazing, well-put counter-point to email, so thank you!

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/00565212411446092552 smijer

    I agree with about 3/4 of what you said & about half of how you said it. That half, though is great.

    No point in quibbling the disagreements but some ideas to help make a careful case:

    1) "purpose" and "meaning" are often used interchangeably (though not necessarily correctly so), and it is undeniable that the theist viewpoint provides grounding for the notion of "purpose" in the strong sense. That is in the sense that there is a purposeful intention behind it. The atheist position, if it wishes to claim grounding for such intentional purpose is on shaky footing, denying a supernatural entity to have such intention. The other alternative is that we are the purposeful creations of our parents – but that means that those of us who were “accidents” have less “purpose” than those who came naturally. And, perhaps those who came naturally less than those who came by IVF.

    So, if we are to claim meaning we are smart to do so in a way that clearly shows that meaning is separate from and not dependent upon purpose. We could also attack the validity of the notion that meaning arises from purpose.

    As to the spiritual fulfillment that comes from religion, I think I disagree strongly here. While it’s true that an hour a week in a pew is too much for some people, whoever wrote that has probably never been to a black church, where the experience is seldom dull enough to allow ennui to set in, and where worship is often an all-day experience. My wife attends a charismatic mostly white church… and their services often go on for 2 or 3 hours without losing steam.

    I, myself am an atheistic Unitarian Universalism, and I would attest subjectively that religion, if not god-belief, does have benefits.

    In addition, there is hard evidence that the religious live longer and have better self-control (and in the latter case, this applies to the “devoted” rather than to the “extrinsically motivated” worshiper). Better self-control leads to a better outcome for any moral or ethical standard one might hold, and that isn’t something to be dismissed lightly either. The study didn’t specifically address whether god-belief was necessary for this latter benefit or not. The point is that we shouldn’t be flippant in our dismissal of the spiritual benefits of religion, as many, for whatever reason, find them indispensable.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/12544439495032316597 Vlastimil Vohánka

    Hello,

    Some sophisticated recent links all here could be interested in.

    1. Prosblogion on Q. Smith’s argument for nihilism (QS ia a prominent atheist):

    http://prosblogion.ektopos.com/archives/2009/01/quentin-smith-o.html

    2. A. Rhoda on the same argument:

    http://www.alanrhoda.net/blog/2009/01/does-moral-realism-and-infinite.html

    3. W. Vallicella, QS’s friend, on the meaning of life (WV is a theist):

    http://maverickphilosopher.powerblogs.com/posts/chain_1215047721.shtml

    http://maverickphilosopher.powerblogs.com/posts/1224207310.shtml

    4. The Monist prepares 2010 issue on the meaning of life, ed. by QS. (WV was invited to contribute.)

    http://monist.buffalo.edu/callsforpapers.html#MeaningOfLife

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/12544439495032316597 Vlastimil Vohánka

    Not displaying properly. So, again, + one more.

    0. E. Feser (an ex-atheist philosopher) on the alleged necessity of God for human rights:

    https://www.catholicculture.org/
    culture/library/view.cfm?recnum=7377

    1. Prosblogion on Q. Smith’s argument for nihilism (QS ia a prominent atheist):

    http://prosblogion.ektopos.com/
    archives/2009/01/quentin-smith-o.html

    2. A. Rhoda on the same argument:

    http://www.alanrhoda.net/blog/2009/01/does-moral-realism-and-infinite.html

    3. W. Vallicella, QS’s friend, on the meaning of life (WV is a theist):

    http://maverickphilosopher.powerblogs.com/
    posts/chain_1215047721.shtml

    http://maverickphilosopher.powerblogs.com/
    posts/1224207310.shtml

    4. The Monist prepares 2010 issue on the meaning of life, ed. by QS. (WV was invited to contribute.)

    http://monist.buffalo.edu/
    callsforpapers.html#MeaningOfLife

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/16641266062186767500 Keith Parsons

    Smijer raises some good and interesting points about “purpose.” “Purpose” is multiply ambiguous when we are discussing “meaning of life” issues. It can mean at least three things:

    1) Cosmic purpose: The idea that, in some sense, we, individually or collectively, were meant to be here. That is, my personal existence, or the existence of the human race, is not a historical contigency, but was somehow the product of intention by God or the universe.

