A Philosopher’s Lifelong Search for Meaning – Part 8 – Hope and Meaning

continued from a previous entry

    26. What I Hope For

What then should we hope for? The objects of my hopes are vague and indeterminate. I hope that something better will emerge in the course of cosmic evolution; that things will work out for the best; that truth, goodness, beauty, justice, and love are real; that my life and universal life are meaningful; that somehow it all makes sense; that life is not in vain; and that things ultimately matter. These are my most fervent hopes.

Stating these hopes also sheds light on how they differ from what most people mean by faith. Faith typically has religious connotations and involves believing certain propositions—God made the world, Jesus died for our sins, the Koran is the word of Allah, etc. So, with the exception of fideism, religious faith has cognitive content whereas the objects of my hopes are amorphous. (However, my conception of hope shares some commonalities with more sophisticated religious ideas about faith—like the idea that faith is ultimate concern.)

27. The Source of Hope

I don’t know the exact source of my hopes, but I feel them with an ineffable passion. My attitudinal hope probably emanates from biology and culture. Our biological drives to survive and reproduce, combined with the emergence of consciousness and culture, prompt the acting and hoping that aided our ancestor’s survival—we descended from those who hoped.

As for wishful hoping, its source may be some cosmic longing within me or perhaps it’s the expression of the wish that, at the heart of reality, there is some good principle to which I’m ultimately connected and with which I can commune. Note again that this is a wish, and I won’t disguise my ignorance by calling what I wish for Apollo, Zeus, Vishnu, Jehovah, Allah, or God. Thus we return to our previous themes—connection with something more than ourselves and to the desire for a fully meaningful reality.

    28. Ignorance and Hope

Our ignorance provides another justification for our hope. As we have seen, we don’t know if there is one or an infinite number of universes, if we live in a simulation, if we will become as gods or if they already exist among the stars. We don’t know the nature of ultimate reality or if it is—or will become—meaningful. This implies that we shouldn’t be arrogantly dogmatic concerning our (supposed) knowledge about the nature of reality.

Now if we knew that life was absurd and meaningless, intellectual honesty would demand that we accept that truth. But we don’t know this, anymore than we know that life is meaningful. So our ignorance provides a space for the possibility that ultimate reality may be intelligible and meaningful in ways we cannot now even imagine. We can hope while maintaining our intellectual integrity. But, if you still despair, remember that you don’t know life is meaningless anymore than you know the opposite.

    29. Hope and Meaning

No, I don’t know if life is or will become fully meaningful; if truth, beauty, goodness, and justice matter; if there is any recompense for our efforts to bring about justice; if suffering can be ameliorated; if cosmic evolution leads to higher levels of being and consciousness; or if anything matters at all. I don’t know if my wishes will be fulfilled or my hopeful attitude can be sustained. But I see no value in giving into despair, at least not yet. If the time comes when I judge my life no longer valuable, then I hope to have the option to end it. For now, though, I still have attitudinal hope and still engage in wishful hoping. And when I can no longer have hope, I hope that others will carry on.

    30. Losing Hope

Still, any of us can lose our hope and give in to despair because hope and despair exist in a dialectical relationship. We can respond to despair with hope, and within hope, there is always the possibility of despair. To despair is to say that nothing is worthwhile; to hope is to affirm that your concern, your action, your love, and your life, all matter.

Yet, it is easy from the safety of my study, and with an adequate supply of life’s necessities, to opine about the value of hope. No doubt some people are in hopeless situations—starving, fleeing violence, in unremitting pain, serving life in prison or tortured by solitary confinement. For them hope is no salve and their lives perhaps no longer worth living. These hopeless situations should make us all weep as they make a mockery of what human life should be.

    31. What Hope Recommends

But, for those of us lucky enough not to be in hopeless situations, hope demands that we forgo acceptance and resignation and to try to improve the world. Be sympathetic, but act! We may not succeed, but we can try. And, even if the abyss awaits, its best to live honestly and courageously. As James Fitzjames Stephens taught me long ago:

We stand on a mountain pass in the midst of whirling snow and blinding mist, through which we get glimpses now and then of paths which may be deceptive. If we stand still we shall be frozen to death. If we take the wrong road we shall be dashed to pieces. We do not certainly know whether there is any right one. What must we do? ‘Be strong and of a good courage.’ Act for the best, hope for the best, and take what comes … If death ends all, we cannot meet death better.

    32. Is Hope Enough?

We have discovered that people find meaning in life, and that meaning can be plausibly connected to a meaning of life. We could play a significant and valuable part in a grand cosmic narrative. But we have also found that humility and honesty demand skepticism about the reality of our dreams. In response, we can buttress our resolve with attitudinal and wishful hope. Still, of any proposed solutions about life and meaning, we can always ask whether it’s enough.

