Is There A Way Out Of a Meaningless Existence?
Forging meaning in an existential universe.
Where do we come from? How did we get here? Why are we here? Is there meaning to our lives?
These four questions make up the starter kit of any pondering modern human. Whatever this ‘life’ is, we’re living it; and our yearning for answers — especially to the last two — fuels our constant worries, sometimes literally pushing us over the edge.
Though the questions are the same, the answers often differ.
Created or Natural?
There are two avenues we typically take to begin answering these questions. These two competing clusters of theories that provide many hints are creationism and naturalism.
Creationist theories claim that the originator of human life is a supernatural entity operating with a conscious purpose in mind. This belief extends to the entirety of the cosmos, as expressed in the many creation stories that animate religions around the world.
The universe can’t just be a brute fact birthed by happenstance and randomness, the creationist holds. It has been conceived by a conscious entity with a purpose in mind. Thus, the origins of life are the result of intelligent, premeditated purpose.
This makes answering ‘What is the meaning of life?’ easier. Just barely.
In philosopher Julian Baggini’s words, “It is not clear how with a creator there is meaning or purpose. All that seems to follow from a belief that the universe was created is that the designer has some purpose in mind for us.”
What the purpose is remains unknown.
Instead of an intelligent designer with a purpose in mind, naturalist theories maintain that the universe sprung out of stochastic processes, far removed from us, and our whiny self-absorption.
This story begins with the Big Bang, followed by the formation of stars and planets all the way to the birth of our solar system and this planet. Later comes the emergence of single-cell organisms and the subsequent evolution of more complex life forms, which eventually delivered Homo Sapiens.
Naturalist theories are often associated with atheist scientists. And rightly so. When asked how a creator fits into this picture, most scientists will echo the words of French scientist Pierre-Simon Laplace, who famously responded to a similar inquiry from Napoleon by stating, “I have no need of that hypothesis”.
Such theories make it harder to give a definitive answer to whether or not our lives have any purpose. In fact, their implications regarding this question are profoundly unsettling for many.
It’s a Very Very, Bleak World
If the naturalist account is true — and evidence from cosmology, theoretical physics, biology, and biochemistry overwhelmingly supports it — then life is but a meaningless accident of nature.
The only meaning there is, if there is any, concerns the unfolding of the universe’s story. Humans are irrelevant in this picture. And any notion of human purpose gets thrown out the window.
Even looking at our biological instinct to reproduce can’t give us a satisfying answer about human meaning and life’s purpose. As Richard Dawkins argued in The Selfish Gene, a human life is not primary, for what matters is that the genes carried by that human survive over the ages.
From this viewpoint, human life looks purposeless. It is an accident of no significance. And whatever source we drink from, our pursuits of meaning are doomed to taste bitter.
The conclusion that follows from accepting the naturalist accounts of the origins of life is typical of existential philosophers.
Thinkers like Friedrich Nietzsche, Albert Camus, and Jean-Pul Sartre are known for saying that, without a supernatural entity, all meaning is out the window and we are left without purpose.
It is misleading to generalize about what ‘existentialists’ have to say about life’s meaning because the term encompasses atheists like Nietzsche and Camus and believers like Søren Kierkegaard and Gabriel Marcel. Nonetheless, what the atheist existentialists would agree on is the fact that removing a creator does indeed create a crisis of meaning. Sartre illustrates this crisis with the analogy of the paper-knife.
A paper-knife has a determinate purpose because it was created by someone to fulfill a specific function and no other. In contrast, a sharp piece of flint has no determinate purpose. It just so happens that humans have found several uses for it (cutting paper could be one).
Sartre tells us that we have assumed ourselves to be like paper-knives. We believed — and most of us still believe — that the creator created us with a specific purpose in mind. Buf if the naturalist account holds true and there is no creator, our assumption is false.
Rather, we are like pieces of flint that just are. We may embark on journeys that give ourselves or others a ‘use’; but these purposes do not stem from our essential nature. We are not conferred a purpose by an entity external to us.
This goes for the entire universe.
It Keeps On Getting Bleaker, But It Doesn’t Have To
There are two ways to respond to this crisis of meaning.
One is pure existential nihilism. Life is meaningless, therefore nothing matters (see the circularity?).
The second is to question the assumption underpinning the first response.
Do we need to be like paper-knives for our lives to have meaning?
If the presupposition that our life’s meaning is given to us by a creator is false — which, again, seems more likely than it being true — then we are flint with no specific purpose. But being flint does not mean that life has no purpose.
It just so happens that sharp pieces of flint have been used primarily to cut raw meat, as spears, or to spark a fire. But no one said they can’t be used to carve beautiful images on wood, to scrape off paint from a wall, or to be stocked just for the pleasure of stocking them.
We can do all that and more if we so desire.
In other words, it is not that life has no meaning, but that it has no predetermined meaning, like the flint. That is, purpose and meaning are not built into human life. We ourselves are responsible for creating them, for forging our paths.
As Camus poignantly remarked, “It was previously a question of finding out whether or not life had to have a meaning to be lived. It now becomes clear on the contrary that it will be lived all the better if it has no meaning”.
Making a Choice
In Existentialism Is a Humanism, Sartre lectures about anguish, abandonment, and despair. The meaninglessness of human affairs could not be clearer. But he also states, contrary to what most think his ideas meant, that “existentialism is optimistic”.
Why? Because it leaves the quest for meaning to the human, not to a supernatural entity who allegedly has a purpose in mind for us but whose instructions are and will be forever unknown.
For many (though not all) this realization is empowering and liberating. We have the power to determine our life’s meaning. Like flint, we have greater potential for leading meaningful lives precisely because we are not artifacts of some creator that assigned us an inescapable essence — we are not paper-knives. This ability to choose one’s own purpose distinguishes what Sartre calls a conscious ‘being-for-itself’ from an unconscious ‘being-in-itself’.
Put simply, it boils down to a choice.
Are we more comfortable dwelling in fictitious certainty, awaiting the distant day in which a mysterious force will finally make known our purpose?
Or are we ready to embrace the dispiriting nature of existence and forge a meaningful path for ourselves, not despite but because of it?