We’ve been exploring the meaning of “meaning” over the past few episodes. We’ve noted the many senses of the term and defined the search for meaning as the quest to find our place in the universe. In this episode we are going to turn to the question fit. Of all the possible stories or maps or ways the world might be, is there a story that satisfies the deep longings of the human heart? We’ll start on the human side of the ledger and then consider four possible stories to see if there is a story that actually satisfies.
The human predicament is this: We long for a story that is true and satisfying.
In other words, we long for a story that will make-sense of it all: our hopes and fears, our loves and longings, our cares and concerns. As we take up our place in this world and embark on the journey, we journey with hope, at least at first, that there is a fit between world and desire. We desire meaningful happiness. We hope that there is such a thing as meaningful happiness. And we embark on a quest to seek it.
In this episode, we’ll pursue the question of fit: which picture of the world fits best with our deep human desire for meaning; which picture of the world, if any, satisfies each and every longing of what I’ll call The Existential Set?
The Existential Set
Each of us desires at least these six things, to some degree or another:
- We long for a purpose; we what to know what our life is for, why I am here?
- We long for value: we want our lives to be good for me, and we want it to be good for others. This longing for value usually clusters around the longing for goodness, truth, and beauty; we want to be rightly related to truth, we want to organize our lives around the good, and we run to that which we think beautiful.
- We long for significance: we want our lives to matter; we don’t want it to be as if we never existed, when we are gone; we want to make a difference in the world and to the world.
- We long for intelligibility: we want our lives to make sense; we want to find coherence and fit in our lives.
- We long for an identity. We want to discover our true name, our true self, our authentic nature.
- We long for transcendence: In this longing, I’m going to lump together our deep desire, for many, for God, for eternal life, and for a story bigger than ourselves.
These six deep and natural longings of the human heart Existential Set: Purpose, Value, Significance, Intelligibility, Identity, and Transcendence.
Four Possible Pictures of the World
Four possible pictures of the world that help us frame our search for meaning: Absurdism, Nice Nihilism, Enchanted Naturalism, and Enchanted Supernaturalism.
A chief advocate of what I’m going to call Absurdism is Jean-Paul Sartre. Originally published in 1938, the French existentialist philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre’s “experimental metaphysical novel” Nausea explores the question of meaning in a godless world . The horror of existence, according to Absurdism, is that there is no story that is alive and understanding. There is no song from a far-off country calling his name. There is no God orchestrated drama. There is no moment of exhale where all is right in the universe, where all is as it should be. There is no place for you to fit in, no story to locate your life, and no true name that picks out your authentic self. None of the longings within the Existential Set will ever be satisfied. There is no fit between world and desire. If true, then all we can do is bravely build our lives on the firm tower of unyielding despair, as the atheist philosopher Bertrand Russell puts it.
But there is another posture many are talking today toward nihilism. Is there a meaning to life? No. Does God exist? No. Does the fact that there is no meaning and no God lead to despair? “Hell no. Let’s party.” We can call this posture, following the Duke University philosopher of science Alex Rosenberg, Nice Nihilism . There’s no God, no meaning to life, no way things ought to be. Yahoo! Let’s have a good time. According to Nice Nihilism, life is not a tragedy. Life is a comedy. It is comedy “all the way down.”
While it would be nice if Nice Nihilism were a viable option, it turns out, at least as articulated by Rosenberg, to be self-refuting. We are told that there are no stories. Our longing for a true story in which to find meaning, purpose, significance, and an identity is an illusion. But then, we are told that naturalism is the true story of the world. On this story, the physical facts are all the facts and the scientific person will seek to enjoy life, and if that is not possible, will take comfort through Prozac. This is a story, a meta-narrative, that orders our life and helps us make sense of it all. It’s just a really bad story. It’s not a comedy. It’s a tragedy.
