Chasing the Wind
A Dialogue on Meaning and Illusion
Emeritus Professor of Philosophy
Trinity College of Trinity International University
Deerfield, IL 60015
SOLOMON: the author of Ecclesiastes
DYANEA: (pronounced di AHN ee yah): a philosophy student and friend of Solomon*
Location: River City Roasters, a coffee shop in Wheaton, Illinois
DYANEA: Hi Solomon. Nice to run into you.
SOLOMON: I haven’t seen you in a while. How are you?
DYANEA: Good. And you?
SOLOMON: Good. Would you like to join me?
DYANEA: Yes, I would love that. [She sits.]
SOLOMON: What have you been thinking about?
DYANEA: Various things. Lately it’s been the meaning of life and how we can know for sure that we are doing the right things with our lives.
DYANEA: I read your book on the subject and liked it very much.
DYANEA: You have a way of making your point very vivid. The phrase you use, “chasing the wind,” made me picture someone running this way and that with every new gust of wind, flailing their arms and repeatedly trying to catch hold of the wind. That made me smile.
SOLOMON: You are kind.
DYANEA: But there were a few things you said that I didn’t quite get.
SOLOMON: Fire away!
DYANEA: You said every now and then that what we humans do is an illusion. Actually, you said it quite often. First, you described some things you have done. You built houses, planted vineyards, created orchards with a variety of fruits, and made ponds to water the trees in the orchard. Then you said it was all an illusion. Again, you described how the things you have done in your life wisely, skillfully, and successfully will be passed on to others when you die—people who have not so much as lifted a finger. Then you said, again, that this, too, is an illusion.
What I take you to be saying is that we think we are doing something meaningful when in fact we are not. We mistakenly believe that what we do every day has a purpose. And this is true of our whole lives as well. We think they have a meaning, but really they do not. So we are all victims of a grand illusion. Did I get this right?
SOLOMON: Yes, that’s it exactly.
DYANEA: My first question is, Are you saying that the “we” you refer to is everyone—every single person who has ever lived?
SOLOMON: Hmmm. Good question. I don’t think I had that in mind when I wrote the book. But now that you ask, I think I am going to have to tell you something that I haven’t told anyone else, ever.
SOLOMON: I deliberately used exaggeration to make my point. When I intimated that everything we do is an illusion, I was using a literary device that lots of other writers have used. Soren Kierkegaard exaggerated when he blasted the church in nineteenth century Denmark for departing from true Christian faith. Poets sometimes exaggerate as well. My book would have lost its punch if I had said that some people do not know what their lives are about. It would have been pretty dry, like some philosophy books.
DYANEA: Okay, I see that. And I feel honored that I am the only person you ever told that to. But now my question is, What was the point you were making with that exaggeration?
SOLOMON: There were actually two points. One was that people can easily think their lives have meaning when in fact they don’t. The other was that the reason people think their lives have meaning when in fact they don’t is that they are trying to find meaning in the wrong way.
DYANEA: That makes sense. For the first, you say, “This too is an illusion,” several times to illustrate the ways we tend to think our lives have meaning. And for the second, you say from time to time what you think truly gives life meaning. Did I get that right?
SOLOMON: Yes. That is the background structure of the book, except that the book doesn’t follow it, that is, with the first point first and the second point second.
DYANEA: Okay. Here is my question about the first point. When you say that people think their lives have meaning when in fact they don’t, don’t you have to explain how that happens? I mean, don’t you have to describe a mechanism, or a process, that causes the illusion? When Kierkegaard said that no one in the Danish church was a true Christian, he didn’t stop at that exaggerated declaration. He also described how that happened. And his doing that is what made his books so intriguing, because his explanations have a great deal of psychological depth. That, at any rate, is what I am told. So can you explain what goes on when people come to have illusions about the meaning of what they do?
SOLOMON: That’s a really good question. I didn’t give an explanation in Ecclesiastes, but I think I can use what I said in it to give one. Here goes.
When someone immerses themselves in what they do, they don’t think about what it means from a larger perspective. They just do what they are doing. And, of course, since they themselves are doing it, they automatically suppose that it has meaning. They like planting vineyards and creating orchards with a variety of fruits. When they succeed in doing these, they feel good. And this gives them the feeling that what they have done is meaningful.
