Meaning of Life
Republished: April 7, 2008
I was reading an article by AAA about Agnosticism. I remembered Bertrand Russell, a prominent agnostic, who was once asked what he would do if he died and saw actually there exists afterlife and God. He responded that he would ask Him (ask God), why He (God) had not provided enough evidence for Bertrand Russell to believe in him, when he was living back on Earth? :-)
Of course, you know that the Judeo-Christian religions and Islam have a notion of personal God and thus the problems of agnosticism make sense. But even the esoteric traditions in these religions do not subscribe to the notion of personal God. For example, Islamic mystics such as Rumi were pantheists and did not follow the notion of personal God and challenged Mutekallemun (Islamic Scholastic)'s belief that God was not a material cause.
Even among Muslim theologians, there is no unanimity on the notion of personal God. Mutazilites (remember Ferdowsi's religion), followers of Hassan al-Basri challenged Mutekallemun and introduced an Epicurean pluralistic theory to resolve the antinomies of Mutekallemun 's rationalism. Later Ali ibn Ismail al-Ashari (who was of Mutazilites himself d. 881), turned against them and started a new group of Islamic theologians called Ashariya who believed in complete teleology and God's arbitrary will. Many Eastern religions such as Hinduism, Buddhism, and Taoism do not subscribe to the notion of personal God either.
For example, the Buddhists, such as Zen thinkers believe in ultimate MYSTERY, which is not the same as the notion of a personal God. It is interesting that in the beginning, Buddhism in the West, was understood along the lines of Christian thought, with its notion of personal God. Thinkers such as D.T. Suzuki contributed a lot to the new understanding of Buddhism in the West. Carl Jung refers a lot to Suzuki's scholarly works in that respect.
AAA posting prompted me to post an article that I published about 5 years ago in Mundus Novus, a literary journal in Northern California, no longer in existence. My article was entitled "The Meaning of Life". If I were writing it now, I would not write the part about the animals the same way, but I like most of the rest of it the way it is.
If you are not in the mood for more boring philosophical discussions, you may want to press "n" [meaning pass to next article].
Meaning of Life
Meaning of Life
The following is an article about the meaning of life. One may ask why it is important to ask "What is the Meaning of Life?" I explain below why I think it is important to ask this question:
When a Christian teenager feels to commit suicide, there is a lotof explanation of meaning of life and the sanctity of life that comes to his/her mind which help him/her to handle the situation. Whether that is the best help for this teenager and whether there are better solutions are not my issue now. My point is that the schools of thought of different times had an explanation for this question that every layman could understand and use. Still many Catholics who work on missions to help the homeless base most of their activities on their understanding of the meaning of life.
A similar situation was with classical physics where the practitioners and students had good explanation for physical events. When there was a crisis in physics in 20s and 30s, ambiguity was all we could hear from the main thinkers of theoretical physics. Now there is a new structure of understanding of physics. It does not mean that people are not questioning and thinking. I think both what Thomas Kuhn and Popper say happen in different degrees. My point is just that there is some explanation for understanding physics again, which is not just a whole line of ambiguities, contradictions, etc. This is what is used by layman, new student, teachers, thinkers. Although all of them may always look for better explanations.
Now back to the question whether I need to know the meaning of life? Yes, there are times that I do feel to have a need to know. But I cannot just take anything, that I know I do not believe in. I am more comfortable with an answer like Krishnamurti's style of questioning for yourself, that some people may respond with, but I do not find it adequate. I am also comfortable with a meditative state such as a Zen style resonance with the world to come to terms with life and return to the day-to-day plane in a fuller state of mind. But at a conscious level and with the achievements of science, technology, and philosophy, I think there should be a way to come up with better explanation.
Coming up with the four laws of Newton is not something that any individual can do, but its outcome has been easy enough for every layman to understand. Nowadays, action and reaction or the relation of force and acceleration is used by many laymen. I feel that the current professional philosophy has become very impenetrable for laymen and perhaps it is more because it has not found many solutions. There was a time that Scholastics philosophy became this way and layman was left out. We now know that it was not because they had a lot to offer.
On the contrary, that was the period they were the most barren, they did not have a lot to offer and philosophers of the time were just talking to each other. We all know about the question of number of angels on a needle, etc.... When it came to laymen, the philosophers of the time would talk as though they were talking to idiots. They would respond as though saying, hey idiot, you are still asking that question which we have dropped a long time ago even to think about, let alone to answer. They would shy away from addressing the kind of issues that layman would normally ask a philosopher or a priest, such as "Meaning of Life". Layman also would go to a dentist if s/he wanted to ask the What the Meaning of Wisdom Tooth Is?
