What the hell is the meaning of life?
The poetic physicist Alan Lightman said this on an EconTalk podcast episode, and my jaw dropped to the floor as soon as I heard it. As of the writing of this post, my jaw is still firmly pinned to the floor by gravity. I know this sounds obvious to anybody who remembers their science classes, but lucky for me, I had forgotten. Lucky because I got to hear the breathtakingly profound observation once again.
Alan Lightman: So all of the material of our body, except for the hydrogen and helium, was literally made in the nuclear reactions inside stars. And, if you could tag each one of the atoms in your body and follow it backwards in time as it went through the various materials that you’ve eaten during your lifetime and then to the air, soil, water, back billions of years ago to the time that the earth was formed, and even before that when material that formed the earth was in a gas cloud circling around, eventually each one of those atoms, each particular atom that you had tagged, maybe tagged it with your social security number, would eventually end up at the center of a star.
Russ Roberts: And—pardon my naivete—there’s a lot to say about that, obviously. Of course, my first thought for a non-scientific person is, ‘Aw, come on, you’re kidding.’ But, there is a great deal of evidence for this; and it is so extraordinary. One is tempted to say miraculous. That would not, I guess, be the appropriate word in the context of the conversation so far.
Why was I listening to this podcast? Let me back up a little.
Look, it’s a new year, which means we are all one year closer to death. So, one can’t help but feel a little emotional, reflective, and philosophical. The passage of time does something to your brain, I tell you; it scrambles it like an omelette. Now, given this end-of-year melancholic vibe, I don’t know why, but the idea of living a meaningful life has been stuck in my head like a fully loaded, clogged toilet with a broken flush.
Maybe it’s because I wrote about it a little in a previous post or because I’ve been reading Maria Popova’s site a lot. It could also be because my job involves thinking about money, and I’ve been really uncomfortable about how money looms so large in our lives. Money is the dark matter in our lives. It casts an eerie shadow on everything. Much like the mysterious real dark matter, money is tugging at you constantly and pushing you in directions that lead you away from all that’s good and meaningful in life. Maybe it’s something else; I don’t know.
If you’re thinking, “Yes, all the internet needs is another moron ejaculating philosophical nonsense,” go ahead; feel free to judge me.
Anyway, I was exploring what smart people have to say about the idea of living a meaningful life, and I discovered this episode. I wanna be clear: I was not searching for the meaning of life. That question has already been settled, and we know that the answer is 42.
But coming back to Alan Lightman’s observation that we are stardust, if you, like me, have forgotten your elementary science lessons, let me explain what he means.
13.8 billion years ago, there was a big bang—clearly, somebody fucked up. It seems to me that this big bang is the first prank gone wrong in history, or the first terrorist attack. We don’t know what really happened. For eons, people have been trying to figure it out. People in lab coats have been staring at the sky until their eyes burst or they were imprisoned and tortured to death by the Catholic Church because they were instructed by some fellow named God. Some people say the same God person did it, but since the incident, this God has been remarkably good at playing hide and seek.
Anyway, there was this big bang (you pervert!), and our universe was created as a happy accident. In the immediate aftermath, the universe was not a hospitable place. It was hot and dense, like an episode of Baywatch. But soon the universe started cooling, and the first elements, hydrogen and helium, were formed. Soon, we had the first recorded love story in the history of the universe. Hydrogen and helium fell in love as they fused together with furious passion, igniting a nuclear reaction, and the first stars were born. There was light in the universe for the first time.
The heavy metals required for life, like carbon, iron, silicon, calcium, etc., were forged in the loving hearts of these stars. It’s a tragedy, but love doesn’t last forever. These first generations of stars burned through their fuel quickly and exploded in spectacular fashion. By exploding, they sprinkled the universe with the heavy elements required for life.
Around 4.5 billion years ago, there was another incident—possibly another prank or terrorist attack. A gigantic nebula—a massive cloud of dust—collapsed on itself due to a shock wave from a nearby exploding star. All the dust and gas were pulled into the center, and it got so hot that there was nuclear fusion and our sun was born. All the material that the sun didn’t greedily consume clumped together and became planets.
Some planets were obviously better than others. Earth was the best because this planet has the privilege of being home to me. Other planets, like Venus, were much cooler and hotter at the same time, and others, like Pluto, were lamer.
