Tuesday, March 25, 2014

The Meaning of Life

A few days ago, a reader sent me an email and asked, “as a fellow atheist, I've been struggling with a super cheesy but important question: what is the meaning of life?”

This is possibly one of the most difficult questions that has been posed by humanity since we have been capable of thought; and people are still seeking answers to this question. By tackling this question, I am in no way saying that I have the definitive answer to that question that will end the debate once and for all. My answer is mine alone.

However, before I begin, I have to state that I am, indeed, an atheist. Therefore, the answer that I am about to give will not deal with the supernatural or anything else that cannot be scientifically verified.


As such, I am not entirely sure if the question itself is appropriately phrased. Concepts, the basic ideas that people carry in our minds, can have meaning precisely because we give them meaning. The fact of the matter is that existence exists. What that means is that even if humans were to become extinct some day, and there was no more sentient/teleological/intelligent beings left on the planet, it will not change the fact that existence will still continue to exist. Matter, though changeable, is indestructible; but life, and subsequently thought, is fragile and always caught on the precipice between existence and non-existence.

Whereas concepts can have meanings, I do not think that it is possible for non-concepts, such as life, to possibly have any objective meaning. For instance, can a rock have any meaning? A rock is a rock. True, people can mold a rock into something useful but that is a different thing entirely. To change a rock into a tool or an ornament that people value is the process of our minds being able to conceptualize and taking the necessary actions that are needed in order to transform the rock into something else that is useful to us. However, that does not change the fact that until an intelligent being comes along to change a rock into something else of value to the intelligent being, a rock is nothing more than just a rock.

Therefore, the only answer that I have to the question, “what is the meaning of life,” is this – “Life can have no meaning. It simply is.”


Of course, I am being very literal with the word “meaning.” I have to be. As I said, I am an atheist. I do not believe that some kind of supernatural being invented life. If it could be objectively proven that life were an invention that was created by some kind of mystical entity, then I could apply the word “meaning” in a more non-literal way and say, “The meaning of life is love” or some such nonsense. However, I cannot and will not do that.

So, I never liked the way the question is phrased. Logically, there can be no answer; at least none that is satisfying. Therefore, in order to have a meatier answer than “it just is,” it is necessary to change the question. I prefer to ask “What is the purpose of life?”

Once asked that way, then the question can be answered with a bit more thought. And my answer to that question is this: “The purpose of life is simply to live.”

However, that answer breeds more questions. Firstly, what then does “to live” mean? Secondly, what is the point of it all? After all, the fact of the matter is that all living organisms inevitably die. It is the ultimate change in condition. To live is complex. There are innumerable things that a person has to do in order to maintain and improve one’s life. Death, on the other hand, is that permanent state of being where one simply ceases to live. With that ultimate goal hanging over all of our heads, what then is the point of it all?


Wondering what the point of life is when we will all inevitably die, however, lies the assumption that, like death, life is a condition – a state of being. Though it is certainly true that life is, indeed, a state of being, it is an answer that has never satisfied me. That is because life is more than just a state of being. Life is also a process; a process of self-sustaining and self-generated action.

The important word here is “process.”

Life is not merely a state of being people achieve (by pure accident) and simply maintain until the day we meet the proverbial Boatman, but the process of reaching it. Life is action. It’s the things we do. It’s the process of accomplishing goals, not just the end results of the goals. It is the things that we do and accomplish.

For example, everyone needs money. However, none of us, with perhaps the exception of the genuine miser, makes money simply for the sake of making money. We make money in order to be able to better afford the things that we need and want to live comfortably. And living comfortably may be the end goal, but it’s the process of producing goods and services that we wish to buy and sell, the act of loving and being loved, that I would call life. Life is not simply the ends. Contrary to what Machiavellians might think, the means matter.

So, for example, if we are talking about money, it matters a great deal how we make the money we made. Did we earn it? Or did we steal it? Or did we come across it simply by sheer dumb luck? In other words, values matter because the values that we cognitively decide upon as being good are there not just to maintain life, but also to improve our ability to live our lives.

Bernie Madoff

So what values must we pursue? Life is the end in itself. As such, the values that we must pursue are the values that help to maintain our lives. What is considered good and evil must therefore be measured by how it affects our lives. The most basic way to understand what is good and evil is Jeremy Bentham’s utilitarian principles, which recognizes the fundamental role of pain and pleasure in human life, and equates good with pleasure and evil with pain. However, utilitarianism alone is insufficient.

That is because utilitarianism fails to define what “the good” is. When taken to its logical extreme, utilitarianism eventually boils down to majority rule whereby the majority can do whatever it damn well pleases at the expense of the minority. Furthermore, it fails to take into consideration how people reach the conclusion about what is good. Do they use reason, or do they resort to base epicurean whim? Although Bentham’s succesor, John Stuart Mill, later on built upon Bentham’s foundation by dividing pleasure into “higher” and “lower” forms of pleasure, utilitarianism still says nothing about reason.

Beyond pleasure and pain, we also have to take reason into consideration.

A good example of this is farming and storing food. Hunger is certainly painful and the best way to alleviate hunger is, of course, by eating. But how do we get the food?

Why can’t we simply steal the food?” a utilitarian might ask. “After all, as long as our goal is to live, isn’t the willful decision to steal food – the choice made to end pain and promote pleasure – a result of us using our reason?”

