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How To Live With Doubt About Life’s Meaning
John G. Messerly   Jul 23, 2016   Reason and Meaning  

I received a correspondence from a reader who wonders about “the triumph of judgment over spontaneity as we emerge from childhood into adulthood and the consequent obstacle it poses for living in psychic comfort.” In other words she worries about how to reconcile “a naturally felt purposefulness and zest for life against an intellectual sense of life’s essential pointlessness and its indifference to human concerns that give rise to the recognition of absurdity.” The only consolation she experiences is with her grandchildren “as they go about engaging the world with perfect unmediated wonder, boundless energy, and demands for attention.”

I too have felt this tension. When I watch the delight my young granddaughter takes in looking at every flower and insect, when I sense the innocent eyes through which she sees the world, I am saddened beyond words. Like any adult I know the ugliness of the world that waits to trample on that innocence. I clearly see the contrast between the will to live and pessimistic conclusions about the nature of reality that careful reasoners often draw. How then do we carry on without accepting some silly supernaturalism?

There are a number of strategies we might adopt here. We might follow Victor Frankl and conclude that the problem of life is not learning to live with its absurdity—since we can’t know for sure that it is absurd—but to learn to live not being sure if life is meaningful or not. Or we might follow a philosopher like E.D. Klemke who held that we can find subjective meaning in an objectively meaningless world by responding positively to its beauty. As Klemke put it: “if I can so respond and can thereby transform an external and fatal event into a moment of conscious insight and significance, then I shall go down without hope or appeal yet passionately triumphant and with joy.”[i]

Still I agree with my reader that ultimately no amount of intellectual reflection ever fully dispels our deepest existential concerns. For the movement of time spoils even those things that make us happy and which, for the moment, give our lives purpose. This passage of time haunts us; that perpetual perishing which diminishes our joy by its intrusion into the present. This radical impermanence, and our consciousness of it, reminds us that our own demise rushes toward us as the present recedes away. The awareness of our impending doom is a constant companion capable of poisoning our momentary happiness, leading in turn to the inevitable realization that it not just we who may die, but our children, and their children, and all children, and everything else.

Reaching the limits of the intellect’s power to dissuade our existential fears, perhaps we can be comforted by an exuberant affirmation of the meaning found in life’s activities. This insight is profound. Any serious student of philosophy is struck by the stark contrast between the somber tone of our philosophical musings, and the joy we feel through our immersion in the world of the senses. In the mountains and oceans we see, in the walks we take and the meals we eat, in the joy we find in physical play and philosophical talk, and in the warmth we feel when surrounded by those that love us and whom we love, there we don’t so much find meaning as transcend the need for it. At those times life is sufficient unto itself. When we laugh and play and love, all the misery of the world momentarily vanishes. We hardly give meaning a thought. And if thought brings existential anguish back again—perhaps we can and should think less. In short, we live deeper than we can think.

But is living with less thinking a realistic antidote? Can we live this way after reflectivity has become interwoven into our natures? Can we live constantly in motion, so that troubling thoughts do not disturb? No, we cannot suppress our most important questions indefinitely. For after laughing and playing and loving, thought returns. Why is happiness so fleeting? Why must we suffer and die? What if all is for naught? We cannot avoid our questions for long; eventually we drop our guard and they return.

But even if we could avoid our deepest questions, should we? I don’t think so. Our questions bring forth the deep reservoir of our inner life that is often hidden from normal viewing. Moreover, our curiosity and inquisitiveness ennoble us, differentiating us from less conscious beings. Our thinking may not make us happy, but it gives us a deep interior life. However much we love the world of body and sense, thought is our salient feature. We should not repress it. And, since we cannot and should not evade our questions, the prescription to find meaning in activity only partially satisfies. No matter what we think or do, our questions remain.

Nothing then completely silences all our doubts and soothes all our worries—not the limited meaning life offers us, not the knowledge of our purpose, not the promise of hope, not the engagement in activity. How then do we proceed? We must accept something of our present life lest resentment cause us to curse it. Yet, at the same time, we must reject the present or nothing will improve. This creative tension admits the limitations of reality as a starting point while rebelling against its shortcomings. It involves working to mold, create, and increase meaning. We don’t know that reality will progress, but if we partially accept our present reality, if we dream of a future without limits and struggle to bring it about, we may increase meaning in the world.

