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