Anyone who has ever spent time in a discussion about religion and lack thereof, or even about the value of the scientific approach, has come up against the argument of “meaning.” “But if we live in a random, uncaused universe,” comes the plaintive cry, “then life has no meaning.”
This is a curious statement. After all, the search for the meaning of life has been going on for thousands of years, so it doesn’t really appear that the lack of this is slowing anyone down. If anything, it seems to be a background quest, though I have a hard time calling it that, since I’ve seen very few people actually looking for it in the first place. Those that have told me they’ve found it usually say it’s “spreading the word of god” or something similar. Ignoring the point that finding someone who hasn’t yet heard this word would mean they should be cutting through jungles somewhere, I haven’t really seen these people living out the meaning they’ve found, any more than anyone else. It’s also curious that this simple meaning hasn’t answered that question for so many other people.
Returning the the original reaction, though, we have to wonder why people seem distraught over “losing” something that they never had. It’s obviously not the meaning itself, but the idea that there is one that people are settling for. And when you get down to that concept, you tumble to the possibility that this desire for a cause, purpose, or simple answer is the key factor. It shouldn’t be surprising that we operate from a “cause and effect” standpoint, but we want to substitute “intent” for “cause.” The leaf falls from the tree due mostly to gravity – that’s cause. If we’re talking about ourselves, however, we seem to want there to be something more, a goal or intention to our existence. We don’t concern ourselves with the meaning behind trees or the moon; we don’t have an issue with these simply existing. We just can’t apply this to ourselves.
There’s an interesting dichotomy to all this, though. We also retain a firm belief in free will, and while not mutually exclusive, the dividing line between meaning, as in a purpose, and the ability to pursue our own agendas or desires can become very muddy. You will find people getting just as distraught over the thought that free will may not exist. This comes up in at least two concepts: the deterministic one, which states that all physical aspects that influence our lives, from seemingly random events down to the reactions in our brains, can be traced back to predictable atomic behavior; and the predestination one, which can be similar but also applies to scenarios where an omniscient being has planned the entire universe.
Both of these come with their own baggage, and amusingly enough, it’s the same baggage. Both the disordered universe scenario, where free will can exist, and the (pre)deterministic where it does not, directly relate to nihilism, the philosophical state of life without meaning or purpose. Depressing, yes?
Except that it misses one simple thing: meaning, purpose, depression and love and humor and even green, are all human constructs. None of them have meaning in the vast universe we inhabit. The fact that this evokes any kind of emotion in us indicates that these concepts do have meaning to us. Our brains have certain demands, and these are but a few of them. There’s actually nothing wrong with that. We are not masters of the universe, but we are human beings, and can be happy with that. Can’t we?
Meaning is a strictly personal thing. So, maintain whatever meaning you like. The lack of a universal direction actually provides the ultimate in free will – do whatever the hell pleases you, go in the direction you think is best. This begins to sound like hedonism, the concept of pursuing only that which gives us pleasure, but this is badly misunderstood. Of course we do, as a moment’s thought will demonstrate – we just don’t always do it from an immediate gratification standpoint. The kicker here is, some of the things that give us pleasure are not selfish in any way, but contribute towards the social apparatus of human beings as a whole: cooperation, empathy, charity, fairness, and so on. If you want to spread god’s word, go for it (I have my doubts you can determine what this actually is without inserting your own personal biases, but whatever.) If you want to teach wood shop, have at it! The universe is not going to stop you in any way.
It’s still subverted by the idea that our contribution to the universe is infinitesimal. A thousand years from now, ten thousand, will things be any different because of us? Well, no. And yes. We aren’t going to have any decent impact on anything sizable, and evidence of our existence will vanish quickly. We’re only affected by this because we allowed ourselves to think otherwise, and again, this is probably a by-product of our peculiar brain makeup. Have you ever found yourself saddened by the thought that the rabbit in the woods will leave no mark on the universe? No, we don’t concern ourselves with that, do we? Just our own impact, in our hubris. Get over it.
Let’s not forget the “yes” part above, either. The very fact of our existence is having impact, in the usage of energy and catalyzing of chemicals. This isn’t huge, mind you, but it’s the same as the tiny atomic processes in your body – it adds up. You can have a greater impact if you want, by producing some change in the human species, even on a small scale. Leave a legacy of some kind, be remembered for something, help someone’s life be better in some way. If you look at this from the standpoint of most other living species on our planet, you have a remarkable ability – the tree can do little to change its environment or help other trees, the kinkajou is unlikely to be remembered by other kinkajous in any way. Our brains lend us some interesting possibilities – as long as we don’t let them bog us down with the pursuit of, or despair over, something incredibly vain like ultimate meaning and purpose.
When you step back and look at it in this way, you’ll probably find something interesting: this was all you ever wanted in the first place. A little recognition, a little justification, a little impact, a little legacy. Did we really expect to wield some kind of universe-changing power? Of course not – all we want is to interact with other humans in a positive manner. The nature of the universe changes this in no way whatsoever. Pick your purpose and run with it.
I have to insert some endthoughts here, because this little essay produced some ideas that I think bear closer examination. Nihilism, for instance, was shown to be pointless in definition – it actually only has impact if an individual chooses to avoid defining their own purpose. Hedonism, another philosophy with a bad rap, turns out to be something we all engage in routinely. And while they can almost be considered opposite sides of the coin, both can spring from the “lack of meaning.” Isn’t that a hoot?
But the message that has come up repeatedly in just this short space is how we can be influenced by what is nothing more than a conceit of the mind. Practically everything I’ve talked about here is a damaged concept that doesn’t really have application to the world as we know it, and instead of being born from evidence of their existence, they were created from emotional reactions within our minds. Even worse, the emphasis placed on some of these lend them a legitimacy that isn’t deserved, which is one of the reasons why I push critical thought. A few hundred years of philosophers isn’t proof against starting with a bad premise.
And finally, a return to that plaintive cry from the beginning. Surprisingly few people, when faced with a discovery they don’t personally like such as “the universe has no meaning,” ever stop to think that it must always have been this way, even before they knew about it, and this did not affect their life then. The issue is not reality at all, it’s the willingness to accept it.