HOW A FEW BASIC ASSUMPTIONS
CAN RENDER LIFE MEANINGLESS
“The vitality that can stand the abyss of meaninglessness
is aware of a hidden meaning
within the destruction of meaning.”
- Paul Tillich
Where does a sense of meaninglessness come from?
Does it appear randomly?
Does it suddenly seem to appear out of nowhere, for no apparent reason, like a lightning strike?
Is it a kind of illusion or a mirage, or is it based on a clear insight into reality?
Is it the “inside scoop” on the universe, the ultimate answer to the meaning of life, or is it more like a bad trip through an existential fever dream?
Is it an insight into “the way things really are,” or a mistake in perception?
This is no small matter.
A sense of meaninglessness can fuel depression, addiction, anxiety, and many different forms of despair. When we ask, “What’s the point?” and don’t have a clear and compelling answer, the result can be more than simply a bad case of angst. It can be a taste of hopelessness or the feeling that there’s nothing to look forward to. The world can seem flat, stale, or disenchanted, as if all the magic or enchantment has been drained away.
The sense can be one of being a character in a story that seems to be going nowhere. (This story, though, would be in real life, and playing out in real time.) “Emptiness” might be an even better word – the sense that all our work, struggle, and effort is going to ultimately result in…nothing.
And that is the same as asking, essentially, “Why live?”
Camus understood the urgency in all this:
“There is but one truly serious philosophical problem, and that is suicide. Judging whether life is or is not worth living amounts to answering the fundamental question of philosophy. All the rest…comes afterwards. These are games; one must first answer.”
More than a few philosophers today are merely playing “games,” by Camus’ definition. In this sense, we’ve done well with the condiments, but we forgot the main course.
So, what is “the main course”?
Again, that’s the “What’s the point?” question.
So, what leads to the inability to give a clear and compelling answer?
Here’s one suggestion:
A sense of meaninglessness is the logical result of a worldview.
Meaninglessness is a near-inevitable consequence of a certain approach to life’s most basic questions.
If this is roughly on target, then a sense of meaninglessness is the predictable effect of a prior cause. That cause involves the adoption of a certain worldview.
The process might resemble our understanding of lightning strikes.
Lightning seemed random and unpredictable at first. Historically, humans described lightning purely as actions from the gods. But on closer inspection, we realized that lightning occurs under very specific conditions due to circumstances that are understandable and predictable. We even discovered that, if we approach it in a certain way, it can be beneficial.
We eventually built lightning rods, and even harnessed the power in electricity. This converted what was a menacing negative into something that made our lives richer.
The same could apply to the development of our worldview.
We can approach meaninglessness in a way that makes our lives richer.
Depending on how this very personal process occurs, a sense of meaninglessness can eventually follow.
It can all happen quite naturally, as a natural result of making certain basic assumptions. The result can even seem inevitable if we think it through all the way.
In a stack of building blocks, every block “depends” on the one below. Those at the bottom are the most critical. Every block in the stack ultimately depends on the block at the bottom – the foundation block.
The same applies to certain basic assumptions we make in life, about life.
Our worldview is the foundation block for the rest of our thinking.
The answers we get sometimes depend on how we go about searching for them. We won’t solve hunger solely by doing math problems, for example, or math problems by eating. A perception of the world as meaningless might come as a result of our very efforts to make sense of the world. The way we go about trying to make sense of life might wind up creating a sense of pointlessness as an accidental by-product.
But how, exactly?
It can work like a complex system.
In a complex system, the initial conditions can have a huge impact on everything else.
One important “initial condition” is our answer to the meaning of life.
The “system” in this scenario is our psychological health.
Early steps can have a huge impact later in the process.
For example, someone might build a house. That person might hire the best designers, decorators, painters, and so on.
But one decision early in the process could render all subsequent decisions insignificant. If the person decides early on to build the house on a flood plain, on a crumbling and unstable cliff, or inside an active volcano – then eventually, no other decisions will matter. The best interior design on the planet will eventually be worthless if that interior is covered in molten lava.
Key decisions early on can dramatically affect everything else.
So, how might this create a sense of meaninglessness?
Again, everyone is a philosopher. We all make basic assumptions. It’s unavoidable. Even driving to the store for a gallon of milk assumes an answer to the meaning of life. We’ve decided in those moments that getting milk is a worthwhile way to spend those moments of life.
But after making those assumptions, we often move on without ever examining or questioning those initial starting points. In fact, we often actively avoid looking at our initial starting points. Doing that can seem to risk an existential crisis.
