Why do Atheists Care?

Ted Mecklenburg says:

As an atheist, what is the motivation to care about existing?

16 Responses to Why do Atheists Care?

  1. The Atheist says:

    Hi, Ted. Is this a question from a depressed atheist or from a theist who somehow feels that atheists don’t share your humanity?

    If this question is from a depressed atheist:

    Life is unbelievably awesome! And you are unbelievably lucky! What are the chances that a universe forms over billions of years, and life evolves over millions of years on one if its tiny specs of dust, and produces … you! We humans were born to care about ourselves and about others – it’s in our genes. You don’t need a reason to care, it’s part and parcel of who you are. Take a break from the problems of life every once and a while and consider the vastness of the universe, how minute you and your day-to-day problems are, and enjoy the wonder of it all.

    If this question is from a theist:

    As a theist who believes in an eternal life of bliss, what is your motivation to struggle to succeed in this life, and to avoid death? I ask this question because the answer is the same – We humans were born to care about ourselves and about others, which among other things causes us to avoid death at nearly all cost… unless we truly don’t believe in death. How sure are you of your eternal life? What percentage of your time would you say that you spend investing in this life?

    • Thanks for the reply, I don’t really want to say what I am because I’m afraid that it would lead to bias but at the same time I know that it is inevitable that “what I am” will not remain anonymous.

      I understand what you mean about the “vastness of the universe” and how unusual it is for me to happen to exist. But, I still don’t understand why that should be a legitimate reason for me personally to go on existing. If it’s me, by amazing chance, that exists and I end my existence, what would it really matter except that I wouldn’t exist anymore. Sure, maybe some people would experience what we think of as negative emotions about my “death” if that’s what we want to call it, but even to go on existing so that others won’t have a negative experience still doesn’t motivate me because I know that someday they too will no longer exist.

      I don’t know a lot about nature, but I think it’s interesting that humans are the only animal that I am aware of -biologists, please correct me – that can and do choose to bring an end to there own existence for no apparent instinctual reason which benefits the cycle of nature. I guess there are cases of organisms ending their existence but I don’t think it is a choice they make, I think it’s usually out of instinct and it leads to some benefit to their species or to nature as a whole.

      I suppose, in some ways, if humans chose to not exist any more as a whole species, it would benefit nature in the sense that we wouldn’t be destroying or potentially destroying the rest of nature anymore.

      For humans to make the quest of becoming a species that lives sustainably and not destructively of nature, doesn’t really seem to end in any thing more to me than perhaps the people who are existing being comfortable because the the planet isn’t becoming hostile to their existence due to their destructive behavior.

      So is pain verses pleasure on a personal selfish scale all it comes down to? Does it all come down to me being motivated by a personal individual wish to have pleasure? If it does come down to that, is having pleasure in the moments of my existence worth much if I won’t exist at some point and no one will?

      I’m not being rhetorical, but I am voicing genuine uncertainties that I am facing and meditating on. I am sincerely probing for some sort of legitimate meaning. And if me as an individual experiencing pleasure is the only really sure motivation or meaning that I can pin my existence to than, I’m just not sure.

      I hope this isn’t too confusing. Thanks again for your replies and insights.

      Atheist are among the friendliest and most sincere people I have encountered. Of course, every category of people in the world, has every kind of friendly or not friendly type of people represented with in it I am sure.

    • The Atheist says:

      Many of the things we do, striving to survive for example (go on existing as you say), we do because we have an innate desire to do so. When we ask whether one’s death or survival is beneficial, we are making a judgement (good or bad). Our judgements are based on our human constitution, our innate nature, our negative or positive emotional responses. These judgements are at the root of our social rules and codes of ethics.

      There are plenty of things that make humans different from other animals, just as there are plenty of things that make any animal different from other animals. However the desire and ability to commit suicide isn’t one of the things that are unique to humans, even if we may be better at it. For example, dogs whose owners have dies sometimes refuse to eat and then die of starvation. We humans do have a far more advanced ability to more purposefully plan our deaths and then carry out more complex plans.

      An evolved characteristic doesn’t necessarily have to be beneficial in all specific instances, it just has to be generally beneficial. For example, sickle cell anemia was beneficial when malaria was prevalent – carriers were less likely to die of malaria. However it still lingers in the gene pool even though the detriment far outweighs any remaining benefit.

