Friday, June 20, 2008

The meaning of life - part II


Following on from the previous post on this theme, and your many excellent comments...

When the religious insist God, and only God, can make life meaningful, they often exhibit a pattern of thought that crops up again and again in religious circles. First, they spot a philosophical puzzle regarding e.g. ultimate meaning, or the justification or ground of ethics, or source of existence, or whatever. “What, ultimately, makes things right or wrong?” “What, ultimately, gives life meaning?” etc.

They then say, “God is what solves that puzzle”. E.g."God is what ultimately explains the meaningfulness of life"," God is what ultimately explains all existence", "God is what ultimately lays down right and wrong” or whatever.

But rarely do they actually explain how God solves the puzzle.

In fact, usually the puzzle is merely postponed, for the same old problem crops up again at the level of God.

That’s what happens with the divine command theory in ethics, for example (Ophelia’s example of the Euthyphro dilemma). The same postponement crops up here too. God is the external something that bestows meaning on our lives, but then, as Rayndeon asks, if meaning requires an external meaning-giver, what bestows meaning on his existence?

Of course, they want to make God the “exception to the rule” so far as, say, the existence of things requiring an external explanation, or an external meaning-giver, or whatever.

But what’s the justification for making God the exception? That’s the bit of explanation they rarely provide (which is not to say it cannot be provided).

“God just does explain it”, they say, without bothering to explain how, or indeed, even think about how.

God just becomes an excuse to stop thinking.

Rather than provide a genuine solution, they just say, in effect, “It’s mysterious God magic! Problem solved!” Then they add – “Now, what’s your solution?”

Very irritating.

52 comments:

Stephen Law said...

Of course, some religious folk do try to answer these questions - I am not tarring them all with the same brush.

Also, I guess there's a way they could rephrase their position, like so: If there is to be existence, or genuine meaning, there *must be* an existence-giver whose existence is not externally given or a meaning-giver whose meaning is not externally bestowed, or whatever.

That thing, whatever it is, is God.

Is this any better?

Anonymous said...

Stephen - Its certainly clearer in showing what their position is. It also shows the problems.

(a) the "Must be" is not valid for either existence or meaning. It is never shown that is is a necessity.

(b) the language implies (possibly through cultural accident?) that the thing giving existence or purpose exhibits personal qualities.

When these positions on existence and meaning are taken together another fatal flaw emerges. This is the assumption that whatever is doing the creating, giving meaning etc is the same thing. Just because I use the word "something" in two contexts doesn't mean its the identical.

To be fair some of the older religions sidestepped these with creation stories, and Gods that performed specific functions that didn't require this but they see to have died out.

Rob A said...

Something's happened, so someone must have done something for it to happen.
I can't see who did it, so the person that did it must be invisible.
It's an awesome something so the invisible person must be awesome.

I'm not interested in where the person comes from, my interest is only in the thing S/He's done, so don't bother me with questions about who created Her/Him. I've answered the question of why that awesome thing happened. That was what was igniting my curiosity and niggling my mind. As far as I'm concerned, the problem's solved.

Anonymous said...

rob a -

Perhaps you should have added some thing like.

"Now I know its a person I know who to go to for the good stuff. I know where to address the prayers to."

Tony Lloyd said...

With all this God business I am just becoming more and more convinced that Critical Rationalism has got it bang on.

Is not the problem with the God hypothesis down to the doomed search for ultimate answers? Any call for reasons to justify a proposition will produce a regress, we can always ask “why”? In fact most of us discovered that we could always ask a further “why” of any “reason why” when we were around three. Those of us who have had children will have been reminded of the “why” regress. Repeatedly and at length.

The regress can either:

1. Be infinite
2. Stop at an “ultimate” reason, one which is unquestionable.
3. Stop at an apparently arbitrary point

The regress cannot, in practice, be infinite or we would never make up our minds about anything. So “1” is out. We feel that for any proposition we hold we must be able to give reasons for it, we should be able to justify it. “3” definitely sounds as if it’s unjustified, it is unjustified. And so we look for ultimate reasons, of which “God” is a pretty useful, catch all, ultimate reason.

The trouble is it’s not a very good “ultimate” reason. We can still ask “why” of it, we can still ask “why” of any reason given to us as “ultimate”. The Euthyphro can be generalised:

Is what we say true because the argument for it is sound, or is the argument for it sound because what we say is true?

It turns out that, ultimately (pun intended) “3” is correct. All our propositions rest on ultimately unjustified assumptions. The mistake made is to take the absence of justification as a reason to reject a statement. This is traceable directly back to Descartes’ “method of doubt”, the determination to rid himself of all prejudices and build up on secure foundations.

