Who are nihilists? What is nihilism? Microsoft’s Internet Encyclopedia, Encarta (discontinued in 2009), defined nihilism as a "designation applied to various radical philosophies, usually by their opponents, the implication being that adherents of these philosophies reject all positive values and believe in nothing." Webster's Dictionary defines nihilism as - "(1) (a) a viewpoint that traditional values and beliefs are unfounded and that existence is senseless and useless (b) a doctrine that denies any objective ground of truth and especially of moral truths (2) a doctrine or belief that conditions in the social organization are so bad as to make destruction desirable for its own sake independent of any constructive program or possibility..." ((c) Merriam-Webster, Incorporated).
We will be discussing the oxymoron that true Nihilists, those who accept Nihilism, believe in "nothing". We will suggest that any use of the word Nihilism that includes active destruction of anything is an unjustified extension of the concepts underlying nihilism. We will suggest that there are no logical grounds for what is often called "positive" nihilism, which is sometimes associated with Humanism and Rationalism. In doing so we will be questioning the very foundation of the works of modern philosophers who argue that one may find or create "value" in a world without a life after death, a Nihilistic, Humanistic, world.
This book incorporates two essays on Nihilism I wrote more than thirty years ago. It is the culmination of a lifetime of observing sincere individuals struggling with the concepts and consequences of nihilistic thoughts. Most people start out with what they believe to be a basic understanding of the idea of "nothing". Many secular thinkers embrace the idea that there is nothing after physical death. Some experience a lifetime of angst after they recognize the logical consequences of what they believe. They seek ways to avoid what they believe they discovered by redefining nihilism in an effort to defeat the future. I believe that this almost universal response to nihilism is misguided because of a fundamental misunderstanding of "nothing" as being like the Cheshire cat, not real yet not unreal. We will discuss what I believe is the true nature of "nothing" (if nihilism itself is real, it may in fact be an illusion), and then suggest an appropriate response.
First we need to know what we are talking about. Nihilism is from the Latin "nihil", the closest English word being "nothing". Nihilism should equate to "nothing", yet it is most often associated with a belief system characterized by an enthusiastic mental animation of what we might call nothingness. Most philosophers recognize the ultimate simplicity of nihilism, yet almost every intellectual faced with nihilistic thoughts refuses to resist the human urge to literally make something out of nothing. Human nature instinctively fights against any suggestion that absolutely nothing may be in our future.
Before proceeding I should say that I am not a nihilist. I am a theist who believes that our past, present, and future have meaning and purpose. I present the argument for a meaningful existence in two books written for a general audience, "LifeNotes" and "Love - In Search of a Reason for Living", available in Apple (free) and Amazon (99 cents) bookstores (published by Compact Library Publishers) and at www.lifenotes.org. If you find the conclusions of this book troubling then please read the other two books before deciding for yourself what you choose to believe.
WARNING - There is a risk that as you read this essay and the books you may think that I am suggesting that there is no "reason to live". That is not what I am saying at all! In fact I am saying the opposite, I have a strong belief that if you search your heart, mind, and soul, you will find in yourself the reason for living. If you are discouraged or depressed, please finish reading at least one of the other books and the section at the end of this essay on Distress and Depression. Anyone who is, or becomes, seriously depressed should always seek immediate medical help.
Back to nothing. "Nothing exists" is a sound bite which was preserved from the philosopher Gorgias (483-375 B.C.E.) lost book "On the Nonexistent". His teachings earned him the tenuous title of father of nihilism. In fact, like later ancestors of nihilistic thought, Ivan Turgenev, Frederick Nietzsche, Soren Heidegger, Gorgias saw the impossible, a shadow of nothing, the grin of the Cheshire cat.
I could adopt a rigorous scientific approach to present my beliefs about nihilism. Philosophers have constructed formal scaffolding upon which we could build a beautiful castle, with a moat sufficient to fend off challenges to our methodology. However I choose to be foolish, to tilt at the windmills of academia with overly simplistic common sense. If, whether you have little formal education or are a college professor, you will indulge my methods and walk slowly with me, I think you will at least understand why I choose to present a child's view of reality.
I will be redefining and using philosophical terms of art, like existence and existentialism, to describe reality (when I modify definitions I will often use quotation marks or all caps). My definitions will be crafted to suit the purposes for which I intend to use them. Philosophy students must keep in mind that my "existentialism" is not the existentialism of Camus and Sartre, my "nihilism" is not the nihilism of Nietzsche and Heidegger. I will step through my arguments, defining, as best I can, what I mean when I use each word. Being lazy, and being fairly satisfied with the content, I will incorporate into my arguments quite a few excerpts from my other books.
The first word I will alter the common meaning of is "existentialism". I choose to define "existentialism" to mean nothing more than "in and of itself". It is certainly possible that each and every event in our life has existential meaning and value that human minds have not recognized and understood, meaning and value that perhaps can never be understood by human beings. As human beings, virtually every one of us assumes that our lives have meaning, whether positive or negative. Most of us do not even think about the possibility that there may be no fundamental meaning to life.
These universal feelings seem to be intuitive, more subjective than objective. Most intellectuals who reach the conclusion that there is no intrinsic meaning are so repulsed by the potential consequences that they spend the rest of their lives fighting their own beliefs. The answer of Sarte and Camus to nihilism was an existentialism which argued that the essence of human existence can only be found in the authentic self, realized by each individual through freedom, personal choice, and enthusiastic commitment. I would argue that this historic existentialism recognized the nihilistic problem, yet proclaimed an illogical solution by replacing cultural illusions with individual dreams.
When I use the term "existentialism" in this book I mean that each moment of life has meaning "in and of itself" without any consideration of anything else, including whether there is a past or future. For example, if we live in an "existential" world as I define the word, then if you give an apple to a hungry child that gift has immediate meaning and value whether or not there is a life after death. In the case of giving an apple to a child we should agree that if we live in the kind of "existential" world I am describing, the act of giving food to the hungry has positive, present, meaning and value "in and of itself".
Before I continue, there are some basic assumptions we need to get out of the way. First we need to assume that reality is real, that existence is not an illusion. Next we need to assume that our physical lives exist, in some manner and form, from what we call physical birth to what we call physical death. Then we need to assume that those who believe that human consciousness is a product of the human brain would agree that each individual's physical brain/mind will eventually die and cease to exist. Furthermore we will assume that they would agree that when an individual's physical brain dies the "physical consciousness" of that individual ceases to exist. Note that we are talking about physical objects like a physical brain/mind, and not about a non-physical entity like an independent non-physical consciousness if non-physical entities in fact exist.
I also assume that those who believe that human consciousness is a product of the physical brain, those who believe that there is no such thing as a non-physical consciousness, would agree that from the point in time when physical death occurs forward what we would call the individual in some real sense ceases to exist. This is a logical conclusion from the proposition that consciousness is a product of physical neurological activity. I really cannot see an alternative rational conclusion, except perhaps the theory of spacetime discussed below, for those who believe that humans are constrained by their physical nature.
Please note that for the definition of "time" we adopt the common temporal measurement that is derived in special relativity from physical state evolution, the time that we see measured by the hands of our analog watches. When we refer to "time" we are using a popular convention for describing the causal order of sequential events, however we will soon see that I believe the underlying reality is much more complex. We refer to clocks and the time they measure because they are familiar and comfortable, that does not mean that we must accept the general belief that what they measure has an independent reality. You should keep in mind that when I say that event A occurs at 12:00 and event B at 12:01, I am actually saying nothing more than event A is in the causal chain of events of event B. At a fundamental level I am not saying anything at all about the time in which the events occur, or about whether state evolution is essentially temporal or atemporal.
It would seem that a nihilist, humanist, rationalist, existentialist, and anyone else who does not believe in a non-physical life after death (adherents of what I will collectively call "humanistic" philosophies), should accept as a part of their beliefs the conclusion that at physical death an individual ceases to exist. It is essential to understand that even when modern humanistic philosophies find existential value in life, they universally conclude that human existence either ends at death, or that any physical continuation of life after death is not relevant to human existence (i.e.- atoms that constituted a physical human being may continue to exist as part of another object, but the conscious being no longer exists).
Many scientists distinguish between the brain, which is a physical organ, and the mind, which includes the abstract products of brain activity. For our purpose when we discuss physical consciousness brain and mind can be used interchangeably. Scientists who believe that all life ends at death are likely to agree that when the brain dies, the mind dies, and the individual ceases to exist. You need to realize that human beings are essentially viewed by nihilists and humanists as top dogs on the evolutionary ladder. Therefore, many scientists believe that human existence depends on physical consciousness which is a product of the brain or mind, and conclude that individual human existence ends at the moment of physical death. Just as a dog dies and ceases to exist, a human dies and ceases to exist.
At the dawn of the Third Millennium it would seem fair to expect that a scientist could simply and quickly tell us which of the possibilities I present to you is the correct one, and then tell us whether or not what I say is true or false. In fact, the science necessary to objectively answer our questions is in a terrible state of disarray. Many of you are aware of the great theoretical and experimental success of Einstein's theory of relativity, and of the equally great theoretical and experimental success of quantum theory, including the Heisenberg uncertainty principle. Most of you are also aware that these two fundamental theories do not seem to be compatible. However few people realize that the differences in general relativity and quantum mechanics are so radical that we cannot determine if relativity, or quantum theory, or both, or neither, gives us a true picture of the universe. At a fundamental level, we simply do not know what physical laws govern the universe!
This essay was revised at the beginning of the 21st century, as the third millennium begins, a time when scientists lack objective theories to describe the most fundamental physical nature of space, time, consciousness, infinity, quantum effects, quantum gravity, etc. It is a time when we do not know if and when we will have anything approaching a complete understanding of the basic elements of physical reality. It is a time when all that we can do is to use the best information we have to deduce the best answers that we can give to questions about the essence of physical life before death, and the possibility of physical or non-physical consciousness after death. With this in mind, we continue with an overview of what scientists believe they know, and what many of them concede they don't know.
For many, many, years scientists accepted Issac Newton's view of the universe. Newton believed that "space" itself exists (manifold substantivalism), and would continue to exist even if it was totally empty. The place in space where an object is found is that object's "location". For Newton, space was a stage on which we set objects in very specific locations. Motion is simply a change of location from one absolute place to another, therefore an object can be in motion against the fixed background of space even if no other objects exist or are in motion. Newton's space is like a map, where every point can be described by absolute reference to coordinates. The coordinates that we select for Newtonian space are called a "preferred metric" on a linear three dimensional (3d) space. Similarly, Newton believed that absolute time is an independent variable that is a fundamental part of the universe. In this kind of universe, the intuitive feeling is correct that even if nothing moves time keeps ticking away.
In 1905 Albert Einstein, in his special theory of relativity (SR), declared that "space" and "time" are part of a four dimensional (4d) "continuum" called spacetime, leading the mathematician H. Minkowski to say "Henceforth, space by itself, and time by itself, are doomed to fade away into mere shadows, and only a kind of union of the two will preserve an independent reality." In 1916 Einstein published his theory of General Relativity (GR), which would fundamentally change the way we look at our universe. GR tells us several things. It introduces the fact that gravitational force can be thought of as a field, like the electromagnetic field that carries radio and television. Moreover, this gravitational field is not set in spacetime, it is spacetime itself, the very stage on which Newton placed all objects! Therefore the gravitational field has a fundamental role in all physical reality.
An even more shocking result of GR is the fact that the dynamics of the gravitational field, of spacetime itself, are fully relational. GR tells us that spacetime does not have an independent existence, that there is no background metric in spacetime, no fixed coordinates we can use to define motion. Instead, spacetime is the product of relative motion. If there were no objects in the universe, most would say that there would be no spacetime at all. An example may help, assume that we have a universe with one object in it that we will call "A". GR eliminates the fixed background, therefore A cannot move, simply because there is nothing that A can move away from or move toward. Add a second object "B", and a third object "C" to use for a "ruler". Now using C as a reference point, object B can be considered to be at rest so that A can move relative to B, and it can then be said that A is moving away from B.
Einstein tells us that it is equally correct to declare that A is at rest so that B is moving away from A, or that B is at rest so that A is moving away from B. The truly profound thing about all this is that if one observer says that A is moving away from B, and another observer says that B is moving away from A, both are absolutely correct, because there is absolutely no way to distinguish whether A is at rest or B is at rest. In a fully relational universe, like the one GR tells us we live in, we simply cannot prefer the frame of reference of one observer over the frame of reference of any other observer.
Let me touch on some of the basics of the other 20th century scientific revolution, Quantum Mechanics (QM). Quantum mechanics (for convenience only we include all quantum theories under the QM label) is a relatively new branch of science developed to explain why subatomic particles do not behave according to the Newtonian and GR laws that describe the behavior of "normal" size objects. QM offers a description of reality that seems very different from that given us by relativity.
One of the greatest philosophical shocks of this century came in the form of the Heisenberg (quantum) uncertainty principal. Heisenberg noted that if you measure the speed of one of the particles that make up an atom you must in some way affect its position (actually instead of "speed" we should talk about "momentum", which is speed times mass, for our purposes we will consider speed and momentum as being the same thing). For example, if you measure the speed of a subatomic particle by "observing" it move over a given distance, the observation alters its position in some unpredictable manner. Similarly, if you measure position you must alter speed, thus at any given moment you can never measure both the exact speed (momentum) and exact position of a subatomic particle. The more precise you are in measuring speed, the less precise you will be about position, and vice versa.
