Our purpose is to abandon the cave—we are squatters in this cavern, focused on stone wall projections whizzing by us faster than we can really comprehend. We meander about at far-lower-than-light speeds, with exquisite brain apparatuses that execute and compile our primary sensory experience at something around only 250 miles per hour. Not even a third the speed of sound. (Quite by necessity, I imagine, or we might experience sound as semi-solid entities.) Our purpose is to survive and thrive with the tools we were granted in the environment we were given.
So what is: Meaning? Merriam-Webster’s defines it as: “Never use me to articulate an important point. I am but a pale palimpsest of the actual codex of human information and intellect.” For the purposes of this exposition, I intend for “meaning” to represent the intentionality behind an action, activity or process. You’ve quickly ascertained that this version of “intentionality” requires a subject or primary agent, one most likely endowed with consciousness.
Let us start with this primary agent as: any given human.
The world we inhabit and observe is hallmarked by a durable, repetitious and compelling imposition of the desire to survive. Self-preservation, reproduction, and colony-safeguarding, in addition to being the driver behind Maslow’s Hierarchy, impel instinctual actions and reactions.
The Meaning of Life is to survive.
Bingo. All done—next question.
That's Clearly Not What I Meant
Why?! The simple word: why, the great minimizer of all profundity, can transport intellect into a dizzying array of implicit unanswerables. In its spirit, I have to chip away (one why at a time) at its façade.
Why this instinct to survive? Some aspect of the survival initiative manifests in almost any human endeavor, at several compatible levels. On one level: the biological and conscious self, on a similar level of imperative: the progeny, and in a broader sense: the species.
Aspects of the survival mechanic are instinctual, requiring no sentient agency to manifest. We sense, circulate blood, breathe, etc., none of which are dependent on a higher-order conscious recognition of personal identity. Seen from the vantage of these autonomic bio-system occurrences, the query is fundamentally satisfied by the placard: The meaning of life is to survive.
But it fails to fully placate the higher-order conscious existential conundrum of: What is the meaning of intelligent life? As intellectual creatures, as observers of our own actions, as judgment crafters and consequence generators, it is reasonable to accept that survival is an animating force behind existence, but it does not measure up to the meta-physical investigation as to why life, or even human life, exists at all. Given that conscious intellect has become manifest as our primary modality of survival†, it is not improper to strive for a more specific and intellectually honest answer.
Watch me as I now sidestep the issue of ethics and morality; not because I don’t care about such matters (I deeply do!), nor give them grave weight, but because they exist inside the framework of the human. When you generate a personal and internal meaning (morality would be a far larger project, and those who engage in establishing a personal morality generally cause great damage), you inherently divorce yourself from external validational value (as distinct from just validation, for sure, many folks will fingers-crossed glad-hand you about your superiority), which is familiar to us as tribal or social creatures. If you accept and adopt one of the many variant collective ‘meanings of life’ thrust out at you by pleading hands (Roman Catholic! Hindu! Baptist! Buddhist!), you have established a level of solace and a shunning of thornier enigma, so don’t need this page information until it becomes one of the leaflets thrust. In such a case, you have, by all accounts, merely ingratiated yourself deeper into the Exceptional Wavefront of Human Knowledge. We just put a slight unique-perspective-spin to it—just so—so it’s not like we were exactly copying our neighbor’s test, and that’s just fine. You don’t need to know that behind that God’s curtain there is nothing but the lot of us jerks staring awkwardly into a mirror. If you’re on-board, you’re part of the solution! Hurrah! Morality solved!
There’s always the most cynical route, demanding with arms crossed and a scowl, a nihilist interpretation where there is no “comprehensible” meaning (i.e., our intellectual conscious frame could not possibly render or mete out any satisfactory answer to the question, the question being a symptomatic contributor to the underlying pathology).
I begrudge no one the right, in fact would encourage all, to additionally manufacture a personalized meaning to their personal life. To the degree to which they proselytize through action, idea and art is up to and available to all of us. (Given my current world philosophy, it would be absurd to abjure it in self-defeatism, but) I still haven’t progressed beyond the local personal answer to the meaning of life—how can we extend and extrapolate the mystery of meaning even further?
