Reflections on the “Is There Meaning to Life?” Dialogue

I had the pleasure of watching a dialogue between Jordan Peterson, Rebecca Goldstein and William Lane Craig on the topic of “Is There Meaning to Life” on Youtube recently. Here is a record of my reflections.

Loosely, the speakers are set up as a kind of see-saw balance – Craig is a theist and a Christian, Goldstein is a naturalist and an atheist, while Peterson inhabits the space somewhere in between. Craig goes first, and he wastes no time in expounding the idea that meaning is baseless without God – in opposition of a naturalistic worldview, articulating a position that more or less agrees with my own. I’ve seen some material from Craig before and he strikes me as a very clear and technical speaker – and that is on display here as well, as he is the only one among the three who seemed to have come geared and armed for a detailed, nitty-gritty debate – not just arguing, for example, that “meaning” cannot be derived from a purely naturalistic view of the world but also carefully dividing “meaning” into the related but conceptually distinct categories of “purpose”, “value” and “significance”. He quoted generously from passages by non-theistic thinkers who agree that there seems to be no natural and convincing reason to suppose that what is good is objectively good, or that anything done could matter in any real sense. I particularly appreciated his rather impassioned performance of Nietzsche’s “God is dead, and we have killed him!” story. I’ve read criticisms of Craig before that loosely complained about his abstractness, that for all the ingenuity he displays in weaving together complicated and philosophically powerful arguments, he lacked “grounding” and simple connections to truth. So I thought the “God is dead” passage gave his segment a spark of humanity, in the sense that it put a crack in his apparently impersonal armor of technical argument to reveal the person underneath, sharing Nietzsche’s own profound horror at the idea being portrayed.

Goldstein is speaking, it seems to me, from within enemy territory

Goldstein goes next, and judging by the youtube comments people seem to have liked her segment the least. However I feel like one thing ought to be kept in mind when listening to this dialogue: a field like “the meaning of life” is kind of a position of power (I believe) for the theistic position, and so Goldstein is speaking, it seems to me, from within enemy territory. The tables would be turned, for example, if the topic were something like “suffering in the world”. I am of course not saying that naturalists have no good thing to say about meaning nor that theists have nothing to offer on suffering, but it seems to me at any rate that the state of the discourse varies according to the topic, and for discussions on meaning, the theistic position has something of an upper hand. For her part, I think Goldstein tries to articulate and defend her position with passion, as one would something cherished. The position seems to go something like this: certain things seem to be self-evidently meaningful, certain modes of behavior seem to be self-evidently obligatory. No one ought to need to tell you that you shouldn’t step on me when I’m lying on the beach, and so no further appeal to metaphysics ought to be necessary nor warranted. I do not myself think this is a solid position – after all, there seems to be no reason why I can’t ask “why do these things appear to me self-evidently meaningful”, or “why do these acts seem self-evidently obligatory”. Self-evidence here does not appear to mean self-explanatory, and so it is not incoherent to demand an explanation. Furthermore, I think no one would dispute that we seem to be able to go against this feeling of self-evident obligation if we wanted to – people have in fact done worse things than step on innocent people at the beach. So if there is a reason to go against this intuition of self-evidence then we can go against it – the intuitions are not authoritative in any binding sense. Therefore it seems to me to makes sense to question them and ask after their nature, with metaphysics thrown in if necessary. I’m not sure if any better position is possible from naturalism, and so at any rate Goldstein rolls with this one.

she expressed a horror of the very idea of transcendence, noting that apparent appeals to transcendence underlie some of the most atrocious things humans have done

In a sense, just as her position is intuitive while Craig’s is technical, her presentation also, while lacking in detailed consistency, felt personal and appealed to the audience’s sentiment and intuition. Responding to Peterson near the end of the session, she expressed a horror of the very idea of transcendence, noting that apparent appeals to transcendence underlie some of the most atrocious things humans have done. “Let’s just be human” – and that’s clearly a very resonant appeal. Why pursue transcendence when we can get it so wrong? In a subtle sense, there is also something inherently naturalistic about this point of view. Some critics of naturalism have pointed out that in a naturalistic framework there is no reason to believe that human reasoning can produce real truth – after all, in naturalism, thoughts must themselves have natural causes, and the only natural force capable of performing a regulating and perfecting role is Darwinian selection. However, selection only acts on outward, phenotypical parts of organisms and so would have only a very tenuous influence on abstract thought. The more abstract a thought is, the less exposed it has been to the reality grounding of natural selection, and so the less likely it is to be true or valid. I don’t know what naturalists usually think about this argument, but the contemplation of transcendence at any rate does seem assuredly on the abstract side of things, and so Goldstein’s skepticism seems to be in line with this angle. In my view, it seems to be a defeatist sort of position – kind of saying lets not ask too many questions and engage in hunts for ultimate, deep reasons because it is probably futile. We seem to be able to ask questions about transcendence and to say interesting things about them, so it seems to me that we should certainly try. Especially when in the real world we basically act anyway as though certain things – like morality and the laws of physics – are transcendent. Consistency between our actions and our theory of reality seems worth attempting. Anyway, whether or not philosophers talk about transcendence, it seems likely that bad men will misuse it anyway for their catastrophes, and so the correlation between transcendence theories and historical atrocities does not strike me as a valid objection to continuing to think about transcendence.

