On The Other Side of the Wall: The Human Search for Meaning and Purpose
Robert C Solomon wrote "the meaning of life is to be found in the context of our lives -- the sense they make and the sense we give to them -- rather than in reference to anything outside of life... Indeed, it is more of a metaphor that is required, an image, a vision of life in which you see yourself as having a definite role, a set of reasonable expectations". [See my previous post: The Meaning of Meaning] While I believe that this is essentially correct, and that the meaning of life of an individual's life is primarily determined from within the context of his life, yet the issue is not entirely indifferent to and separate from what does exist outside of life; the questions of "Why are we here?" and "What is life all about?", and more importantly our answers to them, do play a significant role in determining the context of our lives, and hence its meaning. If we come to know that human life on earth is the result of a biological experiment on a planetary test-tube by an advanced alien species, would it not affect how we see ourselves?
When we turn our gaze outwards to discover any purpose to life, something akin to Aristotle's final cause “the end, that for the sake of which a thing is done”, we find ourselves face to face with a universe devoid of any such discernible purpose. While the sciences reveal harmony and design within the chaos, the point of it all stumps us. Bertrand Russell writes "So far as scientific evidence goes, the universe has crawled by slow stages to a somewhat pitiful result on this earth and is going to crawl by still more pitiful stages to a condition of universal death. If this is to be taken as evidence of purpose, I can only say that the purpose is one that does not appeal to me." But if we are to be philosophically honest, we'll see that the knowledge of ultimate reality is beyond the grasp of scientific method, and therefore what we have in front of us is a Wall -- an infinitely vast impenetrable wall of absurdity. What lies on the other side of this wall, if there is an other side to it at all, we do not know. Albert Camus writes "I don't know whether this world has a meaning that transcends it. But I know that I do not know the meaning… What can a meaning outside my condition mean to me? I can understand only in human terms."
Arriving at this dead end, we respond to this Wall in various ways. We may shrug and turn back to our lives. Or we may rebel against it and live with a new-found intensity. Or we may fall in despair and nihilism, convinced that nothing we do is of significance. Or we may take a Kierkegaardian leap of faith. In whatever way we respond to this absurdity, it provides the background of our lives, shapes the context of our existence and influences the meaning we derive from it.
There is therefore an unknown (possibly non-existing, as atheists would say) purpose or 'transcendent meaning' on the other side of the wall, and we create the meaning of our lives in the background of this lack of knowledge, uncertainty and agnosticism. This is true for the vast majority of us. However, I believe that there a few individuals (I am not one of them) who by means of mystic experience do have an access (to a variety of degrees, varying from person to person and experience to experience) to that transcendent meaning; people who can not just see but also participate in what is on the other side of the Wall, and as Camus realized, it is only when that purpose becomes a part of one's condition, it is only when one can begin to understand in more-than-human terms by participating in divine consciousness than this transcendent meaning begins to mean something for the individual concerned. Mere belief in God does not do that. Even when a person believes as a matter of faith that God exists, that transcendent meaning is beyond his reach, he doesn't know. Spiritual truth cannot be known at second hand; it is directly experienced. Non-mystics may hypothesize about the truth of the message conveyed by the mystics, but that must occur with the consciousness of the absurd, because without that you have fallen into philosophical error and religious dogma.
[Obviously, the validity of this last expressed view depends on the validity of mysticism, which I accept for now, but which I admit the readers are not rationally obliged to believe. It is a topic best reserved for another post.]