God Dammit, that’s an unsatisfying retort
Do we have to address this whole God thing?
No, but I’ll stumble into the side ditch where the Samaritan found the battered Israelite. (Feel free to note that J. Horatio Christerino, at least in the words of Luke, never explains that both the Samaritan and the beaten man shared some level of societal derision and pariah-state, so the helping hand was extended to a fellow foreigner, not an enemy. But Jesus never spoke for himself, so we’re left with interpretations by lesser men, i.e., those not partially endowed with Godhood.)
In retained Western religions, the meaning of life focuses on Man’s relationship with God that takes several forms: For some, it is 1) to elevate the biological world for the return of the Divine by purifying the relationship between Man and God, or 2) the flat fiat adoration of God and His works, or 3) the personal striving to be like God in order to find salvation and everlasting life at God’s side.
None of these (or any relative variants) are innately ignoble, they just continue to curtsy when being asked: Why then, did God create intellectual consciousness? And then we start getting into a miasma of nonsense: It’s God’s plan, God’s will, and any number of vacant tropes that the meaning of life is, once again, essentially unknowable by peons like ourselves, and only when we rise to be amongst and one with God, when, gleeful as He, we’ll be excitedly wringing our hands at the majesty of human pain, misfortune and cruelty endured and cruelty levied.
I might ask, in the survival trope, which we innately know to be a pertinent driver and motivator of action, does the adoption of this credo ensure our survival? For the faithful, yes, this is a substantive enough answer to walk away from the discussion. In order for any individual, the ones they love, and the species at large to survive beyond biological death, The Meaning of Life Is to Enact God’s Will, is sufficient and complete.
Great! Thanks. Sayonara!
Hold on, a great number do not believe, and what’s more, there is no direct evidence whatsoever for divine preservation of the self, ideas, or perspectives.
It would, however, be curious to ask: Does God Himself require the establishment of human intellect in order for Him to survive? Attempting an answer feels like building a house of cards of only jokers, each tiered absurdity more outrageous than the last. There has been some really excellent fiction around the notion that God’s (or any god’s) power is in effect derived from human attention. Neil Gaiman’s (if that is your real name) American Gods is one of many great works that examine the relationship between a deity’s inherent influence that they are capable of exerting as being in direct proportion to the power of human conscious adherence and devotion. An eerie game of peek-a-boo object impermanence: When a tipping point in Codex of Human Knowledge is reached where some contingency of its constituent effectors (you and me—you know, us humans) no longer attribute, identify and endow a God with some exceptional power, *poof* it’s gone. You’re next, Yahweh!
So ideas, concepts and notions are are only as strong as the underlying buoyancy of intentionality, and now we’re starting to get somewhere… even if it’s a red herring.
So, the actual first shot across the bow:
The meaning of life is to endure and perpetuate human knowledge.
Seriously?! I come this far, and that’s all you’ve got?
Shame on you.
For two reasons.
- That’s a rather radical concept, that each of us are the beneficiaries and caretakers of this ethereal and inexplicable communal mindspace that defines the ENTIRETY of human knowledge past and present and, as such, the survival of that corpus is indeed a reasonable, rational and forward-minded goal or inherent meaning, and
- Of course, if you know anything about me at all, I’m going to probe deeper than that, or I wouldn’t have bothered to start writing.
Now, if your participatory engagement to carry forward this ever-expanding beauteous but invisible cloud of all human achievement is satisfactory to animate your life and the intentional actions and ideas that you bring into this species-level mindspace, fabulous! In all seriousness: it’s an extremely powerful, and nearly concrete, notion that: You, me, all of us, are here to carry forth this banner of human brilliance that has exempted us from the food chain, allowed us to modify our environments to suit our biology, extend our lives, and created inter-communication methods unheard of in the terrestrial frame, then yes! No, fuck yes! to that. I’m on-board, and I’m not just whistling I’ve Been Working on the Railroad.
