The Meaning of Life, According to Science
Life’s a journey, not a destination. You can put it on a bumper sticker, but can you justify it?
Meaning implies connecting the small to a larger context. We don’t even need science to tell us the scale of the universe to realize that we are indeed small, which immediately leads to a feeling that we ought to be a part of something bigger than ourselves. So it’s no wonder many talk about things like transcendence and other cosmic mysticism when it comes to the meaning of life. We seek something beyond our individual lives, something that can give us a sense of purpose and significance in the face of our seemingly small and fleeting existence. But, from a scientific perspective, we find there is no grand design, no cosmic plan that bestows meaning upon our lives.
As we delve deeper into the mysteries of the cosmos, our scientific discoveries reveal a universe that is vast, ancient, and seemingly indifferent to our presence. The more we learn, the more we comprehend the staggering scales of time and space. Galaxies upon galaxies, each containing billions of stars, stretch out into an infinity that races away from us faster than the universe allows us to see. Our planet, Earth, is just one among countless more revolving around an ordinary star in an ordinary galaxy in a cosmic web woven together in a tapestry that is beyond our comprehension. In this grand cosmic theater, we are but a tiny speck, a fleeting moment in the vastness of time. The universe operates according to its own laws and principles, unconcerned with our existence. It is easy to feel small and insignificant in the face of such cosmic immensity.
The cosmos appears to function in accordance with simple physical laws and mechanisms. The stars and galaxies dance to the tune of gravity while matter and energy interact through fundamental forces as life emerges through a build-up of these processes. It seems that everything can be explained by the interplay of atoms, particles, and fields. In the face of this scientific understanding, some may find despair or a sense of existential crisis. If our existence is merely a consequence of natural processes, if there is no divine purpose or universal significance, then what meaning can we find in our lives? Is there a way to reconcile our smallness with a sense of purpose and fulfillment?
Of course, true to human nature, the simple answer of “no” will not satisfy us. And so we search for answers to the question that has troubled philosophers and thinkers for centuries — what is the meaning of life?
From Meaning to Meaningful
Rather than providing a definitive answer to the question of the meaning of life, even since ancient times, most philosophers immediately shift the focus to how to live a meaningful life. The emphasis is on the individual’s actions, values, and responsibilities as guided by various philosophical, cultural, and religious traditions. In this way, the meaning of life is the pursuit of living the “correct” way.
In ancient Hinduism, living a meaningful life involved fulfilling one’s duty and moral obligations. The rationale arises through the view of the universe as a vast and intricate system composed of interconnected parts. Each part has its own role to play, and when all the parts work together in harmony, the universe is in a state of balance. However, if one or more parts of the system fall out of balance, it can disrupt the entire cosmic order. Therefore, living a meaningful life in Hindu philosophy involves recognizing one’s place within this interconnected web and striving to maintain balance and harmony within oneself and with the world around them. The timeless tale of Arjuna in the Bhagavad-Gita epitomizes this ethos, as a hero is faced with the profound dilemma of fulfilling his duty as a warrior tasked with killing his family, transcending personal desires for the greater cosmic good.
In Stoicism, the meaning of life lies in recognizing that certain things are beyond our control, such as external circumstances or other people’s actions, and focusing instead on cultivating inner virtue. This can be exemplified by the Stoic philosopher Seneca, who believed that by striving toward virtues such as wisdom, courage, and justice, individuals could find purpose and tranquility in the face of life’s challenges. Much like in Hinduism, in Stoicism, we see themes of interconnectedness as well. By recognizing our place within the grander cosmic web, we develop the virtues of empathy, compassion, and a commitment to the common good. All of these virtues allow the individual to “align” with the natural order of things.
Not to sound like a broken record, but in moving on to Daoist philosophy, we again find a deep appreciation for the interconnectedness and interdependence of all phenomena. The Dao is seen as a unifying force that binds everything together, and each individual is a part of this greater whole. By recognizing our place within this interconnected web of existence, we gain a sense of humility and reverence for the natural world. Daoism encourages individuals to embrace simplicity, spontaneity, and balance, allowing them to find meaning by attuning themselves to the natural rhythms of the world. Laozi, the most famous Daoist figure, encourages us to let go of attachments, desires, and rigid expectations, as these resist the fluidity of life and are discordant with the natural flow of the Dao.