So our earth is about 4.5 billion years old. We don’t know when exactly life originated, but it may have been some 3 odd billion years ago. As to the question of how, we don’t know that either. There are various theories. Some say the early earth was a giant soup of chemicals, and life had an immaculate beginning (archive) as lightning struck. Remind you of any other made-up story?
Others say planet Earth may have received free samples of things required for life from comets and meteorites (archive). Then there are some who believe life may have originated in the acidic seas of early Earth in hydrothermal vents (archive). The vents lined with catalytic elements caused reactions between hydrogen and carbon dioxide, leading to the birth of the first protocells, and then natural selection did its magic.
So, in short, 13.8 billion years ago, there was an explosion, and our universe was born. Then helium and hydrogen, created after the Big Bang, fused into stars that exploded, spewing materials required for life across the universe. Then there was an exploding star that triggered a nebula to collapse, creating our solar system and our planet. Then, by some miraculous coincidence, this big rocky bowl called Earth became just right enough for me to write this post and for you to sit comfortably in your chair with a steaming hot cup of filter coffee so that you can read this brilliant and awe-inspiring post. The Big Bang theory is the most popular theory we have to explain the origins of the universe, but nobody really knows how it was created.
Einstein’s theory breaks down about 10-43 seconds before the mathematical singularity, a unit also known as the Planck time. Since physicists don’t believe the singularity is real, the phrase “Big Bang” has come to refer to whatever event might replace the singularity in the to-be-found theory of quantum gravity in this Planck time. Let’s call it just that—the Big Bang Event. We have no evidence the Big Bang Event happened. We cannot look back in time anywhere near that long ago. — The Trouble With “The Big Bang” – Nautilus, Sabine Hossenfelder
In the same vein, nobody really knows how life originated on Earth. We may never know either, but that just makes life more breathtaking.
Now, this textual description of life doesn’t do justice to the sheer complexity of life on earth. Here’s a hard-to-read map of the metabolic processes in a single human cell.
Speaking about the origin of life and the cell metabolism shown in the chart, physicist Paul Davies captures the incredulity of life best:
Even the simplest living bacterium is so staggeringly complex that the gulf between the building blocks from a Miller-Urey experiment and even the simplest living thing is colossal.
Biochemist Nick Lane further illustrates the beauty of life:
Going further back into deep time, these two traits, time and selection, conspire to produce the most marvellous and intricate of tapestries. All life on our planet is related, and the readout of letters in DNA shows exactly how. By comparing DNA sequences, we can compute statistically how closely related we are to anything, from monkeys to marsupials, to reptiles, amphibians, fish, insects, crustaceans, worms, plants, protozoa, bacteria – you name it. All of us are specified by exactly comparable sequences of letters.
We even share tracts of sequence in common, the bits constrained by common selection, while other parts have altered beyond recognition. Read out the DNA sequence of a rabbit and you will find the same interminable succession of bases, with some sequences identical to ours, others different, intermingling in and out like a kaleidoscope. The same is true of a thistle: the sequence is identical, or similar, in places, but now larger tracts are different, echoing thevast tracts of time since we shared a common ancestor, and the utterly different ways of life we lead. But our deep biochemistry is still the same. We are all built from cells that work in much the same way, and these are still specified by similar sequences of DNA.
That leads to the question: What’s the meaning and purpose of life?
Brace yourself because you may not like some of the answers, and you may even end up chronically depressed. In listening to people about how to live a meaningful life and the meaning of life itself, it’s remarkable that some of the more profound observations I came across were from physicists. For all the images of dour and cranky curmudgeons scribbling weird-looking alien symbols on whiteboards we have of physicists, some of them are remarkably poetic and philosophical.
Any discussion of meaning will inevitably lead to the concept of free will. After all, out of the infinite possibilities, if life evolved on Earth, then we must be special. It could also be that God fellow custom-made our universe so that we could watch 20+-year-old “Gen Z” kids defile English grammar and spelling by spelling Charisma as “Rizz.”
So do we have free will?
