Sunday, January 24, 2010

Meaning & Value in Human Existence (part 2)

Sorry, this post took a little longer than usual because it is quite a complex argument and very philosophical and wordy. A week ago I posted on the question about meaning in human existence (see here) and proposed that we attempt to demonstrate the following points:

1) That we all search for meaning in our life that comes from outside ourselves.

2) That this search for meaning is not just an extension of the subjective meaning we create.

While what follows it not in any way a proof for God's existence or even a certain proof for the search for objective meaning in life, I think it does justice to the issue of meaning in as much as something so interior and subjective can be "proven."

Let's begin with the undeniable fact of the human being's desire to know. This is fundamental to human nature and was stated clearly by Aristotle in the very first sentence of the Metaphysics: "All men by nature desire to know" (Meta. 1:1). The Latin name for the human species is homo sapiens, "thinking man." To desire knowledge is part and parcel of what mankind is. One can argue that this inherent desire is from God or (for the materialist) a product of evolutionary development, but I don't see it as an important point in this discussion. It is not the origin but the fact of an undisputed, universal search for knowledge inherent in man that we are starting with.

But what type of knowledge does man search for? There are a variety of forms of knowledge, but most come under the divisions of either scientific or philosophical knowledge. Science answers questions about the material make-up of the creation, how it functions, what cause produces what effect and in general anything to do with the material constitution of the world. To put it succinctly, science tells us the "how" of the world. It tells us what is, that is, what is going among the various interacting elements of the world and how they interrelate. Of the fact that science simply tells us what is going on now, and as such is incomplete, C.S. Lewis says:

If a man says 'Humpty Dumpty is falling,' you see at once that this is not a complete story. The bit you have been told implies both a later chapter in which Humpty Dumpty will have reached the ground, and an earlier chapter in which he was still seated on the wall. A Nature which is 'running down' cannot be the whole story [referring to entropy in the universe]. A clock can't run down unless it has been wound up. Humpty Dumpty can't fall off a wall which never existed...Admittedly, science discerns no 'king's horses and men' who can 'put Humpty Dumpty together again'. But you would not expect her to. She is based on observation: and all our observations are observations of Humpty Dumpty in mid-air. They do not reach either the wall above or the ground below - much less the King with his horses hastening towards the spot (Miracles, Harper Collins, 247-248)

Thus science is incapable of grasping the teleological end of things - it can only tell us what is going on now, corresponding to the "how" questions about the universe.

But though man has certainly sought to know how nature works, he has never been content with this sort of knowledge alone but has gone on to seek philosophical knowledge. Philosophical knowledge seeks to find out ultimate reasons - where did things come from ultimately? Why were they created and what is the reason for anything existing rather than nothing? Philosophical questions seek to find out "why", as opposed to the how of science. They are not opposed to each other; in fact, they compliment each other.

Before we go on, can we prove that man does indeed seek philosophical knowledge? I think this is easily provable by looking at the fact of religious experience among all men. Just as the fact of a desire to know proves to us that man takes delight in knowing, so the universal fact of religious belief attests to the truth that men seek a philosophical knowledge over and apart from scientific knowledge. Religion seeks to provide men with answers to ultimate questions - where did we come from, what happens after we die, why is there a world, etc. Since the beginning of human existence, mankind has exhibited religious tendencies. In 2006, anthropologists discovered what they believe to be the oldest evidence of religious ritual in the world in a site in Botswana, which they say was a religious center as distant as 77,000 years ago (source). Totemist-animist religious cults are evidenced as early as 70,000 BC and ritual burial began over 60,000 years ago, according to anthropologists.

Whether you believe these numbers are accurate or not, the point is that religious practice is something that emerges right at the beginning of human culture, so far back in history that it is hardly possible to distinguish the existence of mankind without religion. Mind you, this does not establish the existence of God by any means; it does establish the universality of religious practice and its emergence into human culture at an amazingly early stage (it is also interesting that this 77,000 year old cult in Botswana apparently worshiped the "serpent").

This extremely early origin of religion ought to make us pause and reevaluate the materialist interpretation of where the search for meaning comes from. Remember, according to the materialist, man starts by creating things himself, seeing purposefulness in his own objects and then reading that purposefulness back onto creation. In real life I do not think this sequence is so easily established. Our earliest traceable religious practice is about 77,000 years ago, but it is probably safe to assume that if a cult center had already popped up by that time then religious belief among human beings is probably much older. It is very difficult to discern when religious belief first awoke in the human heart - for the Christian, this belief is actually primeval: man had a primitive, initial intimacy with God from His very creation that was only later distorted and changed through the loss of original innocence.

