I’ve written about this before,1 mostly from a scientific and technical perspective. Now, I’m thinking more along spiritual and/or philosophical lines.
Any question about the meaning of life is a product of our own brains, which appear to be alone among the animals—and that would suggest among all the other life forms on Earth—in having the capacity to think both abstractly and self-referentially. We can think about things that are not immediately in front of us, not cued by any sensory input or by our immediate life situation, and sometimes not even related to any of our experiences or memories, perhaps not even related to any other thing in the universe. And we can think about ourselves, examine our own motives, call up our memories at will, and even place ourselves and our personal reactions in imagined, hypothetical, and future situations.
We can live, second by second, in all three tenses—past, present, and future—and modify each of them with linguistic moods such as the subjunctive. So, instead of having to say, “I will do that,” our pan-temporal perspective allows us to say, “I would do that, if this other thing were to happen.” We can hold a thought that is concerned simultaneously with something that may occur in the future and with something hypothetical and contingent upon other factors that may or may not occur in the future. That’s pretty complex thinking. Animals—not even our closest mammalian relatives—don’t do this, and that means the plants and protozoans probably don’t, either. Our thinking processes and our perspective are unique.
We humans seek a meaning to life because we are capable of thinking about and examining hypothetical alternatives. What was I like before I was born? What will I be and where will I go after I die? Why am I here? Am I living up to my personal potential? Will I ever achieve the dreams I had when I was young? Is what I’m doing now with my life important enough to satisfy the expectations of my family and friends? Will it satisfy the expectations of people I don’t know personally, the general public beyond my intimate circle, and future generations? Will I be remembered after a death that, although I don’t like to think about it, seems to be coming for everyone and may one day come for me?
Animals do not have these thoughts. All of these questions are based on hypothetical alternatives to what we can immediately sense and know. They are even outside the realm of what we can remember from past experience. My dog does not question her life. She can be disappointed if I must cut short her midday walk because I have to leave for an appointment, but after a few anxious tugs at the end of her leash and a reluctant turn toward the house—because she knows how far she wants to go right now, and that she’s being shortchanged—she finds new smells to investigate on our way to the door. By the time we’re in the hallway, her tail is up and wagging again.
Even a dog that is suffering base cruelty—whipped by an angry master, left out in the hard sun or the cold rain, shut in a small space without the society of its pack for hours or days at a time, or even starved—does not begin to question its existence. It may be depressed, with head drooping and tail down. It may feel that it has lost the love of its pack and its alpha—that formerly loving and now cruel master. The dog may assume that, as caresses and treats once came when it acted to please the alpha, it has now somehow done something displeasing in order to deserve such hard treatment. A formerly loved dog who is maltreated or abandoned can recognize the change in its situation and react with confusion and despair. But even then, the dog will not ask why it was born into this life. And it will not commit suicide because life has become something different from what the dog once experienced.
Animals do not question their lives and its meaning. They do not feel they were born for a purpose; they simply live. If life has a meaning for animals—and plants and protozoans—it is written into their genes, which means it is part of the physical structure that organizes their brains—if they have any—and responds with innate drives keyed to their hormonal secretions. They eat because their stomachs are empty and chemical cues tell them they are hungry. They seek out sex—without thinking about its reproductive effects or future generations of posterity—because certain smells and pheromones stimulate their glands. They try to get out of a cage because they are used to open and familiar spaces, and the bars keep them from their known space. They resist a steel trap because the bite of the jaws is painful. And when death inevitably comes, they go quietly because they don’t think about alternatives.2
Socrates is supposed to have said at his trial, “The unexamined life is not worth living.” But Socrates was a philosopher and a human being. He lived in the dreamtime that all of us humans—and perhaps our closest primate relatives—inhabit. It is a realm of expectations and possible alternatives. It is a place that demands meaning. But life itself—as lived by every other animal, plant, and protozoan—is a chemical mystery without inherent meaning. It has its imperatives, of course: eat, move, reproduce, seek prey, evade predators, survive. But even these are unexamined premises for most of this world’s living things. They don’t have words for their drives, let alone think about them in the abstract.
We humans are the apex animal in terms of sensing, perceiving, appreciating, and examining the realms of both the abstract and our own existence. We are the first living thing in a heritage of almost four billion years—years occupied mostly by bacteria and other one-celled chemical machines—to ask that life have a meaning. We ask both from the broader perspective of the human species and from the narrow view of our own personal lives. And in both cases the answer seems to be, in the words of Colour Sergeant Bourne in the movie Zulu, “Because we’re here, lad. Nobody else. Just us.”
If life has no apparent meaning for any other species—it just is—that suggests we humans will have to make up a meaning for ourselves. If life has a purpose, other than the chemical imperatives, then we must create it.
Perhaps there really is an omniscient, omnipresent, and omnipotent God up in the sky, or somewhere beyond normal existence, who created the Heavens and the Earth and who invented life as a good idea among all that otherwise inert matter bound up in star stuff. This notion supplies a ready-made meaning. Or perhaps the simple belief in such a god—or in the nature of goodness and purpose themselves, as represented by such a belief—is enough to supply that meaning. Certainly, many people hold such beliefs and find meaning in them.
For the rest of us who don’t quite believe, and yet wonder what comes after the death that is surely awaiting us all, we are left with having to create our own meaning, both for the species and for ourselves. I tend to believe that the purpose of our big brains and their ability to sense, perceive, and wonder is to seek out and create that meaning. We are the next stage of evolution, and as the apparent inheritors of existence from all the inert matter and the non-thinking life forms in this star system, we have a duty to think up a good one.3
1. See The Meaning of Life from October 9, 2011.
2. When you take a terminally ailing dog to the vet to be put down—as we have had to do a couple of times now—it will shiver and shake. But that is not because it fears death. The animal reacts that way because the veterinary office is generally a place of painful pokes and pinches, and it smells of other fearful animals. Also, the dog senses the sorrow of its master and knows that this trip is somehow different from all others. Different is hormonally dangerous for an animal.
3. There’s a story I’ve read that says Douglas Adams, author of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, had early experience as a computer programmer. In the novel, when the supercomputer Deep Thought responds to the question about “life, the universe, and everything” with the answer “42,” this is not just random nonsense. In ASCII (American Standard Code for Information Interchange) encryption, the number 42 stands for the asterisk (*), and that symbol is used as a wildcard in queries and sorts. So the Deep Thought answer was computer shorthand for “Whatever you want.”