Struggling with Meaninglessness

searching meaning in meaninglessness

The Big Elephant

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I swear I have never thought of this question before until my friend asked me about this recently – he asked – “How do you describe your own philosophical belief system?”

“I’m not sure”, I replied. “I guess I go freestyle when it comes to my thinking.” I hope he was not confused by my response.

Sure, I have read some books on philosophy and came across many different school of thoughts. But I never really bothered about them because I do not have the habit of discriminating knowledge and categorize things that I’d learned into groups and classes. You know, I do not have the habit like .. “oh this guy supports rationalism, let’s hear what he has to say.” “Oh that guy supports empiricism, since I support it, whatever he says must be right.” “Oh, that guy talks about absolutism, he must be an idiot.”

This is what I call as knowledge discrimination, something which I do not practice, and that’s why I was never bothered with the standpoints of various school of thoughts. I never like the idea of ‘supporting’ and ‘against’ like – Rationalism vs Empiricism. Which one do you think is better?

There are many philosophy school of thoughts around. Among them, as I know are – Rationalism, Empiricism, Absolutism, Relativism, Existentialism, Utilitarianism, Nominalism, Idealism, Pragmatism, Skepticism and many more. So, for the sake of this post, I whipped out the dictionary and checked out the definitions of every theories above … and then to check, theoretically, on which category I belong to.

Although my style of thinking actually encompasses almost all of the school of thoughts above, I believe I’m more inclined to two school of thoughts – Rationalism and Freethought. Why Rationalism? Simply because I believe the toughest philosophical and scientific questions always need to be reverse-engineered. I believe we have to reason and deduce of how certain things work first before we could find evidence for it. Case in point -Einstein discovered General Theory of Relativity using mathematics first before conducting astronomical observations to prove his theory (on how light is bent by gravity). Apparently, empiricism is the other way round – evidence first before reasoning, which is the most common method of hypothesis in the scientific world today especially in education.

Freethought is pretty much misunderstood as it is often associated with atheism. But the true definition of Freethought is “Freethought holds that individuals should neither accept nor reject ideas proposed as truth without recourse to knowledge and reason.”  This school of thought is actually much broader than what it is thought to be.

Having described my belief system, I will never go around proudly proclaiming to the world that “I’m a Rationalist!” or “I’m a Freethinker!” boasting it as if I’m in a cool category. I believe people who always proudly categorize themselves in a belief system are missing a point … a very huge point. And I will tell you why.

If you want the Truth to stand clear before you, never be ‘for’ or ‘against’. The struggle between ‘for’ and ‘against’ is mind’s worst disease. – Jianzhi Sengcan, the third patriarch of Zen Buddhism in China.

Before I begin, I want to share a metaphor, probably the strongest metaphor I’ve ever came across in my life so far – The Blind Men And An Elephant. The origin of this metaphor was actually from Buddha’s parables in some sutras illustrating that different people will have different point of views depending on the angle of perception that we use to observe the reality. So, the parable is about several blind men touching the elephant’s body and each of them is certain about the ‘truth’ on what they are touching. Hence, it creates a disagreement between the blind men on what they are experiencing.

blind men

But I think there’s a stronger message in Buddha’s words. He didn’t say it directly, but at least this what I think the deep, underlying message is – The ignorance of being obsessed with the small picture and ignoring the bigger picture. For instance, read the comic strip below from XKCD.


In the scientific world there’s a hint of ‘hierarchy’ or superiority between different branch of science, just like how the scientist describe above on how they feel about the ‘purity’ of science over one and another. But what these scientists are missing is the idea of ‘unity’ or the big picture of science. When you piece all different branches and fields together, that will give you the big picture of science. In other words, sociology is science. Biology is science. Physics is science. Psychology is science. If science is the big picture, why do the physicist & mathematician feel proud that they are at the top of the field? Why are they so obsessed with the small picture?

And this is exactly what I am talking about knowledge discrimination earlier.

Why do human separate and categorize things?

It is no secret that human’s mind is limited. Our mind was not tuned by Evolution to solve scientific mysteries or world problems rather, our mind is meant for survival. A hunter-gather kind of lifestyle. Hence, it is a rare gift for any person to see the big picture and could see all the links and connections underlying it because not all of us are born with the ability to be genius scientist.

To compensate this weakness of human being, we categorize and break down the big picture into smaller parts. For example Science is break down to physics, biology, psychology, astronomy, etc. and then small picture is broke down into even more smaller picture, eg. psychology is further break down to psychoanalysis, cognitive science, behaviorism, and etc.

Breaking down the big picture is perfectly fine, until when people start to become obsessed with the small picture, just as hinted in the comic strip above. And the fact is people DO get obsessed with small picture because this is how the majority of people’s mind is wired – our mind is too limited and energy-consuming to to think big. And this explains why the majority of people in the world are religious, for if they could see the big picture, they would have immediately doubt God’s existence. It is no coincidence that most modern top scientists and thinkers are atheist or agnostic for one simple reason – they could see what many ordinary people cannot see. (there’s a huge difference between the mindset of a rational-thinker atheist and militant atheist, but I will leave it to the other day)

So, back to the original topic, I believe when it comes to philosophical school of thoughts, individual categories like rationalism, empiricism, nominalism, pragmatism, idealism,etc are just basically the small picture. Calling the small picture as the ‘Truth’ is just like a blind man obsessesily clinging to a part of elephant’s body and proclaiming that he knows the ‘Truth’.

I believe when someone is curious and want to learn about the elephant, he/she got to study it without any discrimination or prejudice. Learn about the trunk … learn about the tusk .. the leg, the tail, the skin, the body. Everything. And that’s how we could effectively understand the elephant. It is a delusion to just hold the tail and proclaim that you have understood the elephant because you can feel the ‘truth’ or ‘prophecy’ in it. That’s just a subjective experience. Objectively, it tells you nothing about the elephant. If I religiously cling to Rationalism and Freethought, I would be in a delusion that I’m learning.

That’s why, whenever I hear someone enthusiastically labeling or affiliating themselves with a belief system, I always believe that they are missing the point… the big elephant.

PS: Another friend of mine asked me which philosopher influenced me the most. My answer is Buddhism. I could not imagine that my thought process is half as good as I am now if I have never read Buddhism philosophy.


Written by elan85

December 30, 2008 at 2:46 am

Posted in Philosophy

One Response

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  1. […] a comment » I have not been writing any fresh original essays since 30th December – (The Big Elephant), and it actually kinda frustrates me …  You know, the feeling of the brain being lazy […]

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