"It’s the Kantian sublime, what you’re experiencing. There’s your life, and then you get a glimpse of the vastness of the unknown all around that little itty-bitty island of the known.”--from the short story "The Entire Northern Side Was Covered with Fire," by Rivka Galchen.
"I want to do what I want to do!"--George Bailey, It's a Wonderful Life.
Almost from the moment we started this blog (or so it seems), we have been engaged in a debate about whether one can legitimately draw a distinction between universal meaning (i.e., that there is something beyond the physical, and thus some underlying purpose to human life), and so-called "personal meaning," essentially something that has value only to the individual in question. Those who espouse personal meaning generally claim they simultaneously reject universal meaning, at least so far as one can do so--such a point is, of course, unprovable either way.
As one recent commenter put it: "In the example of the father gathering up his little girl in his arms, the minute mechanical description is the circumstance, the sublime feeling is the significance that transcends the simple act...So when I say meaning I am implying a significance that goes beyond sectioning off a certain class of human (gene-replicating) desire, which would simply be the circumstance."
There are several issues here worth exploring. First, as we have discussed before, the concept of personal meaning is reliant on a non-physical "self," and thus cannot be so easily separated from universal meaning. What is the entity that experiences this meaning? Does it exist independent of its physical processes? If so, then we are talking about something non-physical; if not, then such "meaning" is analogous to (and no more significant than) the shifting of sand on a beach.
Second, we are continually mystified by people who claim the above statement is incompatible with living a content and compassionate life. In fact, we would argue just the opposite--it is belief in the self, in the concept that "I" have independent thoughts, needs, and desires, that leads to all strife and conflict. This may seem counterintuitive at first; indeed, one of the most common objections we get to such a position is: "Well, then, what's to stop you from becoming a mass murderer?" In short, if nothing matters, then surely it is irrelevant whether one hurts others?
But this is to miss the deeper point of irrelevance. In short, the idea that causing harm is somehow justified by the lack of meaning is ridiculous--what is the entity that "enjoys" subjecting others to pain? The fact that one's actions are meaningless is not enough--one must consider why one would prefer to act in such a manner, and the only legitimate answer is belief in a self. Succinctly put: show us a man who accepts the self is an illusion, and we'll show you a man who is truly content.
Finally, as we have noted before, we are not so much seeking "truth" as a lifestyle best suited to what we believe is an utterly pointless existence. And it is here that we find the concept of personal meaning most misleading. Simply put, personal meaning seems a way to have one's cake and also eat it--one can reject the concept of transcendent meaning, while at the same time assigning a sort of "temporary significance" to one's own desires.
Unfortunately, as with most things that sound "too good to be true," this (admittedly seductive) idea contains the seeds of its own demise. For how does one define this personal meaning? As noted, calling it significant only to "me" is a circular argument, as it requires existence of a non-physical self, which forces one to reconsider the universal meaning one has already rejected. It is not, in other words, a consistent belief system, but rather an "out" for those who accept the absurd theoretically, but nevertheless shrink from its true implications.
And yet...it is those very implications that hold the key to the content life! It is only when one embraces the meaningless and arbitrary nature of existence that one is free to live truly free from worry and regret, no longer seeking ephemeral pleasures and suffering inevitable disappointments, but rather living moment to moment, knowing one's actions are no more significant than leaving falling from trees, or dinosaur droppings, or even the bits of matter that scientists tell us come into being every so often in empty space, only to vanish the very next instant...