On Meaning...

I’ve recently read Leo Tolstoy’s A Confession and it sparked a tremendous amount of thought about the meaning of life and existence. Just a typical mid 30’s mini-mid-life crisis I guess. Here’s a quote that I’ve been turning over in my mind ever since.

In regard to the realm of experience, I said to myself, “Everything is developing and being differentiated, becoming more complex and moving toward perfection, and there are laws governing this process. You are part of the whole. If you learn as much as possible about the whole and if you learn the law of its development, you will come to know your place in the whole and to know yourself.” As much as I am ashamed to admit it, there was a time when I seemed to be satisfied with this. It was at this time that I myself was developing and becoming more complex. My muscles were growing and getting stronger, my memory was being enriched, my ability to think and to comprehend was becoming greater; I was growing and developing. Feeling growth within me, it was natural for me to believe that perfectibility was indeed the law of the entire universe and that in this idea. I would find the answers to the questions of my life. But the time came when I stopped growing; I felt that I was not growing but drying up. My muscles were growing weaker, my teeth were falling out, and I saw not only that this law explained nothing to me but that there never had been and never could be any law of this kind; I had merely mistaken something for a law which I happened to have found in myself at a particular time in my life. As I examined the nature of this law more closely, it became clear to me that there could be no such law of eternal development. It became clear to me that to say everything is developing, becoming more perfect, growing more complex and being differentiated in endless space and time amounted to saying nothing at all. None of these words has any meaning, for in the infinite there is nothing either simple or complex, nothing before or after, nothing better or worse.

I think the key thought in this quote is the difference between living in a finite universe versus living in an infinite universe. Our current lives on this earth are finite, they have a clear beginning and end. So because of this seemingly finite existence, we tend to see all of existence as a finite thing. Existence was born at some point in time and eventually will reach an end at some point in the future. Thus, our lives have agency in some way, no matter how small that might be. We affect the grand whole and without us, the universe would not go on in the same trajectory from its birth to its death. The universe, and existence itself, is like us and therefore, we are special.

But, what if most people are seeing this wrong and the universe is not finite, but infinite? Then things change, as there is no beginning or end, no birth or death. There is everything, in all time, never-ending. On that scale, seen in that way, nothing we do has any meaning. Everything will always happen. That is how I see an infinite universe. Imagine every single possibility of existence, all are true and will occur. Seen in terms of parallel universes, every single parallel universe exists and will occur, as the universe spins itself into all permutations forever. Literally forever. It is hard to fully grasp that but forever is not simply a really large number, it is eternally never ending. The light will never go out, no matter how long one waits. It’s an almost incomprehensible idea to keep in a lowly human being’s mind. But there it is.

So Tolstoy’s idea is that if we are living in this infinite universe, his life (and everyone else’s) loses all meaning. Nothing anyone does matters as everything occurs and must always occur and every option not taken also occurs, and it all adds up to zero on a universal scale. This leads him down his own mid-life crisis road and into great despair of living in this ultimately meaningless universe.

Reading Tolstoy as he goes through this deep reasoning about existence and the infinite universe, I am right there with him. His logic follows through. So then what? That’s the next question he faces and I encourage everyone to read A Confession in its full text. But, if you want a quick summary, he ultimately decides that he must take a “leap of faith” in a sense and believe in an ultimate, infinite meaning… specifically God. He realizes that there is no logical proof of God but he believes and accepts Him anyway after taking this leap of faith. This restores his acceptance of life and existence and takes him out of his despair.

This is the part of A Confession I’ve always had trouble with, as I had read it many years ago in a college class. He is so logical and systematic in his reasoning, but ultimately comes to the conclusion that one must disregard reason to find truth. I don’t know, it is hard to accept that, even seeing how the alternative to him meant suicide, as why would anyone accept the meaningless existence that reason provides. One gets the sense reading it that Tolstoy bases much of his ultimate acceptance of God conclusion on emotion, on the fact he feels alive and filled with happiness when he accepts God, and depressed and filled with despair when he does not. It’s purely an emotional reaction and without that positive emotion, he couldn’t go on any longer.

To me, the realization in A Confession is not that God exists, it’s that every person must find their own meaning to be able to live a happy and fulfilled life. And that meaning can’t simply be a cold reliance on reason and logic. There has to be something more, some amount of emotional response that points a person towards that meaning.

But if everyone simply chooses their meaning and that is what makes life in the infinite universe bearable, it’s simply a delusion. We basically are covering our eyes to the ultimate meaningless of the universe and simply creating meaning out of thin air. And the meaning can be anything. It ultimately means nothing except to the individual person who creates the meaning.

