Monday, September 10, 2012

A Skeptic’s Faulty Syllogism in the Search for Meaning

It is amazing to see the logic that some skeptics and in particular atheists use in their attempts to debunk the existence of God.  As a frequent Facebook flyer, I have some friends who are atheists that have engaged me in some spirited conversations.  Every so often I will return the favor and visit their pages to see what kind of vitriol they are sending out against a theistic worldview.  Sometimes I will peruse and find something that will give me a spark to put forth a blog response.  The following syllogism is one such spark.[1]

My skeptical friend's syllogism runs as follows:

Premise 1:  Any life without meaning is absurd.
Premise 2:  Meaning can only be provided by a God higher than one’s self.
Premise 3:  God, if he exists, has no God higher than himself.
Conclusion 1:  God’s life is meaningless
Conclusion 2:  God’s life is absurd.

One of the fascinating things is that the individual putting the syllogism together starts with a very logical premise.  In his second premise, he makes a hasty assumption that causes this argument to self destruct.  The third premise really asks another question which I will tackle in just a moment.  Lastly, the conclusions (1 and 2) are just his opinion.  The funny thing to all this is this:  if God did not exist, I would agree with him.  However there are plenty of reasons for this argument to be blown up base on the illogical trail that he follows.

Let’s look at it shall we...

Breaking down the argument.

Premise 1:  Any life without meaning is absurd.

This is the only true premise in the whole syllogism (argument).  The reason it is true is because it assumes that life has the possibility of having meaning.  By saying that any life without meaning is absurd assume the contrary; that life is not absurd if there is meaning to life.  It was the philosopher Socrates who once said that “the unexamined life is not worth living.”[2]  If there is no meaning to life then it is absurd even to think that anything in life would have meaning or be meaningful.  In fact if anyone were to think that everything in life is meaningless, then they are truly living a self-defeating philosophy of life.   “Kick this around” without spinning the argument on its head and it is not too difficult to see that the premise can be and is in its isolated sense true.[3]  But that is were it ends.  Why?  Because the  waters start to get muddy with his second premise.
Premise 2:  Meaning can only be provided by a God higher than one's self.

Here he makes the assumption that God’s existence brings meaning to life.  In this premise notice that he also tries to put a qualifying on what God he is trying to define by adding the phrase “higher than one’s self.”  This is neither logically nor existentially plausible.  Let me see if I can sum what I mean here.

When I  make the statement that this premise is not logically plausible, I am critiquing the part of the statement “a God higher than one’s self.”  Does he think that if one creates a god out of wood or stone that the (created) god is higher than its creator (the man)? Does he really want to go there?

Let me see if I can illustrate this. Let’s imagine that a pagan in the deepest darkest recesses of the globe decides one day to make a "god".  He takes his machete, chops down the biggest and best tree he can find.  After carving all the bark off the tree, he starts cutting and carving muscles, engraving a bunch of eyes going round the circumference of the trunk, and big teeth, to make the (create) a god that is strong, all seeing, and fierce.  Once he is finished, he lifts up this new god erect, and makes offerings to it from the first fruits of the hunt or the produce and then . . . bows down and worships it. Who is higher than who?  Hmmm, sounds a lot like the old prophet Isaiah’s words

14 Surely he cuts cedars for himself, and takes a cypress or an     oak and raises it for himself among the trees of the forest. He plants a fir, and the rain makes it grow. 15 Then it becomes something for a man to burn, so he takes one of them and warms himself; he also makes a fire to bake bread. He also makes a god and worships it; he makes it a graven image and falls down before it. 16 Half of it he burns in the fire; over this half he eats meat as he roasts a roast and is satisfied. He also warms himself and says, “Aha! I am warm, I have seen the fire.” 17 But the rest of it he makes into a god, his graven image. He falls down before it and worships; he also prays to it and says, “Deliver me, for you are my god.” [4]

In all sincerity this premise is absurd.  Why?  Let's look at it again.  "Meaning can only be provided by a God higher than one's self."  Is the tree cut down by the pagan, really higher than the man (the pagan in this case) in the created order of things?  No!  It is the happy pagan, in spite of his worldview,  who knows within his heart of hearts that there is the one true God; but he creates this "god" as an idol of mind in his not wanting to follow the one true God.

