I was a true believing existentialist my sophomore year in college.
I devoured Sartre, Camus, all those guys who I could picture sitting in a Parisian coffee house, smoking unfiltered cigarettes, sipping thick expresso, and waving their hands animatedly as they agreed, in so many ways, that Life, it is so totally fucked! (in a French accent and with more of a literary twist to the sentiment, naturally).
That's just how I felt.
So I got a tremendous amount of meaning out of all the meaninglessness that I absorbed from existentialist writings. That's what held me together through some pretty weird 1968'ish Flower Child experiences.
I've been reminded of this by reading Robert Burton's "On Being Certain," the subject of several previous posts. Rather lengthy and complicated posts, because his book is filled with subtleties, scientific and otherwise, that are hard to briefly encapsulate.
Here's another try.
The main personal insight I've gotten from "On Being Certain" is that everyone is hard-wired neurologically and biologically to have an uncontrollable sense of meaning and knowing (the two are so similar, it seems OK to lump them together).
Scientists. Religionists. Atheists. Theists. Whatever "ist" you are, there's this sense of meaning/knowing within your consciousness. It's so fundamental, you could almost say that it is your consciousness.
Without it, we'd barely be human. And likely suicidal.
So as I noted in my last post, religious believers and unbelievers aren't as different as I thought before I read Burton's book. He helped me see that we all necessarily believe in something that's immune to rational analysis or willful control.
This something is a sense of meaning/knowing that springs from a "hidden layer" of the brain. That layer takes perceptual inputs and converts them into our personal take on reality.
We can't see or understand how the mysterious conversion process works. That's why neurologists call it "hidden." Thus each of us sees through a glass darkly. There's no other way to see. It's impossible to disentangle our individual sense of meaning/knowing from the "objective" world.
So is everything relative? Is knowledge a personal choice? Do we create our own reality?
No. Burton emphasizes this over and over. Speaking of medicine, he says:
The purpose of this chapter is to expose the limits of any concept of rationality or objectivity, not to suggest that all answers are equal and everything is relative. Some opinions are more likely to be correct than others….To provide the best care possible, we should know when we are basing our decisions on science and when they are based upon unsubstantiated experience, hunches, and gut feelings.
…Recognizing the limits of the mind to assess itself should be sufficient for us to dispense with the faded notion of certainty, yet it doesn't mean that we have to throw up our hands in a pique of postmodern nihilism.
To insist that the secular and the scientific be universally adopted flies in the face of what neuroscience tells us about different personality traits generating idiosyncratic worldviews. Try telling a poet to give up his musings and become a mechanical engineer. Or counsel a clown that he'd more useful as a mortician.
…For me, Beckett's portrayal of meaningless is both hilarious and curiously uplifting. Watch a good Beckett production and you often find yourself nodding at others in the audience. The great mystery is how the humorous presentation of pointlessness creates its own deep sense of inexpressible meaning, including a feeling of camaraderie with others sharing the same ironic viewpoint.
We are meaning-seeking creatures. We can't help it. Even when life appears to be meaningless, we say to ourselves Ah, now I get it!
Humility is in order. Also, compassionate understanding. Of both ourselves and others. We're all hungry for meaning and knowing. We feed ourselves in many different ways. Starvation is the only option not on the table. I look at other people's choices and think "Yuck! That's disgusting!"
But to them, it's marvelous meaning-fare. We don't consider that there's an absolute food preference truth; people just have different tastes. It's the same with the meaning of life: this is a personal choice, not objective reality.
I usually skip endnotes in a book, figuring that this is where the author puts non-essential stuff that's too boring or scholarly to fit in the main narrative. Browsing through the final section of "On Being Certain" though, I ran across a couple of interesting notes from Burton.
Honest. Reflective of his main theme. Pleasingly self-reflective.
In writing this book, I have caught myself selecting facts to fit or support a preconceived idea that I've wanted to convey. This isn't a prudent admission if I want you to accept my ideas as being reasonable. On the other hand, it is an inescapable component of my thesis.
I don't personally see the point of Weinberg's comment that our increasing understanding of the world makes it seem all the more pointless. I understand his arguments, but rather than evoking a sense of personal despair, they make me laugh at the ridiculousness of believing that we can understand why we are here.
If there is some meaning or purpose, please don't tell me. If a sign were to drop out of the sky and tell me what the meaning of life was, and it wasn't to my liking, I'd be much more disappointed than if I didn't see the sign. Not knowing gives me license to pursue the ridiculous.
My basic personality has prompted my writing a book pointing out that the determination of pointless or purposeful cannot be a purely rational decision. I enjoy the basketball-gorilla video because it confirms my deepest suspicions that we are more likely to see what we want to see and less likely to see that which isn't of any interest – including purpose or pointlessness.