Fairness and futility
- First Online:
- Cite this article as:
- Betenson, T. Int J Philos Relig (2016) 79: 101. doi:10.1007/s11153-015-9519-0
William Lane Craig argues that both God and immortality are required for life to have meaning; life is futile without either of the two. I argue that combining William Lane Craig’s arguments for the futility of life without God or immortality, together with a plausible amendment to his working definition of ‘futility’, entails the counterintuitive conclusion that life is futile if God does exist. Craig says that God must exist as a guarantor of ultimate justice, and that this ultimate ‘fairness’ is necessary for life to have meaning. I will argue that this ultimate ‘fairness’ entails that our lives are futile, since, given the existence of God, our actions are causally irrelevant to the achievement of the satisfaction of the ‘Good’. This discussion serves to pinpoint a major flaw in Craig’s reasoning: the claim that events of merely ‘relative’ significance do not have the potential to counter the futility of life.
KeywordsMeaning of life Immortality God Futility William Lane Craig
William Lane Craig has argued that God and immortality are both necessary conditions for life to have meaning. I want to show that his arguments lead to an unexpected and rather counterintuitive conclusion: If God exists, then life is futile. This conclusion is clearly counterintuitive, and runs explicitly counter to Craig’s conclusion that life is futile if God does not exist. This perplexing situation prompts a consideration of what has gone wrong with the line of reasoning that led us to it; in so doing, I will pinpoint a major flaw in Craig’s argument concerning the capacity that things of ‘merely relative significance’ have to afford life meaning. To this end, my intention is to agree with everything that Craig says, for the sake of argument, in order to show that his line of reasoning leads to the unexpected conclusion. I will begin by outlining a working definition of what it means for life to be ‘futile’; a definition extracted from Craig’s arguments, and therefore a definition that I am confident Craig would agree with.
What is it for a life to be futile? William Lane Craig claims that life is futile either if God does not exist, or if we do not live forever. God and immortality are both required for life to have meaning. If God does not exist, then there are no objective values, and as such there are no truly significant events. Nothing really matters. Likewise, if we do not live forever, then any actions that we perform will dissolve into total insignificance against the infinite expanse of time. As Craig says: ‘Without immortality nothing we do makes any ultimate difference.’1 And elsewhere, ‘Given the finality of death, it really does not matter how you live.’2
I understand ‘causally relevant’ to equate to Craig’s ‘makes a difference’, and I understand ‘ultimately significant’ to mean exactly what Craig intends it to mean. (Again, I stress that I am intending to go along with Craig’s argument as much as possible, even though it is not clear to me what would qualify as ‘ultimately significant’.)
(WD): Life is futile unless our actions are causally relevant to events that are ultimately significant.
(WDa): Life is futile if our actions are causally relevant to something that is ultimately insignificant.
(WDb): Life is futile if our actions are causally irrelevant to something that is ultimately significant.
And here, where he pictures the world without God and immortality:
If each individual person passes out of existence when he dies, then what ultimate meaning can be given to his life? Does it really matter whether he ever existed or not? It might be said that his life was important because it influenced others or affected the course of history. But that shows only a relative significance to his life, not an ultimate significance. His life may be important relative to certain other events. But what is the ultimate significance to any of those events? If all of the events are meaningless, then what can be the ultimate significance of influencing any of them? Ultimately it makes no difference.
[T]he contribution of the scientists to the advance of human knowledge, the researches of the doctor to alleviate pain and suffering, the efforts of the diplomat to secure peace in the world, the efforts of good people everywhere to benefit the lot of the human race, all these come to nothing; in the end they don’t make one bit of difference. Not one bit. Each person’s life is therefore without ultimate significance.
Whilst the actions of these doctors and diplomats are causally relevant to the events around them, they are not causally relevant to any events of ultimate significance, and therefore their lives are futile. Craig seems to think that we can appreciate that these events are ultimately insignificant because we can adopt (imaginatively) a perspective that is more ‘objective’ than our subjective perspective. Our actions might appear meaningful, prima facie, but if we regard our actions from the point of view of the universe, in a world in which God does not exist, then we recognise that our actions, and thus our lives, are futile. They pale into insignificance in the grand scheme of things. It is possible to step back, assess our lives more objectively, and realise that a Godless and temporary world is a world in which there can be nothing of ultimate significance. If God does not exist, then no events are ultimately significant. Therefore, if God does not exist, then our lives are futile in the sense of (WDa).
