Life is pointless – but that’s a good thing!

The Meaning Of Life

In my about me page, I state quite confidently that life is pointless.

Now, this is a personal blog so I’m allowed to state my personal opinions and I’m allowed to be as confident about them as I like. However, I must remind you, before continuing, that an opinion is all it is: I’m discussing things that no-one can prove or disprove, therefore we can only ever discourse on the level of opinions and beliefs – so don’t get your knickers in a knot!

 

When it comes down to it, everyone has an opinion about why we’re here, what the meaning and purpose of life is. Some people hold onto their opinions so steadfastly that they morph into beliefs and even the person – who must now live according to those beliefs – will tell you they can’t change what they believe; they just do.

Perhaps all of us are looking for answers to the same questions but, given that there are none, we’re left to look at the myriad of different stories attempting to answer those questions and choose the one that resonates best within us – or create a new one.

And there’s nothing wrong with that!

This here is the story that resonates best with me.

In the beginning there was nothing

Pretty much all of the stories start with an idea of nothingness (or eternity, or oscillation – but I’m more interested in nothingness for now). I love this idea. What the hell is nothingness? No one alive has experienced, or ever will experience nothingness, so it’s wonderful that we managed to come up with such a concept!

The current, colloquial-secular understanding of our universe is the Big Bang theory: In the beginning there was nothing. For whatever reason, ‘nothing’ exploded in a big, violent way; spewing primal matter into existence and creating space-time along with it (alternatives include an unstable quantum field tantamount to nothing, or a bored deity, who operates outside the realm of the natural, using nothing as his/her creative medium – take your pick).

This ‘universe’ expanded and cooled over billions of years until we get to today, where observable data tells us there are billions of stars in our galaxy,  and hundreds of billions of galaxies out there. Recent information shows that the rate of expansion of the universe is increasing and some models suggest that if we humans hang around for as long as the dinosaurs managed (they were alive for 250 million years, we’ve only been around for 2 million) then the Universe will be so expanded, and so cold, that we won’t be able to see any of it from Earth (or from the Dyson cloud we’ve built around the Sun).

In any case, eventually it will all run out of energy, go cold and die (although, at a quantum level I’m not sure that’s possible; a random vacuum fluctuation might just start the whole process again) but it will still be something, not nothing. A cold, dead something, a  residual something with a gnat’s whisker of a chance to rekindle itself, but definitely not a nothing. Right?

 

The idea of nothingness is a simple one: here we have chaos and matter and time and space but wouldn’t it have been much simpler for there to be nothing? So we assume that all of this existence somehow came from nothingness and we try to figure out how that happened by pulling the somethingness of the world around us apart and trying to figure out what makes it tick.

In reality, nothingness is a really difficult concept to explain, quantify or understand but, as a concept it’s quite elegant, so it sticks around.

 

Now, there are two things I take from this world-view

The first is that it seems like pure hubris to suppose that all of those billions of stars and galaxies were created intentionally just to allow us to come into existence and build guns, bombs, satellites and nuclear weapons  – the whole idea of a personal God doesn’t seem to fit with what is out there.

The second is that the only alternative to all this that we can imagine, is nothingness.

So, first thing first:

 

God Does Not Exist

I don’t want to get bogged down with religion, spirituality and God here. Remember this is an opinion piece. No one can know for sure if there is a God or not. What I’m trying to do here is follow a fairly bleak train of thought that leads to a view of life as meaningless and then demonstrate how that’s a good thing – so just play along for the moment.

 

It’s actually a fairly intuitive thing to look at the wonders (and horrors) of the Universe and assume that it was created by an all powerful being. Psychologists have shown that when confronted by a brute act of nature, like a flood or an earthquake, we have a tendency to attribute a personality toward it. So it makes sense that the bigger and harder to understand the phenomenon is, the more grand a personality we attribute to it.

Maybe you’ve heard it said that cats assume other beings are just other cats? Well, basically we’re doing the same thing: As humans we have a default way of understanding the world around us and how it relates to us, and this is default is influenced by how we experience ourselves and other human beings.

Now, just because that’s the case doesn’t rule out that we might have accidentally hit on the truth – that there is an all powerful creator responsible for the universe – but if so, we’ve arrived there accidentally and have no way of knowing if it’s true.

