Enjoyed the post, Maarten. Most “meaning of life” posts I come across today conclude in one of two ways. They either put forth the existentialist notion: life has no meaning, it’s up to us to create meaning. Or: meaning of life is to be yourself as vividly and honestly, or passionately, as possible. Or some variant on those two notions.
Both make me uncomfortable. The first assumes that our inability to locate meaning following God’s death proves there is no meaning, and it’s the human condition, or potential, to create it. I don’t buy this; we know so little about the Universe (think black holes, dark matter, wormholes. the size of the unknown, farther reaches of space, string theory, quantum entanglement, etc.), and so little about ourselves (what is consciousness, or happiness? We’re terrible at examining our relationship with our own thoughts, or doing anything to alter than relationship, etc.), that it seems absurd to me to feel comfortable concluding anything so grandiose as “there’s no meaning in life”. Are we so confident in our abilities? A better answer on that train of thought seems: if there is meaning, humans haven’t developed the faculties to detect/understand it yet. So we’re stuck in this limbo between ditching God and not having anything better to replace him with.
In terms of the other answer, “be yourself!”. Sure, but it strikes me as a hollow answer, more fluff than substance.
I liked your conclusion, it definitely made me want to respond, which is a good sign. You seem to take the line that meaning is idiosyncratic, which has never satisfied me. On one level, I believe it. But I wonder if we can penetrate deeper into the human condition, into the nature of consciousness and our social dynamics, and tease out some objective purposes to which all humans ought to aspire (I don’t mean in a hollow sense, like “love”, “virtue”, etc., though those might have some truth to them). Maybe this comes in the form of a practice or concept that, when diligently worked towards, reduces suffering (I wrote a not-so-good post on suffering, concluding with the suggestion of using the aggregation of suffering as a metric for human progress.)
Thomas Metzinger, an awesome blend of neuroscientist and ardent meditator, wrote an essay for Aeon magazine recently where he highlighted mental autonomy and the cultivation of attentional awareness as objective purposes towards which humans at this moment in time, both individuals and governments, ought to treat as the ultimate ‘purpose’ of our efforts. He also speaks a lot about the neuroscience of mind wandering and how it affects notions of ‘self’, well-being, and our lives, which relates to your discussion of obsessions.
Basically, what his work says to me as that the meaning of human life is to experientially, rigorously explore the vastness of our subjective space, consciousness, and through this process of familiarization with introspective space, we will reduce suffering, increase well-being, and develop a more sane society. Good food for thought, I find.
Anyway, enough word vomit. Any post that makes somebody engage like this is a great one, so thanks for writing.