• Strange Notions Strange Notions Strange Notions

Detectives of Despair

Filed under Atheism

True Detective

In the HBO series True Detective, two investigators of a high-profile murder traverse a desolate Louisiana landscape, looking for clues that will help crack the case. Soon, the conversation about the darkness of their State drifts into a conversation about the darkness of their state—and an investigation into a murder suddenly morphs into an investigation into everything.

“It’s all one ghetto man,” the self-proclaimed pessimist Rust Cohle (played by Matthew McConaughey) declares. “Giant gutter in outer space.”

Cohle’s partner Marty Hart (played by Woody Harrelson) asks Cohle about the crucifix hanging over his bed in an otherwise empty apartment. He’s a Christian, right?

Not exactly. “That’s a form of meditation,” Cohle responds. “I contemplate the moment in the garden. The idea of allowing your own crucifixion.” This unexpected explanation leads to an even more unexpected confession:

“I think human consciousness is a tragic misstep in evolution. We became too self-aware; nature created an aspect of nature separate from itself. We are creatures that should not exist by natural law. We are things that labor under the illusion of having a self. A secretion of sensory experience and feeling programmed with total assurance that we are each somebody, when in fact everybody’s nobody. I think the honorable thing for our species to do is deny our programming, stop reproducing, walk hand in hand into extinction—one last midnight, brothers and sisters opting out of a raw deal.”

(Side note: if only more TV shows had writing like that!)

Cohle is stunned; this is the first time he’s heard his partner say more than two words, and it makes his blood run cold. If all that’s true, why does he even bother getting out of bed in the morning?

“I tell myself I bear witness,” Cohle explains, “but the real answer is that it’s obviously my programming. And I lack the constitution for suicide.”

A like-minded character from another story—“White” from Cormac McCarthy’s play, The Sunset Limited—does not lack that constitution. In fact, we come to learn about his equally dark world view only after he tries to jump in front of a train and is pulled back last minute by a stranger.

White’s philosophy, he insists, is not some puerile rebellion against faith, nor some acute depression brought on by life’s hardships. It is, he explains in his calm but exhausted way, the truth.

“You give up the world, line by line,” White explains patiently to this stranger, who tries (and fails) to persuade him to live. “You become an accomplice to your own annihilation. There’s nothing you can do about it. Everything you do closes a door somewhere ahead of you. Finally, there’s only one door left. I don't regard my state of mind as some pessimistic view of the world; I regard it as the world itself. Evolution cannot avoid bringing intelligent life ultimately to an awareness of one thing above all else, and that one thing is futility. . . If people could see the world for what it truly is, see their lives for what they truly are without dreams or illusions, I don’t believe they could offer the first reason why they should not elect to die as soon as possible.”

As is often the case, though, Shakespeare said it first—and said it best. Cohle and White’s world view reflects those unforgettable lines from Macbeth:

“Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow,
Creeps in this petty pace from day to day
To the last syllable of recorded time,
And all our yesterdays have lighted fools
The way to dusty death. Out, out, brief candle!
Life's but a walking shadow, a poor player
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage
And then is heard no more: it is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
Signifying nothing.”

It’s tempting to do some detective work ourselves. What is this despair these characters are describing? Where does it come from?

It seems, at first blush, a lot like the despair described by existentialists like Jean-Paul Sartre. But Sartre wrote of the dizziness of total freedom; what Cohle and White describe sounds more like total slavery. Besides, there are plenty of Christian existentialists: Pascal, Kierkegaard, Marcel. What Cohle and White describe seems to preclude, by definition, any glimmer of God or the afterlife.

So is this the despair of atheism? Could atheism really be as bleak as all that?

In one important sense, no. In 2009, an ad campaign was launched in London reading: “There’s probably no God. Now stop worrying and enjoy your life.” Apparently, the news that there’s no God comes as a great relief to a lot of people. But why? As Czeslaw Milosz saw it, “A true opium for the people is a belief in nothingness after death—the huge solace of thinking that for our betrayals, greed, cowardice, murders we are not going to be judged.” Some might go further and say with Dostoevsky that if God does not exist, everything is permitted; but in the meantime, it’s enough to say that if God does not exist, nothing is damnable.

Secondly, atheism means the absence of belief in the existence of a God or gods. That’s a broader swath than most Christians are comfortable admitting. It includes the darkness of Friedrich Nietzsche, but also the light of Thomas Nagel, whose recent book Mind and Cosmos sided with creationists in arguing that “the neo-Darwinian conception of nature is almost certainly false”—leaving fellow atheists more than a little incensed.

And here, Watson, is the key. There is a worldview that necessitates atheism, but resists its longitude up toward beauty and goodness, that conjures all the darkness of existentialism, but without its latitude over to God and the soul.

That worldview is materialism: the belief not only that God and the soul don’t exist, but that neither does anything immaterial. And it’s the materialistic reduction—not just believed intellectually, but lived out practically—that seems to fuel these characters’ despair.

Why? First, because materialism undercuts everything we cherish as human beings. As a new commercial reminds us, passion, love, and beauty—these are what we all stay alive for. But materialism can’t account for these experiences (or our free pursuit of them) in a way that makes them rise above happy illusions; it reduces all our life to synapses and survival, leaving us with the cold world Cohle can’t bear.

But materialism also undercuts our reason. If meaning, and the knowledge we build from it, is the epiphenomenal froth spewed from electrochemical signals in the brain, what guarantee do we have that what we think and say is reliable, or even sensible? Evolution is no guarantor of sense—only survival. No wonder the erudite White sounds so irrational to us: he’s pushed his rationality so far it self-destructs.

“As an explanation of the world,” Chesterton wrote in Orthodoxy, “materialism has a sort of insane simplicity. It has just the quality of the madman's argument; we have at once the sense of it covering everything and the sense of it leaving everything out.” Our loves, our choices, even our reasons—all of these materialism leaves decimated.

We can see how, after such a reduction, pleasure becomes paramount; it’s the last remaining glimpse out of the prison of materiality. But that pursuit, like a struggle in quicksand, only worsens the alienation and aggression which launched it. This is the mad descent described by Michel Houellebecq in his horrifying novel, The Elementary Particles, a story about two brothers navigating a landscape of intellectual, sexual, and economic individualism cranked to terrifying proportions.

Other forms of atheism, for what it’s worth, see a world where hope, love, and even faith are live options. But materialism sees only physics, chemistry, and biology; there is, at bottom, nothing else to see. “The truth is that that the forms I see have been slowly emptied out,” White confesses. “They no longer have any content. They are shapes only. A train, a wall, a world. Or a man. A thing dangling in senseless articulation in a howling void.”

This, to use Houellebecq’s phrase, is the “metaphysical mutation” of materialism gripping the West, and it spells despair—all the more so if we can’t see it. It’s a world of mere things, nobodies, signifying nothing; a world where we’ve cast off hell, only to get it back in spades.

“Abandon all hope, ye who enter here...”

Originally posted at Aleteia. Used with permission.
(Image credit: Seriable)

Matthew Becklo

Written by

Matthew Becklo is a husband and father-to-be, amateur philosopher, and cultural commentator at Aleteia and Word on Fire. His writing has been featured in First Things, The Dish, and Real Clear Religion.

Note: Our goal is to cultivate serious and respectful dialogue. While it's OK to disagree—even encouraged!—any snarky, offensive, or off-topic comments will be deleted. Before commenting please read the Commenting Rules and Tips. If you're having trouble commenting, read the Commenting Instructions.

  • David Nickol

    First, because materialism undercuts everything we cherish as human beings.

    I don't see why this should be true. It seems to me things like passion, love, and beauty are passion, love, and beauty whether or not there is a soul or a God. Suppose I am passionate about music. What makes music better if I have a soul and God exists than if I don't have a soul and there is no God? A number of people have said or implied in this forum that if death is the absolute end of a person's existence, then any life experience is meaningless. I really don't see why that should be true.

    But materialism also undercuts our reason. If meaning, and the knowledge we build from it, is the epiphenomenal froth spewed from electrochemical signals in the brain, what guarantee do we have that what we think and say is reliable, or even sensible?