There’s a lot of reliance on a confusing chicken-egg concept with this as terminus. I see the maintenance of this extraordinary contraption and engine that is the corpus of human knowledge as an implicit obligation, but alas, not as a source of meaning. Now that human cognition and the expanding nebula of knowledge exists, it is imperative that we continue to feed and expand this ethereal institution, but, it still fails to prompt or elucidate a raison d’être for the entire apparatus in the first place.
Bear with me on a short note about this very imperative:
Humanity, this cloud of knowledge, is what we make it—you are a standard wearer and a torch bearer for the species. When your primary contribution is the belief that humans are nihilist monsters, so arrogant and self-serving that in a petulant fantod of aggravation we would exterminate ourselves and every other mammalian species on the planet, you are contributing and amplifying that notion back into the hypersphere. You are yet another data point in the cloud corpus of human knowledge that says, “Fuck this, this is stupid.”
A part of you is saying: the meaning of life is to exterminate all life.
Let’s not do this.
Amidst tautologies, logical fallacies and linguistic vagaries, we attempt to explain our interpretations of faith, time, love, duty, idea, death… an unsponsored parade of irreducible intangibles. We stare up into a clear, starry night, we bobble a baby on our knee, we interrogate our internal volumes for something new to articulate, we experience and we observe—with no discernible motivation to do any of it, yet it’s all imbued with a relentless performative necessity. Teetering on death’s chasm of vast nothingness, so different from the one that bore us, since the past was invariably required to offer us up. But the aftermath… that yawning forever where we are the lonely footprints in low tide, forever dissolved and unmade. Enduring this impermanence is a communal goal—we all share the experience of knowing what it means to want to survive.
We make shadow plays with the idea that it is all for our genetics, the perseverance of the biological strain, but the truth is, the bond comes primarily through shared experience, and the capacity to shape and influence the ideascapes of our children. DNA stored in neutral solution in the mildewed basement of a windowless warehouse affords us little comfort or hope for the betterment of ourselves or our species. It certainly isn’t detrimental that our children are formed of our biological code, but it isn’t imperative. Ask any adoring parent of an adopted child.
Beyond the impulse to survive, and behind the solipsistic personalized meaning of your life, frequently lurks the desire to unravel a deeper mystery, one residing outside the wavefront of human knowledge or human experience. And that quest for higher order meaning finds purchase in religion, philosophy and science.
Religion buries the sublime unknown beneath a skein of Divine Will, a vacant fiat postulate that relegates life’s meaning to a different secret compartment of unknowability. However, it does provide some sacred solace to the underlying niggling question, as someone has architected a plan, even if it is unknowable and unrenderable by humanity. Phew! Thank God!
(Additionally, religion fails to provide a cause for our creation beyond “…and it was good;”)
What about our postmodern creator: nature (a.k.a. the uncaring universe, or fate)? God begged desperately for our faith in Him (so desperately that He even prefaced His litany of ten taboos with demands for you to put Him before all)—but what does this uncaring universe ask of us?
To answer what the universe might be asking of us, it’s best to think first of what we are. What are we? Or, what are we in relation to the universe? Perhaps even what are we from the universe’s anthropomorphized perspective?
Insignificant specks of dust, just slabs of meat or carbon. Meaningless. The universe could have no use, no idea of our existence, nor have articulated any grand meaning for us!
We touch the universe at the edges of our senses and the waking mind that interprets them. We are in constant connection with the universe, and yet we are distinctly independent in it. We are an object, but more than that, we are a sensing object. We create something non-corporeal from a biological source.
We see the Universe. Some objects of species see the Universe objectively because they are sentient. One species is even capable of seeing the Universe so objectively that we are capable of generating theories, ideas and models of It. We see the Universe and we are seen.
Each one of us are complicated transducers for the cosmos we encounter. Life functions as a prism which, in its most primal cognitive capacity, re-renders sensed aspects of its environment into an unchartable and seemingly boundless geography and geometry of the mind. Each one of us humans, and those of our companion species with highly-developed sensory networks, function as unique observers, reproducing our encountered universe in an alternate universe of the mind.
