This vague philosophic question haunts all of us. In fact, it is the single most maddening question of all time. It vexed everyone from Plato through Steven Hawking. It is the question behind the search for the “Theory of Everything“. It is the question behind Nihilism, Existentialism, Secularism, Hedonism, Empiricism, and all the other World Views. Every religion in history has been created in order to answer that question. Even Siri, the iPhone app weighs in on this question with such flippant answers as, “Try and be nice to people. Avoid eating fat. Read a good book every now and then, get some walking in and try to live together in peace and harmony with people of all creeds and nations.”, or “Life: a principle or force that is considered to underlie the distinctive quality of animate beings. I guess that includes me”, or “42”, or “I can’t answer that now, but give me some time to write a very long play in which nothing happens”.
Actually, Siri provides some good advice, and insights which hint at a deeper understanding than we might initially have given her credit for. 42 might be one of the most brilliant answers ever proposed, referencing “Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy“. What 42 hints at is that the very question “What is the meaning of life?” is the wrong question. That question is every bit as senseless as the answer “42”. There is no meaning inherent in the essential qualities of life. Life has no direct meaning. There is no purpose. There is no answer. Hence 42 is as good an answer as any – it means nothing.
The other intriguing answer that Siri puts forth is the statement, “I can’t answer that now, but give me some time to write a very long play in which nothing happens”. Let’s break that down: “I can’t answer that now”, “give me some time”, “a very long play in which nothing happens”.
1. “I can’t answer that now”. How true! Who can answer that now? No one. No one has the answer. We can just distract ourselves from the throbbing question.
2. “Give me some time”. Isn’t that what we all want? Even the richest men on their deathbed would trade all their possessions for more time. We all die naked, alone, and penniless – the same way we were born. Our shimmering flash in the tide flares, and then is gone, while the stormy waves break against the pebbled shore, under a leaden sky.
3. Her description of life as “a long play in which nothing happens” is quite apt. Life is just an illusion, created by many players who believe the scenes they are in, causing us to suspend our disbelief. However, in the end, our proper disbelief comes crashing in around us nullifying the importance of whatever narrative we thought we were weaving. The curtain is pealed back revealing a stage manager, some crew, some lights, and we realize that the enchantment to which we had dedicated our 85 odd years was really just a futile undertaking, providing a distraction from the pounding question of meaning. Nothing that matters happens. We putz around for 85 years, and then we cease to exist, vanishing like smoke in a stiff wind. We had no impact, not significance, and no meaning.
Why do I exist? Why does anything exist? Because it does. It could “not exist”. In fact, it soon won’t. The anthropic principle comes into play here; Combine that with advanced theoretical physics. Everything that can exist will. Every state of affairs that can come into being will. We are not unique. We exist because we can’t help but. Our potential exists due to pure chance, and that 1 in 10,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000… chance that everything is the way it is, is because the number came up in the roulette wheel of life. When you spin the wheel enough times, probabilistically, every number will eventually come up, and every possible sequence will likely manifest. It has no meaning, no reason, no purpose. It just is.
Nothing you do matters. Nothing you think matters. Nothing you say, believe, act upon, write, create, hold dear, cherish, condemn, or praise matters. It is all futile. Everything is meaningless, like dust in the wind. Everything is temporary like smoke in the breeze. Nothing is real. Nothing stands any longer than the ripple in the pond. The stone sank to the bottom and disappeared from view. Effectively it disappeared from reality.
This utter hopelessness and desperation is the black pit at the bottom of our psyches. It is the nagging feeling that plagues us in the night. It is the itch that curses our backs. We fear silence, for that deafening void allows the demons whispering those doubts in our daily lives to scream deafeningly, while we huddle clasping our hands over our ringing ears in tortured crying agony.
And so we hide it. We bury it. We smile. We greet. We pretend. We erect a cold grey concrete facade that we paint sunny and cheery. We do drugs that make us forget the reality we face, or drink the edge off. We screw like rabbits to gain a little solace in the cold black night. We drown out the void with music. We fill our lives with adrenaline, and thrills to keep us from being engulfed in the black gaping maw of our own Universal realization that there is nothing beyond what is.
Religion forms the same stop gap. In fact – Sex, Drugs, Partying, Rock and Roll and materialism are every bit a religion as Buddhism, Christianity, Islam, etc. They all try to provide a community that reinforces a sense of meaning, dignity, and Ultimate reality. They try to provide a structure, and common set of goals and priorities for groupmind to think about and corporately believe. We get hyped up on the latest fad – whether it is juice fasts, “Stand Up To Cancer” half-marathons, activism, working out, the latest Opera book recommendation, the newest iGadget, the latest on Kim Kardashian’s marriage, Veganism – whatever the fad is, people get caught up in it, under the illusion that their lives can be better. Life cannot be better or worse. It can only be different. The opinion on the value of said differences are merely preferences. Poverty is no better or worse that wealth. Starvation is no better or worse than gluttony, or balance.
