restricted access Where in the World Are We Going?
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Where in the World Are We Going?

I. Setting

Aquarter of a century ago I wrote a small book about the meaning of life. 1 It was even translated into Portuguese. 2 I had proposed as the title: Does Life Have Meaning? Some Answers at the Edge of the 21st Century, but the publisher presumed that a positive title would exercise a stronger sales draw. Basically, all the engines of change that are operating today were in place already then, but it seems to me that their implications are clearer now than twenty-five years ago. Perhaps the greater clarity I perceive now is more a result of the additional quarter-century experience on top of the sixty-plus I already had garnered. In any case, quite a number of important matters seem limpidly clear now in a way that appears so commonsensical that it is a puzzle to me that they are not obvious to everyone who thinks even a little about the issues. Wisdom or platitude? Perhaps it does not matter as long as the thought comes close to matching reality.

Let me go back to the first part of the title of my prior book the way I had stated it, without the Marxist/Capitalist force intervening: "Does Life Have Meaning?" The second half of my proposed title, "Some Answers . . ." indicates that I was persuaded that it did. I am even more persuaded now. I spent a fair amount of space then talking about the meaning of meaning, and then laying out the answers of the major religions and equivalencies. I will distil most if not all of them with this summary answer: The main focus is on this side of the grave or beyond the grave or in some way both. Perhaps one of the [End Page 203] most satisfying descriptions of the meaning of life this side of the grave was given by Abraham Maslow with his pyramid of needs, leading to the ultimate of self-actualization—and later in his thought to "Self-Transcendence." 3 The major religions, however, appear to have focused mainly on a final solution beyond the grave, probably because the inequities and apparent injustices in the lives of the vast majority of humans seemed to cry out for a balancing, if not within, then surely beyond, this life, perhaps in a Heaven or Hell, or repetitive reincarnation until it is gotten right, or an entrance into Nirvana, variously understood.

The purpose of religion, or its functional equivalent, is to provide us humans with an "explanation of the ultimate meaning of life, and how to live accordingly." As we grow into the "age of reason," each of us forms for ourselves (or rather, most often, have formed for us—which we too often just unquestioningly accept) such an explanation with its ethical and communal implications. This religion or "life-meaning" is expressed in our culture(s), and in turn shapes us and our culture(s). Throughout the vast majority of human history (starting perhaps 200,000 years ago), few persons could think more deeply than one person could learn in a short lifetime of less than thirty years on average and what could be gathered from insights from previous experience that was memorized and passed on orally. A potentially great leap forward in human understanding was taken with the invention of writing around 3600 b.c.e., although nothing concerning the "meaning of life" was substantively written down and preserved until the Hindu Rig Vedas around 1500 b.c.e. Then, between 800 and 200 b.c.e. (the "Axial Period"), several of the great scriptural religions (Hinduism, Buddhism, Confucianism, Judaism) were crystalized, and from the latter sprang the world's largest religions, Christianity and Islam, in the first and seventh centuries c.e., respectively.

II. Rise of Homo Sapiens

I return to the beginning of all that we know: The Cosmos, as we know it, began as a tiny ball 13,800,000,000 years ago with the so-called "Big Bang," [End Page 204] expanding outward at the speed of light (186,000 miles/second); the Earth as molten material flew off our Sun (one of billions...