The Meaning of Life

The idea of God probably anchors most people’s beliefs about the meaning of life. But it seems clear to me, we cannot prove or disprove her or his existence, or whether she or he has any sort of plan or goal for us or cares how we fare. It also seems to me that the more intellectually honest religions concede all this and admit they require faith.

Personally, although I go through periods of trying it out, I've never managed to muster much faith. Even if you are an agnostic or atheist, however, I believe it is possible and desirable to have both values and profound meaning in your life.

The Meanings of Our Lives. What do we mean when we ask whether life has meaning? There are two common-sense interpretations of the question, which I’ve sometimes found conflated: (1) if we analogize life to a text that can be read and interpreted, what meaning or import is intended to be signified by (or, less ambitiously, can reasonably be inferred from) the “text” of life? as distinguished from (2) considering life as an endeavor or undertaking, what is its purpose or goal (or, less ambitiously, what are the purposes or goals one might choose for it to have)? In asking these questions, it becomes apparent that they assume more than they ask and implicate other questions, and that still other questions could be posed based on different assumptions. (Also note that all such questions can be posed with respect to either the life of an individual or of any larger entity or system, including the universe.)

Whether or not we agree with the assumptions behind the questions just set out, most people would probably say they believe or would like to believe that their lives are meaningful in some way.

Meaning as Significance: Meaning Resides in Relatedness. As I wrote in a college paper on Milton’s Samson Agonistes, meaning (whether in a text, an artwork or a life) resides in relatedness. (See the essay entitled, What Do We Mean by ‘Meaning?). The more interrelations among items in a data set, or from within the set to items outside it, the more meaningful the data; the more beings, activities and things we’re relating to, the more meaningful our lives. Meaningfulness could perhaps even be calculated as a function of how much relatedness can be identified within a given volume and time period. I would speculate that even a life characterized by a large quantity of relationships and interactions that are painful or have deleterious effects on those involved probably gives rise to lots of information and meaning, as compared to, say, the life of a hermit whose life is spent relating to a t.v.

Meaning as Purpose. A wonderful book on this subject is Victor Frankl’s Man’s Search for Meaning. Frankl was a psychiatrist imprisoned in a Nazi concentration camp for three years during World War II. The experience was traumatic, and he spends most of the first half of the book describing it; but he managed to make some very interesting observations, which he developed into the analytic theory known as Logotherapy, described in the second half of the book.

First, it should be mentioned that the prisoners had about as little freedom as can be imagined, yet the prisoners nonetheless had the power to make at least some choices, mostly in very small matters--but some of their decisions could ultimately have life-or-death consequences for themselves or others (e.g., whether they chose to share food or other goods).

Frankl noticed that it seemed possible to divide the prisoners into two general types. One type had some kind of strongly-held value or values, and in their daily choices, managed to choose in accordance with those values at least sufficiently so as to feel that they were to some extent serving those values. For many prisoners, the driving value had to do with their hope to help or be reunited with family. For others, the value came from religion or strongly-held non-religious principles. It didn’t seem to matter what the values were; what mattered was that there was some purpose or set of principles that such prisoners sincerely and highly valued and that they felt able to serve or further in at least some small way (even if only by surviving, e.g., in order to care for another, or even if only by adopting a certain attitude).

The other type of prisoner either had nothing they valued in the same way or made choices inconsistent with what they valued. Frankl observed of these prisoners that, even though some of them pursued their own survival more ruthlessly than the first type, they seemed to tend to die sooner, as if they lost their will to live. In contrast, the prisoners who managed to some extent to live consistently with something they valued seemed to have a better survival rate, notwithstanding that in some instances their actions seemed likely to jeopardize their own welfare. (Of course, the latter type also included heroes who did not survive precisely because of their self-sacrifice in serving their values.)

The point of Frankl’s observations was most emphatically not to pass judgment on anyone. The conditions the prisoners faced were horrific, and no one who hasn’t been in their situation can know what she or he might have done in their place. I believe Frankl may even have stated something to the effect that no one who survived managed to do so without doing things they considered shameful.

Rather, the point was that survival was generally enhanced by having some purpose that one sincerely valued, something bigger than one's own immediate welfare, and by making one's choices, however limited they might be, so as to serve that purpose. To help explain what I think such purposes might include, I’d like to take you on a detour.

Entropy and Syntropy. Entropy is the measure of disorder in a system; a highly ordered system has low entropy; a highly chaotic system has high entropy. The second law of thermodynamics states that the entropy in a closed, physical system can never decrease. Rather, the system will tend to deteriorate from a state of greater order into chaos. An example often given is that hot and cold air within an enclosure will tend to mix and become the same temperature. The effects of entropy are everywhere in evidence (except my own physique)--the sun and Earth cooling, mountains crumbling, cars breaking down.

