The Meaning Of Life
In my about me page, I state quite confidently that life is pointless.
Now, this is a personal blog so I’m allowed to state my personal opinions and I’m allowed to be as confident about them as I like. However, I must remind you, before continuing, that an opinion is all it is: I’m discussing things that no-one can prove or disprove, therefore we can only ever discourse on the level of opinions and beliefs – so don’t get your knickers in a knot!
When it comes down to it, everyone has an opinion about why we’re here, what the meaning and purpose of life is. Some people hold onto their opinions so steadfastly that they morph into beliefs and even the person – who must now live according to those beliefs – will tell you they can’t change what they believe; they just do.
Perhaps all of us are looking for answers to the same questions but, given that there are none, we’re left to look at the myriad of different stories attempting to answer those questions and choose the one that resonates best within us – or create a new one.
And there’s nothing wrong with that!
This here is the story that resonates best with me.
In the beginning there was nothing
Pretty much all of the stories start with an idea of nothingness (or eternity, or oscillation – but I’m more interested in nothingness for now). I love this idea. What the hell is nothingness? No one alive has experienced, or ever will experience nothingness, so it’s wonderful that we managed to come up with such a concept!
The current, colloquial-secular understanding of our universe is the Big Bang theory: In the beginning there was nothing. For whatever reason, ‘nothing’ exploded in a big, violent way; spewing primal matter into existence and creating space-time along with it (alternatives include an unstable quantum field tantamount to nothing, or a bored deity, who operates outside the realm of the natural, using nothing as his/her creative medium – take your pick).
This ‘universe’ expanded and cooled over billions of years until we get to today, where observable data tells us there are billions of stars in our galaxy, and hundreds of billions of galaxies out there. Recent information shows that the rate of expansion of the universe is increasing and some models suggest that if we humans hang around for as long as the dinosaurs managed (they were alive for 250 million years, we’ve only been around for 2 million) then the Universe will be so expanded, and so cold, that we won’t be able to see any of it from Earth (or from the Dyson cloud we’ve built around the Sun).
In any case, eventually it will all run out of energy, go cold and die (although, at a quantum level I’m not sure that’s possible; a random vacuum fluctuation might just start the whole process again) but it will still be something, not nothing. A cold, dead something, a residual something with a gnat’s whisker of a chance to rekindle itself, but definitely not a nothing. Right?
The idea of nothingness is a simple one: here we have chaos and matter and time and space but wouldn’t it have been much simpler for there to be nothing? So we assume that all of this existence somehow came from nothingness and we try to figure out how that happened by pulling the somethingness of the world around us apart and trying to figure out what makes it tick.
In reality, nothingness is a really difficult concept to explain, quantify or understand but, as a concept it’s quite elegant, so it sticks around.
Now, there are two things I take from this world-view
The first is that it seems like pure hubris to suppose that all of those billions of stars and galaxies were created intentionally just to allow us to come into existence and build guns, bombs, satellites and nuclear weapons – the whole idea of a personal God doesn’t seem to fit with what is out there.
The second is that the only alternative to all this that we can imagine, is nothingness.
So, first thing first:
God Does Not Exist
I don’t want to get bogged down with religion, spirituality and God here. Remember this is an opinion piece. No one can know for sure if there is a God or not. What I’m trying to do here is follow a fairly bleak train of thought that leads to a view of life as meaningless and then demonstrate how that’s a good thing – so just play along for the moment.
It’s actually a fairly intuitive thing to look at the wonders (and horrors) of the Universe and assume that it was created by an all powerful being. Psychologists have shown that when confronted by a brute act of nature, like a flood or an earthquake, we have a tendency to attribute a personality toward it. So it makes sense that the bigger and harder to understand the phenomenon is, the more grand a personality we attribute to it.
Maybe you’ve heard it said that cats assume other beings are just other cats? Well, basically we’re doing the same thing: As humans we have a default way of understanding the world around us and how it relates to us, and this is default is influenced by how we experience ourselves and other human beings.
Now, just because that’s the case doesn’t rule out that we might have accidentally hit on the truth – that there is an all powerful creator responsible for the universe – but if so, we’ve arrived there accidentally and have no way of knowing if it’s true.
My problem with God is that, once in the picture, there is a tendency to make it a personal, all loving God who has our best interests at heart. Again, we have no way of knowing whether that’s true or not, so people believe it not because of its merit but because it comforts them – it’s the story that resonates best with them.
I don’t find it convincing, let alone comforting, so I’m left ruling out a personal God.
What this means is that I don’t have the luxury of assuming my life has a purpose because I was created by a loving God who has a plan for me. I don’t have the comfort of believing that life inherently has meaning, whether we can comprehend it or not, because it was imbued with meaning by an external deity. So I’m left looking for other sources of meaning.
There are, of course, other myths about God – the Hindu/Buddhist idea that all of the many things around us are in fact just one thing – including ourselves – and that One Thing is not a thing at all but God; God playing at being the Universe for his/her own amusement or development. This is a much more appealing story to me. I find it more comforting than the idea that we were created as a separate thing, ultimately finite and at the mercy of a supernatural being – no matter how benevolent. After all, in this story of events, I am a God!
