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Alvy’s Error and the Meaning of Life

published February 2018

Science reveals our deepest purpose

Scientific American (cover)

In a flashback scene in the 1977 film Annie Hall, Woody Allen’s character Alvy Singer is a depressed young boy who won’t do his homework because, as he explains to his doctor: “The universe is expanding…. Well, the universe is everything, and if it’s expanding, someday it will break apart, and that will be the end of everything.” His exasperated mother upbraids the youth: “What has the universe got to do with it?! You’re here in Brooklyn. Brooklyn is not expanding!”

Call it “Alvy’s Error”: assessing the purpose of something at the wrong level of analysis. The level at which we should assess our actions is the human timescale of days, weeks, months and years—our life span of fourscore plus or minus 10—not the billions of years of the cosmic calendar. It is a mistake made by theologians when arguing that without a source external to our world to vouchsafe morality and meaning, nothing really matters.

One of the most prominent theologians of our time, William Lane Craig, committed Alvy’s Error in a 2009 debate at Columbia University with Yale University philosopher Shelly Kagan when he pronounced: “On a naturalistic worldview, everything is ultimately destined to destruction in the heat death of the universe. As the universe expands, it grows colder and colder as its energy is used up. Eventually all the stars will burn out, all matter will collapse into dead stars and black holes, there will be no life, no heat, no light—only the corpses of dead stars and galaxies expanding into endless darkness. In light of that end, it’s hard for me to understand how our moral choices have any sort of significance. There’s no moral accountability. The universe is neither better nor worse for what we do. Our moral lives become vacuous because they don’t have that kind of cosmic significance.”

Kagan properly nailed Craig, referencing the latter’s example of godless torturers: “This strikes me as an outrageous thing to suggest. It doesn’t really matter? Surely it matters to the torture victims whether they’re being tortured. It doesn’t require that this make some cosmic difference to the eternal significance of the universe for it to matter whether a human being is tortured. It matters to them, it matters to their family, and it matters to us.”

Craig committed a related mistake when he argued that “without God there are no objective moral values, moral duties or moral accountability” and that “if life ends at the grave, then ultimately it makes no difference whether you live as a Stalin or a Mother Teresa.” Call this “Craig’s Categorical Error”: assessing the value of something by the wrong category of criteria. In my new book, recently published, Heavens on Earth, I debunk the common belief that without God and the promise of an afterlife, this life has no morality or meaning. We live in the here and now, not the hereafter, so our actions must be judged according to the criteria of this category, whether or not the category of a God-granted hereafter exists.

Whether you behave like a Soviet dictator who murdered tens of millions of people or a Roman Catholic missionary who tended to the poor matters very much to the victims of totalitarianism and poverty. Why does it matter? Because we are sentient beings designed by evolution to survive and flourish in the teeth of entropy and death. The second law of thermodynamics (entropy) is the first law of life. If you do nothing, entropy will take its course, and you will move toward a higher state of disorder that ends in death. So our most basic purpose in life is to combat entropy by doing something “extropic”—expending energy to survive and flourish. Being kind and helping others has been one successful strategy, and punishing Paleolithic Stalins was another, and from these actions, we evolved morality. In this sense, evolution bestowed on us a moral and purpose-driven life by dint of the laws of nature. We do not need any source higher than that to find meaning or morality.

In the long run, entropy will spell the end of everything in the universe and the universe itself, but we don’t live in the long run. We live now. We live in Brooklyn, so doing our homework matters. And so, too, does doing our duty to ourselves, our loved ones, our community, our species and our planet.

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23 Comments to “Alvy’s Error and the Meaning of Life”

  1. Jonathan S Says:

    Is it fair to say, that on a naturalistic worldview, that there is no long run meaning?

    The theist would likely reply that, therefore, naturalism does not provide any *ultimate* meaning.

    I think you’ve made a solid naturalistic argument for subjective meaning, but the theist is making a more compelling case for those that *do* think in the (very) long run. Though not everyone behaves in this way, there is a large segment of the population that is planning 30 years ahead. Anecdotally, my mother would go crazy if she didn’t have the comfort of long-term security to fall back on.

    I might add, that if someone is swayed to theism by this way of thinking that it is probably irrational as a form of security blanket or an emotional response. Regardless, a naturalistic worldview just can’t compete with the theistic package when it comes to long run/ultimate meaning, and that may be an obstacle for many in embracing naturalism.