 

My problem with God is that, once in the picture, there is a tendency to make it a personal, all loving God who has our best interests at heart. Again, we have no way of knowing whether that’s true or not, so people believe it not because of its merit but because it comforts them – it’s the story that resonates best with them.

I don’t find it convincing, let alone comforting, so I’m left ruling out a personal God.

 

What this means is that I don’t have the luxury of assuming my life has a purpose because I was created by a loving God who has a plan for me. I don’t have the comfort of believing that life inherently has meaning, whether we can comprehend it or not, because it was imbued with meaning by an external deity. So I’m left looking for other sources of meaning.

 

There are, of course, other myths about God – the Hindu/Buddhist idea that all of the many things around us are in fact just one thing – including ourselves – and that One Thing is not a thing at all but God; God playing at being the Universe for his/her own amusement or development. This is a much more appealing story to me. I find it more comforting than the idea that we were created as a separate thing, ultimately finite and at the mercy of a supernatural being – no matter how benevolent. After all, in this story of events, I am a God!

But when it comes to the question of meaning, this story isn’t much help. If all the Universe is, is a dream in the mind of God, and we are merely the characters in that dream, then ‘me’ as an individual has no real purpose or meaning, or indeed any reality.

And, whilst that may be true, we can never know if it’s true. The belief may accidentally coincide with what’s really happening or it may not. Regardless, it’s irrelevant to my experience of life because I experience life as an individual, mortal, fallible, finite human being and I’m seeking to answer the question of meaning within that context.

 

Why is meaning so important?

I think most people want their life to have meaning and purpose. I don’t think I’m alone in that desire. Let me put it another way; I don’t think anybody wants their life to be meaningless. Nobody sets about life thinking – ‘I hope this is all for nothing!’

So, meaning is important because it’s something we all struggle with. The search for meaning is the drive behind most faiths and religions, including faith in science and reason.

So it’s important to me because it’s important to everyone and I’m included in everyone. But why is it important to everyone? Wouldn’t life be easier if it wasn’t? Do you think monkeys or hamsters or cats are plagued by existential angst over the meaning of their existence? No, they just get on with it, they just be. What makes human beings so less disposed towards simply being?

 

It’s an interesting question and one I’d love to pursue but, for the current purposes, it’s irrelevant. The fact is that we are that way; we experience life as a narrative and we want it to have a reason for existing, a meaning to justify it, a purpose to imbue it with value.

 

Allow me to play Devil’s Advocate then, and propose a thought experiment. Let’s assume that all that good stuff we want simply isn’t true. Let’s stop being children trying to protect ourselves with pretty fantasies (which may or may not accidentally coincide with reality) and just, for the sake of argument, assume a worst case scenario:

There is no God
There is no purpose
There is no meaning
The whole universe is an accident
Your life is pointless
There is no happy ending

Don’t just read the words, imagine it to be true, believe it to be true. How does it make you feel knowing that your life is insignificant and meaningless, not even just ‘in the scheme of things’; on a grander scheme the whole universe is meaningless, there is no purpose, no direction, no heaven, no hell, nothing other than the brute fact of existence without an explanation.

Sounds a lot like nihilism, doesn’t it. When I first drilled down my beliefs and realised this was where they were heading I was terrified. In fact, I chickened out and focussed on more practical things like my credit card debts and my career path.

But in the back of my mind, this idea that the whole of existence is a meaningless accident kept gnawing away at me. Maybe there was something wrong with me – if this is the story that resonates best with me, maybe I need help. Maybe I shouldn’t even be here?

 

And then I stopped and I really looked into myself. Suppose it is true. All my life I’ve wanted to find meaning and purpose but suppose I’m never going to find it because it doesn’t exist. Do I want to keep going? Am I happy to be alive?

 

To answer this question, I looked at the alternative.

 

Pointlessness is better than Nothingness

If you’ve been paying attention, you’ll know that the only true alternative I can imagine is nothingness. As much as it would be simpler for nothing to exist than to have all of the complexity, chaos and confusion of the Universe, it would be far, far less interesting!

Ultimately, even if all of this is just an accident (and I remind you, we can never actually know), even if the whole shebang serves no purpose, I’m intensely grateful to be here and be able to experience it!

The world is an incredibly beautiful place and it doesn’t get any less so when you look out into space. It would be simpler to have no other stars and galaxies out there, just us, but isn’t it better that they are there instead of there being nothing out there?

