Thursday, April 24, 2008

The Ultimate Conversation Stopper: Does Life Have Meaning?

Well, I guess the questions don't get too much bigger than that.

Found this at a cool site called MercatorNet. This is an interesting interview with Michael Casey, a sociologist who has looked at the notion of meaninglessness in his new book, Meaninglessness: The Solutions of Nietzsche, Freud, and Rorty (Religion, Politics and Society in the New Millenium Ser).

flickr / reversible skirtFans of Pearl Jam may recall the song "Meaningless".

I refuse, I refuse, to believe
We're meaningless, meaningless
We're meaningless, I refuse...
I won't give up, yeah...
Meaningless...we're not meaningless
We're not invisible...we're not meaningless

Noble sentiments, perhaps, but a hard thing to prove, and one which is often denied. Australian sociologist Michael Casey has analysed why so many people in modern culture feel threatened by the notion that life does have a meaning. Here he shares his insights with MercatorNet.

MercatorNet: I find that many people are embarrassed to ask if life has a meaning. Is it just me? Or is it a common feature of our culture?

Casey: Certainly it’s a great question to ask if you want to kill a conversation. Throwing "the meaning question" out there for discussion seems to embarrass people, and those who ask it are taken to have some sort of deficit in social skills, ranging from being "too serious" at the milder end to just plain weird.

But at the same time people will happily tell you their thoughts on politics, religion and sex, often without being asked, and sometimes to levels of details which we don’t really want to know. And it’s not unusual to hear approving references made to the Big Bang or to evolution when a discussion accidentally stumbles on something which turns our minds to the origins of life, the universe and everything else.

All these topics of more or less everyday conversation ultimately take us to the question of the meaning of life and the value we place on different aspects of it. And of course particular moments in life -- the birth of a child, the death of a loved one (and especially the death of a parent or child), times of serious illness or hardship -- do set us wondering about things, as does the confrontation with evil and suffering.

What has changed in our situation is that the culture no longer provides a wider frame of reference to help people make sense of things. One of culture’s functions is to help people go deeper in their questions and wonderings about meaning. Without this framework its very difficult to integrate the various silos we occupy in day-to-day life. This throws people back on their own resources. Unless you are very lucky or have some sort of religious background this makes you much more averse to asking "deep" questions. We settle instead for our own personal solutions to the question of meaning, taking "small M" meaning from the little things we find along the way and giving up on the idea of a source of meaning which is available to everyone.

MercatorNet: In our secularised society, many people live without a deep sense of purpose. What does your research into the philosophical underpinnings of meaninglessness show about the success of this approach to existence?

Casey: Well, we are living in the middle of what some have called an "anthropological revolution" -- a major attempt to remake human nature and to make it easier than ever before to live without the bothersome need for deeper purpose. Insulation is one of the keys to this: insulation from physical weakness, from material want, and most importantly, from other people.

Modern life has made it easier than ever before to live on the surface of existence and apparently without the need for any deeper sense of purpose. The pace of life for one thing gives us little time for reflection, and this suits a lot of us very well. In developed countries, we don’t have to worry about basic survival and we enjoy greater and greater freedom to cut our own course in life. This is one of the great achievements of Western culture, a genuine liberation -- for those who can enjoy it. But the down side is that it is easier than ever before to avoid commitments and to evade dependence -- both the dependence of others on us and the dependence we have on others. The worst thing you can be in personal relationships, so we are told, is dependent. The second worst thing is to have a partner who is dependent on you.

But to be human is to be dependent, and to accept the dependence of others on us. Accepting our need for others when we are weak, and our responsibility for others when we are strong is one of the main entry points into the deeper dimensions of existence, to the fully human life. Modern culture, however, seeks the maximum possible freedom from both dependence and responsibility. Insulation is the key to making this work, and while no one lives as in perfect isolation, plenty of us live with sufficient levels of hardness of heart and self-assertion against others to achieve a pretty good approximation of it.

I’m not sure this is sustainable, at least not if we want to live lives that are fully human. But I also have to say that the results are not yet in and we could be surprised at how successful this approach may yet prove to be. The promise of a life lived "lightly", skating gracefully on the surface rather than foundering in the murky depths, has a lot of appeal. It may even prove irresistible. Like other world-remaking revolutions this one too will produce disfigurement rather than utopia. But the difference is that it will come incrementally rather than all at once, and it is amazing what we can get used to when change comes bit by bit.

Read the whole interview.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Hi, I am from Australia.

Did you know that Mercator is a propaganda outlet for Opus Dei?

Very cruel indeed