The ultimate conversation stopper: does life have meaning?

flickr / reversible skirtFans of Pearl Jam may recall the song "Meaningless".

I refuse, I refuse, to believe
We're meaningless, meaningless
We're meaningless, I refuse...
I won't give up, yeah...
Meaningless...we're not meaningless
We're not invisible...we're not meaningless

Noble sentiments, perhaps, but a hard thing to prove, and one which is often denied. Australian sociologist Michael Casey has analysed why so many people in modern culture feel threatened by the notion that life does have a meaning. Here he shares his insights with MercatorNet.

MercatorNet: I find that many people are embarrassed to ask if life has a meaning. Is it just me? Or is it a common feature of our culture?

Casey: Certainly it’s a great question to ask if you want to kill a conversation. Throwing "the meaning question" out there for discussion seems to embarrass people, and those who ask it are taken to have some sort of deficit in social skills, ranging from being "too serious" at the milder end to just plain weird.

But at the same time people will happily tell you their thoughts on politics, religion and sex, often without being asked, and sometimes to levels of details which we don’t really want to know. And it’s not unusual to hear approving references made to the Big Bang or to evolution when a discussion accidentally stumbles on something which turns our minds to the origins of life, the universe and everything else.

All these topics of more or less everyday conversation ultimately take us to the question of the meaning of life and the value we place on different aspects of it. And of course particular moments in life -- the birth of a child, the death of a loved one (and especially the death of a parent or child), times of serious illness or hardship -- do set us wondering about things, as does the confrontation with evil and suffering.

What has changed in our situation is that the culture no longer provides a wider frame of reference to help people make sense of things. One of culture’s functions is to help people go deeper in their questions and wonderings about meaning. Without this framework its very difficult to integrate the various silos we occupy in day-to-day life. This throws people back on their own resources. Unless you are very lucky or have some sort of religious background this makes you much more averse to asking "deep" questions. We settle instead for our own personal solutions to the question of meaning, taking "small M" meaning from the little things we find along the way and giving up on the idea of a source of meaning which is available to everyone.

MercatorNet: In our secularised society, many people live without a deep sense of purpose. What does your research into the philosophical underpinnings of meaninglessness show about the success of this approach to existence?

Casey: Well, we are living in the middle of what some have called an "anthropological revolution" -- a major attempt to remake human nature and to make it easier than ever before to live without the bothersome need for deeper purpose. Insulation is one of the keys to this: insulation from physical weakness, from material want, and most importantly, from other people.

Modern life has made it easier than ever before to live on the surface of existence and apparently without the need for any deeper sense of purpose. The pace of life for one thing gives us little time for reflection, and this suits a lot of us very well. In developed countries, we don’t have to worry about basic survival and we enjoy greater and greater freedom to cut our own course in life. This is one of the great achievements of Western culture, a genuine liberation -- for those who can enjoy it. But the down side is that it is easier than ever before to avoid commitments and to evade dependence -- both the dependence of others on us and the dependence we have on others. The worst thing you can be in personal relationships, so we are told, is dependent. The second worst thing is to have a partner who is dependent on you.

But to be human is to be dependent, and to accept the dependence of others on us. Accepting our need for others when we are weak, and our responsibility for others when we are strong is one of the main entry points into the deeper dimensions of existence, to the fully human life. Modern culture, however, seeks the maximum possible freedom from both dependence and responsibility. Insulation is the key to making this work, and while no one lives as in perfect isolation, plenty of us live with sufficient levels of hardness of heart and self-assertion against others to achieve a pretty good approximation of it.

I’m not sure this is sustainable, at least not if we want to live lives that are fully human. But I also have to say that the results are not yet in and we could be surprised at how successful this approach may yet prove to be. The promise of a life lived "lightly", skating gracefully on the surface rather than foundering in the murky depths, has a lot of appeal. It may even prove irresistible. Like other world-remaking revolutions this one too will produce disfigurement rather than utopia. But the difference is that it will come incrementally rather than all at once, and it is amazing what we can get used to when change comes bit by bit.

MercatorNet: After the bloody history of the 20th century, some argue that a search for meaning leads straight to Auschwitz, that the conviction that one possesses the truth ends in despotism. How would you respond to that?

