Agnosticism, Atheism, Christianity, Faith, God, Morality, Purpose, Religion, Truth

The Life of a Dog

This is reality in a universe without God: there is no hope; there is no purpose. It reminds me of T.S. Eliot’s haunting lines:

This is the way the world ends
This is the way the world ends
This is the way the world ends
Not with a bang but a whimper.

What is true of mankind as a whole is true of each of us individually: we are here to no purpose. If there is no God, then our life is not fundamentally different from that of a dog.
— William Lane Craig

I heard this quote recently, and I immediately thought, it’s also not fundamentally different from that of a god. If God is the “uncaused first cause,” then his life has no higher purpose. There is no “reason” for him to exist. In fact, when you really get down to it, the best reason for God to exist is to explain our own existence. Doesn’t that minimize his importance when you look at it that way? So many of the arguments for God really come down to saying:

We’re so magnificent and complex, we simply can’t be an accident! There must be some reason for our being here! So if we exist, God must exist.

Talk about arrogance! We think so highly of ourselves that we insist the Universe was created for us. But this insistence creates an interesting problem. It claims that we’re so amazing, we deserve to have a higher power interested in us. But this higher power doesn’t deserve the same thing?

If our lives are empty and meaningless without God, what does it say about God’s existence? Wouldn’t his be just as meaningless and empty?

On the other hand, if we say his existence isn’t meaningless because he infuses it with his own meaning and purpose, why couldn’t that same thing be true of us? Instead of having a purpose given to us, we make our own.

Matt Dillahunty of The Atheist Experience answered the issue this way:

You know, to put it simply, I guess this whole line of argument really just seems like wishful thinking to me. Am I missing something? Do you think the “higher purpose” argument is convincing to many people?

170 thoughts on “The Life of a Dog”

  1. Hey Nate-
    I don’t know how convincing the higher purpose argument is to people – it’s not a conversation I’ve had often. One thing I’ve found myself thinking lately is, if there is no ultimate purpose and we are all free to make up our own purpose, then what’s to stop me from defining my purpose as believing the stories about Jesus and passing those along to as many as I can? Many people may feel uncomfortable or offended by me trying to convince them of my beliefs, but why is their discomfort more important than my discomfort and being offended by being told I can’t share my beliefs in that way? It would seem to me, if there isn’t any purpose and, when all is said and done, nothing and no one will be remembered by anything, then it really matters not at all what I do or how you feel about what I do. I might be wrong. But, so what? There’s no benefit to being right, is there?
    Just some thoughts, probably not clearly laid out.

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  2. For what it’s worth Josh, I’m not bothered by you sharing your beliefs. I have other thoughts on your comment but I’ll leave it at that for a few reasons.

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  3. Josh, from my perspective — defining your beliefs and “sharing” them with others is one thing. “Convincing” others of those beliefs is something far different.

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  4. josh, i guess in the long term nothing matters, but in the short term many things matter.

    I dont mind sharing your beliefs – I do that as well. I dont mind you trying to convince other you’re right – i do that too (that I’m right, not you).

    I think we are all better off with open and honest exchanges, adequate time given to self reflection and evaluation, to keep pressing forward, etc, etc.

    And True, if you find purpose in teaching others about jesus, then I guess that’s your purpose. Now we must ask, does our having a purpose make the object of that purpose true and does that even matter? Am I being consistent and does that matter?

    Why do we believe or disbelieve and how do they correlate to courage and/or fear and objectivity and/or bias?

    Josh, seek the promised land, and as long as that land be truth, then fight for it.

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  5. SPG-
    That’s what I mean. I think, if I’m being intellectually honest, and I say I believe there is no purpose or meaning to life other than what we make it, then I couldn’t oppose you doing that.

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  6. Hi Josh,

    Great to hear from you! Hope all is well. 🙂

    I agree with what most of the others have said. There’s really nothing wrong with you talking about what you believe is true — all of us who comment here do the same thing.

    Many people may feel uncomfortable or offended by me trying to convince them of my beliefs, but why is their discomfort more important than my discomfort and being offended by being told I can’t share my beliefs in that way? It would seem to me, if there isn’t any purpose and, when all is said and done, nothing and no one will be remembered by anything, then it really matters not at all what I do or how you feel about what I do.

    Sure, one person’s discomfort is really no different than any other’s — except to those particular individuals. The thing is, there are societal costs to everything I do. A skinhead is free to spout hate and ignorance, but he can expect to face certain consequences for that. I’m free to talk about my thoughts on religion, but if I don’t respect other people’s boundaries, there will be consequences.

    Since the world works this way, we all find ways to work around one another. None of these societal rules depend on whether or not our existence extends beyond this life; nevertheless, we find them very important. Similarly, if I stub my toe, that’s unlikely to have any long-lasting ramifications, but for several seconds, I’m very concerned by it.

    In other words, things don’t have to be eternal to be important. In a billion years, humanity may be long extinct with no sentient beings left to know we were here. But that shouldn’t stop us from living now, nor should it cause us to think our lives are meaningless now.

