Thursday, February 21, 2008

Doesn't atheism inevitably lead to nihilism?

Q: Doesn't atheism inevitably lead to nihilism?

A: No. Atheism doesn't lead inevitably to anyplace, any more than starting in St. Louis inevitably means you have to end up in New York. It's a starting place, not an entire route; the final destinations at the end of the trip are as many and varied as there are atheists.

Regarding nihilism specifically -- the general philosophical position that our existence (action, suffering, willing, feeling) has no meaning -- it's certainly possible that someone starting out with "I don't believe in god" might end up there.

But that's just one possibility among uncountably many other ones.

For instance, an atheist might believe that while there is no God, there are other planes of existence to which we might be able to aspire, and thus continue our lives as trans-humans. Or they might believe that we humans are capable of creating our own meaning, which gives our lives purpose and direction. Or that there certain actions are more aligned with the natural order of the universe, and that acting in accordance with those rules is healthier. Or that they live on in their children, and this is the meaning for which they live.

You get the idea -- there are lots of different ending positions you might arrive at after beginning with a lack of god-belief. To argue otherwise would be like someone telling a theist "Ah, since you believe in a god, then your fondest wish must inevitably be to die so you can go join Him, and therefore this life has no real meaning for you."

In general, whenever you hear someone say "Atheism means ...", swap out "atheism" for "theism" and see how much sense it makes. Atheism and theism are both very, very broad terms; trying to tie either of them down to very specific positions generally leads to errors.

(Update: I rarely update this site any longer. For more discussion on this topic, please see Jason Rosenhouse's excellent post "Must Atheists Be Nihilists".)


Anonymous said...

There is no grand purpose as everything that is, was, and will be is an accident. We are nothing more than cosmic residue. As Professor Richard Dawkins said: "The universe we observe has precisely the properties we should expect if there is, at bottom, no design, no purpose, no evil and no good, nothing but blind pitiless indifference."

We are merely delaying the inevitable.

Jeff Hebert said...

That's one way you can look at life, but certainly not the only one. All the wildflowers in our yard are there by accident, but they're still beautiful. I met my wife accidentally, but I still love her. I was an accidental birth, but my life is still meaningful to me.

Even if the universe has no intrinsic "meaning" or "purpose", I can still provide it with my own. Indeed, one way of looking at it is to say that it becomes even more important and vital for us to provide meaning if we aren't just handed one.

This is what I mean when I say that a given starting point is no guarantee of a destination.

Michael said...

"we humans are capable of creating our own meaning, which gives our lives purpose and direction."

I found this a good explanation of why some atheists choose to live their live according to values.

I still don't understand why atheists, as people who don't believe in any afterlife and consequences for leading a bad life don't live lives stealing and acting as they wish because lets face it the vast majority of people DO NOT have an purpose or direction and 'immoral' acts which nihilists would not have an issue with can really improve ones standing.

Interesting post and blog mate, you should resurrect it.

Jeff Hebert said...

Thanks Michael. I ran out of frequently asked questions!

It's been my experience that people are pretty much going to live according to their inner moral sense regardless of what system is put on top of that. You can get Catholics who think "Well I might as well be as bad as possible here, because I can just confess before I die and it's all good." I am sure there are atheists who do exactly as you describe, and get away with whatever then can, however they can, simply because they want to.

Just like there are lots of theists who are the same way.

In other words, I haven't found in general that someone's professed belief system (whether one of belief or non-belief) is a very good guide as to how they're going to live their lives or treat other people. It wasn't atheists who flew their planes into the World Trade Center, after all :-)

The Pondering Dhimmi said...

But basically aren't you just asserting that "meaning" is purely subjective and relative to an individual's feelings? There is no real meaning but only what you want it to be...can't this be a dangerous path for someone who has violent, narcissistic tendencies? It seems that the only way for this to really work (sustain a cohesive, civilized society) is if humans are naturally good, obedient, and compassionate. I think humans have done a fairly good job proving that this just is not so.

Jeff Hebert said...

Dhimmi, you said:

... can't this be a dangerous path for someone who has violent, narcissistic tendencies? I

Well, yes, but you could stop at "someone who has violent, narcissistic tendencies" and you're already in a lot of trouble. Take that person and put them in a hardcore Christian sect that believes it is our duty to bring about the End Days as soon as possible and you've got just as big a disaster. The problem with such a person is not their philosophy, it's that they're violent and narcissistic.

Anonymous said...

