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I don't mean to make this post too personal, but I've been in the midst of the first kind of existential funk in my life. A bunch of negative things have happened around me recently, and as a pretty young guy it changed my world view from being a guy with a simple view of life and what I want and what can keep me going no matter what, to one where I hardly even know what to make of the world anymore.

Is the world a good or bad place? Terrible things happen to people for no meaningful reason, while lots of people are perfectly happy. I feel like I don't understand the world I'm living in. The fact that this is the real world -- where it can be a living hell or heaven on Earth at once. People get depressed - miserable beyond belief. Horrible things can happen to them. It's not a starry-eyed world.

However, it's not all bad either. Isn't it true that the majority of depressed people, even severely depressed people, will find a solution through testing different anti-depressants and etc? Some people get sick and die though. I've had an amazing childhood, and as such I'm only recently getting to realize what the world is all about -- and I don't know what it's like anymore -- whether it's a good or bad place. What even to make of it.

I feel kind of lost, disillusioned. Unsure of what to make of the world. I think on that a lot sometimes, and it can make me feel depressed sometimes. And then I worry that it might be causing me to develop a depression by deciding that life is a hellish place where everyone is doomed to suffer and die rather than have more good times than bad. And I worry that I'll be in the living hell depressed people live in as well.

I'm 20, so I guess this happens a lot. But I don't know, I grew up believing life is a place where you have an awesome time, live old, have grandchildren and die happily. But this seems.. almost rare? That something is bound to screw me over. I don't really know what to make of it. I guess I need more wisdom on this. I just don't know what to make of the world.

I'm scared I'm being too negative and making myself feel miserable. But I'm also scared that it's because I'm finally being honest to myself about the world. I know this kind of goes on and on, and I don't think I'm depressed or anything -- I'm still having a good time -- but I'm utterly confused, and I'd be lying if to say this stuff isn't bothering me a good amount.

I feel like religious people who go through suffering lie to themselves about what will reward them when they're dead when they persevere. Which makes me think that people can't rationalize why they should pick themselves up by the bootstraps when the going gets tough -- that they have to invent some false reward for continuing. What can I tell myself that is true?

I'm not a spiritual person. I'm highly skeptical. Recently, I've developed the following questions I want to be able to answer to myself:

  1. How can a non-religious person justify or rationalize hope or optimism in an absurd world?
  2. How negative am I painting things? How can anyone's interpretation be more right than the other? And if none are more right than the other, why should I subscribe to any one interpretation?
  3. Can you acknowledge the absurd and still be hopeful and optimistic? I feel like you either can acknowledge the absurd, or lie to yourself. That doesn't mean that you can't find meaning in life, I will also contend.
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My first comment provides the starting point for my answer.

This is something that's far easier to discuss in person than it is over the limiting format of Stack Exchange. What gives people hope is an incredibly personal concept. One size wont fit all. However, if I were to cold-call this and provide an answer, it would be in the form of Alan Watt's monologue: Life is Not a Journey. Personally, it gives me hope. It may give you hope as well.

As we continued in comments, it was possible to get closer and closer to an answer that is more personalized. At the end of the discussion, you said something which spawned this answer.

@CortAmmon Interesting. So you think all this stuff is ultimately not worth the thought. No one is objectively right, so don't get too tied up by anyone's interpretation? Keep it simple?

I'd actually argue that its slightly different. Its not that this stuff is ultimately not worth the thought, but rather that this stuff may be worth not thinking.

As it turns out, there are many things in life where we perform worse if we think, and better if we don't think. Relationships are famously full of these moments. Another great source of examples like these are found in car racing and motorcycle racing. In arts like these, if you think something through, it's too late, and you missed it.

So, if rationally thinking about the meaning of life has shown to be a dead end, is it not rational to try not thinking about it?

Life isn't a journey. You were supposed to dance.

If I were to offer one "truth," I would have to offer a wise quote from the Matrix. Myself, I self-identify as a radical skeptic, one who believes I cannot truly know anything, so it's hard to offer a "truth." However, the wisdom of the scene which is sold as a truth captures something which should be helpful.

"Do not try and bend the spoon, that's impossible. Instead, only try to realize the truth...there is no spoon. Then you'll see that it is not the spoon that bends, it is only yourself."

From experience, I have found that our worldviews truly affect our perception of reality. If we consider the world to be absurd, we will see more absurdity than is really there. If we consider the world to be hopeful, we will see more hope than is really there. It's simply how the human mind works.

