This is an interesting question. To simplify things, let’s assume that there is no “plan”, no “God”, no afterlife.
If that is the case, which many of us nowadays do believe, it is simultaneously liberating, and quite horrifying at the same time.
All that we do, essentially, is pointless.
Life is meaningless, unless we chose to add meaning to what we do, but there is no objective or intrinsic value or meaning in anything that we do.
So, the question has to be asked, why get out of bed in the morning? Why do anything? Why live?
I guess one answer is a pragmatic one, and that is that you didn’t choose to be, but you are.
And because you exist, you might as well see what happens, and not just commit suiside because it doesn’t really matter anyway.
So this gives us at least a basic reason to stay alive, at least to satisfy our curiousity of what is going to happen in the future.
Also, because evolution generally favors the continuation of species that want to stay alive (obviously!), then we have some bias in our genetic makeup that ensures that we do, generally speaking, want to stay alive and procreate and ensure that there is another generation after ours.
This only really extends however to our will to live and our desire to have sex. We don’t unfortunately care enough about the long-term issues we are causing that our children will need to solve, but perhaps it is understandable that a species that has spent hundreds of thousands of years dealing with short term problems is now good at resolving long term ones.
So, now that you have decided to live, you probably need some basics to survive. Shelter from the elements, food, water, etc.
If you’re lucky, these are already provided to you, and probably you’ve got a whole bunch more stuff as well, especially if you come from a economically developed country and from a prosperous family.
However, here we will hit into the unfortunate results of being well off from birth. If you don’t have to experience any struggle in getting the basics of what you need in life, then you have to start thinking about other desires that you need to fulfill, and it can become exponentially more difficult and also more anxiety-inducing to choose between all the possibilities, and also to exert the serious effort that certain desires require.
While the person that has their head down and is working to cover the basics does not have to worry about that, they already have their purpouse, and that is to stay alive.
So, perhaps one strategy is to try and maximize pleasure and remove or avoid as many discomforts as possible. This is a subject which is at the heart of many different philophies, and something that I’ve covered in depth in various previous essays, but worth exploring further here.
If we decided to take what we can call a “hedonistic” approach to life, and seek to maximize pleasure and reduce discomfort, how about this:
In the near future we may well be able to hook ourselves to virtual reality experiences which are as realistic as real life, so that you cannot tell the difference. Would it make sense to spend all day hooked up to these contraptions to “live” a life that is as full of pleasure as possible, regardless of what your real life is like?
For many people, the above scenario doesn’t feel right, but they may not right away be able to explain why this isn’t a logical way to live if the possibility was there, and what would be the reasons not to live like this.
However, what has been explored in depth is what is called xxx hedonism where life is just about having more and new things, and it is the default life philosophy of most people on the planet.
I believe that the data shows us that this isn’t working, as the most developed countries in the world suffer from some of the highest depression rates in the world, all while having a standard of life that has been unmatched in history.
So clearly, there must be another way to live, another reason to wake up in the morning, to create meaning in what you do, and the answers are both surprising in themselves, and surprisingly simple.
The main issue is that our way of living has been changing at an exponential rate, while our ability to adapt to this change is dictated by evolution, which operates on a much longer time frame.
This means that we are essentially running an outdated operating system for the situations we find ourselves in.
The fight or flight response is a great example of this. While it is absolutely an important response to legitimate threats to life and safety, and allows us to things that would be unachieveable otherwise, we also end up triggering it when we are not in mortal danger, and that causes a lot of mental anguish.
So, perhaps the deal that humans have struck in the last few centuries has not been as easy as it first appeared.
We have thrown down the shackles of religion and dogma, only to find that with our new found freedom came a large void, a lack of meaning, and that it is not easy to find meaning in life when you believe that there is not great overarching plan.
However, we have all experienced a complete lack of meaning, and that was when we didn’t exist.
I don’t wake up in the morning and think ‘shit, I’ve missed out on the last 13 billion years of time, better catch up on things’.
In fact, it was rather easy not to exist before, but now that I’m here there are quite a few problems to deal with, both things like finding meaning to the more mundane day to day stuff like occasionally getting sick or having issues with other people.
And so, one day there will also be a time when I don’t exist, and probably no trace of my impact will be found, and yet I still bother to write these very words? Why?
You see where I’m going with this, it’s all quite absurd.
However, my main argument is that because we do exist, we might as well take advantage of it , and work to find a semblance of localized meaning, and work towards what we believe to be meaningful.
Different people in different societies attach meaningfulness to different things.
An African warlords believes it is meaningful to slaughter his enemy, recruit child soldiers, and grab as much land as possible.
The New York stockbroker truly believes that it means something when we dresses in an expensive brand-name suit, or when he wins a promotion and receives a private corner office with a view.
The Bangkok hooker places makeup on her face to ensure she can attract a customer, because that is what is meaningful to her.
The child in London sees it snow and hopes that school is cancelled so he can spend the day throwing snowballs at his friends in the park. There is little else of importance in his world that day.
And yet, there is a thread of meaning that is woven throughout all human experiences, and that is the belief that human life is meaningful, or at least more meaningful than say, the life of a pigeon or a pig.
This is very difficult ground for anyone who doesn’t believe in the concept of a soul, that every human has a special life spark that makes them sacred.
I notice these contradictory thoughts in myself all the time. I believe the human experience is special, but I don’t believe that humans are the same as a pigeon, and I would sacrifice a lot of pigeons to save a human life, and while I did the ethics of eating animal flesh dubious and I don’t partake in the practice, I don’t condemn eating animals in the same way I would if someone told me they were a cannibal.
So, how do we go about finding meaning, and why should we?
I want to answer the why by discussing the fact that finding meaning is an alternative path to just chasing pleasure, but there is a strong paradox that both Buddhism and many philosophies run into, is that they are suspicious of pleasure, because it can lead to discomforting situations.
So if the ultimate goal is to live a pleasurable life, then finding meaning can bring immense pleasure that is long lasting and deep, without having to resort to the cheap tricks on having to run the hedonistic treadmill of constantly buying more stuff.
The first step to meaningfulness is that you must believe that what you do has impact and importance. Otherwise, something cannot have any meaning unless it changes something.
Now note that this ‘something’ can be yourself, and the impact can be the way you act or think. It doesn’t mean you have to go and build something big.
For instance, if you decided to go and alive in a remote forest cabin somewhere and never see or communicate with another human being again, you could still find meaning in what you do.
Trying to catch an animal to eat when you’re hungry is definitely meaningful, to you. You’re also likely to be quite important to the animal you’re chasing, at least for those last few seconds of its existence.
The next thing to look for is some form of long term effect. Short term things in themselves are not often meaningful, unless they have long term consequences or fit into a larger plan.
Think of the German and Russian soldiers during the Battle of Stalingrad, fighting house to house, factory to factory. Small teams of ten to fifty men fighting another small team over a few square meters of territory.
These small localized battles were completely inconsequential to the end result of World War Two, but they still had to be fought, and they had meaning, because it is through tens of thousands of these small battles that a war is won.
The last point I want to make is that if you contribute positively to society, then that has meaning it itself. If you can make sure you’re not one of those that causes the problems with the world, the people who steal and murder, the people who are the cause for having locked doors and locks on bicycles, then your existence also has meaning, as you raise the average goodness in the world, and then it’s just a matter of seeing how you can improve it, in whatever way you find meaningful, to you.