The Past, Present, and Future of The Meaning of Life

My recent post, Why Does the World Exist?, elicited some extraordinarily thoughtful comments from readers. Kevin wrote

Been through the desert on a horse with no name searching for answers in places called metaphysics and epistemology. Even passed through W. James’ “Varieties of Religious Experience” and found as much comfort in Joseph Campbell’s myths as I’ve found in the Big Bang theory. Does it matter if I believe the Universe is a huge mind, dreaming us into existence every 15 billion years like Vishnu and Brahma, and whose synapses are light years apart?

In the end, I arrive back [at] …  understanding/overcoming that First Cause. Maybe it’s a problem with our linear thinking that wants a beginning and an end. Perhaps we’ll eventually round off Pi and come up with a unified theory, and maybe not. In the meantime, I’ll appreciate what I discovered when I left the shadows in the cave and experienced the aesthetics … the only reality I know. This, alone, has made my search rewarding. If we’re the stuff made in stars then that’s where I want us to return, to stop building walls and fighting interspecies culture wars. I believe the best is yet to come if we don’t annihilate ourselves first.

Kevin is right. We will live and die in a world we hardly understand but we can, hopefully, enjoy our journey. And I also hope, with Kevin,  that the cosmic journey we are embarking on will be better than the past.

The relationship between the past and future also arose in a comment by Samuel Halpern who wrote,

Rather than responding to the question “Why?”, I challenge its unstated assumption, I.e., that existence requires an explanation or reason. Perhaps the question “why” is only a form that takes shape in the human brain— against the fullness of cosmic time, a temporary phenomenon.

I read that red dwarf stars may continue burning for trillions of years and that the James Webb telescope is seeing back merely to nearly the Big Bang, some 14 billion years ago. But that past—14 B — is an infinitesimally paltry amount of time compared to a future of Trillions. On this scale, the human mind seems an extremely primitive phenomenon.

So the very question “why” may eventually be deemed an archaic relic as the universe continues to unfold over unimaginably vast vistas of time.

So not only are our best answers unsatisfying, but our questions themselves may be trivial or incoherent. I have written many times about how primitive our minds are compared to those that “have been, or are being, evolved.” For our descendants, or for other more evolved beings in the cosmos, our questions are those of simple minds. Humans today may be like dogs and cats trying to understand relativity and quantum theory when it comes to asking and understanding possible answers to big questions. This should humble as all and in response, we should have epistemic humility. As I have previously written regarding any of my supposed insights,

My thinking is slow, my brain small, my experience limited, and my life short. Yet the universe moves incredibly fast, is inconceivably large, unimaginably mysterious, and incredibly old. We are modified monkeys living on a planet that spins on its axis at 1600 kilometers an hour, hurls around the sun at more than 100,000 km an hour, as part of a solar system that orbits the center of its Milky Way galaxy at about 800,000 km an hour. The Milky Way itself moves through space at more than 2,000,000 km an hour and the galaxies move away from each other faster than the speed of light. (Although nothing can move through space faster than light speed the space between galaxies expands faster than the speed of light. That’s why in the far future we won’t be able to see other galaxies.)

But there’s more. Our galaxy contains more than 100 billion stars and there are more than 100 billion galaxies in a universe that is nearly 14 billion years old and almost 100 billion light-years across. And we can only see a part of the universethe observable universe. Some galaxies are forever beyond our observation because they are receding away from us faster than the speed of light—their light will never reach us and we will never be able to see them. Moreover, there may be an infinite number of universes, the many-worlds interpretation of quantum mechanics may be true, we may live in a computer simulation, or …? Needless to say, most of this is incomprehensible to my simple mind.  

Given this immense backdrop of speed, space, time, and mystery shouldn’t we be humbled by our limitations and apparent insignificance? Who other than the ignorant or delusional would claim to know much of ultimate truth? I make no such claims; I am fallible. My philosophical ideas emanate from a limited perspective and they are, at best, applicable only to a certain time and place.

I would like to thank Kevin and Samuel for taking the time to comment on my blog. We are stimulated and enriched by the encounter with other good and thoughtful minds. My sincere thanks to them both.