I struggled a long time with the notion of meaning and purpose and ultimately it was the scientific reality of the finitude of time and space that has pushed me over the edge out of atheism. If cosmology has compelling evidence, which seems to be the case, that universe will die out, ultimately humans will cease to exist at some finite point in the future. With that truth in mind, I just can't to find a legitimate basis for assigning meaning to my life. Assuming that there is no physically transcendent eternity, then no action, achievement, or mindset could possibly change that final reality. I suppose even if the energy of the universe reformed into another universe (which seems probabilistically near impossible) it would not change the situation, as potentially "new humans" would not have any knowledge or relation to us. What is particularly peculiar to me is that there is this drive in me to live on past this truth. Looking back, I think it could have only been some sort of intrinsic knowledge that eternity exists that allowed this drive to live on. So, all in all, I was just wondering if others have thought of this. I guess this goes back to what Jeff said about other realms of existence outside of the physical world. Anyone with thoughts?

Jeff Hebert said...

I guess to me, the ultimate demise of the universe isn't much different from knowing that you yourself are inevitably going to die, as well. Either way, existence as you know it, personally, is over. If religious faith makes you think there's "something" after your own death, then why is it any different after the universe's death?

In other words, I don't think knowledge about the universe -- from a scientific understanding of the behavior of gases to quarks to everything in between -- can either confirm or deny the existence of a god (or gods), or what happens outside the bounds of what we can experience. It can invalidate certain conceptions of god, of course, but not of the vaguer "is there something after nothing" questions.

I don't think the idea that humans have wanted there to be something after nothing is evidence that there is in fact something, though. We've also long wanted something FOR nothing, and yet there are no free lunches, either. The desire for a thing to be true does not mean that thing is so.

If you're looking for a reality-based reason for hoping the universe doesn't necessarily end, there are theories out there that might give you comfort. We're in an eternal cycle of expansion and contraction to a singularity and back out again ... there are multiple universes and this is but one of an infinity ... etc.

That again doesn't say anything one way or another about a god. But, if what you're thinking is that because billions and billions of years from now things might ultimately end for everything, that's not necessarily true. And even if it is, it's irrelevant to my way of thinking because your personal universe comes to an end some time in the next hundred years anyway, so what's the difference?

Anonymous said...

I suppose the definition of atheism may bear on the question of whether or not it leads to nihilism. The "atheist" who believes in consciousness outside the human brain would not seem to me to be very ardent in their "atheism". So those who believe in ghosts for example, but not a supreme being could be atheists under this broader definition, but I should expect they would not be as nihilistic as atheists who deny any bodiless sentience.

Jeff Hebert said...

Even an atheist who does not believe in a consciousness outside of the physical mind (like me) is not necessarily a nihilist. You're concluding a destination based on the starting point, which is unwarranted. Just because you start with no belief in any god, and further that everything that is, is all there is, even that doesn't inevitably lead to nihilism any more than a specific kind of theism leads necessarily to predisposition.

The key part of the question, and the underlying assumption of your comment, is that "inevitably" word. Conflating atheism with nihilism is simply incorrect. One MAY lead to the other, but it might not, either. Just like with theism -- you can start in one place with one assumption and end up in an infinity of destinations.

Dylan said...

I think nihilism is indeed a natural consequence of atheism.

If there is no god or indeed no higher power/creator that defines what is right and wrong, just and unjust, then we can assume that the morality we feel comes simply from the wiring of our own minds.

It is evident that humans (and other species) must have developed a sense of morality (via evolution) in order to allow cooperative communities to form easily. (i.e. those individuals who where able to cooperate survived and passed their morality to their offspring whose successive generation added to in the same manner).

This explains why we feel the moral urges we do and where they come from. We can see that a bad thing is only considered bad because we are "programmed" to avoid it because it is (or was) disadvantageous to our survival.

In reality a bad thing is not judged as bad by anything but ourselves and can be disregarded.

On the topic of existence itself, it can also be disregarded because it simply exists and nothing more, there is no divine creator who can ascribe reason and purpose to anything.

So I think all atheists are also nihilists. If they don't know it then they just haven't been introduced fairly to what nihilism is and/or haven't thought about it.

Jeff Hebert said...

In other words, Dylan, any atheist who isn't a nihilist is either ignorant or wrong. Nice.

Frankly I wasn't able to make any sense out of your comment, it was like a word salad.

Anonymous said...

