A long standing issue that most thinking people have been concerned with is whether there is a deeper meaning to all of our struggles and endeavours. Since the Book of the Ecclesiastes humans have faced the need for a “meaning” that can provide an enduring value to our transient existence. Most religions (as well as a wide variety of New-Age doctrines) are trying to provide a variety of answers, as guidance towards what is a good way to live. While I have respect for the aspiration and need for transcendence and sacred life (see the Mircea Eliade entry in my-literature), I do not believe, however, that there is any external meaning to our transient life. As the existentialist philosophers (e.g., Jean Paul Sartre) observed, we are born in a universe devoid of external meaning. This can be both liberating but also a burden; we need to invent our own personal meaning (a good reading on this is Sartre’s  Nausea).

The most interesting theoretical discussion of “meaning” that I came across was articulated by the Harvard philosopher Robert Nozick in his book Examined Life.  Nozick starts with a compelling argument showing that maximizing-pleasure is not what is likely to satisfy us. He invites us to imagine the possibility to enter a machine that stimulates our brain-centres, triggering the most immense pleasures (physical, emotional, intellectual, etc) and asks us if we are willing to remain all the rest of our life inside the pleasure machine. Since we do not (I share this intuition with him) he concludes that pleasure alone cannot be enough for us. The rest of the book explores what are the needed aspects that we need in addition to pleasure. Living a meaningful life and making a difference to the reality we are part of (we make no difference in the pleasure machine; in the film Matrix, this same idea is illustrated by the hero, Neo, who prefers the grim reality in which humans are hunted and harvested by AI machines to the pleasurable life within the Matrix). Nozick also comes up with an interesting characterization of meaning, which he relates to creating value — the later being defined by “unity within diversity” (valuable art creations and scientific theories seem to satisfy this principle)An other idea that resonates with me is the Platonic (or Socratic) principle of an examined life.

I am quite sceptic of most religious doctrines that offer guidance towards a prescribed moral or “spiritual” life.  The only ones with which I find some resonance with are Buddhism and Zen (with its practice of meditation), and in particular Taoism. This is the ancient Chinese life philosophy aiming towards a life of harmony with the universe (like Buddhism it is not a religion, really), whose most important text, the Tao Te Ching (Lin-translation; Lao-translation) is highly inspiring. The Yin-Yang principle of complementarity of opposites (dark/light; success/failure) is an important part of it. A related practice is the Tai-Chi, which I once studied and hope I will find time to practice again.

Yin-Yang: the symbol of complementarity (plays a central role in quantum physics)index