John Messerly, August 2022, Seattle WA.

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8 thoughts on “The Past, Present, and Future of The Meaning of Life

  1. Absolutely. What I have noticed, over the last twenty years, is the same as noticed by others. Astronomical numbers have little bearing on whatever realities obtain for sentience. They are, metaphysically speaking, irrelevant. The reality, whatever that is, of what is countenanced here, is necessarily limited by whatsoever human consciousness enables. The upcoming moon venture, though captioned as meaningful, Is, as a practical matter, meaningless. Been there, done that. What is the point? Even Penrose has misgivings. And that, is foreboding—to say the least. I don’t care about technie breakthroughs on black hole noise. All of that comments nonsensical speculation. Not helpful.

  2. Interesting title and premise here. I am not sure that the ‘meaning’ of life, per se, changes all that much over time. It may be interpreted as becoming more meaningful, due to life enrichment, life extension and so on, but goals and objectives of a life well lived are not so different now. I read books by Robert Monroe, years ago. He recounted journeys out of the body he allegedly experienced. I never heard anything more about that. Presumably he has passed, or is very old. One thing I recall though: scenarios he described sounded like what we know as virtual reality. Coincidence?

  3. Thank you, John! Your very humble summation rang like a clarion call for me…like one crying out in this wilderness of so much presumed certainty. Sometime I feel like a simple metaphor can sum up our concept of time where reason and science fail us:

    Take a tree, in this case an ancient Sequoia that is perhaps five thousand yrs. old. It has grown and observed, as much as a tree is capable of, all the forces nature and man has thrown at it: fires, floods, droughts and attacks from insects, animals and man’s logging. One day, a butterfly, only weeks out of its crystals alights upon its branches, and says to our tree: “sure is boring around here. Nothing has changed in my entire lifetime.” Sometimes I feel like the tree and at other times like the butterfly. But neither can begin to explain fathomless Time. In the end, like Alfie was asked, I suspect I’ll still be wondering what it was all about? If answers are not on this side of life, I’ll hope the other side has them. If not, it’s been a good ride here.

    Love your questions and the guests’ responses.

  4. Hmmmm… I love physics. It helps us think. Love metaphysics more. it helps us think better.

  5. There is no meaning to life. Nothing concrete that is universally programmed within us. Common motivations are those seen in Maslow’s Hierarchy of needs, which extends to all individuals. Meaning could perhaps be entirely explained through the history we share through thousands of years of evolution. Once upon a time we walked the great plains and had to assert meaning to things we saw in order to survive. We had to communicate this meaning too. When man looked upon the footprints of some unknown animal, we had to use our imagination (a powerful tool) to construct a story or apply meaning to it. This was done in order to avoid a certain death. Imagine then, if we had not used this trait which grew out of natural selection. We would all surely be dead.

    It seems that the great questions are not so great after all. They really only symbolise our inherent need to assert meaning to meaningless things and see patterns where there are none. Even being aware of our inherent need to see patterns where there are none, I can’t help myself. My journals are filled with diagrams, drawings and explanations that I hope will unravel this uncanny feeling always following me.

    Human beings are social animals. If one were to glance across various psychological studies you will observe a pattern (oh no, more patterns). During lockdown we saw the negative effects of social isolation. We can read about the damaging effects social isolation can have on our body. Some claim it shortens our life considerably. A recent study spoke of how we should contact old friends, because it will have a positive effect. Even though we sometimes think it would not. The positive effects of being social and having close relationships is tremendous. It seems like the meaning, if any, would be to think of our most dominating traits as human beings, which is that we are highly social. Thus the meaning itself reflects our human nature. To live a meaningful life is to have meaningful relationships and to build social intelligence to guide you through.

    Think about this blog as well. It is a social process. We read your articles and give responses in the comment section. Ask great questions and intelligent individuals give their opinion in the comments. Pull it all apart to the bare bones and we have social processes that are the basis of everything. That is why it seems to me that maintaining these relationships might be as close to a universal meaning as it gets.

