What is the meaning of life?

Created 12 Aug 2012 • Last modified 24 May 2020

Why I'm a psychologist and why I think ethical standards should be kept reasonably low.

Beginning when I was eight years old, I had a lot of existential angst. I grew horrified whenever I remembered that I had no idea why I lived or what I was supposed to spend my life doing. For a few years, I saw no way out of the problem. Eventually, I realized that I might feed the snake its own tail by spending my life trying to find some purpose for myself and more generally for the universe. Even if I wasn't sure if there really was a grand purpose or if it was discoverable, I figured there was, somewhat tautologically, nothing better that I could do with my life than search for it. I reasoned (I don't quite recall how) that in practice, the best way to make progress towards discovering the meaning of life was to try to understand and improve human intelligence. Hence my intention, starting from about age twelve, of doing scientific research on the mind, of becoming either a neuroscientist or a psychologist.

Fast-forward to March 3rd, 2009, when I was nineteen, and I was talking about these matters to a friend of mine named Alex Woods. Alex, a Christian, pressed me on what it could mean for the universe to have a purpose if that purpose didn't originate in the intention of some thinking being, like God. How could an atheist like me even consider the possiblity of the universe having a purpose? I was forced to do a great deal of soul-searching. Four days later, on March 7, I sent Alex the following email, which remains an accurate representation of how I think about these issues.

Well, Alex, I thought about my idea of universal purpose long and hard, and concluded it was incoherent. All purpose must originate with thinking beings, and it seems pretty obvious to me that most of the universe predates all thinking beings, so the universe can't have a purpose. (If God existed, I could deduce a similarly grim conclusion that God couldn't have come into being for a purpose, despite having purposes of his own. Or is it that he always existed? Religion makes my head hurt.) With its foundations suddenly removed, my philosophy came tumbling down. Back to the drawing board! After a great many false starts, I finally came upon the right question to consider:

Does anything I do matter?

I think there's a sense in which this has always been the central question for me. "What is the meaning of life?" is merely its perverted descendant, in that "What is the meaning…" hides the essential egoism of my concern, besides the fact that, in light of the above discussion, it doesn't really make sense. But we may well wonder whether "Does anything I do matter?" makes sense. Can anything matter? What does it mean for something to matter? We can combine the doubt with the question itself to produce a new, still better question:

Can anything I do matter?

How can I begin to respond to such a question? Well, this much is clear: the answer is either yes or no. That is to say, either what I do can matter at least a little, or nothing I do can ever matter.

Hence, no matter what I believe, I'm left thinking that my brain is incapable of wholly embracing the truth—I'm left with a certain dissatisfaction with my intellect. And that dissatisfaction only increases when I remember how my idea about the universe possibly having a purpose was incoherent, yet I didn't notice the problem for well on seven years, and probably never would've noticed it if you, Alex, or somebody else hadn't asked the right questions. No matter how you slice it, I'm a highly imperfect thinker. I'm incapable of doubting that this imperfection is a bad thing, that it should be fixed or compensated for as much as possible.

And so I'm brought round to something very much like my old philosophy: the one thing that I know is worth pursuing is higher intelligence. I mean, these problems I'm dealing with are fundamental. Philosophy alone, it seems clear, isn't going to solve them for me. No philosopher has ever been infallible. My only hope is fundamental improvement of the human intellect. Most likely, in order to accomplish such improvement, we'll need all the logic, mathematics, neuroscience, physics, and all-around understanding we can get. So I would be wise to promote and nurture human understanding in general, as much as possible.

The ethical consequences of this philosophy are just the same as those of my old one: what is good is that which helps intelligence; what is bad is that which harms it. The point of "normal" ethics, which includes things like the Golden Rule, is to keep society sane. A society in which people kill and rob one another can never be intellectually productive. On the other hand, ethics that set a higher standard than the Golden Rule—which, for example, say that you're ethically obligated to go out of your way to help others—would probably be counterproductive. That isn't to say that going out of your way to help others does no good. It does do good. It's just that not doing harm is much more important than doing good, and I know that if I ask my fellow humans for just the former, I'm more likely to get it than if I ask for both. Not to mention that holding all people to higher ethical standards would necessitate abiding by them myself, which could distract me from what's really important.