Does it really make sense to say that, in the absence of God, life is ultimately meaningless? Prominent Christian philosophers and apologists have made this argument, such as William Lane Craig and Francis Schaefer. Noted atheist philosophers, such as Kai Neilson, and others (e.g. Sartre) have more or less come down on this side of the fence as well. I agree that, without God, there is no real point to anything, though I have admittedly often struggled with specifically how this is the case. The finitude, frailty, and struggle of human life and the eventual energy equilibrium in the universe are powerful truths, but still seem to lack probative force insofar as they are incorporated into the argumentation. All things considered, I think at least one factor that could be better drawn out in this discussion is teleology. I will try to sketch out what I mean by this and how it is relevant to the conversation.
The absurdity of life without God is, of course, not a positive argument for God’s existence. It shows the stark implications of atheism. It shows the depths one is willing to go when addressing the big questions of life. Many atheists will bite the bullet and admit there is no point, no meaning, no purpose in life. Humans and the universe are just happy accidents and that is all. The theist usually takes pain showing the inconsistency in this position; atheism is not a livable worldview. The committed atheist, in this case, acts as if life has meaning. Such inconsistency between thought and action seems to betray internal incoherence. How can it make sense to live and think in such a radically bifurcated manner? Of course, many atheists take another tack, where they try to reconcile ultimate meaning in life without God.
Much is made in the context of this dialogue about meaning or purpose. The atheist might respond that the theist is using such terms in a wholly disagreeable way. The theist seems to be asserting that meaning comes only via extrinsic teleology. That is, meaning and purpose come from having it imposed from the outside by a personal, rational agent. Without meaning given to something, it cannot really have meaning in the objective sense. For example, the purpose of a watch is to tell time, and this purpose is given to the watch by the artificer (designing and arranging the components just-so). Although a simple example, we might say there is meaning in the existence of the watch (or the watch is intelligible) because it was intentionally conceived, forged, and shaped by a rational agent to do something. Similarly, there is meaning in human life because it comes about by a divine Artificer. The best way to cash out meaning is appealing to something given from the outside. If meaning comes from the thing itself, like if man “makes his own meaning”, then we do not ultimately have objective meaning, and thus meaning becomes equivocal. Self-determined meaning would lead to widespread disparity, which would admit of no principled adjudication.
The atheist might retort that life, from simple to complex, has been demonstrated to come about by wholly natural processes. Thus, grounding terms like meaning and purpose in extrinsic teleology does not get the job done no matter how much we want it to be the case. The atheist could hold that meaning can only really be descriptive terms about life and its processes, as given by science or philosophy. Or perhaps there is no problem with grounding meaning in human nature, however transient that might be. Since all we can work with is what we are, the purpose of human existence could be flourishing or minimizing pain. Man defining his own meaning in this context is unproblematic. Yet, the impasse over how to ground meaning is crucial. What gets lost in the conversation about absurdity in the absence of God is the teleological conception from which one is working. How theists conceive and insert teleology into the dialogue has great import.
The more prevalent notion of extrinsic teleology can be juxtaposed against intrinsic teleology (or finality). Instead of teleology being imposed from the outside, intrinsic teleology holds that natural things have an inherent tendency toward certain ends. Natural things have essences (or natures) and are ultimately intelligible in light of their final causes. The essence of a tree incorporates the tendency to grow upward, produce seeds, and so forth. That even inanimate things, like stones, almost always “act” in certain ways is evidence of finality. The regularity we observe in everyday life exists because the essences of natural substances are aimed at specific things. Without finality “baked” into what something is, any given thing would not really be that thing. A grizzly bear that started performing quantum mechanics and flying through the air would not be a grizzly bear, it would be something else. The essence of a grizzly bear incorporates tendencies to eat fish, walk on the ground, and possibly scare quantum physicists camping in Alaska.
There is a key distinction between extrinsic and intrinsic teleology. On extrinsic teleology, things do not have ends unless they receive it somehow as an addition or modification from an outside agent. The stone or tree do not evidence teleology when taken in themselves. Rather, on extrinsic teleology, when we observe what we take to be intricate complexity or functionality, we infer that these traits could not arise from the individual components and infer an intelligent artificer or designer as the best explanation. This is one reason why evolutionary theory remains a proverbial thorn in the extrinsic teleologist’s side. The evolutionary theorist has a competing explanatory mechanism for at least biological complexity, so the inference to an extrinsically imposed arrangement or process is unnecessary.
