The Meaning of Life

Lately, I have been a forlorn figure – unable to rise from bed, scorning pen and paper, books, company – too deflated to take pleasure in anything that distracted me from the great question that has dominated my thoughts. It is an old question, one which religion and philosophy sometimes seek to answer, but science and nature ignore. What (at the end of the day, after all is said and done) is the meaning (the essence, the quiddity) of life? I wanted the truth: the truth, that is, after all the layers of error had been debunked and demystified. The truth revealed, no matter whether it turned out to be sickeningly paltry, immeasurably vast or both. I was going to peel back the layers of the onion and carry on peeling, despite my tears, until I found its heart.

The first – arguably most protective – layer to be shed by anyone seriously on such a mission is that of religion. Based on divine revelations to credulous people thousands of years ago, religion screams delusion. The fact that most believers are completely disinterested in theological controversy, using religion as a collection of customs that bind them to their social group only goes to confirm its status as a convenient delusion. And so, once the notions of the immortal soul, human singularity and fate have been cast aside, where are we to turn?

Science, rather than confirming human singularity, has shown that humankind is far from being at the centre of the Universe. Homo Sapiens is a mere speck within the context of the planet’s history; a planet which is a mere speck within its galaxy, which is itself a mere speck within the Universe. In terrestrial terms, far from being created Lord of all creation, we are a quirk of nature, a weak animal with a big brain. From science we learn that over time, everything that is here now – all the art and love and genius of the world – will be destroyed. In time, the Universe will most likely be transformed, via entropy, into a sludge without sentience.

Such is the train of thought of the serious atheist who takes the question of the meaning of life into his sphere of existence. One feels like a character out of an absurdist play, constantly striving but getting no further, indeed going backwards.

The truth is that life has no meaning. We are biological entities who happen to have overcome our immediate survivalist problems and are asking, unlike other animals, why we have to survive. At this point, some will say: “Is it not enough just to exist, to enjoy the pleasures of the flesh and of society?” But why? I reply. Why do all this if there is no meaning to any it? Why suffer such indignities?

The great dissector of nihilism, Friedrich Nietzsche, found himself in a similar quandary after he had discovered the limits of his free spiritedness through books like Human, All Too Human and The Dawn. His answer, which he said came to him as a revelation, but never really seems to have been really believed in as such, was Eternal Recurrence. Which means, bluntly, that not only is life meaningless, but is also meaningless eternally again and again. The genius of this is that it impels one to live in its knowledge. Thus, if you are going to read a book, Eternal Recurrence makes you ask yourself which one you want to read eternally. Through this world-view life is seen as a whole, amor fati becomes your motto. All powerful stuff, but none of it true, made impossible because of entropy and quantum mechanics.

Scrabbling for answers, I toyed with the idea of living life aesthetically, life for art’s sake; of living to make the world a better place; of living a biologically full life and having lots of children . . . but in each case the brute fact of ultimate meaninglessness crushed my enthusiasm. Then, just as I was feeling utterly desolate, despairing for my existence, wondering whether it wasn’t better just to finish it all there and then, it struck me . . . I had discovered the meaning of life.

Without wishing to feign monumentality, let me simply say that I realised I was looking at things from the wrong perspective. Truth and meaning are not tangible ideas found beneath the onion-layers of reality, but a fabric woven with ideas projected from inside of yourself. Meaning is subjective, the more inner-resources you have the more meaningful existence becomes. Like an onion, life is all layers and once all the layers have been peeled off, nothing remains but the roots. That is, you.

Neil Scott | Spring 2004