This leads me to a similar work that deals with these issues, Albert Camus’s The Myth of Sisyphus. Camus also uses reason to come to the similar conclusion of Tolstoy that the infinite universe is ultimately meaningless. Yet, he rejects any type of “leap of faith” beyond that realization. He comes to the conclusion that one must accept the meaninglessness (or absurdity as he puts it) of the universe and be content in the freedom of that knowledge. He analogizes it the Greek myth of Sisyphus eternally pushing a rock up a mountain, only to have it eternally fall back down again.

I leave Sisyphus at the foot of the mountain! One always finds one's burden again. But Sisyphus teaches the higher fidelity that negates the gods and raises rocks. He too concludes that all is well. This universe henceforth without a master seems to him neither sterile nor futile. Each atom of that stone, each mineral flake of that night filled mountain, in itself forms a world. The struggle itself toward the heights is enough to fill a man's heart. One must imagine Sisyphus happy.

I admit, I’ve read The Myth of Sisyphus many times and I still am not sure I fully comprehend it. However, relating it back to the idea that one must create their own meaning, I think Camus basically does that too. He rejects finding a specific meaning in God like Tolstoy, but he seems to find a positive emotional response to the “freedom” one has in realizing the universe is absurd. He even ends on a state of emotion, happiness. Sisyphus is happy, he finds a happy “meaning” in realizing that his task is absurd. So Camus rejects suicide in face of meaninglessness and accepts that one can choose to follow through with an emotional response and continue to exist in the world. He chooses meaning, he chooses life.

This idea also leads me to Viktor Frankl’s Man’s Search for Meaning. Frankl comes at the problem from a very unique and heartbreaking perspective, having survived a Nazi concentration camp. In spite of enduring what is certainly one of the worst types of suffering a human being can endure, he is not broken, and finds meaning in spite of the suffering. In this passage, Frankl speaks of an epiphany he has while in the midst of the lowest of his despairs at the camp; he realizes that he still can find meaning, infinite meaning, through the contemplation of his wife and the feeling of love:

A thought transfixed me: for the first time in my life I saw the truth as it is set into song by so many poets, proclaimed as the final wisdom by so many thinkers. The truth - that love is the ultimate and the highest goal to which man can aspire. Then I grasped the meaning of the greatest secret that human poetry and human thought and belief have to impart: The salvation of man is through love and in love. I understood how a man who has nothing left in this world still may know bliss, be it only for a brief moment, in the contemplation of his beloved. In a position of utter desolation, when man cannot express himself in positive action, when his only achievement may consist in enduring his sufferings in the right way - an honorable way - in such a position man can, through loving contemplation of the image he carries of his beloved, achieve fulfillment. For the first time in my life I was able to understand the meaning of the words, “The angels are lost in perpetual contemplation of an infinite glory.”

Frankl realizes that this is his own personal meaning, and again it centers on an emotion, the emotion of love. His epiphany isn’t based on some logical proof but bare emotion transcending logic as he is in his deepest moment of existential despair. Frankl would later end up creating an entire philosophical system around the fact that each person must determine their own meaning (logotherapy). He states clearly “the meaning of life, differ from man to man, and from moment to moment.” There is no ultimate “meaning of life” that applies to all man. Frankl doesn’t go as far as Tolstoy and Camus in saying existence is completely absurd and meaningless, but that any meaning one derives from existence must come from oneself, from some inner realization as opposed to any outer force. Humans create their own meaning.

After contemplating these thoughts on the meaning of life, I feel there are two consistent threads that appear:

1) There is no ultimate meaning of existence, at least none that any human being can ever know in their lifetime

2) Once confronted with this absence of ultimate meaning, humans are free to determine their own meaning

To me, this is a very profound revelation, one that many never contemplate. In a sense, humans have absolute freedom because we are creative beings. When confronted with a total absence of guidance, we aren’t stuck, we can create our path forward. Our creative minds are our ultimate salvation in this universe. Even if the reality that confronts us is the ultimate form of suffering (such as being placed in a concentration camp or rolling a rock up a hill for eternity) we can overcome that with our minds. Creativity is our truth.

This brings up the next logical question, how should one use that creativity? In a sense, coming to the conclusion that the ultimate freedom human’s have is our creative minds, merely gets us back to square one. It eliminates the search for ultimate meaning, but then places on every person a search for their own meaning, which can be just as difficult and confounding a problem. This is the issue I’m continuing to explore and hope to write more about in the future.