Here’s Brian Greene, who’s written several best-selling books on the topic. He has to have one of the cruelest and most inhumane descriptions of human beings ever—we are just a collection of particles governed by the fundamental laws of nature. Feel free to cry now, you stupid lump of particles:
Dan Cossins: If everything in the universe follows the laws of nature, including the particles and atoms that comprise us, how do we account for our ability to have intentions, make decisions, and exert a causal influence on the world? I guess the question, in short, is, how can physics come to terms with human agency?
Brian Greene: If your notion of that agency, if your notion of that free will is the version, and I think we all intuitively have that, we are the ultimate authors of our actions; we are the originator of those decisions, choices, and intentions to which you referred. That is incompatible with our understanding of physical law because you and I are both just big collections of particles, and those particles are fully governed by the ironclad laws of physics.
So, every action you take, every decision you make, every thought that you have is nothing but your particles moving from this configuration to that configuration, and that move is fully governed by mathematics. So, the feeling of making a choice, the feeling of freedom, the feeling of intentionality—that’s real. The causal influence of what you do is certainly real; you are part of the causal chain of how things evolve from here to there if you are involved in that process. But you are not the ultimate author of that process; that process has been set in motion a long time ago, and your particles are merely carrying out their quantum mechanical marching orders, and you are a vehicle that allows that to happen.
According to our best present understanding of the fundamental laws of nature, everything that happens in our universe is due to only four different forces: gravity, electromagnetism, and the strong and weak nuclear force. These forces have been extremely well studied, and they don’t leave any room for free will.
There are only two types of fundamental laws that appear in contemporary theories. One type is deterministic, which means that the past entirely predicts the future. There is no free will in such a fundamental law because there is no freedom. The other type of law we know appears in quantum mechanics and has an indeterministic component which is random. This randomness cannot be influenced by anything, and in particular it cannot be influenced by you, whatever you think “you” are. There is no free will in such a fundamental law because there is no “will” – there is just some randomness sprinkled over the determinism.
It doesn’t mean that you are not making decisions or are not making choices. Free will or not, you have to do the thinking to arrive at a conclusion, the answer to which you previously didn’t know. Absence of free will doesn’t mean either that you are somehow forced to do something you didn’t want to do. There isn’t anything external imposing on you. You are whatever makes the decisions. Besides this, if you don’t have free will you’ve never had it, and if this hasn’t bothered you before, why start worrying now?
The amazing neuroscientist Robert Sapolsky:
Robert Sapolsky: And I think probably the majority of neuroscientists are saying that we have free will in at least some circumstances. I don’t think there’s any at all. And the reason for this is, you do something, you behave, you make a choice, whatever. And to understand why you did that, where did that intention come from? Part of it was due to the sensory environment you were in the previous minute.
Some of it is from the hormone levels in your bloodstream that morning. Some of it is from whether you had a wonderful or stressful last three months and what sort of neuroplasticity happened. Part of it is what hormone levels you were exposed to as a fetus. Part of it is what culture your ancestors came up with, and thus how you were parented when you were a kid. All of those are in there, and you can understand where behavior is coming from without incorporating all of those. And at that point, not only are there all of these relevant factors, but they’re ultimately all one factor.
If you’re talking about what evolution has to do with your behavior, by definition you’re also talking about genetics. If you’re talking about what your genes have to do with behavior, by definition you’re talking about how your brain was constructed or what proteins are coded for. If you’re talking about your mood disorder now, you’re talking about the sense of efficacy you were getting as a five-year-old. They’re all intertwined.
And when you look at all those influences, basically like the challenge is, show me a neuron that just caused that behavior, or show me a network of neurons that just caused that behavior. And show me that nothing about what they just did was influenced by anything from the sensory environment one second ago to the evolution of your species. And there’s no space in there to fit in a free will concept that winds up being in your brain, but not of your brain.
Not everybody agrees with the view that the universe is purposeless and that just just is either.
Fundamentally, we face a choice. Either:
- it’s a coincidence that, of all the possible values that the finely tuned constants of physics may have had, they just happen to have the right values for life;
- the constants have those values because they are right for life.
The former option is wildly improbable; on a conservative estimate, the odds of getting finely tuned constants by chance is less than 1 in 10-136. The latter option amounts to a belief that something at the fundamental level of reality is directed towards the emergence of life. I call this kind of fundamental goal-directedness ‘cosmic purpose’.
