‘The really fundamental questions of our lives are not questions of fact or finance but questions of value.’ Patrick Grim, Ph.D.
Meaning of Life
Question: Is there a meaning or purpose to life? If so, what is it?
Begin by asking yourself: Why do we exist? Why are we here? Surely, there must be a reason, perhaps many reasons. I am here thanks to my parents’ ability and willingness to procreate, and their parents, and so on back through the generations. If my lineage had been interrupted for some reason, I would not be here.
More broadly, we are here as a result of ‘creation’. It’s believed to have started with the ‘Big Bang’, followed by the formation of stars and planets, followed by the emergence of life on planet Earth, followed by a highly improbable ‘random walk’ taken by a series of ancestral life forms over the course of billions of years – evolution for short – that managed to avoid numerous extinctions. OK, this may explain ‘how’ we got here, but not ‘why’.
Consult the Bible. The book of Ecclesiastes contains the thoughts of ‘the Philosopher,’ a man who reflected deeply on how short and contradictory human life is, with its mysterious injustices and frustrations, and concluded that ‘life is useless’. Wisdom, folly, pleasure, riches, great works are all meaningless if not absurd. The book’s author paints a negative, even depressing picture.
The early 19th century philosopher Soren Kierkegaard, posthumously regarded as the father of existentialism, maintained that the individual is solely responsible for giving his or her own life meaning and for living that life passionately and sincerely, in spite of many existential obstacles and distractions including absurdity, angst, alienation and despair.
The late paleontologist, Stephen Jay Gould, wrote on page 175 of his 1996 book, ‘Full House’: “If we could replay the game of life again and again … the vast majority of replays would never produce (on the finite scale of a planet’s lifetime) a creature with self-consciousness. Humans are here by the luck of the draw, not the inevitability of life’s direction or evolution’s mechanism.” Gould makes the point over and over in his book that humans – you and I – are nothing more than a statistical outlier in the full distribution of life on Earth. Gould credits bacteria as the dominate life form on Earth. Bacteria constitute the bulk of life on Earth today as they did billions of years ago. Still, Gould implies humans are ‘special’ insofar as we are an extremely complex and rare life form; so far, the only life form known to be ‘blessed’ with self-consciousness. That’s it!
Question: What do you make of such facts? Do you agree with Gould that self-consciousness is a ‘blessing’?
Well, so far we’ve learned: Life is useless. Life is … whatever. Life is vanishingly insignificant. Conclusion: On a grand scale at least, our very existence appears to be void of meaning, purpose or intrinsic value.
Human curiosity about ‘nature’ has always exceeded what was necessary for human survival. In ages past, this curiosity led to elaborate mythologies and religions. More recently, this curiosity has brought about the ascent of science and technology. Today the ‘scientific method’ is nearly universally lauded as the best way to get at the truth. And it seems more and more people are banking on technology to continue to dazzle us; and to solve most, if not all, of our problems. ‘Believers’ in the value and potential of science are committed to finding answers to the most fundamental questions – the what, when, and how — of our very existence. Indeed, they claim our ability to answer such questions is one of the characteristics that make human beings unique AND gives meaning to our lives.
But it’s fair to ask: Whence comes human curiosity? Man has rarely, if ever, accepted the natural world on its own terms. Man has rarely, if ever, been ‘satisfied’; despite giving lip service to living in balance with nature. Curiosity or hubris; you be the judge.
Anyway, according to this admittedly narrow line of reasoning, if our species has a singular purpose, it is this: Self-discovery; finding answers to the most fundamental questions – the what, when, and how — of our very existence. In other words, our collective purpose in life is to explore, discover, and explain scientifically. Each of us, therefore, has a specific purpose: to do science. Moreover, one need not be a scientist to do science; funding, supporting, deferring to, not impeding, etc. all qualify. So, now we learn … science holds the key to the meaning of life.
Question: Should we look to science to provide meaning to our lives?
Well, there’s merit in doing science. The what, when and how may give up their secrets, but that still leaves the ‘why’. Why do science? Why not do something else?