Some years ago, however, I was struck that there seems to be a countervailing trend in another sphere. While on one hand, the physical universe is declining into disorder, on the other hand, psychic order--measured in terms of both intelligence and information--has been increasing. Intelligence and information didn’t use to exist at all; they’ve increased in both quantity and quality with the evolution and propagation of increasingly intelligent species, and now they’re leaping forward with computers and the internet. I was subsequently told Buckminster Fuller had already observed this phenomenon and named it syntropy; a quick look on the internet indicates the concept is also attributed to others including Albert Szent-Gyorgyi, Iqbal Kharoun, and Luigi Fantappié.

The internet also reveals I’m not the only person interested in these ideas. A plethora of religious and pseudo-scientific sites have seized on them, asserting that evolution violates the second law of thermodynamics and cannot be accounted for by natural selection alone, but must be propelled at least in part by some kind of goal-oriented syntropic spiritual force or field. I’d like to make very clear that I am NOT interested in this approach to syntropy. I do not consider evolution to be an exception to the second law of thermodynamics nor do I perceive any inadequacy in Darwinism to account for evolution. I recently began reading Emergence: The Connected Lives of Ants, Brains, Cities, and Software, by Steven Johnson, and expect it to accord with my own view that evolution and apparent design of highly complex systems can occur without any higher power or spirit operating from “above.”

Rather, what interests me about syntropy is the possibility that we can obtain substantive consolation for the losses that entropy inflicts on us. No matter how careful and fortunate we are, we all suffer deeply from such losses: people we love deteriorate and die, we ourselves deteriorate and die. But we can have a revenge of sorts: we can direct our activity so as to try to increase syntropy.

As far as I can tell from my very brief research, at this time it’s unclear whether entropy and syntropy are linked; i.e., whether the laws of nature decree that for every increase in the total syntropy there must be a corresponding, proportionate increase in entropy. This certainly seems possible; every thought my brain manages to generate is fueled by plants and animals destroyed and digested. At the same time, it seems clear that two people could eat the exact same amount of food, and one could use it to vastly increase syntropy by having and teaching children and designing and building computer systems, while the other person could just watch t.v. On the other hand, a relatively small increase in entropy can catastrophically reduce syntropy--viz. the burning of the library at Alexandria; again, there does not appear to be any necessary proportionality. I realize a proper investigation would have to take much more complexity into account than these examples suggest, but it does seem to me that it’s in the nature of information--at least in this universe--that its quantity need not be directly linked to the qualities of the physical universe.

My suggestion would be, since we certainly can’t know at this point, we should assume that we can increase syntropy without necessarily triggering a proportionate increase in entropy. If we’re wrong, we won’t have made things any worse than they were eventually going to get anyway. If we’re right, we may be able to accomplish some kind of vast improvement that won’t happen if we don’t try.

Cosmic Engineering and Midwifery. We believe that our universe operates in accordance with certain basic laws of physics or fundamental constants that were determined within the instants following its birth. As mentioned above (see the essay entitled, What Can We Know?), different systems of mathematics can be based upon different sets of axiomatic principles. Similarly, as I understand, physicists believe that the laws of physics that govern our universe may not be the only ones possible. Other universes could be governed by fewer, more, or other laws of physics.

For many years, physicists favored the “big bang” theory of the origins of the universe. In this theory, the universe was formed when a small, highly-concentrated “egg” containing all of the matter, energy, space, and time in the universe exploded. As I understand, the current version of this theory also suggests that the big bang may be followed by a “big crunch,” to be followed in turn by another big bang. See and .

The “inflationary” theory, which it seems some scientists consider part of big bang theory while others think the reverse, perhaps has the widest support as of this writing. Prof. Andrei Linde summarizes the inflationary theory as follows:

  “[According to the inflationary theory, the universe originated through very rapid inflation] in a kind of unstable vacuum-like state (a state with large energy density, but without elementary particles). . . . Recent versions of inflationary theory assert that instead of being a single, expanding ball of fire described by the big bang theory, the universe looks like a huge growing fractal. It consists of many inflating balls that produce new balls, which in turn produce more new balls, ad infinatum. . . . After inflation the universe becomes divided into different exponentially large domains inside which properties of [elementary] particles and even dimension[s(?)] of space-time may be different.”

See .

Darwinism applied to universes and the fundamental principles of physics. Dr. Lee Smolin is a proponent of another important theory relating to the origins of the universe, “string” theory. He and other physicists have speculated that a black hole could cause a new universe to bud off that might or might not have laws of physics similar to the parent universe. Thus, as I understand, the main theories currently in favor among cosmologists all contemplate the possibility of old universes giving birth to new ones potentially having at least somewhat different laws of physics or fundamental constants.

