Philosophers, scientists and thinkers have for thousands of years pondered the big questions of existence, the biggest one of all being ‘what is the point of life?’
More correctly, it’s often expressed as ‘does life have any purpose?’ ‘Is there any meaning to life?,’ and more commonly ‘why are we here?’
All of these commonly asked questions point at the same thing and that is the human need for validation of their existence.
We’d all naturally like to think that we have a reason for being, even if it isn’t revealed to us and we have to work it out for ourselves. Human beings find it incredibly easy to accept that there’s a big plan and that there’s a spiritual dimension of that plan that includes us in some way or another.
The existentialist philosopher Albert Camus deemed this to be philosophical suicide or more correctly an attempt to end the condition of ‘the absurd’ in which human beings can look into the mysteries of the greater universe around them and come up blank.
If you delve into materialism you’ll never find a meaning to life and that’s because there isn’t one.
It’s as simple as that, all the material world can reveal to you is the mechanics of existence, how things work and what physical laws they obey and that is it. Materialism can explain the workings of things but not the ‘why,’ or ‘the should,’ of things.
As a dualist I see a firm division between mind and matter as explained in this article ‘What are you really?’ The point being that meaning is a mental qualia, it can only exist in the mind. Given that each one of us have a mind that is unique you’ll readily understand that meaning varies from person to person and is in fact a projection of their values onto the universe.
For example people are biologically wired to feel good when they help another human being in some way or another. This leads many people to say that the meaning of life is to be ‘good,’ or to help your fellow man and so on, but this isn’t true for everyone which is why it cannot be true for all.
The meaning of life, if it exists must be universal, compulsory, obvious and unquestionably true for everyone, because we are talking about a single point to life, ‘why are we here?’
SOS – Save our souls!
Religious types might claim that the meaning of life is to be ‘saved,’ and go to heaven, or to release your soul from the eternal cycle of Samsara and so on, but none of these beliefs or ideas can be proven which is why philosophers refer to such ideas as ‘suppositions.’
A supposition is a belief that is held without any proof being offered. It’s an assumption or a hypothesis at best.
Beliefs like this tend to be inherently personal as minds vary from individual to individual, in other words what might make perfect sense for a committed member of the God Squad, is anathema to your average Hindu or Buddhist and that’s because some beliefs chime and have resonance with your inner qualia of mind and others don’t which leads them to be rejected. It’s a personal thing.
The great filter!
This leads us to conclude that if there is a meaning of life then it should by definition be true for everyone, that’s because if there is such a thing as the meaning of life then it’s fair to expect that it will be not only be true for everyone but also it would be compulsory and completely obvious, so obvious in fact that no one would need to ask ‘why am I here?’ in the first place.
If you take a quick peek at the world ‘out there,’ can you see a meaning to life out there that is:
- (a) Universal
- (b) Compulsory
- (c) Obvious
- (d) Unquestionably true.
Think of the children!
This is usually the point when religious people lose their cool and become angry, and more secular minded folk start talking about the need to have babies and keep the DNA replicating, telling us all that the point of existence is to have children.
So I refer to point ( a and b), is having children universal and compulsory?
Do all people have to have children, can all people have children, the answer is a resounding no. Some people are just naturally infertile, others over produce. You can choose to be abstinate or to use birth control so point (a) remains. Reproducing is not universal (as only half the population can carry a child in the womb) or compulsory (b). It’s just what a species does, not why they do it.
Likewise is joining a religion the meaning of life point (a, b, c and d)?
A cursory glance at the world and all of the religious strife that we see in the world should quickly put to bed any idea that being ‘saved,’ and going to heaven is universal, compulsory, obvious and unquestionably true.
If it was true there would only be one religion and everyone would be ‘saved,’ because it would be so obvious. Indeed the value of being a believer in such a world would be worthless as everyone would be the same. It removes any value from following a creed and being saved, because everyone is saved. Any such religion would be utterly pointless.
The fact that the world is full of competing religions proves that the meaning of life cannot be found in religious pursuits.
Human beings in the west, having lived with over two thousand years of judeo/christian civilisation which itself is predicated upon the idea that life has meaning, that the universe is the special creation of God, as indeed is Mankind and all other varieties of life find it difficult to accept that this may not be true. It’s a lingering idea that rests in the mind of the average westerner in the form of collective archetypes that have successfully reproduced themselves down the generations as types of mental meme.
Out of nothing!
This is why the average person of judeo/christian heritage finds it hard to accept that the universe may well be ‘ex nihilo’.
In other words it came out of nothing, will probably go back to nothing and is made of nothing. As bizarre as it sounds, the science overwhelmingly supports this conclusion which is why it makes uncomfortable reading for those that believe otherwise.
“I mean, what have you got to lose?
you know, you come from nothing
you’re going back to nothing
what have you lost? Nothing!
Always look on the bright side of life”
Eric Idle, from Monty Python’s The Life of Brian.
As mentioned previously people often commit philosophical suicide by turning to religion or spirituality to fill the void with some sort of meaning, none of which can be reliably proven.
Worse yet others when confronted with this sort of existential boredom of ‘what’s the point? It’s all worthless, there’s no point to existence or meaning to life,’ sometimes go the whole hog and commit actual suicide in an attempt to end the ‘absurd’ condition of life itself.
