Reacting To A Meaningless World

The other day I went for a long walk.  The city where I live has a large series of bike trails, running all over town, and I decided to walk along them, for miles and miles.  As the hot July sun beamed down on me, I found myself sweating profusely, I was very hot, and was borderline miserable.  I was the only one crazy enough to be out in that heat. The temperature was roughly 101 F.  Even so, I pressed on for several hours, carrying a large water bottle with me.

Being the kind of guy I am, I spent my time thinking about existential philosophy.  I was thinking about the universe and how it was established without any input or considerations from me.  It’s given to me as this powerful force unto which I must submit, without choice.  Before I was even born, there was this ‘order’ which was established and powerful forces push on me, telling me to submit to it.

Think about the different countries established all over the Earth.  The corporations.  The economy.  The laws.  The culture.  The schools.  The cities.  It was all there long before I was born.  I had no say in any of it, but I’m thrust into it and am told to conform to it all, to obey, and to take a part in it.

I was with a friend the other night and she asked me to explain my overall view of life to her.  I told her to imagine a large rock ball with a thin layer of plastic on the outside.  Next she was to hold a heat gun (imagine a sort of high powered blow dryer) to aim it at this plastic covered rock ball.  The heat from this gun starts to melt the thin outer plastic, and bubbles start to form, coming and going, bubbling in and out of existence.  Assume that this plastic fairly uniformly covers the surface of the smooth rock sphere.

Then I told her to further imagine that those bubbles were each conscious and minimally self-aware.  They each awaken, find themselves on this rock ball and say, “Why am I here?  Why do I suffer like I do?  Did I do something wrong?  Why are my friends and loved ones dying?  Why is everything always changing?  Was there a creator?  Why does everything I love fade away with time?”  Then their bubbles melt away, new bubbles form, and the process repeats, over and over, as long as the heat-gun is turned on.

All you have to do is replace the heated blow dryer with the sun and instead of plastic on a rock ball, imagine a thin layer of dirt and water on Earth’s surface, and it’s the exact same picture for us.  The same dirt and water is being reused over and over, reforming life-forms of all kinds, all confused about their existence, minimally self-aware, who are all fighting for their survival and to bring their desires into existence.  Because of the way things are structured, the universe becomes self-aware, learns things, then quickly forgets most of what it learns as each new generation is born.  Some information remains in the bodies of surviving life-forms in their DNA, but their minds (stored in brains) are wiped out and always being rebuilt. This process may slowly be overcome in humans as writing and culture can transcend generations, and our technology may soon allow us to pass memories and knowledge to one another instantly through computers and brain uploading, but that’s another topic.  Throughout the billions of years of Earth’s and life’s existence though, this has been the story.  We’re pathetic, stupid, frail creatures who live a very short time and then die, and our bodies are recycled and become other forms of life, over and over and over.

Existentialist philosophers call this human condition absurd.  There is no meaning to it besides what meaning we give it.  There is little to no justice to it.  Bad things happen to good people and good things happen to bad people.  There’s an amoral stupidity running the universe.  A tragic event could destroy anyone, at any time, leading them to a direct confrontation with complete absurdity.  When looking at this situation, there is a disorientation and confusion within these “bubbles”, having to deal with a meaningless and absurd world.  How do you keep hope alive?  How do you avoid falling into complete despair?

That was quite a large introduction, but the main purpose of this post is to discuss how people attempt to deal with this meaningless universe and the difficult human condition.

– Give Up

There are a lot of people who, when confronted with this freedom and realization of their condition, simply end up saying, “Nothing worthwhile ever happens; nothing merits desire or effort.”  They basically try to escape the world, deal with it as little as possible, ignore it, and just hope it goes away.

– Subordinate Themselves To Some Value System

Struck with a terror that they have to create their own life through their own decisions, with limited information, they say, “How can I know what to do?  I’m not qualified.”  So they defer their responsibility of thinking and making decisions for themselves to some third party.  For example, they may become extremely religious.  They’ll say, “The Bible is true!  Everything it says is good and comes from God, who is perfect and knows better than me.  If you just do what it says to do, life will be as good as it possibly could be for you.”  It’s a form of fear of reality and making decisions.  Much of my family lives this way.