For the most part, this is to our benefit. However, if we find ourselves trapped by a powerful philosophy, such as absurdism, we should take action. We cannot bend the spoon, but we can bend our mind. We can choose to create a different worldview which is capable of seeing things which our current one cannot see.

So how can people, religious or not, hold to hope or optimism? Simply put, they choose to do so. They choose to view the world through a worldview which sees more hope and more to be optimistic about. It doesn't have to actually change what the world truly is, just how we interact with it.

Can you acknowledge the absurd and remain hopeful? I mentioned that I identify as a radical skeptic. I have, for fun, made statements like "I know that I cannot truly know anything." If I can make such statements, grin, and have fun with them, can an absurdist not remain hopeful?

  • Positive thought does not seem to be good either. It's unsatisfaction in the world that leads people to change the world. Ancestors were unsatisfied by doing too much work for hunting-gathering, so they made primitive tools and developed various techniques. – rus9384 May 4 '18 at 8:50
  • But is it not depressing, in of itself, that thinking too hard about life leads only to things looking grim? – sangstar May 4 '18 at 10:35
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    @rus9384 Dissatisfaction is one aspect of human nature which leads people to change the world. It is not the only one. Much of art, for instance, is generated from reveling in the world around us. – Cort Ammon May 4 '18 at 15:24
  • @sangstar, I think much about life but things do not look grim. They look wrong, but I think they can be fixed. – rus9384 May 4 '18 at 15:27
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    A concept which may be fun to explore is mushin (無心), from the Zen Buddhists. Literally translated it means "no mind." However, it is a word that comes from a longer and more paradoxical phrase, "mushin no shin" (無心の心): "mind from no mind." They use that paradox to help direct students towards a very subtle concept of how the mind can operate which does not run afoul of these existential crises without having to refute them outright. (and as you have seen, refuting them is hard indeed). – Cort Ammon May 4 '18 at 15:37
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How can a non-religious person justify or rationalize hope or optimism in an absurd world?

Can you acknowledge the absurd and still be hopeful and optimistic? I feel like you either can acknowledge the absurd, or lie to yourself.

As you've noticed, bad things happen for no reason. But there is flip side to this randomness and absurd: good things happen for no reason as well. Hope and optimism are nothing but waiting for the good thing to happen. Religions usually give you a promise that good things will happen in afterlife. Acknowledging the randomness gives you a hope that another toss of the coin may yield something good.

That was very fatalistic and not really true - actually you have lots of power over what happens to you. Just sometimes, the randomness is even more powerful than you.

How negative am I painting things?

Very negative. You've mentioned that you've had a good childhood - this might simply shattering your previous view that the world is a good place. In that case being overwhelmed by negativity is expected, nothing so far prepared you for this. Eventually, you'll regain a balance, just not as optimistic as it was before. Or you might be depressed. In that case, a medical assistance will help you.

How can anyone's interpretation be more right than the other?

It can't. And it doesn't matter who's more right. Only your interpretation matters to you. Mind you, that your attitude actually changes the way you interpret things going around. Being more negative makes you ignore the positives and focus on the negatives.

And if none are more right than the other, why should I subscribe to any one interpretation?

Because you like it/you can live with it/it works for you. You can, and you should observe other people and listen to them, take notes how things work out and eventually take the bits you want and build your own interpretation.

That doesn't mean that you can't find meaning in life, I will also contend.

You don't find meaning in life, you set it. Just like you don't find a million of dollars, you earn them.

The primary meaning of life, something that's common to all living organisms is to replicate. That's a start. As you're a self-conscious human, you are not controlled by it, you control it. You can just contend with that goal, you can reject it altogether and/or you can set yourself additional goals. And - what's best - you can always change your mind and re-orient your life 180°. It's your life, you make the meaning of it.

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This question reminds me that what is so unfortunate about our society is its pessimistic attitude to philosophy and knowledge. We ought to cheer up a bit.

"How can a non-religious person justify or rationalize hope or optimism in an absurd world?"

Who says it's an absurd world? You'd have some difficulty proving the case.It is a conjecture. Why be depressed by a conjecture? If you are depressed then your conjectures will be depressing.

What do you mean by 'religious person'. Do you mean dogmatic Christians? If so then I don't know the answer to your question. If you mean Buddhists, Taoists and other esotericists then they do not justify their hopes and fears. They investigate the facts in order to dispose of conjectures and replace them with knowledge. They report that the world is wonderful and that there is no reason to be unhappy.

"How negative am I painting things? How can anyone's interpretation be more right than the other? And if none are more right than the other, why should I subscribe to any one interpretation?"