When I was a child I learned right from wrong through a combination of methods: from receiving praise when I behaved well, from receiving discipline and incurring my parents' disappointment when I behaved poorly, and via explanations that went something like "you wouldn't like it if someone did that to you, so you shouldn't do it to them." I grew up in the northeast which is relatively secular and I tend to think that most of my peers learned their morality through a similar method. I don't think I was ever told "because god will punish you" or "because it is what Jesus would want you to do". As I got older, I learned that, although there are plenty of exceptions, generally if you are nice to people, they'll be nice back. If you are generous (without being a sucker or a pushover) people will be kinder, more generous toward you. If you lie, cheat, or steal, you might get away with it occasionally, but usually it comes back to bite you in the a**.

There are many who believe that atheism inherently means a lack of a moral code, which I think goes sort of hand in hand with the nihlistic view of "no meaning". But I tend to think that in the secular parts of our country, regardless of what people state to be their religious beliefs, most people's moral code and moral (or amoral) behavior doesn't really derive from religion.

I'm not entirely sure I've made a point here, I've just been sort of thinking out loud... :)

Jeff Hebert said...

You not only made your point, you made it well :-)

You can look at countries that are largely secular and see that they are hardly hell-holes of immorality and rapine. In fact, they score rather better on most quality of life issues than more religious nations.

A Christian would usually respond that even if, as this sort of thing seems to indicate, we have an innate moral code, that code derives from God even though we don't admit it or know it. Which always makes me wonder, if He could build such a thing right into us, why not install a Divine Radio or something as well so we could chat? And why make this moral sense so inchoate and vague, so variable and general? It would make more sense, it seems to me, to have a super-duper moral code that would shout at us rather than whisper, if He really wanted us to have a guide as to what He wants even when we live in a society that is not centered around Him.

Regardless, yes, I agree, it doesn't seem to be disputable any more that our moral sense derives from pre-existing biological imperatives, both in light of the kinds of secular societies you mention and from continuing research into the world of animal behavior.

John said...

Nihilism posits that our existence holds no intrinsic value or meaning.

Therefore, nihilists may still adopt their own values throughout their lives. For instance, one may accidentally stumble upon wildflowers, a beautiful woman, or realize the improbability of their own existence. They then assign meaning to these things.

The question is: Are wildflowers, spouses, life, etc. intrinsically meaningful OR do we assign meaning to them?

Now, for my opinion. I'd like to hear what you think.

The answer to the question should be straightforward to both theists and atheists. The theist would say that meaning is intrinsically assigned to our lives by some type of deity. And the atheist would agree with the nihilist viewpoint; Life could not possible hold intrinsic meaning. Rather we create that meaning for ourselves.

Jeff Hebert said...


I think most of the time when an atheist is asked this question, "nihilism" has a much harsher connotation than the simple definition would give it. In general, what's really being asked (usually by a theist) is, "Doesn't atheism mean that without God there is no meaning in life and so you might as well shoot yourself or someone else in the face?"

In other words, I think what's being got at is that for a theist, a universe without God is fundamentally meaningless, scary, and leads inevitably to chaos, death, horror, and suffering.

Setting that aside, as I mentioned in the original article, you can't really start from atheism and end up with there being no intrinsic meaning. Buddhists are atheists, essentially, yet believe the universe does have intrinsic value and meaning, granted not by a conscious god but simply through the structure of reality. Helium has certain properties due to its atomic structure, and so do actions -- whether or not to kill a wildflower has meaning because it affects your own spirit's evolution as it travels through the Ninefold Path.

If you're talking about metaphysical naturalists, though, then yes, all meaning is assigned by us, without having any particular "meaning" in the sense that a theist would usually mean.

Theists might say everything has meaning because God tells us it has meaning, in which case meaning is subject to change as God tells us different things. Or the theist might say that God created the world such that everything has meaning, so it's intrinsic in the same way the properties of atoms are intrinsic.

In other words, as I've argued elsewhere, it's very, very difficult to start with such incredibly broad terms as "theist" and "atheist" and know where you're going to end up along any particular philosophical spectrum. Because humans can rationalize pretty much anything, you can start with one or the other and end up in exactly the same place.

If you're asking about me, personally, I think to a large extent the entire exercise of whether existing has meaning or not is fairly pointless. It's like the free will debate -- it's not knowable, so spending time arguing about it fairly masturbatory -- it feels good but doesn't really get you anywhere.

Anonymous said...