I wish to amend Craig’s primary understanding of ‘futility’, as it is evident in these passages and throughout his work, by pointing out that there is a second important sense in which a life can be considered futile. This is (WDb). It is probable that Craig is aware of this other sense in which a life can be futile, and indeed he might even oscillate between the two senses at some points, but I will discuss it here as if he is not bearing it in mind when he constructs his arguments, since it is this latter sense of ‘futility’ that will lead us to the conclusion that life is futile if God exists.
According to (WDb), a life is futile if the actions that constitute it are causally irrelevant to something that is ultimately significant; i.e., if this life ‘makes no difference’. This is a natural and uncontroversial way of understanding ‘futility’, reflected in the dictionary definition, and in the way we would understand the Borg when they say: ‘Resistance is futile!’ When we hear this, we do not understand the Borg to be referring to the (WDa) sense of futility. We do not think they are making an existentialist claim about the pointlessness of being, that ‘nothing really matters’. Instead, we simply understand them to be claiming that resistance will ‘make no difference’; that is, a (WDb) sense of futility.
I will argue that if God exists, then life is futile in the sense of (WDb). In arguing for this conclusion, I will assume that Craig is right in everything he says regarding the necessity of God and immortality for life’s meaning. I will even draw on his arguments to establish my conclusion. I think that Craig would agree with me that (WDb) is a plausible definition of an important sense of futility, but this will leave his arguments in a perplexing situation, whereby they seem to conclude both that life is futile (WDb) if God exists, and futile (WDa) if God does not exist!
I will establish my counterintuitive conclusion—‘If God exists, then life is futile’—by considering the role that ‘fairness’, or ultimate justice, plays in Craig’s arguments.
The (one assumes) intentionally placed ‘thus’ in this passage indicates that our moral lives have a paramount significance because God provides ultimate justice to the universe. The universe is ‘fair’, everyone gets what they deserve. If the universe were not fair, then what would be the point in behaving morally?
[O]n the theistic hypothesis, God holds all persons morally accountable for their actions. Evil and wrong will be punished; righteousness will be vindicated. Good ultimately triumphs over evil, and we shall finally see that we do live in a moral universe after all. Despite the inequities of this life, in the end the scales of God’s justice will be balanced. Thus, the moral choices we make in this life are infused with an eternal significance. We can with consistency make moral choices which run contrary to our self-interest and even undertake acts of extreme self-sacrifice, knowing that such decisions are not empty and ultimately meaningless gestures. Rather our moral lives have a paramount significance.
Without ultimate justice and fairness, it would ‘make no difference’ what we did, thus rendering our lives futile.
To believe […] that God does not exist and that there is thus no moral accountability would [mean] we should have to believe that our moral choices are ultimately insignificant, since both our fate and that of the universe will be the same regardless of what we do.
It is worth noting that this sense of ‘futility’ seems to appropriately apply to either sense of futility that I have considered: Either the result of our moral actions would not be ultimately significant, for the result would be ‘an unfair universe’ no matter what we did, or our actions are causally irrelevant to the achievement of the ultimately significant event of a ‘just’ universe, because the universe would be unfair no matter what we did! For our lives to not be futile, according to Craig, it must be the case that the universe is ultimately ‘fair’.
(I should say at this stage that Craig identifies three reasons why God is required in addition to immortality for life to have meaning: Firstly, He is the only legitimate source of objective moral values. Secondly, His commands legitimise the power of moral obligations. And thirdly, He provides ultimate justice for the universe. I am only focussing on the third reason here, but if Craig loses the third reason, then he loses at least the requirement for personal immortality. I will say more on this in the section entitled ‘Objection 3’.)
That God is a guarantor of ultimate justice is an important component in Craig’s argument for the necessity of God for life’s meaning: Life must be fair in order for it to be meaningful. But I will show that this has a further consequence, that of rendering life futile in a (WDb) sense.
Fairness and futility
I will argue that if the universe is ultimately fair, and the definition of futility in a (WDb) sense is correct, then life is futile. I will show that the universe being ultimately fair renders our actions causally irrelevant to ultimately significant events.
Craig offers this:
To believe […] that God does not exist and that there is thus no moral accountability would [mean] we should have to believe that our moral choices are ultimately insignificant, since both our fate and that of the universe will be the same regardless of what we do.
[T]here is nothing so likely to strengthen the moral life as the beliefs that one will be held accountable for one’s actions and that one’s choices do make a difference in bringing about the good. [My emphasis.]
Our actions are significant because, and only because, they help to bring about the satisfaction of the ‘Good’.
