What Made This Dust Into a Meaning-Maker?

comments form first comment

Earlier today Fleegman asked,

It what way [are things] not turning out alright? If life has no objective meaning, that’s somehow a serious problem?

Several people have responded to this already, but I want to add some more to the discussion.

First, a quick and simple but not, I think, simpleminded, reaction: how sad. How sad that Fleegman would be content with something so small. So what if life means nothing? he asks. That’s a problem?

Of course it’s a problem! Who has not wondered about this, worried about it? What is all the literature of the ages about if not meaning? What is the meaning of giving up so easily on meaning?

Of course he will say I misquoted him; I left out “objective.” Fleegman, like most atheists with whom I’ve interacted on this, says he can impart his own meaning to life. It seems to me, though, that meaning must come from either from above or from below, from the transcendent and universal or from the local and particular. Humans may seem perhaps to occupy a kind of middle ground between the two, but that move toward meaning fails, as I’ll come back to in a moment.

If transcendent and universal meaning exists, then human meaning can objectively exist. If that higher meaning is truly meaningful, then it’s possible that human meaning derived from it can be truly meaningful. I am being intentionally vague with terms here to avoid forcing the atheist to think in theistic categories. I just want to set up a basic contrast between universal and transcendent meaning on the one hand, and local and particular meaning on the other.

If meaning is not to be found in the universal and transcendent, then what is left? There is a trend—one sees it in physics, in molecular genetics and biology, in neurophysiology, and more—toward placing the locus of reality in the local and particular. Every large event is the aggregate of physical reactions, all governed at the tiniest scale by chance and necessity, such that every great event is ruled by the small events, each of them very particular, each of them very local—the very antithesis of the transcendent and universal. None of these local or particular events carries any meaning with it. Each one is described fully (were it possible to describe each of them) in terms of inert matter acted upon by chance and necessity.

There is no meaning there. If that is where ultimate reality is located, there is no meaning.

But perhaps I have set up a false dichotomy. Maybe meaning can be derived at some intermediate level, at the level of human desires, relationships, interactions, flourishing. Maybe so, but it calls for the question, what is a human being? Are we aggregates of particulars? Or expressions of the transcendent? Is there realistically any other option besides these two? If there is, where did it come from? We all agree we came from the dust. What made this dust into a meaning-maker, “objective” or otherwise? What makes meaning mean anything?

If there is no answer to that question, then even human meaning means nothing. By nothing I mean there is no local meaning, no contingent meaning, no “I’ll derive my own meaning,” for that meaning means nothing in that case.

But again maybe Fleegman says, so what? So what if there is no meaning? What’s the problem? I would answer the same again as I did before: How small. How sad.

top of page comments form

184 Responses to “ What Made This Dust Into a Meaning-Maker? ”

  1. I am being intentionally vague with terms here to avoid forcing the atheist to think in theistic categories. I just want to set up a basic contrast between universal and transcendent meaning on the one hand, and local and particular meaning on the other.

    Doesn’t “objective meaning” presuppose the supernatural?

    There is a trend—one sees it in physics, in molecular genetics and biology, in neurophysiology, and more—toward placing the locus of reality in the local and particular.

    Isn’t this because the local and particular explain the phenomena found in physics, biology, etc?

    I guess the question then becomes – are you criticizing methodological naturalism, or perhaps just naturalism?

    But again maybe Fleegman says, so what? So what if there is no meaning? What’s the problem? I would answer the same again as I did before: How small. How sad.

    So your main objection is that it would make you very sad if there was no transcendent meaning?

  2. “Doesn’t ‘objective meaning’ presuppose the supernatural?” Why do you ask? I set up a pair of options and invited readers to compare them. I stripped one of them down to its bare essence to make the comparison as fair as possible. So I don’t know the point of your question.

    Isn’t this because the local and particular explain the phenomena found in physics, biology, etc?

    That depends on what you mean by “explain,” which in turn is closely connected to what meaning means. If you think the local and particular are all it takes to explain everything, then you have the problem with meaning that I was describing.

    So your main objection is that it would make you very sad if there was no transcendent meaning?

    Actually my main question in response to that is why you skipped the paragraphs preceding that one.

  3. What makes a daddy penguin happy to see the mommy penguin come back with food after he’s been standing on the ice with an egg on his feet for a month? It’s a meaningful event in the sense that the penguins have a strong positive emotional reaction to it. It is also true that those penguin emotions are due to a complex interaction of biochemistry and neural firing, but that doesn’t mean it’s not meaningful to them. The event is real, the relationship is real, the emotions are real — so the meaning is real also.

    I don’t see why a similar reunion isn’t similarly meaningful for humans, whatever their opinions on grand metaphysical issues, and whatever opinion on grand metaphysical issues turns out to be the correct one.

  4. I stripped one of them down to its bare essence to make the comparison as fair as possible. So I don’t know the point of your question.

    Hey, I’m just trying to understand.

    When you say “If transcendent and universal meaning exists” do you mean the supernatural?

    Also, could you explain what you mean by “local and particular”?

    If you think the local and particular are all it takes to explain everything, then you have the problem with meaning that I was describing.

    You went from talking about biology and physics to saying “everything”… so I really need help understanding what you mean by “local and particular”.

    What makes meaning mean anything?

    If there is no answer to that question, then even human meaning means nothing. By nothing I mean there is no local meaning, no contingent meaning, no “I’ll derive my own meaning,” for that meaning means nothing in that case.

    I’m still not seeing why it’s impossible for us to create our own meaning. What’s wrong with the idea that meaning means something because we say that it does? You seem to just be saying “just because”.

  5. I won’t wade too heavily into this debate, but I would probably err on the side of objectivity.

    However, I think the pertinent matter is simply judging whether or not objective meaning exists. If so, then fine and good, the matter of meaning is settled. If not, then by definition of the circumstances it is not objectively “wrong” to take up subjective meaning. One could say it is subjectively “wrong” to take up subjective meaning, but that would be somewhat self-contradictory.

    I am also struck by the seemingly arbitrary dichotomy between universal transcendent and aggregate of particulars. However, I can quite imagine there being a good bit of philosophical work to back up such claims, and so if there is, I would be grateful is someone could enlighten me or point me towards it (or remind me if I’m being forgetful? I’m a bit out of the loop on the philosophy front currently). I’m otherwise tempted to take a hand-wavy agnostic approach of taking the most fulfilling coherent framework of meaning (such that by some judgement it is most likely to be true meaning), and in a wager-like approach embracing it regardless of its origin/objectivity (such that if there is meaning you are fulfilling it, and if not it matters not anyway).

    With my usual disclaimer of probably chatting rubbish about that which I am ignorant of (which please do attribute to everything I say), is there possibly some conflation of objective and universal going on? For instance, would there be anything incoherent about the possibility of there being objective but distinct meanings for distinct entities? Which could then perhaps be described as “subjective” in some sense.

  6. Eric,

    If we were comparing size on that basis, we’d have to throw a third person in for comparison: the one who asks “who is smaller?” on an irrelevant basis, which is what you have done. (Please re-check the post for the real way in which I was speaking of smallness.)

  7. Nick, I didn’t want to take the space to illustrate my point as lavishly as you have done, but since you’ve done it for me I only need to say, thank you, I appreciate the help.

  8. Sault,

    “What’s wrong with the idea that meaning means something because we say that it does?”

    Atheists always claim their views are rooted in scientific evidence. It’s all about “the evidence.” So I am told. “Just because we say it does” doesn’t sound like science to me. Neither does it sound like an appeal to the evidence.

  9. Sault,

    “What’s wrong with the idea that meaning means something because we say that it does?”

    Here’s what’s wrong: The meaning you invent has no connection whatsoever to the thing you are referring to. There is no real object being referenced by the meaning.

  10. If we were comparing size on that basis, we’d have to throw a third person in for comparison: the one who asks “who is smaller?” on an irrelevant basis, which is what you have done. (Please re-check the post for the real way in which I was speaking of smallness.)

    Ok, let me rephrase.

    It is illogical if someone can’t accept the truthfulness of a view because of its consequences. It seems to me that your actual objection to the idea of no objective meaning of life is exactly this.

    If you define meaning to be objective right off the bat, and then ask how the atheist can have that sort of meaning without god, I don’t know. I don’t see any reason to think there is such an objective meaning to life. If I believed in a personal god, then of course that would be fixed.

    The sort of meaning an atheist might claim is by definition, subjective. If you presuppose that the only meaning that means anything is the kind that exists only if god does, then you should not be surprised if a non-believer doesn’t believe in that sort of meaning for life.

    But telling someone their life has no meaning is a bad way to state what you really want to get at, since it sounds like an insult. Often people will react to that, claiming they do have meaning, just as you do. Perhaps if they knew what sort of meaning you are talking about, they would agree with you. I don’t know.

    You think it is small of this Fleegman to admit this – that it is sad. First, if you are trying to sound condescending, great success! I don’t know anything about Fleegman, but perhaps the belief that life has no meaning outside of itself is simply the logical conclusion his worldview leads him to. At least he is accepting a hard truth, rather than reject it because it’s “small,” or “sad.”

    I don’t understand why so many believers have a hard time comprehending how an atheist can think this way. For us, it’s not written anywhere, it’s not guaranteed that life HAS TO have some objective meaning. Sure, it’s kind of uncomfortable, but the subjective meaning works just fine for me.

    In this universe, there are no guarantees. We get but one life, and the meaning we give it matters only while we are alive. That makes life much more valuable to me.

  11. @ Melissa

    Eric, But we are not talking just about the meaning of life, we are talking about any kind of meaning. Have a think about that for a while and you should see the problems involved in asserting an absence of any meaning at all.

    He’s asserting that meaning exists even in the absence of a supernatural Being, not an absence of meaning. The difference being subjective vs objective.

    @ Tom

    Again, when you get a chance, if you could please specify what you meant by “local and specific”, I’d appreciate it. The meaning is not clear to me, especially when you use it to refer to physical science on one hand and philosophy on the other.

  12. @Melissa:

    Eric, But we are not talking just about the meaning of life, we are talking about any kind of meaning. Have a think about that for a while and you should see the problems involved in asserting an absence of any meaning at all.

    I have had a think about that, for quite a long time actually. That is precisely why I hold this belief.

    @everyone else:

    Our lives have subjective meaning, that I do not deny, but why does there have to be any meaning to anything? Where is that written? Christian apologists seem to work off a presupposition that that is just how the way things ought to be. But why? It’s almost as if those who argue for transcendent meaning are unable to imagine the perspective of the unbeliever on this issue. If we live in a world without a god, then it seems reasonable to me that there would be no objective purpose or meaning to anything.

    If you object to that because of the implications, it’s unpleasantness, or the fact that it may seem depressing, that’s not a very good reason. It could still be true, even if it was horrible.

  13. I hate to say it but I don’t know if I’ll have time to respond to much of anything here today or tomorrow. Life is happening offline. (That’s a good thing sometimes.)

  14. Eric,

    Do you agree with the Gnus that a) science and religion are incompatible and b) that for a scientist to be deemed reasonable, he/she should be an atheist?

  15. How far does the scientific enterprise get (or how could it get off the ground) without objective meaning? How does “objectivity” mean anything without objective meaning?

    By questioning objective meaning (an intellectual trajectory already taken in ancient Greece, btw), atheists undercut the very basis for their “Reason”.

  16. @Doug:

    How far does the scientific enterprise get (or how could it get off the ground) without objective meaning?

    I am not sure what you are asking here. Please would you clarify, since I don’t see the link between the sort of objective meaning we’ve been talking about and science. If you are referring to objective meaning as objective truth or something, I’m afraid I just don’t understand.

    How does “objectivity” mean anything without objective meaning?

    Are you asking why objectivity as a concept should be valued? Or are you talking about the definition of the word, “objectivity” here? If the latter, I believe you are mistaken about what I am talking about. I’m talking about ultimate meaning, not a synonym for definition.

  17. @Eric,
    All meaning invokes value. Even something as pedestrian as a definition invokes intentionality. Each definition represents the connection between a symbol and what it symbolizes. But the very act of representation implicit in definitions requires meta-meaning. The legitimacy of intentionality and logic (i.e., foundations of science) are called into question without objective meaning.

  18. “If we live in a world without a god, then it seems reasonable to me that there would be no objective purpose or meaning to anything.”

    The problem with this is that you don’t believe it. If you did you’d live your life differently. You do whatever you wanted to do, you’d harm whoever you liked, you’d cheat whoever you could, you would exploit anyone that it suited you to exploit and most of all you wouldn’t care about any of it. And so would everyone else.

    However, what I suggest is abhorrent to you. It’s abhorrent to virtually everyone. The only people who it isn’t abhorrent to we call sociopaths. Why is that? If there really is “no objective purpose or meaning to anything” then there is no such thing as a sociopath. Are you comfortable with that?

  19. @ BillT

    “If we live in a world without a god, then it seems reasonable to me that there would be no objective purpose or meaning to anything.”

    The problem with this is that you don’t believe it. If you did you’d live your life differently. You do whatever you wanted to do, you’d harm whoever you liked, you’d cheat whoever you could, you would exploit anyone that it suited you to exploit and most of all you wouldn’t care about any of it. And so would everyone else.

    Except that you don’t really believe that it’s only belief in God that keeps you acting morally. You are surrounded by people who expect you to adhere to a certain social code and will hold you accountable for those times that you don’t.

    Why don’t we go around killing people? Because we’d be held accountable for our actions by those around us – we could wind up in jail or executed ourselves. That’s just the negative pressure, though – it is natural for the members of a group to act in ways that benefit the group, and needlessly killing other members of the group isn’t beneficial.

    It’s the same with any other action, though – what the group decides is unacceptable is unacceptable. It doesn’t matter how they got to that decision, what matters is that they agreed to a common standard. You’re either in or you’re out, and if you’re “in” you’d better act like it.

    If there really is “no objective purpose or meaning to anything” then there is no such thing as a sociopath.

    You’re equivocating the same way that Melissa did – a lack of externally-defined “objective” meaning does not preclude “subjective” meaning.

    @ Mike

    Do you agree with the Gnus that a) science and religion are incompatible and b) that for a scientist to be deemed reasonable, he/she should be an atheist?

    Could you please provide a quote or reference for part b)? I’m curious to see who made that assertion in what context.

  20. For whatever reason, conversations like this one continue to happen. Theists talk about “objective meaning” and non-theists scramble to either wave away its importance or argue that it could exist on non-theism. But that whole dialog presumes some intelligible sense has ever been made of “objective meaning” and “objective purpose”, as if there are no serious conceptual problems with the terms, and problems with the way they are used.

    But I’m inclined to think that /neither/ has them, and that the concepts themselves are probably bunk. A debate about square circles would be as productive.

    What can it possibly mean to describe your life as having an “objective purpose”? Maybe its that some being created us for his own purposes. But our creator’s purposes aren’t necessarily our purposes, anymore than a parent’s purposes are their child’s purposes. But let’s go ahead and say that “creators purpose” really maps to “our objective purpose”. What if you didn’t find this purpose in any way satisfying? What if you found it deplorable? Why would it be any less pitiable or sad if you had some imposed purpose that was contrary to everything you found satisfying?

    Now, maybe what theists are really getting at is that, on theism, you were created so that this purpose /is/ satisfying. But that really just puts theism and naturalism hand-in-hand together. All the purposes we hold dear, are just a result of our programming, not because some intrinsic quality inherent in those purposes.

    And nevertheless, self-chosen purposes can also be satisfying, so its hard to see why the non-theists are deserving of so much the more pity.

    But perhaps someone here can actually put something more concrete behind these terms.

  21. Theists talk about “objective meaning” and non-theists scramble to either wave away its importance or argue that it could exist on non-theism… I’m inclined to think that /neither/ has [intelligible sense], and that the concepts themselves are probably bunk.

    And what, pray tell, makes you then think what you’ve just said is not itself bunk? If we apply your rules of the game, why should anyone care whether what you say makes any sense or has any meaningful content whatsoever? Why are you trying to convince us of the meaningful correctness of your position when, AT BEST, it’s all subjective?

    The answer is simple: you WANT it that way, and hence you to are reduced to will-to-power.

  22. d,

    What if you didn’t find this purpose in any way satisfying? What if you found it deplorable?

    From the Christian perspective, there are answers to these questions. What will happen is your emotions will keep you separated from God.

    My suggestion is this: don’t let your emotions keep you from God. Use your mind to willfully submit and give your life to Christ so that he can forever change you.

  23. Holo,

    The terms in question are in the context of life as whole, eg “what is the meaning or purpose of life”. Answers to that question don’t necessarily have implications for the existence of objective truths. Even if life has no ultimate meaning (or even if the term is incoherent), there can be objective truths – positions can be objectively true or false.

    And as always, your immature, tacky, and unwarranted assertions about motives continue to reflect poorly upon you and your points of view! Good day!

  24. d:

    Read my comment instead of deflecting from it. It was YOUR words that claim there is no objective meaning–which G. Rodrigues continues to call you on: your assert but provide no basis apart from emotional needs to reserve “proximate” meaning to convenience you.

    So, the onus is on you to demonstrate (1) why the world is objectively (heh) without meaning, and (2) what possible place any proximate subjective meaning (which YOU impose – hence, it’s about you, isn’t it?) have in a world that has no ultimate objective meaning. On what basis do you claim your assertions have meaning in a world that is meaningless.

    (Also, you need some lessons in logic: propositions are “true” or “false” to the extent they reflect reality. “Positions” are personal choices that latch on to or reject propositions.)

    Your immature, tacky, and unwarranted deflections and avoidance of the issues continue to reflect poorly upon YOU. Good night!

  25. @Sault:

    It’s the same with any other action, though – what the group decides is unacceptable is unacceptable. It doesn’t matter how they got to that decision, what matters is that they agreed to a common standard. You’re either in or you’re out, and if you’re “in” you’d better act like it.

    Your cluelessness is amazing. You have just conceded *every* single point in the theist’s contention. Every one. In summary:

    1. Morality is decided arbitrarily by the group, not on the basis of objective reality.

    2. If you are not in the group, then you are out, which means simply that Might, in this case the force of the collective against any minority or the single individual, makes it right.

    From this point on, there is really nothing to discuss. It is a matter of counting rifles and battle it out to the extinction of the out-group.

    You’re equivocating the same way that Melissa did – a lack of externally-defined “objective” meaning does not preclude “subjective” meaning.

    No Sault, it is you who does not understand the argument. I am not going to repeat it, because as far as I am concerned, you have already conceded some major points that sink your position as the complete irrational, totalitarian, arbitrary emotional hang-up that it always was.

  26. Holo,

    That would be a misreading of my words. What I tried to convey was my suspicion that objective meaning and objective purpose (wrt life and existence as a whole) are faulty, ill-defined concepts to begin with – as such, these conversations about whether they do or don’t exist given theism, naturalism, or whatever are little more than sweet nothings.

    I then (*extremely* quickly) tried to make a little sense of the concepts (and then again, with a slight variation) and (again, extremely quickly) gave a note as to why I don’t think they are very helpful.

    Then I said perhaps someone else can do better, by offering something more concrete. I’m afraid, whatever you are going on about now, has no connection to anything I actually wrote.

  27. Sault,

    The idea that social codes or laws or fear of puishment is what drives our behavior just don’t cut it. There are ways around all of those. People act the way they do because they know that’s the “right” way to act. And that “right” way can be accounted for by only one thing.

  28. Sault,

    a lack of externally-defined “objective” meaning does not preclude “subjective” meaning.

    When someone decides to subjectively give meaning to something that doesn’t have objective meaning – how is that different than a child playing make-believe war in the backyard?

    There’s no objective war, but there is a subjective war and the child is fighting by pretending that it is real. She tosses subjective grenades, shoots subjective guns at subjective enemies and subjectively blow up buildings. She subjectively feels the pain of getting shot. She subjectively advances or retreats depending on how she feels, or how well her imagination is working. She controls it all.

    Is this what you and d are trying to describe?

  29. @d (#28):

    That would be a misreading of my words. What I tried to convey was my suspicion that objective meaning and objective purpose (wrt life and existence as a whole) are faulty, ill-defined concepts to begin with – as such, these conversations about whether they do or don’t exist given theism, naturalism, or whatever are little more than sweet nothings.

    Inclination first, suspicion second. But Holopupenko is not misreading anything. From your post #22:

    But that whole dialog presumes some intelligible sense has ever been made of “objective meaning” and “objective purpose”, as if there are no serious conceptual problems with the terms, and problems with the way they are used.

    But I’m inclined to think that /neither/ has them, and that the concepts themselves are probably bunk. A debate about square circles would be as productive.

    You refer here to meaning and purpose, no qualifications, no wrt life. Now, maybe you want to bracket your unargued inclinations and suspicions (as you seem to do in #25 and #28) and add such a qualification, but the problem remains: meaning and purpose in metaphysical naturalism has been evacuated to the mind, and as such it is *subjective* and *mind dependent* with all the attending problems that Holopupenko briefly mentioned.

    Still from #22:

    But let’s go ahead and say that “creators purpose” really maps to “our objective purpose”. What if you didn’t find this purpose in any way satisfying? What if you found it deplorable? Why would it be any less pitiable or sad if you had some imposed purpose that was contrary to everything you found satisfying?

    You are just reinforcing Holopupenko’s point you know. It is all about you and what you find “satisfying”; can it get anymore subjective than this?

