It’s a Fair Cop, Douthat

It’s a Fair Cop, Douthat November 29, 2011

Why can't you have normal existential angst like all the other boys?

In a response to a lot of the debate that followed Jennifer Fulwiler’s conversion story at Why I’m Catholic, NYT columnist Ross Douthat posed a question to atheists that I find hard to answer.  Jennifer wrote that she abandoned atheism because she thought she was required to be a nihilist in a world without God, and, of the three propositions:

  1. God is not real
  2. Atheism logically requires nihilism
  3. Nihilism sucks so bad it can’t be true

She thought she was most likely to be wrong about #1.  Then followed a lot of reading and blogging before her decision to convert, which you can review at Conversion Diary.  A lot of atheists (me included) took issue with her confidence in premise #2, but Douthat’s post has taken some of the wind out of my sails.  I’m paring down his thought experiment here, but you should click through and read the whole post:

Suppose, by way of analogy, that a group of people find themselves conscripted into a World-War-I-type conflict — they’re thrown together in a platoon and stationed out in no man’s land, where over time a kind of miniature society gets created, with its own loves and hates, hope and joys, and of course its own grinding, life-threatening routines. Eventually, some people in the platoon begin to wonder about the point of it all: Why are they fighting, who are they fighting, what do they hope to gain, what awaits them at war’s end, will there ever be a war’s end, and for that matter are they even sure that they’re the good guys?

…At this point, one of the platoon’s more intellectually sophisticated members speaks up. He thinks his angst-ridden comrades are missing the point: Regardless of the larger context of the conflict, they know the war has meaning because they can’t stop acting like it has meaning. Even in their slough of despond, most of them don’t throw themselves on barbed wire or rush headlong into a wave of poison gas. (And the ones who do usually have something clinically wrong with them.)… Instead, given how much meaningfulness is immediately and obviously available — right here and right now, amid the rocket’s red glare and the bombs bursting in air — the desire to understand the war’s larger context is just a personal choice, with no necessary connection to the question of whether today’s battle is worth the fighting.

Again, you ought to read the full post, but I think you can see where this is going.  Why do atheists (like me, guilty as charged) think it’s reasonable to take meaning as a foundational premise in life, generally, but find it illogical for Douthat’s hypothetical soldiers to do the same thing at a slightly smaller scale.

Now, I can’t post a critique of atheists shying away from philosophy on Monday and then throw up my hands on Tuesday, so I’m going to kick around a couple ideas here, but I’m not really satisfied with any of them, so I’d welcome help in the comments.

Objection 1: I have to throw in the obvious one.  Living without meaning feels like living without a belief in the reality of physical objects.  My every action gives the lie to my professed beliefs and I can’t even hypothesize about how I or anyone else would behave differently.  This isn’t a very strong defense, I know, but it’s the readiest I have at hand.  Before you dismiss this, I’d like to hear how you think I can/should justify my foundational belief in the reality of physical objects.  And before you claim that any reasonable interlocutor will spot me that theorem, remember that Bishop Berkeley claimed God’s existence could be proven because a deity was required to keep Creation physical from moment to moment.

From Nietzsche Family Circus

That was my knee-jerk defense, on to the more bizarre ones.

Objection two: The hypothetical is a poor image of the problem atheists are in.  If the war turns out to be pointless, the soldiers might be foolish, but they are only wrong in that they mislabeled something as meaningful, not in positing that such a category exists.  Humans tend to be oversensitized to patterns, but all our mistakes aren’t a disproof of order in nature or causality generally.  Similarly, the idea that people can be mistaken about the meaningfulness of a particular event doesn’t mean that our mistakes about meaning-on-the-big-scale will be the same kind of mistakes.

Objection three: I think the soldiers may be wrong to ask the question at all at this intermediate level of human experience.  Why should a war (and all the aggregated opportunities and constraints that come with it) be any more or less meaningful than an earthquake, especially to a conscript?  I think of meaning as more of a telos/duty/geas kinda thing — something you’re called to.  I’m meant for something, I don’t just pick up meaning like scout badges.

So what I’m meant to do is live according to my obligations to the best of my abilities in whatever circumstances I find myself.  War, earthquake, high school are just different environmental constraints to for me to deal with (and some of these may be completely beyond my abilities — it’s an occupational hazard of not having a god to not send you more that you can handle).  But the question of whether the backdrop is meaningful or good is only relevant to me insofar as I have the ability to alter it.

If I am a general or a politician, I’ve got a good deal more responsibility to make sure I’m not creating a world that makes it difficult for people to be moral — a world that requires sin eaters.  Oh, and if I’m just me, I’ve still got to do my due diligence as a citizen in a democracy, but, even leaving that aside, I’ve got plenty of obligation to be going on with.  Every action I take–even something as small as being brusque with a friend or stranger–can be a stumbling block for others struggling to be good.

I can see my duty plain, without understanding what metaphysical structure compels it.  Stepping back into metaphysics is something I usually do just for fun, or as a change of perspective corrective to any bad habits I’ve picked up in my moral thinking.


UPDATE: There was some confusion in the comments, so you may want to check out the follow-up post: Too Sucky to be True.

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  • Lukas Halim

    “I can see my duty plain, without understanding what metaphysical structure compels it.”
    Right. But atheistic metaphysical structures are necessarily non-teleological. From your perspective, there is nothing that would endow you with a telos to “live according to my obligations to the best of my abilities in whatever circumstances I find myself.” Evolution creates entities that replicate their genes. Beings created by evolution may sometimes behave in nice and even apparently loving ways, but this behavior is superficial – what is really going on at a deep level is survival of the fittest. Evolution doesn’t create beings that try to “be the change they’d like to see in the world.”

    An anaology – I don’t need to believe in the sun in order to use my sense of sight, but I run into problems if I deny the existence of illumination.

