During our lifetimes we start multiple internal conversations with ourselves. We get excited about an idea, a place or a person and we then pursue them with a great passion for a while.
However, oftentimes these conversations gradually fade away into obscurity. Even the most fundamental of questions can take a backseat to attending to pressing life events or experiences. And sometimes it just so happens that these events and experiences nudge us into dropping the old philosophies and worldview we held and adopting new ones instead.
That is why it can be quite a fun experience coming back to your old way of seeing things and comparing it to your current one. One can learn a lot by simply combining the many and varied lessons one has accumulated over the years..
Now, it should be noted here that I’m not talking about the normal ways our views evolve, i.e. the slow accumulation of knowledge and the consequent nuanced understanding that results.
Rather, I’m talking about the times when we completely shift paradigms and enter into what is practically a whole new world.
Years ago, during my teens, I was a practicing Christian for a few years. Then my faith waned (a year long process culminated in Carl Sagan’s A Demon Haunted World). Suddenly, I had to make sense of the world through a different lens and from different starting points.
Looking for a good way to prioritize my interests in the way ahead, I had to first examine which high ideals had guided me previously. And that more or less meant defining what God used to meant for me.
In this process, two main categories of things stood out to me.
One was what I named truth. It was my personal catch all term for the importance of curiosity, skepticism, a scientific mindset, an active mind. In other words, truth stood for the acquisition of knowledge, that was its ultimate goal.
The other I named love. It covered the domains of morality, relationships and every other form of interaction between me and other living beings. Love was about being good.
The more I thought about these two categories, the more it became clear to me that I had to regard them both as equally important. Prioritize truth and you risk ending up as a malevolent scientist wrecking havoc upon the earth. Prioritize love and you risk ending up powerless before evil thanks to your ignorance (or worse yet, do evil when you mistakenly believe you’re doing good!).
A few years passed and I went to university.
At Oxford, I got introduced to many new ideas and I didn’t really have much time to integrate them with my previous pre-university ones. (And put frankly, I also wanted to explore unencumbered by the past and challenge my previous assumptions.)
In so doing, I discovered many new interests that appealed to me. Interests which if I were to describe to my younger self, I would categorize with the words “beauty” and “experience”.
In some sense, both were born out of my struggles with loneliness in Oxford. It turns out, when you’re lonely and depressed, you don’t exactly feel like loving others or developing much virtue. Moreover, a quest for truth can only get you so far out of the pit. Science, as good as it is, doesn’t always feel meaningful.
And that is certainly not a novel sentiment. Since Christianity started losing its grip on the west, we have gradually been talked into accepting science as our guide in life. Scientific knowledge, it was (and still is) argued, will totally replace religion and improve on its foolishness.
Well, at least for me, it didn’t work out that way. And I am pretty certain that I am not alone in this sentiment. Nowadays, few people in the west, regardless of how educated or not they are, would be surprised to hear a discussion on the spiritual crisis in the west. Many have come to the same unfortunate conclusion that somewhere along the way meaning has been lost and pure knowledge does not seem to be making up for the loss.
Existentialism has long been battling with similar problems. The common scientific worldview suggest little in the way of objective meaning or any cosmic significance of our lives.
One could say that, at best (or at worst, depending on your position?), we are a unique cosmic miraculous chance occurrence. At worst, we are just another life form on just another ordinary planet.
In a sense, the fact that at my most depressed and meaningless moments it was aesthetic and other sensory experiences that I turned to was not an accident. Those offer, after all, some of the most potent sources of subjective meaning.
So, where did I find beauty?
One would rightly guess about all the usual places — art, nature, the human body. Yet I also found beauty in my dreams and hopes for the future, sometimes even in the comic absurdity of pain.
In any case, such vast abstractions such as “art” and “nature” only conceal the important fact that beauty as gave meaning to me then was more about the details and not so much about the big picture (although it too can be beautiful). Both a beautiful and an ugly sunset are sunsets, as are good and bad works of art. It’s the details wherein beauty resides; it’s the details that give rise to meaning.
Similarly, it was the details of different experiences that intrigued me. How does it feel to live in the mountains? What is it like to partake in every country’s traditions at least for once? What is it like to watch the sunrise in Puerto Rico, say, after a night of dancing?
One could correctly say that even after losing faith in the reality of God, the religions stories behind it still carried me forward. Every single time I thought about wanting to experience or study the world, I just could not help but conceptualize and justify my desires through “this is what I was put on Earth to do — to explore, enjoy and learn (about God’s creation?)”
(Consequently, I could never embrace the militancy of modern atheists like Sam Harris or Richard Dawkins. I had gotten too much out of the Christian mindset to condemn it as completely irrelevant to the modern world. As far as finding my own meaning was concerned, the religious mindset still seemed practical and useful.)
And thus, I had a new problem.
With a search for meaning, beauty and joy added to my former quests for truth and love, I had to once again ask myself the question: which of those takes priority? Which comes first?
Which brings me to today. I’m still fighting with this question. Is a life dedicated to one or two of those high ideals to the exclusion of all others worth it? And is life dedicated to them all possible at all? Could man have it all?
Now, one thing that quickly becomes self-evident when one ponders this question for a while is that it’s almost impossible to completely separate meaning from truth or love from beauty, etc. The person in love will always find their beloved beautiful and the one who seeks the truth will always find some amount of meaning in the search for clarity itself.
Nonetheless, these inherent interconnections between the different high ideals don’t always feel sufficient to quench all spiritual thirsts.
So, the question remains: is it worth going so far in learning about the world that one loses all meaning and desire for life? In particular, is it worth it when the more you know, the less meaningful the universe seems to be? Is there a point at which you can learn enough about the world that knowledge itself loses its appeal?
These questions are not easy. And I’m especially hesitant to ask them because I am well aware of the dangers of ignorance.
Still, it seems that we all implicitly have an answer to them — we don’t always learn, we don’t spend all our time trying to be better as people, we don’t look for meaning or beauty day after day non-stop. There is a delicate mix of all the high pursuits we all embody already. It therefore shouldn’t be so scary to ask: is there an optimal way to divide our time between them all?
Albeit in different words, here’s one of the smartest living people I know (Eric Weinstein) explaining the question in his own words:
As with many important questions, the above ones too seem beyond our reach at the moment and perhaps forever.
Nonetheless, I have found it helpful to be aware of the tradeoffs of each possible approach. Especially when truth-chasing so often feels both meaningless and at the same time absolutely necessary. And especially when entire fields of human thought and experience are at the line, facing potential judgement and dismissal as unenlightening superstitions.
In any case, as of now, I tend towards a balanced approach.
I don’t think a life dedicated to the search of knowledge and truth, e.g. one in academia for which one has to sacrifice both life experiences and intimate relationships, is worth it. But neither do I think that looking for beauty or meaning without any working knowledge of the world is worth it either.
At least according the stories we tell ourselves, the way most of us behave seems to be driven by the following principle: find something meaningful around which to base your other high pursuits. Or, in more common parlance, find your passion and follow your heart. Tell the life story that makes you excited. Minimize regrets. (just in case the link breaks: keywords are “jeff bezos, regret minimization framework”)
And yet again, the question comes back to bite us. What if our passion was a lie? What if we spent our life in fantasy land? Would it still have been worth it? And given our imperfect knowledge could we ever help but live some sort of a lie?
I don’t know.
My search continues…
You have reached the end of this article. Thank you for reading! If you liked this article, please share it with your friends or leave a reply down below! And if you would love to read more articles like this one, you can subscribe to the weekly Young Meets Free newsletter.