SHERMER’S ERROR AND THE MEANING OF LIFE: Another Failed Attempt to Find Meaning in an Atheistic Life

SHERMER’S ERROR AND THE MEANING OF LIFE: Another Failed Attempt to Find Meaning in an Atheistic Life

© 2018, by John Tors. All Rights Reserved.


One of the problems associated with atheism is that life in such a worldview is without any sort of objective meaning; the atheist inevitably must choose between some sort of hedonism, based on personal preferences, or he is faced with nihilism.  This, in and of itself, does not disprove atheism,[1] but it is nevertheless problematic, certainly from a marketing point of view.

There is no way to get around this fact; every attempt by atheists to identify meaning in life ends up with them promoting views they personally prefer as if they were absolute and meaningful, yet wiser people rightly ask what makes their personal preferences meaningful to anyone else, and in light of that why they could be considered to be “meaning.”

This month’s attempt is brought to us in the pages of Scientific American by Dr. Michael Shermer,[2] who in a column entitled “Alvy’s Error and the Meaning of Life”[3] tries to demonstrate that there can be genuine meaning in a life of atheism.[4]  In that he fails utterly, the column would be more aptly described as “Shermer’s Error and the Meaninglessness of Atheistic Life.”  But let us consider his argument, to see if our assessment is correct.

Shermer appeals to a 1977 Woody Allen film featuring a boy named Alvy who is unmotivated to do his homework because the universe will eventually come to an end.  Shermer says that we should

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.[5]

Well, let’s give Shermer a chance to utilize his preferred “level of analysis” and see if he succeeds in finding meaning in an atheist life.

Shermer now appeals to a 2009 debate at Columbia University that pitted Christian philosopher William Lane Craig[6] against “Yale University philosopher Shelly Kagan.”  Shermer asserts that Craig committed “Alvy’s Error” by pointing to the coming heat death of the universe[7] and saying

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.[8]

Craig raises a legitimate issue, and since he professes difficulty in understanding the answer, here is a perfect chance for “Yale University philosopher Shelly Kagan” to give the answer and help him understand it (and if he fails, Shermer can step into the breach.)  And fail he does – utterly, risibly – and Shermer, who obviously agrees with Kagan’s answer, inasmuch as he avows that “Kagan properly nailed Craig,” obviously has no better answer.  Once again, then, as we will see when we examine Kagan’s answer, atheism fails to the uttermost in finding a meaning to life.

Shermer summarizes Kagan’s “punchline” thus:

Kagan … referencing [Craig’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 makes 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.[9]

Really?  This is the best a Yale University philosopher can do?  A fallacious argumentum ad passiones combined with a set of fallacious ipse dixit statements,[10] all packaged in oh-so-veddy-proper righteous indignation?  It matters because it mattersThat’s the best “Yale University philosopher Shelly Kagan” can do?  Colour us unimpressed.

Let’s look in detail at this attempted answer.  First, according to Kagan,

Surely it matters to the torture victims whether they are being tortured.

Granted that most people prefer not to feel pain, we can certainly see that it “matters” to the torture victims because torture is painful.  But is that actual meaning, or is it a personal preference?  Each person will naturally want to maximize his pleasure and minimize his pain until he dies, but is that really “meaning”?  Humans are, in the atheist world view, a bunch of organisms descended by chance from primitive organisms that crawled out of primordial soup and learned to walk upright,[11] each of whom breathes, eats, and ruts until he dies, trying until then to avoid pain, and this is what Kagan and Shermer offer us as meaning to life?

Let us remember that according to atheism’s necessary concomitant, the theory of evolution, humans are just one particular product of blind forces, like flies and rats and zebras.  In light of this, why should the torture of a human “matter” any more than the suffering of fly trapped in a spider’s web, or a rat being swallowed by a snake, or a zebra being torn apart alive by a pride of lions?  Does that matter to the fly, or to the rat, or to the zebra?  One would think so.  Does it matter to us?  No.  Why should it?  And if people are just animals, like rats and zebras, why should the torture of a person we don’t know in a distant land matter to us?  Does Shermer or Kagan have an answer to this?  If either does, he certainly does not vouchsafe it, but only makes the bald assertion, which is, ironically, meaningless.  Or are we just not supposed to ask about this – because they have no answer?

