The Master, Motorcycles, and Meaninglessness

By Jin-yeong Yi

The Master motorcycle scene

“The formula for my happiness: a Yes, a No, a straight line, a goal.”

—Friedrich Nietzsche

One evening my brother-in-law and I went to see Paul Anderson’s The Master at the cinema. Afterwards, as we were driving back home, we discussed the scene where Lancaster and friends are in the desert, where they choose an arbitrary point in the distance and ride in its direction by motorcycle.

“That pretty much sums up [the pointlessness of their religious movement],” my devoutly Christian brother-in-law chortled. “Pick a point…and go for it!”

I thought about what he said, and I realized that, while the motorcycle exercise was indeed pointless, it was, in the grand context of things, not much more pointless than the other activities we do from day to day. I realized that the scene ironically did a good job of illustrating how a nihilist approaches the problem of finding purpose in life.

To have a goal is to have a certain end to work toward. If you are a working adult in a country with a relatively high degree of personal freedom, chances are that you have a number of hours each day in which you have nothing to do but what you will, empty stretches of time that you need to find some way to fill.

Let’s assume that you are a working adult with no hobbies. You have nothing to do after returning from the commute except watching TV or drinking at the local bar. But one day, you wake up and decide that you’re sick of having nothing except work and trivial pleasures to look forward to, so you decide that you’re going to take up an avocation to complement your vocation.

But where to start? There are so many options, and nothing in particular strikes your fancy. Learning death metal drumming looks about as appealing as learning computer programming, you have as much interest in studying Finnish as you do French, and you have as much motivation to write a novel as you do to paint a picture. You can’t think of a compelling reason to choose one goal over another.

What to do? You pick a point, any point, and go for it. Roll a die or flip a coin if you have to. Then you stick to your chosen course and don’t stop until you’ve reached your destination. It’s OK if the destination is arbitrary, because you just might be rewarded by the journey you take to reach it.

Projection and Purpose (or, Meaning and Purpose in a Nihilistic Universe)

By Jin-yeong Yi

“The world is ambiguous. It does not come tagged ‘This is my Father’s world’ or ‘Life is a tale told by an idiot.’ It comes to us as a giant Rorschach inkblot. Psychologists use such blots to fish in the subterranean waters of their patients’ minds. The blots approach the patient as invitations: Come. What do you see here? What do you make of these contours? The sweep of philosophy supports this inkblot theory of the world conclusively. People have never agreed on the world’s meaning, and (it seems safe to say) never will.”

—Huston Smith, Why Religion Matters

“You have your way. I have my way. As for the right way, the correct way, and the only way, it does not exist.”

—Friedrich Nietzsche

Roland Barthes was on to something with his “Death of the Author”[1] concept, except that he apparently got it backwards: there is no such thing as inherent meaning in the text, only intended meaning, and intended meaning is not inherent meaning.

The best illustration of this fact can perhaps be found in language itself.[2] There is no intrinsic meaning to the collocations of lines, squiggles, and dots your retinae are picking up right now; the only reason why they mean anything to us is that we were trained to interpret them to mean something, that is, to refer to objects and ideas. In other words, we project meaning onto what is otherwise meaningless.

So while there is no inherent meaning in the sounds we utter or the symbols we put to paper, we can generally understand each other because we have a general agreement that certain sounds and symbols comprising a system of communication (what we call a “language”) denote certain things, and because we usually know what each other’s intentions are, given conditioning and context.

Needless to say, however, it is not always clear what someone is trying to communicate. This is why there are always clashing interpretations within literature, the conflict never being resolved when the author isn’t there to clarify what he or she meant by this or that.

Life is the same way, except that the story of life is written by no one, and its meaning and purpose are therefore open to infinite interpretations, which are, I daresay, equally true or false, because there is no inherent or intended meaning or purpose to it whatsoever. However, much as we can see sentences emerging from letters, and stories from sentences, we can see meaning emerge from the meaningless, and purpose from the purposeless. Though the meaning and purpose are, in the last analysis, merely human projections onto the black void of nothingness, I, for one, find them to be enough of a reason to get out of bed in the morning.

