Interviewer: This seems to connect with something you touched on earlier, about definition. To define is to make a thing distinct, clear – definite. In boredom, the overwhelming feeling is, as you say, of anxiety, uncertainty. What one lacks is a definiteness about one’s situation and about oneself within that situation: there isn’t any ‘knowing’. The problem of meaningfulness, it seems, is bound up in epistemological problems regarding the possibility of knowing at all. To what extent, if any, does the existence of uncertainty in the world place restraints on our pursuit of meaningful lives?
Patrick: I don’t think this uncertainty places restraints on the pursuit of meaningful lives, but it certainly complicates matters! If we look at a related idea, that of the ‘true self’, we can see that many people are pretty sure from an early age of what/who this true self is and thus how to live in accord with it. I guess that this is where religions excelled. In this certainty about one’s nature or essence, it is clearly much easier to live a meaningful life than if you are batted about by the endless fragmented narratives of selfhood that we find emerging in the 20th century. So even with religion declining, people still tend to cling on to something solid that guides their lives and gives it meaning, for example Marxism, psychoanalysis, scientology and so on. Like religions, these offer compelling narratives of human nature, suffering, meaning, salvation, and so on. For some people, affiliation to this group and its associated meaning structures will suffice, and this does not necessarily make their lives any less meaningful than those who are unsatisfied with such systems of thought. From a personal perspective, I find I cling much more stubbornly to ideas when I am feeling vulnerable and lost. I then often let these same ideas drop when I feel more secure. It seems strange that I continue to follow this pattern, yet at the same time I appear to have little control over it. Those ideas that seem a matter of life and death one day may hold very little importance the next day. I don’t know whether this makes me a very shallow person! I hope that underneath this rapid flux of ideas, certain deeper convictions remain in place or slowly emerge. I also think that somehow, even within the uncertainties and anxieties I experience when I let go of an idea or belief that has been so important to me, I have some deep sense of a self to which I am being true or authentic. So for me at the moment, it is precisely in trying to break down these fixed ideas of self, identity, meaning and so on, that I am finding meaning in my life. In a strange way, I have always been drawn to the kind of suffering that is brought about by dropping previously comforting and meaning-giving worldviews! I think that reading people like Heidegger has really helped me in this. He legitimates suffering (or at least productive forms of suffering) as crucial tools for questioning taken-for-granted ideas about oneself and the world. For him, anxiety was the philosophical mood par excellence! So, to answer your question briefly, I think that uncertainty (and the suffering that goes with it) is the best guide we have to explore the possibility of our ‘true self’ and of moving towards something like meaning. From this position, fixity and certainty would then appear to be the forces that place restraints on the pursuit of a meaningful life. Maybe, as with Socrates, to finally know that we don’t know anything, is the most meaningful philosophical response to life.