The Meaning of Life?

“So, to better understand the meaning of acceleration, we have to start thinking of humans as nothing more than fluid-filled meat sacks,” my physics teacher had told our class during the first week of junior year of high school as we were learning the fundamentals of this science. I frowned as this comment: “Is that really all we are?” Is there really nothing more that makes us something more than the notebook in which I was hesitantly writing down this controversial statement. Although I had initially resisted these words, over time I found that I was embracing them as the truth. All I am is an object going through space down a predetermined path based on the chemical reactions occurring in my brain and body, with no free will, and a conscious experience that is merely a hallucination created by the evolutionary deficiencies within the brain. This is an eerily comfortable philosophy to adopt: it takes away any moral responsibility, any inherent meaning of our existence, and any purpose of our lives. In my self-proclaimed search of the unknown that I attempt to undertake, I am inadvertently seeking out the most complacent world view to fall under. This realization prompted me to explore a different approach to life: existentialism, the idea that the meaning of our lives is to find a purpose within a meaningless world, that our actions define us, and that we are responsible for them.

Before the nineteenth century, it was widely accepted that God created the purpose of the universe, that He grants us our purpose, or our essence, before we are even born, and the meaning of our lives is to follow that essence, and on that token, God was also the source of objective moral values. But, as the belief in God slowly began to diminish, existentialism began to take root. This philosophy states that, since there is no God, there is no real meaning for the universe and we are born with no real purpose. It is up to us, then, to determine our own purpose through the actions we take and the decisions we make. Additionally, since the world does not have any meaning, there are no absolutes or values that we have to live by, and if we do try to find objective rules to follow, we are doing what existentialists call “the absurd”- looking for meaning in a meaningless word. And any rules and values that do exist, the ones that come from our parents or the government, come from people who are also trying to find meaning in the world. So, if you think about laws through this lens, they are really just subjective beliefs about the meaning of the world, that, through their large following, have been turned into objective truths.  

This leads to the interpretation of the existential philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre, who explained his interpretation of existentialism through three words: abandonment, anguish, and despair. Abandonment corresponds with the realization that there is no God and that we are all alone in the universe. Anguish corresponds with the realization that humans have a terrifying abundance of freedom: “that we are condemned to be free.” We limit our freedom by adhering to the commonly accepted proprieties, laws, and rules that govern society. But our freedom comes with great responsibility for our actions: our one decision is also a choice for all other humans. For example, by purchasing a computer, you are endorsing the use of electronics for the rest of humanity. Lastly, despair is the realization that there is no certainty in any action that you take. Sartre’s view is summed up in this quote: “You are free to choose, therefore choose – that is to say invent. No rule of general morality can show you what you ought to do: no signs are vouchsafed in this world.” Essentially, existentialism states that only we have the power to give our lives purpose through our actions and therefore only we can determine the greatness of it, but our decisions do have to be made through a more global perspective in mind.

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Sartre’s argument, and the philosophy of existentialism in general, is weakened when criminal actions come into question, but I rather like the general message it proposes: we create our own purpose and are therefore defined by our actions, as they are responsible for the course of humankind, that we have the sole power to define our existence. For me, this argument is much more difficult to accept than one stating that we do not have free will: that we are not responsible for our actions and are simply cogs in the machine doing what we were always meant to do. And no matter how true I might think that is, I should try to embrace that clear and distinct feeling of freedom created by my consciousness. It’s a valuable human characteristic, after all. Why not use it?  


Sources: an article from Philosophy Now: A Student’s Guide to Jean Paul Sartre’s Existentialism and Humanism 

Image: Google Images

17 thoughts on “The Meaning of Life?

  1. Kat, I wholly agree with you and other existentialists that our lives have no predetermined meaning. Even if there is a god bent on giving our lives meaning, that god has strangely chosen to communicate with us through prophets and perhaps by other means that nevertheless leave in doubt whether its meaning for us is genuine. So, even with a god, we are left with the choice of what to make the meaning of our lives.

    I do think meaning is important — more important than happiness. And, by sheer coincidence, I have been planning a blog post on the very subject. The last couple days, I’ve been pondering it on and off.

    Liked by 3 people

    1. My relationship with God is pretty weird. Although I come from a nonreligious family. Throughout childhood I have always believed that there is a God. I really don’t know what to believe now. But even if there is a god, I don’t think he has any control over me. For the past few years I’ve been having an existential crisis, and I found comfort in the whole no free will and really is an illusion idea, but I’m trying to get out of that rabbit hole.

