Monday, April 11, 2016

On Meaning

Holocaust survivor and psychologist Victor Frankl once wrote a book titled Man's Search for Meaning in which he asserted that man can't live without believing that there is some purpose or meaning to his life. To waken in the morning and realize that there's no real point to anything one does in the hours that lie ahead beyond just keeping oneself alive is psychologically deadening. It can lead to a kind of existential despair.

Each of us, of course, has projects which inject a kind of temporary meaning into our lives and help us to avoid a numbed listlessness, but when we ask what, in the overall scheme of things, those projects amount to, the answer seems to depend on how enduring they are.

Long term projects like raising a family or building a business seem more meaningful than short term projects like mowing the grass or watching a television program. Yet the problem is that if death ends our existence it also erases the meaning or significance of what we do, no matter how important it may seem to us while we're engaged in it.

For some, a relative few, their projects live on after them for a time, but even of many of these it might be asked, what's the point? Napoleon conquered much of Europe, was responsible for the slaughter of tens of thousands of men, but he was overthrown, died in exile, and the monarchy of France was restored. His deeds live on after his death, but what was the sense of all that death and carnage.

Meaning is a slippery notion, it's hard to define precisely what it is, but if our lives, like the light of a firefly, are here one instant and gone the next, if the earth is doomed to die a casualty of a solar supernova, then nothing lasts and nothing really means anything. Unless what we do matters forever it doesn't really matter at all.

These gloomy thoughts occurred to me as I read about a lecture given by biologist Jerry Coyne. Coyne told his audience that:
The universe and life are pointless....Pointless in the sense that there is no externally imposed purpose or point in the universe. As atheists this is something that is manifestly true to us. We make our own meaning and purpose.
This is perhaps the consensus view among those holding to a naturalistic worldview. It was eloquently articulated by philosopher Bertrand Russell in his book A Free Man's Worship in which he wrote the following words:
Such, in outline, but even more purposeless, more void of meaning is the world which Science presents for our belief. Amid such a world, if anywhere, our ideals henceforward must find a home. That Man is the product of causes which had no prevision of the end they were achieving; that his origin, his growth, his hopes and fears, his loves and his beliefs, are but the outcome of accidental collocations of atoms; that no fire, no heroism, no intensity of thought and feeling, can preserve an individual life beyond the grave; that all the labours of the ages, all the devotion, all the inspiration, all the noonday brightness of human genius, are destined to extinction in the vast death of the solar system, and that the whole temple of Man's achievement must inevitably be buried beneath the debris of a universe in ruins - all these things, if not quite beyond dispute, are yet so nearly certain, that no philosophy which rejects them can hope to stand. Only within the scaffolding of these truths, only on the firm foundation of unyielding despair, can the soul's habitation henceforth be safely built.
It's a bleak view of life, to be sure, but given that extinction awaits us, both individually and corporately, it's hard to dispute it. As the writer Somerset Maugham put it:
If death ends all, if I have neither to hope for good nor to fear evil, I must ask myself what am I here for….Now the answer is plain, but so unpalatable that most will not face it. There is no meaning for life, and [thus] life has no meaning.
The Russian writer Leo Tolstoy said essentially the same thing though with a bit more angst at the prospect of the emptiness and futility of existence:
What will come from what I am doing now, and may do tomorrow? What will come from my whole life? Otherwise expressed—Why should I live? Why should I wish for anything? Why should I do anything? Again, in other words, is there any meaning in my life which will not be destroyed by the inevitable death awaiting me?
If, though, death is not the end of our existence as a person then there's a chance that maybe there's meaning in the chaotic horror that is human history. If death is simply the transition between two stages of life, like the metamorphosis of a caterpillar to a butterfly, then maybe there's meaning, not only to history, but to each and every individual life.

If, on the other hand, death really is the end then all we are is dust in the wind, and philosophers and writers from Schopenhauer to Shakespeare are right: Life is just a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury and signifying nothing. We're born, we suffer, and we die, and that's all there is to it. Pretty depressing.