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Hitchens' Presumption of Meaning

Even though I don't agree with his ideas, I must admit Christopher Hitchens is a talented writer.  Here he writes an interesting account of his battle with cancer

What I find highly interesting, and inconsistent, is Hitchens' presumption of meaning.  Hitchens is an atheist.  In his worldview, any objective transcendent meaning to life or its events is utterly illusory.  No purpose here.  Just a random collision of atoms in this cold dark universe we call home.  Hitchens implies as much:  "To the dumb question 'Why me?' the cosmos barely bothers to return the reply:  Why not?"  "Why me?' is indeed a dumb question when there's nothing or no one to answer.

However, Hitchens smuggles in morsels of meaning throughout.  He tells us that in the "sick country" there appears to be no racism, implying that racism is really objectively wrong.  The "egalitarian spirit" of the place accompanied by "hard work" are really good things to Hitchens.  But how can we determine such things are objectively good in an atheistic world devoid of objective Good?

Instead of rage, Hitchens is "badly oppressed by a gnawing sense of waste."  But how do we make sense of waste in an ultimately meaningless universe?  Rather than battling cancer, Hitchens wishes for "suffering in a good cause" or risking his life "for the good of others."  Noble ideas to be sure, but only meaningful in a universe with real Good, real Meaning  Given Hitchens' worldview, I find his atheist forefather Bertrand Russell to be much more consistent: 

"That man is the product of causes that had no prevision of the end they were achieving; that his origin, his growth, his hopes and fears, his loves and his beliefs, are but the outcome of accidental collocations of atoms; that no fire, no heroism, no intensity of thought and feeling, can preserve individual life beyond the grave; that all the labors of the ages, all the devotion, all the inspiration, all the noonday brightness of human genius, are destined to extinction in the vast death of the solar system, and that the whole temple of Man's achievement must inevitably be buried beneath the debris of a universe in ruins..."

Don't misunderstand me, I wish no ill on Mr. Hitchens.  Count me in with the "astonishing number of prayer groups" on his side.  I want him to beat cancer.  But I also want him to be consistent.  I don't want his life to suffer such an ignoble end, "buried beneath the debris of a universe in ruins."  But such would be consistent with atheism.  Rather, I want him to find the True, the Good, and the Beautiful -- a life filled with meaning.  However, such a discovery can only come through conversion to Christian theism, the very worldview Hitchens has given an entire lifetime to destroying. 

So is there hope for Hitchens?  Absolutely.  In the Christian worldview, hope reigns supreme.  Redemption is possible because there really is a Redeemer.  And He holds out hope, even to the cancer-stricken hostile atheist, until the very last breath of life is taken. 

Here's hoping--and praying--for a death-bed conversion.

Comments

I would suggest that while he may dismiss the true source of such goodness, Hitchens has identified a number of things he deems "good" (probably having seen them enacted through others, believers and unbelievers included), and it is in the cause of these things that he would rather suffer. No ill reasoning there.

That said, there is a bottom line of ill reasoning in Hitchens' writing and speaking--that there is no transcendent God--and for that reason I'll pray that your prayers for him are powerful and effective.

Kunkle, you say that atheism doesn't allow for "meaning" and "purpose". I find this difficult to understand. Why presume it to be true?

I think objective, transcendent meaning is inconsistent with an atheist's worldview. The atheist can certainly assert there is meaning and purpose but that's different from whether or not his worldview actually has room for such a thing. It doesn't make sense to to assert that objective meaning can arise from a random, purposeless, meaningless, undirected process like evolution. William Lane Craig puts it this way: "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 at all? His life may be important relative to certain other events, but what is the ultimate significance of any of those events? If all the events are meaningless, then what can be the ultimate meaning of influencing any of them? Ultimately it makes no difference."

Kunkle, suppose we concede that "objective meaning" cannot "arise from a random, purposeless, meaningless, undirected process like evolution." Let's also concede that "each individual person passes out of existence when he dies."

But how do you infer from these two claims that, for any given person, it doesn't really matter whether he or she existed at all?

I still don't get it.

Kunkle, do you also think that if atheism is true individuals wouldn't have any reasons to anything?

Reasons to do things, or to have certain attitudes, are commonly called "practical reasons." Value is sometimes understood in terms of such reasons. That is, to say something is valuable is to say that it gives us certain sorts of practical reasons. Now, if practical reasons and value are compatible with atheism, then it would be difficult to understand why meaning or significance isn't.

So I suppose that you might also want to insist that, if atheism is true, then individuals don't really have any practical reasons. But what sort of argument could you give for this?

And do you really believe that, if God doesn't exist, then there are no reasons to do anything? Stop and think this though. Suppose you begin one day to doubt God's existence. As you begin to doubt the existence of God, do you also begin to think that you have no reason to avoid pain, or to enjoy a good laugh, or to resist the thug who intends to rape your wife? (And would you also doubt that you have "theoretical reasons"--reasons, e.g., to believe that 5+7=12?) Yours would be a curious doctrine, but if it's really what you believe, then even the atheist will want you to keep your faith! (And I would suddenly understand your campaign against atheism.)

I think you may be missing the point of my argument. I think life has objective meaning. I think life has objective meaning for the atheist, whether he believe that it does or not. If the atheist doesn't think life has meaning then life is meaningless. But for the atheist who wants to affirm objective meaning then the question becomes: what best accounts for that? Or what best explains this thing we discover--objective meaning--"out there" in the external world? I think a personal God who has created the universe for a purpose is the best explanation. Objective meaning is inconsistent with an atheistic worldview. So I don't want the atheist to abandon objective meaning, I want them to abandon their atheism, which fails to account for meaning.

