Let's start by answering an easy question: What is the meaning of life?
The TL;DR Version
It's happiness. The meaning of life is happiness. Welcome to my happy blog.
The Long Version
So obviously it's not that simple. The so-called "meaning of life" is a hotly contested question, right? It's maybe the oldest question in philosophy, perhaps predating all known schools of philosophy and being a fundamental question of ancient and contemporary religions. What is the meaning of life? Is it purely Darwinian; to be the fittest, survive and spawn progeny? Is it religious; worship of a god or gods and obeying their commandments? Is it selfish; to attain what's best for ourselves and maybe our family? We're gonna get into it. Not just in this post, but I think this is a topic we'll revisit again and again because it's a question that does affect mental health. But I've given it a lot of thought, and I think the answer really is simple. The meaning of life is happiness. Yet to explain why, we need to really understand what life is.
In the Beginning
There's this pinned tweet on my Twitter account that's a bit of a joke:
The meaning of life is: (noun) the phenomena of biological organisms as distinct from inorganic matter and chemical processes.— Thom Bruce (@thombruce) December 18, 2020
It's your classic dictionary definition of life. Life is biology; a self-replicating molecule maybe, or cell, that converts other energy and material into something which benefits the organism. In the case of humans, we consume food which is digested and converted into useful energy which we can use to obtain more food, to reproduce, and a pregnant person will have a lot of their intake go towards the production of a child. Plants and trees obtain their energy from nutrients in the ground and sunlight, and they produce seeds which spawn new organisms of their kind. And single cell lifeforms, from which we all originate, use their intake to create copies of themselves. This is the function of life: survival and reproduction. We could end it there and say this... this is the meaning of life: to replicate! But our inquisitive human minds aren't exactly happy with that; they yearn for something more than life's function. Because we are conscious, sentient beings, and reproduction could be accomplished without that sentient mind, we wonder then... why are we? Why does consciousness exist?
The existence of consciousness is a hard problem of philosophy and science that we aren't going to stress about answering just here. One way of thinking about it, however, is that consciousness is merely an emergent property of cognition. In other words, because we and other animals use our senses to process the world, consciousness is just a byproduct of that mental processing. It's evolutionarily beneficial for us to be able to create a mental picture of reality, as well as mental pictures of realities that don't yet exist (the lightbulb existed in the mind of Warren De la Rue before the actual object ever did) because this allows us to invent, to create and to visualise ourselves handling different kinds of encounter. Consciousness - if it is a fundamental product of cognition - enables a lot of useful survival skills.
Again, though, while that might answer the how and why we think, it doesn't get to the real substance of the question, what is the meaning of life? What most of us are really asking is... well, what am I supposed to do with it?
The pursuit of the meaning of life is the pursuit of purpose. Not of function, not of the how or why consciousness exists, but of the what we are supposed to do with it.
What's the Point of it All?
Some people find that purpose in religion. In fact, I've seen an amazing transformation in a friend of mine who became a born-again Christian in her adulthood. She seems happier, euphoric even, and exudes that joy in seasonal videos where she proselytises for Jesus Christ and confesses her profound love for her faith. I wouldn't like to presume too much but I think my friend was in a bad place sometime before finding religion, and I'm over the moon for her now that she's found this community and all of this happiness.
It's easy to see why something like religion, as well as other similar traditional structures and dogmas, could yield a great sense of purpose and happiness. For one, they make it very clear what your purpose is; typically to be virtuous as described by the structure itself. But for a second part, they have a strong emphasis on community, on coming together in a public place and singing, praising, communing with like-minded people. I would contend that this - the community - is what makes religion such a potent creator of happiness. Certainly in my friend's case, as she talks a great deal about the family she has found in Christianity. That's fantastic!
But religion and other rigid, traditional structures are sort of a shortcut to better living, and they come with some great risks. They tend to place some form of authority as central to their structure, and they can be easily exploited by nefarious parties if their adherents don't show a healthy amount of skepticism about them. Take for instance the spiritual healers that are endemic in the USA. These "healers", claiming to be Christian leaders, exploit their own congregation for cash; they accumulate great wealth often at the expense of the sick and frail. But these charlatans are just a particularly nasty example of something more common, something that exists outside of religious institutions too. Society more generally is susceptible to the charm of politicians who promise similar great accomplishments like healing society, but who then don't necessarily act in the best interests of the people they're elected to represent.