  30. I should clarify my above post. Social codes or laws or fear of puishment don’t inform our sense of what is right. Our sense of what is right informs our social codes, laws and puishments.

  31. Well, the OP specifically was discussing objective meaning and purpose with respect to life (eg. /the objective meaning of life/), and also that its somehow pitiable for them to not exist. The ensuing conversation, though I didn’t read it all, seemed to remain in that context. So I figured I need not qualify my words. So much for that.

    In any case, your post addresses me as if I defended the view that objective purpose/meaning exists on naturalism. I didn’t. I’m questioning the coherency of statements like /Life has an objective meaning/. In fact, that’s exactly backwards with respect to where my train of thought will lead you. Where it would take you is to the conclusion that, like square circles, objective meaning and value with respect to life as a whole, cannot exist on theism or naturalism or on any worldview at all.

    And if their loss is something to pity, then offer it to everyone.

  32. I come here for a challenge to my beliefs and positions. In this thread, all I have seen is a lack of ability to look at the question from another view. Everything seems to boil down to the objection that “objective meaning must exist, because if it doesn’t, that’s really sad!” This merely confirms my suspicions that apologists have nothing to challenge this with.

    There is also the equivocation of the sort of objective meaning to life and the universe that I am talking about, and meaning as definitions or intentions in all things. I don’t know how to make the difference any clearer to you.

    BillT said:

    The problem with this is that you don’t believe it. If you did you’d live your life differently. You do whatever you wanted to do, you’d harm whoever you liked, you’d cheat whoever you could, you would exploit anyone that it suited you to exploit and most of all you wouldn’t care about any of it. And so would everyone else.

    This is beyond simplistic and patently incorrect. By saying that, you are assuming that humans all want to do these types of things, and the only thing keeping us from doing them is because we all believe there is objective meaning. So someone who actually does not believe in objective meaning cannot live what you would call a moral life? Have you never heard any other opinion on this matter? How can you be so unaware of other ideas about this? What if, simply put, the person who doesn’t believe in the objective meaning to the universe and his life (me) actually enjoys living morally? Maybe he is fulfilled because of it? That is the case for me.

    If someone automatically links moral intuition with objective meaning, they are not thinking very deeply about the issue. There are very good evolutionary and social reasons for one to act morally, enjoy it, and “feel” like it’s “right.” If you cannot even accept the possibility of this other view, then the discussion is over.

    For me, I became a non-believer in god after 20 years of faith. When I gave up god, I realized, and am still realizing, that there are implications to that lack of belief. Some are unsettling, but most are uplifting and truly fulfilling. I would prefer to think there was an objective meaning to it all, a purpose for our lives and the universe at large, perhaps from god. But I don’t. I think it’s much better to face this truth and accept it, if it flows naturally from your worldview, than to not accept it because it’s scary, “small,” or “sad.”

    When people call this sort of intellectual honesty and courage “small” or “sad,” it only shows me that they are incapable of understanding different viewpoints.

    But the good new is I have both sides. It’s not scary over here, as I used to think it would be. It’s wonderful.

  33. There is also the equivocation of the sort of objective meaning to life and the universe that I am talking about, and meaning as definitions or intentions in all things.

    Is it clear that these are distinct? Or is their distinction just convenient?

    While intentionality can involve a “private meaning” (a “rule” that seems to exist entirely dependent on the subject), “shared meaning” (as in the case of a definition) is more interesting — it (arguably) involves a “rule” that exists outside its adherents. More interesting still is the “meaning of empirical evidence” — involving, as it does, a “rule” unequivocally beyond the observer.

    So rather than consider the distinction between “objective meaning of life” and “intention”, how about considering the distinction between “objective meaning of life” and “objective meaning of empirical evidence”. What makes the former illusory and the latter sacred?

  34. @d:

    I presume your post #33 is in response to me. If I am presuming too much, apologies in advance.

    The ensuing conversation, though I didn’t read it all, seemed to remain in that context. So I figured I need not qualify my words. So much for that.

    Fair enough, and I did mention that that could have been your intention all along. The problem is that you are not off the hook — see below.

    In any case, your post addresses me as if I defended the view that objective purpose/meaning exists on naturalism. I didn’t. I’m questioning the coherency of statements like /Life has an objective meaning/. In fact, that’s exactly backwards with respect to where my train of thought will lead you. Where it would take you is to the conclusion that, like square circles, objective meaning and value with respect to life as a whole, cannot exist on theism or naturalism or on any worldview at all.

    If and when you make an argument we can talk.

    All the while, Holopupenko’s challenges still remain valid (he mentions the world, but as far as your position goes this makes no difference) and unanswered — your answer in #28 is a non-answer — and the problem I mentioned still remains. Can we ever expect an argument from you?

  35. @Eric
    Hi Eric … I’d be interested in knowing exactly why you gave up your faith / belief in God after 20 years.
    Was it a purely intellectual issue, or was it something deeper, perhaps like Paul’s companion Demas?

  36. “So someone who actually does not believe in objective meaning cannot live what you would call a moral life?”

    I never said or implied anything like this. What I said was actually just the opposite. I said that those who don’t believe there is objective purpose or meaning don’t live like they would if they really believed that. They live as if there is objective meaning. That’s why they don’t harm or cheat or exploit whoever they could. It’s easy to see why you don’t think we offer a challenge to you. You, with all due respect, don’t read English that well.

    And as far as all the “other” reasons for people to act morally I’ve heard all the ones you have offered. Together they don’t amount to enough good reasons to fill a teacup. All they are is intellectual cover for following objective morality without acknowledging its ultimate authority.

    And BTW this, “Everything seems to boil down to the objection that “objective meaning must exist, because if it doesn’t, that’s really sad!” is more nonsense from you. No one here said anything like this.

  37. @Eric Burton:

    Everything seems to boil down to the objection that “objective meaning must exist, because if it doesn’t, that’s really sad!” This merely confirms my suspicions that apologists have nothing to challenge this with.

    In this case there is a big difference between “seems to” and “does”. That you do not understand the arguments is your problem, not ours.

    If someone automatically links moral intuition with objective meaning, they are not thinking very deeply about the issue. There are very good evolutionary and social reasons for one to act morally, enjoy it, and “feel” like it’s “right.” If you cannot even accept the possibility of this other view, then the discussion is over.

    Oh really? I am sorry, but explain to me why the fact that evolution engineered the human species (sorry for the anthropomorphism) in such and such a way is an *objective* reason for me to indeed act in such and such a way? And since immoral behavior (using a vocabulary you have forfeited for the sake of convenience, hope the meaning is clear) is endemic in humanity, what is the criteria to separate the moral from the immoral behavior? It *cannot* be an evolutionary reason. Social reasons? And why should anybody give a damn about evolutionary or social reasons? To look out for his own benefit? But if that is your answer, then if one can act immorally and in the end have a net gain in benefit (by whatever metric you choose to measure benefit) then why should one not behave immorally? You say you enjoy acting morally. Good for you. But some do not. Now what *rational* arguments can you offer these people?

    I would prefer to think there was an objective meaning to it all, a purpose for our lives and the universe at large, perhaps from god. But I don’t. I think it’s much better to face this truth and accept it, if it flows naturally from your worldview, than to not accept it because it’s scary, “small,” or “sad.”

    The truth? I am sorry, but did you ever gave a cogent argument for why that indeed is the truth? But let us assume you are right that God does not exist, there is no objective meaning to life and all the rest of your denials. If that is the truth it is indeed better to accept it, since the truth is preferable to falsehood. Well, at least it is better in a theistic universe, but in an atheistic universe? Why is the truth preferable? Since there is no objective purpose and meaning to life, and we have to invent it for ourselves, it depends on the personal preferences. If someone is more satisfied and happy in thinking that the universe does have a purpose, he may be deluding himself, but in what sense is he the worse off for it? Or to turn things around, why do you take the high moral ground as the one accepting the “hard” truths? You have forfeited such language when you chucked out the window an objective meaning and purpose for life.

    It’s not scary over here, as I used to think it would be. It’s wonderful.

    It must be a real heaven. Why, I am almost tempted to jump the fence — the grass is always greener on the other side and all that. Oh wait, since there is no objective purpose and all and any meaning we assign to life is an act of the private, subjective will, the fact that you are happy is completely circular, because it just means that your life is in accord with the the subjective purposes and goals that your subjective will constructed for it. You are happy because you have fulfilled the goals that you subjectively made as the end purpose of your life. Feelings, nothing more than feelings. I think I will stay on this side of the fence, after all.

  38. Eric,

    There is also the equivocation of the sort of objective meaning to life and the universe that I am talking about, and meaning as definitions or intentions in all things. I don’t know how to make the difference any clearer to you.

    This conversation began with the point that if atheism is true human life has no meaning except what we decide to give it. As I see it there are three possible ways to read this:

    1. That human life has no value except what we give it.
    2. That there is no purpose for human life except what we decide.
    3. That there is no definition of what it is to be human except what we decide.

    All three statements are entailed by naturalism. If you are discussing something else then please explain what it is. Or maybe you disagree with #3. If so, we can discuss that.


  39. But the good new is I have both sides. It’s not scary over here, as I used to think it would be. It’s wonderful

    As long as ultimate reality is atheist naturalism

  40. @G Rodriguez and Holopupenko
    I don’t think either one of you really caught what D was talking about. If I’m correct, D was objecting to the idea of objective morality on logistical terms: it is a self-contradicting concept. Meaning implies placing value on something which is, by definition, subjective regardless of whether an individual, society or God is the one deciding the meaning. There cannot really be any such thing as “objective meaning” given the definitions of the words “objective” and “subjective. This whole conversation is really about “how can life be worthwhile if there isn’t an afterlife?” at its core, but it avoids being that transparent.

  41. Nathaniel,

    Meaning implies placing value on something which is, by definition, subjective regardless of whether an individual, society or God is the one deciding the meaning. There cannot really be any such thing as “objective meaning” given the definitions of the words “objective” and “subjective

    Only if nominalism is true which both Holo and G. Rodrigues deny.

    This whole conversation is really about “how can life be worthwhile if there isn’t an afterlife?” at its core, but it avoids being that transparent.

    Well done in reading your own preconceptions into the conversation. What is being discussed are the implications of rejecting the reality of formal and final causation.

  42. @Melissa
    “Only if nominalism is true which both Holo and G. Rodrigues deny.”
    Nope. I’m just going by the definitions of the terms “objective” and “subjective” themselves, with something objective being something that has material/external existence which meaning/value does not and never could. It’s a malformed concept, as D pointed out. The term “objective” just gets thrown out there to mean all kinds of different things. In these debates it’s usually:
    Objective: comes from God
    Subjective: comes from nature

    “What is being discussed are the implications of rejecting the reality of formal and final causation.”
    Exactly: how can life have meaning without an afterlife?

  43. Nathaniel,

    Nope. I’m just going by the definitions of the terms “objective” and “subjective” themselves, with something objective being something that has material/external existence which meaning/value does not and never could.

    Now you are just begging the question because whether or not the only things that have external existence are material things is part of what is under consideration. You need to show that meaning and value are not a part of external reality not just assume that is so.

  44. Nathaniel,

    The term “objective” just gets thrown out there to mean all kinds of different things. In these debates it’s usually:
    Objective: comes from God
    Subjective: comes from nature

    “What is being discussed are the implications of rejecting the reality of formal and final causation.”
    Exactly: how can life have meaning without an afterlife?

    Gee whiz, aren’t we lucky that you’re around to tell us what we really mean by the words we use.

  45. @Nathaniel,
    You should be aware that the expression “final cause” has nothing at all to do with “an afterlife”. Rather, it is closer akin to “purpose”.

  46. @Nathanael:

    I don’t think either one of you really caught what D was talking about. If I’m correct, D was objecting to the idea of objective morality on logistical terms: it is a self-contradicting concept.

    I think there is typo in there: “logistical” should be “logical”. And d only claimed (he used “the words “inclination” and “suspicion”) but never provided an argument.

    Meaning implies placing value on something which is, by definition, subjective regardless of whether an individual, society or God is the one deciding the meaning. There cannot really be any such thing as “objective meaning” given the definitions of the words “objective” and “subjective.

    First, meaning does not imply “placing value on something”. Merriam-Webster on the word “meaning” gives as the first two entries “the thing one intends to convey especially by language” and “something meant or intended”. But let us grant your claim that every “placing value on something” can have no objective meaning (*). Congratulations, you have just chucked out the window any and *all* values as simply subjective preferences. So for example, claiming that accepting the truth is better than falsehood is placing a value, and thus it is a subjective claim. From which it follows that it is not objectively true that accepting truth is better than falsehood, so why should I accept your claim even if I granted (which I do not) that it is true? In fact truth itself is a value. Truth is a predicate of propositions, but propositions are not material objects (**), so attributing truth to this or that is itself completely subjective because as you say in #45:

    I’m just going by the definitions of the terms “objective” and “subjective” themselves, with something objective being something that has material/external existence which meaning/value does not and never could.

    So saying that you have a truth claim is not an objective matter of fact; and reason is also off to the garbage can. Now do you want to destroy anything else with more arguments? Because I for one, to quote the blogger Codgitator, can never get enough of reasoned arguments against rationality; ordinary language arguments against ordinary language; sensible, sober reminders not to take common sense too seriously; advisements to heed those whose vastly superior insight into reality enjoins us to ignore reality and all mortal authority. Skepticism is a barrel of fun and the source of many a fit of uncontrollable laughter.

    (*) And in a sense I even agree with you; under metaphysical naturalism this is precisely what happens.

    (**) As Melissa pointed out I reject nominalism, but given what you said this suffices for my purposes.

    The term “objective” just gets thrown out there to mean all kinds of different things. In these debates it’s usually:
    Objective: comes from God
    Subjective: comes from nature

    Wrong. Merriam-Webster on “objective”: “of, relating to, or being an object, phenomenon, or condition in the realm of sensible experience independent of individual thought and perceptible by all observers : having reality independent of the mind”

    What is being discussed are the implications of rejecting the reality of formal and final causation.”

    Exactly: how can life have meaning without an afterlife?

    Wrong. The reality of formal and final causation is quite independent of the question you pose.

  47. G. Rodrigues,

    If I were to offer another argument, there first needs to be a position to argue against.

    In specific terms, what does it actually mean to say, “Life has objective meaning and purpose”? Its just been taken for granted that the sentence actually *means something*. Well, what’s it mean?

    I offered a couple *quick* attempts to illucidate its meaning in my OP in this thread, and raised questions about theism’s relevance to either.

  48. @d:

    If I were to offer another argument, there first needs to be a position to argue against.

    Another? You offered none.

    In specific terms, what does it actually mean to say, “Life has objective meaning and purpose”? Its just been taken for granted that the sentence actually *means something*. Well, what’s it mean?

    So now you are not “questioning the coherency” of the statement, or saying that the concepts are “faulty”, “probably bunk” or self-contradictory (“A debate about square circles would be as productive”) but that you do not know what they mean.

    If you cannot understand the plain meaning of “Life has objective meaning and purpose” then there is not much I can do. In fact, given that you do not understand what the sentence means, and probably the concepts also (“objective”, “purpose”, “meaning”) I am amazed that you can understand *anything* at all.

  49. sigh
    How is it that theists, and sadly so many atheists, fall for perhaps the most absurd, and rather ironic, of all arguments?

    When we talk about ‘purposes’ or ‘meaning’ (in this context ‘meaning’ really stands for ‘significance’) we are referring to things that are the either the product of agents (whether humans, or god), i.e. subjects, as in the case of ‘purpose’, so are necessarily subjective, or are relative to agents, as in the case of meaning and value, that is we find that certain things are valuable and significant relative to someone, or something. the concept of “objective”(mind independent) purpose is a contradiction in terms.
    same goes with the idea of “intrinsic” value or meaning– they are always relative(although, unlike with ‘purpose’, not necessarily subjective). for example it’s an objective (not a matter of opinion) fact that music, say, is valuable to me, and gives my life meaning. to object that music doesn’t have “intrinsic” value, or whatever, is just confused.

    what’s really strange is that people are so oblivious to the irony here:
    I mean, just apply the reasoning of the argument to God himself– what is the “objective” purpose and meaning of God’s existence?? who created Him with a specific purpose in mind, and who or what provided God’s existence with meaning/significance?
    In fact, any argument you can make along those lines with respect to human beings (on naturalism), can be made with respect to God. After all, in this sense, humans (on atheism) and God are in exactly the same circumstance: both lack an external source (outside of themselves) of purpose, or meaning, and they have to create their own purposes and pursue their own ends as they go along.

    If a human (on atheism) constructing a purpose or a goal for his life, becoming a doctor, say, is merely an illusion or something because to become a doctor is not *really* why s/he exists, so is any of God’s purposes, including one like creating a Universe and having an eternal relationship with a certain primate species that would eventually evolve– I mean, that’s not *really* why God exists, is it? So if human existence without a purpose and meaning bestowing God is somehow problematic, so is God’s existence. In this sense, God is an atheist, isn’t he?

    It comes down to this: either a person (God or human) constructs his/her own purposes and finds his own meaning or someone else does that for him/her

    So this what the theist is saying in a nutshell: unless there’s someone else (such as God) to create the goals and purposes the purposes for my life and determine what I shall live for, that is unless I’m an abject serve, my life is meaningless and pointless..

    I kind of makes you feel sorry for God, doesn’t it? The poor guy has an eternity of “objectively” purposeless and “intrinsically” meaningless existence; there’s no God’s God to create His purposes and endow His life with meaning.

  50. @AoR,
    The words “absurd” and “ironic” are resonating.

    How, pray tell, do you even get science off the ground without the ability to interpret the “significance” or “meaning” of empirical data? And if those “meanings” are ultimately subjective (as you appear to be saying), does that render the entire scientific enterprise undermined??

  51. Oh man, AOR – you still don’t have a clue, do you?

    Christian Theism affirms that God is eternal, self-existent, and the objective foundation of all of existence and reality.
    God is a Trinity – 3 Persons in One Nature, so God has intrinsic meaningful relationships within the Trinity; He had no need outside of that, yet He created because He is love.

    At least learn something about Christian truths before speaking nonsense about God

  52. @AgeOfReasonXXI:

    How cute, another nominalist skeptic.

    When we talk about ‘purposes’ or ‘meaning’ (in this context ‘meaning’ really stands for ‘significance’) we are referring to things that are the either the product of agents (whether humans, or god), i.e. subjects, as in the case of ‘purpose’, so are necessarily subjective, or are relative to agents, as in the case of meaning and value, that is we find that certain things are valuable and significant relative to someone, or something. the concept of “objective”(mind independent) purpose is a contradiction in terms.

    Purpose can be understood as an objective part of the mind-independent reality as the final cause(s) flowing from a thing’s essence. I am not going to bother to explain what I mean by all this, for two reasons. First, purpose or function talk is everywhere, even in science, and you cannot get rid of it on pain of incoherence (e.g. the heart is for pumping blood, the car is to drive us somewhere, etc.) and second, because I really do not have to: your position is self-refuting. Read my response to Nathanael in post #49 as I am lazy, and do not want to rehash the same arguments.

    I mean, just apply the reasoning of the argument to God himself– what is the “objective” purpose and meaning of God’s existence?

    There is a perfectly reasonable answer to this question, if one is careful in defining what one means by purpose, so your attempt at deriving a contradiction fails.

    Victoria invoked the Trinity but we need not even go that far.

    In fact, any argument you can make along those lines with respect to human beings (on naturalism), can be made with respect to God. After all, in this sense, humans (on atheism) and God are in exactly the same circumstance: both lack an external source (outside of themselves) of purpose, or meaning, and they have to create their own purposes and pursue their own ends as they go along.

    Wrong again. To repeat myself, I reject this view and uphold that purpose (or final causes, to use the Scholastic jargon) are not only in minds, whether God’s or of human beings, but that purpose or telos is also immanent, or intrinsic to all substances and flow from the substance’s nature, whether God or human beings. Second, even if I set all this aside, your conclusion still does not follow, because as Victoria pointed out, God is *not* like human beings, in fact God is not even *a* being among beings, but subsistence existence itself and thus, only analogous, not univocal, comparisons can be drawn between God and human beings.

    It comes down to this: either a person (God or human) constructs his/her own purposes and finds his own meaning or someone else does that for him/her. So this what the theist is saying in a nutshell: unless there’s someone else (such as God) to create the goals and purposes the purposes for my life and determine what I shall live for, that is unless I’m an abject serve, my life is meaningless and pointless.

    Your attempt at constructing a parallel of Eutyphro’s dilemma for meaning and purpose, while endearing, fails utterly for the already explained reasons. And it is ironic for you to say that to live for God is to be an “abject serve” (sic.). Given what God is defined to be, if to serve His purpose is to be an “abject serve” (sic.), than how can we qualify what it is to serve a *subjective* purpose we construct for ourselves? Oh wait, all values are relative, so saying that to serve God’s purpose is to be an “abject serve” (sic.) is the expression of a pure personal preference, nothing more.