So, we typically cobble together our life philosophy as we go through life. Especially when we’re young, we do the best we can, working to make sense of our experiences. Yet life rarely comes at us in a neat, logical, well-ordered manner, even under the best of circumstances. It can be easy to wind up with a jumble of ideas that don’t really hold together under scrutiny.
So, how can we go about improving it?
To simplify all this, we can boil it down to one basic question.
What is real?
Our answer to this Big Question can determine the rest of our entire worldview.
The various parts of our worldview are interconnected. Our worldview determines our sense of meaning in life (or lack thereof.)
(This process is explored in more depth here.)
These days, our approach to the “What is real?” question often takes a natural course.
We can start simply:
Some things are real, and some aren’t. We’re all tasked with sorting out which is which.
We learn early on that we can trust some things, but not others. We can generally trust gravity, for example. That seems real enough. But we can’t trust a mirage. Some things might seem real or trustworthy at first, but later prove otherwise. In movies and real life, some characters prove themselves to be trustworthy, and others reveal themselves to be phonies.
So, how do we sort which is which? How do we sort the real from the unreal?
At this point, we typically adopt a basic approach of skepticism.
Questioning involves a bit of skepticism, as there’s uncertainty involved.
Skepticism involves doubt. It means being unsure of what something is, and looking more closely.
In our efforts to understand life and answer our basic questions, we can throttle the doubt way up in the hope of coming across something that cannot be doubted. The end result of all this, we hope, will be certainty.
This was the basic approach of Descartes: a method of radical doubt.
(Descartes is widely considered to be the father of modern philosophy. His approach has hugely influenced much of our thinking today, for better and worse.)
So, we start with doubt, and then expand this doubt in all directions until we find something we cannot doubt.
Descartes doubted until he reached what he saw as a fundamental certainty: “I exist.” He found the idea that “I exist” impossible to doubt: after all, even if we wanted to doubt that we exist, we’d first have to exist in order to do the doubting. With that, he was satisfied as having found his ground of certainty.
That’s roughly as far as Descartes got. (His personal inquiry didn’t stop there, but much of what came later has often been picked apart and discarded by subsequent thinkers.)
Most of us aren’t that radical in our doubting.
Doubt can be useful as an early step in the process, but it only takes us so far.
(And further, the idea that “I exist” isn’t exactly a wildly helpful insight. Yes, it eventually barricades us against a rampant flood of doubt and uncertainty. But for most of us, it’s obvious (which is the point, really) – and it doesn’t even provide a sturdy intellectual foundation to build on. (After all, where do you go from there?))
Most of us are engaged in more practical problems. We have to make money, pay bills, navigate relationships, and so on. These problems are immediate, in-your-face, and not at all abstract.
So, to return to the question, “What is real?” – we answer along those lines.
“What is real is what’s right in front of me.”
“My hands are real. They’re right in front of me.” “These walls are real.” “The sky outside is real.” The people around me are real.”
"What’s real is the physical world."
The physical world is what I get through my senses: what I see, hear, touch, smell, and taste. That’s real.
This is the basic approach of “materialism” – the idea that the fundamental stuff of the universe is matter, or physical stuff.
This might seem obvious enough. But even in doing just this, we’ve already adopted a particular approach: we’re judging everything based on our own personal experience.
“What I experience directly is real. What I haven’t experienced directly isn’t, at least for me.”
This approach is empiricism.
Empiricism is one approach to answering, “How do I know?” (which is the basic question of epistemology, a core component of our life philosophy.)
The basic answer empiricism offers is “I know what I experience.”
The classical form of empiricism refers to our senses – what I see, hear, touch, smell, taste, and so on.
The more fashionable epistemology today – a slightly altered form of empiricism – is “I know what I feel.” Everything else in the world can be doubted, it seems, but we’ve decided that our feelings can’t be doubted. (This is largely a therapeutic, self-esteem-based approach.)
The key ingredient in all this is firsthand experience: not taking anyone else’s word, but trusting solely what someone experiences directly for themselves.
Having taken just these three simple steps, we’ve now set the stage for meaninglessness.
We’ve quite naturally adopted a particular approach to a basic question of life.
The pieces are now in place for an experience of meaninglessness.
