Atheism and the Quest for Meaning: What Does It Mean to Say That All of Existence is Contingent?

It means that life didn’t have to be—it was an accident—and yet here we all are. Our existence is neither inherently necessary or meaningful. Welcome!

Now, as human beings, what do we do?

Well, we can try to take the incoherence of our accidental presence in this world and make of it a coherence—and this is the beauty, the tragedy, and the absurdity of our existence. By imaginative reflection and actions we can try to bind up for ourselves what is always, in reality, a chance scattering. We can, in other words, try to make this curious chance concatenation of atoms blindly moving in the void appear to be connected in a meaningful way; to make of existence something whole.

And accompanying the whole we might seek some semblance of permanence:

  • we can imagine ourselves to have souls; or
  • pretend to believe (even though we suspect it’s not true) that there is a god who will bring our spirits to heaven after death and seal forever our good and bad deeds in this world; or
  • please ourselves with thoughts that we will be remembered by posterity for a book that we’ve written; or
  • meditate to the point that we think we have united with the eternal Buddha.

These are the kinds of things that we can do, while we’re waiting to die, for who wants to imagine that we are, in fact, making something whole for just a very short time?

But then something horrible happens: a dark epiphany, a hellish realization, slowly rises in us.

If we are strict monists (that is, if we are convinced that there really is only one world, and not two), then it starts to dawn on us that we are, in fact, not only contingent beings, but determined beings; that, logically, if we are made up of determinate or quantum contingent atoms rustling in the void, then we really cannot do anything to arrest or direct them in their course, for there is nothing outside of the material system—no soul, no mind—to achieve this feat.

And so even Albert Camus’s modest option—to rebel against the absurdity of our contingent and meaningless existence as if there was a god to wrestle with—is not really an option for us. We find, as serious doubters or rejectors of the existence of God, that if we are devoted to rationality, then we must become Calvinists without even so much as the hope of Calvin. Our libertarian free will, we must admit, is an utter illusion and our narrow attempts at meaning, insofar as we experience them, are also illusions to which we nevertheless must, as a child to its teddy bear, cling. If we broke the spell of free will in our day-to-day lives, we recognize that we could neither speak normally or function. We might well go mad. Time and chance, when we draw the materialist conclusion, turn out to be the twin jaws of an inescapable totalitarian maw; the Leviathan that eateth us all.

I think I would call this atheist checkmate, wouldn’t you?

Have a very edgy Richard Dawkins holiday?

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About Santi Tafarella

I teach writing and literature at Antelope Valley College in California.
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10 Responses to Atheism and the Quest for Meaning: What Does It Mean to Say That All of Existence is Contingent?

  1. I think I would call it a very wordy way of saying, “you’re born, you live, you die.”

    The depression of feeling that there is no purpose in life, the knowledge that limitations have been placed on your ability to truly “live free” by those who believe in some form of moral code, and the realization that the tiny window of time for life is fleeting and uncertain, can only be assuaged by the absolute delusion of your own intellectual superiority.

    • I never cease to be amazed by what Christians think they know of atheists. I guess the arrogance of thinking you know the answer to the biggest question of the universe carries over into knowing what others think and feel as well. It makes sense, you might as well carry your big delusion over into numerous little ones.

      Happily, you could not be more wrong about atheists. Most of us live by a strong moral code (we are called Secular Humanists BTW) – at least as strong as the weak and immoral code spouted by the Bible. We also think there is a purpose, it just does not have anything to do with the invisible man in the sky. Rather than thinking we know the answer to everything and working from there, most of us assume we know little and, instead of assuming, we interrogate the universe.

      You call us arrogant because we do not accept your beliefs which have no tangible evidence. Is that arrogant, to demand proof? Or, could it be more arrogant to assume you know the answers without even an ounce of proof?

    • santitafarella says:

      St. John:

      As an agnostic and not a theist, I would say that you are being unfair to atheists. Most atheists I know do not think of themselves as generally intellectually superior to others. They do, however, think that they are intellectually superior to religious fundamentalists. I think that this is reasonable because most thoughtful people, atheist and theist, ARE intellectually superior to fundamentalists. And atheists are right to harbor outrage about the things generated in the world by fundamentalism. I hope that you are as well.

      As for intellectual delusion, I know a lot of smug religionists in the world, with unwarranted certainty concerning their platitudes and doctrines, who “pity” unbelievers. There’s plenty of smugness to go around in the world. I prefer a dialoguer like Socrates—a man cautious in his claims, religious or otherwise—to men bearing proclamations (like St. Paul or St. John).