  53. AOR clueless? I genuinely feel embarrassed for AOR for his first two paragraphs:

    When we talk about ‘purposes’ or ‘meaning’ (in this context ‘meaning’ really stands for ‘significance’) we are referring to things that are the either the product of agents (whether humans, or god), i.e. subjects, as in the case of ‘purpose’, so are necessarily subjective, or are relative to agents, as in the case of meaning and value, that is we find that certain things are valuable and significant relative to someone, or something. the concept of “objective”(mind independent) purpose is a contradiction in terms.

    same goes with the idea of “intrinsic” value or meaning– they are always relative(although, unlike with ‘purpose’, not necessarily subjective). for example it’s an objective (not a matter of opinion) fact that music, say, is valuable to me, and gives my life meaning. to object that music doesn’t have “intrinsic” value, or whatever, is just confused.

    So… one of the patriarch trees in Yosemite National Park has no meaning because neither God nor any human ‘made it’ (per the “product of agents” criterion) but does have meaning because it’s relative to a rational agent? (The latter implies the tree has no meaning if it’s not relative to a rational agent cognizant of its existence?)

    You’ve got to kidding, right AOR? Please admit you’re making this nonsense up as you go along. You are so clueless it truly is pathetic. Really. Truly. Pathetic.

    Ever give any thought to the possibility that meaning reflects the actual, real whatness or quiddity–the essence–of the thing independent of any observer? Have you ever even entertained the possibility that a tree is, technically speaking, a primary substance?

    I’ll grant all you nominalism-lovers and relativism/subjectivism-mongers that rational agents CAN impart meaning on artifacts (a ball-point pen can be both a writing instrument and a bridge for ants), i.e., things that are only accidental substances/unities. That’s the whole point of an artifact: we inFORM it with MEANING.

    But, NOT upon natural things. I can call a healthy tree anything I want, but it’s still a tree independent of me. What scientific or philosophical basis do you have to justify that a tree either has or doesn’t have meaning relative to YOU? Please provide a cogent argument with verifiable references… or, to borrow from G. Rodrigues, keep your yappers shut.

    Give me a break! It REALLY is all about you guys and your will-to-power to manipulate reality into whatever you want… isn’t it? No one can have a reasonable discussion with you guys because you decry meaning… and hence reason. Forget reasoning to the existence of God or entering into discussions about morality: you guys IN THE FIRST PLACE don’t have a grasp of reality and hence a starting point from which to reason to higher verities. Why? You’ve reduced “meaning” to what is relative to YOUR personal, subjective, self-serving interests.

    Unbelievable.

  54. G. Rodrigues wrote:

    If you cannot understand the plain meaning of “Life has objective meaning and purpose” then there is not much I can do. In fact, given that you do not understand what the sentence means, and probably the concepts also (“objective”, “purpose”, “meaning”) I am amazed that you can understand *anything* at all.

    But later you write:

    Purpose can be understood as an objective part of the mind-independent reality as the final cause(s) flowing from a thing’s essence. I am not going to bother to explain what I mean by all this…

    Now, I hardly call that obvious, or straightforward. Nor do I think it jives with the every day use of those word. When somebody asks what the meaning/purpose of a typical everyday something is, they never are really asking, “What are the objective part of the mind-independent reality and the final cause(s) that flow from this somehtings essence?”

    In fact, I think explanations like that make “purpose” and “meaning” utterly baffling and mysterious things whose relevance to our actual lives is entirely questionable, so it may be no great loss at all to say “life has no purpose or meaning”. The only way for that “meaning” to have any meaning is for it to connect to values that make it significant for us.

    As for the language of purpose in science, well… that’s all it is… language. We say things like “the heart’s purpose is to pump blood”. But that’s no evidence that the heart has some mind-independent purpose. The heart has a task to which it is particularly well-suited (but it evolution would just as soon “re-purpose” it for some other task, if it resulted in more babies). I can imagine a Spaniard making a similar argument… “But we say things like /el corazon/, implying that hearts have an actual gender”.

  55. @d,
    Not just language (in science).
    How do we arrive at any scientific principle? There is a “rule” behind the evidence. The “law of gravity”, for example, is surely something “outside of us”? But how did Newton discover it without understanding the “meaning of the evidence” that he encountered?

  56. What I’ve had difficult on is the idea that anything can have an objective meaning. Not an objective existence… that’s pretty much obvious (here, let me hit you with this tree branch)… but any meaning apart from what we can grant it.

    When we say “objective”, do we mean independent not just from our minds, but God’s mind as well? It seems that if it’s independent of our minds but not independent of God’s, then it’s still “subjective”, just on a higher order.

    When we say “objective”, do we mean something that is independent of one person’s mind, but not independent of many people’s minds? In other words, if the concept of “pizza is tasty” has meaning apart from my mind, in the sense that it is shared by many, is that objective, or subjective on a larger scale? (please feel free to substitute a better example than “pizza is tasty” if it helps)

    I’m just… having some difficulties. Tom had the term “local and specific”, which threw me, and now I’m getting confused on the most precise definition of what “objective” is.

  57. d:

    The only way for that “meaning” to have any meaning is for it to connect to values that make it significant for us.

    Right now, without any deflection or evasiveness games, demonstrate to us all by employing a sound argument the veracity of this assertion. Then, demonstrate to us all by employing a sound argument whether said assertion has ANY meaning or purpose–either subjective or objective. Finally, if subjective, and without purpose, why should anyone give a hoot about your assertion?

    So, do it NOW: please demonstrate. Otherwise, keep you yapper shut.

    And then there’s this mind-numbing nonsense:

    We say things like “the heart’s purpose is to pump blood”. But that’s no evidence that the heart has some mind-independent purpose.

    Unbelievable! 2,450-odd years ago Aristotle explicitly argued that a telos (final cause) can be present without any form of deliberation, consciousness or intelligence in general (Physics II.8). Your ignorance about this is no excuse for the categorical assertions you spout here without basis apart from some emotional need to avoid reality.

    For crying out loud, of course the heart’s purpose IS mind-independent, but just because you’re scampering to find some external thing defining it’s purpose does not mean it can’t have an immanent purpose. If you’d only take the time to educate yourself that only one of the three species of final causality bears the purpose (intentio) of a rational agent, you might have a better grasp of reality. Of course the heart has a purpose—it’s so in-four-face obvious only an atheist could miss it: IT PUMPS BLOOD. It doesn’t graze grass, it doesn’t ponder the Transfiguration, it doesn’t direct electrons through electronic circuitry, and it doesn’t listen to you trying to inform it that it has no purpose. No matter how much nonsense you spout or how much you try to get the heart to do something else, it’s not going to listen to you… thank God.

    What about artifacts? Well, precisely because they’re artifacts they’re inFORMED by us to do things. A phone facilitates communication. You can use it as a bridge for ants, and to that extent it IS a bridge… subject to YOUR whims, relative to your imposition… but a heart?!? Give me a break. A heart has an immanent purpose whether you like it or not. It has meaning because it is an extra-mental existent whose essence is knowable. That it is a part of an ontologically-higher natural thing (i.e., it’s beingness is subsumed under the beingness of a whole non-pathological living creature) takes nothing away from the point.

  58. @d:

    In fact, I think explanations like that make “purpose” and “meaning” utterly baffling and mysterious things whose relevance to our actual lives is entirely questionable, so it may be no great loss at all to say “life has no purpose or meaning”. The only way for that “meaning” to have any meaning is for it to connect to values that make it significant for us.

    Am I supposed to provide a response to an argument from ignorance?

    Holopupenko uses two different words, teleonomy and teleology, to distinguish the final causality or telos, immanent to all substances from the intentional purposes of rational agents. I choose to use one and the same word and now I have to suffer your “bafflings” and “mysterious” (when actually, it is not far from the truth to say that AT is pretty much the philosophical systematization of common sense). And not without good reason, because they are intimately connected. But this should probably teach me to follow him as he is more experienced and knowledgeable than me about this stuff.

    As for the language of purpose in science, well… that’s all it is… language. We say things like “the heart’s purpose is to pump blood”. But that’s no evidence that the heart has some mind-independent purpose. The heart has a task to which it is particularly well-suited (but it evolution would just as soon “re-purpose” it for some other task, if it resulted in more babies).

    That substances have immanent final causes that flow from their essence is a metaphysical principle; final causes are not quantifiable and thus not accessible to the hard empirical sciences. You cannot avoid final causes or something very close to it, on pain of lapsing into incoherence and turning reality into an unintelligible mess. In fact you yourself use the language to make reality intelligible (“The heart has a task”, etc.) so no more proof is needed. You walk in very glibly, shooting this way and that without showing the least awareness of the issues at hand. If you want references that eliminating final causes (in various different guises, like intentionality) spells Doom I can give them to you.

  59. Holo,

    Fine, intentions of rational agents are not required for purpose, on your understanding of purpose.

    So let’s return to the main point – just what type of final causation are you guys referring too – the kind that does or does not require intentions – in the phrase:

    “There is an objective purpose to life”.

    If that can be understood in the same sense that “the heart’s purpose is to pump blood”, then sure, I’ll buy that life has objective purpose (to build societies, make babies, flourish, etc).

    But I don’t know how any of you intend to exclude, as you do, the naturalistic universe from the realm of the purposeful and meaningful, in this case – since life, the universe, and everything, like a heart, wouldnt need a rational agent to have a purpose at all.

  60. Sault @60 1st two paragraphs:

    What I’ve had difficult on is the idea that anything can have an objective meaning. Not an objective existence… that’s pretty much obvious (here, let me hit you with this tree branch)… but any meaning apart from what we can grant it.

    When we say “objective”, do we mean independent not just from our minds, but God’s mind as well? It seems that if it’s independent of our minds but not independent of God’s, then it’s still “subjective”, just on a higher order.

    First of all, it’s not about you [writ large includes your fellow travelers]: your difficulties in grasping don’t impact in any way the existence of extra-mental existents nor do they take away from WHAT those things are… and hence don’t take away from their objective meanings.

    Second, there are NOMINAL definitions which WE impose on ARTIFACTS (things we [RATIONAL agents] make) which ARE RELATIVE to us and hence SUBJECTIVE. No argument here: a pen is, if I want, a writing instrument or a bridge for ants.

    But, there are also SUBSTANTIVE definitions: natural things are NOT defined by us but understood by us for what they ARE. What is it that we UNDER-stand? The SUB-stance–the “whatness” of some object that maintains its “whatness” through change. (You were Sault when you were conceived, when you were born, when you attended grade school/college, at work, etc… but you changed a lot throughout that time while maintaining your “whatness” known as Sault.) I don’t “define” a tree in the way you want to understand it because the definition flows from what it IS independent of you or me. Therefore, natural things (i.e., things with “substantive” natures and the principles for change immanent to them) have OBJECTIVE meaning (otherwise we could not know them for what they ARE) TO us… not FOR us or BY us.

    Summary: NOMINAL definitions depend on us and are therefore subject to us: we know them because we inFORMed them. SUBSTANTIVE definitions don’t depend on us: we know them because of what they ARE, i.e., what they OBJECTIVELY MEAN.

    It is no accident the word “object” is used as a generalization: it comes from the Latin past participle obicere “to present, oppose, cast in the way of,” from ob “against” + iacere “to throw”. Quite literally objects we know OBJECT to us–they “throw” themselves at us–to our senses and ultimately to our understanding. They scream out at us “Hey, I’m here and this is what I am!” — they scream out not just their “objective existence” to us (per your words) but their meaning (their “whatness”) as well. Whether that meaning is objective or subjective is immaterial (pun intended): the point is artifacts and natural objects OBJECT to us.

    Finally, wrt God: Yes, indeed, all things are subjective in the sense of God as CREATOR–but only in an analogous sense… and most certainly NOT Him as a MAKER (ARTIFICER). He doesn’t “make”–He creates in the sense of bringing into existence “from” nothing [preposition FAIL alert: there is no “from” nothingness AND creation is NOT a change] and maintaining ALL contingent beings in existence at every moment. He is the source of their existence–their own BEINGNESSES. He doesn’t “make” trees grow because trees grow by their own immanent powers per their natures. BUT He must be the ultimate explanation of all things insofar as they EXIST. Aquinas’ First Way wasn’t about explaining a domino-like succession of moving things: it was about explaining MOTION.

  61. d @63:

    First, it’s not about “[MY] understanding of purpose.”

    Second, see my response to Sault @64.

    Third, you want to know what is meant (tee-hee) by “There is an objective purpose to life.” No. No way. Not until you admit there are objectively meaningful existents and that there is ORDER in the universe in the sense of a teleonomic directedness (which itself must be explained–see Aquinas 5th Way). If you deny objective meanings altogether, if you deny directed orderliness (the very basis for the modern empirical sciences to do their work), if you deny free will, then neither is there any point for you to pursue your question… nor for us to respond.

    Finally, this

    But I don’t know how any of you intend to exclude, as you do, the naturalistic universe from the realm of the purposeful and meaningful.

    Garbage-false accusation. Please show me where anyone–least of all me–“exlude[s] the naturalistic universe from the realm of the purposeful and meaningful.” If you’d only realize the sick irony behind your assertion: Christian faith DEMANDS you open your eyes to know and love the real, natural, objective, accessible-to-the-sciences world IN ORDER TO HAVE A BASIS UPON WHICH TO REASON TO HIGHER VERITIES. The latter is in the realm of human reason and knowledge… but that realm will never trump the realm of REVEALED knowledge, which humans CAN know as well.

  62. Thank you for taking the time to explain that, Holo, I appreciate it.

    I understand that something exists objectively. Whether I believe it or not, some things just are (the truth is not a democratic process, as I’ve heard some say). The difficulty I’m having is understanding the relationship between that existence and “meaning” – until I understand that, I think I’m stuck in the “everything is subjective” mindset.

    Does the phrase “my heart pumps blood” both indicate its objective existence and its objective meaning? ….Are those two terms actually synonyms in this case?

    Can I substitute the phrase “objective purpose” for “objective meaning”?

  63. Sault:

    Thanks for taking the time to wade through my verbose explanation… and apologies for the all-too-often snarkiness when it comes out.

    I’m done for the night, but just quickly regarding “objective meaning”: see @64 the couple of paragraphs on nominal and substantive definitions. A definition of something tells you WHAT it is–in a certain sense WHAT it “means.” “Meaning” is the manifestation of the essence of the object accessible to the human knower–the receiver of the knowledge of the whatness of the object. The rational agent–the knower of the object–doesn’t “make” the thing BE what it IS.

    But, again, be careful: a natural thing is SUBSTANTIVELY what it IS. It exists and comes to be and can change independently of the knower. An artifact, on the other hand, comes into being by the EXTERNAL inFORMing of the artificer–it cannot exist apart from the action of an artificer.

    The “meaning” of a natural thing reflects its essence–what it IS objectively and apart from the knower. The “meaning” of an artifact is what the artificer wants it to be (and this can change many times as often as you like) and hence its meaning is subjective.

    Finally, here’s a tease for further consideration: “inFORMation” is a very different thing from “meaning”. The former is accessible to the senses and hence can be quantified; the latter is not known TO the senses, but THROUGH the senses (i.e., through science) the mind knows the underlying thing–its whatness, I.e., what it “means.” the modern empirical sciences are FUNDAMENTALLY important to us because they open the door the greater vistas. Without the sciences, it’s like trying to fly with one wing: the over-arching point is that it’s faith AND reason.

  64. I don’t understand why admitting that certain things in life are subjective (morality, meaning, etc) means that they are pointless, or insignificant as you claim, G Rodriguez. If you just “throw all your subjective experiences to the garbage” then I can’t imagine how you can even stand living life. A painting objectively exists as a group of atoms assembled in a specific order, but only through your experience can you look at the painting and find subjective beauty that adds richness and meaning to your life. Let’s not downplay subjectivity and act like it’s not important.

  65. @Nathaniel,
    Logistical is indeed a word. But it means something else.
    But hey — that’s a propos isn’t it? Is the meaning of a word entirely “subjective”? Or is there some aspect to that meaning that exists “outside” of the subject?

  66. Nathaniel:

    Your writing is sloppy:

    (1) To buttress Doug’s point, you employed “logistical” incorrectly AND, against the very thing you appeal to, you employed it with forceful intent and objective meaning.

    (2) “I don’t understand why admitting that certain things in life are subjective (morality, meaning, etc) means that they are pointless, or insignificant as you claim…”. NO ONE on our side of the aisle claimed that of what you just accused us. Some things are subjective, but some things are also objective. It’s the latter you have a hard time grasping… and, as has been adequately exposed here, very likely intentionally but with NO argumentation.

    The assertions and responses on your side boil down NOT to arguments but crude versions of “why not?”, as if merely mentioning that makes it possible. It’s a fad for you guys: it sounds interesting, it gets picked up in the mass media, it serves an a priori purpose of stopping all arguments you don’t like by labeling them as “subjective,”… heck, even self-immolating pinheads like Daniel Dennett get excited by supportive groupies/lemmings of their own making. But, ultimately, it’s trashy, self-defeating rhetoric.

    So, I’m going to repeat the challenge to you that I posed to d @61 (yet unaddressed), because the onus is on YOU–you made the unsubstantiated assertions that there is no purpose and meaning.

    Right now, without any deflection or evasiveness games, demonstrate to us all by employing a sound argument the veracity of your assertions. Then, demonstrate to us all by employing a sound argument whether said assertions have ANY meaning or purpose–either subjective or objective. Finally, if subjective, and without purpose, why should anyone give a hoot about your assertions?

    I did my part @57, @61, @64, @65, @67 and G. Rodrigues has been doing his part as well. What about you? Can you meet the challenge of posing a cogent, referenced, and sound argument? Do it NOW… or keep you yapper shut.

  67. @Nathanael:

    I don’t understand why admitting that certain things in life are subjective (morality, meaning, etc) means that they are pointless, or insignificant as you claim, G Rodriguez.

    That much is clear.

    If you just “throw all your subjective experiences to the garbage” then I can’t imagine how you can even stand living life.

    Since I never claimed that, there is no need to strain your imagination.

    Since you have not responded to any of the points I made in my post, I have nothing else to add.

  68. @G. Rodrigues

    You confuse two different ways in which we use the word “meaning. For example when we ask “what is the meaning of the word ‘conflate’?” we inquire of the content that’s conveyed by this particular word. However, when we ask “what is the meaning of life?” (not the English word “life”) we use the word meaning in a different sense, and what we’re really asking is “what is the significance of life?”. Clearly, if the word ‘meaning’ is used in the latter case in the same way it’s used in the former, the question “what is the meaning of human life/existence?” would make no sense. So, to avoid confusion I’ll simply use the word ‘significance’ instead of ‘meaning’.

    Once we clear that up, it’s obvious that significance is always relative (but like I said, not subjective; think of time and length in special relatively—they are relative to the observer, but are not subjective, i.e. they don’t depend on what anyone thinks and there is indeed a fact of the matter concerning length and time in relation to an observer). So when we speak of significance, we should always ask “significant in relation to whom or what?” There’s no such thing as “intrinsic” significance. The same holds for value; it’s always relative but, again, not a matter of opinion, i.e. subjective. The point here is that when theists insist that “without God life is insignificant (meaningless)”, it’s no different than saying “without music life is insignificant”.

    On the question of purpose: purpose is not the same as function , and when scientists speak of function, say of the function of the heart, they don’t mean ‘purpose’, as in being designed by an agent for a the purpose of performing a specific function. To repeat: purposes are constructed by agents, and a god creating a universe with a certain purpose, is no different than a human creating a house with a purpose. If you want to say that the house has an “objective” (not depending on an agent’s opinion) purpose, fine. What I was arguing is that this makes no sense in the case of agents themselves, since they’re the ones who construct purposes (and create different things with specific purposes), but they can’t be “endowed” with a purpose in the way that artifacts (like buildings) can. Basically, either an agent constructs his/her own purposes, and pursues his/her own ends or s/he has someone else determine the goals and purposes for him (the very definition of a serve).

    “Oh wait, all values are relative, so saying that to serve God’s purpose is to be an “abject serve” (sic.) is the expression of a pure personal preference, nothing more.”

    You’re conflating “relative” and “subjective” again. Now maybe relative to you, being God’s slave is desirable and gives your life significance. From my perspective, it makes life not worthy of living.

    In any case, even if all of this is wrong, and there is such a thing as “intrinsic” meaning/significance and value, which somehow requires an “objective” purpose to human existence (that is, having an agent create humans for a specific purpose), and without one any purpose we may construct for our lives is merely an “illusion” (since such purposes are just subjective and not real, as William Craig stupidly maintains), by the same token God’s existence is also “intrinsically” meaningless/insignificant given that no one created him in order for his existence to have an objective purpose (not simply one he decides to construct, like humans would) , and any purpose he come up with, is merely subjective and hence an illusion. Like I also pointed out, in this respect, God and humans (on atheism) find themselves in same circumstance: both lack an external purpose-giver and both have to pursue their own ends, and construct their own purposes. If that’s a problem for human beings, it’s a problem for God as well; and, in this regard, the fact that God is all-powerful, all-knowing, morally perfect, and eternal, etc. is irrelevant.

  69. @Holopupenko

    “I genuinely feel embarrassed for AOR for his first two paragraphs”

    “You are so clueless it truly is pathetic. Really. Truly. Pathetic.”

    Didn’t I already tell you that emotional outbursts of this kind, and abject nonsense in the way of a “response” is not the way to go if you’re trying to have a conversation with somebody?

    And btw, playing childish “I know you are, but what am I” kind of games by projecting onto atheists your own emotional attachment to a set of feel-good beliefs while trying (rather desperately) to discredit anything that threatens to take the comfort blanket away, is what’s truly pathetic here. Grow up. Letting go of imaginary friends and Iron Age dogmas is usually the first step.

