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Existentialism isn't so atheistic that it wears itself out showing that God doesn't exist. Rather, it declares that even if God did exist, that would change nothing. - Fyodor Dostoevsky

Meaning, or the Lack Thereof
Existentialism: The Apotheosis of Secular Philosophy
Updated: 09/21/2020

Truth separated from meaning

Faced with the enormous amount of evil and suffering in our world, the rational, critical thinking man is tempted to conclude that there is no meaning to be found within the universe apart from the limited and temporary meaning of living and maximizing one's own fulfillment and that of other temporal humans.

This evil and suffering has seemingly gone on for as long as human life on the earth, and apparently no one escapes the end of life's withering, decaying or dying process unless one is earlier cut down "in the quick." Even if Jesus is God, this evil seemingly has swallowed up even the Christian God himself, and with the claimed exception for mystical personal experiences he hasn't been heard from for over two thousand years using the prevailing chronology.

One writer characterized life as dealing with the three bedeviling demons of: 1) lack of meaning, 2) evil, and 3) death.  The first demon, the lack of meaning to our lives, stares us in the face much of the time.  For most of us “privileged” citizens of the USA who have the necessities of life and the civil protection of the law, courts and police,  one face of the second demon–any significant tangible evil–is outside our house rather constantly staring in through the window seeking a way to get in and get at us. The other face of this demon–any significant emotional or psychological trauma–is always looking in through various windows.  Finally, the demon of aging, decay and death is always looking over our shoulder, inexorably coming ever closer. This is one way to sum up the current human condition.

So, we will begin with what James Haught says in Free Inquiry, April-May 2013, p.16:

“When I came of age and slowly began to think about life, I developed a strange feeling that the world is senseless, irrational, and chaotic.
     Forty million people had just been killed in World War II and everyone said how noble and heroic it was. The "Big One” was only the latest in thousands of gory wars reaching back before the earliest records began. The number is impossible to know, and the reasons for many are poorly understood. But some are dubious, at best. Honduras and El Salvador fought a war in 1969 over a soccer match. England fought with Spain in the 1700s because a British ship captain's ear was cut off by some Spaniards. I wondered: Is this what people do–send their patriotic young men to kill other young men who feel just as patriotic for the opposite side, no matter what the cause?
     Also in the 1950s, I saw three-fourths of humanity praying to invisible spirits and hoping to go to magical heavens. All politicians invoked the gods. But there was no evidence that any of it was real. I thought: it's crazy to worship something that probably doesn't exist, yet billions of people do it.
     I saw breast cancer killing women, leukemia killing children, hawks ripping shrieking rabbits, sharks slashing baby seals, and pythons crushing pigs–and everyone said that these things happened according to the divine plan of the all-loving, all-merciful Father Creator. Good grief!
     I saw the cruel unfairness of life: how some people are developmentally disabled, blind, abruptly ravaged by cancer, slowly dragged down by wasting diseases, paralyzed by strokes, or killed by drunken drivers, while others are not. What an incomprehensible lottery–spin the wheel to see whether you'll have a long, healthy life or die early and perhaps in agony.
     Sometimes I felt like a visitor in a vast asylum, baffled as I watched unusual behavior.
     I decided that the universe doesn't care whether we live or die or whether we're virtuous or sinful. Nature simply doesn't give a damn.
     Somehow, existentialism seems a perfect philosophy for secular humanists…

How can one disagree with the author’s point made so eloquently above? It is hard not to rant, hard not to get apoplectic in denouncing the idea of this being the plan of a loving creator, or to say that this creator imposed this upon us because of an allegorical forefather, Adam, disobeying an arbitrary demand. Elsewhere on this site the context of our lives has been stated thusly: "We are born into a dirty, messy, pathologic, troubled, dangerous, insane world under a sentence of death."

It is a divine right of madness, not to be able to see the
evil which lies just in front.
- Unknown Danish Playwright

Relentless Indifference

And, it should be well understood that hate is not the opposite of love. Indifference is actually the opposite! The message that comes to us as humans from the physical universe is not one of affirmation for our wonderful human dimensions but one of relentless indifference. It is in the face of this constant message that existentialism developed.

Existentialism

A concept that lies at the heart of Persian philosopher Mulla Sadra's thinking is the idea of "existence precedes essence", a key foundational concept of existentialism which was not popularized in the West until Jean-Paul Sartre in the 20th century. So what?! Existence is meaningless WITHOUT essence. The existence and sustenance of life is ONLY the foundation for what is really meaningful, that being the ENHANCEMENT of life.

