Naturalism, Theism, and the Meaning of Life

Naturalism, Theism, and the Meaning of Life July 9, 2016

In the book Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, there is a funny scene in which an artificial intelligence is tasked with figuring out the meaning of life or, as it is called in the book, the Great Question of “Life, the Universe, and Everything.” The AI spends 7.5 million years working on the problem, until it finally reveals the answer is “42.” The AI says, “I think the problem, to be honest with you, is that you’ve never actually known what the question is.” Like many others, including philosopher Erik Wielenberg, I suspect that the question, “What is the meaning of life?”, is actually several questions in one.

Let’s start with some definitions, which we can use to make some distinctions. First, let’s consider “value.”

intrinsic value: something is intrinsically valuable if the thing’s value is inherent to the thing’s own properties, as opposed to its value being derived from the properties of another thing.

extrinsic value: something is extrinsically valuable if the thing’s value is derived from the value of another thing.

Something can be intrinsically valuable or extrinsically valuable, but not both.

 

Next, let’s move onto “meaning.” Following Wielenberg, one way to think about the concept of a “meaningful life” is to apply the intrinsic vs. extrinsic distinction.

intrinsically meaningful life: a life has intrinsic meaning if the life is good for the person who lives it overall.

extrinsically meaningful life: a life has intrinsic meaning if the life if it enables other people to engage in intrinsically valuable activities.

A life can be intrinsically meaningful, extrinsically meaningful, both, or neither.

 

Another way to think about the concept of “meaning” is to think about the placement of a life within the timescale of the universe. For lack of better labels, I shall call the options “intermediate meaning” and “final meaning.”

intermediate meaning: A life has intermediate meaning if the activities of a life contribute only to outcomes somewhere during the intermediate events of the universe, as opposed to events at the end of the universe’s existence.

final meaning: A life has finite meaning if the activities of a life contribute to the final series of events.

I don’t claim the above three distinctions are exhaustive. If I’ve missed any other relevant distinctions, please let me know in the comments box.

 

With these distinctions in mind, then, consider the following claim.

(1) If naturalism is true, then life has no meaning.

But the word “meaning” in this context itself has several meanings. (1) could be interpreted as any of the following.

(1.1) If naturalism is true, then life has no intrinsic value.

(1.2) If naturalism is true, then life has no extrinsic value.

(1.3) If naturalism is true, then life has no intrinsic meaning.

(1.4) if naturalism is true, then life has no extrinsic meaning.

(1.5) If naturalism is true, then life has no intermediate meaning.

(1.6) If naturalism is true, then life has no final meaning.

Let’s go through them one by one.

(1.1) If naturalism is true, then life has no intrinsic value.

Even if we clarify (1) by replacing it with (1.1), we’re still left with a muddled statement which blurs together crucial distinctions.

First, an objectivist about value (aka a ‘value realist’)–whether a theist or a nontheist–would almost certainly say that if anything has intrinsic value, life has objective intrinsic value. And notice that the truth of naturalism has no bearing on whether anything is objectively, intrinsically valuable. The concept of “objective intrinsic value” is either:

(a) coherent (and it is necessarily true that some things have it); or

(b) incoherent (and so it is impossible for anything to have it).

But neither of these possibilities have anything to do with whether naturalism is true. Naturalism (as I define it) is compatible with both of these options.

Second, a life can be subjectively intrinsically valuable, both to the person who lives it and to the people touched by it.

Furthermore, lurking in the background behind statements like 1.1 is a corresponding positive claim about theism:

If theism is true, then life has intrinsic value.

This statement has essentially the same problems as (1.1). First, if, as I think, life has intrinsic value, its intrinsic value does not derive from God’s existence. This follows from the definition of intrinsic value: if life is intrinsically valuable, its value lies in its own intrinsic properties, not the properties of God (such as God’s valuing life). Second, if value realism is true, then it seems highly plausible that life is objectively intrinsically valuable and, again, this value doesn’t come from God. Third, whether or not value realism is true, on theism life can still have subjective intrinsic value. In short,in the context of of whether life has intrinsic value (in any of the senses I’ve defined), naturalism vs. theism is a red herring.

(1.2) If naturalism is true, then life has no extrinsic value.

This version of (1) suffers essentially the same problems as 1.1: life can have extrinsic value, objective and subjective, whether or not theism or naturalism is true.

(1.3) If naturalism is true, then life has no intrinsic meaning.

As stated, (1.3) is false. A life has intrinsic meaning if the life is good overall for the person who lives it. Life can be good overall for the person who lives it, if theism, naturalism, or “otherism” are true.

But there is a more interesting version of (1.3) which cannot be so easily dismissed:

(1.3′) If naturalism is true, then a person’s life might have no intrinsic meaning.

Some lives can be overall bad for the people who live them; such lives could be said to have no intrinsic meaning. In contrast, if theism is true–more precisely, if certain versions of theism are true–then certain doctrines about the afterlife might make it the case that some of the lives that would be intrinsically meaningless on naturalism would be intrinsically meaningful on theism.

(1.4) if naturalism is true, then life has no extrinsic meaning.

It follows from the definition of “extrinsic value” that life can have extrinsic value, objective and subjective, whether or not theism or naturalism is true. Accordingly, (1.4) is false.

(1.5) If naturalism is true, then life has no intermediate meaning.

I don’t know of anyone who believes 1.5, but 1.5 is false. The activities of a person’s life can contribute to outcomes during their lifetime. By definition, such a life has intermediate meaning.

(1.6) If naturalism is true, then life has no final meaning.

This version of (1) is true. If naturalism is true, then nothing I (or anyone else) does during their lifetime will affect the extinction of our sun, the possible annihilation of Earth, any other astronomical event which might happen billions or even trillions of years from now, or change the ultimate fate of the universe, which many scientists believe will be the heat death of the universe.

I’ve had theists tell me that this is supposed to be a “bad” consequence of naturalism, but it’s never bothered me for one moment. Why should it? Putting aside the impossibility for any human to wrap their mind around just how far off into the future such events are, it’s not like I’ll be around to experience them. When I use this reply, the theists (mentioned at the beginning of this paragraph) seem to just repeat (1.6). It’s as if they want to me to believe that, on the one hand, “Absolutely nothing matters (if naturalism is true),” and, on the other hand, “The fact, ‘nothing matters (if naturalism is true),’ itself matters” and so I should be upset about that, not noticing the inherent contradiction in their message.

 

"In my PhD program at UC Santa Barbara, I was advanced to candidacy for the ..."

The Swoon Theory is a THEORY ..."
"Thank you for the kind words. Clarity is a basic and important standard of critical ..."

The Swoon Theory is a THEORY ..."
"Bradley certainly does not want to debate semantics. However, Bradley clearly does recognize that semantics ..."

The Swoon Theory is a THEORY ..."
"In debate one argues that means all ideas one speaks about in debate are arguments.I ..."

Defending the Swoon Theory – Part ..."

Browse Our Archives

Follow Us!


TRENDING AT PATHEOS Nonreligious
What Are Your Thoughts?leave a comment