The Meaning of Life; An Exploration.
Is there a meaning to life? If so, what could it be?
The elusiveness of a definitive meaning of life has undoubtedly lurked around in one’s head, often mocking its poor victim. Some of us push it to the corner of our minds, some have very clear answers and some of us even come to a conclusion that there is no meaning to life, in which the outcome, often extreme in nature, range from depression and suicide to enlightenment and liberation.
Before we begin the article proper, it is important to define the word ‘life’. For the purpose of this article, let us discuss ‘life’ on two distinctive levels. First, we will go through the meaning of life where life is abstractly defined as the embodiment of existence itself. We will then go through the meaning of life where life is defined as something much more tangible: the period of time between birth and death.
It is important to note that this is a question that is philosophical and argumentative in nature and thus, this article is not constructed in a way to give a definitive answer but rather, to explore possibilities and cover both sides of the coin. Also, to answer the question ‘what is the meaning of life?’, we have to question that said meaning of life exists and through answering that, it will be made apparent the overlaps with the initial disposition posed. Although the article is not written free of biasness, it is entirely up to the discretion of the reader to lean towards a certain side, or even, to lean at all.
‘Life’ as the Embodiment of Existence Itself
The nihilist holds the perspective that we are merely drifters — constantly searching for meaning in a meaningless world that is indifferent to us. This has, in turn, evolved to absurdist philosophy, where due to the fundamental disharmony of the search of meaning tied to its apparent lack of existence, is dealt with in three distinct manners: suicide, religion or acceptance of the absurd. Suicide was dismissed as an unviable option by the founders of absurdism themselves and seeing as it is not a constructive point of contemplation for this article, we shall only delve into religion and the acceptance of the absurd.
Seen by the founders of absurdism as philosophical suicide, is the adoption of religious belief beyond the absurd that was non-rational but perhaps, necessary acceptance of something that is intangible and unprovable.
In the realms of religion, there exists a meaning to life as the embodiment of existence itself.
The meaning of life as existence itself, as depicted by most religions, is to be loved by god(s) or being(s) of higher power, and to help him/them fulfill an eternal plan. Christianity and Islam are two of the obvious examples. Religion gives effect to a superior being that has a plan for man and has created man for a reason. However, this reason is often left unknown and unexplained, but the religion demands that the follower has faith and follows the rules of the religion while trusting that their god(s) has everything planned out for them. This gives life as existence itself a meaning that the followers can find solace in, despite the explicit details remaining a mystery.
Acceptance of the Absurd
Acceptance of the absurd is the embracing of the understanding that there is no meaning to life but continuing to live in spite of it. The founders termed this as ‘demoniac madness’ as the struggle to function while knowing that there is no bigger plan or meaning to existence is one that is seemingly devastating to most.
When life is seen as the embodiment of existence, it becomes resultantly impossible to decide if there is meaning to it at all.
On one hand, there may be no meaning to life and the existence of mankind itself is one that is temporary and exists merely to come and go in a universe that itself may exist merely to come and go.
On the other hand, if there is meaning in life as the embodiment of existence, it is at the moment, not one that we can know for sure or comprehend. Just like how a computer is programmed with the ability to run certain applications, our brains are designed to function in a world of eleven dimensions. If the world actually spans further than that and the meaning of life lies there, it is, fortunately or not, out of our reach. With our current levels of technology and inadequacy in the prowess of our understanding, we can only speculate and come up with models that ‘best-fit’ our reality. The world can be seen in many perspectives and thus, can be fairly said to exist as different realities to each individual. Consequently, different religions and beliefs play the role of the different ‘best-fit’ models that different individuals believe in based on their personal view of reality.
However, despite the fact that there may be no real answer to the question of the meaning of life in its abstract essence, the meaning of life where life is seen as the tangible period of time between birth and death is much more relevant and graspable.
‘Life’ as the Period of Time between Birth and Death.
For this section of the essay, ‘meaning’ will take on two distinct forms — preassigned meaning and discretionary meaning.
Preassigned Meaning of Life; Religion
Preassigned meaning of life exists, once again, via religion. As discussed earlier, religion gives its followers an unknown meaning to life in the form of existence itself. This then models a meaning of life in the tangible sense when referred to as the period of time between birth and death.