Back to Peirce (as you mentioned him earlier):

“We cannot begin with complete doubt. We must begin with all the prejudices which we actually have when we enter upon the study of philosophy. These prejudices are not to be dispelled by a maxim, for they are things which it does not occur to us can be questioned. Hence this initial skepticism will be a mere self-deception, and not real doubt;”
(Some Consequences of Four Incapacities).

What we have, I think, with “God” is self-deception. It is, in contrast to Peirce’s words, self-deception because there is real doubt. The function is to provide an illusion of certainty were there is none. Descartes tells us that we should not say anything unless we have an ultimate foundation for it. We accept this, and we accept challenges on the basis of “if God is not the source of morals then what is” because we accept challenges on the basis of “if Y is not the source of X then what is”.


There is no ultimate foundation and so, instead, we lie about concepts and raise them to the status of “ultimate foundation” when they are nothing of the sort. Philosophical life would be so much better if we were to learn, instead, to tell Descartes to crawl back into his oven and leave us alone with our conjectures and our refutations (again, intended).

We would then be able to criticise the concept for its failings. It gives no “meaning” to life: and the search is in vain. It is of no practical use in telling us what is right and what is wrong (didn’t tell us slavery was wrong; cannot make its mind up on homosexuality; fails to mention mobile phones, cannabis and insider trading). It fails to scientifically explain. It fails to produce clear thought, or clear criticism of existing thoughts.


We could criticise this concept without the impossible requirement of showing a foundation for our alternative. We wouldn’t need to show that ours was perfect just that it was better.

Anonymous said...

tony lloyd

I think you missed fourth and fifth possibilities in your list. I offer:

4) That the regress can lead to a circularity. In this case the whole edifice would be consistent and self supporting.

5) Regress ending in some thing undefinable or indefinite.

I am thinking here of those odd legal cases where there are several defendants and the evidence shows that one of the was guilty but not which one. Or perhaps the strange wave/particle duality of light.

[Just musing ...]

I suppose the mathematical equivalents are
1 Infinite
2.Finite and the start/end an be found.
3.Arbitrarily bounded
4.Finite but unbounded.
6.Indeterminate

kyle s said...

I'm sorry for disappearing for a bit, a lot has been said since I last checked your blog, so I will probably not be able to respond to everything.

Stephen I've been trying to respond to the complaint you make in this post that the religious simply state that life is meaningless without God.

What I am trying to show by drawing a distinction between intrinsic and extrinsic purpose is that theist can give an account of meaning that atheists cannot. I am also trying to avois using the words meaning and meaningful as I think they are misleading (I think some people are getting confused between a life being meaningful, and a life feeling meaningful). I prefer instead to stick with purpose.

1. Purpose is a personal quality. It requires a personal being. The purpose of a hammer is to bang nails into wood only because someone has designed it for that purpose or uses it for that purpose. If by some amazing fluke of the forces of nature a hammer was formed it would not have this purpose, unless of course someone found it and used it as such.

2. Intrinsic and extrinsic.

Extrinsic purpose is how we use the word purpose most of the time. It is purpose that is given to something by another or by itself. It is not morally binding and tells you more about the intentions of the purpose giver than the thing itself.

Intrinsic purpose is the purpose that something has in virtue of its nature or origin. (I don't think atheists will particularly like the language that I am using because if atheism is true then it is nonsense). Since purpose requires an agent then intrinsic purpose is only possible if something has it's origin in a personal being. Also, I use origin in the strictest possible sense.

As someone pointed out earlier I would not accept your machine that creates things out of nothing because it is dependent on something else and it is also not a personal being. Furthermore, something does not have intrinsic purpose simply because it came into existence in a certain way, it depends on the intention of the creator.

Someone also suggested that God might not have a purpose. I don't know about that, I could go either way. Either God is the special case and can determine his on purpose because he is not dependent on anything else for his existence, or he simply does not have an intrinsic purpose. However, whichever it is he is something higher as well: the object and source of all purpose.

I don't intend this to be a full theory, but i think it shows how theists can talk about meaning meaningfully, and when atheists talk about meaning it is meaningless.

Jackie said...

Rob A said...
Something's happened, so someone must have done something for it to happen.
I can't see who did it, so the person that did it must be invisible.
It's an awesome something so the invisible person must be awesome.


Let's apply that reasoning: an avalanche happens. Someone must have caused it. It's pretty great (as in huge and powerful), so that person must be great... OR: natural forces of physics caused the avalanche. Don't assume there is a person and an intention behind every event.

Theists often use the argument for ultimate purpose as evidence for their god. "Wouldn't you rather there was an ultimate purpose?" It's an argument from emotion, and it is completely irrelevent to most of the debates in which it pops up.

I have never really thought of Stephen's point - that a god's plan or purpose (my mother's Big Plan) can be just as arbutrary as a purpose I chose for myself. Indeed, what is the purpose of God's existance?