The problem is actually much more than a problem of measurement, to be more accurate, the wavefunction of a subatomic particle (which describes the particle at the quantum level) that has not been "observed" is precisely determined (without using probabilities) by a formula known as the Schrodinger wave equation. However, the very moment you attempt to measure the momentum or position of the particle, the wavefunction collapses, introducing probabilities into the equation, and the exact momentum and position of the particle at that particular time cannot be determined.
Heisenberg's theory supports the proposition that at the quantum level the very concepts of momentum and position have no meaning. At the level of measured observation, modern physics can tell you how many particles in a group of particles have certain speeds and positions, and how many have other speeds and positions, but physicists cannot tell you what the speed and position of any one particle is. This failure is far more than just some inability to measure momentum and position, it is due to the fact that it is fundamentally uncertain what the speed and position of any single observed particle is! A single particle when measured simply does not have position and momentum in any normal sense of the words, but members of a group do, and the probability of x number of particles having x momentums and x, y, z positions can be precisely computed.
Both GR and QM are generally accepted as remarkably successful, experimentally verified, essentially correct, theories that give valid solutions to the questions they address. Yet the theories are very different, and may even be incompatible. GR gives us fully deterministic answers without probabilities, QM gives us probabilities without fully deterministic (singular) answers. Given present interpretations, it is possible that the differences cannot be reconciled. Quite simply, there is no known theory that explains the nature and existence of what physicists believe to be the most fundamental features of the physical universe.
We already know from the principles of GR and QM that we live in a universe that exhibits quantum properties, in essence we exist in a quantum spacetime. Many physicists are pursuing a theory of quantum gravity, the quantity many believe will link GR and QM. Either combining GR and QM into a single theory, or finding a replacement for one or both, is perhaps the most sought after goal in physics and cosmology.
For our purposes, the most important question may be - "if and when quantum gravity is understood, what will the physical nature of quantum spacetime be like?" Almost all current models of the universe assume that there is some sort of temporal variable associated with space, the time part of spacetime. John D. Norton, in "The Hole Argument" (The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Copyright 1998 by Stanford University and Edward N. Zalta) gives a quick summary of the current consensus on spacetime:
"Virtually all modern spacetime theories are now built in the same way. The theory posits a manifold of events and then assigns further structures to those events to represent the content of spacetime. ...... Consider our universe, which relativistic cosmologies attempt to model. Events in the universe correspond to the dimensionless points of familiar spatial geometry. Just as a geometric point is a particular spot in a geometrical space, an event is a particular point in a cosmological space at a particular time."
The most widely accepted theories of the Twentieth Century view the birth of an individual as a unique event at a unique point in spacetime, and the subsequent death of that individual as a unique event at a unique point in spacetime. The points in between represent all the events that occur in a human lifetime. The line that connects the points, and by doing so represents the lifetime mapped on spacetime, is called a worldline.
A fundamental question is what does it means to "exist"? If we were to look at the traditional approaches to this question we would have to sort through philosophical concepts of properties and substance, and therefore be fully engaged in the semantic arts. I choose what I believe to be a simpler, more basic, method. A physical object "exists" if the constituent particles of matter are present so that a theoretical observer can identify the object. Every physical object consists of billions of particles which have come together to form the object. To be more precise, a physicist would say that each particle has an individual worldline and that the object itself is a bundle of worldlines.
Spacetime is essentially the history of the entire universe, containing every event that ever happens. A worldline is the history of a particle in spacetime. Each point on the worldline of a particle is generally thought to be a real physical event in which that particle participates and represents a unique sequential moment in the particles existence from creation to annihilation. Relativity suggests that the worldline of a particle is the particle, so that a particle is in some real sense a permanent part of spacetime. If this is so, perhaps we have a permanent physical existence in spacetime.
We often talk about the worldline of an object or a person, however this is not an accurate description of what physicists know. Every particle has an individual worldline. A single atom in a rock has its own worldline from creation to annihilation. All of the particles that make up the rock have worldlines. It is a bundle of "adjacent" worldlines that form the object called a rock. Similarly, a human being consists of a bundle of worldlines, with each individual worldline representing an individual particle in that person's body. Every human observer is represented by a bundle of worldlines in spacetime. Each point on the worldline of a human being is generally thought to be a real physical event consisting of a bundle of adjacent worldlines that represents a unique sequential moment in the life of that individual, from birth to death.
Take for example the history of a rock. Prior to interstellar gasses coalescing to form the rock, there were billions of atoms with individual worldlines, and the rock did not exist. When the gasses coalesced and the rock formed, the individual worldlines bundled together to be the rock. Only after the worldlines bundled together could an observer say that the rock exists. The bundle of worldlines is what we define to be the substance of the rock. Sometime in the future, perhaps when the rock falls into our sun, the bundle of worldlines will break down, the particles will fly apart, and the rock will not exist.
Similarly, before a child is born there are bundles of worldlines for the atomic particles in an egg and the bundles of worldlines for the atomic particles in a sperm, but there are no bundles which can be identified by an observer as a child. Sometime at or after conception there are bundles of worldlines which in fact can be identified with a physical human being. The individual worldlines that make up what we will call a human bundle are constantly changing, the child is growing, but we can all agree that from birth to death there is a human bundle identified as the individual. After the point we call physical death the human bundle slowly untangles until we can no longer identify the physical human being.
What seems like simple logic to me is that:
1. before particle worldlines unite to form a bundle which can be identified by an observer as a particular object, the physical object does NOT EXIST,
2. when particle worldlines unite to form a bundle which can be identified by an observer as a particular object, the physical object does EXIST,
3. after the particle worldlines which are identified by an observer as a particular object disperse the physical object does NOT EXIST.
1. before particle worldlines unite to form a bundle which can be identified by an observer as a physical human being, the physical person does NOT EXIST,
2. when particle worldlines unite to form a bundle which can be identified by an observer as a physical human being, the physical person does EXIST,
3. after the particle worldlines which are identified by an observer as a particular physical human being disperse the physical person does NOT EXIST.
As we move forward our definition of an object which does EXIST will be a bundle of worldlines which can be identified by a theoretical observer as the physical object. In other words, if we can observe a bundle of worldlines which is identified as a physical human being, then the physical human being does EXIST. If we cannot observe a bundle of worldlines which is identified as a physical human being then the physical human being does NOT EXIST. The word "observe" is filled with controversy, the tricky part is understanding "before" and "after" if worldlines are permanent parts of spacetime. Most believe that SR and GR tell us that the before and after are an illusion so that it is never true that the particle does NOT EXIST. For now we will attach the common sense meaning of EXIST as being at least theoretically able to observe and identify the object.
While it is a controversial viewpoint, I believe that SR and GR may allow sequential change and I would suggest that it can be said of every physical object, be it an inanimate thing or an animate living being, that the object:
Does NOT EXIST
Furthermore, the nature of our physical universe, the inevitable increase in entropy, appears (the appearance may be false) to guarantee that it can be said of every physical object that the object:
Does NOT EXIST.
Does NOT EXIST
A physical object or person does EXIST so long as we can observe a bundle of particle worldlines which are identified as the particular object. This fact does not mean that every individual particle which is part of the bundle must continue to EXIST for the object to EXIST. Individual particle worldlines which are part of a bundle of particle worldlines may join and leave the bundle without altering the fact that we can observe a bundle of worldlines which is identified as an object. The particle worldlines that make up a human being when they are a baby are not the same particle worldlines that make up an adult. Individual worldlines that do EXIST as parts of the baby do NOT EXIST in the adult, however the bundle of worldlines which is identified as the physical human being does EXIST from physical birth to death. As we discuss below, this view of existence is not consistent with the standard interpretation of relativity, which describes spacetime in terms of a block universe.
Note that we are not making any statements regarding the existence of a non-physical person, we briefly discuss that possibility below and at length in our other books.
What does the possibility that you do NOT EXIST before physical birth and do NOT EXIST after physical death mean for your physical life? In other words, if you do not continue to exist in some form after death, what good are all the experiences, decisions, triumphs, defeats, all the moments of your life? Even though I cannot objectively prove that it is true, if you do not survive the grave, if you return to the state of being that preceded your birth, then I would suggest to you that nothing in fact does matter. While over the ages men and women have sought to perpetuate themselves through their children, their place in history, their role in society, and through intricate philosophical webs of existentialism and other essays on physical man's importance, the fact of physical death remains. If each generation's death means the end of those individuals, then we are all faced with an endless cycle of creation and destruction, the meaning of which, if any, is beyond comprehension.
If there is anything in life we can count on occurring without fail, it is physical death. The successful bank president, the champion athlete, the housewife, the famous, the unknown, every human being, you, I, die. While all acknowledge the certainty of their eventual demise, few think about death until they are faced with it. The simple fact of death is not news to anyone, yet the reality of its impending occurrence is ignored by virtually every living person. The very nature of human life denies death and shrouds it in the cloak of future events, events that are not yet real and need not be dealt with in the present. Living is too important and time consuming to be concerned with mortality. The fact that you are moving steadily toward your death is most likely, and literally, to be the last thing on your mind!
Observing the inevitable death of every creature that inhabits the earth, we may have a recurrent feeling that death is the end. On the other hand, it is virtually inconceivable to us that all we are, all we have been, all we will be, will be rendered void in that moment of death. It goes against human nature to visualize the effective destruction of our past, present, and future that may accompany death without existence beyond death. Yet if each human being does cease to exist, then I would assert that all human beings are, or in the case of generations yet unborn will be, waiting their turn to cease existing. If each and every human being ceases to be, then the feeling of continuity that pervades the human race is false.
Most of us think of our ancestors as a link to the past, and our children as a link to the future, yet if we do not survive the grave each generation dies an isolated death, which mocks any assertion that humankind has a continuing existence apart from its individual members. If each person's death results in their no longer existing, then no manner of historical recording, social progression, or other remembrance in the minds of those whose time to die is yet to come, can in any way affect, preserve, or make any difference whatever to those who no longer are. No one will survive to remember. If each of us ceases to be, then your life has no meaning and your choices make no difference.
We will consider what we just said in some detail, first by working toward a deeper comprehension of the general ideas, and then by asking what science tells us about all this? If each person's consciousness exists only during their physical lives on earth, and if their physical lives proceed from birth to death, then the consequences of that person's death necessarily follows their death. Who can be affected by that death? Certainly those who survive may be affected, but here is the problem, the death cannot be of any consequence to the human being who no longer exists! The moment before the death of a human being perhaps it can be said that the impending death affects that being, but the very moment after the person dies, he or she is no longer around to be affected! Admittedly this conclusion is very hard to accept, and many will dismiss it without thought, but it is a logical result of no longer existing (we will discuss a bit later the very controversial and complex science behind this conclusion, and the possibility that our conclusions are wrong).
Let us assume, for example, that a comet collides with the Earth at some time in the future before humans have colonized space. Assume further that all life on Earth is annihilated by the collision. It is very hard to accept, but if there is no continuation of life after death the most, I believe the only, logical conclusion is that the complete annihilation of humankind is of absolutely no consequence to humankind! While the words may sound bizarre and counter intuitive, in fact they are not. The moment after the total destruction of humankind it can be said with certainty that the destruction of humankind had no affect whatsoever on humankind, simply because humankind no longer exists to be affected.
If you accept that time has direction (or at least that events follow a causal, sequential, chain), then cause and effect, action and consequence, apparently occur in a fixed order, the former always preceding the latter. Keeping that in mind, the idea that after total destruction of humankind there would be no-one left to be affected should not seem as bizarre. Assuming local time asymmetry (actually any causal evolution works the same), one action will always precede another action. If the action that is called the death of a being is equivalent to the physical annihilation of that being, the consequence of that action / annihilation, necessarily follows in time the action / annihilation. If there is a causal sequence to events, then the action cannot be of any consequence to a being who no longer exists.
Again, the moment before the destruction of humankind perhaps it could be said that the impending destruction affects humankind (perhaps not - see below), but the very moment after humankind is destroyed there is absolutely no humankind to be affected. Assume that the comet annihilates humankind at 12:00 noon, the consequence of that destruction occurs at 12:00 noon PLUS a moment in time, and at 12:00 noon plus the moment in time there is no humankind left to be affected! Indeed, there is no humankind around that is conscious of the fact that the comet struck the earth!
The same logic applies to the history of individuals not visited by a catastrophic event. If you believe that each human is an individual entity, which seems to follow rather easily from the idea that humans are physical beings only, then (if there is no life after death) at the time of their death each individual experiences the identical individual annihilation that all humankind would experience together if the earth and its inhabitants were simultaneously destroyed. If a human being dies at 12:00 noon, at 12:01 they are not around to be affected by their death. If an individual named Bill dies at 12:00 noon, and there is no life after death, at 12:01 Bill no longer exists to be affected by his death.
There are many arguments that purport to counter this logic, including the assertion that a person's life before physical death may be meaningful, yet most or all of the alternative arguments appear to be set in the time before death, within the causal sequence of events that precede death. I believe that none of the arguments adequately address the period after death (perhaps with a possible exception suggested by relativity that is discussed below), and therefore none answer the question of how a person who no longer exists could be affected by anything at all?
