Our Search for Meaning

Three False Paths That Will Lead You Astray

Radio commentator Dennis Prager once discussed how Viktor Frankl's life-affirming book, Man's Search for Meaning, had influenced him more than any book other than the Bible. Prager said he drew his awareness of the human need for meaning from both the revealed word of God, best expressed in the book of Ecclesiastes, and the observations of Dr. Frankl, a fellow Jew. The key insight of Frankl's book is summarized in these words: "Life is never made unbearable by circumstances, but only by lack of meaning and purpose."

Frankl wrote those words as a reflection of the insights he gained into the human soul during his internment at Auschwitz and other concentration camps in Nazi Germany. His was a voice that championed meaning and affirmed the reality of the good in human life, and it was especially needed in the post-war years, when existentialist nihilism was dominant in intellectual culture. Artists such as Sartre and Camus in literature, Ingmar Bergman in film, and John Cage in music, among others, rejected meaning and instead advanced a bleak philosophy that asserted the meaninglessness of moral claims and even of human life itself. Frankl's observations stood against this philosophical turn in the West and became the core of the school of logotherapy, which he developed and promulgated until his death in 1997.

Meaning & Its Substitutes

One of Frankl's key observations was that people in the most degrading and tormenting conditions, who at any moment might be separated from life itself by the utterance of a single word, could endure the horror and not lose hope if they had something real beyond themselves to live for. He thus came to believe that a conscious commitment to some purpose beyond the self was vitally necessary to human flourishing. The purpose did not necessarily have to be transcendent—though that would be the ultimate in purpose beyond the self. It could be devotion to one's work, one's family, or a particular vision of the human future.

When belief in a transcendent purpose is absent, people find substitutes for it in any of a variety of places, such as entertainment, hedonism, or collectivist politics. But in Frankl's understanding, none of these is sufficient to promote human flourishing. If the sine qua non of human flourishing lies outside the self, then a commitment to some goal beyond the self literally makes the difference between life and death. Man searches for meaning because man needs meaning.

What would Frankl make of the current Western obsession with virtual reality? Advances in technology have made it possible to substitute virtual experiences for real ones in almost every aspect of life, leading to a pursuit of meaninglessness rather than a pursuit of meaning. This phenomenon seems to be advancing in this third decade of the Internet Age, with virtual experience substituting for actual participation in such things as physically risky professions, military service, marriage and family life, and various social interactions, all of which have potentially meaningful impacts on society.

Recently, it has come to light that disturbing public health issues are associated with various forms of compulsive or addictive internet use. These issues have a bearing on our human need for meaning. Let me give some examples.

Gaming
Making Adventure Meaningless

If you have teens or pre-teens in your life, you've probably heard of a game called Fortnite. But have you heard that its maker, Epic Games, is being sued by a family in Montreal for deliberately making the game as psychologically addictive as possible? The lawsuit alleges that the company engaged psychologists as consultants, with the aim of making Fortnite as addictive as cocaine by triggering a dopamine response. Pre-teens, the target audience for the game, are especially vulnerable, but this is also a concern for adults.

Whether Epic Games deliberately sought to get children hooked on Fortnite or not, the World Health Organization has expressed concerns about the increase in video-game addiction as a worldwide public health problem, adding it to the 11th Revision of the International Classification of Diseases. The concerns are that compulsive video gaming is taking the place of exercise, social interaction, and even nutrition for those who become addicted to it, and that it can lead adults to jeopardize their careers.

There is another element of gaming that lurks on the edge of conscious awareness: these games give their players an artificial sense of purpose and even accomplishment. Popular computer games today mimic real-world activities like military action, construction, farming, and even raising pets, each with its respective goals and outcomes. Yet their purposes and accomplishments are utterly unreal, and they vanish when one forgets to "save game" before quitting.

This impermanence and lack of connection with the real world seems to contribute to an increased risk of depression among gamers, which is not surprising because these poor substitutes for reality do not meet people's emotional and spiritual needs. Throwing one's mind and heart into a vacuous amusement is to throw oneself into emptiness. The soul subtly perceives the futility of gaming to provide the nourishment it needs: real meaning. Such meaning is ineluctably bound up with the real-world significance of our actions. Virtual accomplishments do not have real-world meaning, and the soul notices the difference.

Pornography
Making Sex Meaningless

The soul also notices the difference between virtual sex and real romantic and erotic relationships. Studies of internet pornography use have indicated a link between porn use and various negative effects on one's mental health and personal relationships, including depression and social isolation. At least sixteen states have formally recognized the growing use of pornography as a public health crisis and are pushing for legislative measures to combat the widespread dissemination of porn via the internet.

