DOES LIFE HAVE A MEANING?
Are human beings created for a reason? Does each one of us have a designated role and a pre-ordained higher purpose, cause or mission to attain? Do values and beliefs constitute a sort of human guidelines and manual to live life? Does life have a meaning?To infer that there is a definitive answer for each of these questions would be vast oversimplification. Meaning or significance in life is an unceasing philosophical inquest.Multiple reasons are explicated to confer meaning to life, a few of these being beliefs about God, heaven, hell, afterlife, reincarnation, fate, philanthropy, existence of a soul, fulfilment, duty, responsibility, good & bad, experiencing something, encountering someone, morality, non-malicious living and so forth. The central construct of this blog is to inquire whether life has an intrinsic meaning.
VALUES, MORALS AND ITS MEANING
Are the values and morals that we practice and their meaning sacrosanct. Take hedonism for instance i.e. pursuit of pleasure and that pleasure is the highest good; is this a wrong meaning adjunct? Would someone accuse the hedonists of not living up to their full potential? We as a society certainly don’t seem to look up to hedonists with the same veneration as we view philanthropists because contribution to society as a meaning attached is higher. Bill Gates prior to his philanthropic work was perceived as a monopolistic business billionaire, perhaps even hated by a few but with Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation people now perceive him with reverence.
DISSOLUTION OF MEANING
Euthanasia, infanticide, abortion, homosexuality and myriad unshakable belief systems have been dislodged due to reorientation of their erstwhile meaning attached. Today society after battling intransigence has legalized many of these. As Pearson (1994) puts it ‘All good things used to be bad things at one time; every original sin has turned into an original virtue. Marriage was once viewed as a crime against the community and people used to pay a fine for being so presumptuous as to claim one particular woman for themselves.’ It is my view that the moral landscape that surrounds us therefore is drastically different, dynamic and constantly metamorphosing hence values itself is a transitional phenomenon.
In October 2011 Britain scrapped a 300-year rule. Now the first born to the ruling royal family regardless of gender can become an heir to the throne. The meaning attached to an old rule changed. A study by Pearson makes an interesting inference from Nietzsche’s work and states that moral values are subject to change, appropriation, manipulation and that everything in human life is the product of contingent circumstances hence is subject to perpetual change and contestation. This inference could be correct and perhaps explain the abandonment of values under pressure in the following examples.
- LIFE OF PI (movie): Though anecdotal, look at the crumbling of values during final stages of survival in the book ‘Life of Pi’. In the non-animal interpretation, how the cook manipulated the others and amputated the sailor’s fractured leg to use it as bait for food.
- AUSCHWITZ: The same kind of value crumble happened in the concentration camp at Auschwitz; under the immensity of unmitigated suffering some prisoners became gruesome rogues whilst others altruistic. A few Kapo’s picked out from amongst prisoners to administer the other prisoners turned out to be as ruthless and unmerciful as the SS guards to ensure their own survival.
PERCEPTION OF IMMORTALITY
Ernest Becker the cultural anthropologist argues, “Our universal ambition is prosperity and that death is the chief enemy with which we must contend” Becker further suggests that in order to transcend death, human beings resort to ‘counting’ or ‘mattering’ or leaving something of themselves behind. In my view fame and leaving a legacy of a good family name all of these contribute to the perception that ‘after life matters’ which in turn instils a sense of immortality in people hence they feel death therefore has a meaning now.
Another hankering for immortality is manifested through the fad of ‘preservation of youth’. The Global anti-aging market is expected to touch $ 191.7 Billion in 2019; such is the obsession for people to look young. The society, to preserve stability, also created the concept of good and evil, heaven and hell with the equation; good deeds lead to heaven and bad deeds to hell. As Steven Pinker, the experimental psychologist and cognitive scientist puts it, “Allusions to a happy afterlife are typical in final letters of parents who take their children’s lives before taking their own, and we have been recently reminded of how such beliefs embolden suicide bombers and kamikaze hijackers”. Existence of an afterlife perhaps could be another meaning construct.
What about the existence of soul. Plato was a dualist and believed that humans are composed of two elements, body and soul and that soul was the directing force of the body. His views were ‘The body is that which individualizes the soul.’ Aristotle contested Plato’s viewpoint, claiming that the body and soul were inseparable. Sartre’s (1943) observation was that ‘It would be in vain to suppose that the soul can detach itself from this individualization by separating itself from the body at death.’ In my view, the very construction of a soul and the ideology behind reincarnation are meant to provide a meaning to afterlife that in turn fuels the theory of immortality. It is possible that we merely have a biological life and a biological death, period. A study by Pinker (2002) suggests that the doctrine of the soul that outlives the body is anything but righteous, because it necessarily devalues the lives we live on this earth. He goes on to state, ‘Unverifiable beliefs are passed along from parents and peers rather than discovered in the world, they differ from group to group and become divisive identity badges.’ The simple argument is that we are dealing with a lot of ‘meaning constructs’ that may perhaps not be the objective truth.
EXISTENCE OF MEANINGLESSNESS
Sartre was one of the strongest proponents of the view that the world is meaningless and quoted, ‘All existing things are born for no reason, continue through weakness and die by accident. It is meaningless that we are born; it is meaningless that we die.’ The line ‘Life is meaningless’ though appears nihilistic in persuasion, I reckon there is logic in the argument. There may perhaps be no higher purpose for which we have been sent to this earth. We may not have been created with any grander intention or blue print to further create spacecraft’s, machines, spit the atom, build gargantuan projects etc. It is just coincidence that we are endowed with a bigger prefrontal cortex by virtue of which human beings can think and since we are curious we keep inventing, innovating, improvising and in this process life happens. If a community lives in a remote village, sleeps by the lakeside, paints, loves each other, share their resources, even this existence is fully valid. It doesn’t mean that their life is bereft of any higher meaning.