As a society, we’re somewhat in denial about fine-tuning, because it doesn’t fit with the picture of science we’ve got used to. It’s a bit like in the 16th century when we started getting evidence that our Earth wasn’t in the centre of the universe, and people struggled to accept it because it didn’t fit with the picture of the universe they’d got used to. Nowadays, we scoff at our ancestors’ inability to follow the evidence where it leads. But every generation absorbs a worldview it can’t see beyond. I believe we’re in a similar situation now with respect to the mounting evidence for cosmic purpose. We’re ignoring what is lying in plain view because it doesn’t fit with the version of reality we’ve got used to. Future generations will mock us for our intransigence.
There’s also the problem of definitional issues—what the hell does “free will” mean? Can you override the laws of nature and manifest your own destiny? A sort of existential alchemy. No! Can you make choices within the space that the laws of nature afford and control your own destiny? You’re now asking the right question. But my own intermediate view is that this seems like a pointless question, but I could change my mind tomorrow—ta da, free will!
Ok, we’re just a lump of particles swaying around to the fates already determined by nature. So, where does that leave us? Well, whether you have free will or not makes zero difference to our lives. We all have to wake up tomorrow, eject the fundamental particles of physics from our buttocks, and dance to the tunes of the mysterious particle conductor.
I want to go back to a thought experiment (archive) that Alan Lightman put forth on the podcast. He asks us to imagine a super-smart ant colony that lasts for a hundred years. Over this period, the ants built a magnificent civilization with advanced structures, melodious music, breathtaking works of art, amazing literature, scientific theories, and loving relationships. Then one day, there’s a flood that washes away this civilization without any trace. He asks, Did this ant colony have any meaning?
Because in a blink of an eye, we’ll all be gone. 100 years compared to infinity is nothing. I talk to my sister all the time. [Inaudible]. What’s wrong? I said: girl, you better start having some fun; we’re gonna be gone in a minute. You’re gonna look back and say, shit, I should have been laughing and now I’m dead. Yeah, my billboard would change constantly because I think we all change
It’s not just life on Earth:
Alan Lightman: In a few billion years, the sun is going to expand and it’s going to incinerate the earth.
Russ Roberts: It’s going to expand past our orbit even, right?
Alan Lightman: Yeah, it will.
Russ Roberts: Physically. It’s not just going to get really hot. It’s going to–
Alan Lightman: No, its outer layers are going to expand. It’s going to expand into another kind of star called a red giant. And, so unless we have managed to build rocket ships and get out of the solar system, which I think that we probably will in a few billion years, but unless we’ve managed to do that, there will be no trace left of planet earth and the civilization that we have created. So, that’s like the anthill getting flooded.
Russ Roberts: But, even if we get out of the solar system, every star is going to go cold eventually. Right?
Alan Lightman: Every star will go cold, so we will have to find some energy source. But, I think that because we have recently discovered that the universe is accelerating–that was discovered in 1998–and around a hundred billion years or so, there probably will not be any life at all in the universe. It will be just cold and lifeless and there will be no consciousness in the universe. So, then, you can ask the question, did it matter that there was life in the universe?
This is the question of a million dollars and a billion years.
Does our existence matter?
What does it mean to live a meaningful life, and what is the meaning of life itself? .
As a profoundful and wisdomous person, I’m tempted to answer this question, but that would mean mass unemployment for thousands of philosophers, a decline in sales for thousands of philosophy books, and the end of all philosophical podcasts and videos. In the interest of preserving the social fabric, I am going to let others answer. What follows is a collection of vignettes from some of the most gifted thinkers to have graced this pale blue dot.
a brief evocative description, account, or episode:
“a classic vignette of embassy life”
I do use the word vignette deliberately because the perspectives you’ll read below are mere evocative shadows of profound observations of the human condition that take a lifetime to comprehend. I’m new to philosophy, and until I started writing this post, I didn’t know how existentialism was different from table salt. In the last few weeks, I’ve been going down some delightful philosophical rabbit holes, and I am thankful that I did. So far, all I am equipped to do is present certain vignettes of some stunning observations of the profound messiness of human existence. My hope is that you’ll find some delightful rabbit holes to go down, because I have.
From the same podcast, this part of the conversation is a continuation of the discussion about the ant colony. As soon as I heard “maybe meaning is just a human construction,” my jaw dropped again. You might be wondering, if my jaw was already down, how did it come back up? Maybe I have a quantum jaw.