My current belief is that things like purpose and meaning are human inventions. They should only be applied to conscious acts of cognisant beings. If the universe was crated by a conscious being, then we can ask the purpose of that action, but if there was no conscious creator, then purpose and meaning do not apply to the event. I'm still struggling with the change: going from a piece of a Big Plan to having no given purpose, but I'd rather be right than comforted. And as Stephen said, what if the Big Plan was cleaning toilets?

Rayndeon said...

@KyleS:

Kyle S has introduced some new terminology into the mix. He offers a definition of extrinsic purpose =def purpose acquired upon an entity either by another or itself. He defines intrinsic purpose =def purpose acquired by virtue of its origin.

One honestly wonders if there is a real distinction to be had here! For all intrinsic purposes are types of extrinsic purposes; for a personal entity *creating something* for some purposive reason is an extrinsic purpose, as an entity has acquired (under my definitions) external purpose; it is purpose acquired upon an entity by another. Kyle S simply points us to a subcategory of extrinsic purpose, not some different group.

Indeed, Kyle S does not attempt to tackle the point that if we wish to continue this charade of external purposes (which are intrinsic purposes in Kyle S’ terminology), what about God? Kyle’s “solutions” are clearly inadequate. His first solution is that God is a special case and can determine His own purpose because He is entirely independent. One is of course struck by the *non sequitur* here. Presumably, the only *meaningful* sorts of purposes are *intrinsic purposes*, acquired by virtue of origin. The argument proceeds: God has no origin; hence, God can have no intrinsic purposes. Hence, God’s life is meaningless. Just what does dependency have *anything* to do with this? And Kyle acknowledges that God does not have intrinsic purpose, but he doesn’t seem to understand how fatal it is for his position. God is, presumably, of utmost metaphysical and axiological worth. And yet, God’s life is “meaningless” under the theistic understanding of purpose. The only purpose God has is the same sort of purpose any rational agent whatsoever has: by virtue of their own free will towards ends they choose. So, if God is of utmost axiological worth, and the only purpose He could have is the same sort of purpose we have, this shows quite conclusively that this theistic charade of external or in Kyle’s intrinsic purposes is just that: a charade, and atheists can have just as meaningful lives as theists.

So, Kyle’s answers are just clearly inadequate.

kyle s said...

When you say that my talk of intrinsic purpose is just a special case of external purpose i think you are right, but it is a special case that is not open to the atheist.

Also, I think your distinction between internal and external isn't very significant. If I decide that my life purpose is to clean your toilet it doesn't make my life any more meaningful than if you decide it is my purpose. Also, in neither case are you or I obliged to do anything to help me fulfil this purpose.

The point I was trying to make earlier is that in all these cases the source of the purpose is not also the (full) source of the object. If I make a hammer then I am a cause of the hammer, but not in the fullest sense. I have not fully determined that object so i am not able to fully determine it's purpose.

This is also true of myself. I am not wholly self-determining. I am affected by other influences, and so I am not able to fully determine my purpose. This is why I think talking about an internal/external distinction is not interesting.

The reason that I said that God might be considered a special case is not because I was seeking to cheat, but because I thought my original defintion might be slightly sloppy.

When I say that something gets its intrinsic purpose from its origin, I was not really talking about a temporal event. What I meant was something like the source of its being or existence. Now nothing is the source of its own existence, except for God, and that is why he might be a special case. He is self determining and self-sustaining.

However, even if I am cheating, then perhaps God not not have a purpose. This is not the same thing as a human not having a purpose as you assume. It does not mean he does not have a worth (whatever that would mean when applied to God). It means something more like purpose does not apply to God in the same way as what God's height is (I'm not making a 'our language does not apply to God' move here, i believe that we can talk about God in a fairly ordinary sense).

Also, one thing I just spotted. I am not saying that atheist's lives are meaningless and theist's are meaningful. I am saying that athiests cannot give an account of absolyte meaning, whereas theists can.

Tony Lloyd said...

Hi anonymous:

Well "circular reasoning" is certainly a great way to avoid the Euthyphro!

It is pious because the Gods will it and the Gods will it because it is pious

Circular reasoning is a difficult one, because it is by definition consistent. I think I might dispute whether a circular reason was a reason at all.

Anonymous said...

Kyle S.

"As someone pointed out earlier I would not accept your machine that creates things out of nothing because it is dependent on something else and it is also not a personal being."

Ah yes a creation machine which produced random articles is not a personal being.
However if a personal being controls or instructs that machine with the intent to create surely this provides the missing element of agency?

Anonymous said...

tony

Well thats the simplest form of circularity. Is it possible to envisage a much longer for of this that is sufficiently rich to be useful? How about if the chain of reasoning is more of a network? Isn't this the state of much mathematical reasoning?

kyle s said...

