A Meaningful Existence

17 January 2011 at 23:08 (toto)

Why are we here? Does any of this pain and pleasure hold any long term meaning, or is it all for nothing? At times quitting can seem like the safe option in a world where you could be indirectly contributing to other’s pain while pursuing this meaningless pleasure. This was the subtext to a discussion I was having with my GP a few years ago as we considered a different course of antidepressants.

I think we both understood that there was something greater than a chemical imbalance at the heart of my problem. He justified it, “Medication is just one tool that we can use. The same is true of counselling or therapy. It may feel like these problems are insolvable, but there are answers, if you keep at it you will find resolution. Eventually you will reach a point where you’re content with where you stand, you’ll feel like you don’t need to pursue this any further.” I looked past him at the framed photo of his wife and kids on the bookshelf behind him. Maybe in one sense he could understand where I was coming from, but his life was probably sufficiently busy that these thoughts would not entertain him very far beyond the moment I stepped out of his office.

As a child I assumed God knew why there was something rather than nothing. He understood the bigger picture. It may have been possible that this was outside of the realm of human understanding, but if that was the case I thought it was a reasonable oversight that God would create intelligent beings and not grant us a richer existential foundation. Still, when I probed further I found that most Christians seemed pacified by the idea that God would enlighten them regarding the meaning of life once it was over. It was irritating to avoid the issue in this manner but I accepted it for the time being.

As I transitioned from theist to deist to a more naturalistic world view I came to see God as a simple solution to this difficult problem. This was one of the most lucrative properties of religious belief: faith offers many simple solutions, turning one’s back on this path and venturing into unchartered territory may be daunting.¹

I became fixated on the long term. At some point within around five billion years it’s predicted that the sun will expand and swallow the earth, provided it isn’t first destroyed by the collision of the Milky Way with the Andromeda Galaxy. Either way, the entire record of life on this planet will be annihilated. Even if our species escapes this rock it’s unlikely that we’ll escape the eventual heat death of the universe (or whatever the final destination is). This bleak outlook makes me wonder what the meaning any of this pain or pleasure will hold in the end. Is there any value in being nice or having fulfilling relationships or saving the environment or caring about the truth or enjoying life when ultimately none of it’s going to make a scrap of difference? No matter how you live the result will ultimately be the same. If everything’s heading towards unmitigated annihilation, all of the events between now and then appear to be nothing more than busy work.

From this grim position it was recommended that I should acquaint myself with several authors to get a better grasp on existentialism and nihilism. After a few false starts things started making sense one night as I read Man’s Search for Meaning by Victor Frankl. Unlike Nietzsche or Sartre, Frankl’s book is more down to earth, more easily accessible. Frankl’s ideas were refined while he was held as a prisoner in Nazi concentration camps. He was a psychiatrist and for some of the duration he was able to take on the task of caring for the large number of depressed and suicidal internees.

While helping these people he came to the opinion,

“There is nothing in the world, I venture to say, that would so effectively help one to survive even the worst conditions, as the knowledge that there is a meaning to one’s life. There is much wisdom in the words of Nietzsche, ‘He who has a why to live for can bear almost any how.’ I can see in these words a motto which holds true for any psychotherapy.”

It felt to me that the inverse was also true; a person who sees no reason to live is incapable of bearing almost any ‘how’. I wasn’t suffering, especially compared to a Jewish prisoner trapped in Nazi Germany. But the hopeless meaningless depression which seemed to resonate every hour of the day following my little existential crisis helped me feel like nothing was worth delaying the inevitable for.

Despite sensing that Frankl understood my problem, his solution still felt lacking. His logotherapy is centred around this idea that it’s critical to find a meaning in life. But all the examples he gave seemed frivolous to me. Love was the most prominent example; early on Frankl describes how he meditated on his wife and his family and sought to honour them. He also gave other examples:

“I remember two cases of would-be suicide, which bore a striking similarity to each other. Both men had talked of their intentions to commit suicide. Both used the typical argument‚ they had nothing more to expect from life. In both cases it was a question of getting them to realize that life was still expecting something from them; something in the future was expected of them. We found, in fact, that for the one it was his child whom he adored and who was waiting for him in a foreign country. For the other it was a thing, not a person. This man was a scientist and had written a series of books which still needed to be finished. His work could not be done by anyone else, any more than another person could ever take the place of the father in his child’s affections.”

Similar ideas had been with me since pondering that family portrait in my GP’s office. Most people seem to find genuine fulfilment in relationships or, failing that, work. They feel a duty to see things through, to be a faithful partner or good parent or complete their tasks with diligence. That’s fine because it works for them. Perhaps similarly to the religious experience, this fulfilment seems so blinding that many people come across as incapable of worrying about the long term. They’re happy enough and life feels meaningful enough; they seem unable to question the pointlessness of existence.

For me, this solution was thoroughly unsatisfying. It reminded me of the proverb of Sisyphus; generation after generation keeps following in the same footsteps until eventually it will all come to an end. Although, unlike Sisyphus, we don’t have to continue. We have the opportunity to opt-out, we can end this perpetual boulder pushing. In my suicidal ravings I speculated whether quitting this cycle could be our ethical obligation.