Russ Roberts: And yet, you could argue that that divine consciousness is watching and experiencing the drama of EconTalk and every blade of grass and so on. And, that’s what it’s all about. And, I don’t really believe that, even as a religious person–that we’re here to be God’s entertainment and that the universe is God’s backdrop for our little planet’s behavior. Though, I wonder about it sometimes. But, that consciousness would redeem something. I’m not sure it would make life meaningful. I mean in a way you could argue it’s worse. We’re just serfs in this grand, divine show. I don’t know. It’s hard to know whether that makes it better or worse.
Alan Lightman: Well, yes, and the scenario that you described is comforting. But, let me pose the question from a different direction. Suppose that meaning exists only in the moment. So, it doesn’t make sense to ask whether there’s meaning after the anthill has been flooded or after all of the stars have burned out and the universe is cold. That: there was meaning when it lasted, and that’s the only time there is a meaning.
Or an even more profound question: Maybe we are just deluding ourselves to talk about meaning. Maybe meaning is a totally human construction, is a desire that we have that is a byproduct of a very advanced brain. There are other animals that get along perfectly fine without beating their chest and wondering whether there’s meaning in the world or not. And, maybe meaning is just a human construction.
Existence precedes essence.
Does human existence have a meaning?
No, said Jean-Paul Sartre, the French existentialist philosopher. Sartre believed in the idea of radical freedom and famously said, “Man is condemned to be free.” He rejected the notion that there is a god and that we are doing his bidding. The key idea of his philosophy was that we exist first, stripped of any meaning or destiny. We are radically free beings and are the authors of our destiny.
Atheistic existentialism, of which I am a representative, declares with greater consistency that if God does not exist there is at least one being whose existence comes before its essence, a being which exists before it can be defined by any conception of it. That being is man or, as Heidegger has it, the human reality. What do we mean by saying that existence precedes essence? We mean that man first of all exists, encounters himself, surges up in the world – and defines himself afterwards.
If man as the existentialist sees him is not definable, it is because to begin with he is nothing. He will not be anything until later, and then he will be what he makes of himself. Thus, there is no human nature, because there is no God to have a conception of it. Man simply is. Not that he is simply what he conceives himself to be, but he is what he wills, and as he conceives himself after already existing – as he wills to be after that leap towards existence. Man is nothing else but that which he makes of himself. That is the first principle of existentialism.
Nor, on the other hand, if God does not exist, are we provided with any values or commands that could legitimise our behaviour. Thus we have neither behind us, nor before us in a luminous realm of values, any means of justification or excuse. – We are left alone, without excuse. That is what I mean when I say that man is condemned to be free. Condemned, because he did not create himself, yet is nevertheless at liberty, and from the moment that he is thrown into this world he is responsible for everything he does.
The existentialist does not believe in the power of passion. He will never regard a grand passion as a destructive torrent upon which a man is swept into certain actions as by fate, and which, therefore, is an excuse for them. He thinks that man is responsible for his passion. Neither will an existentialist think that a man can find help through some sign being vouchsafed upon earth for his orientation: for he thinks that the man himself interprets the sign as he chooses. He thinks that every man, without any support or help whatever, is condemned at every instant to invent man.
As Ponge has written in a very fine article, “Man is the future of man.” That is exactly true. Only, if one took this to mean that the future is laid up in Heaven, that God knows what it is, it would be false, for then it would no longer even be a future. If, however, it means that, whatever man may now appear to be, there is a future to be fashioned, a virgin future that awaits him – then it is a true saying. But in the present one is forsaken.
Albert Camus was a French author and philosopher, although he denied being one. He was a one-time friend and later rival of Sartre. Although. he is labelled as an existentialist, like Sartre, he rejected both the label and the association. He was an absurdist, a more extreme version of existentialism in my mind, and had a depressingly realistic view of life.
Here’s how he starts The Myth of Sisyphuus, one of his famous essays:
There is but one truly serious philosophical problem, and that is suicide. Judging whether life is or is not worth living amounts to answering the fundamental question of philosophy. All the rest— whether or not the world has three dimensions, whether the mind has nine or twelve categories—comes afterwards. These are games; one must first answer.
What a cheerful fellow!
