Wednesday, October 9, 2013

The Argument from Importance

          People often ask, “Does God exist?” Still others, recognizing this question, wonder about its importance: “Does it matter to me or for my life that God does or does not exist?” Most readily admit the question of God’s existence is of utmost importance. But what does it mean to be important?

            First, we must distinguish between objective importance and subjective importance. Subjective importance deals strictly with things that matter to individual persons. Note this does not mean that whatever matters to an individual and does not matter to another is subjective. It means that whatever is being discussed could be found important by no one, and indeed it is not the case that it should be found important by everyone (or necessarily anyone). For example, consider the outcome of a basketball game. For the average person the outcome will be of entirely subjective importance. I want my team to win, I will feel happy if we win, etc.

            Objective importance refers to things valued (or that should be valued) as having intrinsic worth. Things are objectively important, then, even in cases where no one finds them so, or in cases where everyone finds them so. An example: a human life should be found objectively important (this is why we have murder laws). A curious fact about objective importance, on this account, is that things of subjective importance can contribute to recognizing the worth of things that are of objective importance. Continuing the last paragraph’s basketball game example, it is at least arguable that human happiness (not necessarily pleasure, but that’s a different article for another day) is objectively important, and the subjective importance of the outcome of a basketball game could contribute to it.[1]

            So, does the question of God’s existence have a subjective or objective type of importance? Arguably, it is the latter. This is because if God exists, then surely he, as the foundation of all reality, necessarily wants a relationship with his creatures (if he creates, which on this supposition, he does). It therefore follows analytically that if God exists, then the belief in his existence is objectively important (and therefore the question is too). If God does not exist, is that not something that is objectively important as well? That question and answer would lead someone to the truth of God’s non-existence, and the truth seems objectively important as well. Even if one has no answer, it seems the question has had a profound impact on the history of the entire world, and everyone in it. If that’s not objective importance, I’m not sure what is.

            But it is now we must look at the sobering truth that it seems, on a world without God, there is no objective importance. It seems, like purpose, value, and intention, there really is only subjective importance; there are only things that are important to me, and to you. Moreover, if God does not exist, it seems it would be false to say that you ought to find things important that I do. It seems perfectly consistent to say that I find human life to be important, but you do not.

            This premise needs some support. In the absence of a necessarily existent being, what would make something objectively important? It cannot be the population of the world, for on the definitions of objective and subjective importance, something could be objectively important even if no one believed it. Imagine a world where no one found human life objectively important; either people were indifferent or they found it important as it related to themselves, but no one else.[2] Imagine God does not exist in this same world. Now, what makes it the case that human life is objectively important? Maybe everyone prefers, subjectively, that people not be murdered. But it’s not really objectively important that they aren’t.

            So perhaps a case can be made that person’s intrinsic worth or objective importance can be found in the survival of the human species. Certainly, if human lives are found objectively important then it increases the odds greatly that they will survive and so evolve to be the kind of creatures we are now. But this isn’t quite right. First, it could have been the case that we all find human lives to be subjectively important, but because we all did, we murdered only very rarely. While that scenario is extremely unlikely in the way human beings actually work, there’s no reason why evolution could not have produced such a race (interestingly, it seems a race that thinks no one is objectively important but whose individual members nonetheless think that everyone else is important to them seems a race much more fitted to survival than ours!). Second, and most importantly, it’s not clear why we should think, in the absence of God, that human survival as a race matters objectively. It certainly matters to us; that doesn’t tell us that it matters objectively.

However, we obviously have a strong intuition that human survival and human lives do have objective importance. We do want to affirm some things really ultimately matter. Not everything is subjective for importance. This is not just for our own benefit. We want to affirm that the little girl forced into the sex trade in Eastern Europe is objectively important, and does not deserve such treatment, even if we never know of her as anything more than a hypothetical, or even if such a thought never affects our lives.

Only now is the rug pulled out from under you. Now you realize via logical deduction that it follows that God exists! In case you were wondering what kind of bait-and-switch this was, the argument can be summarized as follows.

1.     The question of God’s existence is objectively important.
2.     If God does not exist, then nothing is objectively important.
3.     Some things are objectively important (at least one). (from 1)
4.     Therefore, God exists.

Perhaps this is not a good argument. Someone might criticize me on the grounds that if we accept (2) then (1) is only true if we agree God exists, and that is question-begging. This criticism sits fine with me. I believe I could defend (1) on grounds other than that God exists, so that in order for the question-begging charge to stand, one would have to insist that the conjunction of (1-2) entails the conclusion, but that’s just complaining about the logic of deduction as a whole. Moreover, (1) is more or less a conversation starter. As one can see, I defended (3) in a discussion of human lives as it relates to (2). So long as one affirms (2-3), the conclusion follows, even without (1). This argument might need a lot of work, but I think it is interesting.

[1] For Christians and those who may be nervous about this example, consider an alternative: this principle is how we can bring glory to God in everything we do, including eating and drinking. For we do not need Kool-Aid or any other type of flavored beverage in order to survive, yet we can still bring glory to God. These subjectively important things (“I really like Mountain Dew!”) can, when used properly, fulfill the objectively important goal of bringing glory to God.
[2] This does not mean that they would not care about anyone else; it rather means that they would not think that anyone else should be held to the same standard for importance as they are.


  1. "But it is now we must look at the sobering truth that it seems, on a world without God, there is no objective importance. It seems, like purpose, value, and intention, there really is only subjective importance; there are only things that are important to me, and to you. "

    Atheists generally say that meaning and values are real and identical with certain brain states. They further state that since humans have a shared biology, these values are universal

    They kind of define morality into existence:

    1. Thanks for the comment! Yes, it would seem they hold the intuition so strongly, that instead of getting rid of it, they want to incorporate it into their worldview. Of course, I agree with the eliminativists who point out that the way we describe "I am in pain" is not physical, or memory beliefs, or the like. Certain brain states differ in definition from the proposed states of intentionality, or aboutness, and thus, since mind doesn't exist for them, neither do these states. It's all physical. Moreover, I would tell them that "universality" does not equate to "objectivity." If everyone decided that murdering someone is fine, I fail to see how murder would become, per impossible, good and right!

      I don't think you were agreeing with these positions, just pointing them out. And I thank you for that!


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