Joel Marks and the Meaning of Life

Is human life absurd, meaningless, and empty? Or do our lives have purpose and significance?

One way to find an answer to these big questions is to ask another question: if we never existed or ceased to exist, would it matter? For instance, if there was one less piece of dust in a lifeless galaxy five billion light years away, this would hardly affect anyone. The dust’s existence – or nonexistence – just doesn’t matter very much.

But what if humans never existed – or suddenly ceased to exist?

Dr. Joel Marks, a Professor Emeritus of Philosophy at the University of New Haven and a Bioethics Center Scholar at Yale University, has offered an atheistic perspective on these questions in his essay “Absolute Vulnerability,” published by Philosophy Now.

In the article, Dr. Marks considers the possibility of a nuclear war or an asteroid crashing into earth, and after the mass extinction of all life, “the entire cultural memory of humanity would be obliterated by this ultimate catastrophe.”

So what?

Well, according to Dr. Marks,

The idea in plain language is that the universe could not care less about whether humanity survives to see another day…For apart from us – and again, this is precisely my point – the universe neither mourns nor rejoices in anything. And it certainly has no stake in our continued existence, singly or en masse or in toto.

The conclusion Dr. Marks draws from this grim picture of the universe is that no one is “out there” to protect humanity. Since there is no God to protect us, if we want to ensure the continued survival of our species, we alone can “do something effective” to prevent such a disaster from occurring. Practically speaking, it might be worth taking some precautions against an asteroid ending all human life. But why?

Personal Bias vs. an Objective Perspective

Protecting human life only makes sense if human life is worthwhile, if our existence actually matters. Of course it matters to us, but that’s just a very biased and subjective viewpoint. Our own “anticipatory loss,” which Dr. Marks experiences when he reflects on these doomsday scenarios, is a fact of equal irrelevance to the universe. Whether we care about our existence or not, and whether we exist or not, are just arbitrarily different descriptions about the universe. But if atheism is true, then neither description matters to anyone besides ourselves.

That is, looking at our existence from a more scientific perspective, “the universe neither mourns nor rejoices in anything.” From that standpoint, the universe wasn’t “better” once humanity started to exist and the universe won’t be any “worse” if we cease to exist. In this sense, the ending of all human life isn’t “the ultimate catastrophe.”

An Atheistic Leap of Faith

The point is that it takes a tremendous leap of faith to leap from the subjective experience, “I feel like humans are important and should exist,” to the conclusion, “Humans are in fact important.”

Even Dr. Marks recognizes this fatal objection to his own argument. He writes, “Of course it would be a loss to no one if no one were left to mourn it, and hence not a loss at all, some clever reasoner might rejoin.”  Exactly. The annihilation of all humanity would be another random event in a dispassionate and unconcerned set of matter, energy and space-time. The destruction of all humanity? “Not a loss at all” is where Dr. Marks should have ended his article.

Dr. Marks has argued in the New York Times and elsewhere, as I have, that atheism leads to amoralism. The same kind of arguments against the existence of a transcendent morality should lead him to see that atheism also leads to the absence of transcendental properties like hope and purpose. By contrast, if Christianity is true, then there is an all-knowing, all-good God who can reveal to us the high value of human life.