    2) A sense of purpose: That is, the feeling that I have a mission or a calling to commit myself to something important, something bigger than me, but also something that allows me to make a difference.

    3) Aristotelian purpose: This is the idea that there is a natural telos of human life, that is, a way of living that is naturally and intrinsically the most fulfilling and rewarding, the state where we achieve genuine well-being, what Aristotle called “eudaimonia.”

    Atheism can recognize purpose in senses 2 and 3, but not in sense 1. Theistic rhetoric often overheats in decrying the fact that for the atheist humanity is just an “accident of nature.” If by “accident of nature” is meant that the human race came about through the natural, undirected processes of evolution (“the blind watchmaker”), just like every other type of creature, this is just what atheists affirm. Atheists can find no evidence that homo sapiens was more an intention of the cosmos than tigers, horseshoe crabs, or slime mold. Long ago Bertrand Russell had good, malicious fun debunking the idea that the course of evolution had as its aim the production of the human species.

    What the atheist fails to see is why purpose in this cosmic sense is necessary for a life filled with meaning. Why does my, or my species’, existence have to have been intended for me to discover love, beauty, truth, goodness, and all that gives life its deepest meanings? The yearning to have been somehow cosmically intended seems to me an entirely artificial and perhaps neurotic one, like somebody actually worrying about the ultimate
    demise of the universe. If somebody seriously worries about such things, the appropriate reply would seem to be: “Get a life!”

    Atheism is perfectly compatible with purpose in senses 2 and 3. An atheist can certainly feel a sense of “vocation,” not, of course a literal “calling” by God, but a sense that there is a confluence between a need that must be addressed, or some good to be done, and one’s own talents, values, and personality. For some it might be a sense of calling to be a physician, for others a social worker, or a scientist. For me it was to become a university professor. On many occasions it would have been more convenient for me to have given up on this career and done something else, but my sense of “calling” was so strong that I persevered, and it paid off.

    Atheists also can endorse purpose in the Aristotelian sense. Aristotle held that, just as nature had fitted various creatures to function well in their particular niches in the economy of nature, so humans are fitted to function best in certain ways. According to Aristotle, humans are, by nature, social and rational beings. Therefore, we function optimally, and experience the most fulfillment and satisfaction, when we are living lives of reason and virtue in community with other human beings. There is no reason why atheism cannot accept Aristotle’s claim that some ways of living are intrinsically and naturally the most fulfilling and valuable for human beings.

    Therefore, atheism can countenance the idea of human purpose in two of the above senses–the two that really matter.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/11797352159857559764 LostAgain

    according to Christian doctrine (if they actually read and follow there bible), Ecclesiastes says there is NO meaning to life. no meaning to god’s tasks. no meaning to ANYTHING. Oh, and don’t read beyond the words in this book, the words where chosen carefully to mean exactly as they mean. Only ecclesiastes and revelations add that little bit in. As the book says “Meaningless, Meaningless!”.

    Not ‘only with god is there meaning’ it doesn’t say that, it doesn’t say ‘only as a christian you have meaning’. No, it says NOTHING has meaning, do what god wants you to do anyways.

    I love pointing that out to the thesists who think they have meaning because of christianity. if they think they do…then there not really following the bible.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/12544439495032316597 Vlastimil Vohánka

    Dear Dr Parsons,

    What would you say to the following 2003 argument for nihilism by Q. Smith?

