“I wake up in the middle of the night and notice tears in my eyes. … I know that I’m not depressed; not anxious; I don’t even think I’m lonely. But what’s left? I can’t put my finger on it. It feels like the whole Universe is silent — that it’s right here, everywhere, inside of me, outside of me, and that it has nothing to say to me, nothing to ask of me.” — Zat Rana
For me, this doesn’t grab me in the middle of the night — usually in the evening. In these moods, everything reveals its true nature: utterly pointless.
I try to come up with a counterexample. Whatever I can think of, there is something — it — essential lacking. No exceptions.
Giving up, a feeling of eternal, penetrating, futility grabs me. Pervasive, biting meaninglessness.
Life is empty, I realize. But what is missing from it? I ascertain: nothing is missing. All the ingredients for a good life are within reach.
But it’s not enough.
There’s only one conclusion possible: the gaping hole in my soul is unfillable. Nothing could do it.
Everything is there and the most important thing is not.
Usually, the feeling is gone by the time I wake up the next morning. Not because something managed to fill the emptiness in the end. I didn’t solve the problem. It just disappeared, and will undoubtedly make its way back to my head soon.
I envy those people who seem to possess this unshakable ability to live life without undergoing the occasional existential crisis. Questions like ‘What is life for? Why does it all matter?’ regularly disturb my peaceful existence.
I normally do okay in this department. I’m content with, and relatively present in, my everyday life. But the recurrence of these somber moods makes me envious of those who seem to have the mental stability of a rock, because I want to be that guy who whistles when he goes to walk his dogs in the park on Tuesday afternoon. Nothing on my mind.
If one good testimony to one’s existence having a point is that the question of its point does not arise — what is that they’ve figured out about the meaning of life that I have yet to learn?
Why are we here?
Here’s the thing.
Whatever the proposed answer as to what I’ve yet to come up with to ‘discover’ the meaning of life, I’m afraid it’s just not going to do it for me.
Consider, for instance, this 1776 statement by Mozart:
“We live in this world to compel ourselves industriously to enlighten one another by means of reasoning and to apply ourselves always to carrying forward the sciences and the arts.”
Mozart was convinced his life had a reason. A purpose. A calling. A ‘what for’.
It is this specificity and certainty of purpose, which make me jealous.
And, while I wasn’t there, I’m pretty sure depressions related to
“But what’s the point of it all?”
hardly happened back then.
Why do I find myself — or my generation of ‘millennials’, for that matter — utterly unable to accept such ‘we-humans-live-in-this-world-to-X’ arguments?
What has changed?
Nietzsche: God is dead
For more than 2.000 years, God gave us direction.
Today, where I’m from, God is no longer the pinnacle around which our lives are organized: we do no longer think there exists a God whose purpose ordains certain specific duties for all humans.
If we were created by God for some purpose, Nietzsche assumes, the meaning of our life would be given by the goal that God gave to us. But now we are losing our belief in God, and in what Nietzsche calls “a moral world order”. The death of God will lead, he said, not only to the rejection of a cosmic system, but also to doubts concerning whether anything has value.
Nietzsche was deeply troubled by this:
“There now seems to be no meaning at all in existence, everything seems to be in vain”. — Friedrich Nietzsche, The Will to Power
We associate Nietzsche with nihilism, but what he was actually trying to do was save us from the loss of meaning that came with the decline of religion!
Grand statements about the reason — not just the cause — why we live are unfounded if there exists no God. They make no sense anymore.
On ways of thinking like Mozart’s, by contrast, there are sensible reasons why our presence in this universe has spiritual significance. Hence my envy: it is this ability to wholeheartedly embrace such statements that makes me jealous of religious people. I would love to truly experience that feeling that inspires to a life in the service of something ‘higher’.
Alas, the intellectual part of my brain tends to concur with the modern scientific worldview and its disenchanting implication that the cosmos is inherently devoid of meaning. I believe atheism is true (but don’t assent to the tone New Atheists use), so I’m not sure I can ever truly experience the feeling.
A naturalistic view of the universe and our place in it has, as German sociologist Max Weber famously put it, “sobered” the world. The magic has gone from it. How can anything be so important that it warrants human existence?
