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Is There Meaning to Life?

 Three scholars – Rebecca Newberger Goldstein, William Lane Craig and Jordan B. Peterson – tackled a timeless question at the University of Toronto in January.

By Sue Careless

WHEN THREE SCHOLARS tackled the timeless question “Is There Meaning to Life?” their debate was a sold-out event.

Winter weather on Jan. 26th couldn’t keep away the 1,500 people who came to Convocation Hall at the University of Toronto to hear the trio: Christian philosopher William Lane Craig; psychology professor and agnostic Dr. Jordan Peterson; and atheist philosopher and novelist Dr. Rebecca Newberger Goldstein.

The event was also livestreamed to 41 sites on YouTube and to date has been watched by over 87,000 viewers.

Dr. William Lane Craig is a Research Professor of Philosophy at Talbot School of Theology in California and Professor of Philosophy at Houston Baptist University. He is the author of Reasonable Faith and On Guard and in 2016 was named by The Best Schools as one of the fifty most influential living philosophers.

Dr. Rebecca Newberger Goldstein is an American philosopher and author of Plato at the Googleplex: Why Philosophy Won’t Go Away. Currently, she is Visiting Professor of Philosophy at New College of the Humanities, London. In 2015, she was awarded the National Medal of the Humanities by President Obama.

Dr. Jordan Peterson is a clinical psychologist who has explored the psychology of religion in Maps of Meaning: The Architecture of Belief. As a Harvard professor, he was nominated for the prestigious Levinson Teaching Prize, and is regarded by his current University of Toronto students as one of three truly life-changing teachers. His book, The Twelve Rules of Life, is currently number one on the Canadian bestsellers nonfiction list. 

Each speaker had twenty minutes at the opening to address the topic. Journalist Karen Stiller, senior editor of Faith Today, moderated the two-hour debate. What follows is an edited transcription of some key arguments.


Lane Craig

‘Is there meaning to Life?’ is closely connected to another profound question, ‘Does God exist?’ Because if God does not exist, there is no transcendent reality. And so both man and the universe are inevitably doomed to death.

Purpose, value, significance -- though closely related -- are conceptually distinct. Purpose has to do with a goal, a reason. Value involves moral worth such as good or evil, right or wrong. Significance has to do with importance, greatness, why something matters.

Atheist philosophers from Nietzsche to Russell to Sartre have argued that if God does not exist, then life is ultimately absurd. It is without ultimate purpose, value or significance. When as a non-Christian I first read H.G. Well’s Time Machine, with its final rush to oblivion, I thought, ‘No! No! It can’t end that way!’ But this is reality in a universe where there is no God.

If God does not exist, there is no ultimate value in life. Without God, there are no objective standards of good and evil. By objective I mean moral standards that are valid and binding independently of human opinion. Without God there is no transcendent source of moral values; rather these values are only the result of sociobiological evolution and conditioning or expressions of personal taste. That means it is impossible to condemn war, oppression or bigotry as evil, nor can you praise tolerance, equality or love as good.

If everything is ultimately doomed to destruction, does it matter what good people do who tried to better the lot of the human race?  It is all ‘unyielding despair’ and ‘the black pall of nothingness.’

If God exists, there is hope for man but as Christian philosopher Francis Schaeffer said, “If God is dead, man is dead too.” Nietzsche said that when men realized what killing God would mean, ‘an age of nihilism’ would be ushered in. I find people still do not reflect upon the consequences of atheism.

Atheists suggest we should face the absurdity of life and live bravely. Yet it’s impossible to live consistently and happily within the framework of such a worldview as Atheism. If you live consistently, you will not be happy; and if you are happy, you will not live consistently. If we live consistently within the atheistic world view we shall find ourselves profoundly unhappy. And if instead we manage to live happily, it is only by giving the lie to our world view. Atheism cannot support a happy and consistent life.

