There are lots of ways to answer the question, ‘what is the meaning of life’, but I’ll cut to the chase: there isn’t one. At least, that’s if you take the question from the perspective of ‘what life means’. Unsurprisingly, I found the answer to that not in a philosophy book but in a biology book. Richard Alexander’s thought-provoking The Biology of Moral Systems (1987), as it happens.
Lifetimes have evolved so as to promote survival of the individual’s genetic materials, through individuals producing and aiding offspring and, in some species, aiding other descendents and some nondescendent relatives as well. (p37)
Alexander is Emeritus Professor and Emeritus Curator of Insects at the Museum of Zoology of the University of Michigan, although, as a biologist, I think he has a nuanced grasp of the philosophical implications of his field.
What Alexander is saying in the quote above is that life isn’t itself meaningful, in an explanatory sense, beyond its role in propagating genes. It just so happens that a living organism that can ‘work’ to choose a suitable mate and aid in the raising of offspring turns out to be a tidy way of making more copies of genes than other methods.
As Samuel Butler put it: “a hen is only an egg’s way of making another egg.” Or, to appropriate for us: a human is just a gene’s way of making more copies of itself. Not very glamorous.
So, should we take that as the meaning of life, as our purpose on this wee speck of a planet in a vast and lonely universe? Should we drop everything and breed like mad? What if we find that we can produce a machine better capable of making copies of genes and propagating them throughout the environment? Should we then declare it a job well done and step into the euthanasia booth?
I suspect that many may find this a dissatisfying life pursuit. Although, if so, you should brace yourself for the implications of rejecting the ‘naturalistic’ meaning of life: there is no meaning of life. At least, there is no objective meaning that we can discover from the world, or that can be beamed directly into us by some supernatural being. There’s no revelation that might come from empirical or rational study that might reveal the purpose of life in a way that will intrinsically motivate behaviour.
But just because there’s no objective meaning of life doesn’t mean we can’t create meaning subjectively. In fact, I’d suggest that this is precisely what we do already – even if we believe we’ve found the objective meaning of life. We create our own meaning and project it on to the world. That’s not to say we create meaning randomly or arbitrarily. We are built such that certain things will more likely be given value than others. There’s no intrinsic right or wrong about this. It’s just a fact. But it remains that this projection of value on to the world is dependent on the projector: us. Without any humans – or life – in the universe, there’s no meaning of life to be found. Or projected…
So, no need to get all emo or existentialist. In fact, you might take solace in this nihilist view. If there’s no meaning from outside, all we have is ourselves – and each other – in which to find meaning. So let’s not get complacent. Let’s start reflecting and create that meaning together.