The Paths that Diverge at the Crossroads of Existential Angst

Why do I wonder? Why am I conscious of my wondering, and why does my wondering create in me such terrifying angst?

Stephen Meyer describes the existential angst he experienced in his early teens in the interview with Sean McDowell that is embedded in its entirety at end of this article. Meyer majored in physics and geology, but he accumulated a minor in philosophy on his way to an undergraduate degree. His interest in philosophy was driven by the existential angst he felt as a young man.

(Stephen would become a geophysicist and college professor and would go on to obtain a Masters n Philosophy and a Ph.D in the philosophy of science from the University of Cambridge. He now directs Discovery Institute’s Center for Science and Culture in Seattle and authored the New York Times best seller Darwin’s Doubt: The Explosive Origin of Animal Life and the Case for Intelligent Design (HarperOne, 2013), Signature in the Cell: DNA and the Evidence for Intelligent Design (HarperOne, 2009), which was named a Book of the Year by the Times (of London) Literary Supplement in 2009, and more recently, The Return of the God Hypothesis (HarperOne, 2021).)

Meyer wanted to be popular and good at sports, like most teenager’s, but that wasn’t going well for him. A couple of nights before a planned ski trip with his father, some “weird questions” started “popping” into his mind: “What’s it going to matter in a hundred years?” He was initially troubled by it, but anticipation for the ski trip distracted him for the time being.

On the skiing trip, however, he broke his leg badly. He woke up from an operation with a full leg cast. Several days in the hospital and limitations on his mobility stirred his active teenage brain to dwell on the questions that haunted him before the trip.

While he was in the hospital, his father brought him a book on the history of baseball. As he read the book, he began to notice that the stories all ended the same way. The great prospects were scouted. They came up to the majors with budding promise. They had a fantastic career. They accumulated records, and they retired… and, “Then what?” He wondered.

In his 14-year old mind, baseball was the greatest thing a person could do, but he wondered, “In a hundred years, would anyone remember those accomplishments?”

His own mundane routines of life – getting up in the morning, taking the bus to school, coming home, doing his homework and chores, and getting up in the morning to do it all again – led him to fear “that nothing I was doing was going to amount to anything”.

He added the routine of hobbling to the mailbox each day to get the newspaper to read the baseball box scores. As days went by, he became conscious of the dates on the newspapers. Each day a new date, one after the other, with each one passing into his memory. Snap your finger one moment, he realized, and the next moment you are remembering the moment you snapped your finger, but it was gone.

He became aware of the ephemeral nature of time, and began to wonder, “What is it that is the same all the time and is the basis for binding all these passing sense impressions together?” these questions led to the conclusion, “Unless there is something that doesn’t change, everything that is constantly changing has no lasting reality, let alone meaning.”

He had no reason to believe, at that time, that there was an answer to this angst. There was no reason to believe there was anything that was always the same, that was unchanging. There was nothing evident to him to tether the ever changing world of his experience.

I recall early in my life a time of deep unsettling angst. I was maybe around 5-7 years old, when we watched a reel of home movies of my father and grandparents and me as a younger child. This was, perhaps, my first awareness of the passage of time.

I don’t know if I dreamt this, or imagined it, or whether it was a “vision”, but what I recall was “real”. I still remember it, though the immediacy of the feelings that went with it have faded. I experienced the sensation of floating in the unimaginably vast emptiness and expanse of space – alone – not connected to anyone or anything.

Terrifying is not the right word for the feeling I felt, but I can’t come up with a better description. I imagine now that the same or similar gnawing feeling is what Meyer experienced as he wrestled with the questions whirling in his young mind.

Meyer realized one day, as he had a strong urge to ask his parents, that his parents could offer him no better solution, that there was no sense even asking. Stephen Meyer remembers looking at his windowsill in his leg cast and staring at the pattern in the wood. He wondered, “How do I know that what I am seeing is really there and not just something that is going on in my brain?”

At that point his next thought was, “I wonder if this is what it means to be insane?” Then arose the fear that led to a new fear that the questions meant there was something wrong with him. If his parents had taken him to a psychologist then, he might have been diagnosed with anxiety leading to a panic attack.

In college, though, Meyer was able to find some clarity and context for his experience in the study of existentialism: “Without an infinite reference point, nothing finite has any ultimate meaning or value.” (Paraphrasing John Paul Sartre). Meyer realized, “That was what was bothering me!”

Everything is in flux from our human vantage point. Everything is passing, passing, passing….. Nothing has any lasting meaning or value from the position of a finite being. The anxiety he felt was a “metaphysical anxiety”.

Stephen Meyer’s journey is somewhat similar to mine, except for the details. This journey is common to human experience, and it has ancient roots. Anyone who has spent any time reading Ecclesiastes knows what I am talking about.

“It” dissipated as he got into college and began to wrestle with meaning from an academic angle, but “it” would “come back with a vengeance” at times as he realized that nothing another finite person could say to him could provide resolution for him.