As Sartre puts it we are responsible for creating life’s meaning out of nothing. We define, invent and create ourselves by selecting our own life-goals and it is only we who can assign values by which we must live life. Scientists argue that it is an absolute random act that we as human species survive in this planet. We may attribute it to God but no empirical evidence exists. We may attribute it to big bang, evolution or other theories. We may believe that human race can be categorised only by 12 zodiac signs and each one of us fits into some category. We may believe that our behaviour is governed by planetary movements but all these are again constructions. Whatever meaning that we attribute should not take away our intrinsic freedom. The freedom to make choices and the freedom to take action is ours. Sartre has said that ‘Man is condemned to be free; all choices are risky as none are guaranteed to be right. However the freedom to choose is the root of our creativity though it provokes anxiety.’
Suicide is one of the extreme forms of meaninglessness and a way of escaping existence. A study by Albert Camus (1955) theorises that absurdity arises out of the fundamental disharmony between the individual’s search for meaning and the meaninglessness of the universe and that by accepting the absurd one can achieve absolute freedom. Camus further states, ‘Suicide is the acceptance at its extreme. In its way suicide settles the absurd. It engulfs the absurd in the same death.’ Sure it does but what a way to go, instead can’t a new meaning be attached and give life a chance.
HIGHER VALUES & GOALS
Various philosophers have proposed different higher goals for life:
- Nietzsche believes that without great art, individual life becomes meaningless.
- Frankl suggests, ‘Love is the ultimate goal to which man can aspire and that salvation of man is through love and in love.’
- Binswanger states, ‘The highest and most original form of human existence is the reciprocal love relationship – the dual mode of love.’
- Frankl also has stated, ‘If there is a meaning in life at all, then there must be a meaning in suffering. Without suffering and death human life cannot be complete.’
- Nietzsche says ‘Man, the boldest animal does not repudiate suffering as such; he desires it, he even seeks it out, provided that he has been shown a meaning for it, a reason for suffering.’ It is my guess that this is what war is all about; people are motivated to fight anyone as long as a reason is constructed. It could be genuine self-defense, propaganda, revolutionary thoughts, liberation from tyranny, fight for change, coup, regaining lost land and many other reasons but it has to be packaged in such a way that it has to appear as a noble and a just cause for the followers to believe it and elicit their consent and compliance. Meaning construction is pervasive.
- Maslow proposed self-actualisation and full realization of one’s potential as a higher purpose but imagine a father doing nothing but caring for his only son affected with polio, is his life of any lesser significance?
All the above i.e. whether we find meaning through creative art, love, attitude to suffering, religious disposition, war, self-actualisation etc. is fine, it surely helps live with a purpose but they are still absolutisms in my view and to insinuate that without any of these, life is meaningless borders on hyperbole. There is nothing called a ‘monolithic value based’ approach. Higher values and goals might provide emancipation but a life lived without such imperatives also could be meaningful in its own existential way but yes with art, reciprocal love, self actualisation etc. it just makes life that much more exciting or fulfilling.
WHAT WE MAKE OF IT
Look at Dr Frankl’s experience at the concentration camp Auschwitz, how under systematic attrition, humiliation, debased and mortifying environment some prisoners lost their will to live and died whilst a few others attached a higher meaning to their existence and survived. Here is how he describes the grotesque scene that is so touching. “When the last layers of subcutaneous fat had vanished and we looked like skeletons disguised with skin and rags, we could watch our bodies beginning to devour themselves. The organism digested its own protein, and the muscles disappeared. The body had no powers of resistance left. One after another the members of the little community in our hut died. Each of us could calculate with fair accuracy whose turn would be next, and when his own would come. After many observations we knew the symptoms well, which made the correctness of our prognoses quite certain ‘He won’t last long’ or ‘This is the next one.’ People in Auschwitz, with unerring accuracy could pinpoint who will die next based on their will to live and the meaning they attached to their existence. Dr Frankl attributes his own survival purely to the higher meaning that he attached to life in spite of abject suffering. Sartre said, ‘Man is nothing but what he makes of himself, we don’t chose the circumstance of our life rather we are free to chose our response to them and that it is this response that defines each of us.’ It is my view that what we make of life is our individual meaning construct.
The statement ‘Life is meaningless’ has logic however if one embraces the quintessence of this maxim, one is condemned to a life of passivity and could adopt a dismissive demeanour to life. Instead one can always attach a worthwhile meaning and interpretation to life and in the realization and fulfilment of this meaning (even if it is artificial), it might help us unleash our potential, propel us like cybernetic mechanism towards our set goals and help us live life with more purpose, gusto and fully engaged with the world. Meaning construction is not just for an envisioned future, it also helps reshape the life of old people and make then gain their strength when they reminisce the past. In this interesting DVD ‘Creating Meaning in Later Years’, four women in their nineties are interviewed in the care home and each one of them lights up in the process of reconstruction of their past life through a narrative coherence. This reconstruction is based on their preferred identity which they unconsciously establish in the here and now i.e. some recall their husband, some their daughter, some their pets, some their societal involvement.
As it appears, there is no meaning that exists out there in the world which, after an arduous search, man serendipitously finds it rather we must make something worth our while as we traverse through life, attach a larger meaning and start our pursuit towards it, attain it, set another meaning or goal and pursue it and so on. From a therapeutic standpoint it is in the formation of newer meanings as well as disentanglement of disempowering meanings in our client’s world where the cure lies for the client.