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The meaning of life.

Last night, I was talking with friends about things personal and things philosophical, likely kicked off by the Bill Brown talk. One topic that came up as it always seems to was, "What is the meaning of life?"

One friend said, "I don't know."

Another answered, "To spread our genes."

At first I dismissed the first answer. The second answer... well, it's absolutely true in a biological sense. When you get down to the root of everything, it's the real answer.

Earlier, I was walking home from work, passing under a leafless canopy. The bones of the trees were visible. Seeds everywhere. Students on the sidewalk, cell-phones in hand as they headed to their cars to drive off to play or study or build the future in which we will all live. And it struck me like lightning:

We are only hosts for our genetic material. Everything we do, everything we are, is dictated by the tiny machines that build us into thinking meat. We are products of our genes just as trees are the product of their seeds. Organisms - even thinking ones - are manufactured by the nano-factories called biology.

I envy the trees. They are not weighed down with responsibility or questions of right and wrong or considerations of the future. To them, "Why?" never crosses their minds. They do not need to worry about how to be the best tree they can be; they simply live. They are driven by the programming of the tiny machines within them, the machines that manufactured them and maintain them and dictate their future. Those machines help guide them as they encounter wind and drought; if they survive storms and Kansas summer, they produce new seeds. Those seeds grow into new trees that can survive what Kansas throws at them. They don't build civilizations or cities or universities; they don't engineer automobiles or cell phones. They simply live. And that is enough.

We, however - we humans - we are weighted with sentience. This mass of dendrites and other products of our machines make us worry about the future, about morality, about acquisitions. We form friendships and romantic entanglements; these endure or fade or explode in dramatic fashion, and then we write novels about our experiences or film movies or create other works of art. We talk about our victories and catastrophes with friends. With our friends and loved ones, we celebrate success and empathize with failure. We craft paintings, shoot photographs, post websites, write blogs, all in an effort to express ourselves. Our creative expressions consume years of our lives. We assemble bookshelves and paint the walls of our homes that others built and which we bought with money - a concept manufactured in the forebrains of economists - and call the people in our lives using electronics that are the product of centuries of industrial evolution. We talk and write and paint and run and climb and dance; we cry and laugh and drink ourselves into oblivion; we pour the years of our existence into making things, consuming things, building futures for others or destroying them. We believe we are good, or we are not evil, or we question what is good and evil. We describe what is right and moral, and then we question ourselves in the darkness of the night when we sit alone at our keyboards, wondering, wondering. We strive and we fail; we strive and we succeed.

But what does it all mean? Are we only acting out the over-complicated programming humming away within the hearts of our cells? We, products of the products of evolution; what are we? If we are only machines designed to produce more human machines of the type manufactured by the tiny machines that built us, then it is clear that our duty is to create more of those machines of our particular brand. We must prove the value of ourselves by making replicas of ourselves. The meaning of life is to pass our genes into the future. And to build a future best suited to protecting the new machines that we produce and which will carry our genes into that future. So we build civilizations and cell phones and put money in the bank. And when the banks fail or we lose our jobs or our houses are foreclosed upon, this quakes us to our cores, because the civilization we built is like the cradle for the future, the macro-machines that will provide for the human machines carrying "our" genes, and we have failed in our sole purpose.

An aside about owership: It is more true to say that we belong to our genes than that they are our genes. Does Chrysler Corporation belong to my 2004 Crossfire? Or my 1966 Newport? Absurd. Both were manufactured by the same machine (Chrysler Corporation), but in different generations. Yet they do not reproduce themselves, so this isn't a good comparison. Do the fruits on its branches belong to the persimmon tree in my back yard? Does the tree that dropped the fruit that grew this tree belong to it? Neither; it belongs to the genetic material that created the tree that dropped the fruit that contained the seed that grew my tree.

The tree's only reason for being is to survive the seasons, thrive through adversity, produce fruits, and - having survived and earned the right to do so - make more trees like it. It exists to perpetuate its genes. It is a framework and a resource for nothing more than supporting the gene factory that made it, the gene factory whose drive to thrive creates life itself.

This is God. God is within us all. God is the gene, the self-assembling matter of life. God is the biological nanofactory. There is no right and wrong beyond what allows the factory to thrive and continue to produce.

We live and laugh and cry, we build cities and laptops and torture ourselves with questions of right and wrong so that we may provide a lush cradle for the machines that made us in order to do nothing more than deliver those genes into the future.

Our sentience is a burden, something we must carry, something that gets in the way of itself. It is an unfortunate diversion along the road to our genes' future.

This is not a comfort.

