Is the Universe Meaningless?
These are a few thoughts about a recent article by Walt McLaughlin entitled ‘That Gnawing Sense of Meaninglessness’, subtitled ‘When all the comfortable worldviews fail us’. He thinks that if we let go of all our worldviews, which may give us some sense of purpose, then we will inevitably be confronted by the meaninglessness of the universe.
He says that we create these elaborate worldviews in an attempt to understand reality, because nature provides no information about it, no answers, remains eternally silent therefore a mystery. He further says that “there seems to be no point to (existence )— nothing that is apparent in nature, anyhow”.
He doesn’t give a name for his own worldview. He seems in general to be adopting the modern scientific understanding of the universe, sometimes described as purposeless, indifferent, or pitiless. He also refers to the “angst-ridden philosophy” of existentialism, and its founder Soren Kierkegaard, according to whom we all wallow in existential despair. He is also impressed by Albert Camus, who says that if there is any meaning to life, then he is unaware of it. McLaughlin agrees, and is sure that no one else does either. He therefore wonders how we are supposed to live our lives “with this gnawing sense of meaninglessness always eating away at us”.
I disagree with what he says but, since he thinks that the world is full of sacred texts and worldviews which obscure the matter, and that he is “weary of the word ‘God’ as so many others are”, I don’t expect what I say to have much effect upon him.
Spiritual or religious worldviews have traditionally been those which have provided meaning to various cultures. I suspect that McLaughlin considers that they, as in his subtitle, are merely comfortable avoidances, and ultimately fail us. My own experiences tell me otherwise.
He thus thinks that worldviews are attempts to protect ourselves from existential despair, meaninglessness, which must therefore be the ultimate reality. He doesn’t seem to consider the possibility that the belief that the universe is meaningless might itself be a worldview. He thinks rather that this is the reality that we have to confront.
I am very interested in the idea that our personal worldviews are to some extent determined by our personal psychology and history. This was certainly true in my case. I was introduced to the existentialist Jean-Paul Sartre at school, and went on to study him and Camus at university as part of my French degree course. I found their ideas appealing, and for a time was convinced by the ‘truth’ of existentialism. For the following few years I experienced bouts of depression, but told myself that this was an appropriate response to the ‘fact’ that the universe was absurd and meaningless. Who wouldn’t be depressed in such circumstances?
It was only later, after considering that my problems might have inner rather than outer causes, that I began a period of personal psychoanalysis. This, completely unexpectedly, triggered a dramatic spiritual awakening. At the end of that period I understood that my earlier belief in existentialism and meaninglessness was an illusion. I was projecting my inner gloom onto the outer world.
Some of the ingredients of this awakening were:
- powerful dreams and other experiences which convinced me that there were other consciousnesses (or perhaps a single consciousness independent of my conscious ego), which were actively trying to help me sort out my problems. Appropriate terms for this might be: the Higher Self, spirit guides, guardian angels; it’s hard to tell when you’re just on the receiving end.
- powerful synchronicities in the Jungian sense. These persuaded me that there is some transcendent power organising life at the material level from behind the scenes.
- an ESP course that I was attending at the time. Experiences there, including clairvoyance, persuaded me that I was not a separate individual, a skin-encapsulated ego, which I assume would be the existentialist understanding.
The overwhelming impression that I received from the whole experience was that the universe did care about me, and was trying to help me resolve my problems.
Since then I have adopted a spiritual worldview distinctly different from existentialism. I now believe, guided by dreams etc., that my life is meaningful, that I am here for a reason, and have work to do. I agree with McLaughlin when he says that we “want the world — the infinite universe, that is — to make sense… More importantly, we want our own existence to be meaningful”. I have always wanted that, and I now believe that it’s true. This ‘worldview’, however, is based upon my actual experiences, not upon my inner impressions of the world and nature.
He believes that “there is no resolution to the problem of existence… The gnawing sense of meaninglessness… is not something that can be solved. There is no worldview, no matter how well thought out or divinely inspired, that can banish meaninglessness once and for all”. I beg to differ. I agree with him that “ there are forces at work in the universe that we can’t begin to fathom no matter how much we think”. Indeed, the levels beyond space-time remain mysterious and largely impenetrable. That does not mean that life is meaningless, however.
I hope you have enjoyed this article. I have written in the past about other topics, including spirituality, metaphysics, psychology, science, Christianity, politics and astrology. All these articles are on Medium, but the simplest way to see a guide to them is to visit my website (click here and here). All but the most recent can be found there.