Monday, February 12, 2018


A perfect image of meaninglessness, of the kind we are seeking, is found in the ancient myth of Sisyphus. Sisyphus, it will be remembered, betrayed divine secrets to mortals, and for this he was condemned by the gods to roll a stone to the top of a hill, the stone then immediately rolled back down, again to be pushed to the top by Sisyphus, to roll down once more, and so on again and again, forever. Now in this we have the picture of meaningless, pointless toil, of a meaningless existence that is absolutely never redeemed. It is not even redeemed by a death that, if it were to accomplish nothing more, would at least bring that idiotic cycle to a close…Nothing ever comes of what he is doing, except simply more of the same…a repetitious, cyclic activity that never comes to anything.

Now let us ask: Which of these pictures does life in fact resemble? And let us not begin with our own ives, for here both our prejudices and wishes are great, but with the life in general that we share with the rest of creation. We shall find, I think, that it all has a certain pattern, and that this pattern is by now easily recognized. 

We can begin anywhere, only saving human existence for our last consideration. We can, for example, begin with any animal. It does not matter where we begin, because the result is going to be exactly the same.

Thus, for example, there are caves in New Zealand, deep and dark, whose floors are quiet pools and whose walls and ceilings are covered with soft light. As one gazes in wonder in the stillness of these caves it seems that the Creator has reproduced there in microcosm the heavens themselves, until one scarcely remembers the enclosing presence of the walls. As one looks more closely, however, the scene is explained. Each dot of light identifies an ugly worm, whose luminous tail is meant to attract insects from the surrounding darkness. As from time to time one of these insects draws near it becomes engaged in a sticky thread lowered by the worm, and is eaten. This goes on month after month, the blind worm lying there in the barren stillness waiting to entrap an occasional bit of nourishment that will only sustain it to another bit of nourishment until…Until what? What great thing awaits all this long and repetitious effort and makes it worthwhile? Really nothing. The larva just transforms itself finally to a tiny winged adult that lacks even mouth parts to feed and lives only a day or two. These adults, as soon as they have mated and laid eggs, are themselves caught in the threads and are devoured by the cannibalistic worms, often without having ventured into the day, the only point to their existence having now been fulfilled. This has been going on for millions of years, and to no end other than that the same meaningless cycle may continue for another millions of years.

All living things present essentially the same spectacle. The larva of a certain cicada burrows in the darkness of the earth for seventeen years, through season after season, to emerge finally, into the daylight for a brief flight, lay its eggs, and die–this all to repeat itself during the next seventeen years, and so on to eternity. Robert Taylor, "The Meaning of Life," E. Klemke & S. Cahn, eds. The Meaning of Life: A Reader (Oxford, 3rd. ed., 2008), chap. 12. 

That's reminiscent of the famous opening to Ecclesiastes. That narrator was an existentialist 3000 years ago. 

This has seemed to many human observers to be the very model of absurdity, an utterly pointless existence…The best response to this argument is that it projects human needs and sensibilities onto other species. The human observer simply does not have the  salmon's point of view. Joel Feinberg, "Absurd Self-Fulfillment," E. Klemke & S. Cahn, eds. The Meaning of Life: A Reader (Oxford, 3rd. ed., 2008), 163-64.

i) There's an element of truth to Feinberg's observation. Atheists who contend that a good God wouldn't create a world characterized by predation commit that fallacy. Animals don't share the viewpoint of the human observer, who's aghast at the law of the jungle. 

ii) But in another respect, Feinberg misses the point. The comparison is based on dramatic irony: the fact that human observers are aware of something that insects and other animals–even higher animals–are not. And from a secular standpoint, we're chained to the same Sisyphean predicament as other organisms. 

iii) From a Christian standpoint, there are similarities as well as differences. There's a robotic repetition to the lifecycle of plants and animals. If there was nothing behind it, no benevolent intelligence, then universal nihilism would reign. Likewise, if humans suffer the same fate. If we make our replacements, then pass into oblivion. 

iv) From a Christian standpoint, the cycles of nature illustrate boundless divine ingenuity–as well as benevolence, by providing a stable environment in which humans can live and flourish. And they furnish a point of contest. We share many things in common with animals. Yet God has set us apart by the gift of consciousness and immortality. Animals are ephemeral in a way humans are not. Animals are a means to an end, whereas humans are an end in themselves.  


  1. Are there any atheists who attempt to deny nihilism?

    1. In my reading, most atheists are loath to admit that atheism makes human life worthless. They try to sugarcoat it.