There are things in the world that appear to be made out of matter. When I look at the computer that I’m typing this on, it seems to exist as a solid object in the world. I know from school that it’s actually made of molecules, which are in turn made of atoms, which are made of quarks, and nobody has really figured out what those are made of. Some people don’t worry about it any more than that.1 But I have a question: How does meaning arise out of atoms colliding randomly with each other? Or perhaps “question” is too soft a term. It isn’t just idle musing. It’s a problem—and a very serious problem at that: the problem of nihilism. Because if things are indeed as we’ve been taught, it’s hard to see how there can be any meaning at all. If we aren’t careful, we may end up really believing that there is no meaning in the world.2

It’s impossible for tiny particles to collide randomly and somehow emit meaning as a form of radiation. Since meaning does exist, it must have been there from the start: Atoms are made of meaning. There seems at first to be a difference between “meaning” in the sense of experience and “meaning” in the sense of purpose. But in fact these are the same. The purpose of everything is also the cause of everything, and it is by way of this cause that the world is infused with a kind of life that, when seen by humans, expresses itself in the form of atoms. If this sounds implausible, consider the analogy of dreams: We would not say that dreams are created out of atoms—and yet, it’s possible to conduct a dream-experiment that proves the existence of dream-atoms. But in this case, it’s obvious that the atoms were created out of the narrative of the dream (in turn influenced by outside factors such as the dreamer’s emotional state) and not vice-versa.

  1. If materialists did seriously consider the consequences of their beliefs, they would become nihilists—or rather, they would realize that if materialism were true, nihilism would also be true, and therefore they would cease being materialists. 
  2. The logical consequence, then, is that we have to believe one of two things: there is no meaning (i.e. nihilism), or reality is entirely outside of the world. I’ve gotten caught by both these traps—and sometimes still do. (I don’t know a term for the latter idea, but perhaps it’s related to Gnosticism and solipsism, and it may be contrasted with animism, the idea that gods are fully embodied inside the world.)