The Preacher’s Argument
If evolution is true, then life is meaningless
Life is not meaningless
Therefore evolution is not true
I read this little argument in a pamphlet handed out by a Baptist preacher on the streets of Abingdon. He had a fairly large wooden stand to display his wares, and he was standing in the middle of the street bawling out his hellfire and damnation, so he was quite hard to ignore. I had just taken my son, eight or so at the time as I remember, to the park. We glanced at the pamphlets as we walked by. One was called something like ‘Why there were no dinosaurs’ (another was called ‘Why God Caused 9/11’), but the man was fired by an enthusiasm we both found a little intimidating, and we did not stop. But as we walked away, my son asked me, ‘Why does that man think there were no dinosaurs?’ ‘I don’t know’ I said, ‘why don’t we ask him?’ And so we got into conversation with the preacher. The conversation was unenlightening, as I have found these kinds of conversations always are, on both sides no doubt, there was simply no ground on which to connect and build the beginnings of a conversation, although I remember being rather awed by the preacher’s vehement insistence that Gandhi was not a good man because he was not a Christian (I should perhaps have asked him about Cardinal Newman, or the Archbishop of Canterbury, to see just how circumscribed the limits of his tolerance were). This was not a man for whom doubt was a vital part of faith. (He appeared in fairly short order as the protagonist of a song, ‘The Peacher’s Lament’, a murder ballad where he kills his family because his wife denies that there is a God. Or rather, since I have no reason to think this actual man was capable of murder, perhaps I should say that the protagonist of my song shared his steely eyes and barking voice.)
I often used the argument from the pamphlet as an example in my introductory logic classes, for the argument is valid, even if the conclusion is false; that is, if the premises are true, then the conclusion has to be true. I liked it because students were inclined to reject the conclusion, and the validity of the argument was just obscure enough to lead them to suspect its invalidity. By thus being led to think the argument through, they were able to realise its validity for themselves. I could then give my little talk about how, if one wished to reject the conclusion of a valid argument, one had to reject one or other of the premises. I generally discouraged extended discussion of which premise one might reject (beyond pointing out that it didn’t have to be the second one) because logic classes were apt to be busy enough just with stuff that was on the syllabus. But this meant that when this little argument crossed my mind the other day, I realised I had never quite set out exactly why I rejected it.
There is the suspicion of course that the argument reaches its conclusion far too easily. It doesn’t mention, let alone discuss, any of the scientific evidence for evolution (although as the subject matter of the preacher’s pamphlets revealed, one does need to provide some kind of explanation of fossils). But it does not purport to be a scientific argument, it is a full-blown philosophical argument; besides, it is only able to breezily ignore all the scientific evidence that might be adduced in favour of evolution in virtue of its equally breezy assertion that life is not meaningless. Even if one accepts that the evidence for evolution is overwhelming (and I do), that gives one an entirely different reason for denying the falsity of evolution, and one needs in all conscience having been presented with this argument to say something about why the reason it proffers for asserting the falsity of evolution is no good.
Many defenders of evolution may well be tempted by the quick and obvious response of denying the second premise, the claim that life is not meaningless. And just to emphasise in the face of one too many negatives for easy clarity, to deny that life is not meaningless is to assert that life is meaningless. There may be a virtue in this response, it may be the hard-nosed and scientific thing to say, but it plays right into the polemical trap that the argument carefully lays and that is its chief rhetorical virtue. For the proponent of the argument, the preacher, the creationist, the bible-thumping evangelist, wants you to think that to reject this argument, to assert the truth of evolution, is at the same time to be committed to thinking that life is meaningless. That way, the preacher can say to all of us who aren’t inclined to think that life is meaningless that they should join the creationist fold. This is all in complete accordance of course with a certain strain of Christian thought (for which read all Christian thought until very recently) that says that to be an atheist is to be a nihilist. Although religious orthodoxy was far more important in the past (especially in the medieval past), the main reason for the almost universal abhorrence of atheism until not very long ago was the thought that the atheist was a person who held their behaviour accountable to no values whatsoever, and hence that didn’t just (as the theologically sophisticated might put it) cut themselves off from the love of God, but also (as more common sentiment might take it) removed themselves from any chance of loving communion with their fellow human beings. (A watered down but still virulent form of this sentiment no doubt explains why a US President could never be an avowed atheist.)
Of course, there are plenty of things that one might say against the logic of the situation. The claim that life is or is not meaningless is vague enough that one might easily suggest that the kinds of things we care about when we call life meaningful are not the kinds of things we deny when we assert that life is meaningless. But the thought that life is meaningful is something that we are committed to (when we are so committed) in our hearts, in our guts even, and not in our heads. In the face of such a visceral commitment, quibbling about the meanings of words is almost bound to seem like shabby evasion, especially if we have already been persuaded that the quibbler is cold-hearted and deaf to the call of honest sentiment.
All that has nothing, I repeat, to do with the logic of the argument. Logically it matters not whether your opponent is a saint or a shyster as long as they have logic on their side, but you are simply not going to let yourself be persuaded by someone you suspect.
