Is it possible for people, and even for a whole society, to lose faith in God? ... [If] it happens, [it is] not primarily because something they used to think existed does not after all exist, but because the available language about God has been allowed to become too narrow, stale and spiritually obsolete ... the work of creative religious personalities is continually to enrich, to enlarge and sometimes to purge the available stock of religious symbols and idioms ... (The Sea of Faith, 1984)



... people of different periods and cultures differ very widely; in some cases so widely that accounts of the nature and relations of God, men and the world put forward in one culture may be unacceptable, as they stand, in a different culture ... a situation of this sort has arisen ... at about the end of the eighteenth century a cultural revolution of such proportions broke out that it separates our age sharply from all ages that went before (The Use and Abuse of the Bible, 1976)

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Life (Continued)

Yet another perspective is given by considering the significance of life in the vastness of the universe. As far as we know (noting that we may not be able to either perceive or recognise higher types of life) humans and so-called "lower" forms of life on the planet Earth are the only life in the universe. It seems, however, that statistically speaking the existence of other sentient beings in the universe is almost certain, given the incalculably huge number of galaxies and solar systems which have recently been observed. 

This is not to say, however, that all such life will exist simultaneously (from a hypothetical  observer's point of view, one external to the universe). We exist "now" and other sentient life exists "now" in another part of the universe. But, as Einstein demonstrated, any information about the others will only reach us when they are far in our "past" because that information can't travel faster than the speed of light, and they may be separated from us by billions of light years. In other words, each instance of life may be isolated from all other instances in a vast space/time continuum.

Even if life is common in the universe, it must by its very nature be insignificant in the bigger scheme of universal events unless (as many say) whatever meaning life acquires is derived from an "encounter" between God and humanity. In this scheme of things, life is to be seen as a "gift", rather than as the outcome (designed or not, as the case may be) of a series of events in the universe which eventually - and then only after a vast stretch of time, some 13 000 000 000 years - gave rise to the negatively-entropic systems we call "life".

I think that the pessimistic view rests on an inconsistency which may not always be immediately apparent. That inconsistency is the inference that something which ends has no value while it exists. Why should life mean nothing just because it will one day end? The connection is not obvious. In addition, the pessimist position depends on the possibility of verifying that death is the end of life. We know we live, and we know what life is like. But we can't, by definition, know that death ends life. We can't therefore compare life with no-life except in terms of the physical.

Similarly, if life is but a tiny spark in the vast reaches of the space/time continuum, why should it therefore have little meaning or value? To say that is like saying that a very rare diamond is worth less because it's rare. Precisely the opposite may be the case. Further, to be precise, we don't know if the universe will end nor, if it does, when this will happen. How relevant - except in a theoretical sense - is such a distant future to anyone?

The arguments around the value of life are many and complex. As I review them, however, I conclude that they all resolve into a single primary question:

If life has value, is that value intrinsic or is it extrinsic?

Life is intrinsically valuable
This is the response of traditional Christianity and other theist religions. God's creation is valuable because a good God created everything.

So God made them all, and he was pleased with all he saw (Genesis 1.25).

Intrinsic value isn't something which can be argued. It is self-evident. So, for example, if one accepts that God reveals truth to us by various means, it's presumably possible to accept that life has meaning and value because we have access to that as a revealed truth.

I take this to be the position, for example, of those who think that Jesus was in some sense God. If that is the case, when Jesus says that love of self and neighbour is the most important of all values, he establishes the intrinsic meaning and value of humanity. If intrinsic value is established, it should be noted, choice of value becomes redundant. Such value is absolute for all people at all times. 

Life is extrinsically valuable
I should more properly state this as Life is extrinsically valued because it implies that value is established by an evaluator - be the evaluator an individual or a group.

Extrinsic value is assessed in terms of the past, the present and the future. When I go on a Sunday picnic, I might ask myself on Monday, "Was the picnic worth the trouble?" I might be at party and ask myself, "Am I enjoying this?" Or I might look forward to a holiday in France as against a holiday in South Africa and ask, "Which one will I enjoy most?"

From this point of view, I can fully understand that a cat will not value a haystack except for the mice in it, while a cow will value the haystack as a tasty snack and the mice as something to be discarded. A man might value a woman and a woman a man - for obvious reasons. But that doesn't preclude a man valuing a man and a woman a woman for similar reasons.

To sum up, it is possible to state that life is valuable because some authority, who for some reason can't be refuted, has established the value. This is usually the position of those who claim access to revelation direct from God.

Or it can be argued from first principles that life has intrinsic value, or not as the case may be. I haven't yet come across a truly convincing version of either argument.

It can be argued that life's value "is in the eye of the beholder" - the so-called relative or post-modern position. This isn't all that popular a position, if only because it implies that value is a matter of choice, both individual and social.

There remains, however, what I suppose might be called a hybrid position. It might go something like this:

  • Value is indeed a matter of individual and social choice.
  • But that doesn't mean that there is no such thing as a correct or "best" choice about the value of life.
  • The universe comprises myriads of sub-systems. That's how it works. No sub-system stands alone in the total system. All are entirely interdependent - although not every system is essential to the existence of the universe as an all-embracing system.
  • The nature of systems is that they always tend towards greater complexity (degrees of self-organisation). Humanity is the most complex sub-system we know of (and, perhaps, can know of). If in humanity the universe has, as it were, produced the most complex system in a total system which tends towards complexity, then the negatively entropic system must have more value than entropic, less complex, systems.

This appears reasonable at first sight. But I should point out that its efficacy depends on two subsidiary choices:

  1. That greater complexity is more valuable than less complexity; and
  2. that the universe itself has value.

Neither I nor you can "prove" either that God exists or doesn't exist. If that's possible, nobody I know of has yet done it. In other words the intrinsic value of the universe can be posited only if one chooses a hypothetically existent God, since such a primary being would (according to human lights anyway) hardly lack a reason for creating the universe. This choice establishes intrinsic value for everything.

Similarly, it's possible to give the universe (as the master-system) an extrinsic value. All one has to do is to choose to value the universe for what it is, or some particular aspect of the universe (such as sentience, or complexity, or the capacity to reflect on itself in and through humanity) for what it is.

In short, it seems impossible to say that "Life has value" in the same way that one can say, "The earth's atmosphere contains oxygen." But one can say, "I value life above everything else"; or one can say, "I value life because God created it." These two latter positions are not, it seems to me, much different since they both rest ultimately upon an individual's choice. In the final analysis, therefore, the value of life is extrinsic.

Paul Edwards puts it this way: The conclusion that life either is or isn't valuable can't be refuted because

... the question whether a universe with human life is better than one without it does not have any clear meaning unless it is interpreted as a request for a statement of personal preference [4].

[1] Asimov's New Guide to Science, Isaac Asimov, 1987
[2] See Erwin Lazslo: Introduction to Systems Philosophy, 1972 and The Systems View of the World, 1972; General System Theory, Ludwig von Bertalanffy, 1968
[3] Quoted by Paul Edwards in The Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Volume 4, 1967
[4] Life, Meaning and Value of in The Encyclopedia of Philosophy

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