    I don't think knowledge is epiphenomenal (if I understand what you are saying). I remember something from one of my college philosophy courses about something (emotions, I think) being "ontological mules—having causal ancestry but no causal progeny." (I have never found that anywhere since, but I doubt it was a quip by the professor.) But knowledge certainly has causal progeny, as do love and passion.

    I recently watched Chinatown, having rented a Blu-Ray Disc from Netflix. If I understood in detail how digital video recording and playback work (and I have only a very sketchy idea), I could say that what I experienced as Chinatown, was really and only a series of variously sized and spaced pits on a plastic disk. But clearly it was more than that. It made me laugh and puzzle and cringe and struggle to figure out what was going on. It was clearly more than a plastic disc with pits on it.

    I am not sure why the experience of being in love would feel any different if God exists and the lovers have a soul or if God does not exist and the lovers don't have souls. They obviously experience exactly what they experience. If they are happy and stay together for life, or if they are miserable and experience a nasty breakup, I don't see that it makes a difference if they are materialists or not.

    But materialism sees only physics, chemistry, and biology; there is, at bottom, nothing else to see.

    To also quote Shakespeare

    I am a materialist. Hath not a materialist eyes? Hath not a materialist hands, organs, dimensions, senses, affections, passions? Fed with the same food, hurt with the same weapons, subject to the same diseases, healed by the same means, warmed and cooled by the same winter and summer as a Christian is? If you prick us, do we not bleed? If you tickle us, do we not laugh? If you poison us, do we not die?

    Don't materialist and believers in the supernatural experience basically the same things? If I am a materialist and I hear a good joke, won't I laugh just as heartily as someone who believes he or she has a soul and believes there is a God? I have never met anyone who said, "Yeah, that would be funny, except there's no God."

    Apparently, the news that there’s no God comes as a great relief to a lot of people. But why? As Czeslaw Milosz saw it, “A true opium for the people is a belief in nothingness after death—the huge solace of thinking that for our betrayals, greed, cowardice, murders we are not going to be judged.”

    I think one very good reason why many would be relieved to know definitively that there is no God or no afterlife is that the God of both the Old and New Testaments, as interpreted by many Christian churches is extraordinarily frightening and sadistic being who seems prepared to torture people for all eternity because they ate meat on Fridays (back in the old days), or used condoms, or skipped church on Sunday.

    • Hey David - These are interesting points. But knowing you to be something of a contrarian, before I respond to them I have to ask: are you convinced that metaphysical materialism is true? If not, why not? And why take the time to argue in its favor?

      • David Nickol

        [A]re you convinced that metaphysical materialism is true? If not, why not? And why take the time to argue eloquently in its favor?

        I am not convinced it is true, but frequently it seems to me it is, while other times it seems to me it's not. As with many of these questions, I don't know the answer, and sometimes I lean one way, while other times I lean the other way. In truth, I think nobody really knows the answer, and perhaps there is no way of knowing, at least at present.

        One thing I do believe very firmly is that evolution explains a tremendous amount about why human beings are the way they are, and "the Fall" and the alleged damage to human nature is simply not credible in its more "conservative" formulations. Benedict (writing as Joseph Ratzinger, before assuming the papacy) had some interesting things to say about Original Sin, but they are quite different from the traditional formulation and there are people who consider him heretical.(Which is pretty hilarious, in my opinion.)

        A huge problem for me is the Catholic conception of the soul as "the form of the body" and yet as something that leaves the body and resides in heaven, hell, or purgatory for some finite time. That smacks ever so much of a "ghost in a machine."

        This is perhaps slightly removed from the topic, but I have no sense at all that anyone I have known who has died (both of my parents, for example) continues to exist in any way shape or form. It would be much easier for me to believe in the resurrection of the dead at the end of the world than to believe the souls of the dead fly off to another realm and function without bodies.

        Any question I raise about the material nature of the brain and the lack of a need to posit a spiritual soul is a perfectly sincere question that I have no answer for. If by "contrarian" you mean someone who takes the opposite position of the one stated just for the sake of doing so, it doesn't apply to me (I think). My point sometimes is, "How can you be so sure?" but I don't think that is contrarian. And in this case, the arguments do see to me to weigh heavily in favor of the mind being dependent on the brain and not being a "hybrid" of matter and spirit.

      • Of course the question is not whether metaphysical materialism is true. It is whether an immaterial being exists, without which we could not have meaning.

        The fact that many of us find meaning in the material world does not imply that there is an immaterial world. Some believe in gods and find meaning, some who believe despair and commit suicide. The same for those who believe there is a "spiritual" realm and those who lack any supernatural beliefs.

      • Susan

        are you convinced that metaphysical materialism is true?
        What is metaphysical materialism? If you're going to describe it as the belief that the only things that can be said to exist have a material basis, then until you explain what "immaterial" means, how we would recognize it, how we would know it has "existence" and that it was immaterial. You really have to define your terms.
        If someone here wants to explain how we would know the boundaries of matter and be able to claim that we are beyond them, then I would be able to at least understand what "methodological immaterialism" might be.
        As it is, I'm not "convinced" of anything. (Yes. I know you were asking David but the question is at the heart of the flaws in this argument.)
        For the record, I don't recall reviews of Nagel's work as being "incensed" but just utterly unconvinced. Have you read the problems or are you just snuggling up to the idea of an atheist who finds evolution's explanations unsatisfying? What do you find convincing about Nagel's argument?

        • That video at the bottom is too much.

          Not a Tom Waits fan?

          The old "materialist" equivocation. Materialists must be greedy, shallow people who are only interested in their own hedonistic pleasure.

          No, they don't have to be, but they very well might be if they take their metaphysical commitments seriously. More importantly, if they are, how are we supposed to convict them if we are fellow materialists? What Platonic realm of "ought" can we call on? What agency or even consciousness can we put on trial? Were they finally free to do anything else? Do you judge and lock up a tornado? A great white? A sharknado? (Sorry, that was uncalled for.)

          • Susan

            Not a Tom Waits fan?

            I love Tom Waits.

            I asked you to define your terms. You haven't responded to any of my questions, instead asking more questions without defining your terms.

            I'd be happy to respond when you do. I'd also appreciate it if you responded to some of my questions.

      • Susan

        Hi Matthew,

        But knowing you to be something of a contrarian, before I respond to them I have to ask: are you convinced that metaphysical materialism is true?

        There was nothing "contrarian" in David's response. It's irrelevant whether you think (not know) he's a contrarian. You equated materialism as equivalent to despair and he asked you some very good questions about those unsupported implications.

        Rather than respond, you put the burden on him to defend his position before you defended your article. That sort of thing gets called out in philosophy class pretty early on. But he was charitable and responded immediately. It's been three days and you haven't responded to the first post on your article which David filled with fair and honest questions.

        I asked you some questions myself and asked you to define your terms. You responded with "Not a Tom Waits fan?"

        I would be happy to let that sort of thing speak for itself to an honest
        observer/lurker who is interested in reason.

        But a whole month's worth of posts by many decent people were deleted here intentionally not long ago so I have almost lost hope that this site is a useful exercise in "reasoning together".

        It's very important that you engage and engage honestly. The burden is yours. We all agree that matter exists. You are claiming that there is something else and without that something else, despair is the only possible philosophical conclusion. You have simply implied/asserted/insinuated it without making your case.

        If there is a case to be made, please make it.

      • Ben Posin

        I think David Nickol's post in this chain is well thought out and, if unanswered, undermines your entire thesis. To the extent that you are trying to address comments here, it is deserving of a real response. Especially since you asked David to provide further explanation of his viewpoints "before [you] respond" to his points, and he obliged.

  • Greg Schaefer

    The speciousness of this piece, with its well-trod generalities about the alleged hopelessness, pessimism and despair of non-believers, would be almost too much to contemplate were it not so wearyingly common among too much of Christian apologetics.

    I've no doubt that there are countless believers in any of the monotheistic traditions who are supremely at peace, and find great consolation and comfort from their religious beliefs. As has been noted by many other commentators on this site, that some find consolation and comfort from their beliefs has no necessary correlation with the underlying truth of those beliefs.