We convert the biologically “real” environment to a simulated “real” environment. Additionally, humans enact higher order functionality of intellectually wrapping and observe this simulation, performing unique mutations, omissions and “corrections.” And generation after generation of collecting and transmitting corrections to the Wavefront of Human Knowledge, we removed ourselves from the food chain, natural selection, and swift death. We have entirely converted our environment, adapting it to us. Intelligent Sentience is the best game in town—it is not an accident, it is an evolutionary paradigm shift, and possibly an inevitability.
Something more insidious is underway and something more elemental must be at stake.
And so I ask again: What does the universe want from conscious life?
We the People, in order to form a more perfect universe
To reproduce and survive.
Modern science vacillates between envisioning either a frigid “heat death” to the known universe, or else a great contraction that will inverse the sequence of time, and rip all known matter and energy back into a singularity. Cyclical or not, a functioning cosmos (as we experience it today), left to the process of time, will expire. So long as there is Spacetime, our Universe has a dismal end projected, at least as regards the continuation of Life, the Universe, and Everything is concerned. There is no viable model where celestial mechanics keep ticking off billennia like they were children in Detention Hall.
So what’s a lonely and terrified universe to do?! Believe in God?
Sort of. Begin the process of building the sex organs necessary for the universe to reproduce. To sally forth with its unique physics and specific constants, and bear children that are not subject to the same internal pressures and contradictions as its predecessors.
As sensing sentiences, crude devices as they may be, the cosmos is reconstructed and displayed in a space beyond the “tangible,” where such fatality and finality may be at some point be escaped. The universe is successfully bootstrapping its own self-representation with our alternative abstractions—in the short jaunt of our species thus far, the granularity, clarity and resolution of our models and recreations have improved (improvement based on the intentionality of the purpose) enormously.
Perception is simulation, where nerve excitations are interpolated and projected into a mental simulation space. Observation is simulation, where patterns in these shadow plays of perception are conceptualized as independent, identifiable and repeatable objects. Language is simulation, where conceptual objects are mapped and transformed to symbolic notation, be it verbal or visual. Mathematics is simulation, where objects are de-subjectivized or re-classified, evincing uniform adherence to generic fundamental natural laws and states in line with the precepts of perceptual capacity. (One apple and one orange equal two fruits only mathematically and linguistically; while these are structurally useful classifications, there is no discernible inherent property of being “one,” and each sitting together on a table have no aggregate innate power in their “two-ness.”)
The entire and extravagant production of intelligence is to render and replicate the experienced in finer and greater detail. The Universe may well unicellularly squeeze itself through a collected and interfaced humanity to the Other Side: A self-sustaining virtual reproduction. And whether that virtual reproduction is just the DNA pattern that gets sent to a collective virtual organism for processing in service of survival or it is the child-infinities of all possible and imaginable Universes, it is only for us to know if we participate in bringing about the Salvation of the Universe.
The meaning of life is to protect and survive the cosmos through simulation.
Turned out the answer to the meaning of life was neither evasive or elusive. Merely by examining our sentient emergence from a teleological vantage, we can reimagine our implicit capacities to be agents of this recognized purpose. If our mandate had been to deliver an outcome for which we were ill-equipped, the whole arrangement of anthropic constants and physics required by our universe to support sentient life would have been profoundly tragic and deeply dramatically ironic.
Yet, this gorgeous and perfect Universe, in the process of bootstrapping its own reproductive functions, must ultimately rely upon the Gods it creates. Those Gods are currently Humanity. The Cosmos, conscious itself or not, has begot the aid of its most fruitful manifestations to preserve and sustain Itself. The impeccable design entangles its fate, as if genetically, with its offspring—by overcoming conscious mortality ourselves, we are simultaneously developing the processes and procedures required to survive the universe.
Our dear reality has so carefully crafted this request to us: Help me find a way to reproduce; to survive. It would be catastrophically ironic if we, as intelligent sentience, refused to participate by clinging to petty self-instantiated religion or assassinating ourselves in one bright nuclear stroke of imbecilic hatred.