Here are a few more examples. Someone gets a job and likes what they do. When they finish a project, little or big, it gives them the feeling of having accomplished something. And that naturally gives them the further feeling that what they have done has meaning. Or someone acquires a friend and feels good in their presence, which makes them also feel a sense of meaning.
DYANEA: I see.
SOLOMON: Added to this process is the prior supposition that people want meaning. We all want to believe that there is a purpose to our lives. Actually, it is more than just a want. It is a craving. For some it is an underlying longing. For others it is a desperate appetite, like being thirsty or hungry. So when we succeed in doing something we like, we can’t help but feel that our craving for purpose has been satisfied.
DYANEA: I see that, too.
SOLOMON: One last point. When you combine these thoughts—the process along with the supposition—you get the conclusion that there is a strong tendency in us humans to believe that what we do with our lives has meaning when in fact they do not. We can hardly help ourselves. We invest meaning in every little thing, never supposing that we are deluded. That’s why I kept saying in the book that “this too is an illusion.”
DYANEA: Okay, I get that. But what would it take for someone’s sense of meaning not to be an illusion? What would have to happen for someone’s sense of meaning to be right, that is, for them really to have meaning?
SOLOMON: What would have to happen is that they view what they do from a larger perspective. They would have to take a step backward so that they could see their lives from a wider standpoint. When we immerse ourselves in our daily activities, focusing our attention solely on them, we restrict ourselves severely. We don’t think about a larger perspective. We don’t take that backward step. Only when we do, though, will we be able to discover that we have been living in an illusion. And only when we do will we discover what the true meaning of life is.
DYANEA: You wrote near the beginning of your book, though, that when you reflected on your whole life, you saw that it was meaningless because all the fruits of your labor would simply be conveyed to your successor. Isn’t this a case of viewing your life from a larger perspective? And you wrote that even though the wise see ahead and fools walk in the dark, both have the same fate. Isn’t this another such case?
SOLOMON: Yes. But I wasn’t saying that taking a backward step will automatically produce the truth about the meaning of life. It is only a necessary condition, not a sufficient one. Something more is needed.
DYANEA: What is that something more?
SOLOMON: Now we come to the second point I was trying to make with my exaggeration. It was that the reason people mistakenly think their lives have meaning is that they are trying to find meaning in the wrong way. The right way involves reflection, as I just said, and also viewing our lives as God views them.
DYANEA: Ah! I was wondering when you would bring God into the picture.
DYANEA: Let me see if I can restate what you wrote.
DYANEA: You said we should remember our creator when we are young, before the time of life when we say, “There isn’t pleasure anymore,” and before we dread walking in the streets and become afraid of heights.
SOLOMON: I got a little poetic there.
DYANEA: Your point, I take it, is that we should remember our creator our whole lives, starting when we are young, because later we may not be disposed to do so.
SOLOMON: Yes, that’s it.
DYANEA: Of course, there is the question of what it means to “remember our creator.” But I presume that the other things you mention about God explain what it means.
SOLOMON: Yes, that’s right.
DYANEA: Among the other things you say about God is that we should enjoy eating and drinking and working because these are God’s gifts to us. So remembering God means that we should think of our eating and drinking and working as God’s gifts.
DYANEA: You also say that we are to keep reverence for the sacred alive in us. In different words, we are to revere God always. This, too, fits your idea of remembering our creator.
SOLOMON: Yes, again.
DYANEA: Last, you say that we should keep God’s commandments, because God made us to be upright. God will judge us for what we do. And since having good desires is part of what it means to be upright, God will call us to account for the desires of our heart as well as for what we do.
SOLOMON: You are a perceptive reader.
DYANEA: I have two more questions.
SOLOMON: You are also very inquisitive.
DYANEA: Thanks. The first question is, Why do you need to bring in God to say that people have meaning? Isn’t liking what we do enough? Think of what people ordinarily say. I have a friend who likes to hike. This past summer she hiked several hundred miles on the El Camino across northern Spain. She said that doing it meant a great deal to her, which means that she liked doing it very much. I have another friend who doesn’t find much meaning in his job, by which he means that he doesn’t like it very well. What more do we need to have meaning than simply liking what we do?
