what is the meaning of life

The Big Questions—Part I: “What’s the Meaning of Life?”

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“What’s the meaning of life?” is perhaps the most enduring question in human history, regardless of cultural origins or the aims behind such a question. And with good reason, of course: Imagine the embarrassment of a well-to-do person upon finding out that they’d missed the cosmic punchline to all of reality, or, worse yet, that they’d wasted their existence on a lesser purpose than they were “created” to fulfill.

It’s simple enough to dismiss the question from a nihilistic or absurdist point of view, but if you do so without considering the implications behind that choice, you’ve only managed to blind yourself to crucial elements that pervade any school of philosophy. Avoiding this mind-bending dilemma is hardly a solution at all; it’s a failure to appreciate being alive and sentient. Part of being human is suffering from occasional moments of awe, moments of panic, and moments of existential dread that arise from the knowledge that you will inevitably, in spite of your money or fame or Instagram followers, die and return to a state of nothingness beyond any human conception.

And that’s the beginning of our journey.

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Where there is fear, there’s curiosity. Where there’s curiosity, there is resolve. And where there’s resolve, there’s the endless possibility for change.

Keep in mind that this entire series of posts is not intended to be a guru’s message to followers (or dogma by any means), but merely a collection of reflections and take-it-or-leave-it advice broadcasting from one sentient being to another.

There’s a lot to unpack with this topic, however, and that’s why the title of this series is “The Big Questions.” One question gives rise to another, and another beyond that. Each idea presented here could be expanded into a separate blog. To be clear and earnest from the onset, however, I do believe that life has tremendous meaning. This is not, strictly speaking, identical to asserting that there is an express purpose to life, or that I personally claim to have the solution to such a dilemma, should it exist. You see, the rabbit hole of defining meaning goes deeper than any of us would like to acknowledge.

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In what is very likely a jarring transition, I’d like to discuss Plato’s Allegory of the Cave for a moment. While it may appear unrelated now, I promise that it holds significance for much of what will follow. To briefly summarize the allegory, Plato describes a cave in which prisoners are shackled inside of a cave, and can only view the shadows formed by people using a fire-lit display somewhere behind them. They take these shadows to be real things, and their entire life is defined by the movement of the shadows that are cast by these walking yet unseen people. Now, suppose one of these prisoners gets out of the cave, wanders up into daylight, and is stunned by both the sun’s brilliance as well as the notion that there’s a REAL WORLD he never could’ve fathomed. Now he’s faced with the tough task of descending back into the cave and telling all his buddies about the world up there. As you might expect, they think he’s lost his marbles. Sunlight? Psh. The shadows are the real show, they say.

Now, remember that allegory. Turning to more grounded matters. . . .

Let’s suppose I make this innocuous claim: “The meaning of life is procreation.”

By all accounts, this is a simple and no-nonsense statement that corresponds to our current understanding of evolutionary biology. There’s no denying that our genetic code is an explicit call to create more and more of ourselves. But deeper than that, we run into problems. Who defines meaning? Is meaning a construct of humanity, or is it an ideal that exists regardless of our presence? Is meaning simply the task that is issued to a biological entity? Where does self-awareness fit into the pattern? Can life have a meaning if we have the free will to reject it and substitute our own? And if we continue to procreate, have we “won” the game of life? Will it bring the happiness that we associate with a meaning to conscious life?

It’s tricky, isn’t it?

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Let’s begin by laying down a few frameworks of reference before we progress. It seems generally fair, based on our current research in science (neurology, physics, et al), to assert that:

  1. Humans do not have direct knowledge of the world, but rather a modified perception of it that is generated by neural connections and “hypotheses” the brain forms and tests on a continuous basis.
  2. All of our behaviors (and perceptions, by extension) are the product of the conditioning and events that have shaped our development.

