By James Haught
Jim Haught is editor of West Virginia’s largest newspaper, The Charleston Gazette, and a senior editor of Free Inquiry. This article first appeared in Free Inquiry, Fall 2000.
Young seekers of truth go through a phase of wondering whether life has any discernible meaning. Why are we here? Why does the universe exist? Is there a purpose to it all? This is the ultimate question, overarching all others.
The seekers usually plunge into philosophy, and spend years sweating over “being” and “essence” – and quibbling over how the mind obtains knowledge – and how we determine reality – and how language shapes our comprehension. In the end, most of them emerge (as I did) with no better answer than when they began – and a feeling that they wasted a lot of time and effort. Omar Khayyam felt the same way 900 years ago:
when young did eagerly frequent
Doctor and saint, and heard great argument
About it and about, but evermore
Came out by the same door as in I went.
However, despite this futility, I think intelligent people can address the meaning-of-life question sensibly, without bogging down in philosophical stewing and hair-splitting. That’s what I’d like to do now: just spell out what’s knowable, as I see it. The following is my personal, amateur view.
First, 90 percent of humanity – the religious believers – needn’t ask the meaning of life. Churches, mosques and temples tell them the answer. Priests and scriptures say a magical, invisible god created the universe, and put people here to be tested – and set behavior rules for us to follow – and created a heaven to reward the rule-followers after they die – and a hell to torture the rule-breakers – etc. This supernatural explanation, or some other mystical version, is accepted by the vast preponderance of the species.
But some of us can’t swallow it, because there’s no evidence. Nobody can prove that people live after death. Nobody can prove that we are tortured or rewarded in an afterlife – or that there are invisible spirits to do the torturing and rewarding.
Therefore, we unsure people are doomed to be seekers, always searching for a meaning to life, but never quite finding one. I’ve been going through it for half a century. Now, I think I can declare that there are two clear answers: (1) Life has no meaning. (2) Life has a thousand meanings.
First, the lack of meaning: As for an ultimate purpose or transcending moral order, all the great thinkers since ancient Greece have failed to find one. The best philosophical minds have dug into this for 25 centuries, without success. There have been endless theories, but no clear answer.
Martin Heidegger concluded that we are doomed to live our whole lives and die without knowing why we’re here. That’s existentialism: All we can really know is that we and the material world exist.
(Actually, I can know only one thing with absolute certainty: that my mind exists, and is receiving impressions. Hypothetically, the images, sounds, feelings, etc., in my consciousness could be illusions – perhaps like artificial inputs to a brain in a laboratory tank – and the entire objective world could be fictitious. But there’s no question whatsoever that my mind is receiving them. Rene Descartes stated this truth as “cogito, ergo sum” – I think, therefore I am. However, although we can’t be totally sure of the validity of the sense impressions reaching our minds, we all presume that external people, places and things actually exist. Their existence seems verified by thousands – millions – of encounters in our activities. We base our whole lives, and our search for knowledge, on this presumption that they are real.)
As we learn scientific facts, we realize that the universe is horribly violent, with stars exploding or disappearing into black holes. Here on Earth, nature can be equally monstrous. Both the cosmos and our biosphere seem utterly indifferent to humanity, caring not a whit whether we live or die. Earthquakes and hurricanes and volcanos, etc., don’t give a damn whether they hit us or miss us. Tigers, tapeworms and bacteria consider us food.
As for morality, I don’t think any exists, independent of people. It’s merely rules that cultures evolve for themselves, in their attempt to make life workable.
Conservatives talk of “natural law” – but there really is none. If Ku Klux Klansmen lynch a black person from a limb, the tree doesn’t care. Nor do the squirrels and birds in the branches. Nor the sun or moon above. Nature doesn’t care. Only people care.
Take human rights. Thomas Jefferson said all people “are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights.” But I think Jefferson was wrong. There’s no evidence that any Creator endowed anyone with any God-given rights. What unalienable rights were enjoyed by African blacks who were sold into slavery – including those on Jefferson’s Monticello plantation?