Again, "If an individual named Bill dies at 12:00 noon, and there is no life after death, at 12:01 Bill no longer exists to be affected by his death." It is clear that before 12 noon Bill's impending death affects him, he may be fearful, he may get his affairs in order, he may say his good-byes, he may try to avoid his death, etc. I am not saying that near death experiences will not affect Bill. I am not saying that his impending death does not affect him while he remains alive.
What I am asking is, who will be affected by Bill's actual death, an event that does not occur until the very moment of noon? Ask yourself these questions. Is Bill a conscious being who exists the moment before noon? The answer would appear to be "yes". Bill's mind dies at precisely noon (I realize that death is a process, but for simplicity let us assume it ends at noon). Is Bill a conscious being who exists the moment after noon? If you do not believe in a continuation of consciousness after death, I do not see how you can answer the question "yes"? If Bill is not a conscious being after death, then who can be affected by his death? It would seem that we can say that if Bill is not a conscious being after death, then Bill cannot be a member of the group who is affected by his death.
Let's set the example in a larger time frame. Let us say Bill died at noon on January 1, 1900, having lived some twenty years. I am not saying that Bill did not live from 1880 to 1900. I am not saying that during those twenty years Bill did not alter the universe in which he lived. What I am saying is that if there is no continuation of life after death, the individual named Bill does not exist in the universe at any date and time after 12:00 noon, January 1, 1900. If we do not survive death, after 12:00 noon (i.e. - after completion of the sequence of causal events that precede Bill's death) you could search the entire universe for Bill and you would never find him (perceptive readers are probably thinking that Bill continues to exist as his worldline even after his physical death, we will discuss that later). Bill's death occurs at precisely 12:00 noon. Not minutes, or even moments, later. If there is no life after death, the very moment after the event known as Bill's death, Bill no longer exists. After 12:00 noon Bill cannot be affected by anything, including his death.
The logic goes even further. If you do not believe that human consciousness continues to exist after physical death, then death not only annihilates each individual's present and future, but also annihilates their past. Most people would agree that for an object to have a present and a future the object must exist. Yet many would make the distinction that while an object cannot have a present and a future if it does not exist, it somehow can have a past. It is clear that the present and future of an object are bound to the existence of the object, but so too is the object's past. Much of the problem lies in the popular usage of the words past, present, and future both to describe that which is part of an object (a "past" that belongs to the object much as a physical mind belongs to a living individual), and to describe the existence of the object from a third party's view (a past which is a chronological description of the object over the time it existed).
It is a misconception to equate the fact that there is a "history" of all beings or objects that is set in the "past", with the statement that a being or object that no longer exists has a "past". The first idea simply states that the being or object existed over a finite period that is apparent to those who currently exist. The extension of the concept of such a history to the idea that somehow the object or being that no longer exists still possesses a "past" confuses the distinction these two words can convey. Once an object or being no longer exists it obviously has no present or future, similarly the object has no past.
While it may be difficult to accept, a mountain that no longer exists has no past, present, or future for the simple reason that there is no such mountain. There is a current history of a mountain that once existed, but there is no mountain we can point to and describe the "past" of. This is far more than semantics. A person who lived a thousand years ago had a historic life that those who are alive can be conscious of, but the person no longer has a past which is their past and which they can be conscious of.
There is a "history" of every individual's life that is separate from that life, and there is a "past" that is a part of an individual's life that physically affects the particular life, that alters events on what the cosmologist calls the individual's "worldline" (later in our discussion we will explain why we believe that the general interpretation of worldlines as preserving all the events in our lives is incomplete).
A newspaper account that tells of an individual having their foot broken in a car accident may be based on memories of a reporter who saw the accident, but it is not the same as the physical injury that the individual actually suffered. For the individual who broke his or her foot, the injury was more than a news report of what happened to someone else, it was a physical event in their physical past. The distinction is that when that individual no longer exists they do not simply lose the recorded history of the injury, as would be the case if the newspaper article was destroyed, but they also lose the event in a "past" that is their past, a past that they can be aware of, a past that altered their existence while they were alive. Indeed, the event was part of his or her physical past while they were alive, yet from the moment he or she died and ceased to exist, he or she no longer has a physical past. The person who broke their foot no longer exists. The event is no longer part of the past of the individual who no longer exists!
The English language lacks the words that would make it easy to convey the difference between a history set in the past that is the sum of all lifetimes, and a past that is unique to and dependent on the existence of an individual life. Perhaps humankind has avoided the initially discomforting possibility of "finite pasts" by not distinguishing them from the infinite, perhaps the majority simply do not accept the possibility of the perpetual annihilation of human beings.
If we are physical creatures only, I would suggest when the physical no longer exists we no longer "exist", period. The resulting void is just that, a complete and total void. There is nothing to fear, for there will be no one to experience anything negative. There is nothing to look forward to, for there will be no one to experience anything positive.
Admittedly, what we have talked about is very difficult to understand. It is not intuitive. It is not comfortable. It is easy to dismiss by resort to seemingly logical arguments. It is relatively easy to say that Bill had a past simply because he lived in the past, simply because he altered the universe forever. We have a strong urge to declare that Bill's past lives on because his life benefited forever both the world he lived in and humankind! But that easy conclusion really begs the question how Bill can have a past that is his past if Bill no longer exists? If there is no life after death, there appears to be an underlying truth to the idea that physical death annihilates an individual's physical past. If so, it would seem to undermine the foundation of all philosophies that do not believe in a life after death.
I would imagine that most readers who do not believe in a life after death will indeed find a way to dismiss the conclusions of this essay. Since these ideas go to the very heart of humanistic philosophies, those who are not willing to accept the conclusions on their face should take the time to try to build a logically solid answer to the question how can Bill have a past that belongs to Bill if Bill no longer exists? I do not believe it can be done.
Once again, if Bill dies at 12:00 noon, and there is no life after death, at 12:01 Bill no longer exists to be affected by his death. The moment before Bill's death it is clear that Bill has a past, present, and future. The moment after Bill's death it is clear that Bill has no present and future, and therefore he can no longer be affected by his past. Is this not the same thing as saying that the individual named Bill no longer has a past?
Even if there is no life after death, it is still clear that the life Bill led forever altered the universe in which he lived. Perhaps a beautiful lake exists because Bill obtained funding for it. Perhaps lung cancer no longer kills people because Bill found the cure. These are all things that are part of the past of the universe, and while he was living, they were a part of Bill's past. Before Bill died perhaps he had fond memories of his accomplishments. Indeed we will assume that Bill could recall most of the events, both positive and negative, that made up his life, that made up his past. While he was alive his son Tom would spend hours listening to Bill tell about his past. Yet after Bill's physical death, Tom could search and search the physical universe and he would not find Bill. The beautiful lake or the cure for cancer would still exist, they would still be a part of the history of the universe, but they would no longer be part of the past that belonged to Bill, that Bill could think and talk about. Tom could not find Bill and ask him to tell about his past. Bill would not "exist". Bill would no longer have a past that belonged to Bill.
After the death of Bill, Bill cannot pick a point on the finite worldline of his life and say that he, the individual who no longer exists, had a meaningful life at that point in time. Of course, someone who is alive can point to Bill's life and say it was meaningful. Meaningful to whom? Certainly not to Bill, the person who no longer exists. Meaningful to the current generation, perhaps. But is that not the same as saying that a past life will (at most) be meaningful to the current generation for a finite period of time, and then will no longer be meaningful to them, for they too will no longer "exist"? Does this not result in an endless procession of finite lives, each of which ceases to exist and takes with it past, present, and future? Is this not a discontinuity that renders each lifetime a discrete, unique, entity that is bound to its own worldline?
As we have said, many who do not believe in a life after death argue that the lives of those who no longer exist had existential "meaning" and "value" because they contributed to the evolutionary cycle, they improved the existence of humankind, they protected the environment, they contributed to art and science and literature, etc. Essentially they argue that the universe benefited from the positive lives of those individuals who no longer exist. Let us return to this idea and look at what it would require to be true. No matter how I rephrase the concepts, it seems that to be true it necessarily requires that we assign the quality of consciousness to something in the universe other than living creatures. It seems to require an anthropomorphic view of the physical universe itself.
If we say that Bill's life benefited humankind, then we are assigning to the entire class of individuals called humans the anthropomorphic quality of being "benefited", a quality that requires the assignment of consciousness to "humankind" as opposed to individual humans. If we say that Bill's life benefited the environment, then we are assigning to the "environment" the anthropomorphic quality of being "benefited". If we say that Bill's life contributed to science or art or literature, then we are assigning to science and art and literature the anthropomorphic quality of receiving a "contribution".
It seems that we are trying to impart on that which admittedly survives death, the environment or science or humankind, a collective consciousness, a life after death for inanimate objects and abstract concepts. In doing so we vicariously assume a continuation of our own existence through the objects and concepts that survive. I cannot see how one can say that consciousness is the product of living minds and that individual "consciousness" ends at death, and at the same time say that individual accomplishments somehow survive in a universal consciousness that is the product of inanimate physical objects and/or concepts?
It would seem to be an impossible task to argue that the lives of those who no longer exist were and are, in any truly meaningful way, of "benefit" to inanimate objects like the environment, or to non-conscious elements such as the evolutionary genetic pool, or to argue that they contributed to abstract concepts such as art and science and "humankind" taken as a whole. It seems less difficult to accept a non-physical life after death, which we are somehow spatially separated from, than it is to construct an anthropomorphic existence within the physical universe that somehow survives death. "Meaning" and "value" and all other similar concepts must have some living entity associated with them to make any sense. It is clear that a lifetime of experiences can have "meaning" and "value" to or for a living human being. Perhaps a lifetime of experiences can have meaning to and for other living creatures. However, a lifetime of events cannot have meaning and value for inanimate objects.
When a rock is carved into a work of art, the final product can have meaning and value to the artist and to other living beings, but the transformation cannot have meaning and value, in any realistic sense of those words, to or for the rock. If we were to assert that humans do not survive death but that a rock has a timeless self-awareness, we would be attributing the characteristics of a soul to the rock, much as some religions do to carved idols. Some people and mystical religions claim that a wide range of inanimate objects possess a permanent "consciousness". While I cannot prove they are wrong, I believe that physical (as opposed to non-physical) consciousness exists only in biologic creatures and only for so long as they "exist" as living entities. It seems intuitively wrong to say that human and other living consciousness ends at death, but that meaning and value somehow survive in inanimate objects.
For the word "benefit", or words conveying similar concepts, to have any realistic meaning we must ask "who" receives the benefit, not "what" receives the benefit. A living human being can benefit from a vaccine developed by a scientist who has already died, however the benefit to that individual human ends on the death of that human. "Humankind" cannot benefit from the vaccine unless we assign the living trait of consciousness to humankind as a whole. It is admittedly difficult to understand that humankind is an abstract classification, and that it is not a physical entity that survives death. We have an intuitive feeling that as an individual human being we are part of a continuous existence known as humankind, an existence that somehow survives death. Perhaps this feeling is rooted in an instinctive desire for preservation of the species. Regardless what causes us to feel that "humankind" is itself a continuous existence, humankind is no more than a collective description of all the discontinuous, finite lives of individual humans. The fact that we are members of humankind does not change the fact that if there is no life after death, each of us lives an individual finite life, and on our death each of us ceases to "exist". "Humankind" cannot receive the benefit of anything, only the human beings who make up humankind can do that, and if there is no life after death, the benefit to each of those human beings ends on the date of their death.
In their arguments for humanism, existentialism, etc., philosophers have spent lifetimes trying to construct a difference between the apparent continuity of humankind, and the periodic death of individual humans. Many suggest that so long as humankind continues to exist, humankind, and/or individual humans, by having been a part of humankind, somehow inherit a form of immortality. I find these efforts to be illogical attempts by humans to be more than doomed animals. If each individual's consciousness ceases to exist when they die, and if each individual eventually dies, then no individual consciousness will survive, and the concept of a collective human "consciousness" known as "humankind" is a fantasy.
I am convinced that those who reject the possibility of a non-physical life after death, who accept death as the end, and who find some humanistic reason to view life as "worthwhile", are the ones who have created irrational myths and illogical belief systems. Merriam-Webster's primary definition of fantasy is "to conceive in the mind". If our consciousness is a product of our mind, and if our mind ceases to exist on our death, we live a finite life that would seem to fit the definition of a "fantasy".
The point is that if we do not continue to exist after physical death, every individual in each generation is simply waiting in line to cease existing. If there is no life after death, the existence they live, your finite life and my finite life, is the true fantasy. It appears at birth, lasts a fixed period of time, and then disappears completely. A life may leave traces of its existence and a history of the changes it made in an essentially inanimate universe, but the life no longer exists. The lives that were Bill and Joan and Sally and Sam no longer exist, they were no more than products of each person's mind. Unless we survive the grave, as each mind ceases to exist, the life it lives that it believes is more than mere existence, ceases to "exist".
I should note that over the years I have repeatedly been asked the question, if you live a long and "good life" why is it so important to experience more "good life"? What is wrong with living a finite good life that ends after 60 years, instead of an infinite good life that may eventually be boring and tedious? The people who ask that question are missing the point. The question is not how long our life is. If our past, present, and future is annihilated by physical death, then the question is not "did we live a good life", the question is "do we exist or not"?