Now, one can agree that torture matters to the victim’s family, for the same reason it matters to the victim, because it causes them pain (and, for the same reason, that is not “meaning”), but does it really “matter to us” as Kagan claims?  Let’s see; worldwide, there are thousands of people being tortured today, probably tens of thousands, perhaps hundreds of thousands.  Can Kagan or Shermer name even a half a dozen of them?  I very much doubt it.  Can they identify the top six offending states when it comes to the use of torture?  I very much doubt it.  So in what sense does torture “matter to us”?

And in what sense does it matter to Kagan and Shermer?  No doubt, if a specific case of a tortured person were brought to the attention of Shermer and Kagan, they would feel bad about it (unless, perhaps, it is a 7-month old preborn baby being cut to shreds in his mother’s womb – after all, we are entitled to our “privacy.[12]”), but would they be more likely to do something about it or to have forgotten it by the next day in favour of things that really matter, like the stock market, last night’s sports scores, or the latest antics of the Kardashians?

In sum, then, this argument of Kagan’s is a nonstarter.  Even if torture reallymattered to us” and the evidence suggests that it really doesn’t, that would still be a choice of personal preference. Worldwide there are plenty of people of who couldn’t care less, and plenty who would be happy to inflict it.  So, then, the personal preferences of Kagan and Shermer do not give meaning to life.

Shermer tries again, with equal vacuity.  He again starts by accusing Craig of an error:

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.

That sounds reasonable only until one finishes reading the sentence, whereupon its intellectual inanity quickly becomes evident.  Why exactly is the “category of criteria” Craig uses “wrong”?  Who decides what is the rightcategory of criteria” by which to judge meaning?

Shermer doesn’t actually tell us; he simply proposes his own:

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.

Really?  What are these criteria?  How does being “in the here and now” give “meaning”?  It will be interesting to see where Shermer thinks he can go with this.

Shermer begins by asserting that

Whether you behave like a Soviet dictator who murdered tens of millions of people or a Roman Catholic missionary who tended the poor matters very much to the victims of totalitarianism and poverty.

Lest you think this is Shermer just repeating the same discredited bald assertion, he now sets about to explain the why: “Why does it matter?

Well, why does it?  “Because we are sentient beings designed by evolution[13] to survive and flourish in the teeth of entropy and death” – and this has to be the most blatant example of yet another logical fallacy, the non sequitur, we have seen in awhile.  If indeed we were thus designed by evolution, the random development of DNA coding doesn’t answer the question of “why does it matter” whether we act like Stalin or Mother Teresa at all.  On the contrary, Stalin seemed to survive just fine, and he certainly had a huge reproductive advantage over Mother Teresa; no doubt he passed on his genes to far, far more people than she did (or, to make a more fair comparison, than a noble priest such as Maximilian Kolbe did) – and that is supposed to be the prime directive of evolution, passing on your genes to more offspring than your neighbour does, and to keep doing this throughout the generations until the world ceases to exist.  Somehow the “meaning” to all this is still hidden.

Shermer is not quite done:

Being kind and helping others has been one successful strategy, and punishing Paleolithic Stalins was another, and from these actions, we evolved morality.

One has to wonder whether Shermer is even listening to himself.  Certainly, within the “in” groups there have been some levels of “being kind and helping others” to enhance one’s survival, but the story of history is not one of “being kind and helping others” but of violence, war, conquest, enslavement, dispossession, and exploitation, of weaker societies conquered, looted, and assimilated by the stronger, and that is what enhanced the survival of the victors.  What we see throughout history is “survival of the fittest” (Shermer may have heard of it), not “survival of the kindest and most helpful.”  It is the brutal conquerors who have been the most successful in propagating their genes,[14] not the kindest and most helpful.  What we call morality is, in fact, the opposite of what “evolution bestowed on us.”  Our morality came from the Christian heritage of western society.