I have tried to tackle the question. I have quoted two modern philosophers, Morris Berman and Willis Harman, who are among those who still ask these kinds of questions. Most of our top-grade philosophers such as Quine do not ask questions like this anymore. Or I may be ignorant of it. I have gone outside philosophy and looked at a new field called NLP, which BTW I dislike most of the hype surrounding it, and I dislike so much unethical practices by many of its practitioners. But I like to use some of its achievements.
Anyway, I have tried to use some of their work to tackle this age old question of the realm of philosophy. I have asked if communication with universe (nature, etc) can be achieved using the same results that NLP theorists have expressed for communication between humans with different conceptual (actually neurolinguistic) systems. Then I am asking that if this can be done (some attempts like this have been done by FINDHORN which I am very limitedly aware of and again there is so much hype around it.). My next endeavor has been to see if this approach can bring us to a solution for the Cartesian dilemma by offering a literal way of going from subject to object..
Of course there is another way of looking at the question and that is dropping it. Like a dentist who says, we do not use questions like what is wisdom teeth. We just have teeth. Or like G.E. Moore who would show his right hand and say RIGHT HAND. Or one could just say meaning of life is just living it. Writing a note on the Internet at this moment is meaning of my life. I have mentioned all of these options in my article. Evidently I want more than these. You ask if it is just a curiosity. I answer at times yes, at times it is a need and I say not just for me but I think for every one. But I agree that some people may be comfortable dropping it. Just like many people were comfortable to drop the need for anything called philosophy. I remember Wittgenstein at the time of Tractatus was like that. Then my question is meaningful for the ones who feel the need to address it.
What is the Meaning of Life?
The "crisis of meaning" is the buzzword of our times. One can hear it in every corner of our society; people feel meaningless in life! It is like being empty and "useless." No goal, no reason for living as though one is serving a jail term on this planet. It is not a rare occurrence among the psychologically disturbed or during occasional moments of one's life. Today, surprisingly, it has become a chronic epidemic among a large portion of the population.
In fact, the periods of meaningful feelings have become fewer and far between, from one love affair to the next, from one project to the next. Between jobs, between love relationships, after retirement, etc., the problem is at its peak. Sometimes, this crisis becomes so intense for some, that they may commit suicide or may "sell" their souls to someone else to facilitate the suicide; as exemplified by the hard-to-forget Jonestown and other mass suicide. This phenomenon seems to have become more widespread ever since the dawn of the scientific revolution three centuries ago. Some authors such as Morris Berman in his The Re-enchantment of the World report that prior to the scientific revolution, in the Middle Ages, the belief in the Divine Purpose, which was shared by the society, made every action meaningful within a cosmic picture. Thus, the meaning of life for medieval individual supported ethics and morality.
The decline of religion and the abandonment of the belief in such grand designs transformed the meaning of life to the meaning of this and that event in life. Thus, in Berman's opinion the only way society can regain a general meaning is to develop a participatory approach to knowledge in contrast to the detached Cartesian dichotomous outlook. That is, to replace Descartes' separation of the observer and the observed with a world outlook that would regard the observer as part of the observed world or vice versa.
Berman thinks of participation as the core principle of medieval philosophy. I agree with him as far as the mystical tradition in that period is concerned, but in the other Medieval philosophies, such as Scholasticism, not participation but servitude to the Divine Scheme guaranteed the meaning. For Scholastics, in God's mind there was a Purpose for everything and our ignorance of that Purpose was no reason to think that it did not exist. The Purpose was believed to be in the spiritual realm and our knowledge of it would not change its reality.
We were at the mercy of the Divine and our search was to attain an awareness of God's Purpose rather than to change it or to devise our own. Although this approach provided a meaningful existence for those who were happy to live according to the Design, for others who did not like to be a pawn in the Divine Scheme, such existence was meaningless. This is the reason for the endless Medieval arguments about determinism and free will in theology and philosophy.
A similar situation developed among the scientific philosophers. The materialists faced the same problems on determinism and indeterminism as the Scholastics. For the modern philosophers, the material world does not change with our attempt at understanding it. Accepting efficient causation and eliminating final causes by the rationalist philosophers reinforced the belief that cognition follows the reality and thus free will remains secondary to the material determination. This is why Spinoza, once eliminating teleology (final causes) from his philosophy, postulated fatalistic Necessity of God and Nature as the foundation of his philosophy.
The problem of meaning was even harder to resolve for the materialists than the Scholastics. The latter's appeal to God's Design had a more powerful grip on the pious mind than the power of fatalistic Necessity on the secular mind. Only mystics believed in some kind of participatory pantheism. For a mystic, consciousness is everywhere prior to time and space. Even the material world is a form of consciousness to a mystic. Thus, for mystics, meaning was never considered as separate from the actual existence. In their outlook, meaningfulness is implied in our actual living, and inquiring about it is pointless. From a mystical viewpoint, once the separation of the observer and the observed is overcome, the whole discourse on meaning becomes superfluous.