Notes

[1] See the eponymous essay.

[2] See Alex Rosenberg’s The Atheist’s Guide to Reality, Chapter 8 (“The Brain Does Everything without Thinking About Anything at All”), for a detailed discussion of this topic.

Destiny in a Meaningless Universe

By Jin-yeong Yi

“All philosophies, while disagreeing about all else, agree on one thing—they all recognize the reality of death, its inevitability, even when recognizing, as some do, nothing real in the world. The most skeptical systems, doubting even doubt itself, bow down before the fact of the reality of death.”

—Nikolai Fyodorovich Fyodorov

“On the sweat of thy face shalt thou eat bread, till thou return unto the ground; for out of it was thou taken: for dust thou art, and unto dust shalt thou return.”

—The Bible, Genesis 3:19 (King James Version)

“There is no place history is heading, except toward the maximum-entropy heat death of the universe.”

—Alex Rosenberg, The Atheist’s Guide to Reality

Last month, there was a death in my extended family. The deceased was one of my cousins, who was an attorney and apparently very much looked up to by our nephews. I didn’t know him very well at all, but when I heard the eulogies, which described how he would always be there for the people in his life, I felt I understood why he was so beloved.

As far as I can remember, it was actually the first wake I’d ever attended. It was also the first time I’d seen a corpse in real life. Carefully prepared though he was, how cold and lifeless he still looked! My relatives and my mother were weeping uncontrollably and inconsolably, as if the world had come to an end. It all felt quite surreal, as if I were in a movie.

Afterwards, my family gathered at a large buffet where we had dinner in honor of the departed. I got a rare opportunity to chat with kin that I only saw about once a year, if not less.

When I left, I gave one of my late cousin’s brothers a small hug before heading to the parking lot. He was shattered; he looked like an abandoned child, homeless and lost in the cold of winter. Now that the celebration had ended and everyone was going their separate ways, there was going to be nothing left to distract them from their grief.

While I was in college I realized that living in this world was as futile as building sandcastles on the seashore. Now I see just how thoroughly succinct the metaphor is. We are living on borrowed time. Unless humankind finds a way to reverse the laws of thermodynamics, as Nikolai Fyodorov hoped, the day will eventually come when the race will go the way of the dinosaurs. Everything that this ambitious species will have built will eventually crumble to dust. Civilization, culture, art, learning, everything. Even the gold-gilded pages of history, which have given a number of people a sort of life beyond death, will disappear, and there will be no one to read them anyway. Every drop of blood, sweat, and tears shed in the name of the things that humans have found worth striving for and living for will fade away into nothingness along with the fruits of their efforts. The abyss will spare nothing and no one.

“Why, then,” one might ask, “should I care about any of this?”  As an atheist and a nihilist, I can offer very little in the way of comfort, unlike the preacher who confidently promises that every tear will eventually be wiped away by the hand of God. I certainly can’t offer “objective” reasons for caring about the future. Indeed, indifference is not invalid. It’s not wrong; it’s not even unreasonable. We don’t have to care. But by the same token, neither do we have to be apathetic. The choice is ours. And I choose to care.

Even if we don’t have all eternity, we do have the moment, the here and now. And we can choose to throw it away or make the most of it.

The author of the Book of Ecclesiastes advises:

“Live joyfully with the wife whom thou lovest all the days of the life of thy vanity, which he hath given thee under the sun, all the days of thy vanity; for that is thy portion in this life, and in thy labor which thou taketh under the sun.
Whatsoever thy hand findeth to do, do it with thy might; for there is no work, nor device, nor knowledge, nor wisdom, in the grave wither thou goest.”[1]

Life is a lost battle from the very beginning, but for my part, I reject a hedonistic lifestyle simply because I find that excess leaves me feeling hollow and dissatisfied. What appeals to me personally is the idea of having goals, of having ends to work toward. With the right goals, not only the accomplishment of goals but also the process leading to accomplishment can make life feel worth living, with the hope of achievement giving meaning to the future, and the efforts toward achievement giving meaning to the present.

