“What sacred games shall we have to invent?” (Nietzsche, The Parable of the Madman, The Joyful Wisdom)
“Now all has been heard; here is the conclusion of the matter: Fear God and keep his commandments, for this is the duty of all mankind.” (Ecclesiastes 12:13)
In this article, I provide an argument from the objective meaning of human life to the existence of God.
Working Assumptions and Definitions
I assume a difference between objectivity and subjectivity. Something is objective if its existence is independent of the human mind (i.e., of human thoughts, beliefs, desires, choices, etc.) For instance, the sun is an objective entity; it is there regardless of whether or not human beings want or believe it to be there. Indeed, the astronomical and anthropological evidence indicates that the sun existed before human beings were around to have mental states about it. Something is subjective if its existence depends on the human mind. For example, my preference for coffee over tea is subjective. Without my existence, there would be no such thing as my preference for coffee. I also assume that by “meaning,” one generally means something like a combination of objective significance, value, and purpose. “God” refers to what Anselm called in Latin: Aliquid quo nihil maius cogitari posit. (In English: that than which nothing greater can be conceived, or more simply, the greatest conceivable or greatest possible being.)
Purpose Theory (PT)
This is a philosophical theory about the meaning of human life. On PT, God’s existence, God’s telic creation of human beings, and human libertarian free will (LFW) are necessary conditions for human life to be objectively meaningful.[i] It is important to note that one need not be a theist to accept PT. Theists and atheists can adopt PT in a manner consistent with their theism or atheism. A theist might accept PT and reason as follows: “If human life is objectively meaningful, then God exists, God created us for a purpose, and we have LFW. But I believe that human life is objectively meaningful. I conclude that God exists, etc.”
However, one man’s modus ponens is another’s modus tollens. An atheist might reason as follows: “I also accept PT. So, if human life is objectively meaningful, then God exists, etc. But I believe that there is no God. I conclude that human life is not objectively meaningful.” This conclusion expresses a philosophical position called nihilism, which is the view that life lacks objective meaning.[ii] On this view, the non-existence of God is a sufficient condition for the non-existence of objective meaning.
It is also important to underscore that PT does not presuppose theism and that, since PT is consistent with atheism, one would be mistaken to reject PT on the ground that there is no God.
The Argument from Meaning
The argument is suggested above. Below, I reiterate it formally.
- If human life is objectively meaningful, then God exists.
- Human life is objectively meaningful.
- Therefore, God exists.
The argument is deductively valid by modus ponens. Are the premises plausible? Premise (1) is an abridged version of PT and is reasonable given its explanatory power. First, (1) accounts for the dignity and stability that one would expect to be an inherent aspect an objectively meaningful life. (1) locates the source of axiological significance in a transcendent and perfect reality which is necessary, eternal, and a se; its meaning and value are self-contained and thus ontologically independent. The stable and noble purpose of this source gives us something reliable and worthy of pursuit.[iii] Second, (1) is a tenable analysis of objectivity. An objectively meaningful life is not the invention of a human subject. Nor is it the farraginous construct of the myriad and collectively inconsistent desires and opinions of fallible human beings; i.e., human meaning is not whatever Jones, Smith, and a billion others happen to fancy. Such a collection of contingencies would be a mere description of human psychology and, in many cases, a catalogue of what Kant called the “boisterous importunity of inclination.” This sort of description cannot provide objective normativity. As Sartre wrote, an objectively significant human life requires an authoritative conferring of essence and meaning. Without this bestowal, human beings are confined by subjectivity.[iv]
Premise (2) is also plausible. The challenge is to support (2) without appealing to God, since such an appeal would beg the question and circularize the argument. How might one support (2)?
Several ways come to mind. First, one can appeal to an axiological intuition that human lives possess objective worth. Common human experience seems to involve a direct awareness of human value. Second, one can cite Kant’s Categorical Imperative (CI). Regardless of whether or not one agrees with Kant in other areas, his CI enjoys broad support, especially the “The Formula of the End in Itself.” As persons or rational agents, human beings possess intrinsic rather than merely instrumental value. Thus, we ought to “Act in such a way that you always treat humanity, whether in your own person or in the person of any other, never simply as a means, but always at the same time as an end.”[v] Third, one can point to the widespread belief in equal human (moral) rights.[vi] If human beings ought to be treated equally, there must be something to ground this equality; this something must be highly significant and common to all humanity, such as an intrinsic and universal value. In sum, most people live as if human life matters in an objective sense. The burden of proof is on the denier of this practical assumption.[vii]
Objections and Replies
Given spatial limitation, I will address only three objections. First, one might hold that PT fails because it does not provide the ultimate meaning that PT theorists seek. One might ask: “What is the explanation of God? What is the external purpose or value of God? Is there anything independent of God which confers significance on God?”[viii] To such questions, the theist can reply that God exists a se and hence contains the source of all meaning and value in the necessity of his own nature.
