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When I say a word that you understand, you say it has a meaning. It has the quality of intentionality or being ‘about’ something. If one’s larynx however ejects a random unintelligible noise, you would call it meaningless – it conveys nothings and represents nothing. Meaning has to be assigned by something external – a word cannot decide what it means by itself. But what about the universe and life itself – does it mean anything? Why is it there? Is it about something, or is it altogether pointless, incidental, random, and ultimately inconsequential?

Ideas about life are an intellectual battle between the meaningful and the meaningless. On the one hand, there is the meaningful – the notion that life has a purpose, that we are meant to accomplish something in this short time we have on this world (as in Qur’an 57:20); and that our moral journey to help one another and our intellectual journey to discover reality are somehow intrinsically tied to our spiritual journey towards our Creator. These ideas reflect a natural disposition of the human mind (read about the fitrah). There are of course, various competing religious and non-religious philosophies that attempt to create such a meaningful story about life, and they may be evaluated based on how successfully and coherently they tie together the moral, intellectual and spiritual journeys of life and address the deepest realities of our existence (read for instance regarding the problem of suffering).

The Muslim theologian Ibn al-Qayyim (d.751H) made precisely this point when he said, “All behaviours of a human being are either representative of a particular philosophy of life (deen), or unrelated to life goals. Those that are taken to constitute a philosophy of life must logically be either meaningful or meaningless. The successful attainment of human prosperity can only be through the pursuit of those behaviours associated with a meaningful philosophy of life.” 1 Ibn al-Qayyim. Ighaathah al-Lahfaan, Dar Alam alFawaid 2011, vol. 2, p. 918. See fn 5 on the translation of the words haq and batil.

Of course, there is also the notion that life is ultimately meaningless and purposeless – or, to use the Qur’anic vocabularly, batil (38:27) or ‘abath (23:115).2Qur’an 38:27 reads, “Verily, We did not create the heavens and the earth and all that lies in between without any purpose. That is the presumption of those who disbelieve, so woe to disbelievers from the fire!” Qur’an 23:115, “Did you think that We created you pointlessly and that to Us you would not be returned?“.  And this type of nihilism generally arises in the contemporary psyche from one of the following two routes: either philosophical skepticism, or philosophical naturalism.

The Philosophical Skeptic

The skeptic casts doubts upon whatever cannot be established with indubitable ‘proof’. He may refuse to believe in something until he is satisfied that it is proven with 100% certainty. But what proof is there for his conception of proof? What proof would prove that what he thinks is proof is actually proof? And once he found such a proof, what would prove that proof? This subject is illustrated very clearly through a problem in epistemology called Münchhausen’s trilemma.3When someone makes a statement they may be asked, “why? how do you know?” They will inevitably respond with another statement, which can again be challenged, and so on. Now, there are three possibilities. Either every belief is in need of justification and the chain goes on infinitely, in which case no one is every justified in believing anything because no one has acquired an infinite set of proofs. This is the first option of the trilemma, and is called infinitism. Or, all beliefs must go back to certain axioms which we simply accept blindly and do not question. This is the second option of the trilemma, and is called foundationalism. Most often, the ultimate foundation for people is either sense perception (empiricism) or logic (rationalism). The third option is that there is mutual interdependence between different beliefs/facts, and that each individual piece is justified by how well it fits with other pieces, like a puzzle or a crossword. This is coherentism. So, which epistemology do you pick? And once you choose one, how do you justify your choice?  Like a hamster on a wheel, the skeptic may concede this epistemological quagmire and retreat to the world of absolute skepticism – doubting everything imaginable, including the physical world and his own corporeal existence (consider the philosophical discussions around metaphysical solipsism, for instance), or even the very concept of knowledge itself.

But if nothing should be certain, what do we do with the obvious presence of meaning that our minds are able to fathom, analyze and contemplate? We are left with an understanding that commits itself to nothing meaningful and we would therefore become proponents of meaninglessness. Moreover, did we not commit the absurdity of taking our reasoning to be meaningful in order to negate the existence of meaning? And if that’s the case, our acceptance of the meaningless would be also irrational and self-contradictory.

