A Dialogue on Life’s Meaning: An Assessment

A graduate school federated with the University of Toronto, hosted an event revolving around three distinct perspectives centered on the following question: “Is there meaning to life?”  The three perspectives that were offered included; philosopher and theologian, William Lane Craig’s tripartite Christian position, which focused on purpose, value and significance as conditions for a meaningful life; philosopher Rebecca Goldstein’s naturalistic position where meaning is created by one’s own subjective/personal experience regulated by an individual’s autonomy; and finally, clinical psychologist and professor of psychology at University of Toronto, Jordan Peterson’s emotive existential plead for objective meaning.  The first thing to observe is that with such an open ended question, anyone can affirm meaning to life.  Of course, life can have meaning under any set of circumstances, if we consider meaning created by solely our subjective experience. It is crucial to outline what one means by meaning. The question of ultimate and objective meaning is of another order. The only one who was able to consistently affirm such a thing was Craig, even though Peterson thoughtfully wrestled with the question.  In the case of Goldstein, it was painfully obvious that her position was a rebellion against her Jewish upbringing.  Whether her arguments stand to scrutiny is another issue; arguments must always be carefully assessed beyond one’s personal motivations.

An assessment of the three differing perspectives

Craig began his presentation by painting a bleak picture of the future of the universe.  He illustrated the implications of the second law of thermodynamics with what cosmologists refer to as scientific eschatological scenarios.  This scenario describes a universe which will eventually run out of usable energy and reach a thermodynamic equilibrium where entropy will reach its maximal state.  In other words, ordered states will gradually lead to more chaotic states; matter will be pulling apart and energy running down, entailing the cessation of all mechanical motion. To help visualize what this entails, picture the expansion of the universe becoming so vast that in billions of years from now, the current distances between galaxies will be the distance between sub-atomic particles. Life will have ceased to exist long ago. This, to Craig, in a naturalistic universe, indicates that there is no ultimate meaning in life, since humans will both individually and collectively, face their inevitable annihilation. Craig then forcefully explained why purpose, value and significance are necessary preconditions for a meaningful life.  He further explained that purpose (or telos) refers to a goal; value is related to something’s moral worth; and significance is tied to why something is important. He also explained why the necessity of the combination of the existence of God and the afterlife are fundamental to ultimate meaning.

Next, Goldstein, presented her case for meaning in a naturalistic universe.  Goldstein focused on our finitude, subjective experience, preferences and relative metaphysical views as what grounds our personal meaning in life. No one disputes this, but this does nothing to explain whether life is ultimately meaningful or absurd.  She expounded naturalism which denies any transcendent reality including Platonism, God, souls, immaterial selves, the afterlife or anything supernatural.  Nevertheless, her view is ultimately subjectivist and relativistic since there is no objective grounding for acting in one particular fashion over another. Thus, there is ultimately no reason to distinguish the real value of choosing one lifestyle, over another.  For instance, why would it ultimately matter whether one “chose” to be a hedonist or a serial murderer who murders for self-gratification as opposed to a faithful priest who tempers his life in the service of others or a great surgeon who saves countless lives?  Couldn’t it be argued that the serial murderer or hedonist is just maximizing their pleasure, thus creating personal meaning?  This is not to say anything about the question of genuine libertarian free will, since under a naturalistic universe we have no reason to think that there is such a thing. As such, we cannot really “choose” to live a certain way or another.  We are merely biological machines that have been tinkered with by undirected natural processes devoid of any ultimate telos. Therefore, any meaning we may “think” we have is illusory and merely epiphenomenal, caused by the firing of neurons and biochemical reactions occurring within our brains.

Finally, Peterson expounded his poignant, yet bittersweet understanding of reality.  Interestingly, he critiqued the very question that the discussion was predicated on, i.e., “Is there meaning to life?”  He carefully transposes the question to give it the proper precision it merits: “In the face of life’s pain and suffering, does life have any positive meaning?” Or put another way: is life worth living despite the pain and suffering we must inevitably endure?  It reminded me of Albert Camus’ pointed observation in The Myth of Sisyphus: “There is only one really serious philosophical question, and that is whether or not to commit suicide.”

