A question we all must’ve asked ourselves from time to time. What is the purpose of life, of the human reality? A question with no clear answer, though great thinkers of past and present have set out to answer it again and again. The question pertains to the meaning behind existing, why are we here, what can we do to feel more fulfilled, does it matter that we believe in anything at all, what are the consequences of not thinking about it?
Scientists across the world have set out to answer these questions for hundreds of years and although there is never full agreement from all types of scientists, there seems to be heavy consensus on a view vital biological views.
The origin of the life, according to scientists, is still a mystery. There are about as many theories to abiogenesis (origin of life) as there are citizens in my home town, but scientists have been able to track life back to one of its earliest forms. The observations of the processes by which these lifeforms have developed throughout time led to the communal acceptance of evolution by biologists. Through genetic mutation and natural selection organisms’ heritable characteristics change and we can see the rise in biodiversity from individual molecules to organisms to entire species.
Not until recently however did scientists use these concepts to attempt to answer the metaphysical questions about life. Biologists Richard Dawkins, George Williams, and David Haig contributed significantly to crafting an answer for the purpose of life.
“Based upon insight gleaned from the gene-centered view of evolution, biologists concluded that if there is a primary function to life, it is the replication of DNA and the survival of one’s genes.”
Though this view may seem a bit lifeless, from a strictly biological perspective it is technically accurate. A criticism of this view states that life is evolving to become integrative, or cooperative. For instance, human’s have evolved to such a degree that they are able to live together, use tools, and forms of currency to trade things civilly, etc. This evolutionary advantage allows human beings to work together to accomplish great feats that no wild animal or organism could accomplish.
When asked this question most of us might struggle with coming up with an answer since we’re hardly ever challenged to ask such an immense question in daily life. However, the majority of us would give an answer which is likely inspired by modern psychology. Major psychologists believe that a meaningful life must contain a few components, similar to Maslow’s hierarchy of needs.
First, the awareness of a life structure: the ability to maintain order, to develop goals and strive for them, and to then construct a purpose in daily life. If this is true, it may be difficult for alzheimer’s patients to feel a strong sense of meaning, or for any person with sever mental incapabilities which hinders them from having clear awareness and structure in their lives.
After we can structure our lives we are able to begin to develop an understanding of who we are, what we value, and how we can best place ourselves in this world to play a significant role. For instance, if we find that we love to help others, that we are patient and social, and interested in biology and human disease, we may find that our most suited role for finding meaning would be a nurse or Personal Care Assistant.
Another important aspect among psychological perspectives is that we accept responsibility for our lives. There may be many factors of life that influence the way we live, but ultimately it is us that decides what kind of life we want to to live. We have a choice to surround ourselves with specific influences, to strive for our goals, and to assign meaning in our lives, nobody else shares that responsibility with us.
These components of a meaningful life are all subjective feelings or judgements, so this approach doesn’t allow a universal answer to the question of life’s meaning. Some psychologists believe that a meaningful life depends on whether a person’s pursuit of their goals and their life as a whole is meaningful according to an objective normative standard. Unfortunately, the problem then arises as to which standard is best to adopt as the normative ethical standard.
Western philosophy and ethics have attempted to determine what is good or bad and what constitutes a meaningful life for centuries. In Europe during colonial times philosophers began exploring the heavier questions regarding human existence in the field of ethics. Contemporary ethicists came up with with normative ethical theories, sets of beliefs which claim what is right or wrong in action. By following the normative standard set out in the respective ethical theory and acting in moral ways one may believe to lead a more meaningful life.
Deontological theories insist there is/are a universal maxim(s) or principle(s) which must be adhered to as moral obligation. If we’ve ever been told as children not to lie or not to steal then we’ve already encountered deontological ethics; the moral judging of an action based on rules. An example of a deontological theory is Kantianism, founded by Immanuel Kant in the 1800s. Kantianism is relatively complicated and hard to apply to situations with many variables, but the universal law which must be followed for an action to be good is explained by Immanuel Kant:
“Act only on that maxim through which you can at the same time will that it should become a universal law [of nature] without contradiction.” (Categorical Imperative
Essentially, Kantianism states that if you we wanted to lie to get something we wanted, we would have to be willing to make it the case that everyone always lied to get what they wanted – but if this were to happen no one would ever believe each other, so the lie would not work and we would not get what we wanted in the first place. It follows that Kantian thought believes certain actions are wrong, full-stop, period, end of story. A life which follows this rule as strictly as possible is a meaningful life.
A critique of Kantianism is that the theory is not concerned with consequences. Whether we’re lying to hospital staff to visit a non-family member in critical condition or we’re stealing out of a dumpster to feed our family, certain actions which cannot stand against the universal law are strictly prohibited regardless of the consequences. Opponents of this view claim that consequences do indeed matter and that we need to think carefully about the outcome we may produce by making certain decisions.
On the other hand, consequentialist theories believe that an action is good only if it creates good consequences. If you’ve ever heard “the ends justify the means” that’s consequentialism in a nutshell. According to Utilitarianism, happiness and only happiness has inherent value; therefore, any action which creates the highest amount of happiness to the highest amount of people is a good action and any life which effectively produces the most happiness possible is a meaningful life. In Utilitarian vocabulary, thinking about the consequences of your actions in this way is called Utilitarian calculus. Jeremy Bentham the founder of Utilitarianism explains it in this way:
“Nature has placed mankind under the governance of two sovereign masters, pain and pleasure … the good is whatever brings the greatest happiness to the greatest number of people.” (Principle of Utility)
A critique of Utilitarianism is that the theory is not concerned with the actions taken before results are shown. According to Utilitarianism, as long as the outcome fits a certain criteria, then the action can be seen as good. Even if we disrespect citizens rights for a clean living environment to drill for oil near their land, as long as we are driving gas prices down for millions others it may be seen as justifiable. Opponents of this theory point out that how we get somewhere is also important, that we need to think clearly about what actions we take rather than just focusing on the outcome.
