The Meaning of Life

Published by timdean on

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.


Paul · 24th May 2010 at 1:25 am

“At least, there is no objective meaning that we can discover from the world”

I think that this is a confusing way to talk about “the meaning of life.” Human beings are evolved, biological creatures. Although we vary amongst ourselves in many traits, in broad outline what we find meaningful depends upon our biology, and our biology is consistent enough to say that there are certain things that for our species are meaningful. To say that “we… create meaning subjectively” makes it sound as if our minds are the source of meaning for human beings, which I don’t think is the case. Also, given that our biology is the source of the meaning we find in life, it doesn’t seem as if we create that meaning. That meaning is a product of the bodies that our ancestors have given us.

James Gray · 24th May 2010 at 8:41 am

You are taking “meaning of life” to mean something like “what biological purpose do we serve,” but that purpose could be symbiotic. Every (or almost every) living organism can evolve as part of a system and fulfill a role in that system. A predator can keep the population of other animals at an equilibrium. Any organism that will succeed will fulfill some sort of a role within the system similar to how our heart fulfills a function in our body.

The role of human beings used to probably be a symbiotic one, but it might no longer be one. We might end up being unsuccessful in terms of long term survival unless we can find out how to live in harmony with our world.

Tim Dean · 24th May 2010 at 10:11 am

Hi Paul. I agree with your point – which is why I added the proviso that “we are built such that certain things will more likely be given value than others.” That comes from our biology, and it’s a crucial point. But what’s important is that there is no external metaphysical justification for pursuing these biological interests as opposed to contra-biological interests others. I.e. T.H. Huxley’s passage a few posts ago.

And James, I’m wary of avoiding the is/ought gap. That we and the environment are designed a certain way is interesting and important, but again, it requires another step to justify saying that we ‘ought’ to be that way. Sometimes being the best square peg one can be in the square hole of the world is a good thing. But sometimes we might want to be a round peg, or change the world to make it round. After all, happiness and suffering both stem from our biological nature.

tomess · 27th May 2010 at 9:53 am

Dear Tim

Hi. But what is the strict materialist’s basis for rationality itself, by which we can create a meaning for life? So far as atheism denies the existence of supernature, it denies the existence of anything that is independent of our biological, economic, cultural, social and other circumstances. Thus it denies the existence of an independent measuring stick by which we can calibrate Nature.

We expect rationality from a human brain because rationality is independent from the processes and organs of the brain through which it occurs. A bottle of toothpicks, on the other hand, is also just a pile of molecules, yet it does not allow supernatural rationality or Reason to act through it. In each case Reason is independent of that through which it acts. Yet the brain expresses transcendent Reason, whereas a pile of toothpicks does not.



Tim Dean · 27th May 2010 at 10:45 am

Hi tomess. I agree with you that there is no supernatural measuring stick, so meaning must come from us, although it doesn’t do so randomly or arbitrarily.

But I would disagree that “we expect rationality from a human brain because rationality is independent from the processes and organs of the brain through which it occurs.”

I think rationality is precisely what occurs when you have a brain and organs like ours working the way they do. The difference between our brain and a bottle of toothpicks is tremendous in terms of structure and biochemical function. It’s that difference that accounts for consciousness and reason.

What you’re suggesting would allow for ‘zombies’ – i.e. someone with a brain that functions biochemically the same as ours, but who lacks the transcendent spark of consciousness. I reject that notion.

tomess · 27th May 2010 at 10:57 am

Dear Tim

Thanks for the quick riposte. But if rationality is merely a product and has no basis that is independent of our biological, chemical, economic, social etc circumstances, then can’t I just dismiss your arguments and you dismiss mine as mere ‘biochemical burps’?

You appear to be arguing that it’s merely convention that distinguishes our philosophy from the after effects of what we might have had for breakfast this morning.

Particularly when we can look at the brain in action, and see various bits ‘glowing’ in real-time with electrical activity, we must hold that rationality is independent of those physical, observable pieces and processes, in order for us to have an independent perspective of ’em.


Incidentally, I’m asserting that rationality is independent of the observable things through which it acts, so I’m not quite sure how you went to zombies. I’m suggesting that that ‘transcendent spark of consciousness’ or rationality or transcendent Reason observed in the brain must originate beyond it (in order to provide an independent measuring stick), and, in fact, beyond circumstance or the physical universe or ‘Nature’ itself, and hence be ‘supernatural’.




Tim Dean · 27th May 2010 at 11:26 am

I got the impression you were arguing for a form of dualism – that there is a fundamental difference between mind (or reason) and matter (or the brain). Under this view, you could have a functionally identical brain to ours, but lack that injection of transcendental reason – so you’d look and behave like a person, but there’d be no ‘real’ reason or consciousness behind the eyes. I don’t believe this is possible. A philosopher at ANU, David Chalmers, makes this argument far better than I. If it’s not your position, I read you wrong – sorry about that.

But, in a way, I’d suggest that all we have is ‘biochemical burps’ (I like that term…). But these burps are not random. I’d suggest that there is a way the world is, and our biochemical burps respond to the world in an ordered way such that we can behave in a more ordered way. It’s all physical processes interacting. As such, our minds (and us) are in and of the world, not somehow separate observers that require a supernatural/transcendental link to the ‘real’ world.

And, as I’ve mentioned, I don’t believe there is an independent measuring stick beyond the facts of the natural world.

tomess · 27th May 2010 at 11:44 am

Dear Tim

Thanks for another quick (and detailed) response. The way you put it – I’m a dualist, although I’d hold that reason permeates and animates matter such as brains, so far as it is able to do so despite inhibitors such as alcohol, fear and certain publications by a particular fella with large printing presses in different factories in Australia, the UK, the US and elsewhere.

As to biochemical burps (thank you), you do appear to imply the existence of an independent measure when you refer to ‘a more ordered way’ (surely not according to a changing or contingent standard – that might lead us in circles). Also, the mere fact that you’re arguing with me implies that you hold your view to be more correct than mine (according to a standard that is independent and yet accessible to each of us) and I should change my views so as to adopt yours, and so have a more accurate understanding of the world.

Best wishes,


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