  70. @AOR,

    Basically, either an agent constructs his/her own purposes, and pursues his/her own ends or s/he has someone else determine the goals and purposes for him (the very definition of a [servant?]).

    I guess that you’ve never been in a healthy relationship, then? They do exist. And in their context, the dichotomy you construct is false.

    The fascinating thing about your quote, however, is that it comes perilously close to near-equivalency to “either I am my own god, or there is a God, in which case I don’t like His claims on my life.” Of course, if you had experience with healthy relationships, you wouldn’t make such an obvious mistake.

  71. Nathaniel,

    “I don’t understand why admitting that certain things in life are subjective (morality,…) means that they are pointless…”

    If morality is subjective then it’s not morality. All it is an opinion on the way people should act. If morality is subjective then my decision to “torture children for my own personal pleasure” is as “moral” an act as any other act. Are you comfortable with my “torturing of children for my own personal pleasure” being a “moral” act?

  72. It’s not that difficult, guys.

    Subjective- mind dependent
    Objective- mind independent

    Meaning CANNOT be objective regardless of one’s view because it is contradicted by the definition of the word. This is the only thing I was trying to point out in my original post and D and AOR have pointed it out as well.

  73. Holo,

    Third, you want to know what is meant (tee-hee) by “There is an objective purpose to life.” No. No way. Not until you admit there are objectively meaningful existents and that there is ORDER in the universe in the sense of a teleonomic directedness (which itself must be explained–see Aquinas 5th Way). If you deny objective meanings altogether, if you deny directed orderliness (the very basis for the modern empirical sciences to do their work), if you deny free will, then neither is there any point for you to pursue your question… nor for us to respond.

    Didn’t I just admit there are objectively meaningful existents, at least upon a certain understanding of meaning and purpose (eg, the heart’s “purpose” is to pump blood, what it “means” to have a heart is to have blood pumped through your viens).

    I do think that’s a misleading and confused way to use the words “purpose” and “meaning”, all things considered. I think its useful to distinguish more carefully intentional purposes and meanings and non-intentional purposes and meanings, but I don’t care that much about semantics. I’d just as soon concede to your definitions, and expand the scope of “purpose” and “meaning” to include the non-intentional, if it moved the conversation along.

    In any case, I don’t think any person here arguing that objective meaning (wrt to life) is incoherent or ill-defined or non-existant, thinks so in the expanded, non-intentional sense. Nobody here denies the objective fact that hearts pump blood. Nobody would deny that we can point out something that human life objectively does, and then perhaps label that as its “purpose”.

    But if our “purposes” and “meanings” are to be expressions of what things just tend to do, then we could just as well say our meaning in life is to be a complex incubator for the bacteria that lives in our guts, or to be host to cancer, as well as we could say that our meaning is to love and flourish with one another. That kind of purpose is really not what anybody is going for when they ask the deep question, “what is the meaning of life”, and it certainly isnt what the interlocurs here are questioning.

    So really, I think we’re in another conversation where equivocations are rampant because some are injecting AT metaphysics where it doesnt belong – namely, into the words of people who arent speaking from an AT perspective. The only way to stop talking past each other at this point, is for you AT-ists out there to tell us exactly what it means to ask, “What is the objective meaning and purpose of life?”

  74. @AgeOfReasonXXI:

    You confuse two different ways in which we use the word “meaning.

    I am well aware of the difference between words and their referents, thank you very much.

    Once we clear that up, it’s obvious that significance is always relative (but like I said, not subjective; think of time and length in special relatively—they are relative to the observer, but are not subjective, i.e. they don’t depend on what anyone thinks and there is indeed a fact of the matter concerning length and time in relation to an observer).

    It is you who does not know the meaning of the word “subjective”. Go check the dictionary. Here is a clue: that length and time measurements are observer dependent is irrelevant because the equations of General Relativity are invariant under arbitrary coordinate transformations, so two different observers while obtaining different values for their measurements, can still correlate and synch them, because the *underlying physics* is observer independent. It is not different as when continental Europeans use the metric system and the English use — well whatever ridiculous system they use. There is an observer-independent way to relate the two different units of length. In other words, your analogy fails. Badly.

    So when we speak of significance, we should always ask “significant in relation to whom or what?” There’s no such thing as “intrinsic” significance. The same holds for value; it’s always relative but, again, not a matter of opinion, i.e. subjective.

    First, if value is relative then it is, at the very least, a two-place relation involving the subject and the object. The argument for the incoherence of your position now follows pretty much the same path I traced out in previous posts. You have completely passed by it.

    Second, I am sorry but while you assert that is not subjective, subjective in the sense of being a mere matter of opinion, you do not give me any reason why is that so. If our lives have no purpose other than the ones we construct, how can they *not* be the product of mere personal opinion?

    On the question of purpose: purpose is not the same as function , and when scientists speak of function, say of the function of the heart, they don’t mean ‘purpose’, as in being designed by an agent for a the purpose of performing a specific function.

    Thanks for informing me; but I never spoke of the heart’s purpose or function in the same sense as purposes of rational agents, but in the Aristotelian sense of immanent telos or final cause. Go read a book if you want to know the difference. And yes, we humans also have such immanent telos that follows from our nature, which is an *objective* purpose, but as rational agents we can construct purposes for ourselves and then act them out. Insofar as our actions accord with the purposes nature (ultimately, this is God) has set for ourselves we lead the good (Christian) life.

  75. @AgeOfReasonXXI:

    To repeat: purposes are constructed by agents, and a god creating a universe with a certain purpose, is no different than a human creating a house with a purpose.

    Wrong, you are univocally comparing God as creator to humans as creators, I adamantly reject that.

    If you want to say that the house has an “objective” (not depending on an agent’s opinion) purpose, fine.

    No, a house has no objective, that is mind-independent, purpose, because it is an artifact not a natural substance.

    What I was arguing is that this makes no sense in the case of agents themselves, since they’re the ones who construct purposes (and create different things with specific purposes), but they can’t be “endowed” with a purpose in the way that artifacts (like buildings) can.

    I do not dispute that artifacts can be informed with the extrinsic purposes a rational mind endows them with.

    Basically, either an agent constructs his/her own purposes, and pursues his/her own ends or s/he has someone else determine the goals and purposes for him (the very definition of a serve).

    Wrong again, I reject this dichotomy. Natural substances like human beings have intrinsic, immanent purposes or telos, that flow from their essence or essential what-ness qua human beings.

    You’re conflating “relative” and “subjective” again. Now maybe relative to you, being God’s slave is desirable and gives your life significance. From my perspective, it makes life not worthy of living.

    For the reasons mentioned above your distinction is worthless. And thanks again for making my point by adding “From my perspective”. Yes, it is desirable according to your preference, and undesirable according to my preference. Hence it is a mere matter of subjective opinion as I claimed.

    In any case, even if all of this is wrong, and there is such a thing as “intrinsic” meaning/significance and value, which somehow requires an “objective” purpose to human existence (that is, having an agent create humans for a specific purpose)

    Wrong again. It is true that *ultimately*, our purpose derives from God insofar as He is the creator and sustainer of human beings (and of every being), but the proximate source of our purpose is our essential nature as human beings — that is, rational animals: the genus animal plus the specific difference rational.

    and without one any purpose we may construct for our lives is merely an “illusion”

    Illusion presupposes a background to compare to that which is not an illusion — but there is no such background to compare to. Rather, in your view, purpose is subjective, that is, a mere a reflection of whatever your personal preferences, opinions, biases, etc. are.

    by the same token God’s existence is also “intrinsically” meaningless/insignificant given that no one created him in order for his existence to have an objective purpose (not simply one he decides to construct, like humans would), and any purpose he come up with, is merely subjective and hence an illusion.

    Wrong again as I have already explained why in my previous post. Am not going to repeat it.

    Like I also pointed out, in this respect, God and humans (on atheism) find themselves in same circumstance: both lack an external purpose-giver and both have to pursue their own ends, and construct their own purposes. If that’s a problem for human beings, it’s a problem for God as well; and, in this regard, the fact that God is all-powerful, all-knowing, morally perfect, and eternal, etc. is irrelevant.

    A point which I responded to already, so I am not going to repeat myself. I also observe that you prefer to whine and complain instead of responding to the challenges Holopupenko gave you. Humor me, please, and respond to his challenges.

  76. I’m ready to step back into the conversation at last. I’m not sure if Eric is still in it, but I want to start by trying to catch up with what he had to say.

    It is illogical if someone can’t accept the truthfulness of a view because of its consequences. It seems to me that your actual objection to the idea of no objective meaning of life is exactly this.

    I sure didn’t intend that. My actual objection is that I don’t know what made this dust into a meaning-maker, if it wasn’t something transcendent that did it. I don’t understand how meaning can arise from non-meaning; in fact, I think it’s impossible. For non-meaning to generate meaning would require an impossible sort of boot-strapping.

    So the reason I cannot accept the non-theistic versions of meaning presented here is not because of their consequences, but because of their essential impossibility. It is from that point that I moved on to discuss the consequences, which was that I thought Fleegman was grasping for a sad, small substitute for real meaning.

    So I think you have misunderstood me right from the start.

    You complain,

    If you define meaning to be objective right off the bat, and then ask how the atheist can have that sort of meaning without god, I don’t know. I don’t see any reason to think there is such an objective meaning to life. If I believed in a personal god, then of course that would be fixed.

    The sort of meaning an atheist might claim is by definition, subjective. If you presuppose that the only meaning that means anything is the kind that exists only if god does, then you should not be surprised if a non-believer doesn’t believe in that sort of meaning for life.

    I didn’t define meaning to be objective right off the bat, did I? Please show me where I did that. In fact I spent several paragraphs dealing with that potential objection, so as to avoid making that presupposition. If you’re going to disagree with me on that point, you might at least interact with what I said about it. Instead you reacted as if I had merely assumed or presupposed, without considering the opposite viewpoint.

    So right off the bat you have misunderstood me.

    Later you write,

    But telling someone their life has no meaning is a bad way to state what you really want to get at, since it sounds like an insult. Often people will react to that, claiming they do have meaning, just as you do.

    Who’s using a consequentalist approach now?!

    Actually that’s not entirely what you were doing. (It wasn’t what I was doing at all.)

    Later you say,

    I come here for a challenge to my beliefs and positions. In this thread, all I have seen is a lack of ability to look at the question from another view. Everything seems to boil down to the objection that “objective meaning must exist, because if it doesn’t, that’s really sad!” This merely confirms my suspicions that apologists have nothing to challenge this with.

    In case the irony is not already clear enough, you came here to a blog post in which I presented a logical case for a conclusion, and having done so, I commented that there was something sad about Fleegman’s not sharing that conclusion.

    You misread that completely, saying quite wrongly that I had made my case for my conclusion on the basis of its being sad to disagree with it. Read it again, please. I didn’t do that.

    You displayed something that looks suspiciously as if you lack the ability to look at the question from another view. And you did it from your very first words here.

    Would you like to take another shot at it?

  77. Sault, here’s my answer (at last) to your question about “local and particular.” It is a phrase I used in contrast to “transcendent and universal.” That which is transcendent and universal is true everywhere, or it is true about everything, or it is true for everything (and everyone). Whether it implies the supernatural you can judge; I think it does, but others disagree.

    That which is local and particular is that which is true for one thing in one place. I am a particular person in one location. There is nothing about me in particular that is true for all time or for all things.

    Unless you can define some source of transcendence, then everything since the beginning of beginnings has been some local and particular thing. You can analyze those things on the level of sub-atomic particles on up to stars or galaxies, and they are still local and particular, with respect to other existing things on a similar scale.

    The exception to this on some viewpoints would be natural law (whatever it is), which is regarded as a universal truth (whatever that might mean).

    In the context of the current discussion on meaning, natural law is irrelevant, for mathematically inviolate necessity cannot conceivably give rise to anything like purpose or value or meaning. It can only give rise to the next necessary thing. Only.

    So what’s left that’s relevant here is a universe filled with particulars. Some of those particulars coalesced here on earth as dust, which (ostensibly) through a long natural process coalesced into another particular, who goes by the name Sault on this blog.

    What I want to know is what it was in the process of meaningless particulars in a universe of meaningless natural law that made Sault capable of making meaning.

    There has been a lot of discussion about the meaning of the word “meaning,” here on this thread in the past few days. Whatever the word means, I think you and I will agree that if there was no transcendence in and over the universe before humans showed up, then there was also no meaning. We cannot conceive of anything making meaning in a world where there are only lifeless, unintelligent, unreflecting particulars subject to meaningless necessity.

    So whatever “meaning” means, either it’s based in something transcendent, or else it appeared on the scene rather late. What then is it, and how did all these local particulars, subject entirely to the necessity of whatever comes next comes next because it must come next, turning into something that could make meaning mean anything at all? And what is it that that meaning means?

    My question is not whether Sault can make meaning. My question is what it was in the process of these meaningless particulars bouncing around in a universe of meaningless natural law that made Sault able to make meaning, and make it meaningfully.

  78. d, did you happen to notice that your complaint against the meaning of “objective purpose” in #22 was that it did not fulfill the definition of “subjective purpose”?

  79. Sigh.

    Holopupenko was rough on you, AOR21, but you really are speaking of that which you do not know. If I posted something about evolution, say, that was lacking in knowledge as badly as what you wrote in #53, I’d have people jumping down my throat from here to next Christmas. Especially if I presented it with the same calm and considered assurance you displayed, as if everyone must simply see that you had the right answer.

    Your question about where God gets his purpose from is one that has been answered long, long, long ago. Now, suppose that answer were the wrong answer. It would still do for you to interact with that answer, rather than to ignore it, for you cannot assume that you have the right answer without showing how it is superior to the long-accepted theistic one.

    I would recommend that when you propose ideas like that about God, you frame them as proposals or as questions. If you frame them as something like settled knowledge that everyone ought to recognize as true, you betray your ignorance of the long discussion by which thinking persons have arrived at the conclusion that your proposals are not true. The effect of that is to halt discussion, and to turn it away from the points at hand, and to your character instead.

    Holopupenko was rough on you when he took that tack. I want you to know that it’s perfectly fine here not to know answers. Ignorance is welcome here, because ignorance is a precondition to learning. But ignorance that parades itself as assured and settled knowledge is not a precondition to learning; it is hard and impenetrable, and it doesn’t learn. I don’t think you want to be that way. Ignorance that presents itself as knowing more than it does is foolishness.

    You wrote to him,

    Didn’t I already tell you that emotional outbursts of this kind, and abject nonsense in the way of a “response” is not the way to go if you’re trying to have a conversation with somebody?

    If having a conversation is your goal, then you could ask yourself why some people tend to respond so strongly. Consider the very real possibility (the actuality, in fact) that you have acted as if you know something when in fact you do not, and the corollary that goes with it, which is that acting that way does no good in conversation. Consider approaching these discussions with questions instead of foolishly displayed ignorance. You’ll find the discussion stays a lot more on track that way.

    Holopupenko, meanwhile, I agree that AOR21’s comments have been a display of foolishness. I agree there’s something really, truly pathetic about it. AOR21 is as good as asking for us to criticize his character when he pulls stunts like that. Maybe you could think about ways to keep the discussion on track, though, focused the points at hand more than on commenters’ character. Or, if you’re going to make a comment on character, go for it in all wisdom, and make it a substantive one. Don’t you think it would be more productive?

  80. @ Tom

    Thank you for your response. I admit to entering the conversation thinking that I understood it, realizing that I didn’t, and have been trying to make up for lost time reading G’s, Holo’s, and doug’s objections to d’s, AOR’s, and Nathaniel’s statements.

    That which is local and particular is that which is true for one thing in one place. […] The exception to this on some viewpoints would be natural law (whatever it is), which is regarded as a universal truth (whatever that might mean).

    As an example, we observe that the Theory of Gravity seems to be generally constant in all circumstances that we can determine. We thus believe it to be “universally true”, or objectively true. Why? There is probably some underlying natural cause (string theory maybe?). Why that? The atheist would probably have to say “I don’t know” or “there is no ‘purpose’ as such, since it wasn’t created by an external Being”. A theist could say “it is a consequence of how God/god/gods created the universe”.

    Am I basically correct so far? I don’t mean to imply a false dichotomy, but I am unaware of any competing views – either there is a purpose to Creation or there isn’t.

    My question is not whether Sault can make meaning. My question is what it was in the process of these meaningless particulars bouncing around in a universe of meaningless natural law that made Sault able to make meaning, and make it meaningfully.

    My answer, at this point, is that it is only because we are rational agents that we are able to give the universe any over-arching meaning.

    Again, without meaning to invoke a false dichotomy, it seems to me that either we are given meaning or we must create it ourselves. Without belief in an external agent to do so, there only other conclusion must be… us.

    Belief in God entails objective purpose and meaning (because it is independent of us), lack of belief in God entails no objective purpose and meaning in terms of “What’s the Point of All This?”, because there is no external agent to do so.

    I think I basically just said the same thing three different times… but that seems to be the case, right?

    Is the question (my apologies for attempting to rephrase you) : “how can we assign meaning to life if there’s only us able to do so?”

  81. Further on my comment #84 and d’s #22:

    So much of this discussion has been about my (and other theists’) supposed mistake of assuming there is objective meaning, when there might only be subjective meaning. We didn’t do that; but d wrote in #22 that there is no objective meaning unless it is subjective, which seems to be just as egregious a mistake as the one we were supposed to make.

    It is also a curiously human-centered one. AOR21’s complaint about the source of meaning in God is in the same category. It is the mistake of assuming “man is the measure of all things;” and that the limitations and foibles attached to humanness must also attach to deity, if deity exists.

    It’s a foolish thing to think. But maybe it comes from genuine ignorance. It could be that it’s about time to do some work here on who and what God is. There are a whole lot of people out there who object to something they call God, which I don’t agree with myself, because it’s not really God at all.

  82. Tom,

    I don’t think that’s what I actually said, purposefully or not, but in any case…

    All the way back in #22 to though, I invited anybody to clarify what the question actually means, “What is the objective meaning of life”.

    G. Rodrigues, I think, came closest to clarifying the concept when he wrote:

    Purpose can be understood as an objective part of the mind-independent reality as the final cause(s) flowing from a thing’s essence.

    And I replied:

    Now, I hardly call that obvious, or straightforward. Nor do I think it jives with the every day use of those word. When somebody asks what the meaning/purpose of a typical everyday something is, they never are really asking, “What are the objective part of the mind-independent reality and the final cause(s) that flow from this somehtings essence?”

    In fact, I think explanations like that make “purpose” and “meaning” utterly baffling and mysterious things whose relevance to our actual lives is entirely questionable, so it may be no great loss at all to say “life has no purpose or meaning”. The only way for that “meaning” to have any meaning is for it to connect to values that make it significant for us.

    While he wasnt impressed with my incredulity, I remain unimpressed with what’s on offer. What we have so far, as near as I can tell, is that on Holo and Rodrigues’s account of objective “meaning” and “purpose” (*one* of several distinct types they recognize, anyways) is little more than what things /do/.

    Holo says the purpose of the heart is to pump blood. But that’s just what the heart does. Why call that it’s purpose?

    We may sometimes be inclined to view what the heart normally does as its purpose, but that really on stems from the fact that a beating heart enables our long life, which is something WE value. We value beating hearts, so we /make/ that its purpose, in our minds. But what things tend to do is /not/ the same as a purpose.

  83. Holo says the purpose of the heart is to pump blood. But that’s just what the heart does. Why call that it’s purpose?

    Think of the difference between:
    1. The purpose of the heart is to generate rhythmic noises you can hear through a stethoscope.
    2. The purpose of the heart is to occupy space in the thoracic region.
    3. The purpose of the heart is to pump blood.

    Why not call all three of those the purpose of the heart?

  84. d,

    Tim made this comment of what you had written:

    So much of this discussion has been about my (and other theists’) supposed mistake of assuming there is objective meaning, when there might only be subjective meaning. We didn’t do that; but d wrote in #22 that there is no objective meaning unless it is subjective, which seems to be just as egregious a mistake as the one we were supposed to make.

    Your response;

    I don’t think that’s what I actually said, purposefully or not, but in any case…

    Then you follow up with this:

    We may sometimes be inclined to view what the heart normally does as its purpose, but that really on stems from the fact that a beating heart enables our long life, which is something WE value. We value beating hearts, so we /make/ that its purpose, in our minds. But what things tend to do is /not/ the same as a purpose.

    ie. It’s not a purpose unless it’s subjective.

  85. @Tom (re #89)
    Because only item 3 represents the heart’s physiological function as an essential component of an organism with a circulatory system.

    Item 1 is a derivative consequence of the biomechanics of the heart’s design and operation, and the underlying physics of constrained viscous fluid flow.
    Item 2 is just a consequence of the fact that a physical entity occupies a finite volume.

  86. Hi Tom:

    @ 85: Granted, correct.

    AOR:

    Apologies… now address the challenge, with Tom’s excellent characterization of your points and MO notwithstanding.

    Sault @86:

    As an example, we observe that the Theory of Gravity seems to be generally constant in all circumstances that we can determine. We thus believe it to be “universally true”, or objectively true. Why? There is probably some underlying natural cause (string theory maybe?). Why that? The atheist would probably have to say “I don’t know” or “there is no ‘purpose’ as such, since it wasn’t created by an external Being”. A theist could say “it is a consequence of how God/god/gods created the universe”.

