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Where do we find the purpose of life?

In my opinion, the most interesting aspect of the debate between atheism and Christianity is the concept of the purpose of life. Christians try to show how Christianity is meaningful and fulfilling, and atheists try to show how life can have purpose without God. The problem, however, is that the debate almost always goes the same way. Additionally, there’s one aspect of the debate that, when noticed, seems to add so much clarity, that it’s a little hard to continue the debate.

In a previous blog I spoke about a debate between Alister McGrath and Michael Shermer on whether or not God is a product of human imagination. Shermer made many points to argue for atheism (points which are readily available in atheist memes found on social media), while McGrath argued mostly from the subjective aspect that faith helps him make sense of life, and gives him purpose. While I don’t really think McGrath did the greatest job making this point, the topic of the purpose of life comes up quite often in religious dialogues. This was actually the topic of conversation in a different debate that took place a few months ago at the University of Toronto (it would seem the purpose of life is a popular topic). Jordan Peterson, Rebecca Goldstein, and William Lane Craig were part of a debate on the topic of the purpose of life, and whether God is necessary to have purpose. (If you want to listen to the debate, check it out here).

What’s most interesting about the topic of the purpose of life is that there is an incredibly important distinction that makes the topic seem trivial, and yet, the distinction is almost always ignored.

What kind of “purpose” are we talking about?

When dealing with the purpose of life, there seems to be two ways of discussing purpose; subjective and objective. If a person has subjective meaning in their life, it means that their life is directed towards some purpose because they have chosen that path. In this sense, it’s “true for them”. On the other hand, an objective purpose means it’s “actually” true, or, it’s true regardless of how anyone feels about it. The truth of the purpose of life would be dictated by something outside the person (because if the purpose is found within the person, then it’s subjective). This purpose found from outside would be objective, likely because it is from the source or creator of the person.

The answer to the “why” question

This is why I say the point of the debate was missed. This is also why I say that the topic of the purpose of life has a crucial distinction that often gets ignored. Peterson totally ignored the aspect of where the purpose comes from.

 He asserts a purpose (basically something like, “alleviation of pain” is the purpose of life), and he thinks that’s good enough, but the real debate is “why” that purpose is correct. By asserting meaning without answering the “why” question, he’s just pushing the question back one step. I could just as easily make assertions like, “the purpose of life is to procreate”, or, “the purpose of life is to produce art”. The deeper question is “why” do I think these things are true? For example, if you were to ask me what the meaning to life is, and I tell you that the purpose of human life is for us to create tiny ceramic figures of goats, the obvious question would then be to ask, “why do you think that of all things is the purpose to life!?” If I don’t have an answer, then clearly I haven’t done a good job. Merely asserting my belief on the matter is pointless, and doesn’t aid the discussion at all. If I have no foundation to my belief, and if my belief isn’t grounded in something, then it’s a useless belief, and doesn’t really help us answer the question. The same goes for Peterson’s argument. I agree with him that it does seem incredibly obvious that life does have purpose. I also agree with him that alleviation of pain does seem like a good thing. However, we still need to answer the deeper question of “why” these things are true. If there is purpose to life, and the purpose is objective and beyond myself, then there must be something beyond myself giving purpose to my life.

Misunderstanding the point

While Peterson does seem to have failed to give a real reason for his view, he did present his point quite well, which was found convincing to some in the audience. For example, he asked Craig what he would say to a child who was suffering and dying. It seemed like Peterson was trying to say, “Hey Craig, you don’t think there’s purpose in life? Try telling that to a dying child! That his life has been for nothing!” While this is emotionally powerful, again, it totally misses the point of the debate. Craig gave an argument showing that the universe is devoid of objective purpose, unless God exists. Basically, all you can ever get (without God) is subjective purpose. It seems like Peterson didn’t really grasp this point, and thought Craig was saying that there isn’t any purpose to the universe at all (which is quite clearly NOT what he was saying). Peterson, in his misunderstanding, actually called Craig “the devil himself”, because he thought Craig was saying life has no meaning. It was actually quite surprising that Peterson missed the point so drastically here, not realizing that Craig was actually saying that you require God in order to have an objective purpose to life.

Naturalism and Purpose

The third person involved in this debate was Rebecca Goldstein, who is a naturalist (meaning that not only is she an atheist, but she goes a step further and says material stuff is all there is in the universe). One argument she gave was that, even on naturalism, life must have meaning, because we live our lives. Basically, I live my life, so of course my life is going to be meaningful to me! Who else’s life should I pursue other than my own? How could I not find my own life to be valuable, considering I’m the one living it? However, this once again misses the point. The question isn’t whether we should care about our lives; the question is whether our lives actually have purpose, meaning, and value. The reader should also notice much of the language in her argument here is subjective. Of course your life is meaningful “to you”, because you live your own life. However, does your life have objective meaning? Are you “actually” valuable? Or is it just your opinion? Again, we run into the subjective vs. objective distinction, which undermines the point she’s making.