  • I usually take a different route when I’m charged with this question. I think that atheism does, at a fundamentally objective level, mean that life is meaningless. But unfortunately, so does theism; and theism’s assertion of “meaning” is no less arbitrary than any atheist’s assertion of meaning.

    I usually go about this in a Socratic-dialog like way when I’m charged with being a nihilist since I’m an atheist. Since, in this case it’s a Christian, the Christian obviously thinks that life has meaning given the Christian view of the world, I ask them what the purpose of life is assuming Christianity is true. At this point they usually answer with something that only applies to human life, and I ask them to explain it using all life. Again, they’ll give some answer that they have less confidence in, but this still doesn’t answer my question.

    It might be a false dichotomy, but at this point I ask them whether, according to Christianity, their god is alive or dead. Alive, obviously. I then ask the question a third time: What’s the purpose of “life” in the Christian paradigm. At this point they either can’t answer or assert that their god doesn’t need a meaning for life, and I take them to task for latching their meaning of life onto something that ultimately has no meaning for being around: God has no reason for his existence, and if everything that god “is” is a good (like god is love, thus love is good; god is justice, thus justice is good; etc.), then this means that meaninglessness is also a good, which leads to a paradox. But, if god did have a meaning for his existence (like say, the creation of life on Earth) then this meaning is more important than god. Another paradox.

    Ultimately, both atheist and theist arbitrarily assign some meaning to existence at some point.

    • dbp

      That is Socratic indeed, in that it relies quite a lot on equivocation. It is useful to an extent: Socratic dialogs illustrate the value of rigor and clarity in speaking and reasoning, but at times not much else. So let’s try to speak a little more exactly.

      Meaning as commonly considered is equivalent to an Aristotelian final cause. When used in practical situations (e.g. our own) it usually signifies the conviction that there is something larger than oneself that one’s existence contributes to: the happiness of loved ones, the welfare of the nation, etc.

      Now each of the examples given above is a contingent final cause in the sense that each assumes the meaningfulness of that to which the final cause refers: if my action is meaningful because it contributes to the welfare of the nation, what is it about the welfare of the nation that is good? This process continues for everything with a final cause external to itself.

      But God is, by the Christian definition, that for which there is no external material, formal, efficient, or final cause. It doesn’t mean he doesn’t have a final cause (or, if it does, it’s only because the language we use breaks down for God). It is most accurate to say that he is his own final cause: he exists for his own sake.

      And, in fact, Christianity is very clear that all creation– human life, life in general, and all non-life– exists for the purpose of revealing and glorifying God, which secures the chain of “final causation” to an anchor of unmovable and incontestable meaning.

  • Phew. Okay. This is a big question to take on in a blog comment, but I’ll do my best.

    I’m also tackling that premise #2, “Atheism logically requires nihilism”. There’s an implication there (and a common one) that a life with God is automatically a life without nihilism. I don’t buy that.
    I don’t think the existence of a God implies any meaning at all.
    And any definition of God that necessarily does imply meaning is sufficiently un-god-like that atheists could subscribe to it.
    Here goes:

    Remember the Euthyphro dilemma? You could adapt it here to ask: even in a system with God, where does the ‘meaning’ come from? Are things meaningful because God says so, or because God recognizes their innate meaningfulness and lets us know about it?
    If things are meaningful because God says so, then…I don’t think they’re really that meaningful. That’s not meaning, that’s…what? A set of instructions?
    If things are meaningful in and of themselves, and God just points the way, then presumably that meaning is there to be lived by believers and non-believers alike. (Believers might say that non-believers will have a hard time understanding this meaning because they haven’t had the way shown to them. But even believers check potential interpretations of e.g. the Bible against their lived experience, which suggests to me that even they fundamentally get their meaning from the world around them.)

    I know believers often say that the fact that God has a plan, or that God created them for a purpose, gives their life meaning. But that invites another spin on Euthyphro. Was my purpose arbitrarily designated by God, or was I created in such a way as to be suited for that purpose? If God’s plan for me doesn’t match up with my real characteristics, then I don’t see much meaning there (great! God’s trying to use a hammer as a drill); if my purpose is part of the way I am, then it’s just *there* in me, irrespective of my mode of creation. (Again, a believer could object that I’ll have a hard time finding it without God’s guidance. But again, I suspect anyone will check a suggestion about their purpose with their own experience and feeling. “Once I started following God’s path, I felt so much better!” Which was how you knew it was God’s path. Hmm.)

    The best way out these dilemmas that I’ve heard goes something like this: “God doesn’t look at the Good/Meaning and tell us about it, OR arbitrarily decide on it: God IS the Good/Meaning.” Okay. We can posit that. God is the Good/Meaning.
    But there’s no necessary connection between God-as-meaning and God-as-guy-in-the-sky. If we want to run with “God = The Good”, or “God = Meaning”, then we’re not saying much besides “God = Being”. (That would be nice and Platonic! or Hegelian.)
    And I think plenty of atheists, or at least people who don’t believe in an anthropocized God, are willing to talk about their place in ‘being’ or ‘the world’. And if they point to ‘the world’ as the source of their meaning, I don’t actually think they’re doing much different from what more conventional believers do when they point to God as the source of theirs.

    In sum:
    Does meaning come from God?
    If so, it’s either arbitrary (= not really meaning)
    or exists independently of God (so it’s out there for atheists too)
    or IS God, in which case God is just a fancy name for ‘being’, which atheists are fine with as a source of meaning.
    And in either of the last two cases, our check for meaning is experience/the world/’being’ anyway.

    Does that make sense?

    • dbp

      It makes sense and is close to hitting the mark. It misses in that it assumes that “being” and “the world” or “things that are” are identical.

      If we want to run with “God = The Good”, or “God = Meaning”, then we’re not saying much besides “God = Being”. (That would be nice and Platonic! or Hegelian.)

