With the author's permission, here's a highly thoughtful, well-reasoned, nicely-written email message I received recently that presents a stark, but persuasive, perspective on the human condition.
I enjoyed reading about what led this person to change from a hopeful spiritual person to a nihilistic atheist. The message ended with an invitation to me to comment on it, which I was pleased to do -- which led to some further thoughts from the message sender.
I've shared an edited version of our interchange after the essay itself. Enjoy. And I mean that word, enjoy, because even though what follows will strike many people as being depressingly bleak, I find the essay to be a refreshingly honest view of the suffering that inevitably accompanies consciousness and self-awareness.
Thanks for the thoughtful and witty blog. I have enjoyed it a lot.
I'm writing to share my story of what precipitated my personal transition from a somewhat hopeful "spiritual" person to a nihilistic atheist. I'm writing because I know that you also made the journey from believer to atheist, and I thought you might find this interesting. If not, forgive me and delete this as soon as possible.
I grew up in a conservative Christian home although I never could genuinely believe in those inane ideas. In my young adulthood I migrated toward eastern spirituality with my final resting spot being Buddhism due to the fact that it is non-theistic (seemed the most plausible). Through those years I read as much on these topics as I could, along with other books on philosophy (especially existential philosophy), practiced meditation, etc.
Throughout my entire life of critical thinking, the phenomenon of suffering has drawn the most of my intellectual resources.
Anybody who stares into the abyss of suffering that exists very quickly realizes that the existence of suffering utterly and irrevocably destroys any belief in God and any belief in "ultimate" meaning/purpose. This became more and more difficult to ignore, so I nestled into the notion that life was essentially neutral. The existence of suffering made it impossible to be "good", yet I thought it might still be neutral.
One quick disclosure: I have an incurable and untreatable genetic disease that leaves me in almost constant pain, both physical and emotional.
So, early on, this journey began as a quest to see if this predicament could be reasonably reconciled with an existence that could still be deemed "good". I latched onto accounts of profound mystical experiences, where the individual relayed experiences of bliss, joy, love and the unshakable knowledge that existence was overflowing with benevolence.
The fact that these experiences occurred buoyed me. During that time, I think I collected and read every experience that was ever put into print. I also found websites that had collections submitted by people.
Fast forward: I now understand these experiences to essentially be a psychological coping mechanism. The fact that the overwhelming majority proceed from deeply traumatic periods bolsters this understanding.
The human mind is adaptive and it creates psychological fictions when it needs to.
Some have contended that these experiences are too life enhancing to represent some pathological state or to be the product of trauma. I thoroughly disagree and I compare them to the phenomenon of dissociative personality disorder. This is an immensely powerful and effectual response to trauma, sometimes triggered by only a single traumatic event (usually sexual abuse).
While the casual onlooker may see an abnormality, this is a phenomenon that allows for coping with the trauma. In this sense it is adaptive and "positive". Compare this to the trauma of simply being alive with the pervasive stress and pressures of survival and the omnipresent fear of death/extinction. All of this against the backdrop of apparent meaninglessness. It is no wonder that the psyche generates these encouraging fictions.
Mystical experience, like religion in general, is a natural phenomenon. Homo sapiens, the cognitive animal, needs cognitive encouragement to survive and nothing accomplishes this more than the conviction that life is essentially meaningful, blissful, loving, and peaceful regardless of the appearance to the contrary.
So, this was one of my discoveries that started to put a crack in the armor of my hope. The other being ontology and pondering the nature of time. Long story short, I kept coming up against what I now call the "impenetrable impasse of ontology." Every philosophy, religion, and even branches of science (physics, cosmology) eventually reaches this impasse.
In short, we cannot account for the existence of anything without providing for the existence of something that is timeless, eternal, or outside of time; something that is uncaused. This can be conceptualized as an eternally preexistent static Being, "substance," or energy.
Theistic religion invented a creator being; they reached the impasse. Modern cosmology has conceived of the uncaused as pure potential in the form of "quantum foam." This eternal something can also be conceived in the form of an endless causal chain, infinitely regressing into the past. In this case, it is only the chain or sequence itself that is uncaused and eternal. Some theories in modern astrophysics have reworked this theory (see the book Endless Universe).
The bottom line is that something eternal must exist. To many this is immediately hopeful. To me, it is the absolute deathblow to hope.
What this impasse of ontology showed me is that existence is entirely futile.
I realized that eternity itself is the epitome of futility. I realized that suffering is directly born out of an eternal chaos and is not temporary in any way, shape, or form. If this universe is either the latest conflagration of an endless causal chain or the product of a timeless substance, the result is the same.
Anything uncaused simply exists—existing for no purpose or reason—and anything it generates must also be correspondingly devoid of meaning and purpose.
But the most problematic feature is that this purposeless energy/process generates unfathomable degrees of pure misery. Anything eternal does not ultimately evolve, progress, or change at all. Thus, it is process that will never cease generating this misery. I realized in the starkest possible terms that suffering is entirely inescapable and eternal.
As horrifying as it was, this made sense to me because I had come to actually view suffering as being the very core and essence of life.
I had long known negative experience to be greater quantitatively and qualitatively. Not only is profound suffering universal and ubiquitous, but it is also far more consequential.
Negative experience is more impactful and carries incomparably greater psycholgical weight than anything positive (except maybe the fictive mystical experience, hence its survival value). A single traumatic event can utterly destroy a life, while the same cannot be said for an exceedingly happy event.
I also realized that there can be no experience without being limited, as consciousness can only exist if it has a "point-of-perspective" from which to experience.
All the new age drivel about an "infinite consciousness" is just that -- pure drivel. It is an abject contradiction in terms and is categorically impossible. The necessity of limitation as a functional condition for the existence of consciousness further strengthened my discovery that suffering is inescapable.
The one and only hope that I carry with me today is that I will be entirely obliterated at death, which I certainly presume will be the case.
Over my long journey, I have come to realize that suffering is the very nature of being alive and nothing can change that as it is ultimately derived from a unchanging eternal "cause." Suffering would not be occuring right here and now if it was not an intrinsic aspect of existence. The blind chaos that spits out universes will forever generate universes of pure agony, just like the one we are living in.
This is why I look forward to death more with each passing day. I loathe such clichés as "life is a gift." Life is not a gift. Life is a random yet inconceivably tragic event.
Thanks for listening. I'd love to hear your thoughts if you have the time and would like to respond.
This is some of what I said in my reply.