If the skeptic were to be consistent, what would be the result? If applied to moral values it would negate any sense of right and wrong, good and bad, justice, compassion, and so on, as mere man-made fabrications. If the skepticism were applied to social interactions, perhaps one would engage in extreme paranoia about the possibility that one might be the subject of a massive governmental conspiracy involving all of their friends and family members. Or perhaps they are all aliens impersonating loved ones, or perhaps they are all simply mindless zombies? It’s impossible to prove, of course. If such skepticism were applied to the metaphysical realm, one would cast out all notions of cause and effect, change, quantity, and so on, as mere unsubstantiated jargon. And finally, if applied to the physical realm, one might be convinced that the existence of the world and their own existence is simply an illusion.

Perhaps, it is precisely this impotent epistemological attitude that the Qur’an refers to when it says, “Their hearts are filled with doubt, so in their doubt they perpetually waver” (Qur’an 9:45). It is essentially impossible to live one’s life with such absolute skepticism of anything and everything, because the human mind craves meaning and understanding. Human beings are committed to the view that the world is supposed to make sense, and that we have a role to play in it. We adopt ideas and concepts as true because they render the external reality meaningful and comprehensible to us.

The Philosophical Naturalist

The naturalist is a more pragmatic fellow, uninterested in abstruse and abstract philosophical gobbledegook, he wants to build a sensible map that he can run with. He starts with empirical foundations as an ultimate proof (though he concedes there is no proof that empirical sense should be considered proof – he just wants to escape the quagmire of skepticism!).

The naturalist tries to build his whole outlook of reality based on what can be directly observed and tested – whatever constitutes ‘empirical evidence‘.4It is worth pointing out that the very idea of ‘evidence’ implies not only data, but also the interpretation of that data. How do we decide what aspects of our empirical experience constitute meaningful pieces of information (data) and what aspects are simply background noise and statistical variation? The human mind is successful because of its capacity to interpret – to decipher what is meaningful and relevant and what isn’t. And our perception of reality is contingent upon the way in which we understand it. The ‘evidence’ may be staring you in the face, but you won’t notice it if you are not asking the right questions or you haven’t understood what to look for. But as a consequence of his a priori commitment to exclude anything beyond the immediacy of his own empirical lens, he ends up with a puzzling picture of a pointless world of purposeless particles. There is no good or evil, right or wrong, pleasure or pain, knowledge or ignorance – only different arrangements of particles, which are all equally aimless and bereft of any significance. Values, ideas, meanings – nay, even consciousness itself, must be nothing more than the delusions of collections of particles we call ‘people’, which presume their own consciousness and individuated existence. Everything in existence which is conceived to have meaning is – at its very root and essence – ultimately, meaningless. Nothing matters, and nothing means anything at all. This conclusion all stems from the initial choice made to dismiss the spiritual instinct that life is inherently about something greater.

All of human knowledge is an enterprise aimed at developing meaning, not negating it. All explanations are meant to lend themselves to higher principles, deeper layers of reality, a fundamental sense of purpose. But what if the bottom of our ontological hierarchy comprises a picture of reality that exists for no rhyme or reason? Then the entire explanatory enterprise collapses, because meaningful explanations cannot be constructed on that which is inherently meaningless. Perhaps what is problematic is not our intuition that life is meaningful, but rather the definitions of “proof” we are using to negate any higher sense of purpose and meaning. Perhaps, it is our adamant refusal to accept that which transcends us, which precipitates our epistemological quandary and prevents us from attaining higher realizations of reality. The Qur’an describes the most obstinate refusal of truth as being one that perpetuates one’s own misguidance: “And We will turn away their hearts and their eyes just as they refused to believe in it the first time. And We will leave them in their transgression, wandering blindly” (Qur’an 6:110). When a person becomes adamant about clinging to a picture of reality that is fundamentally meaningless, they do themselves a disservice and cause their spiritual aspirations to be diverted from any source of growth and nourishment.

Escaping the meaningless

As noted in the foregoing discussion, ‘philosophical skepticism’ and ‘philosophical naturalism’ are two common patterns of thought that reject any higher purpose to life and regard existence as ultimately pointless. At their roots, these views are a commitment to an understanding of existence as fundamentally meaningless. But – what does it actually mean to believe in meaninglessness? The belief in meaninglessness is itself meaningless, and therefore not a belief at all. Accordingly, there really is only one option – the meaningful. There was no battle to begin with. For an entity that fathoms meaning, there is no escape but to find a meaningful outlook on life.

