On the Meaning of Existence
Published March 2017 in Bilkent News.
It seems to be rather a large, important thing, but the meaning of existence is essentially a dead question. What do we mean by meaning? The meaning of a word is what it communicates. The meaning of an action is its interpretation. When I do something as concrete as touching someone’s head, the sweet crest of their face, it could mean so many different things – how can we interpret abstractions if we balk at solid facts? Because in such a context as ours, existence is wholly abstract; it is taken to mean life from birth to death, the why-was-I-born and what-is-my-purpose and when-will-I-die, and the meaning of existence needs to be a snappy answer to all these very rudimentary, very human questions. If we instead define existence more practically – if we say that my existence begins from my conception in the womb, from that first flickering, quickening pulse, and ends with the final stillness of that pulse, we see that this definition concerns physical coherence, the development and decomposition of my body until it can no longer be termed human. But from this perspective things become a little blurry: if we look back to our humblest beginnings, to ovarian fertilization in a mother’s warm body, we see that both of our critical sexual components existed well before conception. The traces of that particular ovum date back to the mother’s own time in the womb, when follicles were created and stored in her body so that later, her hormones could grow them into gametes. In this view, all possible children exist in part. They have not been conceived, but they exist. They are not conscious, they aren’t even fully formed, they have no human character except a tenuous presence on the Earth – is there a grand reason for them to be here? In this situation there seems to be no difference between finding meaning in the existence of a human being and that of a rock. That is somewhat troubling.
But existing, in the context of our tensile question, means something else entirely. It applies to a conscious living being, and since no one asks such things of dogs, say, or starfish, this self-conscious life is to all intents and purposes human. In our consciousness, the meaning of existence can be quantitatively evaluated only on the basis of what we’ve done; it is a veiled measure of our contributions to the world. Isn’t that what we’re actually asking: What do I mean to others? instead of What does it mean for me to exist? We want to examine ourselves – not the selves of others, we want to view our own; we see how we interact with the world, and earnestly desire those interactions to be as large as possible. Only after this proves to be very difficult do we begin to look out into the distance, at what others are doing and should be doing and how this touches us; we assign “meanings” to the lives of other people because the human mind cannot bear senselessness. We believe Hitler, for instance, existed as a symbol of the cruelty of man, to become the proverbial wolf and a cautionary tale. But did he really serve that purpose in the end? If we consider all the people who still believe that he was right, he begins to seem like a decidedly poor symbol. But perhaps I’ve been a bit inaccurate – I made my evaluation from a very humane perspective, and perhaps I should lay aside common morals in this measure of meaning. For a while, Hitler’s life meant nothing, and then it suddenly started meaning many things at once: to the Americans he was an adversary, to the Jews a terrible tragedy, while his voters must have thought him rather wonderful. Today, he functions as a symbol of particular types of xenophobia, and as another kind of symbol for those who are against such attitudes. But does that really matter in the end? People have always found ways of and reasons for hating each other. When we ask, Why did Hitler exist? Why was he born?, we’re not questioning his existence at all; it’s a pointless question, because we already know what we’d like to hear. What we’re really asking is, Did all those people die for nothing? and we’re all rather frightened of saying, Yes, yes, a thousand times yes. There is no death that is not both short and violent, in its own soft manner of violence. There is death but no life after death; there is nothing to love from the grave; death comes and it comes rather often, and there is no sense to it at all.
The human mind has always excelled at finding meaning in things, with our gods and star signs and moons and crosses, and skin tones and genders and borders and cropfields, the reading of palms against the hearth; there is only a small leap thereafter to life itself. We know what it means to exist but cannot divine the Meaning of Existence; it’s difficult to admit such consuming humility to each other. I came from no clever trick of the universe, and this I freely admit: When by the laws of nature I was first conceived, there was no cosmic voice to exclaim, “Ha! Here she is, perfectly suited to sleep and cry and learn mathematics…” and all the other things I’ve ever done in my short life, since if I was born to do one thing then I was meant to do all the other things too. How am I to discriminate between the great deeds and the ordinary ones? How does the vast chaos of our cosmos allow for the excellent precision with which an excellently precise choice of species is endowed with such specific Life Purpose? How does it happen that everything in my life culminates to allow me to do that Final Thing, when the simplest coincidences can cause my death? And why – I cannot move past this point – why is our frantic search for The Meaning of Life restricted to modern man? Does anyone question the life purpose of an obscure Neanderthal, or that of a donkey? It’s pretty much unheard of.
All these are questions I’d very much like to learn the answers to. I would love to know if there really is a master plan into which we simply click like stones; I think such a thing would be quite stunning, and would alleviate many of the self-conscious fears of man. I also think it to be very, very unlikely. In a world that submits to arbitrariness, governed by cold, ruthless acts of nature, I see no place for unsubstantiated, idyllic visions of belonging. But is this then really so terrible? To be born just to be born, to live because of error and die according to chance, to exist not as a grandiose instrument, but for the sole, simple pleasure of existing? We each of us have our own struggle to stay alive, because even on its own life is precious and dazzling. Why can’t this be enough? Why can’t we just stop for one little moment and say to ourselves, I’m here because I’m here and then I just won’t be, and I have no responsibility but to be alive? Why can’t we say this to the whole wide world?