Monday, June 23, 2014

Terry Eagleton, God, Meaning

Via Sullivan, here is Jonathan Sacks, at the Jewish Review of Books, on Terry Eagleton's Culture and the Death of God.
Two quick points:
Sacks writes, apparently summarizing or riffing on Eagleton:
We are meaning-seeking animals. And if we can no longer believe in God we will find other things to worship. 
Theists like to think this. It's an old refrain.
It's also false. 
It is clearly and obviously false strictly speaking, because many atheists find no other thing to worship. I'm an atheist, and I don't worship anything. So, as an unexceptional universalization, the claim is false. Maybe some people do need something to worship, but those people are typically theists. Perhaps theists find it hard to believe that some of us don't need to worship anything...but we don't. Honest. Theists insisting that everybody has to worship something, so atheists must worship something is like atheists insisting that nobody would ever really worship anything, so theists must not actually worship God (or: intend to). But we don't say that about them. [Because we don't believe it.] They seem to be unable to resist saying it about us...
Maybe he really means: most people will find something else to worship. That could be, and I'm willing to listen to the arguments. But the claim should be stated more clearly, IMO.
But, more to the point: "meaning-seeking animals" or no, the important point is: God never helps.
Theists like to say things like "without God, there can be no meaning." But this is deeply confused. The deepest confusion is this: their presupposition is that with God, there can be meaning. 
In fact, God helps not a bit with respect to meaning.
God does exactly nothing to help solve problems about the meaningfulness of life. If life is meaningless without God, then adding him to the picture does not help. If life can be meaningful in a universe containing God, then it can be meaningful in a universe that does not contain him. If it can't be meaningful in a universe without him, then it can't be meaningful in a universe with him.
The arguments here are more complicated than I've got time for, but here are some short arguments that point in the right direction:
One thing theists rely on God for is immorality. And one thought people have about meaningfulness is: if my life is finite, then it can't be meaningful. 
But if your life is meaningless now, then you simply add more meaninglessness to it if you extend it. Extend it infinitely for infinite meaninglessness... Take a finite, meaningless life and make it infinite and you will not ipso facto make it meaningful.
Theists seem to think that God can just magically instill life with meaning. But how would he do that? Imagine whatever you want...anything logically possible... One problem about meaningfulness is that we seem to be unable to even imagine circumstances that would make our lives meaningful sub specie aeternitatis...  It's not that we know what we need in order for life to be meaningful, but we can't see how to get it without God... It's rather that we can't imagine anything that would make life indisputably meaningful. Therefore God won't help. Even if God can do anything imaginable, the problem of meaningfulness is: nothing imaginable will help. Nothing God can do will make our lives meaningful, so far as we can tell.
We might, of course, go all O Magnum Mysterium... Maybe there's some card God has up his sleeve that we can't imagine... But, then maybe he doesn't. And, furthermore, maybe the universe without God has such a card up its sleeve...
In short: God simply doesn't help with this problem.

[For the record, my own view is that it's plausible/permissible to hope that life is meaningful. And I may even believe that it is. I certainly don't believe that it isn't. And I don't think it's rationally obligatory to think that it isn't.]


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