– Passion For Some External Thing

By consuming themselves in some thing, they hope to escape the human condition.  These people don’t believe meaning lies in the object itself, but in their relation to it.  Hollywood movies seem to always advocate this as the solution to life.  Passion for a lover, for a career, for composing music, whatever it may be, that will save you from this life.  Just find “your” particular something in this world and immerse yourself in that.  It’s a sort of glorified form of distraction.

– Become a nihilist

Most nihilists are teenagers who have lost the idyllic state of childhood but it also frequently happens in those suffering a mid-life crisis.  They tried exercising their freedom and the world beat them down.  This often leaves them in a state where they feel a need to prove to others that the world is meaningless, and in the worst cases, destroy good things others have created just to prove the world truly is meaningless.

– Search for Adventure

These people throw themselves into their undertakings with vigor and enthusiasm, but don’t attach themselves to the end to which they aim.  Adventurers will openly tell you there’s no meaning to life, so they engage in a hedonistic relationship to the world, getting involved in a vast number of enterprises without loyalty to any of them.  These people like action for its own sake.  They live “in the moment”.  They often hold a secret desire for their exploits to be told in the history books.  In the end, it’s a form of not making a decision on what they want their life to be.

– Become An Abstract Mind

This is the one I often fall victim to.  These people sort of sit in the middle, indecisive, claiming they’re in an objective pursuit of truth.  They’re devoted to the mind as an objective, universal space where they can escape and avoid the subjectivities and frailties of the human body.  They are always skeptical and cautious.  By claiming objectivity, these people aren’t forced to form an allegiance to any particular idea or doctrine.  They can’t submit themselves to subjective valuations.  That’s somehow beneath them.  In reality, it’s a denial of their humanity and a fear to give their own subjective evaluations to ideas, doctrines, and lifestyles.  That’s part of your duty as a human, to give value judgments to this world.  Otherwise it has no meaning.

I don’t like being human and things like logic allow me to imagine and see possibilities which are infinitely superior.  That makes me susceptible to this human failing.  I don’t place much value in day to day living and our daily toils.  Sadly, I try to be grateful and accept imperfection, but honestly, I can’t make myself like something I don’t like.  The human body is frail, ages quickly, and requires way too much maintenance to continue existing.  I’m surrounded by stupidity and things which are badly built and designed.  I don’t generally care for the body’s instincts embedded in our nature either, which lead people to stupidity, violence, and greed.  I don’t want to get too distracted with this topic at the moment, so let’s move on.

– Create Art

I’m a bit timid to talk about artists since I don’t understand them well.  I can say that many of them try to take the materials around them and transform them into something meaningful.  If they believe in anything, it’s often something like beauty or order.

– Give Their Life To Others

There are some people who justify their lives through other people.  They focus on making other people happy, and that in turn makes them happy.  They’re very concerned with empowering others and helping them exercise their freedom, expressing themselves.  They’re altruists.

I remember meeting a woman who was miserable with her life and wanted to escape, so she volunteered to go to India to help feed the poor.  I thought it was a bad idea, but she got angry and stopped talking with me.  I told her that you should give out of abundance not lack.

Serving others and hoping it makes you happy is an interesting concept to me.  Not too long ago I was watching a show on Youtube called World’s Strictest Parents.  In the show, troubled teens are sent to a home with new, very strict parents.  It was interesting that many of these parents would send the troubled teens to volunteer in homeless shelters and other places like that to make them realize how good they have it.  You know, cure them of being spoiled brats.  Depending on the teens backgrounds, some got a lot out of it and it helped them a lot, while others were only made more depressed.  I would be the type who would only become more depressed being asked to do that sort of thing.

There was one teen who came from a wealthy background.  He saw all the homeless and downcast and almost burst into tears.  He looked at them all and said, “I can’t look at this any longer.  It’s too depressing.”  Then he left and sat in the car.  I related to him.  The idea running through his head was, “How can reality be this horrible?  Why does this even exist?  Why are things so bad?  Why do I even want to be a part of it?  I don’t even like it when I’ve had it good.  Who would want to experience the world at this level?”  It wasn’t a refusal to help, but an emotional paralysis that would grip him if he tried to help.

