Meaning of Life – The Path into the Mainstream

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What is the purpose of my life and life in general? Is there any meaning in all of this? Some of us wake up to these questions at certain points in our lives. Whether it’s an inquisition of the young puzzled mind at the point where the guidelines need to be set straight for adulthood, a search an accomplished and affluent individual embarks upon when he realises that he’s still dissatisfied, or an inquiry of a rational mind trying to find more logic and structure in all the diversity and seeming chaos around it.

In my case, this question presented itself again at the point when I no longer knew what my values and beliefs were and had to revisit them in order to figure out how to live a more meaningful life. If I were to imagine my life as a road, the last eighteen months were a stretch of that road between two stops called “growing up” and “existential Crisis”.

The growing-up part concluded itself in my realisation that my convictions and beliefs were not exactly mine, or, rather, not consciously chosen by me, but just a bunch of disorganised repercussions of my family upbringing, school and university years. Following this revelation, “the dark night of the soul”1 fell upon me, and I commenced my search for a more meaningful life.

In this series of three pieces, I’d like to investigate some resolutions to this quest that the greatest minds of humankind took solace in, some of which led me to determining my own approach to this very personal but also universal pursuit.

There are some important caveats I need to introduce. It’d be overly ambitious on my side to attempt to cover all the paradigms introduced by philosophers over the course of several thousands of years of human history. Therefore, I choose to mainly focus on the modern times, that is the last couple of centuries.2 This deliberate reservation is partially driven by the selfish view that the current state of affairs should be more relevant to me because this is the time I live in, but, also, by the hypothesis that the current state of affairs in this matter, for example, prevailing views and concepts, should be a reflection of recent developments in society in general (in religion, science, etc).

One would think that a quest of this scale, perhaps, encompassing the best part of humanity, would have a universal and widely-recognised definition. Yet, it soon becomes obvious that each one of us understands it differently. The majority would probably refer to the positive final value that their own individual lives can exhibit or a certain property of their individual existence that proposes more sense into this world. While others, expanding further from their private concerns, would question the purpose of humanity, this planet and Universe altogether.

Among scholars, there’s some consensus in the view that the meaning of life is different from other notions of goodness, happiness, morality, or worthiness; still, the lack of uniform “term” for interpretation of the “meaning of life” has been generating an array of sometimes extremely polar concepts on what constitutes life’s meaning and purpose.

But why has the preoccupation with the meaning of life become such a mainstream topic in recent decades and what were the factors predetermining the vector of the current discussion?

If we look back at human history, we recognise that our ancestors lived mostly in the God-centered universes governed by suprarational mentalities. The notion of transcendent was always there: from mysticism and spiritism of early tribes, to all-powerful gods of Egyptian and Greek civilisations and to a uniform image of God of later religious beliefs.3 As such, supernaturalism prevailed in philosophic views, epitomised by the view that “the meaning in life must be constituted by a relationship with spiritual realm”, either God or soul, and  that “God has a plan for the universe and that one’s life is meaningful to the degree that one helps God realise this plan” (Metz, 2011).

These views, greatly dominant in societies until the early travels of exploration, the turmoil in beliefs caused by the Protestant Reformation, the rise of human reason during the Enlightment period and scientific revolution, led to “the evaporation of a widely held, firmly believed Christian conception of the nature of Things” (O’Brien, 2011). The departure from the notion of transcendence marked the rise of rationalism in philosophical thinking and development of nihilistic concepts, which underpinned what many consider a crisis of the modern world for, “once the supra-rational is abandoned and rejected, there’s nothing to philosophise About” (Cocks, 2018).

Richard Cocks vividly describes the subsequent turbulence in the development of concepts around the topic of the meaning of life:

The rational philosophical mind spins its wheels on nothing; it grinds thin air trying to make bread and substance. It finds its task hopeless and despairs; the despair of skepticism and nihilism. Positivism, nihilism. Post-modernism, nihilism. Diversity, nihilism. Liberalism, nihilism. Humanism, nihilism. Every door closes, shutting itself in the face of the increasingly desperate or perhaps apathetic searcher.4

The departure from the idea of divine origin of life and inability of science to take on the challenge due to lack of uniformity in theories as well as their complexity and, consequently – the failure in their popularisation, account for the main factors why we are where we are: the rational mind needs to close the gap, and gives birth to dozens of views in an attempt to find a “right” answer.

Here we’ve briefly investigated how shifts in paradigms in the view of the world have set the context for the formation of the present abundance of views around the matter of the purpose in life. In the following sections of this article, we’ll touch upon some of the less apparent causes and, finally, start looking into prevailing concepts.

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1 Here used as an expression for “existential Crisis“. Originally a poem by St John https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dark_Night_of_the_Soul
2 To those of you who would like to trace the history of the development of the views on the meaning of life, I recommend some overviews written by Wendell O’Brien
3 For an extensive account of the Universes and their prevailing dogma, refer to “Masks of the Universe” by Edward Harrison
4 Richard Cocks, Philosophy and the Crisis of the Modern World, 2018

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00_Cover_Meaning-of-Life 00_Cover_Meaning-of-Life Aleksandra Yurchenko CC BY-SA 4.0