SOLOMON: I concede that we often use “meaning” to mean “liking.” When we say that something is meaningful to us, we frequently mean just that we like it. It satisfies us. But there is something else that is being presupposed when people say that what they do is meaningful. And that is that what they do has value.
Imagine that someone likes stealing. Or, worse, imagine that someone likes torturing people for the fun of it. And in both cases let us suppose that they devote their whole lives to stealing and torturing. Would we say that their lives have meaning?
DYANEA: I think I see your point.
SOLOMON: My point is that there needs to be something objective to confer meaning and not just something subjective. It is not simply liking or being satisfied or fulfilling a desire that endows someone’s life with meaning, but something independent of these.
DYANEA: Do you have any basis for that way of talking about meaning?
SOLOMON: Yes. The basis for my conception of meaning is my belief in objective value. We humans are not just bundles of likes and dislikes. If that is all we were, then I, too, would identify meaning with liking. I would say, as you put it, that the only thing that makes what we do meaningful is liking it.
Imagine that we were like animals, driven just by instincts and impulses. Everything we did would be a product of these impelling forces. Morality would not enter the picture. We couldn’t judge whether one thing we did was better than another from a moral standpoint. If we could speak of meaning in this hypothetical situation, we would say that we lived a meaningful life if these instincts and impulses had not been frustrated.
But there are objective values, because God made us to live well. God made us to love and delight in goodness and engage in fulfilling work. This fact means that human lives are more than instincts and impulses. People can be judged by how well they live up to what God desires for them.
Given all this, it would miss the whole point of life to say that the only requirement for it to be meaningful is that it gives satisfaction. The satisfaction has to be directed the right way.
DYANEA: Just to clarify—you are not saying that it is only conformity to objective value, or living in accordance with God’s desires for us, that confer meaning, are you?
SOLOMON: No. Both the subjective and objective aspects must be present. That is, a person has to like living as God desires. We need to savor the good we are given in order for our lives to have meaning. Otherwise, we would have to say that someone like Pharaoh had a meaningful life. He did what God desired but not because he wanted to do what God desires. Thanks for that clarification.
DYANEA: I think I will go to my next question, which, I think, will be my last.
SOLOMON: You can ask as many questions as you like.
DYANEA: Whenever you said in your book that God will judge us, I wondered whether you meant that God would do so before we die or after we die. A couple of times I thought you meant that we would be judged before we die, but another time I thought you meant we would be judged after we die. And once you mentioned an “eternal reward.” So I am wondering whether you believe in life after death.
SOLOMON: I’m afraid I don’t have a good answer to that. I don’t hear much about the subject in the circles in which I move, so I haven’t formed a solid opinion on it. Sometimes I think I believe in life after death. But other times, I wonder whether we could ever know that it exists. We are made from dust and to dust we return. Having said that, though, I think it is possible that God has made us so that our souls keep on living after our bodies die. And I think it is possible for God to resurrect us at some point after we die. But I haven’t seen any clear indication that God will actually do either of these.
DYANEA: My real question, I must confess, is about the connection between meaning and living after we die. If everything we do amounts to nothing in the long run, then what is the point of living well before we die? I thought you were making that point when you declared that both the foolish and the wise come to the same end. Why should we be wise, or do as God desires, if our deaths are our absolute end?
SOLOMON: Maybe we can explore both options, that is, what meaning would look like if death were an absolute end and what meaning would look like if we were to live after we die.
DYANEA: That sounds good.
SOLOMON: Suppose, then, that God made us so that death is the end—our bodies decompose and we do not have any further consciousness. That might not be conceivable to you, but let’s imagine for a minute that it is the case.
SOLOMON: I think I would be inclined to say everything I have already said. Our meaning would consist in delighting in what God desires for us. Even if we were like animals, birds, and insects in not living after we die, we still could have been endowed with a different nature from animals. God could have made us moral beings, unlike animals and birds, even if death were the absolute end. And if God did this, then meaning for us would be just what it would be if we were made so as to live after we die. I don’t see that there would be any difference between the two cases.
DYANEA: Hmmm. I am going to have to think about that.
SOLOMON: In order for our lives to have meaning even if death ended everything for us, we would have to enjoy God’s gifts to us, revere God, and keep God’s commandments.
DYANEA: What would be the point of doing these if we were to die forever?