    1. Necessarily, global moral realism is true (everything has a positive amount of value). Premise
    2. Necessarily, aggregative value theory is true (each physical location has a finite positive amount of value; a location can be a person, any other animal, a plant, a particular of matter or energy, a point of space or time, or some larger complex of particulars of these kinds, for example, a forest, an orchestra or an hour of time; values add up, average, etc.). Premise
    2*. Necessarily, the performance of an action is morally indifferent iff the performance of that action neither increases nor decreases the amount of value in the universe. Premise, or from (2)
    3. Contingently (and according to contemporary physics), spacetime is infinite, both temporally — there are infinitely many (i.e., at least aleph-zero) non-overlapping future hours –, and, more controversially, spatially — at each time there are infinitely many non-overlapping, equal sized cubes of space. Premise
    3*. Necessarily, every action of a human has only finite effect on the amount of value in the universe. Premise
    3**. Necessarily, neither any finite addition to nor any finite detraction from an infinite amount of value neither increases nor decreases the amount of value. Premise
    4. Moral nihilism is contingently true (it does not morally matter what humans do, it does not matter what actions humans perform). From (1)-(3**)
    5. Humans have no intrinsic dignity (from 1-3**); humans have no rights (from 1-3** or from 4); human life has no meaning (from 1-3** or from 4); every human’s life is less valuable than the entire state of his being dead (from 1-3**).
    5*. God (at least as traditionally conceived) does not exist. From (4) or (5)

    Thank you!

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/16641266062186767500 Keith Parsons

    Thanks for the question, Mr. Vohanka! My response is that this is the sort of argument that, rightly, gives philosophy and philosophers a bad name. It uses extremely dubious premises to reach a highly counterintuitive conclusion, in fact, a conclusion (#4) that everybody, including Quentin Smith, knows to be false. Each premise could be cogently challenged, but I shall just consider 2*:

    (2*)Necessarily, the performance of an action is morally indifferent iff the performance of that action neither increases nor decreases the amount of value in the universe. Premise, or from (2).

    This is not only not necessarily true, it is clearly false. Even if we concede premises 1 and 2 (which I don’t), and the spatial and temporal infinity of the universe (spatial infinity, at least, is highly questionable), then 2* does not follow. Even if the total value in the universe is infinite, so that actions performed by human beings neither increase nor detract from the total value in the universe, particular slices of space/time can (and do) have finite amounts of value that can be significantly increased or decreased by human action. Human history is possibly, indeed, very probably finite. Let’s assume that it is. In this case, the sum total of moral value or disvalue created by human beings will be finite. Therefore, increasing or decreasing the amount of moral value can add to or detract from the total moral value in that portion of space/time encompassing human history. If human beings have value (and the argument assumes that they do), then, what matters for human beings matters, period. If the amount of moral good in human history matters for human beings (and, of course, it does) then the creation of moral value or disvalue in human history matters. Can Quentin Smith, or anyone, really expect us to believe that it does not matter for human beings whether or not there is more or less torture, genocide, holocausts, Gulags, or despotism? Again, if it matters for human beings, it matters.

    So, as an argument for nihilism, this argument is a dreadful and egregious failure.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/12544439495032316597 Vlastimil Vohánka

    Thank you very much, Dr Parsons!

    Well, QS is a nihilist. He is serious.

    I think QS would say that “if it matters for human beings, it matters” begs the question against (2*).

    He similarly wrote in section 5.4 of the given paper that the “… problem is not solved by refusing to take into account maximal expansions and considering only non-maximal expansions. … We cannot ask “how do solve a problem that arises in infinite cases?” and answer “by ignoring the fact that the cases are infinite”.”

    A (preprint) version of the paper is available at qsmithwmu.com

    The printed version is available at Google Books.

    A keen discussion by M. Almeida et al. here:

    prosblogion.ektopos.com/
    archives/2009/01/quentin-smith-o.html

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/00203311711885538229 Daniel A. Wang

    No idea if you’re aware of it or not, but you might like to know that Steve Hays has responded to this post here:

    http://triablogue.blogspot.com/2009/01/life-is-game-of-cards.html

    Personally, I’ve never been able to see the alleged force of the notion that atheism somehow deprives life of meaning, or, just as importantly, that theism somehow has a unique advantage in that respect. Of course, even if atheism *was* guilty of this, that would have no impact on whether it is *true* or not.