    It's supremely sad that Mr. Becklo professes to think that non-believers do not also revel in "passion, love and beauty." Of course, many of us do. We live the same lives as do believers; we simply lack some of the religious beliefs.

    I know that many commentators on this site are wont to bash Richard Dawkins based on his book, "The God Delusion." I recommend reading instead his "Unweaving the Rainbow: Science, Delusion and the Appetite for Wonder" (1998), or virtually any other of the more than half dozen other books he's written since the mid 1990s explaining beautifully and in accessible terms evolutionary science and the beauties and wonders of nature. All these wonders are available to, and actually experienced by, virtually all of us, whether we are believers or not.

    Check out a number of the books compiling essays and articles by Richard Feynman, such as "The Pleasure of Finding Things Out" (1999), "The Meaning of It All" (1998), "What Do You Care What Other People Think" (1988), or "Surely You're Joking Mr. Feynman" (1985). Check out Carl Sagan's "Billions & Billions" (1997) and "The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark" (1996). These are wonderful, life-affirming books exploring in accessible terms the beauties of physics, astronomy and nature, written of course by famous non-believers.

    While there certainly must be some non-believers who live lives of bleak pessimism and despair, that is hardly a necessary conjugate of non-belief as there of course are also some Christians who live lives of bleak pessimism and despair (Soren Kierkegaard is, after, regarded by many as the founder of existentialism), undoubtedly exascerbated by questions about how the God they believe in could have abandoned them.

    Moreover, why do so many Christian apologists appear to like to pretend that for those who do not believe in the existence of any of the conceptions of a personal "God" of the type venerated by Christians, "everything is permitted"? No one needs hold a belief in the existence of some supernatural being/intelligence/"ground of all being" to understand that productive, stable civilizations cannot exist if individuals are free to kill each other or steal others' things at whim or personal caprice. Belief in a personal creator/sustainer God is hardly a prerequisite to the formation or maintenance of complex human civilizations based on the rule of law.

    You need not be a believer to feel empathy for others and to have tolerance for others' possessing beliefs different from your own or choosing lifestyles we might not choose for ourselves, characteristics that many of us non-believers think lead to more stable, harmonious and cohesive societies.

    What never ceases to amaze me is that some who profess to be believers appear to think that, but for their belief in "God" they would otherwise have no constraints on their behavior and apparently would feel free to engage in untrammeled sociopathic or psychopathic behavior. I've seen a comment from Pastor Rick Warren to that effect during an interview a few years back. That displays a profoundly sad, but perhaps revealing, state of mind.

    • Hi Greg - Thanks for your thoughtful comment. Fortunately (or unfortunately, depending on your goal) I disagree with almost none of it! In the article I tried (maybe failed) to carefully distinguish between non-believers in general and those non-believers who are metaphysical materialists, then focused on the latter. So unless you think all atheists are necessarily materialists, we're on the same page here.

      • Ben Posin

        I don't have polling data or anything, but I'd wager that a very high percentage of atheists are in effect materialists, whether or not they have articulated this to themselves. I'm one myself. So, great, you're not talking about the miserable lives of all atheists, you're just talking about my misery, and that of many, if not most, atheists. That's ...well, not really much better.

        • Hey Ben - I disagree, but I'm also data-less. I would venture a guess that most atheists are well aware that materialism is no less fraught with nasty conclusions than theism, and would prefer to remain in a nebulous metaphysical middle ground (e.g. "spiritual but not religious") that makes for less awkward conversation in polite company. ("I think consciousness is an illusion...how's your burger?") Many if not most 20 and 30 somethings I know fall in this category.

          At any rate, you're not one of them. And I'm sorry that the article is harsh, but I'd be interested to hear your defense as a materialist - otherwise I have to stick to my guns, because I believe what I've written is true, harsh as it is.

          Also, I probably didn't make this clear enough, but I don't just think materialism is miserable - that's not enough reason to not believe something - I also think it's a weaker position philosophically. But there's only so much one can squeeze into an already bloated essay.

          • Ben Posin

            Whelp, here's a long reply for you:

            In my experience, modern atheists don't cling to atheism as some dogma or end important in itself, but have been brought to it as a result of a principle: that one should not believe something is true without good reasons to, without sufficient evidence. In a way it might make more sense to define people we're calling atheists by the degree to which they hold to this source principle. And I submit that those who care about sufficient evidence for their beliefs will not only lack a belief in God, they will lack a belief in a soul or any ghost in the machine. They may remain agnostic about what consequences this has for ideas like free will, or they may decide, like Sam Harris, that "free will" is indeed a sort of illusion.

            But the truth is that there is overwhelming evidence that there is an identity between the mind and the physical brain. David Nickol has properly alluded to some of it, though by no means all of it. I've gone into this before on this website. Science and medicine have shown us that changes to various parts of the brain alter or destroy the things that we consider consciousness or personhood, including memory, personality, emotion, and decision making. In addition to studies involving brain damage, we can now actually see various portions of the brain operating during different tasks; for that matter, a brain scan can determine when a person has made a decision before that person actually consciously realizes he has! We can also see the effects that chemicals have on consciousness, from alcohol's effect on inhibition to ssri's effect on depression. In a thousand different ways, the world looks the way we would expect it to if consciousness is a function of the physical brain, and not how we would expect it to if it was not. For discussion of some of the relevant medical evidence, I recommend the following article:

            So I'm really not sure what it is I have to prove you wrong about. The evidence we have right now supports the absence of a soul or any other non-material portion of the mind. There's nothing significant weighing on the other side of the scale (my head will hit the desk should you bring up the rantings of Eben Alexander:) . The fact that you think where the evidence points should make a person miserable has no bearing on the truth, as has been pointed out and ignored by you. And the fact that you think this belief should make OTHERS miserable has no bearing on the fact that empirically, atheists and non-materialists don't actually seem to be miserable people. Even Sam Harris, who emphatically doesn't believe in free will, strikes me as a pretty happy family man. And I find my fair measure of happiness myself, I think, as well as meaning and enjoyment in my life.

            And since the evince supports a material mind and suggests you're wrong, the truth is that to the extent that you find meaning and happiness in life, YOU TOO seem to be doing so despite the truth of materialism. All the feelings and attachments and accomplishments you experience are ultimately based in physical reality, and one would hope would not magically whoosh out of existence were you to come round to realizing where the evidence lies.

            But honestly, at this point I'm not sure what to make of your repeated claims that I am miserable and find no meaning in my life. Were a person to come up to me on the street and try to convince me of such things, not knowing me, I'd be tempted to think that was a little odd, to say the least...

          • Ben Posin

            Also: what does it mean when you say that materialism is a "weaker position philosophically" ?? Our minds are either composed solely of matter and the interactions of matter, or they are not. Where does the philosophy come in? Despite your claim that it's not just about your distate for what you see as materialism's consequences, I suspect your philosophical position is more of the same in fancy dress.

          • David Nickol

            That's an interesting point. Are materialism and its alternatives destined to be philosophical positions forever, or might future scientific discoveries decide which position is actually correct? At one time, the tendency for objects to fall when dropped was explained by "philosophy." Now it is explained by science.

          • Hey Ben - Thanks for your thoughtful comments! And sorry for my lateness in responding. Having a hectic week.

            I would respond first by pointing out that people have clubbing each other in the head and quaffing wine (wedding at Cana?) long before the advances of neuroscience! Which is to say, the correlation between brain states and mental states has been observed and understood as a general principle since the ancient world. Neuroscience, far from dispelling the mind-body problem by pinpointing this correlation with great accuracy, has made it more acute, beginning with Descartes. (And notice that, despite holding to the identity theory of the mind, you contradict it with your words; you refer to consciousness as a "function" of the brain, which sounds more like functionalism theory, a distinct theory in the philosophy of mind altogether.)

