Does the Universe Have a Purpose?

Over the weekend I watched a fascinating “debate” that featured William Lane Craig, Doug Geivett, Rabbi David Wolpe, and atheists Matt Ridley, Michael Shermer, and Richard Dawkins.

The topic was “Does the Universe Have a Purpose.” It took place in Mexico and was moderated in Spanish in front of a large audience and about 2 million viewers via television. You can see the whole thing here:.

I’ve never seen a debate between 6 people speaking from a podium in a boxing ring with 6 minute “rounds” followed by 3 minute “rounds,” but the most interesting part was the development of the argument.

Craig was the first theist to speak, and he essentially made the claims that whether or not the universe has a purpose is logically “downstream” from whether or not there is a God. That is, if there is no God there is no purpose to the universe and vice versa. That sounds a lot like Ecclesiastes to me—everything is meaningless if there is no God. Lots of philosophers understand this (e.g., Sartre, Nietzsche).

The only defense that the atheists could muster was to assert that there is still meaning and purpose for individuals, and that there is in fact no purpose in the universe taken as a whole. There was a lot of distracting talk about whether or not there is a God and other rabbit trails (e.g., insulting Christianity for being “unscientific”), but ultimately their thought boiled down to “of course the universe has no purpose…most of it is stars converting hydrogen to helium…it’s just a physical system…” and “but you should be a good person and whether or not there is a God has no bearing on whether or not you can find purpose in your life.”

I take issue with the second argument (the first is valid given the premise). It appears that the atheists are left with “local meaning” that is not rooted in “ultimate meaning.” To me, this is very unsatisfying because it is admitting that purpose, value, meaning, etc. are culturally constructed or mere value judgments by individuals that aren’t rooted in anything. Doesn’t this make them merely useful fictions? If you find meaning in work and love and family, is this because they are ultimately meaningful? Or a lie you tell yourself to feel better or confer a survival advantage to your DNA? An alternative explanation is that they are actually meaningful, and that people can discern this whether or not they believe in the God that gives the universe a purpose and meaning. This is what the Bible would argue, and this “image of God” we possess is very hard to reason away.

Maybe this is clearer in the area of morality. If there is no God, then there is no good or evil. Everything just “is”—it is not “wrong” or “right.” Within a person or culture there will be wrong and right, but this isn’t rooted in anything and you can imagine cultures with opposite morality. There have been cultures in which eating people, killing, and child molestation were “good.” There is no defense against the argument that whatever I define as “good” and “evil” is valid for me and my people, given that there is no independently true moral reality to which we can appeal or to which definitions can correspond.

This rips the rug out from under the atheists’ arguments. Why claim that people should understand that there is no purpose in the universe other than that which we make for ourselves? If nothing is really meaningful or endowed with any purpose, is this debate even a worthwhile endeavor? Is it important to be correct on this topic? What purpose does that serve? To recruit people to your culturally constructed definitions of ‘value’ to bolster your useful fictions against the threat of dissenting views? It doesn’t make any sense. Why insult the theists for being silly or ignorant or unscientific? Those things are neither “good” nor “bad” but rather they just “are” in the atheist worldview. Yet the moral tone, the value judgments, the purpose behind the atheist argument betrays that they also live their lives as if there is good and bad, meaning, and purpose.

If you can’t live a life that is consistent with what you are arguing, that isn’t good. They essentially argue that the universe has no purpose but that they live every day in pursuit of pro-social goals that give their lives meaning—but it’s arbitrary fabricated meaning that isn’t really true by any standard beyond themselves. If your arguments are logically inconsistent with your assumptions (e.g., it’s morally wrong to be ignorant—but “wrong” and “right” are not real), doesn’t that invalidate your argument? Didn’t you just argue that useful fictions are good enough “meanings” for an individual? Then why are my useful fictions (which is what you claim they are) any less valid than yours? Is there a survival advantage to having this useful fiction instead of that one? If so, we’re not talking about “correct” and “incorrect” anymore, but just the utility of arbitrary values.

Ultimately, this line of reasoning degenerates into meaninglessness, as every value judgment and claim to meaning or purpose by the atheists is inconsistent with their atheism, betrays their lack of a coherent belief in atheism, and uncovers the futility of the atheist worldview. Sounds like Ecclesiastes again. Without God, nothing is meaningful and there is no purpose.

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