So, Okay, What is the Meaning of Life?
Mirror, mirror on the wall
It is the age old question: What is the meaning or purpose of life? Philosophers, religions, biologists, and even economist all claim they can offer us useful answers. As a practical matter, however, at best, they only offer relativistic answers. Consequently, buying into any of these interpretations can easily result in three problems:
- Present: misunderstand what is going on in the world that will impact you
- Future: disorient you as to where civilization is heading
- Opportunity: miss what is needed to get what you want out of life
Of course, on the surface, there is no reason for you to believe my interpretation of what life is all about either. But, maybe — just maybe — there is something basic that you had always intuited but never fully crystalized in your own thinking. Maybe, my interpretation will resonate and help crystalize your intuition to answer this question and better self-actualize your own life.
I think, therefore I am
Philosophical ideas speculating about the meaning life must date to the start of humanity. Indeed, simply having some conscious, self-aware thought must inevitably generate questions about the meaning or purpose of existence.
Thus, from the rhythms seen and experienced in nature, to the pantheons of specialized omniscient gods, to omnipotent monotheistic supernatural deities, to cognitive rationality, this philosophical quest has been a constant in human history.
Most contemporary philosophy concerned with the question of what life is about focuses on the conscious mind. Inasmuch as our self-awareness, cognitive abilities and the ability to systematically embed learned knowledge in tools differentiated us from other species, this seems to make sense. However, this approach starts to get dicey when attempting to sort out rational choice from chance, or cause and effect relationships.
Indeed, Daniel Kahneman’s work and that of others suggests people generally are not in rational or in control of their conscious mind and thus what they do in life.
At root, the problem in philosophy is one of complexity. That is, at what level do you start to frame life and assess variables related to cognition? For example, do gravitational waves and dark matter come into play? Shall we constrain ourselves to neurochemistry or neurobiology? Do civilizational and technological developments act as environmental determinants? Are we really rational beings with free will? Does subjective intuition impact our evolution?
On the surface, biology might seem to be a good rest point for philosophically framing conscious behavior and sorting out complexity. But, maybe our conscious behavior has its roots beyond the planet.
Think of it this way. The gravitational pull of the moon is strong enough to dramatically move all the water on earth on a daily and monthly basis. Since, biologically, humans are a bag of chemicals (albeit mostly water) the moon should influence our chemistry and thus our cognitive processes just as much as the oceans. Some might counter that, like the effects of gravity on our physiology, evolution adaptively accounted for the moon’s effects. Perhaps.
But, we could extend the frame of potential variable influences on conscious behavior out further still (e.g. Einstein’s spooky action at a distance). If so, it is plausible that vibrating string particles, considered the most fundamental particles in the cosmos, some other force(s) or morphic resonance(s) run throughout space-time and are subtly guiding human behavior. To wit, it would seem reasonable to say that, given the laws of physics and micro-macro integration of the cosmos, regardless of where intelligent life emerged in the universe it would inevitably evolve cognitively in the same way toward a technological civilization.
Thus, in the end, absent the ability to decipher and account for larger cosmic influences on cognitive abilities, philosophical ideas about what life is about appear to be little more than solipsistic hubris.
All good things come to those who wait
It is curious how most of today’s institutional religions all emerged around the same time, the “Axial Age,” after the invention of writing. Moreover, as religious scholar, Joseph Campbell, noted, how all have essentially the same tenets. Indeed, virtually all religions suggest suffering in this life will be rewarded in the next, afterlife. Thus, in effect, saying the meaning of life is penance.
This is seems to be pure sophistry, effectively rationalizing away all options and events in life as completely beyond our control. But to make this point one does not have to engage in the contentious, polarizing, ad nauseam debates between believers and atheists. The fact is there is no evidence to validate either position one way or another.
Indeed, the only intellectually honest position — which is the only way we carbon-based units can navigate this mortal existence — is to acknowledge we do not and cannot know whether there is or is not a god, an afterlife, a heaven or a hell. Rather, it suffices to be agnostic. Thus, there is no basis for a malevolent being to blame or benevolent omniscient one to thank that adequately rationalizes our existence or the course of our lives.