Second, one can argue that God’s telic creation of humanity demeans us. It makes us mere tools of the divine will. It is coercive, exploitative, or otherwise degrading.[ix] Here, the theist can respond by noting that God could have created us as libertarianly free persons and given us a purpose which we can freely accept or reject. Since this end is for our own flourishing and we are free regarding its appropriation, the end is not degrading.
Third, one might argue that PT makes God irrational. On PT, God creates human beings for a purpose and endows them with libertarian freedom to accept or reject that purpose. However, logically prior to creation, God does not know how his human creatures will freely choose regarding his purpose. Thus, he cannot adequately plan to accomplish it, which makes him practically irrational. Since God is perfect and therefore cannot be irrational, PT is false. I have addressed this objection elsewhere. In short, arguably, if God has middle knowledge, this objection fails.[x]
Citations and Notes
[i] For more on PT, see Chapters 5 and 6 in Meaning in Life: An Analytic Study by Thaddeus Metz (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013). See also “Could God’s Purpose Be the Source of Life’s Meaning?” by Metz in Exploring the Meaning of Life: An Anthology and Guide, ed. Joshua Seachris, (Oxford: Wiley-Blackwell, 2013). My characterization of PT is consistent with but slightly different from that of Metz.
[ii] In Act 5, Scene 5 of Macbeth, Shakespeare has Macbeth say the following:
Out, out, brief candle!
Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage
And then is heard no more; it is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
Signifying nothing. (http://shakespeare.mit.edu/macbeth/macbeth.5.5.html)
Macbeth’s soliloquy is nihilistic. He suggests that, even if we subjectively take our lives to be meaningful (e.g., we strut and fret, full of sound and fury), all of the strutting, etc. is objectively meaningless; it is a shadow which soon disappears and which signifies nothing. For Macbeth, human life is at best only subjectively significant. At the objective level, human life is meaningless.
[iii] As Tolstoy put it, human meaning is not just a matter of the mysteriously existent mental activity of “a transitory cohesion of particles.” Rather, meaning is found in a reliable and life-fulfilling shore toward which we can “row hard up the stream.” See A Confession at https://en.wikisource.org/wiki/A_Confession_(Maudes_translation)/VI and https://en.wikisource.org/wiki/A_Confession_(Maudes_translation)/XII
But one might object: couldn’t human meaning be a brute fact? Response: Arguably, the existence of God best explains human meaning. In a Godless world, whether a purely naturalistic state of affairs or a world in which transcendent values exist without explanation, there is no sufficient reason to believe that human life matters in an objective sense. In a naturalistic world, how could there be non-physical properties such as meaningfulness and value? And it seems implausible to hold that there are transcendent values such as meaningfulness and purposefulness that just exist without divine grounding, and that these brute values apply to human beings. Why think they should apply to us, of all creatures? What makes us so special?
[iv] For the reference to Kant, see Critique of Practical Reason, (New York: Dover Publications, 2004), 169. For the reference to Sartre, see Existentialism and Human Emotions, (New York: Citadel Press, 1957, 1987), 13-17.
[v] See Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals, (New York: Harper and Row, 1964), 96.
[vi] To support this claim, one might point to the UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which begins: “Whereas recognition of the inherent dignity and of the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family is the foundation of freedom, justice and peace in the world …” See https://www.un.org/en/universal-declaration-human-rights/
[vii] As Roderick Chisholm noted, we should be guided in philosophy by those propositions we all presuppose in our ordinary activity. We have a right to believe these propositions until there is a sufficient reason to reject them. The burden of proof is on the one who rejects them. See Person and Object: A Metaphysical Study, Second Edition, (Chicago: Open Court Publishing Company, 1979), 15-16, 18.
But one might object: you’ve supported (1) and (2), but is a deductive format suitable for this topic? Response: one can articulate the argument abductively. The existence of God best explains the objective meaning of human life.
[viii] Thomas Nagel raises such questions in Chapter 10 of What Does it All Mean? (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1987), 99-100.
[ix] Metz discusses these objections in “Could God’s Purpose Be the Source of Life’s Meaning?” In response, Metz imagines God saying to each human being: “There is something I would like you to do with your life, and this is the reason that you exist. Specifically, I would like you to be a moral person. Your free will is such that I cannot cajole you into exercising it morally, and your moral choice would be valuable only if it were made freely. Therefore, I must ask you to pursue the fundamental end of pursuing moral ends.” See Exploring the Meaning of Life: An Anthology and Guide, 206.
[x] See Elliott R. Crozat, Does the Purpose Theory of the Meaning of Life Entail an Irrational God? (Philosophia Christi, Vol. 20, No. 2, 2018).