What is the meaning of life?
This is a question that humankind has asked for centuries. It is not a question that everyone asks, at least not seriously. Rather it is a question asked by people of a certain mindset – people who have a tendency to ponder the meaning of things and of existence.
- Why am I here?
- What does this all mean?
- Is there a God?
- What is the purpose of life?
As a young man majoring in both philosophy and psychology in college, along with many classes in religion, these questions swirled through my mind quite a lot. And it is particularly difficult for college students, who are living a somewhat unreal existence – not having full-time jobs or spouses or children, but studying many hours a day.
If you do an online search for “the meaning of life,” you will find the sometimes hilarious movie of that name by Monty Python. Unfortunately that movie is a multiple parody and it will not give you any satisfactory answers.
If you ask the iPhone app Siri, “What is the meaning of life?” she will answer, “A movie.” Refer to Monty Python above.
So now let’s take a serious look at the question, “What is the meaning of life?” and some solid ways to find answers. For me there is one answer, but this is an open question each person must answer for himself or herself.
The Meaning of Meaning
The word “meaning” is key to our question. Dictionary.com gives these two primary definitions:
“1. what is intended to be, or actually is, expressed or indicated; signification; import:
the three meanings of a word.
“2. the end, purpose, or significance of something:
What is the meaning of life? What is the meaning of this intrusion?”
So the word “meaning” by its very nature implies intention, significance or purpose. We might infer from this that for meaning to exist, there must be a “meaner” or source of this intention, significance or purpose. We do not expect a rock to be a source of meaning. Meaning comes from intelligent minds – your own mind, other people’s minds, or a higher Intelligence which might be ascribed to a deity.
If there is any meaning “out there” in life or of life for you to perceive, it is not written on a large sign in the sky or other easily perceived physical object. Rather each of us has to decide for himself or herself:
- Is there any meaning to life or of life?
- What do I think that meaning is?
As my old philosophy professor used to say, “You pays your money and you takes your choice.” No one can force you to perceive meaning in life their way – it is one of the most important choices each of us makes individually. For many it is not even a topic of thought or wonder. For others it is a matter of deep concern, even despair.
Because that meaning, if there is any, is not obvious. It does not shout out at us or hit us over the head. It is non-sensory, non-material, invisible. We cannot perceive any meaning of life with our senses. We can only perceive it with our minds, intuition or feelings.
Does this mean that the real meaning of life is arbitrary, like a favorite flavor of ice cream or favorite pair of shoes? The answer to that depends on what you think life itself is all about – the mental model or framework which you have of life itself.
The Meaning of “Life”
“Life” includes all living things, which do not just exist statically but interact continuously in an unlimited number of ways. As I type these words I know that there are millions of bacteria living on my hands even though I cannot see or feel them. I observe cars traveling along the street outside my window, inhabited by people who are on the way to somewhere that matters in their lives. I know that in the houses up and down my street are other people and families going about their daily activities. Life includes all people, animals, plants, our planet, and for all we know other forms of life in other parts of the universe.
“All the world’s a stage,” as Shakespeare famously said, and it is quite an incredibly vast and amazing show. What do all these living things and their activity mean? What is the meaning of this “life” stuff that we can observe with our senses? It is all so incredibly complicated, can there be a simple answer?
When we ask, “What is the meaning of life?” are we talking about all of life as a whole, or your life or my life in particular? Again that is a choice you have to make. You can interpret the scope of the question to be as broad or as narrow as you like. But don’t give up thinking that I am going to say every part of the big question and its answers are arbitrary and up to each individual – although that is part of the big picture. It’s not the end of the story. Read on.
Your mind automatically tries to make sense of your experiences in life by constructing a framework which is often called a worldview. For most people their worldview is not really conscious. It is in the background. It includes an assumption that what seems to be real is real, or as the popular saying goes, “It is what it is.”
There’s not much argument over whether a rock is a rock or a boulder is heavy or we all need nourishment when we get hungry. These are all parts of the sensory environment that we live in. Of course we can argue infinitely about politics, religion, abortion and many other controversial topics. But those are not about sensory objects. Those broader topics are about – what? Meaning! They are about the meanings we assign to more complex topics beyond sensory objects, related to our inner worldviews.
For most of us, our worldview is shaped by our genetic make-up, our life experiences, and what we have learned over the span of our life. This worldview is how we make sense of life, what happens to us and others in our world. It is not just learned but also determined in part by one’s personality type. Some people naturally have a sensory orientation and see the world as objects, and facts are especially important to them. Other people naturally have an intuitive orientation and see meaning and connections beyond sensory objects – they know without having to rely on their senses. These are the people who wonder about the meaning of life far more than sensory-oriented folks. But anyone can wonder and ask. The point is, the answer we come up with, if any, is somewhat predetermined by our make-up and experiences. It is very difficult and unlikely that you would embrace a meaning of life that is totally foreign and alien to your own personality and life experience. Your worldview strongly shapes your perception of any meaning of life whether you want it to or not.
A driving force behind the question “What is the meaning of life?” is an innate desire or intention to find or determine a meaning for your own life that rings true to your life experience and what you believe is right and true. So now when I present the process through which I determined the meaning of life for me, it may or may not resonate with you at all. It involves a mental leap that I describe in detail in my book “How To Understand Ultimate Reality” available on amazon.com. But this isn’t a pitch for my book. Read on and I’ll explain how I got to my view of the meaning of life.
The Meaning of Life – One Man’s Journey
All the hours I spent pondering philosophy, psychology and religion in college made me pretty confused about reality and the meaning of life. I got further confused in my first year out of college as a newspaper reporter and editor, which caused me to interact with a very wide range of people and personalities from all walks of life. When my college asked me to come back to work there as head of the News Bureau, I saw it as an opportunity in part to continue my learning process without having to go to graduate school or make other commitments.