If asked the question would you rather be alive "in a place filled with joy" or "in a place filled with pain", or would you rather not exist and be "nowhere at all", there is a strong intuitive feeling that the answer is "alive in a place filled with joy". This belief is based on an intuitive recognition that it is better to "exist" than not to "exist" (we discuss the logic of this intuition below). Even though we believe that after our physical death it can still be said that we lived a "meaningful" life, most of us have a strong intuitive feeling that there is a fundamental difference between being alive or being dead, between existing or not existing. I believe that this intuitive perception is based on the underlying reality that if our consciousness does not survive physical death, if our consciousness does not continue to exist after physical death, then there seems to be no meaning to the statement that "he lived a long and good life".
It is not more of a good life that we seek, it is existence itself. It seems to me that the only way that our entire life, no matter how long or how good it might be, will not be annihilated by physical death, is for there to be a life after death, or for there to be some existential meaning to physical life which we do not, and may not until after our physical death, comprehend.
The greatest challenge to my understanding of what it means to physically exist, to EXIST and NOT EXIST, is presented by the apparent permanence of spacetime. To understand the difficulties of comprehending existence in spacetime we will explore existence from the perspective of what it means to say that human babies are a bouncing bundle of worldlines.
Classical interpretations of spacetime view worldlines as permanent structures that simply exist. On our website www.ws5.com/spacetime we provide links to academic sites which describe spacetime. Most physicists believe that past, present, and future events are woven into the fabric of spacetime. Conventional wisdom is that the worldline of a human being is the human being, so that human life is in some real sense a permanent part of spacetime. If this is so, perhaps we have a permanent physical past that is etched in the fabric of spacetime. If the classic interpretation is literally true then our idea that an object does NOT EXIST, EXIST, NOT EXIST is wrong, and all objects, including human beings, simply EXIST (perhaps proving the reality of "existentialism"). To see why we do not believe that science provides us with a physical spacetime where objects from our past EXIST, we will look at several possible interpretations of cosmologic theories. But first we will consider "Nothing".
Philosophers often speak of the void that would follow physical death without life after death as the abyss, the unknown, the approaching void, etc. All of these suggest that we are on a journey to a place which lies at the end of our physical lifetimes. If on our death we cease to exist, this idea that we are traveling to our ultimate destiny is false. We are not traveling to an abyss, the void, or the unknown, for these words suggest that we are moving toward something. I recognize the seeming absurdity of the language, yet if on our death we cease to exist, then "nothing" totally consumes us.
This is the heart of the problem, we cannot in any way whatsoever understand or visualize "nothing". The moment we attempt to comprehend or visualize "nothing", the comprehension or visualization interjects something into nothing, preventing us from reaching our goal. When we define "nothing" we give it the quality of being definable, a quality that can only be given to that which is more than nothing. Nothing might be thought of as the total absence of physical reality, yet even this assigns a definition to the indefinable. The moment we think about "nothing" we make it an object that can be thought about, we make it an object that can only be more than nothing.
The only way we can answer the question "what is nothing?" is to answer it by not asking it, something we cannot do, for if we ask the question we destroy the answer. The answer to the question "what is nothing?" is not what we commonly call nothing, it is an absolute "nothing" that is destroyed by anything we think, say, or do about it. The only way to visualize "nothing" is to be consumed by nothing, however this results in nothing being left to visualize nothing. Most fail to recognize the fact that "something" simply cannot comprehend "nothing".
If I say that there is nothing in a room, I am using a definition of nothing that has nothing to do with what we are talking about. Human language is a product of human limitations, there simply is no true definition of "nothing". The impossible to comprehend nothing that denotes no space, is incorporated by human beings into the more common definition of a nothing that denotes empty space. In other words, when we say that there is nothing in a room we do not mean that the inside of the room does not exist, yet human intuition gives us the feeling that the empty space defined by the walls is what "nothing" is. The empty space defined by the walls is not nothing, it is something that we can define and measure and talk about. Empty space has characteristics, it requires time to traverse, it can be filled with something, etc.
True "nothing" cannot be quantified or measured or discussed, it does not exist in the room or outside the room or anywhere else. True "nothing" cannot be traversed, it cannot be filled. True "nothing" does not exist "any where" or "any time". Perhaps with a great deal of time and effort you can approach an understanding of what it means not to be able to comprehend "nothing". Unless and until you reach this understanding you will find it virtually impossible to understand what it means to say that nothing may consume your past, present, and future.
This misunderstanding of true "nothing" has lead philosophers to picture journeys toward nothing, rather than entire lifetimes ultimately consumed by nothing. They construct ways of giving value and meaning to the journey (even if meaning is just the playing out of the absurd), viewing death as the end point of a somehow meaningful life. They assert that it is not the endpoint, or even the life, that has value, it is the journey.
Somehow struggle against oppression becomes noble, strength over weakness becomes desirable, even if the quest must someday end. Since the void would simply be the destination of all lifetimes, these writers fail to recognize that the "nothing" that follows such a life consumes the entire life. If an individual ceases to exist on their death, then the nothing that consumes their physical consciousness at death consumes their entire lifetime, rendering both struggle and strength over weakness meaningless. The nothing that consumes their consciousness at death consumes their past, present, and future, period. This is incredibly hard to grasp, yet no one has shown me a persuasive alternative that, if there is no non-physical life after death and no existential meaning, allows me to avoid this conclusion and its consequences.
What strikes me as an even more significant consequence of accepting without question the argument that humans are physical beings that cannot exist beyond the limits of physical existence, is the question why a being who rejects all possible alternatives should care whether or not it exists for a finite period of time? If a human being concludes that the only possibility is that it will inevitably cease to exist, and that once it ceases to exist it will have no past, present, or future because it no longer will be a conscious (or otherwise) being, what possible consequence can "now" have to the being? The logical answer is none.
An amazing conclusion based on the unquestioning acceptance of nihilism is that if death brings with it a total void, humankind not only has no reason to fear death, but also has no reason to avoid death (please remember that I believe human beings exist beyond death and that life does have meaning, and I recognize that I cannot say with certainty that life without life after death does not have existential meaning). The distinction between having no reason to fear death if we conclude that nothing MAY follow death, and having no reason to avoid death if we conclude that nothing DOES follow death, is profound and often missed.
If you believe that there MAY not be a life after death, you should realize that you have no reason to fear death. However it is entirely another thing to reject the possibility that you may be wrong by concluding that nothing DOES follow death, so that you have no reason to feel anything at all about death (or for that matter anything at all about life). If a nihilistic death brings with it the annihilation of an individual, that individual no longer exists, and the logical conclusion is that death is neither positive, negative, or otherwise to the individual. It is simple logic that there is no reason to reject other possibilities that may give meaning and value to life, simply because there is no positive or negative consequence if in fact we do face a nihilistic end.
If in fact death annihilates individual consciousness, there is no reason to embrace cryogenics, cloning, strong artificial intelligence, or any other means of extending physical life. Since an individual's death would carry with it no possible consequence to that individual, there is no logical reason whatsoever for the living individual to avoid the inevitable (due to ever increasing entropy) consequences of death. Again, please remember that I believe that we continue to exist after death and I accept that there is a possibility that physical life has existential meaning, therefore we have every reason to live positive lives (as discussed further below).
It is pure and simple logic to deduce that if an individual no longer exists after death (which I absolutely do not believe is true) and there is no existential meaning to physical life, that individual would have no logical reason to expend any effort to avoid death. I admit that this logic seems counter intuitive, and even wrong, but if one is willing to dissociate one's self from the incredible biologic urge for self-preservation, both of the individual and the species, and is willing to apply purely objective reasoning, the logical conclusion, while discomforting, is perhaps inevitable (there are logical loopholes that might give permanent meaning and value to a finite physical life, including the block universe and existential meaning). That logical conclusion does not mean that we should accept nihilism as true. The logical conclusion that we should reach from all of this is not that we should accept nihilism, but rather that there is absolutely no reason whatsoever to reject the possibility that there is a life after death or existential meaning and value to physical life.
The following may take several readings and an extraordinary amount of effort to understand, yet it is worth the effort because it explains perhaps the most misunderstood of human emotions and feelings. From time to time we all feel that physical death would be a welcome relief from the pain and sorrow we are suffering. If we are religious we believe that heaven will be our refuge, if we are humanists we believe that the eternal sleep of death will stop our pain. For the person who believes in heaven, the problem with the logic is that death ends our ability to help people on this earth and is not what we would choose if we love our neighbors. Our other books look more closely at physical death from that perspective.
In this book we are focusing on the logical conclusions which may be reached by those who believe that there is no life after death. Virtually everyone who believes that physical death is the end also believes that physical death offers some form of peace or relief. This conclusion seems perfectly correct, however it is really perfectly wrong. Nihilistic death, death without life after death, is 100% neutral, it does not offer peace or turmoil or relief or anything else. It offers "nothing".
This is one of the most difficult concepts for human beings to understand and accept. If "nothing" follows physical death then there is no reason whatsoever to be anxious, disturbed, depressed, or suicidal. This is totally opposite to what common sense and our humanity tell us is true. If there is anything that evolution programs into human beings, it is the belief that life has existential meaning, that life has meaning in and of itself. Almost everyone assumes that since life has existential meaning, physical death would give us relief from whatever negative meaning an individual life may be experiencing.
The limits of human comprehension make it extremely difficult to understand the fact that if there is a nihilistic void after physical death, then there is absolutely no reason at all to consider the "nothing" that may follow physical life. "Nothing" cannot affect our physical lives, either positively or negatively. It cannot be a part of our existence, it cannot be a part of our thoughts, it is nothing. If a nihilistic fate awaits us then physical death does not relieve us of anything. To be relieved of pain and suffering, to enjoy an eternal rest after the labors of life, the entity who is relieved must exist.
If we do -
then after our physical death we are not around to be relieved of anything. The moment of physical death would not take away the pain, rather physical death would result in "nothing".
Again, it is very, very difficult to realize what it really means to say that "nothing" may follow physical death. You will not understand what we are saying until you understand that "nothing" is not positive or negative, good or bad, restful or chaotic, etc. It is extraordinarily difficult for human beings to understand and accept this logical truth. If and when you realize that "nothing" does nothing, you will realize that there is no logical reason whatsoever not to live the best physical life you can with hope in the possibility, no matter how infinitesimally small you may think it is, that life has meaning and value.
The possibility of nothing, and the fact that its non-existence renders it totally neutral, frees us to live as positive a life as we possibly can without any thought whatsoever about the physical consequences of physical death, with the belief that there may be existential meaning in our physical life and/or that there may be a non-physical life after our death. The possibility of meaning in our daily lives, and the freedom of "nothing" if we are wrong, is all that is required for us to live the best life we can.
It is very important to recognize that nihilism can never lead to suicide, for nihilism tells us that if we do in fact live in a nihilistic world, nothing that happens in our lives, no matter how badly we may feel about it at the time, has any "real" consequence at all. It tells us that if a nihilistic fate awaits us, what we perceive to be the very worst events in our lives are no better, or worse, than any other events. The possibility of "nothing" leaves you absolutely free to live a life filled with both pain and joy, knowing that if you live in a meaningless world the pain will be as if it never was, but that if life has meaning then you may find purpose in your life now and perhaps joy in a non-physical life after death. Terminating life does not bring peace, rather it destroys the possibility of a good physical life now, and perhaps of a good non-physical life after death. I am absolutely convinced that the philosophical neutrality that nihilism demands, means that nihilism never suggests or supports suicide as an option for any human being.
If you believe that suicide is an option, you totally misunderstand what you have read, you do not comprehend what it means to say that "nothing" may consume your past, present, and future. If in fact there is nothing after physical death, then if you live one more minute, or 10 or 20 or 30 or 40 or 50 more years, on your physical death all of the horrors you may suffer are "as if they never were". You are not relieved of the pain you suffered, the pain is as if it never was. This is not the same as saying that we find "peace" in a nihilistic death, we find "nothing". If you do not understand the difference then you must carefully reread and rethink the idea of "nothing" until you understand that it absolutely eliminates suicide as a choice.
An important comment, nihilism cannot be used, as it often is, as an excuse to do what you want to do. The suggestion that if nothing matters one would somehow be free to do what they want to do, free to be a concert pianist, an alcoholic, a doctor, a thief, etc., is simply wrong. While nihilism does not support positive accomplishments in life, neither does it make allowance for the negative aspects of life. Nihilism is a void that has nothing to say whatsoever about what should be done or what should not be done. It cannot be used as an excuse to do anything, for it says that just as no argument can be made against anything, no argument can be made for anything. If we actually do face a nihilistic death followed by "nothing", then "nothing" does not "enslave" us. "Nothing" does not "liberate" us. "Nothing" does not prevent us from doing anything. "Nothing" does not free us to do anything. "Nothing" is "nothing", period.
While it appears to be impossible to scientifically prove that life has value, it is equally impossible to objectively prove that life has no value. No matter what the nihilist may believe to be true at any particular time in their life, the possibility always exists that he or she may eventually find value and meaning in their life beyond nihilism. Since for the nihilist life experiences are ultimately neither bad nor good, there can be no reason whatsoever to terminate the opportunity to find value outside nihilism, there can be absolutely no reason to commit suicide. Those who do not believe that there is life after death have no reason to end their life, because the same "nothing" awaits them no matter when they die. Those who do not believe that there is life after death have every reason to live. It is absolutely clear that, whether they believe they will or not, nihilists may eventually find something beyond "nothing" that gives existential meaning to their life. It is also absolutely clear, that those who do not believe that there is life after death, or that physical life has existential meaning, may simply be wrong.