To review: we begin by trying to make sense of life. We start by questioning, or doubting, which is a basic approach of skepticism. Not wanting to be fooled, naturally, we stick to what we think we know for sure, which we define as what we experience directly, which means empiricism. What we experience directly often seems to be concrete, physical things we perceive through the senses – what we see, hear, touch, and so on. We take those to be real, and the rest to be imaginary, which points us toward materialism.
Our most basic and natural approach to explaining life, then, is often
2) empiricism, and
“What is real” is what I experience firsthand, which typically involves physical things as perceived through our senses, and which I then filter through a screen of doubt.
At this point, the stage is set.
When we’re young, we’re dazzled by the newness of it all. We experience pleasures for the first time, and every pleasure can seem like The Answer to Happiness.
But over time, certain things become clear. Life kicks us around a little, disillusions us a little, and (often despite our best efforts) we wind up learning a little more about the real nature of the universe.
One of the most basic, essential, and defining lessons from our experience is impermanence.
Right now, we’re all a little older than we were just a few moments ago. So is everything and everyone around us. Things are a certain way for a moment – and then they’re different.
This includes us. All creatures are born, live, and die. We’re alive for a brief time – and then we aren’t. Everyone we know is alive for a brief time – and then they aren’t.
This seems to be one of life’s most essential – and brutal – qualities.
Everything seems impermanent.
As T. S. Eliot said:
“Birth, and copulation, and death.
That’s all the facts when you come to brass tacks:
Birth, and copulation, and death.”
Ecclesiastes: “All is vanity.” (“Vanity” here also translates as “meaningless.”)
Fight Club: “On a long enough timeline, the survival rate for everyone drops to zero.”
And so on.
Everything in the world, including ourselves, can seem like a flash of glitter – here, then gone. From the unknown, something emerges for a while, and then it goes back into the unknown.
And all of this leads us naturally to one place.
If we work out the math and follow this trail where it leads, we eventually tend to wind up in a state of meaninglessness.
Under these conditions, all roads lead to nihilism.
After all, if everything is heading toward nothing, what’s the point?
If everything and everyone are on the road to oblivion, this state of affairs builds a strong case for pointlessness. If all of our efforts in life eventually result in zero, then the whole matter ultimately can seem fruitless. With the problem set up in this way, the conclusion is almost mathematical: all is vanity.
That’s a quick sketch of how our worldview can lead to a sense of meaninglessness.
At this point, we can now ask a different question.
Is this way of seeing things accurate?
Is this a clear view of reality?
How did we get here, anyway?
If we’re following a trail through the wilderness and suddenly find ourselves surrounded by quicksand, the way forward can seem treacherous.
Every step forward can threaten doom.
Progress, then, might come through retracing our steps.
Let’s retrace our steps.
Given our earlier assumptions, real progress – a way forward and a solution to our current predicament – might come by taking just a few steps back and questioning some of our initial assumptions.
To review: in our effort to make sense of life, we adopted an approach of skepticism and empiricism that took place within a larger context of what we perceive directly through our senses. These all worked together to form a life philosophy, a single network of beliefs, or a basic worldview of “materialism.”
A worldview of materialism can often lead to a sense of meaninglessness.
If we only trust what we experience directly, what we perceive with our senses, and if we doubt everything outside of our immediate experience, then we can easily come to the conclusion that there is no “God,” there is no “soul,” death is the final end of life, and there is no higher meaning or purpose to anything other than a random accident driven by chance.
Not everyone necessarily comes to this conclusion. (Some detour into a form of existentialism, for example, or deism.)
But many do, either consciously or unconsciously.
But is this approach accurate?
This discussion inevitably leads to bigger questions. What’s the best way to formulate a life philosophy? Are some life philosophies better than others? How do you measure a life philosophy, or compare one to another? And so on. These are good questions, and are discussed in more depth here.
But other approaches offer different answers.
There are alternative approaches to epistemology, for example.
Empiricism works very well in certain areas – for example, for specific physical and mechanical matters, such as building bridges, houses, or smartphones.
But empiricism isn’t the only approach.
It also isn’t necessarily the best approach to issues like these.
One thing we can learn from empiricism is that empiricism isn’t the sole route to truth.
For example, reason, logic, revelation, and secondhand experiences offer additional approaches to the challenges of epistemology. These have served as guides throughout much of human history. In fact, when our personal experience contradicted these in the past, we’ve traditionally assumed that something in our personal experience is off. (We would assume that there was more to the story than we knew of, for example. But today, we often assume the opposite. (The thinking today is more often, “If logic contradicts my experience, then who needs logic? Problem solved.” The result is widespread irrationalism.)
