Original Link : https://www.ws5.com/nihilism/
Do you believe that life does end, or may end, at death? Everyone who believes that death may be the end should read the following short essay. It represents a serious attempt to help you recognize questions you probably already have on your mind. We will suggest that, whether they realize and admit it or not, anyone who does not believe in an “afterlife” may in fact be a “nihilist”.
We will be discussing the oxymoron that true Nihilists believe in “nothing”. We will also 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 while Nihilism does not condone negative acts, it is equally true 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 humanistic, nihilistic world.
There are many, many, sincere people who champion a rationalist, humanistic, worldview. They present convincing logical arguments that lead to the conclusion there is no life after death. However, rather than asking what the consequences are of their beliefs, they almost universally stop at the point of “disproving” life after death and simply assume that a purely physical lifetime has meaning. In an attempt to apply rational thought to reject the non‐physical they accept the existence of existential meaning in physical life without critical analysis and a logical foundation.
Perhaps there is existential meaning in a purely physical life, yet the unquestioned acceptance of this possibility by rational thinkers is no more supported by scientific analysis than the possibility of a non‐physical existence. I believe that the assumption by those who do not believe in a non‐physical life after death that physical life has existential meaning may itself be an irrational myth, and that belief in the possibility that there is a non‐physical life after death is the logical, rational, hope for humankind. The goal of this essay is to present straightforward arguments for my conclusions.
Most people start with what they believe to be a basic understanding of “nothing”. Many secular thinkers embrace the idea that there is nothing after physical death, yet at some point in their lives experience angst when they recognize the logical consequences of what they believe. They seek ways to avoid what they think they have discovered by redefining nihilism. 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” and then suggest an appropriate response.
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”, and a longer version of this essay Something Out of Nothing, all available in the Apple (free), Google (free), and Amazon ($1) bookstores (published by Compact Library Publishers) and at http://www.lifenotes.org. If you find the conclusions of this book troubling then please read the other books before deciding for yourself what you choose to believe.
This essay is a collection of thoughts about Nihilism. It is the culmination of a lifetime of observing sincere individuals struggling with the concepts and consequences of nihilistic thoughts. Over the years it has varied in content, from a fairly long book to the current short essay, which is basically four chapters taken from our books. It is primarily meant to introduce the discussion which is presented in the books.
Warning! There is a risk that as you read this essay you may think we are suggesting that there is no “reason to live”. That is not what we are saying at all! In fact we are saying the opposite, we have abundant hope that if you search within, you will find in yourself the reason for living. If you are discouraged or depressed, please finish reading all of this essay and then read our other books. Anyone who is, or becomes, seriously depressed should always seek immediate medical help. See Distress & Depression at the end of this essay.
Who Will You Be When You No Longer Are?
If in fact you do exercise meaningful freedom of choice, what good is it to be a unique human being if at your death you cease to exist? 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? If you do not survive the grave, if you return to the state of being that preceded your birth, then I 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 human beings’ 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 homemaker, the famous, the unknown, every human being, you, 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 do not need to 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, may be rendered void in that moment of death. It goes against human nature to visualize the effective destruction of our past, present, and future, which may accompany death without existence beyond death. Yet if each human being does cease to exist, then 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 may be false (please note, as we discuss later, we do not believe that life is in fact destroyed by physical 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. 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 may die an isolated death that 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 whatsoever to those who no longer are. No one will survive to remember. If each of us ceases to be, then your life may have no meaning and your choices may make no difference.
We admit that this logic seems counter intuitive, and even wrong, but if we are willing to dissociate ourselves from the incredible biologic urge for self-preservation, both of the individual and the species, and are willing to apply purely objective reasoning, the logical conclusions, while discomforting, are perhaps inevitable (there are several possible logical loopholes that might give permanent meaning and value to a finite physical life, we discuss them below and in more detail in our book Love – In Search of a Reason for Living). This is a very difficult conclusion to accept, it goes against our intuitive feelings about human life, and against our assumptions that individual physical lives have meaning and value.
Yet if we are little more than doomed animals, our intuitive feeling of meaning and value 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.
