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Atheism vs. despair

February 4, 2011

A recent thread on the RS forum came up about the despair some feel results from the loss of faith in a god, afterlife, etc. Unfortunately it became bogged down by a particular fellow whose personal experience with despair has apparently achieved clinical depression. Since I can’t really speak my mind about the guy there, here we are.

It’s times like these that I’d like to do something about the poster. He’s admitted to clinical depression and anxiety, for which we’d like to think he’s being treated, but it sure doesn’t seem that way. His disappointment in the prospect of an inherently meaningless life, inevitably transitory experience, and in the suffering he and his family have experienced, have pushed him to arguments no sane person would make. Stuff about forcibly sterilizing the human race, so it can die off and put an end to human suffering.

The poor sap seems to revel in his despair, in an odd way. He’s reminded several of us of ex-agent Smith from the Matrix movies, the anti-Neo.

Why, Mr. Anderson? Why do you do it? Why get up? Why keep fighting? Do you believe you’re fighting for something? For more than your survival? Can you tell me what it is? Do you even know? Is it freedom? Or truth? Perhaps peace? Could it be for love? Illusions, Mr. Anderson. Vagaries of perception. The temporary constructs of a feeble human intellect trying desperately to justify an existence that is without meaning or purpose. And all of them as artificial as the Matrix itself. Although, only a human mind could invent something as insipid as love. You must be able to see it, Mr. Anderson. You must know it by now. You can’t win. It’s pointless to keep fighting. Why, Mr. Anderson, Why? Why do you persist?

These ideas wouldn’t get into a character in a popular movie if they didn’t have some resonance, if they didn’t make somebody stop and think a little. And I would be kidding myself if I didn’t own up to occasional glimpses of this despair, that I have a dark night of the soul every so often. There’s some irony in that being a term associated with xianity; not even the believer is immune. The sense of crushing despair they impute to the skeptic is something they know very well indeed.

You learn something new every day. I thought that was just a bit of poetry. I thought the smug satisfaction of the xian, however deluded, might be genuine. It pleases me to see that it’s not.

As for the depressed forum poster, it is a difficult line to walk. Personal attack is forbidden, yet he is clearly sick and in need of help. His arguments are repulsive, and at times seemingly designed to piss people off. Several times I’ve tried to warn people off of telling him to go through with his suicidal tendencies if his life is so bad; I don’t wish death on anyone.

Although, I wonder which is the more merciful suggestion…linger on, or end it? There’s the rub.

Having seen what happened here in Tucson, the mix of mental illness and whee, guns! that took lives and shattered others, I would seriously consider reporting this guy to whatever authorities are in his area — if I knew where to go. The anonymity of the Net puts it in the hands of the site admins. And so I consider asking them about it.

So why do I persist?

I can’t disagree with Smith. To the extent that life is apparently, evidently, meaningless, without purpose of its own. To the extent that anything I do or build or experience is temporary, quickly forgotten when I am gone, swallowed into oblivion in a relative eye-blink on the cosmic scale. I know, I’ve learned, how much of our thought processes and systems of ethics are built up from simple survival mechanisms, how our consciousness of choice appears some time after the brain has made its decision.

The final experiment that they showed proved that scientists could establish which decision a human would make, 6 seconds before the human consciously made the decision – by pressing a button to indicate which option they were choosing.

Skepticism takes ideas like meaning, purpose, and free will and puts them in serious question. Evidence suggests life on our planet is a fortuitous accident. The lack of evidence suggests no purpose to it. Experiments suggest that what we feel to be free will may not be quite what we think it is.

So again, why do I persist?

Because meaning can be what we make. The evidence suggests that the supposedly ‘inherent,’ ‘objective’ meaning and purpose of the xian is made-up, so what harm is there in doing the same myself, consciously? Without delusions to the contrary? I can choose to make the best of this life, as I see it, knowing that it is just my opinion and not some divine imperative. I can accept that this choice may be influenced by the biology and evolution that got me here, a mix of instinctive drives and emergent consciousness. It may not be the reputed ‘free will’ of organized religion, but perhaps I can content myself that the process is complex enough that it is hard to follow, hard to classify with certainty as not free.

Sure, scientists can hook me up and run some tests and show that my brain chose this path before I could say yes or no. Maybe someday, they’ll be able to follow the cascade of decision-making and instinct that makes me value life. I don’t particularly need them to, though. I would be surprised if I lasted long enough for the technology to become available.

There’s some irony to the argument on the forum, where the deranged poster questions the rationality of this answer. I wonder why he expects a rational response to a question like ‘why do you love, why do you care‘. Why do you persist. If he’s like Smith, no surprise then that I answer like Neo.

Because I choose to.

It helps to know that it is their finite qualities that make life and experience and love valuable. It’s when we take something for granted, when we have a seemingly endless supply, that it’s devalued. We don’t value the environment because it seems like we can go on dumping whatever and keep on truckin’. Kids take risks and join the army because they have no sense of mortality. Endless life would have no value.

So the terminally depressed skeptic questions why we get out of bed in the morning. But it is in the context of an eternal life that this question really hits home. Why bother? Why do anything? There will always be another day. Put it off till tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow. It can wait.

To-morrow, and to-morrow, and to-morrow,
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.

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