What Is Life?

Or is the question,

‘What is the meaning (purpose) of life?’ 


If you’re having a moment like this right now:

This one is for you. 

Although we have only the example of the Earth, it shows that life will evolve to fill every usable niche. Life exists at many levels. First the technical definition, It’s a self-organizing chemistry which reproduces itself and passes on its evolved characteristics, encoded in DNA. Life is an arrangement of molecules with qualities of self-sustenance and self-replication. But what is life really about, if anything? Is it a meaningless accident arising from the laws of physics operating in a meaningless universe, or it is a step in a planned ‘experiment’. And what will be the outcome?

Plato suggested the acquisition of knowledge, Aristotle to practice virtue, and the Stoics, mental fortitude and self-control. Today’s philosophers echo the existentialist view that life is full of absurdity, although they also tell us that we must put meaning into life by making our own values in an indifferent world. But if life is just a journey from womb to tomb, will such ‘meaning’ be sufficient to allow the traveler at journey’s end to feel that it was worthwhile? 

Ivan Tyrrell and Joe Griffin (see Human Givens, 2003) describes that we are born with evolved needs that seek satisfaction from our environment. These are physical and emotional needs, which, when enough of them are met, ensure the health of the individual, maximizing his or her ability to achieve meaning in life. Some of these needs were identified by Maslow in his ‘Hierarchy of Needs’ in his 1943 paper ‘A Theory of Human Motivation’, Psychological Review, but Griffin and Tyrrell focus more clearly on emotional needs.

Meaning becomes difficult, if not impossible, to achieve if these needs are insufficiently satisfied. Unfortunately, modern society seeks meaning to life through materialism, to the detriment of our biological needs, leading to dissatisfaction and a consequent inability to find meaning. The result is an exponential increase in mental ill-health. Sadly, then, many of us will not experience the satisfaction of a meaningful life journey. 

Of all Webster’s definitions of ‘life’, the one for me that best covers it is, “the sequence of physical and mental experiences that make up the existence of an individual.” Everyone has been through it, we all have our stories to share, I’ve been surprised when learning something that must have been very difficult to manage or survive about friends; but there they are in front of me. It’s how you come out on the other side of those challenging times that is important. Life can’t be planned: there’s fate, and there’s bad luck. A person can waste an inordinate amount of time complaining about what they don’t have, or plans that don’t work out. Who wants to waste that much time regretting? 

“Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player,

That struts and frets his hour upon the stage

And then is heard no more.

It is a tale Told by an idiot,

full of sound and fury,

Signifying nothing.”

Macbeth, Act V, Scene V

The first line expresses two of the three marks of existence per Buddhist thinking, Anicca, impermanence, and Anatta, non-self: a “walking shadow” is as insubstantial and impermanent as anything imaginable; a “poor player” neither creates nor directs his role, and the character being played only exists because of an author. Macbeth’s entire statement, particularly the last sentence, expresses the third Buddhist mark of existence: Dukkha, dissatisfaction. 

The stage metaphor in the second line represents boundaries or limits. Scientific research into the nature of life often focuses on the material, energetic, and temporal limitations within which life can exist. The temporal limit of life is known as death. In the spirit of this interpretation, the idea of being “heard no more” could imply that life constantly evolves new forms while discarding older ones. 

Hinting at the wisdom of mystery traditions while anticipating the revelations of genetic science by stating that life “is a tale”.

The realization of its own contingency. But that’s not the end of it;

This makes me feel two things about my own life: it’s a dot because the cosmos is immense; but it’s an important dot in the cosmos because I can consider it.

After 6 months of weekly therapy sessions, tomorrow is my last.

Go me.