Brief Thoughts on Meaning, Purpose, and God

Yesterday, Justin Schieber–author, founder of Real Atheology, former cohost of Reasonable Doubts, and all around very respectable advocate for naturalism and philosophy of religion in general–made the following statement about God and purpose in life, via his twitter account:

“Does God have purpose in his life if he has no higher god imposing it? If his subjective purpose is objective, so is ours.”

This is similar to statements he has made elsewhere, and indeed he has a whole video on a related argument, which can be found here. The purpose (no pun intended) of the statement is to suggest that common assertions to the effect of “life is meaningless without God!” or “if you don’t believe in God your life can’t have purpose!” are actually a double-edged sword, in that the same reasons underlying those assertions could actually be turned around and applied to God Himself, such that if human life is meaningless/purposeless without God, then the life of God Himself must likewise be meaningless/purposeless.

While I think this is an interesting idea, I think a closer evaluation of relevant concepts shows the counter not to be analogously applicable to God.

Obviously, we first need to consider what exactly we mean by “purpose” and “meaning” in the first place. This is difficult, since the two terms can be used in a variety of different ways with different meanings. It could that Mr. Schieber’s own use/definition is such as to render his statement correct. But here is how I understand them:

Although the two are commonly used interchangeably, I think the terms “meaning” and “purpose” are distinct in important senses. As I see it, “purpose” implies intention, or being for the sake of something, being directed towards some end. A house is constructed with the intention of providing shelter; it is for the sake of providing shelter; it is directed towards providing shelter. A knife, likewise, is crafted for the sake of cutting or slicing; thus cutting and slicing is it’s intended “purpose”.

(What I am here considering is what is known, from an Aristotelian perspective, as artificial teleology, i.e. teleology that is externally imposed upon constructed objects, as opposed to natural teleology.)

Now, purpose as such is closely related to, but not identical with, the function of something. The purpose of a knife, as we’ve said, is to cut; and cutting is also a function/ability of the knife, based on the way it was designed/put together. But we could imagine some rock in a forest, jutting up from the ground, which over thousands and thousands of years is slowly worn down by some small waterfall from above until, eventually, its edge becomes extremely sharp, so that, if something were to land on it, it would be just as capable of cutting that thing as a knife would. This sharp edged rock obviously has the same function/ability of the knife, but we’d hardly say that it is the purpose of the rock to cut. The ability of the rock to do such was an entirely random, accidental, non-intended result of purely natural forces; and that seems to be almost the exact opposite of what we mean by “purpose”. Or consider a cave in the side of a cliff: it might be fully capable of providing (to a lesser extent) shelter for some lost traveler, but we’d hardly say it is the purpose of the cave to provide shelter in the same way that we’d say it is the purpose of a house to do so.

Each of these objects–the knife and the house–are artifacts (as opposed to substances), and display artificial teleology: purpose that is applied to/imposed upon them externally, in that the very way they are intentionally designed and built allows for specific functions/capabilities which are then utilized by agents for such.

Though it’s not as relevant to the present discussion, we can similarly consider the meaning (pun slightly intended) of “meaning”. Meaning refers to something which signifies, symbolizes, or points toward something else. Words have meaning because that particular arrangement of letters points to or represents a specific concept/definition. If, however, we were to set a monkey down in front of a computer screen and teach it to press four random keys, with the result of it typing some non-word, the letters then don’t signify anything; they have no recognized meaning.

Now, with this general understanding in place, we can consider what it might mean for there to be a “purpose” to human life. It seems quite difficult to see how, on atheistic naturalism, human life could have the type of purpose we’ve explored above. Don’t get me wrong: what I’m definitely not saying is that individual atheists cannot have “purpose” in their life, in the sense of personal desires or goals or meaningful experiences, etc. That is most certainly not the case. An atheist who is a doctor might very well (and very nobly) say, “I find purpose in my life to help others”. Or an atheist who is a teacher might say, “I find purpose in my life by teaching and mentoring and helping children grow and development”. Etc. And any atheist can do this just as well, and just as legitimately, as any theist or religious person. But this is not the same type of purpose to which we’re referring. On an atheistic naturalism account, it seems most likely that human life has come about completely randomly, as an accidental byproduct of the blind forces of nature via the evolution of the universe and of biological life forms here on earth. Again, it is not evolution or natural processes per se that renders human life purposeless (since many theists would affirm that such things did in fact occur); but, rather, the naturalistic interpretation thereof which states that such processes were completed by the blind, un-intelligent, un-directed forces of the physical universe. By direct implication, then, human life cannot have been intended for or directed towards something, for human life was not “intended” by anything at all. Human life, on this framework, seems very much more like the sharp-edged rock than the knife. Which is, again, not at all to say that individual persons with such beliefs cannot lead very meaningful or very purposeful lives; it is just to observe that there doesn’t seem to be any justification for such a person as, say, the doctor, to then assert, “helping people is the reason for my existence” in the same way that cutting is the intended reason for the existence of the knife.