in the real world we basically act anyway as though certain things – like morality and the laws of physics – are transcendent. Consistency between our actions and our theory of reality seems worth attempting

Also, a quick word about moral progress. Goldstein seems understandably impressed with how far we have come in moral thought since the Enlightenment, but aside from the counter-argument that the very notion of “progress” smuggles in the assumption of a standard by which this progress is made (and then the question: what is the nature of this standard?); I think we ought also to be wary of unequivocally supposing that we are morally superior to our predecessors. Practical morality has a “zeitgeist” character: what is regarded by people as acceptable and laudable changes to an extent with time and environment. If a person from the 1300s were to see us now, it is not clear that she would recognize our moral superiority at all, and if we have such a tendency to be scathing of our medieval ancestors then a person from 2500 will probably have a similar attitude towards us. The fact is that even by our own moral intuition we can tell that in some ways we are lesser than our ancestors – in valor and honesty, say. We just think these are less important than the things in which we do better than them – and that sounds dangerously like fashion. I’m not suggesting that there has been no moral progress, of course (I talk meaningfully of progress since I do believe in transcendent morality), only that it may not be quite as unilateral and supreme as it may seem from our vantage point. We should always be wary of what C.S. Lewis calls “chronological snobbery”.

Now Peterson, it seems to me, ended up being largely aligned with Craig in this discussion, although he never confirmed it in so many words, and he seems to come at it from a different route. He was scathing of the idea, elaborated in Craig’s segment, that an act could be meaningless if it does not create a difference over a large timescale. The interesting thing to me is this: Peterson seems to arrive at the general territory of Craig’s main claims via intuition. Unlike Craig who wove his arguments out of, one might say, third-person “looking-at” observations of the universe at large, Peterson (who after all is a psychologist) seems to follow Goldstein in appealing to things one could intuit from one’s own experience, as well as from perceiving the experience of others. He seems to sort of agree with Goldstein that certain things seem self-evident to the intuition, although in his case he contemplated Auschwitz and thought he perceived self-evident evil. Unlike Goldstein, he doesn’t stop there, and so goes on to inevitably suppose that what is self-evidently evil for everybody must be transcendently evil, and then further infers that there must be a transcendent good that basically lays out the conditions for being the furthest away from the evil. This is a fascinating inversion of points of view like C.S. Lewis’ (and, partially, my own as well) – wherein one first recognizes from instances of good in the world that unadulterated Good must thus be something Real (and in being Good and Real thus demands our admiration and allegiance) and then that evil must then be the condition of being furthest away from Goodness. Dressed in semi-allegorical terms, one could say that one is a longing for paradise (the latter view) and the other a horror of hell (the former view) and that both when felt produces a similar outcome. So he arrives at basically what is common ground between him and Craig (and me) – that good, meaningful things are transcendent, eternal things that we discover and obey.

one could say that one is a longing for paradise and the other a horror of hell and that both when felt produces a similar outcome

Unlike Craig, he seems to fall short of positing the existence of God as the unifying entity of these transcendent values. And I think that’s fair – positing transcendent values from our intuitions of morality and meaning is one leap, and then identifying these transcendent values with a single being that can also be intelligibly identified with the God of religion and the God of philosophy is I think another leap that takes more careful argument. It would be interesting to see a potential future encounter between Peterson and Craig where they could debate this point. Still, it’s noteworthy enough that Peterson is willing to grant that the bible and its enigmatic stories are basically an attempt at figuring out how to be good and not evil, and furthermore that it is the best one we have. He seems to seek to interpret religious content in a “quasi-secular” way, trying to articulate, for example, how the figure of Christ represents an archetypal symbol of heroic, kingly attributes. This is a page out of his biblical lecture series (which I recommend) where he pursues this style of exegesis to great and insightful effect. Another interesting bit for me is how Peterson seems confident in, as well as comfortable with, the possibility of an effective biological reductionist explanation for moral intuition. According to him, it seems, a biological reductionist explanation of how humans came to intuit morality still does not explain morality itself, and if biological evolution produced moral intuition it is in fact because of the reality of morality. In some of his other videos (which ones specifically escapes me for the moment), he has presented some of the best outlines for the evolution of the human sense of virtue that I have yet seen, so I would recommend checking some of those out.

He seems to seek to interpret religious content in a “quasi-secular” way, trying to articulate, for example, how the figure of Christ represents an archetypal symbol of heroic, kingly attributes

In closing, I suppose I should express my own gratitude at the chance to listen to a dialogue like this and be stimulated to think about the various points that arose in the discussion. While I disagree the most with Goldstein, I thought it was nonetheless a valuable exercise to try to understand the point of view of a naturalist when placed in the face of such powerful arguments as Craig’s, and I share her sentiment that seeking commonality and resonance across divides of thought is an important and meaningful thing to do. Somewhat ironically but perhaps unsurprisingly, I have had the least to say about Craig’s points largely because they are very akin to my own positions and so I have had less to learn from and observe in them. I might also add, as a final note, that it is heartening that there was never any question between the three of them on what the practical manifestation of the meaning of life is. They disagree on the why and the how, but it was never in doubt that the meaningful life, in practice, consists of being virtuous, in obedience to the universal human intuitions of moral values.

Go, and do thou likewise“.