A Skeptic’s View of the Meaning of Life

I received a correspondence from a reader who wonders about “the triumph of judgment over spontaneity as we emerge from childhood into adulthood and the consequent obstacle it poses for living in psychic comfort.” In other words, she worries about how to reconcile “a naturally felt purposefulness and zest for life against an intellectual sense of life’s essential pointlessness and its indifference to human concerns that give rise to the recognition of absurdity.” The only consolation she experiences is with her grandchildren “as they go about engaging the world with perfect unmediated wonder, boundless energy, and demands for attention.”

I too have felt this tension. When I watch the delight my young grandchildren take in looking at every flower and insect, when I sense the innocent eyes through which they see the world, I am saddened beyond words. Like any adult, I know the ugliness of the world that waits to trample on that innocence. I clearly see the contrast between childlike wonder and optimism and the pessimistic conclusions about reality that mature reasoners often draw. Given this tension, how do we carry on without accepting some silly supernaturalism?

There are a number of strategies we might adopt here. We might follow Viktor Frankl and conclude that the problem of life is not learning to live with its absurdity—since we can’t know for sure that it is absurd—but to learn to live not being sure if life is meaningful or not. Or we might follow a philosopher like E.D. Klemke “Living Without Appeal” who held that we can find subjective meaning in an objectively meaningless world by responding positively to its beauty. As Klemke put it: “if I can so respond and can thereby transform an external and fatal event into a moment of conscious insight and significance, then I shall go down without hope or appeal yet passionately triumphant and with joy.”[i]

Still, I agree with my reader that no amount of intellectual reflection ever fully dispels our deepest existential concerns. For the movement of time spoils even those things that make us happy and which, for the moment, give our lives purpose. This passage of time haunts us; that perpetual perishing which diminishes our joy by its intrusion into the present. This radical impermanence and our consciousness of it reminds us that our own demise rushes toward us as the present recedes away. The awareness of our impending doom is a constant companion capable of poisoning our momentary happiness, leading in turn to the inevitable realization that it is not just we who may die, but our children, and their children, and all children, and, in the end, all of reality as well.

Reaching the limits of the intellect’s power to dissuade our existential fears, perhaps we can be comforted by an exuberant affirmation of the meaning found in life’s activities. Any serious student of philosophy is struck by the stark contrast between the somber tone of our philosophical musings, and the joy we feel through our immersion in the world of the senses. In the mountains and oceans we see, in the walks we take and the meals we eat, in the joy we find in physical play and philosophical talk, and in the warmth we feel when surrounded by those that love us and whom we love, there we don’t so much find meaning as transcend the need for it. At those times life is sufficient unto itself. When we laugh and play and love, all the misery of the world momentarily vanishes. We hardly give meaning a thought. And if thought brings existential anguish back again—perhaps we can and should think less. In short, we live deeper than we can think.

But is living with less thinking a realistic antidote? Can we live this way after reflectivity has become interwoven into our natures? Can we live constantly in motion, so that troubling thoughts do not disturb? No, we cannot suppress our most important questions indefinitely. For after laughing and playing and loving, thought returns. Why is happiness so fleeting? Why must we suffer and die? Why do we all meet tragic ends? What if all is for naught? We cannot avoid our questions for long; eventually, we drop our guard and they return.

But even if we could avoid our deepest questions, should we? I don’t think so. Our questions bring forth the deep reservoir of our inner life that is often hidden from normal viewing, and our curiosity and inquisitiveness ennoble us, differentiating us from less conscious beings. Our thinking may not make us happy, but it nourishes a deep interior life. However much we love the world of body and sense, thought is our salient feature. We should not repress it. And, since we cannot and should not evade our questions, the prescription to find meaning in activity only partially satisfies. No matter what we think or do, our questions remain.

Nothing then completely silences all our doubts and soothes all our worries—not the limited meaning life offers us, not the knowledge of a purpose, not the promise of hope, not the engagement in activity. How then do we proceed? We must accept something of our present life lest resentment causes us to curse it. Yet, at the same time, we must reject the present or nothing will improve. This creative tension acknowledges the limitations of reality as a starting point while rebelling against its shortcomings. It involves working to mold, create, and increase meaning. We don’t know that reality will progress, but if we partially accept our present reality, if we dream of a future without limits and struggle to bring it about, we may increase the meaning in our lives and in the world.

Yet for now, we are forced to live with uncertainty and angst, as a testimony to our intellectual honesty and emotional integrity. Unlike those who adopt blind faith, we scorn the facile resolutions of the cowardly. And if we must die, we will die as free people who did not yield to the forces that seek to destroy them from the moment of their birth. Those are the forces we seek to defeat, but which have not yet been defeated. In the meantime, we should relish the limited joy and meaning life offers, work to eliminate human limitations, and suppress negative thoughts as best we can. This is no solution, only a way to live.