Leading thinkers of our time are proposing alternative paradigms of thought in the vein of mystical traditions. For example, Morris Berman proposes some kind of re-enchantment of the world and Willis Harman proposes consciousness as the fundamental stuff of the universe!
I think that we need to understand the core principles of the rationalist thought in its Greek Platonic form and in its European Cartesian version, in order to address the relevant issues properly in the current turmoil of paradigms. In Greek times, an ontological differentiation between the spiritual and the material world was formulated (e.g., the Plato's Theory of Forms). For Greeks, the spiritual and physical realms of existence were two separate worlds. The ontological distinction justified the separation of "priests" and "philosophers" in their pursuits. In the modern Cartesian system, a further split happened within the material world. The epistemic distinction between the subject and the object was thus formulated. This new development allowed the independence of the "scientists" from the Church "philosophers."
For Descartes, the dichotomy was epistemological _ meaning that as far as our act of knowing is concerned, the distinction between our thoughts (subject) and things (object) was valid. This epistemological division between mind and matter, subject and object, is responsible for the methodologies of verification in the sciences. In other words, the truth can be verified independent of the individual observers. Not only all our developments in science can be traced to this dichotomy, but the disassociation between our actions and their outcome is a heritage of this split which has caused a host of ethical problems. Recognizing these foundations, it is evident that the detachment of individual actions from the holistic result is not something to be overcome by general moralistic appeals.
In the last two decades many forefront scientists and philosophers have recognized the ethical dilemma of the scientific paradigm stated above. As noted previously, many of them are renouncing this paradigm and are embracing mysticism. For example, the latest work of Willis Harman proposes consciousness as the fundamental stuff of the universe as prior to time and space. Harman thinks that his metaphysical scheme will put an end to the lack of meaning in the contemporary world and will support the formation of a planetary interconnectedness. Thus, participation will end the arrogance of the observer who sees himself detached from the "external" world. In short, in view of this group of new scientists, the distinction between the observer and the external world is a matter of perspective just like the pre-Copernican picture of the universe.
Yet, down in our hearts, we do not feel that the scientific split of mind and matter is just a matter of perspective. Even when we recognize the impact of paradigms on our thinking, we cannot drop the dichotomy whole-heartedly. It is like Pandora's Box, it is hard to disbelieve the dichotomy and deeply feel an immediacy between our individual actions and their holistic result after having learned the "autonomy." In fact, the participatory vision as a guarantee for meaning and ethics has mostly worked for mystics who voluntarily accept an immediacy between their individual action and the holistic result. Some people's semi-religious belief in Karma also has had similar effects. For most others, such dictums have hardly been effective because they neither want to exercise them voluntarily nor are they forced to adhere to them due to any material imperative.
I think that people whole-heartedly believed in the Divine Purpose in the Medieval times and also believed whole-heartedly in the object/subject dichotomy in the era of science. The mystical paradigm of participation was believed by the Stoics after the fall of the Greek civilization and also was believed by the sufis of the Middle East in a similar period after the fall of the Islamic Empire. These esoteric groups accepted the participatory mode of thought not so much as an issue of truth than as a voluntary mode of existence. In my opinion neither Divine Purpose nor the scientific paradigm are viable today. But, contrary to most new age thinkers I do not think that mystical participation is the paradigm of new thought.
In fact, overcoming the dichotomy of human existence and the external world is not desirable. It would reduce the possibility of trustworthy knowledge and an uninformed mind would be happy to think of her/his subjective feelings as truth without seeing the need for verification. In the modern industrialized world, the destructive power of such confusions about knowledge have been constrained by the grip of the scientific paradigm on our rational thinking. Treating knowledge as a private enterprise and dropping verification from our common sense may replace knowledge by ignorance.
We need to remember that the dichotomy of the scientific paradigm, by emphasizing verification, has created an unprecedented depth in our understanding of the universe. Nonetheless, if we retain the epistemic dichotomy, the question remains how we can overcome the dilemma of meaning! In my opinion, what our scientific institutions are doing, i.e., adding more knowledge of the external world to our repertoire does not solve this dilemma. The heart of the dilemma is to find new ways to communicate with the external world!
To communicate with other human beings and the external world is the fundamental problem of our time. The dichotomy of subject and object, observer and the external world, has brought us a tremendous wealth of knowledge. To communicate between subject and object can bring us a tremendous wealth of meaning unprecedented in Scholasticism, materialism, or mysticism. It will be like making love to the whole universe and what could be more meaningful than such a symbiotic relationship. Symbiosis is like the kind of resonance that one witnesses in the whirling of two expert dancers (i.e., autonomous synchronicity). If one can produce such an experience in nature, then life will take on a different meaning. I will elaborate more on this issue later. Science of the last three centuries sought essentially to understand the utilizable truth of the external world when analyzing from object to subject. On the other hand, when going from subject to object control and predictability were primarily intended.
