We gear a great deal of emotional stress and energy toward the essence of the idea of meaning. We shed tears over broken objects because they carry meaning to us; we spend our lives fighting for causes because we believe they are meaningful, that they are ‘a good cause’; an unfathomable amount of time and energy has been spent in countless forms over the question of life’s meaning— of whether our lives “have any point”, or what the ultimate goal might be. But what if meaning (and the essence it encapsulates) is just a ghost? Not the name given to something transcendent our powerful minds have found access to, but rather a shadow cast by the mish-mash of human emotions and our attempt to label and categorise an otherwise fluid whole?
At first the prospect might seem terrifying, repulsive even, for it may imply an immense amount of “wasted time” spent chasing an illusion. Moreover, it suggests that our life is meaningless; that we are cast adrift on a sea of chaos, and our every effort is in vain. But to say there is no such thing as meaning is not to necessitate nihilism, for without the possibility of meaning, things cannot be meaningless either. That is to say, life is not so binary, so black and white– it is our minds (and the systems of language and logic that shape them) that are stuck in the idea of “A or B”, of “either/or”. Your everyday life, and all the things you enjoy or appreciate, do not depend on their having any meaning. You enjoy them because they are enjoyable in and of themselves.
Purpose, intent, cause… all these things are human constructs, created to aid in communicating emotions and coordinating with others. In not seeing the vital difference between man-made ideas (useful purely as a ‘map’ or shortcut to needs) and in-the-world existent reality, one falls into the trap of mistaking the intangible for the real: we set about looking for meaning in the world, suffer angst when we find none, and/or project our own subjective ideals onto reality. All of which leads to assuming supremacy of one’s ideas over others’, and hence invites conflict with others and within ourselves.
Because we find intent so intuitive, so natural to us as humans – for it seems nonsensical that something could be without cause or intent – we look for it wherever we can, reject as ‘pointless’ that in which we cannot see it, and ultimately blind ourselves to the fuller picture wherein all is so much more complex than our naive concept of cause and effect, purpose and meaning. We de-animate the world around us on account of its apparent lack of cause, we spurn loved ones’ choices on account of our inability to connect with their reason for their choices, we suffer lifelong emotional and (consequently) physical stress over our continual dissatisfaction with life’s purpose, and devote vast amounts of time toward jumping from thing to thing in search of it.
The difficulty in conveying this idea is that I have to do so in words. As speech is innately categorising, ergo divisive, it makes little sense when I say “there is neither meaning, nor no meaning”, as we have no verbal-rational way of communicating the alternative. Surely, if life has no meaning, it must be meaningless? But, if meaning is not real, then being meaningless must not be either– it is meaningless to talk of being meaningless without any meaning!
It might help to take a leaf out of Plato’s playbook and try to communicate this through analogy and questions. Think of the top five (or so) things that make you happy: how many of these would change if you knew they had absolutely no purpose? Now think about your plan for tomorrow (or longer): how much of that would change if you learned that it all had no point, that it didn’t contribute anything “worthwhile” or “didn’t achieve anything”? Or more broadly, think of your main drives in life, the things that get you out of bed and make you go to work– what if they achieved nothing, that there was no objective ‘use’ or purpose to them?
The instinctual impulse is to believe they’re not worth doing; they become pointless. If I learned that my ambition to write a book was without any purpose or meaning, it would at first seem depressing– that if my dreams are pointless, then life too is aimless, futile. But ‘pointless’ is a particularly important word here, for it implies ‘without direction’, and the notion of direction, of an aim to ‘move
toward’, underpins the whole paradox. The key trick language plays
on us is making us mistake the signs for the destination. Meaning is destructive when people act on trying to achieve it or realise it, as they end up caught in a cycle of forever chasing something that they cannot find, cannot grasp, because it is purely a label that describes a process: a process of ‘becoming’, of making value and
creating fulfilment. There is no meaning, no purpose or reason, for me to write my book– writing it gives me meaning. One could say that trying to make the world wiser is a meaningful goal, but that is a misdirection: it tricks us into thinking there is something ‘within’ the goal itself to be found.
We use meaning as a tool to rewire our body’s sense of value and immediate vs. long-term gratification; it helps us build more stable and lasting behaviours, and encourage more fruitful actions, but it stops there. Those things you intend to do (or have done) do not need to be any less fulfilling just because there is no real meaning to them. On the contrary, when meaning is recognised as simply being a ‘signpost’ for actions, as not something inherently magical within the experiences themselves but rather a way to guide us from one experience to the next, it ceases to be quite so troublesome. When nothing ‘has’ any meaning, everything is able to be valuable and worthwhile, if you choose it to be; all may potentially be fulfilling, and all may have the ability to provide joy and satisfaction.
The essence of what I’m getting at when I claim meaning and purpose do not exist (that they are constructs), is simply to emphasise the power in recognising that we assign value and meaning. To ask “what is the meaning of life?”, or to in any way seek a purpose behind your being, is to be blind to (and lured by language and thought-patterns into believing in) the power and responsibility you hold over existence— over your reality. You decide what is worth pursuing; you choose what knowledge to pursue, and hence what values to instill in yourself, just as you have now chosen to seek out my writing as you have, since you are seeking something (half is chance that you discovered this site existed, half is your choosing).
With awareness of such power, comes recognition of how arbitrary it is, for if you are free to decide what is worthwhile or what is meaningful, then anything could be, and so nothing really is. Since we all come to such vastly different conclusions of what is right or wrong, according to equally ‘reasonable’ backgrounds of understanding, and since none of us can claim any single meaning or purpose to be above any others, the very pursuit of meaning must be meaningless! Clearly when a potter makes a mug, he intends for it to hold hot drinks and be drunken from. Yet neither the universe, nor your existence, are mugs; applying “intent” and purpose to them is naive, and much like joining dots simply because you can. You may see a pattern in the dots, but that doesn’t mean it’s there, it simply means you created it.