      There is little question that our complex intellect and emotions are generally a benefit. However along with the benefit of a more complex brain comes the greater risk of brain malfunction. More can go wrong with a complex structure than with a simple structure. Our capability to plan, to use complex tools, and to become delusional or depressed are brought to bear in our decision and ability to plan and carry out suicide. We can observe each of these traits to varying degrees in the animal world.

      By the way, you made a distinction between decision making and instinctual action. Do you feel that this distinction is important in defining what we mean by suicide? Do you think that the distinction is a matter of degree or are decision making and instinctual action categorically different?

      I think our decisions do come down to pain vs. pleasure. However as social animals who feel empathy for our fellows, we feel emotional pain when our fellows feel pain. Our decisions include the consideration of how our fellows feel – if they feel pleasure or pain. Also as social animals, we don’t make these decisions in a vacuum but rather we make them in the context of the decisions of the group. We collectively develop social norms.

      We take the need for meaning for granted. We should ask ourselves why there should be a meaning. Why do we need or even want meaning? Why are we less satisfied with experience?

      “Ultimate meaning” in the sense of some cosmic consciousness (whether God as imagined by traditional religions or something less defined as new-age religions imagine) is no answer. Where does God derive meaning? God’s meaning would derive from His desires and his sense of good and bad. But that is what our personal meaning is – it’s our sense of belonging (we’re social) and desire to participate (we strive for the good over the bad).

  2. Why do you change the oil in your car? Justifications come to an end somewhere. If I want my engine not to seize up, I will change the oil. You could say,

    “Well why do you want your engine to last?”

    I’d say:

    “To get around to buy food and go to work.”

    You’d say, “Why do you want those things?”

    I’d say, “To stay alive comfortably”.

    So, all desires terminate in “Why try to stay alive?”

    Religious belief adds another, giant, unjustified layer to this scheme. Atheists simply terminate our justifications one step before that.

    So, your question applies equally to theists as to atheists. How does adding a powerful superbeing to the picture help? Our conversation would then just go a little longer:

    You’d say, “Why do you want those things?”

    I’d say, “To stay alive comfortably”.

    “Why do you want to stay alive comfortably?”

    “To serve my God.”

    “Why do you want to serve your God?”

    “To stay alive comfortably in Heaven after I die.”

    “Why do you want to stay alive comfortably in Heaven after you die?”

    Having a God and Living forever don’t solve the problem of meaning. They only vastly complicate it.

  3. because we care about the meaningfulness of existing

    we just don’t think god adds any meaningfulness, dieties actually make like less meaningful

    since life is on their term and whim

    something people in secular societies rejected starting with the Magna Carta – to not live at someone else’s whim

  4. Thanks for the reply, I don’t really want to say what I am because I’m afraid that it would lead to bias but at the same time I know that it is inevitable that “what I am” will not remain anonymous.

    I understand what you mean about the “vastness of the universe” and how unusual it is for me to happen to exist. But, I still don’t understand why that should be a legitimate reason for me personally to go on existing. If it’s me, by amazing chance, that exists and I end my existence, what would it really matter except that I wouldn’t exist anymore. Sure, maybe some people would experience what we think of as negative emotions about my “death” if that’s what we want to call it, but even to go on existing so that others won’t have a negative experience still doesn’t motivate me because I know that someday they too will no longer exist.

    I don’t know a lot about nature, but I think it’s interesting that humans are the only animal that I am aware of -biologists, please correct me – that can and do choose to bring an end to there own existence for no apparent instinctual reason which benefits the cycle of nature. I guess there are cases of organisms ending their existence but I don’t think it is a choice they make, I think it’s usually out of instinct and it leads to some benefit to their species or to nature as a whole.

    I suppose, in some ways, if humans chose to not exist any more as a whole species, it would benefit nature in the sense that we wouldn’t be destroying or potentially destroying the rest of nature anymore.

    For humans to make the quest of becoming a species that lives sustainably and not destructively of nature, doesn’t really seem to end in any thing more to me than perhaps the people who are existing being comfortable because the the planet isn’t becoming hostile to their existence due to their destructive behavior.

    So is pain verses pleasure on a personal selfish scale all it comes down to? Does it all come down to me being motivated by a personal individual wish to have pleasure? If it does come down to that, is having pleasure in the moments of my existence worth much if I won’t exist at some point and no one will?

