Scalar Connection to Meaning of Life?

Because I’ve written so much about arguments from scale lately, the following statement in Dennis Prager’s op-ed on atheism and consolation caught my eye.

“‘And we promise to work for more gun control. But the truth is we don’t
have a single consoling thing to say to you because we atheists
recognize that the human being is nothing more than matter, no different
from all other matter in the universe except for having
self-consciousness. Therefore, when we die, that’s it. Moreover, within a
tiny speck of time in terms of the universe’s history, nearly every one
of us, including your child, will be completely forgotten,
as if we
never even existed. Life is a random crapshoot. Our birth and existence
are flukes. And you will never see your child again.’” (emphasis mine)

This sounds very similar to the temporal aspect of arguments from scale: humans do not enjoy a temporally privileged position in the universe’s history.

This suggests another aspect to arguments from scale. If naturalism is true, then human beings do not have a temporally privileged position in the universe’s history. (The universe existed long before humans did and the universe will exist long after the last human dies out.) If significance or worth is at least partially based upon duration, then the miniscule duration of our species, compared to the duration of the universe, means that humans have little or no value. And having little or no value is more probable on the assumption that naturalism is true than on the assumption that theism is true.

For the record, I’m not convinced the above argument works; indeed, it makes several highly controversial assumptions. Still, I think something like the above argument lies in the background of many discussions about the meaning of life and morality. In fact, I’m reminded of the following line by William Lane Craig:

After all, what is so special about human beings? They
are just accidental by-products of nature which have evolved relatively
[Lowder's note: this is a reference to the lack of a temporally privileged position on naturalism] on an infinitesimal speck of dust [Lowder's note: this is a reference to the lack of a spatially privileged position on naturalism] lost somewhere in a hostile
and mindless universe and which are doomed to perish individually and
collectively in a relatively short time
[Lowder's note: another apparent reference to the lack of a temporally privileged position]. (emphasis mine)

So it seems like there is something here that is probably worth exploring further.

I’d be most interested in readers’ thoughts about this.

About Jeffery Jay Lowder

Jeffery Jay Lowder is President Emeritus of Internet Infidels, Inc., which he co-founded in 1995. He is also co-editor of the book, The Empty Tomb: Jesus Beyond the Grave.

  • Angra Mainyu

    Hi, Hillary.

    Just two cents:
    Prager claims:

    But the truth is we don’t have a single consoling thing to say to you because we atheists
    recognize that the human being is nothing more than matter, no different from all other matter in the universe except for havingself-consciousness.

    1. The ‘nothing more’ expression seems to have a derogatory tone, and it’s more of a rhetorical weapon. It might have a psychological impact without actually making a point.

    2. The difference is not only self-consciousness. There are plenty of other differences between different organisms, and generally different things, and many atheists recognize that; also, self-consciousness is not a difference between humans and all other entities.
    For instance, self-consciousness is a difference between humans and ants, but not between humans and dolphins (I’m talking about normal adults in all cases), or perhaps some very smart aliens on some other planet, or perhaps some future computers. But the capacity for moral assessments may well be one difference in some of those cases.
    On the other hand, capacity to feel pain, suffer psychological trauma, etc., is a difference between humans and rocks.

    That aside, in the case of Craig’s claims, that’s in the context of a metaethical argument, and I would suggest separating relevantly different issues, because arguments like that cause a lot of confusion.
    For instance, the issue of what humans are made of (soul stuff or particle stuff, or a combination, etc.) is orthogonal the issues of whether moral statements are objective, whether humans are moral agents, etc. What is important is what kind of mind (psychologically, not ontologically) humans have.

    To show that, one may consider the following hypothetical scenario:

    First, let’s assume theism for the moment, and let’s suppose that God creates a universe in which there are no souls.
    Instead, he creates some sort of panpsychist universe, where there are some basic, essential particles with some sort of basic phenomenal consciousness, but no intelligence, no will, no pain, essentially much simpler than a mosquito’s mind – they shouldn’t even be properly called ‘minds’, I think.
    Then, in that universe, through theistic evolution, complex beings arise.
    They do not have souls, but they do have minds, with the full range of emotions, knowledge, etc., of the animals we’re familiar with.
    In fact, one of the species God creates has a psychological makeup similar to that of humans, and is capable of making moral assessments, just like we can.
    Let’s suppose that some of those beings engages in torturing other such beings for fun.
    Would they not be acting immorally?
    It’s pretty obvious that they would be, even though their minds is made up of the same kind of basic stuff that the rest of the minds of the other animals in that universe – including all of those without a moral sense -, and even made up of the same kind of basic stuff as tables, chairs, and the like.
    Of course, the tables, etc., do not have table-minds, etc: the basic particles that make them up do have the most basic phenomenal consciousness, but they’re not combined in a way that makes up any less basic consciousness. They’re only connected externally, so to speak.

    So, chairs, tables, etc., are not moral beings – obviously -, and neither are mosquitoes or similar entities, but on the other hand, entities with human-like minds are moral beings, just as humans are, and regardless of what their minds are made of.

    Granted, someone might argue that the scenario in question is metaphysically impossible. But that would miss the point; whether it’s counterpossible or not, the point is that the issue of the whether humans are made of souls, particles, or whatever is not relevant to the metaethical issues at hand.

    • Angra Mainyu

      Just to clarify: I’m not suggesting that God is needed for morality. Rather, the alternative scenario is meant only to separate the issue of the ontology of minds from the metaethical issues under discussion; having God in the scenario is meant to preclude objections like ‘if God does not exist, then objective moral values and duties do not exist’ , which would muddy the waters.

      On the issue of human worth/value or significance, I would ask: significant to whom?.
      A similar comment can be made about ‘valuable’, if by ‘A is valuable’ one means something like ‘A is such that is proper (or morally obligatory, etc.) such-and-such entities value it’; then the ‘such-and-such’ entities issue is relevant (if not, what does that mean)
      I would say that whether moral statements are objective, and if so, whether statements like ‘X is immoral’ are sometimes true has nothing to do with whether someone values humans, whether we live forever, etc., and the burden to show that there is a connection would be on the claimant (in this case, Craig).