So my first response to the argument is on rhetorical grounds. Or rather, it is to point out a feature of the preacher’s case that should give us pause for thought about the soundness of the argument without (yet) touching the logic of the case.
Notice first how it is an unspoken background assumption that turns the conclusion, that evolution is not true, into a specifically religious conclusion. The assumption is that for evolution not to be true is for God to have created the world and everything in it all at once (there is no need to specify a particular time at which this act of creation took place, but typically of course the anti-evolutionist thinks it was quite recently), that is that evolution and creationism are exhaustive options. That this is an assumption can be seen as soon as one realises that it is possible that evolution might be replaced by some other scientific theory which had equally as little to say about the existence or otherwise of God as evolution does. Anyway, having noticed the assumption, I am not going to dispute it. But because that assumption is made, the proponent of the argument, who accepts both premises, does commit themselves to the claim that the fact that God created the world and everything in it, including most pertinently us, is compatible with our lives having meaning. Indeed, they would typically go further and claim that our lives had meaning precisely because God created us, and created us to fulfil some cosmic plan that is perfectly clear to God even if beyond our mere human grasp. And it is vital to the rhetorical operation of the argument that I described above that they do go further in just this way. It is no good saying, ‘look, that heartless materialist scientist cannot explain how life has meaning’ if you cannot either; at any rate, in such a situation you are likely to lose converts as quickly as you gain them. And of course, one of the famous consolations of religion is its purported ability to explain exactly why and in what sense our lives have meaning.
But that consolation is entirely illusory. I simply fail to see, nor has anyone succeeded in explaining to me, how playing my part in someone else’s plan, even if that someone else is God, can give my life meaning (unless of course it is something I want to do, but then it is my wanting to do it that gives it meaning, something the religious are disinclined to accept).
For a start, this whole conception seems extraordinarily badly thought through. Presumably bad things that happen, even bad things caused by other people, are part of God’s plan. That they are so is part of the consolation that religion offers in the face of tragedy. But then that means that the person who was responsible for that bad thing was playing precisely their part in God’s plan, and so their life is meaningful, regardless of how they actually feel about it.
Suppose I commit some evil, which is part of God’s plan for the world. Perhaps I am responsible for some hideous act of genocide, for example. Because this act was part of God’s plan for the world, my life has meaning. It matters not that, traumatised by the evil that I have done, I view my life as hollow and devoid of meaning. I am just wrong to feel that way. At least, I am wrong in the sense that I feel that my life has no meaning, and yet it does (for I played my part in God’s plan). Perhaps it is also part of God’s plan that I feel the devastating guilt that I feel. In which case, we may want to say I am not wrong to feel the way I do, but nevertheless it is still the case that my life has meaning. This seems to get things exactly the wrong way round. Committing evil acts seems to be precisely the kind of thing that hollows out a life of meaning, and I am entirely right to feel that my life has no meaning because of what I have done.
Beyond this, it is a very strange piece of psychology that says that the only thing that can give a life meaning is participating in some other person’s plan. On the whole, we tend to think that submitting to another’s designs is the kind of thing that removes meaning from a life. Autonomy, we tend to think, is a meaning-giving characteristic of action. This is not to say that we tend to think our lives have meaning only insofar as they are pursued without reference to other people – that is, of course, complete nonsense and is not implied by what I say. There is all the difference in the world between a healthy and loving mutuality of concern between two people and a craven subjugation that only permits happiness in pursuit of the desires of the other. It is the later that religion offers, and it is not a conception of a meaningful life that I recognise in any way.
As I said, this though is merely a rhetorical point to make against the preacher’s argument. But it can be developed in a way that begins to make a serious dent in the case, by way of denying premise one rather than premise two. For if the fact that God has a plan for the world which we partake in is sufficient to give our lives meaning, then it is not clear why participating in evolution’s ‘plan’ for the world should not also be sufficient to give our lives meaning. I used scare quotes around ‘plan’ in the latter case, of course, for reasons that the preacher will think are crucial. For in an entirely robust sense, evolution has no plan at all. It is just stuff that happens. The universe and everything in it, including the evolution of species on this small lump of rock orbiting an insignificant star, unfolds according to the laws of nature. It is not headed anywhere, it just goes where it goes. God’s plan, of course, is very different. There is a goal, and it is presumably clear in God’s mind where all this is heading. It seems to be common ground amongst Christians that this physical universe will end at some point in time. Christian opinion diverges on what will be the spiritual state of affairs at that point – whether all souls will be in heaven, or whether some will be in hell. There may be other variations, I don’t know. But God does.
