Justin Schieber of Reasonable Doubts likes to tweet aphorisms that undermine religious faith. We had a short Twitter conversation about one of them this morning.
Before I get to it, I want to clarify why I’m writing about this today. There’s an argument behind an argument here. We’ll get to that in a moment, but when we get there, I don’t want you to think that’s the reason I’m posting this. My purpose here is to expose a certain kind of incomplete emptiness in this atheist’s thinking. He thinks he has an argument, strong enough to be worth putting out to his Twitter world of 12,000 followers. Some of those followers (including at least one I won’t be including in what follows) seem to think it makes sense.
His argument is in the form of a compressed reductio ad absurdum. Informally defined, a reductio argument is one that takes this form: “They say they believe x, but if so, then logically they must also believe y. But y is obviously absurd; therefore they should reconsider their belief in x.”
A closer look, however, reveals there’s nothing in that argument of Justin’s. Nothing. And so I wonder, as I wondered last night with Bob Seidensticker, why would anyone want to do that? Why speak so confidently about things that are really quite obviously wrong? What’s the motivation?
That’s the question I’m asking myself today. That’s why I’m writing this post: to ask why.
Here’s the Twitter discussion and some commentary. All the tweets are in italics.
God needs to have been created to have a meaningful life?
JS: “If having a meaningful life requires an external agent who created you to give your life meaning, God’s life couldn’t be more meaningless.
ME: “Does using aphorisms out of context help make your life more meaningful?”
JS: “What context, Tom?”
ME: “The context of God.”
JS: “So… Then you deny the antecedent, ok Tom. What do you want me to say?”
ME: “I do deny the antecedent. Plus, u seem seem 2 think u could hypothesize what ‘meaningful life’ means 2 God. Anthropomorphizing.”
ME: “You universalize the antecedent across both humans and God. No theist would do that. It’s an ‘if’ of your own devising.”
JS: “Tom, I have no reason to exclude God from the relevant range of the antecedent. If he is a person, he falls within.”
Of course at this point the question must be asked, “falls within what?” His opening aphorism was apparently a jab at something he thinks Christians believe: that there is no meaning to anyone’s life unless that one was created by an external agent. I’ll come back to that in a moment; first, the rest of the twitter discussion:
What then is the argument?
ME: “Then you do not know the definition of the most important term you’re working with: ‘God.'” …. And you seem to be proposing it as an argument to defeat; but it’s an argument no one makes. It’s irrelevant.”
At this point I had to take off on an errand, so I only added one more thought to the flow there on Twitter. There may be an item missing here, as the discussion branched off on different replies, but this is the gist of it:
JS: “yup, then maybe you should give a reason for doing that rather than special pleading? … actually, the definition does not have an a priori excuse out of that antecedent. … that needs to be shown rather than asserted.
CounterApologist jumped in here: “William Lane Craig explicitly makes the ‘without god [sic] life has no meaning’ argument in ‘On Guard.'”
JS: “exactly and, without qualification, this follows. If you have a problem, talk to WLC”
ME: “you misread WLC. If you want to say his argument applies to God, that’s for you to establish, not it’s to disprove.”
JS: “Wrong, I’m just taking the argument to the unqualified conclusion. He made the argument.”
Overconfident atheistic argument against what no one believes
“He made the argument,” says Schieber. Therefore Craig is committed to the conclusion that God needs to have been created by an external agent for his life to have meaning.
Let’s take a closer look at this. First, note the confidence with which Schieber and CounterApologist press their point. I commented yesterday on Bob Seidensticker’s unseemly rush to a conclusion without full knowledge. I see the same thing here, though thankfully with a lesser degree of contempt attached to it.
The fact is, this is easy to answer; so easy I’m surprised someone as thoughtful as Justin Schieber would put it out on Twitter without embarrassment.
William Lane Craig’s actual argument
Let’s start with the very easiest: If William Lane Craig did indeed say, “Without God, life has no meaning,” then there’s no meaningfulness problem for God: God is not without God.
But that’s not just obvious, it’s trivially obvious, and probably a product of the medium rather than of CounterApologist’s actual intended argument. It’s the kind of mistake Twitter tends to drive people toward through its 140-character limit, so I won’t let it color my view on CounterApologist.