I need that magic back.
Where are the facts about what matters?
The problem is that without something God-like ordaining a purpose — a ‘what for’ — for human life, any declaration that I should act like this and not like that seem arbitrary.
If we think we must do A rather than B merely because it seems to us good to do so and not because A is prescribed by a divine power whose existence and commanding authority we genuinely believe in, the judgment that we must do A and not B no longer makes sense.
Ethical realists respond to these meta-ethical quandaries by insisting that reality contains ethical facts. Like there are facts about biology, physics, and maths, there are also truths about morality. This could resolve existential crises, because if the relevant fact about the universe is the fact that you should do A, or that X is valuable, then doubts about how to live, and why, are misplaced.
Unfortunately, many philosophers think that these facts would be too weird to justify belief in them. It’s also not like we have some kind of special sense faculty to be receptive to these special mattering-facts, so how would we know about them, even if they did exist?
No, this can’t be the answer. As the honored philosopher Sir Bernard Williams wrote, if learning that one ought to do a certain thing “just tells one a fact about the universe, one needs some further explanation of why [we] should take any notice of that particular fact.”
Something is missing. What we ought to do, what is valuable, these are practical matters. These quandaries can’t be settled by the discovery of facts about God’s will or some Platonic realm of reason-facts. Not anymore. The Nietzschean death of God, then, won us freedom, but we lost something else.
For the past few hundred years, culturally, we have been stumbling from one sense-making paradigm to another, but the most important question remains: How do we live in a world without God?
Existentialism and absurdity
After the Nietzschean death of God, philosophers writing under the banner of existentialism — think of Jean-Paul Sartre, Albert Camus and Søren Kierkegaard — contended that, in the absence of such a higher power, life was “absurd”. If there do not exist any real standards for how to live, everything we say on this matter is pure invention, or, if you will, pretension.
On this way of thinking, for life to have any meaning, there need to be criteria by which to live that are not of human making — principles of which we are not the source and that somehow have authority over us.
Modern life has come up with its own answer to that puzzle. Nowadays, our goals and obsessions give us duties and reasons to live.
Merriam-Webster defines an obsession as a “persistent disturbing preoccupation with an idea or feeling.” In psychiatry, obsessions are “upsetting and unwanted thoughts, images, and impulses that constantly recur.”
An obsession possesses us. When obsessed, you care for something to the point that your thoughts control you, instead of the other way around.
Success without obsession is deemed a near impossibility, Instagram is full of #Obsessed people and even our hobbies are more akin to obsessions than to leisurely activities. Perhaps today’s one-dimensional focus on struggle, rather than meaningfulness, explains why many people spend too much time on optimizing their workflow, and not enough on questioning if they’re working on the right problems.
If you have an obsession, the purpose of your existence seems more certain than ever and, what’s more, that’s not because you have decided that you should do A and not B — rather, something commands you: you must do A.
It is this lack of control, the involuntariness, that makes obsessions into the new God. Something bigger than us prescribes a purpose. It’s out of our hands. There’s something grander providing reasons.
In principle, you can be obsessed with anything — whether it’s writing, painting, the survival of the human race, or six-pack abs.
Obsessions can enhance any endeavor with this magical sense of purpose, providing the obsessed with a sense of direction and at the same time silencing skepticism about the real value of her strivings. Goals are like bacon: whatever you add them to, they’re going to make it better.
However, I can’t help but thinking this is not a sustainable solution. If obsessions are the cause of feelings of purpose, it would seem that we give point to our lives as if by blindfolding ourselves and attaching to something — anything.
One could argue that obsession fuels innovation in our society. Perhaps. But quite often, behind obsession is fear.
If you need targets to bring in the energy and motivation, you’re probably doing something that’s not meaningful enough by itself. The obsession masks this.
If you need goals to feel like your existence has a purpose, you’ll get addicted to them.
Ticking off objectives has no intrinsic value. It doesn’t matter how fast you move if it’s in a pointless direction.
Making a goal out of something does not suddenly make it valuable. Many people have unimportant goals.
It’s a mistake to think the futility of your existence is alleviated by a deep care for meaningless things like making even more money. Meaning of life is not a matter of blindfolding.
