Friday, May 6, 2011

Eternal significance

I find myself pulled to the following two claims:

  1. If nothing lasting can come from human activity (think of Russell's description of everything returning "again to the nebula"), then no human life has much meaning.
  2. If nothing lasting can come from human activity, some human lives (e.g., lives lived in loving service to others) still have much meaning.
I don't think I am alone in finding myself pulled in these two directions. It would be nice if one could reconcile these two intuitions.

If the conditionals in (1) and (2) are material, then there is an easy way to reconcile these two intuitions. For if they are material conditionals, then (1) and (2) together entail:

  1. Something lasting can come from human activity.
And given (3), there is no contradiction between (1) and (2)—both are trivially true because their antecedents are false.

This seems too facile. (Maybe only because I am not sufficiently convinced by my arguments here. But I also think that this interpretation ignores the anti-material marker "still" in (2).) But here is a more sophisticated hypothesis about these two intuitions. Suppose that God has designed our world so that only events that can have eternal significance are deeply morally significant. Then it is contingently true that:

  1. Nothing that lacks eternal significance has deep moral significance.
Moreover, suppose that God implants in us a strongly engrained intuition that (4) is true. He does this in order to set our sights on eternity and to comfort us under the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune. (I think here of Boethius' Consolation of Philosophy.) At the same time, the moral significance of events does not entirely come from their eternal significance. Thus, such counterfactuals as
  1. If lives of loving service to others lacked eternal significance, they would still have deep moral significance
are true, and moral reflection can discover these truths.

This hypothesis would explain why we are drawn to (1). We are drawn to (1) because we have a deep divinely implanted intuition that (4) is true, and (4) makes (1) very plausible. Moreover, the hypothesis can explain why we are drawn to (2), namely that with reflection we discover (5) to be true. (Contrary to what the name "subjunctive conditional" suggests, we do use the indicative mood for subjunctive conditionals sometimes.)

The hypothesis also explains why it is hard to find arguments for (1), why belief in (1) is more of a gut feeling than an argued position, but nonetheless a gut feeling that it is hard to get rid of.

Finally, the hypothesis is compatible with the possibility of there being non-theists like Russell who overcome their pull to (1). The intuition isn't irresistable. The only plausible story as to how (4) can be true is that, in fact, God makes all morally significant things have potential eternal effects. So a non-theist is likely to realize that (4) fits poorly with her overall view, and hence get rid of (4).

This hypothesis about (1) and (2) charitably does about as much justice as can be done to both intuitions simultaneously. This gives us not insignificant reason to think the hypothesis is true, and hence that there exists a God who makes morally significant events have potentially eternal effects.

Of course, one might come up with naturalistic explanations of the pull to (1) and (2). But I suspect that these naturalistic explanations will end up simply denying one of the two intuitions, and then explaining why we have this mistaken view. An explanation of our intuitions on which the intuitions are true is to be preferred for anti-sceptical reasons.


Mike Almeida said...

1.If nothing lasting can come from human activity (think of Russell's description of everything returning "again to the nebula"), then no human life has much meaning.

Of course, something lasting is bound to come from human activity, no matter that nearly everything else goes out of existence. There will exist, no matter what, true propositions describing the good and bad that was done. And we will have decided what those true propositions are. Nonetheless there is a paradox lurking. If we instead suppose that God exists, every good thing we do shrinks to moral insignificance. So whether God exists or not, it's unlikey that the good we do will be esp. significant.

Alexander R Pruss said...

Well, "nothing lasting" shouldn't be taken too literally here. I think it's an interesting task to try to analyze what people mean by that. The propositions point is a good one. There may also be lasting insignificant effects of our actions on a naturalistic view. Faint radio signals from earth may reach distant galaxies in millions of years. Etc.

The God point is really interesting, but I don't think we should consider significance to be essentially comparative. Thus, we shouldn't think "God's actions are significant, ours are not." We should think "Our actions are significant, and God's actions are infinitely significant." Though there may be times when the comparative judgment is morally and spiritually helpful--it helps us take things "philosophically", as people say.

Mike Almeida said...

Isn't the point about significance comparative in both the God case and the non-God case? In the non-God case the effects of our actions are comparatively small. They have some finite effect, and thereafter are infinitely ineffective. If that comparison does not matter, then nothing prevents us from taking finitely effective acts as very significant (though of course not infinitely significant). Also, nothing requires us to observe any conceptual link between infinitely effective acts and very significant acts.

Jarrett Cooper said...

Prof. Almeida,

I think you would be right about the God scenario if we were talking about an impersonal God. However, there is certainly a difference with our actions if God is personal and actually was "concerned" about our actions. If God is personal, I think, would make our actions quite significant.

JS Allen said...

There is a contrary intuition that it is more significant morally to provide aid to a widow, orphan, or outcast who will never be able to do anything for you; or that it is more significant to give up your life for a brother than to survive. I'm pretty sure that these intuitions could be empirically verified to exist universally even outside of Christendom.