    I’m not being rhetorical, but I am voicing genuine uncertainties that I am facing and meditating on. I am sincerely probing for some sort of legitimate meaning. And if me as an individual experiencing pleasure is the only really sure motivation or meaning that I can pin my existence to than, I’m just not sure.

    I hope this isn’t too confusing. Thanks again for your replies and insights.

    Atheist are among the friendliest and most sincere people I have encountered. Of course, every category of people in the world, has every kind of friendly or not friendly type of people represented with in it I am sure.

  5. about instinct verses decision, I am not sure exactly. I get a sense that we as humans are evolved to the point that the decision to completely go against instinct is a characteristic that other animals don’t have. I don’t know enough about biology though. But I think, despite rare exceptions that humans are different in that they can chose to defy instinct and that this is a characteristic shared by most all species, with some exceptions.

    Although I guess I could contradict myself, which I am good at, and say that becoming depressed lends to an instinct to commit suicide. But then, I think generally most would argue that suicide, no matter what, is not an instinct.

    I found it interesting that you described what we do or accomplish as having the possibility of continuing to exist even though we don’t. I understand the concept of that, but I just don’t get why I would care If I won’t exist anyway. But, I think I know that you would respond by saying that it is innate for me to care because that’s who we are as humans. (I could be wrong about this being your response, I’m sorry if I am).

    I also like what you said about meaning verses experience. Why does there have to be meaning? That is such a good question. The perceived need for meaning is really annoying sometimes and is another strange aspect of how evolved we are. I am sure that other animals don’t ponder the meaning of things the way we do… however, I could be very wrong about this too. But, what if like you say, the experience of pleasure is meaning enough and nothing more… I suppose that would mean that as long as I am experiencing pleasure I should continue to exist.

    I guess one of my questions is, despite “the way humans are” with a built in mechanism to care about other humans, doesn’t it really all come down to each of us as an individual. Isn’t it all ultimately about me, if I am experiencing pleasure or not. If I’m not experiencing pleasure than I shouldn’t bother to exist any more unless I really have hope that after the current displeasure there will be pleasure again that I think will be enough for this displeasure to be worth it.

    Does anyone really care about anyone else or is it all ultimately selfish but yet the selfishness is disguised by the way that seeming to care leads to a balance in the world?

    The other thing I am wondering about is the fact that I didn’t have any choice to come into existence. Yet I have the choice to end my existence.

    If there is a God, who made the choice for me to exist and even in my committing suicide I still exist but in a different form yet all together conscious and able to feel pain and or pleasure, and there for I don’t have the choice to become non existent, doesn’t that seem like it sets up a non free will situation? If I had no choice to exist but I have an eternal soul now which even in death still exists than, yes I have the choice to die physically but I do not have the choice to cease to exist. That seems to set up a potentially tormenting scenario in the sense that if after death pleasure wasn’t being experienced, or the soul was tormented by the non ability to cease to exist.

    In some ways I can see why an atheist would think that such a scenario is complete hog wash and yet the “what if this scenario where true” is something that I still can’t shake off and just forget. It’s kind of like an element of primitive uneducated humans of superstition hangs on in my genes or something. Kind of like the primitive peoples who would worry so much about their after life because they where so afraid it would be horrible if they didn’t do what they thought would make it to turn out good.

    Okay, so I am making a supreme mess of this response and probably beginning to get way to scattered but again I appreciate the insights and discussion and your willingness to bare with me along the drunken ravings of my conscious and subconscious…

  6. The Atheist says:

    I sounds like the word, “selfish”, is the main point of your question. That word, selfish, carries with it the negative connotation of being self-serving, self-centered, and uncaring of others. However the type of selfishness we’re talking about here is different in a significant way. The empathy we feel toward others makes us want others to feel good – because we feel good when they feel good. We’re motivated by empathy (the pain and pleasure we feel), but empathy motivates us to be compassionate and selfless. Because we’re empathetic, we’re emotionally interrelated and behave as a society rather than as isolated individuals.

    Personally, I think free choice is an illusion. Our decisions are made by thinking or feeling, and thinking and feeling are processes of the brain. The brain is a physical body that obeys the same physical laws that all matter obeys: changes in physical state are deterministic at the macro level with randomness at the quantum level.