Existentialism is a term applied to the work of certain late-19th- and 20th-century European philosophers who, despite profound doctrinal differences, shared the belief that philosophical thinking begins with the human subject–not merely the thinking subject, but the acting, feeling, living human individual. While the predominant value of existentialist thought is commonly acknowledged to be freedom, its primary virtue is authenticity. In the view of the existentialist, the individual's starting point is characterized by what has been called "the existential attitude", or a sense of disorientation, confusion, or dread in the face of an apparently meaningless or absurd world. Many existentialists have also regarded traditional systematic or academic philosophies, in both style and content, as too abstract and remote from concrete human experience. (emphasis added) https://infogalactic.com/info/Existentialism

What the site author is saying above under "Relentless Indifference", and that is reflected in the quote above, is that there is seemingly no sensible purpose, no meaning to which humans can relate in the wider universe as we experience it. This is why the absurdity of the human condition is much of the focus of modern “Existentialism”, that there is no meaning or purpose that can be found “out there” and that the individual must accept what exists as apprehensible to us–“What is”–and create or manufacture his own meaning. James Haught’s quote above expresses the brand of existentialism of Camus, one where “what is” makes looking for a message or meaning from God absurd, and that we should have the courage to admit this and soldier on while creating our own meaning.

The Absurd

The notion of the Absurd contains the idea that there is no meaning in the world beyond what meaning we give it. This meaninglessness also encompasses the amorality or "unfairness" of the world. This contrasts with the notion that "bad things don't happen to good people"; to the world, metaphorically speaking, there is no such thing as a good person or a bad person; what happens happens, and it may just as well happen to a "good" person as to a "bad" person.

Because of the world's absurdity, at any point in time, anything can happen to anyone, and a tragic event could plummet someone into direct confrontation with the Absurd. The notion of the Absurd has been prominent in literature throughout history. Many of the literary works of Søren Kierkegaard, Samuel Beckett, Franz Kafka, Fyodor Dostoyevsky, Eugène Ionesco, Miguel de Unamuno, Luigi Pirandello, Jean-Paul Sartre, Joseph Heller and Albert Camus contain descriptions of people who encounter the absurdity of the world.

It is in relation to the concept of the devastating awareness of meaninglessness that Albert Camus claimed that "there is only one truly serious philosophical problem, and that is suicide" in his The Myth of Sisyphus. Although "prescriptions" against the possibly deleterious consequences of these kinds of encounters vary, from Kierkegaard's religious "stage" to Camus' insistence on persevering in spite of absurdity, the concern with helping people avoid living their lives in ways that put them in the perpetual danger of having everything meaningful break down is common to most existentialist philosophers. The possibility of having everything meaningful break down poses a threat of quietism[*], which is inherently against the existentialist philosophy. It has been said that the possibility of suicide makes all humans existentialists. https://infogalactic.com/info/Existentialism/

Nietzsche in his own way, philosophically disassembled the existing theologies or God-belief systems and built the foundation for the “God is dead” movement. He lays down the challenge for us–in the face of the aforementioned absurdity of the world–to have the courage to become paragons of virtue, supermen with honor, virtue and integrity, to be all that we can be despite everything. Stirring, I’m sure, but no cigar, for his nihilism and lack of any larger meaning were probably the means that drove him insane! Not to put too fine of a point on it, it didn't work for him by my criteria for success.

A word about Paul Tillich, a so-called "theistic existentialist": Tillich, born and raised under a Lutheran Pastor father, became a theology professor in Germany. After coming into conflict with the Nazi movement and being dismissed from his position, he wound up in America where he published a number of books concerned with integrating Christian theology and existentialism. He was obsessed with ontology, the philosophical study of being, of what it means to exist as a finite, mortal, vulnerable human being in this absurd context. The point that he missed in his multifarious books and ocean of words is that it doesn't mean a whole lot! There is nothing to get very excited about if our only option is to "man up" while we suffer the "slings and arrows" and slowly wither and decay–IF WE'RE LUCKY!

Besides, Tillich should have understood that theism and existentialism are incompatible or mutually exclusive at the foundational level.

So, this is the best that modern existentialism offers, a challenge to have the courage to create some temporary "meaning" and make the best of it, a challenge to be so-called "authentic" men. For the rational man who eschews superstition, the myth-based world religions, and the multifarious mystical systems, and who does not entertain the possibility that, men to this day, have not seen the rational, logical reasonable purpose and meaning that have been demonstrated for us, existentialism is often thought to be the only road left to travel upon. But it is NOT the only road for the reasonable man believing in a God worthy of the term, and open to unparalleled goodness. Good grief, Charlie Brown!

[*] Quietism in philosophy is an approach to the subject that sees the role of philosophy as broadly therapeutic or remedial. Quietist philosophers believe that philosophy has no positive thesis to contribute, but rather that its value is in defusing confusions in the linguistic and conceptual frameworks of other subjects, including non-quietist philosophy. By re-formulating supposed problems in a way that makes the misguided reasoning from which they arise apparent, the quietist hopes to put an end to humanity's confusion, and help return to a state of intellectual quietude. (Philosophical quietists want to release man from deep perplexity that philosophical contemplation often causes)
https://infogalactic.com/info/Quietism_(philosophy)

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