SOLOMON: What would be the point of doing these if we were not to die forever? People who believe in life after death sometimes suppose that living after death automatically confers meaning on life before death. But if life after death has no meaning, it certainly would not confer meaning on life before death.
So we have to ask what makes life after death meaningful. And the obvious answer is, the very same things that make life before death meaningful—remembering our creator, revering God, and delighting in the good gifts God has given us. And, here is the answer to your last question, these are intrinsically good whether or not death is the absolute end.
This last fact means that life after death does not make life before death have meaning, for life before death derives its meaning from the intrinsic value of revering God.
DYANEA: I think part of my question about the point of revering God if there were no life after death springs from your statement that God has imbued eternity into our souls. When you wrote that, did you mean that God has imbued into us humans a desire for a higher life—a life of goodness and revering the sacred—or did you mean that God has imbued into us a desire to live beyond death? Or both?
SOLOMON: I think I meant both. “Eternity” is a symbol for higher aspirations than the mundane, and it also is a symbol for “forever.” Yes, I meant both.
DYANEA: So, then, when we survey people, do we find that they actually do desire the higher life you speak of and also that they desire to enjoy this higher life forever?
SOLOMON: I don’t know of anyone who has actually done such a survey, but I can imagine that if they did, they would find those things.
DYANEA: I want to connect this fact with something else you said. Right near the beginning of your book you hinted at the idea that one of the things that makes us think that life has meaning is that we believe people will remember us after we die. We don’t, however, think about the fact that we probably won’t be remembered for very long after we die, so we live in illusion.
This observation about how we mistakenly believe our lives to have meaning makes me think that people want to be remembered and valued, not just in a vainglorious way, but in a good way. In fact, your observation makes me think that people want to be remembered and valued by their creator, forever.
SOLOMON: That makes sense.
DYANEA: So if we combine these ideas—having eternity in our hearts and wanting to be remembered and valued—it looks as though we can say that life this side of the grave would not have meaning unless we believed that there was life on the other side.
SOLOMON: What you say is very persuasive.
DYANEA: And there is the matter of hope. Many people hope for relief from suffering in the next life. Others are deeply aware that life before the grave is sadly deficient in a number of ways. They hope for a time when all will be made right.
SOLOMON: That is hard to argue with.
DYANEA: Plus, there is the idea that we are not done with our lives. Again, many people are acutely aware that they have not been able to revere God and delight in God’s good gifts to the degree that they should. These people, too, want to continue living so as to achieve fully God’s purpose for them.
SOLOMON: Another good point.
DYANEA: You are certainly right that revering God makes life both before and after death meaningful. But there seems to be something additional that makes life before death meaningful, namely, a belief that life will continue after death in such a way as to enable those who have enjoyed God’s gifts before dying to keep doing so, to enable those who value God’s remembering them to feel remembered by God forever, to enable those who have suffered to find relief from their pain, and to enable those who have desired perfect goodness to achieve it.
SOLOMON: I don’t think I am going to be able to resist all you have said. At the same time, I see so much meaninglessness and illusion that sometimes I can’t help but think that we are all actors in a play that means nothing.
DYANEA: You sound somewhat ambivalent about whether life has any meaning.
SOLOMON: Yes, I think I am. It goes both ways. On the one hand, . . .
DYANEA: Oh! Sorry to interrupt. Here comes Cliff Williams with a carload of students. [Gets up and goes toward the front of the coffee shop.] Hey, Cliff! You’ll never guess who I have been talking to. . . .
*Although Ecclesiastes is traditionally said to have been written by Solomon, some scholars say that it is not certain who the author is. I have chosen “Solomon” to represent its author, since Solomon is who the book is customarily associated with. “Dyanea” is said to be a Greek name meaning “intelligent woman.”
Even though most of what “Solomon” says represents the themes in Ecclesiastes, this is a work of fiction and should not be taken as a commentary on Ecclesiastes.
I used The Inclusive Bible (Lanham, MD: Roman & Littlefield Publishers, 2007) when quoting phrases from Ecclesiastes. That translation uses "illusion" instead of "vanity."
River City Roasters changed its name to Five & Hoek Coffee in 2018. Everyone I know, though, still calls it River City Roasters.
Written in 2014 for my PHIL 101 Introduction to Philosophy classes at Wheaton College (Illinois).
© 2014 by Cliff Williams All rights reserved