Think about it for a while. If each person’s consciousness is the product of their physical brain, then it seems logical to assume that individual physical consciousness exists only during that person’s physical life on earth. If each of our physical lives proceeds from birth to death, then the consequence of each 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 purely physical human being who no longer exists. The moment before the death of a human being it can be said that their impending death affects them, but the very moment after the person dies, he or she is no longer around to be affected!
Most agree that cause and effect, action and consequence, occur in a fixed order, the former always “preceding” the latter. Let us assume, for example, that a comet hits the Earth and all life is annihilated. It is very hard to accept, but if consciousness, our mind, is nothing more than a physical phenomena, if there is no non-physical continuation of life after death, then the most 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 may not be. The moment after the total destruction of humankind 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 (note that our logic may be questioned by those who think we live in a block universe, we believe it is correct even in static block models). If you believe that each human being is nothing more than an individual physical entity, and therefore that there is no life after death, then at the time of their death each human being experiences the identical individual annihilation that all humankind would experience together if the earth was “destroyed” by a comet. If a human being named Bill dies at 12:00 noon, and there is no life after death, at 12:01 Bill is not “around” to be affected by his death. After 12:00 noon you could search the entire universe for Bill and you would not find him. If there is no life after death, the very moment after the event known as Bill’s death, Bill no longer exists, and 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. 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 use of the words past, present, and future both to describe that which is part of an object (a “past” which belongs to the object, like a person’s memories that “belong” to the living individual from birth to death), and to describe the existence of the object from a third party’s view (a “past” which is a chronological description of an object, like a photo album containing a lifetime collection of pictures of an individual who has died).
It is a misconception to equate the fact that there is a “history” of all beings or objects which is set in the “past”, with the statement that a being or object that no longer exists has a “past”. The first idea simply says that the being or object existed over a finite period that is apparent to those who currently exist. The second idea is different, there is a “history” set in the past that is the sum of all lifetimes, but a person who no longer exists has no “past” that is their past, unique to and dependent on their existence. A person who has died has no physical past, present, or future for the simple reason that the person no longer exists.
Admittedly, our conclusions about physical death are totally opposite to our “common sense” understanding of life. There are many arguments that purport to counter our logic, including assertions that a person’s life before physical death has “existential” meaning (we use “existential” in the sense of having meaning and purpose “in and of itself”). Yet most of the alternative arguments are based on the biophysics of existence before physical death. They are set in the time before death, within the causal sequence of events that precede death. We believe that none of the popular arguments adequately address the period after death (perhaps with the possible exception suggested by modern physics that is discussed below), and therefore none adequately answer the question of how a person who no longer exists can have a past, a present, or a future?
What Does Science Say?
What does science have to say about all this? We need to recognize that the very difficult conclusions we reach in this section are not necessarily supported by conventional interpretations of general relativity and quantum mechanics. The current understanding that human being’s have of the physical universe is fundamentally incomplete. Early concepts of space and time as absolute metaphysical entities would seem to be fully consistent with our analysis. However, modern physics tells us that the universe is much more complex than it was once thought to be. At the start of the third millennium, it is generally accepted that we exist in some kind of four dimensional “space-time”. The mathematician Hermann Minkowski, who helped formalize the math of space-time, said “…henceforth, space by itself, and time by itself, have vanished into the merest shadows and only a kind of blend of the two exists in its own right.”
Space-time is essentially the history of the entire universe, containing every “event” that ever happens. A “worldline” is the history of an object in “space-time”. Each point on the worldline of a human being is generally thought to be a real physical event that represents a unique sequential moment in the life of that individual, from birth to death. 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 space-time. If this is so, perhaps we have a permanent physical past that is etched in the fabric of space-time.
To see why we do not believe that science provides us with a physical past, we need to look at two interpretations of cosmologic theories and one other possibility (there are many variations but the three we discuss illustrate the most important viewpoints). The first possible interpretation, the one that we strongly favor, brings into question the very nature of space-time. At first glance, the concept of a permanent physical space-time, a block universe, seems to imply that human beings have a permanent physical past, present, and future. Most people assume that the math of space-time describes a permanent physical reality that surrounds us, a very real, very physical, space-time in which we exist. This may or may not be the case.