That said there is no reason to discount the existence of some force(s), somehow, some way, somewhere in this or another universe is at work. What is worth noting, however, is Einstein’s E=mc2 formulation. In part because it highlights the fact that our universe started as pure energy and will end as pure cold dark matter (i.e., entropy, the unending process of converting energy into matter). What is interesting and relevant to us and the meaning of our lives is the area in between these extreme cosmic bookends.
As astronomer, Carl Sagan, was fond of saying, we are all made of “star stuff.” It is the simple idea that all the chemical elements needed for the emergence of biological life did not exist when the universe began. Rather, many of the essential elements need were produced through the crushing gravitational weight and extraordinary temperatures associated with dying stars that exploded as supernovas.
Simply put, our lives inhabit an existence in between the extremes of pure energy and pure matter. That what best represents our “experience” of life is as an island between these extremes. Moreover, as Ilya Prigogine noted, like all such islands that exist in the cosmos, we are surrogates in cosmic process aimed at effectively accelerating entropy.
Thus, it is only within in our living skin and conscious mind now — as an island in this moment— that we “experience” the existence of this life. In this context, a religious afterlife is irrelevant because it places all options and events in life completely beyond our control.
Darwinian survival of the fittest
What physics was to the first half of the 20th century science, biology was to the second half of the century. Breakthroughs in genetics revealed the incredible historical biological archive preserved in DNA and irrefutably connected the dots for the evolution of life on the planet.
Equally useful was the lucidity of Richard Dawkins’ dialectical depiction of biological and environmental coevolution — the selfish gene (i.e., preserving specific linages) and extended phenotypes (i.e., species simultaneously modify their environment and themselves to increase ecological fitness). This brought the micro- and macro- mechanisms of Darwinian evolution into better focus and aligned it with how other systems evolve.
But, in the end, biology is essentially a flexible container, vessel or vehicle for entropic cosmic evolution. As a container, biology is a spectacular shape-shifter that is able to configure itself endlessly to maximize its continued coevolution within virtually any set of environmental conditions.
This magical shape-shifting ability is amply witnessed with extremophiles; organisms that live in extreme environments — physical (e.g., in volcanic hot springs or frozen deep in glacial ice) or geochemical (e.g. deep in the oceans without light for photosynthesis) — completely alien to most biological life we normally see and know.
Despite advances in our understanding of basic biology, we are still deconstructing the micro-mechanisms of evolution — complexity of proteins at the individual level and the vast co-evolving bacteriological forests engulfing us all — and assembling the complexity associated with the macro-mechanisms of epigenetics. Interestingly, akin to how nanotechnology is reengineering the industrial world from the atomic and molecular level up, synthetic biology appears to be charting a path simplifying some of these complexities in living organisms.
Setting aside the potential downside of synthetic biology, the larger point here is that the meaning of our life is not about biology. Indeed, we now know that amino acids — the building blocks for all biology on earth — appear to be sufficiently common on meteors and asteroids to suggest the cosmos is saturated with them.
So, while biology affords many options and events useful to life, it is essentially a fluid, shape-shifting container that primarily enables cosmic evolution to create islands of life in more varied environments. In this sense, biology, like galaxies and stars, merely accelerates the entropic transition of energy into matter, but provides no real insight into to the meaning of life.
Penny for your thoughts
In biology, the possession of certain traits or physical attributes can enhance survival of a species or linage. Similarly, throughout human history, the possession of tangible artifacts was perceived to have value that conferred or reflected status. In this respect, most now value a person’s or society’s worth, and thus influence, monetarily. As is said, money makes the world go around, and so we all want more, more, more.
Over the last couple of centuries economists have sought to formulate a science and rules governing the nature and utility of these artifacts. Thus, from the invisible hand of supply and demand relationships, from GDP to per capita income, from creative destruction to wealth creation, capitalism has been deified. As a consequence, economists and their theories have been elevated to key positions at the highest levels of every global, national and corporate institution.