This is a dangerous approach to forming your views. You should subscribe to a process of investigation not pre-form your opinions and views. It is clear from the question that you have not studied comparative religion, which is surely a basic requirement for having an opinion. As for interpretation, regrettably this is your problem. The teacher should not be interpreting anything but speaking from knowledge.

"Can you acknowledge the absurd and still be hopeful and optimistic? I feel like you either can acknowledge the absurd, or lie to yourself. That doesn't mean that you can't find meaning in life, I will also contend."

Luckily we do not need to conclude that the Universe is absurd. The dialethists do, Priest and Melhuish etc., but they cannot prove their case. There is, however, a great deal that is absurd in most people's world-view. This is clearly shown by philosophical analysis.

But why the pessimism? You are projecting your depression onto the world for no reason. It is not as if you know how it works. I would suggest exploring religion more deeply while avoiding any hint of dogma or speculation.

The Dalai Lama comments that when he arrived in the West he was struck immediately by the pessimism and depression that prevails in our thinking. For him everything can be known, no guesswork is required and the world is just fine as it is. It is considered a major 'no no' in mysticism to make claims that are not testable and it should never happen, while the best writers will have done the testing themselves and have no need whatsoever for hopes and fears. Existential hopes and fears (as opposed to our transient hopes of, say, winning the lottery) would be a measure of our ignorance of truth. With knowledge the hopes and fears become redundant.

EDIT: I'll reply here to the OPs comments.

OP - "Why would the Dalai Lama contend that "everything can be known, no guesswork is required and the world is just fine as it is"? That seems baseless."

It is a central claim of the mystics that everything knowable can be known. This would be why they do not teach speculative ideas. There is no need and it would be counter-productive. When, say, the Buddha or Lao Tsu tell us something about the world they are never speculating. The claim is that you are able to know everything that can be known.If this claim is false then the Perennial philosophy is a sham.

OP: "With knowledge the hopes and fears become redundant."? I have trouble understanding what you mean here. Why are existential hopes and fears a measure of our ignorance of truth?"

Hopes and fears are caused by uncertainty. If we know our situation fully we can have no existential hopes or fears. For example, the mystic has no hopesor fears for he knows he could not have more than he has now and could not want for more, while any fears for the future disappear with a knowledge of what the future holds. If we know the outcome of a horse-race then we have no hopes or fears for the outcome.

OP: Also, if I acknowledge that truly terrible things happen in the world, like children dying of cancer, which is factual, am I not being logical in concluding that the world is cruel if I believe the children dying of cancer is cruel?

I cannot find a quick answer here. Mysticism claims that suffering is not truly real. It would seem real, like the rest of the space-time world, only if we are ignorant of the facts. It might be better to say that it is the sufferer that is not real. The topic is too big for the time available but a clue might be that for the mystic or meditator body and mind are not who we are but what we are trying to 'drop off' or shed like a skin as we discover who we really are. For a better answer any Buddhist text on suffering would be more clear. .

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    I'm not depressed or anything - just very impressionable and I think let some negative thinking get the better of me. I would contend that people have said the nihilism and absurdism are one of the more logical perspectives, as they require few assumptions, I would think. I wholeheartedly agree that I shouldn't pretend to think I know anything about the world without a good backing in knowledge. Can you elaborate on your last paragraph? Why would the Dalai Lama contend that "everything can be known, no guesswork is required and the world is just fine as it is"? That seems baseless. – sangstar May 4 '18 at 13:25
  • And can you elaborate on " Existential hopes and fears (as opposed to our transient hopes of, say, winning the lottery) would be a measure of our ignorance of truth. With knowledge the hopes and fears become redundant."? I have trouble understanding what you mean here. Why are existential hopes and fears a measure of our ignorance of truth? – sangstar May 4 '18 at 13:25
  • Also, if I acknowledge that truly terrible things happen in the world, like children dying of cancer, which is factual, am I not being logical in concluding that the world is cruel if I believe the children dying of cancer is cruel? – sangstar May 4 '18 at 13:47
  • Sure @sangstar, that's logical if you believe that that is cruel. But bad things do happen to good people, and your logic would require you to believe that SomeOne intends for cancer to befall those children. The same SomeOne you expect to help you find positivity? How does that follow? – Beanluc May 4 '18 at 21:38
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    On the edited bit: But, the Dalai Lama and other mystics clearly can't know all that is knowable. I don't see how they have no fear of the future because they know what the future holds -- they can't truly. And the sufferer is not real? It sounds all hogwashy or ignorant. – sangstar May 5 '18 at 13:59
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Let’s consider the three questions separately.

How can a non-religious person justify or rationalize hope or optimism in an absurd world?

