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Human nature as God's purpose


This article responds to one of Thaddeus Metz's criticisms of the theory that the meaning of life is to fulfil a purpose assigned by God. In particular, it addresses the argument that only an atemporal God could ground meaning but that an atemporal God could not assign a purpose. In order to do this, the article first argues that Metz's criticisms misread the relevant sense of purpose. It then argues that on a more plausible reading of ‘purpose’, we can see that it is in fact the kind of thing that an atemporal God could assign.

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1. Metz ThaddeusCould God's purpose be the source of life's meaning?’, Religious Studies, 36 (2000), 293313, 305. I am not sure whether Tolstoy held purpose theory or some other God-centred theory. Craig also suggests some version of this argument, although again he does not base it in purpose theory. Craig also does not claim to be able to prove that life has meaning; William Lane Craig ‘The absurdity of life without God’, in E. D. Klemke (ed.) The Meaning of Life (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000), 53–54.

2. Metz ‘Could God's purpose be the source of life's meaning?’, 295–296, 305–306.

3. Ibid., 295.

4. Ibid., 296–297. Also, Robert Nozick Philosophical Explanations (Cambridge MA: Belknap Press, 1981), 587.

5. Metz ‘Could God's purpose be the source of life's meaning?’, 303–304.

6. Ibid., 308–309.

7. Ibid., 309–310.

8. Ibid., 310.

10. Ibid., 304, 311. Thanks to an anonymous reviewer for Religious Studies for calling my attention to this point.

11. At least, it would not have any purpose when it was formed. After humans invented the fork, they would have found a purpose for it.

12. It might be that the best possible dogfood happened to be even better as a catfood. I will avoid this kind of complication for now.

13. It might seem that I beg the question here. After all, it has not been established that we need God in order for our lives to have purpose. In the course of investigating this problem, it is not fair to rule out an answer just because it implies that we do not need God. While it is true that a negative answer alone is insufficient to rule out a meaning of ‘purpose’, we should rule out any conception that makes the answer trivial. The principle of charity requires us to look for a sense of the term ‘purpose’ under which the claim in question could be seen as plausible and interesting, even if it can be disproved.

14. Nozick Philosophical Explanations, 586–587.

15. Ibid., 587.

16. I suppose it may be possible that there are intelligent creatures who had this as their life's meaning. But I would think that their intelligence would have to be different from ours in ways I cannot imagine. I should also add that whether God could assign this role to us as a duty is a question that I cannot answer.

17. Nozick Philosophical Explanations, 586–587.

18. I do not mean to rule out competing or optional purposes here. God might assign us one of several purposes, any one of which we could fulfil. Alternatively, His purpose might be that we fail at a certain purpose in order to find a deeper one. The point here is that being both designed and perfectly fit for a certain end is not enough to entail that that end would be our purpose. We are looking for some kind of closer fit between an object and its end that gives one or more purposes a status higher than those of other purposes.

19. Arthur Danto Narrative and Knowledge (New York NY: Columbia University Press), 149–150.

20. Ibid., 116–117, 151–153, 157–158.

21. Ibid., 116–117.

22. Ibid., 143–148; Arthur Prior ‘Changes in events and changes in things’, in R. Le Poidevin (ed.) The Philosophy of Time (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1993), 35–40.

23. Thanks to an anonymous reviewer for this journal and to Juliana Bibas for pointing this out. See also Juliana (Vossen) Bibas's unpublished ‘The Orthodox clock and the map of the world: Hagia Sophia in the 6th and 7th centuries’.

24. Danto Narrative and Knowledge, 142, 146–147; Nozick Philosophical Explanations, 575.

25. For this point, I am indebted to St Pavel Florenskii, Heidegger, C. S. Lewis, and Spinoza: St Pavel Florenskii The Pillar and Ground of the Truth, tr. Boris Jakim (Princeton NJ: Princeton University Press, 1997), 14–38, 106–110, 114–23; Martin Heidegger Being and Time, tr. John Macquarrie & Edward Robinson (New York NY: Harper, 1962), H 66–72; C. S. Lewis Perelandra: A Novel (New York NY: Macmillan, 1944), 229–234; Baruch Spinoza The Ethics, tr. Samuel Shirley (Indianapolis IA: Hackett, 1992), E1P25–28.