    Exceedingly important observation on your part… and I’m going to try to address BOTH from the perspective of physics AND philosophy of nature.

    From the perspective of physics, NO theory—none, nadda, empty set, void, black hole—no physical theory addresses the point you raise. The question of whether the “laws” of physics (there are NO such things out there) are universally applicable is a question of the orderliness of the universe. Physics provides great information, knowledge, and insights into how things “move,” BUT it’s presupposed that those things move in an orderly fashion so that predictions can be made… and those predictions are described through mathematical formalisms. Without order, you have no predictability. Without predictability, you have no natural sciences… and mathematics is basically out of a job as well. Period.

    Let me rephrase: the proper object (“subject matter”) of modern day physics is material beings in physical motion. It is NOT the subject matter of physics to study orderliness per se even though physics provides great input data and depends on orderliness to do its good work. Why? Because it’s not just physics that depends on orderliness: EVERYTHING does—quite literally EVERTHING. If things didn’t not behave in an orderly fashion (note I’m NOT imposing the full import of behaving deterministically), we, also quite literally, would not be able to know them, understand them, have any ability to grasp on to underlying whatness.

    It falls to the philosopher of nature (NOT the philosopher of science because he deals with methodological epistemology) to understand motion in its widest throw. In fact, without this broader understanding of motion, more narrow understandings of motion (which, again, is the subject matter of physics) would be without a solid foundation. Moreover, it falls to the philosophy of nature AND metaphysics to study orderliness—the latter because its subject matter are those things that ALL existents share, i.e., change, causality, orderliness, etc., etc. These three disciplines—in fact all the sciences and philosophy—must work in harmony to extend human knowledge as far as possible.

    Now, since orderliness has to be explained AND since physics depends on orderliness, it itself can’t explain orderliness… for that belongs to philosophy. Philosophy employs evidence from ALL of reality and it employs reason to explain orderliness, the existence of motion, the hierarchical taxonomy of ontological beings, etc. There MUST be a cause for these, but that cause is not the efficient cause of billiard balls bouncing around. That cause must transcend all other causes, all other perfections, all other orderliness. And that is as far as the philosophy of nature gets you: it concludes that there MUST be a Primary Unmoved Mover, but it can say NOTHING about the character of that Mover. That’s where revealed knowledge comes in.

    Now, I’m not proselytizing you: whether you accept or reject revealed knowledge is your affair. What you can’t reject—precisely because it falls in the realm of human reason—are sound arguments in support of the necessity of a Primary Unmoved Mover. From there, you draw your own conclusions. Most emphatically that is NOT faith: faith is trust in a declared authority. My and Tom’s and G. Rodrigues’s and Charlie’s and SteveK’s and others’ point is BOTH faith and reason are, ultimately, needed. Again, you weigh the evidence, you think about, and you draw your own conclusions. But, to suggest any of us are dabbling in magic or believing in fairies or “invisible friends” is just nonsense.

    Now, if one attempts to eviscerate objective meanings from what is discussed simply because it doesn’t fit one’s world view (because of some a priori commitment), well… that’s not being intellectually honest, is it?

  87. @d:

    Nobody here denies the objective fact that hearts pump blood. Nobody would deny that we can point out something that human life objectively does, and then perhaps label that as its “purpose”.

    I am sorry, but on what planet have you been living? Metaphysical naturalists consistently deny all teleological talk, intentional or not, ever since the foundation of modernity with Descartes, Bacon et. al. shooting the first salvos. They insist that it is either non-existent or that it can always be reduced to a scramble of efficient and material causes, and a very shrivelled carcass of a notion of efficient and material causality at that.

    So really, I think we’re in another conversation where equivocations are rampant because some are injecting AT metaphysics where it doesnt belong – namely, into the words of people who arent speaking from an AT perspective.

    As far as I know, the only AT-sympathizers here are me, Holopupenko and Melissa.

    Look, in order for purpose to be *objective* it must be a mind-independent, existing reality. It must be something inhering in the fabric of reality and not simply a construct of the mind. AT talk is one way (in my view the correct way) to articulate this pretty common-sensical notion that natural substances like human beings have intrinsic purposes, or ends, or goals, or finalities, or telos (whence teleological).

    I am not going to give a lesson on AT metaphysics (I am not competent even if I wanted to) and content myself with repeating something I said earlier, I think to AgeOfReasonXXI: Human beings are rational animals. To pick up on Holopupenko’s standard Scholastic terminology, this is a substantive definition giving the genus (animal) and a specific difference (rational) and it describes the essential what-ness of human beings qua human beings. That human beings have an essence, or essential nature, entails as a matter of fact that they have an inherent, intrinsic telos or purpose. *Objective* purpose, since what we human beings are is independent of what we think, it is a mind-independent reality, so it follows that this intrinsic purpose, flowing as it does from human-ness is likewise objective and independent of our minds, wills or personal preferences. Of course, ultimately, since God is the creator of human nature, we can say with all propriety that this purpose is also God’s purpose, but there is a level of indirection here. Now what is the purpose of reason? To discover the Truth. So it follows that the human purpose is intimately connected with discovering the Truth. But what is the highest and most important Truth? That there is a God that created and sustains in being every being at every moment in the here and now, so it follows that our purpose is, as a matter of objective fact, to come to know God.

    But rational agents are also endowed with free will (rationality and free will go hand in hand) so they can be oblivious to these objective facts and choose for them lesser goods. These lesser goods become the goals, ends or finalities, the subjective purposes of their lives, subjective because they are borne out of an arbitrary act of the will, enshrined as all-powerful and limitless, a God unto himself, and not from *reasoning* from the *essential nature* of human beings.

    This is just a very rough summary, a decent treatment would need one or several books. And you are free to reject this account, free to lodge your objections (as long as you at least make an effort to understand what you are objecting to), free to reject objective purpose and embrace whatever subjective purposes tickle your fancy. What you cannot do, at least if you want to be intellectually honest, is to wave away or not even notice the arguments that have been given to show the inconsistencies following from rejecting objective purpose and meaning and embracing all the various forms of nominalism and skepticism paraded here. Holopupenko’s challenges are really just such a reductio in disguise, but you prefer to deflect and dodge, instead of tackling them head on. That is certainly your prerogative. I think I can speak for Holopupenko and the others here, that we at least have made an effort to tackle the objections.

  88. Tom,

    Each item is just a thing that the heart does.

    Victoria unjustifiably points to #3 as the heart’s “purpose”, but there’s no rational or justfiable reason to think of #3 as more special than the others, in any objective sense. It may be more special from the perspective of a human person who treasures their life and the lives of others, and who correctly recognizes #1 as most critical item in preserving those lives. But there’s nothing objective about that.

  89. Is it really your opinion that there is no rational objective sense in which a human’s life is more special than a rhythmic beating noise?

  90. @d
    A heart that has stopped is just taking up space – if it does not get restarted, it will die – cease to function, and with it, the organism that is dependent on it to circulate blood throughout the body.

    A diseased heart (either through defects caused by genetic factors, lifestyle choices (poor diet, lack of exercise) or infection, or other damage) does not perform its function within the design parameters required for the organism to function optimally. Without repair (either through lifestyle changes or surgery) or medication, it will deteriorate to the point where it will no longer perform its function for its owner.

    Stop with the semantic gymnastics already.

    Is it not the designer of a system who gets to define the purpose and functions of that system? In God’s mind, he designed the heart as a pump to support a circulatory system. That is what a heart is designed to do, no matter what we think. This reality is the reality He created – He could have created a different one, so we could say that it was His personal choice. Once the choice was made, He gets to define the rules by which the created reality operates – He gets to choose what the components are, etc. To us, God’s choices are our objective facts.
    God chose the laws of physics (sorry, Holo – allow me the idiom for convenience here) – we can only discover and describe them, and be constrained by them.

  91. d,

    The only way to stop talking past each other at this point, is for you AT-ists out there to tell us exactly what it means to ask, “What is the objective meaning and purpose of life?”

    In the original context Fleegman was referring to human life. What does it mean to be human or what is the essence of humanity. Christians hold that this is not something we decide therefore our answers to these questions are true to extent that they conform to reality. The reasons why there is talking past each other is because you and the others have assumed in all your posts that purposes and meaning can only be, by definition, subjective but you have not in fact shown that to be the case.

  92. Tom,

    Is it really your opinion that there is no rational objective sense in which a human’s life is more special than a rhythmic beating noise?

    There’s no non-special pleading way to demonstrate otherwise. Life is only special, meaningful, or purposeful with respect to certain values.

    Now of course, I do think there are some values all humans share. These values entail that, whether everyone realizes it or not, they should consider human life special and significant.

  93. Melissa,

    That’s where the bizarre, queer notion of meaning is snuck in. You guys are using the terms “meaning” and “purpose” to signify something entirely different than they do in everyday speak.

    Which is fine, this stuff just has to be clarified up front. In that sense, I’ve conceded that life can have objective meaning, in the same way one can say the objective purpose of the heart is to pump blood – but those answers are not at all in the spirit of the question, “what is the meaning of life” as its typically asked.

  94. @Tom Gilson:

    What do you mean by mind-independent? Nothing is independent of God, who is (among other things) infinite mind.

    Is that question for me? I will assume it is with apologies in advance if it is not.

    Of course, you are correct, nothing is independent of God. But since we are addressing unbelievers, I assume implicitly that when I talk of something as mind-independent I am restricting myself to human minds. I hope what I mean by the expression is also clear.

  95. @d:

    That’s where the bizarre, queer notion of meaning is snuck in. You guys are using the terms “meaning” and “purpose” to signify something entirely different than they do in everyday speak.

    It is the second time I am going to object but object I must. There is nothing bizarre or queer in the notion of purpose we are using. AT only systematizes what is the pretty common sense notion of things having purposes or goals or exhibiting end-directedness. Purpose talk is used everyday by everyone; we cannot avoid it on pain of falling in incoherence.

    note: Read The Sperm of Sea Urchins and the Directedness of Natural Processes. Yeah, really “bizarre” and “queer” notion…

  96. D’s comment about the heart having no objective purpose reminded me of a section in the True Reason book where the question was asked: what is natural selection selecting if not purpose?

  97. Here is the person who says human life has no more real meaning than rhythmic noises, and who says the rest of us have assigned a “bizarre, queer notion” into our language.

    d, listen to me carefully, please. You are following your philosophy into its logical consequences, and for that I commend you. Naturalistic atheism really does entail exactly what you are affirming here. If naturalistic atheism is true, then a human life is really no more meaningful than rhythmic noises. You say rightly that no life has no meaning other than what each person assigns it. You take refuge in your ability to do that, but you forget that that assignment is made meaninglessly, for there is no explanation for what has made this dust into meaning-makers.

    Consider this possibility, please: there is real meaning in being human. You think you have the ability to find or assign some meaning to life, and in this you are correct, for you really do have that ability. And the fact that you really have that ability is real data, real information, for you to include in how you process reality. I have intentionally used “real” repeatedly, for reality is at stake here.

    The only thing that keeps you from recognizing the reality of meaning in life is that you have committed yourself to atheistic naturalism. What is it that is so attractive about that? What is so intellectually compelling about it? What is it that makes it seem so true, that for its sake you would overturn the obvious truth that you yourself really mean something?

    Someone I work with, who has treated me with incredible graciousness and whom I respect very greatly, is at the point of death. He has been a controversial person all his life, but he has devoted most of his life to showing prisoners how to find new meaning for their lives, and to helping all of us understand there is truth and goodness at the heart of reality: the truth and goodness of God himself.

    If Chuck Colson has been right about that, then his life has been incredibly, eternally rich with meaning.

    If he has been wrong about that, and there is no God at the heart of reality, then as his life ends the cold reality surfaces that it has had no real meaning, either good or bad.

    If his life had no real meaning, either good or bad, then it has had no really bad meaning. A lot of atheists and secularists have called him out for doing great harm to causes they treasure. So what? It was without any real meaning. So is their opposition to his positions. Meaningless, meaningless, all is meaningless, says the Preacher. (You’re welcome to look up that allusion.)

    Or maybe it’s all subjective meaning. Maybe Chuck Colson’s life meaning came from the meaning he assigned to it subjectively, just as your meaning comes from whatever you make it to be. In that case your meaning means nothing more than his, and your values mean nothing more than his. The strongest gay “marriage” proponent’s meaning means nothing more than Chuck Colson’s meaning.

    Does that even begin to make sense? Can you accept that even being possibly true? You have to, if you’re going to cling to your atheistic materialism. But why? Why set aside the obvious, which is that meaning matters, being human really matters, and to be human is to have meaning–real meaning? Why?

  98. Tom,

    I am so sorry to hear the sad news about Chuck Colson. Our certainty of his glory can only somewhat soften the sadness of his loss. We can remember that Christ, faced with the death of Lazarus, wept. Death is manifestly wrong and we must wait until that final day to see it defeated. Until then we weep too.

  99. @ Tom

    for there is no explanation for what has made this dust into meaning-makers.

    We can find meaning in this life, even if we don’t strictly know why. Because we don’t know why (or if we don’t accept God as the Meaning-Giver), though, any meaning that we assign is actually meaningless, because its only in our heads. Since there is no extra-human standard, there’s nothing saying that what’s in one person’s head is as any better than what’s in another person’s head.

    Is this a reasonable summary of your argument?

  100. Tom:

    I’m so, so sorry. I am hurting with you. Colson IS and always will be a great, great man.

  101. @Tom Gilson:

    I do not know how long I have been staring at the computer screen, scrounging for the right words. I guess these will have to do: May God grant strength and courage to Colson, his family and friends in such difficult times. May God have mercy on us all.

  102. I was just commenting about this after a post and discussion by Jack Hudson on his blog.

    The lack of objective meaning is actually part of a pattern in atheism. Something that has always troubled me about atheism is that there is a lot of pretending that has to be done in order to live an otherwise normal life.

    Jerry Coyne expresses the opinion that it is fine to simply live life pretending we have free will.

    When it comes to meaning, atheists respond that they essentially give their own lives meaning. This, too, seems to be another game of pretend.

    When it comes to morality, a slightly more devious or dangerous game of pretend is played. Subjective morality. Make up your own morality as you go. The problem with this game of pretend is that when two people have conflicting moralities, it becomes logically impossible to actually make a claim to which set of morality should be obeyed… at least while taking seriously the claim that morality is subjective. We can see the results of subjective morality quite often today, and politicians make for great examples of this. Congress exempts themselves from quite a few laws that they pass for the rest of us. Insider trading and the recent health care act come to mind. In the media, we see one article talking about subjective morality and how we shouldn’t force our morality on others, and an article on the same page is taking a public figure to task for cheating on his wife. It’s a self-conflicted position to try and keep in balance, in my opinion.

    So the game of pretend is played. Invent your own meaning, pretend you have the free will to pursue this meaning, and espouse the particular moral rules that are convenient for your lifestyle. None of this seems to avoid the logical conclusion of a disbelief in God – nihilism. Many atheists I’ve spoken with adamantly claim to hold a logically consistent worldview that is not nihilistic, but I’ve never seen this claim coherently defended without playing these games of pretend.

  103. Except that you don’t really believe that it’s only belief in God that keeps you acting morally. You are surrounded by people who expect you to adhere to a certain social code and will hold you accountable for those times that you don’t.

    Why don’t we go around killing people? Because we’d be held accountable for our actions by those around us – we could wind up in jail or executed ourselves. That’s just the negative pressure, though – it is natural for the members of a group to act in ways that benefit the group, and needlessly killing other members of the group isn’t beneficial.

    It’s the same with any other action, though – what the group decides is unacceptable is unacceptable…

    I have to question this assertion. Without an objective moral code, subjective morality often does become “do as I say, not as I do” while boiling down to might makes right. When Congress passes anti-insider trading laws, and then exempts themselves from that law, so that they can continue to do something they deem immoral, there is clearly nobody holding them accountable. In this case (and millions of other cases) the subjective framework for morality where societal pressures keep people in line has obviously failed. Might makes right is what this seems to condensate in the end. Societal pressures may work in large part for immoral acts like murder, but for a litanty of other immoral acts, this doesn’t work consistently at all. For example, lying by politicians has very little in the way of legal consequences, or any other consequences for that matter. Is lying, say, to further a political agenda, therefore okay morally?

  104. @ Justin

    Something that has always troubled me about atheism is that there is a lot of pretending that has to be done in order to live an otherwise normal life.

    Playing “pretend” is a necessary part of life – we can’t be “normal” without pretending a little. This (slim) sheaf of green paper in my wallet has absolutely no worth in-and-of-itself, but we collectively agree (pretend) that it does. If we didn’t, civilization as we know it would collapse.

    Money means something because we say it does. If I understand correctly, that’s the very definition of subjective meaning.

    We pretend that our flag means something. We pretend that the Constitution means something. We pretend that uniforms mean something (doctor, policeman, etc). We pretend that traffic signs mean something.

    Stop pretending that any of it means anything other than what we say it does and tell me how “normal” your life is!

    Without an objective moral code, subjective morality often does become “do as I say, not as I do” while boiling down to might makes right.

    Ahh, so now subjective moralists are hypocrites with double-standards. And the reason you give to make this assertion is… politicians in Congress???

    Oh, okay. As of 2005 there were a total of 535 members of the US Congress. All but 4 are self-declared Christians or Jews. Okay, let’s throw out the 27 Jews. That’s 504 Christians making our laws.

    Needless to say, it is something of a petard when you hoist 504 Christians up to point out the dangers of atheistic morality.

  105. On Chuck Colson: http://www.catholic.org/national/national_story.php?id=45801

    My only beef with the writer is to put Solzhenitsyn on the same level as Colson.

    Solzhenitsyn, apart from the good he did by exposing what the former CCCP was about–was, in fact, a deeply-troubled nationalist. In 1990 he termed the Ukrainian language “dirty Polish,” which sparked a deep sense of betrayal among Ukrainians, with open letters-to-the-editor from Ukrainian dissidents who “sat” with Solzhenitsyn in the gulags. Solzhenitsyn claimed it was “provocative” for Ukraine to seek recognition of the Ukrainian Famine (Holodomor) as “genocide” (which many countries, including the United States, have recognized): what sparked this comment was the allegedly “appalling” act by President Bush Sr. to lay a wreath at the monument in Kyiv dedicated to the victims of the Famine. In June 2008 NATO was in Kyiv for further work on the slow process of integrating Ukraine into the alliance. Solzhenitsyn, in a word, had a cow–lashing out bitterly. Ukraine is slowly reinstituting its own language into schools, translations of books and movies, etc… all met by self-serving accusations of “human rights abuses” by Russians… including Solzhenitsyn.

    I know. I was there. I felt the betrayal among the Ukrainians.

    Few in the west know this, because most people equivocated between Russia and Soviet Union. Even Marx termed the Russian Empire the “prison house of nations.” It still is: ask the Chechens. Ask the “near abroad” Georgians and Baltic countries.

    Colson is way above Solzhenitsyn.

  106. Hi Saul!

    Stop pretending that any of it means anything other than what we say it does and tell me how “normal” your life is!

    I don’t disagree with your point here. There are layers of meaning that can exist, though. To argue for objective meaning is not to say that we are not capable of subjectively assigning meaning to certain things as well. But we seem to see things eye to eye – we agree that it is ultimately pretending on the atheist view. However, on atheism, while the nihilistic view is the logical outworking, it is not livable. Illusory or not, people simply cannot escape seeking meaning. Presumably, under atheism, this is strictly the result of random chemical and physical reactions.

    Ahh, so now subjective moralists are hypocrites with double-standards. And the reason you give to make this assertion is… politicians in Congress…
    …Needless to say, it is something of a petard when you hoist 504 Christians up to point out the dangers of atheistic morality.

    I might not go so far as saying that subjective moralists are hypocrites. My point is not to offend here. What I would say is that their beliefs and their actions, when logically examined, simply contradict each other.

    And I don’t mind the particular petard you point out that I am in. Just because one is or says they are Christian does not mean that they are perfectly moral or not outright immoral in action. The Christian’s claim is not and never will be that all Christians behave morally.
    This is beside the point that given the definition of subjective morality, that it, too, is quite unlivable.

    I’m not sure what a meaningless life, the deterministic life, or the life spent practicing truly subjective morality would even look like. It’s simply not possible to live that way. Under the atheist view, it follows that at the pinnacle of known evolution, a mindless, meaningless, random process following the impersonal laws of physics has given rise to a species which is required to live under such a wide and pervasive range of self-delusions simply to survive.

  107. Responding to Justin’s comments at #113:

    Subjective morality. Make up your own morality as you go. The problem with this game of pretend is that when two people have conflicting moralities, it becomes logically impossible to actually make a claim to which set of morality should be obeyed…

    This is a pervasive misconception that I see being expressed by far too many religious believers; it is wrong-headed.

    Morality (or ethics) is not a matter of each individual’s subjective notions (or of conflict resolution between any two individuals). Nor is it a matter of divine fiat (whatever or whoever might provide the “revelation” of “divine will”).

    It is a matter of a social group’s shared understanding and their shared capacity for tolerance of differences; and at a very basic level, it’s a matter of the truly objective and empirical reality of behaviors that, on balance, either promote or degrade the shared well-being of the group.

