Q: What is the meaning of life?

Mathematician: I’m glad you asked. The theory of evolution with natural selection sheds some light on the question of why humans exist, which in turn relates to the meaning of life. First of all, let me get this out of the way: while evolution is still called a “theory”, it has a tremendous amount of evidence in support of it (including gradual transitions in the fossil record, radiocarbon dating, DNA analysis, laboratory experiments, etc.) and, as biologist Richard Dawkins is known to say, it is only a theory in the sense that the “theory of gravity” is a theory. From a scientists perspective, evolution is a fact. But what does that have to do with the meaning of life? Well, evolution tells us that human beings share a common ancestor with apes, not to mention with pigs, dogs, cats, rats, plants, and bacteria. If historically the conditions on earth had been very slightly different than they were, the best traits for survival would have been different also, and therefore we would expect that some other species besides humans (possibly with intelligence as great as ours) would now dominate this planet. Hence, evolution tells us that humans have the capacities that they do now simply because those capacities helped our ancestors survive long enough to have children, or made them more effective at finding mates.

I believe most people will agree that “What is the meaning of life?” is a question that is meaningless when it is applied to the lives of rodents, insects, or bacteria. As we are simply evolutionary offshoots of these creatures, what makes us think that this question will have any more significance when applied to us? The primary characteristic that differentiates us from these other creatures is our powerful brains that have incredible capacity for abstract though (including the ability to consider questions like “what is the meaning of life?”). Each of us exists today because our ancestors managed to survive. Their survival occurred both because they were well adapted to their environment, and because they got very, very lucky. Our existence then is, in some sense, a happy accident, and lacks the deep cosmic significance that questions like “what is the meaning of life?” presuppose. Fortunately, however, our brains are very adept at discovering meaning in all sorts of places. Life does not require an all encompassing, universal meaning or purpose in order for us to find that our own lives are meaningful, and that is a truly wonderful thing! We can feel totally fulfilled despite being little more than happy accidents of evolution. Of course, “meaning” is a very real and important emotion, but that does not make it an objective property of things. Fortunately, there is no reason to fret over life itself having no ultimate purpose. We ourselves can find something that fills us with a sense of purpose, which for practical purposes is just as good.

Physicist: Every now and again a question comes along that implies more than it asks.  Questions like: “What’s that blue thing?”, or “Who ate this?”.  If there’s nothing blue or eaten around, then these questions don’t make sense.  The same is true of the classic: “What is the meaning of life?”.

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11 Responses to Q: What is the meaning of life?

  1. Cognitive scientist with philosophy training: Good answers over all. There is no meaning without minds (see Grice on this) so, yes, meaning cannot be an objective property of the universe. Asking “what is the meaning of life?” is is equivalent to asking: “what is the meaning of a cup of coffee?”. Life, like coffee, has no intrinsic meaning, only what minds assign to it…

  2. Cheyenne says:

    The Meaning of Life is anything that grows procreates or mutates in order to adapt to a changing environment. :)
    as for the purpose of existence. Like many things we have a general purpose and a specified purpose. The general purpose of a hammer would be to drive a nail into a piece of wood. The specific purpose is defined by whomever is holding the hammer. it could be to drive in a nail or even break a glass or even used as a symbolic piece of art. Who Knows!!
    As for your life. Your general purpose is to eat sleep breathe and procreate grow and change in order to adapt to your environment. Your SPECIFIC purpose is determined by you. The Meaning of Life and the Purpose of your existence is “In your Hands” so to speak. and in the hands of a few others here and there but mostly in your hands.
    So. What do you want the meaning of your life and the purpose of your existence to be?
    :)

  3. christopher says:

    42

  4. John says:

    Philosophical point:
    Nothing can be proven to have any “meaning.” Saying that it is to pass on offspring, because this is what evolution strives to do, is the naturalistic fallacy. (Not that the mathematician made that exact argument).

  5. dr.k.conor says:

    Instead of considering a ‘meaning’ to a ‘life’ process…it would seem to be less philosophical to observe the process of balancing to maintain the existing conditions or adjusting to adapt; the viewer is either viewing the chemical exchanges or the electrical fields. There is no other meaning to the balancing process; without it …it becomes a disordering leading to a non-life process usually named dead.

  6. Alexander Cooke says:

    42

  7. Bob says:

    hahaha…
    In case you don’t understand, I recommend you read Douglas Adam’s A Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy .

  8. Bob Davis says:

    To learn, love, grow, and prepare for what is next…

  9. Roy says:

    “Meaning”, like the speed of light, is relative. The word has no objective significance.

    However, it is noteworthy that matter and energy tend to organize and create order of increasing complexity. “Life” tends to create even more order and more complexity, so perhaps (looking at the question from the most distant perspective possible) the purpose of life is to further the universal tendency towards complex order.

  10. Mary lee says:

    Last question, to both, how would you define the Holly Spirit ? I believe that subject has been discussed both in Physics and Math. I would love to hear more opinions.
    I respect the Creator of all very much, and I think many people avoid that subject because it is one not so easy for human brain to imagine and understand.
    Thank you.

  11. Pedro Fonseca says:

    This is (like Douglas Adams said) the ultimate question: it depends on what the universe is. If, for instance, the universe is something self-created, by highly intelligent beings that create its beginning (or the beginning of other universes), then life is meant to recreate the universe and itself (including of course rodent’s life and bacterial life and human life as steps to this highly developed intelligence). Obviously, there are countless possibilities for what the universe is: in many of those life will have no special meaning, in others it might have very different goals (perhaps we are living in a simulation aimed at selecting beings who are able to provide more orgasms to other beings, those are the ones that will not be discarded). On the other hand, the possibility of all these possibilities is probably just a sign of our present ignorance. But just ignoring our ignorance and saying: life has no objective meaning is as dogmatic as saying that it has “this” meaning because I believe so or this was “revealed” to me. The simple truth is: no one seems to know if there is an objective goal in life or not, and if someone knows it, then (s)he seems unable to prove it or, at least, I was unable so far to understand that proof. Is it so difficult to just abstain from judging on what we ignore? To live the mystery and all its uncanny uncertainties? The only thing we can say is: if there is an objective meaning to life it has not been found yet! (Which, in no way, is an indication of the non-existence of such a meaning. By the way, I’m European and evolution here is an undisputed fact, like stars being other suns. It shows we’re part of nature, of an almost infinite set of beautiful/dramatic/romantic/tragic/heroic/surprising stories, spanning eons. So what?)

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