Tag Archives: meaning

There Is Meaning

There is something. This might seem as an obvious affirmation, but as Henri Bergson reminds us, most people assume that there very well could be nothing, hence they ask why there is something rather than nothing. Our minds, Bergson claims, are wired to naturally imagine that reality fills up some absolute kind of vacuum. This human all too human tendency to proceed from emptiness to fullness—from nothing to something—gives rise to badly stated metaphysical questions. What moves Bergson to this position is his understanding that the idea of Nothing is actually greater than the idea of something, since it implies both the idea of all and an operation of thought which motivates the negation of everything. The same is true regarding order and disorder: ’In reality there is more intellectual content in the ideas of disorder and nothingness when they represent something than in those of order and existence, because they imply several orders, several existences and, in addition, a play of wit which unconsciously juggles them.’

Using the same line of reasoning, Bergson then proceeds by saying that the idea of the possible as less than the real is erroneous, rather the existence of things precede the possibility of them being actualized: ’The idea immanent in most philosophies and natural to the human mind, of possibles which would be realized by an acquisition of existence, is therefore pure illusion.’ Needless to say, Bergson’s argument moves us to consider the future as radically open and free, which corresponds to his affirmation that there constantly is a continuous creation of unforeseeable novelty going on in the universe. Intuitively it is not difficult to agree with Bergson, but the history of both philosophy and theology unveils that this intuitive notion has been far from uncontested: ’The ancients already revolted against it because, Platonists to a greater or less degree, they imagined that Being was given once and for all, complete and perfect, in the immutable system of Ideas, the world which unfolds before our eyes could therefore add nothing to it; it was on the contrary, diminution or degradation.’

A while back, Dino Demarchi published a text here called This Much I Know and although I sympathize with some of his ideas I would like to problematize the notion that nihilism is a viable vantage point for thought. ’A nihilist,’ Dino writes, ’maintains that there is no meaning or purpose to our existence. The world doesn’t think or speak; it has no intellect or will; it doesn’t care about the hardships and adversities we experience — it is indifferent to us.’ My initial thought as I read this was that Dino is approaching philosophy from an anthropocentric perspective. We, as human beings, think and speak, we have intellect and will, and we care about the hardships and adversities we experience. Are we then to believe that our minds are not part of the universe? My further concern is that the idea of nihilism is greater than the idea of a meaningful universe, since it implies several meanings, several purposes and, in addition, a play of wit which unconsciously juggles them. Nihilism is thus reactive.

Dino also says that ’We are products of our environment, we are a part of this world, and all we do feeds back into our existences. It is this thought that undoes nihilism, at least for me. It inspires us to ask ourselves: What sort of world do I want to live in?’ From a Bergsonian perspective, this argument does not simply undo nihilism in our present approach to life since ’As reality is created as something unforeseeable and new, its image is reflected behind it into the indefinite past; thus it finds that it has from all time been possible…’ My claim is therefore that even Dino’s own argument ultimately provides the universe with at least the possibility of meaning from all time, and that seems rather meaningful, no?

Embracing the Absurd: Camus and Syntheism

In The Myth of Sisyphus, Albert Camus famously wrote that there is only one truly serious philosophical problem, namely, the problem of suicide, which basically amounts to the simple question: Is life worth living or not? While one need not necessarily agree with that this is the only truly serious philosophical problem, it is certainly the case that this problem in a sense precedes all other philosophical investigations. By turning your attention to another philosophical problem, you have already as it were answered this fundamental question—if not explicitly, then at least implicitly. In fact, in order to do anything (besides contemplating suicide or trying to commit suicide, I suppose), you must first admit that, at least for the time being, life is worth living.

If you admit that life is worth living, another question immediately arises: What makes it so? Several religions have traditionally answered this question with reference to a supreme creator God who, through His mere existence or His having a divine plan for everything, somehow ensures that our lives are inherently meaningful, and therefore worth living. Furthermore, the notion of an afterlife is often used to lend support to the conviction that life has an objective purpose. The logic is as follows: your life fundamentally matters in the grand scheme of things, because your actions in this life will determine what’s going to happen to you after you die; whether you will spend eternity in Heaven or in Hell, whether you will enjoy everlasting bliss or suffer everlasting torment.

Camus rejected the idea that life has an absolute, God-given meaning. However, the question that primarily interested him was not whether or not such a meaning exists, but rather, whether life can still be worth living, even if it has no absolute purpose, goal or meaning. While recognizing that humans have a longing for meaning, order and purpose, he could not help but to also acknowledge the apparent lack thereof, what he called “the unreasonable silence of the world.” This conflict between the human longing for meaning, and the seemingly indifferent and meaningless universe, gives rise to what Camus termed the Absurd.

How to deal with this realization of the basic absurdity of our existence? On Camus’ view, there are three possible responses:

  1. To commit suicide.
  2. To take a Kierkegaardian “leap of faith,” in other words, to give in to a religious belief in a reality beyond the Absurd (e.g. a transcendent God). (Camus dismissed this option as “philosophical suicide.”)
  3. To embrace the Absurd, i.e. to accept the absurdity of our lives, and to go on living in spite of it.