But, given this, Mr. Schieber just turns the same problem right back around towards God Himself: after all, there is no “higher god” that intended God for anything. So must we then conclude that God’s own life is objectively purposeless?

I don’t think that is the case. The type of purpose we’ve been considering seems to be an applicable feature only of contingent, finite beings. Think again of the knife and the rock. Both are contingent, finite, created things. Both thus require some external reason for their existence, and it is this external reason which either imposes some intended purpose or not. For the rock, which came about by thousands of years of random, blind, natural forces which did not at all “intend” for it to form a sharp-edge (nor indeed did they “intend” for the rock to exist at all), the external reason for its existence supplies no purpose thereto. For the knife, which was deliberately, consciously designed and crafted in order to and for the sake of cutting, the external reason for its existence most definitely does supply an imposed purpose.

But if the God of Classical Theism exists, then He is a completely self-sufficient Being who contains within Himself the very reason for His existence; His existence does not derive from some external source which could possibly impose some intended purpose upon His existence. In other words, God is just not the type of Being even susceptible of having an externally imposed “purpose” to His life. His reason for existence, and thus His “purpose” in existing, are wholly within Himself. (Of course, one could argue that such a self-sufficient Being is incoherent or impossible, but that is not relevant presently. Here we are only discussing whether if this Being exists, its life would be purposeless). One could, I suppose, then conclude that God’s life would be “purposeless”, since there is no externally intended purpose imposed upon Him; but this just seems like a meaningless statement, given the nature of the Being in question. Indeed, even just requiring/needing a purpose is arguably a sign of only lower, finite creatures. I don’t think it would be necessarily a pejorative at all to say “God’s life is purposeless” if by that one just means God’s life does not (and cannot) have some externally imposed purpose, since God was not created like humans are created, and God does not require some external reason for existence like humans do. Among beings who do require some external reason for existence, such reasons are either intended or entirely accidental; and if the latter, then the existence thereof is purposeless.

Now, someone might very well actually prefer things to be this way. Some might find it troublesome to suppose that some external being has created them for some reason, of which they have absolutely no say. While I would disagree, this is certainly a plausible position, and is not one I’m here going to argue against, since it is irrelevant to the question of purpose itself.

Everything we’ve just said has been in reference to artificial teleology. Our account must be quite different if one accepts natural teleology, but from what I can tell, most atheists don’t subscribe to an Aristotelian, Thomistic, or other Classical/Scholastic framework of natural teleology (and indeed, it doesn’t seem clear that a naturalistic natural teleology is even coherent, since, as Aquinas’s Fifth Way argues, all natural teleology or final causation in beings must be directed by some Intelligent Agent. But that’s an issue for another time).

Externally imposed teleology on artifacts seems quite uncontroversial amongst both theists and atheists (building a car for the sake of driving it). But if some form of natural teleology is true, then natural substances, not just human-created-artificacts, all have a sort of inherent purpose, or end/goal towards which they are automatically directed. In that case, something’s purpose is just its final cause, and this adheres as much in atoms and electrons as it does in human beings.

But this, again, would not be applicable to God, since God on the Classical view is infinitely and purely actual, with no unfulfilled final causes.

In either case, it is just meaningless to say that God’s life is “purposeless”, and anyways would not be a pejorative in the same sense that saying such of human life would be.

In conclusion, a brief note to avoid confusion: when I say that purpose is externally “imposed”, I do not mean something like a father forcing his child to go to law school rather than following his/her dreams of becoming a musician on pain of total disowning. I mean rather the sense in which a carpenter “imposes” purpose on a beatifully crafted table, or in the sense of a manufacturer “imposing” a certain purpose on the knife. It is not just something already-existent being forced to do something against its will; it is that the “purpose” is infused in the very form, structure, and existence of the being. The knife is created as it is, given its form and shape and facultues, entirely so that/for the sake of cutting, carrying out its intended function.

If, however, Mr. Schieber means something more like a man choosing to work at a charity so he can spend his life helping others, and doing such gives him internal “purpose” or drive/direction in life–well, then, human life could plausibly have just as much purpose on a naturalistic framework as a theistic one.

But, someone like Aristotle might respond to this that the only reason such a person has an internal sense of purpose and direction in doing so, is because human beings have a real, ultimate, objective purpose towards which we are intrinsically directed, which is true flourishing/happiness, and such actions as charity are conducive to this end.




3 thoughts on “Brief Thoughts on Meaning, Purpose, and God

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