But atheism is intrinsically nihilistic isn't it? I made the connection on my own about atheism and nihilism because I just finished the Woody Allen film, "Match Point", and I thought what a nihilistic view of the world. Then I thought of other famous atheist film makers with a voice...Robert Altman, Roman Polanski, and Stanley Kubrick...and their films are extremely nihilistic. So, there's four of the world's most highly regarded atheist storytellers basically showing us how atheists view the world...the nihilism is evident.

There's also the fact that no matter how much atheists would like to place an emphasis on the meaning in life, it really sums up to nothingness in the grand schemes of the universe. Love is just a man made fallacy, as phony as any religion or God. And if atheist cling to "love" and morality then they are living in a delusion as much as anybody who believes in spirituality because love and morality are not quantifiable things. Morality only exists because humans made it up. It's not any more real than the Santa Claus. That atheists would cling to morals and love is silly just as people of religion cling to God. In reality humans are just a BLIP in the evolution timeline of the universe. In the atheist world, it doesn't matter what humans do because when humans are gone, that's it. What difference does it make what anyone does? That's the truth if there is no afterlife and there is no God. Atheists just want to float through life pretending that things matter, when they don't. It's sad really, because atheists are pretty hard on people of faith. But the truth is, because atheists cling to "love", they are living a delusion too...they just won't admit it. "Love" isn't really any more REAL than God. I can see why nihilism is rampant in atheism.

Jeff Hebert said...

So both Christians and atheists have finite mortal lives that are blips in the face of a universe lasting billions of years, but love only exists for Christians because the magic sky man says it exists, whereas atheists make crappy movies and therefore can't really love.


The evidence that humans experience love is pretty overwhelming. The evidence that a God exists is virtually nonexistent. If you can't wrap your head around how an atheist see that, then there's not much point in talking to you.

I can see why incredibly naive and insulting "thought" like this is rampant in Christian apologetics.

Anonymous said...

I tend to believe that nihilism is the only rational conclusion if one accepts atheism. The atheist is forced to concede that morality is subjective at best... being relative to the individual, society and numerous other personal experiences.

Not just morality, but all aspects of life such as beauty, love and many abstract human concepts are simply artificial fabrications of our mind. If we atheists truly wish to be rational, we must not delude ourselves and believe these things are real when there is no physical or objective evidence to posit such an argument. We are committing the same error we accuse theists doing when we hold on to unprovable fallacies.

I believe that to be a true atheist, one must embrace nihilism.
I am not suggesting we do away with love, morality, art and culture. Evolution has made us the way are to survive. I am simply suggesting that we have evolved to the point where we should be able to distinguish between what is real and what is not. What I mean is that love and morality may not be real, but it feels as though it is and we should go on acting as though it is because evolution brought us thus far, however we should know better.

Anonymous said...


Anonymous said...

No matter what way "you" look at life it's still a contrived extrinsic meaning with out a higher divine belief.

Once humanities gone no one is going to remember any of the pain or happiness. The transience of our existence by definition means that our lives our truly pointless because in the end the outcome is the same, humankind will die out eventually.

Anonymous said...

You can choose to live with values but honestly it doesn't make a difference in the ultimate outcome of humanity. That's why it really serves no purpose to live your life in any way as an Atheist. Once you realize this you have become a Nihilist.

Anonymous said...

"That atheists would cling to morals and love is silly just as people of religion cling to God."

No. This isn't silly. The lack of intrinsic meaning *does not* justify chaotic behavior or abandoning moral codes. Morals are arguably 'necessary' for humans to co-exist.

The fact that anyone would argue this tells me one thing about those who do: that the only thing preventing them from acting like a bunch of crazed murdering lunatics and bringing about Armageddon is their belief that God would disapprove of it.

These kind of people worry me, frankly; and this is why I don't spend time proselytizing atheism.

Nihilism and destructive tendencies are not, and should not be, related to one another inclusively, used as justification for each other. Nihilism is the view that life does not have intrinsic purpose or value, not an excuse to destroy it.

Paul said...

Without God or some other creator, then everything material is just here by accident. An atheist trying to find meaning in an accident is just fooling herself. (Of course that doesn't prove that God exists.)

Anonymous said...