But when it comes to the question of meaning, this story isn’t much help. If all the Universe is, is a dream in the mind of God, and we are merely the characters in that dream, then ‘me’ as an individual has no real purpose or meaning, or indeed any reality.
And, whilst that may be true, we can never know if it’s true. The belief may accidentally coincide with what’s really happening or it may not. Regardless, it’s irrelevant to my experience of life because I experience life as an individual, mortal, fallible, finite human being and I’m seeking to answer the question of meaning within that context.
Why is meaning so important?
I think most people want their life to have meaning and purpose. I don’t think I’m alone in that desire. Let me put it another way; I don’t think anybody wants their life to be meaningless. Nobody sets about life thinking – ‘I hope this is all for nothing!’
So, meaning is important because it’s something we all struggle with. The search for meaning is the drive behind most faiths and religions, including faith in science and reason.
So it’s important to me because it’s important to everyone and I’m included in everyone. But why is it important to everyone? Wouldn’t life be easier if it wasn’t? Do you think monkeys or hamsters or cats are plagued by existential angst over the meaning of their existence? No, they just get on with it, they just be. What makes human beings so less disposed towards simply being?
It’s an interesting question and one I’d love to pursue but, for the current purposes, it’s irrelevant. The fact is that we are that way; we experience life as a narrative and we want it to have a reason for existing, a meaning to justify it, a purpose to imbue it with value.
Allow me to play Devil’s Advocate then, and propose a thought experiment. Let’s assume that all that good stuff we want simply isn’t true. Let’s stop being children trying to protect ourselves with pretty fantasies (which may or may not accidentally coincide with reality) and just, for the sake of argument, assume a worst case scenario:
There is no God
There is no purpose
There is no meaning
The whole universe is an accident
Your life is pointless
There is no happy ending
Don’t just read the words, imagine it to be true, believe it to be true. How does it make you feel knowing that your life is insignificant and meaningless, not even just ‘in the scheme of things’; on a grander scheme the whole universe is meaningless, there is no purpose, no direction, no heaven, no hell, nothing other than the brute fact of existence without an explanation.
Sounds a lot like nihilism, doesn’t it. When I first drilled down my beliefs and realised this was where they were heading I was terrified. In fact, I chickened out and focussed on more practical things like my credit card debts and my career path.
But in the back of my mind, this idea that the whole of existence is a meaningless accident kept gnawing away at me. Maybe there was something wrong with me – if this is the story that resonates best with me, maybe I need help. Maybe I shouldn’t even be here?
And then I stopped and I really looked into myself. Suppose it is true. All my life I’ve wanted to find meaning and purpose but suppose I’m never going to find it because it doesn’t exist. Do I want to keep going? Am I happy to be alive?
To answer this question, I looked at the alternative.
Pointlessness is better than Nothingness
If you’ve been paying attention, you’ll know that the only true alternative I can imagine is nothingness. As much as it would be simpler for nothing to exist than to have all of the complexity, chaos and confusion of the Universe, it would be far, far less interesting!
Ultimately, even if all of this is just an accident (and I remind you, we can never actually know), even if the whole shebang serves no purpose, I’m intensely grateful to be here and be able to experience it!
The world is an incredibly beautiful place and it doesn’t get any less so when you look out into space. It would be simpler to have no other stars and galaxies out there, just us, but isn’t it better that they are there instead of there being nothing out there?
If the choice is between pointless existence and nothingness, I know which side I’m going to land on. And I challenge you to feel differently. The key difference between this and nihilism is that, when I looked into the heart of my beliefs and discovered they were quite bleak, I also discovered a well of gratitude for my existence – all the more so because it was accidental and could have easily been nothingness!
We Can Never Know
This is the story that I find most comforting, that resonates most with me. I’m not saying it’s the right story. It has its own flaws – what does this mean for morality, free will, motivation? There are more questions to answer before I can relax into this and morph it into a belief but the lesson I hope you can take from this is that even if life is pointless, it’s still a good thing, especially when contrasted with the alternative: nothingness.
I’ve stressed a number of times in this article that we can never know which story is true but I think it’s important for everyone to examine which story they believe and make sure it’s the right one for them. We inherit beliefs, often without realising, and they mould the way we think and interact with the world. We hold onto them because they comfort us – and I’m no different in that regard – but one of the best things you can do for yourself is take the time to really understand what your beliefs are and where they’re taking you.
We can never know if life has meaning or purpose, yet we all go about our day as if it does. A lot of that is simply fear of the alternative – how do we organise our lives if there’s no greater meaning, overall purpose or externally imposed point to it?
I think it’s important to address these questions because the idea that life is meaningless is a perfectly viable story to believe in and, if handled consciously, it may help us to approach life from a more enlightened place, one underpinned by a sense of gratitude that we’re here at all, a gratitude that is not given over to a higher being (along with the responsibility for whatever happens down here) but is owned by us as ours, as our choice to honour the series of happy accidents, which led us to this point, and approach the future with wonder and awe the way we did when we were kids!