In each case, there is this hierarchy - a separation between leaders and followers - and if we fail to be critical of this power gradient, it's easily exploited.
And in particular if a system of power attempts to rule that it shouldn't be critically examined, then that's all the more reason it should be. Religion itself has a particularly awful history of this, whereby peoples' faiths are exploited to claim power and then rule is enforced... just because. This "just because" is justified as being the will of the almighty, but... says who? This same exploitation of power has been used to conquer half the world, persecute huge numbers of people including women, ethnic minorities (and sometimes ethnic majorities), and LGBT+ people. And while religion has been exploited to those ends, other times it's been political capital or even poorly represented science of which people were not critical enough.
Rigid, traditional structures that offer a shortcut to purpose and happiness might be great for individuals - and I really am tremendously happy for my born-again friend - but they also represent a danger for the masses that only results in more misery.
Outside of power structures like religion, one could be forgiven for thinking there's little meaning to life. The universe exists by chance, life itself is a fluke that to our knowledge has only occurred on one planet in a billion, and consciousness might just be an emergent phenomenon from the evolution of intelligence. Some might think that secular reasoning is a path to nihilism. That is certainly the view espoused by Dr. Jordan Peterson, a traditionalist who believes that there is only meaning to life through a relation to the social constructs of religion. Peterson takes this to some extraordinary extremes. He is a clinical psychologist who believes that moral good is only possible through consideration of a traditional values system centered on a god. In conversation with an atheist activist, Matt Dillahunty, Peterson made the case that there are few true atheists, because - as he argues - even the secular system of ethics is founded on a relation to mental well-being and the value of mental well-being must fundamentally relate to god. Peterson isn't necessarily arguing for the traditional power structure of religion in this case (though he does espouse some pro-authoritarian views elsewhere), he's just... well, he's dressing up the God of the Gaps fallacy quite a lot. He argues that mythology and storytelling are the "metaphysical substrate" of our society, and part of a collective unconscious as described by the psychiatrist Carl Jung. He's arguing a form of idealism, the view that our reality is intrinsically some form of shared mental construct, of which a god is central. Sort of like... god is the lens through which we perceive reality, ethics and everything... even if we consider ourselves atheists. But I'll reiterate: it is a god of the gaps argument. There is essentially some as yet not fully understood gap in our understanding of the mind, and Peterson likes to dress up his authoritarian philosophy in terms of that being a foundational, metaphysical substrate that may as well be called 'God'.
Peterson, though I don't like him, has done some incredible work to help many people find value. His books aren't best thought of as having any value to the field of psychology, necessarily, but as self-help books. And if you're reading this and have been helped by Peterson, that's wonderful. That's great. Like religion, I don't want to take that from anybody. But I wanted to briefly examine it, because it's an interesting pseudo-intellectual approach to discovering meaning in reality, however it is ultimately yet another appeal to a power structure and to a quasi-authoritarian doctrine upon which to found society.
Now, these ideas aren't always bad or dangerous. They just don't offer much to the deeply skeptical. What if there is no god? What if the leaders of our power structure are corrupt? What if our faith in these systems is truly unfounded? What then?
It would be preferable to find an approach to meaning, to our purpose, that isn't founded on faith but on reason.
Is Happiness Reasonable?
What do we know? Descartes said, "cogito, ergo sum"; I think, therefore I am. It is essentially the purest knowledge that we can have: I am thinking, therefore I must exist. Beyond that simple proposition, there is little of which we can be truly certain. I can clap my hands and demonstrate that I have a material form, I can look out toward the horizon and observe that there is a whole lot of world between me and there, I can converse with other people and realise they too exhibit the presence of conscious minds like mine. But I cannot know, truly, any of that. In fact, the feeling and sound perceived when I clap my hands is registered inside my mind; the world between me and the horizon, and indeed the horizon itself, could merely be a dream, hallucination or simulation; and the minds of others are just something that I have inferred, I had no proof beyond our conversation and a sophisticated enough, unconscious artificial intelligence could replicate that experience. So again, I truly know only one thing: I think, therefore I am.