Smolin has speculated that universes could evolve in a more or less Darwinian process. For example, if new universes are created through black holes, a universe with more black holes would likely generate more new universes. Universes whose laws of physics tend both to promote black holes and to propagate new universes with similar laws of physics could evolve much as biological organisms do. The laws of physics might be analogous to DNA; if a universe is born with “good” laws of physics, it would endure and perhaps even reproduce; if its laws of physics are “bad”, it would not survive long enough to reproduce. In short, so long as any universes at all continue to come into existence, however infrequently, given sufficient time, natural selection and evolution should occur: those universes with laws of physics that tend to enable the universe to reproduce would survive and propagate; others would not. (I.e., in order to succeed in the evolutionary game, I must be able not only to survive and reproduce but also to accurately transmit to my offspring those genes that enabled me to survive and reproduce. In this simile, the laws of physics of a given universe would be homologous to our DNA.)

All these theories seem themselves to be evolving rapidly; I apologize for anything in the foregoing description that is out of date or that I’ve mangled through ignorance. For better information, please see, among other things, "The Self-Reproducing Inflationary Universe," Andrei Linde, Scientific American, Vol. 271, No. 5, pp. 48-55, November 1994 and "The Life of the Cosmos," L. Smolin, Oxford University Press 1997. A website touching on these and other interesting matters is .

If the foregoing sounds wacko, at least I’ve got good company. I’m not sure what company I’ve got for the next step . . . but what if we humans or our progeny (loosely defined to include, say, any new species that might eventually evolve from those we create, whether biological, artificial, or hybrid) could actually help facilitate the creation of one or more new universes from this one, and could actually somehow help ensure that they would have laws of physics or fundamental constants helpful for survival and reproduction?

A final note on this topic. In accordance with our discussion early on in these essays regarding systems theory, it’s usually helpful for the survival of the whole if the parts also survive, and vice versa. If we actually undertook the kind of midwifery described above, I expect we’d try to make sure the new universes would likely be amenable to the propagation of our own species as well as of universes. And if there were intelligent life in any universe that gave birth to ours, and if that life happened to think as I do, the universe that that other life might have tried to help create might look rather like the one we find ourselves in now.

But regardless of whether we might be able to help midwive new universes, I do believe we've got nothing to lose, and perhaps everything to gain, by assuming that we can help make this world better, and I strongly doubt we've got much of anything better to do.

Our Future with Computers.
As an aside . . . . My generation is probably the first that will commonly have the opportunity to supplement our failing minds with computers, our brain prostheses. I need no longer pit my old brain naked against some young whippersnapper’s; I can even out the odds if I've got a better computer or if I can deploy it more effectively.

And through the internet, we and our computers constitute one gigantic brain. Inefficient now, but just wait. And shouldn't we be asking now, what should be the axiomatic, constitutional principles that govern this brain? Shouldn't we consider instituting principles similar to those proven to work in the past (see the essays on “Governance and Political Issues”): that each part should in the first instance be permitted to pursue that which, by its own natural character and desires, it is best suited to do; disclosure of material info, transparency, and accountability; checks and balances; minimizing conflicts of interest; balancing competing rights based on the goals those rights are meant to serve; etc.

We've already begun incorporating computers into ourselves, and it’s hard not to believe that one day, computers themselves will qualify as a life-form. We may already have commenced our greatest creation, the species that will succeed us and carry on.

At any rate, if I cannot be sure there’s a god with some master plan, then it’s up to me to create one. During one of my last visits to my mother before she died, she asked me if I believed in an after-life. I had to tell her I wasn’t sure. I don’t believe any honest, intelligent person can fail to doubt whether there’s a god, or any afterlife.

When I was younger, I think I rather longed to believe that a benevolent higher power had some kind of "master plan." But I’m doubtful that's so; it certainly doesn’t seem safe to assume it is.

But if, as I believe, everything is connected with everything else through time as well as space, then every action I take and every interaction I have with others may have effects that reach far beyond my immediate environment and lifetime. If I think about consequences, both short- and long-term, and try to act constructively, I can hope to make the world better.

Moreover, since we are each unique, we each have the power to make a unique contribution to the world. Indeed, I think we each have a responsibility to try to express ourselves (while also working to achieve better insight into and awareness of our own limitations) and to figure out, as best we can, not only our own goals for ourselves and those we love, but what we think a "master plan" for our communities and our universe should look like.

And at this point, that sounds to me like the absolutely the most exciting challenge and undertaking imaginable. What greater, more magnificent purpose could one hope for, than to be a conscious, deliberate co-creator of our universe?

We hold many things to be self-evidently divine: love, Hamlet, Beethoven’s 9th Symphony. In my universe of doubt, I’ve suffered fear and pain; but I’ve also found ultimate responsibility and consummate joy. I can choose to try to help make the world better; maybe I can even somehow further progress toward helping the universe and the life within it to propagate and evolve.

(Proceed to next Essay, How Can We Define Good and Bad?, or . . .