The limited number of physicists who understand the incredibly difficult math, realize that the theory of general relativity tells us that the universe may be completely described without using a “fundamental temporal variable”, without even defining what we call “time”. The time we measure on a stopwatch that we use to clock a foot race is derived from comparing the motion of the runner from the starting line to the finish line with the motion of the hand rotating around the face of the watch. The time on the stopwatch may not be, as Newton thought, a fundamental quantity in nature, rather it may be nothing more than a comparison of the motion of the person running down the track relative to the motion of the hands of the stopwatch. Therefore, we may be justified in concluding that “time” is derived from relative motion, but that relative motion does not require the passage of fundamental time. It may be true that “fundamental time” simply does not exist.
This is a shocking idea for human beings who are confronted with the ticking away of years, days, hours, and seconds. Yet if you think about it, a year is nothing more than the relative motion of the earth going around the sun, a day is the relative motion of the earth rotating around its axis, an hour is a fraction of the motion we call a day measured by a quartz “moving” in a watch, a second is very close to the relative motion of a beating heart. We don’t expect to convince you in a few paragraphs that time is an illusion, it took years of reading and thought for us to reach that conclusion, but we do want you to recognize that there is a strong possibility that fundamental time does not exist. If this is a correct interpretation of general relativity, it can lead to the conclusion that there is no fundamental temporality of any kind associated with our universe.
There are serious objections to this line of thought. In its most popular forms, the other 20th century revolution in physics, quantum mechanics, incorporates a fundamental temporal variable. Some scientists believe that general relativity will be found to be incomplete, and that quantum mechanics tells us that time does in fact exist. Other physicists agree that the universe lacks a fundamental temporal variable by which the universe evolves, yet they also believe that in some very real sense the universe exhibits fundamental “temporality”.
None-the-less, there are a few respected physicists who believe that we should accept what general relativity is telling us, that there is no fundamental temporal variable in the universe, and find a way to modify quantum mechanics to eliminate “time”, and perhaps even “temporality”, from quantum theory. Given the success of general relativity in predicting experimental results, we believe that this is the correct approach. We are convinced that if and when physicists discover a broad model that incorporates both relativity and quantum theories, what is usually called a theory of quantum gravity, it will not have any kind of fundamental temporal variable associated with it, and we will find that the universe is fundamentally “atemporal” in nature.
If the theory of general relativity is in fact part of the illusive theory of quantum gravity, and if we do in fact live in an “atemporal” universe, then it is indeed quite possible that physical events in our lives either exist, or do not exist. The statement that a point on a worldline exists in the universe may be false, true, false, with no sense that “false” is “before” or “after” true! If so, then it may be quite literally true that your tenth birthday does not exist, does exist, does not exist in the universe. Perhaps you believe that your tenth birthday is a permanent part of your past only because it is part of your current memories, not because it exists in some kind of permanent physical space-time. Note that our view is what philosophers call “extreme presentism”, at the start of the third millennium it has been rejected by most, but not all, scientists.
If we live in an essentially “atemporal” universe, where there is state evolution but no “time” (in our other book we discuss similarities and differences between atemporal and block universe models), and if there is no non-physical existence after death, then we believe that physical death consumes each human being’s physical past, present, and future. This is very difficult to understand and accept, yet the idea that there is no fundamental temporality, and that this fact leads to the annihilation of our physical past, appears to us to be the correct interpretation of our physical universe.
Our conclusions are based on very complex and controversial relativistic and quantum science, we think we are right but we may be wrong. The reason that we cannot be more certain that our conclusions are correct is simply because no one knows what physics will look like if and when relativity and quantum theories are united. Furthermore, there is no way to tell how long it will take to find answers to the basic questions raised by modern physics. Indeed, it is quite possible that we will never know the answers to many of our most fundamental questions. We believe that the universe is essentially atemporal, and that physical death annihilates our physical (but not any non-physical) past, present, and future, but we may simply be wrong.
OK, let’s say that you are unwilling to even think about “time” not existing, would the existence of “time”, or at least “fundamental temporality”, restore a meaningful physical past to your life? The second possibility we will look at is based on the fact that most popular interpretations of modern physics suggest that the physical existence of each human being somehow persists in space-time in the form of the individual’s “worldline”. Classical interpretations often say that an object is the entire worldline of that object, or that a human being is his or her worldline, but they do not really explain what is meant by this. However, they do almost universally conclude that each event in a human being’s life exists as an event in space-time, so that if we could observe the point on a worldline that is the tenth birthday of someone who is now twenty years old, we would see that person experiencing their tenth birthday. We would not see a “copy”, or a “repeat”, of the particular day, we would see the person’s tenth birthday as it is occurring, period!
