This is sub-chapter #8, of Chapter 2, Philosophy, of my ongoing rewrite and open editing process Random Rationality: A Rational Guide to an Irrational World.
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For thousands of years we’ve philosophized, proselytized, debated, and bickered over a Meaning of Life to apply to the human race as a whole. Yet, it seems to me that this is a question without an all-encompassing answer, and we fear admitting that because the notion of an unanswerable question is distinctly foreign and extremely uncomfortable. But I will try to make the case that there isn’t a meaning of life, because meaning presupposes purpose, and purpose presupposes agency—or God. After four-hundred years of searching, none of the events that was ever purported to God (or gods) ever turned out to be supernatural. (And we have good reasons to apply this to the moment of creation itself.)
Let’s start at the beginning. The Universe was created from an infinitely dense point of energy, in an event we have come to know as the Big Bang, which began the expansion of the Universe up until the present. Through all this, the Universe has followed a fairly predictable rule, repeating ad infinitum concordant with the laws of physics, and will predictably continue to do so until the heat death of the Universe, i.e., everything will be so far apart and so random that order (stars, planets, life etc.) will be impossible, and the Universe will be in thermal equilibrium (this is what timeless and formless looks like). This is also known as maximum entropy. The physicist Brian Cox estimates this will not occur for ten-thousand trillion, trillion, trillion, trillion, trillion, trillion, trillion, trillion years.
This predictable rule puts in doubt a grand Meaning of Life. This rule is the increasing complexity of matter and of objects composed of that matter—until we start bumping up against entropy that is. From hydrogen through to uranium and the ninety naturally occurring elements sitting snugly between, and to the molecules and objects comprised of these atomic structures.
This same increase in complexity is essentially, though not always, the same direction evolution has progressed in—from single-celled organisms to the fifty-trillion celled primate writing this long diatribe, pretending to be an intellectual.
So if everything around us follows a rather predictable rule based on the unchanging laws of physics, why or how, can there be a grand answer or meaning of life?
“We long to be here for a purpose, even though despite much self-deception. None is evident.” ~ Carl Sagan
Life wasn’t magic, nor spontaneous, but given what we know, an inevitable outcome of the random complexity of the Universe. To give context and perspective; it is estimated that there are at least ten-billion Earth-like planets in our Milky Way galaxy alone. And the Milky Way is just one galaxy among an estimated one-hundred billion galaxies in the observable Universe, suggesting there could be trillions of planets with the potential for life. On top of that, we’ve found the building blocks of life in uncontaminated meteorites. (Two of the four nucleobases: A and G of the ATCG base-code that underlies the gene code of all Earthly life were found in the meteorites including other derivative nucleobases that exist nowhere on Earth). We should be perplexing ourselves over the odds of life not existing elsewhere, for surely there is life elsewhere, no matter how small the odds. There is simply no intelligent way of going around it. We exist, therefore, the odds are greater than zero, and the sheer immensity of the Universe guarantees that the results will be replicated elsewhere. Perhaps these other life forms also ponder the meaning of life?
To cut directly to the heart of the matter: life just is, and we just are, and there’s nothing else to it. Everything else simply springs forth from the self-importance we bestow upon ourselves—which I imagine morphed out of our evolutionary survival instinct. As survival waned in its cognitive necessity—as our intelligence was allowed to flourish into ego-centric philosophies. The Universe doesn’t operate on our needs or wants, biases and prejudices, or our hopes and aspirations. It just is, and we just are.
“We are the cosmos made conscious. Life is the means by which the universe understands itself.” ~ Brian Cox (Particle Physicist)
To philosophize a grand answer or some central doctrine to life is meaningless. Furthermore, even were you to be convinced that there is an answer, how could you ever know if it was right?
We can try to make sense of the Universe, the ‘how’ and the ‘what,’ but the ‘why’ will always be out of reach. We can’t look into the Universe from outside. There is no absolute reference point. Even if we could, there’s no guarantee we’d find anything and we may just find more universes further pushing the question into obscurity, ambiguity, and nothingness. Why is but a human concept. An expression of our own agency, of our search for meaning, our subjective language, and not an inherent quality of this Universe. To assume a why elsewhere likewise presupposes agency. Some questions are without an answer.
