Episode 9: Existential Magic
Today's show is the ninth in a series called "The Art of Making Meaning," a series that introduces the idea that meaning is not something to seek or something to find but rather something to make. Today's show is called "Existential Magic" and focuses on the idea that people prefer to believe in almost anything rather than live courageously with an insoluble mystery. The bigger news: even if that mystery got solved, we would still have to take charge of deciding in the realm of meaning.
Welcome to your purpose-centered life on the personal life media network. My name is Eric Maisel and I’d like to invite you to spend some time with me today exploring the vital subject of meaning. I want to teach you how to fill your life with meaning and how to avoid meaning crises and the problems that flow from them, like chronic anxiety and depression. Each week we’ll explore an important aspect of this territory.
We start each week from the following vantage point, that you can take charge of the meaning in your life. You can decide where you want to make your meaning investments. You can decide what values you want to uphold. You can decide how you want to manifest your potential. All of this is within your grasp. On this program you’ll learn how to lead the life you’ve always intended leading.
Today’s show is the ninth and last in a series called “The Art of Meaning Making,” a series that introduces the idea that meaning is not something to seek or something to find but rather something to make. Today’s show is called “Existential Magic.” Let’s begin!
Why has the universe produced consciousness-driven creatures like you and me? The answer is: no one knows and no one can know. Most people can’t stand that answer and won’t accept it for an instant. They would prefer to believe in almost anything—you name it and people have believed in it—rather than live courageously with an insoluble mystery. Neither faith, the scientific method, the exploration of distant galaxies, astrological charts, voyages to the center of the brain, messages in bottles, or anything else a human being can do, think, learn, or believe can answer the following question, “Given our universe, how should I live my life?” We do not know what “our universe” in that sentence means and we never will.
But the problem goes beyond being stuck with a genuine mystery. Even if that insoluble mystery got solved and we learned with absolute certainty that the universe was a self-created, self-perpetuating hockey puck designed to maximize chaos and minimize friction—whether it was a bad joke or a brilliant design, a horrible nothingness or a splendid somethingness—that information would provide us with absolutely no moral imperatives. All of our moral imperatives would still have to come from thoughtfulness and personal meaning-making. That is the big news, the biggest news for our species: no matter what the universe is, we still must take charge of deciding in the domain of our own being.
There is no legitimate way to get from what is, even if you know what that “is” is, to what ought to be. Even if you know what a heart is, you know nothing “objectively true” about whether you should stab it, transplant it, or massage it. Even if you knew that once it stopped beating you would cease to be for all time or, alternately, that you would spend a thousand years at a really good resort, you still wouldn’t know whether to keep it beating or to stop it right this instant. To know facts, even ultimate ones, is not to know ethics or meaning. Those you must conjure into existence.
If you have a background in philosophy you will recognize this territory. A long time ago the philosopher David Hume articulated the argument that you can’t draw ethical conclusions from natural facts. That tigers kill gazelles isn’t a “good thing” or a “bad thing”: it is simply what is. That an earthquake devastates a city is not a moral indictment of that city, no matter what superstitious zealots might believe. Killing is neither good nor bad as an ironclad principle, since killing to defend yourself is one thing and killing because someone has hurt your feelings is another. To draw a conclusion like “Killing is bad” is to commit what is now colloquially known as the naturalistic fallacy: the fallacy that it is possible to derive general rules about what ought to be from what simply is.
More recently, in the neighborhood of a hundred years ago, a group of philosophers known as linguistic philosophers, championed by the British philosopher G. E. Moore, updated Hume’s ideas by looking closely at how language operates and by observing the human penchant for extrapolating moral principles from qualities. People love to say that being quiet is good and that being loud is bad—but what if you need to warn people about a fire? Or they love to say that obedience is good and that disobedience is bad—but what if the laws of your land are unjust? People love to say these things so that they can stake out simple moral positions, but linguists and philosophers have identified that the power of these utterances reside in their linguistic form, not their truth. They work because language allows them to work. A phrase like “God is good” proves absolutely nothing about the existence of gods or the nature of goodness and everything about how language operates.
You don’t need any formal philosophical training or to take any interest in philosophy to appreciate the implications of these observations. The appropriate conclusion to draw from all of this, the conclusion that you know in your heart is true, is that you can’t create ethical principles from natural facts, even if what you know is exactly what the universe is all about. Even if you knew that, you would still be obliged to decide how to act and how to construe meaning. It may be unnerving at first but it is ultimately liberating to accept that no facts, whether physical or metaphysical, get us to ethics and meaning: we must get there completely on our own.
The exact movement required is to stop looking for guiding principles and an ethical code and to step up to the plate as a meaning activist who thoughtfully translates her personal sense of right and wrong and her personal sense of meaningfulness and meaninglessness into a satisfying way of life that allows her to feel proud and righteous. You begin to trust that you can take what’s inside of you and make meaning and ethics on the fly. Given that there is no legitimate way to get from “what is” to “what ought to be,” you must completely let go of “what ought to be” and make a wild, brave, profound turn in the direction of “what I intend my life to mean.”
My hunch is that you have been looking for the way to conceptualize how to live your life as an independent, self-directing meaning-maker. Now you know! You get to make some existential magic and create your life exactly as you intend it to look, exactly to your meaning specifications, independent of any belief system. You no longer need despair that there is no place for you in this mock-pious, bottom-line-driven society of ours. As an existential magician, a conjurer with amazing skills bestowed upon you by the universe, you get to create your own path, your own stepping-stones, and your own journey. Whatever the universe is or may become, it has given you this precise opportunity.
That concludes today’s show. I invite you to come back next week for the first episode in a brand new series, when we look at how to use the incanting process to support our meaning-making efforts. If you want to get a head start on that discussion, please pick up my book Ten Zen Seconds or visit www.tenzenseconds.com. The phrase “the incanting process” may meaning nothing to you right now—but you will after next week’s chat!
To subscribe to “your purpose-centered life,” please visit personallifemedia.com, where you’ll also find my blog. You can drop me an email at firstname.lastname@example.org; and I hope that you’ll visit my website to learn more about my books and services. That’s ericmaisel.com—(spelled out).
Thank you for listening!