I find it amusing that the non-nihilits in the comments here keep repaying the refrain of "morals are necessary" as if constantly repeating it makes it true.
Nihilism recognise that morals exist as a collection of behaviors necessary to group survival. But so what? Love, loyalty, compassion etc are just biochemical brain states without any objective relevance outside neurology. In addition, so long as you aren't caught of course, having no reason to play by the rules give you a huge.advantage in life.
Tldr; Atheists that still believe abstractions like morality, community, success or altruism possess any existance or meaning beyond brain chemistry (that is, arbitrary and changeable via drugs) are as deluded as Christians.

Jeff Hebert said...

Nihilism recognise that morals exist as a collection of behaviors necessary to group survival. But so what? Love, loyalty, compassion etc are just biochemical brain states without any objective relevance outside neurology. In addition, so long as you aren't caught of course, having no reason to play by the rules give you a huge.advantage in life.

I guess I would question why you are so dismissive of emotions or morals or love as being "only" brain chemicals. Yes, they are, and so what? Is the love I feel for my wife less valid because it doesn't have a metaphysical component?

If this world is all there is and we only get one shot at it, I want it to be as awesome as possible. I am capable of understanding that although I will not live longer than another fifty years at the outside, others will still be alive and I want the same for them. Me running around shooting people in the face because "CHEMICALS" is nonsensical to me.

We are capable of abstract reasoning. We are capable of empathy. We are capable of altruism. Those things aren't somehow mooted because they are physical process with a physical basis. I know how movies are made, but "Star Wars" is still a hoot to watch. When I die I'll be dead, but people I care about will still be here. I want to do my best to leave the world in as good a shape as I can so they can be happy, too. We all win that way.

TL;DR: "If I didn't believe in Jesus I'd just murder everyone" is a bad argument.

Kanzeon said...


I think you need to do a bit more objective analysis.

We all know YOU aren't going to shoot someone in the face, or shoot yourself, or shoot your wife. We all know YOU have decided to live your life a certain way, and that is by fairly conventional morality. We all know that you have observed that religion doesn't stop SOME people from shooting people in the face.

That doesn't mean you aren't a nihilist.

The question, for example, of moral nihilism is whether you can argue that it is OBJECTIVELY WRONG to shoot someone in the face. You don't have to be a believer in a personal God in order to argue that that it is objectively wrong. However, you do need to believe there is something more than evolution and physical processes - a basic underlying order to the universe that in some way provides objective guidance. If your only guideposts are observational, then you need to deal with the is/ought problem. Now, some people think they have a very vague answer to the is/ought problem, like Sam Harris, but you should take a long look at why is he ridiculed, and I'd be glad to provide links. Peter Singer is much better on this question.

You have decided that you want to love your wife and make the world a better place. I might decide that I want to shoot a theatre full of people, or start a political movement to exterminate people who disagree with me. You have no objective way to argue that my choice is less valid than yours. And, as such, you have no argument for intrinsic human dignity.

That's what nihilism is. Now, it may be that nihilism is no more harmful (whatever you decide that means) than the religious alternative. You can argue that it is GOOD to be a nihilist, in that you aren't living inauthentically, if you value that. Nihilists aren't bad people. Conscious nihilist are probably, as a rule, nice folkd. Many compassionate, brilliant people were nihilists, like Camus and Heidegger:

It seems to me you are just running from a word because it has bad connotations. I think you just don't understand what nihilism is. Others - like Harris - should know better, and you just being intellectually dishonest.

Jeff Hebert said...

Thanks for the comments, Kanzeon.

Look, I'm not a philosopher. The purpose of this FAQ is to answer the most common questions common people have about atheists. And one of the MOST common is "Why don't you just give up and die", which is the point of this entry. No, that's not what nihilism really means, but it's the way most people use it. And that's what I am concerning myself with here.

I realize this makes me intellectually unserious on this point. But that's ok with me. This FAQ isn't meant for philosophy majors, it's meant for the everyday sort of person.

And no, "Why don't you just give up and die or become a murderous sociopath" is not really what nihilism is, but I do think that's what most people THINK nihilism is, and thus they ascribe it to atheists not as an abstract intellectual position but as a rubber-meets-the-road pejorative. It's that sense of the word that I am addressing.

I'm sorry that's not up to the standards of a university discourse but that's not what am setting out to do.

Kanzeon said...


Thanks for your clarification, and I apologize for my comment somewhat wandering and confrontational. My thought on your comment:

When people ask "why don't you give up and die?" they are, I think, asking about hope. Why go to a meaningless job everyday, why suffer through pain in old age, why watch others suffer? Part of the religious impulse is illustrated by Buddhism - the Buddha declared "life is suffering," and then determined that our experience is illusion and that we needed to take refuge from life itself.

