This is a topic of interest to a lot of people. If you type the phrase into the Google AdWords tool, you find that, in the last month, about 550 thousand people have typed this phase or one very similar to it into the search box. There are a whole lot of people looking, but what are they looking for? As I did my own internet search using this phrase, I found that there seems to be two basic interpretations for the question these words imply. One interpretation is the philosophical question of what makes for a meaningful life. As I have looked through the search results, though, it doesn’t seem like this is the major concern. The vast majority of interest seems to be more along the lines of “What is life all about?”
When I look at this phrase from this perspective, it is apparent that this one phrase actually implies a whole lot of other questions. It is sort of like a set of Russian nested dolls. You know, the child’s toy where you open up a doll and you find another smaller doll inside, and you open that one and you find another one. Within this phrase are a whole lot of other ideas and questions. Questions like: “Why is the universe here in the form we find it to be?” And: “Does life have an all-encompassing purpose?” And: “Does a spiritual side to life even exist, and if so, what role does it play in the physical world?” Even questions like: “Will my conscious self-identity survive the death of my body?” I could go on and on, and I am sure you could also. It is obvious that many people are looking for answers to these questions, but why? Why are so many asking?
These are important questions. You could argue that how we answer them defines and guides our lives. Is it not true that our goals, our ideals and even our ethics are powerfully influenced, if not completely determined, by our answers? The fact that so many are asking this type of question leads me to conclude that many are unsure about their current answers and have become dissatisfied with the traditional answers they were born into. Before we begin to inquire into what might be behind this questioning, let’s look in some depth into the nature of these questions and where most of our answers come from in the first place.
To help with this, let me propose a “thought experiment” that I believe should clarify some of the issues. For the next few minutes while you are reading this, try to suspend your belief in everything you know about life and what it means to you. Now, imagine that you are someone studying earth and its population from outside our solar system. You have amazingly advanced technology that allows you to immediately translate any earth language you come in contact with. You can also simultaneously and accurately track all of the activities of each of the nearly 7 billion people on earth as well as the other living organisms found here. See if you don’t agree with the report my imaginary inter-galactic scout produces after she analyzes all this data.
She notes that human beings gather themselves into very similar looking and behaving groups that tend to congregate in specific geographical locations. She notes further that each of these groups tend to speak the same language, dress alike, eat similar foods and agree about the proper ways of living their lives. She puzzles over how each of these groups are so different from each other and yet how similar the behavior is within the members of any given group. The explanation, she discovers, is that each group tends to share the same core system of ideas and beliefs through their shared religions, philosophies and technologies, and this provides coherence and unity to the group. More often than not, these beliefs systems diverge quite radically from one group to another.
She is surprised to find that certain groups have some of their members starving due to a lack of resources in their region of the world, while other groups with an abundance of resources do not share much of this abundance. She also finds it quite remarkable that wars are fairly common and large groups of similarly behaving humans organize themselves into armies and periodically try to kill off the armies of other groups.
In her report she concludes that it must be the variety of systems of beliefs, philosophies and religions that explain such bizarre behavior. She notes that while the belief systems themselves are responsible for the remarkable cohesion within social groups, different belief systems conflict with each other and cause their adherents to come to very different conclusions about how and why the world is the way it is. She also observes that different systems of belief produce very different goals amongst these large groups of human beings, and these goals often put them into conflict with each other.
When she analyses where these beliefs come from and how they are passed on, she concludes that over 90% of all the humans hold belief systems that they were taught to believe based on the geographical location of their birth as well as what their parents and teachers believe. Despite what she sees as the somewhat arbitrary circumstance of which belief system any given human acquires based on where they were born, she notes that they very firmly hold these beliefs as absolutely true and almost always feel that everyone else with different beliefs are wrong. As an addendum to her report, she also notes that there is no one belief system that the majority of people on earth hold to be true; while some groups are very large, no one set of beliefs holds sway with the majority.
This little thought experiment highlights several crucial points about the questions I raised at the beginning of this article. First, it emphasizes how we are all born into worldviews and systems of belief that provide answers to virtually all of the questions in the metaphoric Russian nested dolls within the question : “What is the meaning of life?” Each already has its own set of answers. It also points out how much in conflict the different systems are with each other. Then it describes how virtually everyone is completely convinced that their beliefs are the truth. Finally, it points out that even if one system of beliefs is completely correct, since none is in the majority, then the majority of humans on earth hold systems of belief that are at least partially wrong.
How does this relate to the observation that many people are searching for answers to questions about the meaning of life? Once people have begun asking these sorts of questions they have acknowledged that at least some of the old answers are flawed. Many people are also realizing that new knowledge is bringing into question systems of belief that developed in response to social and technological needs of hundreds or even thousands of years ago. New insights and new knowledge do not always fit in well with traditional doctrines and traditional teachings. The net result is a lot of people questioning and searching for better answers.
Where do we go from here? One perspective that may help is to consider that all the different systems of belief are attempts to come to terms with the same underlying reality. We are all living in the same universe and its laws are the same for all of us. Based on this, you would think that it is not unreasonable to expect that eventually we will all be able to agree on how this universe works. Actually, modern science has made a lot of progress towards this goal if we limit our concerns to just the physical aspects of the universe. But where human belief systems diverge most radically are beliefs about things religious and spiritual. Of course, some belief systems even deny that anything spiritual even exists. Almost all the rest erect a huge divide between the physical world and the realm of spirit.
Here is my vision as to how we will develop a universally valid cosmology. The belief system of the future will recognize that there is both a physical side and a spiritual side to our universe, and these both constantly interact. We will acknowledge the need to understand them both in order to truly know what is going on. (Actually, there is a whole lot of high quality scientific research demonstrating this, but many scientists are having a hard time coming to terms with it. You may explore this in depth by reading my blog series about this topic. Look under “Categories” to the right of this post for Scientific validation of psychic abilities.) Once we fully acknowledge that spirit is real, we will more vigorously apply powerful scientific techniques to study spiritual and religious concepts that scientist had previously viewed as unscientific. Most religious and spiritual leaders will come to accept the validity of this approach and scientists will expand the purview of science to include both physical events and spiritual influences. This will be a huge leap for many of us, but I predict that once we take it our sciences will become much more powerful. In addition, religious viewpoints will tend to converge and become more of a force that unites us rather than dividing us.
Yes, many of us are questioning traditional beliefs, and for good reason. As we question them we will more and more realize that we need to revise views of the world derived in times past and that no longer serve us. An open mind will allow this to happen naturally as reliable new knowledge is assimilated. Perhaps I am a bit impatient, but it cannot happen too fast as far as I am concerned.
As always, I encourage comments below.
My best to all.