      —Santi

  2. Weighty post. I suppose the one word that struck me here was “mind”, which you seem to correlate with “soul”. That has its own series of complication when it comes to the history of philosophy, but maybe the essence of all of this is “mind-set”. You present this dark and heavy atheism as if it is rooted in inevitable fact, but beyond the unavoidable — death — all the rest of this, particularly the necessity of the determinate, is a matter of opinion, theology, metaphysics, attitude, whatever.

    Just because an outcome is determined, doesn’t necessarily mean that the process by which it is arrived at is also determined. Birth and death can be seen as on and off switches on a machine whose operation is not pre-determined.

    Or maybe that’s just another vital lie…

    • santitafarella says:

      Necromancer,

      The great fork of existential choice is this: do you equate the mind with the soul or with the brain? If you say “the brain” then you must, logically, be pretty much done with free will. However mysterious, mind must be either: (1) an irreducible ontological fact in the universe (as matter is); or (2) something that can be dispersed and reduced to atoms and void. If it is number 1 above, then we have just entered a mysterious ghost realm of dumbfounding possibilities. It it is number 2, then we plunge into the realm of monism and material determinism (with free will as an illusion). If you have a plausible middle position, feel FREE to share it. (Pun intended, I suppose.)

      —Santi

  3. Sierra Dave says:

    Look at it this way. There are two choices.

    1) No Soul or Spirit. Once you die. Awareness is no more. Only your actions, pictures, or memories of you live on for a bit. No more learning, growing, or experiencing.

    2) You have a Soul or Spirit. You might go to Heaven in an afterlife or be reincarnated to live multiple lives. Continued awareness. More learning, growing, and experiencing. Perhaps for eternity.

    Choice two is eminently more desirable. I’d think even an Atheist would prefer choice two over non-existence. Guess the problem for them is that many religiouns require belief to be rewarded with a favorable after death.

    I’d like to hear someone argue that choice one is better.

    Sierra Dave

    • Yes, option 2 is far more desirable. But, like most of the other atheists I know, I find it difficult to accept the concept without evidence. If it works for you, that is great. I do not begrudge someone from their beliefs. But I get irritated as hell at people like the first poster on this thread, “St John the Lutheran” who says how arrogant and stupid atheists are for not believing. As I said, I am happy for people to believe what makes them happy, but anyone who is going to demand that their belief is right and others are wrong better have a hell of a lot of evidence.

    • Naysayer says:

      I think that option one sounds better but only until you add in some bits.

      If the universe is causally determined then you yourself have been determined. That is “I” doesn’t exist beyond a series of actions and reactions. In thinking upon it, I myself would determine that it is impossible for anything to be self determining unless it is the cause of itself. Or exists independent of cause. Though I’ve heard rumor quantum mechanics have something to say about free will. But anyway the point I’m getting at is that in a properly deterministic existence you exist only as a series of responses. And if you disagree I would challenge you to find a thought of yours that did not come from something externally witnessed or physically felt. So when it comes down to it you will find that the only reason option two sounds better is because you have been programmed to fear and stave off death. But in all fairness you don’t really exist in the first place, sort of. So option one isn’t really costing you anything. But from an evolutionary perspective anyone who isn’t horribly depressed would consider option two superior.

      Sucks being controlled doesn’t it. Welcome to the Matrix.

  4. Andrew Furst says:

    I think you tweaked me in the title. By contingent I assume you’re speaking of determinism. Not sure how much you’ve read of David Hume on determinism. In my understanding there are a few options.

    Hard determinisim, which makes the rather unsubstantiated claim that events are rigidly related, as if each cause leads to a single predestined effect. Furthermore, because each effect is in turn a cause, that this rigid chain of events is essentially predestined without opportunity to alter things. In a nutshell, Scrooge cannot change.

    Another option is chaos. This is to make the claim that there is no order to the universe. While raising teenagers can seem to be proof of this option, the fact that I have teenagers, seems to be evidence to the contrary. A great deal of order is necessary for humans to reproduce generation after generation.

    Another more likeable proposition is Hume’s soft-determinism. He acknowledges that effects are indeed the logical consequences of causes, but that the occurance of rigid unalterable chains of causation aren’t not borne out in reality. Heck the Red Sox won the world series in my life time.

    There is free will in which the causes are options that are freely selected by sentient actors. That is what we observe, and any theory we subscribe to needs to be consistent with this.

    I would suggest, that if the theory does not save the appearances, then in fact it is not valid. To propose that freewill is an illusion, is equally as untenable as infering a goddess named sue who created me and me alone and you’re all figments of my imagination. No facts or experience support this.

    Materialists make the same untenable leaps that theist make to claim that an ethical monotheist god exists with logical certainty. If they claim to adhere to the scientific method, they should stick with the facts please.

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