As easy as it is for me to take my time for granted and go by a vague assumption that tomorrow will always be there for me, I see wisdom in living each day as if it were my last, because for all I know, each day could be my last. As Corliss Lamont observed, “Nothing is more certain for us than death and nothing more uncertain than the precise hour at which it will strike.”[2]

I believe in actively pursuing knowledge and acquiring new skills, in bettering myself, even if I won’t last forever. I believe in helping others, even if they won’t last forever. I believe in having dreams and never giving them up, even with the yawning abyss of nothingness before me. I see wisdom in living prayerfully, reverently, setting my goals for the day and striving to accomplish them. To work hard so that, when it is time to sleep, I will be able to tell myself that I’ve spent the day well enough to deserve another–even if it’s not in the stars for me.

If there is one thing that can tip the scale between apathy and interest, it is love. Love for others, love for learning, love for everything one regards as noble and beautiful, even love for oneself. In other words, love for life.

I will let Shelly Kagan have the last word:

“The fact that billions and billions of years from now it’s all going to be the same doesn’t mean it’s all the same now.”

Notes

[1] The Bible, Ecclesiastes 9:9-10 (King James Version)

[2] Freedom of Choice Affirmed by Corliss Lamont

An Answer to Camus

By Jin-yeong Yi

“If we turn from contemplating the world as a whole, and, in particular, the generations of men as they live their little hour of mock-existence and then are swept away in rapid succession; if we turn from this, and look at life in its small details, as presented, say, in a comedy, how ridiculous it all seems! It is like a drop of water seen through a microscope, a single drop teeming with infusoria; or a speck of cheese full of mites invisible to the naked eye. How we laugh as they bustle about so eagerly, and struggle with one another in so tiny a space! And whether here, or in the little span of human life, this terrible activity produces a comic effect.

It is only in the microscope that our life looks so big. It is an indivisible point, drawn out and magnified by the powerful lenses of Time and Space.”

—Arthur Schopenhauer, “The Vanity of Existence”

“LIFE: To be born in imbecility, in the midst of pain and crisis to be the plaything of ignorance, error, need, sickness, wickedness, and passions; to return step by step to imbecility, from the time of lisping to that of doting; to live among knaves and charlatans of all kinds; to die between one man who takes your pulse and another who troubles your head; never to know where you come from, why you come and where you are going! That is what is called the most important gift of our parents and nature. Life.”

—Denis Diderot, L’Encyclopédie

What’s the purpose of life? What’s the point of living? As a nihilist, I do not believe that life has any intrinsic meaning or purpose. There are people who believe that, without intrinsic purpose, life is not worth living. I’d say that whether your life is worth living or not is up to you. The way I see it, it’s a question of feeling, not fact, and that desire is purpose enough.

For me, Camus’s question, “Why not commit suicide?” isn’t terribly difficult to answer. First of all, it is all but certain that the Grim Reaper will come for me eventually whether I want him to or not, and there’s no need for me to summon him ahead of schedule, at least not right now. If I have even half a reason to keep living, why not continue with my journey and see where it leads? I, for one, am interested in seeing how my story ends.

Another reason why I’m not in too much of a hurry to kill myself is that the disappointments of life have their impact lessened by my belief that experience as a unified whole is more important than happiness. Happiness comes and goes, while experience is for keeps.

So why live? I think each person must find their own answer. Here’s mine:

I live to learn, to improve myself, to experiment, to explore trails on which few have trodden, to overcome challenges, to reflect, to grow, to wonder, to enjoy, to laugh, to love and be loved, to be inspired, to create, to experience Beauty in its myriad forms, to dream and to accomplish my dreams, and to see just how far the rabbit hole goes. In a word, I live to live.