Man's Search for Meaning...
...and why it is futile
I read Victor E Frankl's "Man's Search for Meaning" recently. While I have neither a positive/negative recommendation about it, it was one of the texts that gave me further validation on my personal theory of why people end up trying to find purpose.
Victor, held in various Nazi concentration camps, had 2 things going on - the absence of activity and hence an empty mind, and suffering. In a way, many of us are in similar situations often. Not to diminish the conditions of concentration camp inmates, but life can be a prison.
Often the mind wonders - if all a person is meant to do is get ready in the morning, go to work, toil away, come back tired home barely in time to fall asleep and keep repeating that In that monotonous existence, people see suffering and absence of something to apply the mind to. And from there is borne the concept of "purpose" - to concoct an idea of a grand scheme - to imagine there is some bigger meaning of this existence. A more fulfilling goal to chase than just arriving at work on time, or meeting bills with payroll. Victor talks about ascribing a purpose to life- as a psychotherapeutic measure to numb out the suffering in a concentration camp and to give the mind something more beautiful to fixate on, and blur our the endless suffering and death around yourself and your helplessness.
I come to think that it is a sign of extreme weakness of the mind when you cannot think of yourself as anything beyond a prisoner of your own life, when you are not in a concentration camp, like Victor. A prisoner might need 'faith' to survive, but why should everyone else?
This search for an escape - for the mind to taste some sweet grandiose - for submitting oneself to a bigger being, to externalise the reason for the current situation to a larger power, is just an excuse. In fact, it is much like a recreational drug.
And yet, the majority of us actually can never conquer this weakness of our minds. This leads to quests of religion, spirituality, a search for a reason of existence, and a downward spiral into a deep dark web of mysticism laced positivity - all of which ultimately is fiction. It is just mental gymnastics and escapism to come up with fictional answers to 'why' we exist. It is amusing, but really, the reason is that most of us neither have the energy nor tenacity to sit through the 'how' of that answer first. Which removes the need for 'why'. While primary school level science does teach us vaguely about the big bang, or how the earth was formed, cooled down, some molecular coincidences lead to life forms, and years of evolution later, here you are reading my nighttime musings, travelling as electrons to your eyes, for many, we never truly take that as an 'answer', but mostly as a "science fact" that is
a) cool to know
b) needed to get grades
But also, our minds have an unquenchable thirst for "reason". We never like "coincidence" as an answer.
We would rather like a concocted story that somehow ties the loose ends, than face the truth that some threads are dangling loose, and we are incapable of knowing truly how far they dangle. And hence coincidences birth conspiracy theories, and our existence has borne the "god"
While I have had people ask me about "meaning" more than once, and the answer has been the same, every time I think about it, the most vivid memory that comes up is driving home from a late-night Zomato tech team after-party, with @Abhis7ekSahu and @prempal42. At that time @Abhis7ekSahu had very recently joined the Android team and he used to look up to @prempal42 and me, mostly I guess because we 2 were the platform team and only people in the app team who actually read the code in code reviews 😂
Somehow after talking about work-life balance and engineering culture discussion veered towards what "should" an engineer do, and @Abhis7ekSahu asked, "what is the purpose of an engineer"? To write better code? To make the product better ?
And this too I believe is a thin slice of the same conundrum - when in your mind you want to rise above the daily humdrum of checking out JIRA tickets, patching bugs that you have little idea why existed, and meeting product deadlines with little business visibility. And it was also the end of the road - we had almost reached home, we were about to drop him off, and I think quite at the same time, @prempal42 and I turned back to him and answered in unison - "dude, there is no purpose in life, apart from staying happy. Just chill"
I have had many of my mentees, whom I have been helping with learning to build apps and websites come up to me with a similar question - sometimes in response to a tweet or a post, or sometimes in a more topical setting - the purpose of life, or of being an engineer etc. While my answer has been constant, I know that it is not often satisfying enough. But it always has been that the 'quest for purpose' is not just futile, but ripe for letting your mind wander into castles in the air. I may feel great to pretend to be a philosopher, but beware, there lie dragons. Existential questions appear profound, and it gives a sense of intellectual elevation to appear to think of bigger ideas than others running around in their boring little lives. But that search can lead you to the dark alleys of the internet. When the questions start becoming abstract, so become the answers. And the jungle of abstract answers is fertile grounds for misinformation, misdirection and mysticism-wrapped pseudoscience.
They open your mind a tad too wide. Wide enough to admit logical fallacies into it.