Camus defended the third option. In embracing the Absurd, the absurdist simultaneously affirms life and revolts against the conditions of his existence, fully aware of his own mortality and of the fact that all human endeavors are doomed, not exactly to fail, but to be completely forgotten:

To work and create “for nothing,” to sculpture in clay, to know that one’s creation has no future, to see one’s work destroyed in a day while being aware that fundamentally this has no more importance than building for centuries—this is the difficult wisdom that absurd thought sanctions. (Camus, The Myth of Sisyphus)

How, then, should a Syntheist respond to this above-mentioned conflict between, on the one hand, our longing for meaning, and on the other hand, the “silence” of the universe? On my view, the proper Syntheist response is very much in line with Camus’: to embrace the Absurd; to view life as worth living in spite of the apparent lack of God-given purpose. However, Syntheism takes it one step further: rather than merely accepting this lack, we consciously choose to celebrate it as the very condition of possibility for the co-creation of values and meaning and for the freedom to decide what our lives ultimately are or should be about. To put it differently, it is precisely this lack of God-given meaning that enables the creative emergence of meaning through us. Since Syntheists hold the intersubjective generation of meaning and values to be a sacred activity, the death of God (and with it, the death of God-given Meaning with a capital M) is not an event to be mourned, but, on the contrary, an event to be affirmed and a cause for rejoicing if there ever was one.

Syntheism and Happiness

Religions through the ages have commonly put a major emphasis on human happiness, albeit in different forms. Is happiness important in Syntheism and, if so, in what way? For an answer, we can look to three icons of Syntheism—Zarathushtra, Spinoza, and Nietzsche—as well as to the modern scientifically oriented study of happiness.

Happiness

In Zoroastrianism, happiness involves neither hedonism nor asceticism, both of which are foreign to the religion. Instead, Zarathushtra taught that happiness emerges from the quest for “asha,” or the natural way of the universe—that which fits or that which works. We participate in Asha in proportion to the degree to which we embrace the pursuit of wisdom and conform our actions to the laws of the universe. There is a profound joy that comes with this experience. In words that echo Zarathushtrian sentiments, Albert Einstein described a feeling “that takes the form of a rapturous amazement at the harmony of natural law” and is “a sort of intoxicated joy and amazement at the beauty and grandeur of this world…” (Einstein, The World as I See It, 1934). Indeed, so crucial is happiness in this sense that Zoroastrians often greet each other with the word “ushta,” which roughly translated means “radiant happiness,” or the happiness in you that brings happiness to others.

Spinoza associates happiness with our activity—our engagement with the world. He sees the cultivation of knowledge, of intellect, through this activity as the source of our joy. In Spinoza’s thinking, we must reject what Deleuze refers to as the “sad passions,” that which disparages life, and instead embrace joyful, life-affirming, wisdom-seeking activity.

Nietzsche explicitly rejects both hedonism and asceticism. In fact, his notion of happiness is quite the opposite of the ascetic approach: Nietzsche sees joy as arising through the overcoming of suffering. What is more, Nietzsche’s notion of power is tied to complete self-overcoming and joy. Indispensable to happiness in Nietzsche’s view is fully embracing our sense of resolution and mission in life and engaging in a heroic struggle in that mission, in becoming our authentic selves. Happiness is a byproduct, or as philosophers say, an epiphenomenon of our plunge into our goals and activities. According to Nietzsche, the power to live one’s life actively, not reactively, and thus attain joy requires refraining from an effort to find some “true” (ultimately imaginary) world beyond what we observe.

The notion of happiness as emerging through our active quest to know the world as it is and to creatively pursue self-overcoming through our own goals is consistent with the growing, scientific study of happiness. Though emerging from the field of psychology, empirical, experimental research into happiness, more recently identified with “positive psychology,” has reached across disciplines and methodologies. In addition to psychology, disciplines involved in the systematic pursuit of research findings include economics, public policy, biology, neuroscience, philosophy, history, education, medicine, and many others.

In addition to, and to a degree overlapping with, the focus on activity, the modern study of happiness reflects principles that are consistent with the ideas of Zarathurshtra, Spinoza, and Nietzsche, and with the bedrock features of Syntheism. Among these are principles of community, creativity, and meaning.

A number of studies have demonstrated a link between happiness and community life, including socializing with family members, close friends, neighbors, and other community members. Moreover, people that get involved in religious congregations and volunteer organizations tend to report higher levels of life satisfaction. Generally, engaging in cooperative activities emblematic of a community are among the strongest correlates of subjective wellbeing. Having the space for the open exchange of ideas where individuals and groups can take risks and feel capable contributes significantly to our happiness. At the same time, being happy tends to invite greater cooperation from others, thus forming a feedback loop that can strengthen our communities.

Creative challenge and absorption in activity is closely tied to a concept that one of the founders of the positive psychology movement, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, has referred to as “flow.” The subjective state of flow involves absorption in creatively dealing with a challenge that entails intense and focused concentration. Creativity, the key element of flow, has been shown to be closely correlated with levels of happiness. The happiness-creativity connection may find a powerful explanation with reference to brain chemistry. Neuroscientists have shown that happiness tends to trigger higher levels of activity in the prefrontal cortices of the brain. In turn, activity in the prefrontal cortex correlates with the strong generation of ideas. In other words, there appears to be a chemical connection between greater happiness and more robust creativity.

Personal growth is associated with our search for meaning in life: our efforts to experiment, develop ourselves, and realize our potential in line with our values and identity are the key elements of personal growth and are closely tied to our happiness. The greater the amount of meaning one finds in life, studies seem to show, the greater one’s level of subjective wellbeing. Meaning is the sine qua non of happiness. Drawing from interdisciplinary work in cognitive science in the context of happiness studies, psychologist Jonathan Haidt explains that humans “gain a sense of meaning when their lives cohere across the three levels of existence.” The three levels of our existence as systems that Haidt refers to are physical (our bodies and brains), psychological (our minds that emerge from our bodies and brains), and sociocultural (the societies and cultures that form from the interactions of our minds).

Happiness is, then, an important concept in Syntheism. Through active, wisdom-seeking engagement in life, participation in Syntheist communities, absorption in creative challenge, and searching for meaning, we become both better Syntheists and happier humans.