When one reaches a contradiction one has to find what assumptions one has made that led one to the contradiction. Using a different metaphor, if one finds oneself at a dead end in a maze, one has to backtrack through the maze to look for another way out.

Sometimes it is hard to find the way back. Sometimes the false assumptions are not easy to identity, but here we have two assumptions explicitly stated in the question which are worth considering as possibly false.

First, there is the assumption that the world is “absurd”. That might not be true. Modifying that assumption might lead one out of the maze.

Second, there is the assumption that it is somehow better to be a “non-religious person”. That might not be true. Modifying that assumption might lead one out of the maze.

Modifying an assumption does not mean accepting the opposite of the assumption. It just means modifying it.

How negative am I painting things? How can anyone's interpretation be more right than the other? And if none are more right than the other, why should I subscribe to any one interpretation?

If no one’s interpretation is more right than some other person’s interpretation, then the interpretation affirming an absurd world is no more right than, say, the interpretation of a religious person, or anyone else, who does not see the world as absurd.

In other words, subscribing to the absurd world interpretation is subscribing to an interpretation which, according to the theory that no interpretation is more right than any other, applies also to this very absurd world interpretation.

The bottom line is this absurd world interpretation might be wrong and, by its own principles, has no reason to be specially accepted as some default interpretation.

Can you acknowledge the absurd and still be hopeful and optimistic? I feel like you either can acknowledge the absurd, or lie to yourself. That doesn't mean that you can't find meaning in life, I will also contend.

If acknowledging the absurd means that one cannot be hopeful and optimistic, then acknowledging the absurd does not lead to being hopeful and optimistic except by lying to oneself.

Again, one has reached a contradiction and one has to search for the assumption(s) one has made that led one to the contradiction. Those assumptions may not be obvious.

Here one of the assumptions appears to be “you either can acknowledge the absurd, or lie to yourself”. Perhaps that is false. Perhaps acknowledging the absurd is lying to oneself.

  • I'd contend that believing in the absurdist view requires the fewest assumptions, however? It's the reason why people concede that nihilism and absurdism are very logical – sangstar May 4 '18 at 13:16
  • @sangstar If the assumptions are false, it doesn't matter how few of them are used. They are still false. Who concedes that nihilism and absurdism are very logical? These are the people to question. Ultimately, it doesn't matter who that is. If one reaches a dead end in the maze, one should turn around and look for another way out. – Frank Hubeny May 4 '18 at 13:23
  • I would say that how do we know if the assumptions are false? But I suppose this does lead me to Cort Ammon's answer again -- there is no point trying to bend the spoon. We probably can't really make any perfectly, objectively justifiable assumptions to land to any conclusions on this matter. – sangstar May 4 '18 at 13:27
  • @sangstar Cort Ammon provided a good answer. I up-voted it. We don't know if the assumptions are false unless this is a logical or mathematical argument which it is not. But we can search for assumptions that might be false and try to modify them. – Frank Hubeny May 4 '18 at 13:32
  • This may sound very naive, but, if there are no clear logical conclusions in philosophy, why do we consider it so useful? – sangstar May 4 '18 at 13:35
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I up voted Cort Ammon's answer for the link to the Alan Watts video alone.

But here's another approach...

Your question suggests that religion is a great tool for acquiring "hope," so those who aren't religious have to work a little harder to find hope. But how do you define hope? Belief in a Heaven that may not exist might qualify as hope, but it's a little meaningless if your goal is understanding.

Religion is loaded with dogma and is a great tool for propaganda. I haven't explored this topic in detail, but I've read that the Romans embraced Christianity in the belief that poor and oppressed people were more likely to accept their lot if they believed there was a better life after death.

If you can learn your mind of "belief systems" (e.g. religious and political dogma), then you may find yourself in a very scary place. But it's also a more rational place than the familiar bubble of mind control most people live in.

To be honest, I'm not extremely hopeful or optimistic myself. I think the world is going you-know-where. But I derive satisfaction from at least understanding why we're flushing ourselves down the toilet.

At the same time, I do my best to fight back.

We should also take a close look at the word "absurd." What's absurd about the world? Was the world absurd before humans evolved, or is absurdity something we brought into the world?

The last presidential election was absurd, even more so than previous elections. Propaganda continues to become even more absurd.

The world is largely controlled by a relatively small number of powerful, evil people, just as it was once controlled by European colonial powers. Studying political science, psychology and philosophy can help you cut through the BS and see reality, which is less absurd than the world constructed by propagandists.

Regarding your second question, how can one person be more "right" than the other?

