Tuesday, June 11, 2013

The Meaning of Life

A question that occasionally surfaces in our lives, when we take the time to ponder such things, can be stated many ways, but they all boil down to "What does it all mean?"  This question is particularly poignant to us when we confront our own mortality.  For many people, the obvious answer is their religion, although I suspect that many believers secretly harbor some doubts when it comes to that.  For some, like Monty Python or Douglas Adams, a humorous or even flippant answer serves to dispel the gloom such questions might stimulate.  For the most part, we go on about our life routines without contemplating such deep issues, perhaps because when we do, they can cause us to be a bit frightened - after all, it's difficult to imagine or accept that when we're gone, the world will carry on without us.

So the question deserves some sort of answer.  In what follows, most of which occurred to me several years ago now, I make no claim to have any profound insight or to know for certain that life has any meaning, much less the ideas I'm presenting in this blog.  I'm simply presenting a way to think about this question that provides me with an "answer" - of sorts.

As a observer interested in most aspects of the natural world, it's evident that most living things have no capacity to ponder such questions.  The birds, the ants, the bacteria, and the entire world of plants - none of them are tormented by such thoughts.  They simply have a will to survive - to find sustenance, to escape predators, to give birth to another generation.  Individual animals and plants know about and care nothing about the meaning of their existence.  Existence and species survival are quite enough for them.  All life on Earth, except us, exists simply to survive as part of a complex ecosystem of mutual interdependence.

We, on the other hand, seem compelled to infer that our existence is special, and privileged among other lifeforms on Earth.  Mere survival and participation in the ecosystem just doesn't seem grand enough for us, with our ability to contemplate the Universe in which we exist.  For many, religion reinforces the comforting thought of eternal life beyond our Earthly demise and a purpose defined by a mythical superbeing.  But long ago, I rejected that path as illogical and clearly mythical.

If you disregard the pat answers provided by religion, which I do, then perhaps the ultimate answer is that there is no meaning to life.  Life simply exists to survive and procreate, even for humans.  Should the astronomers prove to be right, then our Earth is destined for some life-destroying fate in a few billion years - if humans haven't left the Earth and colonized other places, or become extinct by then, we will be utterly destroyed.  And the cosmologists suggest that the entire Universe will come to some life-destroying end, so it seems the ultimate extinction of our species is inevitable.  Everything we have built and struggled for will come to nothing in the cold calculus of the indifferent Universe.  Without the myth of eternal life provided by religion, it seems that science offers no solace for our concerns - in the absence of a perpetual survival for humanity, our personal lives can have no meaning whatsoever.

So how do I deal with this apparently meaningless existence?  What keeps me going?  Why should I not kill myself, or indulge in all sorts of immoral behavior?  If nothing matters, why not do these things?  Well, like many other atheists, I don't need religion to have morals.  Here's the deal:  I have been given life by my parents.  I didn't ask for it, but they evidently wanted someone like me in their lives.  I'm thankful and grateful to them for that unrequested gift.  I've found the Earth to be a wondrous place, full of beauty and grandeur, human kindness, wonderful people, and physical pleasures.  Life is mostly a joy to me and for that joy to be maintained, I feel an obligation to make my joy known to others and to seek to bring joy to them, as well.

There are, of course, other ways to provide "meaning" to life - hateful, evil deeds that bring pain and suffering - even death - to others.  For some religious believers, the meaning in their life is provided by immoral acts that inflict agony and death on others.  What a sad life they've built for themselves, filled with anger and pain, perhaps to be terminated prematurely by suicide on the promise of an afterlife that is pure mythology.  One also can achieve an immortality of sorts by extreme evil - Hitler, Stalin, Pol Pot, mass murderers, etc.  They become famous  and that fame provides a sort of meaning for them, it seems, but what a terrible legacy they leave behind.  Not fame, actually, but infamy.

But consider this, before you go on a rampage of immorality.  Every person, even those conceived but not yet born, has an impact on at least some other people.  It's impossible to be alive without having an impact on others.  We often measure fame by how many people know of us - but Arlo Guthrie has said it correctly:  "Famous people are not always important.  Important people are not always famous."  Because we inevitably affect at least those around us, we're important - to them.  Whether or not we (or they) become famous is irrelevant.  If we're all important, each and every one of us, then we should consider just what sort of impact we want to have on those around us.

If we attach value to our acquaintances, friends, and family, then it behooves us to have a positive influence on their lives, to whatever extent it's possible.  We encourage them to pursue their dreams, we praise them for their accomplishments, and we let them know when they do something we believe to be wrong.  We listen to them with attention and try to provide them with comfort when they're sad.  If the world and humanity eventually will vanish, why should we do such things?  Why does it matter?  Because our minds have been programmed by evolution to feel good about ourselves when we do so.  We're social creatures, who can only survive by cooperation with others of ours species.  Cooperation requires morality.  I have morals because it feels right to have them.  Life is better when I feel good than when I feel ashamed and regretful of what I've done.

A life spent doing things you love is dominated by positive feelings, and when we do what we love, we usually do it well enough that it provides something of value to others - even others we may never meet.  Our lives can be inspirational to many people we don't know.  Our work can stimulate others to achievement.  It's so easy to be happy and this can give meaning to my life in a very personal way.  I have no need for fame or glory.  Immortality is beyond my grasp, so it's pointless to seek it.  I'm pretty sure that in 500 or 1000 years, no one will remember I existed, but during the time I've been granted, I know that I've been thrilled to the core with what the world has offered to me, and I've tried my best to give something of that joy and happiness to others.  It simply feels good ... and right.  That's how I find meaning in my time of existence.  For me, it's more than enough.  How about you?

1 comment:

Felix Welzenbach said...

I should have become a social worker more than a meteorologist because as a meteorologist you tend to make people unhappy in many periods of the year. Moreover, they usually don't remember the days when you made them happy.

To be serious, I share your point of view and therefore it is quite important to take care of friends suffering from illness or depressions preventing them from interaction with other people.

If your in a period of life where being satisfied is impossible in terms of just being happy as so many issues are overwhelming you, a helping hand can create such positive feelings and may help to overcome the vicious circle.

To conclude, I like the deal that ...."for that joy to be maintained, I feel an obligation to make my joy known to others and to seek to bring joy to them, as well."

Thank you for your personal insights in the life of a dedicted meteorologist and scientist.