26. Alexander Nehamas Nietzsche: Life as Literature (Cambridge, MA: Harvard, 1985), 74–105.

27. Ibid., 80–81. See also Heidegger Being and Time, H 66–72, 75–76.

28. Thomas Nagel The View from Nowhere (New York NY: Oxford University Press, 1986), 16.

29. Ibid., 3–12.

30. Hence Nagel anticipates that he will encounter serious resistance from those who want an objective account that covers everything; ibid., 7–8, 13–16.

31. Orson Scott Card ‘Unaccompanied Sonata’, in idem (ed.) Maps in a Mirror: The Short Fiction of Orson Scott Card (New York NY: T. Doherty Associates, 1990), 277–289.

32. Ibid., 278–281.

33. Ibid., 281–287.

34. Ibid., 288–289.

35. Philippa Foot Natural Goodness (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 2001), 46.

36. Something very similar to this is described in Nozick Philosophical Explanations, 588–589. He talks of a task that might seem to be the fulfilment of every aspect of a person's life. I would alter that claim to say that the task really does make sense of everything in the person's life. Or more to the point, the task or goal would be such that, once it was discovered, it would be inconceivable that someone would try to account for the different aspects of the person's life without making reference to that goal.

37. Metz ‘Could God's purpose be the source of life's meaning?’, 304–306; idemRecent work on the meaning of life’, Ethics, 112 (2002), 786787.

38. Metz suggests this possibility in ‘Recent work on the meaning of life’, 787.

39. Idem ‘Could God's purpose be the source of life's meaning?’, 308–309.

40. Nozick The Examined Life, 590–591.

41. Granted, creation would not involve tools and materials, if it is understood as making something out of nothing. So, an angel or demiurge would in one sense be utterly free with respect to what it creates. Still, as I say in what follows, creation would seem to call on at least mental resources, which in a finite creature would be dependent on other things. Most importantly, what he would choose to create would be conditioned by the effects that other things have on him. See Spinoza Ethics, E1D2, E1P28, E2D5, E2P21.

42. Nozick raises the point negatively by asking whether we would have to ask whether God's plan must be checked against a God who created God, and a God who created him, and so forth; idem Philosophical Explanations, 590–591. See also his discussion of ‘unboundedness’ in ibid., 601–610.

43. John Martin Fischer has pointed out to me that purpose1 and structure1 look identical. I agree, and I suspect that they are very similar, and it may be the case that neither concept is intelligible without the other. The main difference that I would point out is that the structure1 can be in place without actually achieving the purpose1.

44. Thanks to Thaddeus Metz for encouraging me to develop this point. See also Spinoza Ethics, E1P25–28.

45. On the other hand, see Metz ‘Could God's purpose be the source of life's meaning?’, 296, for a brief discussion of whether God could assign a life multiple purposes. See also n. 18.

46. An alternative would say that the meaning is a property that necessarily supervenes on the structure of anything as complex as a human life. But again the reason we were forced into the purpose1 account in the first place was because a mere examination of the structure of the thing seemed to lead us into perspectivalism.

47. Foot Natural Goodness, 46.

48. An anonymous reviewer for Religious Studies was again very helpful in directing me to this point.

49. This seems at certain points to be what Metz has in mind. This comes out especially in his discussion of whether it is moral for God to assign a purpose; Metz ‘Could God's purpose be the source of life's meaning?’, 297–302. There, he repeatedly uses terms like ‘God's purpose’ (298), ‘His aim’ (299), and ‘something [He] would like you to do with your life’ (300). See also Nozick Philosophical Explanations, 586–588.

50. Thanks to John Martin Fischer, Thaddeus Metz, John McAteer, Fr Patrick Henry Reardon, and an anonymous reviewer for this journal for their valuable suggestions. Thanks also to Juliana Bibas for helpful comments on the significance of events.

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Religious Studies
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