Real Life, Real Meaning
Some people believe that they lead meaningful lives, ones with real meaning and purpose. So is a meaningful life the byproduct of what we make of our lives or does real meaning spring from life having intrinsic value? Philosophers have been debating that question seemingly forever.
Unfortunately, a multitude of people live in despair today because they have no meaningful idea about what the future holds. This despair is deeply rooted in a lack of hope, because hope holds out some sort of a promise for the future. As a general rule, people want to be reassured about the future so that they can be happy in the present despite what life throws at them.
Although there are many different forms of philosophy, philosophers generally fall into two groups: those that believe in God and those that don’t believe that a god exists. This results in a strong divergence of ideas with regards to man’s hope about the future. For example, in the latter group there are well-known philosophers like De Sade, Nietzsche, Schopenhauer and Bertrand Russell. They generally believed that both individuals, and collectively mankind, have no purpose in the universe. Because of this deeply depressing prospect, the question of life’s meaning posed a difficult challenge for them. For example, Bertrand Russell believed that man should build his life on the “firm foundation of unyielding despair.”
Existentialists such as Sartre believe that, since there was no pre-existent meaning or purpose to life, people need to create meaning in their own lives (where there was none before). Further, Sartre would say that since there was no God, man has no standard of human behavior (moral values) and without any such values man’s actions cannot be judged to be either right or wrong. For example in Existentialism is a Humanism, Sartre agreed with Dostoevsky that “If God does not exist, everything is permitted (from The Brothers Karamazov).”
In the other group, we have, by and large, people who already have a set belief system about life based upon their personal religious beliefs. We even have different flavors of religion, and denominations within a particular religion, for different people. Their religion is usually the by-product of where they grew up and what religion their parents practiced, as opposed to a rational examination of all religions and the selection of one. They have faith that God exists, even though they have no proof, because their holy book tells them so. Each person can point to a different holy book that their religion says (self-proclaims) is the Word of God. In order for them to live purposefully, they have each had to make a leap of faith to affirm a reason for living (and beyond that a hope for immortality).
Many religions also bring their believers a sense of justice based on the reward of good or the punishment of evil. Unfortunately, belief in the gods of religion doesn’t make man moral otherwise we wouldn’t have had so many wars in God’s name. Anyway, who is to say what is moral and what is not – a holy book? If so, which one?
I happen to believe in the sanctity of life but, of course, that means different things to different people. For me, the sanctity of life is a universal principle which I believe a vast majority of people understand on at least an intuitive level. That’s why most people would say that it’s generally wrong to take another human life. The key is that we can have this understanding with or without a holy book and regardless of whether or not we are a believer.
Mathematically, one’s existence is a statistical improbability which defies any rational or logical explanation. That makes you either a freak of nature or the result of some conscious miracle of life. It’s only been somewhat recently that science has come to grips with the concept that what you really are is a being whose thoughts are being filtered through a virtual reality matrix. As Einstein so aptly put it, “He (man) experiences himself, his thoughts and feelings as something separate from the rest—a kind of optical delusion of his consciousness.” Nevertheless, for both believers and non-believers, it’s quite okay to act on your beliefs as that’s certainly a legitimate way for man to try and define himself. Just remember, though, whatever it is that you think you know, is probably wrong.
“At the core of all well-founded belief, lies belief that is unfounded.”
– Ludwig Wittgenstein, Austrian-British philosopher