Jordan Peterson, professor of psychology at the University of Toronto, has become a popular writer and speaker, helping many people find purpose in their lives. I recently heard him talk about “the meaning of life”; it would be difficult for me to recreate the entire discussion, but I found one point interesting. He talked about the theistic critic of atheism in terms of hearing Beethoven’s 9th symphony. He made the claim that we cannot say this masterpiece has no purpose simply because it ends. His point is that we Christians cannot say an atheistic worldview is devoid of purpose simply because atheists feel the world ends. On one level Dr. Peterson is correct, we as Christians believe we have a purpose in caring for creation though it will end and be remade. the world will end and yet we have a purpose for life, beyond the preparation for the next world. But there are two basic problems with Dr. Peterson’s view of the meaning of life.
Peterson’s answer to the meaning of life, like nearly all atheists I have hear, makes a subtle but important change; He dos not talk of “Purpose” rather he focuses on “purpose”. [I am using Purpose to denote design and purpose our individual goals, similar to Denis Alexander Is There Purpose in Biology?: The cost of existence and the God of love.] When we ask the question, “is there meaning to life?” we are inherently asking a question of “Purpose”. Atheists seem to answer, “Yes, we can find a meaning in life.”; this is to say we can create a purpose for our existence. But this is an entirely different question. It is like me asking, “Are we playing soccer?” and you responding, “If you are interested in kicking a ball that’s fine.” My question is one of rules and order, asking if there is direction to the activity, and the response indicates that I can mimic the game if I wish. On one level we should all agree with Peterson (and atheists) that we create purpose in our lives. Even a Christian can say that though God provides the world with Purpose we are still free to work with God in our purpose. However, simply stating I can have a purpose in my actions is not the same as saying there is a Purpose or meaning to everyone’s actions. Peterson has thus skirted the issue by conflating the two and making our individual desires equate to the movement of the species.
The difficulty in this comes because while Peterson believes in “purpose” his analogy relies on “Purpose”. It is impossible for me to overlook the fact that in Peterson’s analogy of the symphony playing Beethoven the music has a creator. The fact the music ends is not a problem precisely because the author gave it an ending. Each note is played to move us and even the ending is designed to help produce the desired reaction. Beethoven had a Purpose for his music and it inspires us because of that. Peterson uses the analogy as if each life is a symphony, but it is more poignant to say each person is a note. We are not each crafting a symphony to leave the world, and even if we are, if there is no Purpose in the world we cannot be guaranteed we are playing music. For Peterson’s response to make sense there must a a God who gave humanity a goal. Otherwise our lives are not so much symphonies as the noises of a group of preschoolers banging on instruments. The reality is without Purpose our lives will only be meaningful as long as culture understands us. And as soon as culture no longer acknowledges or accepts our meaning, which it will, we are lost.
Individuals may find purpose for their lives, and this purpose may even have the desired result of producing happy productive lives, but that is still not Purpose. Purpose is something that can only be given by a creator because Purpose needs an end, a goal. The world will end, we all agree on that, but the only way for life to truly have a meaning is if someone, like a composer, provides a goal for life. Symphonies are not found in nature, they are the product of human creativity and Purpose, likewise, for the individual notes of our lives to have Purpose there must be a creator shaping the music. Otherwise, we are playing disjointed cords which will never move anyone.