    I find much meaning in life as it can be known (rendering theism superfluous), but none in the idea of God creating a world with evil, declaring humanity wicked, and yet never ridding the world of evil but simply consigning it to Hell.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/00714774340084597206 Annoyed Pinoy

    If anyone is interested, William Lane Craig’s lecture “The Absurdity of Life Without God” can be viewed or listened to here.

    http://www.hisdefense.org/OnlineLectures/tabid/136/Default.aspx

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/16641266062186767500 Keith Parsons

    Mr. Wang: Thanks for your comment. I neither read nor respond to Steve Hays, Holding/Turkel or their ilk. Bitter experience has taught me the wisdom of Proverbs 14:7.

    Mr. Vohanka: Sorry to hear that Quentin takes this stuff seriously. I had always respected him. Anyway, I do no think I beg the question against his premise #2*. Rather, I am saying that there are good reasons for saying that 2* is false. It is highly questionable that actions make a moral difference only if they add to or subract from the total value of the universe. It is not even clear that this follows from 2. Perhaps an act can matter even if it only changes the total amount of moral value in a certain finite slice of space/time (say, human history). By analogy, the laws of thermodynamics tell me that I cannot increase or decrease the total amount of energy in the universe, but, if I live in northern Minnesota, then it matters very much whether I can keep my house warm.

    Also, there are good reasons for rejecting premise 2, from which Quentin derives 2*. It is not at all clear that the total value of the universe can be determined by simply adding up the values of its individual bits. Surely, the arrangement, disposition, or order of those increments also matters. In that case, universe U and universe U* might both contain infinite amounts of stuff, and each bit of that stuff might be valuable, so that both univeres contains an infinite amount of valuable stuff. Yet universe U* could have a higher value than universe U because the arrangement, disposition, or order of valuable stuff in U* is better (perhaps for sentient creatures) than in U. I might also argue that moral value is of a different order than, say, the value, if any, a pool of liquid methane on Titan. Therefore, moral value simply does not aggregate with other sorts of value.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/13223710301816466736 Vlastimil Vohánka

    Dear Dr Parsons,

    Thanks again.

    1. “It is highly questionable that actions make a moral difference only if they add to or subtract from the total value of the universe. It is not even clear that this follows from 2.”

    Yes.

    2. “It is not at all clear that the total value of the universe can be determined by simply adding up the values of its individual bits. Surely, the arrangement, disposition, or order of those increments also matters.”

    Yes.

    Still, (1) and (2), as formulated by me and QS so far, are somewhat muddled. There rather should be, leaving the modal operators, something like these:

    (1’) Every location, that is, every organism, inanimate mass, energy, space and time, and state of these, have some positive value independently upon whether conscious organisms believe they have value. Premise

    (2’) There is some unit of positive value U+ such that every vacuous metric cube of space and every hour of the existence of vacuous space is such that its total value is at least one U+.

    Premise; or from (1’) and some auxiliary premise like: If (1’), then there are units of positive and negative value expressing positive, negative, and total values of all locations.

    (2’’) The total value of the collection of all empty metric cubes of space is the sum of all their total values. The total value of the collection of all hours of the existence of vacuous space is the sum of all their total values. Premise

    (2’’’) The total positive value of the universe (comprising past, present, and future) is greater than or equal to the total value of the collection of all empty metric cubes of space. The total positive value of the universe (comprising past, present, and future) is greater than or equal to The total value of the collection of all hours of the existence of vacuous space. From (2’) and (2’’)

    Now, this seems to be consistent with the claim that in finite cases, the content, arrangement, disposition, or order of cubes or hours also matter.

