Finding the meaning of life

Our search for meaning often leaves us unsatisfied. We expect meaning to be something solid and stable, something by which to anchor our lives and give us direction. But the meanings we come up with often end up being fluid and fragile, less an anchor than shifting sand.

Perhaps it is not that we have found the wrong meaning and should seek another. Maybe it is our expectations of what meanings should look like that are wrong.

Our expectations about meaning have been shaped by our long association with the scientific worldview and its practice of defining generalizable laws, and also broadly, by our own interactions with the physical world. We expect the things we come across to be solid and stable, as tangible as the apples on the trees and the rocks on the ground, things we can point to, and hold in our hands.

From these assumptions, come the expectation that meaning is fixed and unmoving, bedrock buried beneath the surface, just waiting to be uncovered.

Dr. Strange discovers "Meaning of Life"

Dr. Strange discovers “Meaning.” ©2016 Marvel

But meaning is fundamentally different from physical objects, “out there” in the world of atoms and quarks. Meaning belongs to the human world of culture and language.

To point it in another way, in the words of the existentialist Jean-Paul Sartre, “existence precedes essence.” By this, Sartre meant that there is no essential template for human beings that we are destined to follow. Instead, we create our own definitions.

But while Sartre meant this to apply on a personal level, I take it to apply on a broader cultural level. Human meanings in all their forms are created by humans themselves. Sure, these meanings depend on the external world, but this dependence is organic and creative. A painting of a vase depends on the vase, but remains a creative construction by the painter.

We do not, and cannot, simply deal directly with the world–we deal with the world through our interpretations of the world. Meaning comes from these human interpretations.

Existentialism and the Meaning of Life

Jean-Paul Sartre (1905-1980)

One may argue that one can anchor meaning through neuroscience and biology. By discovering our “human nature” through science, we can determine how to live. This is partly true of course–there are broad generalities across the human race that transcends culture. The best example would be our need for relationships, found again and again in psychological surveys around the world.

But as the American anthropologist Clifford Geertz argued, humans are not purely biological creatures–we are also cultural creatures. Biology by itself does not define us or finish us. We are guided, in our thoughts and our deeds, by culture. Culture isn’t just an added fact above our biology–it is humanity’s central ingredient. Human beings without culture are impossible; without culture, we would not merely be animalistic, but become completely unable to function, as our emotions and actions become chaotic and shapeless.

So even such a biological fact as our need for relationships would be realized differently when it is situated in different cultures. Nature must synthesize with nurture.

Furthermore, humans can defy their nature. Monks can swear off relationships in their attempts to reach enlightenment, and activists can go on hunger strike to protest oppressive policies. We readily ignore our biological needs for what we find meaningful.

In the end, while psychology and neuroscience offer us many answers for living life, these answers are statistical answers, not personal answers.

Finding the Meaning of Life through Anthropology

Clifford Geertz (1926-2006)

As meaning is ultimately human, it conforms to a very different set of rules, as compared to the physical world. The most important perhaps, is that the relationships between meanings are not causal. The bonds between meanings are formed through frequent association, emotion and social consensus. Thus, meanings can have little adherence to “facts.” Just look at the latest U.S. election, for example.

This detachment of meaning from causality and indeed, reason and rationality, means that rather odd meanings can exist. Another good example would be the diversity of lifestyles that are deemed acceptable in different parts of the world. Adding to this, a culture and a person could hold contradictory ideas simultaneously. It is really difficult, probably impossible, to come up with a system of meanings that can be judged “correct.”

(This doesn’t mean that anything goes, of course. Meanings are tempered pragmatically–not everything works. They are also tempered by their dependence on the external world–while interpretation can be creative, you can’t just wish a pink elephant into perception.)

This unrooted nature of meaning leads to its next characteristic–its fluidity. Meanings depend on (and are limited by) the cultural and social systems they are situated in, and as those change, so do the meanings they contain. So even when we settle on a meaning, one day, when its foundation shifts, that meaning might crumble.

Lastly, unlike physical objects which tend to be discrete, consistent and easily definable, meaning tend to be vague, heterogeneous and difficult to define.  This makes meaning hard to pin down, and the search for universal law almost hopeless. Indeed, we should be immediately suspicious, if someone tells us they have found the one thing needed for a meaningful life.

Overall, the plural and unstable nature of meaning is exacerbated by our modern age. We live in a world of intermixing cultures and breakneck change. And we absorb this diversity into ourselves. Thus modernity heightens our existential anxiety.

Complexity of the Meaning of Life

So if meaning is human, and thus fragile and fluid, how should we approach it? I think the Buddhists are right–we should learn to accept transience. By changing our expectations of what meanings should look like, our search becomes much more productive. Instead of struggling for what cannot be, we can learn to accept what is. Easier said than done, of course.

It would be wrong to view these modified expectations as necessarily negative. The unrooted nature of meaning allows us more room for self-definition and personal creativity. The plurality of modernity gives us more resources to create our meanings. And as we accept that we lack the ability to find Big Meanings that last our lives, maybe we’ll begin to appreciate the smaller meanings sprinkled throughout our days.

The next mindset we might change is to not imitate scientists when we seek meaning. Instead, we should learn from story-tellers. The meanings in our lives are narratives, not a list of facts. These narratives need to be woven together coherently, creatively and emotionally.

Meanings are created, not discovered. And like stories, they are often judged not by how rational or logical they are, but by what kind of emotions they fill us with. (But of course, again, not anything goes.)

As meanings are to be found within humanity, and not in the world of atoms and quarks, this is where we should start creating our stories. As much as we consult psychology’s statistics, we should also look to our own lives and the cultures around us for answers. We need to learn to accept that the world cannot give us meaning–we must create it ourselves.