      Or Biblical: God is “I am,” after all. And I think your mistake is that you haven’t internalized the assertion there, and what it means for the argument.

      “Being” comes in various doses: everything we see has existence which relies on other things in a myriad of way: as something caused in time, and as something composed of other things, and as something capable of decay, and so forth. Things which rely on less have a more fundamental kind of being (though not necessarily a more fundamental kind of meaning, it is important to note) than those that rely on more. So we can say that unicorns “exist” in a certain way, but since that existence is only a sort of meme or idea dependent entirely on human imagination, which is itself reliant on humans, which themselves are atop a pyramid of existences; a very tenuous existence indeed, several hops away from anything that approaches “fundamental” existence.

      But the Being of God is, by hypothesis, necessary and self-sufficient. It relies on nothing else. This is emphatically not the same as saying that God = ‘anything that exists’ or ‘the sum of all that exists:’ in order to get that, you need additional assumptions.

      So, if you are going to predicate meaning on Being, Christians already have a leg up on atheists because we believe there is a Root Being where the reduction stops. But there is another aspect, which I think atheism misses. Atheism does not, as far as I have seen, ascribe meaning just to ‘existence’ in some abstract way. If there is an atheist that ascribes ‘meaning’ to bat guano for the simple fact of its existence, I haven’t met him. The reason people can even posit existence as a basis of meaning is because they (perhaps unconsciously) assume a teleological content to existence: that is, that everything that exists exists for a purpose. (And this is where we get back into my reply to Mr. Quinton above, so I’ll leave out how the Christian derives a coherent system of meaning from this. So, to proceed to the relevant conclusion as it pertains to atheism…)

      The thing is, atheism almost necessarily excludes intrinsic purpose to real things. (I’d like Leah’s take on this, because she believes in things like objective morality, which I would also think atheism almost necessarily excludes.) It can include extrinsic purpose, of course: purpose we assign to something but which does not have any real connection with the thing’s being. For this reason, the final cause is something assigned– by us, no less, and inconsistently! And if so, the final cause cannot be a reliable or objective source of meaning, simply because it itself is not reliable or objective.

      So I think atheists are in all sorts of trouble with meaning, and your comments have gotten most of the way to hitting pay dirt on the state of things. But in equating the strategy of the atheists with that of Christians in assigning meaning, you miss the large number of ways in which they are not parallel and, in offering them Being as a source of meaning, may be falling into the hidden proposition of teleology with which atheism is, unfortunately, at odds.

  • Aristarchus

    I think debates of this sort usually suffer from a lack of clear definitions, and tend to on some level be just elaborate semantic games. What do you define life having “meaning” to mean, exactly? If you mean that it has a “purpose”, then you have to define that. Usually purpose requires intention. If you mean it to allow your own intention to provide the purpose, then that’s easy to show. I have decided that I like a world in which I and other humans are happy, and I’ve decided the purpose of my life is to try to make the world as much like that as I can. Problem solved. If you mean the intention of some larger thing that created me, then yeah, by definition almost atheism doesn’t allow for a “purpose” in life.

    All that said, I really have a bigger problem with Proposition #3 from the top of your post. #2 might be right or wrong, with reasonable room for argument on either side, depending on your definitions. #3 is just obviously dumb. I think it’s worth breaking into two parts:

    3a: Nihilism really, really sucks.
    3b: Things that suck that much can’t be true.

    I think 3b is extremely dumb. We can’t just throw out potential facts as false because believing them would make us sad. That is extremely irrational, and I think basically everyone making arguments for atheism has spent a very long time arguing that just because a belief is comforting doesn’t mean you should believe it. So I think this logical chain has already fallen apart.

    I think 3a is worth challenging too, though. Nihilism (in the way that’s maybe implied by atheism) doesn’t mean there aren’t preferable outcomes in life and ways you should act in order to make them happen. As I said before, I like human happiness. I also like fairness, and some other things. Most other humans agree with me on 99% of that sort of thing, though there are some quibbles with places where happiness and fairness contradict, etc. But I believe what has happened in human history is basically that those of us humans who want a world with maximal human happiness and fairness have allied and decided we’re going to force that sort of world on humanity. And I live in a way that tries to make that happen. Do I have a larger reason for this? No. At some level, it’s just a personal preference, no less arbitrary than preferring a particular flavor of ice cream. We do it because that’s what we want the world to be like. And I’m totally ok with that.

    • t e whalen

      3b: Things that suck that much can’t be true.

      I think 3b is extremely dumb. We can’t just throw out potential facts as false because believing them would make us sad. That is extremely irrational, and I think basically everyone making arguments for atheism has spent a very long time arguing that just because a belief is comforting doesn’t mean you should believe it.

      Wait, why? Why is truth more important than happiness?

      • t e whalen

        I ask because you go on to say that you’re interested in a “want a world with maximal human happiness”. Isn’t a world full of happily deluded people compatible (or even essential) to that goal?

        • Joe

          I got a real kick out of your comment “Wait, why? Why is truth more important than happiness? Because it was so ironic. To the nihilist nothing ultimately matters truth or happiness.

      • Aristarchus

        That’s not the point. Happiness could be more important than truth, and it would still not be that very bad things can’t be true. We don’t get to say “I’d like to live in a world where if I pretend something is true, it becomes true.” Yes, that’d be a nice world. But that’s not the world we live in, and most people understand that.

        So why shouldn’t you believe something that is both sad and probably true? Because once you’ve reached that step of the argument, you already believe it. “Believe” just means “think is true”. You can’t think something is true, but decide not to believe it because that makes you feel better. That or your mind has some extraordinary powers of self-delusion that my mind lacks.

        • t e whalen

          I’m not sure that “believe” has the narrow meaning you suggest. There’s lot of stuff you and I probably “think is true” but we go ahead and live our lives as if it weren’t. I don’t think many people are prepared to actually live according to the atheist/naturalist views they claim to “believe”.

