At bottom this is the question being addressed in this essay. In doing so we'll take a circuitous route through 2,500 years of philosophy, touching on religious belief.
Of Gods and Men
For as long as we're aware of, the mind of man has lay divided. On the right hand there is an awareness of the infinite, timeless and universal...in a word, the sacred. On the left the transitory, particular and mortal relentlessly imposes itself on our being. Of all life on earth, only man appears plagued by this dichotomy, around which all ancient cultures have constructed myths, dramatic narratives acknowledging the existential divide and holding out hope of a future reconciliation.
In the 4th century B.C. Plato subjected this awareness to rational scrutiny. He labeled the comparatively fragile, weak, chaotic world presented by the senses as "phenomena", literally that which reveals itself. This Plato contrasted with the ostensibly orderly, superior world of "noumena", eternally unchanging forms and ideas. The 18th century empiricist David Hume slightly expanded on this philosophy laying out dual, external and internal, sources of knowledge. The external, that gained from experience via the senses, he called "matters of fact". By contrast, logic, math, definitions and similar mental constructions he posited as "relations of ideas".
Immanuel Kant was a philosophical contemporary who was very perturbed with Hume's satisfaction that his theories claimed to account for all possible knowledge. Kant acquiesced that knowledge acquired through the senses or experience could only be "synthesised" that is to say put together "a posteriori" or after the fact. He likewise concurred that certain mental concepts Hume had referred to were "analytic", self contained knowledge that was "a priori", prior or better stated independent of human experience. However, Kant was dissatisfied that this was a proper account of the totality of human knowledge. He posited that our knowledge of time, space and causality in particular must be "transcendent", it must lay outside of experience "a priori" because it is a necessary condition for any experiences or even concepts to be possible to begin with.
"How are synthetic judgements a priori possible?" This was the challenge Friedrich Nietzsche put to Kant's claims. His conclusion was they're not, yet confessed that belief in them are somehow necessary for us. I tend to agree but I see a possible reconciliation of all their philosophies that may not have been evident at the time they were struggling with articulating them.
The Ancient One
It appears self evident that knowledge can only be gained via experience. Yet you seem to know so much that you have not personally experienced. This I would contend is based upon a misunderstanding, the self delusion that you are young. The fact of the matter is that you are inconceivably ancient. I don't mean to put this in any mystical terms, rather quite literal ones. The presupposition that your experience begins at birth or perhaps at conception is profoundly limiting and deeply flawed. You can trace your existence in an unbroken succession to the beginning of life itself. You are a very successful creature; there is no point in that chain where you did not physically exist. All the while, experience has been occurring and vital knowledge accruing. By our best estimates you and I are over 3 billion years old.
Many of the aforementioned presuppositions begin to make sense. Plato held the knowledge of the eternal ideas was innate and so equated learning with remembering. Perhaps not eternal but yes, very old. Hume's claim that knowledge was only possible through experience is justified if your experience extends back billions of years. Likewise the Kantian notion that we have put together so much knowledge prior to personal experience is defensible if the "person" is limited to the conscious manifestation of self, the exploratory further knowledge seeking ego that develops sometime after conception. Likewise, correlations begin to reveal themselves amongst mystic and religious beliefs. The Western soul as something eternal, wise, spiritual yet intimately connected to the body. The Eastern concepts associated with reincarnation, the cycle of endless rebirths parallels the transmission of knowledge in reproduction: birth, acquisition of knowledge, encoding of knowledge, rebirth. Our inherent mastery of causality, space, time, gravity and even the ability to grow ourselves and reproduce is taken for granted, we're so good at it we hardly think about it. We're too busy exploring what else there is to know and occasionally pondering what does it all mean.
The Meaning of Your Life
As humans we're so good at abstraction. Symbols, maps, language. What these things have in common is that they are referential, they point to or indicate something else. Life is not like that, flowers aren't like that, you are not like that. You're it, you don't mean something else. So the question arises then: is your life or perhaps life in general meaningless?
The claim that nothing matters, you're actions are insignificant, you're soon to perish and everything you've done or learnt will be quickly forgotten is a position that gained intellectual credibility in the 20th century. The nihilistic allure is unmistakable. You're freed from any responsibility whatsoever.
Nevertheless, after 3 billion years plus of experience I contend that position is dead wrong. I'll posit the claim that everything matters. The meaning of your life for instance, inheres to itself. The more you look, the more you see and it's a rich, complex tapestry. Furthermore, it's dynamic, on the move. Every action you take places another layer on that tapestry, it encodes more knowledge. Thoughts and actions directed outward, touch or literally pattern other lives in incomprehensible ways. How far and for how long they radiate is a mystery.
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Contributed by Patrick Webb