Because it engenders progeny, sex has the greatest long-term consequences of all human acts in the natural order, and it therefore has profound meaning. Pornography, however, by nature reduces sex to auto-eroticism, eliminating any possibility that the real meaning of sexuality will be realized. There is already considerable evidence that porn use is a factor in declining sex drives, especially among men, and it is therefore also a factor in declining fertility in countries where it is widespread.

Since porn use contributes to a flight from meaning, it is unsurprising that it is also linked to mental disorders such as depression. Consumption of pornography divorces sexual pleasure from its real purpose, and the soul notices.

Radical Environmentalism
Making People Meaningless

There is a political dimension to the pursuit of meaninglessness as well, one that is also linked to depriving the sex act of its proper significance. It is seen at its most extreme in the latest radical iteration of the environmentalist movement, which seeks to eliminate the human race from the face of the earth. This brand of environmentalism is embodied in such groups as Conceivable Future, VHEMT (Voluntary Human Extinction Movement), and Population Connection (formerly known as Zero Population Growth). All these groups boast of their large and growing memberships, with Population Connection claiming to be "the largest grassroots population organization in America" and the ironically named Conceivable Future posting testimonies on its website.

There's a deep irony in this: groups aiming to eliminate millions of people require large numbers of people exercising political clout to advance their aims. Unsurprisingly, all of these groups have jumped onto the bandwagon of the current political and cultural panic about greenhouse gas emissions and their ostensible role in global warming. Conceivable Future and its related movement, #NoFutureNoChildren, seek to convince people of reproductive age to take what one commentator called "a draconian pledge" not to have children as a way of combatting climate change.

Or do they promote the pledge in order to justify their drive to attain enough political power to enforce their deeply misanthropic environmental philosophy? It is difficult to tell. Whereas Jean-Jacques Rosseau and his modern heirs saw in a return to nature (as they visualized it) a means of liberating men from oppression, the aim of the environmentalist movement is to liberate nature from oppression by man. Man's very existence is taken as the current and most dangerous threat to life on earth, and politically minded scientists have been quite ready to link the control of carbon emissions to the control of people.

According to a Bloomberg report, more than 11,000 climate "experts" signed a statement in November 2019 asserting that the global population "must be stabilized—and, ideally, gradually reduced—within a framework that ensures social integrity." How the population is to be stabilized is generally left open-ended, but that it must be done is assumed to be necessary to save the planet from the purported dangers of climate change. Questions—such as whether man's activities cause significant changes in the climate or whether natural factors play a larger role in climate variation, or even the more basic question of whether problematic climate change has actually been empirically verified—are beyond the pale of rational discourse for those bent on seeing humanity as the problem. 

Admittedly, the crusade to "save the planet" qualifies as a purpose "beyond the self," in Frankl's terms. But this purpose certainly seems to be vitiated by the fact that the ultimate goal of the most extreme environmentalist groups is to render humanity extinct. This turns the movement at its extreme end into a pursuit of meaninglessness rather than a quest for meaning. And if the truth is that climate change is not the threat that these groups fanatically assert it to be? In that case, their pursuit really is a "chasing after the wind."

Self-Extinguishing

In a discussion of theism versus materialism, the philosopher Thomas Nagel once remarked that he "doesn't want the world to be like that," meaning that he didn't want it to be filled with intention, purpose, and direction—all hallmarks of a world created by a deity who gave his creation an objectively real meaning that can be, and was intended to be, known. Based on the degree to which people in technologically advanced nations are pursuing trivial things and refraining from the most significant ones—especially having children—it appears that Nagel is far from alone in "not wanting the world to be like that."

Vacuous entertainment, pornography, and radical environmentalism are among the forces at work in our culture that have replaced the search for meaning with a search for meaninglessness. If Frankl was right about the necessity of meaning extrinsic to the self for our very survival, then these forces are ultimately self-defeating and will extinguish themselves in time.

is a professional translator, missionary, and writer living in Germany, where he works with several different ministries, and lives in a Christian intentional community. He has written academic articles on medieval literature and culture and has published essays in Salvo, First Things, and Boundless. He is a native of Indiana.

This article originally appeared in Salvo, Issue #56, Spring 2021 Copyright © 2021 Salvo | www.salvomag.com https://salvomag.com/article/salvo56/our-search-for-meaning

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