          For instance, one may “believe” that romantic love is a social construction, built upon naturally-evolved systems of visual and pheremonal attraction. One may “believe” up and down that love isn’t a real thing in the universe, it’s just the word we use to describe a particular brain-state resulting from certain hormones, certain memes, and certain social practices. However, someone who actually put that belief into practice? We’d probably call that person a sociopath.

          • I’m curious as to what you think would constitute “putting that belief into practice,” and why you think that.

          • t e whalen

            Well, do you think it matters whether one gets those lovely neurotransmitter cascades from a drug, or from a relationship with another person? A world where we take two Erotosim capsules and snuggle up next to a simulacrum of a person, even if the brain chemistry and subjective experience is the same, sure sounds empty to me. Wouldn’t we all be more efficient consumers and producers if we sanitized and commoditized romantic attraction? Think of all the money and time we waste trying to impress and woo potential lovers. We could eliminate all that with a pill and 85 pounds of lifelike plastic. Sounds pretty rational to me!

          • What I’m not understanding is why you think believing that love is the result of chemical processes, etc. necessarily entails that one must want to efficiently get that experience in a sanitized and commoditized way. It doesn’t follow.

            We know that the taste of food is the result of physical and chemical processes (I think we all agree on that, don’t we?), but plenty of people still like to cook and eat real food instead of taking a pill.

    • I agree with your splitting of #3 into two points.

      On #3b, I think that if you’re going to say “We can’t just throw out potential facts as false because believing them would make us sad,” you have to have a referent as to why we can’t. I’d rephrase it as “If we want to learn what’s actually true about the universe, we can’t just throw out potential facts as false because believing them would make us sad.” I’d further argue that we should want to learn what’s actually true about the universe, because that’s got a much better track record than believing things without evidence, but backing that up is left as an exercise for another post/comment.

      On #3a — if we are defining nihilism as the belief that there is no ultimate purpose or meaning to our lives, then I would consider myself a nihilist. I would also agree with you that that’s not so bad. Maybe in the grand scale of the universe, we’re tiny and irrelevant creatures, but so what? We don’t live our lives on that scale. We’re incapable of experiencing that scale. Why should it take precedence over the meaning we create in the lives we actually live?

  • JSA

    Evolution doesn’t create beings that try to “be the change they’d like to see in the world.”

    Evolution appears to be scientific fact, and has indeed created Gandhi, so it appears that evolution does create beings that try to “be the change they’d like to see in the world.”

    And why wouldn’t God use evolution as his mechanism for creating loving creatures?

    Ultimately, both atheist and theist arbitrarily assign some meaning to existence at some point.

    Not really. The atheist assigns it arbitrarily, while the theist accepts it on authority.

    Imagine two atheist families. In one family, the father arbitrarily tells his children, “Life has no meaning, you’ll need to come up with your own meaning.” In the second family, the father arbitrarily declares, “The meaning of life is to oppose the vile stamp collectors. And if you don’t oppose the stamp collectors, you’re no child of mine!”

    The kids of the first family can be said to arbitrarily assign meaning to life. However, if the children of the second family are motivated by a desire to remain part of the family, their opposition to stamp collectors will not be an arbitrary assignment of meaning.

    • Not really. The atheist assigns it arbitrarily, while the theist accepts it on authority.

      The authority is arbitrarily defined.

      The point I was making was that at some level of analysis, everything is arbitrary. God has no meaning for his existence, so anything he supposedly declares about the meaning of his own existence is just as arbitrary as the second horn of the Euthyphro dilemma (and yes, I did model this objection to a theist’s charge of nihilism on Euthyphro).

      Using god in this case as an escape clause for meaning is ultimately circular, just like every other escape clause for meaning. Positing a god doesn’t remove the problem, it just moves it back one more peg.

      • dbp

        It isn’t. Read my reply to you above.

      • dbp

        Sorry, I managed to screw up an eight word comment. Sigh.

        I meant, it isn’t circular if defined in the way I discuss, which incidentally is the way I think much mainstream Christianity would define it. Again, I already discussed this above, so see that comment for more details.

  • The implication of this, by the way, is that not only can one find meaning without God, but that meaning can only be found without God, unless God is defined as meaning — which isn’t saying much about God. Of course, you could still follow me this far and then call on faith to add the details of eg. Jesus or Zeus.

    –> Sorry, J., if I repeated some of what you said — your post went up while I was still writing mine, so I didn’t see it!

    • (sorry, too, that I didn’t understand the reply-to structure. Oops.)

  • Caio

    I have my own Existentialist-flavored way of basically agreeing with J. Quinton, ArdenRB and Aristarchus. The essential point is the basic, radical freedom of the moral agent. Because we are free not to tie ultimate meaning to God, it follows that we can’t, not really. Even if you submit your will to God, the will to do so starts, and forever remains, with the self. This means that it is entirely conceivable that anyone may, in good faith, disagree with God, and thus refuse, justifiably, to grant God moral authority.

    • dbp

      That only holds if meaning is inherently relative, which is begging the question. If meaning is intrinsic, or even if meaning is extrinsic but identified with a final cause imparted by the lowercase-c-creator, then assessment of meaning is just recognition of an external fact and not an act of the will.

      Of course, accepting this definition of the word is an act of the will; but that’s true of any debate at all. It doesn’t mean that every assertion logically inconsistent because you can arbitrarily change definitions of words to make them so.

      • Caio

        But what does it mean for meaning not to be inherently relative, at least in the way that I referred to?