No, it is not. Firstly, we must separate reason from logic. When I was in middle school and I first learned about computer programming, a phrase that I came to learn was GIGO – Garbage In, Garbage Out. If our reasoning is faulty, we can still take our faulty reasons to their logical conclusions. That does not change, however, no matter how logical, that the reason (and the most likely outcome) is bad. Secondly, that is because we have to remember that before anything can be stolen, it must first be produced. Furthermore, we have to remember that human action does not take place in a vacuum. For every human action, there tends to be a direct and opposite overreaction. If we resort to violence to steal food (or anything for that matter), there is a very good chance that our actions will come back to haunt us in a myriad of ways.


After we have reaped and sowed our crops, what then? Do we then eat everything that we produce? It will certainly end hunger. But then what happens next year? If we eat everything now, including the seed stock that is needed for planting next year, yes, we will be full now. But we will not stay full for long.

However, before all that, does anyone imagine that it would even be possible to farm without using reason? If we tried to grow a crop without the necessary knowledge that is required for farming, we would not be able to grow anything. This applies to the production of anything else. That is because our minds are the root of all production and therefore, the root of our survival.

It bears repeating that our minds, our reason, are the root of our survival. As the purpose of life is simply to live and our survival depends on our ability to use our reason, the barometer that is used to gauge our values is measured by how those values, which are defined by reason, help us to live. Values by themselves are not axiomatic. They must be of use to our lives in order to be considered virtuous or vicious.

From here on out, then we must weigh the options that are in front of us in regards to which values that we keep or toss. What are the values necessary to be respected and loved? Which are the ones necessary to become wealthy? Which are the ones needed to be happy? It is only through a process of reason and rational decision making that we can achieve those values that are good so that we may enjoy our lives.

In order to enjoy our lives, then what we need to pursue are the things that make us happy. So what makes us happy? I personally do not like to pose the question that way. That is because when the question is posed that way, it takes us away from the position that life is a process. For example, people assume that if we have a lot of money or if we find someone who will love us it would make us happy. However, my position is that that is not the way to look at it. The better way to look at happiness is to ask ourselves a series of questions such as “Am I excited about my future? Do I love the people in my life? Am I proud of who I am, and what I have done?”


Essentially, happiness is an emotional response to a rational evaluation of my own life. Friendships and love are not mere ornaments that we collect. They are meant to be enjoyed.

However, seeing how death is inevitable, then what is the point of it all?” some may (and do) ask.

I have often thought that this was a ridiculous way to look at life. Life is “meaningful” precisely because we will all die some day. We have to go back to how we define values.

Our values are the things that we uphold in order for us to live. However, let us assume for the sake of argument that we are immortal; like some kind of omnipotent and omniscient god, we are immune from disease or pain or death. Only then would we be able to honestly say that we have nothing to lose or gain. Any action that we take or thought that we entertain will be meaningless. There would be no need to have values. There would be no need to be reasonable or unreasonable. There simply would be no reason to be. An eternity (itself a terrifying concept if any serious thought is given to it) of meaningless existence is far too evil to wish upon our worst enemies.

None of us can ever achieve immortality and despite Ray Kurzweil’s passionate arguments in defense of immortality in the form of the Singularity, I am disinclined to believe in its supposed merits. However, we can be immortal until the day we die. What I mean here is that we can remain true to our values; to ourselves. With every passing day, people die just a little bit. Try meeting that piss-and-vinegar filled idealist friend whom you had in college after not having met him for ten years. I can guarantee that he/she will not be the same person that you met last.

I don’t mean a change in tastes or the way we look or even the way we think. I mean the way people compromise, deny, and contradict their values – because it is supposedly the adult thing to do – until one day, they can no longer recognize themselves. That is something that we can avoid. That is how we achieve immortality. Not by avoiding death but by remaining true to our values, which are intended for us to enjoy our lives. And that is what the point of it all is – to last forever now.

One of my favorite plays that I have ever read is Goethe’s Faust and at the end of the play, the eponymous character recognizes at the “highest moment” that “the last word of wisdom” is:

          No man deserves his freedom or his life
          Who does not daily win them anew.

Once we understand that, then we can begin to understand what
our purpose in life is and, perhaps, find meaning, too.

Of course, if this was too long for you to read and you want something funnier, then I suppose you could always just watch Monty Python's The Meaning of Life.


  1. Hey buddy....what made you write this one? Almost sounds like you're struggling to get over the Winter blues too. I've been sick for more than a week with a terrible sinus infection. I don't know what to say to this except I did think I had something figured out at one point and now I'm not so sure. I don't really think people embrace religion anymore because they are afraid of death or they're afraid of eternal damnation or any such bullshit. I think everyone is struggling not to feel insignificant. We humans are cursed with this big complex brain that we just can't shut off. Even the most self sacrificing and humble among us secretly don't want to feel unimportant. We all want to think that we are here for some reason. It's so random we can't comprehend because our brains compel us to look for some kind of order and there is none. One day I'll be gone and in even less time forgotten. I suppose without this niggling fear we wouldn't have made much progress beyond whacking each other with clubs and eating raw meat. So yeah you're right. I've already started to mourn the loss of my self until it's over. It scares me a little, but I don't have any other choice.

    1. I was wondering what to write about and just then, a random reader emailed me and asked me what I thought about the meaning of life. So I thought, "why not write about it?"

    2. But my next one will deal with politics again, which, I admit, is to philosophy like astrology is to astronomy. I do enjoy thinking and writing about philosophy but it is mentally straining.

  2. U.S. politics depresses me that's one reason I became interested in Korea. I could think about someone else's politics and stop stressing over my own. Then I run across your blog and get sucked back in again. At least I've stopped arguing with idiots on facebook. I can't wait for the weather to break so I can get out of the house. It's warm today but it's been raining for two days now. I go back to work tomorrow after being out sick for a week. That should keep me occupied for a few days just catching up on the emails. Looking forward to your next post. Be well.