The meaning and purpose of life
During the entire month of July 2015, my first four books, including Why Materialism Is Baloney, will be available on Amazon Kindle Stores for only 99 cents. You can purchase them all for under $4. This is an effort to make my work more accessible and widespread. To celebrate this, each week in July I will be publishing selected passages from each of the books.
This time, I'll quote a passage from my 2011 book Rationalist Spirituality. This is probably my least rigorous but most accessible book. It discusses very openly the fundamental questions of life, particularly the meaning and purpose of our existence. It also uses a dualist metaphor throughout, implicitly playing with the allegorical image of a soul separate from the body, which can also be read literally if that's your inclination. The passage below comes from Chapter 2 and pretty much sets the tone for what you can expect to find in the rest of this short and pragmatic book.
What happens but once [...] might as well not have happened at all. If we have only one life to live, we might as well not have lived at all. So does world-renowned author Milan Kundera capture the apparent futility of existence and its ephemeral character. If, as indicated by the second law of thermodynamics, all dynamic and organized structures in the universe, amongst which galaxies, stars, and living creatures like you and me, will eventually expire without a trace, existence appears devoid of meaning. From the point of view of orthodox materialistic science, all choices we make and experiences we live throughout our lives will, in time, be of no consequence. As such, our lives are “light” in their insignificance. Such “unbearable lightness of being”, captured so powerfully in Kundera’s work, is an agonizing and profoundly counter-intuitive perspective for many of us.
As rich and satisfying as our lives may sometimes be, most of us are marked by past or present experiences of profound pain and suffering. Loss, disappointment, frustration, anxiety, regret are or have been familiar concepts to most of us. Is there anything we suffer for? And even when everything seems to go well in our lives, we sometimes cannot help but wonder whether there is any meaning in that either. What can be the meaning of our success, our material wealth, of our fleeting moments of happiness, and even of our most profound rejoicing when, given enough time, not a trace or even a memory of our existence will be left behind? From a rational perspective, can there be anything that survives our participation in the universe, adding something to its very essence in a way that transcends time? Without it, there can be no true meaning to the dance of existence.
There are no obvious answers to this question. Yes, our children survive us. The work we carry out during our lives often survives us too, be it through material entities like the buildings of an architect, or more abstract entities like the ideas of a philosopher. But notice, the common thread behind all these tentative answers is the same: whatever outcome of our lives survives us only has meaning through the lives of other people like ourselves. The achievement of meaning is merely postponed in a self-similar way. Your children are people like you. The house built by the architect is only meaningful through the people who will live in it. The ideas and concepts left behind by the philosopher are only meaningful through the people who will read his books. But what, then, is the meaning of the lives of those people? If their lives are meaningless, so has the life of the philosopher been, for the meaning of his life seems to be conditional to that of theirs. This is an endless recursion. If the meaning of your life is the lives of your children, and the meaning of their lives are the lives of their children, and so on, where is the final meaning of it all that confers ultimate purpose to the lives of all previous generations of men, and of men’s ancestors, all the way back to the beginning of time? In mathematics, a recursion cannot complete until a base-case, or termination condition, is reached. Recursions without a base-case continue on forever and are pointless, just like a computer program that does nothing but call itself repeatedly, never producing a result.
It could be that meaning is only realized at the base-case of one such a recursive process. In this case, the meaning of our lives would operate solely through the contributions we make to the lives of the people who survive our own existence, up until a point where the existence of a generation of living beings, perhaps in an unimaginably distant future, will serve an ultimate purpose in itself. Alternatively, or complementarily, it could be that our lives, ephemeral as they may be, somehow have meaning in and by themselves, grounded on the present of our existence.
In the coming chapters, we will explore both alternatives. If, at the end of this exploration, we find no sound base-case for a recursive process of meaning, nor any anchor to ground meaning to the present of our existence, we may be left with the possibility that meaning is either merely an illusion or an unknowable truth. If instead, as I hope to show, there are reasonable ideas and lines of reasoning to substantiate the notion that there is indeed meaning to existence, and that such meaning can be at least intuited, then perhaps the lightness of our being is not at all unbearable. Perhaps the existence of the universe, and of our lives within it, is rich in meaning, significance, and purpose. Perhaps it is precisely the perception of futility and inconsequence that has all along been an illusion of our minds. In this latter case, we will also need to suggest logical and rational mechanisms for the emergence of such an illusion in a universe that is, as postulated, rich in meaning. This is the journey of this book.
As a final note in this chapter, it should be clear that, when I talk of meaning, I refer to an ultimate purpose for the very existence of the universe, defined as the collection of all existing aspects of nature, known and unknown. I do not mean to imply an anthropomorphic purpose to particular, local processes taking place within the universe, such as, for instance, evolution by natural selection. This way, the ideas in this book are agnostic of whether the evolution of the species has an intelligent causal agency or is driven by unintelligent, purely algorithmic processes. Even if we assume the latter viewpoint, there is still a valid question regarding the ultimate existential purpose of the underlying vehicles of the evolutionary process. In other words, even if evolution is the result of mechanical, algorithmic processes operating on a bio-molecular medium, why does that medium, and the natural laws operating on it, exist in the first place?