            Why is that? I would argue (trying to keep this as short as I can) that this is because there is overwhelming evidence that human consciousness is not reducible to the material brain. First, there are qualia - what (atheists!) like David Chalmers (and Sam Harris!) have termed "the hard problem of consciousness", the experience of phenomena like the color, hot touch, and smell of bacon (sorry, best morningtime example I could give). In a world of colorless, odorless particles available for objective study, these subjective experiences seems to stand apart from their material correlate states the more we pinpoint processes in the brain that attend them (and aren't them) - and it's at least conceivable that my brain is operating in much the same way as yours, and will look the same as yours does on a brain scanner, but I am not having any of these internal experiences, and am a "zombie." This is among the weightiest evidence against identity theory.

            Second, there are reason, free will, objective moral values and duties, and intentionality. I could right another long paragraph (or essay?) about each, but suffice it to say that these all seem unavoidably real, reliable, and non-material, and operate on a plane of consciousness which is itself unavoidably real, reliable, and non-material - and any attempt to deny their reality or reduce them to fixed material processes leads to a stunning lived contradiction or, as I argued in the article, a kind of despair about human life. (That wasn't to suggest, by the way, at all that only materialists can know misery. Paul rightly pointed out that Ecclesiastes was darkly existential before existentialism was cool, and I know plenty of professed materialists who get along just fine in life. The focus was really on the world view itself as it manifests itself more and more in these characters. And despair is not synonymous with sadness of sensitivity; in fact, Kierkegaard said the true character of despair is unawareness of being despair.)

            You said before that by leading a relatively happy life despite the fact that I'm material processes "all the way down", I was testifying to the wrongness of my whole argument. This may have been begging the question, but I could turn the tables around: by coming to Strange Notions (freedom) to argue your case (reason) about materialism (intentionality) for the good of men and women here (objective morals), you yourself are testifying to the irreducible nature of these phenomena; because if they were all the result of determined material processes, we couldn't talk about our talking without erupting into laughter, until we realize our laughter is also fixed and erupt into silence - and of course, we can, and we do. To the extent that we take materialism seriously and internalize its conclusions, we go against our very nature as human beings - and that is a very difficult and perilous thing to do.

          • David Nickol

            Do you assume that animals, who according to Catholics do not have spiritual souls, do not have consciousness? We know that chimps, for example, have both stereoscopic vision and color vision. Are we to assume that chimps have no experience of seeing red?

            I believe it is true that Descartes claimed that because animals were not conscious, they could not feel pain. Are we wrong to arrest and prosecute people for cruelty to animals?

            Catholic Answers tells us

            Animals and plants can't do anything which transcends the limitations of matter. Although some animals seem clever, they don't actually possess conceptional intelligence. They can't, for instance, conceive of the abstract notion of justice.

            Now, I don't really know of any nonhuman animal that can conceive of the abstract notion of justice, but it seems to me that there are capabilities far less sophisticated that it is claimed some kind of "supernatural" ability is needed for—like having the experience of seeing red, or feeling pain. If animals are not conscious because they have no spiritual souls, then it seems to me they are much like computer simulations in a video game. If they have no real internal experiences, why should we treat them humanely?

          • Ben Posin

            This is another good point. Of course, animals very well may have "conceptional intelligence," and in fact if you google animal fairness studies you might be surprised at some species' ability to recognize when they are being treated fairly.

          • There was a leap in there, methinks. Why is having a spiritual soul a necessary condition for consciousness? I hope I didn't say that.

            Denying animals P-consciousness is as silly as ascribing them A-consciousness. Science and sound philosophy not only confirm this, but plain experience. Yes, animals are conscious; in other news, the sky is blue:

            Ironically, it was Descartes' mechanistic model of the world at the dawn of modern science that introduced the idea of animals as un-feeling automatons, not some antediluvian hang-up about the preciousness of human souls. Current thinking on animal consciousness sounds more and more like Aristotle, to the Church's delight.

            I mean, come on - we had St. Francis on-scene 800 years before PETA showed up!

          • David Nickol

            Why is having a spiritual soul a necessary condition for consciousness? I hope I didn't say that.

            It seemed to me you did. Above, you said the following:

            I would argue (trying to keep this as short as I can) that this is because there is overwhelming evidence that human consciousness is not reducible to the material brain. First, there are qualia - what (atheists!) like David Chalmers (and Sam Harris!) have termed "the hard problem of consciousness", the experience of phenomena like the color, hot touch, and smell of bacon (sorry, best morningtime example I could give).

            This sounds very much like you believe in what Feser calls the "so-called 'qualia problem'" in the piece you gave me a link to. But Feser says it's not a problem at all:

            But the Aristotelian tradition has in the first place always regardedsensation and imagination as corporeal faculties, and as having nothing essentially to do with the reasons why our distinctively intellectual activities are incorporeal. It is only because they take for granted the desiccated,purely quantitative post-Cartesian conception of matter that contemporary philosophersand scientists regard sensation and imagination as at least philosophically problematic and are impressed by any evidence for the essentially bodily characterof sensation and imagination. The Aristotelian finds himself stifling a yawn. “Big whoop. We’ve been sayingthat for centuries.”

            I am not sure how you justify using the "qualia problem" as Exhibit A in your response to Ben Posin, and then in your response to me link to Feser saying there is no "qualia problem" at all, it is just the result of a contemporary misunderstanding about the nature of matter.

            Do you agree with Feser regarding qualia, or not?

          • Yes, you definitely just caught me trying to have my cake and eat it too. (Would you believe me if I told you it was unintentional? Self-contradiction comes so naturally to me.)

            At the risk of completely departing from True Detective, I think I would ultimately side with Feser. And yes, he does argue that qualia is something of a non-problem for Aristotelians. Elsewhere he writes:

            "It is no accident that the Aristotelian tradition regards sensation and imagination as entirely corporeal and in no way supportive of dualism. What contemporary philosophers call qualia and intentionality (or at least a rudimentary sort of intentionality that involves mere directedness without conceptual content) are, for the Aristotelian, simply ordinary corporeal features of certain kinds of ordinary material substances."

            Qualia, in this reading, is another piece of philosophical shrapnel in the aftershock of a Cartesian conception of nature. It's the expression of a radical anti-reductionism that's really just the flip side of reductionism - two sides of one dirty coin. To think solely in those terms, Feser argues, is to accept a faulty foundation from the get-go.

            I think Feser is probably right there. That said, we live and breath Cartesianism, like it or not. And I do think qualia remain an important conceptual challenge to materialism, and something to get us thinking seriously about the possibility that we are not simply bodies, but composites of body and spirit.

            But you're completely justified in calling me out: I can't have it both ways.

          • Ben Posin

            Just be clear (I can be slow sometimes): you've reconsidered and no longer thing "qualia" is evidence against the material mind?

          • David Nickol

            There was a leap in there, methinks. Why is having a spiritual soul a necessary condition for consciousness?

            The "leap" is as follows. You said:

            I would argue (trying to keep this as short as I can) that this is because there is overwhelming evidence that human consciousness is not reducible to the material brain. First, there are qualia . . . .

            If it is not through the functioning of the "material brain" that qualia are a part of human consciousness, then either the human spiritual soul must be involved, or there is some kind of heretofore undiscussed third realm that is not physical and not supernatural/spiritual, but nevertheless distinct from those two. I don't think you want to posit something nonmaterial and yet nonspiritual, do you?

            When you say "human consciousness is not
            reducible to the material brain," I take you to mean that a spiritual soul must be involved, and one of the capabilities that the soul brings with it is the ability to experience qualia. If animals can experience qualia, then they must have spiritual souls, and yet the Catholic Church teaches that they do not.

          • Ben Posin

            I think the idea that the strides we have made in understanding the brain have made the mind/body problem "more acute" is sillypants. It's empty rhetoric, without an attempt to actually give an example of a discovery in neuroscience that weighs against the mind being the product of purely material things.

            And for what it's worth, I'm not troubled by your perceived inconsistency in my saying the mind is identical with the brain and then the mind is a function of the brain. One formulation someone said on this very site is that one possible way to think about it is the mind is what the brain does (an idea that I think has a place for qualia in it). However you want to put it or think about it, none of these formulations have a place for the soul or a non-material basis of the mind.