Kunkle, I think you must have missed the last post I wrote. Let me post it again, adding a little emphasis:

Do you also think that if atheism is true individuals wouldn't have any reasons to do anything?

Reasons to do things, or to have certain attitudes, are commonly called "practical reasons." Value is sometimes understood in terms of such reasons. That is, to say something is valuable is to say that it gives us certain sorts of practical reasons. Now, if practical reasons and value are compatible with atheism, then it would be difficult to understand why meaning or significance isn't.

So I suppose that you might also want to insist that, if atheism is true, then individuals don't really have any practical reasons. But what sort of argument could you give for this?

And do you really believe that, if God doesn't exist, then there are no reasons to do anything? Stop and think this though. Suppose you begin one day to doubt God's existence. As you begin to doubt the existence of God, do you also begin to think that you have no reason to avoid pain, or to enjoy a good laugh, or to resist the thug who intends to rape your wife? (And would you also doubt that you have "theoretical reasons"--reasons, e.g., to believe that 5+7=12?) Yours would be a curious doctrine, but if it's really what you believe, then even the atheist will want you to keep your faith! (And I would suddenly understand your campaign against atheism.)

The difficulty here is that "practical reasons" for the person who does not believe in an objective (or transcendent, or higher authorative) meaning do not have to stray very far from "personal reasons." Spitting on a person of another ethnicity--I have witnessed this very thing--is a "practical outcome" of a bigoted person's "personal hatred." What tells this bigot not to do such a thing? Social norms, perhaps. Majority opinion, perhaps. Maybe even an inner compass. But, of course, if it is only the last of these, we would have to ask where such a compass comes from. If by evolution, why do some of our species severely lack it?

All "Kunkle" is saying (I'll venture, never having met the guy) is that when we have objective meaning supplied for us by a transcendent God and we actually dare to follow Him, there is not nearly as much potential for strife as there is when your practical/personal reason butts heads with mine. (We'll go ahead and get the admission on the table that religion has delivered its share of ugly strife throughout time. But we could argue for days about the difference between religion and God-following faith.)

Jeff,

Be careful not to conflate the person who doesn't believe in God (i.e., the atheist) with "the person who does not believe in an objective (or transcendent, or higher authorative) meaning." It is Kunkle who is claiming that the atheist, as an atheist, must deny objective meaning--and that's the very claim that I am calling into question. In particular, I'm calling Kunkle's claim into question by raising the prior question about reasons, and whether Kunkle also thinks that the atheist must deny that she has reasons, practical and otherwise.

Does Kunkle think that the atheist, as an atheist, must acknowledge that she has a reason to deny that she has reasons? Wouldn't that be odd.

Given his appeals to William Lane Craig (though Craig is a fantastic apologist, his expertise really lies elsewhere), I suspect that Kunkle hasn't really thought through these issues for himself.

Let's say that Mr. Kunkle is not claiming that the atheist must deny objective meaning. Let's say that he is instead asking where objective meaning would come from if it doesn't come from a singular universally authoritative, all-wise source (what many call "God"). What answer would you give him?

Alright, let's suppose that Kunkle has retracted his confidence that the atheist must deny objective meaning, and that he is instead simply asking for a non-theistic account of objective meaning. One reply would be the one I suggested earlier: to say that life has objective meaning is to say that it has a certain kind of (objective) value. Such value simply consists in various kinds (objective) practical reasons--reasons, e.g., to have certain attitudes towards one's own life and the lives of others. So, objective meaning comes from the fact that there are objective reasons.

I predict that you will want a fuller account. You might, for example, what to know what reasons are. You might also ask where such reasons come from. As for the question about what reasons are, it may be best to simply give you some examples of reasons (this is a very common way of indicating what something is). As for the second question (about where reasons come from), I would first want to ask a prior question: why should we presuppose that objective reasons must "come from" anywhere? Must everything come from somewhere else? Presumably not. So, why assume that objective reasons must come from somewhere else? While that assumption is is implicit in your question, but I don't see how it can be justified.

I'm sorry, but asserting that a reason can be "objective" and have no objective explanation other than it is uncaused is a fallacy. you must assert objective proofs for your assumption that reasons need not be caused to be objective (as it is not self evident). I can easily give examples of reasons and call them objective, but does not make them so.

To name something objective, with a subjective scope and proclaim it with absolute certainty is not helpful philosophically. To state that you have a belief regarding this would be correct. I'm unaware of something that resides in nature that has been objectively proven to be uncaused, if you know of one please do enlighten me. The closest case I could think of are virtual particles ( which are a counting system for physicists) and have never been proven to be uncaused. A metaphysical or physical but unwitnessed causal reality is the only logical explanation one could come to without belief. Any approach other than this would be belief or an unfruitful pursuit as one has not given satisfactory proof of an uncaused causer. Be it the universe or otherwise.

By the way, I'd love to hear Kunkle himself try to respond. Evangelical apologists who make sweeping claims about normativity are a dime a dozen. I'd love to encounter just one who will can actually provide a sustained defense of his or her claims--and a defense against more than the usual strawmen that are more typically offered (people must be bored to death of hearing Christian apologists rail against simplistic forms of relativism).

"People must be bored to death of hearing Christian apologists..."

Haven't seen many such corpses around. Not to say that you're mistaken, just that you're doing what the vast majority do not: paying attention at all. That is to your credit.

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المطبخ و و صفات الطبخ

منتديات الصور 2013

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About
Brett Kunkle is the Student Impact Director at Stand to Reason. He is a huge fan of his wife and 5 kids, surfing the Point in Newport Beach, and the Pittsburgh Steelers. Yes, in that order.