Peterson, decries the view that meaning is solely predicated on duration, regardless of whether there is such a thing as everlasting life or not. He suggests that pain and suffering are real and significant, regardless of the argument that it will not matter millions of years from now.  For Peterson, it is the here and now that matters.  He uses the example of a child who must endure suffering.  One could get the sense that this is a critique of Craig’s position but from my understanding this would be inaccurate. I would argue that because Peterson affirms a transcendent mode of being, which is meant to bring significance to our pain and suffering, that in fact, his view is confluent with Craig’s and not opposed to it.  Thus, under both Craig’s and Peterson’s somewhat distinct positions, there is a profound agreement, namely that all of our actions, emotions, thoughts, feelings of joy, pain and suffering do have ‘eternal’ ramifications beyond our finitude, brokenness and fragility, even though Peterson never articulates what this transcendent mode of meaning exactly is in his metaphysical outlook.  Nevertheless, it is precisely without the transcendent, like in the view of Goldstein, that our pain and suffering is ultimately gratuitous and superfluous, although very real to the one who endures it.  It is this main presupposition that must not be taken for granted.  As Peterson, has iterated on numerous occasions, he lives as though God exists and Christianity is true.  Thus, I see a profound confluence between Peterson and Craig, at least on affirming higher meaning and how we should live our lives. Despite the surface disagreement and Peterson’s inability to articulate precisely what this higher meaning may be aside from the bounds of our fragility and finitude.

Beyond Good and Evil?

In order to drive the point home regarding meaningfulness with accompanying the suffering and/or dying, we can return to the example of the suffering child and ask, what if the child was on his death bed – how would the atheist and theist differ in an attempt to offer hope? Bertrand Russell famously said: “no one can sit at the bedside of a dying child and still believe in God.”  To which Craig has rather famously rebutted:

What is Bertrand Russell going to say when he is kneeling at the bed of a dying child?”… ‘Tough luck? Too bad? That’s the way it goes? That’s all that’s left for him…’  You see, as an atheist, Russell has nothing to offer. Because if there is no God then we are trapped in a world filled with senseless and unreadable suffering with absolutely no hope from deliverance of evil.

This is precisely the existential anguish that is brought about in a naturalistic universe. One that Peterson must acknowledge in terms of ascribing ultimate meaning, as opposed to a fleeting and temporal meaning.

The most interesting segment of Peterson’s talk, was when he spoke about his Cartesian moment, namely his realization of the one thing that which he could not doubt.  The existence of human evil is the most indubitable fact of reality for Peterson.  By coming to this realization he then comes to understand there must be good as well.  Far from the atheist conclusion that an omnibenevolent God does not exist because of the existence of seemingly gratuitous suffering, Peterson is lead to believe in a transcendent reality.   But, Peterson is very ambiguous as to what this transcendent reality actually entails.  This to me, is the most frustrating aspect of Peterson’s metaphysical outlook.

Peterson states that the difficulty lies in knowing why something is evil, not that there is such a thing as evil. He alludes to the distinction between moral epistemology and moral ontology.  Nonetheless, I’m sure Peterson would not dispute that “torturing little babies for fun,” is unquestionably evil.  In the past he has said that abortion is wrong and that we know it, despite the complexities that may be involved from case to case.  Interestingly, once evil is acknowledged, so must be the good and, consequently, the moral law that provides the ability to discern between the two. This is something we can see Peterson agree with, but he fails to go one step further.  Ultimately, it presupposes the existence of a moral lawgiver even though the problem of evil seeks to undermine the very existence of an all-powerful, all-knowing and all-loving God. I believe it inevitably creates more of a difficulty for the nonbelievers, who assume evil. On the one hand, they must confront the nihilist who denies any objective meaning and value in the absence of God; and on the other, the theist who has coherent grounds for affirming objective meaning and value. This is something that I would encourage Peterson to explore further.

Whence Morality?

I found that Goldstein’s arguments were weak and uninteresting, as are the majority of the typical atheist objections to theism.  She invoked the old Euthyphro dilemma, which is worth discussing for those unfamiliar with this dichotomous argument. In Plato’s dialogue Euthyphro, Socrates asks Euthyphro whether something is pious in and of itself, and therefore loved by the gods for being such, or whether something is pious because the gods love it. This dilemma has been transposed into a problematic for Christian theism with respect to the foundation of objective morality.  The first horn of the dilemma demonstrates that certain things are right or wrong in and of themselves, independent of God’s command.  This horn of the dilemma creates problems with respect to God’s sovereignty and omnipotence, the possibility of morals to be independent from God and, thirdly, God’s freedom. The second horn of the dilemma demonstrates that nothing can be right or wrong outside of God’s command.  Obvious problems with this is that God’s goodness is reduced to his will, which suggests that morality is arbitrary. Following a long line of Christian philosophers/theologians for many centuries including, St. Augustine, St. Anselm of Canterbury and St. Thomas Aquinas, Craig argues that the Euthyphro dilemma is a false one since God does not obey a morality outside of Himself, nor does He create morality. Instead of being “created” by God, morality is grounded in God’s very own good nature.