    It is consistent with evolutionary theory, and supported by the same evidence that supports the theory, to conclude that over countless generations, natural selection has favored social behaviors that generally promote the well-being of social groups. Groups working in collaboration perform better at survival and reproduction than individuals working alone.

    So behaviors that foster collaboration are good, and those that undermine collaboration are bad, when measured on any value scale that deems group well-being as good. An obvious correlate and consequence is that belief systems within a given group, to the extent that they are evidence-based, will support the good behaviors and discourage the bad ones.

    From this, it follows naturally and logically that murder, theft, dishonesty, hatred, disrespect, etc, are generally bad, while compassion, empathy, altruism (both “selfless” and “self-interested”), honesty, accommodation, compromise, etc, are generally good.

    Individuals violate these values at their peril, because their individual gain is likely to be short-lived, if their transgression is too noticeable and the group has the knowledge and will to take corrective action. Groups will violate these values (inflict physical punishment and/or take goods or money forcibly from individuals, declare war, etc), when the group’s controlling authority deems that the resulting gain will override the “collateral damage”, and enough of the people under that authority either concur or acquiesce.

    Different groups will arrive at different understandings, different levels of tolerance, and different behaviors. You can compare and contrast groups and get a clear sense of which patterns seem to work better, in the sense of being attractive vs. repulsive, enriching vs. repressive, etc, not only for the group as a unit, but also for any given individual in the group. Among “successful” groups, the ones where a higher proportion of individuals enjoy a fair share of the goodness are more successful.

    That is the truly “objective” basis for morality, because it can be supported by evidence and observation. The validity of the Golden Rule is readily and repeatably demonstrable — you don’t need any appeal to supernatural causation for it, because it is a natural consequence in the development of any species that relies on social structure for survival.

    So the game of pretend is played. Invent your own meaning, pretend you have the free will to pursue this meaning, and espouse the particular moral rules that are convenient for your lifestyle.

    This verges on an insult to our intelligence. One who espouses belief in and unverifiable, unobservable, unknowable, supernatural being, is accusing secularists of playing a “game of pretend” ?!? As Saul has pointed out, meaning is a social construct; while it’s true that meaning must be experienced and understood individually by each person, it cannot be formed in the absence of social interaction.

    Meaning, as a social construct, may not be “objective” in the same sense that the atomic weight of carbon is objective, but it is clearly not just “subjective”, and just as clearly, it’s not an exclusive and non-varying product of Christian Holy Scriptures.

  108. Otto:

    The presupposed but unsupported notion animating your flawed views is that a scientific theory (full disclosure: I’m opposed to Intelligent Design) somehow translates into a moral imperative:

    It is consistent with evolutionary theory, and supported by the same evidence that supports the theory, to conclude that over countless generations, natural selection has favored social behaviors that generally promote the well-being of social groups. Groups working in collaboration perform better at survival and reproduction than individuals working alone.

    It’s the old illicit is-to-ought jump you make by imbuing “survival” with moral character for (1) non-moral agents preceding humans, and (2) even human agents without a sound argument to make that jump.

    So, since you’ve made the assertion, the onus is on you, through sound philosophical reasoning supported by scientific input, to justify your claim that “survival” is a moral imperative.

    I’m not necessarily disagreeing with you, but no critical thinker is going to accept your non-scientific assertions without a solid basis, i.e., no one is going to accept your personal desires, opinions, ideological drives, etc. simply because you assert them.

    So, do it now: the onus is on YOU.

    Apart from that, I wholly concur with Tom’s characterization of most of your positions under separate cover: Your ignorance on this would be excusable if you did not pretend to know what you do not know.

  109. Morality (or ethics) is not a matter of each individual’s subjective notions (or of conflict resolution between any two individuals). Nor is it a matter of divine fiat (whatever or whoever might provide the “revelation” of “divine will”).

    It is a matter of a social group’s shared understanding and their shared capacity for tolerance of differences; and at a very basic level, it’s a matter of the truly objective and empirical reality of behaviors that, on balance, either promote or degrade the shared well-being of the group.

    The issue I have with this version of morality is that it still has no rational basis. Stating that the results of actions are objective doesn’t make this version of morality objective. It is still subjective, because within a society or between societies, there are opposing views as to what increases the “well being” of society. One group may think that caring for the elderly improves society, while another group wants to euthanize them, both arguing that their version of morality “betters society”. It leads some like Dawkins to say that eugenics should be revisited. If you base morality on the goal of improving the well being of society, it’s no more objective at the societal level than it is at the individual level. As Ravi Zacharias put it, “in some countries they love their neighbors, in other countries they eat them. Do you have a personal preference?”

    What we do see with morality is that there are a core set of moral laws that humans must adhere to in order to have a functioning and thriving society. Humans no more chose or invented these moral rules than they chose to be human, because those core moral values are required, whether the society likes them or not. A society can choose to violate them systematically, but those societies either don’t flourish, or cease to exist altogether. It seems to me that there is an objective set of core moral values that humans discovered rather than chose or invented.

    This verges on an insult to our intelligence. One who espouses belief in and unverifiable, unobservable, unknowable, supernatural being, is accusing secularists of playing a “game of pretend” ?!? As Saul has pointed out, meaning is a social construct; while it’s true that meaning must be experienced and understood individually by each person, it cannot be formed in the absence of social interaction.

    So if one were stranded alone on a desert island, their ability to have meaning in their life would cease? I’m not sure I follow you here. I’m not sure how meaning isn’t objective, but not subjective, either. How does that work?

    And I certainly don’t mean to insult intelligences. I just would find it difficult to live with a worldview in which I espouse certain logical conclusions about reality which clearly contradict the way we have come to interact with one another. It’s almost as if subjective moralists themselves don’t really believe that morality is subjective. One may state the claim that morality is subjective because the ramifications of an objective morality are clear, but they cannot live that reality. If morality is subjective, if meaning and value are truly subjective, then there is no logical basis for assigning value to human life, no logical basis for criticizing the actions of others which we deem immoral, and no logical basis for preserving any rights of the individual within society. But humans do this anyway. There is clearly a conflict between the stated beliefs and the practicality of living those beliefs.

  110. The invincible scientistic ignorance fallacy is a deductive fallacy of circularity where an atheist simply refuses to believe philosophical arguments–even sound ones, ignoring any evidence (beyond science) given and ignoring or discounting any reasoning apart from the univocally-based ones of the natural sciences. It is not so much a fallacious tactic in argument as it is a refusal to argue in the proper sense of the word, the method instead being to make assertions with little or no consideration of objections and little or no justification provided for scientistic assertions.

  111. “…to conclude that over countless generations, natural selection has favored social behaviors that generally promote the well-being of social groups”.

    Only one problem with this. It’s very bad science. Natural selection doesn’t work in “social groups” it works on the individual level. “Group evolution” is a theory without facts and as such doesn’t even rise to a level of a theory. It’s just wild speculation along with the bad science.

    And defining morality as a “…social group’s shared understanding and their shared capacity for tolerance of differences…” doesn’t explain why I should care a wit about a “social group’s shared understanding”. It creates no ought that binds my behavior in any way and thus fails as an explanation for morality.

  112. Justin,

    It is still subjective, because within a society or between societies, there are opposing views as to what increases the “well being” of society.

    I’m presuming you put well-being in quotes because given meaning is subjective there is no objective definition of well being. Just thought I’d emphasize this in order to cut off the objection that the disagreement in how to increase well being is a result of limited knowledge or imperfect rationality.

  113. Even granting group evolution is true, that only seems to support the idea that morality is objective.

    122.“…to conclude that over countless generations, natural selection has favored social behaviors that generally promote the well-being of social groups”.

    To me, if true, this is more evidence that morality is objective. While we have the ability to choose to act morally or immorally, we cannot escape the inevitable consequences of violating the core set of moral rules referred to in the quote. Clearly a society that decided to hold murder as a moral act or moral obligation would not be around very long. Less clearly but true nonetheless, a society that systematically shuns honesty and embraces corruption ceases to truly thrive and becomes vulnerable to takeover. The Israelites experienced this, eventually Rome experienced this, and one can make the case that America today is in the midst of this process. History is replete with examples of this.

    The mere fact that we have the capability to violate the moral law does not make morality subjective.

    Up to this point, however, I think Otto and I are at least in partial agreement. We agree that there are a core set of behaviors to which societies ought to adhere.

    Otto then seems to want to logically ground this morality in the “well being” of society. I think that rational grounding is not rationally sufficient and still demonstrably subjective, even if in a large number of instances, the same moral conclusions are reached.

  114. And just to further clarify.

    “…a social group’s shared understanding and their shared capacity for tolerance of differences…”

    This is an excellent desciption of the basis for….law! It’s not any kind of explanation for morality.

  115. Otto, you say,

    So the game of pretend is played. Invent your own meaning, pretend you have the free will to pursue this meaning, and espouse the particular moral rules that are convenient for your lifestyle.

    This verges on an insult to our intelligence. One who espouses belief in and unverifiable, unobservable, unknowable, supernatural being, is accusing secularists of playing a “game of pretend” ?!?

    Two problems with that. First, you beg the question badly when you speak of an ” unverifiable, unobservable, unknowable, supernatural being.” Look, if you’re going to treat the matter that way, why don’t you just simplify it and say, “I’m right, you’re wrong, you’re idiots, and that settles it; from now on let’s just agree there’s no God. No need for further discussion.” If you want to put an end to argument, then by all means feel free to do so. Just don’t expect us to recognize it as a rational move; it is, as I have said, begging the question.

    Second, even if you were right about our beliefs, you’ve still offered an empty tu quoque. You’ve deflected the complaint raised against you rather than answering it. I’m curious how you would respond to it if you were actually responding to it.

  116. Otto,
    Assuming evolution produced the moral concepts in your mind, it cannot produce the prescriptive “ought” that comes with that thought.

    There are no actual prescriptives, which means there is no actual morality, so why pretend that there is? It’s a Jedi mind-trick.

    Now if you come over to Christianity, prescriptives are real.

  117. @ SteveK

    Assuming evolution produced the moral concepts in your mind, it cannot produce the prescriptive “ought” that comes with that thought.

    Isn’t “moral concept” and “ought” the same thing?

    If, like other social animals, we have developed the instinct that under most circumstances killing other members in our group is bad, then doesn’t that mean that the instinctive moral prescription is then “we shouldn’t kill each other under most circumstances”?

    The assertion has been made more than once that instinct is not morality. Could someone either help me understand this statement or point me to an online reference that can? I think that I disagree with it, but until I properly understand it… well, you know…

    Now if you come over to Christianity, prescriptives are real.

    Well, I grant that you subjectively think so… 😉

  118. @Sault

    The assertion has been made more than once that instinct is not morality. Could someone either help me understand this statement or point me to an online reference that can

    I don’t know if there is an online reference available, but C. S. Lewis discusses this in Mere Christianity

  119. @Sault,

    Isn’t “moral concept” and “ought” the same thing?

    Well, that’s the question at issue, isn’t it?

    we shouldn’t kill each other under most circumstances

    That says very little, unfortunately. For example, what are the circumstances that fall outside “most”?

    Some folks actually claim that rape is a natural manifestation of instinct. But very few would consider it moral on that basis…

  120. Sault,

    “Assuming evolution produced the moral concepts in your mind…” “Isn’t “moral concept” and “ought” the same thing?”

    Ok. So I’ve got these ‘moral concepts’ in my mind that evolution put there. Why should I care about them? Why should I be constrained by them in any way. If all they are is some hard wiring that evolution put there then I can ignore them any time I like.

    Doesn’t that explain why these ‘moral concepts’ aren’t an ought? There’s no ought about them. They are just like any other evolutionary impulse, let’s say the impuse to procreate. That can be ignored can’t it? No one would say you’ve done anything bad if you did. Same with those evolutionary created ‘moral concepts’. There if you like them, gone if you don’t.

  121. Tom,

    I believe in /real/ meanings of life, just like I believe in real sadness, anger, and happiness. Favorite colors are real, favorite songs are real – yet they are subjective. I could no more say your friend (my condolences btw) live a meaningless life, than I could say he lived a joyless life. Subjective isn’t a synonym for fake, pretend or unreal.

    An objective meaning to life is something else entirely, and I’m not sure what at all it could be. In all this time, nobody has really stepped up to describe and defend their vision of objective meaning. Its mostly just nay-saying the contrary positions.

    So far, about all I can tell, is objective purpose/meaning is something like an objective function, like how it could be said the heart’s function is to pump blood. But as I pointed out before, that’s only the most special and notable function of the heart because of what we *actually* value (our live) – not because there is some mind-independant quality or value in the existence of a heart. And so it is with life – its only valuble to ours and other minds.

  122. Saul, I believe that C.S. Lewis’ explanation about the relationship between instinct and morality was that instincts were like keys on a piano. No one key is inherently right or wrong, but may be right or wrong within the context of a song or key. Lewis was correct to point out that this is not absolute morality, which leads to some absurdities. Absolute morality and objective morality are slightly different.

    The instinct to procreate, for example, is neither bad nor good, in and of itself. There are times when this instinct should be encouraged, in the context of marriage for instance, and times when the instinct should not be followed. The same could be said of the instinct to fight, feel certain emotions, etc.

  123. @d:

    In all this time, nobody has really stepped up to describe and defend their vision of objective meaning. Its mostly just nay-saying the contrary positions.

    As opposed to your cogently argued position? Oh wait, you have given no arguments, you have not even deign to respond to the challenges put to you. You just keep making the same baseless, groundless, unargued assumptions over and over again.

    note: btw, see my post #94. More details, go read a book. If you need references I can provide a couple.

  124. d,

    The objective meaning to life is only understandable in the context of and in relation to God. I’m sure this comes as no surprise. No object. No objective meanining.

    The Westminster Catechism says this:

    “Q. 1. What is the chief and highest end of man?

    A. Man’s chief and highest end is to glorify God, and fully to enjoy him forever.”

    This is, as close as we can understand, the objective meaning to life. Nonesense, I’m sure to someone who doesn’t believe in God but completely in keeping with Christian theology. It’s either this or nothing.

  125. Here in Ontario (Canada), we have a medical ethics controversy over pro-choice abortion rights and the practice of gender-based abortions ( terminating a pregnancy if a fetus is female) by our South Asian community. It appears to have become policy now that the sex of a fetus (as determined by an ultrasound) should not be revealed to the family.

    I’ve provided a link to the Toronto Star web site with the articles list for your perusal. This is such a fine example of a secular society’s moral compass, isn’t it?

    http://www.thestar.com/searchresults?AssetType=article&stype=genSearch&q=female%20feticide&r=all:1

    There is a more comprehensive article in today’s Toronto Star (April 21, 2012 – see http://www.thestar.com and search for ‘female feticide’ when it becomes available).

  126. d:

    In all this time, nobody has really stepped up to describe and defend their vision of objective meaning. Its mostly just nay-saying the contrary positions.

    You are a bald-faced liar.

    You are also someone who is deathly afraid of arguments and explanations that WERE presented (see list in last paragraph @71 + Rodrigues @94 plus others) because (per Rodrigues @134) all you come back with is inchoate trash not worthy of a critical thinker.

    You intentionally and with great strength of purpose (heh!) have just made an absolutist baseless criticism that you demand we take as an objective (heh!) criticism.

    You are–objectively speaking–a sad, sorry, and self-serving little whiner.

  127. Sault,

    Isn’t “moral concept” and “ought” the same thing?

    In simple terms, yes, they are.

    The assertion has been made more than once that instinct is not morality. Could someone either help me understand this statement or point me to an online reference that can? I think that I disagree with it, but until I properly understand it… well, you know…

    See BillT’s comment #131. What is being said here is not an assertion, it’s a logical fact. It’s the same is-ought problem that we’ve presented over and over again.

    The “is” of your natural state – in this case your natural instinct – does not come with any “ought” that can inform you and guide you. Anything you do is acceptable.

    If you are born a certain way, there is nothing to say that you ought to resist your natural tendencies, or go along with them.

    Naturalism as a belief fails miserably. It cannot produce the necessary ought, therefore naturalism, in principle, is devoid of morality. Period. Full stop. No ought, no morality.

  128. Thanks for the many replies. Let’s see how much I can cover. First, BillT’s point: “Natural selection doesn’t work in “social groups” it works on the individual level.” Good start — but wrong “correction” (and it’s worth being clear about this).

    Actually, NS works on the population level, whether or not there is a “social” dimension involved. The roles of individuals relative to NS can only assessed in the aggregate.

    Obviously when a population does include social interaction among its members, the situation becomes more complex, and it’s much harder to establish the relationships between observation and prediction that are needed to form hypotheses, let alone document the necessary observations. But just being harder doesn’t mean it’s impossible.

    If you read Robert Wright’s book “Nonzero”, you’ll see how our recorded history has been used to make significant progress in the study of cultural evolution. Ethological studies of other social species have established important correlates across species that help to understand social structures and behaviors in general.

    Based on observation as well as simple logic, it’s trivially true that social behaviors interact with NS, and have the potential to either amplify or counteract the population effects that NS would normally have due to physical factors alone. Behaviors that splinter or reduce the population make it more susceptible to extinction in the presence of predators, or less susceptible in the case of limited food sources; and conversely for behaviors that lead to larger groups of compatible individuals.

    Humans alone, of course, have attained a behavioral repertoire that includes the ability to deliberately alter parameters in the NS equation as it applies to them: developing tools to extend their physical abilities and clothing to extend their range of habitable environments; adding and maintaining a wide array of food sources; and most important, developing a method for thinking and communicating via symbols.

    That’s all very special indeed, but it’s far from obvious that supernatural intervention was required to make it happen. However, the addition of symbolic thought and language, with all the tools that they supply (negation, conditionals, etc), make it possible to conceive and discuss “things” that don’t exist, “actions” that aren’t performed, and “events” that didn’t happen. It’s much more cogent and plausible to explain a deity as the creation of mankind, rather than the other way around.

    Enough for now. I’ll need to discuss the popular “is-ought” issue at a later time.

  129. It’s much more cogent and plausible to explain a deity as the creation of mankind, rather than the other way around.

    Beyond the vigorous hand-waving, might you have any evidence to back up such a strong claim? Or was that just wishful thinking?

  130. Otto,

    That’s all very special indeed, but it’s far from obvious that supernatural intervention was required to make it happen.

    When you gloss over and omit the relevant details like that, I agree, it is far from obvious.

  131. Doug:

    You’re asking an atheist for more than hand-waving and wishful thinking? Puhleez. Consider this nonsense from him… as well as an error he likely would not have wanted to make:

    Based on observation as well as simple logic, it’s trivially true that social behaviors interact with NS, and have the potential to either amplify or counteract the population effects that NS would normally have due to physical factors alone.

    Note again the hand-waving which he tries to hide behind “trivially true”–which is itself an interpretation of what is meant (heh) by certain observations. If one is a committed atheist, one will interpret all observations under that disordered light… err, I mean darkness.

    The best, though, is his implied attribution of non-physicality to “social interactions” whereas NS usually operates “due to physical factors.” Now, I’m going to love to see him explain how his alleged scientific approach deals with non-physical NS operations.

  132. @Holo,
    In conversations with atheists, I occasionally detect the following (unspoken) “argument”:
    1. it is not rational to believe in God.
    2. I don’t believe in God.
    3. therefore, I am rational.
    (false premise and false logic notwithstanding)
    Whose “corollary” is:
    4. Whatever makes sense to me is rational.
    And which usually plays out as:
    5. Since it doesn’t make sense to you, you are irrational.
    Save us from such Champions of Reason!

    (NB: the all-too-common “Christian” analogy:
    1. it is immoral to disbelieve in God.
    2. I believe in God.
    3. therefore, I am moral.
    is equally reprehensible)

  133. Responding to Doug, who focused on the issue of human-creates-deity vs. deity-creates-human:

    Beyond the vigorous hand-waving, might you have any evidence to back up such a strong claim?

    How would you characterize Ra, Zeus, Ymir, Ometeotl, and numerous other deities posited throughout history as creators of mankind? Do you consider these to be inventions of human imagination? If so, then you have ample evidence, which you do not dispute, for the fact that humans invent deities.

    (Would you prefer to assert that all those deities really do exist? There’s a good money to be made in the fantasy fiction market… Or maybe it suffices to refute my position if you just say “we can’t prove that they don’t exist” — that one works every time.)

    So, in what sense is Yahweh different from these others? The only “evidence” you have is stories, written down thousands of years ago, based on oral traditions that go back even further, by people who “knew” that they occupied a flat Earth at the center of the universe; apart from that, you have some personal, subjective experience that induced you to believe those stories. And let’s not forget that even among the readers of this thread who share your position, there is a myriad of discordant views (or simple confusion) about literal vs. figurative interpretations of biblical “history”.

    There’s clear evidence that some Old Testament stories (Noah’s flood being the most obvious among several) are derived from much older mythology (look up the Epic of Gilgamesh). This makes it hard to avoid the conclusion that the Abrahamic faiths are just another step in a long and varied history of fabrications. But, oddly enough, so many people really want to avoid that conclusion, and by sheer faith, they succeed.

    Call this hand waving if you want, but these hands are holding facts. Why are you only seeing the hands, and not the facts?

  134. @Holopupenko:

    I’m going to love to see him explain how his alleged scientific approach deals with non-physical NS operations.

