Humans are often said to have a “need for metaphysics” (Schopenhauer). Aware of our own mortality, we deeply desire knowledge of and meaning in life. This drives us to create myths, religions, philosophies, value systems, and scientific paradigms.
We like to see meaning as something profound and glorious. We say, “Meaning is precious because it makes our suffering worthwhile.” But what if the meanings we find and invent are just our weak mind protecting itself with rationalizations? What if meaning in life acts as a petty defense mechanism for fragile egos? And what if our sources of meaning also spawn bigotry?
Let’s look at two powerful sources of meaning, religion and nationalism:
If you want to make people believe in imaginary entities such as gods and nations, you should make them sacrifice something valuable. The more painful the sacrifice, the more convinced people are of the existence of the imaginary recipient. A poor peasant sacrificing a priceless bull to Jupiter will become convinced that Jupiter really exists, otherwise how can he excuse his stupidity? The peasant will sacrifice another bull, and another, and another, just so he won’t have to admit that all the previous bulls were wasted. (Yuval Noah Harari, 2017, Homo Deus, Chapter 8)
An ideology is a metaphysical vessel, filled with meaning. We can invest time, energy, money, thoughts, and emotions in an ideology. The more we invest, the more staunchly we will believe that it is meaningful and the more vehemently we will oppose anyone whose “truths” suggest that our investments were pointless sacrifices.
Who could bear to admit that one’s “meaningful investment” was really just a stupid decision? The problem intensifies when the investment surpasses blood, sweat, and tears:
A crippled soldier who lost his legs would rather tell himself, ‘I sacrificed myself for the glory of the eternal Italian nation!’ than ‘I lost my legs because I was stupid enough to believe self-serving politicians.’ It is much easier to live with the fantasy, because the fantasy gives meaning to suffering. (Yuval Noah Harari, 2017, Homo Deus, Chapter 8)
Stories create meaning, regardless of whether they are based on objective facts or false myths. Nationalists and revolutionaries have for ages been telling fantastical stories to assure themselves and others that nobody who dies for their cause will have died in vain:
If I have sacrificed a child to the glory of the Italian nation, or my legs to the communist revolution, it’s enough to turn me into a zealous Italian nationalist or an enthusiastic communist. For if Italian national myths or communist propaganda are a lie, then I will be forced to admit that my child’s death or my own paralysis have been completely pointless. Few people have the stomach to admit such a thing. (Yuval Noah Harari, 2017, Homo Deus, Chapter 8)
To see what’s true and to be rational, we must be willing to let go of meaningful myths. This can be tough. Metaphysical toughness, the ability to endure meaninglessness and to let go of metaphysical hopes, is a prerequisite for solid rationality.
Most people flee towards meaning and cling on to it with their lives. They beg for morsels of meaning like a dog begs for scraps of meat. So when meaning comes at the cost of truth, education is not enough to prevent bigotry. Education alone cannot outweigh stupid investments in a meaningful ideology. The real antidote to bigotry is metaphysical toughness.
A metaphysically tough person has the mental strength to resist ideological tribalism, to admit stupid decisions, and to concede when his “heroic suffering” has served no real purpose whatsoever. He can be metaphysically hopeless without despair. But being able to endure meaninglessness with a cool mind does not mean surrendering to nihilism. There can still be meaning in life, so long as it is not irrational:
- Spiritual beings aren’t real, but spiritual experiences are. Although mysticism (the feeling of being one with the universe) can give people meaning in life, it doesn’t justify religious practices beyond their worldly worth. For example, mysticism may justify rituals that alter conscious states, though not rituals that slaughter goats.
- The manifest destiny and divine glory of nations aren’t real, but ethnic identities are. Ethnic belonging can give people meaning in life, though it doesn’t justify nationalist practices beyond their adequate worth. For example, ethnic belonging may justify limitation of immigration, but not militaristic imperialism.
Rational sources of meaning may not be as intense and mind-engrossing as their mythical excesses, but this is just to say that they are less bigoted. And that leads to the dilemma of open-mindedness: Would you rather have deep, unshakable convictions that simplify your life, harden your character, and aggrandize your purpose? Or would you prefer truthful, flexible principles that are often confusing, debilitating, and vulnerable to be detached from meaning in life?
We must be tough if we want to maneuver wisely through complexities, ambiguities, and metaphysical vacuities. Metaphysical toughness is what enables us to keep an open mind while enduring intellectual confusion, practical debilitation, and depressing meaninglessness without getting lost in it. We don’t need stupid beliefs to have meaning in life: all we need is a path to pursue and a group to belong to.
May this inspire whosoever claims to be an exponent of truth and a lover of wisdom! If your True Will is obscure, your mission uncertain, your social status threatened, and your family falling apart, you need to stay tough metaphysically.
A new meaningful path will emerge and new meaningful relationships will form, but they will only be good1 if you can endure meaninglessness instead of desperately clinging to and investing in whatever comes around first. In essence, metaphysical toughness is the art of patience—patience in purposelessness.