Many – depressingly – believe that a meaning of life can only be defined in religious or spiritual terms. As a god-fearing community, it’s felt that there must be a purpose to life, the universe, and everything; because if there isn’t, then what’s the point in living? If there’s no higher purpose, then we’re just a fleck in the cosmos against an unfeeling, cold, senseless universe, and that’s a frightening thought.
I can understand that; to believe that everything has arisen due to a random confluence of events would mean that we are are all random occurrences in the universe. As pattern-seeking animals, we are predisposed to seeking out meanings and purpose in everything to do; to imagine that there isn’t a god overseeing everything we do shakes our very core.
But there isn’t any scientific evidence for a god as the prime mover behind the universe’s existence, and that’s an entire conversation in itself I’ll come back to in a future article.
If, as a result of that statement, it follows that there isn’t any purpose to the ultimate questions – because no conscious event began it – then it’s down to us to fill the lives we have been granted by accident with our own purpose, either on a personal basis or as a collective whole.
I mean, who knows, maybe the universe was created by a consciousness more intelligent than us, just not a god. Perhaps it was an alien or an evolved being from our own future wanting to perform an experiment; consciousness doesn’t equal purpose, is the point I’m trying to make here.
We can debunk the idea that science can’t answer life’s big questions; it’s not just the job of religious dogma. A wave of recent research in psychology, cognitive neuroscience, and other disciplines has explored how we find meaning and purpose in life, with or without belief in a deity. So we as secular people can use science to fill the emptiness deep in the pit of our stomach that comes from a lack of a personal sense of meaning and purpose. We can use science to answer the question “What is the meaning of life for you?”
Some may mock the importance of gaining a rich sense of meaning and purpose. Well, hold off your mocking. Studies show that people who feel that their life has meaning experience a substantially higher sense of well-being and even physical health. For example, Colorado State University found that many people gain a great deal of psychological benefit from understanding what their lives are about and how they fit within the world around them.
However, a strong perception of meaning in life leads to significantly higher mental well-being and physical health. So meaning we seek, and you often hear people saying that happiness is a significant purpose in life. That’s has a certain elegance to it, of course, but a quote from Ralph Waldo Emerson makes me rather intrigued; “The purpose of life is not to be happy. It is to be useful, to be honorable, to be compassionate, to have it make some difference that you have lived and lived well.”
I like the sentiment behind that, and find myself very taken by it. It makes me feel more conscious of what I should be doing with my life. Whilst “being useful” sounds a complex, it’s actually rather simple. In that sense, it comes down to this: what are you DOING that’s making a difference? Did you do useful things in your lifetime? You don’t have to change the world, just make it a little bit better than before you were born.
If you don’t know how, here are some ideas;
- Help your boss with something that’s not your responsibility.
- Take your mother to a spa.
- Listen and advise a friend on a change in their life.
- Create a collage with pictures (not a digital one) for your spouse.
- Help the pregnant lady who also has a 2-year old with her stroller.
- Call your elderly neighbour and ask if you can help with something.
- Build a standing desk.
- Start a business and hire an employee and treat them well.
You see? None of those are big to society, but they’re big to people. When you do little useful things every day, it adds up to a life that is well lived. A life that mattered. Being useful is a mindset. And like with any mindset, it starts with a decision to take responsibility for your own grit and determination. As Eleanor Roosevelt said, “The purpose of life is to live it, to taste experience to the utmost, to reach out eagerly and without fear for newer and richer experience.”
There are a number of humanist principles that tie into this; there’s a charter printed online which I particularly liked, and I picked out a few of the principles that really seemed to fit what we’e discussing here;
- Things happen, not because of god’s wish and design, but because of the underline natural principles and the randomness embedded in those principles.
- The purpose of life is to pursue happiness during our life. A good life is a happy and exciting life. The ultimate measure of life’s success is the happiness in our life.
- While we should have a plan for the future, but what more important is to grasp the present, and to live at the moment. We might not be able to grasp the future due to the randomness of things, but we can always grasp the present.
- Things do not have meanings, good or bad, we give them the meaning. If something makes us sad, and we cannot change the thing itself, we should change our own mind. We should follow the natural way of things and accept our own fate – the random things that happen to us. Changing our desire, taking one step back, things will not be as bad as we thought.