Beyond this pure knowledge, there are things which can be reasonably believed to be true. For instance, because I am I must conclude that I come from something and the most well-reasoned, the best demonstrated, the materially proven cause of my existence is birth. Either then I have imagined or had simulated some narrative in which I was born and grew up, or these things are true. Rationally, without demonstrable proof to the contrary and having proof in the affirmative, I can reasonably assume mine and my parents' existence. Extrapolated to the extreme, I can reasonably conclude the probable truth of evolutionary biology, abiogenesis, and that material existence exists. And this model of reality implies the existence of other people, each posed with that same dilemma but ultimately having the same reasonable conclusion: I am, therefore the cause of me probably is. The reasonable assumption is of a material reality having other conscious agents just like us.
This is something Ayn Rand and her philosophy of objectivism took as foundational: reality exists independently of consciousness. Rand was deeply critical of Descartes (and most other philosophers actually):
Descartes began with the basic epistemological premise of every Witch Doctor (a premise he shared explicitly with Augustine): “the prior certainty of consciousness,” the belief that the existence of an external world is not self-evident, but must be proved by deduction from the contents of one’s consciousness [...] What followed was the grotesquely tragic spectacle of philosophers struggling to prove the existence of an external world by staring, with the Witch Doctor’s blind, inward stare, at the random twists of their conceptions—then of perceptions—then of sensations.
— Ayn Rand, For the New Intellectual
Despite this, Rand promoted a form of ethical egoism, suggesting that the conclusion to her rational philosophy was self-interest - that the maximisation of ones own being (their wealth, their happiness) was the prime purpose of their life. She viewed Descartes and other philosophers who'd paid deep thought to the nature of existence as just a bunch of navel-gazers who'd done considerable harm to philosophy and society. In objectivism, existence was a given and the individual was his, her or their primary concern.
It seems odd because one could conclude that Descartes' philosophy were the more compatible with self-interest. After all, his philosophy concluded that the self was the only thing one could be certain of. Rand takes the rest of material existence as a granted, but still concludes that self-interest should be one's prime concern.
In her novel, Atlas Shrugged, Rand portrays a dystopic America in which a welfare state leads to the collapse of society where its artists, scientists and industrialists flee this unjust system to establish a fairer society where their merits are once again remunerated. Rand's philosophy abhors assisting others, and champions self-actualisation and meritocracy.
Despite her hatred of the welfare system, Rand herself received social security payments later in life. Some have taken this as great irony and proof of hypocrisy but it's consistent with Rand's philosophy: in accepting the payments she was entitled to, she was still advancing her own wealth and self-interest. Her philosophy opposed the existence of welfare out-right, but because it existed it remained in her self-interest to benefit from it.
Rand's philosophy essentially has personal interest and happiness at its core. It's selfish but, Rand argues, this is the rational conclusion of objectivism.
Somewhat related is the philosophy of materialism. Materialism doesn't concern itself with people or with ethics, but is itself a component of Rand's objectivism - that a material universe exists. Materialism is what we were approaching above in what we could infer to be reasonably true beyond our own minds; that is, because I exist, I assume that my parents exist and are my originator, and I assume that material existence itself is therefore the root of my mind and not the other way around. It contrasts with Descartes' and Peterson's idealism, which concern themselves more with the mind and perceived existence. And it contrasts with dualism, which is a mostly outmoded school of philosophical thought having the mind and reality as separate constructs; though this is essentially still the philosophy adopted by religious people and spiritualists who accept the existence of a spirit or soul as something distinct from the body.
In any case, we're going to assume the existence of material reality. I would contend that the resultant meaning to be found is the same. That is to say that even if a form of soul exists, and even if reality is only a subjective experience of an idealistic mind, it absolutely behoove's that mind to treat reality as objective. Whatever the nature of reality, we still must breathe its air, drink its water, eat its food; we still must survive as though it exists, and take an interest in our self-preservation.
