Do our lives have meaning?
The idea that life is without meaning has become increasingly prominent in this modern secular world. It hasn’t merely been brought forwards by people who have rejected religion in any of its many forms, but also by the continental philosophers of the 19th and 20th centuries. The Existential movement takes the idea that life is devoid of meaning as an integral tenet of their worldview. The fact that life is empty of meaning doesn’t mean that our lives do not have meaning, however.
Everything is essentially empty of meaning until it is placed within a context. Meaning is then conferred to that thing within the context by its relation to its context. A pen, for example, would be meaningless if it existed in a world in which nobody had neither ability nor volition to write. In this world, however, it has the meaning of being a medium through which one can convey language via physical markings it can create.
The existentialists believe that human lives, on the scale of the individual, are wholly empty of meaning, even within contexts of time or society. If we relate to our history, we have imputed the meaning ourselves, it is ‘merely contingent’. When we say ‘merely contingent’, we mean that the relations we draw are arbitrary in themselves. If other relations could be drawn, then there is no reason one relation has any more value than another. Exactly the same idea of mere contingency is drawn to our social contexts.
But there is a confusion here. On the one hand, life is indeed meaningless, or so I believe. However, that doesn’t mean that life is empty of meaning. Existentialists are not nihilists. Whilst life is meaningless in terms that everything in it is arbitrary, we can’t avoid the fact that no matter how much we can realise this, our lives and the objects, events, and people in them, still have value to us. I believe that mere contingencies are indeed meaningless structurally (by which mean their connections are never essentially true nor essential). From the point of our inner perspective, however, we find them deeply meaningful.
Life may not be the sort of thing to have meaning, but our lives are
We can not live without drawing relations to our contexts. They are what cause us to act, to carry on living, to make one choice over another. We can accept that they lack metaphysical sense on a very deep level, but it will never stop us from making those connections. We have impetus to find things meaningful, a drive, if you will. To expect somebody to stop finding meaning in life is qualitatively the same as asking somebody to stop experiencing emotions. It is implausible, whether it is rational or not.
Life is meaningless on a metaphysical level, but there is much meaning on a human level. The confusion seems to come from the fact that we ask questions like ‘what is the meaning of life’. We will of course struggle to find an answer because there isn’t one in the sense of rigid definition. However, there is a felt meaning. Does my life have meaning as a whole? No, it doesn’t, but I can feel meaning in moments of life, most often when my actions are positively congruent with my feelings. In this case there is a ‘felt meaning’ in life, which exists purely in the moments we experience it.
We must be less like the pen, and more like the writer
Take Frankenstein’s monster. When it was given life, it experienced an intense feeling of existential dread. It couldn’t relate to anybody in the world. It was like a pen in a world where nobody writes. But the monster found hope in a future where it had a female counterpart. It saw meaning in its future. What it was doing was trying to move its self into a context where it could draw a meaningful relation. The monster (I do dislike using that title) saw meaning in an imagined future, and wanted to turn that imagined future meaning into a meaningful present. Isn’t that what we’re all trying to do? Become less like the pen, and more like the writer?
What we want, and need, is to create a context in which we find our existence validated, and feeling meaning is exactly how we do that. We have an emotional drive, maybe it is something even deeper than emotional, sometimes we feel that that drive is cellular. Then we must create, by transforming the context of our world into one in which we can draw relations which make us feel meaning. We can simply perceive different connections in life, because our world is merely a matter of what we experience, or we can create real change in the objective world, which will have a greater change on our experienced world.
If you enjoyed this article, don’t forget to subscribe.
Thank you for reading.
In part 2, I will discuss how meaning is made by the nature of our consciousness, and how reality and meaning exist by degree.