What is the meaning of life?
I always found this to be a simpleminded question. Growing up the answer seemed exceedingly simple: the meaning of life is to serve God. To me anyone who struggled with the question was either confused or inept. Later on, as I began to find this answer to be insufficient, I formulated a new one that seemed equally as simple: there is no answer to the question, and even if there is we will never truly know. A Christian, Jew, or Muslim can believe that their purpose is to serve God just as emphatically as a nihilist can believe that existence is devoid of any higher purpose. Personally I never genuinely thought (nor do I think now) that human existence has no purpose, just that there was no method epistemologically to be certain what it is.
Recently I watched an episode of a popular TV sitcom in which a young girl asked her family the same question, instantly throwing them into the deepest, darkest depths of philosophical and religious doubt. I appreciated the situation primarily for the humor, but it got me pondering the question for the first time in a very long while. Perhaps it’s not as simple as I have always thought, considering my natural tendency is to be overconfident in my conclusions.
To help myself with such a vast and complex question, I broke down my thoughts about the nature and meaning of human existence into a simple, three-tiered system:
- Biological imperative (humans must survive, thrive, and reproduce)
- Parenting (human offspring must be cared for)
- Learning (humans must learn and pass on their knowledge to future generations)
Biological imperative and parenting are evolutionary tasks shared by all mammals and many other vertebrate organisms. While these do not necessarily denote any higher meaning, humanity could not exist without them. However, for me, the final category denotes something higher than simple continuation of the species.
Humans are unique among Earth’s organisms, no one could convincingly deny this. I believe there are many reasons to consider ourselves unique in Nature, but our capacity to learn concepts outside of survival is one that I consider foremost among others. Humans carry the responsibility of self awareness coupled with our unsurpassed intelligence. Evolution has provided us with these responsibilities, and they are awesome gifts.
If I wanted to be sentimental I would say that the purpose of our existence is to make the world a better place, that we live to learn so that we can impart knowledge to the next generation. Human biological imperative and parenting would provide no more meaning to our lives than they would for any other animal without our ability to collectively understand, evaluate, and rationalize our own behaviors and pass on what we discover.
We are the only animals (as far as science can tell) that have the concept of meaning. We do not simply survive. No organism’s life is meaningless, every living thing has purpose in Nature. I do not believe humans are an exception, evolution has given humanity purpose. I could be wrong. Perhaps, as many of the religious believe, Nature cannot provide human life with any meaning. Perhaps there is no meaning to be found. I choose to act as though human purpose is a certainty, epistemology be damned.