This is the weekly Q & A blog post by our Research Professor in Philosophy, Dr. William Lane Craig.
Hi Dr. Craig
I recently watched your discussion with Rebecca Goldstein and Dr. Jordan Peterson at Wycliffe University, and noticed a discrepancy between your view of meaning (specifically, significance) and Dr. Petersons. Unfortunately this wasn't discussed further within the context of the forum so I'd like to ask you about it here.
You began your opening statements by talking about the inevitability of human extinction and the death of the universe, and the difficulty this presents for finding ultimate significance on atheism. Peterson, however, began his statement by saying it is not necessary to extend the timeframe in which you seek significance to include the entire breadth of the universe's history. He used the analogy of a symphony: If he was experiencing an incredible musical performance, and someone tapped him on the shoulder in the middle of it and said 'well it doesn't have any meaning because it's going to end soon', he would (as most people I think) reject that perspective. Does the end of the symphony really entail that it had no significance?
While I consider your grounding of objective moral values in the existence of God more philosophically consistent than Peterson's emphasis on evolved morality (and his vague nod to some transcendence or platonic ideal), I did find this particular criticism he made compelling. Why must someone who rejects the existence of God, expand the timeframe in which they evaluate their significance to encapsulate the whole span of the universe? Why ought ultimate significance be the focus, rather than temporal significance? If you had had the opportunity in the discussion to respond directly to Petersons symphony analogy and his opening remarks, what would you have said?
Thanks for reading,
Dr. William Lane Craig’s Response
As I sat there listening to Jordan Peterson’s opening statement in our dialogue on “Is There Meaning to Life?”, I found his remarks very puzzling. There were some vague commonalities between what I had just said in my opening statement and his. So were his remarks, I wondered, meant to be some sort of response to what I had just said? If so, then his comments evinced misunderstanding and so failed to connect with what I had said. Or were his remarks meant to draw out problematic consequences of an atheistic worldview? It was unclear.
One of Peterson’s points, you’ll remember, was that if a child were critically ill, it would be of no comfort to him to say, “Oh, well, in 10 million years we’ll all be dead, and so this doesn’t matter!” Was this meant to be a response to me? Did I ever advise anything like this? On my view, you comfort a dying child by assuring him that God loves him and that his suffering is not meaningless, that a home awaits him in heaven where there will no longer be suffering or death but an eternal life of unspeakable joy. I have in fact criticized Russell’s atheism in print with respect to the challenge of what to say to a dying child. So was Peterson’s actual point that on the Nietzsche-Russell-Sartre view of reality, it is of no comfort to say what the atheist seemingly must say, “Oh, well, in 10 million years we’ll all be dead, and so this doesn’t matter!”? If so, then his point is a strike against atheism, not theism.
Or consider the illustration of the symphony performance. If someone were to say, “Well, it doesn’t have any meaning because it’s going to end soon,” we’d all be baffled. “Does the end of the symphony really entail that it had no significance?” Of course not! Have I ever affirmed that it would? On the contrary, I have affirmed precisely the opposite, that because of God and immortality, the decisions and actions we take in this life are imbued with meaning. A beautiful waltz or a symphony is valuable and meaningful even though it is of finite duration. So if such things are ultimately meaningless on atheism, it is not because of their finite duration. It is because without God and immortality such things have no ultimate purpose, value, or significance.
On atheism, it ultimately doesn’t matter whether the symphony went well or was ruined because the timpanist showed up drunk (or ever occurred at all), since everything ends up the same. The thermodynamic oblivion of an expanding universe wipes out everything we’ve ever done, so that our choices and decisions ultimately don’t matter.
Now one might try to save the significance of the symphony performance by appealing to its aesthetic value. But on the Nietzsche-Russell-Sartre view of reality, there are no objective values, whether moral or aesthetic, as I explained to Goldstein later in the dialogue. Beauty is just in the eye of the beholder. If that seems wrong to you, as it does to me, then you should reject atheism.
Actually, Talia, you do seem in your last paragraph to recognize that on atheism human life is ultimately purposeless, valueless, and insignificant. But what you want to say is that we don’t need ultimate purpose, value, or significance. We can get along just fine with merely relative purpose, value, and significance, which I admit people have. “Why ought ultimate significance be the focus, rather than temporal significance?”
That takes us from the first part of my argument to the second part, that it is impossible to live happily and consistently with such a worldview. There is, I think, an irresistible temptation to slide from affirming the relative meaning of my petty plans and projects to affirming that such things really do matter and have value. That’s why people think they are rejecting the first part of the argument, when in fact they’re not. We can’t live as though our lives and the lives of those we love are ultimately inconsequential, that they and we are objectively morally worthless and there is no good or evil but only our subjective feelings, that our lives are really purposeless. That’s why, I think, atheism is an unlivable worldview.