Buddhists believe that the meaning of life is to detach themselves from the world and find Nirvana. Conservative Muslims believe that the afterlife is more important than the life lived and thus, giving a meaning to life that is transitional in nature where they spend their lives earning a place in the afterlife. Modernist and reformist Muslims feel that drawing a line between life and the afterlife is problematic and believe that they should not be writing such binaries. Instead, they believe that the meaning of life is to be aligned with the teachings of their god and life should be lived as ‘Heaven on Earth’, similar to the nature of modern Christian faith.
However, going back to the absurdist philosophy, the root of religion is believed to be man-made and designed to treat the disharmony between man’s search for meaning and the apparent lack of it. Thus, the question remains, is there even a meaning to life in the tangible sense of the period of time between birth and death?
Discretionary Meaning of Life; Science
Discarding the wishful obsession of a preassigned meaning of life, there may still be the existence of a discretionary meaning of life. To dive deeper into this, let us go through a project executed by renowned theoretical physicist and cosmologist, Stephen William Hawking.
The project was started through the recruitment of three volunteers who were interested in finding an answer to the everlasting question: why are we here?
They were brought to a castle and were given six different tasks to complete, each with a takeaway message that would help them on their journey to find out if there is indeed a meaning to life.
The first two tasks were aimed at conveying the message that everything in this world follows the law of physics and thus, a premature conclusion that there is a fixed outcome for each action was made.
In the third task, the volunteers were hooked up to a machine that detects brain activity and asked to press a button to stop the spinning hand of a projected clock whenever and however frequently they wanted to. Their corresponding brain activities were printed and shown to them and they found that brain activity spikes even before the volunteers ‘decide’ to press the button. The proposed theory is that our subconscious mind actually makes the decision by itself and the experience of ‘making’ a decision is merely the conscious mind becoming conscious of what the subconscious mind has already set in stone and merely communicated. The takeaway message here was that free will did not exist and the illusion of free will is created by your conscious mind merely realizing what your unconscious mind is programmed to think and consequently, there is no meaning of life and everything is predetermined.
However, the volunteers then move on to the fourth task where the takeaway message was that subatomic particles did not follow the laws of physics and their motions and actions were totally random in nature. This is the uncertainty principle where on the very smallest of scales, matter behaves in a very strange and indistinct way, implying that the world is totally random at its core and not at all predetermined.
The fifth task was designed to show the volunteers that although randomness exists, it exists only within the realm of a fixed set of possibilities.
For the final task, the volunteers wore three different colors: red, blue and yellow. They were situated on an open field where each of them had a third of the field as their own ‘area’. Behind each of them, in a line, stood twenty other volunteers each wearing the color respective to ‘whose’ area of the field they were standing in. A whistle would blow and whenever the whistle sounded, everybody had a choice to take one step to the left, one step to the right or not move at all. All this was to be done in the boundaries of their own areas. After a while, the volunteers would stop and look at the results. They continued this for three rounds. The results were always different and totally random.
The final takeaway message was that everything that can happen has happened in another universe. Stephen Hawking then went on to explain that the laws of nature implies that there are multiple universes and that although it sounds absurd, the job of science is to come up with a model that best fits reality and accept the consequences, even if they cannot be seen. Consequently, the universe you find yourself in is one that is unique to yourself and exists solely for you. Thus, the individual himself is empowered to decide on his own meaning of life.
It can be said that neither the existence of a preassigned meaning of life in its tangible form nor the meaning of life in its abstract form can be determined in today’s context. However, the universe has been proven to be structured, yet random, and provides stable conditions in order for complex creatures like man to evolve. We may be tiny and feeble, but in a very real way, this universe exists in a tailored construct that is specific for each and every individual. The world in which the individual lives in is one that gave rise to his or her very being out of all possible worlds. Thus, one can find meaning in religion, in personal beliefs, or in a void fueled by rejection of the aforementioned. The meaning of life is whatever one chooses it to be.
On another note, it is important to note that the meaning of life may not be as important an inquisition as it sounds. The question may lead one to the sanctity and sacredness of life itself but consider this — many people throw their lives away for different reasons. Suicide aside, people give their lives for their countries, for their families, for their friends, for their dreams. This itself is undeniable evidence that there are things that various individuals value above life itself. There may or may not be the existence of said meaning of life but there is definitely meaning to be found in life; in one’s relationships, in one’s dreams, personal beliefs in religion or even the mere pursuit of happiness itself. Consequently, the existence of a meaning of life is not at all critical in deciding why and how we choose to live our lives.
Thank you for reading! Share your thoughts, for they are most welcome, and remember to recommend it to someone that may enjoy the read!
Watch Stephen Hawking’s execution of the full project here