At the risk of oversimplification, these ancient philosophies all recommend various modes of action inspired by mysticism. However, as we explored the frontiers of scientific understanding, the concept of an intricately interconnected universe finds itself at odds with our modern comprehension of the cosmos. While science illuminates the intricate complexities and interdependencies found in various disciplines, the notion of cosmic harmony is not to be found within the scientific framework. Our scientific explanations draw upon the observable, the measurable, and the testable, seeking to uncover the natural laws and mechanisms that govern our existence. The idea of a perfectly balanced and harmonious universe, as depicted in classical philosophy, either contradicts the fundamental principles of science or lacks empirical evidence and verifiability.
Postmodern Much for Modern Muchness
While ancient philosophies often incorporated mystical elements to explain the larger context of human existence, modern philosophies take a different approach. They address the question of meaning in a world where scientific discoveries have revealed a universe governed by natural laws rather than mysterious forces. These modern philosophies offer unique insights into the human experience and provide alternative frameworks for finding purpose and significance in life.
Of course, it would be very uncool not to mention Nietzsche at some point, who emerged as a significant figure in the transition from classical to contemporary thought. His multifaceted philosophy offers insights that have influenced various contemporary traditions. Nietzsche critiques the pursuit of a profound reality beyond our immediate existence, deeming it irrational and lacking in authenticity. Instead, he urges individuals to discover meaning within the world they presently inhabit and to forge their own values and aspirations. Central to Nietzsche’s perspective are the notions of genuineness, intellectual honesty, moral accountability, and aesthetic engagement, all of which contribute to shaping a life imbued with significance. In Nietzsche’s vision, a meaningful existence can be likened to a grand artistic performance, wherein individuals actively create and live in alignment with their self-fashioned values. His ideas challenge the reliance on external systems or authorities to dictate meaning, advocating instead for personal autonomy and the deliberate construction of one’s own meaningful reality.
While Nietzsche’s philosophy serves as a bridge between classical and modern thinking, these subsequent philosophies delve into new realms of human existence and freedom. They explore the individual’s relationship with society, the nature of personal choice, and the search for meaning in an uncertain and complex world.
Libertarianism, a political and ethical philosophy, places a strong emphasis on individual liberty and autonomy. It champions the idea that individuals should have the freedom to pursue their own goals and live according to their own values as long as they respect the equal rights of others. Libertarianism seeks to minimize the role of government in people’s lives and promote a society that prioritizes personal freedom and voluntary interactions. Within the context of meaningful living, libertarianism aligns with the notion that individuals should have the agency to shape their own lives and make choices that reflect their values and aspirations.
Existentialism, on the other hand, delves into the deeper questions of human existence and the search for meaning. Stemming from the works of philosophers like Søren Kierkegaard and those that followed, existentialism explores the individual’s freedom, responsibility, and subjective experience. It emphasizes that humans create their own meaning and purpose through their choices and actions. Existentialists grapple with the inherent uncertainties and absurdities of life, acknowledging that the universe may lack inherent meaning but asserting that individuals have the capacity to find or create meaning for themselves. Living a meaningful life within an existentialist framework involves embracing personal freedom, taking responsibility for one’s choices, and engaging in a sincere exploration of one’s values and passions.
Both Libertarianism and Existentialism offer unique perspectives on human agency, freedom, and the quest for meaning. While Libertarianism focuses more on the societal and political dimensions of individual liberty, Existentialism delves into the existential and philosophical aspects of personal choice and self-creation. However, some scientific theories, particularly those rooted in physics and biology, argue that every event in the universe, including human action, is the result of preceding events. This deterministic perspective contradicts the concept of free will, suggesting that our choices and actions are predetermined by our genetic makeup, past experiences, and environmental influences. This clearly challenges the foundational principles of post-modern philosophies.
But even if we accept a deterministic view of the universe, it does not necessarily preclude the existence of meaning or purpose in our lives. Instead, it may lead us to reconsider what we understand by “freedom” and “choice.” Perhaps they are not about escaping the laws of nature but about understanding and navigating them to the best of our ability. After all, even if our paths are shaped by forces beyond our control, it is still our journey to experience and interpret.
Science, Philosophy, and Everything
There is a difference between asking what is the meaning of life and how to live a meaningful life. The former is a more abstract, metaphysical question that may not have a clear answer, while the latter is more pragmatic and focuses on how we can find purpose and fulfillment in our day-to-day lives. It certainly seems with the sheer amount of progress science has made, it might be able to answer both questions. While social science may have a few things to say about what factors affect the quality of life, the physical sciences seek to explain the universe in terms of laws and mechanisms to get at the deepest understanding possible. Thus, before “meaning,” science compels itself to first ask, what is life?
