So says “Bad” of the “Bad Idea Blog” at the beginning of his article “The Meaning of Meaning & Why Theism Can’t Make Life Matter“. Bad doesn’t think this idea is of much worth. Thus he retorts: “Meaning without God? The question itself is both backwards and premature.” How so Bad?
To see why, we must ask how one supposedly finds meaning with God. I won’t, in fact, be arguing that one cannot. Rather, my contention is that any believer that seriously tries to answer this question will be forced to admit that the philosophical liberties and assumptions they make to reach their sense of meaning are no more or less justified than those they ridicule as insufficient or unjustified in non-believers. We are all inescapably in the same boat when it comes to meaning and purpose.
According to Bad we are all in the same boat. And apparently that boat is the S.S. Tu Quoque. (It is also apparently Stephen Crane’s open boat. More on that later.) You might have thought the tu quoque (“you too”) response was a fallacy. After all, didn’t your mum teach you that two wrongs don’t make a right? It is true that sometimes appeal to the tu quoque is fallacious, but it is not necessarily so. For instance, whenever some naive rationalist lampoons “faith” (“I don’t have faith, I have reason! Yup, uh huh!”) I point out that they have faith in their reason. They must, unless they are still an embryo in the Cartesian womb that has yet to be born into the prickly world of epistemic fallibilism. That is a legitimate tu quoque. So Bad’s appeal to the tu quoque isn’t itself bad.
Now what about Bad’s arguments? Well Bad’s first big point is to argue that meaning is something which is always relative to a mind: “To say that some event means something without at least some implicit understanding of who it means something to is to express an incomplete idea…” And this point has direct application to the big existential questions of life that drive appeal to God to find meaning. For instance, if a person asks “What is the meaning of my life?” Bad replies by pointing out that this is a question which must be relativized to a mind, for meaning questions must always be raised in relation to minds: “Whose life? Meaningful to whom? Matters to whom? Who are you talking about?” Since the meaning question for a life can only be addressed with respect to a mind, Bad concludes that ultimately “no one can ultimately judge the meaning of your own life other than yourself.” (No doubt that is good news for the despots of history.)
And with that Bad takes a seat at the French street cafe and in his best French existentialist accent provides the answer: “This, then, is the existential heart of the matter, the reason that theism as a doctrine cannot provide any extra or unique route to meaning that is not already present in any being capable of experiencing it.”
Bad then critiques the assumption that permanence of existence automatically grants meaning. I have already critiqued that assumption myself with respect to the myth of Sisyphus so I won’t say anymore about it here.
Finally, Bad turns to address the theist’s claim that God provides meaning which is deeper or more meaningful or more objective than that which we as individuals and groups can offer ourselves and each other. What might God add to the mix? Bad characterizes the theist as saying “God does this and God does that because God can do anything, but we are never told what the process is, what the specific capacity is and used in what specific way.” (emphasis added) Thus, Bad believes that invoking God as the bearer of meaning doesn’t explain anything. So says Bad: “Even were there no question of a God existing, one must still first assume/choose to believe/judge that the perceived God is indeed a good and trustworthy being and that it’s purposes are worth caring about.” Bad adds: “Power and authority can only be meaningful to you if you first judge power and authority compelling and important.” So we can still consider whether we will ourselves accept God’s meaning or not.
What’s wrong with Bad’s picture? Actually it may be easier to start with what’s right about it. Bad is correct that meaning is tied to mind and thus is relative to mind. But Bad doesn’t get much correct beyond that.
To begin with, Bad doesn’t seem to understand what the concept of God is. God isn’t one more thing of the same type. In fact, all Bad’s contorted analysis fails from an abject failure to appreciate this simple point.
In the spirit of the season we can make the point with the story of “The Nutcracker”. Herr Drosselmeyer comes over to the Silberhaus home and brings with him the nutcracker doll which has been designed to crack hazelnuts. The nutcracker sits under the tree and wonders what he is for. (Yes, at this early point we’re departing from the official storyline.) The soldier doll tells the nutcracker that meaning is relative to mind, and thus he needs to decide what he is for. The nutcracker is not so sure that his opinion on his own meaning is necessarily the best opinion. He asks: “But what if there is a toymaker who made me for a purpose? Doesn’t that trump my own assessment of my purpose?” Soldier replies “Even if there is a toymaker you can still decide whether you’ll agree with the toymaker’s decision about your stated purpose.” Nutcracker nods tentatively. With each nod his confidence seems to build. Maybe it is so, he thinks. Maybe his opinion is as good as any other, including the toymaker’s.
Too bad we weren’t there to interrupt this bad advice (please excuse my bad puns at Bad’s expense) but the nutcracker toy and the toymaker are radically disanalogous. Not all opinions are created equal. So it shouldn’t be that surprising that one’s assessment of meaning is simply not of the same value as the other. (Did you ever receive a gift from your five year old that he/she made in preschool? “What is it?” You asked. “Daaaad, it’s a paperweight.” Because the kid designed the object the kid has a unique role in defining its purpose. Even if you think it would work better as a doorstop, you follow the advice and place the clay monstrosity on your desk atop a stack of paper.)
Back to the illustration. The toymaker made the toy for a particular purpose: cracking hazelnuts. And discerning this purpose and living in accord with it really matters. If the nutcracker ignores that purpose and decides he shall instead commit himself to an end of his own choosing, he will not flourish. Don’t believe me? Picture the scene: “Soldier said my decision about my meaning is just as good as the toymaker’s. I think I’d prefer to stoke the fire like the iron poker. Cracking hazelnuts is boring.” So nutcracker ambles brazenly past the aghast poker and leaps into the fire. Poor nutcracker.
And there lies the fact that theism offers a response to the problem of meaning. We need to live in accord with the meaning imbued to us by our creator. Actually Bad seems to grapple with this point when he writes at the end of his essay:
“The best I think that the doctrine of theism could attempt in response is to argue that their God forced us by our very design to find meaning in this or that… but this then would admit that our particular design is the key to experiencing value and meaning, and so if that design existed in a world without God, it would still be sufficient.”
Unfortunately Bad’s comment here is bad for two reasons and I’ll close by pointing out those reasons in such a way that the theist’s account of meaning is vindicated.
First, Bad suggests that if we have design with God we can have our design without God just as well. This claim is so ironic it makes the pot who called the kettle black blush rosy red. It is ironic because Bad argued (rightly) that meaning requires mind, but if meaning is mind-dependent then design surely is as well. So it is rather strange for Bad now to suggest that we can have design without mind if we can’t have meaning without mind.
Second, Bad bizarrely characterizes this idea of divinely created design as “forcing” us to do something. That is completely bizarre. Let’s say that God made eagles to fly. Does that mean God forced them to fly? Fish were made to swim. Does that mean God is forcing fish to swim? My Maltese thinks she was created to attack small stuffed animals and break their necks with a kill shake. (Alas, I have not the heart to tell her they were never alive to begin with.) She isn’t being forced to do anything. Living out her impulses to inflict the kill shake on stuffed animals is the most natural thing in the world for her.
But here is where we come to the fact that human beings are not merely like eagles, fish or lap dogs. We have an ability these other creatures lack, the ability to deny the increated natural design we have been given and choose to be our own meaning makers. Making that choice may seem like a good idea to us at the time. We may have listened to the soldier and thought we can be the masters of our own destiny. But it doesn’t work.
Just ask the blackened and humbled nutcracker who now thinks that cracking hazelnuts doesn’t look so bad after all.