What is the meaning of life? The great questions of why? Why are we here, Why is the world the way it is? What are we supposed to be doing here? It seems clear to me that the universe does not supply us with the answer to these questions. The blue sky overhead is silent when confronted, the mountains remain unmoved when interrogated, and the sea whispers only to itself when questioned. I supposed the Christian (and other theists) would necessarily answer that it is God that supplies us with the answers to such questions, but what if there is no God? Does this mean that these questions must go unanswered for all of eternity? This is what I have been wondering.
The humanist seems to me to have the only other answer to this question, since I can think of no other source for a solution than ourselves if nature and God are disallowed. But can we be satisfied with the imposition of a self-created meaning for our lives? I don’t know, perhaps there are those who would be content, the sort of supermen Nietzsche spoke of maybe, but I think that the majority of us would find it a little empty to know that our lives were only meaningful through some self imposed fiat. And this is what got me to thinking. Where do I want to derive meaning from? But once asked, it seemed obvious to me what the answer was, the people around me that were significant in my life.
Which led me to believe that meaning and purpose in life is not something that I can create on my own, nor is it some kind of objective reality which imposes itself upon me from without. Rather, it is found in the interactions we have with others. It is an active phenomena, something that necessarily requires my participation, to value these others and seek their affirmation while also offering my affirmation of them. And in doing so, we discover that there is no single meaning in life. Instead, meaning is found in the totality of the interactions which bind us to one another, that of a husband, a father, a brother, a son, a coworker. I find meaning in each of these roles, and simultaneously, I borrow from the meaning that these relationships have for the other. And from this confluence, I discern who it is I am and for what reason I am here. The answer seems to lie not in the Nietzschean individual, but rather in a synthesis of the individual as it finds itself within the web of social interactions.
What does it mean then, when life seems to become meaningless? It appears to me to be a breakdown of these bonds. The interesting thing is that while clearly some of these bonds can be broken down by the other, that the most significant factor in the development of nihilism is the individual choosing to either devalue these bonds in the formulation of meaning and self-worth, or else to have never valued them in the first place. And this is where I think we can begin to understand how a major transition in the mental structure of one’s world can have such an impact. If those things which previously had supplied us with meaning are lost or devalued, such as God for the theist who transitions to atheism, then it is necessary to find new bonds upon which to invest significance in. And this is not something that can ordinarily be done in an instant, despite the inherent flexibility of the mind. Thus, it seems that many individuals that do not have a readily available replacement will necessarily have to go through a transition period of discovery before being able to reestablish meaning in their life. And this is a difficult, if not dangerous, period to go through, for there is always the possibility of being confronted by difficulties during this period for which the person is now ill equipped to handle. In addition to this, there is no guarantee that the person will successfully be able to make such a transition, although I suspect that most people are sufficiently flexible enough in their mental and emotional capacities to handle it.
Thus, I believe that this image offers an adequately comprehensive explanation for the phenomena to both explain how meaning can be discovered for both the theist and the humanist. Also, we can see how one may lose meaning and explain the development of both nihilism and how such anomie is resolved, as well as demonstrate that meaning is most certainly not an externally imposed phenomena or objective in nature as the theists wish to argue, although it can certainly appear that way, since for the theist, the bond between God and self is depersonalized due to the presence of mediating entities that isolate the two from one another (whether this be a pastor/priest or a book such as the Qur’an or Bible).
I believe it also demonstrates that the theist is in error when he conjectures about how atheism must necessarily lead to nihilism, at least as a logically consistent extension of atheism, if not in reality. This is clearly not the case, as there is an abundance of potential sources of meaning that surround most individuals and from which they can draw upon if it becomes necessary. The nature of the relationships that supply meaning may have changed, from the univalance of monotheism to the multiaxial character of meaning for the social humanist. Nevertheless, both are means for establishing purpose and meaning in an individuals life and the theist should not expect the atheist to readily acquiesce to such arguments in the face of their own experience of discovering meaning in their own life through such relationships. And disputes that this is some how only possible through the individuals rational inconsistency fails once it is established that the atheist is not operating in the objectivist framework that the theist believes their own meaning is grounded. In fact, it is quite the opposite, for the theist fails to realize the intersubjective nature of their own meaning, both through their own choices, as well as the obfuscating nature the religious paradigm.