Beyond the human desire for meaning in life, I would suggest that nihilism itself requires the search for alternatives to nihilism. Those who believe that the void is approaching are, by the very nature of their humanity, required to search for something to believe in other than the void. At first this statement seems rather odd, but on careful reflection you should understand why all humans who understand that their philosophy leads them into the void, must search for that which may lead elsewhere. Perhaps this is the most important conclusion we can reach about nihilism.
There is no reason to believe that life ends at death, no reason to be a nihilist. If nihilism is correct, it makes no difference whatsoever if we believe it is correct, or not. If we believe nihilism is correct, and it is correct, that does not alter the void that would follow death. If we believe nihilism is not correct, and it is correct, that does not alter the void that would follow death. If we do not believe anything at all about nihilism, and it is correct, that does not alter the void that would follow death.
Yet if nihilism is not correct, belief and/or faith in that which offers a reason for living may well be essential to our existence. If we recognize that the humanistic belief that there is no life after death leads to the nihilistic conclusion that the "void" will consume past, present, and future, then to escape the quicksand of nihilistic time we must search for alternatives that provide a reason for living. Therefore, there is no reason whatsoever not to search for an alternative to nihilism, humanism, rationalism, agnosticism, etc., to explore the possibility of life after death and/or look for existential meaning in physical life, to search for a reason for living.
I am frequently told by those who champion humanistic philosophies that they are not "nihilists", that they believe in positive values and reject the argument that life is meaningless. They are missing the point. Humanism, rationalism, positive nihilism, etc., all assert that there is value and meaning in life. Yet humanism, rationalism, positive nihilism, etc., also assert that there is no life after death and that consciousness ends at death. I believe that this is a contradiction that can be reconciled only by the semantics of circular reasoning.
We have demonstrated that it is rational and logical to conclude that if consciousness ends at death, then death without life after death annihilates each individual's past, present, and future. Therefore I would argue (we will discuss the scientific complications below) that a humanist, rationalist, positive nihilist, any person who asserts that life ends at death, and who does not present a compelling argument for "existential" meaning and value, accepts the nihilistic conclusion that "nothing" will eventually consume their life, annihilating their past, present, and future.
It does not matter whether or not a humanist believes they are a "nihilist". Those who argue for humanistic philosophies cannot rationally and logically assert that there is value and meaning in a life they agree will eventually disappear, unless they make a convincing argument for "existential" meaning and value. I am not saying that humanistic philosophers do not assert that life has positive value and meaning even without a life after death, what I am saying is that I believe that their assertions are usually based on an assumption that the life of an individual who ceases to exist at death can somehow have value and meaning for the individual who no longer exists (or for future generations whose time to cease existing has not yet arrived).
I conclude that it is not logical or rational to assert that an individual's life has meaning and value to an individual, or any other individuals, unless those individuals "exist". I may be wrong, physical lives may have "existential" meaning, however I believe that humanistic philosophies, that deny the existence of life after death and that simply assume existential meaning, offer no escape from the "nothing" that would consume all value and meaning.
At the opposite end of the scale from humanists are "absurdists" who simply believe that life is "absurd", without meaning and value. They argue that on our death we are consumed by nothing, and therefore life is without meaning and value, yet they also assert that life itself is "absurd". If there is no life after death, the nothing that consumes both humanists and absurdists not only prevents their lives from being meaningful, but also prevents their lives from being absurd. Those who argue that there is no meaning to life cannot rationally argue that life is "absurd", rather if they are right then "nothing". If after physical death the human being does not exist then there is no rational meaning in saying that the human being lived an absurd life.
Failure to recognize the consequence of "nothing" led early Nihilists to the conclusion that even if Nihilism is true we can somehow transcend nihilistic death through our human will. This approach is simply irrational. The human reaction to Nihilism demands that we live our life as if life has existential meaning or as if there is a life after death, but it does not follow that we should live our life to "defeat" nihilism. We must live for the possibility that we do not live in a nihilistic world, with the knowledge that if Nihilism is in fact true then on our physical death - "nothing". If we live the most positive life we possibly can, not tilting against the windmill of nothing as Nietzsche would have us do, then if Nihilism is false we have done all we can and should do.
There are very few true nihilists, perhaps there are none. Even nihilists, who say that they accept the consequences we have discussed, usually find a way to interject value into existence while still claiming to be nihilists. The very fact that they explain to you that they are nihilists asserts that there is value in telling you they are nihilists. It is impossible to practice pure nihilism, yet that does not prove that nihilism is not "correct", nor does it prove that it is. The search for meaning and direction are part of being human, nihilists simply cannot escape that heritage.
Does anything we have said lead to the conclusion that we cease to exist on our death? I am thoroughly convinced that there is nothing in science, logic, or otherwise that leads to an objective conclusion that we cease to exist on our death. I am convinced that there is reason to believe in a non-physical life after death that gives meaning and purpose to our present lives. If a world exists beyond the grave that is beyond human perception, science cannot prove or disprove that it exists, period. More importantly, science cannot say that it is likely or unlikely that it exists (discussed at length in our other books).
The bottom line is that no matter what you feel, think, or believe, there may be a life after death. I believe that nihilism is the principal, perhaps the only, alternative to belief in a life after death. I believe that the possibility of continued existence is a "reality" which gives us hope that we may find something in our present life that makes life worth living. I have not heard a single argument that would change my belief that existence of a life worth living now and after death offers the possibility of turning the fantasy of a finite lifetime into the reality of an infinite life. I believe that life after death is the most logical alternative to Nihilism, yet I also realize that physical life may have existential meaning and value which human beings simply cannot recognize or understand. If you refuse to believe in a life after death, then the only logical choice is to live the most positive life you can with the hope that physical life has existential meaning and value.
Many people who have read this essay will return to the comfortable argument that if Bill found the cure for cancer while he was alive, his death does not erase that remarkable accomplishment, and therefore it is absolutely true that "Bill's life had meaning and value". It is human nature to believe that once an event has occurred in your life it has happened, period, and in fact it has. It is also human nature to believe that once that an event that had apparent meaning and value to you has occurred in your life, it will always have meaning and value to your life. If you accomplish a goal you have the incredibly strong feeling that "they can't take that away from me". You are absolutely sure that your past is indelibly etched in time. Yet we have shown that if there is no conscious existence after death, your past may in fact die with you. Those who refuse to accept the possibility that their past may be annihilated by "nothing" need to look more closely at the current understanding of spacetime, and at what it tells us about "scientific" answers to our questions.
The following is more complex than I would like it to be. For those readers who doubt the possibility that our conclusions are right, we include a rather detailed overview of cosmologic issues. For our conclusions to be true, it would seem that each of our physical lives would need to be "finite" so that each of us has a singular experiential existence. One of the strongest intuitive feelings that a human being possesses is the feeling that when something has happened in his or her life, it has happened, period. We intuitively believe that when a child has been born nothing can ever change that absolute fact. We believe that the birth of the child is far more than a memory, it is an event that will in some manner always be a part of the universe. Many feel that even if there is no life after death, they can fill the life they live on earth with meaning and value, and that their lifetime full of experiences will somehow live on after their death. At the same time we intuitively believe that we live only in the present. We live each day in our lives, one day at a time. As I write this essay I am not living the life I lived yesterday, I am not living the life I will live tomorrow, I am living "today". We intuitively believe that we do not exist in the future, we do not exist in the past, we exist now.
If there is no life after death, if we are little more than animals, an intuitive feeling of continuity would not be surprising. From the very beginning, to assure survival of any species, evolution would certainly have instilled in living creatures the feeling that there is a reason for them to exist, a reason for them to crawl out of the ocean and build cities. If there is no life after death, and our lives are in fact consumed by "nothing", it is no wonder that our genetic heritage argues so strongly against that possibility.
While each of us has the strong intuitive belief that there is a singular "me", that is either alive or dead, the modern physics behind the Schrodinger’s cat paradox illustrates that the answer is not that easy. The physics of quantum superposition could be telling us that we may be both dead and alive at the same time. When humanists speak of a positive life having meaning and value even if the individual eventually ceases to exist, they are necessarily saying that the positive life, and perhaps the individual consciousness that lives the life, somehow "persists" in spacetime after the death of that individual. Both quantum mechanics and special relativity support interpretations that dramatically blur the line between physical life and death. What does science tell us about all this? Does it allow for the possibility of a meaningful physical life without a non-physical life after death?
What is most likely to happen to us at our physical death can be divided into seven intuitive possibilities. We will consider five of these possibilities in some detail. We will quickly eliminate the two most radical ideas we call the Unreal and the Unknown possibilities.
Unreal possibility - It is possible that nothing is "real". We do not need to deal with this possibility because if it is correct it seems most likely that nothing matters at all. If there is no reality in life, if all is a transient illusion, then it would be virtually impossible for there to be any meaning and value in human existence. All that we experience in our lives reinforces our confidence in what we intuitively believe to be true, that the world we live in is "real". Even if we cannot objectively prove that we "exist", I do not know of a single rational theory that offers a significant reason to question our basic existence. While I strongly believe that our existence is real, if I am wrong and everything is unreal, then there are likely to be no rational questions that need to be asked, and no rational answers to be found.
Unknown possibility - We can also quickly eliminate the need to discuss the fact that since we are only a small part of the whole, we cannot know with absolute certainty that anything is true, or false, unless the knowledge of that truth or falsity has been revealed to us by the whole. While many people believe that certain truths about basic physical reality have already been revealed to us, I am not convinced that they have been. Therefore, it seems to me that there is a possibility that the intuitive feeling most of us have that our lives have meaning and value, may be based on an objective physical reality we do not, perhaps cannot, know and understand. It seems to me that it will always be possible that there is an underlying truth that we intuitively recognize, but that we cannot objectively know and understand. In other words, it is possible that we may never discover or understand the laws that explain the physical nature of our universe.
Even though this is a possibility, there is no "promising" theory or "expanding" knowledge base that I know of which would lead us to believe that a physical reality does in fact exist, that (a) is relevant to the meaning and value of human existence if there is no life after death, and that (b) is not included in one of the five possibilities below. While I may be wrong, I intuitively believe that no relevant physical, as opposed to non-physical, reality exists beyond that which we are currently able to perceive.
There is no way that we can prove that anything exists, or does not exist, beyond human perception (as extended by instruments, etc.). So we will leave as a possibility that some unknown physical dimension exists beyond human observation. We will also assume that this possibility is not a suitable foundation for speculation about a physical (as opposed to a non-physical) existence after death, and we will proceed to the five most likely possibilities.
Nonetheless, we need to recognize that there may be existential meaning and value to physical life without a life after death that we simply cannot recognize and understand during our physical lives.
Now let us try to discover what science is telling us about each of the five possibilities:
First possibility - there are billions of individual physical "me's" who have a permanent existence in spacetime.
Perhaps the most popular among physicists, this possibility asserts that human physical existence is based on the physical awareness of the billions of individual events that are experienced by human consciousness during a human lifetime. Once a discrete event has occurred in the period that each person recognizes as birth to death, it persists in what science calls spacetime, along with all other events that have occurred during a lifetime. Indeed, many interpret spacetime to require a reality where every event in the past, present, and future exists, locked forever in one "block universe". There is no past or future, only a strange kind of present where all worldlines simply EXIST.
Each of us may be thought of as the collective sum of all the individual events that occur during our lives. Yet if we are the sum of billions of individual events, that does not change the fact that each of the individual events is unique in spacetime. If this first possibility is true, there are many billions of physical "me's", one for each event in my life. Physics seems to tell us that the "me" at any one event would not be preferred over the "me" at any other event. No single "me" at any given event is the real "me"! This interpretation of reality leaves us with a very strange physical existence where, as one physicist said, "there is birth and death, but nobody is born or dies; there is change and motion, but nothing changes or moves; there are events, but nothing happens."
It is fair to say that most scientists believe that what we call physical consciousness is the essence of what makes a human being a human being. Based on the popular understanding of Einstein's theory of relativity, most scientists accept that human existence consists of the series of all the physical events that occur over the spacetime interval we call the birth to death of an individual. As we have said, these events are usually described as occurring along a worldline traced out in four (three space and one time) dimensional spacetime. Essentially, scientists view human physical existence as the product of every sequential event in the life of a human being that occurs along that individual's physical worldline.
Furthermore, most scientists believe that, just as everything else is, physical consciousness is the product of physical events. They believe that once a physical event has occurred it has occurred, that once physical consciousness has occurred it is forever etched in the fabric of spacetime, just as all other events are permanently etched along the individual's worldline. This is conventional wisdom at the turn of the millennium, and is the basis for what we call the first possibility. If the scientists are right, this possibility tells us that human consciousness persists at each of the billions upon billions of points along an individual's worldline that represent the physical events that create the physical consciousness.
If true, the cosmos is a very strange place, where each individual continues to exist forever as the billions of discrete events that create discrete human consciousness at every point along that individual's worldline. Some physicists describe this by saying that there are many "now's"; others say there are billions of approximate "isomorphs" of "me"; a few say that there are billions of "me"; etc. It seems that most scientists who are involved with theoretical physics and cosmology accept as inevitable the fact that in some fashion spacetime includes billions of "me's".