It would seem that this characteristic of all popular space-time theories leaves us without tools for building a rational model of a universe that contains a “conscious” worldline that is the “me” reading this book. Rather it tells us that there is, and always will be, a set of unique “me’s” that somehow exist in space-time at every single event on my worldline. “Me” on my tenth, twentieth, thirtieth birthdays and all the days in-between. We might want to say that I am the sum of all the points, yet the assertion that a human being is his or her entire worldline, from birth to death, does not appear to be consistent with the general consensus that every event along a worldline has a singular existence that cannot be preferred over any other event on that worldline.
The theory of relativity tells us that all of the laws of physics are the same for every inertial observer. If we live in a fully relational, relativistic universe, we simply cannot prefer observations made in the inertial frame of reference of one observer over observations made in the inertial frame of reference of any other observer, no matter where they may be “located” in space-time. An apparent consequence of this fact is that for one observer your tenth birthday occurs before your eleventh birthday, while for another (spatially separated) observer your eleventh birthday occurs before your tenth! Relativity tells us that both observers are 100% correct in their observations (this is one of many reasons we prefer an atemporal model of our physical universe). The cosmos is a very strange place indeed!
Classic interpretations imply that each individual exists as discrete human consciousness in the billions of discrete events located 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”; many claim there are billions of other worlds in which various versions of “me” co-exist; etc. It seems reasonable to conclude that modern physics tells us that if time exists, literally billions of discrete, very real, versions of each of us occupy space-time!
This may seem like science fiction, yet surveys of theoretical physicists and cosmologists confirm that most believe we must adopt some form of many-worlds, multiple existence, theory. Remember, this is current accepted thought, and not just speculative ideas. If there really are an infinite number of parallel universes (which we do not believe is true), or if there is a “me” that exists on my worldline for every event in my physical life, then there is no singular physical “me”. Rather there are billions of isolated “me’s” either lying along my worldline, or stuck somewhere in totally isolated universes.
If the scientists are correct, it would seem to be impossible to find meaning and value for a singular “me” in the collective existence of each of the billions of instances of individual consciousness, no single one of which is the “me” who can live a meaningful life. All of the popular interpretations of relativistic and quantum theories lead us to the same conclusion, if you do not have a singular permanent existence, your life has no meaning and your choices make no difference to “you”, simply because there is no single physical “you” that exists before or after physical death (please remember, we believe that life has meaning and value).
There is a third possibility, that the intuitive feeling human beings have that their physical past cannot change or be lost is based on some real, yet unknown, physical model of our universe. As we have said, virtually everyone is certain that if they are eleven years old now they have already experienced their tenth year of life, and that nothing can take from them the past experience of being ten years old. The intuitive feeling is very strong that our physical life makes a positive or negative contribution to human existence, and that our physical life is a permanent part of the physical universe. Perhaps there is some single physical consciousness that incorporates all of the events along our worldline, and that preserves our physical past, present, and future.
We cannot rule out this possibility, if for no other reason than the fact that it is theoretically impossible to prove a negative. In other words, we might be able to prove that physical consciousness after death exists in the universe by observing it, but we can never prove that physical consciousness, or some other form of existential meaning, does not exist after death because we have not observed it (we discuss this limitation in some detail in our other book). Indeed, the very fact that human beings exist in our universe argues strongly for existential meaning and purpose. If we have a physical existence that has existential meaning then the billions of people who intuitively believe that every day, every moment, of their lives has purpose and value are absolutely right.
Yet if we are to believe that there may be some kind of physical existence that survives physical death, then it would seem that we would need to accept that there is some unique physical consciousness that is “me”, that somehow incorporates all of the conscious events of all of my life, and that is somehow not dependent on the physical existence of my biologic body. While current interpretations of popular theories do not rule out the possibility of a perpetual individual physical consciousness, there is no known method that is both rational and realistic (i.e.- a theory that appears capable of modeling physical reality), to construct a physical (as opposed to a non-physical) model that preserves the singular human physical consciousness of an individual after the physical death of that person. Modern theories suggest the possibility that multiple instances of a physical “me” exist in space-time, but they do not tell us how to unite all of those instances into a single physical “me” whose consciousness spans space-time. Indeed, current interpretations of quantum superposition seem to deny the possibility of a “single” reality. If human beings do not have some kind of singular existence after physical death, we are again faced with the question how life can have meaning to someone who no longer exists.