        Think of it this way. Let’s call intrinsic meaning Mi, and let’s say I find, on a couple of stone slabs in a distant planet, and that I know, with complete and justified certainty, that this is a clear, authoritative definitive compendium of all of Mi. A guide to all that is intrinsically meaningful is contained right there. But it turns out that what is really, intrinsically meaningful, are things I don’t feel are important at all. Turns out that the universe attaches a great deal of meaning to how many times a day I use the bathroom, to how I pronounce the word “tomato”, or to what gender I’m sexually attracted to. I find that I completely disagree with the universe about what’s important, and so intrinsic meaning turns out to be kind of… meaningless.

        So I need to come up with something else; let’s call it personal meaning, or Mp. Now, Mp is concerned about the things that I really care about, like justice, and truth, and people being kind to each other. And regardless of what Mi is, Mp is what I will continue to care about.

        Now let’s look at a different hypothesis: I find the Slabs of Mi (say), and they’re fundamentally in line with Mp. More than that, they even illuminate aspects of Mp, ironing out contradictions and problems, and showing what is right and meaningful in situations that I hadn’t even considered, but I find that I can’t but agree. In this case, Mi = Mp. And I might be tempted to say that of course they’re exactly the same, because what I care about are, by definition, intrinsic values. But the previous example demonstrates that this is most definitely not the case–not by logical necessity. And if Mi != Mp, truly, fundamentally, then no amount of argument is going to make me, or anyone else, attach any kind of meaning to Mi.

        • dbp

          Fair enough; the problem is (as it has been since the beginning of this conversation) that ‘meaning’ is a word subject to too much equivocation.

          If you insist on a person’s personal and subjective assignment of meaning, then of course it is personal and subjective. In this case, you are saying that because recognition of meaning is, at any rate, different from intrinsic (or at any rate objective) meaning, and because most people consider the former to be the only ‘meaning’ that is important to them, the latter, even if it exists, is irrelevant.

          I would essentially agree with most of that, except the last word. The question at the heart of Leah’s post is whether the feelings of meaning we have are tied to anything out there in the objective world. This isn’t much different from her other example, about knowledge that our sensory perceptions are tied to really-existing, external, physical reality. Do our senses sometimes lie? Sure: a person might feel colder than he did half an hour previously not, as he suspects, because it is actually any colder than it was, but rather because he’s spiking a fever. But that’s not a reason to say, “Screw the thermometer’s measurement of air temperature; I say it’s colder in here so I’m just going to turn up the heater and forget about it.”

          Rather, he should try to use the other resources available to him to figure out what IS going on and, in this case, fix it by fixing himself.

          In the same way, I would argue that our sense of meaning is reliable, to a point; for all its imperfections it points to a truth that is larger than ourselves. It leads us to seek that which is the source of meaning. And to do so, we create theories much like those of physics, extrapolating from the empirical evidence that this ‘sense’ provides us.

          If our theory is reliable enough, deviation from it might possibly indicate that something is wrong with us when our sense diverges. That’s really what I think is at stake here; it might mean we’re morally feverish.

          That’s why I objected to your statement, “Because we are free not to tie ultimate meaning to God, it follows that we can’t, not really.” Of course we can, just as we can tie “ultimate temperature” to objective properties of the air around us and not rely strictly on our subjective perception thereof. There’s no logical problem in doing either, as long as you don’t start from a needless base proposition (like, “meaning is inherently personal and subjective”).

          • Caio

            I hear you, and I want to focus on a different part of the argument: assigning meaning. Because I can see how it would seem that I’m being facile about the idea of “choosing” meaning, as if you could choose to tie it to anything. But it’s not ever an arbitrary thing. What I mean is that meaning is found within oneself first and foremost, necessarily. How could it be otherwise? How would we even judge God to be God–all-good and all-loving–and how would we know to worship God, if we did not find meaning in just those things that God represents? What if God were not God, but one of the Lovecraftian Old Ones, lover of chaos and pain and death? How would we even know the difference? If it weren’t for our prior discernment of meaning, God-worship would be nothing but power-worship. And having that discernment, we may be compelled to learn from God, or conversely, to reject a horror-deity.

            Now, it may be that, by being creating by God in His image, we were made to love what He loves and hate what He hates, and so true meaning would, in fact, align perfectly with God. Furthermore, because we aren’t always perfect, or even good, judges of what’s important, we would be frequently liable to be corrected by divine guidance.

            And yes, that’s a situation where you can compare meaning to temperature, and you should trust a thermometer over your own judgment. But even if you believe that, even if you believe every ontological argument that supposedly proves that God must be perfectly good, you have to accept that, at least epistemologically, it might have been otherwise. And that if God turned out to be a monster (and I don’t mean just the gay-hating, misogynistic chauvinist that many Christians believe in, but a genocidal, death-and-torture-loving, deceitful–you know, it’s shockingly difficult to find a hateful conception of God that isn’t biblically supported, but you get the idea) you wouldn’t care what his definition of good is, because what “good” means to that God is fundamentally different from what you understand it to be. In that case, God might be an accurate thermometer, but you find what you care about isn’t temperature after all. So even if there is a connection between personal, subjective values and general or intrinsic values that guarantees that they are the same (and there are many ways to build this connection, with or without God), this is emphatically not a necessary connection.

          • DavidM

            If we accept that God must be perfectly good (that’s true just based on what we mean by ‘God’), then no, it is not rational to think that it could have been otherwise.

  • Eli

    Sorry, this one is too easy. Nihilism =/= absence of meaning. Nihilism, in fact, is vastly stronger than that, at least in this context. For Jen, it meant denying that “all the hope and love and joy I’d experienced was something real.” This is clearly much stronger and more desperate a claim than the one that Douthat argues for, i.e., “it surely makes a rather large difference whether our joys and sorrows take place in, say, C.S. Lewis’s Christian universe or Richard Dawkins’s godless cosmos.”

    He’s right, but she’s wrong – and this is why it’s erroneous to think that premise #2 (so phrased) has anything to do with meaning.