But then, what would count as enough? The problem is that nothing is enough if we expect definitive answers to our questions about life and meaning. If our expectations are too high they will be dashed. Our questions simply don’t allow for the precision of mathematics or physics—the best we can do is to adumbrate. But if there is a voluntary component here, if we have a modicum of free will, then we can be optimistic, we can hope. And while this isn’t an answer, being optimistic and having hope helps us live well.

Of course, some will still not be satisfied. They imagine that Apollo lives on Mt. Olympus and gives life meaning or they accept some other childish nonsense. Many prefer having the void as purpose rather than being devoid of purpose. They are so forlorn that the bromides of popular religion, philosophy, and politics appeal to them.

But if we accept our ignorance in this infinite and to us mostly unknown universe and if we reject illusory nonsense, then we can begin to better understand how we might play a meaningful part in a cosmic drama that leads, hopefully, onward and upward to higher levels of being and consciousness. We may really be as links in that golden chain.

So let us reject pain, suffering, death, and destruction and try to create a better and more meaningful reality. We must grow up and take our destiny into our own hands. For we are responsible for the truth and lies, the beauty and the ugliness, the love, and the hate. Yes, we will live and probably die in a world we do not fully understand. But still, we can find meaning in life by playing our small role in making life increasingly meaningful; we can find meaning by viewing our lives as a part of something larger than ourselves.  Surveying our long past and indefinite future I’ll end by echoing the poetry of the great biologist Julian Huxley:

I turn the handle and the story starts:
Reel after reel is all astronomy,
Till life, enkindled in a niche of sky,
Leaps on the stage to play a million parts.

Life leaves the slime and through the oceans darts;
She conquers earth, and raises wings to fly;
Then spirit blooms, and learns how not to die,
Nesting beyond the grave in others’ hearts.

I turn the handle; other men like me
Have made the film; and now I sit and look
In quiet, privileged like Divinity
To read the roaring world as in a book.

If this thy past, where shall thy future climb,
O Spirit, built of Elements and Time!

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6 thoughts on “A Philosopher’s Lifelong Search for Meaning – Part 8 – Hope and Meaning

  1. I think I’ve heard your spiel somewhere before. In fact I’ve said it all to myself at some time in my life. Yet at this time in my life I have to say that taken as a whole it has a certain feeling of desperation to it in my ear. And I’ll bet there is some truth to that. We are in a desperate place since there is so much evidence that as Schopenhauer said it is suffering which is primary to existence and our pleasures are only momentary relief from ongoing suffering or strife which is always, like time, nipping at our heels.

    However I think an honest person must as you say admit the fact that there are too many unknowns to say with any certainty what is the ultimate truth of this matter and we don’t know what the end game looks like. However we do, to the best of our awareness know what is happening now and in the past. With that in mind I can no longer put your kind of hope near the top of my list of things to believe in. There is TOO much suffering for that and not very much to your hope that this all ends up with these horrible wrongs righted and all wounds healed and anguish soothed. To be honest I would have to say that what is likely is what we see when we look at what is happening all around us and what has happened over and over again in our past.

    You say here it’s the best thing to hope for the good and work towards that in spite of anything to the contrary but what does that mean? That’s certainly not going to be the same for me as for you and most others. Most would feed the starving and hope they survive. I would say all that does is create more misery as a full belly plus free time creates more innocent babies to starve all over again. There’s plenty of evidence for that. IMO and that of the tiny few brother and sister antinatalists, is that our most fervent and beautiful hope would be the extinction of the human race and even beyond that the elimination of all life that has a nervous system that can feel pain. I cannot think of a more certain way to end suffering and if we are honest we must admit that suffering is a certainty, where as a happy ending for all is just another hope against hope that has never yet materialized and we’ve been preaching it for a long long time. There is really no evidence for it and if we want to go with the odds we should IMO have mercy on all future generations by not forcing them into existence.

    I do wish I had better things to say than this. I would love to believe that your hope is worth hoping and that the sufferings possibly caused by acting on that hope might be worth it in the end but I can’t do that. I know what suffering is like close up both physically and emotionally and a reality that has this much of it is likely not planning on being kind to us in that unknown end game. Too often humans have felt that the suffering of others is a price worth paying for the chance at a better future that they want to imagine. IMO that’s callus and non compassionate. Most don’t take the time to really see what some of this suffering actually looks like. It’s easier to look away and hope and that’s almost always what happens. That’s why our newspapers never really show the body parts with graphic close ups or the screams on TV and radio. We can’t take that and we’d be outraged if we were forced to, but someone is taking it right now. I’m sorry to say all this. I miss that hope you seem to still have a strong hold on. I had to give it up, or let’s say put it way down near the bottom of my possibles list. That or feel like a fraud. You’re a very lucky guy. I hope you know that. Best of luck to everyone, we all need it.

