How many of our ancestors through the centuries, have asked this question? Surely not many. Until recently, one lived the life they lived, good or bad, one just just lived. Today views have changed. The values of the past – the belief of design, in destiny, in the homeland, the monarchy, rulers, the family, ideologies - are all beliefs that are no longer certain and can no longer be a basis on which to place our lives.
How can we, however, now, answer this hellish question of ‘has life meaning’? Because it is hell to make sense of, to find some attributes to justify our presence on this earth, we invent worlds, and of these fabrications none ever managed to fully meet our doubts and our need for knowledge and certainty. Furthermore we have and continue to butcher each other in the name of answering this question from hell.
Sense and nonsense, have a long history, a story that comes from afar, it is this story and this distance that we now want to talk about.
To begin with, we start, not so much from afar, but up close, let’s start with my cat, Minu, then to Australia ,with a friend, followed by a word about me. Then we will take a short hike on the evolution of thought and, finally, we’ll see whether or not life has meaning.
We will start, Rossi, with Minu, my cat.
One day, as I watched my cat, I asked, “Minu, has life meaning for you”?
“meow”, he answered..
“What does Meow mean”, I asked.
He looked at me again, and again he replied, “meow”
“All you know is meow”, I persisted incredulously.
At this point, he turned to me again and promptly confirmed once more, “meow”..
That is when i decided to cease my burdening of little Minu with more annoying queries.
What does this little story mean? It means that for animals, and for this purpose Minu represents more or less all of them, the meaning of life is beyond their reach. In other words, for beasts, even if our natures differ, the question of whether or not life has meaning, does not arise.
The Australian friend
If I asked then, not another animal, but a human animal, specifically a friend in Australia, if life has, or has not any meaning, 90 times out of a one hundred, the answer would be that for some, life has meaning and for others not, and a shift from this position, this way of understanding things, would be difficult shift to make. Then I would wonder about who believed in meaning and who did not. Would optimists comprise the former group while pessimists the latter? Then another question came to mind: as for this group, of optimists and pessimists, which belongs to which category of thinkers? The answer this time was easier: we tend to interpret things and the world out of subjectivity, our own personal understanding of psychological matters. To me, this was not sufficient, because, in addition to the pessimists and the optimists, there are also realists and we, my dear Rossi, we work alongside the latter. In other words, we would say with Spinoza and with exuberance: “Do not laugh, do not cry, but try to understand”.
One winter evening when I was no more than six years old, my uncle Carlo and I were sitting near the hearth of the fireplace in silence. Outside it was cold, and the gusts of wind mixed with hail and rain could be heard on the rooftop. Then, suddenly, my uncle broke the silence and snorted:
“You know, huh, Ciccino, you know that you are much richer than me!” “Not true, uncle, “I replied, ready, as if I had answered this question before. “Not at all so, you’re richer than I,” and it was true. “I do not mean material wealth, money, houses, land, animals,” he replied excitedly and almost with disgust, “I mean wealth in age, in years, in youth, in life. You’re still a kid, I, on the other hand am almost an old man, you have many years ahead of you, do you understand? “, ” No”, I replied. “Too bad for you!”, He barked back. “Aunti” (his wife), I then said, “says that after death we all go to heaven forever”. “That’s what you think, as for your aunt, she talks nonsense!” “Nonsense?”, I could not believe what i was hearing. I had never before heard him speak of my aunt in that way. “Zitto!, Nonsense!” He confirmed. “Explain?” I asked. “I can not explain it”, he replied, “But one day you’ll understand. Now shut up”, he cut me off, “and tend to the fire”. I looked away, lowered my head and did not say another word. And neither did he.
Despite my young age, the dialogue with Uncle Carlo shook me greatly, instilling in me the questions that hitherto were ignored: questions about life, death, the existence of God. I wanted answers to my sudden inner turmoil, but answers were not found. Not even he, uncle Carlo, when he was more approachable and less surly, was able to answer my persistent questions and feelings, and I sensed strongly that he would have liked knowing the answers as well.
This episode with my uncle, must be said, was for me a kind of hapax: something that revolutionizes a life, and from that point on, one changes, they are not the same person nor on the same journey they were on just a few moments prior.
What I believe
Now, following Minu the cat, the Australian friend, and the anecdote, let me say something about my belief. Since that stormy evening with my uncle Carlo by the fireplace, I have spent many years reflecting on life with the help of many tools of thought, such as the study of history, literature, philosophy, language, countless books and personal experience. Subjective spirit did not help me much in my research, but the disciplines related to soft sciences were mainly responsible for the consolidation of my ideas. That was my impression. When I came to scientific literature – physics, cosmology, biology - I discovered, not without astonishment, that they were not Godly things. The fundamental laws of physics categorically exclude a creator. Matter and its properties, which are the basic cosmic and human building blocks, systematically reject any form of creationism. All scientific schools of thought, physical, chemical, mutations, adaptations, brain elasticity and such, do not allow fro creators.