    3. But, according to QS, it does not matter if there are at least aleph-zero of metric cubes of space (because the universe has hyperbolic topology) or at least aleph-zero of hours of the existence of vacuous space (because the universe will expand forever and disintegrate, getting darker, colder, and more and more gauzily.)

    4. „I might also argue that moral value is of a different order than, say, the value, if any, a pool of liquid methane on Titan.“

    Yes. Maybe you have in mind something A. Rhoda noted: „It may well be that there is no common currency in which all values can be “cashed out” and then added up.” (See the link above.)

    5. Note also QS, p. 50: “… since there are infinitely many intervals of space, intervals of time, particles, and maybe infinitely many organisms, there are aleph-zero units of positive value. There could also be aleph-zero units of negative value; perhaps there are infinitely many intelligent organisms who engage in infinitely many moral acts. There could be infinitely many acts that are unjust or unfair. If so, there are aleph-zero units of negative value and aleph-zero units of positive value. This implies that the number of units of negative value can neither be increased nor decreased and that the number of units of positive value can neither be increased or increased by morally relevant acts or “locations” (something with a finite amount of value). Thus, the response to the objection is that the conjunction of the two premises, global moral realism is true, and the universe is spatiotemporally infinite, imply (given the aggregative theory of values) that there cannot be merely a finite number of units of positive value.”

    QS’s assumption is the claim that at each time there are at least aleph-zero non-overlapping metric cubes of space, each with one unit of positive value. But he also takes for granted that the infinite amount of positive value of all the space-cubes could not be canceled or made finite by the the infinite amount of negative value of all unjust acts, and vice versa. Why? I guess because he assumes Cantorian arithmetic.

    In Cantorian transfinite arithmetic, subtracting from aleph-zero is not allowed. I admit the rationale for disallowing subtraction and division, which I read in W. L. Craig’s book The Kalaam Cosmological Argument (1979, pp. 80ff), seems somewhat arbitrary.

    In sum, the rationale is that
    {1, 2, 3, …} – {1, 2, 3, … } = { },
    {1, 2, 3, …} – {2, 3, 4, …} = {1},
    so,
    aleph-zero – aleph-zero = zero, and at the same time
    aleph-zero – aleph-zero = one.
    But that cannot be.

    And for every positive natural number n,
    n * aleph-one = aleph-one, and aleph-zero * aleph-one = aleph-one,
    so,
    aleph-one/aleph-one = n, and at the same time
    aleph-one/aleph-one = aleph-zero.
    But that cannot be.

    That’s how Craig explains why subtraction and division cannot be performed in Cantorian transfinite arithmetic.

    Of course, one naturally asks: if the Cantorian allows other weird statements (as well-defined), like aleph-zero + one = aleph-zero and, at the same time, aleph-zero + two = aleph-zero, then why does not he allow (as well-defined) also the weird statements above?

    Nevertheless, given the aleph-zero amount of positive value in the universe (due to the value of aleph-zero metric cubes of space in the universe; which, at least hypothetically, can be accompanied by the aleph-zero amount of negative value in the universe, due to aleph-zero unjust acts in the universe), and given the Cantorian background, all actions of a human, though they have some finite amount of value, cannot alter the total amount of value in the universe (which is at least aleph-zero positive — or at least aleph-zero positive and at the same time at least aleph-zero negative). To repeat myself, as I understand it, in Cantorian arithmetic, subtracting is allowed only from FINITE numbers.

    6. An objection to QS: Isn‘t the overall value of any entity captured by the sum of its positive value minus the sum of its negative value?

    If so, isn’t in Cantorian transfinite arithmetic, likely embraced by QS in his paper, both subtracting from positive transfinite numbers and adding to negative transfinite numbers disallowed/not defined?

    If so, however, then the total (overall) value of the infinite universe is not allowed/defined (in Cantorian arithmetic). Because what else would be the total value of the universe than the sum of its positive value minus the sum of its negative value?

    7. If so, however, QS still could change his argument, in the following way:

    The total amount of value in the universe is not defined.