  2. John,
    Thank you for sharing your personal vision of the meaning of life during these past eight weeks. This has been a wonderful and thought-provoking series of essays.

  3. Thank you Jim. That’s very kind considering what harsh views I’m laying out here. I never knew my job in this universe was going to be to play the outsider with really terrible news. I hate my job lol.

    I just ran across this quote tonight from one of my favorite authors. I think this says what I was trying to say much better than I did.

    “We did not make ourselves, nor did we fashion a world that could not work without pain, and great pain at that, with a little pleasure, very little, to string us along–a world where all organisms are inexorably pushed by pain throughout their lives to do that which will improve their chances to survive and create more of themselves. Left unchecked, this process will last as long as a single cell remains palpitating in this cesspool of the solar system, this toilet of the galaxy. So why not lend a hand in nature’s suicide? For want of a deity that could be held to account for a world in which there is terrible pain, let nature take the blame for our troubles. We did not create an environment uncongenial to our species, nature did. One would think that nature was trying to kill us off, or get us to suicide ourselves once the blunder of consciousness came upon us. What was nature thinking? We tried to anthropomorphize it, to romanticize it, to let it into our hearts. But nature kept its distance, leaving us to our own devices. ” Thomas Ligotti, The Conspiracy Against the Human Race

  4. Appreciate how you and J. Miller complement, not oppose, each other. Miller clearly perceives the negative; whereas one can infer from what you write in the article that one must pretend to be more optimistic than one actually is. Accentuating the positive is necessary to increase optimism though one has grave doubts… in fact, the more doubts, the more reason to increase optimism.

    The following sums up concisely the price of a Darwinian world..

    “Too often humans have felt that the suffering of others is a price worth paying for the chance at a better future that they want to imagine…”

    Practically universal. Though he writes,

    “I had to give it up,”

    he leaves the door open just a crack:

    “or let’s say put it way down near the bottom of my possibles list.”
    Having grown up on the East Coast, it does appear the W. Coast is slightly more optimistic than the E. Coast– perhaps the Buddhist influence coming from Asia over the Pacific. Spent more than two years on the W. Coast; a month in Hawaii. Rather than the negativity of the E. Coast, there was not an exaggerated positivity but, rather, a neutrality. Anything appeared possible, if only from an escapist spiritual perspective.

    “The problem is that nothing would be enough if we expect definitive answers to our questions about life and meaning. If our expectations are too high they will be dashed. Our questions simply don’t allow for the precision of mathematics or physics—the best we can do is to adumbrate.”

    The Western World puts too much store in deus ex machina. The spirit of Jesus Christ/the legacy of Karl Marx. It is important to have high expectations, even ‘shoot for the Moon’. But when Jesus refuses to Return, and no Marxist revolution is in sight, it is time for the very angry ones to find Scapegoats. As we’re aware of, we don’t want to blame ourselves, it is convenient to hold others culpable.
    We improve our lives physically through modern medicine; materially through abundance. But in doing such we dislocate the world around us, something concerning which Christians are in denial, they think we can have the abundant life until the ‘Tribulation’. They think ‘Armageddon’ will eventually bring about a New Heaven and New Earth. And that leads to when you can no longer communicate with them, they have their egos, their pride, fused with all this. The pride of Christians is especially–amazingly– un-Christian.
    During the span of two centuries, Marxism grew out of Christianity. Marxism has dominated progressivism since ca. 1848. Marxists wish to cease the Brutal oppression of the downtrodden– so they can Brutally exploit nature to the maximum. They think a capitalist Tribulation will give birth (“a better world’s in birth” is a lyric from the ‘International’) to a Marxist New Heaven and New Earth.
    A progressive soundbite is “if you’re not part of the solution, you’re part of the problem.” It doesn’t occur to them that a solution can be the problem itself.

  5. Alan E. I greatly appreciate your perspective and comments. I agree with a lot of what you said. As to myself, I am not hopeless, I just wanted to confirm that with you and you seem to have seen that. I have a goal that goes right to the heart of the issues I raise in my post. It’s not to convince others because that won’t happen often. It’s mostly just get things off my chest so I can move forward and also be able to look back as an observer on the things that are coming out of my mouth.

    I spend maybe 6 hours a day doing research and trying to catch up to all the things I need to get myself out of this reincarnation cycle and move off of this planet. I know that sounds very weird but I’m convinced now, via that research, that it’s more actual reality than metaphor. I have a path, I have a plan, it’s a path with heart so I am gaining the confidence slowly to put it into action. Even if it’s wrong it will bring harm to no one including myself. That’s my true belief. I wish I knew how to say more to someone like you but it’s impossible to put into words that might be understood here. Thanks again and be well.

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