In Greek mythology, Sisiyphus was the king of Ephyra and had a talent for deceit. He was a vengeful fellow who angered the gods with his treachery and trickery. He also managed to escape death twice. The first time, he tricked Hades, the god of death, into demonstrating how his chains worked and then chained him. The second time, Sisyphus convinced Persephone, the wife of Hades, into letting him go back to Earth to punish his wife, but he refused to go back to the underworld. Zeus was pissed off and condemned Sisyphus to push a boulder up a hill, only for it to roll back down for eternity.
Camus sees Sisyphus as a hero who continues pushing up the boulder every day, despite the absurdity. He says we should think that Sisyphus is happy doing this meaningless task over and over again. He draws a parallel between Sisyphus and human existence. Like Sisyphus, most of us do the same old thing over and over again without ever questioning if it’s the right way to live. When people do ask the question, What’s the point of life?, they are met with a loud silence from the universe. He says that there’s no grand meaning to life. We are alive one moment and dead the next, and in between, we live through the horrors of life. In other words, there’s no meaning to life, and everything is absurd.
Does this mean we commit suicide? No. He says we must rebel against this absurdity and embrace it instead. That means enjoying the here and now. Having a walk on the beach, enjoying a good meal, laughing with friends, and making memories with family.
Take the absurd head on. Stop hoping and looking to another world that may not ever exist. And spend your time in the wealth of here and now, which to Camus seems to be sensory in nature. Camus talks about, you know, enjoying the little things in life, enjoying the company of family and friends and good food, and just sort of appreciating the sensory experience that we were given, one that we’re certain of.
The picture that he’s been painting starts to become very clear and very beautiful, you know. Do the things that make you feel good. If you love spending time with your family, enjoy them and appreciate them because you never know when this disinterested universe is going to take them away. Enjoy your food if you have it. You never know when this disinterested universe is going to throw a worldwide dustbowl our way and you’ll be fighting to the death for a bag of peanuts.
Yeah, maybe we are like Sisyphus. Maybe nothing we do will ever live on eternally, and maybe the anxiety and the regret and all the hard world that we put into this life is going to ultimately be meaningless. But the gods only condemned Sisyphus to push the boulder. They didn’t condemn him to resent the process.
Camus says we should imagine Sisyphus smiling while pushing the boulder, understanding the ultimate futility of his efforts, but enjoying it anyway as much as he can. This is a model of how we should live our lives. You don’t need to hate or run away from the absurd. You can embrace it and smile anyway.
Here’s a banger:
“The literal meaning of life is whatever you’re doing that prevents you from killing yourself.”
Stoicism is having somewhat of a resurgence of late.
The context-less quotes on social media aside, Stoicism seems like a practical philosophy of a good and meaningful life to me. You can find many of the key principles of Stoic philosophy in all organized religions, from Hinduism to Christianity.
Here are the key tenets of Stoicism as explained by philosopher and biologist Massimo Pigliucci, who discovered the philosophy after having a midlife crisis:
Massimo Pigliucci: What is Stoicism about? Well, the first thing is it’s based on a crucial premise that we should live our life according to nature. Now, before you go and run into the forest naked to hug trees – that’s not what it is about. The Stoics thought that we should take seriously human nature. And human nature fundamentally consists of two things, two aspects. One, we’re highly social animals. We can survive on our own if we have to, but we only thrive in groups of people, we only thrive when we have healthy social networks. And two, we’re capable of reason. As you know, that doesn’t mean we’re reasonable all the time. In fact, on the contrary – we struggle for that. But we are capable of reason.
For the Stoics, it followed that the best kind of human life you can actually have is one in which you apply your reason, your intelligence, to improve social living, to improve everybody else’s life. There are two fundamental pillars of Stoic philosophy, which we will see, in a minute, applied very practically to our life. One is the four cardinal virtues: practical wisdom, courage, justice, and temperance. Practical wisdom is the knowledge of what is good for you and what is not good for you. Courage is not just physical but especially moral: the courage to stand up and do the right thing. Justice is what tells you what the right thing is, how to interact with other people, how to treat other people. And temperance is the idea that you should always do things in the right measure – not overdo them nor underdo them.