However, after reading Frankl I maintained some hope that there was something else worth pursuing. I was stuck here for some time; in a sense the new meaning for my existence became the exploration of said meaning. Then I came across this extract which Richard Dawkins has earmarked to be read at his funeral:

“We are going to die, and that makes us the lucky ones. Most people are never going to die because they are never going to be born. The potential people who could have been here in my place but who will in fact never see the light of day outnumber the sand grains of Sahara. Certainly those unborn ghosts include greater poets than Keats, scientists greater than Newton. We know this because the set of possible people allowed by our DNA so massively outnumbers the set of actual people. In the teeth of these stupefying odds it is you and I, in our ordinariness, that are here.

Here is another respect in which we are lucky. The universe is older than 100 million centuries. Within a comparable time the sun will swell to a red giant and engulf the earth. Every century of hundreds of millions has been in its time, or will be when its time comes, ‘the present century.’ The present moves from the past to the future, like a tiny spotlight, inching its way along a gigantic ruler of time. Everything behind the spotlight is in darkness, the darkness of the dead past. Everything ahead of the spotlight is in the darkness of the unknown future. The odds of your century’s being the one in the spotlight are the same as the odds that a penny, tossed down at random, will land on a particular ant crawling somewhere along the road from New York to San Francisco. You are lucky to be alive and so am I…”

We’re in a very privileged position. Not only have we won against all the odds, but we’re comparatively well equipped to appreciate those odds. Humans are capable of perceiving and enhancing their fair share of sensory information. We have an understanding of the wider universe; from the very microscopic to the very macroscopic. We’re capable of sharing these experiences in elaborate ways; we write songs, poetry, plays, essays. We describe our experience through maths, philosophy, literature, art, religion. We love, we are capable of acts of passion, we mourn our dead. Yes, it is temporary, but that is why it is special. Our conscious experience is a marvellous aberration in a universe which is mostly filled with nothingness. This immense random number generator has given us a unique opportunity, an opportunity that would be deplorable to pass up.

This notion was fortified at the end of the book God is not Great, where Christopher Hitchens writes:

“Lucretius anticipated David Hume in saying that the prospect of future annihilation was no worse than the contemplation of the nothingness from which one came‚” (pg 259)

Maybe this should’ve been obvious from the start. Perhaps it was because I had always been busy fretting over the looming annihilation of something or the heat-death of something else, but this quote changed my perspective. We are very likely in the process of moving from one state of annihilation to another, but this should only serve to reinforce the concept that we should make the most of this transition while we have the opportunity.²

It’s somewhat daunting to think that we could be wasting time, neglecting this rare opportunity that we’ve been granted. How you spend existence is your prerogative. You could choose to enjoy the wonders of the universe studying the night sky or staring down at your own bellybutton. You could choose to focus on the experience shared with people or the wider world. Now that we’ve established that human experience holds some value it’s also commendable to help others, preserve humanity and look after the earth. The opportunity to continue the pursuit of amazement is worthwhile, even in the face of an ultimate nihilistic nothingness.

As I write this I’m aware that I may have made it sound like there’s some hierarchy of ways to find fulfilment. I doubt this is the case, perhaps there is an argument that the religious or the love sick are equally sensible motivators as this “unique opportunity of appreciation”. Or maybe there are better motivators, honourable causes within this finite world or possibilities to think beyond those horizons. But as my GP said, “eventually you will reach a point where you’re content with where you stand, you’ll feel like you don’t need to pursue this any further.” That’s where I am at the moment. I might try to go and think about something else for a bit.

1. “The fact that a believer is happier than a skeptic is no more to the point than the fact that a drunken man is happier than a sober one.” – George Bernard Shaw

“For me, it is far better to grasp the Universe as it really is than to persist in delusion, however satisfying and reassuring.” – Carl Sagan

2. Nietzsche has an even more poetic (although of course less optimistic) take on this in the first paragraph of On Truth and Lies in a Nonmoral Sense.



  1. selfish said,

    wow, that’s really great. about halfway through, i was considering posting something to the effect of “i find it easier to ignore the question, because it doesn’t matter anyway” (the question “why?”, not life itself) – but your solution is much nicer.

    why does life need a meaning anyway?

    • monototo said,

      Thanks! This is probably an important demographic that I ignored – i.e.. there are some who find religious fulfilment, some who find external fulfilment and then others who are content enough to ignore the question. Actually, it’s quite possible that most people don’t really give a damn.

      I don’t know if your question was meant to be rhetorical, but for me concepts like Nietzsche’s, ‘He who has a why to live for can bear almost any how.’ or the image of Sisyphus grinding away for eternity were too pressing to ignore. It’s likely that this resulted from the collapse of my previous world view, my supernatural beliefs provided indestructible satisfaction which was very sorely missed. That said, I know other apostates who have never experience such a void.

      Also, I’ve never been able to see eye-to-eye with you regarding humanism, but yesterday afternoon I realised that’s what I’ve argued for in the penultimate paragraph ^_^ Let me know if there’s a secret handshake or something that I should be practicing.

    • monototo said,

      @selfish, you probably wont be interested to read this.

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