    It’s kind of like the lyrics from that Flaming Lips song:

    All we have is now –
    All we’ve ever had was now
    All we have is now
    All we’ll ever have is now

    Now is all that matters. It’s all that mattered in 1820; it’s all that mattered in 30,000 BCE, and it’s all that will matter in 3811.

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  7. what’s to stop me from defining my purpose as believing the stories about Jesus and passing those along to as many as I can?” – if you can hold an audience, Josh (which I doubt), I say go for it!

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  8. Hi Josh,

    You said:

    if there is no ultimate purpose and we are all free to make up our own purpose, then what’s to stop me from defining my purpose as believing the stories about Jesus and passing those along to as many as I can?

    I don’t know how else to ask this except to just ask it: Is this an acknowledgement that it is you who is giving your life purpose by doing this and not some higher being? For most Christians it is, they believe, God/Jesus who gives their life purpose – they don’t even think they can give their own life purpose. At least that was my experience.

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  9. ruth is right, most xtians I know say that god gives them their purpose,
    and that purpose is to spread the good news of the gospel of jeeezzzusss Christ..
    the say without god, life has no meaning.

    I’m not saying I know all xtians to believe this,
    but the shitload I do know, that’s what they say.

    truly sad if you ask me.

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  10. Hey Nate-
    I used to think what you wrote supplied a pretty good answer to the question I asked. The more I’ve thought about it, tho, the more that answer seems to just be a bit of smoke and mirrors. It sounds nice to say now is all we have and that just because there is no higher purpose doesn’t mean we can’t have meaningful lives. And, it certainly feels like we have meaningful lives, regardless of whether or not there actually is a higher meaning. However, this seems disingenuous, especially coming from people who hold rationality and logic in the highest regards. What is more irrational than to pretend life has meaning when it actually has none? If we came into existence randomly, and we will go out without so much as a memory, then creating meaning now for the purposes of a happier life seems almost the same as creating religion to give higher purpose. It is an illusion to stomach the stark reality. And, it is inconsistent with the rational, logical way many claim to look at reality.

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  11. But it’s not an illusion, Josh. My life has an extreme amount of meaning to me, even if it never mattered to anyone else.

    A piece of cake doesn’t last forever, but can’t it still be enjoyable?

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  12. Josh, I honestly do understand your point about the smoke and mirrors because I used to think the same thing even for a few years after leaving Christianity. In some respects you are actually correct, but I think this topic also results in some miscommunication due to semantics.

    When I talk about meaning in life my definition of meaning is not “ultimate meaning”. While you might think “how could there be such a thing as temporal meaning in life?”, I would actually say that this doesn’t match with everyday usage of the word. When someone says “that drawing which my son made is very meaningful to me” do you think they mean that it has some ultimate eternal meaning? Of course not. It’s another way of saying that it gives me a tremendous and wonderful feeling and is yet another of many reasons to enjoy the life we have.

    I watched the birth of both my daughter and my son, and Josh, let me tell you – if you ever have that opportunity don’t stay out of the delivery room! I have tingles up my spine right now thinking about it. And watching my kids take their first steps, and so many other milestones, I can’t even describe the meaning that gives me. Is that meaning derived from some source outside of myself? – perhaps. I don’t see why I would care. Nothing William Lane Craig says could rob me of that wonderful experience no matter what my worldview is.

    But yes, without some kind of ultimate meaning outside of humanity I can see how people could be discouraged especially when difficult life situations arise. I’ve always thought that this is why many philosophers have slipped into depressive states. While I love philosophy and deep questions, I made the decision many years ago to enjoy the wonders of life, family and friendships no matter what worldview I land on.

    Another thought I have on meaning is that I am actually agnostic about whether or not there is “ultimate” meaning, and even without a God I believe there could be ultimate meaning. I don’t claim this to be true, but I also don’t see any logical reason to think that isn’t possible. Think Taoism, or even the movie Contact (and it was a movie, so we know it has to be true 😉 ).

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  13. Interestingly, Howie – and I’m not saying this behind your back, Josh, feel free to jump in – but I’m sensing a change in Josh from when I first met him last year on Nate’s site. He was a very laid back Christian in those days, more accepting – now he’s more intense and critical. I could be wrong, Josh, but that’s how I see it. Has anything significant happened over the past year?

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  14. @ Josh,

    I guess you are right regarding purpose being easily made up. But perhaps you are being a little bit extreme on it’s application. Just like what SPG said, what if my purpose is to kill all atheists? Should I therefore be allowed to pursue what I think my purpose is?

    I would have thought that the answer is obvious – you are free to practice whatever you want until your actions impede my freedom. Well you can be pedantic and start arguing that if that is the case there is no true freedom.

    Then I would say you are purposely being obtuse and just trying to be funny when all other reasonable interpretation of the word should be able to accommodate the scenario I’ve just mentioned.

    @ Arch

    You know this sounds almost like my wife. When she was faced with all the doubts and charges that I put to Christianity (i lost my faith first before I started to tell her and educate her on all the falsehood in Christianity), she started to become more irritable, critical and generally a pain to talk to.

    Whenever i point out to her that she’s being unreasonable, she would simply say that “oh I thought we are godless, and I can sin whenever I want”.