Another point she made was that the purpose of life is just the kind of thing that we can’t have an answer to. This is strange, because it’s an attempt to take more of an agnostic position on meaning, while the truth of the matter seems far less pleasant; on naturalism, there literally cannot be any purpose or meaning to life. On naturalism, humanity arose through completely natural processes, with no guidance at all, and will eventually cease to exist. During their lives, each human invents meaning for their life, simply to make their life more bearable. It’s not that there is purpose, and we just can’t find it; it’s that there couldn’t be objective purpose, because the only thing that exists are the individual humans, and if the purpose comes from the person, then it’s subjective.

Peterson actually made a very interesting comment on this when it was pointed out to him by Craig.

When confronted with the problem of purpose on naturalism, Peterson literally said that Craig was asking too many questions, and that he should stop thinking so much!

Why does he say this? Because he knows that when you start digging deep into these questions, if you don’t have God in your approach, you start running into serious problems. You really do need to bury your head in the sand, unless you want to get really depressed, or worse… actually consider converting.

Now, if the reader has listened to this debate, you might accuse me of strawmanning Peterson’s comment that Craig is thinking too much, so let’s take a moment to look at Peterson’s point. Essentially, Craig is saying that (on naturalism) the universe will eventually fizzle out, so there can’t be any purpose to it all. Peterson then replies that Craig’s approach is missing the point of life in the way of “not being able to see the forest through the trees” in a sense. He used an interesting analogy to make his point. Imagine for a moment a group of people have accomplished some tremendous political victory. To celebrate, they have gathered some musicians to perform a celebratory symphony.

On this analogy, Peterson tries to say that Craig’s point would be something like, “but the symphony will end soon, so how can the symphony have any meaning in the here and now?” Peterson then claims that this is obviously a stupid sort of question, and it ends up missing the value of the symphony. In this sense, to question the symphony is to miss the point of the symphony. However, let’s continue the analogy. Suppose for a moment it was suddenly made aware that the losers of the political battle had launched nuclear bombs, and that in a matter of minutes the entire country would be entirely devastated. Wouldn’t it be fair for the people to look at their accomplishment, and think to themselves, “what was the point of everything we fought for? It was all for naught…” Wouldn’t it be entirely rational to see the end, and be depressed by it? Would it really be sane to say something like, “well, I suppose we’re doomed, but let’s continue our celebration anyways!” It would seem that the real difference between Peterson’s analogy, and Craig’s overall point, is merely the aspect of time. If the end is close, then we are hit by the depressing purposelessness of life; however, if the end is far away, then perhaps we can distract ourselves enough to not feel the power of nihilism yet. Peterson speaks appropriately, then, when he tells Craig “you’re thinking too much!” Basically, what he’s saying is, “Don’t try to bring the end closer to us! Let us remain in our ignorant bliss!”

Realistically, this sort of nihilism we’re talking about should affect the person. It seems like Peterson wants us to neglect asking the deeper questions of life and purpose, because he knows that asking those deeper questions will cause problems. It would be far easier, and more enjoyable, to simply lie to ourselves, convince ourselves that life has purpose, even though we know it really doesn’t.

How did Rebecca Goldstein respond to this sort of argument when Craig brought it up? She admitted that faith in God actually is a satisfying position to hold, because that system of belief can ground a lot of our deepest and most powerful intuitions. Does that mean she agrees with Craig? Not even close. However, her response was not terribly well reasoned. She essentially just said “I think you’re wrong!”, and didn’t really do anything to prove “why” Craig was wrong. At one point the audience even laughed out loud, because it was actually a bit funny how dogmatic she was being in her disagreement. Goldstein simply clung to her naturalism, asserting that there is meaning to life, even though she couldn’t give any reasons to believe that.

The directions an atheist can go

Let’s return to the basic question, and see what sorts of answers can be given. If we ask an atheist, “What is the purpose of life?”, it seems like there’s a few answers that could be given, and each answer will have a different result.

1. The purpose of life is objective.

A problem arises when the atheist tries to show “how” the purpose of life can be objective. In any case I’ve ever seen, this is either a flat assertion without reason, or the reasoning given proves subjective purpose, not objective purpose.

2. The purpose of life is subjective.

The problem here is that, if the purpose of life is subjective, that means there is no “actual” purpose to life. The purpose of life is whatever you happen to make of it. If someone says their purpose to life is making tiny ceramic figures of goats, then that is true “for them”. Again, this seems more like a comfortable lie to distract us from the obvious truth of the purposelessness of life. This sort of subjective purpose ends up being reduced to nihilism with a sugar coating on it.