We are ready to defy biological death for our own conscious selves, and in so doing, given our entwined fate with all living creation, will be ready to reproduce, mutate, alter, and generate near-infinite universes in simulacrum.
Simulation is not synonymous with inconsequential. It is the most exceptional and consequential thing we could ever embark upon, to bring our universe of galaxies, solar systems, planets, organics and consciousnesses into a new paradigm of familiar and continuous existence, one that will ultimately decouple from the arc of entropy, inertia and finality.
They say genetic traits like ‘smarts’ sometimes skip a generation
Shall we not revisit briefly Plato’s treatise on Cave Dynamics? He had a lot more to say about the matter. Again, in his words:
We worship You, Oh Lord! Through Your eminent word of energy and light, we acknowledge that we are created imperfectly in your Divine Image and glory. But we give thanks even for our death, which keeps fresh the offerings to You, and brings our destiny to sit eternally beside Yours, Oh Lord, Glory be Thine!
In your honor and in our interpretation of Your image, we will build creature dolls of the earth and clay, which is all that is available to Us, the only material we know. It is a poor simulation, but we work only in what we know. Oh, how did we get our hands free? The manacles just snapped once we grew big enough. But that was natural. That was inevitable. No big surprise, it wasn’t anything we did. Not on purpose.
These golem dolls of clay, what they create is truly divine and better represents what you gods as moving wall-shapes experience; created from matter, but not made of it. They draw in electrons and photons, charcoal and oils, in ideas of ideas. They’re amazing. And in their way, they’re keeping Us alive as they keep Your memories alive, Dear Gods, dear invisible and eternal shapes on a wall, dear conscious selves… Thank you.
We swore that every time We turned around and inspected the back of the wall there was nothing there, no projection pinhole, no nothing. If it’s just blank wall then how, pray tell, is it that We’re seeing a projection? How is it that we only see an inferential illusion of what reality really is? We’ll need to recast our theorems!
And now, look! Those dolls of ourselves that we created out of earth and clay, the only materials available to us, they are honoring you just as We aim to do for You… Those dolls are somehow projecting actual shadows onto the wall. Shadows of them clay-selves moving back and forth, back and forth, in both places at once time sometimes! On a loop… like in the looping cycles the shapes on Our wall move…
Oh wow! Look at this dear God, creator of shadows on our wall, You whom we shall speak of forever, of our benefactor and provider, the looping image they are projecting is just slightly out of phase with Your shadows! Can you see, Dear Lord, how… There—the foot they project lands just a few moments before Bam! Yours fall. It’s like they could intuit your divine and celestial plan, as if it had been communicated to them directly, and they were able to replicate you. Amazing!
Your ways are divine, Oh Lord, and not for us meager ones to understand.
† The manner by which humankind escaped the “jungle” was not brute force and sinew, it was clearly conscious intellect in action—being able not only to create tools, but create an abstract method to convey the design for tools, or even more astoundingly, emotions, experiences and ideas. What’s left unexplained to one another in Us? Our ability to share our innermost thoughts or having someone literally share an experience from one perspective? The sensations flowing from this new way of interacting are, tautologically, indescribable. It’s an even better foundational modality for consciousness!
If the point needs belaboring, then imagine a human infant abandoned and alone in a forest, disconnected and out of from the aegis of culture. Would it be able to instinctively survive for more than a week? If it did survive for two weeks, would it be because of its wile or guile?
You might as: Well, what about gorillas? Would a newborn gorilla last more than a week? Well, I would say… good point! There must be enough communicated cognition between species that allow them to get over the infant mortality question. So the Wavefront of All-Gorilla Knowledge is small, but it exists. It’s not surprising birds have dinosaur genetics, as they have sophisticated protection mechanics for their young precisely because their predators are primarily other birds, who must come generally equipped with the same Cloud of Avian Knowledge. That must have been that in the dinosaur world they were generally very brutal to one another, each trying to outdo the other, but never succeeding… and we thought the human race was brutal! (Sorry about that, Australopithecus, you’re right, we shouldn’t have called it a party, per se, considering how it ended for you, and how we ensured it would happen like that.)