There’s a deep difference between achieving goals and achieving something of importance. Giving that up would be a radical embrace of the pointlessness we set out to escape.
And so the question remains: how can something have value — matter — if there is no God that sets an overarching purpose?
Doesn’t that mean that everything is inherently meaningless? If so, how can, for example, chasing vanity be any more or less meaningful than pursuing world peace?
If there is no God, the claim that something really matters seems to be left hanging in the air. There is no inherent meaning in the scientific universe. It’s just matter and laws of nature and all the rest.
A complete ‘book of the world’ has chapters on geology and physics and molecules and atoms, but no chapter on values. It’s the realization of the absence of such facts that triggers the feelings of meaninglessness. Indeed, when I have trouble seeing the point of it all, it’s not just that I struggle creating value. Rather, the problem is that I have trouble perceivingvalue.
In these existential crises, I have difficulties seeing anything as important enough to care about in the first place. Convincing myself that life was meant for this or that purpose feels like a hopeless attempt at fooling myself.
Like pretending, the existentialists would say. Pretending the book contains a chapter on how to live. Pretending the Godless universe nevertheless contains a ‘value-giver’, so I can justify my conviction that world peace matters more than how you look.
‘Latch on’ to something, but not anything
We should ask whether we can do any better than making ourselves ‘see’ the point of it all.
Bad news: I’m not sure whether life can have meaning without a little pretension.
Nietzsche was right: We are way too far past the stage where we can get everyone to believe in an extra-human moral framework.
Now that the usefulness of our existence is no longer ensured by fulfilling our role in a divine scheme, there is nothing out there grand enough to bestow meaning on our lives forever and for everyone.
Meaningfulness, then, needs some help from our side. After all, what makes us human is that we can give life meaning.
“At its core, the self is our meaning-making apparatus. Over time, it makes sense of our experience of affect — which includes emotions, movements, and thoughts — to add coherence to it, turning it into a story.” — Zat Rana
We are not going to stumble upon guidelines for a meaningful life, but have to make ourselves believe things matter without engaging in too much fakery. In something that’s as important as the meaning of life, you have most reasons, not to try to have the thoughts that are most accurate, but to try to have the thoughts that make your life go best. Whether these beliefs represent the world correctly, is of secondary importance.
We need to be passionate about something in order to have a sense of purpose, but not just for anything. Having a goal is not enough as such. A blindfolded choice is not going to drive out feelings of meaninglessness. That would be too much pretending.
So what’s the difference between six-pack abs and world peace? Perhaps, in a super meticulous way of talking, they both have the same amount of inherent meaning. Zero.
Yet, whereas the latter goal can alleviate existential crises, the former can’t.
A sense of meaning requires latching on to something of which we can truly believe that it makes our life more meaningful — it requires striving for something about which we’d be willing to assert that it was our purpose with the same sense of certainty as with Mozart embraced his reason to live.
We are now in a position to solve the puzzle.
So far, we’ve seen that, if there is a transcendent realm in the way religion says there is, everything would make sense in a way that it doesn’t if there are no values to be found in the universe. Because I’m an atheist, and think that the idea of Platonic reason-fact is unintelligible, I don’t think there is something like the meaning of a life as a whole. Life is in a certain sense meaningless.
In a very strict sense, nothing really matters. But that is not what really matters. As philosopher Thomas Huxley (1825–1895) said:
“The purpose of life is the purpose we put into it. … Life is not a crossword puzzle, with an answer settled in advance and a prize for the ingenious person who noses it out.The riddle of the universe has as many answers [and] the best answers are those which permit the answerer to live most fully, the worst are those which condemn him to partial or complete death.”
There is no meaning of life. There is only meaning in life. We can find meaning in our lives, in the particular things that are important to us. Pretending? It’s simply the best we can do.
The supply of possibilities is huge: becoming a world-improver, reading books, having children, or meditating to at least remain calm under the essentially gaping meaninglessness of our existence.
The best answers to the riddle of the universe, Huxley writes, are those which permit the answerer to live most fully. And that’s the difference between six-pack abs and world peace.
‘Value’ is not another chapter of the book of the world. It’s a very special relation between you and something there. Seeing meanings means being able to honestly say: “I care about this.”
