Sunday, May 24, 2009

Atheism and Nihilism

The blogger Yeshivish Atheist recently posed the question whether atheism necessarily implies some form of nihilism. YA listed me as one of the people he would like to hear from in this matter. This entry is my attempt to respond to his inquiry. The question posed is far ranging and so this entry will be broadly focused.

YA ‘s inquiry asks whether atheism allows for the possibility of life having intrinsic “purpose, meaning or morality.” The short answers are “unlikely, no, and maybe.” First, it isn’t clear to me why these three issues are related. The primary reason for seeing them as related seems to be that religions, especially the Abrahamic religions, see these three issues as interrelated. This is similar to the common perception that abiogenesis and the evolution of life into diverse species must be related. This attitude towards evolution and abiogenesis arises primarily because, for thousands of years, the common answers to these questions not only gave a single explanation for both, but did not even distinguish between the two issues. The situation is similar in regards to meaning, purpose and morality. The three are not necessarily related though they have been historically.

First, does human life have intrinsic purpose? From an atheistic perspective, the answer is “no.” However, it isn’t at all clear to me why people find the existence of purpose to be important. It comforts humans that they are part of some master plan. However, cows have a purpose: they provide humans with milk, meat and leather. If I were an intelligent cow who found that cows had been bred by humans to serve as a food production device, I doubt that I would find this to be a purpose that filled me with contentment. Thus, the atheist must ask: Why does the theist or the deist feel so confident that the purpose of humanity or that individual’s life is so worthwhile?

Second, does human life have intrinsic meaning? This question is harder to answer, especially in so far as meaning is much harder to define. Many theists are fond of claiming that, if there is no afterlife, then life has no meaning. Thus, “meaning” is frequently a proxy for some way to stave off the overpowering feeling of the inevitable oblivion that awaits. We die. Even our accomplishments and memories will one day be forgotten. And human civilization will eventually collapse. All of this takes places in an uncaring void. In that sense, then life has no intrinsic meaning. Unless one buys into a Kurzweil–style Singularity (most sane people do not), there is no stopping this. We can all find things that we have find interesting, or personally worth doing. But there is no meaning in this life other than what we make for ourselves.

Third, is there intrinsic morality? Of the three issue posed by YA, this is the one that has the most chance of having some sort of “yes” as an answer. As with purpose, theism and deism do not do a much better job at providing morality than atheism. The Euthypro dilemma- Is what is moral commanded by God because it is moral, or is it moral because it is commanded by God?- makes claims of intrinsic moral authority as provided by theism to be problematic. However, there is some evidence to suggest that there may be something resembling intrinsic morality. In particular, there are clear trends in moral thought over the last few thousand years. In that time, humanity has embraced broader notions of what constitute basic rights and has extended further the set of individuals to whom those rights apply. A few hundred thousand years ago, one would have no moral duties to anyone outside one’s own small tribe. That has broadened so that many now feel moral obligations to everyone, everywhere. The fact that many different societies are embracing similar moral systems suggests that they may be doing so because they are approximating some external moral system. This argument is by no means airtight. The argument is couched in terms like “rights” which have only made much sense for a few hundred years. There are also other explanations for this trend. For example, it may be that humans have evolved to care more about those they can easily communicate and identify with. This broadening of moral attitudes then simply reflects the reality that communication and transportation are far easier now than they were in earlier ages.

To summarize: If one is an atheist, it is unlikely that life has any intrinsic meaning, purpose or morality and theism doesn’t do a substantially better job of answering these issues. The appropriate response seems as it often is to be that of Randall Munroe:

Original at , licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 2.5 License.


Yeshivish Atheist said...

I agree that the three issues are different from each other. I probably should have said something along the lines of: "Pick one and argue for it" rather than imply one take on all three.

The comic does seem like a good way of putting it.

Baal Habos said...

>To summarize: If one is an atheist, it is unlikely that life has any intrinsic meaning, purpose or morality and theism doesn’t do a substantially better job of answering these issues

Theists, by virtue of being created by a "perfect" God, need not look any further for purpose & meaning. Coupled with an after-life, the issue is simply postponed. Forever.

And I suspect that ex-believers, having grown up with expectations of eternity, have a more difficult time with these issues than people who grew up without strong belief.

Stacy said...

An adventure - I like it :-)

mac said...

Does life have purpose, meaaning, or morality for the atheist?

Purpose is what one thinks it is. Christians may feel their purpose is to serve God. Muslims may feel their purpose os to serve Allah. (Hindus, Rastafarians....ya get my point?). Therefore I can see no universal purpose. Unless, it is, as my dear old friend Jhoon Rhee states, to be happy. "The purpose of life is to be happy, this transcends cultures and religions".

Meaning is, again, subjective. What I see as meaning in my life may or may not mean a thing to another. Atheist or theist, it really doesn't matter as I see it.

Morality is different in different cultures. For the theist to think someone has no morals because they believe differently is just silly. Our morals come from our societal upbringing, not from a religion or god. If morals were god-given, why the disparity between cultures? Wouldn't God wish us all to have similar morals?

I guess I agree with you here :-)

Lautreamont said...

Josh, I respect you deeply. Your bravery in the face of these issues is astounding. Few can look at these problems as directly as you do.