Sunday, December 06, 2009

Sartre and the Meaning of Life

“Life has no meaning the moment you lose the illusion of being eternal.”
- Jean-Paul Sartre
I would agree with Sartre, except on his point that being eternal is an illusion. Life has no meaning if you have no understanding, as Sartre apparently did not, that you are part of the eternal.

Of course our mortal bodies inevitably perish, and our consciousness with them, but we live on in other ways – in our children, in the memories of those who knew us, and in our contributions to humanity. But in a larger sense, we are the eternal. This is what gives our life what meaning it has.

Eastern philosophy tells us life is a swirling brook. We individuals are like the small eddies and whirlpools that form around certain rocks and fallen trees in the brook. We come and go in a moment, and then come back again, yet somehow each new instance follows a recognizable pattern, is recognizable as one of us. The brook itself is recognizably a brook, the mountain from which it flows is recognizably a mountain, which is itself on land flowing to a sea on what is recognizably a planet.

The swirls and eddies come and go but are indistinguishable from the eternal. They are an expression of the eternal. Contrary to M. Sartre, humanity is an expression of the eternal, and our meaning is indistinguishable from the meaning of it all.

And from this insight comes theories of God. God the creator, God the omniscient, God the omnipresent, God the holy spirit that flows through us all. God that gives meaning to our lives.

The childish notion of God as a bearded elder on a mountaintop, the architect who draws up the blueprints of our lives, is a projection of our own image onto the heavens. We are that creature who makes a plan and creates. As Karl Marx said,
“A spider conducts operations that resemble those of a weaver, and a bee puts to shame many an architect in the construction of her cells. But what distinguishes the worst architect from the best of bees is this, that the architect raises his structure in imagination before he erects it in reality.”
— (Capital, Vol. I, Chap. 7, Pt. 1)
Our capacity to visualize is certainly one of the defining features of humanity. But it comes at a price. We live in a world of symbols that continually encroach on reality, and sometimes become more real to us than reality itself. We have Santa Claus, we have ghosts, we have first-person video games, we have sports fantasy leagues, we have our avatars, and all of these are expressions of and symbols of ourselves and of humanity. And we have God.

Of course, humanity is in the midst of outgrowing its superstitious and primitive concepts of God as some sort of all-powerful father-figure with a flowing white beard. Humanity has looked out into the vastness of space and seen a great universe that cares little for our conceits. That an omnipotent, curiously human-like being has personally created all the complexities of the universe and has a carefully mapped-out plan for each and every one of us is a childish fantasy. This is the concept of God it is right to deny.

But it is an unjustifiable conceptual leap to go from pointing out what should be obvious – that there is no Zeus on the mountaintop taking care of us – to saying that because there is no great CEO in the sky who has given our life meaning, it must be the case that our lives have no meaning at all.

Those evolutionists who say there is no purpose to it all confuse me. They claim to be men and women of science. They claim special insight into the development of species. And yet in their zeal to deny God they remain wilfully blind to the obvious – that every living creature is imbued with great purpose, indeed is defined by it.

I will take up the issue of the real meaning of life in a later post. Suffice it to say for the moment that the meaning of life is not to be found on a mountaintop, but in our actual day-to-day experience of life as it is lived by humanity. If your life had no meaning, you would not get out of bed and go to work, you would not chase sexual partners, you would not eat, you would not help a friend. The purpose of life is to flourish as an individual and as a member of a species that lives on a planet that also has to flourish as a condition of our survival.

There are some religious folk who recognize that an anthropomorphic God is indefensible. They try to evade the question by simply saying that God is the universal – He is everything around us, He lives in all things, He is the earth and the heavens, etc. If God is indistinguishable from the natural world, then it seems clear that God, whom we cannot see, is a symbol for the natural world that we can see. In which case, why worship the symbol when we should be worshipping the reality?

As Joseph Campbell said, and here I am paraphrasing, those who take religion literally are like diners at a restaurant who try to eat the pictures off the menu. They are missing the real feast.