This friend also said that the meaning of life is "to seek pleasure." Pleasure, I think, is merely our genes expressing to us that we're taking the right path to provide them with what they need. But sentience does not approve. We build ethical and moral frameworks that limit pleasure and define which pleasures are the correct ones, even when they feel uncomfortable; we define which pleasures are the incorrect ones, even when they feel best.

Either pleasure is not a good guide or sentience is a poor expression of our genes. Or both. And sentience doesn't feel comfortable with the idea that it exists only as part of the product of the machine to which we belong. Even that - the gene - is merely the product of its programming. It is the machine that operates on that programming, as we operate on the gene.


After slogging through all of this meaning and meaninglessness, the first seems the truest answer:

What is the meaning of life?

I don't know.

Chris

Also posted to my website.

Comments

( 54 comments — Leave a comment )
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kijjohnson
Nov. 15th, 2008 07:56 am (UTC)
Wow. Thank you for writing this, hard though it is to think about.

Pleasure is not proof that we are on the right path; but it is there, the gift of our genes, to keep we the hosts thriving long enough to pass them on; and it is the accidental reward they give us when that is done.
mckitterick
Nov. 15th, 2008 08:07 am (UTC)
That's a nicer way to look at it. I need to write my other meaning of life essay, about what we perceive as free will. Another day.
silverfae
Nov. 15th, 2008 08:15 am (UTC)
I am a tree.
I have no desire to spread my genes, continue them, or pass them along.

I exist. I play, I laugh, I sing, I dance.

Maybe I inspire others to do that reproduction thing.

i dont know.
mckitterick
Nov. 17th, 2008 07:26 pm (UTC)
That sounds like a wonderful way to live. But it is so alien for me. I would love to embrace that and, as I lay dying, believe I've done my duty.
fortyozspartan
Nov. 15th, 2008 08:17 am (UTC)
I'm inclined to indicate that life is an accident. There hardly seems any "drive" to survive per se, rather the accident that existence derives from survival.

Indeed, most shifting in gene pools is the alignment of changed circumstances and accidental mutation. What better cosmic joke than the accident of the universe pondering it's own meaning?
mckitterick
Nov. 17th, 2008 07:28 pm (UTC)
Ah, but if there's a cosmic joke, someone must have made it, right? That presupposes a god or sentient creator. I don't know how that helps with all this, because if we bring in religion, everything else gets thrown out.

I can see how life was an accident. But does that preclude meaning or purpose?
(no title) - fortyozspartan - Nov. 17th, 2008 08:18 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no title) - mckitterick - Nov. 19th, 2008 01:27 am (UTC) - Expand
nottygypsy
Nov. 15th, 2008 08:49 am (UTC)
I would direct you to Robert Fulghum that wrote a wonderful essay on the meaning of life. I believe in his book; It Was On Fire When I Lay Down On It.

I have a belief that the meaning of life is Love.

Coincidentally, Love will sometimes lead to the spreading of your genes.
curieuse
Nov. 15th, 2008 02:27 pm (UTC)
<3
(no title) - mckitterick - Nov. 17th, 2008 06:25 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no title) - nottygypsy - Nov. 18th, 2008 12:28 am (UTC) - Expand
(no title) - mckitterick - Nov. 19th, 2008 01:28 am (UTC) - Expand
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scottedelman
Nov. 15th, 2008 02:01 pm (UTC)
I would argue that we as humans are at our best when we rise above the programing of our genes. Seeking pleasure and running from pain is what our machine selves are hardwired to do, and it's a difficult mandate to ignore, but the better actions of our species come from those who can set aside those two selfish edicts in spite of the fact what what we're about to do might cause us hurt, or even cost us our lives.
mckitterick
Nov. 17th, 2008 06:30 pm (UTC)
It is great comfort to consider this, that the people and actions which civilizations value most are selfless, and that we all have experienced moments like those.

However, the devil's advocate might suggest that such actions help perpetuate the framework that protects the genes our genes value most, in order of closest to furthest genetic match: Immediate family, community, state, nation, world, species. Thus they could be further expressions of the selfish gene.
(no title) - scottedelman - Nov. 17th, 2008 06:59 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no title) - mckitterick - Nov. 17th, 2008 07:23 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no title) - scottedelman - Nov. 17th, 2008 09:30 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no title) - mckitterick - Nov. 17th, 2008 11:37 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no title) - scottedelman - Nov. 17th, 2008 11:53 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no title) - mckitterick - Nov. 19th, 2008 01:29 am (UTC) - Expand
queza7
Nov. 15th, 2008 02:27 pm (UTC)
Thanks for the food for thought. I've been pontificating on that particular point recently, too.
mckitterick
Nov. 17th, 2008 07:24 pm (UTC)
You're welcome. It's something I needed to do.
garyomaha
Nov. 15th, 2008 03:20 pm (UTC)
That's a nice piece of writing and thought and I don't necessarily disagree, but it saddens me. Because, as a gay man, I have not "spread my genes" and frankly don't intend to. I know there are various ways I can do so, and I know of many guys who have done so. But it's not right for me. So, for me and the zillions of other humans -- gay or not -- who have not reproduced, does that indicate that life, for us, is something less? I certainly hope not.

