Please Don’t Have an Existential Crisis, There Are Answers.

I once watched a kid's TV show that answered a question which many philosophers often feel is too powerful to approach: what is the meaning of life? As a philosopher myself, I must say, I am shaking in my Vans and tweed jacket at the thought of being forced to provide an answer to this question. The idea that life has a purpose and a meaning, is in itself not solidly assertable. So then to make a claim about what such an unestablished meaning is would be inherently risky. A theologist may provide an answer to the tune of claiming that an all-powerful being created everything, including humanity, with intention and purpose, endowing people with a divine function. For persons who are partial to this argument, the question becomes slightly different; what did God intend the purpose or meaning of human life to be? In this brief article, I won't be covering this particular perspective on the issue but rather focusing on what meaning is for persons who are not entirely sure whether or not there is a God. That said persons of faith still may find the arguments found herein thought-provoking. 


Let’s return to our kid’s cartoon’s take on the purpose of life, its meaning, and how we should interpret such an answer in a difficult world like ours. From how I recall it, the show parsed it out this way: “the meaning of life is what you make of it”. I know, such a let down from the lofty-sounding introduction, right? No grandiose reveal or fanfare. I would wager that it’s likely you have encountered this interpretation of life in your experience previous to the present as I did. If you thought about it a bit more, before dismissing it or accepting it right off the bat, it may have even occurred to you that if everyone did exactly what they wanted just because they wanted to do it, society would dissolve and the world would be chaos. That’s certainly what I thought when I first entertained this almost comically simple solution to such a large question. “Life is what you make of it, so make it yours,” just seems not to generalize well and justifies people doing harmful things in pursuit of their life’s meaning. I am not here to make the argument that telling people just to do what they want is a defendable purpose of life, but rather suggesting that when one reads our simple solution in a different light, the outcome is much more plausible. 


When I approach problems, philosophical, scientific, or otherwise utterly confounding, I think a rational approach is the best tool in my toolkit. If we use that procedure to evaluate what exactly existence is like for observable and comprehendible bodies, there is no obvious reason why life should have a purpose. Being alive appears to be experiencing and responding to stimuli via an extremely complex physical system and not much else. For us, this experience is particularly complicated by our capacity for language, reflection on the self, and imagination. It is fundamentally an emergent property based on the integration of an immense number of physical processes. If we accept this idea, that we are just a product of the physical systems which constitute our conscious existence in a world which is made up of similarly complex and often inanimate systems, what good is life? After all, when one accepts the perspective that we are just a collection of matter which happens to be able to think about the universe and our place in it, a system which is impermanent and small in the context of the universe, the meaning of life seems absent or bleak. 


In the absence of an arbitrary objective in which people should strive to fulfill, it can be shown that life’s purpose is what we assign to it in the context of other systems. This follows from the idea that if all of existence is made up of physical systems, and the systems which constitute people are capable of reflecting about the universe, then humanity should be equipped to understand itself and how it relates to the rest of existence. Certainly, there are a number of underlying assumptions which there is not space to expand upon here but we must proceed regardless. The key point here is that we are, as a species, going to be the most capable judge of what is good for ourselves and, subsequently, it is up to us to make a determination as to what exactly our ultimate good is. The caveat to this being that our goal must also take into account, realism, society, and other members of our species. This allows for individuals to produce achievable goals that are oriented towards completing the self and improving the world. As a product of this view, it becomes less important that one is differentiated from everyone else or to satisfy unrealistic expectations often portrayed as desirable.


If we take this view to be true, it becomes possible to live an extremely fulfilling life while also believing in a primarily physical universe. A dull and grey systematic view of existence then transforms into something vibrant, dynamic and full of life. Even departed from a divine purpose we are all fundamentally human and with that comes a duty to live meaningfully and with purpose. We, as individuals, as communities, and as a species, define ourselves. We create our meaning. So we must then trust ourselves to do it and not feel obligated to accept other people’s ideas of who we should be. If we listen to the simple wisdom of a cartoon for kids, we can see that life’s purpose is not lofty and inaccessible but entirely the opposite. The question then becomes: in a universe comprised of interactions between perhaps infinite distinct systems, how will you define your meaning?