Wednesday, September 16, 2015

Naturalism and Nihilism

French existential philosopher Jean Paul Sartre once wrote that existentialism is nothing else but an attempt to take atheism to its logical conclusion. Many atheists are reluctant to do this because they can't live consistently with their belief that man is all alone in the cosmos. The thought of our "forlornness," many have concluded, leads to a kind of despair and emptiness and ultimately to nihilism.

Some there are, though, who call upon their fellow non-theists to face up to the gloomy entailments of the belief that nature is all there is. Philosophers Alex Rosenberg, author of The Atheist's Guide to Reality, and Joel Marks are two who seek to face squarely the logic of their unbelief. Another example is a commenter at Uncommon Descent who lays out clearly and without sugar-coating what one should also believe if one embraces atheism.

He/she (It's not clear which) writes:
I’m a nihilist because it shows reality. If there is no higher power, then everything humanity holds dear was constructed by humanity and therefore not real.

There is:
  • No objective, absolute, inherent meaning in life or the universe
  • No objective, absolute, inherent purpose in life or the universe
  • No objective, absolute, inherent value in life or the universe
  • No objective, absolute, inherent morality in life or the universe. No good, no evil, no right, no wrong
  • No objective, absolute, inherent truth in life or the universe
  • No objective, absolute, inherent knowledge in life or the universe
  • No objective, absolute, inherent logic in life or the universe
There's more:
  • We are the cobbled together Frankensteins of billions of years of trial and error
  • We have no free-will, mind, consciousness, rationality or reason. They are illusions and [the notions of] personhood, identity and humanity are not real.
  • The emotions we express are just chemicals in our brain. The very things we seek in life like happiness, peace, contentment, joy are just chemicals reducing us to nothing more than chemical addicts.
  • We are no more important than other animals. A dog is a rat is a pig is a boy.
  • There is no afterlife. Once we die, we fade from existence and all our memories, experiences, knowledge etc goes with it. In time, we are forgotten.
  • All the things we do in life are just for survival. Learning, loving, seeking, being positive, eating, relating, having fun are created for the sake of ignoring the real reason we are here and that’s to live as long as we can.
  • There is no help coming to save humanity as a species or as individuals. We are all alone and on our own. If you can’t survive, you die.
The reader might wonder why anyone would embrace such a melancholy set of beliefs, but if the only alternative is to accept that there's a God, then nihilism, as depressing, hopeless, and dreary as it may be, will still be more appealing to a lot of people than the divine alternative.

Reflecting on the utter despair that infuses the above assertions, I thought of a character in Dostoyevsky's novel The Possessed named Kirillov. Kirillov was an atheist and a nihilist. He says at one point in the story shortly before taking his own life, "I don't understand how a man can know there is no God and not kill himself on the spot."

Another fellow who realizes that we can't dispense with belief in God and have everything go on as before is an anonymous commenter at The author of the blog, J. Warner Wallace, by way of introducing the commenter's submission, said this:
Several weeks ago, a gentleman (we’ll call him “John”) replied to a blog I posted at As a skeptical non-believer, John wasn’t responding to what I had posted, but to fellow atheists who had been interacting with Christians in the comment section. John’s post was controversial but honest. In fact, he clearly delineated the problem of atheistic moral grounding. Here’s what John had to say:

“[To] all my Atheist friends.

Let us stop sugar coating it. I know, it’s hard to come out and be blunt with the friendly Theists who frequent sites like this. However in your efforts to “play nice” and “be civil” you actually do them a great disservice.

We are Atheists. We believe that the Universe is a great uncaused, random accident. All life in the Universe past and future are the results of random chance acting on itself. While we acknowledge concepts like morality, politeness, civility seem to exist, we know they do not. Our highly evolved brains imagine that these things have a cause or a use, and they have in the past, they’ve allowed life to continue on this planet for a short blip of time.