“For life is quite absurd,
And death’s the final word.
You must always face the curtain with a bow!
Forget about your sin — give the audience a grin,
Enjoy it, it’s the last chance anyhow!,”
Eric Idle, Monty Python’s The Life of Brian.
Either way, suicide whether it’s philosophical or actual is just a cop out, to get any grip on the meaning of life you have to stare the absurd straight in the eye, because the universe needs you as much as you need it to keep the ‘absurd’ alive and that’s because the ‘absurd’ is the quintessential experience of being alive.
It’s often uncomfortable and often liberating, but the discomfort of the absurd is the driving force behind transcendence i.e. that sense of going beyond ordinary matter for just a fraction of a second.
The famous biologist and renowned atheist, Richard Dawkins frequently expresses this type of sentiment in his lectures and public statements stating that when he stares up at the night sky to see the cosmos aglow with stars. It’s fills him with awe.
That’s transcendence right there. Transcendence as a result of the absurd condition of life itself.
The next logical question being, is transcendence the meaning of life, once again the answer is a resounding no, because it’s neither universal (what’s transcendent for me may not be for you), compulsory or obvious or unquestionably true.
Indeed if you run any conjecture through the bullshit filter of UCOT (Universal, Compulsory, Obvious and True), then you will find that none of them fit the bill for the meaning of life.
For example Buddhists claim that we should all escape suffering by becoming a Buddha (developing Buddha nature), more subtly though they claim that suffering is universal (we’re all doomed to suffer in this life and during subsequent reincarnations.)
Is it true that we all suffer well yes it is, so it’s a universal truth that all human beings suffer in some way or another during their lifetime. It’s unavoidable (also true) making it compulsory, but is it obvious. The answer is no! Finally is it unquestionably true? Once again the answer is no!
This is because both Buddhists and the ancient stoics agree that suffering is a qualia of mind, that the mind can be mastered and that with sufficient knowledge anyone can choose not to suffer, either by sage like mastery of the passions of by removing the attachment to desires that cause suffering.
To be fair to the Buddhists, it’s close but no cigar!
Let’s turn the question on it’s head, what if the meaning of life is to avoid suffering?
Then we have something that is universal because everybody tries to avoid suffering you’d think. Wouldn’t you?
Except they don’t young children or babies that are ill have no choice but to suffer as they have not yet developed the mental attributes that could be used to avoid suffering. Yet other people who are mentally wired in a funny way, enjoy suffering. We all know who these people are…
Some people even pay for it…
So once again it’s not universal, compulsory, obvious or true, so avoiding suffering whilst worthy is not the meaning of life. Likewise helping other people with their suffering, removing their burdens and tending to the wounded, the dispossessed and the disenfranchised is a noble thing to do but also fails our criteria as explained previously.
If you run any idea through the great filer of UCOT, I guarantee that the idea will fail.
It’s not because the filter is flawed, it’s because the ideas are flawed.
For example what if the meaning of life is simply to keep on living?
Well it should be obvious, we can die unexpectedly and can also choose not to take that next breath and to end it all now.
So what is true?
All human beings are born, it’s universal compulsory, blindingly obvious and true, at last something passes our great filter. So from this we can discern that the meaning of life is to exist.
I exist therefore I am.
All human beings are born, coming to life, it’s compulsory (nobody comes into the world on purpose,) so it’s universal, compulsory, obvious and true.
“Nobody exists on purpose, nobody belongs anywhere, everybody’s going to die, come watch TV.”
Morty speaking to Summer in Rick & Morty, the greatest TV Cartoon ever!
“The meaning of life is just to be alive. It is so plain and so obvious and so simple. And yet, everybody rushes around in a great panic as if it were necessary to achieve something beyond themselves.”
This brings us neatly to existentialism, and more importantly the idea that existence precedes essence, so in other words you come into being and what follows after this is up to you. You are free to find your own meaning in life and there’s never been a better time to do it.
Mankind is at it’s technological peak and the future looks rosy to say the least, you can travel the world and not be killed by the other monkeys, if you know how to behave…
Likewise there’s so many opportunities and things that you can do right now to fulfil yourself and find your own personal happiness that compared to your ancestor’s, life has never been so good, and this is all as a result of a melding of science, rational thinking (the logos) and the free market.
Finally I’d like to leave you with one sublime fact that might help put all of this in perspective for you, namely that you have to exist. The universe spawned you and if you could wind the clock back to the big bang and let it run all over again then you would exist in exactly the same form, being born in the same place and time, to do the same things that you’ve done in your life over and over again.
That’s because of the principle of determinism, that one action, leads to another and another and another according to physical laws and the interactions of matter, so if you could somehow restart the universe with the same initial conditions then everything that has happened previously and will happen in the future has no choice but to happen again and again and again…
Event ‘a,’ leads to event ‘b’ which leads to event ‘c’ and so on for all time…
This means that you have no choice but to be born and to contemplate the ‘absurd’ condition of it all.
I’d suggest a cup of tea and a treat around about now…
In a future article we will discuss a variety of ways, tools and mental practices that you can use to help find a personal meaning to your life, assuming that is, that you haven’t already found one.
Sources and links
Albert Camus and Richard Dawkins.