    Why would I try to explain something you’ve made up that makes no sense at all? If “non-physical NS operations” actually refers to anything coherent, I’d be curious whether you’re able to explain what it is. (Do the Christians here ever point out how embarrassing your posts are to their position? It seems like your name should be “HoloPOEpenko”.)

    To SteveK, who mentions that I “gloss over and omit the relevant details” — well, at least I provide a few useful references that actually go into detail. It would be burdensome to all concerned if I pasted it all into the thread, and if folks here just say “where’s your evidence?” without following the references, I’d have to ask: where are the ‘thinking Christians’?

    When you actually get into the relevant details — for instance, the overwhelming physical evidence for common ancestry among humans and other primates (*) — the potential role of “supernatural intervention” becomes less and less compelling, until it’s just a matter of “rubber-stamping” something that was going to happen anyway (i.e. random mutation and natural selection just happen, and whatever they end up producing, God approves, because that’s what He was really planning all along… yeah, sure! And you obviously don’t even need any evidence for that, so it would be silly of me to ask you for it.)

    (* For a start, look up “endogenous retroviruses”; here’s a useful video to give a quick and effective synopsis: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=T7HBMWfRqSA — but there’s lots more info out there.)

  135. Otto,

    The Judeo-Christian scriptures are markedly different from all others. I’ll give you one example that applies to both Old and New Testaments, and then 2 more from the OT and two from the NT.

    Fundamentally Judaism and Christianity are rooted in history. The Bible is probably at least 40% a book of history, of what happened. Judaism and Christianity can therefore be tested against the larger record of historical knowledge. For all the skeptical claims to the contrary, those who come to the texts with an open mind generally tend to think it’s reliable in that way. All other “deities” are invented out of philosophy, fable, or (in the case of Mormonism and perhaps some others) deception.

    The Old Testament is remarkably different from other ancient texts, though, in a couple of ahistorical ways. One is its creation account. All other ancient near east (ANE) cosmogonies depict God or the gods fighting to bring the material world into order and control. There’s no trace of that in the Bible, so there’s nothing derivative in the Bible’s conception of God’s relationship to his creation.

    The Old Testament also depicts God as self-existent, in a manner that has held up through thousands of years of philosophical and theological reflection. That’s remarkably good work for a bunch of nomads.

    That’s the short version on those two; here’s the longer one.

    In the New Testament, the Bible is again more than story and not at all fable. Its message there stands up to historical investigation. The resurrection of Christ in particular stands up to the tests of history.

    And the NT is unique (and thus non-derivative) in its answers to questions of the human condition. What’s our relationship to the universe? What’s our fundamental problem? (That goes back to the OT). Why do we recognize our selves to be so great and yet so flawed? What’s the answer? Where are we headed?

    You do yourself a disservice to dismiss this great book as fable.

  136. Otto,

    You ask if the Christians here ever point out to Holo that his posts are embarrassing. The answer is, I’m pretty honest with him. Sometimes I point out to Holopupenko that his posts are overly provoking, sometimes I point out to him that he assumes too much background knowledge in his readers, and sometimes I point out to him that he is more confident that others agree with his Aristotelian approach than is warranted. I think in this case he might be guilty of the second of these. He didn’t explain what he meant by non-physical NS. I think I might know what he had in mind, and I certainly could run a long riff of my own on it, but I’ll let him explain.

    It would be burdensome to all concerned if I pasted it all into the thread, and if folks here just say “where’s your evidence?” without following the references, I’d have to ask: where are the ‘thinking Christians’?

    Have you tried this? I mean other than your recent youtube link. I’m not in a good place to watch a video right now. I think you’ll find that readers here do follow links and read references.

  137. in what sense is Yahweh different from these others?

    This is a valid question. Forgive me for hoping that you might be actually open to an answer rather than asking it rhetorically?
    Before we proceed, let me be sure I understand. It would seem that your evidence/argument goes something like this:
    – man exercises his imagination concerning the supernatural.
    therefore
    – all supernatural is the exercise of man’s imagination
    Did I get that right?

  138. If I were Otto, I would answer, “the overwhelming majority of gods are the product of man’s imagination, so the presumption in the case of any “God” is that it too is the product of imagination.”

    That takes us to the valid question, as you described it, Doug, of what makes Yahweh different?

    But it also takes us to another question. Does the evidence of multiple imaginary gods lead to the conclusion that we shouldn’t believe there is any God or gods? It could, I suppose; we could say, as many do, that the atheist and the Christian are both atheistic about thousands of gods, and so what’s one god more?

    But that’s a step too far, because the difference between one God and zero gods is the difference between two vastly different realities.

    I just thought I’d throw that in, because it’s related to the question, at least indirectly.

  139. Thanks, Doug & Tom — I appreciate your responses.

    all supernatural is the exercise of man’s imagination
    Did I get that right?

    Not quite. Rather: nothing that is declared to have supernatural causation can be confirmed with regard to specific details. Whether it’s just imagination (which should be our default position), or a truly useful revelation from some supernatural source, there is a single basic barrier to the broader acceptance of any given supernatural claim: the inability to confirm the claim using natural, objective evidence. Whether a listener/reader accepts such a claim is purely a matter of personal choice about taking the claimer’s word for it.

    I certainly can conceive a situation where something with supernatural causation could be verifiably observed: suppose that, within a given (short) period of time, a sizable number of people, completely unconnected to / independent of each other, had the same dream, remembered it on waking, wrote down the memory, and it turns out that they all dreamed the same thing. That would be compelling. Even though the “evidence” is, for each individual, a subjective experience with no discernible (let alone common) physical cause, the combined weight of these separate-yet-shared experiences makes doubt unreasonable. If there really was a God who did things that directly affect people, it seems to me this would be the way to do it.

    It may be that such things have happened. There may be ways of knowing that really do work without involving natural, objective evidence. But…

    I don’t see anything of that sort happening in any organized religion. What I do see is explicit and deliberate guidance in (some would say “enforcement of”) this or that type of shared experience — or more often, a shared dialog phrased in ways that allow many people to consider that they are sharing a common subjective experience, despite having no clear means to assess how similar or different their various experiences are.

    The explicit and deliberate nature of the sharing makes this nothing more than an extension of “taking the claimer’s word for it” (and a very powerful one, owing to our innate need for social binding and acceptance).

    And that is what contaminates your reliance on the NT as evidence: the disciples and authors had an explicit, deliberate, external shared experience, and (crucially) a shared set of goals, because they accepted what Jesus said. But if Jesus were in fact wrong in certain details (wasn’t divine, didn’t rise from the dead, would never have a second coming, etc), the devotion of the disciples and NT authors would, through the power of their shared acceptance and goals, cover this up.

    I don’t intend to take (or argue for) the position that the NT contains delusions or even deception (as others have done, with varying but sometimes appreciable honesty). I simply want to point out that skepticism is warranted, and cannot be dismissed outright. And the key thing I’m looking for as a skeptic is: claim whatever you think is right, but if you want others to agree with you, you need to make a good objective case for it, so it can stand on its own merits without appeals to faith (i.e. taking your word for it).

    The core problem as I see it is the specificity of the claims. Given the (lack of) objective evidence, countless specifics of interpretation and explanation can be offered, and there’s no basis, other than personal/subjective preference for one source over another, to assess the relative merits of competing claims. Do you want to claim that Hell is real? There’s just as good a case for claiming that it isn’t, and (if I’m not mistaken) these conflicting views exist (or have existed) among people who still share other common tenets of Christianity.

    Regarding Tom’s point about the significant difference between “one and zero”, the allusion to the arithmetic argument is inapt. Tom’s claims (both in his latest reply here and at the top of his “Arithmetic” post) amount to just another case of special pleading for the Christian God, and he even falls back on the old ploy of misrepresenting the atheist position as a positive claim that there is no God. Well, we have ample cause to consider that the God described specifically in the Bible is unlikely in the extreme, but really, Tom, “shifting the burden of proof” like that is frankly a bit tiresome.

    The disregard for well-founded skepticism — that is, the willingness to accept the theistic (and specifically Christian) position with *ahem* less than rigorous scrutiny — is demonstrated by the last reply in the “Arithmetic” thread, posted by Mark B. Hanson and praised by Tom:

    There is an infinity of possible x’s that could answer the equation x = 1 + 1. I believe they are all wrong. You insist that your answer is right. I believe that an infinity of answers are wrong; you believe that an infinity minus 1 are wrong. … The argument totally falls apart if one item in the solution set happens to be correct. …

    The reason this analogy fails is that the “one true answer” to “x = 1 + 1” can be verified by observation(*), whereas the One True God cannot.

    (* That is, verification is possible once we’ve settled the issue of establishing a conventional set of terms and symbols with consistent meanings. Getting this to work with any sort of deity in the equation requires a lot of ambiguity and equivocation in the terms.)

  140. @Otto,
    Let’s discuss

    the inability to confirm [claims] using natural, objective evidence.

    Children typically don’t need “natural, objective evidence” for other minds. They look into their mother’s eyes, and they know that they share something in common. When they grow up and attend Philosophy class, they discover just how unsupported by “natural, objective evidence” that knowledge really was. I suspect, however, that we can agree that the lack of “natural, objective evidence” does nothing at all to undermine that knowledge. Right?

    The reason this analogy fails is that the “one true answer” to “x = 1 + 1″ can be verified by observation(*), whereas the One True God cannot.

    On the contrary. The analogy’s success or failure has nothing at all to do with observation. Reality isn’t entirely subjective, after all 😉

  141. If any is interested (Otto – this means you),
    here is a good set of articles that discuss the relationship of archaeology and the OT (specifically Genesis). The articles are well-researched and try to be balanced (ie, they don’t just dismiss skeptical claims out of hand, but present the scholarly discussions).

    It always amuses me that atheists constantly bring up issues like the Gilgamesh Epic or other ANE mythologies as though they expect Christian scholars to be surprised and taken aback by this 🙂

    http://www.biblearchaeology.org/search.aspx?q=gilgamesh

  142. @Otto:

    The reason this analogy fails is that the “one true answer” to “x = 1 + 1″ can be verified by observation(*), whereas the One True God cannot.

    Can you please tell us how you would falsify this by experience?

    Can you please tell us how can you falsify say, Euclid’s theorem (the set of prime numbers is not finite) or Lindemann’s theorem (the number pi is transcendental and in particular, irrational)?

    Falsifying some statement P, presupposes that P is can be false. So is there any possibility that say, Euclid or Lindemann’s theorems are indeed false?

  143. Otto,

    I certainly can conceive a situation where something with supernatural causation could be verifiably observed: suppose that, within a given (short) period of time, a sizable number of people, completely unconnected to / independent of each other, had the same dream, remembered it on waking, wrote down the memory, and it turns out that they all dreamed the same thing. That would be compelling.

    Would you still find it compelling even if that happened 2,000 years ago and all we have are the written records of the dreams?

  144. Otto, one more question…

    But if Jesus were in fact wrong in certain details (wasn’t divine, didn’t rise from the dead, would never have a second coming, etc), the devotion of the disciples and NT authors would, through the power of their shared acceptance and goals, cover this up.

    If the latter happened, and their shared acceptance and goals caused them to cover this up, I would like to see evidence for that. You’re now making an assumption about what occurred with less evidence than what we have about what they say did occur. Considering that persisting with their movement resulted in the deaths of many of them, I’d have to see the evidence of such a cover up to believe your version of history over theirs.

  145. I think that the problem for me is a matter of certainty and what my expectations for the truth are given the specific claim made.

    The gold standard, for me, is methodological naturalism. We can provide evidence that radioactive decay acts like this, or that gasses conform to Boyle’s law, or that gravity has this effect, etc. We can measure and express with numbers to a high degree of accuracy just about anything around us. How does it work in the present? Doable.

    Once you start asking historical questions, though, it becomes less certain. We have to rely more upon induction and correlation and whatever the proper scientific terms are for speculation. However, it is acceptable to speculate in the natural, because such behaviors are consistent with what we see in the now. (I suppose this includes the assumption of regularity?)

    Assertion – Julius Caesar was a ruler of Rome. We have consistent evidence that there were rulers of Rome, so the claim that Julius Caesar was one is not without precedent. In that sense, even though we have less certainty about the events we have a lesser requirement of certainty.

    Assertion – Julius Caesar became a god after his death. We don’t have any current scientific evidence of anyone becoming a god after their death (or even of the supernatural). So, a supernatural claim has a higher standard of proof because of the lack of current evidence for it. The degree of uncertainty today is amplified by the degree of uncertainty of historical accounts.

    It seems that one of the functions of apologetics is to lower this factor of uncertainty. If God’s existence can be made a reasonable question, then the standard of certainty can be lowered.

    I guess the crux of what I bring to the table philosophically (metaphysically?) is that I expect God’s existence to be at least as evident as that of an architect who lives in another continent, perhaps, or of a graffiti artist that you never can quite catch red-handed in the act.

    ^^ That is an assumption based partly upon my “gold standard” of truth being methodological naturalism, and partly because of the natural claims made by those who believe in Him.

    Without going on a tangent regarding beliefs/claims, I would expect more than historical evidence to point to the existence of a God that so many people claim to have personal relationships about, or claim to know this attribute or that attribute about, etc.

    What has become apparent to me, over the course of the time that I’ve spent on this blog, is that I don’t know how to vocalize why I expect that standard of certainty regarding the existence of God. Is it a reasonable assumption? Is it not? Why?

    As Holo has said, the reasonable thing to do is continue to attempt to learn. If I can’t provide an answer to those types of questions, then I need to keep asking until I can. And if I can’t support my belief, then I need to seriously question whether I can continue to believe it, in the same way that I challenged my belief in Mormonism… and why I eventually left it.

  146. @Sault

    I wonder if you are falling into the trap of selective hyperskepticism?

    We seem to have come full circle with you again….you have asked the same questions before, and we have given you the same answers – why do you seem to expect us to answer differently?

    I will say what I said before: why do you demand that God provide you more evidence, more clues, more pointers than He already has? What is available has been sufficient for generations of people to follow, to trust and take that step of faith, that is, to look closer, open our hearts and minds to the Christian hope and find out for ourselves. As we have said on the other thread, Christian faith is about more than intellectual assent to a set of beliefs, as much as those beliefs rest on reasonable evidence. It is also about a relationship with a Person (who happens to be God Most High, the sovereign King and Creator, Who has revealed Himself to us by real communication, by His actions in human history, by stepping into human history as one of us (Jesus Christ, Son of God, Our Saviour), Who continues to work and act in human history, now through the indwelling of His Spirit in the lives of His people). Sooner or later, you will find out the truth – for your sake, I hope sooner, and in this life, not the next (too late then).

  147. @Sault,
    Sure, science (particularly empirical rather than forensic science) is all about claims and assertions, and evidence for them and such. But are those the things that make us human? Sure, sure, they “work”. But has technology made us happy? Sure, there is comfort in knowing reality. But surely it takes a huge dollop of “avoiding the obvious” to limit reality to those kind of things? I’m not asking you to abandon the quest, or give up attempts to learn — just suggesting that you relax the unrealistic(!) expectations (which you would do if you were to be skeptical of all that good skepticism itself 😉 )

  148. @Sault

    I suggest you read The Hiding Place, available here.

    It is a true story, with a reference to a modern day miracle paralleling 1 Kings 17:13-16.

  149. @Sault
    Did it occur to you that the ‘evidence or confirmation’ that you are looking for is waiting for you at the end of the trail, rather than at the beginning? That the light you have now shows you a path through the darkness around you, and by following it, you will step out into the sunlight? As long as you stand still, you will never know what lies ahead, what you will see and learn as the light grows brighter.

    That is certainly the common experience of countless Christians.

  150. @Victoria

    Thank you for a few very informative posts, I’ve really appreciated them – each has sent me off on a flurry of googling and research. I’m going to take a little time to mull it over and let this information sink in – even if I don’t reply soon I want you to know that I’m thinking about it.

    I may have come back around to the same questions that I had before… but for what it’s worth, this time around I’m beginning to see them in a new light and try to critically examine them in a way that I haven’t before.

    It was weird. Yesterday an atheist friend of mine started bagging on Christianity as being anti-science and I had to stop and correct him, citing the fact that many great scientists were Christian, and whether it was because of or in spite of being Christian, they were still able to be great scientists… and no, “well, everyone was Christian back then” is not an acceptable response, and furthermore…. Yeah, very odd to find myself saying that. You lot are having a bad effect on me!

  151. @Victoria,

    Did it occur to you that the ‘evidence or confirmation’ that you are looking for is waiting for you at the end of the trail, rather than at the beginning? That the light you have now shows you a path through the darkness around you, and by following it, you will step out into the sunlight? As long as you stand still, you will never know what lies ahead, what you will see and learn as the light grows brighter.

    Very well put. Choosing not to invest (in) the light we’ve received is perilously akin to the behavior in the parable – Matthew 25:25 – where, incidentally, the word “talent” meant “something of great value” rather than what the word has come to mean recently.

  152. @Sault:

    The gold standard, for me, is methodological naturalism. We can provide evidence that radioactive decay acts like this, or that gasses conform to Boyle’s law, or that gravity has this effect, etc. We can measure and express with numbers to a high degree of accuracy just about anything around us. How does it work in the present? Doable.

    I think Victoria diagnosed the “problem” accurately: selective hyperskepticism. I do not want to contest, at least directly, what you are saying, but let me throw some pebbles into the cogs of your mental machinery.

    1. You say that your golden standard is methodological naturalism, but how have you come about this conclusion? It was certainly not by performing the sort of experiments you list in the quoted paragraph.

    2. Golden in what sense? In the sense of better? My background is in mathematics and my golden standard is the mathematical one. So for example, above I mentioned Euclid’s theorem that states that the set of prime numbers is infinite. Now if you want, I can write down a proof of this fact. This proof can be checked by you or anyone else as to its validity. With enough patience, I could even write a proof that is checkable by a computer. All this without performing a single experiment or making a singe measurement and, by what I said, with a much higher degree of certainty than anything that can be achieved in the empirical sciences.

    3. Let me steer 2. in slightly different direction. For example, let us take Boyle’s law of gases. Boyle’s law is itself a special case of the ideal gas law that has the form PV = nRT, with P pressure, V volume, T temperature, n the number of moles and R a constant. The first thing to notice is that it is a law about *ideal* gases, an abstraction. This is a very common of physical laws and many other examples could be adduced (e.g. Newton’s first law readily comes to mind). But let us leave this major detail aside. The fact is that you can only perform a finite number of experiments. If we leave aside the other major detail that measurements always have a margin of error, it still is the case that through a finite number of points there passes an infinite number of curves (the precise cardinality is that of the continuum). Falsification does not look so grand now, does it?

    4. Also note that “We can measure and express with numbers to a high degree of accuracy just about anything around us” is a disproportionate exaggeration. There are many things that are neither quantifiable, and even if they are, have strict bounds on the accuracy with which we can measure them. All this to say that what is measurable and quantifiable, and thus what is amenable to be treated by the modern empirical sciences, is but a tiny corner of our universe.

    5. It is highly significant that you always use the “we” pronoun, never “I”. Do you realize the vast amount of presuppositions that you have hidden behind the “we”? For one, and since you go on next to mention history, is that you accord a confidence in the scientific community and the consensus that it forms, but you throw a heavier burden over historical claims. But is not there a smidge of contradiction in these two stances?

    I could go on and keep throwing more pebbles, but I will content myself with two more points.

    6. Have you ever heard about the problem of induction (POI for short)? The thought experiments involving “grue” and “bleen”? Why do you think it is called a problem? What if I told you that the problem “evaporates” under an essentialist metaphysics such as AT? What if I told you that John Foster, a Cartesian dualist, wrote a book called the “The Divine Lawmaker” arguing that a solution to the POI entails that God exists?

    7. More generally, the POI inevitably leads to the very nature of causality and what we mean by “laws of Nature”. In other words, how can you justify the very orderliness of the Universe? Certainly not by appealing to the empirical sciences since they presuppose it, so how? What if I told you that an essentialist Philosopher like Nancy Cartwright argued, persuasively in my judgment (but I am biased), that every account of the laws of Nature, with the exception of the Aristotelian one, whether empiricist a la Hume, Platonic or instrumentalist, inevitably leads one to God? And in the case of the Aristotelian account, well, we can pull Aquinas’ Fifth Way to checkmate you.

    Or to quote from Shakespeare, “There are more things between Heaven and Earth than are dreamt of in your philosophy”, Sault.

  153. @Sault

    Thank you for a few very informative posts, I’ve really appreciated them – each has sent me off on a flurry of googling and research. I’m going to take a little time to mull it over and let this information sink in – even if I don’t reply soon I want you to know that I’m thinking about it.

    I may have come back around to the same questions that I had before… but for what it’s worth, this time around I’m beginning to see them in a new light and try to critically examine them in a way that I haven’t before.

    Now that was a real pleasure to read this morning 🙂 Go for it! We are cheering you on!

  154. To Victoria: I’m glad to have amused you, and you have repaid me in kind a thousand fold with your reference to the “biblearchaeology” web site, where I see one of the front-page features is about “A Universal Flood: 3000 B.C.” – wow! And written by David Livingston PhD, no less! I honestly hope you don’t take his stuff seriously.

