Like many listeners I was disheartened a few months ago when “Reasonable Doubts” decided to call it quits on their popular radio show/podcast. But just as autumn death gives way to rebirth in spring, so the demise of Reasonable Doubts has given way to Justin Schieber’s new YouTube channel “Real Atheology“. And just two episodes in it is proving to be a great place to get some very clear and informative discussion in the philosophy of religion from the perspective of an atheist.
Here is Schieber’s latest video on William Lane Craig’s existentialist argument for God’s existence. Let’s take a look at the video and then I’ll offer some response below:
Let’s begin with a quick synopsis. Based on the excerpts from Craig’s argument Schieber concludes that on Craig’s view, the existence of God and of human immortality are both required for human life to be existentially meaningful.
Schieber then presents a critique of Craig from philosopher Toby Betenson. Here’s a quote from the abstract of Betenson’s paper:
“Craig says that God must exist as a guarantor of ultimate justice, and that this ultimate ‘fairness’ is necessary for life to have meaning. I will argue that this ultimate ‘fairness’ entails that our lives are futile, since, given the existence of God, our actions are causally irrelevant to the achievement of the satisfaction of the ‘Good’.”
As Schieber notes, there are two ways our life may be futile: either our actions may be causally relevant to ultimately insignificant states of affairs or they may be causally irrelevant to ultimately significant states of affairs. While Craig focuses on the former as a dilemma for atheism, Betenson argues the latter presents a problem for the theist. The only ultimately meaningful state of affairs is the satisfaction of the Good and since God will achieve this irrespective of our actions, our lives are not ultimately causally relevant in which case we sink back into existential insignificance.
Response to Craig
Before turning to the Betenson argument (insofar as it is presented by Schieber; I haven’t read Betenson’s paper), I’m going to address Craig since there are two points on which I disagree with Craig.
First, I don’t agree that human immortality is a requirement for existentially meaningful life. I do think that a life which is on balance good and which continues forever is existentially more satisfactory than one that ends after a finite period. But “existentially more satisfactory” is not the same as “existentially meaningful”.
Put it this way. It seems possible that God could have created human beings so that they would live for a finite period (perhaps 80 years) during which time they would develop meaningful relationships with God and other creatures and after which they would cease to exist. And in such a scenario, it certainly wouldn’t follow that their lives were objectively meaningless. Rather, the meaning would consist precisely in the cultivation of relationships with others for the finite expanse of time allotted to each individual. Thus, while never-ending existence may be existentially more satisfying than finite existence, it most surely is not required for a life to be existentially meaningful.
Second, I disagree with Craig that theism is required for objective value. As I have often noted, atheists may appeal to the existence of a platonic good (as many do) as the source of value. To be sure, in my view such an appeal exacts a high cost insofar as it requires the abandonment of any meaningful conception of “naturalism”. But for atheists who are not wedded to naturalism, Platonism offers a way forward. One may then claim that objective meaning is found in the fullest exemplification of the objective Good in one’s life.
Response to Betenson (by way of Schieber)
Now what about Betenson’s argument? Here’s the key section beginning at about 5:05 where Schieber summarizes the problem arising from Betenson’s analysis:
“But therein lies the problem. If our actions make no difference; if ultimate justice will prevail no matter what we do, or fail to do, then our actions lack ultimate significance — they don’t ultimately matter — they are causally irrelevant to the fulfillment of ultimate justice.”
Is this true? Does divine superintending providence undermine meaning?
I’m reminded here of a key moment in Esther 4:14 where Esther is considering whether she should risk her life to help save her people. Mordecai responds with a pep talk:
“For if you remain silent at this time, relief and deliverance for the Jews will arise from another place, but you and your father’s family will perish. And who knows but that you have come to your royal position for such a time as this?”
According to Mordecai, if Esther doesn’t act to save the Jewish people then God will save them in another way. But does it follow from this (as Betenson supposes) that God’s superintending providence undermines the meaning of Esther’s decision to be the one through whom deliverances comes?
I don’t see that this follows at all. On the contrary, Esther’s decision to risk her life to save her people imbues her life with objective significance. After all, she was the cause of the people’s being saved. Even if, counterfactually, God would have saved the people had Esther not acted, that doesn’t change the fact that in the actual world Esther was the cause of their being saved. All that is required for objective meaning is that one is the cause of the Good: one need not also accept Betenson’s additional counterfactual requirement that had one not acted the Good would not have obtained.
This leads me to a second objection to Betenson’s analysis. He claims that meaning depends on one’s causal contribution to the acquisition of an abstract “Good”. But this is not quite right. I would submit that a better way to view Craig’s view (and certainly the Christian view generally) is to tie individual objective meaning not to the acquisition of an abstract Good but rather to the acquisition of moral virtue in oneself which thereby expresses itself in the attainment of the Good to some degree.
Thus, on this view, each individual’s life is objectively meaningful insofar as they acquire an objectively good character, i.e. one that conforms to the Good (or, as a Christian would put it, to Christ). This construal of a meaningful life deals decisively with Betenson’s analysis by tying meaning not to an abstract Good but rather to the good for oneself. And this decimates Betenson’s counterfactual condition since one’s own moral formation is a necessary condition for the acquisition of the good for oneself.
But what of the objection that tying meaning to one’s own moral formation is egotistical? This objection fails utterly to grasp with the fact that being conformed to the Good is (at least on a Christian view) a fundamentally other-centered reality as embodied in Christ’s own self-sacrificial life and death. Thus, meaning is found in forming oneself as one learns to live for others.