It’s hard to find anyone who would honestly look in the mirror and accept all existence as pointless. Thus, even in the most staunchly secularist and atheist cultures where people smugly boast of throwing off the shackles of traditional religion, one finds ample acceptance of ideas about destiny, horoscopes and astrology, or new age beliefs about the human identity, such as transhumanism and panspermia. In their individual lives, people crave guidance – the self-help genre of books represents a multi-billion dollar industry. People search for knowledge of how to live a worthy existence – they accept that there must be such a thing as a worthy existence!5Thus, this notion of life and existence as meaningless – this conception of nihilism – can be scrutinized from two angles: foundations and consequences. Since it is meaningless to believe that all is meaningless, this view is incoherent and lacking any ontological foundation. And since this view would logically entail the abandonment of moral values as mere arbitrary preferences – something which adherents of this doctrine are unwilling to countenance – the doctrine is falsified by its consequences as well.

Every human being must ask himself or herself – what am I here for? Do I have a coherent and meaningful understanding of life?  It is important to realize that if one begins by defining “proof” and “truth” in ways that lead to the a priori exclusion of any meaningful picture of life, one will never progress in one’s understanding. The worst thing we can do is set ourselves up for failure. The Qur’an advises the human being of this very point, “Such is God, your Lord in truth.6The word used in this verse – Al-Haq – denotes that which is true and renders things meaningful and purposive, and hence Haq and Batil are frequently used in the Qur’an to denote purposeful and purposeless, respectively (cf. 14:19, 38:27). So after truth and meaningfulness, what else can there be, except misguidance? How then are you turned away? Thus the word of your Lord has come into effect upon those who defiantly disobeyed – that they will never attain faith” (Qur’an 10:32-33). Having an open mind, along with sincere contemplation and humility, aids one in finding the answer.

The Qur’anic outlook on life makes a powerful case in favour of the meaningful (read more in this article). It provides a conception of reality that elegantly unifies intellectual reason with moral virtue. The Qur’an takes us along a stepwise journey of modeling our conceptual architecture in a manner that is most conducive to our spiritual growth.

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References   [ + ]

1. Ibn al-Qayyim. Ighaathah al-Lahfaan, Dar Alam alFawaid 2011, vol. 2, p. 918. See fn 5 on the translation of the words haq and batil.
2. Qur’an 38:27 reads, “Verily, We did not create the heavens and the earth and all that lies in between without any purpose. That is the presumption of those who disbelieve, so woe to disbelievers from the fire!” Qur’an 23:115, “Did you think that We created you pointlessly and that to Us you would not be returned?“. 
3. When someone makes a statement they may be asked, “why? how do you know?” They will inevitably respond with another statement, which can again be challenged, and so on. Now, there are three possibilities. Either every belief is in need of justification and the chain goes on infinitely, in which case no one is every justified in believing anything because no one has acquired an infinite set of proofs. This is the first option of the trilemma, and is called infinitism. Or, all beliefs must go back to certain axioms which we simply accept blindly and do not question. This is the second option of the trilemma, and is called foundationalism. Most often, the ultimate foundation for people is either sense perception (empiricism) or logic (rationalism). The third option is that there is mutual interdependence between different beliefs/facts, and that each individual piece is justified by how well it fits with other pieces, like a puzzle or a crossword. This is coherentism. So, which epistemology do you pick? And once you choose one, how do you justify your choice?
4. It is worth pointing out that the very idea of ‘evidence’ implies not only data, but also the interpretation of that data. How do we decide what aspects of our empirical experience constitute meaningful pieces of information (data) and what aspects are simply background noise and statistical variation? The human mind is successful because of its capacity to interpret – to decipher what is meaningful and relevant and what isn’t. And our perception of reality is contingent upon the way in which we understand it. The ‘evidence’ may be staring you in the face, but you won’t notice it if you are not asking the right questions or you haven’t understood what to look for.
5. Thus, this notion of life and existence as meaningless – this conception of nihilism – can be scrutinized from two angles: foundations and consequences. Since it is meaningless to believe that all is meaningless, this view is incoherent and lacking any ontological foundation. And since this view would logically entail the abandonment of moral values as mere arbitrary preferences – something which adherents of this doctrine are unwilling to countenance – the doctrine is falsified by its consequences as well.
6. The word used in this verse – Al-Haq – denotes that which is true and renders things meaningful and purposive, and hence Haq and Batil are frequently used in the Qur’an to denote purposeful and purposeless, respectively (cf. 14:19, 38:27).
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