    A deeper question now comes to mind. Given your epistemology, what evidence could you provide that would satisfy that “meaning” *actually* exists? It seems to me that the common understanding of “meaning” is in a transcendent or Platonic realm. However, on a naturalistic worldview, it would seem that “meaning” is akin to “free will”, “God”, etc., and should not be affirmed without evidence (within a scientific epistemology).

    You noted in your article that through evolution humans (and I imagine other animals) have developed this “meaning”, but this “meaning” seems fairly fluid (given the nature of evolution). So it seems cumbersome and futile to try to pursue naturalistic meaning, if tomorrow that meaning will be different than today. It seems you are conflating “survival” with “meaning”, but I’m not sure how you arrived at that conclusion.

    As far as I can tell, you are holding onto “meaning” to either satisfy your discomfort with a world without “meaning” or to try to make naturalism more palpable to the general public.

  2. giallopudding Says:

    There is no meaning to life, in the sense you imply. There is only pleasure and pain, life and death. We find those things “meaningful” which support the former states.

  3. bshand Says:

    I never understood how “meaning” is derived from a hypothetical reward of an afterlife. Presumably “getting there” is dependent on behavior in the here and now anyway. Why not just discard the pretense and behave well for its own sake and take whatever comes?
    No one can know anyway. Although to me it seems extremely unlikely.
    So are theists saying that they only need to behave well if they are promised an afterlife as a result?
    I think I shall steer clear of theists in case they suddenly lose their faith and lash out willy-nilly. And even if they don’t lose their faith I’m not even sure about their criteria for what behaving well means as their concerns seem primarily focused on their eternal needs. Whatever that may mean. Who knows what they imagine those needs to be and what the consequences for others could be?
    If you ever get the stink eye from a theist be wary.

  4. John Orr Says:

    I find it amusing when theologians complain that in an agnostic/atheistic worldview there is no “objective” underpinning of morality when their alternative is to appeal to a god whom, if they were being honest with themselves, they have made up.

  5. J. Gravelle Says:

    We tend to value those things most which are rare and unique. Contrast the Hope Diamond with any grain of sand, as a blatant example.

    So too with “meaning”. The memory of that childhood camping trip with one’s grandfather outweighs the time spent watching Gilligan’s Island re-runs.

    Apologists ironically devalue existence and ROB it of its meaning, by insisting our existence can be infinitely abundant.

    Life needn’t be a gift to be precious…


  6. Granite C Says:

    I agree with several of the above comments. Life has no purpose or meaning–life just is. Trying to argue for objective or inherent meaning from a naturalistic point of view is no different from arguing for morality from a theistic point of view. It should be avoided.

  7. BillG Says:

    Being “tortured” or suffering, comes to all living things to a degree. Aren’t we all fighting entropy?
    Perhaps the pain to a schizoidphrenic is unbearable and just wants it to end – hence the high sucicide rate among them. Where as the suffering of a theist such as Craig is much lower, but rationalizes a god to ease the discomfort of one’s existence.
    However the view may be wrong, I can be sympathetic to it.

  8. Bad Boy Scientist Says:

    Whenever I read texts of religious ‘debates’ I get a nagging feeling that the two sides are talking past each other. People are different and without keeping that firmly in mind, communication can be impossible. Could it be that some disagreements are due to misunderstanding the other side’s position?

    For example the motivation of serving something bigger than oneself:

    Some people feel the need of being part of something bigger to give their lives purpose. After 9/11 I knew many students who joined the military to be part of something bigger than school, dating, trying to buy a car, etc. Some paid the ultimate sacrifice but none (that I heard) said they were doing it because they anticipated great rewards for their sacrifices. Many who shared with me gave me vague explanations of it being ‘the right thing to do’ – even though they could not articulate their motivation, it was clear that it was a strong motivator. Those who expressed regrets expressed them over the actions of people (including officers) and not over the decision to serve. It echoed many sentiments I’ve heard from religious folk who serve missions, etc.

    Some may respond, “But that’s different – serving god is misguided and pointless. There are better ways to find meaning in one’s life.” Interestingly, many of my colleagues say the same thing about military service. For my part, I am loathe to attack the choices of veterans and religious folk – if it gives their life meaning I’d have to be a right bastard to tear it down. It’s like explaining the placebo effect to someone who is using sugar pills to control chronic pain.

  9. Kenn Says:

    Well-written article. I’m astounded by how many people disputed with what you didn’t say. I don’t think you did any more than to pose an idea, which was well-posed. I fully agree that thinking about immediacy in terms of billioms of years resulting in entropy or a disatrous outcome due to the universe falling victim to the laws of thermodynamics is somewhat absurd, which, in this case, is what makes Woody Allen a great absurdist/humorist.

