29 December 2008

Dennis Prager: If There Is No God, Part 2

(Note: This is Part 2 in the series started here.  The previous installment is here.  In each post, I comment on one of the fourteen points made by Dennis Prager in his article, “If There Is No God.”)


Dennis Prager’s Point #2:


Without God, there is no objective meaning to life. We are all merely random creations of natural selection whose existence has no more intrinsic purpose or meaning than that of a pebble equally randomly produced. (Note 1.)



I have no doubt that Mr. Prager and I are diametrically opposed with his overall intention here, but if his words are taken literally, I am surprised to find that with some reservations, I have no strong objections to his formulations.


First, let us note that because I reject the premise of God as arbitrary, any sentence in the form, “If there is no God, X is true,” reduces to simply, “X is true.”  Thus, although it obviously reverses Prager’s intentions, the “without God” condition may be plucked from his statement without changing its meaning.


Next, what does Mr. Prager mean by a “meaning to life?”  If he equates “meaning” with “purpose” (as he seems to do in the second sentence above) or with “value” (as he suggests in point #9 of his essay), then I vehemently disagree with his statement.  It is not God but the facts of reality that give rise to the objective value of my life and to the purpose of pursuing my own long-term happiness.


However, I do not consider the meaning of my life to be the same thing as its purpose.  Whereas a purpose reflects an individual’s own goals, a meaning suggests the existence of a larger, external plan.  (I admit that the term “meaning of life” is so vague, I could be wrong on this point, so I welcome comments.)  To me, the phrase “meaning of life” connotes some sort of transcendent, sacrificial purpose - the sort of “meaning” that holds individuals as means to an end that is “greater than oneself,” such as God, humanity, etc.  This concept is aptly illustrated by George Bailey of It’s a Wonderful Life, who finds that his life has “meaning” only insofar as he had an effect on others.(Note 2.)  If that is the “meaning to life” that Prager is referring to - an altruistic meaning - then I agree with his literal statement that there are no objective grounds whatsoever to assert its existence.  (I am aware that he was trying to establish exactly the opposite point.)


Similarly, I have no serious disagreement with his second sentence, taken literally, either.  We are in fact “random creatures of natural selection.”  (I would not have emphasized “merely random” as Prager did since our natural ancestry in no way reduces the value of what we are now, nor would I have used the word “creations” because it implies a creator.)  Furthermore, Prager asserts that we have “no more intrinsic purpose or meaning than that of a pebble.”  This sudden shift from “objective” to “intrinsic” is significant.  Strictly speaking, the purpose of an individual’s life is properly termed objective, not intrinsic - that is, it is based upon each man’s relationship to the universe and a code of values that he has chosen on a rational basis, as opposed to being a fixed, context-less abstraction divorced from a valuer.  This is a technicality, of course, but again, however accidental it may be, I don’t disagree with Prager’s formulation even though he was trying to make precisely the opposite point.


(Note: The next installment in the series is here.)



NOTES

1.  Dennis Prager, “If There Is No God,” http://townhall.com/columnists/DennisPrager/2008/08/19/if_there_is_no_god.

2.  Edward Cline recently wrote a good article about this alleged hero of Frank Capra’s It’s a Wonderful Life.  See “George Bailey’s Wasted Life,” http://ruleofreason.blogspot.com/2008/12/george-baileys-wasted-life.htm.


5 comments:

Burgess Laughlin said...

I think you are right to be cautious in interpreting Prager without further information. However, a reader doesn't have the luxury of directly questioning a writer or speaker--except perhaps by reading more of what he has written, if possible.

Following are my suggestions, based only on Prager's quoted words and my general understanding of the arguments that religionists usually offer.

Prager: "Without God, there is no objective meaning to life."

1. Objective traditionally in the history of philosophy means "independent of [human] consciousness." That is a metaphysical meaning. Ayn Rand added another meaning of objective, an epistemological meaning. An idea drawn logically from the facts of reality is objective. Objectivity in the epistemological sense is a relationship--a logical relationship--between an idea in the mind and the facts which it subsumes (refers to).

Prager is almost certainly using "objective" in the first, the metaphysical, meaning. For Prager, meaning resides in God (specifically, I suppose, God's Mind). I doubt that Prager is familiar with the epistemological meaning of "objective."

2. But what does Prager mean by "meaning" here? Judging from the text and assuming he is like most Christian religionists, I would suggest "meaning" here is an evaluation. He is saying that without God "life" (note the abstraction) has no evaluation, no value. It is "merely" a fact.

It is true that if there is no mind (or Mind), then there can be no evaluation. Religionists believe God gives value to life. So, life has intrinsic value whether individual men are too sinful or not to appreciate it as a gift from God.

Prager: "We are all merely random creations of natural selection whose existence has no more intrinsic purpose or meaning than that of a pebble equally randomly produced. (Note 1.)