    That said, I don’t see any contradiction in a God creating you (you didn’t have a say in being created – you couldn’t have because you would have to exist to have a say), and your having a choice in your death or having no choice in your death. Because you don’t have free will in all things doesn’t mean that you have no free will in some things.

  7. Judy says:

    Some people say they feel fulfilled when they follow “God’s plan” for their lives. Why would you want to follow someone else’s plan? If religious people can feel fulfilled following someone else’s plan, how much more fulfilling it is to actually follow your own plan.

  8. The Atheist says:

    If the “someone else” was the creator of the universe, I personally would feel more fulfilled following his plan than following my own.

  9. I understand your point about selfishness. Your saying that the pleasure you experience in caring about others is enough to make caring something that you keep doing. If pleasure is being experienced, or a person is convinced that an expected amount of pleasure will be experienced, than there is motivation to continue existing for that reason.

    -Is it wrong for me to think that you would believe that existence isn’t about purpose or plan, but about experience?

    -You said if the “someone else” was the creator… that it would be more fulfilling to follow their plan. I can see your point in the sense that such a being would cosmically great in vastness, but I think one would have to be convinced that such a being is genuinely good and not indifferent or evil or else following their plan could be very negative.

    -So, the conclusion that I am arriving at so far is that most everything is relative. Especially what experience is being had and how worthwhile it is to keep existing for that individual based on what they are experiencing.

    -So, basically the two things stopping me from killing myself ( don’t worry, I am not that far a long yet) is
    1. If I am experiencing enough pleasure
    2. If I am genuinely concerned that upon killing myself, I might still be existing and experiencing pain or pleasure and the concern that such an existence will be much less pleasurable than the current form of existence I am experiencing.

    Does anyone disagree with me about these two conclusions I’ve arrived at? If so, I am curious why… thanks so much

  10. The Atheist says:

    I would indeed say, as you guessed, that our existence is about experience, but I wouldn’t say that we therefore have no purpose. Let’s briefly consider “experience” and “meaning”, before returning to “purpose”:

    Meaning in the existential sense (vs. meaning as definition) is how something is related to a larger context. The act of shooting another person takes on meaning in the context of fighting a war and protecting the homeland, and a different meaning in the context of robbing a bank. Feeding a child takes on different meaning in the context of saving him from starvation or giving him a treat.

    Experience doesn’t require context for meaning. Experience is the context in which meaning is found. This is similar to the theist concept of God. God is the context – an act has meaning in the context of God’s will. Neither “experience” or “God” have deeper or greater meaning; neither has a larger context. For example: what is the meaning of God’s existence? All answers will lead back to God himself. (actually, we might go back even a bit further and find that God’s experience is the context that gives God meaning – so experience is actually the larger context even in a reality where gods exist).

    Then “purpose” is our place or participation in meaningful acts. We have a sense of purpose if we feed a hungry child because feeding a hungry child has meaning.

    Meaning is the result of how we feel about things, and our feelings are a defining aspect of our experience.

    Regarding a creator being good: I agree with the theistic position that if a creator created me, then my sense of “good” and “bad” comes from the creator which means that my sense of “good” and “bad” is subordinate to the creator’s. If the creator confuses my sense of good and bad so that the creator seems bad to me, he did so because it seemed good to him do so. I have to consider the creator good by definition, and not based on my own sensibilities.

    Everything is relative to the extent that we each have unique, individual experiences. However since we are very similar, we should expect our experience to be very similar. To the extent that we can share our experience through communication, it seems that this is indeed the case.

    Regarding suicide, we should be clear about what we mean when we say that we are motivated by pleasure to live, and motivated by pain to die. We don’t necessarily mean that that’s how we should be motivated. We mean that that’s how we are motivated. That is our nature, our instinct. Clearly there are individuals that deviate from this norm, but I’m talking about the vast majority.

    So continuing to consider how we decide to go on living, and not how we should decide: our decision is motivated by pleasure or pain. Since both the thought and the act of suicide are very painful, it has to be motivated by something even more painful where suicide is the less painful alternative. In fact, when we consider reasons people give for committing suicide, it’s almost always some unbearable pain, whether sever chronic physical pain or unbearable anguish. People who consider committing suicide usually describe a conflict between the pain they wish to escape, the pain they will inflict on themselves and others, and the future pleasure they would be giving up (pleasure like seeing their children grow up, love of family members, etc.)

  11. Anonymous says:

    I’ll see you all in Hell.

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