But if the universe is ultimately fair, then the ‘Good’ will be satisfied; that is certain. (If this seems suspicious, then I prompt you to consider the Problem of Evil, and the contradictions that might result from God existing yet the ‘Good’ not being satisfied.) Everyone will get what they deserve. But if that outcome is certain, then what causal relevance can my actions possibly have to its fulfilment? Given the truth of theism, the satisfaction of the ‘Good’ cannot fail to be achieved. Therefore, nothing I do can affect this outcome. My actions do not ‘make a difference in bringing about the good’; my actions are utterly causally irrelevant to the satisfaction of the ‘Good’, and as such my life is rendered futile in a (WDb) sense.
This argument compels the conclusion, contrary to Craig, that life with God is futile, at least in a (WDb) sense. And indeed, we can press further, for if we wish to uphold the truth of all of Craig’s reasons for requiring both God and immortality in order for life to have meaning, then we seem to come to the paradoxical conclusion that God and immortality both confirm life as not-futile (in a (WDa) sense), and confirm life as futile (in a (WDb) sense). This is a perplexing situation, one that prompts us to ask what has gone wrong in the line of reasoning that has led us here.
I will consider what has gone wrong in this line of reasoning by discussing some objections. This discussion will reveal a major flaw in Craig’s argument.
The first and most obvious objection picks on my move from an observation that Craig sees the establishment of objective moral values as being a central reason why God is required for life to have meaning, to the conclusion that the satisfaction of the Good is the only ultimately significant event that our actions could causally relate to in such a way as to render our lives meaningful. This might seem too quick. For surely that the satisfaction of the Good is an ultimately significant event that certainly could grant our lives meaning if our actions were somehow causally related to it, does not entail that it is the only ultimately significant event that could grant our lives meaning. Perhaps the ultimate satisfaction of the Good is beyond our control—it is in God’s hands, so to speak—but that does not mean that our actions fail to causally relate to less significant, yet still significant, events. For surely that there is a Good, means that our actions can be ‘good’ or ‘bad’, and as such it is significant whether we do good things or bad things; it ‘makes a difference’ whether we do good things or bad things, not to the overall satisfaction of the Good, but to the satisfaction of the Good here and now. Our actions become imbued with the significance of the Good and, as such, matter. This seems like an entirely reasonable objection, but all it will serve to achieve is to identify a major problem with Craig’s reasons for ruling out the meaningfulness of life without God.
For Craig has dismissed the possibility of events having a merely ‘relative’ significance, yet remaining significant enough to grant life some meaning. Remember, the doctor trying to alleviate the suffering of his patients is pursuing a futile life because, even though ‘his life may be important relative to certain other events’, yet ‘ultimately it makes no difference’. From the point of view of the universe, one might say, it makes no difference whether the doctor helps his patients or not. The same applies to Objection 1. From the point of view of the universe, even with objective moral values in place, whether you do that good thing or not does not really matter, it is only of relative significance, to you and those around you. All that really matters, from the point of view of the Good, is that the Good, as a whole, is satisfied. And that, as I have said, is assured if God exists. If we are allowing that reasons of a mere relative significance are admissible, then Craig no longer has any reason to dismiss the doctor’s endeavours as being insignificant. For the doctor was not trying, by his actions, to alleviate suffering as a whole, he was only trying to alleviate the suffering of the patient in front of him, in the here and now.
Remember, Craig said that one of the major reasons why God and immortality are required for life to have meaning is that only then will our moral actions have ‘ultimate significance’. This establishes a rule: Any relative significance that a moral action might have can only be considered truly significant if it relates in a relevant way to something that is ultimately significant. Objection 1 seems to rely upon a sense of our actions having a significance of a relative kind. That we do good things is only of relative significance, and those actions can only inherit ultimate significance if they are causally relevant to something that is ultimately significant; namely, the ultimately significant event that is the satisfaction of the Good. But if we know that no matter what we do, the Good will be satisfied, then the significance of our moral actions remains only of a relative kind.
Objection 2 is very similar to Objection 1, but rather than claiming that our actions are imbued with significance due to the existence of the Good, it claims that our actions become significant because of the everlasting nature of their repercussions. Put simply, the good go to heaven and the bad go to hell. Again, this was one reason why our moral lives are afforded ‘eternal significance’ by the existence of God and immortality; that there are eternal repercussions to our choices makes those choices causally relevant to significant events.
