The other day a reader on Facebook contacted me. He wanted to get a professional philosopher’s take on a question. “What do you think…,” he asked, “of the meaning of existence?”
“Well, that’s a big question,” I could hear my own advisor answering in my head. In academic philosophy, we are trained to be very careful and precise in our thinking. It’s a great skill, but sometimes it gets in the way of really engaging with life. When I told my advisor the last unit of the philosophy course I designed was on the meaning of life, he had nothing more to say. Well, that’s a big question…I was glad this reader on Facebook had reached out to me, and not to a professor whose prudence might have discouraged him. I believe in big questions.
Over the millennia, philosophers have come up with all sorts of responses to big questions. We couldn’t even begin to catalog their answers here. But the 20th century British philosopher Bertrand Russell captures very clearly what is perhaps the most relevant point. Russell writes that the value of philosophy does not come from finding answers. If you want answers, he says, look to science; it’s pretty good at generating them. In fact, every time philosophy stumbles on a bunch of answers, they break off from the discipline to form a new science. That’s how physics and psychology, for instance, developed. It’s no accident that science itself was once called, “natural philosophy.” As new answers coalesce, branching off to form new disciplines, the ancient practice of philosophy is left with a core of unanswerable questions. “What is the meaning of existence?” “Who am I?” “How should I live?” Russell’s point is that the real value of philosophy comes not from definitively answering these questions, but from simply opening ourselves to them – looking at them from different angles, dialoging with others about them, thinking about how they impact us. In philosophy, the questions matter even more than the answers. They ask us to take a step back from our everyday lives, to look more carefully at the world, to get to know ourselves better, to fathom the greatness of a world that includes us yet extends so far beyond us.
In philosophy, questions are what lift us up. They are the real grist for our purpose and understanding. Yet most of us do have our favorite ways of looking for answers. I lean toward the French existentialist Jean-Paul Sartre, who offers nothing like an absolute theory of meaning. Instead, he argues that meaning is what me make. Life constantly presents us with choices. We do not control all of life, but our choices impact a great part of it. When we choose to act, we define ourselves and the world that we live in. Even not making a choice, Sartre claims, is itself a choice, but of the worst kind. When we decide not to choose, we fail to claim our lives as our own. We fail to exercise the free, creative capacity that is so special to being human.
As a healer, I often think of meaning as the process of growth. We are pieces of the universe in relation with each other – constantly discovering and becoming. When we fail to ask big questions, we stall that growth. We let ourselves be simply dragged along. On a planet teetering at the very edge of equilibrium, this is a particularly dangerous practice. In a society run by massive, mindless systems, the only way to make conscious change is for each of us to wake up and begin to notice the world around us. Today more than ever, we need to remember to take a step back and reflect.
But we must also realize that reflection alone is not enough. It is just as bad only to ask questions as it is never to ask them. We must let the two activities – reflection and action – feed each other. We must let our actions be the subject of our reflections, and our reflections be the guidance of our actions. So, go ahead and think. Write out your grand theories and share your ideas with your friends. Don’t be afraid of being wrong or not making sense. Get others engaged in conversation. That is how we learn and grow. And that is where our commitment to building a better world begins.