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.
Thank you so much, Charles! Your article was especially meaningful to me right now. Yours is always a voice of wisdom and reason.
You and Peggy please take care!
Thank you Marge. Please give Mike my regards and the two of you stay safe.
What is-the-meaning/are-the-goals of life? Certainly, at one level driven by instinctual behavior, as you suggest, it's survival of the fittest.
And We've all heard the phrase, "I can't remember a time when I was happier." Is that the meaning of life, to revel in the joy of certain special moments? Something achieved? Some special time shared? Some sacrifice made?
However defined, I'm sure that the meaning of life has strong interpersonal aspects. To quote Martin Buber, the essence of life is "I and thou." But today we realize that thou includes treating our environment, our world, our universe as a living being. Humanity is the eyes and ears of the universe prayerfully reflecting upon itself (Wink, The Human Being, 2002).
I do have a bias about how the meanings should be chosen. I'm not much of a "robots" guy, much prefer human company.
I'm rambling. Now if I could just relive the joy of that Little League three run shot to left center at age eleven in 1955, or striking out twelve in a row in 1956.....😊
Funny you should ask this, Charlie. It seems to me this question is most apt to surface maybe two or three times in our lives: when we’re young and full of teen-age angst; then, for some, the middle-age crazies; and at last, as we near the end.
If a theory is a system of testable ideas, there is no definitive answer. We do know that living things reproduce, and then they die. That’s their biological purpose. But that doesn’t answer the question of why we’re here in the first place, or why there is something instead of nothing. Maybe that’s where religion comes in, but then that degenerates into a power play, a system of control.
I don’t look for any ultimate meaning; we just are. I do know that for several years I have tried to make a conscious effort to connect with anyone with whom I come in contact, whether it’s face-to-face—rare in these days of Corona—via phone, social media, Zooming, whatever, to acknowledge their worth, their humanity. I rather like what Carl Jung said, “As far as we can discern, the sole purpose of human existence is to kindle a light in the darkness of mere being.”
I tend to agree with the gist I get from the many Zane Grey books I’ve read, especially those written during the decade following WWI. The meaning of life is survival and the “god” if one must use the word is “nature.” The only “task” of nature is survival. Meaning is measured by life and the ability to survive, as well as by culturally indoctrinated yet changing “values.”
Saturday I watched that as two butterflies “danced” around each other as if one, probably mating, clenching, separating... Suddenly they both fell straight to the ground, from about fifteen feet in the air, like a rock. One rose from that, while the other folded its wings together, rolled on its side and died. When I mowed over a yellow jacket nest the other day they swarmed in an effort to fight the threat to their home, to survive. Painful for me, deadly for some of them. The black walnut produces a toxin (juglans) in its roots killing competitor plants, ensuring its survival, effective as a bulldozer. (I learned that from grandpa, when he laughed at where I had decided to plant a garden, near one.) Some viruses and bacteria attach to humans in order to live. Humans create medicines in order to survive. Viruses and bacteria find another host or they mutate in order to survive. These are examples of life’s active “theology,” survival.
How a human lives life is largely culturally dictated. It is detached from life’s “theology” in that survival is the most basic motivation, the necessity of fulfilling biological and safety needs, whereas “how” one lives depends upon moving toward a life that is reinforced by cultural values, prompting judgments like “meaningful,” “responsible,” “fulfilling,” or their antonyms. Most of the time one’s life within one’s culture seems defined by others.
Dennis Dean Carpenter
Good Morning Gene,
There is no one answer to the question, what is the meaning of life--for me? As I said in the essay, it is whatever you decide it to be. But from the perspective of LIFE itself meaning is "to live long and prosper," that is staying alive and progressing.
Hi Marcia, Good to hear from you. I like your quote of Jung, although I would say it different: "the sole purpose of human existence is to kindle a light in the darkness of nonbeing." Being is never mere but rather a miraculous wonderment!
Good Morning Dennis,
How would you define "prosper" / "progressing?"
Good Morning Gene,
I think of it in terms of what likely happened: going from single molecule to Homo sapiens; in other words evolution. There is something of that reflected in the first account of creation in Genesis chapter one.
Hope it's okay to push you on this!
What's the criteria for determining when a decision or action is evolved?
Push backs are always welcome. How else can I learn? But in this case I do not understand how your question relates to prospering or progressing. Can you say more?
Some time ago I saw a program about birds on a rather remote island. The program presented evidence that over time the beaks of these birds evolved to be more efficient for eating the types of food available to them - that would seem to meet the definition of progressing and prospering.
I've read science fiction which propose that someday all fetal growth and birth would occur in an artificial womb some day. Another proposed that humans, robots, and hubots (human + robot) would fight for power and control in the future with hubots the winners. How would one know if this sort of thing was prospering and progressing?
Good Evening Charlie,
1) There is no meaning to Life- it's just there.
