One approach to the meaning of life

Connie asked:

What is the meaning of life?

Answer by Stuart Burns

Your question is a very simple one, and a very common one – especially to those new to the subject of philosophy. In fact, in my own very limited experience, it is the question that most frequently starts an individual on the road to a deeper investigation into the various subjects of philosophy.

On further investigation, one will usually find that this very simple question is also a very complex one. In fact, one will quickly discover that one has to be more specific about just what one means by ‘meaning’, ‘life’, and ‘meaning of life’. It turns out there are a number of ways to interpret this seemingly very simple question.

Here is a small sampling of the ways that I have found this question actually intended. By ‘What is the meaning of life?’ do you mean –

1. What is ‘life’? In the sense of how or why is ‘life’ different from ‘non-life’?

2. What is the purpose (or function or intent) of life? In the sense of ‘why does life exist at all?

3. What is the significance of life (to the Earth or to the Universe)? In the sense of does it matter to the rest of the Earth or the Universe whether there is life or not?

4. What is the purpose (or function or intent) of the human species?

5. What is the significance of the existence of the human species (to the Earth or to the Universe)?

6. What is the purpose (or function or intent) of my life? A much more specifically intended question usually posed by someone struggling to find some anchor to their daily struggles.

7. What is the significance of my life (to the Earth or to the Universe)? Also a very specifically intended question, posed by someone feeling overwhelmed by the apparently insignificant role allotted to the individual by ‘Science’. (We each are one of seven billion humans living on a tiny speck of dirt circling a run of the mill star at the outer edge of a run of the mill galaxy that is one of trillions in the Universe. How insignificant can you get?)

I am going to try to provide a brief answer to your question from the point of view of (6) above. And along the way hopefully approach a response to some of the other possible interpretations of your question.

First, an important disclaimer. I am a realist / materialist. I am not an idealist or a dualist. So my answer to your question will exclude any reference to religious or spiritual concepts. For answers from those perspectives, you will have to seek guidance from your friendly priest, minister, or spiritual advisor.

The first step in answering your question, is to acknowledge that you are a member of the species Homo sapiens. As such, you are a primate, a mammal, an animal, and a living organism with a 3 to 4 billion year evolutionary history behind you.

The second step is to acknowledge that the ‘Thing’ that has been evolving over the myriad of generations that have lived since the dawn of life on Earth, is the genetic code and not the individual. You, yourself, are but a bio-chemical machine. You were constructed by the fertilised cell that was the result of the union of your mother’s ovum and your father’s sperm. And you were constructed in accordance with the recipe encoded in your genes. You are a survival machine for the genes in your DNA. (I refer you to the works of Richard Dawkins, Michael Ruse, and Daniel Dennett for further argument on this point.)

That then, is your answer. The meaning of your life, your function, your purpose, the reason you exist, is to ensure that your genes get transmitted to the next generation.

This is a general principle of all life. So the general answer to the question ‘What is the meaning of life?’ is quite simply – for each individual organism to ensure that the genes that are encapsulated in each organism get transmitted to the next generation. Or, in a more general wording – the meaning of life is to ensure that life continues.

Many people will object to this answer, including many professional philosophers. But any alternative they offer to my answer will come either from their religious or spiritual premises (which I have specifically disavowed), or from out of thin air. As humans we are gifted with the ability to choose alternative goals in life. And you are free to pursue whatever ends tickle your fancy.

However, regardless of what other goals may be offered instead, if you are not successful at fulfilling this evolutionary meaning of your life, then your genetic codes (and their 3 to 4 billion years of ancestry) will vanish from the future. The future will be populated by individuals whose ancestors were successful at this evolutionary purpose.


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