As with the biological coevolution of genes at the micro-level and the macro-level relationship between species and environments, economists tell us that microeconomics is about individual behavior and macroeconomics is about aggregate productivity growth. In a societal sense there is some truth to this.
But the fact remains that “money” — qua capitalism — is purely an agreed upon human artifact (replacing beads, tulips and the like) with no tangible basis beyond its service as a metric for calibrating the respective relative value of things exchanged. In that context, economics and money only relates to life in the aggregate as a means to stratify people and the quality of life available to each stratum.
However, just as earth is a base platform for biological evolution, society is a base platform for technological evolution. Thus, each major technological advance created a new technological species that generated greater wealth creation, which ultimately was reinvested to create more technological innovation.
In other words, technology is a base platform for the evolution of capitalism and money. So, while money does make the world go around, it does not do it the way most economists assume. Rather, money feeds capitalist genetics that, while selfish, are fitted and selected by the extended technological environmental phenotype. Said differently, first we shape our tools and thereafter they shape us.
Thus, advanced capitalism and technological innovation co-evolve to result in wealth creation. Throughout most of human history this co-evolutionary process was invisible (inuring to benefit of despots) and not appreciated.
The perverse beauty of this co-evolutionary process, and why economists are so wrong about most everything these days, especially when it comes to life being about economics, is that technological innovation is in the process of making economics irrelevant. More to the point, economics is perhaps best viewed through the lens of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. In this context, economics is a measure of individual and societal independence from the lower level necessities of life — survival and safety — that preempt contemplating what life is about.
Said differently, as solely a measure of where we are as individuals, a country and species, economics is increasingly detached from life as we depend more on technology to access and assess our higher level options in life. So economics is not about life. Rather, it is a measure of the most basic options available for us to begin pursuit of the meaning of life.
As disappointing as it may be to some, we humans are not the crown of creation. We are merely cosmic islands and thus part of a larger cosmic drama that is continuing to play out. So, to know what life is all about requires us to understand:
- where we fit — our place — in the larger drama.
- how to get the most out the place we find ourselves in that drama.
First, as to our place
If we had a macroscopic, bird’s-eye view of cosmic evolution we would see a series of “islands” created since the beginning of the universe — from particles, to chemicals, to galactic clouds, to solar systems, to biology, to biologic sentience, to technological sentience (AI), and maybe something akin to cosmic sentience (e.g., “the continuum”??).
While there may still be more islands in the future, suffice it to say human-like sentience must be a central link to some wider cosmos sentience. Not as cosmic travelers per se (short of reengineering our biology, we are effectively chained to earth) but through our technological proxies.
That we know our place in this cosmic drama should be liberating and exhilarating. At least, that is how I feel.
Second, getting the most from our island paradise
The key takeaway from this macroscopic view is how the cosmos repeatedly creates new islands, new platforms for further novel evolution. We know each new island platform has been more complex than the predecessors, a better entropic accelerant, and apparently, more capable of sentient evolution.
Either way the basic idea is simple: the cosmos seems to have an operating system that constantly seeks out the evolutionary platforms that will create the greatest number of new evolutionary options.
In other words, each island found in the course of cosmic evolution seeks to discover the next new island platform best able to evolve and discover still more platforms for evolution to continue evolving. A truly, remarkable, magical feature of the cosmos.
Thus, regardless of what one’s ultimate ambition in life is — create a big happy family, have friends and fun, become rich, be a great artist, or change the world — what life is about is maximizing the evolvability of your inner passion toward self-actualizing that as a goal.
Said differently, life is all about finding your inner passion and constantly reassessing your end goal to find and select the best option(s) to give yourself the greatest number of new evolutionary options to succeed. In other words, life is short and only has meaning to you in this life. Everything else is an irrelevant illusion or makes you a pawn in someone else’s game.
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You can find more of my ideas at my Medium publication, A Passion to Evolve or my website dochuston1. com
In any case, may you live long and prosper.