Humans are spiritual beings and as the wonderful poet John O’Donohue wrote, “we all have an inner sense of mystery”. Such mystery is thanks to our consciousness and as we search, we are unsettled by the big questions that arise. For what is the relevance of one amongst infinity? What is the meaning of life?
Where do the Existential Questions come from?
Prior to tackling such big questions, it is important to establish where they originate from and the clues this might hold for their answers.
“I think, therefore I am.” Rene Descartes
Descartes was wrong, “I think, therefore I think I am”. In reality, we may never exist, have existed or exist in a physical form. Life, as we know it, could be a Matrix-like simulation, a dream or a movie created by non-human entities. Our reality could simply be the virtual reality of someone else. There is nothing in life we can be certain of except for our consciousness.
Consciousness in itself is not unique to human animals but it seems that our degree of it is. This consciousness has enabled humans to “progress” from the more primal concerns of reproduction and survival to secondary concerns of knowledge, art, and philosophy. When looking up at a vast starry sky, a great mountain or a thunderous river, our consciousness gives us a sense of awe and amazement but often also a reminder of our insignificance: our insignificance to the humans of the past and of the distant future, to the other animals on earth and the universe at large. Our insignificance in numbers, size and beauty. Our insignificance in space and time. Our irrelevance.
Of course, we have great biological significance in our reproduction but this is not enough. Our greater insignificance goes against our fundamental assumption: we are relevant. And we believe we are relevant because we are conscious. Caught between the facts (we are but one amongst infinite beings) and our beliefs (that our lives are worthy), we veer towards an existential crisis. Consciousness raises big questions – What is our purpose? What occurs after death? What is the meaning of life?
“The animals are much more content with mere existence than we are.” Arthur Schopenhauer
So, these questions arise in humans more than rats because we are conscious. Why are they important? Why are these questions not merely intellectual musings? These questions define our existence and their answers drive us. Each individual is not required to have their own answers, in fact social cohesion would likely be impossible if so, but societies must. As Viktor Frankl wrote from his time in Holocaust concentration camps, ‘he who has a why to live can survive almost any how’. We yearn for a coherence, a meaning, a purpose in this world.
Do answers exist?
At this point, it is important to establish if the answers to these questions are absolute or relative truths. From religious doctrines, including the likes of animism, such absolute truth exists and is applicable to all, i.e. our ultimate meaning is to serve God. Some political doctrines also believe in an absolute purpose, i.e. the ultimate purpose of protecting a race in fascism. From a scientific doctrine, we live in a relative world with no means to identify absolute truths, even if they do exist. We believe gravity to exist, sufficiently that we claim it to be a ‘law of the universe’ but recognise that it is potentially falsifiable. Similarly, there is no absolute meaning of life. I follow the latter doctrine, and as such tackle these questions from that perspective. My intention is not to offend but to challenge and be challenged (do comment below!).
“Science and theology – a seeking after clues by the living as to what life was all about.” Kurt Vonnegut
Living in a world of relative truths has a profound implication for existential questions: there is no absolute meaning of life. Rather than ask for “the meaning of life”, it should be “my meaning of life” for such meaning is neither absolute nor given but created. In “Man’s Search for Meaning”, Viktor Frankl writes of a recent widower who was in despair after his wife died. In a depression, he could not see the purpose to life anymore. Dr Frankl listened and responded that had he died first and left his wife a widow, she would have suffered equally. In living beyond her, he was saving her such a pain. From that, the man found great meaning and began to live again. Meaning can be found in the bleakest of circumstances. It is on us!
What do these answers look like?
The world is formed of complex forces that are largely indiscernible to us. However, fortunately, humans are pattern recognition machines. Arrogant ones. We find correlations, connect the dots and then claim to have acquired “knowledge”. (For patterns we cannot recognise, we call them “random” not “unknown”). Of course, such simplicity rarely exists and so we create stories to hold such a web together.
