Robert C Solomon wrote “the meaning of life is to be found in the context of our lives - the sense they make and the sense we give to them - rather than in reference to anything outside of life.... Indeed, it is more of a metaphor that is required, an image, a vision of life in which you see yourself as having a definite role, a set of reasonable expectations.” While I believe that this is essentially correct, and that the meaning of an individual’s life is primarily determined from within the context of his life, yet the issue is not entirely indifferent to and separate from what does exist outside of life; the questions of “Why are we here?” and “What is life all about?”, and more importantly our answers to them, do play a significant role in determining the context of our lives, and hence its meaning. If we come to know that human life on earth is the result of a biological experiment on a planetary test-tube by an advanced alien species, would it not affect how we see ourselves?
In order to unravel the ambiguity associated with the question “What is the meaning of life?” I believe that we must distinguish between two separate questions, one broadly of psychology and other broadly of philosophy:
1) What is a meaningful life? How can a person live a life that is meaningful to him? Positive Psychology and virtue ethics attempt to answer this and other relevant questions.
2) What is the nature of life and reality, and for what purpose, if any, do we exist? If there is a God, why did he create us, what does he expect from us and what does he hope to accomplish? This is the domain of Metaphysics, theology and mysticism, and this is the question that I am largely concerned with in this article.
When we turn our gaze outwards to discover any purpose to life, something akin to Aristotle’s final cause “the end, that for the sake of which a thing is done”, we find ourselves face to face with a universe devoid of any such discernible purpose. While the sciences reveal harmony and design within the chaos, the point of it all stumps us. Bertrand Russell writes “So far as scientific evidence goes, the universe has crawled by slow stages to a somewhat pitiful result on this earth and is going to crawl by still more pitiful stages to a condition of universal death. If this is to be taken as evidence of purpose, I can only say that the purpose is one that does not appeal to me.” But if we are to be philosophically honest, we’ll see that the knowledge of ultimate reality is beyond the grasp of scientific method, and what we have in front of us is a Wall — an infinitely vast impenetrable wall of absurdity. What lies on the other side of this wall, if there is another side to it at all, we do not know. Albert Camus writes “I don’t know whether this world has a meaning that transcends it. But I know that I do not know the meaning... What can a meaning outside my condition mean to me? I can understand only in human terms.”
Arriving at this dead end, we respond to this Wall in various ways. We may shrug and turn back to immerse ourselves in the average everydayness of life. Or we may rebel against it and live with a new-found intensity. Or we may fall in despair and nihilism, convinced that nothing we do is of significance. Or we may take a Kierkegaardian leap of faith and place our trust in a deity or a religion. In whatever way we respond to this absurdity, it provides the background of our lives, shapes the context of our existence and influences the meaning we derive from it.
Existentialists did not set out to find a purpose. They set out to explore the human condition and they found themselves face to face with the Wall of an indifferent meaningless universe. However, in this absurdity, they realised their immense freedom, the freedom to define themselves, to live however they choose to, because there is nothing to dictate them. They are free to create ideals by which to live, decide for themselves how they can make their individual lives meaningful. To live, to die, to rebel, to believe, it is one’s choice now, an inescapable individual choice that one has to make on facing this absurdity. To deny or to give up this freedom is to live inauthentically.
There is an unknown (possibly non-existing) purpose or ‘transcendent meaning’ on the other side of the wall, and we create the meaning of our lives in the background of this lack of knowledge and uncertainty. This is true for the vast majority of us. However, there are a few individuals who, supposedly, by means of mystic experience, have an access (to a variety of degrees, varying from person to person and experience to experience) to that transcendent meaning; people who claim to be able to not just see but also participate in what is on the other side of the Wall. Prophets also belong to this category; the kernel of prophethood is in essence a mystic experience. As Camus had realised, it is only when a purpose becomes a part of one’s condition, it is only when one can begin to understand in more-than-human terms by participating in divine consciousness that this transcendent meaning begins to mean something for the individual concerned. Mere belief in God does not do that. Even when a person believes as a matter of faith that God exists, that transcendent meaning is beyond his reach, he doesn’t know. Spiritual truth cannot be known at second hand; it is directly experienced. One can, of course, reasonably deny that mystic experience has any validity, and one may ascribe it to phantasmal activities of the mind. To accept a mystic’s account is to trust his personal integrity, and trust, after all, is a matter of faith; one cannot be obliged by reason, but that is not to say that to trust someone’s personal integrity is to be irrational. Non-mystics can hypothesise about the truth of the message conveyed by the mystics, but that must occur with the consciousness of the absurd, because without that you have fallen into philosophical error and religious dogma.
The author is a doctor, blogger and an amateur philosopher. Follow him on twitter @awaisaftab