Casey: The argument here, greatly simplified, is that capital-M meaning is naturally imperialistic. It wants to impose its solution to meaninglessness on everyone else as the one true and eternal source of salvation. Problem is, if every answer to meaninglessness takes this form, conflict and tyranny are inescapable, and at the extreme it will produce a situation where those who don’t fit in become scapegoats or "problems" that must be got rid of, one way or another. For some theorists, the Nazi extermination of the Jewish people epitomised where the search for the one big truth about history and human existence, bequeathed to Western culture and politics by Christianity, inevitably leads us.

The solution, according to this school of thought, is to either get over the need for meaning altogether, or if you can’t do that, find a little bit of personal meaning where you can and keep it to yourself. Don’t go thinking your particular answer is the answer for everyone, and most certainly keep it out of politics. We’d all be much better off if we could give up on the question of Truth and just accept that there are a multitude of perspectives and insights, all equally valid.

There are many problems with this argument. To begin with, there is an enormous difference between converts to values like faith, hope and love and followers of an ideology based on power. There is no equivalence between a view that finds meaning by imposing a purported "truth", and a view that holds that Truth is objective and there for everyone to discover -- a position taken by classic theistic accounts.

Secondly, while National Socialism did provide meaning of a sort to its followers it was a negational form of meaning, based on a rejection of the transcendent truth first brought to the world by the Jewish people and universalised by Christianity.

Rejecting the idea of truth and lies will not help us sort out true meaning from false meaning. If you can’t define the truth, how can you resist lies? Far from guarding us against future exterminations, relativism is just as likely to make them easier to get away with. The great totalitarianisms of the 20th century based their exterminations on a redefinition of certain people as no longer human. What enabled us to resist this was the truth that human dignity is inviolable and cannot be taken away by any redefinition. Today, however, in the midst of raging relativism, it’s not certain that we still have this sort of clarity, especially when it comes to redefining the unborn, the disabled, and the sick and needy.

MercatorNet: You see Friedrich Nietzsche as the key theorist of meaninglessness. What might seem like misery to me, at any rate, he saw as an opportunity. How did he reach this conclusion?

Friedrich NietzscheCasey: Nietzsche is indispensable for understanding many things about our age, and especially as a case study of human resistance to the transcendent. His insights are often invaluable, but they usually come in the form of half-truths, and on some things he is just stunningly wrong, although this doesn’t detract from how compelling his wrong answers can be for some people.

Nietzsche saw Christianity as a huge mistake. It imposed on Western culture a framework which "slandered" life, by teaching that true meaning and value could only be found in a world beyond this world, in the realm of the transcendent. The secular philosophies which gradually pushed Christianity to the margins of the culture continued to operate in this framework, purporting to find meaning and value in the "revelations" of History, Nature or Science, which were immanent rather than transcendent concepts, but still larger and greater than ordinary human existence.

But it was not just that we had been taught to seek meaning outside ordinary human life by the habits sunk into us by two thousand years of Christianity. For Nietzsche the idea of a need for meaning was itself a product of Christianity. There is no meaning to be had, in Nietzsche’s view, in this life or in any other. All we have is illusions of meaning which we clutch at in moments of weakness, and before Christianity it was more or less understood that this was the best we could do. Christianity changed all this by insisting that its revelation was not just another consoling myth or tragic story, but the ultimate reality about existence.

The waning of Christianity in the 19th century, and the emergence of meaninglessness as a "problem" -- because there was apparently no longer any convincing meaning still to be had -- presented itself to Nietzsche as a great opportunity. The "nihilism" that arises when the created need for meaning no longer finds an answer is the opening which allows humanity to finally free itself from the need for meaning altogether and to make itself anew. Or some of humanity anyway. Nietzsche was very clear that this "opportunity" was only for an "aristocratic" elite of the strong. Prospects for the rest of us in this dispensation were not promising.

MercatorNet: Man's search for meaning makes him sick: this was Sigmund Freud's diagnosis of modern civilisation. Do you see signs of his influence upon modern culture?