Yet for now we are forced to live with uncertainty and angst, as a testimony to our intellectual honesty and emotional integrity. Unlike those who adopt blind faith or accept easy answers, we scorn the facile resolutions of the cowardly. And if we must die, we will die as free people who did not yield to the forces that sought to destroy them from the moment of their birth. Those are the forces we seek to defeat, but which have not yet been defeated. In the meantime, we should relish the limited joy and meaning life offers, work to eliminate human limitations, and suppress negative thoughts as best we can. This is no solution, only a way to live.

John G. Messerly is an Affiliate Scholar of the IEET. He received his PhD in philosophy from St. Louis University in 1992. His most recent book is The Meaning of Life: Religious, Philosophical, Scientific, and Transhumanist Perspectives. He blogs daily on issues of philosophy, evolution, futurism and the meaning of life at his website:


Well, as you said towards the end, “Only a way to live”.

In my point of view there is a slight resolution to the “questioning”.  At least in the sense of the meaning of value (meaning itself).  I’ve recently spoke with a friend who’s starting to experience/go through these mental, and emotional vibes.  He asked me how I seemingly dealt with the following problems; Self-esteem, Defeatism, and Nihilism.

I told him from my perspective the issue of self-esteem only grows stronger the more one fixates upon it.  You know worrying about not being confident reduces confidence which seems simple enough.  Just don’t dwell on the matter to some extent, but still work towards applying effort.

Defeatism, I can practically sum up my thoughts by saying that, “There are only Survivors in Life”, as a sort of maxim.  That no matter what one does, there is lost, woundedness, and pain.  Along with a host of other maladies.  Does this mean that we should only look out for ourselves?  No, but the maxim sort of implies that it does.  At least a little.  It actually is meant as a cognitive interrupter for many circumstances.  You know when someone hurts you, and you want to hurt them, or similar events.  It is supposed to imply that everyone is just as hurt, scared, lost….etc as you are, or as you can be.  That it’s better to lend support than ignore.  Even if in the end it may not have been “worth it” (leading up into nihilism/angst).

Finally, with nihilism.  I’d like to use an analogy of an “absolute value plot” (as in the math function of |-4| = 4).  The plot creates a “v” of values leading to a “spike”/resolution at zero (0 = 0).  One can look at this and think.  There are two ways of meaning in life.  Negative meaning (the negative slope towards zero), and positive meaning (the positive slope away from zero).  One can try and reside on either line towards zero from a mental perspective.  You know a sort of “do good, be good, have positive values”, or “do bad, be bad, have negative values”.  Now nihilism (even the max/ultimate form) implies that everything is of no value (meaningless, because of “death”/demise/“end”...whatever).

In my point of view it’s meaningful to reside at “nihilism” (zero on the plot…no meaning what so ever).  Simply because it’s easy to realize that everything is a construct.  That one can apply whatever meaning they want to whatever stimuli they receive.  That as a receiver, you may find this comment either positive, or negative.  It is your choice.  Thus nihilism allows freedom of “logic/movement”, but then there’s the whole position of “you believe in “nothing”“.  That you “destroy meaning”.  No, for nihilism held as true destroys it’s own position logically.  A position of no meaning inherent (nihilism), contradicts the very holding of that position (how can one apply meaning to a position that espouses meaningless…destruction of values).

A tension yes, but from the position of zero.  Everything above has meaning to be deduced.  Thus everything in the world has meaning, but we just don’t “see it”.  In essence, a sort of if one values themselves as “nothing” (suicidal thoughts…etc), and offs themselves because they couldn’t recognize their meaning, or think past the contradiction.  The universe loses “nothing”, they are misspent “resources”...they don’t desire to “be here”.  The fun part is thinking one’s way past/through the contradictions/states.  What was I before I was aware?  Nothing.  What will I be after death?  Nothing.  Should I return to the “nothingness”?  Well, how can one know they haven’t already “died”, and been “reborn” (same materials in the universe regardless…aka Life Happened once….won’t it happen again)?

Not to mention one can easily rationalize those emotions of angst/despair…etc.  As chemical/hormonal states in the brain.  Why dwell in them much like with the notion of self-esteem?  Why not have those states, but let them pass?  Much like fear in the novel Dune?  Let it rise over you, embrace it, let it pass, and turn the mind’s eye towards it.

...this is some of what I was referring to when I jokingly made the remark of writing a book via a comment upon your site.

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