Atheism narrows the ways in we can emotionally respond to suffering. For almost anyone, there are some days when it isn't worth living, and some of us have more of those days than others. This isn't a small question. Atheists can talk about dreaming big, making your own values, enjoying and enhancing rich experiences - but the theist responds, correctly, that these things are fleeting and unstable. Psychologists tell us that we are terrible at predicting our own happiness, which sheds doubt on our ability to individually craft personal values that can give us satisfaction. And if our dreams fall apart, our values are not shared or respected, our spouses leave us, the question of "why bother" can be overwhelming.

It is in those times that people turn to prayer, and they often do find comfort. An atheist can't offer anything similar (and wouldn't want to). But your words will, I think, sound selfish and shallow to believers. Almost none of us, believer or non-believer, really worries about whether life is worth living when are marriages are good, we are living our dreams, and our daily life satisfies us. So the answer of the atheist that you build it yourself really isn't answering the theist's question. I think the answer is: atheism forcloses or at least constricts hope in bad times. And the response of the theist that they would prefer not to surrender that hope under any circumstances is not at all irrational.

Just my view.

Jeff Hebert said...

I actually thought your comment was very lucid, friendly, and thought-provoking, no need to apologize at all. On the way to work I was actually thinking I should post a follow-up thank you for being so civil, but alas, by the time I got here I forgot.

I think we just disagree about atheism limiting hope in times of despair. I find it more limiting to adhere to something that is (in my belief) entirely made up. If you have to make up something that doesn't exist to keep you from committing suicide, that's kind of sad (to me).

The universe existed for billions of years before I was born (or created if you believe in that). During that entire time time, it didn't bother me that I didn't exist, because I didn't exist. The same is true when I am gone. Death thus doesn't bother me particularly. What gives me hope and keeps me going is that just as the universe existed before me, it will exist after me, too. The people I love will exist until they, too, die, but what we do lives on in the effects it has on them, and their actions on the people they touch, etc. The Sun will explode one day, but those atoms will persist, and the stuff that makes me will maybe one day make other thinking beings.

I find comfort in that. Not all do. Such is life. I think it's a good thing that my answers don't satisfy you, just as your answers don't satisfy me. We don't have to all have the exact same set of responses to life for me to be happy. That's part of what makes the world interesting! This isn't a logic problem with one "right" answer.

Despair is not a theistic issue. It's a human issue. All cultures, all beliefs, all societies have to confront it (even all people at some point). Because we're people and despair is part of the human condition. From YOUR perspective, atheism doesn't offer a satisfying response to despair. From mine, at least so far, it has. It would be just as easy (and just as false) for me to say "But Christianity teaches that the world is temporary and only heaven matters so that would make me give up if I were in the grips of despair because this world doesn't matter, anyway. It's why the Catholic Church had to institute suicide as such a grave sin, because otherwise all Christians would act logically and off themselves as soon as possible to get to the REAL world of eternal salvation to be with God."

You can take any belief system that you personally find unconvincing (whether philosophical or theological or other) and explain why if you were in despair it wouldn't satisfy. Well, of COURSE it wouldn't, you don't BELIEVE it!

Anyway, the point of this site isn't to convince other people that atheism is the One True Way, because I don't think it is. The point is to say "This is MY way, and here is how the people who call themselves atheists might approach these given issues." It's not meant to be an evangelical site, but rather an explanatory one.

If your religious beliefs satisfy you, if they help make this very confusing and painful existence meaningful, if they help you treat others well so they too can reach their full potential, then I am happy for you and wish you well in pursuing them.

Kanzeon said...

Thanks for the thoughtful response. I agree with much of what you say. I will mention an area I wonder about, which is hope without my consciousness.

People will say they don't fear death, just as they don't fear the year 1918. I don't buy that. Pain and death is the source of all fear. So, I think it has to be true that we fear the experience of death. The question is how to respond to the concept of our death, after the experience is over.

In the end, there is only my consciousness. 1918 doesn't exist for me, except as pictures in a book that came into my consciousness. The book that was in my consciousness exists for me now only as well as my mind can remember it. In order to think about the demise of my own consciousness, I must hold the idea of nonconsciousness in my consciousness, which is just impossible. The sun dies with me, and for you it will die with you. Nonconsciousness isn't conceivable.

Death is like a six-sided triangle: by it's nature we just can't believe in it, regardless of what we tell ourselves because it is a contradiction. In a sense, I would venture you don't believe you will die any more than the Pope does.

