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.
4 thoughts on “The Meaning and Purpose of Life”
Your “Death” paragraph is still the weakest link in all your reasoning. I think it’s still a bit uncharacteristically sloppy in the way you dismiss the opposing viewpoints. It’s telling I think that you use phrases like “we know in our bones”; you may, others do not, and you’re wallpapering over that difference. You are never so casual in your rebuttal of other arguments when you have strong counterarguments at your disposal (you’re not the mealymouthed type).
We’ve had this discussion before but let me see if I can prod you a little further.
My basic argument is that you are using sleight of hand is regarding the meaning of “meaning”. You initially claim not to understand how anything can be “truly satisfying … if all leads to nothingness”. That seems absurd on its face, but that aside you then point out that it’s a question of *fully meaningful* that tracks with *quantity* — that infinite quantity yields full meaning. The initial sentences are less preposterous if you qualify meaning each time with fully so I will attack that stronger position.
This strikes me as saying that food can be pleasant to eat but that to be fully delicious you have to eat an infinite amount of it. Would you agree that this is a ridiculous position regarding food? If nothing else our human nature means it would eventually become the very definition of hell. Life is likewise a sensory experience (I’d argue even our intellectual constructs are ultimately about our material experience but perhaps that’s a debatable flaw in my comparison) and it’s not clear to me that more of it is required for it to be fully meaningful.
Let’s assume that it’s true that it’s possible to waste one’s life such that it has no meaning either subjectively or objectively. If that’s not possible then why ever worry about meaning, you can’t really fail. If it is true then I don’t see why having an infinite life would ensure that it’s possible to have a *fully* meaningful life. It’s part of the assumption that you could waste an infinite life. In fact the longer the life the greater the burden to reach *fully* meaningful. A short life of an infant who dies in infancy is quite likely to be packed to the brim of meaning for itself (more even than it may conceive for itself) and for others with repercussions orders of magnitude beyond its life.
To me all this points to the idea that meaning in our life resides in individual moments, and very little in a life as a whole except as some aggregating function. As data points, take people who save all their lives to visit Paris or Italy, who look back on the birth of children as the most significant and fulfilling moments of their lives. These individual moments give meaning to their life, regardless of whether they died young or old.
Quantity isn’t quality; I suppose I’m arguing there’s only the illusion of meaning in quantity (or even less than that possibly) and that it’s to be found in quality. I don’t think you disagree with that, I don’t imagine you arguing that a life-long prostitute has found more meaning in her sexual life as against anyone else by virtue of long years of little virtue.
Let me return to your underlying concern, this fear that you feel in your bones that death will claim not just all knowledge and bits of your life, but your very meaning as well. I think when you die, decades of hard fought intellectual knowledge and collection and reconciliation of different visions will be lost. Never again will we be able to query that particular machine to benefit from its wisdom. That will be tragic for the rest of us — not you. Thankfully you have a great ability to write, most people must be content with the oral or the frailer visual memories that will radiate their influence just a short few generations.
Let me give you a more direct example. You posted something very touching about your father. That very post proves his life had meaning. Your description of it let it touch other lives: it gave another pebble of meaning to my life (as a father) and I would like to think my small appreciation of it gave another pebble of meaning to his. These are the small moments I have in mind.
It seems that hope, though less contingent than faith in gods, still requires a substantial leap. Do you think t is hypocritical to be accepting of this leap and critical of others? Personally I have some cognitive dissonance here as I am a hopeful non theist. Is there room for hope? I hope so! I look forward to your next post.
Thank you for your words. This part especially resonated: “The purpose of life is to diminish and, if possible, ultimately abolish all constraints on our being—intellectual, psychological, physical, and moral—and to remake the external world in ways conducive to the emergence of meaning”.
It’s an interesting rework. I still have that nagging impression that you’re using imprecise words, too vague, and covering up some mighty hand-waving. I realize that you discussed a lot of this in your book and I recall raising similar objections in a draft. I don’t think we got a meeting of minds on this, at best an armistice. Let slip the dogs of war and break this impasse, here and now if we can.
We agree that mortal life can be meaningful but you say immortality is required for life to be “completely or fully meaningful”. Let’s start with the technical language. There are different kinds of infinity. Is a countably infinite life less meaningful than an uncountably infinite life? Your usage feels like an abuse of the word infinity but perhaps it’s because it means something very technical to me, or rather many things which are not congruent with each other mathematically. For one, even if you lived until the very end of the heat death of the universe, say another 100 billion years… it would still not be an infinite, immortal life. Infinity is a concept that your argument is making sound like an ideal that we should strive for always knowing we can never succeed… brings back memories from catechism?
I think where you’ve really hit a good note is in this sentence: “It is true that longer lives do not guarantee meaningful ones, but all other things being equal, longer lives contain the possibility of more meaning than shorter ones.” I agree with your argument there, my only qualm is that in your framework the only worthwhile goal is infinity. As your next sentences seem to track my own thinking in my previous comment, I’ll continue from that stronger position you’re taking.
You only talk about meaning in a positive way. What about lives that are a net negative for humanity or the universe overall. Presumably that’s not impossible and has happened, and theirs is no less capable of meaning. Meaning seems to be this absolute value function as a great evil is just as meaningful and consequential as a great good. Thus an infinite life, while in this sense could guarantee a never decreasing amount of meaning (though never infinity) it does not ever guarantee a net positive good. If any life has the potential to reach some universal maximal meaning through negative effects then it all but ensures misery for the rest.
This isn’t even utopia you’re describing. It’s hell.
Consider that there isn’t one consciousness but a multitude of independent beings with conflicting aspirations and goals. Someone reaching infinite meaning implies trampling on the meaning of an infinite number of others, unless you posit that there is perfect overlap of world views between everyone that has ever or will ever live. Is a consequence of your views that there is but one true/worthwhile consciousness of which we are all part, that attaining true meaning means we realize that there’s only one true way… essentially there we lose all individuality? Isn’t that what is called Savikalpa, religious ecstasy, and Dante’s view of the nature of God (in line with Aquinas)?
Is the consequence of becoming — what, a god full of infinite meaning? — in your view predicated on dominating other sentient beings and of necessity curtailing their maximal meaning to something finite? An according to your view, thereby causing the greatest evil possible for the self desire of one being to become that infinite? That consequence is a very pragmatic description of most major religions’ theologies but consider that it isn’t a new way to express the true identity of “god” and rather that you may be echoing where your intellectual journey started because it formed some of your core aspirations?