The “coup de grâce” or what Peterson may describe as a “Ha, Gotcha!” moment (similar to his destruction of Cathy Newman on the gender pay gap debate on Channel 4), of the whole discussion, was when Craig finished off with a quote by psychologist Steven Pinker, one which completely contradicted everything Goldstein was arguing for. This rendered Goldstein speechless since Pinker is her husband. All this is to say, that her position, as the typical naturalist who tries to affirm meaning, is utterly defenseless and inconsistent.

An impetus towards theism

I believe that Craig and his work can give Peterson that final impetus towards Christianity.  Peterson has accepted interviews by all kinds of different people, but this is one that I believe is vital and could be more fruitful than many others. Although Peterson says, over and over again, he lives as though God exists and Christianity is true, this does nothing to explain whether the universe is ultimately meaningful.  After all, while putting aside Pascal’s wager, wouldn’t it be foolish to live life in such a way? Why wouldn’t someone not want to live their life through indulging in the pleasures of the flesh and doing whatever they please, if there are no eternal consequences? This is something that Thomas Nagel has candidly admitted, in his book The Last Word, namely, that he would prefer a universe in which God does not exist, because of his cosmic authority problem.  He simply does not want to be accountable to a higher power for his earthly actions.  If naturalism is true, then what is the purpose of Peterson critiquing the ills found throughout the humanities and social sciences at Western universities? Why feel the need to help a lost generation of men? My point is that he doesn’t have to merely live as though Christianity were true but can actually live the way he does, because it is true. Christianity has many evidences and arguments in its favour, more so than naturalism, materialism, pantheism and other religious outlooks.  Craig, attempted to press Peterson to abandon naturalism but Peterson was hesitant, although, peculiarly he affirmed a sort of Platonism.  Peterson also tried to make a vague argument for a connection between evolutionary biology and the transcendent which seems to unveil the genetic fallacy – a Freudian type argument that makes the claim that the truth of a belief is merely explained away by how it originated, for example belief in God and the afterlife originates from a fear of death.

Craig has spent much of his work and debates arguing cumulatively that Christianity is the best explanation of the data of the universe and the plight that humanity finds itself in – something which Peterson recognizes all too well as a psychologist and observer of the history of totalitarian regimes.  How much more powerful would it be for Peterson, if he could live his life knowing that Christianity is true rather than just merely as though it were true? As St. Paul states: “And if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile and you are still in your sins” (1 Corinthians 15:17).  Interestingly, although Peterson does not affirm neither denies the resurrection, but on the grounds that we do not fully understand reality and that the universe is “stranger” than we think.  It seems as though Peterson is stuck in the archetypal understanding of Biblical truths without investigating their even more profound truths.

Concluding Reflection

Peterson in his new book: 12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos (a #1 best-seller on several Amazon sites) outlines ways of combatting chaos in our lives.  Peterson’s mode of thinking (as far as I can discern it) rests on Judeo-Christian principles, so that this antidote to chaos must be grounded in an all-redemptive concept that may be unconsciously operating within all of us.  In response, I would say the best way to combat the inner chaos and the outer physical chaos (entropy) is to rely on the One who relies on no-one; the One who will restore our hearts, minds, body, souls and even the future physical cosmic reality through a creatio ex vetere. We must put our trust in the uncreated Being, who gives being and potentiality to all of creation, without which there would be pure nothingness.

As was to be expected, Peterson was the most emotionally and existentially engaging but emotional pleads do not equate to necessarily good arguments, as they are subject to change from day to day. Goldstein was hopelessly lost in her unjustifiable presuppositions regarding naturalism, with the inability to ground her meta-ethics.  Craig as a rigorous analytic philosopher was the most careful in building his case for an ultimately meaningful life – the other two simply did not engage fully with his thought.  Nevertheless, the many fruits of Peterson’s endeavours and work must be praised. It is my sincere belief that both Craig’s and Peterson’s work and public presences, can strongly complement one another in extremely powerful ways.  Peterson appeals to a young secular audience, one which is constantly and helplessly searching for authenticity. While Craig’s work can give the rational justification for a truly meaningful life that can only truly be fulfilled by Christianity. Both men have impacted my life in immeasurable ways, perhaps ways I have not realized yet. I thank God for their lives and work.

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Scott Ventureyra completed his PhD in theology at Dominican University College in Ottawa. He has published in academic journals such as Science et Esprit, The American Journal of Biblical Theology, Studies in Religion, Dialogue: Canadian Philosophical Review and Maritain Studies. He has also written for magazines such as Crisis and Convivium and newspapers such as The National Post, City Light News, The Ottawa Citizen and The Times Colonist. He has presented his research at conferences around North America including the Science of Consciousness in Tucson, Arizona in 2016