The possibility that we have a permanent physical consciousness would appear to require the existence of a physical consciousness that is not bound to events on a worldline. Yet it seems intuitively true that if consciousness of past events can be lost when memories fade in old age or are damaged when we suffer brain injuries or strokes, then physical consciousness may not have incorporated those past events into a permanent singular “me”. In fact, every night between dreams we lose touch with our past memories as we sleep. Einstein only briefly addressed physical (not non-physical) existence when he said “An individual who should survive his physical death is also beyond my comprehension,…”
While I can visualize and accept a “non-physical consciousness” that survives physical death, I am unable to have any confidence in the existence of a singular “physical consciousness” or other form of existential meaning that survives the physical death of a human being. I may be wrong. Almost every philosopher and scientist, in fact almost all of the billions of human beings who live on this earth, believe that physical life has existential meaning and purpose. I can say that after many, many years of thought I am convinced that any attempt to construct a model of permanent physical consciousness and/or existential meaning for human beings who no longer exist, does more damage to the centuries of accumulated scientific knowledge than does the acceptance of the possibility that a permanent non-physical consciousness may exist. Yet our intuition may be telling us that physical life does in fact have existential meaning which has not yet been explained, or at least not satisfactorily explained, by science.
In coming out of the dark ages human beings have made enormous intellectual leaps in philosophy and science, so much so that many now believe we understand how life works. We need to recognize the fact that when future generations look back at twenty-first century science it will seem as primitive to them as alchemy does to us, and they will be rightly amazed at our lack of understanding of our existence. There are glimpses of a possible future (e.g. the biocentric model) that might provide a theoretical foundation for existential consciousness and might give meaning to our lives in ways that we cannot imagine. Yet at this point these speculative ideas are little more than science fiction, there is no objective reason to believe that any of them will be found to be true.
We have concluded, rightly or wrongly, that no current, or reasonably foreseeable, rational theory provides us with a singular physical consciousness or other existential existence so that after my physical death a physical “me” continues to exist in my “past”. We have said that if we do not have a singular physical or non-physical consciousness that continues to exist after physical death, then those who believe in nihilism are probably correct, and some type of “nihilistic” void awaits all of us. It may be a true void, like the void that preceded our birth, or it may be a very strange void where billions of “me” merely co-exist. Whatever physical form it might take, it would seem to satisfy the definition of a “meaningless” void.
A moment’s comment on those who believe they may be able to physically perpetuate themselves through cryogenics, cloning, etc. If theories that predict endless cycles of expansion and contraction of our universe are correct, nothing physical can survive beyond the next collapse of the universe a few billion years from today. While that may seem absurdly far away, your great, great, great (to the 100th. power), grand-clone would find it frightfully real when the time came for the collapse, a distant time from now which like all imaginable time is but a second in eternity.
On the other hand, if we live in a constantly expanding universe, our universe will eventually return to a state of uniformly high entropy. It is generally accepted that in the very distant future, as entropy increases, the cosmos will become a hostile environment in which physical life cannot be sustained. There is no cosmologic model that we know of that offers any hope for a perpetual, physical, human existence.
Even if in some unknown manner multiple clones could survive in an ever-expanding universe, the idea that they are perpetual extensions of their donor seems less than credible. Such a perpetual presence seems to be more like an endless path of meaningless individual moments experienced by many me’s, than a continuous meaningful existence. Furthermore, if there is no life after death, it would make no difference if an individual (cloned or otherwise) continued to exist, or “died” in one hundred years or in one billion years, because “death” would annihilate the individual’s past, present, and future (we discuss this in the next chapters).
You Can’t Think About Nothing
Even though we are convinced that physical death is not the end of your existence, if it is the end should you be frightened by the certainty of your demise? If indeed you cease to exist, you need not fear death, for after your death you will feel neither pain, nor pleasure, nor peace, nor torment. “You” will no longer exist, therefore “you” will feel nothing. 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. The only way you can visualize what is usually called a “nihilistic” death is to picture yourself after death as being in the same state you were in before birth (of course you were not really in any state at all). Such a fate would leave nothing to be feared.