The second pillar is called “dichotomy of control.” This is the very basic idea that some things are up to us and other things are not up to us. Now, you can divide everything you do into these two categories and only worry about the first one and not the second one. For instance, I came here thinking that I could control the slides. As you’ve seen, that’s outside of my control. Do I worry about it? No.
Again, if you notice, the emphasis is on you. It’s up to us to find meaning, rather than having it handed down to us by some person in the sky.
The practicality of the Stoic philosophy became apparent when I saw a few quotes by Epictetus, a slave who got his freedom later.
“I have to die. If it is now, well then I die now; if later, then now I will take my lunch, since the hour for lunch has arrived – and dying I will tend to later.”
There are things that are within our power, and things that fall outside our power. Within our power are our own opinions, aims, desires, dislikes—in sum, our own thoughts and actions. Outside our power are our physical characteristics, the class into which we were born, our reputation in the eyes of others, and honors and offices that may be bestowed on us. Working within our sphere of control, we are naturally free, independent, and strong. Beyond that sphere, we are weak, limited, and dependent. If you pin your hopes on things outside your control, taking upon yourself things which rightfully belong to others, you are liable to stumble, fall, suffer, and blame both gods and men. But if you focus your attention only on what is truly your own concern, and leave to others what concerns them, then you will be in charge of your interior life. No one will be able to harm or hinder you. You will blame no one, and have no enemies. If you wish to have peace and contentment, release your attachment to all things outside your control. This is the path of freedom and happiness. If you want not just peace and contentment, but power and wealth too, you may forfeit the former in seeking the latter, and will lose your freedom and happiness along the way.
Viktor Frankl is one of the greatest leading lights of our time. He survived as a prisoner in Nazi concentration camps during World War II. After he was released, he wrote Man’s Search for Meaning in a mere nine days. The book has been sitting unread on my bookshelf for a long time, but I’ve read several stirring pieces on what the meaning of life is in The Marginalian. It’s one book I can’t wait to read, but damn, I’m weak and afflicted with tsundoku:
“Ultimately, man should not ask what the meaning of his life is, but rather must recognize that it is he who is asked. In a word, each man is questioned by life; and he can only answer to life by answering for his own life; to life he can only respond by being responsible.”
“It did not really matter what we expected from life, but rather what life expected from us. We needed to stop asking about the meaning of life, and instead to think of ourselves as those who were being questioned by life—daily and hourly. Our answer must consist, not in talk and meditation, but in right action and in right conduct. Life ultimately means taking the responsibility to find the right answer to its problems and to fulfill the tasks which it constantly sets for each individual.”
Another person whose books are accursed by my tsundoku is A.C. Grayling. I came across these beautiful thoughts on a life worth living:
“Do not regret having lived, but while yet living live in a way that allows you to think that you were not born in vain.
And do not regret that you must die: it is what all who are wise must Wish, to have life end at its proper time.
For nature puts a limit to living as to everything else,
And we are the sons and daughters of nature, and for us therefore the sleep of nature is nature’s final kindness”
“Socrates famously said that the unconsidered life is not worth living. He meant that a life lived without forethought or principle is a life so vulnerable to chance, and so dependent on the choices and actions of others, that it is of little real value to the person living it. He further meant that a life well lived is one which has goals, and integrity, which is chosen and directed by the one who lives it, to the fullest extent possible to a human agent caught in the webs of society and history.”
Philosopher Susan Wolf, in a wonderful lecture, combined different philosophical schools of thought and presented a fascinating conception of meaningfulness (archive). According to her, a meaningful life isn’t solely about pursuing one’s passions or seeking happiness and fulfillment. After all, one can experience happiness and fulfillment by simply playing games and smoking pot all day. It’s also not solely about being involved in something larger than oneself. She suggests that meaning in life arises from the intersection of subjective attraction and objective attractiveness. The challenge lies in defining what is considered objective and who makes that determination. Well, nobody said that finding meaning in life is easy!
According to the conception of meaningfulness I wish to propose, meaning arises from loving objects worthy of love and engaging with them in a positive way. What is perhaps most distinctive about this conception of meaning, or about the category of value I have in mind, is that it involves subjective and objective elements, inextricably linked. “Love” is at least partly subjective, involving attitudes and feelings. In insisting that the requisite object must be “worthy of love,” however, this conception of meaning invokes an objective standard: Not any object will do, nor is it guaranteed that the subject’s own assessment of worthiness is privileged.