We should mention that the more exotic, so-called many worlds theory, offers a similar view of reality. Instead of spreading the billions of "me's" across spacetime, "many-worlds" disperses billions of "me's" across an almost infinite number of parallel universes. This may seem like science fiction, but the most recent survey of theoretical physicists and cosmologists found that most believe that quantum spacetime requires the adoption of some form of many-worlds theory.
GR requires that an observation at one event on a worldline cannot be preferred over any other observation at any other event on that worldline. Therefore the "me" at the beginning of my worldline is absolutely as real as the "me" at the end. If it is true that there are multiple instances of "me", either in spacetime or in parallel universes, our intuitive belief that we exist only in the present is wrong. Human consciousness would exist at the billions of physical events along our entire worldline(s). The human consciousness that exists at each of those events might "think" that it is unique, however it would be just one of billions of equally real, coexistent, individual occurrences of consciousness, individual occurrences of "me".
If we are present at all the events on our "worldline", what would happen on the day of our death? The fundamental underlying question is, "what is the nature of human existence?" Relativity tells us that the events that make up our past have not necessarily occurred for beings that might live in other regions of spacetime. Observers who observe a past section of the worldline of an individual who has already died (something that theoretically does happen) would find the individual "existing" at that point on the worldline, performing the events that make up that individual's worldline. This is far more than going back and viewing a videotape of an individual's life, this is living observers actually observing "in real time" events in another individual's life. Long after we have "died", those observers can theoretically observe our physical past and watch our actual graduation as it occurs, the birth of our children as they are being born, etc., etc., etc.
If someone on a distant galaxy observes the worldline of an athlete on earth who has already died, viewing a point on the worldline fifty years before the athlete's death, the observer will witness the athlete actually winning the race in which he set a world record! This is far more than observing what happened in the "past", from the standpoint of both the observer and the athlete the race is actually being run! This is not science fiction, this is the currently favored interpretation of relativity!
Our continued existence from an outside observer's viewpoint seems to be some kind of physical "life after death". Indeed, relativity tells us that the nature of human existence at the point in an individual's life that they experience as current, cannot be distinguished from the nature of human existence measured at any other point on the individual's worldline. The nature of your existence at the "current" point on your worldline where you are reading this book, cannot be distinguished from the nature of your existence at your birth. In other words, the observer who views a dead person's worldline in the middle of the person's life, cannot in any way determine whether the person subsequently died or is still living. So long as spacetime exists, events on the worldline remain forever "real", as if set in timeless space. The past is indistinguishable from the present and the future. Could it be that cosmology tells us we have a physical, not a spiritual, life after death?
The problem is that, if this is the correct interpretation of relativity and reality, there are billions of us already existing at every event in our past. It is fair to say that we intuitively feel no meaningful connection to these billions of physical instances of our physical consciousness. We may have memories of the events of last year, yet we do not believe that we continue to physically exist in the past as distinct individuals who experience those events. We do not believe that we continue to be physically present at every moment of our past, while at the same time being physically present in our "today", yet this is the conclusion that current theory leads us toward.
If true, it would seem to me to be absolutely impossible to find meaning and value for "me" in the collective existence of each of the billions of instances of individual consciousness, no singular one of which is the singular real "me" who can live a meaningful life. I simply do not believe that anyone, who truly understands and accepts as true the implications of our current models of spacetime, can construct a philosophy that assigns meaning and value to a life that is lived in a billion totally independent parts. So we will assume that if by some wild chance there are billions of each of us that forever live micro-second lives, life has no meaning and value in any realistic sense of these words.
We did not reach this conclusion using the logic we used in the first part of this essay. None-the-less, the conclusion is the same, if current models of spacetime are essentially correct, it looks like physical (not non-physical) existence has no meaning and value. Frankly, I don't think this is what relativity is telling us about spacetime and reality. Yet if it is, billions of "me's" live totally isolated existences, the meaning and value of which, if any, is beyond human comprehension.
Second possibility - there is one physical "me" who is my entire lifetime and who has a permanent existence in spacetime.
This possibility follows a similar interpretation of relativity, but concentrates on the idea that each of us is the collective sum of all the individual events that occur during our lives. There is really not a whole lot that we can objectively say about this concept. Many scientists talk about objects being their entire "worldline", but they don't offer any useful explanation about what they mean by that statement. I do not know of a formal or informal interpretation of relativity that provides a consistent methodology for treating an entire worldline in spacetime as a single physical structure which interacts with other entire worldlines.
I am not implying that this is not how scientists actually view worldlines. Indeed, when scientists analyze a particle they do not talk about a single point on the particle's worldline, rather they consider the entire (or at least a segment of the) path and worldline of the particle. Similarly, when scientists talk about a human being they are not referring to a single particle, or even a system of particles at a particular time, but rather they are referring to an almost infinitely complex system of particle worldlines that collectively form what we call a human being. Can it be that the system that is "me" has an existence apart from its individual parts, or that it is the sum of those individual parts?
While this possibility is consistent with our intuitive feeling that we are a single being, and represents what may be the best chance to find meaning and value in physical existence, it appears that it is in conflict with the principles of relativity, and perhaps of quantum mechanics as well. We are confronted with the problem, how can it be true that "Bob" is his entire worldline, and at the same time be true that each of the individual events along Bob's worldline is "Bob"? We can view Bob as the sum of his parts, but we cannot ignore the fact that those parts, the individual events in his life, have dynamic existences that are governed by GR and QM. If we say that Bob is his entire worldline, we ignore the dynamics of the individual events on that worldline. The popular interpretations of relativity, and apparently of QM, simply do not allow us to do that.
For example, assume Bob is his entire worldline. Someone who observes Bob's worldline at age four will see a healthy, active Bob. Bob breaks his leg when he is six years old. If Bob is his entire worldline at age six, then a second observer who looks at Bob's worldline at age six will see a Bob with a broken leg. So what does a third observer who is spatially separated see when he takes a look at Bob's worldline at age five, after the sequence of events where Bob was a healthy four year old and before he was a boy with his leg in a cast at age six? Bob broke his leg at age six, if he is his entire worldline should not his worldline at age four include his "current" condition at age six? Since relativity tells us that Bob's worldline at age four and five cannot be preferred over Bob's worldline at age six, one can assert that the third observer will see the same healthy Bob that the first observer saw, the worldline will not incorporate Bob’s whole life.
If we consider QM perhaps we might modify this second possibility to say that each individual me is my worldline up to the point of observation, yet once again we have billions of individual "me's" prior to the observation with unique, often incompatible, characteristics. The worldline at the point of observation does not appear to incorporate all the "prior" (existing) events on the worldline. If this logic is sound, we have not found a physical existence that can give meaning and value to a singular life, to "me". (Readers who believe that time does not have an arrow can reformulate the example with events ordered in the reverse direction, the result remains the same)
Third possibility - there is one physical "me" who is found at the very end of my lifetime and who has a permanent existence in spacetime.
This proposal says that it is possible the "last" version of me, in QM terms perhaps the last actualization of me, just before physical death contains memories of my entire lifetime, and that it is the real, singular, "me". Indeed, there would still be billions of me's existing in spacetime, yet the final "me" would be my singular physical existence in spacetime.
To get around the problems of the last possibility, we might propose that Bob is his entire worldline as defined by the last event on that worldline. This seems to be the only way to avoid the problem of having the Bob who is his entire worldline at age 4 evolve as that worldline changes at ages 5 and 6. It is possible that the "last" version of me on my worldline could be considered to contain memories of my entire lifetime that are somehow complete and "unique". It is said by most of those who have had near death experiences that just before physical death a human being sees his or her entire lifetime flash before their eyes. Is it conceivable that this summary of an entire life may be so intense that the final moments of life, the final segment of our worldlines, might be said to be the real "me"? Perhaps the last moments finalize our entire worldline, defining who we are. So if who we are is determined by the last few minutes of our lives, have we found in modern physics a meaningful physical life after death? I think the answer is that we have not.
First, we have the problem that if the last few minutes of a lifetime are unique, we may once again violate relativity by assigning properties to that period of time that might allow it to be distinguished from all other times. The underlying problem is that there would still be billions of "me's" existing in spacetime, including the "me" who is found on his or her worldline at age 1, age 2, age 3, age 4, age 5, age 55, etc. How can we say that the final "me" has some physical quality that gives that "me" a perpetual physical existence in spacetime that is fundamentally different from the me that exists at age 5?
Some might attempt to escape the box by saying that since GR does not require time to flow in a particular direction, an entire worldline at age 5 can be considered to represent the years birth to age 5, or just as correctly death to age 5 (this may seem weird, but it is solidly grounded in GR). The answer to that logic is perhaps that the worldline may be either birth to age 5, or death to age 5, but not both. Time may not have an intrinsic direction, but when we combine the requirements of relativity and quantum mechanics we find many problems with the idea that the entire history of the universe has already happened (it may be full determined in GR theory, but that does not mean it has actualized in QM theory). In any event, we have still not explained why an arbitrarily selected age 5 should be viewed as fundamentally different to age 1, age 2, age 3, etc. If we say that any particular endpoint on a worldline is the human being, by doing so, we seem to deny that the real person exists on their worldline at any other point in their "lifetime", and we violate relativity.
Then there is the general problem of finding a compelling reason to believe that the fraction of a second when our life passes before our eyes results in an experience that is in some way a singular moment of consciousness that defines our entire life. For one thing, those people who experience the instantaneous physical death of an explosion presumably do not have time to review their lives. Even if we limit this physical life after death to those who do in fact experience a "flash-back", any such review would apparently take more than a single moment to view. The flash-back would presumably result in discrete micro-second sequential installments of our lives, that would be a series of individual events on our worldline. In other words, the brief and intense experience of my entire life would be a series of events shared among the several dozen "me's" that exist at the very end of my worldline, no single one of whom is the real "me".
Also, while this mental review has been said to be one of the most pleasant experiences that anyone can have, those who have experienced it say that what follows is even better. For many, the final feeling of total calm that most report experiencing is the state they want to preserve (most who believe in a non-physical life after death wanted to go even farther, they wanted to go beyond all physical states). It is very difficult to believe that the ultimate physical calm associated with physical death is somehow preserved in spacetime as the singular physical "me".
Finally, is the "me" who exists in the middle of my worldline, who is my entire worldline up to that point, and who would be forever conscious of pain if my back was broken at that point in my life, in any way comforted by the fact that the final "me" is forever conscious of what as a whole was a "wonderful life"? Does it not seem likely that the me who suffers pain forever, could not even know that there is another "me" that is experiencing a joyous existence? Again, if we argue that the real "me" is the me that is my entire worldline on the date of my physical death, how can we get around the principles of relativity that demand that the twenty-five year old "me" who dies at age 25, and is somehow said to be my entire worldline to that date, is any more "me" than the five year old me with a worldline from birth to age 5?
I believe that the idea of a preferred physical "me" that forever experiences a conscious summary of my entire life, is a fantasy that is no more real than the idea that I can meaningfully experience forever my first birthday. The idea that a single event on a worldline somehow defines the nature of the entire worldline, or that a single event on a worldline defines the nature of the entire worldline, would seem to be unsupportable interpretations of current spacetime physics. The "final moments" may continue to exist as events on each human being's worldline, but it would seem that they would have no more, or no less, significance than any other events on that worldline. We are once again left with the existence of billions of "me's", none of which can be said to have a meaningful life. The sum of a billion isolated "me's" that are happy and a billion isolated "me's" that are sad does not yield a single "me".
[As I have said, I cannot rule out the possibility that, even if there is no life after death, we may have a persistent physical existence so that our lives have meaning and value. Furthermore, if there is no non-physical life after death, that fact would not mean that a Supreme Being, God, does not exist. It is possible that God exists and gives us the opportunity to choose to live a good physical life on earth, or not. Even though I believe in a life after death, if I am wrong perhaps God would have us maximize our lives on earth, so that we may experience a positive existential existence on earth.]
Fourth possibility - there is one physical "me" who is found in the present only, and who has a transitory existence in spacetime.
Some physicists assert that human physical existence is based on the existence of individual human consciousness that is fully "focused" in what each person recognizes as his or her present. This idea supports the conclusion that each of us has a physical existence, not in the past, not in the future, but in the present only. This is probably the closest model to what we intuitively feel is true, yet many physicists who believe in GR do not believe that this approach is mathematically correct while others who favor QM think it is right on track.
Some physicists believe that human physical existence is based on the existence of individual human consciousness that is fully "focused" in what each person recognizes as his or her present. Determining the truth of this assertion requires an answer to one of the most difficult questions about physical existence, "Is physical consciousness somehow fundamentally different to other physical events?" First, we need to understand a bit better the problem we alluded to above, does (local) time have a direction from past to future? Most scientists believe that time has a direction, an arrow, but they are not sure why, and they do not know how to determine what direction it is pointing. The time symmetry of virtually all the known laws of physics suggests that time may not flow smoothly from past to present to future. Most or all of the laws of relativity, quantum mechanics, etc., work just as well if you substitute a -t (negative time) for t (positive time) in the various equations (The fifth possibility will assert that Einstein's theory of general relativity tells us that the very concept of time is meaningless).
