The Meaning of Life

The “meaning of the word ‘life’” is clearly not what someone is looking for when they ask “What is the meaning of life?”, as Tim Mawson so eloquently pointed out. We all know what “life” means, to a certain extent, so this answer turns on an equivocation of the word “meaning.” What the questioner wants to know is closer to “What is the point or purpose of life?” Typically, we ask this question because what we REALLY want to know is, “What is (or ought to be) the point or purpose of my life, and/or the lives of humans in general?”

Goal-directed action

“Purpose” implies goal-directed action. If an action is not goal directed, or if an item was not created to further some goal, then we are committing a categorical fallacy to even speak of the purpose of that action or item. For example, we don’t typically sit around contemplating the “meaning” of gravity, or snowstorms, or mud. However, we can talk about the “purpose” or “meaning” of knives, which is typically “to cut,” since that’s “why someone created the knife”. Aristotle called this “telos”, and analysis based on the end purpose is sometimes called “teleology.”

Do living things have a telos? In the sense that biological organisms have developed according to the heuristic of “Survive long enough to produce viable offspring,” yes, they do. On the most basic level of analysis, the telos of DNA is to make more of itself, and all the fleshy trappings are the macromolecule’s way of getting the job done. (I’m reminded of the quip, “a physicist is the universe’s way of analyzing itself.”)

So, shall we say, like the nihilists, that the purpose of life is to breed, and that’s it? That seems to utterly dissatisfying, in part because it does not answer the deeper question: What is, or ought to be, the point of MY life, or of human lives in general? However, the answer is implicit in the fundamental telos of DNA, and in the nature of goal-directedness in general.

Ends and Life

Every goal is either an end in itself, or a means to some other goal. For example, if we consider a game of chess, everything that’s done is done in an attempt to take the opponent’s king. Typically, sacrificing the queen to a pawn would be a bad move. However, if it leads to a mate in a few moves, then it was brilliant. There is no further goal which compells us to take the opponent’s king - in the context of a game of chess, that is the “end in itself.” (Of course, the game itself may well be a means to some further end. You’re playing with Harry to become his friend, to secure some sort of business deal, to make some extra money, to buy a house, etc., etc., etc. In some cases, you may even be trying to lose for some reason!)

Either the goal-directed actions of living things aim at some ultimate end, or they do not. If they do not, then every goal is merely a means to reach some further goal, and there is no end to the chain. This is an infinite regress, and is impossible. If the goals do not eventually lead somewhere, then they are not goals at all! If they do serve some ultimate end, then it would make sense to say that that ultimate end is the “point” or “purpose” of life. If we can contextualize this general “meaning of life” to the case of normal humans, then we’ve got our answer.

Life is self-generated and self-sustaining action. Every action taken by (most) living things is aimed at the ultimate end of preserving a life appropriate to that sort of thing, and passing on their genetic material. When I say “appropriate to that sort of thing,” I mean to imply that a snake cannot live as a blade of grass - it can lay in the sun all day, but it’ll have to swallow animals to gain sustenance. So, in order to find out how a human ought to live, we should take a look at how humans CAN live, and how they are most suited to live.

Humans

The means by which a human survives is through the use of reason. That is our main tool - our instincts are unreliable, our fangs are nonexistent, our nails week, our skin thin and bare, and we have (generally speaking) horrible eyesight, teeth, and overall health, compared to any other animal on the planet. However, we’ve only gotten this way because our minds are so amazingly powerful that we can survive in any situation, and even the genetically “imperfect” members of our species can find mates and pass on their poor eyesight and whatnot. Reason is our means of survival.

The purpose of a human’s life is to live excellently: to live the life appropriate to a rational being; to cultivate every aspect of one’s mind; to find eudaimonia and love and harmony through productive work and pleasant relaxation; to face external reality and one’s internal thoughts head-on and open-eyed, as the powerful and magnificent creatures we are. To the extent that one lives their life according to the purpose of human life, they will achieve Happiness; to the extent that they try to evade the responsibility of rational independent living, they will be frustrated and miserable. The blessing and curse of human existence is that, unlike snakes and grass, we are not bound to live according to our telos - we have the ability to avoid our purpose and live poorly. A snake that lives poorly will die fairly quickly, but a human who lives poorly will most likely survive - but his survival will be a meager approximation of a proper human life. It would be, in short, meaningless.

It should be noted that even this answer will not be satisfying to some people. They’ll be looking for an answer to the question, “Why are we here?”, somewhat like asking “Why is this knife here?” The knife is in the kitchen to cut food, but there is no such answer for why humans are on earth - it is a fact of nature that has no prior explanation. The presupposition is that humans were created for some purpose by a pre-existing goal-directed entity. This presupposition is invalid, since there can be no goal-directedness prior to goal-directed entities. It represents a primacy of consciousness view, and leads one to think that the answer to the question lies in God or some other supernatural realm. But reality is the first and only reality - you cannot get above, outside, or before it. If someone is dissatisfied by this answer, and seeks to ask, “But what’s the REAL meaning of life? Why are we REALLY here?”, then I really cannot do anything but suggest that they see a qualified psychotherapist.

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