The Third Way, 3: Humanity’s Search for Meaning

“…. [since 1950] certain key words have been taken over by the secular humanists and  given connotations twisted to conform to their program of destabilization.  We may cite words such as “freedom,” “rights” and “discrimination.”  These words, and many others, have acquired connotations explicitly adapted to the secularist agenda for decomposing the social and intellectual frameworks on which Christian civilization has been built.” Harry Blamires, The Post-Christian Mind.  (Servant Publications, 1999), p. 18.

If the subtitle of this post sounds familiar, that is because it is.  It is adapted from Dr. Viktor Frankel’s profound book, Man’s Search for Meaning.  Frankel was a Jewish psychoanalyst and Holocaust survivor.  Both his character and work were admirable.

Survivors of the Holocaust and similar horrors, like the Soviet Union’s Stalinist Gulag described by Alexander Solzhenitsyn (his trilogy The Gulag Archipelago won the Nobel Prize), have much to tell us about both the dark side of human nature, as well as its nobility – sometimes both even glimpsed in the same individual.  Eli Wiesel points this out in his Nobel prize-winning personal account (Night) of living through hell on earth in Auschwitz.  Even a Nazi guard was occasionally capable of some glimmer of compassion and human fellow-feeling.           

As Steven Pinker and other Progressives have amply illustrated with an abundance of metrics on the material advances of the modern age across all nations and civilizations, there is no denying that life for the great mass of humanity has vastly improved since World War 2.  The question is whether this is ushering in a new social, cultural, and material golden age.  Many assumptions must hold true for that to really happen. 

Imagine it is 2119 in the perfect Progressive world.  War as an instrument of policy has been universally banned.  Violent crime is fading.  We have solved the climate change crisis, controlled and balanced the human population at an optimum level, found ecologically and environmentally friendly methods of providing sufficient food and resources for everyone to enjoy material comfort.  We have been able to allow earth’s other, non-human inhabitants to live in peace without further threat of extinction (at least at human hands).  Progressively speaking, the opportunity for happiness and fulfilment should now be universal.  We dispose of the few sub-standard foetuses before they are born.  We engineer our offspring.  We have amazing technology to do all the grunt work.  We are in the Star Trek world! 

The pursuit of happiness is among the most basic societal and individual goals according to Enlightenment thought.  So says one its most iconic products, the American Declaration of Independence.  But: Is all of this material and social success enough to fulfill the human heart, to capture and satisfy the human soul, and to calm the insatiable trouble-making curiosity of the human mind?  At this point, the historian in me begins to raise some warning flags, to whisper (or perhaps bellow) some doubts.

But in this 2119 scenario each human has the choice and time and leisure and resources to explore his/her/er’s/their innermost aspirations and release the ‘true self’.  The era of true “self-actualization” has arrived!  It is merely a choice to stretch out for the stars and discover who one truly is deep down.

As only Shakespeare knew how to phrase it, “Aye, but there’s the rub!”

Doesn’t the same science and enlightened reason that have given us paradise in 2119 also say that as a species and individuals we really are nothing but a freak after all?  My whiff of a life has no more meaning than the existence of the rock or tree or butterfly in the meadow, for we are equally improbable outcomes. 

Yet my restless mind and heart protest at this affront!  If so, then why have I been endowed (Pinker’s term, or should we say cursed?) with this drive to discover a (illusory?) deeper meaning behind it all?  Why can’t I just be satisfied with ‘what is’ and enjoy the esthetic beauty of form, colour, function, and ineffability, rather than persisting in the notion that it really must point to something greater and higher and nobler?  Oh yes!  I forgot!  This drive to find meaning is a survival mechanism which has made homo sapiens the fittest.  What else could it mean?  This circular answer is the snake oil elixir of the evolutionary Big-Bang paradigm.  We don’t get it now, but we will later – but it really only leads back to the same sticking point in an endless regression.

This debate is far older than our modern-post-modern conceit that only the last 200 years count as the road into ‘truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth’.  The Romans and Greeks, Confucius and Lao-tse, Buddha and Zoroaster, all knew about this problem.  The general consensus of humanity before our era was that we are more than this material stuff.  The general consensus remains the same.  But the Progressivist response is that such persistent illusions about existence and its meaning are, like the appendix at the end of the intestine, evolutionary residue clinging to our psyche.  Some day we will grow out of it, we’ll be all grown up and truly independent, mature, and free.

It is true that everyone who thinks will, at some point, suspect that it is “all sound and fury signifying nothing”, as Shakespeare once had one of his characters say.  Senseless violence, cruelty, abuse, undeserved suffering and pain, inevitable death – all confront us with THE QUESTION.  Why? Why? WHY?  The modern-post-modern response is “Because!  That’s just how it is.  There is no why.  Just be thankful you live for a time and can enjoy it while you do.”

But scientists and Progressive thinkers cannot seem to live with it themselves – always delving deeper with that insatiable human curiosity seeking the answer to still another why, or how.  “How does it work?  Why does it work that way?” All the while everyone, at least occasionally, stops along the way to admire the incredible complexity and beauty and efficiency of nature, even within the cruelty.  (There we go again, seeking and imputing a reason – the survival of the fittest strategy.)

Fundamentally, within this Great Debate which lies at the very heart of humanity’s search for meaning in existence, there have been and still are only two basic positions available – duly observed that there are many variations on each of them.  1. IT is all just an accident with no independent exterior cause.  2. GOD (whatever that means) did it.  Both of these basic positions must start from the same body of evidence to present their case: there is a universe, and we are part of it.  Speculation aside, for all we know we are the only self-aware, consciously intelligent agents acting within it with some power (however feeble) to manipulate it for our own ends.

To get a grip on this mind-boggling dilemma, we resort to stories to explain who we are, what we are, how things are, and what role we play in it all.  Everyone chooses a set of basic answers to these issues, consciously or not.  Our chosen answers are neither purely reasonable and logical, nor purely emotional and irrational.  We come to our operative life-paradigms via both roads and call it “common sense”.  What have you experienced?  What have you observed?  What have you been told and taught?  What have you felt?

The point is that we cannot come to a really complete and profoundly satisfying position by declaring, on faith, that reason, logic, and science can and will deliver all we need and want to know or can ever know for sure.  There is a whole other side of human nature that remains unaccounted for, no matter how deeply we may succeed in probing into the “mysteries of the universe” via the pure and applied sciences.  Simply telling us that religion and mysticism are residual holdovers from the ‘olden days’ of ‘ignorance and superstition’ and that we should do our best to discard them, or at least minimize their hold on our psyches cannot ‘cut it.’ By this reckoning, some day we will simply evolve beyond the sense of mystique, mystery, awe, and wonder.  When that happens we will have lost our deepest longings to truly know, be known, be loved, be recognized as worthy of love. If that ever were to happen, we would cease to be human. Surely that is not what Progressives wish for!

We will continue this discussion next time.

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