For some lucky people, existential dread is no problem. Either they have religion to give their life a sense of meaning, or they find satisfaction in some pursuit, maybe hedonism or creative expression or trying to take over the world. Or they just never think about it.
For the rest of us though, oh the existential dread. The curse of modern life is having to find your own meaning. Unlike in simpler times when there were prophets and seers and such to explain the mystery of it all, there are now no signs pointing the way, and most educational systems don’t touch the topic.
Luckily, countless clever people have thought about this question and offered detailed answers, and we get to pick which one(s) we like best! So here is a by no means exhaustive overview of takes on the meaning of life, in a vague order of sorts. Each one comes with a recommended text for further reading and a totem Pokémon. You’re welcome.
Note: The section on Dice living was amended on 13/3/16. The article originally asserted incorrectly that the author was a psychologist and that the novel was based on, rather than inspired by, real life dice experimentation.
Nihilism says that life has no intrinsic meaning, purpose or value. You – actually the entire species – are insignificant and unspecial. Morality is an arbitrary human construct.
Various responses to these facts are acceptable and reasonable, including: despair, depression, starting a network of secret underground fighting clubs, and delighting in amoral anarchy.
Bleak. Would not recommend.
An incredibly complex and diverse field of philosophical discourse, but in a nutshell, nihilism without the helplessness. Yes, life is intrinsically meaningless, but a person can create values and meaning for themself. Your existence precedes everything, including your essence (i.e. character, goals etc.). Therefore, you get to direct these things. Take responsibility, live passionately and authentically, and forge a path for yourself.
Further reading: Jean-Paul Satre – L’existentialisme est un humanisme (“Existentialism is a Humanism”)
Totem Pokémon: Eevee, for its ability to evolve in many different directions
Philosophically, the Absurd is the tension between humankind’s deep need for meaning in the universe, and the universe’s insistent apparent lack of meaning. Absurdism is existentialism for those who can’t shake the little cynical voice that keeps pointing out that, whatever purpose you choose for yourself, the universe is still inscrutable and probably meaningless and ahhhh!
One can try to escape the Absurd by committing suicide – but this is not particularly fruitful – or by pretending they know the meaning of life (or don’t need one) – but this is dishonest, so-called ‘philosophical suicide’. The only possible response therefore is to embrace the Absurd. Sure, choose some purpose for yourself, but never forget that there’s nothing intrinsically meaningful about it. Revel in the confusing apparent pointlessness of life and you may just find some freedom.
“All of the true things I am about to tell you are shameless lies.”
Why get all hung up on truth? Self-deception is fine if it leads you to be brave, kind and happy. Screw those 20th century virtues of honesty and authenticity.
Bokononism is a religion invented by Kurt Vonnegut that teaches that all religions (including Bokononism) are nothing but lies. It further asserts that people are arranged into invisible teams which work blindly towards some divine goal. You will never find out for sure who is in your team or what your goal is. Happiness is more important than truth. Everything that happens was always meant to happen. Also, it is very wrong not to love everyone exactly the same, and the only sacred thing is mankind (not even god).
See also: Pragmatism.
Start with a base of uncaring-empty-cosmos Nihilism, mix in the lovey human-centric values of Bokononism, and replace the fake religion with a healthy dose of science and rationality. Voila, humanism!
Humanism holds that we arose by unguided evolution, and knowledge comes from experimentation and rational analysis. Values can be determined from intelligent inquiry into human needs and experience. Let’s all lead ethical lives, work for the greater good of the species and help everyone reach their potential. Let’s even look after animals as much as possible. The meaning of life question may just disappear when one is fully engaged in a free, fruitful and altruistic existence.
See also: Utilitarianism
Further reading: American Humanist Association – Humanist Manifesto III
Totem Pokémon: Chansey
6. Dice Living
“Why did children seem to be so often spontaneous, joy-filled and concentrated while adults seemed controlled, anxiety-filled and diffused? It was the Goddam sense of having a self.”
Maybe the real issue is not finding meaning in the world but finding our true selves. Inspired by the author’s real life experiments with dice-based decision-making, this philosophy argues that we are not a single cohesive self, but rather complex multi-faceted creatures. Within all of us lurks a poet, a murderer, a lover and a lunatic, and they demand expression. However, as we go through life a single aspect of our personality tends to seize power and come to dominate and repress all the other selves, leaving us incomplete and stifled.
The solution is to live by the Dice. Whenever you’re faced with a decision, think of the first six things that come to mind – however socially unacceptable, weird or even immoral they might be – then roll a die to determine which option you take. Sure, living like this for very long will take you down a chaotic rabbit-hole of increasingly illegal and immoral ridiculousness. But maybe a dash of that is just what you need.
7. Theravada Buddhism
Buddhism also holds that the sense of being a single self is an illusion. Buddhism also likes lists: the 3 marks of existence, 4 Noble Truths, Eightfold path, 7 hindrances, 5 precepts, and on and on. All these are tools to an end though, and needn’t carry any religious or supernatural beliefs.
One of Buddha’s great insights was figuring out the hedonic treadmill. Long before psychologists started demonstrating it empirically, Buddha realised that nothing brings lasting happiness. The human psyche is set up to acclimatise to circumstances, whatever they may be, so it’s extremely difficult not to start taking things for granted and have them become the new normal. Not only that, but lots of unpleasant things inevitably happen in everyone’s life: injury, sickness, loss, aging. So Buddha says: jump off the silly treadmill. By following the Eightfold path, one can ostensibly achieve a “blowing out” of desire, see reality for what it really is, and find a deep bliss in mere existence.
8. Zen Buddhism
By its very nature, Zen is extremely difficult to write about. Evolving as a later school of Buddhism after Theravada, Zen posits that language (and by extension conscious thought, which works via language) misconstrues reality. Language breaks reality into a linear sequence of symbolic representations of things (words), but each word is an imperfect simplification of that which it seeks to capture. “Table” comes nowhere near capturing the complexity or specifics of any given table. Furthermore, reality is not a linear sequence, but rather happens all at once constantly. For these reasons, we can’t understand reality or life by thinking about them. Trying to find the meaning to life with thought is therefore impossible. Zen instead prescribes a series of “riddles” designed to break the grip of the conscious mind, freeing the individual to experience sheer reality as it is. In this state of pure experience lies liberation and truth, the closest we can get to meaning.
Further reading: Alan Watts – The Way of Zen
Totem Pokémon: Shellder. As a bivalve mollusc it presumably lacks a central nervous system, and therefore can’t commit the error of trying to understand reality by thinking about it
And that’s it!
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Thanks to my brother for sharing his brain’s startlingly detailed knowledge of Pokémon. He writes award winning Harry Potter fan fiction if that’s your cup of tea.
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