It is time to go from subject to object and witness the vibration of the "giver" and "receiver." The more we can develop our communication with the world, the more we can find meaning in life. What I am proposing is not just a wish. A new field of knowledge has already uncovered a way to approach this new paradigm in a very small domain. The field is called Neuro-Linguistic Programming (NLP) and there are many misconceptions about this field that I need to elaborate on my fascination! To elaborate on my sense of communication and meaning, I would like to provide a brief review on the basic tenets of this new development of psychology, i.e., Neuro-Linguistic Programming (NLP). NLP recognizes three major categories of mental representation: Visual, Auditory, and Kinesthetic. If you want to relate to a visual person, you need to use visual mode of communication. For example, use visual words or phrases such as "see," or "look." Also note that visual people tend to look up to remember things, and also breath with the upper portion of their chest. Similarly, there are clues for auditory and kinesthetic people that can be used to recognize them. Now if you use the correct mode of communication, the respondent will start resonating with you. There are a wide range of applications for this discovery. Unfortunately, this discovery is being used mostly for controlling situations and people. The attempts to control other human beings and nature are not new and are as old as human history. Management of human beings and an expedient treatment of nature are central to manipulation and prediction in "communication." My interest in NLP and communication is NOT from this traditional focus.
The discovery of what causes resonance in human communication is the most paradigmatic aspect of NLP for me. The resonance of two lovers, in the ideal case, when there is no overwhelming power struggle from either side, is the most meaningful. It is the highest form of being one yet being many (two)! This kind of dichotomy in relationships not only does not strip us of meaning but makes us feel our deepest sensations. Such a dichotomy makes a higher level of vibration possible than when identities are dissolved in participation. I think to arrive at such relationships with other human beings and nature, we need to learn the elements of resonance. FINDING THE MODES OF RESONANCE IS FINDING THE MEANING OF LIFE!
Just looking at two individuals engaged in a conversation with resonating signals, one can see the depth inherent in their relationship. They actually convey their meanings to the "inside" of the other person and they take the other person's meaning "within" themselves. It is not just a mirror-like reflection. It is a wholehearted give and take. An appropriate mental representation is the start of a resonating communication. Thus, the value of a trustworthy mental representation can be realized. This first step of communication has been highly achieved by the results of the scientific knowledge. But total communication happens when this mental representation is pointed at the potentially resonating recipient. If this side of communication is ignored, as it has been in the last three centuries, the frustration results and the best mental representations of reality seem worthless and meaningless. Meaning of life is thus neither from outside nor from inside, nor lost in mystic participation. The meaning is inherent in the communication process when our mental representation is focused on the potential recipients in nature or at other humans. After all, the challenge of our time is to find ways to "talk" to the stones! If what NLP has developed about the communication between human beings is extended to the communication between the human beings and nature; probably we can put an end to the crisis of meaning in the 21st century. Finding out the modes of communication, can help us to resonate with plants, birds, the sea, etc. In my opinion, this is the way to overcome the crisis of meaning. MAYBE COMMUNICATING WITH NATURE IS THE FINAL FRONTIER OF THE HUMAN CONSCIOUSNESS.
One may argue about the relationships of the other life-forms in nature. Is not their cruelty and destruction inherent in nature even without the humans? True that no species destroys its own kind but they destroy others! What about the control relationship between the domineering animals and their prey? For example, lions attacking donkeys! Are we supposed to accept these relationships as inevitable? Are such relationships the only way animals can survive in the world?
I think if it is true that humans may keep on eating milk or fruits without destroying the animal or plant, why cannot the same relationship be possible for animals or plants. The new habits may even change their genetic heritage, i.e., change their "nature!" For example, everyone knows of domestic cats who have learned to live peacefully with birds; or dogs who live peacefully with cats.
Such cases show that animals also have the potential of different kinds of relationships. In my opinion, changes in the relationship of human beings with each other and with nature may cause changes in the relationships of the other species as well. I think the Life Era as elaborated by Eric Chaisson [Life Era, 1988] may eventually replace destructive development with harmonic development in nature. If life is going to overcome other forms of existence (i.e., energy or material forms) in the universe, it needs to develop to a maturity of not destroying itself. In other words, the meaning of life is defined within such a harmonic cosmic picture.
A LIVING COSMOS WITH RESONATING RELATIONSHIPS OF VARIOUS LIFE FORMS IS WHAT OUR SPECIES DESERVES TO HAVE IN THE FUTURE. OUR ROLE IN ITS DEVELOPMENT AND OUR PLACE IN SUCH A COSMOS DETERMINES THE MEANING OF OUR LIVES. THE MORE we can evolve personally and the more we can contribute to the evolution of our species and other life-forms to such a cosmic excellence, the more meaning we will find in our own individual lives.