But make no mistake: all our dreams, loves, opinions, and desires are figments of our primordial imagination. They are fleeting electrical signals that fire across our synapses for a moment in time. They served some purpose in the past. They got us here. That’s it. All human achievement and plans for the future are the result of some ancient, evolved brain and accompanying chemical reactions that once served a survival purpose. Ex: I’ll marry and nurture children because my genes demand reproduction, I’ll create because creativity served a survival advantage to my ancient ape ancestors, I’ll build cities and laws because this allowed my ape grandfather time and peace to reproduce and protect his genes. My only directive is to obey my genes. Eat, sleep, reproduce, die. That is our bible.

We deride the Theists for having created myths and holy books. We imagine ourselves superior. But we too imagine there are reasons to obey laws, be polite, protect the weak etc. Rubbish. We are nurturing a new religion, one where we imagine that such conventions have any basis in reality. Have they allowed life to exist? Absolutely. But who cares? Outside of my greedy little genes' need to reproduce, there is nothing in my world that stops me from killing you and reproducing with your wife. Only the fear that I might be incarcerated and thus be deprived of the opportunity to do the same with the next guy’s wife stops me.

Some of my atheist friends have fooled themselves into acting like the general population. They live in suburban homes, drive Toyota Camrys, attend school plays. But underneath they know the truth. They are a bag of DNA whose only purpose is to make more of themselves. So be nice if you want. Be involved, have polite conversations, be a model citizen. Just be aware that while technically an Atheist, you are an inferior one. You’re just a little bit less evolved, that’s all. When you are ready to join me, let me know, I’ll be reproducing with your wife.

I know it’s not PC to speak so bluntly about the ramifications of our beliefs, but in our discussions with theists we sometimes tip-toe around what we really know to be factual. Maybe it’s time we Atheists were a little more truthful and let the chips fall where they may. At least that’s what my genes are telling me to say.”
Several readers questioned whether John really was an atheist or just a theist posing as an atheist, so Wallace clarified:
Since posting this comment, I’ve been able to peek at John’s life in a very limited way, and I’ve had a brief interaction with him. He appears to be a creative, responsible, loving husband and father....When John first posted his comment many of the other atheists who post at CrossExamined were infuriated. Some denied John’s identity as a skeptic and accused him of being a disguised Christian. But in my interaction with John, he told me he was weary of hearing fellow atheists mock their opponents for hypocrisy and ignorance, while pretending they had a definitive answer to the great questions of life. He simply wanted his fellow atheists to be consistent. As it turns out, theism provides the consistent moral foundation missing from John’s atheistic worldview.
"John" is, of course, correct. Given atheism (or naturalism) there's nothing morally wrong with doing any of the things he mentions because on atheism there are no objective moral duties, nor can there be. This outrages some who think such a claim is tantamount to accusing atheists of being wicked or immoral, but this misses the point. A person can be kind, honest, and generous, and presumably many atheists are, but the point is that there's nothing in atheism that would make cruelty, dishonesty, or selfishness wrong. On atheism no one has an objective duty or obligation to be kind rather than cruel.

As "John" suggests above, the only constraint on anyone's desires is what that person can get away with. "John" is acknowledging that a man who has the power to act with impunity is not violating any moral law by torturing children or shooting up a movie theater. In a world with no transcendent moral authority might makes right.

The famous French writer Voltaire expressed it this way. He said, "I want my lawyer, my tailor, my servants and even my wife to believe in God, because it means I shall be cheated, robbed, and cuckolded less often." This is the theme I try to amplify in my novel In the Absence of God and also in my soon-to-be released novel Bridging the Abyss (See links at top of page).

Some have asked, essentially, So what? What's the point? The point is that when one adopts a worldview, whether theistic or naturalistic, one must be prepared to also adopt the consequences of that worldview. Otherwise one is acting irrationally.

To be consistent an atheist must either be a complete nihilist, or, like "John," he or she must simply live by his or her own predilections, recognizing that it's a purely subjective choice, and that it's no better nor worse, morally speaking, than any other choice. Moreover, one must forfeit the "right" to make any moral judgments of anyone else's behavior regardless how cruel or revolting that behavior may be.

Moral judgments, after all, imply an objective moral standard and naturalism rules such standards out. The atheist who makes moral judgments of others, who condemns, for example, child abuse, racism, exploitation of the environment, or opposition to gay marriage, is living as if there is an objective standard that's being violated while adopting a worldview that makes that standard impossible.