Philosophy  •  August 8, 2005

Meaning of Life (Version 2005)

Being free of having a meaning of life is not as easy as commonly thought. It is analogous to racism; most people are quick to deny being a racist, when in fact they are. Just because they consciously negate it, does not mean that they have no racial prejudice in them. In fact, their conscious negation makes it difficult for them to address the problem, because they don’t even know that they have a problem.

People who negate the existence of the meaning of life have the same problem. They consciously negate it, so they believe their lives are free of it. They don’t see their own recourse to the meaning of life. Yet, most of them are still busy defending their positions, beliefs, values, and perspectives, and even attack those of others. If they have no meaning in their lives, what exactly are they defending?

Meaning of life is an assumption we make in order to stabilize our lives. To deny the meaning of life is in itself an assumption that allows one to stabilize one’s life. The denial of the meaning of life is an assumption because it is not possible to prove the non-existence it any more than it is possible to prove the existence of it. If you were a truly rational person, you would not allow yourself to use rationality only when it is convenient for you. Both affirmation and negation are driven by our desire and need to stabilize our lives.

An authoritatively religious man like the Pope is a stable man because he assumes that the meaning of life exists, i.e., the teachings of Jesus. In the very same way, a rational man can stabilize himself by assuming that the meaning of life does not exist. Both are mere attempts to run away from their own fear of instability. As long as we try to stabilize our lives, we end up making an assumption, a meaning of life, because that effort goes counter to how nature works where nothing is stable, which in turn means that nothing is unstable either.

The meaning of life, that is, the reason to live, becomes necessary because otherwise one’s life would have no direction and be chaotic, unpredictable, and out of control (or at least so we feel). We invent or find meanings for ourselves to function normally in our society. It may be something lofty like God, or something mundane like pleasure. Or, you could take the opposite path of denying the existence of the meaning of life, which would also allow you to achieve the same goal of stabilizing. Either way, it becomes the foundation on which we build our lives and identities. Since our identities are carefully crafted and balanced on it, we become defensive when someone attacks this foundation.

Desire to prove or disprove the existence of the meaning of life springs from the same source. It works the same way homophobia does, which is a latent desire for homosexuality. One’s attachment to negating it is just another form of desiring it. What drives many religious people to seek enlightenment is their desire for stability, for understanding what life is so they could be in control. Many scientists are driven by the same desire. There are no real differences here, but ironically one often criticize or make fun of the other even though they are in the same camp.

Our thoughts by nature are temporary and therefore unstable. We make various efforts to stabilize our thoughts (like writing books), but we never succeed. Our thoughts, collectively and individually, are constantly in flux. No one is yet to have the final word by which everyone can be silenced. As unstable as our thoughts are, we still try in vain to identify ourselves with our thoughts, so that we can potentially defy our own mortality. We structure our own images through our thoughts, and they are therefore constantly in flux. The question is how do we stabilize these images of ourselves so we can be in peace with ourselves? That is what we all confront, and we try in vain to find our own answers and solutions.

If we define enlightenment as transcendence of our egos, religious people who seek it are counting on enlightenment to stabilize themselves once and for all. If you do not identify yourself with your own ego, your ego is free to be whatever. To the non-enlightened, the enlightened ones may appear stable, but that would be a mere interpretation. If you truly disidentify yourself from your ego, there would be nothing to stabilize. You would be indifferent to the idea of stability. In fact, since you would be free to form any kind of egos with no attachment to any one of them, you may appear to others as unstable, where your persona shifts constantly.

However, such a state could not possibly be achieved by our egos. An ego has no framework for understanding or seeing itself as a whole. Any conscious effort to achieve such a state would only contradict itself.

Being unable to achieve such a state, we try to manage it within what our egos are capable of. One is to simply assume something, whether God or non-existence of the meaning of life, and forget that it is only an assumption. If you can fool yourself well enough, you can achieve impressive stability with this approach. On the other hand, those who never stop questioning the validity of any given meaning of life are forever unstable, because they undermine their own foundations by constantly questioning them.

Being constantly unstable is a scary state. It is like riding on the subway without holding on to anything; whenever the train rocks, you unconsciously hold on to something out of fear. In our lives, things like God, nihilism, science, pleasure, and art, function as a bar to hold on to. As soon as you question the bar you are holding on to, it starts to come loose. Then, out of fear, you end up holding on to some other bar that seems to be stable. Many people, for instance, keep switching religions in this fashion.

Those who build their stable egos on non-existence of the meaning of life can never be indifferent to the meaning of life. They could never say, for instance, “I don’t know” or “If there is one, I don’t understand it.” Since their egos are stabilized through the assumption that the meaning of life does not exist, they have to defend that position fiercely. In that process, they do not realize that they are creating just another meaning of life.

If you absolutely had no meaning of life within you, you would have nothing to defend or attack. No position to prove or disprove. No stability to defend or attack (other people’s stability achieved through things like God). Science would be as meaningless as religion. Nothing would be moral or immoral, ethical or unethical, appropriate behavior or inappropriate behavior. To define any of these, you would have to assume some form of fundamental value. If you were truly free of the meaning of life, attempts to destabilize you would have no consequence, for the simple reason that there is nothing stable in you to begin with.