What about Christian theism? According to the biblical world view, God does exist and life does not end at the grave. God has created us for a purpose--to know him and enjoy him forever. God is the objective standard of moral principles and goodness. His commandments are the source of our objective moral duties. Because we shall live forever, the decisions and actions we take in this life are imbued with an eternal significance that lasts beyond the grave. Biblical theism provides the two conditions necessary for a purposeful, valuable, meaningful life: God and immortality. 

I would be the first to say that none of this proves that God exists. We’ve seen that if God doesn’t exist, then life is futile but if God does exist, then life is meaningful. Even if the evidence for these two options is absolutely equal, a rational person ought to choose theism. It seems to me to be positively irrational to prefer death, futility and despair to life, meaningfulness and happiness. Therefore my advice is ‘Go with God!’ As Pascal says, ‘We have nothing to lose and everything to gain.’ 


Newberger Goldstein

I don’t believe there is one definitive answer to tonight’s question. I’m a naturalist. I don’t think anything supernatural exists. By supernatural I mean a transcendent God, immaterial souls and an afterlife. I think humans are just part of nature. I’m not interested in going into why Naturalism differs from Scientism. I don’t subscribe to Scientism.

Nor am I interested in going into the personal story of why I, who was born into a profoundly religious family who strictly adhered to very demanding tenets, finally abandoned it for Naturalism.

Naturalism provides all the reasons one needs for pursuing a meaningful life.

We inhabit very different divides, deeper than political divides. We inhabit entirely different subjective realities. But I hope we can reach a commonality in our shared humanity in pursuing a meaningful life.

No one ever said pursuing a meaningful life was easy, pleasant or comfortable (unless one commits to Hedonism). We act not only on our desires but also on our beliefs. But so often the reasons for one’s own beliefs are substandard. Changing one’s point of view can feel expansive and pleasurable.

Our lives matter to us. Spinoza said that ‘I matter to me’ is the very essence of our individual identity. The desire to matter is deeper even than the desire to survive. We don’t want to live when we’re convinced we no longer matter. The U.S. website for suicide prevention is called “You matter.”  We no sooner discover that we are, than we long to matter. We are creatures of matter who long to matter. I don’t think we can address a meaningful life without addressing this profoundest of longings.

I don’t mean that we matter more than others matter, though for many people competitive mattering -- being richer, smarter, more powerful more talented, more pious -- is the only mattering they can contemplate. Such people are quite unpleasant to be around. It’s demonstrably true that we all matter to the same extent. So many human goods are inequitably distributed among us: riches, health, status, luck, love – but not mattering.

Not that you have to matter in some spectacular, heroic way. Nor matter in the trans-human, cosmic scheme, matter eternally, to the universe itself, to the Master of the universe. This is the religious point of view and I know how potently it satisfies the will to matter.

All the arguments for God’s existence come after the fact, which is an emotional fact, generated out of an emotional core within us. There is nothing so powerful than the Abrahamic religions – Judaism, Christianity and Islam – to make a believer feel that she cosmically matters. I knew this when I lived according to my family’s faith.

The will to matter can be explained by evolutionary psychology but where do values come from? Philosophers call values talk ‘normative language.’ Values do come in. The awful 4a.m. thought, ‘Had I not existed, the world would have been no different at all. My existence, which means all the world to me, adds nothing of value to the world beyond my perspective.’ To live a meaningful life is to expunge this 4a.m. thought. 

But we must not live in a way that undermines the fact that others’ lives matter too, as some viciously false ideologies hold.      



The real question should be: ‘In the face of life’s pain and suffering, does life have any positive meaning?’ 

The child in Auschwitz suffered conscious, purposeful malevolence amplified. Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, author of The Gulag Archipelago, thought the Nuremberg trials after the Second World War were the most important event of the 20th century because the Nuremberg judgment said there were some acts that were so viciously brutal that there was no excuse whatsoever for engaging in them, no matter who you were or what your culture was or what your rationale was. For Solzhenitsyn, Nuremberg established the transcendent reality of evil. You need an answer posed to the suffering of innocents as a consequence of malevolence. [You need to be able to say,] ‘That’s wrong.’ Then you have a place to stand.