    She did eventually mellowed down and back to her normal loving self. Talking to her about those times she did reveal to me that it was a defense mechanism for her back then, and she was purposely trying to interpret what I said in an extreme and unfair way.

    Perhaps something similar is happening to Josh? Btw Josh apologies if I am wrong. Not trying to psychoanalyze you but merely sharing my experience. In any case, I guess you can have a free pass at my own personal motivation haha. Not that you will need it though. Haha you’re deft a nice guy =)

    cheers mate

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  15. Hi Josh, nice to see you on Nate’s blog again.

    You wrote, “However, this seems disingenuous, especially coming from people who hold rationality and logic in the highest regards. What is more irrational than to pretend life has meaning when it actually has none?”

    If we give something meaning than it has meaning to us and possibly even to others. If I assign a purpose to my blog comment, like..

    The purpose of my comment is to communicate with Josh and show him that it is rational to give purpose and meaning to our own lives.

    ..doesn’t this appear to be a rational purpose for my blog comment? In other words, just because my comment will not last forever does not mean it has no meaning right now.

    In contrast, imagine if I started pretending that there was a reader on Nate’s blog named Daniel and I started addressing him in my blog comment. Imagine that I decided Daniel was catholic and started to argue against Catholicism. Is this equally rational? Doesn’t this appear to be irrational? What if I tried to get all of you to talk to Daniel too? What if I told everyone that Daniel would install a virus on their computer if they did not believe in him? Now, there may very well be a reader on Nate’s blog named Daniel who is a catholic. But, unless Daniel reveals himself to us I think it would be irrational for me to start writing to him or guessing what his characteristics are. [I know this could spin off into a discussion on origins and belief in ancient texts, but hopefully the point about assuming that Daniel exists and giving him characteristics and speaking to him remains relevant.]

    I do understand the point you were trying to make. Life can seem rather pointless if we focus on our possible extinction millions or billions of years from now. Personally, I am rather optimistic about human ingenuity and ways we can thrive in the future, but that’s another topic. For my own life, one of the purposes I have given myself is to be a good dad. I don’t feel this is an illusion because my kids are real. Does this make sense?

    In closing, why does adding infinite time to a purpose impact whether the purpose is valid or not?

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  16. My daughter called me yesterday to tell me what Pope Francis said, and I thought,, “I LOVE this Pope!” I said, “Well,, you know,, the Catholics aren’t the really crazy Christians. Wait… what? What about the Crusades, the Inquisition? Never mind. Can the Pope get fired?” How can Catholics let this fly? What do the evangelicals think about what the Pope says?

    It seems like the Catholics are standing in a shrinking puddle.

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  17. Hey Arch-
    I might be a little more intense in the last couple comments, and I’d agree I am being critical on this point. However, I don’t think critique or intensity goes against the spirit of the conversation on Nate’s blog. I’ve read the responses since yesterday, and they just don’t wash. And, you don’t have to go out millions of years to see the consequence of temporal meaning. Some say their meaning is to be a good parent. What happens if, God forbid, you child dies? Your meaning is gone. Do you then assign meaning to something else? Your job? What if you lose it? A support group for grieving parents? What if it never gets going or fizzles out? I’m taking the conversation to extreme conclusions because the reality is many, many people face those extreme conclusions. These things which we assign meaning to can be lost in an instant. Reassigning meaning to something else to make up for the loss is in essence conceding that meaning is illusory and transient. That is, without any higher meaning that, for the sake of argument, never goes away.

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  18. Even without going to extremes we can see the consequences of temporal meaning. If my meaning is to be a good parent and my instruction or lack of leads to something bad happening to my child, what then? Even if it is not fatal or “serious” I still face the consequence of not being a good parent in that instance. And there will be many if not hundreds of those instances in a child’s life. This forces the parent to continually redefine what it means to be a good parent. Well, I don’t have to always be right. Well, I can be right on just the important things and still be a good parent. We constantly move the bar to account for our failures. Same with someone who finds meaning in being good at their job. There will be countless instances of failure and poor decisions. We again continually change the criteria for what it means for us to be good at our job.

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  19. But Josh, even if your purpose is to serve God, you’re not going to always do it perfectly. Does that mean you shouldn’t serve God at all (assuming he’s real, etc, etc)? And yes, all parents are going to make mistakes with their children. Should they just stop trying to raise them at all?

    You’re right that parents who lose their children often feel like their purpose is gone. That’s pretty understandable, and it explains why people who have lost children can sometimes engage in self-destructive behavior, even suicide. It’s hard to blame them.

    However, those who manage to keep taking it a day at a time, while never getting over the loss, do eventually find other things to live for. Other purposes.

    What’s wrong with that?

    We all want our lives to mean something. Is it more important to mean something to a large number of people who never knew you (like the way Thomas Jefferson means something to us today), or to mean something to the people you actually care about and interact with?

    Your life is comprised of many different relationships, and those relationships have value. Cosmic value? No, probably not. Not even value to some random guy living in Pakistan. But they have value to you and the other people in those relationships. And isn’t that enough? I mean, do you really care whether or not the random guy in Pakistan knows and cares about you and your relationships?

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