It has struck me that one divide that separates people, in terms of questions of meaning in life, and other such existential questions,* might be described in terms of “The Lady and the Tiger”, and similar stories. That is, there are two groups of people:
I. those who claim that life is like such a story, in that we have to apply our interpretive faculties to decide for ourselves the “ending”—analogously, the meaning; and
II. those who claim that the answer/meaning is given—like stories that spell out the ending for us.
Those in Group II may not deny that we have to apply ourselves to discover the answers, but they are unsatisfied with the notion that the answers may not be spelled out for us by the author, whether that author is nature or a god.
Those in Group I may be no more satisfied with the situation, but see it as an inescapable part of our existential condition. They are likely to see what those in Group II assert is a clear and unambiguous reading as, rather, an interpretation to a decision.
I am an uncomfortable member of Group I. Uncomfortable because of the existential responsibility that I think such a stance places upon me—the responsibility to interpret to the best of my ability and decide, without being able to look up the “right” answer in the back of the book. I sometimes chafe at the inescapability of such responsibility: even if I decide to put my trust in some designated authority—for reasons good or ill—I cannot escape responsibility for that decision. In the end, my view of existential meaning in life is what I make, applying the grammar of my consciousness as best I can to the syntax of the world in which, and of which, I am—and it is that way whether I wish it otherwise or not. And I can blame no other for my own choices in the matter.
Sometimes people claim epistemic decisiveness for certain experiences—but, as darthmix cogently pointed out elsewhere: the experiences themselves are not false, but the conclusions we draw from them may well be.
I tend to think that G-II people are caught in a web of self-deception. They likely think that I am simply blind or stubborn, or nihilistic. I occasionally envy them their assertions of certainty—at least until I see them arguing with one another about what the one “right” answer is. And yet, I make a claim of certainty as well: I claim that their “certainties” are no less interpretations and decisions than are mine, and that there is no answer given that relieves them of that same responsibility that I also bear—the responsibility to examine and decide, and to live that decision without being able to look up the answer in the back of the book. And further: to take responsibility for changing one’s decision in the same way, as one thinks necessary.
Consider, just for example, the question: Why is there death?
I don’t know. I simply accept it—and its finality—as an observable fact. This certainly goes against my desire, for myself and those I love who have died, and will die. You can see in the statements both my interpretation of reality (empirical) and my decision. I choose Door 1.
Others, finding that answer unsatisfactory, choose Door 2: death is not final, and there is an acceptable explanation for why the (transient) event occurs. Those who, like me, are members of G-I, will admit their responsibility for choosing Door 2 on the same general epistemic basis: they interpret and decide, and that’s that.
—Now, between myself and these people, debate is possible. We can argue about the reasonableness of our respective interpretations, the validity of the evidence we admit into consideration, etc. We can do this—with or without acrimony—because we both, at bottom, accept the same burden of responsibility.
Still others think that there must be an answer to such a question, an answer that does not require decision but only discovery, and—to my mind—set about making up conditions under which an answer is forthcoming. After making up these conditions (or piggy-backing on such conditions laid down by others before them), and concluding from there to “the answer,” they disavow any responsibility for choosing Door 2. Rather, they claim—not decision—but only discovery. They claim—not interpretation—but discovered truth; a given truth, a given meaning, an “answer in the back of the book” that is there for all to see who are not ignorant or perverse.
—Between myself and these people, no debate is possible—only mutual accusation, with or without acrimony. I accuse them of evading their existential responsibility in order to cling to an illusion; they accuse me of evading the truth. Not in so many words, perhaps. Nevertheless...
G-I people and G-II people cannot engage one another in fruitful debate across the divide of their respective existential and epistemic foundations.
* I put this in bold for a purpose: that the limits of the subject-matter might not be forgotten...