Stories tie a thread through the random string of events, encounters and efforts that shape our lives. They form a plausible and convincing narrative about where we come from, what we are doing and who we are. (Although, we don’t admit these are “stories” because that would defeat the façade!). Often, we do not create such stories ourselves. Instead, those with a gift for it, storytellers, give us our story. Storytellers come in different forms, kings, politicians, priests, and have always held a very special place in social groups.
Which stories have arisen?
One of humans’ greatest stories (without trying to offend) are religions. Refined over several centuries, monotheistic religions are holistic in providing a story of our creation, existence, purpose, and future with God. Better yet, such a meaning is absolute rather than relative. Humans need not concern themselves with the unknown in the comfort that there is a greater being, in whose image we are created, that knowns such unknowns. Even further, such a being can do everything we cannot. (It is important to note Hinduism differs from Abrahamic religions, ‘Believe in the doctrine and you are safe’ does not apply because it is taught that you are what you make yourself).
A more recent story is one of nationhood. Often overlaying the religious foundations, patriotism provides the identity, community and loyalty for an individual. The purpose is clear, “duty to one’s nation”. “Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country” as John F. Kennedy declared. This is a story that Lincoln, alongside millions of soldiers, died for.
Both of these stories seem to be losing strength. In an increasing empiricist world, claims for an absolute or divine purpose seem irreconcilable with new discoveries about the vastness of the universe. In a globalised world, the accident of geographical birth seems like a perverse way to define loyalties. But we need answers.
The New Stories
One clear story did emerge, the story of more. More growth, more money, more things. But materialism will never be enough to fill our spiritual needs. However, no alternative has arisen to supplant the direction religion or patriotism provides. This fits well with a liberal vision for the world in which we can each govern our own meaning but some argue that spirituality fits too snugly with complacency and hedonism. As religiosity and patriotism have been on the decline, spirituality has not. Notably, a group of “Spiritual but not Religious” (S.B.N.R.s) has grown dramatically to exceed a quarter of the American population. On the ground, one can see the growth in yoga, meditation, mindfulness, effective-altruists and even veganism as manifestations of this. However, such groups are more similar in what they oppose, often religion, than their own ideals. There is new spirituality is vague, it risks being everything. Some unifying concept is needed to create communities, we cannot collect under the banner of SBNRs. We need this story urgently because in reality, most of us do not create our own and as these questions don’t go away, we become desperate. We aimlessly meander through life bumping into the walls of reality and become vulnerable to demagogues who can bring such direction to our spiritual void.
We have placed too much hope in politics and social reforms, only to find out that we were being deprived of our most precious possession: our spiritual life. It is trampled by the party mob in the East [Soviet Union], by the commercial one in the West.Alexander I. Solzhenitsyn, 1978 Harvard commencement address
The throngs of young men following the likes of Jordan Peterson, with an almost idol-like worship, suggest that there is a desperate need for such direction. His book resembles some religious doctrines, “12 Rules for Life”, and some of his talks are more like evangelism. He has amassed millions of followers as he pedals a convincing mixture of reasonable and other, not-so reasonable, ideas. (More on him another day). Similarly, the rise of ‘right-wing trolls’ and conspiracy theories on the internet strike me as indicative of people who are desperate for a meaning which they can uncover.
A Tentative Conclusion
Humans have the gift of a high degree of consciousness; with this has come great awareness of our world but also those beyond it. This brings big questions which demand big answers because we need a relevance, a meaning and a purpose in this uncertain world. Some believe in an absolute meaning, I don’t. Viktor Frankl makes it clear that it is our own responsibility to create this meaning.
“Rather than ask life what meaning it has, life asks us what meaning we have for it.” Viktor Frankl, Man’s Search for Meaning
However, such liberty to choose the meaning of one’s life also leaves us vulnerable to those who will provide it for us. At the moment, in the wake of religious meaning, many are swayed by the clarity and simplicity of conspiracies, terror and hatred. It is easier to find quick meaning in destruction than the greater meaning of creation. We need to find an alternative that forms a community and provides a story to these existential questions. And now, I have a big question for you: does liberalism inherently prevent a unifying story developing?