Is Life Meaningless?
Updated: Aug 19, 2022
Is life meaningless? If no, what is the meaning of life? I read an interesting book on this matter. Terry Eagleton’s The Meaning of Life. To start with, "What’s the meaning of life?" may not be a valid question. Our grammar can lure us into forming ‘questions’ which are not valid questions in the first place. And even if it is a valid question, what do we mean by 'meaning'? Is meaning something we do? Or are we talking about some inherent meaning? Life may be intended by some God. Or it may be accidental. But even if it is accidental, it doesn’t mean that life is unintelligible. As Eagleton explains, car accidents are not unintelligible and there is usually some reason why the cars collide. Only that, the accident was not intended by the drivers. And here’s the interesting part. Maybe life has a meaning which was not intended; or maybe life is meaningless which is precisely what was intended by the one who created us (provided there is someone who created us at all).
In the earlier days, people believed that God was above everything. If you support this view, then there likely is no inherent meaning of life in the first place. For if this meaning is fundamental and inherent, not even God can change it. But if God is all-powerful and if He created us, would He do something so foolish? If we create a robot, will we not make sure that our freedom is never at stake? Of course we would. We would never assign a particular or inherent meaning to the ‘life’ of the robot. We would assign a ‘meaning’ which we can change if we wish to. If God created us out of curiosity, He should have finished us all after we started questioning Him, after we started searching for the fundamental laws of Nature, after we started using technology to develop and to destroy. If we ever see any signs of our robots asking ‘the big questions’ or trying to challenge our very existence, will we not destroy them before things get out of hand? Or maybe this was God’s intention. Maybe He wants us to search for these answers. Maybe He likes to watch us play with these questions. Maybe He is controlling how much we get to know. It seems that it is our perception of the world that really matters. It is we who assign meanings to everything. So maybe, the meaning of life is just what meaning we assign to it. However, it is still possible that there is an inherent meaning. Beyond our perception. In The Meaning Of Life, Eagleton says: "We can pose questions to the world, and these are certainly our questions rather than its own. But the answers the world may return are instructive precisely because reality is always more than our questioning anticipates. It exceeds our own interpretations of it, and is not averse to greeting them from time to time with a rude gesture or knocking the stuffing out of them. Meaning, to be sure, is something to do; but we do it in dialogue with a determinate world whose laws we didn’t invent, and if our meanings are to be valid, we must respect this world’s grain and texture. To recognize this is to cultivate a certain humility, one which is at odds with the ‘constructivist’ axiom that when it comes to meaning, it is we who are all-important."
In the end, there is no definite answer to “What’s the meaning of life?” From the perspective of the material world, the meaning of life is money, to earn money. From the scientific point of view, the meaning of life is reproduction. You’re just the slave of evolution, you’re here so that you can reproduce and create more humans, so that your species live on. In the end, life is what we make of it, but to some extent only. In my opinion, the meaning of life is just living the life. Enjoying every moment of life. Living every moment of life to the fullest. (But of course, not at the cost of someone else’s sufferings.) Ludwig Wittgenstein said: "We feel that even if all possible scientific questions be answered, then problems of life have still not been touched at all. Of course there is then no question left, and just this is the answer. The solution of the problem of life is seen in the vanishing of this problem."
Life doesn’t serve some purpose. Life is a delight in itself. As Eagleton says, “It needs no justification beyond its own existence.” In spite of all that, some people will say that life is meaningless. And at one point of time, I myself belonged to that gloomy group. All science has done, according to these people, is prove that life is meaningless. Initially we thought the Earth was special: it was the center of the universe. Then we discovered it was just another planet orbiting a star, like millions others. Then we thought life was something special. We have a special status in this universe, probably we have been sent to do some divine work. But then we discovered that life is the result of some accidents. There is no purpose or meaning in life. With the progress of science, as David Eagleman writes in his book Incognito, we have witnessed a series of dethronements. To these people (who mourn that life is meaningless), I would say, why did you expect life to have a meaning or purpose in the first place? Life may be meaningless, but that shouldn't come as a surprise.
Humans had to accept that they do not have any special status in this vast and endless universe. This, according to some, is also the cause of many psychological disorders. For some, it is a difficult fact to accept. Albert Camus went so far as to propose that the only real question in philosophy was whether or not to commit suicide. Let's see what Eagleman has to say on the matter. In Incognito, he writes: "I suggest that the philosophers may have been taking the news of the dethronements a bit too hard. Is there really nothing left for mankind after all these dethronements? The situation is likely to be the opposite: as we plumb further down, we will discover ideas much broader than the ones we currently have on our radar screens, in the same way that we have begun to discover the gorgeousness of the microscopic world and the incomprehensible scale of the cosmos. The act of dethronement tends to open up something bigger than us, ideas more wonderful than we had originally imagined... In the case of Galileo's discovery that we are not at the center of the universe, we now know something much greater: that our solar system is one of billions of trillions... even if life emerges only on one planet in a billion, it means there may be millions and millions of planets teeming with activity in the cosmos. To my mind, that's a bigger and brighter idea than sitting at a lonely center surrounded by cold and distant astral lamps. The dethronement led to a richer, deeper understanding, and what we lost in egocentrism was counterbalanced in surprise and wonder." And I tend to agree with Eagleman.
You may ask what’s the point of it all when we know it is transient? Everything must end one day. (Remember Percy Shelley's poem Ozymandias?) The universe will not exist forever. So, what are we to gain from taking part in the journey of life? Yes, at times, it indeed seems that there is no point to anything. Perhaps we would gain nothing from the journey. But don’t forget, the journey is always much more enjoyable than reaching the destination (provided there is a destination at all). I would like to quote Kaku at this point: "Some people seek meaning in life through personal gain, through personal relationships, or through personal experiences. However, it seems to me that being blessed with the intellect to divine the ultimate secrets of nature gives meaning enough to life." Kaku also explains: "The meaning of life is something that we have to struggle to understand and appreciate. Having it given to us defeats the whole purpose of meaning. If the meaning of life were available for free, then it would lose its meaning. Everything that has meaning is the result of struggle and sacrifice, and is worth fighting for." The meaning of life is different for different people: you have to find something worth living for. For instance, I have chosen physics. You can choose something else, it is up to you, but choose it wisely. There's no right or wrong choice, it's your life, it's your choice. And even if we accept that God has created life with some particular meaning in mind, your life can mean something different to you. A poem can be interpreted in many different ways. Maybe the poet had something else in mind when he wrote the poem, but we can find other, maybe even better meanings. There is no one meaning. So, ponder the meaning of life, and enjoy your struggle. That's a better thing to do than claim life is meaningless and feel sad.