One might paraphrase this by saying that, according to my conception, meaning arises when subjective attraction meets objective attractiveness, and one is able to do something good or positive about it. Essentially, the idea is that a person’s life can be meaningful only if she cares fairly deeply about some things, only if she is gripped, excited, interested, engaged, or as I earlier put it, if she loves something– as opposed to being bored by or alienated from most or all that she does.
Even a person who is so engaged, however, will not live a meaningful life if the objects or activities with which she is occupied are worthless. A person who loves smoking pot all day long, or doing endless crossword puzzles, and has the luxury of being able to indulge in this without limit does not thereby make her life meaningful.
For much of my lecture today, I have stressed the subjective aspect of a meaningful life – that is, the aspect that assures a meaningful life of being fulfilling, and to that extent feeling good. This emphasis brought out what my view of meaningfulness has in common with the simpler Fulfillment View (the view that says one should find one’s passion, and go for it) and allowed me to make an easy argument for a way in which a meaningful life was good for the person who lives it.
When we consider what deep human interests or needs a meaningful life distinctively answers to, however, it is interesting to notice that the objective aspect of such a life needs to be stressed. Our interest in living a meaningful life is not an interest in our life feeling a certain way – it is an interest that it be a certain way, specifically, that it be one that can be appropriately appreciated, admired, or valued by others at least in principle; that it be a life that contributes to or realizes or connects in some positive way with independent value.
We do not satisfy those interests simply by thinking or feeling that they are satisfied any more than we satisfy our interest in not being alone simply by thinking or feeling that we are not alone. To have a life that not just seems meaningful but is meaningful, the objective aspect is as important as the subjective.
Here’s Brian Greene again. Like the others, he says the meaning of life is what we make it to be:
Lex Fridman: We’ll skip around a bit, but let me ask the biggest possible question. You mentioned purpose, so what’s the meaning of it all? Is there a meaning to life that we can derive from this brief emergence of complexity? It arises from simple things and then succumbs to a heat death, returning to simplicity as the march of the second law of thermodynamics continues?
Brian Greene: I think there is, but I don’t believe it’s a universal answer. Throughout the ages, there has been a quest for some final way to articulate meaning and purpose. Whether it’s God, love, companionship, many people have put forward different approaches to addressing this question. There is no one right answer. When you deeply understand that the universe doesn’t care, that there is nothing out there providing a definitive answer, it becomes clear that we don’t need a more powerful telescope. Looking deeper into the universe won’t suddenly make everything clear.
In fact, the more we’ve explored, both literally and metaphorically, into the universe and the structure of reality, the more evident it has become that we are merely a momentary byproduct of physical laws devoid of emotional content, meaning, or intrinsic purpose. Recognizing this, we understand that the search for a universal answer to such questions is a futile endeavor. Every individual possesses the capacity to create their own meaning and establish their own purpose. This is not a platitude; it’s our reality because there is no fundamental answer. It’s what you make of it, and as much as that might sound like a Hallmark card sentiment, it truly represents the profound lessons of physics and science over the past few hundred years.
As I was writing this post, I heard The Nights by Avicii.
Once upon a younger year
When all our shadows disappeared
The animals inside came out to play
Went face to face with all our fears
Learned our lessons through the tears
Made memories we knew would never fade
One day, my father, he told me, “Son, don’t let it slip away”
He took me in his arms, I heard him say
“When you get older your wild heart will live for younger days
Think of me if ever you’re afraid”
He said, “One day, you’ll leave this world behind
So live a life you will remember”
My father told me when I was just a child
“These are the nights that never die”
My father told me
“When thunderclouds start pouring down
Light a fire they can’t put out
Carve your name into those shining stars”
He said, “Go venture far beyond the shores
Don’t forsake this life of yours
I’ll guide you home no matter where you are”
https://youtu.be/8CfvMaaTp6IIf you’ve gotten so far, like me, you will have moments where you wonder and marvel at life. In those moments, I hope this post serves a small purpose in helping you discover some rabbit holes to quench your wonderment.
Have a happy new year, and I hope you keep finding new ways to live a meaningful life.
On the happy life (archive)
The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy is a wonderful site to learn more about philosophy.