Updated: Jan 13
Is life meaningful?
Across time and status, this question has stood out as one demanding an answer. The implications of a negative result—that life is meaningless—is the actual question on our mind and goes unasked because it is too much for most of us to bear. We have struggled and loved, been cared for and parented, solved problems and anxiously awaited results, valiantly expended energy against disorder, planned, failed, succeeded, lathered, rinsed, and repeated. We are sure that at times, in our best moments, our efforts have not gone unnoticed and that they damn well meant something. We burden our poets, snuggle our children and smell their hair, and meditate in solitude to examine our life quest, whose object—as corny as it may seem—is the meaning of life.
We look into the sea of stars and galaxies, dust and distance, and somehow, though we will never get to these places made vivid by the most advanced eyeballs we have ever made for ourselves, our discoveries adhere to our explanations. We predict the makeup of the stars from pinpricks of light, turn back the clock on cataclysms of creation to source what we see in the present (from light emitted in the distant past), and dig into the next problem, of material and energy that is dark to our light sensing instruments. As much as we search and as unlikely as it may seem, we see nothing that resembles the face we see in the mirror or the experience we see in our “mind’s eye.” How can the stuff of this existence—so foreign, cold, hostile, and far off—contain anything of meaning for us? Is it all just setting the scene?
Some are content that they have made their own meaning, that the lessons they learned and pass to posterity are indicative of the right way to live, a proof-positive path to purpose. But looking both ways before crossing the angry thoroughfare of history should cause us to forever pause on the curb of the present, because this is what every cohort has said, that it has learned from the myriad mistakes of its ancestors, and passes on the true pearls of wisdom to its descendants. As we confront loss and even our own death, our appetite for intellectual dishonesty about the meaningfulness of life increases. We get into a destructive cycle of tightening the safety-blanket swaddle of metaphysics, dreamed up to comfort us—that something out there shines a light in the darkness—a light that shines only for us.
Most people want so badly for life to be meaningful in the grand scheme of things, that they associate themselves with ancient beliefs that claim on insufficient evidence that a supernatural entity is actively making our lives meaningful. Another large swath piece together a more modern belief that something “out there” loves us. This meaning of life is top-down and very impressive. If God or the universe is concerned with our purposeful existence, we can rest assured that our deviations from the path will be minimal and that the ends justify the means. We can do what feels reverent: church, peyote, burning sage, and claim God’s love only for our in-group. So long as enough other people are feeding the collective cognitive bias, we feel safe being swept along the dark river whose course is unknown but, we are assured, adheres to a larger, willful plan.
Others assume that human experience is separate from existence. Our inner life is not based in anything explainable by future scientists and this subjective specialness is all that is offered on the meaningfulness menu. It is not our carbon that is distinct, but that it is like something to be this collection of carbon that offers purpose, not just to us personally, but also poetically—where we act as the eyes of the world for the dead-inside stuff of existence. Once the mind you’ve filled with as many points of presence winks out, so too does meaning; your life is meaningful if mindful, loving, lived in a transcendent state of flow, or in the service of others, but life in general lacks purpose beyond the personal.
One thing the advocates of a solely personal meaning have gotten absolutely right… there is a lot to discover along the borders of experience and existence. If we take as a foundation that experience is meaningful—and this claim is hard to deny to anyone that has loved; had moments of flow in a musical, academic, or sporting performance; or paid attention to the profound mystery of the illumination of subjective experience itself—then the place to start investigating a meaning from existence is in the realms where the distinction between the world-as-it-is and the world-as-we-experience-it is most blurred or paradoxical. These are easy enough to find. Our relationship to space, causality, and especially our experience of time are in a complex and often paradoxical relationship with the physical or computational conception of them. An example that we investigate is the experience we have that time flows from one moment to the next, while time’s existence is said to be “frozen,” another dimension like up, left, or forward in spacetime. As we become introspective of our experiences and take an honest look at explanations for existence like the Many-Worlds Hypothesis of Quantum Mechanics, our inquiries into the nature of a meaningful existence seem more reasonable.
We have been looking in all of the wrong places to find a universal meaning for our lives. We have asked the question all wrong. Instead of searching for meaning in the heavens, we need to first ask ourselves, “what sort of universe would allow for all-natural universal meaning?” This is where metaphysical speculation makes its appearance. Metaphysics has gotten a bum rap. This once august brand of thought—the philosophy of existence beyond which physics is willing to speculate—is now colluded with every sort of happenstance claim of New Age woo and wizardry. We need to reclaim metaphysics from both the woologists and stoner dorm room alike, for it is a critical tool: advancing science beyond the lab bench of experiment to explanation; offering consilience between disciplines in the humanities like philosophy with the sciences, especially physics and neuroscience; and enlivening the layperson’s awe of what really lies just over the horizon of science in the speculations that serious scientists cannot (for a well-founded fear of incredulously being called a metaphysician) make. In this book, we untether our metaphysics and on these open seas find that our most creative conceptions of existence are relevant and vibrant, thanks to the advances of theoretical physics and neuroscience.
It seems to me what is called for is an exquisite balance between two conflicting needs: the most skeptical scrutiny of all hypotheses that are served up to us and at the same time a great openness to new ideas. Obviously those two modes of thought are in some tension. But if you are able to exercise only one of these modes, whichever one it is, you’re in deep trouble.
Where metaphysics claims existence is fundamentally information or computation, there are numerous reasonable avenues that arrive at an all-natural universal meaning. We choke on the monopoly that materialism has on the frame of what is fundamental in the universe and the stranglehold supernatural speculation has on universal meaning, failing at once to be awestruck by the continued grandeur and complexity we discover and by how profoundly these discoveries and theoretical physics’ speculations have changed our frame of what is possible from the universe. The best explanations for existence now offer us insights to the mechanisms for our conscious experience, broaching such profound experience-existence interfaces as the oneness of space, the flow of time, and consciousness from unconscious material. Replacing the frame of a mechanistic cosmos with a more up-to-date model of a computational universe offers us all-natural meaning.
Our review of one of the most well-subscribed explanation of reality finds us in a multiverse that frustrates even our most profound intuitions with more wonderment than could ever be created by some desert dime store novelist; a multiverse with many natural places to include meaning that neither manipulates existence through pseudoscience nor inundates humanity with a specialness in the cosmos we do not deserve. What we thought of as solely personal meaning—experiences of flow, mindfulness, or other sorts of profundity and optimized well-being—are processes run in existence, optimization programs on a massively parallel quantum computer we call the multiverse. It is clear to me that there are explanations for the profundity of life to be found in the wonders of the cosmos.