Even if someone was crontrolling the machine they would not be wholly responsible for its existence they would be dependent on the laws by which the machine operates, they swould be dependent on whatever the machine was made from and they would also be dependent on whatever brought them into existence and whatever was maintaining their existence.

Anonymous said...

Kyle S

You said "If I make a hammer then I am a cause of the hammer, but not in the fullest sense. I have not fully determined that object so i am not able to fully determine it's purpose."

What is necessary for "full determination" of an objects purpose? Is it a matter of how you create it or how accurately you specify it?

Suppose I see your newly made hammer and being impressed with it, copy the design.

Now this is a really good design and God decides to make an identical copy of my hammer.

Whose hammer has what sort of purpose.
Yours (design and build), mine (replica) or Gods (replica ex nihilo)?

kyle s said...

God is the only being who can give something intrinsic purpose. Also, he is responsible for the intrinsic purpose of everything because ultimately he is responsible for everything that exists.

In the case of the hammer he can determine the intrinsic purpose of it because he is responsible for the hammer he makes and the hammer that he is copying.

Just to make something clear. I don't think that any hammer in fact has the intrinsic purpose of 'for hitting nails into wood'. However, many hammers do have this as an extrinsic purpose.

Anonymous said...

Kyle S. "Even if someone was controlling the machine they would not be wholly responsible for its existence..."

Physical laws and brute matter are not personal, so how an they lay claim to any
responsibility with respect to purpose?
Its the sentient controller of the machine providing agency is it not?

If you want the ultimate creator to claim a share of the responsibility all well and good but you cannot discount the input from the machines operator entirely. At least some of the purpose(s) of the output from the machine must come from him/her.

Unless of course you are also denying the operator free will?

Anonymous said...

Kyle S - "God is the only being who can give something intrinsic purpose."

Now you've said it! The distinction you were making all along was not intrisic/extrinsic but "God given" vs everything else.

Right?

kyle s said...

Anonymous said:

"Now you've said it! The distinction you were making all along was not intrisic/extrinsic but "God given" vs everything else.

Right?"

Oh no. I've been outed.

I didn't think I was hiding this. I am trying to explain why theists often say that without God there is no ultimate meaning. The reason is that they are talking about intrinsic purpose which atheists do not recognise.

To the other/the same anonymous:

I am not claiming that the machine is an agent or anything like that. Neither I am claiming that the operating of the machine plays no role in giving the object purpose. But the operating is only giving the object extrinsic purpose, just in the same way my hammer has the purpose 'for hitting nails into wood' because that's what i made it for. However, this is not any kind of ultimate purpose.

Rayndeon said...

When you say that my talk of intrinsic purpose is just a special case of external purpose i think you are right, but it is a special case that is not open to the atheist.

It is a “special case” not open to the theist either.

Also, I think your distinction between internal and external isn't very significant. If I decide that my life purpose is to clean your toilet it doesn't make my life any more meaningful than if you decide it is my purpose. Also, in neither case are you or I obliged to do anything to help me fulfil this purpose.

How is it not significant? Granted, yes, if one makes one’s purpose in life to clean my toilet, then one’s purpose isn’t particularly meaningful.But, I never said that all internal purposes are meaningful. I said that they can be meaningful. Do not misconstrue my position. We might provide an ostensive definition of “meaningful purposes” such as dedicating one’s life to helping the needy, or so on and so forth. “Meaning” seems to be closely tied to “good.”

By the same token, I could make the same misconstrued argument that all intrinsic purposes are likewise meaningless. There could have been a Creator, for example, that created rational agents solely for the purpose of jumping up and down. Clearly, such purposes are not meaningful, so the same “argument” (although it is really just a misconstrual of my position – and your position) could be made of intrinsic purposes.

The point I was trying to make earlier is that in all these cases the source of the purpose is not also the (full) source of the object. If I make a hammer then I am a cause of the hammer, but not in the fullest sense. I have not fully determined that object so i am not able to fully determine it's purpose.

*Of course* you have caused the hammer in its *fullest sense*; how could ex nihilo creation be relevant here? A hammer is not just a collection of atoms, but a particular arrangement of matter; in recombining matter in a particular way one has literally brought about a particular arrangement and in this case, one has brought about a hammer. In a possible world, there is a God such that the universe is also eternal and God brings about rational agents by recombining the already existent matter in particular ways. It does not matter that God has not created ex nihilo; the only relevant thing is that a thing is brought about, period. Show the relevance of ex nihilo creation.

This is also true of myself. I am not wholly self-determining. I am affected by other influences, and so I am not able to fully determine my purpose. This is why I think talking about an internal/external distinction is not interesting.

