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The Depressing Truth About the Human Condition?

How to come to terms with life when one has a purely secular world view.

As a clinical psychologist I occasionally consult with people who are grappling with nothing more than existential realities. Most are self-described agnostics or unapologetic atheists. They are not clinically depressed or anxious, per se, but rather find themselves simply brushing up against the “razor wire” of merely living. Obviously, it is not appropriate for me to impose my worldview on them, so I try to help them come to terms and make peace with theirs. While this mostly involves efforts aimed at improving and enhancing their emotional experience, some interesting philosophical, intellectual and cognitive factors are also discussed.

NASA images/Shutterstock
Source: NASA images/Shutterstock

Now I fully acknowledge I am not an expert in the fields of physics, chemistry, biology, or theology but I believe I do have a good understanding of basic science and the human mind. Moreover, far more erudite and scholarly people than me have written about this and similar subjects (e.g., Christopher Hitchens, Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, Friedrich Nietzsche, Albert Camus, Soren Kierkegaard, and Carl Sagan to mention only a handful). Nevertheless, as a psychologist, I believe I am qualified to render an opinion because I have studied both the physical aspects of the human brain and the intangible dimensions of the human mind. And the mind, it seems, is nothing more than an emergent property of the brain; an enigmatic “secretion” of it that obviously confers great adaptive importance and evolutionary advantages.

Here is a sample of what is often discussed during my sessions with agnostics and atheists who are in therapy for existential angst, or coping with existence when one has a purely secular world view.

For starters, I’ll review the “pillars” of existentialism for the sake of clarity. They are isolation, responsibility, meaninglessness and death. Isolation in that we are basically totally alone in our lives. No one can ever truly know our conscious experience or feel our pain no matter how close we are to them. (Sadly, the famous “Vulcan mind meld” does not exist—at least not currently...). We are utterly isolated from all other people in that our experience with the universe exists for us only in our brains and minds. As it does only in the brains and minds of others. But this reality does not mean we have to be lonely. We can make important connections with other equally isolated souls and thus insulate ourselves, to a point, from the crushing weight of existential isolation.

Next is responsibility. This is the idea that to come to terms with life, it is important to accept that many things don’t happen for a “reason” or as part of some “higher plan.” They occur because random factors and coincidence are the main driving forces that determine much of what happens to us in life. But while we may have little control over the grand arc of our lives, we are still responsible for the consequences, both positive and negative, of most of our choices and actions because the only thing we really can control in our lives is our behavior. This gives us some sense of agency rather feeling completely helpless and powerless because attributing what happens to us in life entirely to outside forces and factors is disempowering. We are not like leaves that have fallen into a mighty river, passively swept along only by the eddies and currents. Rather, we are like beings in tiny canoes who can paddle and steer to a certain extent despite being carried down the river of space and time inexorably into an unknowable future.

Then comes meaninglessness. As mentioned above, and as I’ll discuss more below, this is the tenet there is no predetermined meaning, purpose or specific significance to human life. Meaning is considered a purely human invention, not something that is inherent in the universe or our lives. Thus, in an intrinsically meaningless universe, it is up to people to create meaning for themselves. Some do so through having children, purposeful work, loving relationships, leisurely pursuits, artistic expression, acquiring power and wealth, or any other method or manner they can find that gives them a raison d'etre.

Finally comes death. A return to the oblivion of our pre-life. The total and permanent end of our existence as conscious, self-aware organisms. The complete loss of all we are, all we know, and all we have including our very selves. All that remains of us after death is the physical matter of our cremated or decaying bodies and, if we’re loved, our presence in other’s memories.

If one accepts the existential realities of a godless human condition, what can one do to make peace with it? What are the purely secular answers to the age-old questions of how did we become? What is our purpose? Is this all that there is? What does it all mean, and what comes next?

First, it is important to accept that physics (classical, relativity and quantum mechanics) is the best explanatory and predictive tool humans have ever discovered or invented. With it we have split the atom, harnessed other energies like electromagnetism, built the information age, sent men to the moon, glimpsed the edge of the observable universe, and begun to unravel many of nature’s most closely guarded secrets about the very nature of space and time, matter and energy, and life itself. Indeed, predictions that Einstein’s theories made more than a century ago are being proven today (e.g. gravitational waves and black holes).

It seems, therefore, that physics is the engine that produced and drives the universe. It will inevitably create chemistry which, in turn, will eventually create biology that will evolve and change over time. In this view, human life occurred on this planet due to nothing more than the random but inevitable behavior of matter and energy producing atomic, physical and chemical processes that lead to life. There is no creator, no design intelligent or otherwise. Just the unavoidable processes of matter and energy mindlessly and meaninglessly obeying the laws of physics.

Whenever specific but random circumstances prevail, the result will always be spontaneous genesis and the occurrence of life—a temporary arrangement of molecules that for a time can seem to defy entropy. Some of the random factors that appear necessary for “advanced” or sentient life to occur include a stable star in the habitable zone of a galaxy; a rocky planet in the habitable zone of that stable star with a protective magnetosphere (that insulates fragile biomolecules from massive amounts of damaging solar and cosmic radiation); liquid water on the planet; a stabilizing satellite (the moon prevents the earth from huge, life-disrupting climatic shifts); and a neighboring gas giant like Jupiter that acts as a powerful vacuum cleaner and deflector thus shielding earth from collisions with potential impacters that could devastate emerging and existing life.

There is an unimaginable number of stars with planetary systems in the observable universe. It is estimated that there are likely millions of planets favorable to the genesis of life in our galaxy alone. Since there are thought to be trillions of galaxies in the known universe, the cosmic number of possible “earth-like” planets with highly evolved and sentient life boggles the imagination. In other words, the specific circumstances that inevitably produce life may be common.

Hence, in the grand scheme of things, the human condition is just like that of all other organisms. An existence driven by the biological imperatives of survival and reproduction.

Nevertheless, people can create, derive and extract “meaning” and “purpose,” even if they understand “meaning” and “purpose” as purely creations and constructs of the human mind.

Without some sense of meaning, life can be utterly unbearable for many people who reject the god hypothesis and ponder existential realities. They understand that from a cosmological perspective, there is no difference between a human being and a bacterium. The universe, it seems, is utterly indifferent to human happiness.

This could be why many people choose the god hypothesis as a way to both imbue themselves with the hope of “eternal life,” a higher purpose, a greater sense of meaning, and to protect them from the abyss of existential dread and despair that “nonbelievers” can be more susceptible to.

The “cure” for this totally rational and reality-based yet psychologically challenging world view, basically “depressive realism,” it seems, is rational, long-term hedonism. Not hedonism in the typical sense that most people think of, but as a raison d’etre and modus vivendi that is driven by the attempt to have as much fun as possible for as long as possible without hurting or harming other sentient beings. A highly individualistic undertaking. But for most, one that involves gratifying work, enjoyable play, meaningful relationships, possibly procreation and love. Perhaps even a sense of higher purpose and spiritual connectedness.

So, to armor oneself against the existential razor wire of simply being, if one can cope with profound isolation; take responsibility for one’s actions and their natural consequences; create an illusion of meaning and purpose in life; and accept the unpredictable and unknowable inevitability and permanence of death, then one can make peace with a purely secular existence.

Or, one can accept the god hypothesis.

Remember: Think well, Act well, Feel well, Be well!

Copyright 2019 Clifford N. Lazarus, Ph.D.

Dear Reader, This post is for informational purposes only. it is not intended to be a substitute for help from a qualified health professional.

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