But I think the important question is this - does a search for meaning in the world, a "why", come from man's primitive creativity, or is man's creativity itself a result of his capacity to ask why about the world? If man had not been the type of creature especially able to wonder about the world, would he ever have begun to make tools, fire, etc. in the first place? The Catechism states that this capacity to wonder about ultimate things - to ask religious questions - is fundamental to man's nature:

In many ways, throughout history down to the present day, men have given expression to their quest for God in their religious beliefs and behavior: in their prayers, sacrifices, rituals, meditations, and so forth. These forms of religious expression, despite the ambiguities they often bring with them, are so universal that one may well call man a religious being (CCC 28).

The reason for man's innate religiosity is not primarily because of his natural capacity to create, but rather to his "other directedness," which means his need for communion with other persons that naturally disposes him to look outward towards the other. This outward lookingness is not just a keener perception than that of the animals - it is qualitatively different. Man not only perceives the outside world but is capable of wonder, which is the beginning of philosophy. The ancients noted this int he symbolic manner in which animals move about "facing" the ground, bound to this world - but man alone gazes upward at the heavens.

This disposition to wonder is evident at a very early age. Children's favorite question is "Why?", as any parent knows. But (and this is crucial), children recognize at a very early age the concept of a chain of causality. They seem to intuit that there can be no infinite regress in this chain, and thus seek to come to the origin of it. For example:

Girl: Daddy, how do the lights work?

Dad: I flip a switch and they just go on.

Girl: Why?

Dad: Because the switch activates a current that lights the bulb.

Girl: Why?

Dad: Uhh...because of the wires in the wall that carry something called 'electricity' from the switch to the bulb.

Girl: Why?

Dad: Because that's the way electricity works; it is conducted through certain types of materials - in this case, through the wires.

Girl: Why does it work that way?

Dad: I don't's just the law of electricity for it to travel in a current like that...

Girl: Why is it that way?

Dad: I don't just is.

At this point, the father can really have no reply other than to say, "It just is." Now we have come to the end of the causal chain with "It just is," arriving at being itself. But getting to the point where the dad says "It just is" leaves a little bit of a dissatisfaction - on the one hand, the child at this point usually recognizes that the chain can go no further back (or at least the father is incapable of explaining it back any further); on the other hand, they (we) still see that if something is, there must be a reason for its existence - another cause behind its "izzing." So very early on, children pick up the idea of a causal chain and understand, as demonstrated by their constant "why's", that anything that comes into existence has a cause - and their questioning demonstrates wonder at the way things are coupled with an innate desire to get down to the ultimate cause of things, the Why beyond which there can be no more why. This is the search for meaning in its most fundamental form, a search that is innate in us but whose end we seek outside us.

Notice also that, were the father a scientist or an electrician and knew very intimately all the working of electricity, the child could still reduce him to the "I don't just is" statement - the chain of questioning might be longer, but the end will be the same. The reason for this is that because existence - being - is what the child is ultimately questioning about, they can keep stripping away layers of explanation (depending on their perseverance) until they get down to the level of just what simply is. So, saying that the dad in the above scenario just didn't know enough about science to answer her questions doesn't cut it.

So by now we have seen how humans begin to look for meaning in an ultimate cause just by virtue of their humanity - that it is human nature to want to know, and to want to know ultimate things. Obviously, children, even toddlers, evidence this desire to find meaning. But one could easily make the accusation that this search for an original and supreme "Why" that stands behind all other "whys" is simply a product of the child's immaturity; could it not be argued that once a child's reason develops and his mind develops that he will see that there is no ultimate cause or meaning and that what all children seek by pressing "why?" is after all not so important?

To answer this we need only look to the work of Austrian neurologist Victor Frankl, who though a Jewish agnostic, still recognized in the 1940's and 50's that the search for meaning is absolutely essential in the lives of all humans, adults as well as children. In his 1946 book Man's Search for Meaning, he chronicled his experience in Auschwitz and explained how men who had some kind of external meaning for their existence, some reason for living, tended to survive whereas those who saw no meaning in their sufferings tended to expire first. In a very vital and dynamic way, the presence of meaning in life could be the difference between survival and death. Frankl describes the moment in the concentration camp when he first realized the importance of meaning in life:

And as we stumbled on for miles, slipping on icy spots, supporting each other time and again, dragging one another up and onward, nothing was said, but we both knew: each of us was thinking of his wife. Occasionally I looked at the sky, where the stars were fading and the pink light of the morning was beginning to spread behind a dark bank of clouds. But my mind clung to my wife's image, imagining it with an uncanny acuteness. I heard her answering me, saw her smile, her frank and encouraging look. Real or not, her look was then more luminous than the sun which was beginning to rise. A thought transfixed me: for the first time in my life I saw the truth as it is set into song by so many poets, proclaimed as the final wisdom by so many thinkers. The truth -- that love is the ultimate and the highest goal to which man can aspire. Then I grasped the meaning of the greatest secret that human poetry and human thought and belief have to impart: The salvation of man is through love and in love. I understood how a man who has nothing left in this world still may know bliss, be it only for a brief moment, in the contemplation of his beloved. In a position of utter desolation, when man cannot express himself in positive action, when his only achievement may consist in enduring his sufferings in the right way – an honorable way – in such a position man can, through loving contemplation of the image he carries of his beloved, achieve fulfillment. For the first time in my life I was able to understand the meaning of the words, "The angels are lost in perpetual contemplation of an infinite glory...." (56-57)

Frankl goes on to describe how, after the war, he began a psychiatric therapy based on the premise that many of the most common psychological disorders were due to the fact that modern people had no meaning for their lives. By encouraging them to find or discover some external meaning or reason for living, he had tremendous success in curing many people.

