Because I think. Because I think. I can't stop thinking. I am plagued by my consciousness, by my inquiring mind, to pursue the answers that I seek to find. Perhaps I have the philosopher's mind. Why do I overburden myself with so much thought? I would be so much better off in many regards if I could accept the blissfulness of ignorance. But I am so made that I cannot be.
Recently I was thinking about existential nihilism, the philosophical doctrine that life ultimately has no objective purpose or meaning, and I was wondering whether atheism dooms all its adherents to it. The apparent pessimism of nihilism is often used by theists as an emotional argument against atheism. So the question is, under atheism, is there no objective meaning and purpose to life and are we all doomed to nothingness?
Taking this question head on, I would say yes, the atheist does believe that all life will ultimately end as it seems likely that the universe itself will end at some point in the future, albeit trillions of years from now. Scientists says the Earth will perish when our Sun runs out of fuel to support its nuclear fusion and explodes in about 5 billion years. All life on Earth will have ended by this time, unless there exists a species of life evolved enough that can escape Earth permanently. And under atheism, when we die as individuals, our physical matter decays and our consciousness is forever extinguished. We will have ceased to exist. So in short, yes atheists are nihilists.
Contemplating this idea gives many theists problems pertaining to the need for objectivity in purpose and meaning. Let me address these points for a moment.
Objective Meaning and Purpose
First, as an atheist I do not believe in an objective purpose for life (if by objective you mean a purpose given by any intelligence, supernatural or not, that exists outside of the natural processes of the origin of life and its evolution). Life is an extreme expression of matter, it is a by-product that the laws of physics allow to exist. The purpose of the universe is not to permit life, and certainly not human life, because there is no purpose to the universe. Mankind is nature becoming conscious of itself and it is our consciousness that forces us to search for meaning. Once mankind evolved the consciousness, he became plagued with the unquenchable search for meaning to justify his seemingly unexplainable existence. Religion to the atheist, is just mankind's attempt to create meaning for himself because that answered his curious mind.
In the absence of modern science, which much better explains the causal processes resulting in our existence, ancient humans fabricated thousands of origins stories used to explain that which could not be explained. We are lucky to be living at a time when we do have a pretty clear picture of how most of our world came to be. I came to the conclusion that life has no objective purpose or meaning in light of our acquired knowledge of reality. To find meaning or purpose in life, one has to search within; that is to say, search subjectively. A lot of people have a problem with this answer because it is subjective and it requires them to think for themselves. It seems that most people would rather simply be given a meaning to their life because then they could stop thinking about it.
I can say to you that your purpose in life is to make a million dollars before you die, and you could accept this and walk out of here thinking that you now know what your purpose in life is and you wouldn't be overburdened with the search for meaning anymore. But it wouldn't be true. That would simply be my opinion of what I think the meaning of your life is.
The only thing close to an objective purpose of life under the atheistic world view is nature's way of preparing life to reproduce and propagate DNA. The need for objective meaning by many theists, I see in a way similar to the heroine addict unable to imagine life with their fix: The theistic world view is so dependent on it that they can't imagine life without it.
Nihilism does not mean that life has no meaning, just no objective meaning. The atheist can find beauty and purpose in the finite existence of life, even if it is subjective, and the atheist can find beauty and awe in the symmetry and intelligibility of the universe and the laws of physics. For me, that is enough to inspire meaning in my minuscule and finite existence, for I live for knowledge and philosophy. If one's life only has subjective meaning and purpose, they can choose to devote it towards something that either helps or harms other people and the environment. The negative consequences of a life devoted to harming itself or others, is bad in and of itself, and acts as its own reinforcement against it. Why must we pretend that there must exist an object purpose to life in order for one to find meaning?
When it comes to human value, under nihilism there is no objective value as there is no objective purpose. The universe is indifferent as to whether we are happy or are suffering and to whether or not we even exist. We give ourselves value and everything in the universe as it becomes useful to us. Houses for example, are only given value as they relate to a human's desire to buy it or live in it. Would a house retain any value in a universe devoid of all human beings? No. Not unless some other intelligent life could find use for it. Things are given value when they are useful to living things. This makes the value of things always subjective, and never objective.
It always struck me as odd when I hear theists say that god gives us objective value. Does the theist really mean to say, that our objective worth lies in the professed statement by god that we have it? What if god changed his mind and turned his back on mankind and instead said rats have objective worth and not humans? Would our objective worth suddenly disappear? It seems scary to me that our objective worth could be so committed to an opinion, even if it is believed to be unchanging.