One thing that appears to give time a direction from the past to the present to the future, from birth to life to death, is the second law of thermodynamics, which requires an increase in entropy in the universe. Entropy is best understood as an increase in disorder (for scientists the entropy of a state is a measure of the volume of the region containing the phase-space point representing the state). The universe began in a very low state of entropy. As stellar gases coalesced to form stars, the "order" of the universe was increased, thus decreasing the disorder of entropy. From shortly after the beginning of the universe to the present, entropy has reversed, and, for the most part, has steadily increased.
While a glass may be seen falling from a table, with water splashing and glass shattering, we will never see a shattered glass reassemble itself, water flow uphill, and the whole mess fly from the floor onto the table. In other words, we always (with very limited exceptions) see simple systems (in low-entropy states) becoming more "disordered" (moving toward higher entropy states). Drinking glasses will always break and will never spontaneously assemble themselves from pieces of glass. This may be what gives time a direction, yet there are other possible interpretations. Some scientists find a direction for time in the apparent asymmetry of state-vector reduction in quantum theory. The fact that the time reverse of state-vector reduction (wave function collapse) may be non-probabilistic (a very controversial idea) may make the "present" fundamentally different from the "past".
If we assume that time does flow along our worldline, where on that line do we find what we call our physical consciousness? A few noted scientists (e.g. – Roger Penrose) believe that physical consciousness is a quantum mechanical effect, which perhaps occurs when quantum state-vector reduction happens. The very controversial additional idea that human freewill has roots in quantum actualization may give us a glimpse of why consciousness would exist only at the point of state-vector reduction. It has been suggested that the human mind possesses the ability to alter the outcome of the state-vector reduction that is occurring within its neurons. If the mind does not make the results entirely non-probabilistic, it is suggested that it may at least alter the probabilities to favor a chosen result. The process by which this may occur is unknown, but may involve non-local quantum-gravity effects. The key element would be a non-probabilistic, non-algorithmic mechanism within the human brain / mind for altering quantum state-vector reduction outcomes (or for altering whatever physics may lie beyond quantum-mechanics).
If this mechanism is real, human consciousness exercises freewill and would quite likely be restricted to the "present", because the "present" would be the only place where non-algorithmic freewill choices are made. Human beings would make free will decisions among alternate possible outcomes by consciously altering (whatever that may mean) the outcome of quantum state-vector reduction. The relevance of these theories to our inquiry is that if physical consciousness is the result of time asymmetric state-vector reduction, either probabilistic or non-probabilistic, it is likely to be "focused" at the leading edge of each individual's expanding worldline. If so, physical human consciousness would be found ONLY in what each individual perceives to be their "present".
Human beings intuitively believe that they live only in the "present". Those who believe that they are their "physical consciousness", have the strongest of intuitive beliefs that their physical consciousness exists today, now, and at no other time in the past or future. Human beings do not believe that they can go back into their own past, nor do they believe that they co-exist in their past and present. This intuitive belief does not provide any objective proof whatsoever that we exist in the present only.
Yet it does suggest that it may be true that if human consciousness is the result of quantum state-vector reduction, it does occur at the "end" of our worldline (or even slightly past the "end", outside the confines of spacetime). If so, then physical (not necessarily non-physical) consciousness may exist only where state-vector reduction is occurring, at the leading edge of each individual's expanding worldline, and, most importantly, it may NOT EXIST after the state-vector reduction has occurred. Current scientific theory simply does not rule out the possibility that human consciousness may exist only in the vicinity of the leading edge of an individual's worldline, and only so long as it is expanding. Physical consciousness would not necessarily be tied to the "present" because it is the "present", but rather because the present (or somewhere slightly ahead of the present) is the only place where actualization of events occurs.
If this interpretation is true, then human physical consciousness exists only in each individual's "present". When the individual experiences physical death, their human consciousness would cease to exist. The individual's human consciousness would never again be found to exist in the past, present, or future of the cosmos. Again, the difference is that if human physical consciousness exists only at the leading edge of an individual's expanding worldline, when the worldline ceases to expand the individual physical consciousness ceases to exist, anywhere. If we exist only at the leading edge of our worldline and only so long as our worldline is expanding, then if there is no life after physical death, all that we said about life being meaningless if there is no life after death is fully consistent with scientific reality.
What do physicists think about this idea? Almost all reject it as being wrong. Based on current interpretations of physical reality, most scientists find it difficult or impossible to conclude that the physical consciousness created by current events is any different from the physical consciousness associated with past events, and therefore do not agree that human consciousness is found only at the leading edge of each individual's worldline. As we discussed in the First, Second, and Third possibilities, most scientists continue to believe that human consciousness is found at every event along each individual's worldline.
None-the-less, many scientists believe that we simply do not have a sufficient understanding of the physics of spacetime to have confidence in our partial theories and intuitive feelings about spacetime. My own feeling is that we have progressed from pre-historic times when we had virtually no explanations for physical events, to a period when we believe we understand the major physical forces that govern our physical existence. We have become so amazed at our ability to reason that we do not give enough thought to the fact that the physical structure of our minds imposes absolute limitations on our ability to make scientific deductions. We fail to recognize that we are absolute prisoners in the windowless rooms whose walls are defined by the limits of our physical senses and scientific instruments. I am thoroughly convinced that we have a very limited understanding of our physical existence, and that we do not know what spacetime really is. This conclusion is more or less shared by physicists and cosmologists who understand general relativity and quantum mechanics. It will lead us to the fifth possibility, which may give us some help in predicting what future scientists will discover.
Fifth possibility - there is one physical "me" who has a transitory existence in space.
I believe that this will prove to be the correct answer, but I may be totally wrong. It is based on the fact that general relativity denies the existence of a fundamental "time". In fact, it appears that if and when we discover a theory of quantum gravity, or some other theory that unites relativity and quantum mechanics, it may not include anything like what we call "time". Even though it has not yet been proven, I believe that there is no "past", no "future", only an atemporal "now", a "now" that is much more than a "present" moment in time. Many models that lack "time" are being tested by the handful of mathematical physicists who understand both general relativity and quantum mechanics, so far with limited success. Whether any can be proven to be correct remains to be seen.
The fifth possibility is based on a very radical interpretation of the future of physics, yet I believe that it is solidly grounded in the math of GR and QM. It is consistent with both my intuitive and logical conclusions about physical consciousness. It is based on the surprising mathematic fact, all the equations of General Relativity can be solved without reference to a fundamental quantity "time"!
Simply stated, it may be true that there is no such thing as a fundamental "time", that we cannot describe the state of the universe as a function of some real number called "time". If correct this means that we can construct clocks that give us the illusion of an underlying reality called time, but at the most fundamental level "time" does not exist! A quick illustration may help, assume there is a universe with only four objects in it, if the objects begin moving we can construct a clock using two of the objects, and use it to "time" the motion of the other two. Now assume that all four objects stop moving, everything in the universe is instantly frozen in space. If you think about this for a while, you will realize that not only has the motion stopped, but time has also stopped. With nothing moving there is absolutely no way to define time! In fact, with no clock to judge the passage of time, many cosmologists agree that time does not exist!
Carlo Rovelli gives us the technical details (see www.ws5.com/spacetime for a detailed discussion), which I quote for the benefit of any skeptical physicists reading this:
"In traditional GR, a point in the physical phase space is a solution of Einstein equations up to active diffeomorphisms. A state represents a 'history' of spacetime. The quantities that can be univocally predicted are the ones that are independents from the coordinates, namely that are invariant under diffeomorphisms. These quantities have vanishing Poisson brackets with all the constraints. Given a state, the value of each of these quantities is determined. In quantum gravity, a quantum state represents a 'history' of quantum spacetime. The observables are represented by operators that commute with all the quantum constraints. If we know the quantum state of spacetime, we can then compute the expectation value of any diffeomorphism invariant quantity, by taking the mean value of the corresponding operator. The observable quantities in quantum gravity are precisely the same as in classical GR. Some of these quantities may express the value of certain variables 'when and where' certain other quantities have certain given values. . . . These quantities describe evolution in a way which is fully invariant under the parameter time, unphysical gauge evolution. The corresponding quantum operators are Heisenberg operators. There is no Schrodinger picture, because there is no unitary time evolution. There is no need to expect or to search for unitary time evolution in quantum gravity, because there is no time in which we should have unitary evolution. A prejudice hard to die wants that unitary evolution is required for the consistency of the probabilistic interpretation. This idea is wrong."
Rovelli goes on to say:
"The time 'along which' things happen is a notion which makes sense only for describing a limited regime of reality. This notion is meaningless already in the (gauge invariant) general relativistic classical dynamics of the gravitational field. At the fundamental level, we should, simply, forget time." (Quantum Spacetime: What do we know? "Physics Meets Philosophy at the Planck scale" by Carlo Rovelli, C Callender N Hugget eds, Cambridge University Press)
I do not believe that a fundamental variable time exists in any form in the universe. I would suggest that the fourth dimension is absolutely identical to the other three (this is where my intuitive, amateur, highly speculative, interpretation drastically diverges from that of physicists like Rovelli, Baez, Smolin, J. Barbour, and others who are working on this problem). We live in a fundamentally atemporal universe where all dimensions are defined by relative position. There is no question that we experience the passage of time, but that is an illusion based on observing relative motion. If we want to find how long it takes for a runner to go from the starting point to the finish line, we compare his motion to the motion of a second hand traveling around our watch.
You may protest that we feel the passage of time even if we do not own a watch, yet that is due solely to the fact that both our physical bodies and objects in the world around them are filled with relative motion. We experience the passage of time because we are aware of the motion of our heart as it beats, the rustling of leaves on a tree, the motion of a bird in flight, etc. We believe that time moves forward because of the billions of instances of relative motion that are an inseparable part of our physical existence. Perceptive readers will ask, how can relative motion occur if it is not due to the passage of time? The answer is found in presymplectic mechanics.
Presymplectic mechanics is best illustrated by a universe occupied by a single row of dominoes. If no forces act, nothing happens, and there is no passage of "time". Time simply does not exist if nothing moves! When one pushes (assume there is a way to start the process) on one end, the row falls due to the mechanical interaction of each domino with the next in the line. This is a time independent phenomena, each domino pushes the next domino due to the mechanical interaction between them, not due to any concept of time. The evolution of the system is due purely to physical forces that are time independent. Indeed, it is the mechanical motion of the dominoes falling from which time may be derived when a second row of dominoes is used as a "clock".
I believe that we should take the lack of a fundamental time extremely seriously, and not attempt to substitute another "temporal variable" for time. I see no reason why we should not accept that we live in an essentially atemporal, spatial, universe, even if the "space" is more complex than we currently imagine. It is my understanding that "People are born and die,..." because presymplectic mechanics causes state evolution, without the need for any temporal variable whatsoever. I simply believe that the universe will prove to be essentially "spatial" (in the sense of relative position only) in nature, and will have no fundamental "temporal" component of any kind. All "temporality" will be found to be derived from the atemporal, presymplectic, state evolution.
If my atemporal interpretation is correct, then there is no spacetime, there is only a 4 (or some other number) dimensional manifold (I favor the idea that there is no fundamental "space", only relative "position"). Therefore, worldlines exist in what is commonly thought of as 4d space only for so "long" as the presymplectic mechanics occur that define the worldline. When the last domino falls, the physical system that was defined by the action of the presymplectic mechanics no longer exists. When the last event in a human life is over, the physical system that was defined by the action of the presymplectic mechanics no longer exists.
From our standpoint, the important conclusion is that the physical experiential existence of a singular human being in an atemporal space ends at physical death (again, remember that despite what I believe to be true there may be existential, experiential, phenomena that science does not yet recognize and understand which allow for physical meaning and value in a finite physical life). When physical death occurs, the state of the entire system is altered, from "does exist" to "does not exist", going from "alive" to "dead". What was a conscious system because of the physical evolution of the state of the system in the universe, is no longer a system at all. After physical death the conscious system simply does not exist in the atemporal universe.
All that we have said about past, present, and future being annihilated if there is no non-physical existence after death appears to be consistent with, and supported by, a straight-forward interpretation of an atemporal model of the universe! If we live in a universe where "time" is not a fundamental quantity, then we have a singular experiential existence that, if there is no life after death, ends at the moment of physical death. The fifth possibility (which is considered by most or perhaps all cosmologists to be science fiction) clearly leads to the conclusion that at the moment of our physical death we no longer have a past, present, or future that is our past, present, and future.
Again, I believe that this is the correct interpretation of physical reality. However I realize that even if one of the five possibilities is correct and there is no meaningful life after death, there may still be existential meaning and value in physical life that human beings do not or cannot fully recognize and understand.
Note that none of these possibilities say anything about non-physical consciousness. If there is a life after death then our non-physical consciousness continues to exist in that life, and our past, present, and future exist.
I am not even close to being smart enough to prove that we live in an atemporal universe. If in the future scientists adopt an atemporal model of the universe, you will need to recall that such a model appears to support my logic and conclusion that if there is no non-physical life after death and no existential meaning to physical life, then our past, present, and future is annihilated by our death. If my interpretation of the consequences of an atemporal universe is correct, then life cannot have meaning and value unless there is a non-physical life after death or existential meaning to physical life.
We made the same logical deduction that life cannot have meaning and value if consciousness turns out to be a transitory, quantum mechanical, phenomena. The most popular current models of spacetime lead to the same conclusion, that a purely physical life does not have "meaning and value", but for a different reason. Our current models of spacetime, and the proposed many worlds extensions, do not provide for a singular being who can have a meaningful life. I simply do not accept that a billion isolated instances of a single human being can have anything approaching what we might call "meaningful lives". The only possibility that I see for a meaningful physical life is if a human being is in some way the sum of all the events in their life, so that they are in some way their entire "worldline".