If the choice is between pointless existence and nothingness, I know which side I’m going to land on. And I challenge you to feel differently. The key difference between this and nihilism is that, when I looked into the heart of my beliefs and discovered they were quite bleak, I also discovered a well of gratitude for my existence – all the more so because it was accidental and could have easily been nothingness!

 

We Can Never Know

This is the story that I find most comforting, that resonates most with me. I’m not saying it’s the right story. It has its own flaws – what does this mean for morality, free will, motivation? There are more questions to answer before I can relax into this and morph it into a belief but the lesson I hope you can take from this is that even if life is pointless, it’s still a good thing, especially when contrasted with the alternative: nothingness.

I’ve stressed a number of times in this article that we can never know which story is true but I think it’s important for everyone to examine which story they believe and make sure it’s the right one for them. We inherit beliefs, often without realising, and they mould the way we think and interact with the world. We hold onto them because they comfort us – and I’m no different in that regard – but one of the best things you can do for yourself is take the time to really understand what your beliefs are and where they’re taking you.

 

We can never know if life has meaning or purpose, yet we all go about our day as if it does. A lot of that is simply fear of the alternative – how do we organise our lives if there’s no greater meaning, overall purpose or externally imposed point to it?

I think it’s important to address these questions because the idea that life is meaningless is a perfectly viable story to believe in and, if handled consciously, it may help us to approach life from a more enlightened place, one underpinned by a sense of gratitude that we’re here at all, a gratitude that is not given over to a higher being (along with the responsibility for whatever happens down here) but is owned by us as ours, as our choice to honour the series of happy accidents, which led us to this point, and approach the future with wonder and awe the way we did when we were kids!

4 Replies to “Life is pointless – but that’s a good thing!”

  1. This made for an excellent read! I was roughly at the same stance a couple of years back… though probably not so coherently realised. I ended up being a good post-nietzschen boy and basically put a positive “you create your own meaning” spin on a fundamentally nihilistic outlook.
    Since then I have gone through a rather interesting philosophical summersault. You have stated that you believe God does not exist – which is an entirely logical and rational conclusion to reach since there is no scientific way of demonstrating/proving the existence of said deity. As an aside I do agree that to be in strict accord with the rules of rational debate the onus of proof lies with the one claiming the existence of the thing, not the one denying it.
    That being said – there seem to be holes in your critique on meaningfulness for the characters in the great drama. Here are the issues that flagged up for me, see if you agree…
    In this view God is not different from the universe. In fact he is the universe playing at not being the creator. You suggest that in such a universe life for you would be meaningless as you would be merely a character or dream in the mind of God and thus without objective value. Where this falls down is that you are still looking at the players on the stage as separate from the Godhead. You are forgetting that within this world view this “mere” character is still all the time, God playing a part in the drama of the evolving universe. There is no separation between the creator and the created.
    You then go on to assert that existence is meaningless if you are a character – despite there being absolutely no necessary link between characterhood, if you will, and meaninglessness. Surely the meaning in the character’s life/role is to carry out the performance of that role. After all – how would the narrative continue in any interesting or meaningful way otherwise?
    A final objection follows from your separation conceptually of the Godhead and the many roles in the drama. You speak as if the concept of objective meaning external to the drama (which is the universe) is meaningful. This makes no sense! To do this is to speak of objective meaning external to the universe… How is this relevant to anything inside the universe? You cannot coherently state that a mans life is meaningless because it has no meaning outside of the universe he lives in!

    Anyhoo – these are my thoughts on the matter. I am not a convert by the way – I just thought I’d test your philosophical muscles. Up for the debate?

    1. Hi Dan, thanks for such an interesting response! I’m sorry it’s taken me so long to reply (real life gets in the way too much, I find). Actually, I was part way through a very lengthy reply some weeks ago, when my computer crashed – and I was too pissed off to start again! But I think you’ll benefit from a more considered and succinct response as a result. Let’s see…

      I’d like to start with something you said at the end, which raised alarm bells: ‘I am not a convert by the way’ this suggests that my intention for this piece has not shone through. I’m not trying to convert anyone, nor even stating that this is my personal belief system; what I’m saying, is that this is a useful mental tool to see how you really feel about being alive.

