Meaning and Nothingness
A personal journey
by James A. Haught
The following article is from Free
Inquiry magazine, Volume 22, Number 1.
Young seekers of truth go through a phase of wondering
whether life has any discernible meaning. Why are we here? Why is the universe
here? Is there a purpose to it all? This is the ultimate question, overarching
The seekers usually plunge into philosophy, and spend years
sweating over “being” and “essence” and quibbling over how the mind
obtains knowledge, how we determine reality, and how language shapes our
comprehension. In the end, most emerge (as I did) with no better answer than
when they began—and a feeling that they wasted a lot of time and effort. Omar
Khayyam felt the same way nine hundred years ago:
Myself when young did eagerly frequent
Doctor and saint, and heard great argument
About it and about, but evermore
Came out by the same door as in I went.1
However, despite this futility, I think intelligent people
can address the meaning-of-life question sensibly without bogging down in
philosophical stewing and hair-splitting. That’s what I’d like to do now:
just spell out what’s knowable, as I see it. The following is my personal,
First, 90 percent of humanity—the religious believers—
don’t need to ask the meaning of life. Their church tells them the answer.
Priests and scriptures say a magical, invisible god created the universe and put
people here to be tested, set rules of behavior for us to follow, and created a
heaven to reward the rule-followers after they die and a hell to torture the
rule-breakers after they die. Some supernatural explanation like this one is
accepted by the vast preponderance of human beings.
But some of us can’t swallow it, because there’s no
evidence. Nobody can prove that people continue living after death. Nobody can
prove that people are tortured or rewarded in an afterlife—much less that any
invisible spirits exist to do the torturing and rewarding.
Therefore, we uncertain people are doomed to be seekers,
always searching for a meaning to life but never quite finding one. I’ve been
going through it for half a century. Now, I think I can declare that there are
two clear answers: (1) Life has no meaning. (2) Life has a thousand meanings.
First, the lack of meaning: as for an ultimate purpose or
transcending moral order, all the great thinkers since ancient Greece have
failed to find one. The best philosophical minds have dug into this for
twenty-five centuries, without success. There have been endless theories, but no
clear answer. Martin Heidegger concluded that we are doomed to live our whole
lives and die without ever knowing why we’re here. That’s existentialism:
all we can really know is that we and the material world exist.2
As we learn scientific facts we realize that both the
cosmos and our biosphere seem utterly indifferent to humanity, and care not a
whit whether we live or die. Earthquakes and hurricanes and volcanoes don’t
give a damn whether they hit us or miss us. Tigers, tapeworms, and bacteria
consider us food.
As for morality, I don’t think any exists, independent of
people. There are merely rules that cultures evolve for themselves in their
attempt to make life workable.
Conservatives speak of “natural law,” but there is
none. If Ku Klux Klansmen lynch a Black man from a limb, the tree doesn’t
care. Neither do the squirrels and birds in the branches. Neither do the sun or
moon above. Nature doesn’t care. Only people care.
Or consider human rights. Thomas Jefferson said all people
“are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights.” But I think
Jefferson was wrong. There’s no evidence that any Creator endowed anyone with
any God-given rights. What unalienable rights were enjoyed by African Blacks who
were sold into slavery—including those on Jefferson’s Monticello plantation?
What God-given rights were assured the six million Jews sent to Nazi death
camps? Or the one million middle-class Cambodians murdered by Pol Pot’s
peasant army? Or the one million Tutsis killed by Hutus? Or Ulster children
killed by Catholic and Protestant bombs? Or Hiroshima residents in 1945? Or
around one million women burned as witches by the Inquisition?
What was the meaning of life to the millions dying of AIDS,
the millions who died in the 1918 flu epidemic or in the Black Plague, or the
nine hundred who gave cyanide to their children at Jonestown, or the ninety who
burned with their children in the David Koresh compound? What meaning existed
for thousands of Hondurans drowned in hurricane floods a couple of years ago? Or
those sixteen Scottish kindergarteners who were massacred by a psycho with
pistols? Or the two thousand American women killed by their husbands or lovers
every year? Or the twenty thousand victims the Aztecs sacrificed annually to the
invisible flying serpent? Or the twenty thousand whom the Thugs strangled on
behalf of the goddess Kali?