There are alternatives to radical skepticism as well.
Aggressive skepticism can be useful in certain specific, highly controlled environments, like chemistry laboratories.
But it can be toxic in the rapid fog-storms of everyday life. When we have to make decisions involving multiple unknown variables, softer approaches can prove more helpful.
For example, instead of assuming everything is false or illusory until proven otherwise, it’s possible to assume that something is essentially correct until proven otherwise, at least within its own context. It’s the approach of “innocent until proven guilty” instead of “guilty until proven innocent.”
There are alternatives to materialism as well.
Theism, for example, doesn’t assume that matter is necessarily the fundamental stuff of the universe. It holds that there’s something else going on – that not everything in the universe can be reduced to matter. It maintains that God, Logos, or Spirit exists.
And Spirit isn’t perceived through the physical senses.
Just the opposite. To paraphrase William Blake: when the doors of perception are cleansed, then we can see everything as it really is. If this is correct, trying to see Spirit through the mundane senses is like trying to find a portrait of William Shakespeare by closely examining a paperback copy of Hamlet under a microscope. It just doesn’t work that way.
Patanjali describes one of the “Eight Limbs of Yoga” as “pratyahara,” which means “withdrawal of the mind from sense objects.” In contrast to traditional empiricism, then, the senses aren’t necessarily doorways to reality, but to illusion or samsara.
In this sense, the idea isn’t to merely “look” but to “be still and know.”
The basic point here isn’t simple materialism versus theism. It’s to shed light on the power of our basic assumptions and how they can govern our overall mindset.
After all, materialism isn’t the only worldview that ultimately leads to a state of nihilism.
Other worldviews can also prove fragile.
Any worldview, in fact, can be structurally unsound.
A fragile worldview can collapse, resulting in an existential crisis. Unless a stronger worldview emerges as a result – unless we find better answers to life’s fundamental questions – it’s possible to drift into a foggy, disorienting, dizzying state of nihilism – or more likely, soft nihilism.
In short, we need good answers to the Big Questions of life.
Better answers to The Big Questions mean a stronger life philosophy or worldview, which to various degrees, solves the problem of nihilism.
Healthy theism, for example, abolishes meaninglessness.
A healthy, wholesome, sane, and sturdy theistic worldview renders life meaningful. It cuts off the oxygen supply of nihilism, so to speak, so a condition of meaninglessness can’t exist. In this setting, everything is meaningful.
If theism is true, then a sense of meaninglessness is typically due to a misperception, a mistake in our thinking, or, at best, a kind of “dark night of the soul.” It’s an illusory sense that arises from not seeing reality as it really is. Life seems meaningless when we see things in the wrong proportion. We draw incorrect conclusions based on incomplete data.
Theism holds that the universe and human beings have been created by a Supreme Intelligence that we can know intimately.
This infuses life with meaning, purpose, and value, and makes meaninglessness obsolete.
Meaninglessness and meaning in life, then, are the results of our worldview.
The effort to separate the problem of meaning and meaninglessness from everything else and study it in a fragmented state often leads to a morass of confusion. The phenomenon of meaning doesn’t work outside of its greater context.
Imagine trying to understand a human heart, for example.
We might be tempted to study a heart by surgically removing it. After all, that would allow us to take a closer look. But once a heart has been removed from the chest cavity, it generally stops working. After that, whatever we wind up seeing lacks something essential. That “something” is “life,” which is present happens in a working, fully functioning heart.
It isn’t possible to understand the situation properly with that approach.
It works the same way with our approach to understanding meaning and meaninglessness in life.
Teleology can’t be separated from ontology and studied in isolation. The purpose of something can’t be separated from what it is, how it was created, or where it’s going – its origin or its destiny.
Disconnecting them nullifies them.
Using analysis, we often disconnect the various component pieces, then we examine each unplugged, nullified element out of its natural habitat, see only its external husk, and then conclude that it’s missing something major.
That analysis is correct. It is missing something major. But it only seems that way to us because of the way we’re examining it.
So, if we suffer from meaninglessness and wonder and can find no relief, the solution might lie in taking a fresh look at some of our initial assumptions. The problem might lie in our answers to the basic questions of life. A deconstructive analysis of meaninglessness can reveal that meaninglessness is part of a much greater system that’s also full of meaning.
In this way, questioning some of our basic assumptions about life might open up new vistas.
And the world might then, in some new and strange way, become re-enchanted.