via The Piety That Lies Between: A Progressive Christian Perspective
by Eric Reitan on 2/17/11
by Eric Reitan on 2/17/11
Theists often claim that naturalism strips life of positive meaning by implying that all of our activities, all of our aspirations and efforts, all of our accomplishments, are in the end swallowed up by the void. Not only does every human life end in death (meaning oblivion or non-existence); but every civilization collapses, and even the Earth itself will come to be destroyed, and the universe become a lifeless expanse of so much celestial flotsam.
William Lane Craig expresses this objection in the following terms:
Scientists tell us that everything in the universe is growing farther and farther apart. As it does so, the universe grows colder and colder, and its energy is used up. Eventually…there will be no life, only the corpses of dead stars and galaxies, ever-expanding into the endless darkness and the cold recesses of space, a universe in ruins… If there is no God, then man, and the universe, are doomed. Like prisoners condemned to death row, we stand and simply wait for our unavoidable execution. If there is no God, and there is no immortality, then what is the consequence of this? It means that the life that we do have is ultimately absurd. It means that the life we live is without ultimate significance, ultimate value, ultimate purpose.
In his book, Value and Virtue in a Godless Universe, philosopher Erik Wielenberg responds to this objection to naturalism (as well as a number of others). He calls Craig's argument "the final outcome argument" against the meaningfulness of life. And its key premise, Wielenberg points out, is that the value that attaches to something's final state is the value that we should attach to the whole thing. This, Wielenberg rightly notes, is a mistake. If some activity is intrinsically worthwhile, then it remains intrinsically worthwhile even if it comes to an end. If my life is full of such worthwhile activities, then my life has value—intrinsic value—even if it should come to a final and irrevocable end.
Wielenberg's point can be made by thinking of matters in reverse: If my life has no value if it ends, then it will have no value if it is made endless. An infinite sum of zeros has the same value: zero. And so, for an immortal life to have value, the finite slices of that life must have value too—which implies, in turn, that a mortal life can have value even if what lies beyond the boundary of death is nonexistence.
In short, this particular objection to atheistic naturalism isn't very strong. If life can have value at all, then it can have value if it comes to an end. And so belief that life comes to an end—in the limited sense of a particular organism's inevitable death, or in the cosmic sense of the universe winding down until it, too, is dead—is not as such a reason to think life has no significance, value, or purpose.
But perhaps Craig, and others who put forward arguments of this sort, just aren't expressing themselves very well. Maybe the problem isn't that, if life and love and laughter must end, then they have no value while we are living and loving and laughing. Maybe the worry is better expressed in terms of Karl Barth's Das Nichtige—the "nothingness" that lies beyond the boundaries of finite existence. This is a concept I've talked about before. For Barth, Das Nightige has a power, a force, that no finite creature can ultimately confront head-on without the support of an infinite God. The problem, put subjectively, is this: If you look beyond your limits, what you are not utterly dwarfs what you are. Perhaps the problem that Craig and others like him are pointing to is this: Given a naturalist universe, life and love and laughter, while intrinsically valuable, are a speck in an endless ocean of non-life, non-love, non-laughter. The value of these goods is utterly swamped by that which is entirely devoid of value, making the goods of this life of trivial significance in comparison. It's not just that you're dead for a lot longer than you're alive. It's that your dead forever. The finite value of one's life, set against this infinite void of non-value, has a relative significance that is infinitesimally small.
In a way, of course, the same can be said of a theistic universe: Whatever value my existence has, it is swamped by the infinite value of God. But in that case, what dwarfs the finite value of my existence is positive value—and so the ultimate message is that value wins. Not my value, but value. Not my goodness, but goodness. And so, if I stop being self-absorbed and simply treasure the good wherever it is to be found, then I find myself in a world overflowing with the good, overflowing with significance. The same is not true in a reality where there is no infinite good, no infinite reality, to set against the non-being that swamps the finite reality of each creature here below. In that case, to live beyond myself, to embrace ultimate reality and live for the whole, is to live as if all positive values are, relatively speaking, trivial.