Because of my strong interest and work in photography, a group of students asked me to teach a course in photography that was not in the curriculum.
In the class students were assigned to take creative photos each week and show them to the group without any explanation. It was very interesting how different people in the group saw different things in the photograph. Often the photographer would say, “That is not what I intended, but if you see that, it’s OK with me.” Reading meaning or objects into a picture that the artist did not intend has been going on for centuries, but it led me to wonder, “What is in the photograph?” Is there anything that is actually in the photograph, regardless of who is looking at it, or is a photograph more like a mirror reflecting the mind that is perceiving it?
I shared this question with my former philosophy professor and read several books seeking answers. None were satisfactory for me.
One day I began imagining zooming in to the finest detail of a photograph, which in black and white consists of silver halide crystals in a thin emulsion on top of photographic paper. At the molecular level, you do not see the imagery in the photograph.
Zoom out and you can perceive light and dark areas, spots and shapes which might begin to look like something, but unless the photograph is extremely high resolution you will still not be able to perceive the image in the photograph.
Only when you zoom out far enough to begin to make out details like lines, objects and shapes of things you recognize – maybe a face or tree or brick for example – does the imagery begin to emerge. But wait – that imagery is not “in” the photograph. There is no real face, tree or brick on that sheet of paper. There are only dark and light areas, spots and shapes, that we interpret as objects. But how is that possible?
The Significance of Patterns
I finally realized that is possible because the parts of the photograph represent patterns that we can perceive as objects. All human perception is pattern perception. Not only are we able to perceive objects in our environment as patterns – that is all we can perceive. Perception is a very active mental-emotional process whereby patterns of signals coming in through our eyes, ears and other senses are matched with patterns in our memories, enabling us to say “that is a face,” or “that is a tree.” Human pattern-perception is very fine-tuned, but much of it is learned. If we encounter a new pattern we have not seen before, we try to interpret it in terms of other patterns we have seen before, until we learn that this new pattern is different and has its own identity.
For example many aspects of human organization and interaction involve systems, and we do not innately perceive systems. You have to learn to perceive systems through a deeper understanding of what living systems are.
A dog can be trained to perceive hundreds of different objects by name, and to pick out the right one on command, but a dog will never perceive a system.
So then, if there is any meaning of life, and I believe there is, it can only be perceived as a pattern involving the proactive meaning-making human mind. The meaning of life is not in the objects and events of life. The meaning of life is in the patterns of life and how each of us perceives those patterns.
But that is not the end of the journey. For now we must ask, What is a pattern, and how are patterns possible?
What Is A Pattern?
The word “pattern” comes from the Latin word pater for father. A pattern is the “father” of “children” shapes which look a lot like daddy or mother. There are many definitions of “pattern” ranging from wallpaper patterns to patterns of human behavior. All patterns have some type of perceivable structure that is replicated across multiple objects or instances. “This looks like that.”
For months I was thrilled with this insight into the significance of patterns and continued to study and think about it. We can say with confidence that the meaning of life is a pattern, because everything we perceive is a pattern. Understanding the meaning of life is like solving a puzzle – can you perceive the meaning of life here? What about over here? Since you cannot grasp the entirety of existence in one moment of perception, where do you perceive the meaning of life? How much of life do you have to take in to perceive the meaning of it? And if you have not perceived this hugely significant pattern before, how can you perceive it anew and rightly?
Again I conducted a mental experiment in which I tried to imagine the essence of a pattern, a pattern in its simplest form. I thought about an atom, but an atom is really not nearly as simple as a nuclear ball surrounded by electron balls. Then in my mind’s eye I imagined two black balls connected in space by a bar – like a mini-dumbbell. You could say that one black ball would be a simpler pattern, but I was uncomfortable with that image persisting – it could fade and recede or get fuzzy. Having it linked to another ball gave me a stronger sense of pattern – and indeed almost anything we perceive as a pattern consists of two or more components in relationship to each other, giving the distinctive shape we recognize as a pattern.
But then I wondered, how are patterns possible? In our little model of two tiny balls connected by a bar, what keeps them connected? Or if we consider an atom, what keeps electrons moving around the nucleus instead of flying off into space and never returning? Indeed what holds the world together so it does not fly apart into space? In this moment we are peering into the very essence of existence, what I call ultimate reality, the key to the meaning of life.
Consider all the so-called laws of physics which “explain” phenomena like gravity, force, nuclear bonds and so much more. These laws are either in the particles, in the elements of existence, or they are somewhere else.
The Meaning of Life: The Ultimate Fork In The Road
So this is the ultimate fork in the road concerning the meaning of life as you perceive it:
Pattern 1: The “laws” of the universe are in the matter and energy of the universe, and always have been (somehow) without ever having been created by a Creator.
Pattern 2: The “laws” of the universe and everything in the universe were created and are sustained by a Creator God.
You pays your money and you takes your choice. Pattern 1 or Pattern 2. The choice is yours.
For me and many others, including many leading scientists and philosophers, Pattern 1 makes no sense. To believe that the incredible order, beauty and complexity of life and the universe was not created means in essence there is no meaning of life. There is no intent or purpose.
Pattern 2 means the meaning of life is that all life was created by a Creator God, and if you want to connect to the true meaning of life, you need to connect to that Creator God. Fortunately there is a path to do that, called prayer. But that is another story.
If you want to explore this whole subject of the meaning of life and ultimate reality in more detail, I invite you to read my book, “How To Understand Ultimate Reality: Order, Energy And God” available on amazon.com in print and electronic versions.