Whether we agree with Rand or with Descartes, our own personhood and therefore the pursuit of our own comfort and satisfaction remains of primacy to our life experience. The meaning of life is happiness.
The Existence of Other People
So, how does one be happy? That isn't really the subject of this post, but it's worth examining a bit to get at the real substance of life's meaning. See, we've mentioned already how one must eat in order not to be hungry, how one must drink in order not to be thirsty, and one must breathe in order not to suffocate. These are basic acts of self-preservation that not only allow us to continue living but give us feelings of satisfaction. Hunger is a discomfort, thirst is a discomfort, breathlessness is a discomfort, and consuming food, water or air to alleviate the discomfort is a relief from it. In doing so, we shift ourselves along the axis of misery and happiness further towards satisfaction. And if we embrace Rand's philosophy, we pursue this to the extreme. Accumulation of wealth pays for greater and greater satisfaction and mitigates any risk of ever losing access to those things that let us survive and make us happy. But is Rand right? And I don't mean right-wing - yeah, she's right-wing - but is Rand correct?
Ayn Rand rejected altruism as a moral ideal, opposing - as briefly mentioned - the welfare state and satirised it in her dystopian novel. Rand made the case that any person's ultimate moral value is their own well-being; it is selfish. I don't actually intend to contest that second part. Whether we agree with it or not, let us actually accept Rand's philosophy there: a person's ultimate moral value is their own well-being, and it is selfish. We can assume this to be true, and it won't change my critique of Rand's other conclusion, that therefore we should always act in self-interest, therefore we should always oppose unnecessary forms of assistance, therefore we should only pursue our own security, wealth and happiness. Rand's objectivism is used to render these conclusions, but they are all demonstrably false and not actually the best means to advance personal well-being. Examining this will also plug the hole in Peterson's god of the gaps.
Altruism, you see, isn't just something invented by humanity. It isn't part of a "metaphysical substrate", nor does it originate as the doctrine of some religion. Altruism is naturally occurring. Ethics and morality need not be viewed through storytelling or relation to god, nor are they ultimately selfish in a purely logical framework.
Researchers from the Department of Psychology at the University of Georgia reviewed the experimental evidence for altruism in neuroscience and, among other results, reiterated how altruistic behaviour triggers reward centres in the brain. They also looked at research involving animals, including a famous experiment involving rhesus monkeys and others involving dolphins and elephants. The monkeys, upon learning that accepting food would have a shock administered to another monkey, would begin refusing food in order to protect the other monkey, while dolphins have been observed helping other dolphins caught in nets and elephants were seen giving support to other elephants who were weak, injured or in emotional distress. Even simpler organisms demonstrate altruistic behaviour: cellular slime molds which usually live as individual cells have been observed forming multi-cellular bodies where some cells sacrifice themselves for the survival of the whole. I'm not sure if Peterson would suggest that slime molds have some complex metaphysical substrate upon which to found this behaviour...
We are evolved to have doing good for others feel good for us. And we can assume something about the evolutionary origin of that: protecting our in-group, sometimes at cost to ourselves, even so far as performing acts of self-sacrifice to ensure others' survival, has a positive effect on group survival chances. Even in those slime molds, where food scarcity becomes a problem for the whole group, individual cells will allow others to survive by sacrificing themselves, ultimately ensuring the longevity of the broader group. This is a part of life's natural behaviour; it's a successful survival trait that has ensured group longevity for perhaps more than a billion years.
We have a similar natural response to unfairness, as again observed in other animals. Animals across these experiments were set varied tasks and given rewards for completing them. Where rewards were unfair, participant animals became likely to protest the unfairness. If they see that the benefits of cooperating with an experiment are under threat of diminishing or being taken away, the animal will become agitated and perhaps even refuse to perform. In human society, when unfairness amasses, we will strike, we will protest, and sometimes this can be violent; in any case, it is broadly detrimental to those who would have benefited from that unfairness. Either we are their workers and are not working until better renumeration is received, or we are their populous and they are threatened with losing our trust or our vote, or they may experience some damage to property or some other material expense.