As you pointed out, I recall, life does not have an intrinsic purpose. I cannot locate the source at the moment, but I remember Ayn Rand or Leonard Peikoff pointing out that there is no purpose of life; there is only purpose in life, that is, in human life. (This is sometimes humorously referred to as "philosophy of prepositions"--because a lot swings on a preposition, which is an adverb of relationship.)

There is no purpose of life (human or otherwise) in general, but each of us as individuals can and should choose a hierarchy of purposes within our individual lives. The ultimate purpose is happiness. Secondary, supportive, purposes are a central purpose in life (our productive purpose) and others of our choosing.

In Objectivism, meaning usually has an epistemological use. The meaning of a concept is all the facts subsumed by the concept. The meaning of "table" is all the tables that have existed, do exist, or will exist.

Applying that sense, then the meaning of Ayn Rand's life or your life is the sum of all the aspects of her individual life or yours. For most of us, that usually means a heap of good and bad experiences. But we can go one step further by essentializing (which is what we do when we define a concept).

We can ask ourselves at any point in our lives: In terms of essentials, what has my life meant so far and what do I want it to mean (refer to) for the remainder of my life. For me that would be the work I love (my central purpose in life), my closest friends, and my favorite leisure activities that have restored me after draining times.

The Ayn Rand Lexicon has entries on "Meaning (of concepts)," "Purpose," "Intrinsicism," "Objectivity," and "Objective Theory of Values."

I consider the ARL to be the single most important text for the study of Objectivism. The online version is helpful, but one can't make notes in it and thus one can't accumulate knowledge in a single spot over a lifetime.

Stephen Bourque said...

I agree with you, Burgess, and I thank you for your time and effort in "connecting the dots" to arrive at a formulation for a meaning of life.

In particular, I hadn't gotten very far thinking of the meaning of one's life in basically the same way I would think of the meaning of a word of concept. However, your presentation has made that quite clear - even obvious. In a manner exactly analogous to the meaning of a concept, the meaning of a man's life subsumes all his actions, and (importantly) condenses these choices to essentials.

I made an interesting observation as I wrote the previous sentence. I began to write that the meaning "subsumed all aspects of a man's life," but I changed it to "subsumed all actions." I emphasize actions because I don't think the meaning would ever include anything accidental or incidental, such as ethnicity, personal tragedy, handicap, environment, or chance windfall or hard luck. (I wonder if you agree.) Perhaps such things would be subsumed as raw facts to be included in a biography, but I think only what a man does - what he chooses freely - would contribute to the meaning of his life.

Another interesting observation is that your formulation has paved the way to my seeing the meaning of life as a legitimate concept applied to an individual. Up to now, as I explained in my post, I've always had the vague idea that the "meaning of life" was a collectivist concept intended to inculcate a sense of duty. It may well be often used that way, but I see now that it is not necessarily so.

Burgess Laughlin said...

> "I've always had the vague idea that the 'meaning of life' was a collectivist concept intended to inculcate a sense of duty. It may well be often used that way, but I see now that it is not necessarily so."

I agree that mystics, of one sort or another, use the idea of "the meaning of life" in a nonobjective way. They seem to be referring to some meaning that is independent of any individual man's experiences, values, actions.

So, in conversation with such mystics, perhaps the best approach would be to ask: The meaning of whose life--yours, mine, or someone else's?

Burgess Laughlin said...

> "I began to write that the meaning "subsumed all aspects of a man's life," but I changed it to "subsumed all actions." I emphasize actions because I don't think the meaning would ever include anything accidental or incidental, such as ethnicity, personal tragedy, handicap, environment, or chance windfall or hard luck. (I wonder if you agree.)"

I haven't finished thinking this point through. If you mean actions in a broad sense, then I agree with you.

Here is an example. Let's say a young man, perhaps 18, is leaving home for the first time. He steps outside at dawn on the day he begins his first major change. He sees the sunrise. That sunrise means something to him then--and perhaps in his memory for the remainder of his life--that is not an action directly. It is symbolic and connected to his actions (seeking a path through life and actually taking the first mental and physical steps on that path).

Another example would be a romantic relationship or a friendship that is very deep. Both require his actions, but what he values is that other person. That person was part of what made his life worth living.

So, the meaning of his life subsumes his values--which he must act to gain or keep.

In further thinking about this subject, one approach, among others might be to try a death-bed experiment. Let's say that, despite socialized medicine, you manage to live to 85. Then you discover that you will soon die. You look back on your life. What do you see? What does it mean to you?

For me it would iinclude my highest philosophical and personal values. It would also include those peak experiences (such as the sunrise) that captured or symbolized my values. This is one reason why objective people sometimes collect a few momentoes as they pass through life. Those items represent broader experiences related to one's highest values.

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