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Meaning

27 January, 2007

Well, I’ve been blogging here for nigh on a year now, and I thought it was about time to draw some conclusions, or at least try to make some connections between these disjointed musings.

After all, the reason I started was to try to get some order in my own head: to try to make sense of all the stuff I’ve read over the past couple of years in my belated and possibly doomed attempt to understand: understand why I am and why we are.

I’m tempted to break my musings down into some ‘logical’ categories. Though the attempt to categorise itself seems futile: surely any attempt to break down existence into neat little bite-size chunks can only end up making it banal.

Having said that, I think my experience leads me to agree with Karen Armstrong that humans are creatures that seek meaning.

  • “Ever since we fell out of the trees and became recognisably human, we’ve created religion and works of art to give us some sense that life has ultimate meaning and value to make us wonder, to hold us in an attitude of awe, because we’re meaning-seeking creatures.”

However, this search for meaning can be problematic.

  • Maybe we are meaning seeking creatures only in the sense that, in evolutionary terms, we can posit that there might be advantages to having an innate desire to seek meaning: it can help us solve problems, identify causes and effects, and so on. But is our meaning-seeking nature any more than an (imperfect) problem-solving capability?
  • Is our search for meaning something like the search that some of us make for a life-partner: we don’t have a specification written out, but with luck at least a few of us seem to know our perfect match when we find him or her?
  • Or is our search for meaning a futile endeavour, originating in nothing more than a vague sense that something is missing or wrong or incomplete? How do we know that we’d recognise a meaning even if we found it?

Then there are all the semantic questions:

  • what do we mean by ‘meaning’, as in ‘the meaning of life’?Do we mean cause, as in what’s the cause of my existence?
    If so, does it help to know about the Big Bang, the formation of the Earth, primitive life forms, evolution, natural selection and our parents having sex?
  • Do we mean place or role, as in what’s my place in the great scheme of things?
    If so, isn’t this a bit grandiose? Why do we feel this need to be seen as part of the bigger picture?
  • Do we mean purpose, as in where is (my) life heading?
    If so, where do we get this idea that life has to have a purpose?
    Do we really want life to have a purpose?
    How would it help?
    Is it enough for me to decide for myself what that purpose is, or does it have to come from Somebody Else?

What seems to be clear is that the human search for meaning is a widespread phenomenon.

It can also be unsettling, disturbing, even distressing.

We like to have neat solutions to problems, and easy answers to questions, no matter how big they are; and when we don’t have an immediate answer, we feel uncomfortable, even depressed. Searching for meaning is stressful.

I believe this is why, for many of us, the search for meaning gets too demanding, and they just adopt the answer that’s closest at hand; usually, this is someone else’s answer: meaning of life = God.

Once we’ve made this leap, several consequences follow:

    Either we stop searching for meaning; we just swallow the pre-prepared and pre-digested answers that come with the particular brand of God we’ve bought into. Or, any further questioning is limited by the framework of belief in a Supernatural Being; so, once you decide that there is a God, you can use up the rest of your restless questioning energy on defining and describing your God: What is God really like? What does God want from me? Why does God allow X? Whose God is the true God?

In both cases, we’ve limited our scope to carry on searching for meaning. If it turns out that there is no God (or that God is not a Supernatural Being), then we could have wasted our only lifetime on an irrelevant quest or, even worse, on no quest at all.

But that’s not all.

If I choose to believe in a God, in order to feel that my life has a meaning (= ‘there must be a reason for all this, so it must be the case that there is a God with a Plan for me ‘), am I not believing that the meaning of my life is subordinate to the whim of another being? (What’s more: a being who, if we believe the Old Testament, is not even very pleasant, or moral, or consistent… do we want the meaning of our lives to be determined by him?).

If I need to believe in a God, in order to feel that my life has a meaning, am I not just pushing the question away (= ‘I can’t work out what the meaning of my life is, so I’ll abdicate my responsibility and just assume this God knows what he’s doing’)?

And who’s to say that a life that derives its ‘meaning’ from a God, is more worth having than a life that I lead according to a meaning that I myself construct, without reference to a Supernatural Being?

Hmm…

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