    It seems that all the poetry and grand analogies are connected to our social life. What is a grand analogy if you can’t share it. What is great thoughts in isolation. We need social validation, input and so on. Wanting a grand explanation that can finally put it all to rest so we can lay down with a smile on our face and tears in our eyes. Rarely does any explanation satisfy anyone at all.

    I could keep writing, but it will only get too long.

    Thank you John Messerly, your blog is a delight.

  6. John,

    I have a friend named Lilly who thinks about such “ultimate” questions as we do. She recently sent me the thought below which I think quite insightful and is in line with recent comments from Kevin and Samuel. I wonder what your readers would think. What is it about readers’ responses that gravitate to instrumental or ultimate meaning or waver back and forth to something in between? We have a hard time coming to terms with the question because there is no satisfactory answer–only ways to cope. –Sylvia

    “The reason I find the intellectual pursuit of “meaning” to be, uh, um, well, meaningless, is because a healthy life requires holding the tension between meaning and meaninglessness – sort of what Hegel was going on about, but from the standpoint of one who experiences both the crushing weight of pointlessness and the effervescent joy of grounded participation on a daily basis. For me it’s experiential rather than philosophical – I just happen to notice the back and forth, along with the all too human judgements, hopes, desires, and assumptions that go along with struggling to hold that tension. I dance and feel happy; I catch my finger in the hinge of the trolling motor, ripping skin and sending blood dripping everywhere, reminding me of my mortality and fragility; I bake a zucchini bread and joyously accept the gratitude of the recipients; I look at the clock, see it’s now 11:00 at night, and feel like I did nothing with the previous hours but deliver myself one day closer to my eventual death. It’s all cycling through, all the time. And while in the past, I would attempt to stop the cycle or at least control it by focusing my attention and my thoughts, so as to grasp it’s underlying point, that is no longer the case, seeing such a choice as being an indulgence brought on by fear and arrogance. Quarks and I are both merely fractals of the universe and as such moving within the truth that we cannot be observed directly without altering our trajectory. (I typed, “tragectory,” before catching the error – but I love that cynical idea that life is a tragedy in motion; I totally get that. But I also get that we are the Goddess, and the Goddess resides in each of us, and as such we are the light of possibility and beauty. To look at one aspect, is to miss all that’s happening with the other – which is why it’s a matter of willingly holding the tension, out of respect and appreciation for both.)”

  7. All the views are very interesting, and I have some very modest views myself…

    Why is our need to make sense of things said to be ‘trivial’?

    Are these questions and these needs really a limitation?

    I think that something can be shown to be a limitation only when COMPARED to something greater. And since, as far as I know, there isn’t any less ‘limiting’ way of thinking we currently have, how do we know our way of thinking is limited?

    Yet all questions such as ‘What does all this mean? Does it mean anything? And why? Or why not? Who or what am I?’ etc. are the biggest questions we can ask, it seems to me.

    I am certainly not saying that humankind suddenly becomes the greatest living thing in the universe….or do I? I have no idea. All I know is that most people will grow old and die without ever really digging into that stuff in any depth. And the rest is ‘lower’ life forms and inorganic stuff.

    What if we were really the greatest thinking living entities in the whole galaxy, or even (gulp) universe?

    I know, I know, that’s blasphemy. And I am certainly not trying to offer an empty platitude.

    But look at Socrates….he was the first to say ‘nah, I know nothing’. But did he really know nothing?

    Maybe it’s not that our thinking is limited. It might be, of course, since I cannot be sure of anything. But maybe it’s not. Maybe it’s that the questions really are as immense as the universe we live in.

    To me, it all leads back to our wish to defeat death. Of course, I am not including the general population….their answer to this is videogames, or getting drunk, etc. 🙂

  8. Basically I think that the “problem” with these “ultimate questions” is that it is all like an interminable haystack with a very few needles in it. Yet, for a very few of us, asking these questions is to us like water to a plant.

    And that the last sentence in the comment by Kevin, resonates strongly with me. I believe we will self-destruct, because we have always been too dumb and irrational, after all.

    Philosophers and a few other people, are too tiny a minority to prevent worldwide stupidity that will have catastrophic consequences.

    Apologies for the “doom and gloom”.

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