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”. When we think about “nothing”, we turn it into “something” that can be thought about. The moment we attempt to comprehend or visualize “nothing”, we interject something into “nothing”, preventing us from reaching our goal. The only way we can answer the question “what is nothing?” is to answer it by not asking it, for if we ask the question we destroy the answer.
If we are no more than physical beings, and if “nothing” follows our physical death, then at the moment of our physical death, “nothing”. The possibility of “nothing” absolutely frees us from any concern we may have about a physical life that has an end, and demands that we live for the possibility that there is “something”. We discuss why this is true in the next chapter.
Afraid of Nothing?
What should our response be to all of this? We strongly believe that there is absolutely no reason not to live for the possibility that life has meaning and value. We think we are right about the transitory nature of physical consciousness, but we may be totally wrong. If we are wrong, if each of us has a singular physical consciousness that somehow survives physical death, or if there is some other form of existential existence that gives meaning and purpose to our physical lives, then our life may have meaning and value even if there is no non-physical life after death. We will not pursue this possibility, yet you should recognize that it might exist.
A brief comment on the word possible. Saying something may be possible is misleading in the case of mutually exclusive options. When we say there is a possibility that our conclusions are wrong, or a possibility that there is no non-physical life after death, or a possibility that there is existential meaning without a non-physical life after death, we are talking about facts that are either true or false. Our conclusions are right, or they are wrong, either there is a non-physical life after death or there is no non-physical life after death, either there is existential meaning absent a non-physical afterlife or there is not. If life has no existential meaning without a non-physical existence after physical death, and there is no life after physical death, then there is no “possibility” of existential meaning. If there is existential meaning to life without non-physical existence after death, then the possibility of existential meaning exists and always has existed.
If in fact there is no non-physical life after death, then there is no possibility of a non-physical life after death and such a possibility never existed. Yet if there is a non-physical life after death then the possibility, indeed the actuality, of life after death exists and always has existed. Whenever you see the word possible, and similar words like might or may, remember that if something does not and cannot exist, then that something is never possible (the probability is zero). If something can exist, then that something might represent an actual possibility.
If we are right, if our consciousness and existential physical being do not survive physical death, our death may mark the end of our existence. Yet if our physical consciousness dies, it is still quite possible that we will not face a “nihilistic” death. Perhaps we have a non-physical consciousness that survives physical death, and that gives meaning and value to our lives. We consider this possibility in more detail in this and our other book as we search for a reason for living.
Beyond the human desire for meaning in life, we would suggest that the logical consequences of what philosophers call a nihilistic death require the search for alternatives to nihilism. Those who believe that the nihilistic void is approaching are, by the very nature of their humanity, required to search for something to believe in other than the void. While it appears to be impossible to scientifically prove that life has meaning and value, it is equally impossible to prove that life has no meaning and value. No matter what the person who concludes that life is meaningless believes to be true now or at any other particular time in their life, the possibility always exists that he or she may eventually find true meaning and value.
The following is very hard to explain and may take several readings and a great deal of effort to understand. The limits of human comprehension make it extremely difficult to recognize the fact that if there is a nihilistic void after physical death, then there is absolutely no reason at all to think about 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 after our physical death there is “nothing” then when we die we will not experience calm or peace or pain or distress, we will not experience anything because we will not exist. “Nothing” will not relieve us of anything simply because there will be no one to experience relief, there will be no “you” who can feel the absence of pain. You will not remember the good times or the horrific events in your life. We need to accept the difficult but essential point, if nothing follows physical death then there is no peaceful sleep because no one exists who can sleep, there are no nightmares because there is no one to dream. All will be as if it never was.
If you live five years in excruciating pain and there is nothing after physical death, then when you die the pain does not “end”, it is as if those five years never happened. If you live fifty years in excruciating pain and there is nothing after physical death, then when you die the pain does not “end”, it is as if those fifty years never happened. If there is nothing after physical death, you gain nothing if your physical pain lasts only five instead of fifty years, there is no difference. In both cases on the day of your death the excruciating pain does not “end”, it is as if the pain never was.