    Let me know if you really need someone to enumerate the evidence that clearly proves the flood story and the Tower of Babel story to be nothing more than ancient myths, on a par with those other mythologies (involving Thor, Zeus, et al.) that Mr. Gibson claims are so qualitatively different from the Bible. If you read those stories for their “moral” content alone, that’s fine (though I do question their morality, let alone their coherence).

    To Justin: As I said in the post you responded to, the situation involving the disciples and NT authors was a case of overtly shared goals stemming from word-of-mouth explanations and second-hand accounts to back up various claims — a surprisingly small amount of actual eye-witness accounting there, which is not surprising, since it seems that nothing was written down until at least 40 years after Jesus’ death (and most of the NT was written much later). So the disciples themselves reportedly witnessed miracles by Jesus, but nobody had any written record of this until a generation or so later? Oh, and those first written records were intended to compete for attention with other written records of prophecies about what should be happening when a messiah shows up? (Wasn’t it the case that the formation of a “canonical” OT for the Jews was pretty recent — and may still have been in progress — relative to the time that Jesus was alive?)

    Isn’t it the case that the stories of Jesus’ birth do not stem from eye-witness accounts, and in fact are not consistent from one chapter to another? Stories of the crucifixion and burial also show discrepancies among the chapters. Sorry, but no, that doesn’t qualify as “compelling” — except to those who choose to accept it, which they do solely for personal reasons.

    For your second question, about evidence to support a conclusion that parts of the NT might not be as historically accurate as you think they are, let me suggest that you check out videos on the YouTube channel of a person who calls himself “ProfMTH”. He had spent some time studying at a Catholic seminary, and also spent some time as an evangelical. His videos are quite detailed and thoroughly documented. He did an 8-part series called “Did the disciples die for a lie?”, and I’d be interested in your response to any of that.

    (Heads-up to the unwary: ProfMTH’s channel includes numerous videos about public and religious policies regarding homosexuality, and the man himself is openly gay. But all his videos, especially those on the bible and religious topics, are well reasoned, firmly evidenced, and clearly expressed in language that would be accepted as decent in any setting. He is worth listening to.)

  155. Otto,

    There are very good (solely philosophical) reasons to accept classical theism. Whether you think that God has revealed himself is an entirely different question. I notice that you have tried to draw a comparison between believing in various pagan gods and God. You didn’t respond to Tom’s point about the difference between these two. Do you know what the difference is? What I find interesting is that the implications of the pagan worldview probably have more in common with an atheistic worldview than a theistic one. Especially the lack of meaning and purpose and hence morality, the problem of the orderliness and intelligibility of the universe, the existence of contingent beings.

  156. Thanks Melissa. Actually, I did respond to Tom’s point about the differences — but I was admittedly dismissive. I called it “special pleading”, and I still hold that this is a valid assessment.

    I agree that the particular claims made by Christianity are different (duh!), and that, on balance, they represent an improvement over older alternatives. But still more improvement is both necessary and desirable.

    As Tom Gilson himself recently explained to me regarding the term “progressive revelation”, mankind’s notions of what constitutes “Truth” — even as expressed in holy scriptures — do change (dare I say, evolve) over time.

    Wouldn’t it therefore be a mistake to decide that the canonized text of the Bible, as we know it today, must be the last word? That’s the same mistake made by Islamists with regard to the Qur’an. The Bible as we know it cannot be infallible, and humanity should have guidance that adapts along with the changing environment. (When, and how, should we expect to see a divine revelation that same-sex unions really aren’t such a problem after all? Maybe it has already arrived, among those denominations that recognize gay marriage.)

    Some things in the traditional teachings will remain constant, certainly, because they’ve proven their worth throughout the ages and will continue to do so. (For sure, “traditional marriage” will continue to prosper, even after gay marriage is accepted.) But other things must be put aside, in recognition of all the new things we’ve learned, just in the process of understanding the physical realm in greater detail and with better accuracy: understanding the physical bases of behavior (sexuality, pathos, altruism, etc), the real ramifications of our decisions about bringing children into the world (or not), and any other aspect of our lives where mankind’s only approach in past ages had been supernatural beliefs.

    How to tell what needs to be changed vs. what should be kept? Simple. In matters that involve making recommendations (or enforcing rules) for the benefit of social groups and populations, stick to questions that can be answered with objective evidence, and follow the evidence. (Don’t expect this to be perfect, but do expect it to improve with honest effort.)

    For other matters (considerations of afterlife, “spiritual health”, and similar intangibles), free discussion, and freedom of personal choice, is best. (E.g. when someone weighs the notion of a divine savior — born of a virgin, crucified, and raised physically from the dead to absolve original and other sins — and concludes that these details are actually irrelevant in deciding how one should live his/her life, that simply isn’t anything society as a whole should worry about.)

    If you really think “the implications of the pagan worldview … have a lot more in common with the atheistic worldview”, then I would conclude that you have a poor understanding of paganism or (more likely) of atheism — or maybe of both.

    And then you join the crowd of unthinking religious apologists in attributing to atheism a “lack of meaning and purpose and hence morality” — this is frankly pathetic and insulting. Let me be clear: it is a false statement, with less basis in fact than a statement like “ALL Catholic priests are pedophiles who rape children.”

    I’ll speak for myself about my own position, but I expect that many (probably most) other atheists would have little to disagree with here:

    The universe would be meaningless if life did not exist in it. It doesn’t matter at all that you want to attribute the meaning to some “external” (supernatural) cause — that just pushes off the question to an imponderable, unobservable, unconfirmable “mystery.” What’s the point of that? I really don’t see how that helps our understanding.

    Life creates its own purpose, whether or not there is some other purpose for it beyond what life can create. Based on the evidence available so far, the meaning of human life is the meaning that humans create for it. That extent of meaning really is sufficient. If there’s more to it than that, we have not yet acquired the capacity to observe it reliably, or even to grasp any concept of it coherently.

    Christians don’t have any more plausible claim on this sort of knowledge than Buddhists — indeed, the Buddhists’ claims may well have a better foundation, and better prospects for being of real value to humans (but I expect that even Buddhism has room for improvement).

    Until there’s better information on that, I think the best approach is to focus on what will improve our prospects, our quality and value, with respect to the purpose and meaning and morality that we are able to work out on the basis of observation, logic and empathy: sustain and promote life, value and foster diversity, minimize harm and suffering, maximize mutual benefit, and seek to do all that with the broadest perspective that is possible and appropriate. Again, we’re not expecting perfection, just overall improvement, and an ability to spot and correct the wrong turns and the setbacks.

    Holding slavishly to old, divisive superstitions is a bad choice.

  157. Doug said:

    Children typically don’t need “natural, objective evidence” for other minds. They look into their mother’s eyes, and they know that they share something in common. … the lack of “natural, objective evidence” does nothing at all to undermine that knowledge.

    What children know is something that changes and expands very rapidly from birth (or possibly from some point in the last trimester before birth) through and beyond the age when they take philosophy classes. It starts with knowing where their nourishment comes from, then their comfort, protection and affection(*), then their language, and their ability to understand the things around them and to coordinate themselves relative to those things.(**)

    This all comes mainly from adult care-givers, and there is clearly no shortage of objective evidence available to the child for any of it. This is the natural inheritance that all children receive (except when they are abused or neglected, which in my book is the most heinous sin an adult can commit).

    * Please note that I do believe in the reality of affection — devotional love — and I know from personal experience that it creates a palpable sensation. It is something that constitutes meaning in my life. Whether my own experience of it is similar to anyone else’s, I can’t say.

    (For me, it’s manifested as a sort of “fluttering” inside the chest; I have no clue about the physical mechanisms involved, let alone any sensible “supernatural” explanation — I just know it really happens, and it has an undeniable role in sustaining me. Arguing about its source or causation, especially in the absence of verifiable information, is beside the point.)

    If there is some course in philosophy that tries to deny the existence and reality of love, I’d say it’s a lousy course and a waste of tuition money; likewise, a philosophy that asserts affection to be beyond the scope of objective observation is just stupid. Of course we know affection and devotional love exist — the evidence for this is plainly obvious.

    If you, like Melissa, have imaginary notions of atheists with no purpose, meaning or morality, then it’s only those imaginary atheists who don’t see this evidence (and maybe some all-too-real psychopaths, who are at least as likely to be theists as atheists).

    ** It’s only as language comes into play, along with the concomitant awareness of differences among others, that the child starts to acquire a sense that he/she possesses a unique internal mental state that is distinct from that of other people. Until that realization is made (and during the time it takes for that realization to fully take hold), the child treats all knowledge as “objective” — i.e. takes for granted that it’s all equally accessible to others.

    (But as every parent knows, once children are able to form sentences and make statements about what they know, they often assume that everything they’ve just thought of is something that no one else knows, so everyone needs to be told about it. Actually, it’s like an extension or adaptation of their earlier state of mind: “this is news to me, so it’ll be news to everyone else.” Motivation to entertain and engage the attention of adults is also a factor, of course.)

    The developmental observations and behavioral experiments on this topic are fascinating — especially when it comes to the methods for discerning what sorts of thought processes are going on in an infant’s or toddler’s mind, before language has been learned. I’m sorry I don’t have specific references that I can supply at the moment, but any college-level course in developmental psychology or language acquisition is likely to cover it, so it’s a matter of finding the texts used in such courses.

  158. Otto,

    I really have to wonder whether your excessively wordy posts are an attempt to distract everyone from the fact that you are changing the subject.

    I did respond to Tom’s point about the differences — but I was admittedly dismissive.

    Actually you didn’t respond to the particular point that Tom was making and nothing in your latest reply does either. If you really don’t know the difference between the gods of paganism and God in a monotheistic sense there is no shame in that. Attempting to bluff your way through as if you have responded to Tom’s objection is another matter entirely.

    And then you join the crowd of unthinking religious apologists in attributing to atheism a “lack of meaning and purpose and hence morality” — this is frankly pathetic and insulting.

    Many serious atheist thinkers would agree with me that if atheism is true then nihilism (both existential and moral) is rationally unavoidable. I’m not sure why you consider this pathetic and insulting.

    Based on the evidence available so far, the meaning of human life is the meaning that humans create for it. That extent of meaning really is sufficient.

    I disagree. Human being is a real thing not something we create. If what you mean by meaning is that we can feel good about and value certain states then I have no problem with that, but that is something else entirely and it is not sufficient to declare that what I value is wrong, or that any actions are an improvement or better in any objective sense of the word.

  159. This thread seems pretty derailed, but there’s some interesting food for thought over at Philosophical Disquisitions. John D has started a series of posts on theism, non-theism and meaning. Specifically he talks about a paper that rejects Craig’s account of meaning (a pretty standard theist account) and offers an account that doesnt depend on theism.

    Part 1:
    http://philosophicaldisquisitions.blogspot.com/2012/04/theism-and-meaning-of-life-part-one.html

    Part 2:
    http://philosophicaldisquisitions.blogspot.com/2012/04/theism-and-meaning-of-life-part-two.html

    The paper in question:
    http://www.arsdisputandi.org/publish/articles/000241/article.pdf

  160. Melissa,

    Many serious atheist thinkers would agree with me that if atheism is true then nihilism (both existential and moral) is rationally unavoidable. I’m not sure why you consider this pathetic and insulting.

    While that may be true, there are also serious theist thinkers who do not believe morality and meaning must be conceptually grounded in theism (Wes Morriston the most notable that I know of today).

    There are also a heck of a lot of serious non-theist thinkers who DO think both meaning and morality can be conceptually grounded in things that do not depend on theism.

    So what’s good for the goose is good for the gander. If you’re going to criticize Otto here, maybe some of you here want to tone down your rhetoric that suggests all the arguments are in, the controversy is over, and its just settled philosophy that theism is the uncontested winner that defines and grounds meaning and morality, bar none. Just a thought.

  161. Here’s how the relevant discussion progressed:

    Melissa:

    There are very good (solely philosophical) reasons to accept classical theism. Whether you think that God has revealed himself is an entirely different question. I notice that you have tried to draw a comparison between believing in various pagan gods and God. You didn’t respond to Tom’s point about the difference between these two. Do you know what the difference is? What I find interesting is that the implications of the pagan worldview probably have more in common with an atheistic worldview than a theistic one. Especially the lack of meaning and purpose and hence morality, the problem of the orderliness and intelligibility of the universe, the existence of contingent beings.

    Otto Tellick:

    And then you join the crowd of unthinking religious apologists in attributing to atheism a “lack of meaning and purpose and hence morality” — this is frankly pathetic and insulting.

    Melissa:

    Many serious atheist thinkers would agree with me that if atheism is true then nihilism (both existential and moral) is rationally unavoidable. I’m not sure why you consider this pathetic and insulting.

    d:

    So what’s good for the goose is good for the gander. If you’re going to criticize Otto here, maybe some of you here want to tone down your rhetoric that suggests all the arguments are in, the controversy is over, and its just settled philosophy that theism is the uncontested winner that defines and grounds meaning and morality, bar none. Just a thought.

    I have a few comments to make on this. First, Otto, if you think that only “unthinking” apologists attribute to atheism “a lack of meaning and purpose and hence morality,” and then you complain that Melissa is being insulting, you forget to whom you are speaking. My post here has been on the question, what is it about atheism that allows for real meaning to exist? Your response to her is insulting, frankly. It’s also pathetic, in a way, for its rank uncharitableness. How long have you been interacting here? Can’t you see what she was doing? She raised six really quite deep and involved philosophical topics in one sentence fragment. Do you really think it’s right and proper to conclude that she intended her 25 words there to represent all of her thinking on the topic? She was making very quick reference to discussion that are in process. And yet you jump all over her for it.

    Get a life, okay? Sheesh.

    And d,

    If you’re going to criticize Melissa here, you might want to give consideration to the same rather obvious reality, and tone down your inflammatory rhetoric that suggests that she should be faulted for treating it as if all the arguments were in. That’s not what she was doing.

    Just a thought.

  162. Otto,

    A lot of people mistake my name for Gibson. You’re not the first, I’m used to it, it doesn’t upset me much after all these years, but I would ask that you watch for it so you can use my correct name.

  163. Otto,

    You wrote a while ago,

    To Justin: As I said in the post you responded to, the situation involving the disciples and NT authors was a case of overtly shared goals stemming from word-of-mouth explanations and second-hand accounts to back up various claims — a surprisingly small amount of actual eye-witness accounting there, which is not surprising, since it seems that nothing was written down until at least 40 years after Jesus’ death (and most of the NT was written much later)

    I’m going to take the risk of being patronizing here, because I think I have learned something on this blog and elsewhere that would stand you in good stead. When you are speaking confidently in a field that is not your specialty, be aware you may be making yourself look stupid.

    Here’s where I learned that: the science of evolution. I have a lot to say about evolution in its philosophical aspects, but I’ve learned that when it comes to fighting what I call the “journal wars,” where people fling journal references around, I don’t know what I’m talking about. So I don’t pretend to know what I’m talking about.

    It would be easy for me to think that I knew what I was talking about, if I only read sources sympathetic to my position, one-sided and poorly tested by reality. I’ve learned not to make that mistake, too. I’ve studied the opposite position from its best thinkers. I haven’t relied on the Internet for my understanding.

    I’ve also learned to ask lots of questions. Even in this very post, where I think I have a strong basis for my position, I’ve framed it as a question: what made this dust into a meaning-maker?”

    Frankly the statement you made to Justin, which I quoted here, makes the mistake of confidently asserting what is questionable at best. It’s based on scholarship that was questionable when it was put forth decades ago, and which is not at all highly regarded today. You’re in no position to stand as an authority on it, because quite transparently you don’t know what you’re talking about; you’re not up to speed on it.

    To confidently assert such things as if you were speaking from personal expertise and authority when obviously you are not, makes one look like a, well, courtesy keeps me from ending the sentence as I would wish.

    (I’ve already taken the risk of being patronizing, and I’m willing to walk to the edge of being outright rude, but I’m not going to go all the way there, even though… even though… well, enough said.)

    Here’s something else I’ve learned (I’m going to continue to risk being patronizing): if I ask questions I learn things. Doesn’t that sound attractive to you?

  164. Otto,

    You told Melissa,

    Thanks Melissa. Actually, I did respond to Tom’s point about the differences — but I was admittedly dismissive. I called it “special pleading”, and I still hold that this is a valid assessment.

    Not only were you dismissive, you were dismissive with no explanation provided. You said I had exercised special pleading but you didn’t say what I had done wrong to merit that assessment. I can be equally dismissive:

    “Otto, your rejection of my arguments concerning atheism make the mistake of holding that atheism is not a belief. You are wrong.”

    See how easy that is? I can do it too! We can all do it! Whee! What fun!

    It’s also, I’m sure you would say, singularly unimpressive and unfruitful. As was your example, which I was following when I did it.

  165. @Tom
    Can you post a bibliography of scholarly sites and reference works (a suggested reading list) that address these assertions by skeptics (who have apparently only read one side of the story)? It’s getting rather tedious to have to post the same lists over and over again 🙂

    I’m sure that some skeptics would actually be interested in following up…I remember a conversation with one such person (over on one of the Reason Rally threads) where I referred him to Craig Blomberg’s work on NT historicity – I remember him (the skeptic) saying ‘this is the first I’ve heard of this’ regarding the specific topic we were discussing. I don’t think he has ever come back in to follow up, but we both know the Holy Spirit can be extremely persistent and effective 🙂

  166. Can I second Victoria’s suggestion of a bibliography of scholarly works; it would be a delightfully useful resource to be able to dip into 🙂

  167. Otto Wrote:

    To Justin: As I said in the post you responded to, the situation involving the disciples and NT authors was a case of overtly shared goals stemming from word-of-mouth explanations and second-hand accounts to back up various claims – a surprisingly small amount of actual eye-witness accounting there, which is not surprising, since it seems that nothing was written down until at least 40 years after Jesus’ death (and most of the NT was written much later). So the disciples themselves reportedly witnessed miracles by Jesus, but nobody had any written record of this until a generation or so later?

    I’m not sure how this is evidence that they colluded to deceive others. It seems like an argument with no support. That was what I was getting at. If we’re to believe that the disciples, disturbed at the death of the one they thought to be the savior, invented the resurrection story from whole cloth to keep their movement alive, then I would like to see evidence of this. As to when the gospels were first written down, I don’t see how this is relevant to my point. There are a range of dates for the gospels that we currently use, but it is an argument from silence to say that these gospels were the first to have ever been penned, much less transmitted orally by eyewitnesses to those who did pen them (i.e. Paul, whose writings were quite a bit earlier than 40 years after the death of Jesus). But again, I don’t see how a late coalescing of material into 4 gospels is evidence that the disciples invented the story from whole cloth. You’d need positive evidence to support that claim.

    Some form of documentation would count as evidence, though not proof. Something like this:

    Dear Samuel,

    These crazy Christians are in town again preaching Jesus’ resurrection. I took some men over to the tomb where he was burried and no surprise, the body was still there. Not sure what these crazy people are believing. Real weird around here lately. Are you and Judith making it over for dinner next week?

    Sincerely,
    Rabbi Achimelech

    Isn’t it the case that the stories of Jesus’ birth do not stem from eye-witness accounts, and in fact are not consistent from one chapter to another? Stories of the crucifixion and burial also show discrepancies among the chapters. Sorry, but no, that doesn’t qualify as “compelling” — except to those who choose to accept it, which they do solely for personal reasons.

    Discrepencies in an automobile accident reports do not indicate that people fabricated the story of the accident from whole cloth to suit their agenda. You would need additional positive evidence to make that case.

    Again, your case being that the disciples “covered up” a fabrication of facts. Late dating and real or apparent discrepancies aren’t sufficient to make that case.

  168. @ Whomever’s involved in this thread

    So what’s good for the goose is good for the gander. If you’re going to criticize Otto here, maybe some of you here want to tone down your rhetoric that suggests all the arguments are in, the controversy is over, and its just settled philosophy that theism is the uncontested winner that defines and grounds meaning and morality, bar none. Just a thought.

    Why should they tone down their rhetoric if the controversy is indeed over? I’m not any kind of expert on the subject, I’m still learning, but if there is a way to define objective meaning within the constrains of atheism I’d sure like to know… you know, being an atheist and all!

    The nearest that I can tell (from my admittedly limited understanding and knowledge) is that the arguments for “atheistic objectivity” rely on making subjective arguments look a lot like objective arguments – maybe even as much as possible, right?

    It seems to me that it is easy to say “I should do it because God said so.”

    It is almost as easy to say “I should do it because I said so.”

    It is difficult to say “You should do it because God said so.”

    What is hard is to say “Well, you should do it because I said so.”

    Hope that made sense.

    I can find my own meaning. I can find my own morality. Can *we* find a common meaning? Can *we* find a common morality? The more people involved, and the more different the people are that are involved, the more difficult these questions and issues become.

    I think that “meaning” as in purpose is something that you have to discern for yourself, it’s your own personal responsibility (I say that in the agnostic sense, not necessarily in a theist/atheist sense). Morality is… not as easy.

    That’s about where I’m at. Doesn’t help the discussion much, unfortunately… but if “our side” doesn’t have an answer, I’d sure like to know.

  169. Hope that made sense.

    perfect sense.

    Can *we* find a common morality? The more people involved, and the more different the people are that are involved, the more difficult these questions and issues become.

    Exactly so. Any and all attempts to “objectify” morality by the invocation of statistics run into trouble at every conceivable us/them boundary (a number which grows considerably faster than the size of the crowd).