The Meaning of Life

Comedy icon Charlie Chaplin
Charles Chaplin, one of my favorite philosophers
[updated 10-13-2012]
What do you want a meaning for? Life is a desire, not a meaning. Desire is the theme of all life. It’s what makes a rose want to be a rose…Charles Chaplin, “Limelight”

What is the meaning of life ?

What is the purpose of life?”

Where Do We Come From? What Are We? Where Are We Going?

Why do we ask these questions?

What human desire or urge are we seeking to fulfill?

But wait–what do we mean by “meaning”, and what purpose do we have for asking about our purpose?

In the universe of matter and energy, structures give rise to properties; structures and properties give rise to functions; and structures, properties, and functions give rise to capabilities. Each of these things can in turn feed back into the things it arises from, creating dynamically entangled networks of cause and effect.  Perhaps the meaning and purpose of life are defined or revealed by form or function.

“Where Do We Come From? What Are We? Where Are We Going?” by Paul Gauguin

For billions of years before any life appeared on earth, the universe underwent a process of evolution (or what in the case of inanimate physics is often called self-assembly or self-organization) driven by the intrinsic structures, properties, and functions of space, matter, energy, and time.

Any particular case of structure that arises through mechanical self-organization can also be broken down again. In fact, it appears that each individual, localized structure that forms in the universe–atoms, molecules,  stars, galaxies, etc.–almost certainly shall be broken down eventually. And yet despite this, it also appears that the overall amount of structure and complexity created by self-organization and evolution has continued to progressively increase for billions of years.

As intelligent and imaginative creatures we may look back at all of this progressive self-organization and evolution and imagine that the purpose of matter and energy is to produce progressive overall organization and complexity within the universe; and the purpose of life is to continue and extend that trajectory of evolution into ever-greater forms of complexity and diversity.

Universe expansion timeline (image via WikiMedia)

Viewed retrospectively we can impute the purpose of creating progressive organization and complexity to the role that each individual thing plays in that overall progress. But we probably should admit that the word purpose had no meaning until that word was created by us. Human beings created that word and endowed it with a meaning of our own choosing for its utility to us.

As far as we know, the province of meaning and purpose is confined to the human consciousness or at least to living things with similar cognitive abilities.  When we ask “What is the meaning and the purpose of life?” we are currently limited to asking this question of ourselves, individually and/or collectively, and it is up to us to answer.

Is this anthropomorphizing the idea of purpose? Yes and no. Purpose carries a certain connotation we can’t quite shake: intentionality or design. The purpose of a typewriter is to print words on paper–that’s what its intended for– but it can also function as a doorstop or boat anchor. Function, on the other hand, can be said to be purely objective. There is no anthropomorphism in saying the function of the universe is to create progressive complexity and diversity and, eventually, biological life.  We can clearly see this function in 20-20 hindsight. There may be functions that escape our notice, but those which we notice can be cataloged empirically. So at present we can only ascribe the notion of purpose and meaning to conscious beings.

“You do not belong to you. You belong to the universe. The significance of you will remain forever a mystery to you, but you may assume you are fulfilling your significance if you apply yourself to converting all your experience to the highest advantage of others.”
-R. Buckminster Fuller

There are many who consider the evolution of the universe to be purposeless, unintentional, and accidental; yet there are many others who consider the possibility of our particular universe being a “happy accident” to be nil. Back in the 1980’s MIT did a computer simulation that computed the odds of life evolving by chance to be roughly equivalent to the odds of a tornado hitting a junkyard and accidentally creating a fully functional Boeing 747.   However,  scenarios that include multiple cycles of universe expansion and contraction, or scenarios that include multiple concurrent universes (multiverse or M-theory and Membrane cosmology scenarios, for example), suggest that the evolution of a universe such as ours is not only mathematically possible but it could actually be inevitable. Nevertheless, in the absence of conclusive evidence one way or the other, I’ll remain agnostic. That question will not be answered here.

For the present, at least, meaning and purpose will be attributable only to conscious beings. That isn’t strictly anthropomorphic, because we can include animals other than humans as well as other possible intelligent beings unknown to us.

With the eventual evolution of life, living things acquire an additional aspect of function that might be called capability. Some capabilities confer reproductive or other survival advantages. The functions of flagella and cilia confer the capability of motility. Because the capability of motility confers survival advantages, motility becomes the implicit purpose of flagella and cilia. In the same way, the implicit purpose of a fin or a leg is mobility, the purpose of a mouth is to ingest food, and the purpose of a gill or a lung is to absorb oxygen. But are any of those things in some way more purposeful than the light mechanically emitted by a star or the rotation of a galaxy? It depends on the point of view. Who knows what purposes the cell may have for wiggling its flagellum?

(Structure of a typical bacterial cell)

When  is function promoted to the status of a purpose in our eyes?  I don’t exactly know–but it happens in some network or nodule of neurons within the human brain. Perhaps its when the cause and effect become obvious and consistent enough to one or more observers. Then we begin to think of a thing’s most common, customary, and characteristic function as its purpose.