What makes you think that determinism and causal influence is incompatible with freedom or self-determination? If you think so, then I agree that the internal/external distinction is meaningless because if determinism were incompatible with self-determination (which I do not believe that it is; in my opinion, determinism is required for self-determination), then there is no such thing as self-determination at all. Not even God has self-determination as He is constrained by His already existent psychological nature. Of course, if you deny that psychological natures “constrain” (as I do), then we are likewise unconstrained in the same sense, because then, our psychological natures do not really constrain us.

When I say that something gets its intrinsic purpose from its origin, I was not really talking about a temporal event. What I meant was something like the source of its being or existence. Now nothing is the source of its own existence, except for God, and that is why he might be a special case. He is self determining and self-sustaining

Origination is temporal. Being the cause of something is temporal. Moreover, God is not the source of His own existence or anything like that. No theistic philosopher believes that. Rather, God has no source of existence whatsoever; He is uncaused and entirely independent, and as some theists claim, metaphysically necessary.

However, even if I am cheating, then perhaps God not not have a purpose. This is not the same thing as a human not having a purpose as you assume. It does not mean he does not have a worth (whatever that would mean when applied to God). It means something more like purpose does not apply to God in the same way as what God's height is (I'm not making a 'our language does not apply to God' move here, i believe that we can talk about God in a fairly ordinary sense).

This does not particularly make sense. The entire point of purposes is that they apply to the genus of rational agents, period. You have to point out a relevant difference between God and humans here in terms of personality. There is none, beyond a quantitative difference. God is a person – a rational, moral, free agent. Purposes apply to persons, for purposes consist of the ends an agent seeks or the ends conferred upon an agent via another agent (i.e. the internal/external distinction). Since God is a species of rational agents, the question of purpose applies to God. You have shown no relevant similarity here.

So, the question of God’s life being meaningless looms once more.

Anonymous said...

kyle S.

[Same anonymous thank you. I just came upon the points in an odd order.]

My point about the machines operator was simply that in terms of the everyday meanings of "creation" and "intrinsic" there is no way after or during the manufacturing process to separate the contribution of either the operator or God.

Anyway as rayndeon says "The entire point of purposes is that they apply to the genus of rational agents," to which I would add they are also evaluated by and from the point of view of rational agents.

From the alien point of view I was bred to clean toilets. From my point of view my purpose is promotion to the top of my profession and to have a good time getting there. The biological machinery and career opportunity which the aliens thoughtfully provided just happens to make this an achievable goal.

James F. Elliott said...

All of this seems to bring us to the social utility of teleology. That is, by hinting at a grand design, however unfathomable by mere mortal man, certainty and purpose allow us to contravene the paralytic existential dread that might otherwise arise.

Having arrived at the utility of god-thought, though, it seems something else entirely to leap from this to the truth of god. More importantly, how one gets from the truth of god to the truth of "My God" is yet a further stretch.

All of which begets the question of whether or not such teleology is necessary at this point in man's development. Maybe so, maybe no.

Papilio said...

Purpose is a personal quality. It requires a personal being. The purpose of a hammer is to bang nails into wood only because someone has designed it for that purpose or uses it for that purpose. If by some amazing fluke of the forces of nature a hammer was formed it would not have this purpose, unless of course someone found it and used it as such.

What then is the purpose of Clostridium botulinum? Is it to give people botulism? What is the purpose of a cow? To be sliced into steak? If you accept the natural origin of life,

The purpose of all living things is to reproduce themselves, defined by the process of natural selection (not one of your ancestors failed to reproduce, as Dawkins is fond of pointing out; had any one of them failed, you would not exist). Your purpose is to multiply as many copies of your genes as possible.

Sound a little hollow? It is. But at some point in evolution there arises a species that can consider meanings - and automatically concludes that reproduction is not meaning enough.

Now, Homo sapiens sits about and ponders where ultimate meaning might come from. The fact that there is no answer to the question does not seem to be an acceptable option. I'm with Tony Lloyd on this one: why should it be that there is ultimate meaning?

Anonymous said...

Paradoxically we would also not be here if our ancestors had completely succeeded either. If they had managed to do so accurately then we would still be single-celled or worse.

Steelman said...

Going back to the thought in the other post, where human beings were designed by aliens for a single janitorial purpose: what if it the original, ultimate purpose turns out to be irrelevant?

Let's say the aliens made us to clean their toilets but, unlike in the original story, we don't feel particularly unfulfilled by not engaging in that activity. Good thing, too; the aliens never come by to transport us to their extraterrestrial restrooms. They've succumbed to a terrible virus, which extinguished the entire race.

Now human beings will never know their ultimate purpose. Doesn't matter, though.

Maybe God created a universe that produces life because he enjoys watching leathery-skinned megafauna do battle. Once mammals appear, the show is always over; they ultimately evolve sufficient intelligence to create technology which destroys the ecosystem. God just goes and makes another planet to enjoy, and when He's done, again, He lets the process of evolved intelligence close the curtain on yet another playground. Like in the alien story, we're still the cleanup crew.