  10. Kenn Says:

    Well-written article. I’m somewhat amused by how some people disagree with what you didn’t say … .

  11. jefferson's wall Says:

    Craig’s view on meaning is a common one from theists and always strikes me as wishful thinking. ‘I want ultimate meaning therefore there must be one.’ The objective external morality obsession suffers from a huge assumption: that the ultimately powerful being is completely wise and good. If you say to a theist that we have man’s opinions or God’s…………..opinions, they struggle as they link ‘God’ and ‘objective’ as a given, even though it does not follow. How about ‘absolute power corrupts absolutely’? Theists can only ever address this by defining God as a perfect being rather than making a logical case. Watch Frank Turek or Dennis Prager obsessing over this, the former claiming that evil and suffering prove there is a good god.
    Even the most conservative Christian does not follow all the morality of the OT, so where is the objectivity?

  12. bshand Says:

    bad boy scientist wrote:
    “For my part, I am loathe to attack the choices of veterans and religious folk – if it gives their life meaning I’d have to be a right bastard to tear it down. It’s like explaining the placebo effect to someone who is using sugar pills to control chronic pain.”
    I might differ. One, the military choice involves learning how to kill efficiently, going to another country and imposing your will and possibly destruction on people who very likely had nothing to do with 9/11. Two, in the case of pain control, sure. If it works. But there are many proponents of woo in the alt med crowd or the religious using similar logic and people with serious illnesses suffer. Who’s the bastard in these cases?

  13. Gavin Ritz Says:

    There seems like a serious misunderstanding of entropy.

    Extropy is also a pseudoscientific principle. There is not one scrap of evidence, explanatory principle, means to observe, measure or mathematical model on this concept. It’s basically junk science.

    On the concept of entropy that is for a closed system and it’s just the heat multiplied by the reciprocal of the temperature. It has nothing to do with living systems. This is a major categorical error, taking a heat concept and using that for human meaning. Thermodynamics has not a lot to do with explaining the struggle of living systems. I. Prigogine has come up with a different interpretation of entropy for open complex systems but this is not the same as for closed systems. Entropy increases but is calculated by the Forces times Fluxes.

  14. Dr. Sidethink Says:

    Entropy is defined in the Second Law of Thermodynamics.

    It has become a word meaning what lotsa folks need it to mean to look cool ( pun intended ) to folks who practice pseudoscience with stunning vigor.

    Dr S.

  15. Barbara Harwood Says:

    When I read “The Moral Arc”, I was struck by the fact that it not only described :heaven on Earth, but described how it was coming about. The fact that it was taking place outside of the realm of organized religion was quite reasonable since religion tends to divide people rather than bring them together. This tends to describe a meaning for life.
    Your more recent book, can only be described as the Atheist’s Bible. May I remind you that Atheist, as a group, do not like being told what to believe. I remember a quote fromn my early years: “The only thing a nonconformist hates more than a conformist, is another nonconformist who does not conform to his nonconformity.”
    The question as to the idea of whether an atheist could condone murder, for instance is irrelevant, since a person’s moral compas was set long before becoming an atheist.
    If you wish to perform a scientific study, records from prisons could be obtained to determine which prisoners followed which belief system and what crimes they were convicted of having omitted. If the number of people who claimed to be atheists exceeded the percentage of those who claimed to be atheists on the last census, it would provide some interesting statistics.

  16. Bad Boy Scientist Says:


    First, your characterization of military training and what most military people do is off base (almost naively so) – combat roles are in the minority. I strongly suggest you not pass judgement on people who volunteer for military service until you get a better idea of what is going on.

    Second, cases of _ineffective treatments_ – both woo and traditional medicine (mistakes happen) – have no bearing on the scenario that I presented: An effective treatment relying on the placebo effect. Further, they have no bearing on when people find meaning in something that others consider meaningless, foolish, etc. My point with the placebo analogy was: If believing in god makes a person happy who are we to try to rob him/her of that happiness?

    Should we tell Philadelphia fans that their team’s victory did not involve them and in no way improves their life and that they are wrong to derive any pleasure out of that win?

    Who are we to say how the entire human race should find happiness or meaning? Smarter men than we have debated this for millenia – maybe a touch of humility is called for?

  17. Dr. Strangelove Says:

    Without god, life has no meaning. Craig got it backwards. Without meaning, there would be no god. As Voltaire put it, if god did not exist, man would be obliged to invent him. Or if you prefer Sartre, man is dragged into the world stage without a script, so he is forced to improvise. And so the theologian and the atheist improvised. Priests invented religion and called it god’s law. Humanists invented liberalism and called it natural law. They are all man’s law but as Seneca said: To mankind, mankind is holy.

