An existential philosopher once wrote about the benign indifference of the universe, i.e. the meaning in life, and the dread that idea caused in most people, the existentialist excepted, of course. Richard Dawkins has taken that one step further suggesting that if the universe is not only indifferent but also has no purpose, then human life must be equally meaningless and without purpose. That doesn’t preclude, I don’t think, the obvious drive in life to become, to realize potential. We see that every spring in renewal. We see it in the drive in everything to reach full potential. Perhaps that isn’t purpose exactly, but it’s something other than indifference. To me, it offers some assurance even if it is a rote response, an instinctive drive.
A corollary to this idea is the age-old question of meaning: does life have meaning or not? Social systems certainly subscribe to the idea that life has meaning as do religious systems, albeit with very different outcomes. But if the universe is indifferent as the existential philosopher suggests, and life is without purpose as Dawkins suggests, perhaps meaning and significance and purpose are all a product of the human imagination. Thus reality is determined, as far as purpose and significance go, by each of us if we so choose.
Of course, most of us escape into custom, habit, or the expectations inherent in social norms, which Beckett’s Vladimir says are only “a great deadener”. Maybe too, his characters are right: all we can do is wait for Godot who will never come, and we play all the games we have to while away the hours and days while waiting. It’s a pretty pessimistic view and dovetails nicely with the idea of an indifferent universe and the idea of purposelessness.
But ask any poet or writer of any sort, preferably a fiction writer who ranges freely over the breadth of the imagination, and he’s going to say that whatever meaning you choose to construct (if you have the courage to construct any and refuse to hide your head in any of the panaceas offered by the world at large) will see you through your time here. The world around you may in itself be indifferent, without purpose, but you can imbue it with meaning that is unique to you.
Of course, that will leave you alone unless your sense of purpose coincides with another’s. Since we are all essentially alone anyway, it really doesn’t matter. Maybe it’s a lot easier to join a group and latch on to the ideas it promulgates, convince yourself that whoever made up the system knew what he was doing. But there is a joy, an energy, in going it alone. It may be a bittersweet pleasure, but it provides connection, a way of approximating oneness.
And a pen isn’t the only way to get it: try a camera, a pencil and some paper, music, anything to fuse yourself to the world around you. Maybe the only world we can live in is one we construct, a human world with human proportions, something set over against the natural one as Northrop Frye has suggested. For each of us within that world, there is infinite possibility. That’s my view, at least, and the more I write novels, and the more I photograph flowers and landscapes, the greater the connection I feel.
That may not be purpose; it may only be a way to fill the relentless hours and days, but it lights my world. And what more could one want?