Eventually, with progressively increasing cognitive capabilities, more and more thoughts, meanings, intentions, and purposes arise in the minds of more and more people. The things that people think, say, do, or make may then be considered to happen according to an intentional and explicit human purpose –despite the fact that many (if not most) results of human thought and action are unintended and unanticipated.

Much (if not most) human thought and activity is instinctive, reflexive, conditioned, unconsciously motivated or manipulated. Presumably, the implicit “purpose” of instinctive behavior is to confer survival advantages. But we only define that cause-and-effect relationship as a “purpose” after the fact, in retrospect, when we abstract it and consider it consciously in the context of our ideas about evolution and natural selection.

Like purpose, meaning is really a matter of associations– association of cause and effect, association of one pattern with another, association of a word or symbol with a concept, a memory, or a perception, etc.

However, if our cognitive capabilities continue to evolve without catastrophic interruption, we will continue to find greater and greater meaning in more and more things and to imagine, discover, and pursue greater and greater purposes for ourselves. As life evolves, so will meanings and purposes evolve. Thus a fundamental proto-purpose of human life is to understand, enhance and promote evolution–the progressive organization, complexity, diversity, and capability of the  biosphere.

Like a sprouting seed or fractal pattern, the proto-pupose of increasing complexity and capability will unfold and elaborate into new meanings and purposes without end. In the case of human beings, in our evolving capability for higher meaning and purpose, a primary focus should be the investigation and development of our most unique features and strengths–chief among these being our cognitive, technical, and social abilities.

If our broad purpose is to increase overall capability and utility (the greatest good) for the biosphere, by consciously promoting evolution in every way possible, how should we act? What kind of lifestyles and social institutions should we favor?

Information systems, quantum mechanics, molecular biochemistry, cognitive neuroscience, deep ecology, fractal geometry…the first generation to grow up with such mental tools is alive today. What can this add to a quest at least as old as the anatomically modern human brain, the question of the meanings and purposes of life? How can these new tools and capabilities help us to amplify the evolution of our culture and the evolution of the biosphere?

Human culture has always evolved more rapidly than our anatomy. But even the rapid progress of our culture has begun to fall behind the pace of changes and challenges we now face in our crowded societies and  our ravaged environment. Rather than rising to meet these challenges our social institutions show signs of actually breaking down and becoming less effective. Increasing competition over land, water, food, and other resources is likely to favor increasingly authoritarian institutions. While technology offers solutions to resource problems in theory, in practice it also favors greater stratification of wealth and power. If recent trends continue we may be faced with a future of highly authoritarian corporate neofeudalism (privatized governance).

Faced with such prospects, some of us should be choosing to explore the boundaries of the brain’s ability to examine and extend itself and to accelerate the evolution of culture with the same kind of intensity and effort that it takes for the military occupation of the Middle East or sending a spacecraft to the Moon.

Its time for groups of our most highly-developed and progressive people to start acting more like macro-organisms. This is analogous to the era when communities of single-celled organisms began to coalesce into multi-celled plants and animals that could reproduce true-to-kind.

We all know things we don’t know how to express in words. When we try, they often sound like cliches and tautologies. But sometimes  progress comes through persistent interaction with a friend, a partner, or a colleague. Sometimes two heads or three heads are better than one. Sometimes people who spend a lot of time together develop special kinds of connections. If we live or work together long enough and closely enough we may begin to establish what I call human broadband connections. This may evolve further as we keep house, interact with nature, travel, solve problems, share adventures, meet challenges and survive crises together, until we can finish each others sentences. We are beginning to realize that such intimacy can gradually change the chemistry and structure of the nervous system and allow for progressively increasing inter-personal communication bandwidth and synchronization. One example is menstrual synchrony.

Some might consider it to be an interpersonal spiritual connection, but it is a natural phenomenon that I would call bio-cognitive development (bio-cognitive = body + brain) and psycho-neuro-synchronization.

Bio-cognitive development partners are two or more peers engaging in an in-person practice that focuses not on learning facts but developing and practicing bio-cognitive skills such as high-bandwidth psycho-neuro-synchronization.  As psycho-physiological intimacy and coordination increases over time, the bandwidth and synchronization of the bio-cognitive communication increase.  Some of the coordinating feedback channels are:



.Voice modulation, body language , airborne chemicals, and physical contact all stimulate the release of a wide array of neurotransmitters and other hormones throughout the body. These change the states of neural networks, nerves, and tissues throughout the body. That much is established fact.

Actual neural connection patterns in the brain

My additional hypothesis is that all these channels of communication can gradually come into greater synchronization between people. Its similar to the way higher data throughput is achieved between nodes in a communication network as they each synchronize to the same timing, states, and protocols. The rate at which this happens between people and the degree to which it happens depends on the innate psycho-physiological characteristics of the participants as well as their acquired proficiencies.  When well developed, interpersonal bio-cognitive communication bandwidth may change as much as the difference between a 300 baud asynchronous modem connection and a 10-gigabit broadband connection.