Scientifically, life is generally characterized by a set of common phenomena: growth, reproduction, response to stimuli, metabolism, and adaptation to the environment through natural selection. However, this definition isn’t entirely clear-cut and leaves room for debate as it encounters trouble when applied to certain cases, such as viruses, which lack metabolism, for example. While this line of scientific investigation into the nature of life is fascinating and critical to our understanding of the world, it doesn’t even get off the ground when attempting to address any sense of meaning.
In its broadest sense, science is a process of systematically studying the patterns present in Nature. It’s an ongoing journey of inquiry and discovery that is intentionally driven by hypothesis, experimentation, observation, and measurement. Yet, science, with its rigorous methodology and focus on empirical evidence and reproducibility, does not seem prepared to directly address the deepest philosophical and emotional dimensions of human existence. But surely most scientists, with their intense drive and dedication, are motivated by some purpose, right?
Much like modern philosophers find implicit meaning in “doing” philosophy, scientists find meaning in “doing” science. The act of “doing” highlights the process-oriented nature of both disciplines. It places an emphasis on the journey rather than the destination. It is the continuous pursuit of understanding, discovery, and knowledge that brings a sense of purpose and fulfillment to a scientist. This is nicely captured by the concept of flow, coined by psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, which is a mental state achieved when a person is fully immersed in an activity, leading to a sense of energy, focus, and enjoyment in the process of the activity. The phenomenon of flow demonstrates that the strongest sense of purpose comes not from the result of the activity but rather from the act of doing it.
This process-oriented perspective is not limited to science and philosophy but is found in all aspects of life. Whether it’s an artist lost in the process of creating art, an athlete striving to improve performance, a teacher dedicated to imparting knowledge, or a writer engrossed in crafting a story, the act of “doing” offers a way to find purpose and meaning. This observation — or implied recommendation — is not new and can be found as part of all ancient and modern philosophies which tackle the question. Fully engaging in the process of life itself offers a path to living a meaningful life.
The Meaning of Life
The problem we encounter in many of the aforementioned philosophies is not the conclusions themselves, which often resonate with a deep, intuitive understanding of what it means to live a meaningful life. The real issue lies in the justification for these conclusions. These philosophical narratives, if founded upon mysticism or other non-empirical principles, can inadvertently steer individuals off course. Such paths may appear enlightening at first, but they ultimately diverge from the tangible and measurable reality that science tries to comprehend and often leads individuals to conclusions counter to the very philosophy being followed.
In contrast, science offers a justification that is self-consistent, tethered to empirical evidence, and subjected to rigorous scrutiny. Science doesn’t claim to have all the answers, but it provides a reliable framework for asking questions, formulating hypotheses, and seeking evidence-based answers. This process, while inherently devoid of emotional or philosophical sentiment, provides a strong foundation on which we can base our understanding of our place in the universe.
Science doesn’t answer the question of meaning in life, nor does it provide a recipe to live a meaningful life. Rather, science casts the brightest light on our predicament. It reveals to us that we are not autonomous agents free to roam the cosmos in search of some grand cosmic plan or external validation. Instead, we are creatures of biology, physics, and chemistry, our behaviors influenced by a complex interplay of factors, both internal and external, which there is no sense in which we control. We are connected to the cosmos only insomuch as our every action is predetermined by the moment preceding it in a chain leading back to the birth of our observable universe, which contained nothing but elementary particles.
In this chain, as elegantly articulated by Carl Sagan, we discover that we are star-born — our very atoms minted from the simplest elements within the nuclear forges of dying suns. We are the product of the natural process of evolution, a sort of relentless “doing” performed by nature, where adaptations and mutations are continuously tested against environmental pressures. This unguided and dispassionate process favors complexity, eventually leading to celestial masses comprising molten cores, watery surfaces, and volatile atmospheres.
The mechanism of evolution promotes the preservation and propagation of robustly encoded and self-replicating information above all — in other words, it favors life. We are not the bodies that exist within the boundaries of this physical world — we are the information contained within them. Our quest for meaning is a continuation of this unceasing legacy. Our beliefs, values, actions, and choices — the narrative of our lives — are continually being shaped and reshaped in response to the environment of our experiences. We each become a unique assembly of robustly encoded information about our lives and how to live them based on our experiences and interpretations of the world.
It is through these narratives that we engage with the world, not as detached observers but as active participants, continually shaping and being shaped by our environment — an environment that includes other individuals. Thus, our personal narratives are not ours at all. They are intimately entwined with cultural stories whose existence is entirely contained within collective narratives dispersed amongst humanity. The universe may be vast and indifferent to our existence, but within the stories we create and share, we discover our purpose, our connections, and our home. We don’t exist among the stars but within the narratives birthed from stardust and dreams.
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Dr. Chris Ferrie