Meaningless, senseless, pointless—all these horrors have
a grotesque absurdity about them. Words like purpose, rights, and morals simply
don’t apply. Evils like these make it obvious by simple logic that there is no
all-loving, all-merciful, all-compassionate, father god. Common sense proves
that the beneficent modern god is a fantasy who doesn’t actually exist.
In his book
Consilience, the great Harvard sociobiologist E.O. Wilson pointed out that there
are two fundamental ways of looking at reality: empiricism, believing only what
evidence tells you; and transcendentalism, believing that a divine or cosmic
moral order exists independent of humanity. If any proof ever upholds the
latter, he said, “the discovery would be quite simply the most consequential
in human history.”
So much for the recognition that life is meaningless. Now
for the realization that is has many meanings.
Obviously, the reality of physics, chemistry, biology,
atoms, cells, matter, radiation—nature, in other words—imposes a physical
order upon us. We can’t escape the laws of nature that govern animals on an
orbiting planet. Death is stronger than we are; we can’t prevent it.
Therefore, whatever meanings exist must apply to the temporary period while we
Clearly, there’s a physical and psychological purpose to
life. Our bodies need food, and clothing, and shelter, and health, and
affectionate comfort, and security from violence and theft, and so forth. We
also need gregarious social reaction with people around us. And we need
democratic freedoms so we can speak honestly without fear of punishment, and
justice so we won’t be treated cruelly. These are the humanist purposes of
life: to provide better nutrition, medicine, housing, transportation, education,
safety, human rights, and all the other needs of people.
To attain this humanist “good life,” the species has a
strong need to raise intelligent, healthy, affectionate, responsible children.
Sometimes, I think the single biggest purpose in life is raising good kids.
I think we all endorse this biological/psychological
meaning of life. We believe in preventing war, curing disease, ending hunger,
improving literacy, reducing crime, averting famines, and taking all the other
steps that make life pleasant—until death takes us. However, aside from this
“housekeeping” type of purpose, is there any greater meaning that transcends
our human needs? I don’t think so. At least, I’ve never been able to find
any proof of it. We simply must try to make life as good as possible, and avoid
horrors, and care about people, and have fun, even though we know that oblivion
Make hay while the sun shines, because darkness is on its
way. Carpe diem: seize the day for now; live fully while you can. Omar Khayyam
saw the folly of aggrandizing oneself, because ill fortune or sickness and death
soon wipe one out. Praying for heaven after death struck him as even greater
folly: “Fools, your reward is neither here nor there.” So Omar’s solution
was to take comfort in verses, wine, and his lover “beside me singing in the
wilderness—and wilderness is paradise enough.” About 1,400 years before him,
the great Greek skeptic Epicurus felt the same way.
So there you have it: We who are not orthodox religious
believers can’t find any underlying reason for existence. And we know that
death looms ahead. So we must make the interval as enjoyable as possible while
we’re here. This view of life’s purpose was summed up a few years ago by the
title of a Unitarian seminar: “Dancing Over the Dark Abyss.” And Zorba the
Greek taught us, What is life, if not to dance?
1. Omar Khayyam, The Rubaiyat.
2. Actually, I can know only one thing with
absolute certainty: that my mind exists and is receiving impressions. Descartes
stated this truth as “Cogito, ergo sum”: I think, therefore I am.
Hypothetically the images, sounds, feelings, etc., in my consciousness could be
illusions, like artificial inputs to a brain in a laboratory tank, and the
entire objective world fictitious. Though we can’t be totally sure of the
validity of the sense impressions reaching our minds, we all nonetheless presume
that external people, places and things actually exist. Their existence seems
verified by our thousands, even millions, of encounters with them in our
activities. We base our whole lives, and our search for knowledge, on this
presumption that they are real.
James A. Haught is a senior editor at Free
Inquiry and editor of the Charleston (West Virginia) Gazette.