Existential Questions

If we want to speak about the meaning of human existence, at least one condition has to be met: such an existence (from birth to death at least) must embody a plan or a reason. Such a plan or reason cannot be that of the individual in question for the simple reason that his/her birth (at the least, not to speak of the first years of his/her existence) does not instantiate any of his/her plans. Only in such cases could we say that the human existence has meaning.

In the Indian traditions, I have not found any group of people or texts speaking in such terms. Even those who speak of a creator, speak of creation as a ‘lila’ not as expressions of the plans or reasons of the creator. In the Semitic religions by contrast, the entire Universe exhibits the plan and order that God intends and wills.

You ask : “How can you ask a question about something as profound as the meaning of human existence and then impose your restrictions on what characteristics the answer “must” have based on the Semitic thought process?” Let me begin my response by saying that I am not basing myself on “the Semitic thought process” in order to specify the restrictions imposed on meaning questions or their answers. Instead, I base myself on what we (as human beings) know today about answers to meaning questions.

All meaning questions are about a `why’, where the `why’ picks out a reason for an action, an event, or a state of affairs. That is to say, for example, the meaning of my answering your question (why I answer your question instead of, say, keeping quiet) depends on the reasons I have for answering your question. Whether profound or trivial, all meaning questions require an answer that explains why an action was performed, or an event occurred or a state of affairs came about. We quite simply do not know any other kind of an answer to a `why’ question that enquires after a reason.

The meaning of human existence, in so far as we construe it as a `why’ question, asks: why do we exist? One obvious answer is to refer to the procreative acts of the parents but this answer does not tell us about the meaning of our existence. The other is to talk about the reasons for our existence, that is, specify why we are `put’ on earth. (Even the talk about Karma and reincarnations does not satisfy the requirements of the question that enquires after the `reasons’ for our existence.) I suggest that this is not considered a well-formed question in the Indian traditions.

You chide me for suggesting that the Indian traditions do not ask questions about human existence! Unwarranted, it appears to me: of course, we do ask questions about human existence; I merely say that the Indian traditions do not ask “meaning questions” about human existence.

You say: “the “meaning of human existence” is deduced according to one’s understanding of reality, both directly perceived and inferred.”

Quite obviously, we understand the following two terms differently: `deduction’ and `meaning’. In the sense I have explained above (and more exhaustively in my book), we can never deduce the meaning of an event, action or a state of affairs unambiguously: there are multiple such accounts possible because different reasons could embody one and the same action, event or a state of affairs.

It appears to me that you are using the phrase `meaning of human existence’ in a different sense: the meaning of an action, event or a state of affairs is its `true’ nature. Perhaps, in this sense, you want to “maintain that the Indian traditions are at their core profoundly concerned with the meaning of human existence.” While something could be said in favor of this stance, which wants to recast discussions about the nature of human existence and its meaning, more requires doing than has been done so far: we need to develop a robust notion of `truth’ as something that refers to existence or reality (and not to linguistic statements), some understanding of `true’ explanation that corresponds to this notion of truth, and some understanding of the questions that these explanations seek to answer. We are far, very far, from being able to do any of these things today.