__________________________________________________________________________

[i] Klemke, “Living Without Appeal: An Affirmative Philosophy of Life,” 194

Liked it? Take a second to support Dr John Messerly on Patreon!

8 thoughts on “A Skeptic’s View of the Meaning of Life

  1. Thank you, Dr. Messerly!

    I am somewhat surprised by Klemke’s conclusions….surely there is a limit to HOW fatal and tragic an event can be to be transformed into one of “significance and joy” ?
    How would someone whose relatives died in a war, be able to do this? The examples are innumerable, I certainly don’t need to list more. Of course, I am completely ignorant about Klemke’s work, so I assume there must be something more to it than what I notice in this moment.

    ” For the movement of time spoils even those things that make us happy and which, for the moment, give our lives purpose. This passage of time haunts us; that perpetual perishing…”

    This is one of the most awesome things I have read. Only a philosopher who is also a writer can illustrate such thoughts with this kind of tragic beauty.

    ” But is living with less thinking a realistic antidote?”

    Definitely not. For every mediocre and common person does just that…
    they numb their brains in all kind of ways for most of their life, and “once the summit is reached, and for the first time what lies on the other side will be visible, which was previously obscured from us…” as Schopenhauer wrote, these people will be unable to make anything out of it, simply because they never investigated the matter. I believe in the proverb ” know your enemy”. The battle is on: am I ready for it, and accept what I should accept? This is what, I believe, the Stoics were about.

    “We die with the sword in our hand” (I can’t remember if this was said by Voltaire or Schopenhauer).

    To put it more crudely, I believe it is all like a boxing match: whoever is unprepared, will get their butt kicked. Who is prepared will lose the fight in the end, but with a difference, which I believe it to be the best option. It really strikes me how everyone isn’t investigating these existential matters like a philosopher, or at least a decent student of philosophy.

    ” Any serious student of philosophy is struck by the stark contrast between the somber tone of our philosophical musings, and the joy we feel through our immersion in the world of the senses. In the mountains and oceans we see, in the walks we take and the meals we eat…”

    I now believe this “sense immersion” is really important, ESPECIALLY for philosophers. But with moderation, otherwise there would be little difference between us and the many mediocre and common people (sorry if I sound like a snob, but I now have no respect for people who don’t care about learning this stuff. Sure, it’s their choice, but I don’t like them and feel removed from them and their world. My friends are philosophers, although I’ll never be like them. But that’s ok, I just want to understand.).

    ” perhaps we can be comforted by an exuberant affirmation of the meaning found in life’s activities”.

    I believe this to be of VITAL importance. I believe this is also what Frankl maintained, and of course Schopenhauer did too:

    “We should always have something to do, according to our talents, whether it’s writing a book or making a basket.”.

    And Leopardi:

    “We need to always look forward to the next thing to do, not day by day, but hour by hour.”.

    Of course, this is the price the thinking person (in the most advanced stages called a philosopher) must pay: you cannot think and do something else. (Except a philosopher who writes books! Not a small advantage over others).

    “… in the warmth we feel when surrounded by those that love us and whom we love…”.

    That is a more complicated one, I believe. For people’s love for us is, as Epictetus explained, an external, and as with all externals, we should be careful….for if it is taken away from us, then we will suffer. I just cannot believe how many weak minded people are divorced, and they sob and cry about it. No wonder they were divorced. I would have simply said: “Do you want to leave me! Be my guest, there’s the door. And make sure you don’t come back.” (ha ha….I am serious, though.”.

    So I believe in what the Stoics taught: if you have the good fortune to be loved by someone (which is certainly an amazing thing, I know, for I too have been loved by someone), enjoy it, but also do not be selfish and do the same. But if this “external ” is taken back from you, don’t even wait. Be the first to say:

    “You gave me this (love, jobs, fancy cars, whatever). I thank you. I have been fortunate. You now want it back. Here, I give it back to you willingly.”.
    The Stoic is prepared for these events. Sure, it’s not easy! And one should not go too overboard, either.

    We should enjoy all these illusions, while they last. Absolutely. For while they are experienced, they need not be illusions either.

    ” For after laughing and playing and loving, thought returns. “. The philosopher’s task.

    ” What if all is for naught?”. Fortunately for us, it will be all for naught only after we die, although this is a generalization. Some situations are truly beyond hope, but as Schopenhauer wrote, “…these things are also the most uncommon, and they might never happen. And we should never fear what hasn’t happened yet, or might never happen.”.