Owen Flanagan is also a Duke University Professor. Like Rosenberg, Flanagan thinks we live in a godless universe. But, unlike Rosenberg, Flanagan doesn’t think atheism entails nihilism (nice or otherwise). Flanagan is more optimistic. Flanagan offers a picture of the universe that we can dub Enchanted Naturalism. Enchanted Naturalism is a version of naturalism and so the over-arching story doesn’t change: in the end, we die, and ultimately the universe dies too. There is no cosmic significance, purpose, or meaning to our lives. But, Enchantment is still possible: “the reason [the naturalistic picture of persons] isn’t disenchanting, at least not necessarily, is that our remarkable powers as persons remain. We are creatures who can and sometimes do make sense of things and find meaning” . There is no single meaningful life, rather, as “psycho-poetic” creatures, we find meaning as we embed our story into the larger matrix of culturally embedded spaces of meaning found in the world of art, science, technology, ethics, politics, and spirituality . Death is the end of our story. But our lives still matter, according to Flanagan. If we lived a happy and moral life, we will have left “good karmic effects” . Then we can be proud when we die. That is good enough.
There are a number of problems with this view. First, it is not clear that you can have all the things Flanagan wants to have on naturalism: selves, purposes, essences, objective values. Second, it’s not clear that this view goes deep enough. We get a culturally relative space of meaning, but we don’t really hit bed-rock, nor do we satisfy all our longings of the Existential Set. But I want to focus on a more serious problem for this view. It is called the problem of the end. Given the narrative ending to Enchanted Naturalism, it is difficult to maintain this belief in meaning. The cosmic end of our lives, of humankind, of the universe, infects the rest of the story and empties it of any significance or meaning. If, on the naturalistic meta-narrative (enchanted or disenchanted), we know that the story ends in death and futility, this knowledge taints our understanding of the story as a whole; it infects our lives now with a kind of futility or meaninglessness.
This leaves us with one final possibility, Enchanted Supernaturalism. Like Flanagan, the defender of EnchantedSupernaturalism thinks the world is full of deep beauty, mystery, order purpose, and love. Unlike Flanagan, the defender of Enchanted Supernaturalism does not think the world is godless. God exists and is responsible for the universe. As humans, we come into this world as part of an on-going (divine) drama and take up our place. There is an Author. We are part of a Play. And as we enter the Stage of Life, it is possible to take up our place. Meaning is possible. There is a God’s eye point of view and thus a wider perspective to it all. Because there is a meaning of life, we can find fulfilling meaning in life.
There is a tight fit between our desires, the Existential set, and the world:
- There is a purpose to life since we are created by God for perfect happiness.
- There is value in life because God creates us with great dignity and worth and there is genuine goodness, truth, and beauty in the world because God is the source of goodness, truth, and beauty.
- There is significance to my life; my life matters—to God, to me, to others. I will leave a trace and, since life never ends, I will leave this trace forever.
- The world makes sense from the widest possible frame: there is an overarching story to the world and it is one of Love: God creates in love, he creates to spread his joy and delight, and he invites us as creatures to take our place in this divine drama and share in his goodness in creaturely delight.
- I can discover my true name no this story too: I don’t have to name myself. Rather, I am named by another. And my name is Beloved.
- Finally, the longing for transcendence can be satisfied too: there is more than just the mundane; the universe turns out to be enchanted, haunted by Spirit, and eternal.
There is a story of the world, a picture of the universe, that fits with our deep and natural desires. It is possible to satisfy the deep longings of the human heart—if, that is, Enchanted Supernaturalism is true.
- C.S. Lewis, The Problem of Pain
- Blaise Pascal, Pensées
- Alex Rosenberg, The Atheist’s Guide to Reality
- Jean-Paul Sartre, Nausea
- Joshua Seachris, “Death, Futility, and the Proleptic Power of Narrative Ending”
Thanks to our season five sponsor:
 Jean-Paul Sartre, Nausea (New York: New Directions Publishing Corporation, 2007), vi.
 Alex Rosenberg, The Atheist’s Guide to Reality (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2011).
 Ibid., 107.
 Ibid., 37.
 Ibid., 203.