Furthermore, it may be unrealistic to expect everyone to engage in utilitarian calculus in an accurate and consistent manner. If we’re trying to decide whether we should steal a new watch from a jewelry store for ourselves, it might be kind of obvious, the hardship caused to the store, the employees working at the time of the theft, likely outweigh your satisfaction. What about more complicated events like eating animals? Such an action has so many implied results that last different amounts of time and affect different numbers of people, our planet, animals, etc. To expect someone to sit down and think about all of these things before eating a steak might seem a little outrageous.
Utilitarianism and Kantianism are both examples of ethical theories which explain how to live a life full of meaning by acting morally. For followers of these ideologies, as long as one is adhering to the principles and ideas set out by the theory, one is achieving a more meaningful life.
In the examples already described, the implicit purpose of life is being conceived by humans. Religious perspectives have also attempted to bring a central meaning to life, but with one major difference. These ideologies have sought to explain life’s purpose not defined by humans but by God. Most organized religions are theistic, meaning that they hold belief in a higher power, or God, and that this God had a purpose in doing so. Faith is an important aspect in theistic belief because without being able to always understand the purpose that their God has laid out for them, one must have faith that they are moving in the right direction, and that their God has a divine plan for them.
Although there are many varying religions across the globe most of them have pretty similar answers to this question. From a theistic religion, what makes life meaningful is the belief and worship of God, loving something bigger, greater, and beyond ourselves, sharing of the word of God with others, acting in God’s image and doing the right thing, and joining God after death in a utopian afterlife. Theistic religion typically values the understanding of God and his ways, the uniting of God and man through worship and prayer, and living a life in the image of God so that man may join God after death.
Taking it Day by Day
One major issue is the framing of such a question. The answer to such an immense question has almost unlimited implications to how we act, behave, think, feel, etc. It might be too big for us to comprehend easily, and what’s more is how easily changed our purpose might be as we learn about the world more and more. Is it really possible to have one purpose for our entire lives?
If we want to start training for a marathon, we don’t simply start out by running 26 miles in one attempt. We begin first by adopting the training mindset, then we start to plan our specific training routine, then start eating appropriately to ensure we have energy for our training, and on the first day we stretch and run only one mile. With attention to detail and repetition day after day, soon we will seize our 26 mile marathon with ease. Will Smith put it perfectly in an interview:
“You don’t set out to build a wall. You don’t say ‘I’m going to build the biggest, baddest, greatest wall that’s ever been built.’ You don’t start there. You say, ‘I’m going to lay this brick as perfectly as a brick can be laid. You do that every single day. And soon you have a wall.”
In the same light, trying to find the meaning of our entire life seems very daunting. How about just one day – what is the purpose of this day? If we wake up each morning and ask ourselves that question we might start to realize that we are building purpose in our lives each an every day rather than just pontificating the purpose of our entire lives. It is unknown to us what our lives will even be like in a year or two, so why bother trying to decide what our entire life’s meaning will be then when we can give all of our attention instead to creating the most fulfilling life possible in just this day. Tomorrow, we will do the same.
Above All, Trust Yourself
Before we adopt any perspective to bring meaning into our lives, we must eventually trust our intuition. Afterall, we must always look inwards upon ourselves to seek the wisdom that we pursue instead of accepting answers based upon what others say.
“Wisdom cannot be translated through words, it must be learned through experience.” (Siddhartha, Herman Hesse)
Although we all love to individualize and differentiate ourselves with clothing, interests, careers, and hobbies, the things we have in common that we cannot change are the most important. We all seek happiness, love, and a sense of belonging. We all have futures and unlimited potentials. No matter our age, we are all still attempting to find our place in this infinite cosmic expanse.
When I was in high school struggling with what I believed, I wasn’t really sure about anything, but what I did know that what I did believe in was not fully written in any space but my journal, nor fully spoken through any words but those of my mind. We cannot expect to find any doctrine, ideology, religion, or theory which makes absolute sense or which that we completely agree with unless we created it ourselves.
Whether we are introduced to theories which aim at realizing our human potential, achieving biological perfection, to seek wisdom and knowledge, to do the right thing, to worship God and live a life resembling God, to love and enjoy the act of living, or even the disagreement that life has any inherent meaning at all, we ought to sift these theories through our own systems of beliefs and ration before we confidently accept them.
Often times, because we are trying to find our purpose, to understand what this all means, we become obsessed with answers rather than explanations. We latch on to pre-made opinions and ideals instead formulating our own. We seek answers with such haste that I think we forget to ask ourselves first. With the internet and advanced technology at our fingertips, this is hard to have the patience for, but we must take the time and look inside ourselves before adopting an outside answer and continue to challenge our own assumptions. When we come across a new belief we begin to hold true we must inspect it closely, being careful not to accept final answers unless these answers come through self evaluation. Personally, I believe the best way to find meaning in our lives is through the introspective observations of our restless minds.