Existentialism And Meaning in Life

'We are all May flies, or more poetically, day flies, those dainty insects with lacy wings and slender trailing tail, who live but for a day. The adult May fly lives for only a few hours, just long enough to mate. He has neither mouth nor stomach, but needs neither since he does not live long enough to need to eat. The eggs the May fly leaves hatch after the parent has died.

                        What's  it all about?   What's the point?
                        There is no point.      
That's just the way it is.
                        It's neither good nor bad.  Life is mainly, simply, inevitable.' (1)

The cornerstone of existentialism is that people exist first and are then responsible for finding or creating a meaning or essence for their lives i.e. existence precedes essence.

Many people are concerned by the ever increasing impersonal nature of work, the disregard for human life in wars, the failure of human efforts to prevent them, the doubt cast on religious faith by science, and the revelations of evolution and rational thought.

Religion has traditionally provided moral guidance and some sense of worth and meaning to an individuals life but religious doubt has now led many people to conclude that life is worthless and meaningless.

In finding meaning the individual is faced with many different systems of belief and almost the only common feature of so-called existentialist philosophy is its strong individualism and rejection of those systems of belief that are regarded as inadequate and superficial primarily because they have so little relevance to everyday life.

'Nobody has a predetermined place or function within a rational system or can deduce their supposed duty through reasoning… Man is in a condition of anxiety arising from… his ignorance about the future… and the finiteness of an existence that was preceded by and must terminate in nothingness.' (2)

'That man is the product of causes which had no foresight of the end they were achieving; that his origins, his growth, his hopes and fears, his loves and beliefs, are but the outcome of accidental collisions of atoms; that no fire, no heroism, no intensity of thought and feeling can preserve an individual life beyond the grave; that all the labours of the ages, all the devotion, all the inspiration, all the noonday brightness of human genius are destined to extinction in the vast death of the solar system; and that the whole temple of Man's achievement must inevitably be buried beneath the debris of a universe in ruins- all these things, if not quite beyond dispute, are yet so nearly certain, that no philosophy which rejects them can hope to stand. Only within the scaffolding of these truths, only on the firm foundation of unyielding despair, can the soul's habitation henceforth be built.' (3)

According to the philosopher Albert Camus the only philosophical decision one must make is whether to live or commit suicide. To choose to live means to live a life full of absurdities.

However, the fact that life is full of absurdities doesn't mean that it is meaningless. What sometimes leads to such a depressing conclusion is the confusion of objective meaning with subjective meaning. It is only the subjective meaning that we give to our own lives that can determine whether life is meaningless or not and this is borne out by the fact that many people have created meaningful lives for themselves.

If we look at the world and the universe around us and ask the question, 'does it have any meaning?' we are asking for an objective meaning which implies that there is something out there that can have meaning independent of our minds and, more importantly, independent of all those lives before and after us.
Not surprisingly, there is no answer to such a question, and it is the absence of any objective meaning that leads some of us to despair.
However, the question should rather be one of a subjective nature- 'what does it all mean to me?'- because this is a question each one of us can answer.

(1) Sheldon Kopp - If you meet the Buddha on the road, kill him. Bantam 1976.
(2) Antony Flew - A dictionary of philosophy. Pan 1979.
(3) Quoted in 'The presence of the past' by Rupert Sheldrake. Park Street Press 1988.