What should our response be to all of this? We strongly believe that there is absolutely no reason not to live for the possibility that life has meaning and value. We think we are right about the transitory nature of physical consciousness, but we may be totally wrong. If we are wrong, if each of us has a singular physical consciousness that somehow survives physical death, or if there is some other form of existential existence that gives meaning and purpose to our physical lives, then our life may have meaning and value even if there is no non-physical life after death. We will not pursue this possibility, yet you should recognize that it might, or might not, exist.
A brief comment on the word possible. Saying something may be possible is misleading in the case of mutually exclusive options. When we say there is a possibility that our conclusions are wrong, or a possibility that there is no non-physical life after death, or a possibility that there is existential meaning without a non-physical life after death, we are talking about facts that are either true or false. Our conclusions are right, or they are wrong, either there is a non-physical life after death or there is no non-physical life after death, either there is existential meaning absent a non-physical afterlife or there is not. If life has no existential meaning without a non-physical existence after physical death, and there is no life after physical death, then there is no “possibility” of existential meaning. If there is existential meaning to life without non-physical existence after death, then the possibility of existential meaning exists and always has existed.
If in fact there is no non-physical life after death, then there is no possibility of a non-physical life after death and such a possibility never existed. Yet if there is a non-physical life after death then the possibility, indeed the actuality, of life after death exists and always has existed. Whenever you see the word possible, and similar words like might or may, remember that if something does not and cannot exist, then that something is and was never possible (the probability is zero). If something can exist, then that something represents an actual possibility.
If we are right, if our consciousness and existential physical being do not survive physical death, our death may mark the end of our existence. Yet if our physical consciousness dies, it is still quite possible that we will not face a “nihilistic” death. Perhaps we have a non-physical consciousness that survives physical death, and that gives meaning and value to our lives.
Beyond the human desire for meaning in life, we would suggest that the logical consequences of what philosophers call a nihilistic death require the search for alternatives to nihilism. Those who believe that the nihilistic void is approaching are, by the very nature of their humanity, required to search for something to believe in other than the void. While it appears to be impossible to scientifically prove that life has meaning and value, it is equally impossible to prove that life has no meaning and value. No matter what the person who concludes that life is meaningless believes to be true now or at any other particular time in their life, the possibility always exists that he or she may eventually find true meaning and value.
The following is very hard to explain and may take several readings and a great deal of effort to understand. The limits of human comprehension make it extremely difficult to recognize the fact that if there is a nihilistic void after physical death, then there is absolutely no reason at all to think about the “nothing” that may follow physical life. Nothing cannot affect our physical lives, either positively or negatively. It cannot be a part of our existence, it cannot be a part of our thoughts, it is “nothing”.
If after our physical death there is “nothing” then when we die we will not experience calm or peace or pain or distress, we will not experience anything because we will not exist. “Nothing” will not relieve us of anything simply because there will be no one to experience relief, there will be no “you” who can feel the absence of pain. You will not remember the good times or the horrific events in your life. We need to accept the difficult but essential point, if nothing follows physical death then there is no peaceful sleep because no one exists who can sleep, there are no nightmares because there is no one to dream. All will be as if it never was.
If you live five years in excruciating pain and there is nothing after physical death, then when you die the pain does not “end”, it is as if those five years never happened. If you live fifty years in excruciating pain and there is nothing after physical death, then when you die the pain does not “end”, it is as if those fifty years never happened. If there is nothing after physical death, you gain nothing if your physical pain lasts only five instead of fifty years, there is no difference. In both cases on the day of your death the excruciating pain does not “end”, it is as if the pain never was.
There is a profound difference between pain which ends and pain which never was. It may seem that anything which results in pain being as if it never happened is an end to the pain we are suffering, but that is not a true description of the “reality” of not existing, of “nothing”. Take the time to really think about the difference, you will eventually realize that if on our physical death our past is consumed by nothing, it is no worse to suffer fifty years of pain than suffer five years. If in fact there is nothing after physical death, then if you live one minute, or 20 or 30 or 40 or 50 more years, all the horrors in your past, present, and future will be “consumed” by nothing. This is not the same as saying that we find “peace” in a nihilistic death, we find “nothing”. All will be as if it never was.
Similarly, if you live a long and comfortable life filled with personal accomplishments, and there is nothing after physical death, then on your physical death “nothing”. If there is nothing after physical death you will have no past. It will be as if you were never born, as if you never existed. All will be as if it never was.
If there is nothing after physical death, there can be absolutely no benefit to a shorter life, no logical reason to want physical life to end. Even though it may seem absurd, if we do not exist after our physical death we have no reason to fear, or avoid, five years or fifty years of the most horrible pain.
The all-consuming nature of the “nothing” that may follow physical death is what human beings find almost impossible to comprehend. Yet understanding the possibility of “something”, life after physical death and/or existential meaning to physical life, and the freedom of “nothing” if we are wrong, allows us to live as long and as good a physical life as possible.
If you are living a pleasant life your initial response to the possibility of “nothing” may be that it is frightening, or if you are suffering it may feel somehow comforting, both thoughts are totally, unquestionably, wrong. If on our physical death there is nothing, then there is no rational or logical reason to think about physical death as fearful or peaceful. If there is nothing after physical death then the experience of physical death (perhaps it is better to say the experience that never happens) is the same if it occurs in one day or one year or one hundred years, during a period of great joy or great pain. There would be “nothing” in your future to look forward to, there would be “nothing” in your future to fear.
If you really understand what this means, you recognize that the possibility of nothing allows us to endure all of the physical and emotional pain we experience no matter how horrific, and to live the most positive life we can with the hope that there is a non-physical life after our death. It is very important to recognize that nihilism can never lead to suicide, for nihilism tells us that if we do in fact live in a nihilistic world, nothing that happens in our lives, no matter how painful it is and how badly we may feel about it at the time, has any “real” consequence at all.
If there is nothing after death, then it makes no difference to you if your life was filled with pain or pleasure, because you will not exist to feel pain or pleasure. Yet if there is an existence after death, then by having chosen to endure physical pain and chosen to live the most positive physical life you can, you may find after your physical death that memories of even the worst pain are overwhelmed by “joy” and “disappear”. If there is an existence after physical death, then enduring a lifetime of physical and emotional pain may result in a timeless eternity of peace and happiness.
The possibility of nothing leaves you absolutely free to live a life filled with both pain and joy, knowing that if you live in a meaningless world the pain will be as if it never was. Terminating life never brings release from pain, rather it may destroy the possibility of a meaningful, perhaps joyful, non-physical life. If there is an existence after death, and you choose suicide, you may be rejecting that peace and happiness. We are absolutely convinced that the philosophical neutrality that nihilism demands, means that nihilism never suggests or in any way supports suicide as an option for any human being.
If you believe that suicide is an option, you totally misunderstand what you have read, you do not comprehend what it means to say that “nothing” may consume your past, present, and future. You do not understand what it means to say that all will be as if it never was. You need to reread this essay until you understand that nihilism renders false all arguments for suicide. [Again, if you find yourself distressed or depressed by our conclusions please read the Appendix – Distress & Depression.]