Who among us, at one time or another, has not pondered what the meaning of life is, or asked: Why am I here? What’s life all about? These latter two questions are asking about the life of the individual. This essay, however, looks primarily at the issue from the “perspective” of Life itself.
The dictionary gives two definitions for “mean” used as a verb: (1) to mean is to have in mind as a purpose, to intend; (2) to mean is to intend to convey, to show or indicate, to signify. These definitions lead me to the question: what does Life intend or signify, if anything? Unfortunately, there is no definitive answer to the question. Here is what I think.
According to scientists, the first stirrings of Life on earth were humble:
In those early days lightning and ultraviolet light from the sun were breaking apart the simple hydrogen-rich molecules of the primitive atmosphere, the fragments spontaneously recombining into more and more complex molecules. The products of this early chemistry were dissolved in the ocean, forming a kind of organic soup of gradually increasing complexity, until one day, quite by accident, a molecule arose that was able to make crude copies of itself, using as building blocks other molecules in the soup.1
This description of origin distantly echoes elements of the Genesis account of creation:
The earth was without form and void, darkness was upon the face of the deep…a firmament in the midst of the waters…separate the waters from the waters…earth put forth vegetation, plants yielding seed…waters bring forth swarms of living creatures… (Gen 1:2, 6, 11, 20 RSV)
When no plant of the field was yet in the earth and no herb of the field had yet sprung up…a mist went up from the earth and watered the whole face of the ground…formed man of dust from the ground. (Gen 2:4-7 RSV)
The biblical account of creation is a hypothesis and the scientific account is a theory. A hypothesis is a “working hunch or single tentative guess”; a theory is “a broader, more definitely established conceptual scheme. The difference between theory and hypothesis is a matter of degree.”2
However Life on earth may have happened, from inception it must have been self-programmed to survive, continue, and progress—judging by the fact that our earth continues to thrive with Life of all kinds. We Homo sapiens joined this great stream of Life millions of years later.3 Our species emerged from the great stream of Life without being consulted and I doubt we will be consulted about life’s ending or the fading away of our species.
One does well to ponder the meaning of Life, even though there is no definitive answer providing insight into our own personal living of Life. Initially, we pick up a little guidance from the influence of parents, and from that beginning we must make do. The simple truth is we live, and Life will become whatever we make of it.
These observations lead me to think of Life as a spectrum; at one end of the spectrum the meaning of Life is simply the living of it; that is to say: staying alive, or simply existing. At the other end of the spectrum the meaning of Life is living it well, or poorly. Within limits we get to decide which of these three options it will be. Living Life well is whatever one decides “well” is. It might be, as many believe, serving God (if God there be) or helping others; or it might be selling more beer than one’s nearest competitor. Living it poorly translates into frustrating the aggressiveness of life. Life aims at constant movement and improvement. Anything that one does to frustrate or block that intention is living Life poorly. Suicide, war, poverty, ignorance, racism, and other anti-life initiatives all frustrate the bountifulness and progress of Life.
For conscious life-forms4 what to do with life becomes an existential choice; non-conscious life-forms5 progress over time, or not, by means of natural selection, the process by which organisms change based on genes provided by “parents” and natural circumstances. Life’s prime directive for both life-forms is staying alive and progressing in the great stream of life. It is interesting to me that this areligious directive is not unlike that reflected in Genesis: “Be fruitful and multiply, fill the earth and subdue it, and have dominion…over every living thing that moves upon the earth (Gen 1:28).6
Perhaps Life’s prime directive will become clearer if one asks oneself what is the meaning of life during a world-wide pandemic? The answer can only be: staying alive!
Missouri State University
1Carl Sagan, Cosmos, 30-31. Here is another description of life’s origins: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Life#:~:text=Life%20is%20a%20characteristic%20that,and%20are%20classified%20as%20inanimate.
2Louise B. Young, Exploring the Universe (2nd ed.; New York: Oxford University Press, 1971), 23.
4Conscious life-forms: capable of thought, will, design, or perception.
5Non-conscious life-forms: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Evolution.
6This prime directive is repeated to Noah with some significant differences (Gen 9:3-7). The formula, “Be fruitful and multiply,” is also found at: Gen 28:3; 35:11; 48:4; Lev 26:9; Jer 23:3.