Soft Theism: Objective Meaning and Spirituality

Soft Theism: Objective Meaning and Spirituality March 8, 2021

We’re responding to an imaginary dialogue that explores Soft Theism, which is basically Christianity without the baggage. Can jettisoning Christianity’s crazy bits turn it into something plausible? Read part 1 here.

We continue with two questions about the atheist mindset, objective meaning for our lives and spirituality.

Meaning in Our Lives

Atheist: Why would the existence of a God give your life any more meaning than it would without God? I have no problem finding my own meaning in life.

Soft Deist: Yeah, I know . . . the atheist approach is to make your own meaning. That’s one of the big tenets of existentialism—there is no set meaning to life, humans make their own meaning.

Cross Examined Blog: I think the human approach is to make our own meaning, not just the atheist approach. Just because theists point to the supernatural and imagine objective meaning and purpose, that doesn’t mean it exists.

And . . . I know that the atheist attitude is that because life is temporary, it is thereby MORE meaningful, more precious. But I . . . just don’t see it that way. I think if life is temporary, then it’s just not as . . . objectively meaningful.

How valuable would gold be if it were as common as clay? How excited would you be for the weekend after you’d already experienced a trillion of them?

That’s not to say that I’ve proven that one lifetime’s worth of days is more valuable than countless days in heaven. But when the number of new days you’ll get is both limited and unknown, the value of any one day on earth must be much more than that in heaven.

And even if you’re right and forever in heaven with a God-defined purpose is better than threescore years and ten here on earth (as the King James Version phrases it), that does nothing to argue that it’s anything more than mythology. The days on earth are the only ones we know for sure we’ll get.

William Lane Craig—he’s a Christian philosopher—says the universe doesn’t acquire meaning because a person gives it one. Without God, meaning in the universe remains a matter of subjective opinion; a universe without God is objectively meaningless.

“Meaning” for humans is defined by humans. As for objective meaning (presumably this means meaning grounded outside humans, which would exist whether humans did or not), Craig needs to show that such a thing exists. The ordinary kind as defined in the dictionary exists and works well.

Well, that just it. The universe does NOT have an objective meaning or purpose. There are only subjective meanings that we ourselves create in our lives.

I think . . . the very fact that we CAN find meaning in our lives, indicates that there is some ultimate source for that meaning. To my way of thinking, partial meaning cannot exist, without ultimate meaning, without a source . . . like a branch cannot exist by itself, but, must have come from . . . a tree, a source. That’s not so much an argument, but an analogy of how I think of it.

This sounds like C.S. Lewis’s Argument from Desire: we feel hunger, so there must be food. We feel thirst, so there must be drink. And we yearn for ultimate meaning, so it must exist, too. I reject that argument here.

How would a world with objective meaning or purpose look different from one with the ordinary kind, the kind defined in the dictionary? Once we have an unbiased distinction that theists and atheists can agree on, we can move on to figuring out which world is ours.

(I also question objective meaning here and here.)

Reification

Dan Barker [from the Freedom From Religion Foundation] says that the mistake theists make is “reification”—you treat ideas as though they are something real, something objectively out there, when they are just . . . ideas.

Well, that’s the thing; I think ideas ARE real; it’s just that they are  . . . not physical “things” . . . I’ll give you an example of what I mean: Say, a good friend of yours, is killed by a giant boulder. Which is the greater reality, the boulder, or your friendship? Surely, the boulder is the greater reality; it killed your friend. Surely, your friendship is the greater reality; it meant a great deal to you, whereas the boulder is just an inanimate object. So . . . how does one reconcile these two powerful realities? I do it by perceiving the world dualistically. I see life as a constant interplay between both these realities, the physical and the spiritual.

Where is the spiritual in this example, and what’s there to reconcile? We have good days and bad days. Stuff happens.

Let me compare the boulder killing the person with a nature TV show with a fox chasing a rabbit. Our allegiance is probably for the rabbit, and we don’t want to see it killed. But maybe the fox has pups back home, and they’ll die if they’re not fed. Also, the fox is keeping the rabbit population under control to avoid overgrazing. We may want the rabbit to live and the pups to eat, but it’s a zero-sum game in reality. And, if we don’t like seeing the rabbit eaten, we must remember that, unless we’re vegetarians, we’re part of the problem.

Seeing a physical/spiritual duality doesn’t explain anything with the fox vs. rabbit contest, and it doesn’t explain anything with the boulder vs. the friend.

Spirituality

Now, I am not a dualist in the sense that there is some magical spirit world that frequently breaches the laws of nature. But, I am a dualist in the sense that, in addition to the physical world, there is a spiritual world that emerges from it—experiences, of love, beauty, deep emotion. All these admittedly fuzzy and abstract things, I think DO exist. They resist scientific verification, but they are real, and absolutely critical to our identity as human beings.

You think my mistake is reification, regarding these things as real. I think your mistake is reductionism, experiencing these things yourself as real, yet claiming they are not really real, because they are not physical.

So the spiritual world is just the emotional component of the natural world? There’s no supernatural involved? I can accept that, but you imagine the supernatural exists since you imagine God. You might want to clarify.

Obviously I agree that love, emotion, and the experience of beauty exist. Some things are physical (rock, car, sun), and some are abstract (love, frustration, courage). I don’t see the difficulty they pose for science.

Yes, there is more to learn about them. If you’re saying that science will forever be stuck analyzing human experience at the chemical or hormonal level, that sounds unlikely. Physics and chemistry are indeed low level—not usually the most productive place to discuss love or beauty—but physiology, psychology, artificial intelligence, and other disciplines are bridging that gap.

A focus on the lower level may be inappropriate or unhelpful, depending on what you’re thinking about, but that doesn’t make it invalid. Here’s an example that bridges that low-to-high gap. Suppose you saw 123 on a calculator display. You know that those digits are just representations. Sure, it might look like 123, but this is just electrons turning bits of liquid crystal dark or light. Are physics and semiconductors of any use when the topic is a cerebral math problem? Obviously, the answer is yes.

Where did logic come from?

But ideas are not things in and of themselves. For example, logic is not a thing. If all life died out, then there would be no logic.

Not quite. There’s a difference between logic and the laws of logic. An example from Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance illustrates this. Before Isaac Newton, there was no Newton’s Law of Gravity, but of course there was still gravity, and it was still true that F = Gm1m2/r2 (the formula that Newton discovered). The thing and the laws describing the thing are different.

Oh, I disagree. I think if a new form of intelligent life arose, that life form would find itself operating in a cosmos with the very same logic that was there before. I don’t think we create logic. We discover it. We activate what was already an inherent, existing, part of the cosmos.

But that brings its own conundrums. In our world, 2 + 2 = 4, and something can’t be a potato and not-a-potato at the same time (the law of excluded middle, one of logic’s three traditional laws). Is God constrained by these axioms? If he is, then we get these axioms from a greater reality than God. It’s reality that teaches us that 2 + 2 = 4, not God.

Or, if God is not constrained by these axioms, then God created the rules of addition and the laws of logic. But now they could be anything. God could’ve made 2 + 2 = 9 and created different laws of logic.

My assumption is the former, that God is constrained by an external reality. But if you say that the buck stops with God, then show us how God could’ve made 2 + 2 = 9 and could’ve made a thing that’s a potato and not-a-potato at the same time.

(You may be familiar with the morality version of this argument, the Euthyphro dilemma.)

Next time: Evolution and human intelligence

See also:

In the end the Party would announce
that two and two made five,
and you would have to believe it.
– George Orwell, 1984

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Image from daily sunny (license CC BY 2.0)
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