We say that evil is worse than good; that stealing is worse than giving; that murdering is worse than birthing. This is only true when you apply an artificial ethical construct, or a social contract. However, there is no worse: only different. Now, of course we all prefer that evil is lesser and worse, and no one likes to be stolen from, lied to, or murdered. We have constructed ethical and moral systems to influence behavior. The basis of the social contract is that the majority of people will refrain from the majority of punitive actions for the protection and safety of the majority. The social contract falls under the concept of Utilitarianism: “the greatest good for the greatest number”. There are many flaws with this system, for it allows the abuse of the individual and the tyranny of the mob majority. So, we construct more laws to protect individuals in the attempt to prevent that. What that then allows is the tyranny of the elite oligarchy. The watchers become corrupt in their rat race, and no one watches them until it is too late, and their game has become un-win-able if you play by their rules. In order to win, you have to over turn the system, or at least subvert it, and play a new game.
Yes, the futility of everything forces us all to cope in different ways. Some drown their hollow pangs with ambitions, or finery, or wealth. Some bury their ears with hope in an afterlife, or a higher power/creator who bestows meaning and purpose. The Westminster catechism asks and answers: “What is the chief end of man?”, “Man’s chief end is to glorify God, and to enjoy him forever.” Here, religion is attempting to provide a purpose and meaning for humanity, by placing it in some greater and larger cause. In fact, every dictator in history has appealed to this need for a purpose, and provided a sweeping movement to allow people to get caught up in the flow.
Even the computer program Agent Smith of the “Matrix” has several pithy quotes regarding purpose:
“There is no escaping reason; no denying purpose. Because as we both know, without purpose, we would not exist.
[Several Agent Smith Clones walk in]
Agent Smith Clone 1: It is purpose that created us.
Agent Smith Clone 2: Purpose that connects us.
Agent Smith Clone 3: Purpose that pulls us.
Agent Smith Clone 4: That guides us.
Agent Smith Clone 5: That drives us.
Agent Smith Clone 6: It is purpose that defines us.
Agent Smith Clone 7: Purpose that binds us.”
Agent Smith: “Why, Mr. Anderson? Why do you do it? Why get up? Why keep fighting? Do you believe you’re fighting for something? For more than your survival? Can you tell me what it is? Do you even know? Is it freedom? Or truth? Perhaps peace? Yes? No? Could it be for love? Illusions, Mr. Anderson. Vagaries of perception. The temporary constructs of a feeble human intellect trying desperately to justify an existence that is without meaning or purpose. And all of them as artificial as the Matrix itself, although only a human mind could invent something as insipid as love. You must be able to see it, Mr. Anderson. You must know it by now. You can’t win. It’s pointless to keep fighting. Why, Mr. Anderson? Why? Why do you persist?”
Neo: “Because I choose to.”
And finally, Agent Smith concludes: “Can you feel it Mr. Anderson? Closing in on you? Oh I can, I really should thank you after all. It was, after all, it was your life that taught me the purpose of all life. The purpose of life is to end.”
Even the Occupy Wall Street movement speaks to this ache: people feel the void in their lives, and envision how much more fulfilled they would be, if only they didn’t need to work, or didn’t have to worry about finances. What they don’t realize is that being wealthy just allows one more time to be bored and unfulfilled, and fewer distractions to disguise the futility. The pain is only more acute, when served with a side of existential boredom. A listless despair is the only emotion that consumes all in that black pit.
This boredom causes food to taste bland, colors to grey, smells to disappear, and relationships to fracture. Passions fade, ambitions wither, cares vanish, and even hatreds are neutralized in the ever expanding damp mirky cloud of ambivalence and apathy.
So, the question remains: What is the meaning of life? I submit this answer: There is no meaning, only hopeless despair.
So what can we do? We can choose several possibilities designed to quell the sighs. Everyone’s favorite is Carpe diem, or seize the day! Live each moment to the fullest. Cherish the moments, enjoy the little things. Don’t sweat the small stuff, etc. In a similar vein, is Hedonism: if it feels good do it. Take advantage of everything that comes your way, and exploit it for personal pleasure, without restraint. The next stop-gap is materialism: buy buy buy! NOW NOW NOW! Keep up with those Jones’, in fact surpass them! Bigger is always better, and so is more.
Some people look for meaning in causes, some in religion, some in philosophy, and some in nature. Some distract themselves with all sorts of fads, fashions, and hobbies. Some choose drugs to take the edge off the void. Some choose sex, to negate the feelings of loneliness and despair. Some choose solace in the arms of art. Some choose adrenaline and thrill-seeking behavior as their drug of choice, and damn the devil and his consequences.
In the end, no matter what we do, the void catches us, and the maw swallows us and relegates us to our former lack of existence.
And the only thing that remains is the memory in the minds of others. Until history forgets. And the Universe spins on, and slowly cools and all matter disbands and energy disperses and all things vanish into the black cold.