Altruism, then, is natural and beneficial to the group as well as rewarding to the individual. And gross unfairness can lead to detrimental results to the exploiters of that unfairness.
Far from advancing one's own personal well-being, a lack of interest in the well-being of others is actually to our detriment. In economic terms, austerity measures can be self-defeating, particularly during times of recession, and the decline in public spending from the measures can result in higher unemployment and slower GDP growth in contradiction to the aims of austerity. Meanwhile, broad public welfare measures (like un-means-tested universal basic income) tend to have a positive effect on well-being, employment and therefore economic growth. It makes a lot of sense: if you provide more spending-power to the vast majority of people with the least spending-power, they pay it back into the economy. Conversely, bailing out huge corporations and the wealthy (what's known as the "trickle-down" approach) doesn't actually address economic health at all, or certainly very little. These matters can be a mite more complicated, but broadly the pursuit of economic and work equalities is not just a good thing for many people's well-being, it's a good thing for the economy as a whole. Doing good for others feels good for the economy too.
We live in a time of wildly inflating inequality where the top 1% continue to make unprecedented gains that aren't observed across broader society, despite much of that 1%'s wealth being generated by their workers. If we were capuchin monkeys, we'd be rattling the bars of our cages too. If we were Amazon workers, maybe we'd be rattling the walls of our despair closet.
All of this is to say that altruism and fairness, both on an interpersonal level and a macrosocial one, is of benefit to... us. To ourselves. And it almost doesn't matter who you are for this to be true. If you're a wealthy billionaire, in charge of an enormous workforce, higher real wages for your workers can boost productivity and product demand, giving them more time off boosts productivity and reduces running costs. For the rest of us, doing a little good for others gives us a boost to our own happiness as well as increasing the chances of reciprocity and being helped by others in return; it effectively expands our in-group making us one big, happy family.
Truly, yes, happiness is the meaning of life, and we can view it as selfish if we like, but actually the maximisation of our happiness is better achieved through mutual effort and reciprocity with others.
I put this question to Facebook too: What is the meaning of life? A few of my friends said '42' because most of my friends are geeks like me, but one of them added that life and its meaning are what you make of them. He's right. The truth is that the meaning of life is up to you; it's what you make of it, what makes you happy. And I think that's a pretty satisfactory answer, but we need to be clear with ourselves what happiness is.
Rand's objectivist philosophy is right, to an extent. Before turning our attention towards others, we do need to look after ourselves to some extent. There's the famous study that shows how our income affects our emotional stability up to a point. You should absolutely prioritise your own emotional stability ahead of helping others. But when you are, yourself, well looked after and feeling pretty good, it follows rationally that the means to further maximising your happiness is in maximising the happiness of others.
This isn't an if it feels good, do it philosophy, though. There are numerous kinds of happiness and a lack of one can be cause for feelings of malaise and depression. Sure, if watching TV makes you feel happy do it, but if you're left experiencing feelings of unease it might be because of a deficit of some other happiness chemical not delivered by that activity. Eating right, getting exercise, being in the company of others and helping them. These too are triggers for the happiness chemicals we need to feel more content day to day. And if you're feeling depressed, at all, talk to a doctor or a professional counsellor. Don't let me or anyone just give you the old cliché that you need to eat better or get out more. You can do everything right and still feel off because brain chemistry is... biology; it's complex and often not exact, or present in insufficient or overabundant quantities. Medication is a valid form of self-improvement for those who need it.
You've got to do what makes you happy. That's the real meaning of life. And what makes you happiest can be a strange combination of things that is hard to get right. It can be eating right and exercising, it can be medication, it can be working, it can be being in the company of others, it can be helping others, it can be watching TV, it can be a particular activity for a particular reason, or it can be a combination of many things. It can be a difficult balancing act between working enough, finding time for personal leisure, finding time for leisure among friends.
Happiness is a complex thing, and we're gonna get into it in this blog series, but the meaning of life isn't. Do what makes you happy, because the meaning of life is happiness.