Quora Answer: If we all end up dying, what’s the purpose of living?

Oct 18 2014

True to form I am going to think about this question in terms of Heidegger’sBeing and Time which I have been commenting on at Thinknet. But first a side reference to Terrence Deacon’s Incomplete Nature. Purpose is what he calls an ententional phenomena based on absential eventities referenced and interpreted by ourselves but which are actually things that are missing from our physical existence. Ententional and abstential are neologisms that Terrence Deacon made up to refer to phenomena like purpose which only appears in life, and consciousness and the social but has nothing to do with physical matter per se except in as much as it is an absence, something missing.

Heidegger of course makes a major theme out of death, and says that it is the only way for Dasein (being there, being-in-the-world) to become authentically individuated as a self within the context  of the mitsein (They, One, or what Lacan calls the Big Other). Basically Heidegger says we never experience Death itself, but only the anticipation of it that leads to an existential anxiety that expresses itself in Fallenness, i.e. the ultimate groundlessness of our existence.

So interestingly your question contains Dying which is something that we all do, but none of us experience, to the extent that when we are dead we have no experience, it is always something in the future even if it is imminent. On the other hand you have an ententional phenomena of purpose, which is something always absent at least physically. So it appears that your question contains nihilistic opposites, i.e. something never experienced verses something that is never here. Both are always in the future. That is why Heidegger says that we are always oriented toward the future, one giving purpose to our life and the other recognizing the ultimate end we can foresee because we have seen others come to that end. If it is true that this question contains nihilistic opposites in tandem then our real question is how do we make the non-nihilistic distinction between the two. Clearly if both of them are future then that must be counter weighted by the past which is related to thrown befindlichkeit (foundness, or mood). The nihilism of the future certainly engenders a mood of depression, a withdrawal from life because of the uselessness of it. But according to Heidegger that is really just covering over the anxiety about death that permeates everything that must be overcome in order to seize life resolutely and authentically.  This more or less says as we might  have imagined that the non-nihilistic distinction between past and future is in the present. And in fact in Old German there were only two tenses complete and incomplete. Both future and past are complete from that point of view. What is incomplete contains the now and virtual co-now of the mythic. We lost the mythic co-now in the symmetry breaking between the mythopoietic and metaphysical eras so that is why the future tense is given extra emphasis in the metaphysical era. Anyway that is a clue for why the nihilistic opposites of death and purpose both appear in the future. But it is also a clue as to what needs to be done to get out of this nihilistic situation. One answer is hedonism of the present. But that is also nihilistic. Another answer is just carry on as expected which is also nihilistic. But another answer is to realize that each moment in the present has a virtual co-present that haunts it. That virtual moment is mythic and contained in logos as its existential. That existential is unassigned to any of the standard three temporal ecstasies.

What gave life meaning for the Heros of myth was to have their story told by bards, and scops down  though time because their lives and deeds had been so glorious. Each of us constructs as self though narratives we invent about ourselves to establish our identity.  When we are living our mythic journey within a self-constructed narrative that makes sense to us we feel as if our life has meaning. One can interpret this as the fusion of the now of the present with the co-now of the mythic as expressed in Logos. The now of the present from the point of view of Heidegger is only Falling. But he says that we can have if we are authentic a moment of vision which goes beyond mere falling. That vision gets expressed as the mythic narrative that informs our lives, that we make up and live every day based on what happens. Just as really past and future are the same peterite tense so to the now and virtual co-now that Deleuze talks about are the same ultimately. Lack of meaning comes from our banishment of the mythic in the metaphysical era. But the mythic is not just any story we happen to make up, it is rather a story built out of archetypes that explores our archetypal milieu as Jung and Hillman understand it. An excellent example recently come  to light is Jung’s Red Book which encapsulates his struggle to bring mythic meaning into his own life. Jung’s answer would have been “Get a Red Book of your own and start inscribing your own archetypal mythology to support your experience of the now by the mythic co-now that haunts it.” This goes back to Plato who called the WorldSoul a moving image of Eternity in time, and also a realization of change and changelessness at the same time, i.e. a supra-rational view of life. Every thing is changing and everything is staying the same and the intersection of those two when held together in our contemplation gives insight into the nature of existence. It is not a contradiction, paradox, or absurdity but in fact a supra-rational state in which myriad opposites are true simultaneously without interfering, which we see as interpenetration or intra-inclusion. This is at least a Zen or DzogChen way of looking at the situation. Every moment is nondual without any hint of cardinality (one, two, multiple). We are actually in that state all the time, but we only realize it rarely. That state is full of meaning that flows out of manifestation through the void or emptiness into our  lives at every moment, if we but knew.

So the real question is why we don’t experience that ecstasy continuously? Heidegger would put it down to our immersion and lostness in Mitsein (the They). Various traditions call the problem Dukkha, Maya, Dunya, which are various ways of indicating illusion. Life naturally fills with meaning pouring out of the non-cardinal states (non-monist, non-dual, non-plural) if we don’t block it or ignore it. Our natural state is to be flooded by meaning coming from nowhere to inform our lives with things like purposes, values, virtues, order, rta, good, fate, archetypal sources of existence, roots of self-manifestation. In that state the nihilistic question does not arise. The nihilistic question that saps the world of meaning arises only in the nihilistic state that covers over the ecstasy of existence which is either interpreted as empty by Buddhists or void by Taoists. The emptiness of existence or its void nature is the prerequisite for the cup of existence being filled by meaning. We always search for that libation bearer from whose hands we long to drink that long forgotten wine.

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