      We all want to live a life of meaning, so we create narratives to help define one. All I’m doing here is creating the ‘worse case scenario’ narrative (which, in itself is nothing new), one that concludes ‘meaning does not compute – computer says no’, in order to see if it really is so scary as to justify the myriad narratives designed to oppose it (narratives which often end up opposing each other and being the backbone of conflict and war despite the fact that we can neither prove nor disprove any of them – including this one).

      So, I’m not trying to convert anyone to nihilism; just offering up a thought experiment, which I found useful when formulating my own belief system. I discovered that if you were to strip away all of the usual elements designed to give life meaning; God, purpose, spirituality, afterlife etc then all you’re left with is the sheer fact of your existence and no guarantees. I found that, rather than leading to a hopeless depression, or the bleak disillusioned nihilism that I feared lurked at the very core of my being, what I’m actually left with is a deep sense of gratitude and joy at being here at all – if the alternative is Nothingness, I’ll take more of this this please – warts, terrorism, environmental destruction and all!

      I’d still like to improve on some of the negatives but now I’m coming from a more chilled out point of view that sees them as part of a wonderful tapestry of existence that might never have happened – and is not guaranteed to last or lead anywhere. And I suspect that approaching life from the point of view: “none of us gets out alive and none of this is really important, but I sure am grateful to be here in the first place, aren’t you?” is healthier than a lot of people would expect from such a bleak set of premises and I just wanted to show people that life being pointless (if it is) is not necessarily a Bad Thing.

      So, for the purposes of this thought experiment, I have to do away with God. I may not have finessed the logical arguments for dismissing God enough – and it’s this small section where all of your objections spring from – but that’s because they’re largely irrelevant. I wanted to assume as a basic premiss that God doesn’t exist in order to demonstrate how scary that isn’t. I threw in some arguments because that basic premiss does form part of my belief system and I felt I had to explain myself a little. Now you’re asking me to explain myself a lot! And your objections are good ones so I’d better address them:

      “You are forgetting that within this world view this “mere” character is still all the time, God playing a part in the drama of the evolving universe. There is no separation between the creator and the created.”

      This ‘Great Drama’ narrative is actually really appealing and I enjoyed your treatment of it on your hubpage (by the way, you should have linked to it in your comment!), but I admit I’ve glossed over it here and made a quick dismissal. I don’t believe I ‘forgot’ that there’s no separation between creator and created, in fact, that is my problem with it!
      The way I understand this, ‘we’, the characters – and indeed the whole drama – are a fantasy in the ‘mind’ of God; like a super advanced version of me imagining, or dreaming about a fictional world with fictional people. If this is the case then ‘I’ as a character; who isn’t really real; in a drama that isn’t really real: have no real meaning. I may have a purpose, as you say, to play out the role assigned to me but – ‘objectively speaking’ – only the God doing the dreaming is real and has meaning; ‘I’ am part of the ‘drama’ not the reality (and whilst they may be both one and the same thing, if you can draw a distinction between the The Great Drama and The Godhead – no matter how subtle, then I can argue that only one of them is really real). The dreamer may wake up, or switch to a different dream, at which point even the illusion of my existence ceases to be. ‘I’, as a mere character, have no control, free will or responsibility in this scenario. So this narrative doesn’t resonate with me personally – I still prefer the existentialist’s extreme freedom and ultimate responsibility; I don’t like to defer any responsibility or control over to God – even in a story where I somehow ‘am’ God. – It may well be the case that I am God, preferring to get so lost in the dream that I deny the possibility that a God can exist at all; but if that is the case (and we can never know one way or the other), then allow me to get fully lost in that role!

      I hope that explains the link I’ve made between characterhood and meaninglessness. I have no problem with a character having a purpose but I don’t think a character can have meaning – only the dreamer can have that. I’m still not giving such a subtle idea the attention it deserves, and you tend to think much deeper than I do, so I can imaging you raging at a glaring error I unwittingly keep making but, in any case, this thought experiment isn’t the right context to fully explore your point – I’m looking to have a narrative that fits with how I experience life on a day to day basis: I feel free to make my own choices, I feel responsible for my life, I feel like a real boy in a physical body. I don’t feel like a god, or an automaton controlled by my genes, or a brain in a jar, or a character in a dream – so postulations like this, while they may be very true, are of little use to me in my everyday life.