In the end, I walked for hours, eventually found myself suffering from heat fatigue, and just went home and relaxed.  This list isn’t meant to be exhaustive.  I don’t know why I’m living here on Earth as a human being.  I don’t particularly like this place, but I feel like I was thrust here and wonder if I am supposed to do something.  But what?  And why should I care?  It’s sort of like finding yourself on a short dilapidated bus ride, without air conditioning or heating  and uncomfortable seating.  You know you won’t be there long, yet there’s these strange people on the bus decorating, singing songs, and trying to pretend it’s home.  Honestly, I’m more concerned with where this bus is going, the road it’s on, and the general lay of the land all around us.  That’s why I’m most interested in physics and cosmology.  Human existence isn’t that interesting.  One of my favorite aspects of physics is it doesn’t have anything to do with humans.  When it does (say nuclear bombs), I tend to find myself depressed again.

2 thoughts on “Reacting To A Meaningless World”

  1. Jason, while I can relate to your (well written, as usual) views, I think you are putting things into a perspective that leaves you no way out, but depression or worse.

    I cannot write as eloquently as you do, but maybe this helps:
    If you are looking for meaning, what do you expect to find? What kind of answer would be satisfying?
    Really, how should one define the concept “meaning” in this context anyway?

    It seems to me, but I might be wrong, that your (former) religious environment/raising has screwed up the concept of “meaning”.
    Religious people tend to do that to kids.
    When grown up, and shaken off the religious nonsense, they are faced (for the first time) with some difficult questions, like you do now.
    The problem is that many of these questions are non-issues.
    For example: “What is the meaning of my life?” is more difficult to answer when you come from a religious background.
    Why? Because religion GAVE an answer to that question. (Or better put: Pretends to give an answer)
    Now, not being religious, you have to do with the, lame-sounding-but-correct, answer: “The meaning of your life is what you and others give to it.”

    Such an answer feels like it is missing big time compared to concepts like: “When you live well, you will live an eternal blessed life after you die.”.

    This happens also to questions about morality. Religions (pretend to) give many answers and how-to’s concerning morality. Your worldview is partly based on this.
    No, if you take religion away, questions concerning morality become something else. Being a philosopher I am sure you have thought/read about morality a lot.

    My point is this: When you are raised with emphasis on certain aspects of life (in a religious environment), it feels like something is missing if you leave the religious school, simply because the concept was laden with information/stories/how-to’s before.
    Try to compare it an imaginary kid that was raised talking/discussing the best formation of clouds. I mean, really, everybody discussed it all the time.
    Then, for some reason, this kid moves to another country where nobody cares too much about clouds. They say: “Yes, clouds are nice, but really not that important to me.”
    This kid will have a hard time to adjust and experience a hole in his life because he got used to discuss clouds all the time.

    I think the same mechanism might be at work here.

    The solution?
    I don’t know, but I think your “Passion For Some External Thing” is a good solution. You seem to view it some kind of escapism, but that is only because you *demand* an absolute answer to your question about the meaning of the world.
    You simply refuse to accept the answer: “There is no absolute meaning”.
    Why? Again, because there used to be a BIG answer to this question. And now there is a hole.

    I hope you find some good worthwhile things to keep your mind occupied, like keeping up your blog so others can enjoy your thoughts!

    1. I suppose I wasn’t explicit with my complaints against life, though that wasn’t the central issue of this post. I don’t like our culture or way of life. I don’t care for the way our the institutions all around us are structured. I don’t like the human body either, which is far too frail, prone to sickness, and requires so much maintenance to exist.

      If I was given a much stronger body, say like the transhumanists talk about constructing using advanced technology, I’d be much more satisfied with life. I’d also like to see a day when science starts reprogramming our brains, when human nature is transformed into something much more loving and far less competitive and violent. I see possibilities for a much more beautiful and satisfying world. A future without the vast inequalities, without poverty and misery, without sickness, death, and disease. Without violence and stupidity. We’re a long ways from it, but we’re slowly crawling away from that cruel state of nature, assuming we don’t kill ourselves in a nuclear wear, or destroy our environment to such an extent it’s no longer inhabitable.

      I don’t look for an absolute meaning. I simply compared this life to a short ride on a dilapidated bus. This place is not well built. It’s just overall dissatisfying. But I enjoy physics.

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