There is a profound difference between pain which ends and pain which never was. It may seem that anything which results in pain being as if it never happened is an end to the pain we are suffering, but that is not a true description of the “reality” of not existing, of “nothing”. Take the time to really think about the difference, you will eventually realize that if on our physical death our past is consumed by nothing, it is no worse to suffer fifty years of pain than suffer five years. If in fact there is nothing after physical death, then if you live one minute, or 20 or 30 or 40 or 50 more years, all the horrors in your past, present, and future will be “consumed” by nothing. This is not the same as saying that we find “peace” in a nihilistic death, we find “nothing”. All will be as if it never was.
Similarly, if you live a long and comfortable life filled with personal accomplishments, and there is nothing after physical death, then on your physical death “nothing”. If there is nothing after physical death you will have no past. It will be as if you were never born, as if you never existed. All will be as if it never was.
If there is nothing after physical death, there can be absolutely no benefit to a shorter life, no logical reason to want physical life to end. Even though it may seem absurd, if we do not exist after our physical death we have no reason to fear, or avoid, five years or fifty years of the most horrible pain. The all consuming nature of the “nothing” that may follow physical death is what human beings find almost impossible to comprehend. Yet understanding the possibility of “something”, life after physical death and/or existential meaning to physical life, and the freedom of “nothing” if we are wrong, allows us to live as long and as good a physical life as possible.
If you are living a pleasant life your initial response to the possibility of “nothing” may be that it is frightening, or if you are suffering it may feel somehow comforting, both thoughts are totally, unquestionably, wrong. If on our physical death there is nothing, then there is no rational or logical reason to think about physical death as fearful or peaceful. If there is nothing after physical death then the experience of physical death (perhaps it is better to say the experience that never happens) is the same if it occurs in one day or one year or one hundred years, during a period of great joy or great pain. There would be “nothing” in your future to look forward to, there would be “nothing” in your future to fear.
If you really understand what this means, you recognize that the possibility of nothing allows us to endure all of the physical and emotional pain we experience no matter how horrific, and to live the most positive life we can with the hope that there is existential meaning in our physical life and/or that there is a non-physical life after our death. 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.
If there is nothing after death, then it makes no difference to you if your life was filled with pain or pleasure, because you will not exist to feel pain or pleasure. Yet if there is an existence after death, then by having chosen to endure physical pain and chosen to live the most positive physical life you can, you may find after your physical death that memories of even the worst pain are overwhelmed by “joy” and “disappear”. If there is an existence after physical death, or some other existential meaning to life, then enduring a lifetime of pain and emotional hurt may result in a timeless eternity of peace and happiness. If there is an existence after death, and you choose suicide, you may be rejecting that peace and happiness.
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. Terminating life never brings release from pain and peace, rather it destroys the possibility of a meaningful, perhaps joyful, existential or non-physical life. 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. You do not understand what it means to say that all will be as if it never was. You need to reread the last three chapters until you understand that nihilism renders false all arguments for suicide. [If you find yourself distressed or depressed by our conclusions please read the Appendix – Distress & Depression.]
Philosophical arguments about existence are fragmented almost beyond recognition. The main lines of thought being divided among those who support presentism, eternalism, realism, and anti‐realism. The number of logical branches seems endless. Any of these well‐structured theories may be correct, yet the simplest of models appears to me be the most probable.
I have considered the major possibilities, including the possibility of existential meaning in a purely physical life. I have concluded that if there is no non‐physical life after death, on the date of my physical death my physical consciousness will be consumed by “nothing”, and I will have no past, present, or future. I think I am right, I think I would no longer exist if there is no non‐physical life after death, yet no matter how strongly I believe I am right, I may be wrong. Physical life without life after death may have existential meaning.
I strongly believe that we do in fact have a non‐physical consciousness which survives physical death, we discuss this possibility in both of our books, LifeNotes and LOVE – In Search of a Reason for Living. Whether there is existence after physical death or not, the possibility of nothing allows us to endure the physical and emotional pain we experience, and to live the most positive life we can with the hope that there is existential meaning in our physical life and/or that there is a non‐physical life after our death.
If you believe that there is a possibility we might be right, please read our books for a detailed discussion of our conclusions.