Frankl of course was an agnostic, and the "meaning" he encouraged people to discover was a varied as the people he treated: sometimes the "reasons" he taught people to live by included honoring a parent, working on behalf of bettering the future of some child, and many other such worldly matters (though he also utilized religious motivation when practical). But the common thread throughout all of these "reasons" for life is their exteriority to the person - they are all meanings or goals external to the person which can then serve as guiding lights that lead a person towards what Frankl called "fulfillment."

What can we take away from this? Just this: the search for a meaning in life is primal and fundamental in the life of mankind, and that man searches for this meaning not necessarily within but without, "behind" and before the phenomenon of the world. Discovering this meaning is so important that people can literally become the victims of various neuroses if they can't establish it.

But need this meaning be something external to us, something transcendent? Why can't we simply find our own meaning in our own life? This is where Frankl's thesis ultimately breaks down, for while he stresses the importance of meaning in our lives, it is of little importance to him where this meaning comes from or whether it is objective or not. Frankl's contribution to the argument is more in the assertion of the fact that man will find or make meaning in his life, not that life is objectively meaningful. But if man, by nature, finds meaning, then why did "nature" allow man to be so constituted?

Mankind is ultimately not satisfied with a meaning that he "discovers" within himself, for his gaze is on the concept of being, and we quickly discern within our own selves a lack - our being is contingent and uncertain, subject to death and all the calamities that befall creatures. We quickly realize that the ultimate meaning we seek is not found within us but in something that transcends us - in the why that lies behind all of nature.

A meaning that is purely subjective is ultimately unsatisfactory. Consider the following example: Suppose you read a fiction book which really catches your attention. The character development is superb, the plot outstanding and suspenseful, and the book full of insightful glimpses of human nature and our condition, with some hints of spirituality. The book is an unqualified masterpiece, akin to Crime and Punishment or The Violent Bear it Away (two of my favorites).

Now, suppose you hear that the author of this masterpiece is coming to do a booksigning in your local bookstore. You are extremely excited and go to the booksigning. Once there, the author gives a brief talk about the book, in which you hope he will explain what the book is about. I mean, you know the plot, characters, themes, etc., but you are hoping to gain the insight into the novel tha actually comes from hearing the author speak what he was thinking when he wrote the book and what he says it is about - in other words, what the book is "really" getting at.

Imagine the disappointment if that author were to stand up and say, "This book has no objective meaning. It's meaning is whatever you find in it." I suppose this would not stop you from enjoying the book on some level, but I'd imagine any reader would be a little upset and finding that the book he had found so much meaning in had no "real" meaning in the mind of the author. It does (in some way) detract from the enjoyment of reading the book (have you ever liked a song and assumed it was about one thing, only to find out later that it was about something else, perhaps something lewd or banal, and this knowledge "ruined" the song for you?).

The reader wants to know what the book is really about, not what he himself "feels" it is about. In a way, the impressions we have about what the book is about flow from what we know the author is trying to say, if we are privy to this information. Nobody would tolerate an answer from an author that the book's meaning was completely in the mind of the reader - that approach vacuums the adventure out of reading. A merely subjective meaning is dissatisfying to the reader, just as a merely subjective meaning to life is dissatisfying to the one who lives it.

I suppose one could say that they are perfectly satisfied with life having no meaning, but it could equally be argued that the fact that they are comfortable with this belief and have accomodated themselves to it signifies that acknowledgement life's alleged meaninglessness has become its meaning for them - a bizarre and unnatural inversion of value, but one that can result nonetheless when man seeks to live life without a teleological end in mind. Transcendent meaning endures, even if one chooses to find that meaning in a creed of meaninglessness., to which the atheist comes to terms with, as in a truce, rather than lovingly accepts. How can one lovingly accept what one holds as meaningless and random? It seems that modern man has somehow managed to condition himself to this point of view. Another quote from Frankl: "A man can get used to anything, but do not ask us how."

Like reading, in which meaning and themes are found (not created), life itself is a process of discovery, in which mankind seeks to find the ultimate cause behind all other causes that exists objectively and independently of him. This Cause which we all seek is that which all men call 'God.'

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