    An action is morally different only if it makes a difference to the total value of the universe whether that action is perfmormed or not.

    So,

    No human action is morally different.

    8. As for the hypothetical infinite universe with infinitely many unjust acts:

    IF we do allow subtracting from positive transfinite numbers or adding to negative transfinite numbers, what what would be the total value of this universe? Zero? That would seem like a natural answer. But then it still holds that no FINITE human action (no action of a human or of a finite human population) can alter the sum of positive value, the sum of negative value or the total value (which are all infinite).

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/13223710301816466736 Vlastimil Vohánka

    I said:

    “And for every positive natural number n,
    n * aleph-one = aleph-one, and aleph-zero * aleph-one = aleph-one,
    so,
    aleph-one/aleph-one = n, and at the same time
    aleph-one/aleph-one = aleph-zero.
    But that cannot be.”

    Maybe I should have said it more generally: “for every positive real number n”.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/12544439495032316597 Vlastimil Vohánka

    Now I also think QS inserts neither (3*) nor (3**).

    He rather inserts something like these:

    (3’) No action of a human (and of any collection of humans) alters the overall amount of value of the collection of all empty metric cubes of space. No action of a human alters the overall amount of value of the collection of all hours of the existence of vacuous space. Premise

    (3’’) Every action of a human (and of every collection of humans) which adds some U+’s to the the total amount of positive value of the universe adds at most aleph-zero U+’s. Premise

    (3’’’) In Cantorian arithmetic, for any non-negative number n which is at most aleph-zero, aleph-zero + n = aleph-zero. Premise

    (3’’’’) No action of a human (or of a collection of humans) alters the total amount of positive value of the universe. From (2’’’), (3), (3’), (3’’), and (3’’’)

    (3’’’’’) The overall amount of value of the universe equals the total amount of positive value of the universe minus the total amount of negative value of the universe. Premise (Isn‘t the overall value of any entity captured by the sum of its positive value minus the sum of its negative value?) Premise

    (3’’’’’’) But in Cantorian arithmetic, both subtracting from positive transfinite numbers and adding to negative transfinite numbers is disallowed/not defined. Premise

    Therefore,

    (3’’’’’’’) No action of a human (or of a collection of humans) alters the overall amount of value of the universe. From (3’’’’), (3’’’’’), and (3’’’’’’)

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/13223710301816466736 Vlastimil Vohánka

    A TENSION IN QS?

    1. QS, p. 45:

    “Suppose, for example, that there is an action A that has two units of value and that there is a possible history of a universe that is exactly like our universe except for the fact that action A is not performed at the time t1 when it is actually performed (and all the future consequences of the nonperformance of this act). Let us suppose the nonperformance of this action at time t1 implies that no units of value have been added at this location but that two units would have been added at this location if the action were performed. Then, if time begins at t0, we have two endless histories of the universe that differ in value at least at time t. Action A, we shall say, contributes to the overall value of the universe at time t, making this value consist of 800 units. The not-A universe differs at t by having only 798 units of value and (if the action has consequences whose units of value make the not-A history differ at every time later than t), we may represent the two histories as follows:

    The A-history of the universe:

    t0 t1 t2 t3

    200 800 860 920 . . . .

    The not-A history of the universe:

    t0 t1 t2 t3

    200 798 840 600 “

    That suggests not to insert (3*). That our actions can have both positive and negative infinite impact is not ruled out, given such scenarios. But, then, if subtraction from transfinite numbers is allowed, how to reach the conclusion that we cannot alter the overall value of the universe?

