The Meaning of Life

From our January 3rd 2016 service

So here is a pattern of some kind. What does it mean? We know our ABC's so we recognize these things as letters. We're literate in English, in fact, so we know these particular groupings of letters are words and we know what the words mean. But even knowing all that doesn't tell us what "the meaning of life" is, what this phrase means. It depends what we mean by "life" and by "meaning." "Meaning" has to do with what something represents, what it "stands for," or, simply, what it's "for." Or it can refer to any number of things connected with what whatever something "means."

US Slippery When Wet Road Sign Australian Slippery When Wet Sign
Images courtesy of

What is the meaning of these? The one on the right is interesting. They seem to mean the same thing: slippery road. But the one on the right, which I saw for the first time in real life in Australie, seems to warn of a road so slippery that the axles of your vehicle will cross!

How about this? What does it mean? It's what you get when you run something through a mass spectrometer to find out what it's made of. The horizontal shows the mass/charge ratio and the vertical shows the abundance. So information can be extracted from this even though it's not like a road sign that is "meant" to "mean something." Rather, it is understanding the process by which it is produced that makes it mean something.

Star Cluster NGC 2074 in the Large Magellanic Cloud

We could say the same of this although no one had a part in making it. So no one and nothing "means" anything by it. In fact, this structure, which is about 100 light-years wide, is about 170,000 light years away, which means that it looked like this long before human history began around the time when anatomically-modern humans first appeared. But there are undoubtedly features of this nebula that "mean" something to astronomers who study these things today. (This image was taken August 10th, 2008, with Hubble Wide Field camera)


And how about this? It's just rock so it's meaningless, right? It certainly isn't meant to mean anything. But someone who knows geology could probably identify this variety of rock and tell us something about its composition and history and so forth. So it actually does have meaning.


Likewise, clouds are just the products of natural forces. But that doesn't make them "meaningless" since we can all see things in clouds rather like we can see things in inkblots. Can you see some faces in here, for example? Again, for someone who understands cloud formation and weather phenomena, clouds can "mean" something in their description, classification and the conditions of their formation and likely destiny. Winnie The Pooh might say: "Tut tut, it looks like rain!"

Big Bang Expansion

And, so finally, with life. We've been able to figure out quite a lot about life as a biological phenomena. Some of it only quite recently. We've only known the structure of DNA — and how that structure contributes to the reproduction and heredity of living things — since 1953. Consider what would this mean to someone in 1916. Not what it means to us, surely!

If we think of "life" as "existence," then we are also in luck! Only in the last 100 years have we built up this picture of the last 13.8 billion years of everything we can observe in the universe. Much more recently yet we have found reason to believe that even what we can see is only 4-5% of the matter and energy in the universe. The rest is "dark matter" and "dark energy" that is only detectable through its gravitational effects.

But all that is not good enough when it comes to "the meaning of life," is it? I have a short video for you next.

Why do we keep asking about "the meaning of life?" What does that mean? Or, perhaps more to the point: what is it that we are really asking?

Clearly, people — each one of us — asks "what is the meaning of life" meaning "what is the point, the purpose, the significance of my life, my existence, my experience? And what shall I do with my life?" Now if we accept that the answer is a deity, a "holy" book, or an afterlife, or "becoming one with the universe," or the obliteration of the self, — or even the answer "42," then we have really given up. We have — out of laziness, or frustration, or desperation — given up being an end-in-ourselves and have become a means to someone else's ends. But the real answer, as Michio Kaku says here — and many others have said it before him! — is that the meaning of life is in the living. It is in the actual experience of our existence and of our personal voyage of self-discovery that we discover or appreciate the meaning of our lives. It's not just that it's "not easy" as Kaku says, it's that it doesn't come all at once but slowly, over time, like a growing living thing itself. Maybe this is why it is sometimes said that the meaning of life cannot be understood by looking forward but only by looking backward. It also helps to take a kind of impartial attitude towards our lives, one that we might take when we ask about the meaning of rocks, clouds, nebulae and even the universe as a whole.

There was a man, a wealthy successful businessman, who sold all his possessions and left his family to travel the world, because he wanted to know the meaning of life. After many years of seeking, and near despair, his last hope was a guru who lived high up on a very dangerous mountain. Up the mountain the man went, through blizzards and storms, desperate and hungry once he used up all his provisions, cold, injured by an accident and using a piece of a tree branch for a cane. Finally, near the very top of the mountain, there sat the guru outside his cave, the clouds swirling around him with the sunshine breaking through. The man struggled forward and, falling down, gasped: "Oh wise one, I have given up everything to find the truth, but it will all be worthwhile if you can answer my question: 'What is the meaning of life?'" The guru smiled and said, "My son, here is the answer you seek: Life is a fountain." After a long pause, the man shook his head. "A fountain? I have come thousands of miles to hear your wisdom, everything I once had is gone, I'm starving, thirsty and cold — I'll probably die on this mountain — and all you have to say is, 'life is a fountain?'" There was another pause and the guru trembled. "You mean … it's not a fountain?"

There are a variety of alternate endings to this story, and also continuations of it. In one, instead of protesting, the seeker of wisdom nods his head and says: "Oh, thank you! That is so … profound! Life is a fountain! But … a fountain of what?"

We could literally do a whole service on just this story. But notice this: it is really in the seeking for an answer that the man feels that his life has meaning. The quest itself motivates him and gives him the hope and strength to go on. And what sort of answer would anyone accept as being "the meaning of life" anyway? [There is more in today's bulletin, especially about why it is useless — harmful, really — to look to supernaturalism for an answer!]

Please, Think About It!