Ultimate meaning, eternity

Matt Fradd quotes from William Craig here:

“If each individual person passes out of existence when he dies, then what ultimate meaning can be given to his life?

Does it really matter whether he ever existed at all?

It might be said that his life was important because it influenced others or affected the course of history. But this only shows a relative significance to his life, not an ultimate significance.

His life may be important relative to certain other events, but what is the ultimate significance of any of those events? If all the events are meaningless, then what can be the ultimate meaning of influencing any of them? Ultimately it makes no difference.

[…] But it is important to see that it is not just immortality that man needs if life is to be meaningful. Mere duration of existence does not make that existence meaningful. If man and the universe could exist forever, but if there were no God, their existence would still have no ultimate significance.”

Craig’s argument can only be thought to work by emphasizing the epithet ‘ultimate’. For it is obvious that human life has meaning without those things being eternal or without a cognizance of God, i.e., in a moment, there is meaning in various experiences.

When people feel most alive, when life has most meaning, they are doing things that in themselves are meaningful. ‘Flow’ experiences are a type of these. If one thinks of meaning as an aspect of natural existence, one can see how certain experiences in life bring meaning to one’s life – i.e., we are designed to find certain sorts of experiences meaningful. Indeed, the art of creating games is creating systems which create meaning by leveraging these naturally existing systems. There is a goal, there is progress toward it, and so on. When done correctly, people can find these sorts of experiences meaningful.

However, Craig’s argument is partially correct as far as this goes. Contemporary society can reduce meaning (think meaningless office jobs, for example), and a Christian view of various things can add meaning to those events (such-and-such wasn’t just a random occurrence, but happened for a reason, or meaningful existence doesn’t end with death, for examples).

The Nietzschean maneuver of thinking ‘there is no God, therefore we create our own meaning’ is essentially an error. Meaning is part of a natural human process. It is found in various sorts of experiences we have, but it is not arbitrary. It is also part of why Christianity is interesting – it posits significantly more meaning in certain aspects of our lives then there would be in various kinds of non-Christian views.

In other words, Craig is overplaying his hand – but there is enough truth in what he is saying to make it worthwhile to at least ponder. Indeed, computer games often purchase their meaning by having ‘highscores’, which are records of deeds which persist after the game. There is no question that these sorts of devices can add meaning to a game, just as a dimension of eternity can add meaning to human actions.

Consider Craig’s quotation from Jacques Monod:

“Man finally knows he is alone in the indifferent immensity of the universe.”

We might ask: why does this matter? First, humans are social animals. Second, the proposition is that he is alone among indifference. Yet, a moment’s reflection will show this is not true – humans are surrounded by other humans, and many of those humans are not indifferent. Christianity adds more benevolent beings (angels, and a tripartite God) who are also not indifferent. Yet, it is the same principle.

So although it is a truism that actions can’t have ‘ultimate meaning’ if ultimate meaning is defined as something eternal and in some way related to God and if there is no God or eternal aspect of reality, it’s not clear the conclusion one gets from not having this sort of ultimate meaning is the one that Craig thinks follows. Events and actions here in finite time can be meaningful in themselves – Christianity posits a possible eternity of meaningful experience, but these in turn are also meaningful in themselves. The difference is in scope and possibly magnitude, not relevant type.

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