If extrinsic teleology is the only game in town, it is understandable how one could feel rationally vindicated in outright denial. For, if I can reject that arrangements or the existence of certain complex natural things (or processes) infer outside agency, then I can arrive at the conclusion that there is no genuinely objective meaning or purpose for them. No matter how improbable, the default option for many is that things just exist as they are by accident.
One way to address this potential impasse is that meaning must be first taken to exist within individual things themselves. Even the most inanimate objects have purpose and meaning insofar as they exhibit a tendency to certain ends that could not obtain in the absence of being continually directed toward those ends by an outside agency. No arrangement, complexity, or intricate inter-part relationship is necessary to understand it. A world full of stones would be more than sufficient to establish meaning and purpose in the most important and relevant sense. When we ask the question “why does the stone exist as it does, or for what reason?”, intrinsic finality/teleology provides an answer and the beginning of an interesting path of inquiry. Extrinsic finality cannot start here, which I find problematic.
Without intrinsic finality, nothing would be intelligible. We cannot say what something is without saying what it does. “That for the sake of which,” as Aristotle said, is the governing factor in our understanding of things. Aquinas called final causality “the cause of causes.” Things have meaning in themselves by virtue of the final causes exhibited in their very nature. This does not mean anything like “man can make his own meaning.” Quite the opposite. The purpose of man is bound up in what man is; a rational being acting that inherently acts toward what he judges as good. Man, as man, cannot not act; he is a being-in-act. And man cannot act outside the bounds of His own nature. He cannot fly, shed an exoskeleton, or ruminate. Likewise, man cannot be essentially irrational or essentially incorporeal.
As I see it, the appeal to meaning and purpose is very basic. Without the direction of an agent, even the simplest individual things could not, in principle, tend toward, or almost always obtain, certain ends. This is how Aquinas argues in his fifth way (ST 1.2.3). This is not a “design inference.” Rather, this notion is bound up with the nature of things as they are intelligible to us, by which we even reason and arrange our thoughts. To deny that things have natures is to deny our ability to speak about them in a meaningful way. And to accept that they have natures is to import final causes. The reality of intrinsic final causality means that there is an inherent end for all existent objects, no matter their accidental arrangement. If we deny final causes intrinsic to what things are, then we can only ultimately appeal to meaning via some type of composite arrangement or autonomously improbably complexity. Such a move actually threatens objective purpose because purpose is only inferred in the “design” versus the very existence of things as they are.
We could fare much better than to base our understanding of objective purpose on extrinsic teleology. On the other hand, if intrinsic final causality forms the basis of our understanding, then we can see the issue of the absurdity of life without God loses steam. Purpose (in life) is implicit in raising the problem. We cannot observe the world and conclude there is no purpose or ultimate meaning because we presuppose it when raising the question. Our observations and reckoning of experience rest upon final causality. And final causality is only possible on theism.
It does appear that both the extrinsic and intrinsic teleologist argues for meaning imposed from the outside, viz. God. This is true only a very limited sense. Both agree that God is the “cause”, for lack of a better term, of teleology. But the conception of teleology is radically different. The extrinsic conception is focused on the design and inference, where things themselves exhibit no finality until God acts upon them in a manifest way (such as the human eye). The intrinsic conception begins with the very nature or essence of the object itself, finding it only understandable by incorporating the end that the thing tends to do (or move toward) within its very definition. Atheistic appeals to evolution do not have the same force against intrinsic finality as against extrinsic finality. For, even the most basic thing exhibits finality in its very nature, whether animate or inanimate. The extrinsic teleologist struggles when appealing to animate life in the face of well-articulated evolutionary theory and has little in the way of appeal to inanimate things (stones, water, etc.).
Whether life is absurd without God depends a great deal on how meaning and purpose are understood. I think that an objective basis for meaning, and an ultimate answer to the question, can be most successfully addressed by a robust notion of intrinsic final causality. Extrinsic final causality is how teleology (goal-directedness) is most commonly understood, but this view has several shortcomings when addressing the question of purpose in life without God.