Jeff Hebert said...

I disagree with your basic premise of "Pain and death is the source of all fear" unless you extend pain to cover all sorts of things to the point where it sort of loses a discreet meaning.

In general I tend to live by a Buddhist parable that I think I've shared before. The world as it IS is plenty hard enough, without spending much time worrying about the world AFTER this one. Metaphysics sort of seems like pointless masturbation to me, I have enough on my plate dealing with the universe I've got.

Kanzeon said...

Wow, it's hard to see how you would disagree with that.

An organism's first order of business is to stay alive, and avoid painful experiences, as pain is generally a sign of ill health or death. Fear comes from flight or fight, a response to physical threats. Where else could fear come from?

If you don't care to worry about such things, that is your choice. Most Buddhist sects have pretty detailed ideas about what happens when you die, most particularly Tibetan Buddhists, who wrote the Book of the Dead to guide people between lives. Every major culture has spend a great deal of energy thinking about what happens after you die. And most people who think about it haven't made their lives harder in the slightest. Quite the contrary, most of them think they have improved their lives and culture.

So, I don't see what your zero-sum parable can even mean. If you think that thinking about fundamental questions regarding consciousness is a waste of time, then so be it. But I will say that I do find a certain shallowness to the viewpoint. I can deal with my life, and consider its meaning or non-meaning. Life isn't that short. Even if I don't reach an answer, I find the questions stimulating, and they help me understand other points of view. To me, dealing with metaphysical questions is a mark of skepticism and intellectual curiousity, which I tend to think are atheist values.

Jeff Hebert said...

Now we're rapidly going into "If you don't value the same things I do, you're stupid" territory. So I think this discussion is nearing the end of its useful life. One more comment and then I think we're done here.

The afterlife is unknowable, so I don't spend a lot of time wondering about it. The world as it exists IS knowable, so I spend my time worrying about that. Your mileage obviously differs. The fact that you find my indifference to making up answers to things that are fundamentally knowable is neither here nor there.

Your answers are yours. Enjoy them! But spending your time pitying me because I don't find them valuable is sort of a waste of time. Nice of you, in a weird way, but wasteful.

I'll make you a deal. I won't pity you for spending your time on unknowable things and you don't pity me for not bothering. I'm pretty sure I spend my time on lots of things you would find ridiculous, too. Again, not everyone has to put the same value on everything. It's a big Universe!

Kanzeon said...


It's reached it's useful life, sure.

The death of God has given rise to a tremendous amount of agnst, anomie, listlessness. Serious post-modern art, literature, philosophy and film has an existential bleakness, instead of the heroism and tragedy of earlier generations. This bleakness, this anxiety isn't a symptom of the depression of a few people, but an undercurrent of modern thought. We can't resurrect the gods of old, but what has been left in their wake isn't entirely pleasant.

So, forgive me if I think that questions surrounding meaning and death are important, and ignoring them is nothing more than fooling yourself. And the blithe response of many atheists that meaning and nihilism isn't a significant problem seems, to many thinking, non-religious people, to be inadequate and insincere. Thank you for including me in the conversation.

Anonymous said...

Kanzeon- What are you saying? ..."In order to think about the demise of my own consciousness, I must hold the idea of nonconsciousness in my consciousness, which is just impossible."

Impossible? I can "think about" what things will be like when I no longer exist. I am quite sure (the possibility is extreme) the sun will still exist when I cease to exist. I understand and accept this. And when I sleep at night, am I not unaware of my consciousness.. not an equal concept but similar. Now, when I'm awake/conscious/alert, I can't simultaneously experience non consciousness, but I CAN think about it. And I believe I ought to.

Or are you saying the only reality is YOUR consciousness. The rest of us and everything are merely an extension of your consciousness.

Or are you saying something similar to the statement that it is impossible to picture in your mind a color that doesn't exist?

This was a point the christian apologist C. S. Lewis used to support the idea of the existence of God. He argued humans don't have the capacity to come up with even the notion of a god. It's impossible. Thus our capacity to speculate the supernatural is evidence that something exists within human beings that is predisposed to the supernatural. Observation, Reason and Imagination are incapable of even speculating the supernatural. Imagine a color that doesn't exist.. impossible. Invent the concept of god(s).. impossible.