  • Patrick

    I have trouble getting to the deeper issues implied by P1 and P2 because I can’t stop screaming inside my own brain about how deeply insane P3 is. Its literally a named fallacy: the argument from adverse consequence. Its the sort of error you make when you’re speaking informally and off the top of your head, but when you’re making it in a considered argument you’re falling beneath the minimum standard for rational discourse and rational thought.

    In any case, I think the idea of “meaning” without a referent is absurd. I think its just an artifact of the mind projection fallacy, which isn’t quite as obvious and unforgivable as the argument for adverse consequence, but which is still fallacious.

    So something could be “meaningful to me,” or “meaningful to you,” or even “meaningful to God” if such a critter existed, but it couldn’t be “meaningful” in some abstract sense.

    And the thing is, once you reach that conclusion, there’s no difference between atheism and theism in terms of whether they’re nihilistic. Either you feel that “meaningful to me” is still nihilism, in which case the existence of God doesn’t do anything, or else you feel that”meaningful to me” isn’t nihilistic, in which case the matter is moot.

    If you draw out the argument one step further, the theist who want to defend the nihilism attack generally insist that their belief in magic makes it possible for their magical being to have a magical property that lets extrinsic meaning be true. So even though all of the logic above holds, theism can still have extrinsic meaning.

    Good luck getting a coherent explanation of how that’s supposed to work. If anything more than bold assertion is given, it will involve putting FAR more weight on the concept of “necessary being” than the concept can bear without devolving into a mismash of paganism and the philosophy of the medieval era.

    • DavidM

      Begging the question is also a fallacy, which is what you’re doing when you (effectively) declare that ‘meaning’ has no universally abstractable referent.

    • DavidM

      I should add that the fallacy of adverse consequence does not apply when it comes to establishing first principles. Aristotle would call your argument here ‘the fallacy of trying to demonstrate first principles.’

    • DavidM

      …or rather ‘the folly of insisting on a demonstration of first principles.’

  • Joe

    Lol!!!! good one Whalen

  • I guess it’s just been awhile since I dug into philosophy, but I feel like I don’t understand the debate and/or like some things are being debated based on incorrect assumptions. There seems to be an assumption in that thought experiment that it’s illogical for the soldiers to act as though there’s meaning even if they don’t know why? It’s not any more illogical on a smaller scale than it is as applied to god.

    I don’t know, I’m not confident in my understanding so I probably shouldn’t speak, but I’m going to anyway. There’s no reason why atheism should or should not imply nihilism. The idea that atheism implies nihilism or amorality is absurd and equates Christians with toddlers — little children who don’t know any better, only doing the right thing for fear of punishment. I think a pretty fundamental thing we need to establish, in the atheism/theism debate, is that normal, healthy people know the difference between right and wrong independent of religious belief. We at least need to not assume the opposite. While nihilism is a different issue and a little more prickly, I feel comfortable saying we need to not assume that the other guy is a nihilist or not, regardless of his religious belief.

  • Brandon

    Douthat’s analogy, while seemingly decent, is an excellent example of why I’m not keen on analogies. They’re a useful teaching tool for explaining something that someone doesn’t understand, but seem rather useless to me for making actual arguments; what’s the need for an analogy when we can deal with the actuality? The analogy seems, to me, a way of saying “you don’t really get it, and that’s why we disagree”.

    I don’t think there’s a meaning to life because I see utterly no evidence of one. In the context of a war, it’s quite easy for soldiers in the trenches to derive evidence that there’s a meaning to the war, even if they’re incorrect about the specifics of what that meaning is. Of course, we all tend to live our lives as if there is some sort of meaning, but it’s not deliberate on my part; I’m doing things that appear to me to be “right” based on a set of reasoned out moral criteria as well as doing things that bring me happiness. That’s about good enough, and I don’t really see the need to posit an unevidenced, overarching meaning to continue happily on as I am.

  • Gilbert

    On objection 1 it depends on what you mean by a belief being “foundational”.

    On one interpretation you try to have a small set of foundational beliefs that will generate and give structure to others. On that interpretation “foundational beliefs” relate to your belief system a bit like postulates do to a physical theory. (Less like axioms to a mathematical structure, because foundational beliefs probably include beliefs about valid forms of experience, so, unlike axioms, they are not sufficient to deduce the whole system.) On another interpretation “foundational” basically means unshakable, i.e. you will rather give up any other belief that turns out to be incompatible with them. On that interpretation “foundational beliefs” relate to your overall belief system more like experimental observations relate to a physical theory. Because I’m to lazy to come up with a better terminology I’ll simply call these meanings A-foundational and B-foundational, thus differentiating your objection 1 into objections 1A and 1B.

    Before I dismiss objection 1A I’ll answer your per-triggered question: Your belief in the reality of physical objects shouldn’t be A-foundational either. Actually if you dig deep enough it won’t make sense without God either. With that question out of the way I’ll indeed dismiss 1A for failure to state an argument.

    Objection 1B is better than you think it is. You have a decisive argument to make belief in meaning B-foundational. But that relates entirely to your/Jennifer Fulwiler’s proposition 3, which you then must accept. It simply doesn’t tell you anything about proposition 2 and thus doesn’t affect Ross Douthat’s argument against it. If you don’t find a better rebuttal of his argument you’ll just have to reconsider proposition 1…

    On objection two I can see how the soldiers may be wrong about the war having meaning but right about there being such a thing as meaning. But I don’t see how this should make them less analogous to people in general. Fighting the war is what they do and as conscripts they don’t have other options. If the war is pointless and if they are no bigger than their present physical existence, then meaning is simply not available to them. The notion of meaning still existing in the abstract would if anything only increase their despair.

    In that their situation is similar to everyone else. If it turned out that there was meaning all right, it just was you who didn’t have any, you wouldn’t exactly take that as good news.