It means feeling it. It’s, at bottom, arational. It’s a feeling.
“[In making such fundamental judgments,] it is not exactly that I have no yardstick, in the sense that anything goes, but rather that what takes the place of a yardstick is my deepest unstructured sense of what it is important.” — Charles Taylor, Responsibility for Self
In deciding on our most crucial priorities, we seem to lack a benchmark, as it were, by which to measure the quality of our judgments. We can merely lean on our “unstructured sense of what is important.”
What it means to value something
There is a foundational link between meaning, or value, and a certain feeling on the side of the valuer. It is this experiencing of caring for something, that makes the thing have value.
Does this mean that everything we value is all subjective? Have we succumbed to nihilism, the exact thing Nietzsche tried to avoid?
“[Values] are not objective, or given by some God (or in the case of modernism, by progress), but they’re also not entirely subjective, or meaninglessly made up in our own minds, as per post-modernism. They emerge from the interaction between the subject — the self, the you — and the conception of an object.” — Zat Rana
Things are valuable ultimately because we value them, not the other way around. Where conscious minds meet an external world, there is value. This reality — produced at the intersection of conscious experiences — is just as real as the physical reality.
Kindness and morality, love and community, hope and innovation, curiosity and science, beauty and art. The value of all these things is so obvious that only a blind, mistaken mind would dare to use reason to try to intellectualize their meaning away. — Zat Rana
Still, after these examples, the question remains, how does this work? What is value, and how did it enter the world?
Here’s is my answer:
Value is something conferred upon the world by valuing creatures, and it enters and exits the world with them. Causal forces, evolutionary and otherwise, gave rise to conscious living things capable of valuing things and with this state of mind of “valuing” came truths about what is valuable — truths which hold from within the point of view of creatures who are already in that state.
This subjectivity doesn’t mean that ‘being valuable’ reduces to ‘causing pleasant feelings in valuing creatures’.
The state of mind of valuing is characterized by a much broader array of conscious experience than merely ‘feeling like’ or ‘wanting’ something. It involves all the range, nuance and depth of human emotion and feeling. Valuing something is a deep way of experiencing care for something. It’s much more than just a feeling of being pleasantly attracted towards it.
We have affective, sometimes intensely emotional, experiences of such things as “demanded” or “called for”. They do not call out to us in a way that is pleasant, but in a manner that involves something more like anxiety or sickness at the thought of not doing them, feelings of gritty determination to preserve what one cares about most in spite of everything, and so forth.
Evaluative experience of the kind that confers value is structurally a great deal more complicated than just desiring something. It often involves experiencing very specific features of the world as “calling for” or “demanding” or “counting in favor of” other very specific things. For example, I experience the fact that my father is aging as counting in favor of returning to the Netherlands. It would feel wrong not to. Such states of mind are very different from simply wanting a donut or six-pack abs.
In making these deep-seated value judgments, the precise weight to assign to reasons is up to us. Some values involve our judging things to be valuable for them to have that value.
Values are real
In conclusion: we are not going to fathom an eternal answer revealing our cosmic significance, but that doesn’t mean we can’t have meaningful days. In a world with a religious God, this kind of purpose and meaning comes from doing what that already-existing God tells you. In a godless world, it comes from an evolving interaction between the valuer and an object, where you confer value on the world by relating to it in a certain way.
You won’t come across the answer to the meaning of life by expanding your knowledge of life, or the world. That doesn’t mean there is no answer.
The scientific worldview is no substitute for human life.
If you think reasons and values are unreal, go and live, make a choice, fall in love, and you will change your mind.
When we describe pleasure, or pain, or rejection from outside of consciousness, third-personally, they are merely facts. It is in standpoint created by consciousness, when you are in pain, or find yourself called upon, that value lives.
Value is only directly accessible from within the standpoint of reflective consciousness. Trying to actually see value from a third-person perspective is like trying to see the colors someone sees by cracking open his skull. From outside, all we can say is why he sees them.
The attitude of valuing involves very complex and deep attitudes toward the world and one’s own potential responses to it. Learning how this works for us requires time, compassion, and a lot of self-reflection.
When my next existential crisis rolls around, I’ll know what to do.