Until completely aware of Ultimate Reality, we ALL live by faith. I'm a theist because I am persuaded that I am a spiritual creature.. this makes the most sense of my deep longings for meaning.. to be known and loved, for justice and joy and peace.. my admiration of honesty and bravery and self sacrifice. DNA and biochemical reaction just doesn't cut it for me.. And when I look at the world around me.. the complexity and beauty.. and consider Origins.. it just appears too grand and too impossible for Chance.. And the speculations of what might be scientifically possible within Deep Time just doesn't do it for me.. the layers of improbable chance upon improbable chance upon improbable chance. What follows is that the theistic worldview just makes the most sense to me.. I am unwilling to make what seems to me a blind leap of faith toward Atheism.. the unsupported assertion of "non belief" in God.

I wish you well and may we all move closer to Truth.

Jeff Hebert said...

I don't want to get too far afield of the main question here, but this:

He argued humans don't have the capacity to come up with even the notion of a god.

This is a terrible supposition, and an example of the kind of thing that made me stop reading C.S. Lewis. Honestly, the man lived with J.R.R. Tolkien and he didn't think humans could think of things that didn't actually exist? The idea of "Like us only much, much more powerful", of "I can't see something but it still exists" is so outre that it's utterly impossible to have been invented?

Argument by blind assertion is a terrible, empty, pointless exercise. Just dreadful.

Anonymous said...

So you CAN picture in your mind a color that doesn't exist? ..You completely missed Lewis' point. It's not that we can't imagine things that don't exist. What he's saying is that when we do, they are ALWAYS a composite of things that do exist. It is a logically sound point, not a blind assertion. The blind assertion is that we are capable of imagining in our minds something truly original. We are creative (like God), but we never truly create (as God). When you accomplish the feat of picturing a color that doesn't exist, that would be logical grounds on which to refute Lewis' point. Until then, in my opinion, his point trumps your "terrible, empty..dreadful" or as I would put it, mistaken, assertion that it's invalid.

Jeff Hebert said...

Even if you take at face value the idea that human beings are incapable of inventing something truly new, so what? That we can't do something doesn't mean it can't be done, nor (more importantly) does it mean that it needed doing. You only need a Creator capable of creating something new (which we can't do) if there was a Creator in the first place. He's assuming what he's positing, it's a circular argument. Unless you're trying to say that the very idea of a God who could create something new is so new itself that we wouldn't be capable of imagining it so therefore God gave us the idea of God? I really hope that's not the case, because that's an even worse argument than the first.

Remember, Lewis wasn't trying to prove the case for God, he was trying to give people who already believed good reasons for doing so. This argument is a good example of that -- it makes sense and is convincing if you already believe in God, but otherwise, not so much.

Anonymous said...

Listen, I'm no philosopher.. truth be told, I didn't graduate college.. but I don't think you get Lewis' point and I can't represent him better than he did.. I believe this argument is in the first chapter of Mere Christianity, and I believe he was in fact attempting to posit evidence for the existence of God as opposed to bolstering believers.

Again, If you grant Lewis his premise, that humans are incapable of imagining something New, and it is true that humans have imagined something beyond empirical knowledge.. or something supernatural..( I don't know how to say it,) then it follows that something beyond empirical knowledge exists. He's not assuming what he's positing. It's not a circular argument.

On the other hand, if one CAN imagine a color that doesn't exist, or if there is some other reason for not accepting Lewis' premise(s) [again, look at his argument, for more precise language] then he can reject Lewis' conclusion as not plausible. But, if the premise stands, then the conclusion is logically plausible.

I didn't join the conversation to convert anyone to my view. But, to liken, as I saw in these discussions, a theist worldview to the stuff of fairy tales, is simply intellectually unfair and needs to be resisted. Throughout history there have been countless sincere intellectuals whom, through rigorous scholarship, have come to the logically plausible conclusion that there is a God. If you too have honestly and rigorously applied yourself to pursuing Truth and believe you have come to a different logically plausible conclusion, peace be with you and may you savor with satisfaction the fruits of your labors. Best regards.

Kanzeon said...


Here's an article on the possibility of imagining death:

It's not like imagining an unknown color or a fantastical creature. It is imagining the removal of the basis of imagining.

Kanzeon said...


Here's an article on the possibility of imagining death:

It's not like imagining an unknown color or a fantastical creature. It is imagining the removal of the basis of imagining.

Kanzeon said...

I read Lewis in this as just a clever twist on St. Anselm.

Anonymous said...

I heard it said "that nothing is what a rock sits and thinks about all day".