He finally found some resolution as he started reading the Bible in college. One day he came across the statement, “Jesus is the same yesterday, today and forever”. (Heb. 13:8) Another time he found the name given to God in Exodus: “I Am that I Am”. (Ex. 3:14) He thought, “Maybe this is the thing that doesn’t change that is the basis of all reality.”

He had an intuition that something must exist that doesn’t change, or everything else that is constantly changing has no substance or reality, but he didn’t a potential source for that “something” until he read the Bible. He found potential answers in the Bible, and he eventually became a Christian, but his conversion as “tortuous and gradual”.

He first became convinced of theism Then he became convinced of Christianity, but he “didn’t want it to be true”. Ultimately, the biblical answers allowed him “to feel normal for the first time” and provided foundation for his thinking:

“Unless our minds are the product of a benevolent creator who made them in such as way as to make it possible for us to know the world as it really is, or at least approximately so, we … plunge into a form of profound skepticism about whether what we are perceiving matches what is really out there and whether or not, at a deeper level, our lives can have any ultimate meaning or purpose.”

As I consider his story, I wonder if my dog that is staring out into the woods as I type this has ever suffered existential angst. My dog is anxious all the time, but she can’t express it. She can’t reason through it. She is just anxious.

Maybe she picks up my feelings, though I (like Meyer) have found peace in acknowledgment and belief that there is a Rock that anchors my soul. There is an unchanging Being in whom all finite beings live and breathe and ground their being.

Years later, Meyer was having lunch with Thomas Nagel, the great philosopher of science who is an atheist. Nagel asked Meyer, “Why did you become a Christian?” Meyer began to explain the epistemological argument from necessity: that only theism grounds belief in the reliability of the mind; that the mind is designed well to match the way the world works; these various presuppositions about the way the world works anchor the confidence human being have in knowledge.

Mid-explanation, Nagel interrupted him, saying, “You don’t need to explain.” He said, “There is no question that theism solves a lot of philosophical problems.”

When Meyer read David Hume, who argued for epistemological skepticism, Meyer noted that Hume started with the presupposition of denial, the premise that there is no God. Meyer realized that Hume’s premise naturally and inevitably led to nothing but skepticism. The bare assertion, “I think, therefore I am”, is not anchored in reality if the being making that assertion is finite.

If we start with the premise that God exists, however, we have grounding for belief in the reliability of the human mind. If God exists, therefore I am, and I have good reason to trust the substance and reality of my own thinking. Without God, there is no substance to the thoughts of a finite being.

Charles Darwin unwittingly proves the point. Darwin, who had great confidence in his own ability to know things and to perceive the reality of the world through science and reason, was utterly skeptical (unlike Meyer) of his intuition that life and the universe had any meaning or purpose.

I have written about this many times. In a letter to William Graham dated July 3, 1811, Darwin explained his skepticism this way:

“Nevertheless you have expressed my inward conviction, though far more vividly and clearly than I could have done, that the Universe is not the result of chance. But then with me the horrid doubt always arises whether the convictions of man’s mind, which has been developed from the mind of the lower animals, are of any value or at all trustworthy. Would any one trust in the convictions of a monkey’s mind, if there are any convictions in such a mind?”

The question I ask, that we should all ask, is whether Darwin should have had any confidence in his own ability to reason. If the reasoning of Darwin’s mind (and my mind and yours), which developed from the mind of the lower animals, is of any value or at all trustworthy. Would anyone trust in the reasoning of a monkey’s mind?

Hume, at least, was consistent in his thinking. He realized that we have every reason to be skeptical in our ability to understand reality if we start with the premise that God does not exist. Epistemological skepticism, is the only consistent and the necessary conclusion we can reach as finite, ephemeral creatures. There is no thing that Is that It Is.

For Meyer, the only two alternatives to our existential angst are theism or “radical existentialism” leading to “anguish, forlornness and despair” (quoting Sartre again). Existentialism leads to the inability to know the world around you, including other people.

As I think back to my “nightmarish” dream, vision or imagining, I understand, more than I did as a young boy, that my terrifying experience of being untethered is the reality of my existence if God does not exist. Not that it proves God does exist.

But then, why do I even wonder? Why am I conscious of my wondering, and why does my wondering create in me such terrifying angst? The writer of Ecclesiastes puts a finger on the answer when he says,

He has made everything beautiful in its time. Also, he has put eternity into man’s heart, yet so that he cannot find out what God has done from the beginning to the end.” (Ecc. 3:11)

The sense (intuition, conviction) of eternity is what drives the angst. The angst drives us to God … or into anguish, forlornness and despair. I believe there is no other choice for finite beings such as ourselves who are aware of our awareness.

If your interest is piqued to listen to the entire dialogue between Sean McDowell and Stephen Meyer, I am linking to the YouTube version below:

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