3. There is no purpose to life.

This option is, in my opinion, the most consistent way for an atheist to argue. In this case, the atheist just bites the bullet and admits that life has no meaning. All life came about randomly, and all life will eventually be gone, therefore, there cannot be any objective purpose to life. The problem here is that it contradicts our intuitions about purpose, value, and meaning. We feel like humans really are worthwhile, and that when human life is snuffed out or disrespected, it really is a tragedy, but, on this view, those are just “feelings”, and have no real value.

After seeing the distinction between subjective and objective purpose to life, it really does seem like there’s little else to discuss. If there’s objective purpose without God, then something should be presented that is outside of myself to justify a purpose for myself. If purpose is subjective, it breaks down into really just being a comfortable lie to cover up nihilism. If we have a nihilistic view of humanity, then we contradict some of our deepest held intuitions about life. I would suggest, then, that we reject both naturalism and atheism, and recognize that the reason we feel as though there is purpose to life is because God has created us with purpose.

The subjective argument for Christ

In the earlier debate I mentioned, Alister McGrath focused on the subjective aspect of purpose, explaining how Christianity satisfies the deepest longings of our soul. This focus on subjective meaning is a powerful argument, because we all seek the type of meaning he’s talking about. However, it does partially miss the point, because it was presented subjectively. A person could easily agree, admitting that the Christian “feels” like they have purpose, while in reality, they do not. The atheist could (and often does) argue that, while Christianity might “feel” better, it’s just not being honest. The atheist claims to admit the hard truth, that there is no purpose or value or meaning to life. Additionally, there is no morality, or good, or evil in the world. Craig made this point by saying that there cannot be purpose without God, because everything ends in nothing. On naturalism, eventually all life will cease to exist. Life will end, and there will be nothing but space dust floating around aimlessly.

Craig adds insult to injury by showing that, if an atheist does include morality, purpose, and value in their worldview, they have actually snuck these things in from a theistic backdrop. In terms of recognizing the limitations of atheistic philosophy in this sense, Craig said, “If you live consistently you will not be happy. If you are happy, you do not live consistently.” In other words, atheism implies no purpose, meaning, or value, and that should depress you. If it doesn’t depress you, then you’re not living in a consistent way with your philosophy.

Why doesn’t Christianity fall prey to this problem?

The problem here is the difference I mentioned earlier; the difference between objective and subjective realities. I argue that Christians don’t merely “feel” like they have value, and this helps make life better for them. Instead, Christians recognize the “actual” value they have, and this encourages them. How can a Christian know humans actually do have value? Because of the source of humanity. On Christianity, humans were created by God, and were created for a purpose. If people have value, meaning, and purpose beyond one’s personal opinions, then their purpose is beyond themselves. If my purpose comes from within me, then it’s subjective. However, if my purpose is objective, then it must come from beyond me. My purpose must come from something external to me, that places value on me. This “just is” what we mean by the concept of purpose. A thing’s purpose is what the thing was created for. That’s just how the word is used, and just is what it means.

An example I use often is this; if a blacksmith makes a hammer for a carpenter friend, the purpose of the hammer is to drive in nails. That’s actually the purpose of the tool, because that’s what it was created for. It would be silly to say that the hammer has no actual purpose, and the carpenter is just going to place his own purpose on the hammer, using it to drive in nails. It’s silly because it’s obvious the blacksmith made the hammer for that purpose. It actually does have an objective meaning to it, rather than just a personal opinion.

The problem with this argument is that it’s incredibly unappealing to people within this culture. If I get my purpose from outside myself, then my purpose isn’t up to me. Our current cultural idol is ourselves. If something challenges the idea that I’m the one in charge, then that feels abhorrent to our current cultural norm. To follow the analogy, the modern reader might think, “why does the blacksmith get to decide what the purpose of the hammer is!?” However, the obvious answer is, because the blacksmith is the one who made the hammer. In the same way, God has determined our purpose. The reason He gets to decide what the purpose of humanity is, is because He’s the one that made humanity. God has continually interacted with humanity, all throughout the years, and has shown us what our purpose is. Humanity was created to know and love God. Considering this purpose comes from outside ourselves, and comes from the source that created us, this means that our purpose is objective. We no longer fall prey to nihilism, and those deeply held intuitions about human value are satisfied because humanity really is valuable.

Christianity actually makes sense of the question of purpose. It has a real answer, which is grounded in reason. It gives an actual objective purpose to reality, and meaning for our individual lives. Christianity is both intellectually and emotionally satisfying because it handles all the data we have, and all the intuitions we have. Why bother clinging to atheism when it can’t make sense of our intuitions about human value, and it can’t answer intellectual arguments in favor of Christianity? (This is another argument entirely, but if interested, you can listen here).

At the end of the debate, Craig invited the audience to genuinely take the time to consider Christianity as a viable option, rather than just dismiss it because it’s culturally uncomfortable. Similarly, I would like to invite you, the reader, to consider whether Christianity actually makes sense of the data on hand. It does seem obvious that there is meaning to human life, and Christianity gives an intellectually satisfying answer to this question.


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