Or, less extravagantly, perhaps God created the universe just to see the sparkly lights, and he's either unaware of, or unconcerned with, our existence.

What I'm getting at here is that, even if there really is a creator of some kind, and that creator has or had a specific, intrinsic purpose for humanity, we probably don't know what it is and may never discover it. That, of course, doesn't stop a large percentage of the population from being quite certain the opposite is true.

Anonymous said...

Papilio said ".. and automatically concludes that reproduction is not meaning enough"

While I don't think that it is by any means automatic, I would argue that simply obeying dictates/urgings of biology or even design is purpose of a very low level sort if it qualifies at all. Arriving at ones own purpose or accepting a purpose after thoughtful consideration would seem, ... erm... more purposeful.

Now arguing that "my purpose comes from God because he created me so" makes it pretty close to the reproductive urge, and consequently lesser than any purpose I choose myself.


James re "the leap to the truth of god."
It baffles me a bit too. There are plenty of cases where we accept stories, legends, fables and the like as aids to coping with life. From Father Christmas to even the Biblical parables, most people are able to separate out myth from reality while still getting some use out of them. If theists would simply acknowledge that God is a myth we would probably progress better. Theres no shame in it per se. At the very least since we'd all technically be atheists then it would be no worse than putting up with people who go to Star Trek conventions or who learn to speak Tolkien's elvish.

Papilio said...

The point was that without civilisation there can be no purpose beyond reproduction. Not until we created 'spare time' did we wonder whether scratching out survival as necessary for reproduction was meaning enough. Simply obeying the genes' dictates was all we could do for aeons.

Presumably uncivilised folk, even those who haven't heard of Jesus are not necessarily devoid of meaning - or would a Christian argue that point?

The question now is what do we do with our newly-earned spare time? Worship God? Collect stamps? Study philosophy? There's the rub.

Papilio said...

A Christian might argue, of course, that I'm assuming too much by assuming we evolved naturally...

Ron Murphy said...

kyle s said...
"God is the only being who can give something intrinsic purpose..." - How do you know this? What does it even mean, for one entity to give another 'purpose'?

Purpose appears to take on shades of meaning from active to passive, from the result of intent to the result of causation - and theists are adept changing the meaning to suit their own purpose. Why must we have a purpose? And meaning? Why must there be a meaning to life? Aren't we just simply here?

Purpose and meaning implies intent somewhere along the line, whether that be in some ultimate creator or not. This is simply the imposition of an anthropomorphic model onto life the universe and everything. For a start, just because we feel there can be purpose and meaning in what we do, there's no justification for supposing it applies outside the scope of human understanding. And if free will is the sham it appears to be to some, then the whole model of purpose and intent and meaning amount to nothing, in the context of this discussion.

To say a person's action has purpose, or to say they intended to perform it, or to attribute meaning to it, may be meaningful (in the descriptive sense) within the context of human action simply because it's a model we have evolved to comprehend. It's a good model that's worked to a reasonable degree throughout know human history, but it's not a model you would seriously apply to lesser animals, other lower life forms, or inanimate objects - though we often instinctively do (e.g. as Bazil Fawlty does, and as a result gives his car the damn good thrashing it deserves). So why should we suppose it applies to anything outside our own context, or that it's even real within ours?

Sam Norton said...

Stephen - you say: "...the religious...often exhibit a pattern of thought ... First, they spot a philosophical puzzle ....They then say, “God is what solves that puzzle”"

Before I respond can I clarify how far you want to push that thesis? That is, are you simply taking issue with what "some religious" people do? Or are you saying that this is the nature of religious belief tout court? (ie that religious belief is originated by a failure to solve philosophical puzzles)

Scott said...

"Go forth and multiply."
There's a purpose, but most of us would want a little bit more to our purpose than that.

As I understand it, and I'm no biblical scholar, but God gave us free will to create our own purposes?
I'm thinking the parable of the talents here. Maybe God's going to be annoyed with the Christians that took his gift and buried it under religious dogma?

Not that His going to be best pleased with you either Stephen... :P

Stephen Law said...

Hi Sam

Often, not always. But a fairly typical religious move, I think....

Used to be called "God of the gaps".

Anonymous said...

Stephen - Is the tactic you describe significantly different from that used by adherents of other "-isms"?

Joshua Skinnell said...

If god were real, and we'll say he is. Then what, how does god really dictate the meaning of life? Let us say there is a god (for the record I beleive there is), then what? Is the meaning of life to serve him? Is the meaning of life to find him? Is the meaning of life a test?

