Excellence Reporter: Victor, what is the meaning of life?
Victor Saunders: My first thought was that, like fractal geometry, the answer to this question depends on the ruler you use. Take, for instance, a scale much larger than life, or at least, larger than life as we know it. Take the geological timescale; a ruler that fits humans into the tiniest sliver of time.
Let us (provisionally) accept that it is four and a half billion years since the earth and moon were formed, three and a half since the first life forms emerged. Let us further accept that it is a mere two hundred thousand years since the evolution of the first modern humans.
It would then be reasonable to guess that life will also be snuffed out in the geologically near future. (Though some would argue that we are trying our best to hasten our demise even now). Human life would have come and gone in a blink of the cosmological eye.
If humans had never existed there would clearly have been no meaning for human life in the first place. The story of the last four and a half billion years is no more than the unrolling of the laws of physics. It would be absurd to attribute meaning to the facts of mass, energy and the forces that drive them entropically through time. It would be equally absurd to attribute meaning to the chemistry that brewed up the first soup of life.
If this argument makes sense for the story of life without humans, it is also true for one where humans exist for only a tiny fraction of geological time. We humans are not that special after all.
At the large scale end of the telescope, therefore, human life is a tiny fragment in a timeline that exists without any special meaning of its own.
Turn the telescope around to face us… and at a personal level it seems that our lives must have some meaning. We all feel it. How can that be?
One explanation is to look at the problem from an evolutionary point of view. Here we introduce another assumption; that for any one species of life there is a genotype (that collection of genes) that helps it survive and procreate; the two necessary conditions for life. The fitter the genotype, the more successful the phenotype; the outward manifestation of the genotype; the species. This is just chemistry. No more, no less.
Sadly this is not the place for the interesting discussion the relation between the ideology and genetics of survival. It is too rich a subject to delve into here. But clearly it is advantageous to sentient species to pass on ideology that promotes survival and procreation for the species as a whole. This is evidenced by the minority of people who do not feel there is any positive meaning for their lives. These sad people are at risk of self harm. Sometimes they are even at risk of suicide. They are less likely to pass on their genetic legacy.
Here is a little mind experiment to illustrate the idea. Let us create a tribe ‘A’ where the majority lacks the genes for survival and procreation. Let us create a neighbouring tribe ‘B’ with those attributes fully developed in most members. The resulting interaction between the tribes is easy to imagine. We have set the rules of the game. We have set the laws, according to which, the story of the two tribes will proceed. Like the laws of physics, there is no need to associate value to the rules. Yet it is not the genes themselves that will govern the behaviour of these two tribes but their ideology.
In this mind experiment, the ideology of survival arrises from the genotype. And like genes, ideology has no intrinsic meaning or value other than to drive forward the survival of the tribe.
It has been suggested that the evolution of genes has parallels in the world of ideas. The basic unit of ideas has been dubbed the ‘meme’. Like genes, the fact of their success against other memes is without any special value.
In short, we attribute value and meaning to life because without that we would not survive. We would be members of tribe ‘A’. This is not a negative view of the ‘meaning of life’ but a neutral one.
This more or less describes a state of acceptance. We can accept that life has no particular meaning, and even if it did, there would not be much we can do about that. We would equally have to just accept that ‘life is the way it is’. The fact that we are genetically programmed to feel joy and love, that we are driven by our genes to find pleasure, does not make these things any less important to us. It is simply that we must accept that there is no intrinsic meaning to them.
And the final proof? Easy! Some of the best things in life are clearly pointless; and I would include at the top of that list music and rock climbing.
~Victor Saunders, mountaineer and author
Excellence Reporter 2015
Photo: Claudia Lopez, 2014
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