Yet we have seen that the principles of relativity strongly argue against the idea that the "reality" of any single point on a worldline (or set of single points on each line in a "bundle" of worldlines), or the reality of a worldline taken as a single entity, can in any way be preferred over the reality of any of the individual points on that worldline. So I am left with the conclusion that science does not prove my arguments, but at the same time science does not currently offer any intuitively acceptable alternative possibilities. I believe that there is nothing in current scientific knowledge that contradicts my conclusion that for human life to have "meaning and value", in any realistic sense of those words, there must be a non-physical life after death, or there must be some existential meaning and value to physical life that we do not currently recognize and understand and that is perhaps beyond human ability to recognize and understand.
We have considered all five major possibilities. I have concluded that if there is no life after death, on the date of my physical death my physical consciousness will be annihilated. If there is no non-physical world in which my consciousness continues to experience existence after my physical death, then I believe that after my physical death there is no "me", and that my past, present, and future will be consumed by "nothing". I am convinced that what I believe to be true is essentially correct. Yet no matter how strongly I believe that I am right, I may be wrong, physical life may have existential meaning. The very nature of the questions we have been asking, argues against the possibility of finding a definitive answer. We may never be able to objectively verify if physical events persist forever in spacetime, or if, as I believe, they are temporary links in an "ever-changing" sequential chain of events. Since we do not know what the quest for quantum gravity and for a unified field theory will tell us about spacetime, I may simply be wrong. Unless and until physicists understand spacetime, you will have to decide for yourself what to believe is true.
What can we say to those who understand that at the moment of death "nothing" may consume past, present, and future; who choose to continue not to believe that life exists after death; and who question whether there is any reason to live positive lives in this world? I believe that there are strong reasons for all human beings, even those who do not believe in a life after death, to live the most positive lives they can for the benefit of their fellow human beings. I believe this is true for two principal reasons.
First, as I have just said, I recognize that my premises and conclusions about nihilistic death and humanistic philosophies may be totally wrong. Since it is impossible for human beings to prove anything to be absolutely true, or absolutely false, even if there is no life after death there may be existential value and meaning in our current life that we do not understand, and perhaps cannot understand during our lifetimes. While virtually anything may be true, it seems intuitive that the most reasonable possibility for physical (as opposed to non-physical) existence after death would be that human consciousness somehow "persists" in spacetime after physical death. We simply do not know enough to state with absolute certainty that consciousness and/or past events do not continue to exist forever in some meaningful physical form within spacetime. If the past continues to exist after physical death, what we do during our lives may have existential meaning and value. Even if there is no physical or non-physical existence after death, our physical lives may in fact have meaning and value that in some real sense is "immortalized" by the existential experience.
We should note that the continued physical existence of past events in spacetime would not in any way mean that there is not a non-physical existence after death. Nothing we have said is incompatible with the possibility of a non-physical life after death. We should also note that if there is a physical existence after death, what we do during our lifetimes may, in some manner we do not understand, cause that physical existence after death to be eternal joy for some, and perhaps for others, eternal pain.
Second, I believe it is true that all humans should live "positive lives" because I believe my premises and conclusions about nihilism are correct, and that we do not face a nihilistic death. I believe that there is a non-physical life after death in which our non-physical consciousness continues to exist.
As we have said, since human beings are only a part of the whole, it is clear that human beings cannot prove anything to be absolutely true or absolutely false. Those who do not believe in a life after death should be willing to recognize that even if they are not wrong, they "may" be wrong. Therefore, those who do not currently believe in the continuation of life after death should accept that, even if they do not believe that they will, they may in the future change their minds, and may believe or have faith in a life after death. Those who do not believe that there is life after death, have every reason to live for the possibility that there is life after death. Even if it does not happen until the last minute of their physical life, those who do not believe in a life after death may in the future know and understand, and believe and have faith, that there is a life after death, and that his or her current life has meaning and value. Even if it does not happen until the last minute of their physical life, those who do not believe in God may in the future have faith in God.
Again, we absolutely must recognize that, while it appears to be impossible to scientifically prove that life has value, it is impossible to objectively prove that life has no value. No matter what the nihilist may believe to be true at any particular time in their life, the possibility always exists that he or she may eventually find meaning and value in their life beyond nihilism. No one, including those who believe that life has no meaning and value, should ever reject the possibility that they are wrong. If life has meaning and value it has meaning and value, period. If life has no meaning and value, it makes no difference what you believe and do, the void will eventually consume all. The possibility of meaning in our daily lives, and the freedom of "nothing" if we are wrong, is all that is required for us to live the best life we can. If life does have meaning and value, your very "life" depends on your acceptance of that "possibility".
Life may have physical or non-physical meaning and value that we do not, and perhaps cannot until our physical death, recognize and understand. There is no reason at all to reject the possibility that each of us has some kind of permanent physical or non-physical consciousness, there is absolutely no logical reason whatsoever to reject the possibility that nihilism may be false! There is no reason whatsoever not to search for an alternative to nihilism, to explore the possibility of a permanent physical or non-physical consciousness, to recognize the possibility, however remote you may believe it to be, that life may have existential meaning that we do not or cannot understand, to search for a reason for living.
We have published our LifeNotes essay on our website LifeNotes (click here to visit). We suggest that you read LifeNotes first and then read our book "LOVE - In Search of a Reason for Living". We say in the preface to our books that each is "a book about life, and a book about you. Its purpose is to send you on a journey through your heart, mind, and soul. If you take the journey you will find in yourself the reason for living. If you care at all about life and people and yourself, you will take the journey." We invite you to download a copy.
If you would like to discuss nihilism further, or if you would like to send us your comments on our essay, please email your comments to mailto:firstname.lastname@example.org, we will be glad to answer individual mail if a volunteer is available [we may make minor edits to this essay, so you may want to check for further revisions in the future].
We have received comments from readers who tell us that our ideas caused them to be distressed or depressed. If you are one of those readers you need to consider the following. As human beings become anxious they often lose their focus and objectivity, and misinterpret what they are reading. If you understand what we are saying, there is absolutely no reason to be depressed by our ideas.
Why not? First, our conclusions may be right, we may have a permanent non-physical consciousness which gives meaning to life. Second, we may be wrong, life may have permanent existential meaning and value without a life after death. In either case suicide destroys the possibility of finding the meaning and purpose which may in fact exist in each and every human being's life. We are a small part of the whole. Unless the answer is revealed to us by the whole, we can never know during our physical lives what really happens when our physical life ends. Life may have physical or non-physical meaning and value right now that we do not, and perhaps cannot during our physical lives, recognize and understand. Third, the possibility of "nothing" leaves you absolutely free to live a life filled with both pain and joy, knowing that if "nothing" follows physical death, whether you die today, or next year, or ten years from now, the "pain" will be as if it never was.
Beyond the fact that we cannot be sure we are right, nothing we have said changes the fact that all human beings can choose to do that which is good and live as positive a life as they can with the belief/faith that life may have meaning and purpose. This fact is extremely difficult to accept if you are searching for meaning in your life, you do not believe that there is a life after death, and you are discouraged or depressed before you start reading.
If your mind is not receptive and clear, when you read our ideas they may touch raw nerves, and you may stop understanding what we are saying. If you do not agree that the possibility of "nothing" absolutely eliminates suicide as an option then carefully reread our note, "Afraid of Nothing?", and this section until you understand why our conclusion is true.
It is very important to understand that every person can live a positive life for the rest of their lives, loving their neighbor, doing that which is good, with the hope that physical life does have existential meaning and purpose and/or that there is a life after death. There is no reason whatsoever to be depressed, there is every reason to do that which is good and live the most positive life you are willing to live, with the hope that life has meaning and purpose. There is no reason whatsoever not to search for an alternative to nihilism, to explore the possibility of a permanent physical or non-physical consciousness, to seek existential meaning and purpose in our lives, to search for a reason for living. No matter what you may think right now, if there is a life after death or if there is no life after death, there is always a possibility that sometime in the future you will find meaning and purpose in your life.
Many who are deeply depressed believe that their lives are meaningless, and to escape the pain of living they seek the peace of suicide. If you are suicidal now visit www.areason.org, call the National Suicide Prevention Hotline 1-800-273-8255, and get professional help immediately. We have readers who indicate that they are distressed and depressed by the possibility that they may have committed the eternal sin. If God exists and if there is an eternal sin, then God gives us the choice to commit the eternal sin or not to commit the eternal sin, period. It would seem that those who have not committed the eternal sin would be distressed if they believed that they might have committed the eternal sin. It would seem that the very fact that someone is distressed by the belief that they may have committed the eternal sin may suggest that they have in fact not committed the eternal sin.
It appears that physical and mental disease may cause extreme anxiety and depression, and may lead a person to believe that they have committed the eternal sin and that they will live in hell after their death when in fact they have not committed the eternal sin. If you are distressed and depressed by the possibility that you have committed the eternal sin, then you need to talk with those who you believe have not committed the eternal sin, including religious counselors. Talk to several people, especially mental health professionals if there is any possibility of psychological or emotional problems, so that you may better determine what you have and have not done.
It can be very difficult to find qualified professionals, and even when you do find them, it can be very difficult to tell them about your fears. Find qualified professionals and talk to them. You need to overcome any reluctance you may have to talk with those who might help you, and be willing to allow them to help you decide what you really believe is true. Seek professional help now!
If you do not yet understand the fact that there is no reason whatsoever to be disturbed or depressed by our conclusions (including our conclusion that if there is no life after death your past, present, and future may be annihilated on your physical death) then you still do not understand what we are saying. Please take as much time as you need to reread and carefully think about what we are saying, until you satisfy yourself that there is in fact absolutely no reason to be depressed by our conclusions, and absolutely no reason whatsoever for any human being to commit suicide.
DEPRESSION IS A MEDICAL CONDITION, IF YOU ARE DEPRESSED, FOR ANY REASON, YOU MUST SEEK PROFESSIONAL HELP NOW!
(Mental Health Association website - http://www.mentalhealthamerica.net/go/suicide) Life is full of good times and bad, of happiness and sorrow. But when you are feeling "down" for more than a few weeks or you have difficulty functioning in daily life, you may be suffering from a common, yet serious medical illness - called clinical depression.
You are not alone
Every year more than 19 million American Adults suffer from clinical depression. Young or old, man or woman, regardless of race or income - anyone can experience clinical depression. Depression can cause people to lose the pleasure from daily life. It can complicate other medical conditions - it can be serious enough to lead to suicide. Yet this suffering is unnecessary. Clinical depression is a very treatable medical illness. So why don't many people seek the help they need? Clinical depression often goes untreated because people don't recognize the many symptoms. They may know some symptoms, such as sadness and withdrawal, but they are unaware of others, including anxiety, irritability, and sleeplessness. Some incorrectly believe that only people whose depression lasts for months, or who have completely lost their ability to function, have "real" - or "clinical" - depression. Many people even wrongly think that depression is "normal" for older people, young adults, new mothers, menopausal women, or those with a chronic illness. The truth is, clinical depression is never "normal," no matter what your age or life situation. Also, people need to know that treatment for clinical depression really works - and to learn how to go about finding the treatment they need.
Clinical Depression can be Successfully Treated
Clinical depression is one of the most treatable of all medical illnesses. In fact, more than 80 percent of people with depression can be treated successfully with medication, psychotherapy or a combination of both. Only a qualified health professional can determine if someone has clinical depression. But knowing the symptoms of clinical depression can help you as you talk with your health professional.
As with many illnesses, if treatment if needed, the earlier it begins, the more effective it can be.
And, early treatment increases the likelihood of preventing serious recurrences.
You Do Not Have to Cope with Clinical Depression on Your Own
Some people are embarrassed to get help for depression, or they are reluctant to talk about how they are feeling. Others believe that depression will go away on its own. You can't just "Tough it out!" Help is available.
Talking to friends, family members and clergy can often give people the support needed when going through life's difficult times. For those with clinical depression such support is important, but it is not a substitute for the care of a health professional. Remember, clinical depression is a serious illness that you do not have to treat on your own.
(from the National Institute of Mental Health http://www.nlm.nih.gov/medlineplus/depression.html)
A depressive disorder is an illness that involves the body, mood, and thoughts. It affects the way a person eats and sleeps, the way one feels about oneself, and the way one thinks about things. A depressive disorder is not the same as a passing blue mood. It is not a sign of personal weakness or a condition that can be willed or wished away. People with a depressive illness cannot merely "pull themselves together" and get better. Without treatment, symptoms can last for weeks, months, or years. Appropriate treatment, however, can help most people who suffer from depression.
(Copyright (c) 1995-2013 Compact Library Publishers Inc., Paul Snyder author, all rights reserved. You may make and distribute copies of this essay, or selections from it. You must include all copyright notices and include this paragraph with every copy. You may not make any additions or deletions to the text. Any alterations to the text would be a violation of our copyright. Any comments that you attach to the text must clearly state that they are not part of the essay, and that they are the opinion of the commentator and not necessarily the opinion of the author. Significant portions of this essay were taken from "LOVE - In Search of a Reason for Living", Copyright (c) 1990-2013 Compact Library Publishers Inc.)