But what is the argument that Justin thinks he’s turning against Christianity? It’s not, “Life has no meaning without God.” That’s not an argument, it’s just a statement. It’s either a premise or a conclusion, not a flow of thought from either to the other. What exactly then was that argument of Craig’s?
On page 30 of On Guard, Craig writes,
If there is no God, then meaning, value, and purpose are ultimately human illusions. They’re just in our heads. If atheism is true, then life is really objectively meaningless, valueless, and purposeless, despite our subjective beliefs to the contrary.
Why is this? Because (p. 31):
If God does not exist, then both man and the universe are ultimately doomed to death. Man, like all biological organisms, must die. With no hope of immortality, man’s life leads only to the grave. His life is but a spark in the infinite blackness, a spark that appears, flickers, and dies forever.
How their response obviously fails
Recall now that Justin had said, “I have no reason to exclude God from the relevant range of the antecedent. If he is a person, he falls within.”
But the argument Craig made was not with respect to persons, but to “biological organisms.” The full context here reveals how really silly it is, in fact, to apply the aphorism to God.
Was Craig’s argument correct? I think so; but let’s not lose track of what we’re doing here. My purpose in this post isn’t to argue that God is necessary for human life to have meaning. I could make that argument, but that’s not what I’m doing here. My purpose is to expose the carelessness of Justin Schieber’s thinking on this topic.
Apparently he really thought that Craig (or someone) said “life has no meaning unless we’re created by an external agent.” Apparently he really thought that Craig (or someone) said it in such a way that it had to apply to God as well as humans. Apparently he thought he could assume that was the case; that there was no burden of proof on him to show that it was so. Apparently he really thought that this counted as an argument for the absurdity of belief in God.
None of that is good thinking. It’s empty, and it’s really kind of disappointingly sad.
How their argument fails even further
And then there is this, to which I could only allude briefly on Twitter: “Plus, u seem seem 2 think u could hypothesize what ‘meaningful life’ means 2 God. Anthropomorphizing.”
The final (or first?) error Justin made was not in imagining that a “meaningful life” for God would depend on the same thing as it does for us. It was in imagining that “meaningful life” could mean the same thing to God as it might mean for a human. Certainly there is some analogy there, for permanence counts, relationships matter, love is paramount, and so on. But God is too wholly other for us to think that he would even have a meaningfulness need, such as humans have.
Why not look at what the great Christian thinkers (and even Aristotle!) have said, that God’s pleasure in himself is adequate in himself? God has no needs such as we think of needs. He does what he does freely, out of desire (perhaps, analogically) but never out of need. This was what I was alluding to when I told Justin he was misunderstanding that most important term, “God.” If he finds it absurd that God would have trouble meeting his own needs for meaningfulness, then he’s thinking of some other god besides the God Christians believe in. He’s thinking of a god I would consider absurd, too. It’s the wrong God fallacy again.
Continuing the dialogue
A final word now. I’ve had some previous short Twitter exchanges with Justin Schieber. I’ve found him to be amenable to thoughtful dialogue. As I was writing this he popped in with another tweet: “perhaps I’m remembering incorrectly. I’ll have to go look at his exact words to be sure.”
Maybe he just jumped the gun. For my part, I’d say he didn’t just misremember Craig’s exact words, he missed the entire point of what Craig was saying, and the argument that led to the short statement that without God there would be no meaning. Still, I appreciate his willingness to go back and double-check.
As I said, I’d like to debate him someday.
In the meantime, I would strongly encourage him not to speak so confidently of what he does not understand. To produce a counter-argument against an argument that was never made, and to insist that “Craig is committed to the conclusion,” is not the kind of good thinking I would expect someone like Justin Schieber to aspire to.
To argue that some belief x entails an absurd belief y is fine in many situations, but when the person you’re argument believes neither x nor y, then what is one arguing against, and why? When Justin does this, it hints that he might not even know what he’s arguing against; or (more accurately) he’s arguing against some imagined belief that no one actually holds. Why?
I would hope for a better debate with him than that.