Or if not literally obsess, care deeply? Karl White passes on the following from one of his correspondents:
Why are we all so obsessed with infusing things with meaning anyway? Isn't this craving a mere artifact of being brought up under systems of belief that insist on the fact that life has to serve some purpose? Maybe if we hadn't been presented with such presumptions from the beginning, we wouldn't have such a hard time accepting existence?
These are reasonable questions. Perhaps we cannot be satisfied with finite meanings and relative satisfactions and cannot accept the utter finality of death only because we have have been culturally brainwashed for centuries upon centuries into thinking that there is some Grand Purpose at the back of things that we participate in, and some Final Redemption, when there is none. Perhaps we have been laboring under a God Delusion or a Transcendent Meaning Delusion for lo these many centuries. But now these delusions are losing their grip. One sort of person responds to the loss despairingly and pessimistically. Call it the Woody Allen response. Allen laments the absurdity of life and makes movies to distract himself and others from the dismal reality. Another sort of person digs in his heels and frantically tries to shore up the delusions by concocting ever more subtle metaphysical arguments when he knows deep down, as Allen would insist, that it's all "a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing."
The cure for both is the same: drop the delusions. Stop measuring reality against a nonexistent standard. To paraphrase Nietzsche, when the supposedly Real World falls, then so does the Apparent World. (See The Twilight of the Idols.) The erasure of the Transcendent abrogates the denigration of the Immanent. The Immanent, now no longer immanent, is the sole reality. Live it, love it, affirm it. The finite suffices. Its finitude is no argument against this life if the only alternative is an Infinity that doesn't exist. Death is no argument against life if this is all there is. Drop the delusion and its hinterworlds and you will neither despair nor hope. You will learn to be true to the earth, your natural and only home.
The above considerations don't sway me.
What explains the origin of the systems of belief whose appropriation makes us hanker after Transcendence? Is the longing an artifact of the belief, or the belief an artifact of the longing?
I would say that the longing explains the belief. The belief cannot explain the longing since the belief had to first be there to explain anything, and what explains it is the longing. From time immemorial, people have experienced a deep dissatisfaction with the here and now and with it a longing for a better, truer, higher life. These experiences are real, though not had by everyone, and not equally by those who have them. Outstanding individuals translated these recurrent and widely-distributed experiences of dissatisfaction and longing into systems of belief and practice of various sorts, Buddhism being one example, with its sarvam dukkham. These systems were developed and passed on. They 'resonated' with people, all sorts of people, from every land, at every time. Why? Because they spoke to some real inchoate longing that people everywhere have. They answer to a real need, the metaphysical need. (Cf. Schopenhauer, "On Man's Need for Metaphysics" in WWR vol. II) So it is not as if people were brainwashed into accepting these symbolic forms; they express and articulate real dissatisfaction with the mundane and ephemeral and real longing for lasting beatitude.
In sum: the experiences of deep dissatisfaction and deep longing are real; they come first phylogenetically, ontogenetically, temporally, logically, and epistemically. They give rise to systems of belief and practice (and not the other way around). Both the experiences and the beliefs are evidence of a sort for the reality of that which could remove the dissatisfaction and assuage the longing. Of course, it takes some careful arguing to get from longing for X to the reality of X.
This leads us to the topic of Arguments from Desire, a topic to be pursued in subsequent posts.
Since I mentioned Nietzsche above, I will end with Zarathustra's Roundelay, which never fails to bring tears to my eyes. It shows that Nietzsche, though possessing the bladed intellect of the skeptic, had the throbbing heart of a homo religiosus. In his own perverse way he testifies to the truth above suggested. "All joy wants eternity, wants deep, wants deep eternity!"
- Oh Mensch! Gib acht!
- Was spricht die tiefe Mitternacht?
- »Ich schlief, ich schlief—,
- Aus tiefem Traum bin ich erwacht:—
- Die Welt ist tief,
- Und tiefer als der Tag gedacht.
- Tief ist ihr Weh—,
- Lust—tiefer noch als Herzeleid:
- Weh spricht: Vergeh!
- Doch alle Lust will Ewigkeit—,
- —will tiefe, tiefe Ewigkeit!«
Walter Kaufmann trans.:
- O man, take care!
- What does the deep midnight declare?
- "I was asleep—
- From a deep dream I woke and swear:
- The world is deep,
- Deeper than day had been aware.
- Deep is its woe;
- Joy—deeper yet than agony:
- Woe implores: Go!
- But all joy wants eternity—
- Wants deep, wants deep eternity."
Adrian del Caro trans.:
- Oh mankind, pray!
- What does deep midnight have to say?
- "From sleep, from sleep—
- From deepest dream I made my way:—
- The world is deep,
- And deeper than the grasp of day.
- Deep is its pain—,
- Joy—deeper still than misery:
- Pain says: Refrain!
- Yet all joy wants eternity—
- —Wants deep, wants deep eternity."