There are acts that are unquestionably evil so that means there are acts that are unquestionably good. Just because you know one pole, however, doesn’t mean you know the other. Whatever leads us as far away as possible from Auschwitz, that’s good. I’ve been trying to puzzle that out for 25 years. 

But what would take us as far away as possible from undue suffering multiplied by malevolence? We all suffer…..But the suffering is exacerbated by the malevolence in the hearts of all of us. The paramount issue is what to do about that. Live a life that manifests itself as meaningful.

Nietzsche got it wrong. Nietzsche thought that as a consequence of the death of God we would have to create our own values. Become gods ourselves. But we can’t create our own values; we have to discover them. And I think that what we discover are eternal values that lead us away from the pathway to perdition that was characterized by places such as Auschwitz.  

As real as suffering and evil is, the mode of being that leads you away from that, that enables you to bear the suffering with nobility and to be useful to others who are in pain and to constrain the malevolence in your own heart and around you, that mode of being is more powerful than that which it is set against it.

We see this in our own lives when we are engaged in something deeply meaningful. Music is the best pathway; it speaks of meaning. It shows you what life would be like if it were ordered and harmonious and you were dancing to it properly. The instinct to meaning that you experience when you listen to something great like Beethoven’s Ninth is more fundamental than anything else.

Sometimes you are so deeply engaged in life that meaning announces itself. This is worth the suffering. It’s real. You’re not thinking it up. You find it in art and literature and in relationships if those relationships are founded on trust and truth. You can experience meaning in what you say and do if what you say and do comes from the heart.

You have to work to ameliorate suffering. Arguments like ‘Well what difference will it make ten million years in the future?’ aren’t hyper-rational objections to the nature of being itself but are hyper-rationalistic excuses for failure to bear the responsibility of living properly moment to moment and hour to hour.

Say you have a child who is sick, maybe one who has been hurt. What do you say? ‘I’m here with you, beside you. It matters what’s happening to you. We’re going to do everything we possibly can to get you through this together.’ And with luck there’s a hug. If you don’t think that’s meaningful, there’s something wrong with your soul. And the answer ‘What difference will it make in ten million years?’ That’s the devil himself speaking.  


General Discussion

In the discussion that followed Newberger Goldstein added a very personal note, “When you speak about Auschwitz it is very hard for me not to cry. Every person of my generation in my family is named after a child who died there.”

She also told both men, “I believe just as strongly in objective moral truths but I completely reject your argument that it requires either a grounding in God or in some platonic ideals.”

Lane Craig said he was surprised that in her opening address Newberger Goldstein had raised what is known as the Euthyphro dilemma, which is found in Plato’s dialogue Euthyphro. Lane Craig stated it as: “Either the gods love something because it is good or it is good and therefore they love it.” He then refuted it as a false dilemma:

“…this has been answered over and over again by contemporary Christian philosophers like Robert Adams and others….It posits two non-mutually exhaustive choices. The theistic alternative to the Euthyphro dilemma is that something is good because it is identical with God. God is the good. God is what Plato referred to as the Good. The reason God wills something is because he is good. And his commands to us reflect the goodness of his own intrinsic moral nature. God is by his nature kind, compassionate, loving, fair, so this completely destroys the Euthyphro dilemma because it’s a third alternative.    

Newberger Goldstein also credited Spinoza and the Enlightenment with great advances in human rights such as the abolition of slavery. Lane Craig replied, “While I applaud the advances in human rights, I want to offer a foundation for the morals, values and duties that we both hold dear, a foundation that is conspicuously lacking in Naturalism.” 

Later on Peterson said he believed each person has “a spark of divinity” within them, “a reflection of the transcendent good. And I am obligated to recognize that in you and vice versa if we are to inhabit the same territory peaceably.”

He continued: “The encounter with something truly admirable produces the instinct of awe and that’s an irrational instinct – it’s a marker you’re in the presence of something greater than yourself. It’s not something you have control over; it’s something that overtakes you and could be a reflection of the truth. You can make a biological reductionist argument [for awe] but you enter into the realm of where these transcendent experiences of religious significance and awe are a phenomenological and psychological reality and it is not easy to explain.”