To lend a practical example to the first assertion, all we need to do is look at evolutionary design. Creatures with consciousness that did not alert them to threats, whether real or imagined, were likely devoured by tigers and giant millipedes long before they could make it to the 21st century CE. Those that did, including humans and other animals, had to work with conscious systems that made them hyper-alert and, at times, susceptible to the brain’s own hallucinations about fears and desires. What better way to ensure survival than to make an organism want to kill or mate with everything around it? And what better way to drive said organism to the aforementioned behaviors than to trick its consciousness into being terrified/aroused/ravenous? That’s what we’re dealing with now, long after the days of cavemen.

As for the second point? Let’s take Billy. Billy was raised in a Catholic household, and has never encountered anything that would make him question his belief (bear with me here). We can logically assume, then, that Billy would also be a Catholic, and would structure his perception of the world around Catholicism. Billy would adopt Catholic teachings as his framework of belief for topics such as good, evil, and the meaning of life. If Billy’s brain encountered something that shook his faith so deeply in Catholicism that it no longer seemed realistic or logical, he might very well change his beliefs. But if he went on unobstructed, there would be no such thing as free will when it comes to choosing his beliefs. When given no alternative, we pick from the options that have been presented to us and reinforced by culture. Our sense of self, or ego, is a bundle of these preferences, beliefs, desires, and conditioned habits. This is how we all live, more or less.

So far, this may sound like an extremely post-modern dissection of faith and reason, but I can assure you that it’s headed somewhere entirely different. By using advanced self-awareness as a tool to understand what separates humans from other species, we can begin to understand why humans would seek meaning. We can also move closer to a ground of non-conceptual awareness from which to view the world.

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This idea, of course, leads into my assumption that self-awareness is the defining quality of human life, rather than the replication of genetic material. After all, if there’s no sentient being to hear the proverbial tree falling in that proverbial forest, nothing is of anything importance or value whatsoever (in this framework, anyway). Self-awareness lies in direct opposition to unconscious functioning. The question that ensues is “so what?” Why should awareness be linked to the idea of meaning in life?

If you weren’t aware, you wouldn’t even recognize that last sentence as words, let alone something with an intended meaning. You wouldn’t even know you were there! That being said, many of us live our lives in the muddled zone between the Matrix’s red and blue pills, flipping on and off the switch of awareness.

For example, consider how many times you’ve zoned out during driving, only to magically appear at your destination. Or how many times you’ve said something out of habit, boredom, or unconscious babbling. If you pay enough attention, you’ll find that you’re hardly awake at all!

As a consequence, much (if not most) of our experience is lost in the “background” processes of the brain, which saves energy by optimizing its perception and lumping data into objects, remembered concepts, and ideas. When we look at a sofa or a tree, our brain assembles these things into a solid object and fills your awareness with a name and unconscious associations. We look out at a beautiful sunrise and, rather than interfacing with the sight itself, allow our consciousness to react to our meager memories of sunrises. We are not dealing with reality; we are dealing with our brain’s hallucination of what it has already seen and processed into a neatly bundled “thing.” If you were ever wondering where the magic of childhood went, there’s your answer.

Without awareness, we truly are slaves to the programming of evolutionary biology. We can’t resist our cravings for fast food, for sex, for violence, for drugs. There’s hardly any freedom in giving in to your mind’s puppetry, is there? The only solution is to watch how the machine functions, and to break out of those unconscious, world-dulling ruts. Which is not to say it’s an easy task.

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At this point you may be nonplussed. What can we make of this great wall of text? Why have I typed all this nonsense about reality, awareness, and Catholicism in the exposition of Big Questions?

Because until we wake up, we cannot understand life at all. We can only know the dreams and habits that we’ve fabricated for ourselves. These dreams may be frightening, inspiring, or mind-numbingly boring, but they’re dreams nonetheless. Much like a ship’s crew arguing about where their ship is heading in a patch of fog, the question of life’s meaning is utterly pointless until we can engage with reality itself, unobscured by whatever mental screens lie between us and the world we perceive. Instead of mulling over the shadows in Plato’s cave, we ought to emerge from darkness and, even if the sunlight blinds us, come face-to-face with true reality.

In shorter terms, wake up from the Matrix.

As for the perennial question of how to wake up. . . that’s part II.