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.]


mysticservant said…
The Wall is our own ego. We can break it down easily, by a change in consciousness through receptivity to the presence of God.

Love, focus and consecration (offering to God) will take one further on this path :).
Rekhaa said…
Sri Aurobindo writes in his 'Life Divine':

"For all problems of existence are essentially problems of harmony. They arise from the perception of an unsolved discord and the instinct of an undiscovered agreement or unity. To rest content with an unsolved discord is possible for the practical and more animal part of man, but impossible for his fully awakened mind, and usually even his practical parts only escape from the general necessity either by shutting out the problem or by accepting a rough, utilitarian and unillumined compromise."

Yes, the practical mind accepts a utilitarian compromise either of despair or philosophies like that of nihilism, absurdism, existentialism etc . But a fully awakened mind thirsts constantly for larger truths and does not rest until it breaks through the Wall to find out what lies on the other side. Truth responds to all sincere enquiries and penetrates its answers even through the most impenetrable Walls. The duty to probe for meaning and harmony in existence is left to us. :)
Rekhaa said…
Spot on mysticservant. :)

Sri Aurobindo in 'Life Divine':

"If we look for the reason of this limitation and imperfection, we shall find first that it is because we are concentrated on our surface; the depths of self, the secrets of our total nature are shut away from us behind a wall created by our externalising consciousness — or created for it so that it can pursue its activity of ego-centric individualisation of the mind, life and body uninvaded by the deeper and wider truth of our larger existence: through this wall we can look into our inner self and reality only through crevices and portholes and we see little there but a mysterious dimness."

So a breaking of this wall of Ego is necessary to solve the puzzle, to see the Truth. Especially for a mind that searches for It.
Alec Lindsay said…
You've become canny at heading off the atheistical cavalry! Makes life a little more boring tho' :)
I do love Russell failing to be entranced by the slow pace of scientific evidence. I had picked up on his total egotism, but hadn't realised that meaning was to be judged by its Russell appeal! A new field opens up - philosophy as bling! How funny.
Caped Avenger said…

The latter part is contentious because its unfalsifiable.

In fact, many defenses of religion/God are crafted on the 'you're not smart enough to understand' logic because its unfalsifiable.

And a lot of the spiritual experiences can be replicated using drugs or in the laboratory which make it nothing but an emotion like anger, and also destroy the premise that they're beyond the laws of grand design/from the other side of the Wall.

I eagerly await your post on mysticism which can hopefully explain this better.
Awais Aftab said…
@ Caped Avenger

Falsifiability is a criteria for science, not philosophy.

'many defenses of religion/God are crafted on the 'you're not smart enough to understand' logic.'

Might be so, but this is not the logic I use.

And a lot of the spiritual experiences can be replicated using drugs or in the laboratory

The argument is over-used by people who have little exposure to what full-fledge mystic experiences are like. And even with partial replicability, the claims are contentious. I wrote a little bit about the drug issue on the comments of this post:


Maverick Philosopher has also touched a similar issue in his post:

Komal said…
Nitpicky Komal alert:

Criterion is the singular, criteria the plural. So it should be 'a criterion', not 'a criteria'. :P
Awais Aftab said…
Komal, thank you for the correction :)