Should we question our need for finding justification for our existence?
It is believed that we can trace our co-existing human evolution back to more than 2.6 million years ago, but that we can talk about modern humans or Homo sapiens for approximately 300,000 years. However the transition to actual behavioural modernity – that is, the development of abstract thinking, planning depth, language and symbolic culture – happened around 70,000 years ago. For approximately 230,000 years we were happy to just be. We only knew how to look inside and in our very near proximity, being extremely astute and in tune to our own inner and immediate experience and not questioning our existence. And then something happened, like a schism of our being – a spontaneous leap in cognition among ancient humans. The faithful would call it the original sin – tasting the fruit of the tree of knowledge of good and evil, the analysts will call it the emergence of the super ego – becoming self-critical and moralising, the scientists will call it biological development and will talk about the appearance of the PCDHA1 gene responsible for the pre-frontal cortex cellular cohesion or the FOXP2 gene – responsible for language creation (although intelligence as we know it is widely polygenetically constructed).
Something snapped (or rather something has bound itself to our DNA). The moment we have done this we have exited ourselves and we started to look outside for understanding. And we stretched our knowledge of everything that was outside us. At the cost of forgetting and then not understanding of what was within. We became widely aware of the finite nature of our existence. And we started be believe that we need to find a meaning in order to justify our existence. And we were (and still are) looking for meaning to be formulated in the form of a story. A story in which we would have a precise role. And a story that must expand beyond our horizons. But the wider our horizons became, the more difficult it was to find a story that gave meaning to our life and to existence in itself.
Over time we looked for meaning in culture, nations and countries, faith and religion, knowledge, hedonism, capitalism, existentialism and juggling with the concept of suicide and so many other systems of thoughts and beliefs. And we created various symbolic representations and stories that would back up such meanings completely ignoring the fact that the meaning of existence does not come in the shape of a story. It’s just our human expectation to get the answers in the form of a symbol or a story (which is just a cumulus of symbols). No wonder we did not found any answers, and implicitly any meaning.
Our awareness of the outside world has extended exponentially over the last thousand years as well as our access to knowledge, with the technological and digital era sky-rocketing this process (sometimes literally). Eventually we filtered nearly everything through our intellect. And when you really use your intellect, when you really start to think big all stories collapse. When we realised how transcendent we are, finding the source of meaning in family, love, purposeful work or virtues such as devotion, passion or courage and resilience in the face of adversity appeared absurd and ridiculous. That holds true even for faith, as the religions, although a highly sophisticated combination of abstract thinking, spirituality and symbolic behaviours are still just another way to seek meaning outside of us. All ideologies and systems of values created eventually collapsed, leading way, sometimes naturally, sometimes forced through terrible means, to new ones. After the final collective ideologies collapsed in the 20th century leaving disastrous consequences, an existential vacuum was created, in which we tried to rebuild the meaning of life and existence. So far, it does not seem we are doing a great work of it, as we are still trying to think our way through it and the continuous search for meaning appears to create an ever growing inner tension rather than the so much desired inner equilibrium. This can be seen in the rise of depression, anxiety, stress and burnout as the main sources of sufferance for the post-modern human – Homo digitalis.
Don’t get me wrong, I don’t think of the remarkable immersion into our conscience as being solely destructive. Through it we have also gained access to endless individual and collective intelligence and creativity, to the full experience of loving another human being, to high ability for empathy and compassion and unlimited access to Netflix. I merely want to suggest that, perhaps, we could stop trying to justify our existence through a desperate race for meaning, both at an individual and collective level and embrace the idea that existence in itself is the meaning. That is not to say that we don’t play a role within it. Existence is a continuous process that flows through us and is our role to keep it flowing and expand it to its greater capacity. Also, to help as many others to do the same.
I believe that now, when we discovered so much and so far of the outer world, with probably little to discover that will have a wow effect on a global level, all we have left is to return to the inner discovery that we have abandoned more or less over the last 70,000 years.