“The 3 or 4 billion years that organic life is going to live on this planet is just an eye-blink, just an infinitesimal moment in comparison to the oceans of dead time that precede and come after. In the end, the universe is gonna burn up. In the end, nothing is going to make any difference…In the end, what you do and how you live makes not one whit of difference. To live a good life, to live a bad life, it doesn’t matter. If the Titanic is going down, and everyone on board is about to die, does it really matter if you go down hugging or mugging?…What difference does it make to you or to the person you’re mugging? Who cares? We’re about to die in five minutes-give me your wallet. What’s he gonna say…here, have the wallet. Stab me while you’re at it…you’re going to die in five minutes, so to speak, and so will the whole world, and so will the whole universe, and so will the whole civilization.”-Timmy Keller, November 8, 2011.
To me, this argument is absolutely persuasive(even more persuasive than the Singer arguments for giving to the least, which I also find very persuasive even though I haven’t ranted about it for some time). To me, the fact that our lives seem like they last longer than the proverbial 5 minutes on the Titanic is just a trick of our consciousness that I’m sure helps propagate the species, just like the genetic desire in our stomachs that makes us want the most calories available to us helped our ancestors survive.
But then again, I’m a Christian (at least according to my own lights-again, I’m also a libertarian, so Jim Wallis probably thinks I’m headed to the Other Place when I die), so I’m sort of biased to find this argument persuasive. Will Wilkinson, a thinker I really respect, essentially answered this argument by saying “the best reason to think “life is meaningful” is because one’s life seems meaningful.” He goes on to argue that the biological evidence that we all go on living as if our life has meaning is the best pragmatic evidence we can get that our lives do have meaning.
This argument fails on so many levels. First of all, who is to say that the vast majority of those human beings that go around living as if their lives have meaning don’t do so because they believe in some sort of higher power that gives their lives meaning? And secondly, assuming that a substantial plurality of those who act as if their lives have meaning are actually hard-core atheists,* who is to say that those people are not merely deceiving themselves about the relative length of their stay on the Titanic? But assuming those two propositions are both false, it still does not follow from the fact that people act as if their lives have meaning that those lives do have meaning independent from some higher power.
Let’s suppose that there are atheists, who face firmly the fact that they are on the Titanic, and yet still go on living. Does the existence of such a belief in and of itself prove that the belief is true? No; not any more than my belief in God proves the existence of God as truth. All we can say from that is that some people are able to go on living even in the face of the Titanic reality that Timmy K. goes through above.
But supposing that atheists do go on living in the face of the Titanic truth-they continue to hug or mug, as they prefer, and in general act as though life has meaning. Doesn’t it seem like they’re aiming awfully low, to be satisfied with an infinitesimal fraction of even recorded time? It seems like that to me, at least. I’d like to hear a better argument than Wilkinson’s for this perspective.
*note-I am using atheists as a short-hand for those people who believe that there is no higher power or meaning behind our lives. I recognize religiosity is much, much, much more complicated that what I’m sketching out here. Unfortunately, I have to go to bed, get up for a job, and in general continue to act as though life has meaning, so I don’t have world enough, or time.
p.s. Douthat makes a similar point here. And also, I found this attempt by scientists to preserve some memory of life on Earth to transmit to aliens after the planet burns up to be a particularly poignant/hilarious attempt to deal with the Titanic problem mentioned above.