If it's to serve him... how and why. Does god need us to make him feel powerful, I tend to think not. And How. As people we must work and procreate, to procreate we have to build meaningful relationships. So where do we work. With whom do we marry? What about recreation. Should we spend our free time in worship? Is that the meaning. If so, why are we given gifts and talents? If my talent is singing. Should I sing "for the lord?" In that case, if I enjoy singing, or I persue fame, am I really worshiping god with my gift? I would be doing it for selfish reasons. If I lived my life exactly as I should... what of all the free time between?

If the meaning is a test. If we are here to be tempted and tested to see if we are elite enough to make it into heaven. Then are we worshiping for God's sake or to get into heaven. And wouldn't it be more benifitial to me to die early? Then my test would have less questions? And if it is a test, what would be the point of family, sports, recreation, the arts? Every culture participates likes or does these things so one would be lead to the assumption that these things are important. There are only few things that everyone on earth does. These things are surely important to this end meaning. But if they are, how do they fit into the test?

If the point of life were to have kids, or pass on knowlege and wisdom. To what end? Are we here to pass on knowlege. What would be the point... To pass on knowlege in an infinate cycle...

Religion is only one portion to the meaning of life. Your argument will have to focus on other things.

Sam Norton said...

OK, an analogy which may or may not be helpful.

My kids like to play with lego. Imagine they are making an item - eg a spaceship - and there is a piece missing, and the ship doesn't function properly without it.

The 'god of the gaps' argument says that God is the missing piece. Which leads to all sorts of problems for theology when the missing piece is discovered down the back of the sofa.

I would argue that God is Lego as such. That is, all the pieces are part of God. God is not so much a missing piece so much as the precondition for being able to build things at all.

In other words, the individual lego pieces are different aspects of life that are meaningful.

Papilio said...

Yes but Sam: how do you explain to a non-theist that their lego ship is 'missing something'? I'm quite happy with a 'bottom up' view of the universe, based on bricks being assembled into larger wholes. The theist, so far as I can see, has a 'top down' approach, with the first overarching given being 'God'.

Suppose the prescription for the ship comes from an ancient book - we already know what it looks like before we have any of the pieces. Now the pieces start arriving in dribs and drabs. It's hard to see how they fit together - but painstaking work enables a ship to begin to take shape. But it doesn't fit the Prescription. Now, what to do? There are a variety of responses. Maybe the Prescription was wrong - nasty consequences to believers, because the Prescription came from God. Maybe if we wilfully hide bits of lego and paper over obvious gaps we can force the bricks to fit the Prescription. Or, finally, we can go to a halfway house: assemble the bricks as they naturally go, but explain that the Prescription was never meant to be taken literally.

An analogy too far?

Anonymous said...

Sam - I had always thought that the "God of the gaps" was a description of the way in which the only place left for God to "hide" in the natural world was where physical explanations did not quite join up as it were.

The idea of God as a universal substrate seems just another way of using the word "God" to mean something different when you want it to. You still have the problem of getting from a universal substrate hypothesis to all the other (often mutually conflicting) attributes claimed for God at various times. "God as Lego" looks like being problematic in itself. Suppose we just take every other block and put them in separate boxes - voila - polytheism.

James F. Elliott said...

If theists would simply acknowledge that God is a myth we would probably progress better.

I'd be rather satisfied if theists simply admitted that this was a reasonable possibility and acted with the concomitant slice of humility such an honest realization would entail.

I would argue that God is Lego as such.

Sam would make an excellent Buddhist.

Maya said...

Sorry Sam, that sounds like a really bad "thought for the day".

If god is the Lego, how does he give meaning to your child's model - the fact that he chooses to make a spaceship and not a house, or a bridge or a train?

What if he chooses to make something with Knex or stickle-bricks instead, is that god too?

Sam Norton said...

Maya - God is not separate from the Lego so there's no question of it being given meaning from outside. That was the point I was trying to make.

A further thought - the word 'God' evolved from precursors. As if people discovered the bits of lego and in the end they had a particular word for what they all held in common.

Sam Norton said...

anonymous - one of the consistent difficulties in this forum is that it's assumed a) that the God of theism has a set number of philosophically delimitable attributes; b) that this God of theism is the same as the Christian God; and c) that I am a theist in that sense.

Papilio - if the ship gets built in such a way that it functions then I'm not about to say that it is missing something. God is not a missing piece! God is the capacity for there to be any sort of building activity at all.

James - it all depends on what you mean by 'myth'. If you mean it in the anthropological (ie non-pejorative) sense I'd be happy to agree.

Anonymous said...

Sam -

Are these assumptions unreasonable then?

(c) Have I missed something? I always thought that you were a practicing, indeed a professional, Christian.

(b) I also got a strong impression that you were a mono-theist or a pan-theist.

(a) As for the attributes of God, theists often (possibly mostly) argue as if these attributes have the usual properties and meanings associated with them so I think this is a natural assumption. I also seem to remember Stephen offering you the option of "negative theology" and you ignored or rejected it, implying that you think we an say things about God.



