12 January 2008

The Meaning of life (and other trivial concerns!)– An Existentialist Approach:

Probably man’s most asked questions would have to be something along the lines of “why are we here”, in essence “what is our purpose” or as it is often phrased “what is the meaning of life”. This question is of course closely rivalled by “where do all my socks go and why is it that despite how many socks I buy I never have a matching pair?” which is yet another of life’s many great mysteries. Personally I always liked Douglas Adams’ simple answer to the meaning of life in his: The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy. The answer was of course the now rather infamous number “Forty-Two”. In many ways his comical answer to one of life’s greatest problems highlights how insufficient any clear cut answer would be. How can you go about answering a question as mind boggling as what is the meaning of life?

The meaning of life certainly does seem to be a rather subjective question, and thus one which embraces relativism. Yet this doesn’t really help us much and we now start to wonder if there is no concrete answer. Existentialist theory addresses the issue of not knowing a concrete answer to this ultimate question in stating that it leads to anxiety. If on the other hand there were a clear-cut and set answer to life such as “To eat spaghetti”, then everyone could take comfort in knowing that they fulfil life’s purpose by regularly eat spaghetti and so on. But while the answer remains unknown so to remains a feeling of insecurity in not knowing whether we are in fact doing the right thing. This uncertainty is seen to lead to the aforementioned anxiety.

However fear not, for existentialists and Buddhists alike argue that we need not live a life of anxiety. They admit that there are no fixed values in the world, no things which are simply right or wrong but therefore argue that this places the moral onus on us to create our own values and build society upon these values. They argue that this provides humanity with a fresh slate on which to carve its own values, as shaped by its individuals. Instead of feeling anxious at the lack of values this optimistic way of looking at life stresses felling empowered by our ability to create our own values and to support what we believe in. Thus, while the existentialist view is sometimes associated with a period of angst in which people don’t know what exactly they should be doing, it is seen as able to be overcome when people take on responsibility by defining their own morals, thus empowering themselves. Hence, existential theory is not really nihilistic at all, but rather positive in how it expresses that we are in a position of creative freedom. This creative freedom provides us with a means to mould the pillars of society as we see fit.

Typically existentialism by its nature denounces God as it denounces pure objective truth, yet there is also a stream known as Christian existentialism which still accepts Gods existence. Christian existentialism however must settle be content with the idea that god exists but in no way interferes with human development and hence leaves values open to us to decide upon. The atheist view obviously thinks the same thing, but without there ever being a god. So whether you are religious or not must not necessarily stop you from accepting the primary ideas behind existentialist theory.

I suppose the hard part comes in accepting that life has no true meaning before we create one. While it seems easy to accept I think subconsciously this scares us greatly. I think instinctively we want values to exist of their own accord, much as a physical object would? We want to think that certain virtues, such as helping old ladies to cross the street, exist independently of our minds. Otherwise those virtues become nothing but tentative beliefs. When I say unfounded I mean that they don’t have something concrete to back them up.

Here’s a good example to illustrate what I’m trying to get at. I recently mentioned that I got Terry Pratchett's lattest book Making Money (Discworld). Fear not for it is not a self-help book about making money, rather it is a brilliantly entertaining and comical masterpiece as most of his works are (in my humble opinion of course – but then I always had a taste for the bizarre and humourous). In not giving the plot line away I will simply say that the protagonist who is trying to help the bank out of financial difficulty wants to implement paper money as a currency and in turn get rid of all the gold in the bank’s vaults. The people of the city Ankh-Morpork of course enquire as to what exactly the paper money is other than just paper if there is no gold being held by the bank to give concrete worth to the currency. The protagonist argues that the money is given value by us anyway, and that the whole notion of the city (Ankh-Morpork) itself and all within it should give the paper value as a currency, and therefore that the gold is not required to give it its value.

Okay, if you’re still with me, the equivalence to my article on the meaning of life is that it is simply the way that our minds work that we think better in concrete terms. We can more easily accept and understand values being “right”, “true” or “worthy” if they are concretely supported. That is to say if some figure who can’t be wrong like god says hitting old ladies is bad, then hitting old laddies is bad. We take comfort in knowing that we don’t really have to understand why these things are, or take any responsibility for why they are, they just are. However existentliasts argue that nothing gives value to a concept like “hitting old ladies is bad” other than us ourselves supporting such values.

Essentially the difficulty here is in the individual taking responsibility for being a bastion of human values, or values that he would see as being of best use to humanity. Accepting this does require some open-mindedness, and open-mindedness typically leaves people open, funny that. The thing is when people are open they are also vulnerable. An analogy would be accepting someone else’s blood into your own veins, certainly it might help, but equally if that blood is somehow tainted it could hinder, such are the uncertainties anyone faces when they let their guard down. This quote from Tool sums the idea up nicely:
“To think for yourself you must question authority and learn to put yourself in a state of vulnerable, open mindedness, chaotic, confused vulnerability, to inform yourself.”
- Intro speech to “Third Eye Live” by Tool

It seems that all this theorising has lead us to conclude that the meaning of life is only given meaning by living, which seems rather self-evident, as how could we have any meaning without conscious life? What we do through living and what we support and believe gives life meaning. Meaning doesn’t give life, rather life gives meaning!

Excuse me if that was rather a leap of faith, I don’ think I made that journey of understanding as pleasant as I probably could have, but the words sort of just typed themselves out. So it seems that those who run around life looking for meaning are like the people who run around looking for their glasses when they are in fact wearing them on their head. No, they’re not stupid, or blind, that wasn’t the point I was trying to make. Rather, meaning is always there, it is not something which can be sought in a physical sense, rather it is found through doing. In the odd analogy of the person with glasses on their head the glasses are found when the person instinctively pulls them down to read something. So too does man instinctively reach out and use meaning, when he requires it to see life with clearer vision.

Therefore to find meaning in life we must take full responsibility for our own lives and thus through living life we create meaning. If you believe in stopping poverty then take responsibility. Firstly you must realise that the problem exists and the you must take action. Donate to a charity. Volunteer to do charity work, raise money for a worthy cause. Why not? Why not you? Why wait for someone else to do it? You are the one who holds the values you believe in, therefore you should be the one to try and spread the sense behind those values and to in turn place the foundation for meaning through life.


Sandy Carlson said...

Defining values for oneself means recognizing that living a life of compassion breaks the cycle of suffering for ourselves and others. Realizing the interconnection of the wellness of all beings can lead to compassion-based values rather than self-serving relativism.

Thanks for a thought-provoking post.

84735 said...

Very nice thoughts ! :) What goes around comes around and nothing dies, just evolves in our infinite lives !

((( Good Vibes )))

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