So what is the premise appearing to assume?  It gives this writer the picture that my atheist friend is saying, that if God "exists"OR assuming that God exists; this "God" is no different than the mythological deities of the polytheistic religions; no different than an imaginary God who moves things around in a relentless and cruel fashion.  There is no source for finding any meaning in any of these interpretations of "God."

If this is the case, there is a second problem with his second premise.

Since the second premise is making an assumption that God exists, which by the way I believe to be true, we can assume that this God is not some deity like I have very briefly described in the preceding paragraph.   Assuming that God searches out those to fellowship with Him, is it God that really “provides meaning” or is it something else?  You see when I was at the Reason Rally this past March, I was asked by one the cordial atheists, "Why do you worship the Christian God and not some other god?  What makes the Christian God the right one?" Assuming that the Judeo-Christian God, who reveals Himself in Scripture, searches out those to fellowship with Him [5], is it God who really “provides meaning” or is it something else related to the Judeo-Christian God that brings meaning?

All the other deities of the other world religions are impersonal.  In Islam, Allah moves events and people around like a cosmic chess player, according to his will (kismet - fate).  The pantheon of deities in the eastern religions are also impersonal.  The worshiper of these deities does not have a relationship with them but worships them out of blind obedience to the religious authorities and the sacred writings.  So the question still stands, where does meaning really come from?

Huh, if we were to put God on the same level of worship as the Muslim worshiping Allah or those putting vegetables out for a god in the pantheon of deities from the east, we would have to say, that is not true.

What do we do to find meaning and purpose in life?  Where do we go to find meaning and purpose in life?  Can a house or a fancy car bring meaning and purpose in life?  No.  Can a lot of money bring meaning and purpose in life?  How much is too much money?  When John D. Rockefeller was asked “how much would be enough?” he answered “just a little bit more.” What an ironic answer, coming from America’s wealthiest businessman who at the height of his financial success personally accounted for almost 2% of total US GDP!

So it is not in material wealth where meaning is found.  Sure man can worship his material wealth, but like the happy pagan creating his deity, man's wealth is not higher than himself.  It is not in monetary wealth.  Sure man can worship money, but money is created by man and so is his wealth.  Just ask Rockefeller. 

Let's cut to the chase. May suggest to you that meaning comes from relationships?  Relationships with our spouse, or a member of the opposite sex, or our fellow man may or may not bring forth a meaningful relationship. But we do seek meaning in those relationships.  So relationships are the avenue by which we search out to find meaning and purpose for our lives.  Why do we do this?

Because inanimate objects are impersonal and when we are left to ourselves we are only looking for meaning for our lives within ourselves when it is all said and done.  The God of the Judeo Christian faith is a personal God and we find our meaning and purpose in a relationship with Him through His Son Jesus Christ.  Sure you can find meaning in relationships and friendships with your fellow human beings, but you know what?  People will let you down.

The pagan deities let their worshipers down.  May I suggest to you that God, being the relational God, desires and initiates the relationship and He will never let you down.  Meaning is found in a personal relationship, where one knows God through the spiritual disciplines of Bible study, devotional prayer time, fellowship and worship, to name a few.  You that you cannot have that kind of relationship with your car nor the contents of your wallet that are all lower on the chain than man.

So my atheist friend's premise really "misses the target" in defending his argument.  In fact from here the rest syllogism is a moot point.  But I need to show the short comings of the third premise before wrapping this up.  

Premise 3:  God, if he exists, has no God higher than himself.

If we look at the statement of this premise by itself, it is true.  If God exists, and for those who believe He does that statement is true.  The second part can be assumed to be true by the believer based upon all kinds of evidence available to us that bolsters our faith.  It isn't blind faith we see things like the arguments for a First Cause, the design argument and the moral law argument that the God who exists has no god higher than Himself.

