Some believe the meaning of life consists in leaving something behind as a legacy for posterity ~ may be an offspring, a work of art or literature. How that begets meaning unto someone’s life in retrospect while he was alive, however, is unclear. Some find meaning in spreading kindness and happiness, while some may find it in seeking and finding a soulmate, who is no different from millions of other humans. As regards kindness, history is replete with examples that kindness, piety and compassion which underpin every religion can comfortably coexist with the worst kind of cruelty inflicted upon humans ~ the Spanish Inquisition run by pious Christians, persecution of Rohingiyas by compassionate Buddhists, or exploitation of lower caste people by devout Hindus are glaring examples. As regards love of a soulmate in which eyes reside the entire Universe, well, science tells us that love is nothing but organic chemistry, the interplay of the neurotransmitters in our brain. Psychologists use the socalled Lövheim Cube of Emotions to explain how all our emotions arise from neurochemicals ~ for example, the emotion of joy is a result of high serotonin, high dopamine and low noradrenaline in the brain. There is nothing pure or divine in love.
Thus there is a portfolio of stories for us to choose from. We rarely put all our faith in a single story and conveniently choose the story that supports our need at any given time, displaying our remarkable ability for cognitive dissonance. Some seek other means, like Harari, who finds solace in Buddhist meditation which he practices for two hours daily, which he claims gives him clarity and focus which probably it does, but it is doubtful whether meditation can also endow life with meaning. Of course, being a non-practitioner, I am not the best judge.
All these stories are nevertheless fake just by being stories; these are the products of human imagination. As Harari says, “For many people in 2018, two wooden sticks nailed together are God, a colourful poster in the wall is revolution, and a piece of cloth flapping in the wind is the Nation.” By waving the cloth we transform an abstract concept of a nation into a ‘tangible reality’. To impart reality to the stories, human imagination has again invented rituals, which are celebrated with all solemnity and sombreness to establish their authenticity by converting the fictional into the real. To render the process of this conversion even more genuine, rituals are often accompanied by prayers or chanting of mantras and hymns by priests and shamans in languages that their followers can hardly understand. This lack of understanding itself imparts even more authenticity to the rituals by enveloping them in an aura of mystery. A ritual is a magic complete with all its hocus pocus.
Thus with a Latin Hoc est corpus, the priest converts an ordinary piece of bread and a glass of wine into the flesh and blood of Christ, and Christians sincerely believe so. With a Sanskrit hymn, Gange cha Yamune chaiva Godavari Saraswati/ Narmade Sindhu Kaveri jalesmin sannidhim kuru, a Hindu priest converts tap water into the confluence of all these rivers in a moment, and Hindus drink that water in that belief. By slicing the throat of a poor goat on a particular day, Muslims believe that they have performed the holiest of deeds and that their piety has reached the merciful Allah, and they celebrate this fact. There is no evidence, scientific or otherwise, that any of these deeds have achieved the end they profess. The Universe does not run by stories, but sometimes the story demands a real sacrifice, whether of an animal or a martyr sacrificed for his flag, religion or God. Through such sacrifices, the story’s legitimacy is established beyond all doubt and it enters the collective consciousness to reinforce, for all generations, the ultimate truth of a fake story. As Harari cautions, whenever we hear the words sacrifice, eternity, purity or redemption, we need to be alarmed.
In reality, the Universe is nothing but an aggregation of molecules and atoms only, without any intrinsic beauty, bliss, purity or meaning; it gets meaning only through us, not vice versa. So is life. In the twentieth century, liberalism rejected the stories of cosmic dramas or Judgment Day, it instead taught us that faith is nothing but ‘mental slavery’ and doubt is a ‘precondition for freedom’. It advocated freedom ~ the exercise of an individual’s freewill ~ as the meaning of life through which we can explore, invent and create. The supreme ideal is therefore to free the mind from all limitations and assert the liberty of choice in order to realise the ‘Self’ and express oneself. The New Age Gurus immediately latched onto the concept and carried it to unprecedented heights, inventing wierd but charming theories about the mind which attracted millions of followers. Alas, like all other stories, this story also falls through.
As science tells us, our freewill, desire or craving for liberty are all but the interplay of biochemical algorithms produced by the brain, about the working of which we have only rudimentary knowledge. To seek meaning out of emptiness is futile. The concept of ‘Self’ ~ the bread and butter of New Age Gurus ~ is actually nothing but a fictional story. We manufacture these stories in order to derive a false meaning where none exists, though it makes our living easier. There is also no such thing as ‘freewill’, as an experiment in psychology ~ Libet’s experiment ~ conducted in 1985 at the University of California seems to suggest. In his book The Illusion of Conscious Will, psychologist Daniel Wegner examines various evidences to argue that the notion of conscious will is nothing but a deeply-entrenched illusion. Freewill implies that our thoughts cause our actions. We thus infer that our conscious thoughts caused the action, ignoring the fact that planning for the action may have been triggered by unconscious processes, maybe past experiences or external stimuli. That we act by our conscious freewill is thus just an illusion, even though it is a powerful illusion.
Volition ~ the mental power to make a conscious choice or decision ~ is indeed problematic. As Marx said, “Men make their own history, but they do not make it just as they please; they make it under circumstances directly encountered, given and transmitted from the past.” Indeed, if human behaviour is entirely controlled by electrochemical processes within the brain, then the existence of soul or freewill can be described as pure myth. If human beings ~ and all life for that matter as well as all cognition ~ are entirely the products of biology and chemistry, then, as Stephen Pinker said in The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature, life will cease to have any higher meaning and purpose, freewill will be a myth and people cannot be held responsible for their actions any longer, because the concept of moral responsibility for one’s action will cease to have any meaning.
Thus we may be “predestined to move in a circumscribed groove” determined by the automated movement of atoms and molecules, and our brain, the incredible learning machine and a wonder of evolution, will serve no other purpose except making robots of us, blindly following the commands of a “blind watchmaker”, or rather, a ‘blind programmer”. It is impossible to get reconciled to this idea, and this is where seeking a meaning, false or otherwise, assumes importance. We need to have one, whatever that is.
Early in my life, I had read Somerset Maugham’s 1944 book The Razors Edge, which tells the story of Larry Darrell, an American pilot who, traumatized by his experiences in World War I and the death of his comrade, set off on a journey in search of meaning of life that ultimately brought him to India, where he had found realisation and happiness in Ramana Maharshi’s ashram at Arunachalam, Tiruvannamalai. I had followed my wife there to practise monastic life for two days. No, I did not find any meaning of life there, in fact I am not sure if I was searching for one. But I remembered Maugham ~ “Nothing in the world is permanent, and we’re foolish when we ask anything to last, but surely we’re still more foolish not to take delight in it while we have it.”
Life is a long journey, boring for most of the way. Meaning perhaps lies in learning to enjoy the humdrumness of life, in pursuing simple things rather than meditating on profound ideas. In the ultimate analysis, each one therefore chooses his own meaning. I am doing so right now, dear reader, by talking to you.