            And finally, when you reference "reason, free will, objective moral values and duties, and intentionality" as your rebuttals to a material basd mind, you are really scraping the bottom of the barrel, argument wise. This is handwaving, with the delightful promise from you that you would explain why these mean we should ignore where medical and scientific evidence actually point, but that would take more articles. It certainly would!! In this context, your trotting out something like objective moral values and duties to support a non-material mind would be like telling me you know yetis are real, a leprechaun told you. And you know very well that what exactly "free will" is supposed to mean, and if it actually exists, is an open question.
            Get thee behind me, thou self-described amateur philosopher.

          • Good form - I like your final jab too!

            Well, identity theory and functionalism are very different theories with very different implications, so I'd be careful there. By defining mental states in terms of their causal relations, functionalism per se is neutral between materialism and dualism, and allows for the possibility that mental states might be instantiated in an immaterial substance. The Stanford encyclopedia entry explains this better than I could: http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/functionalism/

            Identity theory, on the other hand, is not neutral, and insists that the mind simply is the brain, full stop. Unlike functionalism, it necessitates materialism. And again, your language ("the mind being the product of purely material things") seems antithetical to this theory. If the mind is the *product* of material things, doesn't that imply that it's somehow not material? Otherwise, why make the distinction of a material producer on one hand and its products on the other? (Also, you seem to open the door to qualia through functionalism ("one possible way to think about it is the mind is what the brain does (an idea that I think has a place for qualia in it)"). So if you're a materialist, this is problematic on two levels!)

            You're right, that was a lazy cop-out to not list the arguments for each of those points. But there's only so many hours in a day! And an amateur (i.e., a do-it-for-the-love-er) has to eat too. How bout this: which do you find most ludicrous?

          • Susan

            If the mind is the *product* of material things, doesn't that imply that it's somehow not material?

            If running is the product of material things, does that imply that it's somehow not material?

            Could you elaborate on your point about qualia as I'm not sure what you're getting at.

            How bout this: which do you find most ludicrous?

            Which do you think is the strongest?

          • Ben Posin

            Cheese is the product of physical things. A painting is the product of physica things. Perhaps more to the point, a computer program is the product if physical things. Matthew is playing word games and equivocating. Were I a perfectly free willed creature, I'd be able to accept my frustration with this conversation and not rejoin it! If Matthew wants to say that the mind produces or interacts with things that are "immaterial" like numbers or some sort of free floating abstract concept, fine. But I don't see how that has any relevance to how the concept "materialism" is used in his article. It's equiovcation at its lowest.

          • Ben Posin

            As the article you link to says, "functionalism" "has been particulalry attractive to materialists." You're also wrong to take my use of the word function and read into it the entire viewpoint that has been labeled "functionalism," but I suppose that's slightly forgivable. The problems you're suggesting I have through using the word function don't strike me as real problems. As Susan says, running is a function of physical things, but there is no immaterial soul of running. A computer program is a function of a computer, but there's no computer program soul or immaterial base to it. This handwaving by you is not substantive.

            I submitted that all the medical and scientific evidence we have supports a material based mind, provided general examples, and an article with a large number of specific examples. You responded that neuroscience has actually made the mind body problem more acute, but when called on this by me seem to have abandoned this bizarre claim, and now want to explore the meaning of the "functionalism" school of thought, without any explanation of how the fact that the "functionalist" school contains non-materialists weighs against the evidence we have supporting a material mind.

            Having failed to address my substantive objections to your article, you now want to talk about the implications of philosophical or theory of mind concepts, about some of which there is no consensus that the concept referred to is correct or has a referent. Not interested.

          • NicholasBeriah Cotta

            Hey guys, hate to jump in, but the problem of a soul for materialists is explained philosophically by Roy Baumeister in this article from Slate (http://www.slate.com/articles/health_and_science/science/2013/09/free_will_debate_what_does_free_will_mean_and_how_did_it_evolve.html ) I think in a material sense that when parts are added together, they become qualitatively something else - a tree is not just bark and leaves, etc. but when it becomes a tree, it is its own thing, a tree. Catholic philosophy has always held something similar to Baumeister's argument in this article, that plants and all living things have souls (while humans have souls and spirits). I, too, am an amateur philosopher (so I acknowledge my lack of proper education). It is tough to explain theological concepts in strictly material terms, which is why Catholic theology calls many explanations fundamental mysteries, not to evade a description but to acknowledge a lack of fullness of explanation that would be detrimental to the full explanation.
            I think of "souls" in my head like this in a materialist sense - let's say that youre entire body can be described by an equation listing the sum of its parts - at that point, the equation is you, and anything more or less is just not you. This "equation" could be saved by God, because he after all, is omnipotent and you after all are that equation, not the actual parts, but not something separate from the parts either. Does this make any sense?

          • Ben Posin

            Thanks for pointing me towards an interesting article (though the phrase "this article from slate" always makes me a bit skeptical at first). Trying to go through exactly where I agree or idsagree with the author would be a big task. But at a quick scan, the author seems to argue that free will can exist despite the material nature of our minds, due to our ability to create, share, and make use of "culture." I don't see how this is an argument against materialism (and am not suggesting you say it is), though I'm trying to figure out where Matthew could be coming from with his idea that something being the function of somethign else is in conflict with materialism, and am wondering if this is part of it.

            I take part in and share in culture like anyone else, poetically one could say I store parts of my memory in theory in notes, e-mails, etc, I share my decision making with my wife, and I take part of my identity from my experiences with all the great stories and characters I've enjoyed in fiction. If Matthew takes this to mean that minds are not material, then perhaps we have a difference in terminology that is causing us problems, and I think the problem is with him, because that doesn't seem to be the sort of non-materialism his article depends on. Unless of course one wants to argue that someone thinking up an idea is not a physical activity based on what's going on in someone's brain, and that my interacting with that idea is not physical activity happening in my brain.

            As to what you're saying, I can't say that your idea makes a lot of sense to me, because it seems to be that the "equation" would be a constantly changing one. My equation will change based on my experiences, on my age, my education. It would also greatly change if, for example, I suffered extreme brain damage. So which me does God reproduce after my death? Which one is my soul?

          • NicholasBeriah Cotta

            I only offered up the analogy as a way to begin to marry materialist notions of the world and a theological teaching, not solve any question you have regarding theology with some sort of literal translation from the materialist half of the analogy.
            I think many atheists have this basic objection to Catholicism: there are somethings not as important to know as others (especially questions regarding outcomes)- one of the questions the apostles ask Jesus is "Will only a few be saved?" because let's face it, it would be an interesting fact to know what percentage of humans go to heaven if you are in the presence of God. Jesus' response is to refocus the question toward information that is more relevant to the root of the question in the first place. His point becomes, "That question isn't as useful as the one I'm answering instead."
            The point is that you don't really need to know every answer to every question to get to your desired destination, you just need to start travelling in the right direction. Even atheists must admit that they don't need to know answers to questions they don't have the current power or information to understand, but it is important only that they are on the right path.
            If an astrophysics student asks you, "So what came before the Big Bang?" and you said, "We're not sure, but this is where we are and this is what we know so far so do you want to come and help us tread that path?", would you find it quizzical if he then said, "No, thanks, don't have the answer to my question then you can take your whole field of astrophysics and shove it."

          • Ben Posin

            You asked me if I thought the conception of souls you described made sense to me. I told you why it doesn't make sense to me. Not sure what you really want from me.

            If you have ideas on how to bridge the gap between materialism and Catholic theology, feel free to share, and I"ll give them respectful attention.

          • NicholasBeriah Cotta

            Yeah, I agree with your history of our interaction. I was trying to describe why I think your reasons why the analogy doesn't make sense is a symptom of attacking my analogy from the wrong angle and I wanted to connect to this to a larger point that most atheists just irrationally dismiss religious claims because it doesn't offer answers to questions they think it should if it really was making true claims. Most of your objections, like here, just assume that if God really was speaking through the Catholic Church, that it would give an answer to a question they want instead of maybe thinking, "Am I assuming too much in thinking that these answers really would be availableavailable even if all of the other claims are true?"