Shermer’s concluding assertion, then, that “evolution bestowed on us a moral and purpose-driven life by dint of the laws of nature” is a farce; he has utterly failed to show that evolution has bestowed either on us, nor has he yet to explain what that purpose-driven life is.  The only “purpose” evolution bestowed is to stay alive as long as possible in order to scatter one’s seed as widely as possible, though for no apparent purpose.

In his final conclusion, Shermer comes full circle, insisting that “doing our homework matters.  And so, too, does doing our duty to ourselves, our loved ones, our community, our species and our planet.”  That is what he claimed from the beginning, but between that and his conclusion, he has utterly failed to justify his assertion that these things matter.  Random developments of DNA that make us want to survive and reproduce in no way even suggest that these things matter.

It is clear, then, that Shermer’s position is an unsustainable view built on an edifice of nothing but logical fallacies.  He cannot possibly justify the claim that there is meaning to life in atheism; at best there is only personal, transient preferences of beings heading to personal oblivion in a world heading there as well.  Shermer may urge us not to worry about the latter, but he cannot avoid the former.  Eat, survive, reproduce, and then die, for no apparent reason; that is the “meaning” atheism offers, and it is no “meaning” at all.  Shermer and Kagan ought to man up and face that fact, instead of acting like spoiled children who see their Christian neighbours with meaning and morality and want to have some themselves, while ignoring the only real basis that makes such things possible.


[1] The fact that the laws of science prove that the world and the life in it could not have come into being without a Creator God, on the other hand, certainly does prove atheism to be false and untenable.

[2] Shermer is the publisher and editor-in-chief of Skeptic magazine.

[3] Shermer, Michael. “Alvy’s Error and the Meaning of Life: Science reveals our deepest purpose.” Scientific American 318:2 (February 2018), p. 67

[4] The subtitle of the column is “Science reveals our deepest purpose,” which is, of course, ridiculous, as science does nothing of the sort.  Science is methodology of study that explains how ongoing natural processes operate (and ongoing natural processes form only a subset of all there is to life), and certainly yields no ultimate meaning to life; “Wow!  Masses attract each other with a force = 6.67×10-11 Nm2/kg2 multiplied by the product of their masses (in kg) and divided by the square of the distance between them (in metres)!  Wow!  There’s meaning to life after all!” is included in “Things no one ever said.”

[5] All quotations, unless otherwise noted, are from Shermer, “Alvy’s Error,” op. cit.

[6] Craig is described by Shermer as “one of the most prominent theologians of our time.”

[7] As the Second Law of Thermodynamics states, the entropy of the universe is constantly increasing, and the amount of energy available for work is consequently constantly decreasing.  When entropy reaches its maximum value, all temperature differences will be gone and no work – and hence no chemical processes and no life – will be possible.

[8] Quoted in Shermer, “Alvy’s Error,” op. cit.

[9] Italics in the original.

[10] An argumentum ad passiones is an appeal to emotion instead of facts and evidence.  An ipse dixit statement is an assertion made without proof offered (a “bald assertion”), as if simply asserting means it should be accepted as true.

[11] The theory of evolution is not true, but I am presupposing the atheist world view in some arguments for the sake of argument, per Proverbs 26:5 “Answer a fool according to his folly, lest he be wise in his own eyes.”

[12] “Privacy” was the justification for legalizing abortion in Roe v. Wade.

[13] There again is where evolutionists continually slip up. “Design” requires an intelligence; random forces do not “design” anything; whatever happens to result just happens to be the result.

[14] Genghis Khan, a brutal conqueror who in the early 13th century AD killed as many as 40 million (1/10 of the world’s population at the time) while carving out what remains the second largest empire in world history is reputed to have 16 million direct descendants alive today. (Andrews, Evan. “10 Things You May Not Know About Genghis Khan.” Posted on April 29, 2014, at; Khan, Razib. “1 in 200 men direct descendants of Genghis Khan.” Posted on August 5, 2010, at

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