“You will never be happy if you continue to search for what happiness consists of. You will never live if you are looking for the meaning of life.”
— Albert Camus, ‘Youthful Writings’
Why do we have an innate tendency to suppose life has some sort of meaning beyond that which we make it? Is it really that easy to give up the search for an underlying purpose to life and reluctantly accept existentialism or nihilism¹ like the rest of the population?
Many of us, existentialists and absurdists alike, are addicted to truth and cannot readily accept that some questions are ultimately unanswerable. For these foolhardy souls sincerely devoted to the search for objective meaning, to die not one step closer to discovering the principles of existence (being able to connect the ‘how’ of science with the ‘why’ of philosophy) would be nothing less than a failed life. Under this view no matter how ‘successful’ a person appears to be during their lifetime, if they haven’t achieved some basic understanding of why they or anyone else existed, or had some conception of the significance of their role in the universe that person was no more successful than anybody else. However harsh it may seem, maintaining this sort of strict dedication to truth is necessary if a person is to come close to solving the abstruse metaphysical questions of the cosmos within just one human lifetime.
“The man who regards his own life and that of his fellow creatures as meaningless is not merely unfortunate but almost disqualified for life.”
If all we have experientially is our own biased subjective viewpoint this is no simple task. Fortunately for each of us, we have the culmination of every publicly available thought at hand ready to advance the understanding of the human hive-mind. Centuries of refined opinion, led by rigorous research, allows us that one precious opportunity to discover something incredible about our universe.
However, there are a number of sound reasons why finding a single interconnected reason for existence has been deemed an impossible task:
- We can’t conceive of the very thing we’re looking for! The information we are using can only be generated from our current base of knowledge. Thus like every other theory the only way forward is to propose a nearly untestable hypothesis which obeys our present scientific understanding and surmounts any attempt to falsify it.
- The reasons supporting the claim are relatively weak. As will be explained further on, our doubts about existentialism or nihilism arise primarily from the absurdity of nature and our ability to pose an infinite number of questions about our universe (our capacity to reason at a high level). But ultimately there is no tangible evidence in favour of objective meaning².
- The very nature of perception. The fact that our viewpoint is entirely subjective (allowing us to communicate with one another only indirectly) forms the basis of existentialism. In this vein, existentialists have argued that it is impossible to designate something as meaningful when it lies outside of our subjective desires.
- It’s actually not in a person’s individual interest to find an objective purpose to life. This one might be difficult to explain. Let’s say you discovered a previously unknown connection between the elements of the universe which revealed to you a single ‘reason’ for existence. Every human activity would then lose some of its appeal to you as you would see it as little more than a stepping stone to this greater purpose. In this way our ignorance is not always a burden to us.
Now that the opposition has been clearly defined is there any platform left to suggest there is anything more to our world than what we perceive directly? Does the possibility remain that there could be some sort of God or group of Gods silently engineering our destinies? Could there be an underlying ‘reason’ behind the phenomena we know of but don’t understand? Ultimately, is the search for objective meaning anything more than lofty idealism?
Question after question after question. And the only answer is to question our propensity to ask so many questions! If we were ‘designed’ to reason with ever-advancing capabilities it follows (assuming our experimentation doesn’t cause our extinction) that we will eventually reach a comprehension of the universe which enables us to fully control our destinies, by making moral decisions which are empirically founded and therefore less controvertible (possibly transforming us into the ultimate hive mind). Thus the key tool of reason, causality, must not be understated.
“But now I have come to believe that the whole world is an enigma, a harmless enigma that is made terrible by our own mad attempt to interpret it as though it had an underlying truth.”
— Umberto Eco, ‘Foucault’s Pendulum’
One thing which constantly perplexes me is a lack of frequent surprise at the frank absurdity of our universe. Yes, it is so often repeated that the Earth her inhabitants are cosmic miracles; considering the intricate subatomic improbabilities involved in creating the perfect conditions for life. But this is not the real absurdity we should be focusing on. There’s a serious lack of well thought out postulations, using our logical abilities to connect the enigmatic aspects of the universe with valid theories attempting to confirm or deny reasons for existence. Conclusions drawn on topics such as singularities and the expansion of our universe are convenient for historical data collection, but just like any other bit of data this information is close to useless unless we can apply it by using it to prove or disprove hypotheses of reality³.
This rather optimistic claim that life does necessarily have a meaning or purpose we don’t yet understand I will for now call Neo-absurdism. Alongside existentialism, nihilism and absurdism this philosophy regards life as primarily absurd, but reaches the conclusion that this implies life must have objective meaning we haven’t found yet but will eventually discover, instead of the conclusion that finding objective meaning is an impossible task.
There we have it. We have outlined a logical process of formalising the abstract questions we have to conform with the scientific method, listed the strongest reasons for and against neo-absurdism, and come up with a host of prudent questions which may last us over a hundred human lifetimes.
Now to begin the process of solving them…
“Life is a mystery…where is the goal of this fitful and fretful and feverish existence? Man knoweth not. The untutored savage, and the most highly cultivated intellect of all the ages stand equally mute in the presence of this ever-inviting, this ever-recurring question, What is life? Plato has reasoned, Darwin has investigated, Tyndall has experimented; yet the answer that comes back to our inquiry is but the faintest reverberation of the echo, What is life?”
— William H. Crogman, ‘Speech delivered at Clark University (May 19th, 1895)’
¹The three categories explained: https://danielmiessler.com/blog/difference-existentialism-nihilism-absurdism/#gs.Vcj46Iw (note that all three stances deny the existence of meaning outside of the individual)
²Without sufficient empirical evidence we have no logical reason to accept it, just as a person might be an atheist without the necessary empirical evidence for theism.
³A few popular theories for you to mull on:
- Monotheism – The idea that there is no more than one God (using the information we have we generally assume they would look like an Earthly organism) who interferes with our universe. This theory is usually accompanied by a karma-like system whereby ‘good’ actions are rewarded and ‘bad’ actions reproved by an omnipotent, omniscient and benevolent deity.
- Darwinism – The remarkably simple yet cogent theory that life is nothing more than self-replication on a grand scale. Darwinism has substantially contributed to the popularity of nihilism.
- The Simulation Hypothesis – The postmodern idea that we are living in a computer simulation. Attributed to Nick Bostrom, this seemingly wild theory is basically grounded on the premise that any civilisation which develops computer technologies is more than likely to create at least one simulation which replicates their own universe. Therefore, it is more than likely this has already occurred and we are no more than the result of this simulation. You could also argue this is a form of theism (the ‘deities’ being people from a separate universe).
I challenge you to research upstanding theories such as these and form your own theory on the meaning of life! There are unlimited possibilities but only one true answer.