    ” We cannot avoid our questions for long; eventually, we drop our guard and they return.”. That is interesting. I think it’s the opposite: we raise our guard when we think, and drop it when we are not. But perhaps I am wrong! Interestingly, this is also something Schopenhauer mentioned. It’s something along these lines:

    “I cannot tell you if philosophy will help you or actually make things worse. X (another philosopher he mentioned, but I cannot remember who he was), writes in one passage that philosophy is the only thing that can help: we must understand as much as possible. But interestingly, in another passage he writes the contrary. Ultimately, only you can find out all this for yourself.”.

    But personally, I strongly believe the philosopher (or anyone who cares about thinking) is always better off. For even if the process is painful, it also conditions us and makes us more resilient. If one wants to learn to defend themselves, they must learn to be hit too, and to raise the threshold of pain. I believe the philosopher raises this threshold of pain. He will be better prepared for the hits. But of course I don’t want to generalize too much, as resilience can also be a natural tendency. But that is why I value the Stoics and even the Cynics.

    The problem with all this? There is a limit. How “strong” can one be? Klemke maintained that “fatal events can be transformed into something positive, even joyful”. But surely there are events that cannot be transformed into anything positive. They are simply too terrible, and I don’t need to depress ourselves with real life examples.

    “…unlike those who adopt blind faith, we scorn the facile resolutions of the cowardly. And if we must die, we will die as free people who did not yield to the forces that seek to destroy them from the moment of their birth.”.

    Just as in a battle. It can’t be won, but it can be fought honorably.

    Sorry about my ramblings, and thank you for reading!

    Luigi

  2. Your reader asked an interesting question, one I’ve given some thought to over the years. When and how is the childhood wonderment, curiosity squeezed out of the young? Most of us are born into this world that Louis Armstrong sang in his song: “It a wonderful World,” with an insatiable curiosity. When did this end for many of us? Was it during the early school years when my Walter Mitty adventures were subdued, or simply peer pressure to conform? Or was it when I saw one free spirit after another get expelled and sent to the “dreaded public school” for a failure to conform? It’s always been difficult for free spirits to oppose the accepted norms. Most aren’t appreciated until they make money. I’m thinking of Steve Jobs, Bill Gates, Musk and even the recently examined Bertrand Russell, who was not financially secure and appreciated until his “History of Western Civilization” was published. I still shake my head at Trinity College considering him too immoral, and even Einstein who was deprived of a position in German Universities. Absurd! I’m told they have a saying in Japan: “The risen nail gets hammered down.” How many dreams have been crushed out on that assembly line that churns out one money and status seeker after another–little Babbitts–that reach mid-life and are deeply unhappy, realizing that they should have done something else with their life.

    By the time most of us reach mid-life, we ought to realize that we’re not the center of this universe, that our hugely inflated expectations will never be realized, and railing against the inevitable is little more than a recipe for frustration. I’m with E.D. Klemke’s, “Living without Appeal” here. As with the different stages in copying with death, the sooner we get to the final stage–acceptance–the sooner we’ll find some peace, if not meaning. We’re allotted so many years, dream big, love and make the best of it…and accept the inevitability of your passing. I want to say, it’s been a good ride, so far.

  3. thanks, Luigi I enjoyed reading this.

    So much needs to be said in response. Perhaps one of my readers can reply in greater detail. But a few thoughts off the top of my head

    I agree about the limit to transforming tragedy into triumph. Even Pollyanna would have to find some limits.

    And I thank you for your praising my prose. Every now and then I feel I write something nice—but not often!

    As for thinking, I just can’t seem to help continually reexamining my thoughts. I so want them to correspond to reality. I guess after all these years it is just so much a part of me.

    My bit about immersion in the senses was just about the break one needs to take from thinking. Yes, the unexamined life isn’t worthwhile but neither is the overexamined. Of course, most people err on the former side.

    As for activity that is in our nature, as Schopenhauer noted … the will.

    My quote “… in the warmth we feel when surrounded by those that love us and whom we love…” really had my wife of 42 years in mind. Just feel so peaceful in her presences. But your Stoic insights on this are well taken. (I wrote about The Stoics on Death.”

    Contemplation does seem to spring from our conscious nature. As for philosophy specifically, I sometimes think it both a curse and a blessing but I’m glad I fell in love with wisdom all those years ago.

    Glad you liked Klemke. He is a relatively unknown philosopher but I’ve always really liked his essay on meaning.

    thanks again Luigi,

    JGM

  4. A very thought provoking and interesting read. It is all about positive thinking, unfortunately that is weighted down by the news and social media and that inevitable thing called luck.

  5. The most profound skeptic’s statement on the meaning of life I’ve encountered were words scratched onto a concentration wall in Germany by an unknown prisoner:

    “If there is a God, He will have to beg my forgiveness.”

    In this seemingly random world, where most of us survive on myths and hope, the alternative is too existential for us to contemplate.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.