Also true, is the fact that the origin of matter is still not known, and until we do, we must settle for the ideas attributed to french scientist Antoine Lavoisier, who in the eighteenth century opined: “Matter is neither created, nor destroyed, it simply changes forms”. This thinking, however shaky, is wondrous information to ponder, a small stone if you will, in the sole of my shoe, to remind me of this wonderful existence and its properties.
With regard to the mythological thinking, creationist, Bertrand Russell, an English philosopher of the last century, expressed in his book “Why I am not a Christian”: “My father asked me the question: ‘Who do I credit’? I could not answer immediately so I posed a new question, ‘Who do you think?’ I understood then what was wrong with the argument of “First Cause”. If everything must have a cause, God must also have one. If nothing exists without a cause, then why do we, as a world do have a cause, but God does not? This principle of First Cause is a theory better argued by saying that the world rests on an elephant and the elephant rests on a tortoise. When asked: “And on what does the tortoise rest”? The usual response is: “Lets change the subject… “.
And so, slowly I began to understand, on which basis lay my belief, my faith, my way of seeing things and life. I began to understand that there was also a difference between mythology and science. This was a small step forward towards the formation of my belief.
I sensed that it was not easy to answer the thorny question of whether or not life has meaning. I had to first to clear a lot of ground. My next step in the search for meaning in life, was to study the “know thyself” axiom of Socrates
Why believe at all?
I began to ask myself, why believe in this and that, why believe in a creator, a god, nirvana, in Brahma, in short why believe in accidental salvation? And, after passing through the sieve of what was the grounds of my belief, that of my family and people I knew, I realized that belief was something human, and human alone. And I was a human and nothing more; so the answer to the question of whether life has or has not meaning was a human response and not divine.
This new reflection on life made me realize that belief rests mainly with three reasons. The first and most important, is belief due to ignorance, the second, fear of death, and third, for opportunistic reasons, where claims of belief are made out of self interest, to enable the manipulation of other human beings, and to gain from there belief. These three phenomena, these little comforts, are but fundamentally human, and confirm that all our inventions about the “afterlife” on to and including a supposed “God” is born in our brain and will surely die with the death of our brain.
Here and now
Meaning, before the domestication of animals, about ten thousand years before our era, did not exist, certainly not as we know it today. From the domestication of animals, to the time of Copernicus, men were facts of history, and a sense of meaning was a primitive one, fraught with a sense of arrogance, ignorance, bigotry, self interests, metaphysics, superstition, superficiality, false patriotism, obscurantism and so on. This was a time dominated by mythology, thought was dominated by delusions and imperatives despotic of God: “do as I say or I’ll kill you!”
From Copernicus, and to this day, we give material meaning to things and to existence, secular, atheist, agnostic, physical meanings. The Enlightened age, the French Revolution, Napoleon, Darwinian evolution, Marxism, the Russian, Chinese, Cuban Revolutions, the first and second world war, sixty-eight, the quantum theory of physics and the big bang, Chernobyl, September 11th, Fukushima, in short, all these events and many others, leave us no doubt: we live, not in the best of all possible worlds, as Leibniz would have us understand, but in a world of insanity and chaos. And we are governed , not by sapiens sapiens sapiens, but by mammals that do little else outside of praising and exalting their selfishness, their lowest common denominator and their bestial nature.
So today, unlike in the past, we understand very well how things work, we understand that the fate of our planet and that of humans may be resolved within a few moments, a meteorite would be enough to fall from the sky, or the reversal of the poles, or the eruption of a of a huge volcano like Toba in Indonesia, (occurring seventy-five thousand years ago, which left only a few thousand people on the planet), or global nuclear war, etc.. etc…. One of these phenomena would be enough to erase, in an instant, all that grows and breathes on earth. This scenario, is very real in the world in which we live. American physicist and Nobelist, Steven Weinberg writes: “For as much as the world seems comprehensible, it is equally incomprehensible.”
Like it or not, realistically speaking, we are like a lit match in the middle of a storm. No science, philosophy, or belief system can make sense of this unlikely “lit match”. None so far, managed to build something equal to the phenomena which is the world in which we live. And why? Because the world is chaotic, a chaos of forces- brutal, grotesque, headless and bottomless. We are, in every moment of our lives, at the mercy of unpredictable and crazy laws, in this pandemonium of life, just like a lit match in the middle of a storm. No one can say with certainty if the match will remain lit. We ourselves are a danger to ourselves. Man is the enemy of man. In this world of fireflies and ghosts, life, death, worthlessness abounds, and so to are we.
At this point, seeing as we are orphans of divine fathers, as homo sapiens sapiens sapiens co-sapiens, since we are only sulfur matches, lit in the middle of a storm, and we see that the world makes no sense, at this point, then, is it still worth asking whether life does or does not have meaning? Absolutely, you bet it is, and how! And our answer is: life does have meaning, great meaning, immense meaning! Not only for all the battles we must fight and all the dangers that we must avoid to keep it standing but because life is something beautiful, blissfully sublime, a true masterpiece of nature. Life has great meaning, meaning that is both more wondrous and wonderful than you could ever imagine. But here is the key Rossi, it only has the meaning that we give to it, here and now.