  18. Dr. Mike Says:

    Christians believe that if one is “good” in this life, (s)he will be rewarded in the next life.

    They say that because I don’t believe, I’ll won’t get a reward in the afterlife.

    I don’t think it works like that.

    When the opportunity arises, I try to do good to others, and I can’t say that it makes any noticible difference in my life.

    But it made a difference to those abandoned baby sparrows I raised and released.

    When a wild Mallard mother duck lost her babies, and cried pitifully all day in my yard, it made a difference to her and her babies when I found who had taken them, and got them back for her.

    I don’t even know all the ways I might have changed people’s lives by the meager help I was able to offer someone (human or animal) from time to time.

    But I think it works like this:

    If I am wrong, and there is a God and an afterlife, God will reward me more than those “believers” because I do good believing that I’ll receive no reward; they do good because they *expect* a reward: they are mercenaries, expecting repayment in an afterlife for the good they do here.

  19. Bad Boy Scientist Says:

    Interesting update:

    I got some family news from my extended family which includes Catholics, Lutherans, Episcopalians, Unitarians, Mormons, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Misc Evangelicals and one inlaw who is a Quaker. (pls forgive me if I left anyone out).

    This conversation reminded me that some of them interpret the Bible _much_ less literally than others – including the (various and conflicting) descriptions of god. You’d be hard pressed to find many things that they all believe without any argument (trust me, I know this of recent personal experience ;)

    So statements about what “Christians do” or what “Christians believe” sound odd to me. Almost as odd as saying “Atheists like this TV show or that musician.” (Note: I’m only comparing how odd the statements sound to me – I’m not saying or implying any other similarities.)

    As skeptics we should strive to be better than most at being careful with generalizations.

  20. ThreeScorePlus Says:

    The best thing I’ve read on this topic – The Meaning of Life – was an essay of the same name written by AJ Ayer. I think what Michael Shermer has written in The Moral Arc provides a way to measure and evaluate the concept of meaning that Ayer posits in his essay. I highly recommend it.

  21. Gary Whittenberger Says:

    Bad Boy Scientist said “My point with the placebo analogy was: If believing in god makes a person happy who are we to try to rob him/her of that happiness?”

    We don’t rob them! We educate, persuade, model for, and reward them. We show them how they can be happier through believing what is true, rather than what is false. and coping effectively with it. They may then decide to relinquish their gods beliefs.

    When I think of religion in its totality, I think that it is often about telling other people what you think would comfort them or make them happy, if it were true, even if you know that it is false, believe it is probably false, or do not have good reasons to believe it is true. The motivation is honorable, but the action itself is immoral and makes the world a worse place.

  22. Bad Boy Scientist Says:

    You can call it whatever you want but trying to tear down the source of happiness for another person – even if it is in the name of some greater good – is not a nice thing to do. Some may call it a bad or evil thing to do.

    Don’t get me wrong, I don’t think you’ll be effective – using reason to ‘re-educate’ a person of faith is about as effective as praying for a scientist to change his/her mind about data.

    My concern is that people who feel it is their job to go around kicking away crutches – alienate people of faith. Then my job of science education (especially to non-STEM majors) gets tougher.

    My motive for my “Live and let live approach to life” – it makes my life better, more effective and less contentious. I have many religious relatives & friends and we have a ‘treaty’: they don’t try to convert me to their religion & I don’t try to persuade them out of their religion. It works! Plus when they hear about something like a ‘Super Blue Blood Moon’ they come to Dr Bad Boy and ask all sorts of questions – and they listen to the answers. Sometimes, they are even open to little comments like “I spell god: N-A-T-U-R-E.”

    I go for the Win-Win, rather than the Win-Lose outcome because, in my experience, it makes everyone happier & better off.

    BTW: the placebo analogy still works against your approach. Your argument could be applied to educating the person who benefits from the placebo effect: “We show them how they can be happier through believing what is true, rather than what is false. and coping effectively with it. ”

    Maybe some people could be happier by knowing that the placebo effect is all in their head and they can skip the empty ritual of taking the sugar pill – but what about those who cannot find that solace? Their suffering is magnified because you thought you knew best.

  23. Imintrouble Says:

    Interesting article… Im not sure if this is the right board for my concern. Today i dropped INTO my cousine, while i was helping her to renovate. What can i Do?