Someone might ask, if God is the First Cause of all that is created, what caused God?  While a premise might be from a conclusion of a prior syllogism, this one is not the case.  It is an assumption based upon  the prior two premises, based upon the phrase, "if he exists."  The atheist's assumption is that there is no God.  So the "if" clause in this premise is a non issue.

When I have used the word "God"in the context of this posting I am speaking of a God who is personal, infinite in power, knowledge, and presence and yet He is transcendent.   God is the First Uncaused Cause that has nothing or no one before Him.  God is the only entity in existence, the reason for whose existence is in Himself... Necessary being.  God created everything but nothing created God, because God is uncreated.  I could delve more into this but that is for another posting.

So what does this say about the conclusions:  God’s life is meaningless and God’s life is absurd?  What is his premises say, never really reach the conclusions.  If this were a logical syllogism, empirically and existentially, and God did not exist, then I would agree with him.  However this syllogism is a self-defeating argument that never reaches the  conclusions.  I can’t even say “close but no cigar.”    I won't even give it an "A" for effort.


[1] A syllogism is another name for a logical argument that possesses more than one premise and comes to a conclusion.  (E.g., Premise 1:  A bachelor by definition is an unmarried man, Premise 2:  Bill is an unmarried man;  Conclusion: Therefore Bill is a bachelor.)  A syllogism may have more than one premise, but as you will see here in this discussion I will show that the syllogism from this atheist is logically and existentially self defeating.

[2} Socrates, in Plato, Dialogues, Apology; Greek philosopher in Athens (469 BC - 399 BC)

[3]  Imagine for a moment after reading Jacques Derrida's works on deconstruction and meaninglessness wondering if he found is work meaningful.  
[4]  Isaiah 44:14-17.

[5]  John 4:22-26.


Sarah Ryle said...

The problem with "debunking" an atheist's POV is that it doesn't lead them to want to learn more about Christ or follow him, which should be the goal of any true Christian... first off, using the Bible as a resource to "disprove" someone who doesn't believe in the Bible is backwards. The Bible itself is not going to lead a non-believer to Christ. How about trying to love and understand this skeptical atheist... instead of trying to criticize them. You are arguing that God exists, to someone who believes he doesn't. All this post essentially does is "poke" at someone for their beliefs... which in turn will only set a bad example for Christ and push people away.

The hardest task we have as Christians is how we respond to non-believers. If a believer asks a question about scripture because they are skeptical of the meaning, well that's one thing, we turn to the scripture and show them. But we can't use scripture to show God to an atheist, because they don't believe in God or the teachings of scripture. The best way to show God to anyone is by applying his teachings to your own life (which is what they were intended for - not for point fingers at someone else through them) and letting your actions speak for themselves. Atheists believe in science, and thus they believe in proof - proof of your faith is through application and action.

You can learn all the right words, know the bible inside and out, but until you do something about it, talking about faith doesn't indicate that you really have it. (James 2:14) God-talk without God-acts is outrageous nonsense. (James 2:17)

Curtis Hrischuk said...

You are correct that relationship provides meaning. This is also why the Trinity is so important. Without the relationships within the Trinity between Father, Son (Logos), and Spirit, it could be argued that God was required to create man. However these inner relationships did not require man being created -- man is an act of love from a being of pure love.

Rob Lundberg said...

Curtis, thank you for those insights. Amen! - Rob

Rob Lundberg said...

Sarah, thank you for your response, however there is one issue I would to point out something out about your response. My use of Scripture was only as illustration, and not evangelism in this posting. Being a former atheist myself, I agree with you that we cannot really use Scripture, and if I may say, irresponsibly to lead an atheist to Christ, particularly when they do not believe that it is from God, let alone hearing what the Bible has to say about their unbelief. So thank you for reminding us of this.

At the same time, I want you to know that love comes in many forms. Jesus even showed us this, even when he cleansed the temple in Jerusalem and when He pointed out the error of the Pharisees and Sadducees. He was love incarnate wasn't he? In that light, let me invite you look through this posting again. Look at the argument I am responding to and tell me if you think it is logical, and then please re-read my posting. Thanks again - Rob