Stephen Meyer describes the existential angst he experienced in his early teens in an 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. Then he would go on to obtain a Masters n Philosophy and a Ph.D in the philosophy of science from the University of Cambridge.
Meyer explained that he 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, like: “What’s it going to matter in a hundred years?”
He was initially troubled by those questions, 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 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. Now, he wondered, “In a hundred years, would anyone remember those accomplishments?”
The mundane routines of his 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”.
The routine of hobbling to the mailbox each day to get the newspaper to read the baseball box scores added to the existential weight. 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 memory.
Snap your finger one moment, he realized, and the next moment you are remembering the moment you snapped your finger. Each moment is passing even as you dwell on the moment, and then it is gone. An endless reminder of his finitude.
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?”
This question 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 there was an answer to this angst. There was no reason to believe there was anything that was always the same, that there was anything that was unchanging. There was nothing evident to him to anchor the ever changing world of his experience to anything solid.
This reminds me of an early realization in my own life. 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 self-conscious 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.
The feeling that accompanied the dream was utter and terrifying emptiness and disconnectedness. Words don’t do it justice. I imagine now that the Yawning, gnawing feeling utterly terrifying feeling I had is similar to what Meyer experienced as he wrestled with the questions whirling in his young mind.
Meyer realized one day, when he had a strong urge to ask his parents, that his parents could offer him no better solution. He realized there was no sense even asking. They were finite creatures like him. They could not provide salve for what bothered him.
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?”
In his next thought he wondered, “Is this 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. Meyer speculates that a psychologist might have diagnosed him 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 also 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 the angst 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.
It was during this time in college that he started reading the Bible. 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 have a potential source for that “something” until he read the Bible. But, then he encountered a different problem: he wasn’t sure he wanted to embrace the answer.
He found potential answers in the Bible, and he eventually became a Christian, but his conversion was “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 were the best one he could find. As he embraced them, he says, “I began to feel normal for the first time.” They 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 watch my dog staring out into the woods, and the questions arises as I type this: whether she 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. Is she even aware that she is anxious?
I doubt it. Human beings have a unique capacity for thought, awareness, communication and self-consciousness that is not evident elsewhere in the animal kingdom. Maybe my dog picks up on my feelings, but she can’t communicate them, she can’t describe them to me, and I doubt she is aware of her own angst, like I am.
I (like Meyer) have found peace in the acknowledgment and belief that there is a Rock that anchors reality. There is an unchanging Being in whom all finite beings live and breathe and ground their own being.
Years later, Meyer was having lunch with Thomas Nagel, the great philosopher of science. Nagel, who is an atheist, 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; and these various presuppositions about the way the world works anchor the confidence human beings 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 for the first time, his thinking began to crystallize. Hume argued for epistemological skepticism. Hume started with the presupposition of denial, the premise that there is no God. Meyer realized that Hume’s premise naturally and inevitably leads to nothing but skepticism.
This became clearer when he read Descartes, who made the bare assertion: “I think, therefore I am”. Meyer realized that assertion is anchored in nothing if the being making that assertion is finite. That assertion is nothing but the ghost of a whisper from a being whose existence is literally here today and gone tomorrow.
Again, the Bible puts this in perspective:
“Like a flower [that] comes forth and withers.” (Job 14:2)
“A wind that passes and does not return.” (Psalm 78:39)
My days are like a lengthened shadow, and I wither away like grass. (Psalm 102:11)
“[A] vapor that appears for a little while and then vanishes….” (James 4:14)
We cannot anchor reality in our own existence. 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 rested great confidence in his own ability to know things and to perceive the reality of the world through science and reason, but he was skeptical of his intuition that life and the universe had any meaning or purpose. Darwin, like Descartes, failed to take his skepticism to its logical end.
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 why 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 logical conclusion we can reach as finite, ephemeral creatures.
Meyer insists, and I think rightly, that the only two alternatives to our existential angst are theism or “radical existentialism” leading to “anguish, forlornness and despair” (quoting Sartre again). Existentialism, without God, leads inevitably 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, disconnected, and utterly alone is the reality of my existence if God does not exist.
(Not that my desiring to be tethered, connected, and in community proves God does exist, though CS Lewis and Peter Kreeft make a good “argument from desire”.)
I come back to the questions, though: Why do I even wonder? Why am I conscious of my wondering? 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 highly recommend listening to the whole discussion which is linked below:
Stephen Meyer directs the Discovery Institute’s Center for Science and Culture in Seattle. He 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).)
2 thoughts on “The Paths that Diverge at the Crossroads of Existential Angst”
This is a splendid introduction to the discipline of philosophy–from a Christian point of view. J.
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Steven Meyer is a first class thinker. I enjoy what he writes.
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