    On objection three, the soldiers’s situation is different from the earthquake because they aren’t civilists. The war is what they are doing and they wonder if they are actually called to do it. Their situation is still different from that of people in general because they may be missing their call rather than not having one in the first place. OK, that’s a difference, every analogy has one or else it would be an identity. But I don’t see how the difference would be relevant to the point. The point is that the meaningfulness depends on a context and can’t be severed from the question of that context’s existence. I don’t see how the elimination of a third possibility (of an existing but missed call) should help that problem.

    And one remark on your last paragraph: No, you can’t see your duty plain, without understanding what metaphysical structure compels it. You can see part of it plain. But unless you have a good argument for modern educated, secular, and wealthy blue state America being the first and only (sub-)culture to ever be right in all its prejudices you need to assume you grew up with moral blind spots, probably major ones. After all you know the people in all other cultures to have such blind spots. And the only way to find them is examining the metaphysical structure that compels them.

  • Hibernia86

    First I have to point out: the third premise “Nihilism sucks so bad it can’t be true” is a ridiculously poor argument. Let’s try another example: “The Holocaust sucks so bad it can’t be true.” See the problem with these kinds of statements? What you want to be true isn’t always the same thing as what is true.

    Second of all, the solution to this philosophical mess is this: We create our own meaning. Our lives mean whatever we want them to mean. We don’t need God or any spiritual law to give us meaning. We can give it to ourselves. We don’t need religion as a crutch.

    • Joe

      “We create our own meaning. Our lives mean whatever we want them to mean.”
      If what you say is true and there is no meaning except that witch we make for ourselves then aren’t we making ourselves in to a kind of God? After all isn’t God that can make something(meaning) out of nothing?

      • Hibernia86

        We aren’t making something out of nothing. We are making meaning out of our life in the way we want.

    • DavidM

      Bad analogy. The third premise should be elaborated thus: “Nihilism is a foundational metaphysical premise that sucks so bad (as a foundational metaphysical premise) that it can’t be true.” So yeah, obviously the Holocaust analogy is lame.

  • I’d say my response is mainly #2, but mixed with a bit of #3.

    Here’s the #3 part: Regardless of its virtues, nihilism can safely be discounted. Why? Because if nihilism is true, then by definition there’s no reason why we should do anything – including believing in nihilism. To have any reason to choose one viewpoint over another, you have to have some set of values that guide your decisions, and the existence of such values is precisely what nihilism denies. In that sense, nihilism is self-refuting. As Daniel Dennett says, it’s literally a negligible position.

    As far as Douthat’s scenario, I think it rests on a fundamental equivocation. The question of whether there’s a meaning to the war is an entirely different question than whether there’s meaning in the soldiers’ lives, but Douthat treats these two as though they were interchangeable. They aren’t. It’s entirely consistent that soldiers can think that the war they’re engaged in is purposeless, while still finding meaning in the fleeting moments of happiness available to them – a quiet smoke out of the wind with their comrades, say, or a good meal in between shifts on the front line – and choosing to go on living on that basis. The issue of whether the war itself has meaning is entirely separable from the issue of what they themselves treat as meaningful.

    This is the same confusion exploited by religious apologists generally: the belief that the only way our lives can have meaning is if God created us specifically to serve a purpose of his own devising. Atheists, of course, would reply that even if life as a whole is purposeless, that doesn’t rule out individuals finding purpose within it. We weren’t brought into existence for a reason, but we can choose reasons for ourselves.

    • Maybe you underestimate the horror of war. Coffee breaks do not a soldier make.

    • Patrick

      “Regardless of its virtues, nihilism can safely be discounted. Why? Because if nihilism is true, then by definition there’s no reason why we should do anything – including believing in nihilism.”

      Not correct if your conception of nihilism permits subjective or hypothetical imperatives.

    • DavidM

      I’m sure you miss Douthat’s point, which is that the soldiers can soldier on, but they have no real reason to do so.

  • on #2

    Nihilism is avoided if according to your worldview;

    1. something in the world has a real existence, and

    2. religious/moral principles can be accepted with or without an answer to “what is the meaning of life?”

    Contrary to popular rhetoric, the skepticism of the self-described atheist (agnostic, deist, pantheist, apatheist) is rarely extreme enough that they’re a self-described nihilist.

  • keddaw

    I am well aware that over time all life in the universe will eventually die off and the universe will either expand towards a cold, dark infinity or it will contract to a cataclysmic Big Crunch, either way nothing I ever do will have permanence (or meaning).

    So what?

    I am also aware that most of the solid things I can feel, including myself, are almost all space, I am aware that when I touch the skin of my lover I am actually coated in bacteria, as is she, and our skin probably never actually touches. Again, so what?

    Knowing that I will die some day in the future does not make me question why I should care about today, I do, I care about temporary things. I care about happiness and suffering in the short term even as I know that it doesn’t matter long term, but it does matter now. It matters to me, it matters because my brain is set up in such a way that it cares about such things and has evolved to have empathy for other creatures. Why that should be is irrelevant, it just is. Sure, I can intellectualise away the temporary suffering of others as not important in the long run, but that doesn’t stop me feeling bad about it in the present.

    If you’re religious then why would you be concerned about animal welfare? They die with the universe (or the rapture) and have no permanence. If religious people can care about animals, atheists can care about people. It’s really not that difficult.

  • Steve Pinkham

    I will highly recommend my favorite book of the year, theAtheists Guide to Reality, which addresses these very questions.

    • Hendy

      Any spoilers for how, specifically, the book addresses these very questions?

      • Steve Pinkham

        I’m fairly sure I can’t do the arguments justice without writing something about as long as the book. 😉

        Sorry, but after all, it is a proposed answer to life, the universe, and everything. 😉

  • DavidM

    To Objection 1: I don’t see how that’s a defense at all. You can’t prove the existence of physical objects and you can’t prove the existence of objective meaningfulness; that doesn’t mean you should doubt either one.

