Is Life ultimately Meaningful?
All my life I struggled to stretch my mind to the breaking point, until it began to creak, in order to create a great thought which might be able to give a new meaning to life, a new meaning to death, and to console mankind. ~ Nikos Kazantzakis
The question of the meaning of life is the most fundamental question of human existence. Answers to this question come in many varieties: supernaturalists argue that meaning derives from a god or gods; skeptics doubt that an answer to the question exists, or that we could know the answer even if it did; nihilists claim that life has no meaning; while naturalists claim that we (subjectively) create our own meaning, or that we find meaning in the (objectively) good things in the world. None of these answers is entirely satisfactory.
Religious answers are traditionally the most popular, but they depend on problematic philosophical assumptions about the nature and existence of a supernatural realm. In short religious claims may simply be false. But even if religious claims are true, it is not clear how religion grounds meaning. For example, you might say that being a part of a God’s plan gives your life meaning, but how? Being a part of your parent’s or your country’s plan does not necessarily do that. Or you may say that your God just radiates meaning. But if you can’t be the source of your own meaning, how can something else be? Or if you may believe that you need a God’s love to give your life meaning. But why can’t the love of people around you do that? Even living forever with the gods don’t seem to guarantee meaning. You might find perpetual life unfulfilling. And why would you want to spend eternity with beings apparently responsible for so much evil? In short, even if there are gods life may still be meaningless.
Turning to philosophical answers, we cannot straightforwardly accept skepticism, since we are forced by constraints of consistency to be skeptical of skepticism. Nihilism haunts us, and no amount of philosophizing is palliative in its wake. Yet we reject it too. Why accept such a depressing conclusion when we cannot be any more sure of its truth than of the truth of Pollyannaish religious assertions? Subjectivism provides a more promising philosophical response—we can create limited meaning without accepting religious, skeptical, or nihilistic provisos. The problem with subjectivism is the meaning created isn’t enough. We want more than just subjective meaning and the task of creating our own meaning is enormous. This leads us to consider objective values and meanings found in the natural world—good things in life like knowledge, love, friendship, honor, goodness, and beauty. Many philosophers argue that we derive the limited meaning life offers us by being subjectively attracted to the objectively good things of life. For now, this is the best we can do.
Yet this is not enough—because we die. How can anything truly satisfy, even subjective immersion in objectively good things, if all leads to nothingness? Death limits the meaning we can experience since fully meaningful lives necessitate that we live forever. Lives can be meaningful without the proviso of immortality, but they cannot be fully meaningful. To be fully meaningful requires an infinite quality and quantity of meaning. A happy, well-lived finite life of twenty years may be meaningful, but an identically well-lived life would be more meaningful if it were longer—it would contain more total meaning. Thus the possibility of meaning increases proportionately with the length of a lifetime. Death is bad for many reasons, but it is bad especially because death renders completely meaningful lives impossible. Death puts an end to our meaning, our knowledge, our love, and our lives. The defenders of death may claim that death is for the better, but we know in our bones that it is not, as the wailing at funerals reveals.
Fortunately, science and technology may provide our salvation. Science might overcome death in the near future through some combination of nanotechnology, genetic engineering, artificial intelligence, and robotics. But even this is not enough, for immortality is a necessary but not a sufficient condition for full meaning; complete meaning requires infinite qualitative goodness as well as an infinite quantity of time. Yet science and technology potentially solve this problem too. If science can defeat death, can it not also infinitely enlarge consciousness as well? With oceans of time for future innovation, it is plausible to think that science and technology could make fully meaningful lives possible; they could make a heaven on earth a reality.
Still, we have no guarantees. Cosmic evolution reveals the emergence of consciousness, beauty, and meaning, as well as the possibility of their exponential increase. But it does not imply that a more meaningful reality will necessarily unfold, or that a state of perfect meaning will inevitably ensue. We don’t know if science and technology will bring about a utopia or its opposite, or hasten our destruction. And even if a glorious future awaits our descendants, we don’t know if we’ll be part of it.
Uncertain that life will ever be completely meaningful, or that we will participate in such meaning if even it does come to pass, we can still hope that our lives are significant, that our descendants will live more meaningful lives than we do, that our science and technology will save us or our descendants, and that life will culminate in, or at least approach, complete meaning. These hopes help us to brave the struggle of life, keeping alive the possibility that we will create a better and more meaningful reality. Hope is useful.
The possibility of infinitely long, good, and meaningful lives, along with the hope that this possibility can be realized, brings the purpose of our lives into focus. The purpose of life is to diminish and, if possible, abolish all constraints on our being—intellectual, psychological, physical, and moral—and to remake the external world in ways conducive to the emergence and of meaning. This implies embracing our role as protagonists of the cosmic evolutionary epic, working to increase the quantity and quality of knowledge, love, joy, beauty, goodness, and meaning in the world, while diminishing their opposites. This is the ultimate purpose of our lives.
In practice, this implies being better thinkers, friends, lovers, artists, altruists, and parents. It means acting in ways that promote human flourishing, and ultimate the flourishing of all being. Naturally, there are disagreements about exactly what this entails, but the way forward should become increasingly clear as we achieve higher levels of being and consciousness.
Nonetheless knowing the purpose of our lives does not ensure that they are fully meaningful, for we may collectively fail in our mission to give life more meaning; we may not achieve our purpose. And if we do not fulfill our purpose, then life was not fully meaningful. Thus the tentative answer to our question—is life ultimately meaningful—is that we know how life could be ultimately meaningful, but we do not know if it is or will be ultimately meaningful. It can be judged fully meaningful from an eternal perspective only if we fulfill our purpose of making a better and more meaningful reality. Meaning then, like the consciousness and freedom from which it derives, is an emergent property of cosmic evolution; and we find our purpose by playing our small part in aiding its emergence. We are, hopefully, links in a golden chain leading upward to greater levels of being, consciousness, and meaning. If we are successful our efforts will culminate in overcoming of all human limitations, and our (post-human) descendants will live fully meaningful lives. If we do achieve our purpose in the far distant future, if a fully meaningful reality comes to fruition, and if somehow we are a part of that meaningful reality, then we could say that our life and all life was, and is, deeply meaningful.
For now, though, forced to live with uncertainty about the future, we must have hope that life can be made continually more meaningful. Hope provides the impetus for our efforts and makes the continued emergence of meaning possible. The feeble hopes of dreamers on a lonely planet in the cold, dark, foreboding of space appear trivial. But they are the seeds from which new worlds might spring.