The Universe is Neither Absurd nor Meaningless
Here we go again. I haven’t been keeping precise count over the past three years how many articles there have been on Medium on this theme, but there have certainly been quite a few. The argument runs as follows:
- The universe and therefore human life is declared to be absurd or meaningless.
- This idea is linked to the philosophy of Existentialism, most frequently Albert Camus.
- It is then declared that, despite the absurdity of existence, it is still possible for humans to create their own personal meaning. Various possibilities are offered.
My most recent article was a response to one on that theme by Walt McLaughlin. Now another one has been published by Peter Burns entitled ‘The Existentialist Secret To Living In An Absurd World’, subtitled ‘The world doesn’t make sense, but that doesn’t mean you should give up trying’.
Burns takes us on a brief journey through the history of Existentialism, elaborating on those three ideas. He says that the world doesn’t make sense; it is utterly devoid of external meaning. Many people therefore find it hard to cope: “If there is no grand meaning in the universe, then what is the point of living?” They are therefore left to search for meaning in a world totally devoid of it. “The point is to be out there in field, walking on your path, smirking at the absurd… Despite the absurdity of the world, you can still lead a satisfying existence”. You can find your own meaning, path, purpose.
The problem with this argument is that the writers never demonstrate or prove that the universe and life are absurd or meaningless; this is simply assumed. This is obviously how they perceive the world, but do they, or existentialists in general, ever question their assumptions or perceptions?
Let’s compare this attitude with two other Medium writers. The first is Will Franks. At the end of this article he offers a disclaimer about the series he is writing, in which he says: “I’ve had a string of experiences that are very hard to talk about, and that I basically cannot explain, and yet they also feel like the most meaningful and profound things that have ever happened to me”.
When I read those words, they immediately struck a chord with me, because I have experienced something very similar myself. It is possible to have profound personal experiences which convince you that the universe is not absurd and meaningless. That does not mean that one can immediately explain how they occurred, or have insight into the deeper meanings of everything that exists. Such experiences can, however, set one off on a spiritual quest of seeking and discovery. Thus Franks now wants “to explore the way things could be… the way we might view the world, if we really questioned our deepest beliefs about reality — or allowed these beliefs to be uprooted by utterly inexplicable experiences”. He says that this has led him to seek an effective imaginal religion.
On that theme he discusses Carl Jung, which I found interesting because the ideas of Jungian psychology were also at the centre of my own spiritual awakening. The word ‘imaginal’ also made me think of Henry Corbin, the great scholar of Sufism, whom Franks doesn’t mention. Corbin was, however, a close friend of Jung (as discussed in Catafalque by Peter Kingsley).
The second relevant Medium writer is Charlotte Eléa. She opens this recent article thus: “The process of going through our first spiritual awakening looks like our world turning upside down. Suddenly much of what we learned to be true and real from the culture about how the world operates is revealed to be false and a lie. What we used to believe was superstition or spiritual nonsense we come to realize belongs to some of the deepest truths of the universe”.
Again we have the same theme as expressed by Franks; profound personal experiences can completely shatter one’s belief-system, and persuade one that the universe is much deeper and more meaningful than one had previously believed.
Along the same lines, I studied Camus and Sartre at university and for a time was convinced by their existentialist worldview, thus the ideas expressed by Burns. It was only later, after a series of bizarre but highly meaningful experiences, that I realised how wrong I had been.
Some Existentialist Errors in the Light of Spiritual Understanding
As Peter Burns reports, Jean-Paul Sartre believed that for humans existence precedes essence. He could hardly have believed otherwise, since the concepts of pre-existence and soul would have seemed ridiculous to him. Therefore, “as you choose to engage with the world, you slowly build up your essence. It is your choices which create who you are”. Spiritual people, however, believe precisely the opposite, that our true nature precedes our existence as humans, and that the goal of the path is to reconnect with who we truly are.
He further says that Martin Heidegger “stated that humans are thrown into this world without their own agreement… You cannot control whether you are born into a rich family or a poor one, whether you are born in a big city or the countryside, whether you are an American or a hunter-gatherer in some tribe in Africa”. On the contrary, many spiritual people believe that the soul does indeed choose the family and circumstances into which it will be born. These will provide the best opportunities for fulfilling the purpose of any particular incarnation.
Burns further reports that, for Sartre, the fact (!) that there is no grand scheme of things in the universe means you have complete freedom to choose: “There is nothing to guide you, so you need to design your own code to live by”. On the contrary, there is a grand scheme of things, even if it is not immediately apparent to everyone. There are also plenty of things to guide us once we have accepted that we are on a spiritual journey, and we have overcome our rationalist prejudices: dreams, synchronistic coincidences, and divinatory practices like the Tarot and I Ching.
People of an existentialist, humanist, or atheistic persuasion think that spiritual or religious beliefs are a sort of cop-out, escapism, a refusal to confront reality. Thus Burns says: “Most people just cannot accept the absurdity of the world, so they look for a wider system to give them a sense of meaning. A leap of faith is about believing something just based on hope, beyond reason”. This may be true in some cases, but certainly not in all. As Will Franks, Charlotte Eléa and myself will attest, our beliefs are derived from our experiences, not from hope or blind faith.
As I noted above, according to Camus and to Burns: “The point is to be out there in field, walking on your path, smirking at the absurd… Despite the absurdity of the world, you can still lead a satisfying existence”. Is that really true? Such meaning would have been created by, and might be satisfactory to, the ego. Would it truly satisfy the soul, however? I submit that a truly satisfying and meaningful existence can only come from serving a purpose beyond one’s personal self.
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.