The fact that God knows exactly what the end result of his plan is, whereas evolution is blind, is supposed to be precisely the difference between evolution and God’s plan that makes the latter conducive to meaning where the former is not. But I am much more struck by a similarity between the two, which is the inexorable nature of both of them. Evolution and God’s plan both unfold by necessity. This is not the same as saying that either can easily be predicted, or even predicted at all. Evolution depends on all sorts of factors that would only need to vary in the tiniest amounts in order for outcomes to be massively different. But there is nothing in the theory of evolution that contradicts the laws of physics, and even if quantum indeterminacy plays a role at the subatomic level, that ontological indeterminacy (as opposed to the epistemological indeterminacy of lack of predictive ability) is not something that appears at the biological level. Similarly for God’s plan. If everything happens because God wants it to happen, then God’s world unfolds inexorably too. My point is not that such inexorability is incompatible with meaning. On the contrary, my view is that the world is inexorable and our lives have meaning, that is, precisely that they are compatible. Rather my point is that the preacher cannot point to inexorability to impugn the evolutionary viewpoint if God’s world is similarly inexorable.
At this point, the preacher is apt to say that God created our wills free and so God’s world is not inexorable after all. Now, I am not convinced that the kind of freedom of the will that the preacher invokes even so much as makes sense, but that is perhaps a topic for another time. The point I want to make here is that, grant the preacher freedom of the will of the kind he invokes, it is no longer clear what the unfolding of the universe has to do with God’s plan. For now not everything is under God’s control after all. He has no way of ensuring that the world will turn out as he planned it, since these pesky human beings with their free will keep threatening to derail it. Perhaps the preacher might say that I have now finally managed to see aright how God’s plan and meaning can fit together, for my life has meaning insofar as I, of my own free will, commit to creating (or attempting to create at least) the very world that God has in mind as the end state, which I suppose is what the preacher refers to as the kingdom of heaven.
But now it is not clear at all to me in what sense God can be said to have a plan the fulfilment of which is what gives my life meaning. God may have a wish that the world be a certain way, or perhaps a vision of the way the world can be (although, awkwardly for the thought that God’s world is not inexorable, God is also usually taken to know that the world will turn out that way), but it doesn’t seem appropriate to dignify it with the word ‘plan’, not now human beings with their free wills have been let loose. In a sense it doesn’t mater of course whether we talk of God’s plan or God’s vision or God’s wish (although God’s plan does sound more robust somehow), as long as we remember that the content of the claim that our lives have meaning insofar as they fulfil God’s plan has changed somewhat. God’s end for the universe, what we have referred to as the kingdom of heaven, presumably doesn’t simply consist of everyone being nice to each other, I’m sure it is of far more depth than that. But now our lives have meaning insofar as they contribute towards achieving that end. The fact that it’s God’s end does not seem to be relevant. Maybe human beings are simply not smart enough to conceive of the end themselves, in which case it might be a good idea to listen to God’s views (but how do you do that? All I hear are human beings saying different things about what God says), but the meaning of our lives is given by the pursuit of the end not by the listening. And that we human beings might pursue a particular end, a particular vision of the way the world could be, does not strike me as something that is ruled out by the truth of evolution.
In fact, this line of thought brings us very close to the final point I want to make against the preacher’s argument. So far, I have claimed firstly that the preacher cannot explain how life has meaning, and secondly that the grounds on which the preacher denies that evolution can explain how life has meaning also apply to his view. Now it is time to explain explicitly how I think life can have meaning compatibly with the truth of evolution, thus denying the truth of premise one, the claim that ‘if evolution is true then life is meaningless’, by providing an example of a state of affairs where evolution is true and life does indeed have meaning.
And having got this far, my answer here is unlikely to come as a revelation; indeed we were practically there is the paragraph before last. It seems to me that one’s life has meaning insofar as one pursues a particular end, a particular vision, of the way the world should be or of how one ought to behave. Not any old end or vision will do, to be sure. Purely selfish ends are likely to have a hollow feel to them, especially as the grave approaches. Why is that? I am not sure. Or rather, I have some ideas about that but they are not relevant to the point being made here. As far as what I need to maintain at this point is concerned, it doesn’t matter why the ends that we find meaning-conducive are meaning-conducive, it is enough merely that they are. More precisely, it is enough that they are meaning-conducive and that their being meaning-conducive is compatible with the truth of evolution.
For now perhaps one final worry comes into view, and it is the worry that given the truth of evolution the only ends that can move us are the selfish ones of survival and propagation that are mandated by evolution. If this were true, then our pursuing the kinds of non-selfish and self-transcending ends that in fact tend to give a life meaning would not be compatible with the truth of evolution. But this is not true, both for the shallow reason that evolutionary theory is quite able to explain why it can be evolutionarily advantageous to behave in altruistic as well as selfish ways, and hence the claim is factually incorrect that only selfish ends are mandated by evolution, and for the deeper reason that moral judgement does not enter into the evolutionary level at all. Morality arises at the level of the human, and hence it is deeply wrong to think of genes (and frogs and cats for that matter) as selfish. A full defence of that claim will have to wait for another time. Suffice it to say that as a matter of psychological fact, human beings often are motivated by the pursuit of ends that go beyond themselves in meaning-conducive ways, and that they are so in no way impugns the truth of evolution.
The preacher was wrong about the dinosaurs too.