2) The meanings of human lives are decided upon individually, according to cultural/religious/family/social conditioning.
3) I agree with Sadhguru that when one is full of joy and passion, there are no questions about the meaning of life... People tend to question the meaning of life from a place of burdensomeness and heaviness. When you are out in nature and looking at a beautiful sunset, do you ask yourself "Look at that interesting sunset- I wonder what it means? What's the meaning of those gorgeous colors?" Are sunsets interesting? Or do they transcend conceptual meaning- isn't there something beyond mind-made concepts?? Can everything be caught up in a conceptual net and labeled? Elizabeth
The most prosperous life nature has circulated this year, far as I can tell, prospering from willingly unmasked hosts, progressing through propagation, especially in the USA, seems to be COVID-19. And, it “ain’t even got” a brain, just a wad of nucleic acid in a protein coat, sort of like a jelly-filled donut.
Dennis Dean Carpenter
I'm so glad my comment made it to the blog... This morning I checked, and it still had not been posted yet. So I sat down to re-type it this evening and it finally showed up, thank goodness.
Anyway- it gives me a chance to restate my question about the meaning of life compared to a sunset: If there's no "meaning" to a dazzling sunset or a shimmering rainbow or a brilliant field of Texas bluebonnets... why must there be a meaning to "Life" in general? In other words, do you consider it a waste of space if something exists without any meaning whatsoever? Many thanks, Elizabeth
Good Morning Gene and Dennis:
Gene in response to your final question I would have to say: only time will tell. But if we can do it someone will try.
Dennis: If there is a vacuum, nature will fill it with something, I suspect.
Good Morning Elizabeth,
Sorry about the delay in your posting. I agree with you as to meaning that each individual makes of things; what something means is whatever one thinks it means or whatever someone tells one that it is and one decides to accept that answer.
I was trying to think about meaning from the "perspective" of LIFE itself.
Hence, whatever one thinks the meaning of life is, it is that from that individual's perspective. But from the perspective of all living things the significance, or meaning, of life is simply staying alive and propagating. In other words continuing to live and improving, since only the fittest survive. Individuals get to decide if what they are doing in life is living well or not.
Good Evening Charlie, I have one quick follow up question to your reply: Why do you wish to continue living and improving and "propagating?" Put differently, what motivates you to keep getting up in the morning?? Best wishes for Labor Day weekend, Elizabeth
What keeps me getting up in the morning? Chores!
I had the opportunity to work with Bill Harter on some community projects back in the early 1970's. Lives like his suggest to me that you may be oversimplifying the definition of life itself's meaning and that your being too restrictive when defining the meaning of an individual life totally in terms of what that person thinks. Are there no criteria that could tempt agreement among the majority.
If someone asked me the meaning of my life, I would be totally befuddled as to what to say. The answer could only come from those who had interactions with me.
I found four patches of lady slippers in the forest this year. According to a biologist friend, they grow on land pines have died and rotted, because of certain microorganisms thriving in the ground. Is the reason the “meaning” (of life) or is the beauty of the flower, the striking leaves the “meaning?” Does “meaning” depend on definition or significance? If one chooses the former, one realizes that life thrives largely because of death. If one chooses the latter, one merely appreciates the beauty. I prefer the latter, though I yearly till decaying matter into my garden. I’m studying Sophocles these days, fertile “humus” for timeless themes.
Dennis Dean Carpenter
Gene thank you sharing the obituary of Reverend Bill Harter... "He walked alongside his congregants and members of the community in both joyous and difficult times." Which says to me- the meaning of life transcends "chopping wood and carrying water" as Charlie suggests... I find myself drawn to the example lived out by Rev. Harter: The meaning of life is determined by the way in which we touch other peoples's lives. Elizabeth
Good Morning Gene,
Thanks for pushing back. I never said we decide the meaning of our lives, either in the essay or elsewhere. The meaning of our lives is left to others to decide. What something means is an individual choice and differs from individual to individual. Like in the case of William Harter. He did not write his own Obit, I suspect--few do. The meaning of his life has been decided by others. For example, our president thinks people that are captured in war are losers and worse has been attributed to him by nameless persons that spoke off the record. What I said was we get to choose what to do with life. as far as the meaning of our lives, We are all in the business of creating meaning about even the most mundane of things, and the meaning of our lives will be decided by others.
You ask about objective criteria that a majority may affirm. I would think, however, the criteria would depend on the cultural context of the majority. For example, cultured Roman Citizens of the first century would answer that question much different than Evangelical Christians of the 21st century.
Your last sentence is a beautiful sentiment and partially true I think. When one describes the "meaning" of the life of another, that is the view of the one who describes the life of the other. Others may hold a different view, For example the meaning of the life of Robert E. Lee today is decided differently depending on which side one takes in the "tear down the Confederate statues" movement.
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