Again, there's a lot of politics/propaganda in life, including the philosophical arena. If two people offer different opinions, you might want to research the people themselves. Do they post on forums under pseudonyms? Are they associated with questionable organizations?

I've seen a couple philosophers mentioned on this forum in a positive light who were hard core propagandists.

You've already opened your eyes. Just keep opening them wider.

  • I do not know why did you shrink the "absurd" into some people's behavior. It's more of an abstract idea than the psychology of a group of people. – Themobisback May 4 '18 at 5:56
  • It depends on what songster meant by "absurd." Is he referring to philosophical paradoxes or the striking difference between the "real world" and the world as its painted by propagandists? The latter can be roughly defined as the psychology of a group of people. – David Blomstrom May 4 '18 at 11:17
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How negative am I painting things? How can anyone's interpretation be more right than the other? And if none are more right than the other, why should I subscribe to any one interpretation?

What reality is and the perception of reality that an individual has are two very different things. For example, we humans feel like we live in the present, that things we see and feel are happening right now, but in fact, we constantly live in the past. Our body constantly takes a tiny amount of time to process reality before we perceive it. Consequently, everything we see or feel happening in the present has actually already happened. However, this difference between reality and how we perceive it doesn't really matter, since we cannot ever "access" the "real" present. All we have (and will ever have) as humans is our perception of the present which is actually a little bit in the past. Therefore, it would be pointless to worry about not being able to see the real present, wouldn't it?

What I'm trying to say is that we don't truly live in reality, we live in our perception of reality. Every human being (in fact any conscious entity) lives in it's own little matrix which he considers to be reality and I think that this matrix of yours is the right one.

Can you acknowledge the absurd and still be hopeful and optimistic? I feel like you either can acknowledge the absurd, or lie to yourself. That doesn't mean that you can't find meaning in life, I will also contend.

If the world we live in is absurd, then what's the problem in having an absurd perception of reality?

For example, in the way I view reality, playing video games and smoking weed are the best things in the universe. Are they really the best things in the universe? They're not. Would other people agree with me? Maybe. But does it matter if playing video games and smoking weed are really the best things in the universe and that other people agree with me? No, because I perceive the universe this way and no matter what is truly the best thing in the universe and how other people perceive it, I will still have this perception of reality and that's, in my opinion, what truly matters.

So yes, in the world we live in, nothing really matters, and you seem to perceive this negatively since you say that this restrains you from being hopeful and optimistic. They way I perceive it, I think that's a good thing, because you get to decide what really matters to you! It's all about how you perceive the reality around you.

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The Law of Big Numbers and its brother, probability, my friend. Being twenty years old you may have not had a fortune to gain an insight into the significance of those, but this tandem explains everything and applies perfectly to the world, which is just an enormous collection of people, places, events, ideas, etc. Knowing it, you will know that in big mathematical populations, such as the world, the significance of each element is proportional to its quantity and the likelihood of anything happening is proportional to the historical frequency. This will put your mind at ease by giving you a perspective on how to more precisely evaluate events around you and see the direction in which the things are going. As far as hope is concerned, I believe the world is going in the positive direction overall, because more (or better, higher proportion of people) has access to the knowledge previously inaccessible - due to, of course, the proliferation of the internet.

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How can a non-religious person justify or rationalize hope or optimism in an absurd world?

If you are non-religious, then unless you are very nihilistic you already have some structure for valuing things--only difference is that it's not dependent or derived from a deity or its characteristics/knowledge/commandments, etc.

Therefore hope and optimism would have to come from that same non-deistic structure.

Ask yourself this question--why are you non-religious, yet wanting to continue living? Perhaps that can be the basis of hope/optimism.

An "easy way out" is to provide an answer based on a biological imperative--"I live because I have the instinct to live"/self-preservation, then it's not hard to see how hope/optimism is basically an expression of a desire to live and dervied from that.

How negative am I painting things? How can anyone's interpretation be more right than the other? And if none are more right than the other, why should I subscribe to any one interpretation?

If anyone knew for sure, philosophy wouldn't exist. Asking questions is not negative in and of itself, but rejecting/destorying things is.

Can you acknowledge the absurd and still be hopeful and optimistic?

In an absurd world, things can go horribly wrong for no reason, but they can also go horribly right for no reason. You might die a painful death tomorrow, but maybe you'll win the lottery instead. It depends if you want to continue living and keep trying.

I feel like you either can acknowledge the absurd, or lie to yourself. That doesn't mean that you can't find meaning in life, I will also contend.

Albert Camus also had a third option, suicide, but don't do that!

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