    2. Now cf. pp. 46f and 50:

    “I am obligated to perform an action only if the performance of that action increases the total value more than not performing that action increases that action. But this condition is not met by any action any human could undertake. It follows that there is no action that any human is obligated to undertake. It also follows that there is not act that is morally impermissible. An act B is morally impermissible only if it decreases the amount of value in the universe. But aleph-zero minus any finite number is aleph-zero. Therefore, every act is morally permissible. Further, no act is better or worse than any other act. An act C is better than another act D only if C increases the value of the universe more than does act D. But no finite amount of value added to aleph-zero results in a greater amount of value. Further, no act E is worse than any other act F, for E is worse than F only if E decreases the value of the universe. But a finite number of units subtracted from an aleph-zero number of units still results in an aleph-zero number of units of value. … There could be infinitely many acts that are unjust or unfair. If so, there are aleph-zero units of negative value and aleph-zero units of positive value. This implies that the number of units of negative value can neither be increased nor decreased and that the number of units of positive value can neither be increased or increased by morally relevant acts or “locations” (something with a finite amount of value).”

    This suggests to insert (3*) and to allow subtraction from transfinite numbers. As I’ve said already, if we do allow subtracting from positive transfinite numbers or adding to negative transfinite numbers, what what would be the total value of this universe? Zero? That would seem like a natural answer. But then it still holds that no FINITE human action (no action of a human or of a finite human population) can alter the sum of positive value, the sum of negative value or the total value (which are all infinite).

    But, again, how to defend (3*) and rule out that our actions have both positive and negative infinite impact? By the saying that the universe will expand forever and disintegrate, dead, darker, colder, more and more gauzily, and ultimately dead? That does beg the question against human immortality. (But I suppose QS is happy to do so.)

    In fine, if QS assumes (3*), it is not clear how he would defend it. If he does not assume (3*) and allows the subtraction, it is not clear how to derive the conlusion. So, a new twist: it seems QS assumes (3*), but it is not very clear why, and that he allows the subtraction.

    Sorry for these quandaries of mine. I hope they are instructive, in a way. :-)

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/12544439495032316597 Vlastimil Vohánka

    Other parts where QS does not assume (3*) and allows the subtraction.

    P. 47:
    “… if there are an infinite number of consequences of my acts with positive values, my actions plus their consequences still do not increase the value of the universe. For aleph-zero plus aleph-zero equals aleph-zero.”

    I don’t get this. Why assume the universe is modeled by the formula aleph-zero + aleph-zero (or aleph-zero + aleph-zero + aleph-zero + …)? Why not rather aleph-zero – aleph-zero – aleph-zero + aleph-zero …?

    P. 48:
    “Even if an act … has an infinite number of consequences, each with a negative value, this still does not decrease the amount of positive value in the universe. For an aleph-zero number of integers (e.g. all the negative integers) can be removed from the set of all integers […-2. –1, 1, 2…] and the amount of positive value in this set will remain the same, namely aleph-zero.”

    I get this neither. Isn’t the overall value equal to the sum of positive value minus the sum of negative value? So, allowing the subtraction, what equals aleph-zero – aleph-zero? Presumably zero, doesn’t it?

    Let’s have a 4 seconds long process with 8 units of positive value and 3 units of negative value, represented by the series: [-2, -1, 3, 5]. What’s the overall value? Presumably 5+. And it does not seem relevant to say that all the negative integers can be removed from this series and the sum of positive value will remain the same. Or am I missing something?

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/12231451531341611586 Charlene

    Maybe meaning then is not what I have in mind…

    In my experience, the issue is something more like worth. What is life worth?

    I have been an agnostic and a believer and I find that as a believer I credit my life with more worth.

    Before, I would consider taking care of my health as a physical matter, now it is a matter of respect because respect is an important element of spirituality and I now believe I have a spirit to take care of. So that’s a huge difference.

    It might be that I am lazy that I would not put in the effort for a mere 80 or so years of life. I don’t want to sound like a jerk, but although the person who believes they will live 80 years might have a good sense of meaning, the meaning that they believe in might be a lot less grand than the meaning believed in by someone who is fostering an eternal soul.

    For me, this (atheist, by the way, this is not really about god) life is not worth the effort it takes, just to live out these few years. I didn’t care about my life as much at all until I thought that it was a much grander thing than just this.


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