      And wow, what a coincidence. I look forward to reading your take on this matter.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Ah well, I feel that philosophy takes chunks out of religion and changes the whole landscape for thinkers and believers – however, for all that philosophy achieves, religion / spirituality or whatever, seems to be compressed into an ever smaller yet still powerful neglected force which can suddenly bite back unexpectedly, RE the idea of instant Karma and so on.

    Someone lent me a book by (I think) Simone Weil – (tho it may have been someone else) it seems that Catholicism is of more interest to philosophers than other branches (of christianity)- wouldn’t it be marvellous to take the word of someone else for a change? I think the philosophical among us find that the hardest part!

    Have you ever seen that film “Perverts Guide to Ideology” Its really a good one, its a book too – I should probably read it myself, the guy is a philosopher and psychoanalyst, he goes really deep!

    Also a very entertaining read was “Sophies Choice” by William Styron, I can’t remember much about it now, but its an easy way to read a ton of philosophy kind of rounded up into an easy to read story. 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Aha! I meant Sophies World, by Jostein Gaarder, not Sophies Choice! (Which I have never read) I just goggled and copied what I thought it was!

      Perverts guide BTW is an odd title, but he’s not using the word the same as we commonly do in the west 🙂

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    2. I wouldn’t say that philosophy takes chunks out of religion. I think philosophy just presents an alternate point of view to religion. Religion makes God the reason for everything, but philosophy tries to answer the same questions without assuming that a God exists. That said, I do think that religion should be studied from an anthropological perspective because it had been such a powerful force in the past, as still is today, to an extent.

      It’s interesting that philosophers study Catholicism. Maybe it’s because they have always been discriminated against, and their continued devotion to religion is interesting to examine?

      Thank you for your book and movie recommendations. They seem pretty interesting, I’ll check them out. 😄

      Liked by 1 person

      1. I think Camus was entwined with Catholicism, via long talks with a priest, tho I’m not sure, (I am fairly!) I shouldn’t have thought many catholic priests would have much time for existentialism, whereas with protestants, they were at least able to question the nature of God, while the Catholic church was always far more rhetorical from the Pope down.

        Simone Weil I think challenged a lot of catholic thinking, but didn’t want to abandon the good feelings she got from it – something like that.

        I remember yrs ago I was working in a factory where everyone seemed to be like animals, they used to treat this one guy like a pathetic weakling, turned out he was a Christian, so I got talking to him and he said to me Christians go to church to spend time with other Christians, which was sort of a revelation to me, tho I still didn’t want to go to one, cos I’m not one myself – bit of a conundrum, cos I do enjoy the company of thinkers and nice people and all that, more so than animalistic morons like those others anyhow – overall, I just prefer to be alone, and just come out for a bit then go back!! 😉

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      2. I don’t understand much about religion, but I do value the devotion of religious people.

        I’ve been to church maybe a few times, for Easter. One church was an orthodox Christian one and the other was a French Catholic church in Canada. I did observe a very heavy sense of community between the church members. They all seemed to be friends with each other, and they were very nice to me and my family. It was all very nice, but I’d rather be alone as well. There were just too many people.

        Liked by 1 person

  3. I believe that we frequently have choices left vs right; wrong vs right … there is some predestination but we do need to find our own purpose or meaning then engage our moral compass and go for it! Make our own path and be the change we wish to see 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I completely agree with you, that is what we all should do, but it does seem awfully difficult. Being yourself and following your own path in a world where it is just so much easier to conform and mindlessly go along requires a lot of strength, but it is something I try to do everyday. Thank you for reading!

      Liked by 1 person

      1. It’s well you try to be true to yourself, Kat. When I was your age, I was pretty much busy losing myself — a fact that I believe led all but directly to two failed marriages and much other grief. I’ve since concluded too many of us in our youth fail to strike a good compromise between our own needs and the needs of others. So you go, girl!

        Liked by 1 person

      2. When I first started this blog, I tried to leave out any information about myself that would indicate anything about my age. I guess my youth and inexperience with the world shone through anyway. No matter how smart I try to appear on here, it’s seems like the most important lessons are only learned through experience and time, and it seems to me like you know a lot.

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      3. Seems like you must have been. What a gift. I grew up always having been told to follow the rules and to never be too different. But now as I go out into the world all on my own, I try my best to ignore all that.

        Liked by 1 person

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