No, I don't dwell on this and no, you didn't ruin my day ;) but the concept sort of lept out at me.

Maybe "I don't know" works best for me!
silverfae
Nov. 15th, 2008 10:35 pm (UTC)
aye. Maybe Life, for those of us who cannot or will not follow the genetic spread, is simply going against the grain of the meaning for everyone else?

er... if that was difficult to follow....

it's the drugs.
(no title) - mckitterick - Nov. 17th, 2008 06:32 pm (UTC) - Expand
scarlettina
Nov. 15th, 2008 03:33 pm (UTC)
Great post, Chris.
mckitterick
Nov. 17th, 2008 06:33 pm (UTC)
Thank you.
anerys
Nov. 15th, 2008 04:23 pm (UTC)
Yep.
jimmy_hollaman
Nov. 15th, 2008 05:05 pm (UTC)
In a way, i think there is lots of meanings for this question. And why not, there are many questions that have more than one right answer. Plus if there was just one answer that was true to the question, then wo will be able to say teir answer is the correct one.


besides, i don't know if i would like to live in a world that actually had a answer to this question......
mckitterick
Nov. 17th, 2008 06:35 pm (UTC)
I agree on both points:

1) There is no "right" answer, nor is another person's right answer necessarily our own.

2) Answering this question ends the pursuit of it, which kills a lot of thinking. Worse, what if this line of thought is correct? Brrrrr.
clevermanka
Nov. 15th, 2008 08:18 pm (UTC)
Again, I don't believe there is a meaning to life. I think we can create meaning in our lives should we choose to do so. But is there one overarching truth that applies to all humanity? No.
mckitterick
Nov. 17th, 2008 06:37 pm (UTC)
As I responded to Jimmy, above, I don't there is "a meaning" to life; I think there are many.

And I do hope that meaning is what we make of it.

I wrote this because I'm seeking meaning, need it right now. Because without meaning, life for me is empty.
(no title) - clevermanka - Nov. 17th, 2008 06:40 pm (UTC) - Expand
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mckitterick
Nov. 17th, 2008 06:41 pm (UTC)
I hear you about supporting the next generation. Heck, that's most of how I spend my energy:

Teaching at KU: enables the next generation to equal or better my understanding of things.

Working with CSSF and AboutSF: enables other as above, plus provides teachers with the tools to carry on that work.

Talking about the meaning of things with friends and my LJ: encourages everyone to pursue meaning.

Finally, perhaps you are right, that life simply is. But I don't know what that means, nor how to exist comfortably within such a belief system.
bammba_m
Nov. 16th, 2008 01:53 pm (UTC)
i was sitting at a question booth at a con a couple years ago when some "smart" person came up and asked "what's the purpose of life?" and the person i was sitting with, answered "to be happy." Which was one of those "change your life" moments for me.

For me, the meaning of life is somewhat different from the purpose of life (semantics, oh how we love thee!!). And you can look in a thesaurus or a dictionary to find meaning and see that even concepts which seem quite simple can have many different meanings. So it's no wonder that you don't know the meaning of life. It's quite complex. I'm not sure the meaning of life is possible to know for certain.
mckitterick
Nov. 17th, 2008 06:48 pm (UTC)
You're right, of course; I'm seeking meaning through trying to understand purpose.

If we are the mechanistic manufactures of the information coded in our genes, then meaning = purpose.

"To be happy" is unattainable for me (has been, anyhow) without feeling as if being happy contributes in some way to a greater purpose. For me, "happy" is even tougher to define than "love." I don't know if it's clear in my post, but I reject pleasure as the meaning of life, and happiness seems on a par with pleasure. So I continue to seek to understand.

Thus this post, and thinking on this and related topics, and writing about them.
(no title) - bammba_m - Nov. 18th, 2008 12:09 am (UTC) - Expand
(no title) - mckitterick - Nov. 19th, 2008 01:33 am (UTC) - Expand
emessar
Nov. 16th, 2008 02:24 pm (UTC)
Personally, I think the genes thing is a bit narrow. I think it either leaves too many people out or marks them as dysfunctional. As beings of sentience we have many ways to propagate.

