Forcing Life to Mean

Moirae the Fates Book Reviews has a recurring feature called “Falling Behind Friday.” The idea is to pick up a book that has been languishing in the “to be read” pile and to write about it.

Yesterday, as I was writing about my early literary influences, I mentioned that the first author who I really fell in love with was Douglas Adams. I thought back to The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy and what had stayed with me all of these years later.  Of course The Hitchhiker’s Guide taught me that the answer to the question of life, the universe and everything is 42. But the idea that I find I go back to most often is the Total Perspective Vortex.

The vortex was a form of torture. A person thrown into the vortex was given a small glimpse of his size in relation to the entirety of the universe and this proved to be such a trauma that no one could survive it. This got me to thinking about a book that has been on my to be read file for some time.

16131197The book is called Denial and I am attracted to its premise although reviews of the final work are mixed. The book was written by two biologists, Brower began the work and Varki completed it after Brower’s death. Their novel concept is that all human culture developed out of a need to deny the reality of death. All of human philosophy, religion, and art evolves out of the talent of human beings to deny reality.

Varki and Brower put their own biological spin on it, but they were not the first to venture into this territory. Douglas Adams got there first in his own comic way and Albert Camus explored the meaninglessness of all endeavors in the face of death in his novel The Stranger.

Our search for meaning is beautiful, poetic and essentially absurd.

Psychologist Eric Maisel in his book The Van Gogh Blues argues that it is the search for meaning that causes depression in creative types. He refers to this kind of depression as “a meaning crisis.” Creatives produce art that does not find an audience and wonder “what is the point.” Artists seek the meaning of life in the outside world and are confronted with their own version of the total perspective vortex. They see themselves and their works in the greater scheme of things and are knocked down by a sense of futility.

The answer, he proposes, is to “force life to mean.”  In essence, instead of asking “What is the meaning of life?” You ask “What do I want my life to mean?”

Accepting that the universe– and society and large for the most part– are not concerned with whether or not you finish your novel and carve that statue or beat a grand master at chess, you decide to make your life about that anyway. As Albert Camus wrote of the mythological Sisyphus, who was condemned by the gods to push the same boulder up the side of a mountain only to have it roll back down for all of eternity, “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 think Tim Minchin sums all of this up best in the speech he gives in the video below.

“There is only one sensible thing to do with this meaningless existence,” he said. “Fill it.”

The Self and Other Things that are Real but Don’t have Existence

A couple of years ago I read a book by Tom Christenson called Questioning Assmptions. Christenson argues persuasively against the assumption that the existence of God is the main “problem” religion must address. He compares the concept of God to space and time, things that have no material existence and that we know by their effects and our relationship to them. God, he says, can be real without having existence.

Space is certainly a considerable reality. But is it a thing that exists? In some ways, space is such a fundamental reality that we understand the word “exists” in terms of it. To exist means to be over time in some space. Space and time are dimensions of existence, but it’s misleading to say they are things that do (or do not) exist. The debate the philosophy students are pursuing is interminable because it is mis-framed. Rather than asking, “Does space exist?” or “Does time exist?” it would be much more profitable to ask “How are the reality of time and space manifest?” Then we could talk about clocks, calendars, meters and miles, light-years, aging, cosmic expansion, acceleration, speed limits, music, dance, and so forth.

Theistic arguments assume that “Does God exist?” is the right question. But I doubt very much that it is. God is not some thing or class of things, like unicorns or men from Mars, that we can assert or doubt the existence of. God is much too fundamental a reality for that… Like space and time, it’s more appropriate to think of God as a measure of existence rather than a thing that may or may not exist.

I found the idea of things that are real but which do not have “existence” to be quite fascinating. I was reminded of the concept when reading Into the Silent Land by Paul Broks. The self is another reality that does not have existence. As Broks points out, there is no area in the brain that is the center of the self. The self is a measure of existence not a thing that may or may not exist.

Broks put it this way:

So you will search in vain for any semblance of a self within the structures of the brain: there is no ghost in the machine. It is time to grow up and accept this fact. But, somehow, we are the product of the operation of this machinery and its progress through the physical world. Minds emerge from process and interaction, not substance. In a sense, we inhabit the spaces between things. We subsist in emptiness. A beautiful, liberating, thought and nothing to be afraid of. The notion of a tethered soul is crude by comparison.