          • Ben Posin

            Yes, as a general matter in life and reason, if things about a claim or proposal don't make sense, I expect the person making the claim to either provide a good explanation, or acknowledge that this is a reason to doubt the claim.
            But in the case of your proposal about the soul and my response: I wasn't actually looking for answers to my questions. Phrasing them as questions was more of a rhetorical choice. I was just explaining why I don't think your proposal holds together.

  • Danny Getchell

    I think it's quite true that a happy, contented skeptic is the farthest thing from a potential convert to Christianity. No amount of Thomist cosmos-wrangling will ever appear to him as more than an entertaining intellectual game.

    So your first task, apologists, is to convince us that we are miserable. By all means, have at it.

    • Michael Murray

      Even if we are -- so what ? That fact that my life would be happier if I had $1,000,000 in my bank account doesn't make $1,000,000 appear in my bank account.

      But of course we aren't. Pass me a beer:


    • "No amount of Thomist cosmos-wrangling will ever appear to him as more than an entertaining intellectual game."

      Why not? Because of a priori assumptions? This seems to be a remarkably closed-minded claim.

      • David Nickol

        This seems to be a remarkably closed-minded claim.

        What about this claim:

        But materialism sees only physics, chemistry, and biology; there is, at bottom, nothing else to see.

        • What about this claim:

          "But materialism sees only physics, chemistry, and biology; there is, at bottom, nothing else to see."

          That's not a closed-minded claim--it's a definitional proposition. That's what materialism is, the belief that all experience can be reduced to physics, chemistry, and biology.

          It is closed-minded, however, to claim that an intellectual argument that appears compelling to many people, today and down through the centuries, will never appear to an individual to be more than "an entertaining intellectual game."

          This presumes one would never learn new information, correct erroneous assumptions, or change one's mind about such an argument.

          I'm not prepared to make that presumption myself. I'm very surprised Danny is.

          • David Nickol

            That's what materialism is, the belief that all experience can be reduced to physics, chemistry, and biology.

            It sounds to me like what you are implying is that because, say, a sublime experience such as hearing a great performance by a great orchestra of a great symphony could be ultimately explained (in theory, although probably never in practice) by the physical sciences, the person hearing the symphony is not really having a sublime experience. Or that a recording of that symphony on a CD could not be moving because it is just a series of pits on a piece of plastic.

            It seems to me that experience is experience.

            By the way, as I understand it, nonhuman animals theoretically can be explained entirely in physical terms. They do not have spiritual souls. Is it wrong (i.e., mistaken), then, to love your dog and treat it in much the same way you would treat a person? Isn't a dog really just a machine?

          • David Nickol

            It is closed-minded, however, to claim that an intellectual argument that appears compelling to many people, today and down through the centuries, will never appear to an individual to be more than "an entertaining intellectual game."

            But if a Christian said, "Nothing that anybody can say or do will ever cause me to lose my faith in Jesus," would that be closed minded? Suppose some brilliant philosopher were to write a book claiming to prove there is no God. Would theists be obliged to read it? Or would they be justified in saying, "I don't need to read the book. I know there is a God. I know if I got into an argument with the brilliant philosopher, I would be no match for him. I know I would lose the argument. But nothing can shake my faith in God!"

            Wouldn't religious people find that admirable? Suppose I said, "There is nothing—no philosophical argument, no historical argument, no tragedy that could befall me—that would make me lose my faith in Jesus." Wouldn't that be great faith instead of closed mindedness?

      • Danny Getchell

        Let me restate:

        "No amount of Thomist cosmos-wrangling will ever appear to Danny Getchell as more than an entertaining intellectual game."

        And I have already accepted the "first cause" portion of that cosmos-wrangling. Because, like my role models Tom Jefferson and Tom Paine, I see it all around me. I need no logical demonstration of that first theorem.

        But without a conviction that I am a sinner, that I am in misery because of it, that the God who created this whole wowie-zowie incredible universe, full of billions and billions of everything, is prepared to punish me in a very personal way, any further logical discussion of the nature of God is likely to (and has) rolled off me like water off a duck's back.

        • Danny, your personal psychology aside, I think it's an audacious (and perhaps arrogant) claim to presume that the Thomistic arguments for God will never appear to you more than "an entertaining intellectual game."

          This claim this would require affirming that you 1) perfectly understand the Thomistic cosmological arguments and 2) that no new philosophical or scientific advancements would adjust your understanding.

          Are you prepared to confidently make both of those claims?

          (I'll note that in past interactions with you and other atheists here, there is a profound misunderstanding concerning the Thomistic arguments for God.)

          I would respect someone who is agnostic about the Thomistic arguments, who would say, "They don't make sense or seem compelling to me right now." But to claim they never will make sense signals either a remarkable confidence or a worrisome closed-mindedness.

          • Danny Getchell


            Do you know of anyone who was brought to a faith in Christ purely through the dispassionate application of logic, who never once came to the opinion that he was personally lost, was incomplete without God??

            That's the point I was trying to make. I know of no such conversion story.

          • "Do you know of anyone who was brought to a faith in Christ purely through the dispassionate application of logic, who never once came to the opinion that he was personally lost, was incomplete without God?? That's the point I was trying to make. I know of no such conversion story."

            Danny, thanks for the reply. That may be the point you were trying to make, but it's not the one you made. You originally said that that the Thomistic arguments for God will never appear to a skeptic as more than "an entertaining intellectual game."

            I've never claimed that anyone has come to faith in Christ purely through the dispassionate application of logic. Therefore, this isn't the question under discussion. The question is whether the classical arguments for God are more than "an entertaining intellectual game" and whether they've played a significant, though not exclusive, role in many people coming to God. I believe the clear answer to both of those questions is unequivocally "Yes."

          • Danny Getchell

            Fair enough, we can agree to disagree.

          • NicholasBeriah Cotta

            Leah Libresco seems to fit the bill.

          • M. Solange O’Brien

            I am tolerably familiar with the various Thomistic arguments, and find them all lacking. But the reason is that they are flawed as arguments; that can be seen now and doesn't depend on any new scientific information. A flawed argument doesn't improve with age.

            And to Danny's point below, it's quite clear that no one ever reasons their way to belief in god. The wiring change appears to be more subtle than that.

  • David Nickol

    [W]hat guarantee do we have that what we think and say is reliable, or
    even sensible? Evolution is no guarantor of sense—only survival.

    It could very well be a point in atheists' and materialists' favor that perhaps most of what we say about "higher things" (the "spiritual world," ideas about free will and determinism, psychology and other social sciences) is not reliable and sensible, whereas we seem (in the physical sciences) to understand the world rather deeply, with progress continuing rapidly. It would make sense that evolution would concern itself with the physical world, since that is the realm in which our knowledge is important to our survival. Evolution would not succeed if it were not in some kind of very profound harmony with the actual physical world. It is important to plants and nonhuman animals to get the "real world" right for survival. Animals mistaking harmless species for enemies and enemies for harmless species would not survive very long. Animals mistaking poisonous plants for edible ones and vice versa would soon become extinct.

    According to the Christian view, life on earth is a very brief beginning to an eternity of life first as a disembodied soul and then as a "glorified body." And yet we do not seem to be built for some kind of spiritual or supernatural eternity. We seem to be very much animals—physical beings that can think better than other physical beings that we know of (dogs, dolphins, elephants), but our brains don't seem to have been built to work out the answers to "spiritual" problems. Bring together the top minds of the world in the physical sciences, and they will have broad areas of agreement with one another. Bring together the top minds from areas that devote themselves to spirituality, and they will disagree about many of the fundamentals (the existence of God, or at minimum his nature).