The idea however, that there needs to exist this supernatural and unchanging opinion that all human life has value, is understandable to me at least. It allows its believers to say that no human's opinion of human value has any ultimate affect, and that even an unchanging principle recognizing human value must still be constantly upheld by people who adhere to it. To that I have to say that god's opinion that all human life has value is not going to prevent someone who disagrees with it from harming or taking a life. All of our rights, no matter where they stem from, must constantly be fought for, and upheld by human beings who believe in their principles. It simply doesn't matter whether you believe in god given rights, or natural rights, or any other source of rights, because ultimately what it comes down to is human action. Furthermore, the same believed god might have a completely different set of rights and opinions on human value according to members of different religions. This then forces you into religiously interpreted relativism, which gets you no where in defining the objective value of human life.
We can recognize a baseline of intrinsic value and worth of every human life, and then from that recognize that any increases in value will be subjective with respect to how important that person's life is to them. So for example, a person with no loved ones, no money or job, and with no usefulness to anybody else, still has a right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. It is a principle that utilizes the golden rule: I might lose all my friends and family and become homeless and unemployed one day and I wouldn't want any of my rights taken away simply because I had no one to love me and no money. Years ago rights did depend on race, gender, money and position, and through the philosophy of the enlightenment we came to recognize how incredibly harmful this is. I believe we all have the right to life because we were given it without asking for it. Humans are not mere property, we are not merely inanimate objects, we are sentient beings in our fundamental nature. It is the recognition of sentience that must guide this principle.
This brings me to the idea of "speciesism" - or "the assignment of different values, rights, or special consideration to individuals solely on the basis of their species membership." In nature, pretty much all species behave with a bias towards their own. It is a natural necessity to ensure the survival of the species, and this is especially true with social species like primates. If we recognize a very basic intrinsic worth of all human beings, are we just doing so because we too are human?
Well it seems to me that all morality must stem from the way it affects living beings. For example, if I smash a rock in half with a sledgehammer, (assuming the rock didn't belong to anyone) no one would really consider that act moral or immoral. But if I smashed a baby's head open, now we recognize that there is a moral component to my action because it affects a living being. So morality at its very basic core stems from whether or not actions negatively or positively affect living beings. If they positively affect living beings, they are said to be good morals, if they negatively affect living beings, they are said to be bad morals.
With humans, our bias in favor of ourselves might also be justified in recognizing our advanced levels of emotion, cognitive abilities and sentiments that to our knowledge, supersede of other life. From this we can logically conclude that the greater these abilities in a species, the greater the consideration must be given when harm is done to them. That is why we consider the lives of dolphins to be greater than that of bacteria. It is also worth noting that our preferences for certain kinds of animals regardless of their sentimental faculties because they are cute or otherwise desired, is another explanation why value is considered.
Imagine if we were visited by intelligent extraterrestrial life forms that superseded us in intelligence sentimental faculties, to the degree where the stupidest among them had the intellectual equivalence of our most gifted geniuses. If they were peaceful, we would be forced to recognize their moral worth, perhaps to a higher degree than ours. But if they had to compete with us for limited resources, only then in order to ensure our own survival would we might have to discriminate against them. So speciesism has its natural justifications but so too does the recognition of cognitive ability. The two only come into conflict when the species' survival is threatened.
So in conclusion, before I ramble on too much longer, let me summarize what I've gone over. Under nihilism, there exists no objective meaning or purpose in life. Life exists as a natural by product that the laws of physics allow, and therefore all meaning and purpose for life will be subjective. This doesn't leave the atheist to wallow in unguided purposelessness, but it does require the atheist to think for themselves and to find their own purpose. This can either be one that harms others or one that helps others. For me personally, fighting for rationality, secularism, freedom, and a better world have become my purpose in life.
There also exists no objective value of human life outside our own existence. We give our lives value and we can also recognize basic human rights and value using the golden rule, while understanding that there is also a subjective element in how important we perceive human life. To place human value in whether a god gives us it, is highly subjective and not going to stop anyone who disagrees with the premise or has a different concept of god. Speciesism certainly does give us a reason to justify our valuing of human life over other species, just as we have a bias in favor of ourselves when we must compete with others.
The bottom line is this: Nihilism does not mean life has no purpose, just no objective purpose, and I've never felt that an objective purpose was necessary in order for me to wake up in the morning and start a fulfilling day. Anyone who does think it is necessary, behaves like the drug addict who can't image finding a reason to get out of bed without their drug.