      Your last point, about my desire for meaning to be objective – which would make it external to that which it seeks to give meaning, is a killer blow! I hadn’t even realised I was doing this but you’re right; it seems silly to attempt to define the meaning of a man’s life by something external to the very universe he lives in!
      I don’t take it back though. This is kind of where I am when it comes to meaning, it’s why I brought God into the discussion even though I needn’t have. The old God – you know, the one Nietzsche killed – was a supernatural being external from the universe, who created the universe as a separate ‘thing’. He was all powerful and capable of creating a purely physical universe, which nevertheless supported partially spiritual creatures, humans, with free will and a purpose. Even if the purpose is simply to accept and love God, that’s still a purpose. And what of meaning? This is true, objective meaning: your life’s meaning is defined by a creature external to your universe. Now, God may suffer from existential questions about the meaning of his existence but you, the man, created by that God, have no such worries – your God imbued you with a life that is meaningful so long as you follow his commandments.

      That old God is a fairy tale told to protect frail creatures who can’t face the fact of brute, accidental, meaningless existence. They themselves were so afraid that their narrative would be exposed as mere fairy tale, that they waged war on cultures who told different tales – in the name of God no less. The Hindu’s dancing Shiva, the Great Drama, is in a sense, a slightly more evolved fairy tale – here the people telling the story point out that it is just a story! But it’s a story made up by God, so that’s okay. Already they have removed the distinction between their world and God’s world, so now the concept of ‘objective’, ‘externally imposed’ meaning is done away with. In this belief system, objective meaning is a meaningless concept.

      Now, I personally, don’t think there’s any meaning to be found anywhere but, if there was, then the only way it could be ‘true’ meaning (for me) rather than some version of subjectivism is to go back to the Old God narrative. And, as I’ve already said, a story that takes the responsibility or freedom away from me doesn’t resonate with me, so I can’t go back to that one and I can’t accept Characterhood-cum-Godheadhood as an alternative.
      That doesn’t mean I think those stories are wrong – I still accept the possibility that I may have gotten everything completely wrong myself – and I’m not willing to go to war for any of these stories; I’m just looking for a narrative that helps me take an internally consistent, healthy approach to my life given how I experience it on a day-to-day basis.

      I found that the story described in my post above resonates with me helps put me in touch with my gratitude for being alive. And the sudden, unexpected appearance of that gratitude felt almost like a religious experience (after all, don’t I need to be grateful to someone?), I was laughing randomly with joy for weeks afterwards and have since found that I see life in a way now, which doesn’t incite anger or a sense of injustice, or depression, or boredom. So it feels healthy to me, and it all came from looking into that hole in my soul to see just what it was down there and why it was was so scary – as it turned out, once you shine a light in there, there’s nothing to be afraid of; it’s just life!

      I hope that made sense? I feel like most of your objections stemmed from a mistaken belief that I was trying to thrust my story upon other people and was thus threatening some of the elements in your own narrative. That’s not what I was trying to do – I just wanted to share the technique, more than anything else, of confronting your worst case scenario just to see what your made of. It’s time to stop being afraid.

      (And so much for brevity!)

      Dan

  2. I go online to look at a couple of reviews of hammocks and I find this! It resonates very deeply with my own experience. I only have time for a few questions. I would be very interested in the journey you made in coming to these conclusions. (It would make a great blog post). You clearly have a solid understanding of the philosophy that underpins Hinduism. What are your thoughts on Enlightenment? Have you ever heard of U G Krishnamurti? The two question couldn’t be less connected!

    I’d like to formulate a better response, and perhaps ask some better questions when it isn’t 5 in the morning, and I’m not just about to go to work. But for now thank you, I am very grateful to have come across such an intelligent, thoughtful and well written piece.

    Rob

    1. Hi Rob,

      I’m really glad you liked the post and that it did you some good (at 5 in the morning!). Sorry it’s taken so long to reply – I have my comments on my business site sent to my phone, but not this one, so I keep forgetting to check! Maybe I will do a long and boring post about how I came to these interesting conclusions…. one day. But probably not, sorry ;-p

      I have a working knowledge of philosophy because I studied it at University and it still interests me (although these days, I’m leaning more towards psychology) but I know much less about Hinduism and, although I’ve heard the name and the term, neither Enlightenment nor Krishnamurti are topics I have any expertise on; perhaps you’d like to point me in the right direction?

      Kind Regards,

      Dan

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