But, again, this assumes that it is an ultimately significant event whether you get to heaven or not. Now although it clearly might appear very important to you whether you get to heaven or not, does it matter from the point of view of the universe? Again, I suggest that this objection is relying upon something of merely relative significance, and turning it into something of ultimate significance; and if we are allowing that as a good way of thinking about these things, then Craig loses his reason to view the atheist doctor’s life as ultimately futile.
To draw out this intuition, consider this: Does it matter to you that Hitler does not get to go to heaven? Not as much as it would to him, I have no doubt. Does the prospect of his eternal suffering trouble you greatly? Anywhere near as much the prospect of your eternal suffering? If these intuitions go the way I expect them to, then it should tell you something about the relative significance of whether we get to go to heaven or not. It matters a lot to us whether we get to go to heaven, but when it comes to other people, particularly people we do not like, we just want justice to be done. So what really matters, overall or ‘ultimately’ (perhaps, ‘objectively’), is that there is justice, not that you end up on the right side of it. In fact, it seems quite important to the whole ‘fairness’ principle that justice is done, and people like Hitler do not get to go to heaven.
Earlier I mentioned an argumentative move that Craig makes to get us to recognise that our lives are insignificant in a world without God: It is possible to adopt (imaginatively) a more objective perspective from our limited subjective perspective, and in doing this we come to realise that our lives are futile if either God or immortality does not exist. I am simply repeating the same move, but adding a further level of objectivity. Rather than the subjective perspective being ‘our mortal lives’, our subjective perspective becomes ‘our immortal lives’. But one can imaginatively adopt a more objective perspective than that. From the point of view of an everlasting universe that is guaranteed to be ultimately fair, why does it matter that you live forever?
It [theism] invests our lives with eternal significance: by our free choices we determine our eternal destiny. Moreover, we come into personal relation with the supreme good, God Himself.
[T]here is nothing so likely to strengthen the moral life as the beliefs that one will be held accountable for one’s actions and that one’s choices do make a difference in bringing about the good.
…the moral choices we make in this life are infused with an eternal significance. We can with consistency make moral choices which run contrary to our self-interest and even undertake acts of extreme self-sacrifice, knowing that such decisions are not empty and ultimately meaningless gestures. Rather our moral lives have a paramount significance.
A third objection is a further modification of Objection 1, and might go along the lines of denying that the so-called ‘relative’ concerns of Objections 1 and 2 are really important; what matters is not that ‘we do good things’, what matters is that good is done—irrespective of any potential reward in heaven or relative satisfaction of the Good here and now. It does not matter whether we do the good, or whether we get rewarded for doing so—the reply to the previous Objections was correct to identify those as concerns of merely relative importance—but that does not mean that it is not ‘ultimately significant’ that good is done. That the good exists is reason enough to compel that good ought to be done, even if it is irrelevant whether we do it or not.
This is an admirable position to adopt, essentially amounting to a statement of ‘duty for duty’s sake’, but it will only rule out further foundational claims in Craig’s argument. If all that matters is that good is done—or rather, if this is sufficient to grant our actions ultimate significance—then why on earth would it matter whether we have immortality? We can ‘do good’, yet not live forever to reap the rewards or see the consequences. But if the significance comes only from doing good, irrespective of the ‘merely relative’ concerns, then there is no need for immortality at all. The need for personal immortality can only ever be a ‘relatively’ significant claim. Therefore, if Objection 3 is correct, then Craig will lose his claim that immortality is a necessary precondition for life’s having meaning.
Objection 3 only fails to reinforce Craig’s argument because it loses the requirement for personal immortality, but there is a way in which it can be strengthened such that this loss is avoided, by further specifying what the ‘good’ is that is to be done in order for our lives to become significant. Remember, we are trying to avoid concerns of a merely ‘relative’ significance, and so are trying to adopt as objective a perspective as possible. Therefore, we are pushed away from the idea that we do good, or that we reap the rewards of so doing, and towards the more general idea that ‘good is done’. But, if we agree with Craig’s arguments (as is our intention, for the sake of our argument), then we must accept that whatever this ‘good’ is will be objective, and entirely determined by/dependent upon God. So what if God decreed that the objective ‘good’ that was to be done involved our personal immortality? This would avoid any concerns of a merely relative significance, and yet would save the requirement for personal immortality. It is objectively good that we live forever, not merely good ‘for us’.
Various reasons could be posited at this point, to explain why it would be objectively good—i.e. good for the universe—that we live forever. Perhaps the most plausible (in this context) would run along the lines of suggesting that God has ordained that our purpose (or rather, the objective ‘good’ of the universe) is to worship Him. We would be less able to fulfil this obligation, to satisfy this good, if we were to die, therefore it becomes necessary that we live forever, so that we can worship Him forever.