Renowned psychiatrist, Carl Jung (1875-1961), considered the cosmic role of man. “Man is indispensable for the completion of creation, for it is man alone who gives the world objective existence.” Man is enabled by human consciousness. It is human consciousness that confirms objective existence. “As far as we can discern, the sole purpose of human existence is to kindle a light in the darkness of mere being.” Like the tree falling in the wilderness, absent a conscious observer, no sound is heard. Without man, the cosmos might just as well not exist.
Existence is a question of fact. Meaning and purpose, on the other hand, are questions of value. One could argue unperceived, thus unappreciated, worlds exist for their own sake and therefore possess intrinsic value. In any event, Jung’s reasoning sounds a lot like self-discovery.
Why do we exist, for what purpose? If the best answer is self-discovery, that’s like saying: The purpose of one’s life is to discover the purpose of one’s life. Or, we exist to confirm we exist. Circular arguments take us nowhere.
The problem is trying to come up with an objective, universal answer that applies to all humanity, each and every human being. Something like: We all share one purpose … to ‘go to the stars’. Or perhaps: We all share a singular purpose … to ‘seek and find God’. Yet, saying so does not make it so. Why go to the stars?
In his book, ‘Between Two Ages’, author William Van Dusen Wishard writes about the 21st century and the ‘crisis of meaning’. He suggests the crisis has been deepening since the 19th century, at least in the West, and can no longer be ignored. Indeed, more and more people are increasingly unsure of who they are; unsure of what they believe or what to believe. At one time, traditional anchors, such as religion and philosophy, could be counted on to provide answers. That’s no longer the case in today’s ‘postmodern’ culture. Today, we ‘worship’ the almighty dollar, and look to science and technology for fulfillment. The big question: What’s to become of us? Going forward, we as a society better figure this out before the machines take over, and mankind becomes superfluous, if not extinct.
Question: Do the ‘machines’ pose a threat to mankind?
You may be thinking … this is getting us nowhere. And it’s for this reason many give up too easy, too soon. Who cares what meaning or purpose we might or might not have! Why bother!
So let’s scale back some. Instead of coming up with some ‘cosmic’ answer, might it be possible to arrive at a subjective, uniquely personal answer. Why are you here? What purpose do you serve? It could be anything; or more than one thing. A number of possibilities come to mind:
- I’m here to be fruitful and multiply; to raise responsible offspring.
- I’m here to find my ‘calling’; to develop some skill, some excellence.
- My purpose is to achieve success, fame, honor or glory; to wield power.
- I’m here to love and serve God and my neighbor.
- I’m here to live comfortably, and avoid disaster; to ‘eat, drink, and be merry’.
- My purpose is to leave a lasting legacy; to leave the world a better place.
Some might see these as priorities or goals; wide open to interpretation. You be the judge.
So, let’s say you believe you are here to raise responsible offspring. And let’s say you succeed! You’ve achieved your purpose in life; now what? And what if you fail? What if you do not achieve success, or worse, you do harm? Can you be blamed, say, for following a false hope; a false purpose that seemed right at the onset? Finally, what if your purpose in life is crystal clear, yet you question, procrastinate, or resist. You know who you ought to be and what you ought to do, but you figure it’s just too hard – too costly or too time consuming – to live a purposeful life.
It’s at this point many give in to frustration. Rather than continue, they abandon their search for meaning, claiming not to care whether or not life has any particular purpose. Conclusion: On a personal level, for far too many, life appears to be void of meaning, purpose or value.
Question: How might we rise above our circumstances, and give meaning to our lives?
We began by asking: Is there a meaning or purpose to any or all life? It’s a very hard question! Many believe there is an answer to this question. On the other hand, many would just as soon not know the answer. Ignorance is bliss.
Question: So what, specifically, gives meaning or purpose to your life?
Here’s how Jesus answered the question: “For this I was born, and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth.” As for me; I’m here but for the grace of God. My purpose is to follow where He leads me.
* The bulk of materials offered were borrowed and adapted by Wayne Harper for our use from: ‘Questions of Value’ taught by Patrick Grim, produced by The Teaching Company.