What God-given rights were assured the 3,000 victims of the historic terrorist attack on Sept. 11, 2001? – or the 6 million Jews sent to Nazi death camps? – or the 1 million middle-class Cambodians murdered by Pol Pot’s peasant army? – or the 1 million tall Tutsis killed by short Hutus? – or Ulster children killed by Catholic and Protestant bombs? – or Hiroshima residents in 1945 – or around 1 million women burned as witches by the Inquisition? What’s the meaning of life to the millions dying of AIDS? – and the millions who died in the 1918 flu epidemic, and in the Black Plague? – and the 900 who gave cyanide to their children at Jonestown? – or the 90 who burned with their children in the David Koresh compound? What meaning existed for thousands of Hondurans drowned in hurricane floods a couple of years ago? Or those 16 Scottish kindergarten tots who were massacred by a psycho with pistols? Or the 2,000 American women killed by their husbands or lovers every year? Or the 20,000 victims the Aztecs sacrificed annually to the invisible flying serpent? – or the 20,000 the Thugs strangled for the goddess Kali?
Meaningless, senseless, pointless – all these horrors have a grotesque absurdity about them. Words like purpose, rights and morals simply don’t apply.
I think these evils make it obvious, by simple logic, that there is no all-loving, all-merciful, all-compassionate, father god. How could a kindly father watch idly while thousands of children die of leukemia, ignoring the desperate prayers of their families? Why would a kindly creator design nature so that lions slaughter antelopes, and pythons crush pigs, and sharks rip seals apart – and women die of breast cancer? Only a monster would arrange such monstrosities, and do nothing to save the victims. Therefore, common sense proves that the beneficent modern god is a fantasy who doesn’t exist.
In his book Consilience, the great Harvard socio-biologist E.O. Wilson pointed out that there are two fundamental ways of looking at reality: Empiricism, believing only what evidence tells you – and Transcendentalism, believing that a divine or cosmic moral order exists, independent of humanity. If any proof ever upholds the latter, he said, “the discovery would be quite simply the most consequential in human history.” But it never occurred.
So much for meaninglessness. Now for the many meanings:
Obviously, the reality of physics, chemistry, biology, atoms, cells, matter, radiation and all the rest of nature imposes a physical order upon us. We can’t escape the laws of nature that govern animals on an orbiting planet. And the inevitability of death is a force stronger than we are. We can’t prevent it. Therefore, whatever meanings exist must apply to the temporary period while we live.
Clearly, there’s a physical and psychological purpose to life. Our bodies need food, and clothing, and shelter, and health, and affectionate comfort, and security from violence and theft, and so forth. We also need gregarious social reaction with people around us. And we need democratic freedoms, so we can speak honestly without fear of punishment – and justice, so we won’t be treated cruelly. These are the humanist purposes of life: to provide better nutrition, medicine, housing, transportation, education, safety, human rights, and all the other needs of people.
To attain this humanist “good life,” the species has a strong need to raise intelligent, healthy, affectionate, responsible children. Sometimes I think the single biggest purpose in life is raising good kids.
I think we all endorse this biological / psychological meaning of life. We believe in preventing war, curing disease, ending hunger, improving literacy, reducing crime, averting famines, and taking other steps that make life pleasant – until death takes us.
However, aside from this “housekeeping” type of purpose, is there any greater meaning that transcends our human needs?
I don’t think so. At least, I’ve never been able to find any proof of it. We simply must try to make life as good as possible, and avoid horrors, and care about people, and have fun, even though we know that oblivion is coming.
Make hay while the sun shines – because darkness is on its way. Carpe diem – seize the day for now; live fully while you can. Omar Khayyam saw the folly of aggrandizing oneself, because ill fortune or sickness and death soon wipe it out. And praying for heaven after death is even greater folly: “Fools, your reward is neither here nor there.” So Omar’s solution was to take comfort in verses, wine and his lover “beside me singing in the wilderness – and wilderness is paradise enough.” About 1,400 years before him, the great Greek skeptic Epicurus felt the same way.
So there you have it: We who are not orthodox religious believers can’t find any underlying reason for existence. And we know that death looms ahead. So we must make the interval as enjoyable as possible, while we’re here. This view of life’s purpose was summed up a few years ago by the title of a Unitarian seminar: “Dancing over the dark abyss.” And Zorba the Greek taught us: What is life, if not to dance?