Alternatively, one could posit the ultimate significance of personal immortality as a sort of brute fact, a divinely ordained objective good, that does not require further explanation or justification in terms of being related to other ultimately significant events; it is itself an ultimately significant event, regardless of what it means for us or our experience of life, and is divinely rendered so.
These objections do save Craig’s argument from my attack; I will not respond to them here, though others have directed sound attacks against the notion of a divine command to worship God (Brown and Nagasawa 2005), and the philosophical respectability of asserting an arbitrary objective good (such as, in this case, personal immortality) as a brute fact is obviously dubious. However, it is worth considering at what cost these salvations of Craig’s argument come. If the only way Craig’s argument can be saved is by claiming that the only ultimately significant event is that we worship God, or that personal immortality ‘just is’ objectively good, for no other reason than that God says so, then I think we have pushed the argument into the realms of undesirable commitments and implausibility. Certainly, consider what falls out of the picture with this view: There is no longer any consideration of heaven or hell, morally good action (besides the worship of God), just reward, etc., and there is absolutely no significance granted to our daily lives by these ultimately significant events. Granted, we now have reason to suppose that God and immortality would make life objectively ‘meaningful’, but the ‘meaning’ that life is being filled with is only the worship of God or the persistence of existence (as an objective good), and nothing more. Our lives are granted eternal significance not by our actions being connected with ultimately significant events (as was Craig’s initial intention), but instead by there being ultimately significant events ‘out there’, as it were, that we are divinely ordained to be bound up in. Yes, ‘we’ are causally relevant to these ultimately significant events, but it is not in any way that relates to our experience in the here and now. To repeat a popular sci-fi reference,3 it’s meaningful life, but not as we know it.
I have shown that Craig’s arguments for the necessity of both God and immortality for life’s meaning, when combined with a plausible amendment to Craig’s working definition of futility (WDb), entail that life is futile if God exists. This is because God must guarantee that the Good is satisfied, and since this is guaranteed our actions are utterly causally irrelevant to the only event that really matters. Nothing that we do can disrupt the justice of the universe, at the objective level. Any other considerations are of merely relative significance, and as such are ruled out by Craig’s argument. I have suggested that the major flaw in Craig’s argument is this claim that things of merely ‘relative’ significance do not have the potential to counter the futility of life; even Craig naturally slips into considering things of merely relative significance to be important to the meaning of life (e.g., personal immortality). Defining the meaning of life solely in terms of its connection to something of ‘ultimate’ significance is misguided. I conclude, therefore, that the working definition of futility that Craig seems to operate with (WD) is mistaken, since it makes the meaning of life depend on a notion of ‘ultimate significance’. ‘Ultimate significance’ is irrelevant to the futility of life. A life might still be rendered futile by causal irrelevance, but if we are allowed to consider things of ‘relative’ significance as capable of contributing to a meaningful life, then Craig is wrong to dismiss the possibility of life being meaningful without God or immortality.
William Lane Craig, ‘Is Life Absurd Without God?’, available at: http://www.reasonablefaith.org/is-life-absurd-without-god1 [accessed 05/03/15].
Almost all quotations in this essay are extracts are taken from a lecture given by William Lane Craig in Manchester, 2007, entitled ‘Is Life Without God Absurd?’ (audio recording available at: http://www.bethinking.org/who-am-i/intermediate/is-life-without-god-absurd-reasonable-faith-lecture-manchester-university-.htm [accessed 16/05/2013]). Craig’s printed words are widely available both in print and online. Though I am working from an audio recording, I do so faithfully, and with no intention to misrepresent. I am confident that Craig’s views are sufficiently well known that any sleight-of-hand would be impossible! Paraphrased versions of all quotations contained within this essay can be found in the following (all by William Lane Craig): ‘The Absurdity of Life Without God’, available at: http://www.reasonablefaith.org/the-absurdity-of-life-without-god [accessed 16/05/2013]; ‘Is the Basis of Morality Natural or Supernatural?’, available at: http://www.reasonablefaith.org/is-the-basis-of-morality-natural-or-supernatural-the-craig-taylor-debate [accessed 16/05/2013]; ‘Is Life Absurd Without God?’, available at: http://www.reasonablefaith.org/is-life-absurd-without-god1 [accessed 16/02/2013].
Although, Spock never actually said this. It is a caricature which featured in the song ‘Star Trekkin’’ by ‘The Firm’.
I am extremely grateful for the comments of an anonymous reviewer on an earlier version of this article.