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?