Sigmund FreudCasey: Freud’s influence is immense and enduring. Very little serious attention is paid today to his elaborate theorising about the emotional and psychological life of human beings, but many of the things we now take for granted -- the importance of being honest with ourselves about our emotions; openness to talking about sex and its meaning and value in relationships; the significance of early childhood experiences and relationships in individual development; the value of counselling in helping people deal with traumatic events or personal difficulties -- we owe to Freud’s influence. Freud himself was not always the originator of these ideas or developments, but his work undoubtedly carried them to the wider culture and generalised them to an extraordinary degree. Much good has come from this, as well as some absurdities and excesses, and while many criticisms can be made quite justly of both Freud and psychoanalysis, we should also acknowledge the part they have played in helping to humanise important aspects of modern life.

People often focus on Freud’s theories about sex and the influence they have had, but I think this is perhaps of less importance than his idea of therapy. Like Nietzsche, Freud thought meaning was an illusion. Life is essentially meaningless, and the need for meaning is a product of the vicissitudes of early childhood. But unlike Nietzsche, Freud did not think we could remake ourselves to remove the need for meaning. The course of development from infant to child to adult meant that we would always have an unrequited need for meaning. The all-encompassing experience of parental love when we are very small creates in us the idea that life is meaningful. We never get over this, despite the glaring indifference of the universe to our existence which we gradually discover as we grow older.

For Freud, therefore, human "maturity" meant accepting the meaninglessness of life stoically and taking consolation in the gradual increase of the empire of secular reason. But Freud also thought that living without illusions would only be possible for a small elite. Mild illusions in one form or another about meaning and justice would continue to be necessary to ensure that "the masses" continued to live peacefully and productively.

Therapy is directed first and foremost at "resolving" all those experiences which often serve as intimations of an order of things beyond ourselves. Love and sex, guilt and dread, religious feeling and the moral sense, are all problematic for Freud because they point to a meaningfulness which life does not have. People have to be "educated" to understand this, and helped to manage the vain longings for transcendence and meaning to which these experiences give rise. This is therapy’s work, and the generalisation of what some have called "the therapeutic attitude", is probably the major contribution that Freud has made to modern culture. Resistance and repression are fundamental concepts in Freud’s theory, but the interesting question is whether this theory was itself an enormous attempt to resist and repress the transcendent reality of existence.

MercatorNet: I was disappointed when I searched in the index to Meaninglessness and failed to find a reference to Seinfeld, which billed itself as "a show about nothing". But I gather that Richard Rorty, who died last year, was sort of the patron saint of Seinfeld, who created a sunny philosophy of enjoying a pointless life. How did he do that?

Richard RortyCasey: Richard Rorty is not well known in Australia, but he was a major academic celebrity in the US and Europe. He was a clever man who understood nothing about religion. Towards the end of his life he was asked about what was holy to him, and he replied: "My sense of the holy is bound up with the hope that some day my remote descendants will live in a global civilization in which love is pretty much the only law". It’s a good quote to understand why he attracted the following he did. There’s something in it for everyone: a hopeful vision of the future, a belief in progress, and most important of all, a nice feeling. The critical question, of course, is what Rorty means by love, which incidentally is not a major theme in his philosophy.

Rorty is often associated with post-modernism, but unlike most writers in this area his books and lectures are very readable. Although there are plenty of references to philosophy, abstruse theory, art and literature in his work, his style is reassuring and almost conversational. He also seems very reasonable. He is very clear that there is no Truth, no transcendent reality to which we can refer to understand what makes a life truly meaningful, or an action truly right or wrong. There is only a multitude of different perspectives and "vocabularies", all equally valid, with no way to adjudicate between them. The proposition he puts to his readers is that none of this matters. We act on our different perspectives and beliefs regardless of whether we can trace them back to some ultimate truth, and we don’t need to know that ultimate truth is behind us to oppose what we think is evil. Truth is not only unavailable. It is also unnecessary and irrelevant. We’ll understand this a lot better, Rorty argues, if we can lighten up about the big questions and give up thinking about them.