So would you say that your personal take on God is a non-theist position, then, possibly in the Cupitt style?

Anonymous said...

Sam - re 'myth'. I think James was quoting an earlier comment of mine here.

I think what I was getting at was that "God" is fictional character. The stories he appears in are culturally significant and may have value in the same way as works of literature to inspire or instruct. Not unlike many of the thought experiments of philosophers. Nonetheless he is not real in the accepted sense of the word. Like Father Christmas, the Good Samaritan, Ebeneezer Scrooge, Brer Rabbit or Biggles.

When does something which is untrue decay into a lie? It's surely down to the motivation of the person proclaiming it. I guess what I am arguing for is for theists to embrace the myth if they wish but avoid the lie.

Anonymous said...

Sam said "A further thought - the word 'God' evolved from precursors. As if people discovered the bits of lego and in the end they had a particular word for what they all held in common."

Now hasn't Sam just admitted that the word "God" is being used for different things at different times?

Sam Norton said...

Actually my recollection is that Stephen asked me 'not to go all via negativa on him' - which is problematic as that is basically the Christian tradition!

And yes, I am a 'professional' Christian. I don't equate that with being a theist though. What is the theist account of Jesus? As soon as you start talking about the Trinity you've left "theism" behind.

Anonymous said...

Sam - when I mentioned theism I sort of expected it to include all varieties of beliefs in one or more Gods. If have used the term loosely or incorrectly I do apologize. Is there a more precise category which better describes your position? (Always accepting of course that there an sometimes be a spectrum of such things.)

As far as Stephens comment about via negativa - I rather took that to be bait - which you declined to swallow.

jess said...

Hi Sam

Atheists also believe in the lego (/the world?), and find it meaningful without adding any extra pieces. You seem to be saying that the world itself is meaningful, as it is, without needing God as any EXTRA addition. In that sense, we both find meaning in the same thing- the world as it is.

Do you see the lego AS God, or does God somehow go beyond the lego? Either way, we believe in different lego ships (/worlds), and you seem to be saying that only your lego ship can be meaningful, right?

So why do things have to be made out of God-lego for them to be meaningful? You seem to believe that things have to be made out of God-lego for them to exist at all, but hat's a slightly different argument I think. "Imagining" that "lego" can exist without God, why do you find it hard to see how such lego can have meaning? Why isn't this a problem for God-lego?

jess said...

Sorry, that was sally_bm not jess. Shared computer...

Enigman said...

Sam: 'As soon as you start talking about the Trinity you've left "theism" behind.'

Many people do seem to use "theism" to mean monotheism, in the sense of the Abrahamic faiths; but that "mono" is contrasting with "poly," and the Trinity is not a polytheistic belief. Hinduism is, Catholicism isn't.

Anonymous said...

Re "theism" - I suggested one or more Gods but would also allow variable or fluctuating numbers greater than zero. I guess that would over the idea of the Trinity.

Can't really make much sense of fractional Gods personally although I wouldn't be at all surprised if someone has tried it. Don't think classical demi-gods really qualify.

Sam Norton said...

Sally_bm -

Atheists also believe in the lego (/the world?), and find it meaningful without adding any extra pieces. You seem to be saying that the world itself is meaningful, as it is, without needing God as any EXTRA addition.

Sam: yes, but! See below.

Sally_bm: In that sense, we both find meaning in the same thing- the world as it is.

Sam: probably not, in that I accept the transcendent. But I see the transcendent as part of 'the world as it is'. The transcendent isn't an extra lego piece. Think of it more like light shining through a window.

Sally_bm: Do you see the lego AS God, or does God somehow go beyond the lego?

Sam: do the lego pieces we have represent either the sum total of lego pieces or all that is possible with lego? God is what makes the whole assembly meaningful.

Sally_bm: Either way, we believe in different lego ships (/worlds), and you seem to be saying that only your lego ship can be meaningful, right?

Sam: No. Lots of different lego ships are meaningful. Some might be better ships though.

Sally_bm: So why do things have to be made out of God-lego for them to be meaningful?

Sam: I'm saying that anything meaningful is by definition made out of lego.

Sally_bm: You seem to believe that things have to be made out of God-lego for them to exist at all, but hat's a slightly different argument I think. "Imagining" that "lego" can exist without God, why do you find it hard to see how such lego can have meaning? Why isn't this a problem for God-lego?

Sam: I think the word 'God' developed as a way of talking about lego as such. That is, it was when people reflected on the meaning of their experiences that the word God was developed, as a way of hanging it all together. Some of that meaning was, of course, worship, praise, liturgy, personal experience of the divine etc etc.

Anonymous said...

Sa - In your reply to sally you mentioned "the transcendent". What exactly do you mean by this?