    To Objection 2: Again, it’s not clear how this constitutes a defense of the meaningfulness of atheism or how it responds to Douthat.

    To Objection 3: Your argument seems to be: if I can’t alter something, then it’s irrelevant to me. Bad argument. If you can’t alter the God-given meaning of life, that plainly does not imply that you ought not to bother thinking about it, that it’s irrelevant to you. On the contrary, all of your thinking ought to done in the awareness of this normative context.

  • This is really quite easy:

    (1) we are intensely and vastly ignorant beings who operate wholly on inference (demonstrably poorly)
    (2) we constantly incorrectly infer signal from noise (jPareidolia)
    (3) despite this we seem to have made some astounding progress by a process of very careful observation where we carefully remove known sources of error, bias and illogic from our conclusions

    On the other hand…
    (4) Christianity requires me to believe:
    (a) that an all-powerful being commanding a man to murder his own child is a “good” thing
    (b) that a human sacrifice was required to Redeem mankind from a sin committed by a couple (who according to the very best DNA evidnece, CANNOT have existed), by a god sending some magical part of himself down to be killed by humans to change his own rules, but gods can’t really die so he isn’t really dead and an all-knowing being would have ALREADY known exactly what the experience was like so where is the sacrifice exactly?
    (c) that this god would murder all the first born of an entire nation in order to make a point, that’s a lot of dead babies
    (d) that this god would command soldiers to murder every man and woman, child and suckling infant (spare none!) because some people in a city had done and continued to do “bad” things. Often it is alleged that this group of people, in addition to having previously attacked another group of people in a cowardly fashion, also were committing child sacrifices. So obviously, when you find the murder of children to be abhorrent you should immediately rush out and murder more children. One Christian (WLC) actually goes so far as to beg us to think of the poor Israeli soldiers who had to murder children.
    (d) that this god would proceed to do, command the murder of children, this SEVEN (7) more times (the 7 nations): Hittites and the Girgashites and the Amorites and the Canaanites and the Perizzites and the Hivites and the Jebusites
    (e) that this god would issue commandments regulating a slave trade in which it is considered perfectly fine to beat your slaves so long as they don’t die “within a day or two” (because doing so would be to damage property)
    (f) that this god would set a price that must be paid to a father if an unbetrothed woman is raped outside the city (thus damaging the property of the father) – and if the woman is inside the city and fails to call out sufficiently (because it is HER responsibility) then she should be put to death
    (g) that this god would impregnate a 13 or 14 year old girl – because that is how ignorant ancient people failed to grasp the concept of ‘age of consent’ and didn’t understand the damage done to young women who are sold to older men and raped (and it IS rape because they CANNOT be informed, empowered and consenting because their brains demonstrably lack the necessary capability).
    (h) that this ‘son of god’ would preach to give no thought for the ‘morrow because the end is nigh, “some of you here today” (still being proclaimed 2000 years later)
    (i) that this ‘son of god’ would introduce the concept of eternal and perpetual torment for finite transgressions, but in Heaven there will no tears allowed – so you’ll have mothers of children who are Heaven, unable to weep for their children who suffer in Hell.
    (j) that for about 1400, once Christianity came into power, that it would be promulgated by the sword through torture, murder, and intimidation and result in the brutal and heartless murder, enslavement, and destruction of an uncountable number of people throughout Africa and the Americas through ‘Holy’ proclamations such as the Requerimiento. This forced most people, good and bad, to convert to Christianity whether they wanted to or not. Eventually you just weren’t allowed not to be Christian, so it is no surprise that almost everyone in the West ended up being a Christian during this time.

    I could go on and on and on but I think you get the idea… I don’t care what the origin of the universe is or exactly how human brains sort out our Oughts — Christianity is an absolutely absurd proposition without needing to know these things. Islam is equally absurd and arguably even more harmful as it stands today (if we ignore some of the more remote versions of Christianity that are STILL burning women to death for being witches). Both are founded on Judaism, which is arguably greatly tempered since the old testament days, but which evidences a history of profound racism, misogyny, and ignorance about our world.

    I can forgive ancient people, to a certain extent, for these things… I at least hope most of them were done in ignorance of a darker time. A more violent time. A time of great struggle and suffering. And I have no illusions that any groups they might have harmed were not, themselves, doing great harm in turn. This doesn’t excuse it but it makes it comprehensible.

    But I cannot even fathom how anyone can buy into this nonsense in the modern age.
    The Earth is not immobile as the Bible proudly proclaims – this is ignorance, not divinity.
    The Bible absolutely firmly supports slavery, I don’t CARE if it’s a “kinder and gentler slavery”, it’s STILL SLAVERY. This is nonsense, evil, vile, repulsive, ignorant nonsense. Not evidence of a divine influence.

    These are not realizations that require a great deal of deep thought – the book has people running around committing genocide after genocide — thankfully there is NOT A SHRED OF ARCHAEOLOGICAL EVIDENCE that these things actually happened but I’m sure they sounded impressive on a resume back in the day.

    Can you make a good case for how, in spite of all these things, Christianity is evidence of anything but a tremendous fraud? Some good people happening to be Christian because of bespoiled cultural inculcation doesn’t cut it.

    There are good Christians, there are good Muslims, there were good Helenists, there were/are good ‘pagans’… But the difference is, good Christians also tortured and burned people to death – not because they were bad people but because they felt compelled to this action BY their religion.

    • Darren

      Dark Star;

      Ran a little amok there at the end, but this part was nicely put:

      ” (4) Christianity requires me to believe:

      (b) that a human sacrifice was required to Redeem mankind from a sin committed by a couple (who according to the very best DNA evidence, CANNOT have existed), by a god sending some magical part of himself down to be killed by humans to change his own rules, but gods can’t really die so he isn’t really dead and an all-knowing being would have ALREADY known exactly what the experience was like so where is the sacrifice exactly?”