Rorty also quite cheerfully acknowledges that the conflict between different perspectives and values can only be solved by power. Whoever is strongest, or as Rorty prefers, whoever is best at talking in the "conversation" between different perspectives, wins. Politics therefore looms large in Rorty’s theory, and he places great emphasis on ensuring that secular and progressive political ideas are renewed and positioned to dominate democratic life. All this is to take place against a cultural backdrop where Nietzsche and Freud have been democratised for ordinary people, so that we can manage our need for meaning and significance by telling stories to each other about our lives, in which we continually make and remake who we are and how we came to be as we are. I call this "therapeutic self-creation" in the book, but it’s perhaps easier to think of it as the world turned into a very large encounter group.

MercatorNet: If life truly is pointless, or meaningless, would Western civilisation lose any of its cultural treasures, like democracy or human rights?

Casey: Rorty addresses this argument head on. His view is that we don’t need meaning in life to still find democracy, human rights and social justice worth defending. We don’t need a transcendent reality to give coherence to our efforts to oppose social evils. It’s not hard to see why some people find this approach to the problem convincing and reassuring, especially when they take these things for granted and struggle to provide a solid justification for them. The philosophical default position of contemporary culture which equates what works or what has beneficial effects with what is good generates a pretty powerful tail wind for Rorty and those who think like him to fly with.

Arguments about the metaphysical foundations of our ideas of the human person, the nature of human rights, the best way to order social and political life are often difficult and can easily seem to be of only academic interest -- which is another way of saying that they can easily seem irrelevant to everyday life. But metaphysics is rather like your body’s skeleton: you rarely think of it but it makes the rest of physical life possible.

It is true that when the moment for action comes, and we are immediately confronted with someone who needs our help or something which needs to be stopped, we don’t spend a lot of time philosophising. We just do it. But getting to this point doesn’t happen automatically. If we are socialised to think only of ourselves or what solves a problem in the short-term or delivers a pragmatic cheap fix, we are much less likely to help others or to stand against evil. And when helping others or opposing evil is not the one dramatic moment of heroism that we have in our imagination, but the long, slow, difficult and even dangerous work that both are most of the time in reality, you need something more than the knowledge that this is just your own personal perspective on things to keep you at it.

We also need foundations -- if you like, metaphysics -- to make sure that the values we think important do not end up making a mockery of themselves. Freedom is a critical example. The secular vision of democracy has based itself on an idea of freedom that is almost entirely negative. It defines itself by freedoms such as those to abort, to euthanase, to suicide, to clone and destroy human life for research, to redefine marriage and remake the family, to produce and consume pornography, and to penalise people for religious convictions. All of these are presented as expanding the range of freedoms, but the fact is they limit them; either the freedom of some person, or the amount of freedom presently actualised, or the freedom of the next generation, or the imaginative range of options for expressing freedom.

Freedom in this vision is not only diminished; it also becomes a mockery of itself. And to the extent that these freedoms come to be identified with "the good society", they also threaten to make a mockery of the idea of the common good.

This is what happens when lived experience is not anchored in transcendent reality. It’s a bit like that paranoid cult film The Invasion of the Body Snatchers. The things we value about our civilisation and make it what it is don’t just disappear. They transmogrify into something alien which looks the same but changes things completely.

MercatorNet: You obviously don't feel that meaninglessness has a future. What does? Where will the next generation turn for meaning?

Casey: Every generation has to encounter the question of meaning and to give it an answer for themselves. The drama of modern culture lies in its resistance to the transcendent reality which encompasses and undergirds our lives, and its enormously varied attempts to deny this reality. But another answer can be given, and what’s needed in particular at the present is the imagination to see this. The grey, sad world of secular modernity is not all there is. Other ways of living in freedom are possible.

The resources for this work are there, but many people are disenfranchised from them. This makes the task harder but it can still be done. Once we say yes to love we begin to follow the logic of transcendence, the logic of going beyond ourselves for someone or something more important. We can stop anywhere along the way and not go any further, and this is a constant human temptation. But if we keep ourselves at it, a whole new world slowly begins to come into view and its power to transform human life and community cannot be underestimated.

Look at the light Christianity brought to the dark world of the Romans. It made possible things which had once been unimaginable. I don’t see why this can’t happen again and very possibly it’s already underway.

Michael Casey’s book Meaninglessness: The Solutions of Nietzsche, Freud and Rorty can be ordered here.


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