By Robert Wheeler
A universal characteristic of normally thinking people is to wonder about why they are here, where they came from, and where they are going—the source and meaning of existence. This concern accompanies the process of thinking abstractly about one’s self and one’s relationship with the environment. History indicates that ever since people have had the capacity to be conscious of self, these concerns have been major motivators and foundations for religions and many branches of science. Psychology describes this as “ultimate concerns” (Emmons, 1999), Sociology uses “philosophy of life,” and theology likes “perennial philosophy” (Huxley, 1944). Whether it was created within us or evolved through natural adaption is not as important as recognizing that it is there.
Because the answers to these concerns are nebulous and difficult to think about, people tend to align themselves with established assumptions and beliefs of other people, institutions, or organizations. Such belief systems have formed culture and dominated societies. They range all the way from determinism established by a theistic force to materialism that excludes anything beyond material nature. Psychology research indicates this wonderment creates an innate need similar to personality traits and could be called “ontological imperative” (Wheeler, 2019). Ontos is an ancient Greek word representing being as the fundamental aspect of existence. Ontology is the branch of philosophy that studies the ultimate being and ultimate reality that is the object of the ontological imperative.
Even though this need seems to be a universal characteristic, it is manifest many ways. For many people it is not as pressing as those of daily life such as job, food, and entertainment. The less pressing question of why gets pushed into recesses of the subconscious mind where it either creates an unsettled feeling or surfaces unexpectedly. For many people it is met by subscribing to answers provided by a belief system already established, one learned in childhood or through subsequent experience. This provides many benefits such as belongingness, social support, moral guidance, salvation, and answers to ultimate concerns. For many other people, though, these established systems conflict with their own experience and knowledge, and they search for answers with varying degrees of activity and concern.
Wouldn’t it be a better world if the media, politicians, educators, and leaders emphasized the ontological imperative search rather than the current emphasis on power, violence, and consumerism?