    As I recall, Steven Pinker conjectures that doing philosophy is using the mental tools we have—tools resulting from evolution—to unsuccessfully attempt to solve problems they were not designed to solve. I think a pretty good case can be made that our minds bear the earmarks of having evolved according to Darwinian principles, although we are nowhere near to actually understanding the mind or the brain. I know, of course, that some find the phenomenon of having thoughts to be proof of the existence of the nonmaterial. How can a thought be a physical thing? But it seems to me that thoughts are totally bound up in the physical that it is difficult to think of them as in any way "spiritual," requiring a spiritual soul to explain them. Why would general anesthesia shut down the mind and the soul? If Eben Alexander experienced heaven because he was "dead," why don't people under general anesthesia catch a glimpse of heaven, too? If the soul can leave the body, why is sensory deprivation potentially so devastating that it can be used as torture? How do certain drugs put people at increased risk of suicide? What is happening to the "soul" of a deeply depressed person when antidepressants successfully alleviate despair? How can we be sure that Rust Cohle does not just need to take a daily dose of Zoloft or Lexapro? It may be that his mood is influencing his thoughts rather than the other way around. If despair and suicide are the ultimate, unforgivable sins, does God send to hell people whose suicides were precipitated by drugs?

  • Linda

    I read the article, then read the comments, and then had to re-read the article and comments again. I read this article as commenting on that worldview which is strictly based in materialism, and from which I can see how a person could reach those despairing thoughts. I don't read it as lumping all atheists into this view, and in fact thought I read at least a couple sentences pointing this out. I think that are people who claim to be people of faith but who in fact live lives so materialism-based that they fit this profile as well.

  • Cubico

    Perhaps all should seriously consider what Camus had to say......especially the theists....before dismissing atheists as being
    enveloped in a life of abject meaninglessness.....whose god is materialism in the most crass sense of the word.....as opposed to theists choose to ignore the absurdity of existence....and embrace metaphysical abracadabra.

    So here we are: poor creatures desperately seeking hope and meaning
    in a hopeless, meaningless world. Sartre, in his essay-review of The Stranger
    provides an additional gloss on the idea: “The absurd, to be sure,
    resides neither in man nor in the world, if you consider each
    separately. But since man’s dominant characteristic is ‘being in the
    world,’ the absurd is, in the end, an inseparable part of the human
    condition.” The absurd, then, presents itself in the form of an
    existential opposition. It arises from the human demand for clarity and
    transcendence on the one hand and a cosmos that offers nothing of the
    kind on the other. Such is our fate: we inhabit a world that is
    indifferent to our sufferings and deaf to our protests.

    In Camus’ view there are three possible philosophical responses to
    this predicament. Two of these he condemns as evasions; the other he
    puts forward as a proper solution.

    Our first choice is blunt and simple: physical suicide. If we decide
    that a life without some essential purpose or meaning is not worth
    living, we can simply choose to kill ourselves. Camus rejects this
    choice as cowardly. In his terms it is a repudiation or renunciation of
    life, not a true revolt.

    Choice two is the religious solution of positing a transcendent world
    of solace and meaning beyond the Absurd. Camus calls this solution
    “philosophical suicide” and rejects it as transparently evasive and
    fraudulent. To adopt a supernatural solution to the problem of the
    absurd (for example, through some type of mysticism or leap of faith) is
    to annihilate reason, which in Camus’ view is as fatal and
    self-destructive as physical suicide. In effect, instead of removing
    himself from the absurd confrontation of self and world like the
    physical suicide, the religious believer simply removes the offending
    world, replacing it, via a kind of metaphysical abracadabra, with a more
    agreeable alternative.

    Choice three (in Camus’ view the only authentic and valid solution)
    is simply to accept absurdity, or better yet to embrace it, and to
    continue living. Since the absurd in his view is an unavoidable, indeed
    defining, characteristic of the human condition, the only proper
    response to it is full, unflinching, courageous acceptance. Life, he
    says, can “be lived all the better if it has no meaning.”


  • You will note that the author did not quote from atheist biographies or any atheist writing about how life is so meaningless and dark without a belief in the immaterial or deities. This is because it is not how it feels to be an atheist.

    Speaking for myself, my life has lots of meaning and not just from vain pleasure seeking. It comes from the relationships I build with others, overcoming challenges, helping. if you want to believe that I could not feel these things without the existence of an invisible being fine, but I will say that this is an argument from ignorance. Demonstrate this immaterial being exists or accept it on faith. Just as long as you are not implying that a lack of belief in a god leads to despair. It definitely does not.

    • Moussa Taouk

      Brian, I'm glad that you're willing to share your thoughts on this question (of "meaning"). I've always wondered about an atheists' perspective on the subject.

      Previously I had sugested that it doesn't make sense to talk about our lives having "meaning" in the absence of God. But maybe you might correct me if I'm wrong.

      So... you say you derive meaning from relationships etc. But is that meaning? Or (on the material world view) is it the inevitable collision of molecules that cause you to do those things? Is there meaning in an apple falling to the ground? Given materialism, isn't your life and an apple falling to the ground similar events in that they are simply responding to certain laws?

      It makes sense when an atheist says "life is meaningless. now get on with it". But it confuses me when an atheist says that life has meaning.


      • Susan

        Hi Moussa,

        it confuses me when an atheist says that life has meaning.

        It would be useful if you defined meaning. Though you feel that a life without Yahweh belief is without meaning, you haven't explained why Yahweh makes things more meaningful for you.
        To be honest, I don't see any evidence that yer average Yahweh follower lives a life full of more meaning than your average non-Yahweh-follower.
        Even if there were evidence for that, it wouldn't mean Yahweh existed. It would only be evidence that people who believed in this specific unevidenced being reported more "meaning" in their lives. Even if they did, what would that mean to the rest of the life on this planet? How would it matter? How would the humans who could recognize the claim know it was true?
        How would we measure meaning?
        Ben was trying to keep things simple and was responding to the buttons that Matthew is trying to push which he is disguising as a philosophical argument. (Sorry Matthew. Until you address the problems people have brought up with your article, I am feeling less charitable than I would like to. Maybe you are very busy and can't address them now but I hope you address them when you are not busy.)
        Ben's buttons were about the feeling of meaning. So are yours. Real life relationships are meaningful. Relationships with humans, with the rest of the planet, watching an apple fall from a tree in a lonely orchid when you happen to be looking.
        You are saying they are not or that they can't be if there is no Yahweh.
        So is Matthew.
        Neither one of you has shown a closer understanding of "meaning" than a non-believer nor have you explained why Yahweh makes things meaningful. You have simply expressed incredulity that anything can be meaningful if it is all material.
        What's the matter with matter?

        • Moussa Taouk

          Hi Susan,

          It would be useful if you defined meaning.

          To define "meaning" is to attempt to define a common human intuition that seems to well up from within us and that sometimes is terribly poignant in beckoning a satisfying answer. A question arises, and this question is something like, "why do I exist? Why am I here? What am I supposed to achieve in this life? what am I meant to do with my life?"

          The general defining aspect of these questions is "purpose". They are question that seek guidance as to the purpose and correct orientation of one's life. It seems like there is some driver behind our existence, some goal that we are meant to strive for.

          Linked with this purpose or goal-orientation there is also an element of our life's value. There seems to be a human need to know that our life has value. That it does make a difference whether or not I exist.

          The two are linked in some way. To know our purpose is to know something of our value.

          Hopefully the above is enough of a definition for us to understand each other.

          ...you haven't explained why Yahweh makes things more meaningful for you.

          Correct. That's because I was asking a question, not responding to a query.

          ...what would that mean to the rest of the life on this planet? How would it matter?

          Good question. I suppose that [at least] a partial purpose of the rest of life (and even the rest of the universe) would be in serving humans. I'm not sure if in the absence of humans the universe would give glory to God by the mere fact that He created such wonders.

          How would we measure meaning?

          I don't believe one could measure meaning. The best one could do is to discover the purpose of life and to constantly assess (as best as one can) whether or not they are living up to their purpose.

          Real life relationships are meaningful...
          You are saying they are not or that they can't be if there is no Yahweh.

          No, I'm afraid I'm not saying that. Mind you I do believe it. but I'm not saying it. I'm asking the question, "what is the meaning (of relationships, life etc) that one can derive from a material world view?"

          When Cardinal George Pell debated Richard Dawkins in Sydney, there was a slightly humerous moment when Richard (and apparently the atheists in the audience) agreed that [without God] a human being is basically the same as a cabbage.