Life, subjectively, is indeed a beautiful thing, though as far as I can tell, it carries with it, no objective meaning. The only meaning it has, is that which you yourself give it, as the astronomer Carl Sagan writes, “We are the custodians of life’s meaning.”
This question, or yearning to understand, exists because we have an innate desire, perhaps a need to be a part of something greater than ourselves. To stand for something greater than ourselves. This desire, since time immemorial, predominantly expressed in religion and in country (or city-state, tribe, and family), has persisted through the ages, an inherent part of our collective psyche.
It’s understandable why the ancients developed such an affinity with their religions and their creeds, their kings, queens, and allegiances but what else did they have in their lives? It was simply the path of least resistance in a violent, unforgiving world.
In today’s modern scientific age, this powerful desire need not be allayed to such traditional and ignorant roots. For fear of being taken out of context, ignorant here references to the dictionary meaning, ‘lacking in knowledge,’ and will be used as such in this book and not as the modern insult it has morphed into. (For all I know, I’m ignorant on everything I write about.)
We now have a vast scientific understanding of the Universe, of life, and while this knowledge may never be complete, it is at a point that we can explain and logically extrapolate where almost everything came from, how it came to be, and where it might go. Let us explore a different perspective, perhaps more worthy of our intellectual curiosity. Think back to the last time you looked upon the luminescent stars in a clear nights sky; picture them. Do you remember what you felt as you gazed upon those fiery points of light way back when? Perhaps a sense of wonder or amazement, almost spiritual in its reverence? If so, there is a very good reason for this feeling. And if you don’t feel anything staring at the sky, something might be wrong with you.
Everything that ever was, that is, and that ever will be, was created inside one of those stars. Every atom in your body: the hydrogen, the oxygen, the carbon, the nitrogen, the calcium, the iron, and the phosphorous that makes up the human being reading this page was created inside the fiery furnace of a violently mixing, rotating, and luminous sphere of energetic gas.
From these brilliant points of light in the heavens, the largest of which, in their explosive death throes, scattered their remains across the Universe, came the fantastic chemical array of which everything is built from. Their violent ends expanding the Universal (and non-sentient) toolkit, which formed yet more stars, and asteroids, comets, and finally planets. All of which endlessly mixed and roamed the Universe when by happens-chance, a tiny fraction of this kaleidoscopically arranged matter merged and mixed in unison to create an ordinary yellow star; our Sun, and formed the planets we know today. One of those planets began forming organic compounds (or received them via meteorites), which went on to become single-celled life that replicated, reassembled, and mutated trillions upon trillions of times until, finally, at last, it arrived at You.
You are literally made of star-dust and the stars are the gods of the Universe. Billions of small pieces of different stars and their matter. All of which has been smashed, re-arranged, combined and recombined, assembled, and passed down from generation to generation of stars, dust, rocks, and once upon the Earth, the never-ending chemical cauldron of volcanoes and oceans and landmasses combined with the energy of light, began one day to self-assemble into little cells, thanks to the majestic influence of that double-helix structure we now know as DNA.
Every atom in this Universe is connected to every other atom by way of the stars. We are a part of something greater than ourselves, and as such we have no need of inventing a meaning of life; we are part of this Universe, and it, us. That, you think, would be enough.
“We likewise find life meaningful when we have seen that it is without purpose, and know the ‘mystery of the universe’ only when we are convinced that we know nothing about it at all.” ~ Alan Watts (Philosopher)
We are dust, borne of stars, and perhaps one day we can celebrate that instead of our ideologically irrelevant and invented metaphysical stories of existence.
I do not believe that this yearning we strive for is meaningless, merely misrepresented thus far and distorted to serve the needs of a few at the expense of the many, and guises itself as religion. (For the record: I don’t think religion was invented to distort this need, but rather was eventually hijacked to do so.) With that, I defer—for the second time—the concluding thought to Omar Khayyám’s masterpiece of literature, The Rubaiyat.
“No agony of any mortal brain
Shall wrest the secret of the life of man;
The Search has taught me that the Search is vain.”
~ Omar Kkayyám (Mathematician)