- Our societal value system, our ethical and moral standard should be built to serve human being, to enhance the human experience. Our social institutions, and our way of life, should be constructed to maximise our personal experience.
- There is no sin, no evil, and no absolute good or bad. The merit of one thing and its moral values should be measured by its service to human positivity, while maintaining the ecosystem and the social order.
- Everyone has the right to conduct their own way of life, as long as it does not constitute a direct physical harm to other people. We should accept and tolerant different way of life, and view diversity as a merit of a society.
- We individuals are always a part of a larger existence. This larger existence, be it family, community, nation, humanity, ecosystem, or personal projects and societal endeavours, gives our life a more enduring meaning, and provides a continuity beyond our own existence.
- The society and the larger existence for which we are part of, will still exist beyond our individual death. As we care about ourselves, we also care about this larger existence, because we are part of it, and it is part of us. Thus, we care about the time after our own death, and this care provides a continuity of life.
Some impressive, considered words from a lot of thoughtful study, and I like the links to what we’re discussing in this article.
But let’s broaden the question now to look at the subject in more fundamental ways. Why do we exist? What is our purpose? What happens after death?
Those are three fundamental questions about human existence that have vexed us ever since we have been able to pose questions to ourselves. Arguably, they represent the very reason for the existence and persistence of religions, and they’ve kept philosophers busy for millennia.
The answers I am going, deepening what I’ve already been exploring, will avoid any more reference to religion or the supernatural. When there’s evidence – hard, concrete scientific evidence – of something beyond our own realm, then we’ll talk. Until then, I see no reason to seriously entertain the idea.
- Why do we exist?
As best as we can tell, we don’t exist for a reason; we don’t have an ultimate cause. We exist because we are one species amongst many, all of whom have undergone billions of years of biological evolution. At the moment, the best we can say is that all this just happened, although scientists are constantly looking out for the “how”.
There’s no reason to think that our appearance in the history of the cosmos was preordained or inevitable. If you rewound the evolutional clock back to its beginning and made it start again, there’s absolutely no guarantee it would end up again like us.
That’s not to say that our existence isn’t special, in the sense of likely being a rare, maybe even unique, outcome of evolutionary processes, but it doesn’t mean that such an evolutionary path had to happen for any particular reason.
- What is our purpose?
That depends on the level at which the question is asked. If by that we mean whether there is a cosmic, universal purpose behind our existence, then the answer is no: since no plan went into evolving the species Homo sapiens, let alone into producing any particular individual belonging to our species, then it makes no sense to talk of a cosmic meaning of our existence. However, of course we as individual sentient beings are perfectly capable of attributing meaning to our own life. For most of us, that meaning comes from a combination of having loving relationships and being able to pursue our own goals and interests. The ancient Greeks talked about eudaimonia, a life of flourishing, which consisted of leading a morally virtuous life, striving to excel at whatever it is that interests us, and cultivating friendships and family relations. By and large, that ancient concept is confirmed by modern social science.
- What happens after death?
Plenty of things happen after death. It’s just that none of them involve us. Our physical bodies decay and our consciousness snaps off. Death is the end of our journey, as cold and as barren as that sounds. Everything we know from modern science tells us that our consciousness, and with it our sense of self, cease to exist the moment our brain stops. Our bodies keep going for a while (indeed, they may even be kept artificially ‘alive’ for periods of time), but will eventually succumb to decay. Over a relatively brief period of time, the complex machinery that makes life possible disintegrate, then re-enter our biosphere.
Was Christopher Hitchens right, that if people accept life as only a physical phenomenon, with death as the termination of consciousness, that they might behave better toward one another? One can easily draw an opposite conclusion; that with a terminal point approaching us all, then people could easily think “What’s the point?” and justify the most self-centered, indecent, and uncharitable behaviour toward fellow human beings and the world.
Once life is stripped of meaning beyond material existence, as well as accidental and random, we can accept that meaning in the every day is ours to create as we wish. We should celebrate the fact that we have the sentience and capacity to create our own meaning, and that we have the creativity, intelligence, and sentience to do just do.