          I agree with them. I also agree with the Cardinal that such a view is nonsense and that nobody really believes that a human is the same as a cabbage.

          What's the matter with matter?

          Nothing. Matter is good.

          • Susan

            "why do I exist? Why am I here? What am I supposed to achieve in this life? what am I meant to do with my life?"

            I would phrase it more like, "What led to my existence? Where am I? What is this? What can I contribute to the fate of sentient beings? What is the least harm I can cause to sentient beings? How can I navigate that?
            Humans are not the same as a cabbage. Neither is a coyote or a sheep. Yahweh treats coyotes and sheep as cabbages which makes it easier for humans to do the same, despite the evidence.
            Yahweh is a story that makes some humans feel like they are the centre of the story when all the evidence suggests we aren't.
            There is no reason to believe that purpose is handed down from anywhere. We feel a sense of it and a need for it. Purpose does not need gods.
            Your god doesn't give me a sense of purpose at all. That wouldn't matter if there was evidence for your god. I would have to accept that my purpose was to serve him, that I was there for his purpose. But there is no evidence for Yahweh and the human need for "purpose" has been there all along and is not evidence for Yahweh.
            He is there in the waiting room with all the other gods and everything else that humans have made up until someone gives me a reason why he should be considered real.
            Our notion of "purpose" is a notion of purpose. It has been there all along across cultures and it doesn't require an ultimate being to orchestrate it.
            Matthew has written the same old apologetics. He has failed to define his terms or support his case.

      • I'd be happy to discuss this with you. But we should first define our terms. To me meaning in this kind of philosophical/world view sense is the impact of events to me subjectively. For example, when I say my life has meaning, I mean that my life is important to me, I care about what happens and how it progresses.

        I am not talking about ultimate purpose, in that sense, no I would not say I believe there is any such thing, nor does its absence bother me in least. I think purpose too is subjective.

        If we take a concrete example, I got engaged this year. To event was very meaningful to me and others. The meaning has to do with the status of my relationship to my fiancé, my future, even my finances. It means a lot to my friends, fiancé, family. Does it have any meaning beyond that? Not that I am aware of. How would the existence of a god affect its meaning? None that I can discover.

        • Moussa Taouk

          "...the impact of events to me subjectively."

          Perhaps we're using the word meaining in two different ways. So the meaning of your life, by your definition is the impact that your life has on you? What kind of impacts are there? You gave an example that your life is "important" to you and that you "care about" things that happen to you. So I guess "importance" and "care" (or subjective value) are the kinds of "impacts" you're talking about. Are there others?

          So your definition seems to be oriented towards the level of importance / value that you place on something. Presumably you would extend that definition to everyone else. Let me understand your perspective properly with this question. Does it make sense for me to say, "my life is not important to me. Therefore the meaning of my life is lack of importance"? Or does life only have meaning if it IS important to the person?

          Also, let's say that your life has no meaning for you (because let's say you deem it unimportant), but it does have meaning for all those around you. Does that mean your life has no meaning?

          It seems that the more accurate thing for a non-theist to say is "my life has meaning for me" rather than "my life has meaning".

          As a sidenote, I think it's not the best way to use the word "meaning". Because there's already a word for what you're describing. The word is "importance". You could easily say "My life is important to me". That would actually make more sense. Because if you say "my life has meaning" and I say "what's the meaning of it?" your answer is "my life is important to me". So you may as well just say that to begin with! that way we can use the word "meaning" to describe that human experience that I've described above in my answer to Susan.

          • Ben Posin

            Two things:
            First: You're making things more complicated than they have to be. My life can have meaning to me, and my life can have meaning to other people. Even if my life starts to lose meaning for me, it might still have meaning for other people, and vice versa.

            Second: yes, "meaning" in this context involves something being important to someone. You would like "meaning" to have some other (forgive me) meaningful definition, but have in no way established that this other sense of meaning is, well, meaningful, that there's an actual referent out there that corresponds to your idea of meaning, or that it's a sensible concept. You're welcome to get cracking on that, as is Mr. Blecko. I don't think this other type of "meaning" is a real thing, but that doesn't diminish the meaning that actually exists in finite, material human lives.

  • I would argue actually that Shakespeare was not the first to say it. As often is the case, the Bible was the first to say it, and says it, in my opinion, even better than Shakespeare.

    "Utter futilitiy! - said Koheleth - Utter futility! All is futile! What real value is there for a man in all the gains he makes beneath the sun? One generation goes, another comes, but the earth remains the same forever. The sun rises, and the sun sets - And glides back to where it rises. Southward blowing, Turning northward, Ever turning blows the wind; on its rounds the wind returns. All streams flow into the sea, yet the sea is never full; to the place which they flow the streams flow back again. All such things are wearisome: no man can ever state them; the eye never has enough of seeing, nor the ear enough of hearing. Only that shall happen which has happened, only that occur which has occurred. There is nothing new beneath the sun!

    "Sometimes there is a phenomenon of which they say "Look, this one is new!" - it occured long since, in ages that went by before us. The earlier ones are not remembered; so too those that will occur later will no more be remembered than those that will occur at the very end.

    "I, Koheleth, was king in Jerusalem over Israel. I set my mind to study and probe with wisdom all that happens under the sun. An unhappy business, that, which God gave men to be concerned with! I observed all the happenings beneath the sun, and found that all is futile and persuit of wind:

    'A twisted thing that cannot be made straight, A lack that cannot be made good.'

    "I said to myself 'Here I have grown richer and wiser than any that ruled before me over Jerusalem, and my mind has zealously absorbd wisdom and learning.' And so I set my mind to appraise wisdom and to appraise madness and folly. And I learned - that too was pursuit of wind.

    "For as wisdom grows, vexation grows;
    To increase learning is to increase heartache."
    (Ecclesiastes 1, New JPS translation)

    • Excellent point Paul. Forget about its religious context - Ecclesiastes is one on my favorite works of literature, period, and I know many atheists feel the same way. It's so human. And I'm glad you mentioned it because I actually do reference it in my follow-up piece about "True Detective" (caution, spoilers!):


      But I've seen a few people list all the references I made in this essay, and I'm realizing that I probably got a little out of control even without it. Caffeine is a hell of a drug!

      • The problem Ecclesiastes presents is that this isn't a materialism problem. This is a human problem. Ratzinger offers one of the best explanations I've seen at the beginning of his "Introduction to Christianity" (to suggest yet another reference to your caffeine-induced essay). Doubt and despair at the apparent futility of the world isn't a problem just for theists or just for atheists. It's a human problem for which, presently, there is no satisfying answer, from either side.

        Thank you for the follow-up link.

  • Danny Getchell


    Is happiness an essential constituent of the Christian life? If one is profoundly unhappy, is one's Christianity somehow incomplete??

  • Ben Posin

    So, to recap:

    Matthew Blecko asserts that materialism necessarily results in misery, though later acknowledges that this has no bearing on whether materialism is true, which raises interesting questions about Matthew's priorities.
    Greg Schaefer, in the most praised post in the comments, admirably shows what a tired claim this is, and discusses some of the wonder available in the natural world.
    David Nickol shows that Blecko's claims about the misery of materialism don't necessarily follow, and is dismissed by Matthew as a contrarian with no attempt to argue the point.
    I point out that all the evidence supports materialism as applied to the human mind, and that thus it sure seems like whatever meaning is making some people so happy seems to have a material source, and that materialists in general don't actually seem to be misearable. Matthew responds with mostly equivocation and some handwaving.
    Susan makes an effort to parse the meaning of Matthew's terms and to tease out the implications of some of Mathew's odder assertions, and is largely met with silence, or jokes about Tom Waits (confession: I don't know who that is).
    So...where does that leave us? Can we ask that this article, whenever republished, have a special addendum added noting some of the above? Add a header saying author very courteously took part in discussion trying to defend his claims, but was unable to do so?

    • David Nickol

      Not to pick on Matthew, but I would add that here he makes the “problem of qualia” a cornerstone of his argument, and then here he uses as support for another argument a link to a piece by Edward Feser in which Feser denies there is a problem of qualia.