Newberger Goldstein was wary, however. “I’m somewhat suspicious of the transcendent. Spinoza’s Ethics seeded the Enlightenment from which so much moral progress has derived. I’m a beneficiary as a woman and as a Jew of what came from the Enlightenment. Trying to transcend our humanity makes me very nervous. The Nazis were part of a larger-than-life movement. They had a drunkenness of transcendence [thinking they were] transcending their human condition. Let’s just be human. That would be triumph enough.

Lane Craig challenged her use of the phrase “moral progress” saying, “How can you talk about moral progress in Naturalism? Moral change, yes, but progress is a word smuggled in that suggests an objective standard.”

When a question was raised electronically from the floor about the problem of evil, Peterson answered:

“Being requires limitation. Limitation necessitates suffering. But are there modes of being that transcend the suffering? That’s the hope. A universe without the possibility of evil is one without the possibility of good. If human beings conducted themselves properly we could have a universe where free choice was the rule, where we were free to choose evil but there would be no evil because we would choose good. We should be very careful about laying the existence of evil at the feet of the Creator without looking at our own role in producing it..…If you lie to yourself, if you lie to other people and betray them you produce little pockets of hell within you and around you.

“Our life is bounded by suffering and tainted by evil and there is a pathway through that. The Bible is a meditation embedded in stories. It is the best set of instructions we have to understand what it would mean to live a life that would enable us to bear suffering nobly and to constrain malevolence.”


Closing remarks

The moderator posed a final question to each speaker: ‘How would you encourage a friend or a young person who is struggling with the meaning of life?’

Peterson answered: “Being is suffering tainted by malevolence. And so what is the meaning? There is pain to alleviate; there is chaos to confront; there’s order to establish and revivify. And there’s evil to constrain, not least within our own hearts. And that’s meaning enough for everyone.” 

Newberger Goldstein replied: “We’re creatures trying to get our bearings as we come into this world. What are we? Where are we? What are we to do? We ask two sorts of questions: what is? and what matters? Who matters? And we all want to matter. Get past yourself and think about all your fellow creatures in this together.”

Lane Craig had the final word: “I would want to encourage you to think that the universe may be a far, far more wonderful place than you’ve yet suspected. That there may be a transcendent, personal God who created the universe and you with a goal to know him and enjoy him in a personal love relationship forever. You find yourself now alienated from this Being of perfect goodness and love due to the moral evil we’ve heard described so poignantly tonight. But there’s forgiveness and cleansing available if you will but avail yourself of it. I would encourage you to do what I did as a teenager seeking for meaning and purpose in my life. Pick up a New Testament and ask yourself, ‘Could this really be true? Could there really be a God who loves me and has sent his Son Jesus Christ to redeem me that I might know him forever?’ If you do that, I believe it could change your life as it changed mine.”         

After the debate, the Convocation Hall audience was invited to a reception at Wycliffe College to meet the speakers. All their books sold out. 

The event was sponsored by Wycliffe College, magazine, Ravi Zacharias International Ministries, Power 2 Change, Network of Christian Scholars and the University of Toronto Secular Alliance. This was the third such event in the Religion and Society Series.

The full debate can be viewed at   TAP


A Few Definitions

•  Scientism: the belief that the methods of science are not only appropriate for discovering physical truths, but also all other truths

•  Naturalism: the position that all of reality is natural and nothing is supernatural 

•  Metaphysics: the study of the nature and origin of ultimate reality

•  Hedonism: the belief that gaining pleasure is the most important thing in life  

•  Relativism: the belief that there’s no absolute truth, only the truths that a particular individual or culture happen to believe.

•  Theism: belief in the existence of a god or gods, especially belief in one god as creator of the universe, intervening in it and sustaining a personal relationship with his creatures

•  Atheism: the lack of belief or the strong disbelief in the existence of a god or gods

•  Agnosticism: the claim that the existence of any deity is unknown or unknowable

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