I think that the purpose of life is to live and be happy. This is why we seek pleasure. It's why we avoid pain. It's why we strive to spread our genes, because we know that some small part of us lives on in another generation, and their happiness becomes our own. It's why we create works of art, because through its expression we find connection with others, and through that we find solace. We know that through our words and our paintings and our sculptures we continue our connection with others after our bodies are buried or our ashes are scattered. It's why we learn and why we teach. It's why we love.

Even the atrocities we as a race commit upon one another are not exempt from this. Wars are fought for resources, or beliefs, or out of fear. We fight to preserve our way of life so that we can share it with another generation. All the while, we mourn the lives lost because we feel connected and when they die, a part of us dies too.

Ultimately, the questions that we each have to ask ourselves is "How do I live?" and "What makes me happy?".
mckitterick
Nov. 17th, 2008 06:53 pm (UTC)
I agree that the genes thing feels narrow, and I don't want to believe that's the case. I want to believe that we're more than a host for information that seeks to perpetuate itself. That feels like a cold world, indeed.

Re: "to be happy," I've thought a lot about that, as it's many people's answer. Though I understand it works for many people, it doesn't work for me, because I find that I can't be happy if I don't feel I'm contributing in some way or if I don't feel I understand the people and universe around me. Seeking understand is the route to happiness for me, though I doubt that I will ever find it; and if I do, I doubt that I will grasp it for longer than a moment.

It's elusive, like the feeling of awe that washes over one upon new discovery, or sudden understanding, or one-ness, or other grand experience. We can place ourselves in that same spot again, but it's no longer the same thing: We are changed, having already experienced it.

Hm. Perhaps seeking happiness is my answer.

Must consider.
(no title) - emessar - Nov. 17th, 2008 11:26 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no title) - mckitterick - Nov. 17th, 2008 11:29 pm (UTC) - Expand
siro_gravity
Nov. 16th, 2008 07:55 pm (UTC)
it's been a few days since you posted this. i read it the night you posted it and wanted to reply but it seemed so difficult. and i came back yesterday...but the phone rang and i was happy enough to leave. :D

this post is difficult for me because it touches upon something that scares and saddens me: there is no way to prove that we are anything more than meat. there just isn't. above and beyond the urge to procreate, our thoughts and memories are all produced by the unknowable workings of three pounds of meat.

in 1990 my father had a stroke. after he'd recovered, we saw that he had also become a different person. he said things that were completely alien to us. he was inappropriate (in ways). he was fragile. maybe he always had these traits and hid them. but then it doesn't change the fact that he was irretrievably somebody else...

i like who i am.
i want to believe that the "i" is more than genes and the random firings of neurons.

you envy trees. i envy cats. for the same reason you envy trees. they exist, and seem to give it little thought. they are happy or sad, sick or well, silly or very serious...but they don't twist on the end of a pin about any of it.

anyhow, none of this addresses the question: "what is the meaning of life?" the answer to that is super simple. the meaning of life is the meaning you give it. period, the end.

next question, plz.
s

eta: i loved the way you wrote this.

Edited at 2008-11-16 07:56 pm (UTC)
mckitterick
Nov. 17th, 2008 07:02 pm (UTC)
something that scares and saddens me: there is no way to prove that we are anything more than meat

This is exactly why I wrote this, to share and seek to understand from my community of thinkers and feelers.

I want to believe we are more than a host for information that seeks to perpetuate itself, that manipulates the structures that create thought in us and makes us believe that we exist as unique creations. That's the route to hopelessness, and I've felt down plenty enough over the past few years, so I want to believe there is meaning beyond the purpose I described here.

In a way, I find it easier to envy trees than cats, because cats think and feel, and how hard would it be to exist as a cat after having been a human? To be nothing but vessels for life? But I completely hear you. Having started off as a cat, how lovely would life be?


In the end, though, I think you're right. It's the meaning we give it.

This is why I seek to understand, so I can give it that meaning. That seems circular, I know, but I'm beginning to believe that my conception of "the meaning of life" is the pursuit of understanding, so it's a never-ending task.

Therefore, any meaning I uncover ceases to be the meaning, so I must continue to dig.

Hm.
(no title) - terriblyfamous - Nov. 17th, 2008 10:32 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no title) - mckitterick - Nov. 17th, 2008 11:36 pm (UTC) - Expand
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