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.Continue reading “The Paths that Diverge at the Crossroads of Existential Angst”