The importance of shared activity to developing bio-cognitive intimacy and high communication bandwidth can’t be over-emphasized. Important activities include, but aren’t limited to: singing and dancing, eating and drinking (especially alcohol), domestic housekeeping (especially kitchen work), manual labor (gardening/farm work, carpentry, etc.), professional work, artistic collaboration, dialog/debate, sports and recreation (camping is great), traveling, and adventure. Sharing risks and crises is especially effective for promoting empathy and trust. The more time participants spend together the better. Sharing living quarters and workplaces is especially effective, within the limits of intimacy fatigue. And of course if these things are done mindfully, with the intention of developing high-bandwidth intimacy, and with appropriate methods and skills, excellent results are possible. I have achieved such intimacy with several individuals and small groups who lived and worked together.

“There is almost a sensual longing for communion with others who have a large vision. The immense fulfillment of the friendship between those engaged in furthering the evolution of consciousness has a quality impossible to describe.”
-Pierre Teilhard de Chardin

As my friend Natural Lefty points out, on some level this is common sense and I am merely stating a truism of social psychology: people who hang together synchronize their language, culture, and behavior to some extent. This can have survival advantages but it can also have negative consequences such as excessive conformity or “group-think”. It can promote cooperation or it can lead to intra-group or inter-group conflicts. Even members of a well-organized wolf pack may attack each other savagely. So the devil is in the details–what are the actual empirical effects of cognitive synchronization and development  in practice, on the ground. What effects prove positive and what effects lead to negative consequences. The process of distinguishing between the positive and negative results, maximizing one and minimizing the other, can be thought of as a process of quality control and continuous improvement.

To achieve continuous improvement and positive quality control, we should systematize and instrument our intentional community of self-study and self-development. We should consciously formalize our group dynamics in a context of systems science and rigorous experimental design. Process transcends objectives, but measurable objectives  provide important feedback for process improvement.

The prerequisites for bio-cognitive development and psycho-neuro-synchronization of groups are motivation, opportunity, and  resources. It is important that various conditions and tools are provided.

One way to provide conditions for bio-cognitive group development is  to establish venues for the kinds of activities mentioned above, in which those activities can be offered to the public and simultaneously shared by a residential staff group. Another approach is to establish intentional communities.  These can be urban or rural.

In addition to the shared activities mentioned above, some of the possible tools and techniques for bio-cognitive development and psycho-neuro-synchronization include:

These and many other tools can be used for increasing adult brain plasticity and promoting emotional and physiological states that enhance learning, memory, and neural network integration. Conducted in groups they can also promote  psycho-neuro-synchronization and bio-cognitive group intimacy.

All this provides a matrix for accelerated cultural and cognitive evolution that is independent of gross  brain anatomy. (Lets face it, we aren’t getting bigger brains any time soon.)  Nonetheless, there is good reason to hope that radical self-knowledge, bio-cognitive development,  neuro-physiological practice, and psycho-neuro-synchronization may all work together to promote developmental changes in the brain’s micro-structure and its operational patterns. We can try to examine and consciously modify various aspects of our irrationality, automaticity, implicit associations, cognitive biases, etc. With all these tools and techniques we may have a shot at developing a kind of persistent group consciousness capable of hosting perceptions and representations of reality and establishing behavioral innovations and capabilities well beyond the confines of the mainstream culture and language.

This just might help us keep each other alive a few decades longer.

Conclusion Pending

Of course survival, evolution, self-development, and progress are sensible objectives–but do they constitute a purpose for life? What is the purpose of the universe other than assembling itself? Who knows? The thing is, whether the universe has further purpose(s) or not, human beings have brains that let us (perhaps require us) to imagine and choose purpose(s) for ourselves.

The epicureans advise that we eat, drink, and be merry for tomorrow we may die. This particular expression is actually a conflation of two biblical sayings: Ecclesiastes viii. 15 (AV) “Then I commended mirth, because a man hath no better thing under the sun, than to eat, and to drink, and to be merry”, and Isaiah xxii. 13 (AV) “Let us eat and drink; for to morrow we shall die.” (

Solomon, the wisest of the wise, advises us to be moderate in our good works, for anything else is vanity. But above all else, perhaps, he advises us to pursue the desires or our hearts and to be merry. And what makes most of us merry? The fullest possible development and expression of our gifts and our relations with one another and with the world. This is sometimes likened to blossoming, and its symbol is often the rose.

Utilitarians also advise that we seek the greatest good for the greatest number.

If you need more purpose and meaning than this, go discover it or invent it, and please copy me.

Poor Richard

(1:32 The biological basis of human nature.

Randal_A._Koene heads the organization (, co-founded with Dr. Suzanne Gildert), which is the outreach and roadmapping organization for action towards Advancing Substrate-Independent Minds (ASIM). Dr. Koene is a neuroscientist and neuroengineer, and he directs the Halcyon SIM (substrate-independent minds) and BCI (brain-computer interfaces) divisions, as…

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5 Responses to “The Meaning of Life”

  1. Poor Richard Says:

    I am posting this comment on behalf of my friend Natural Lefty:

    Life is a process with implicit desires built into it, so I agree that the creation and pursuit of desire has the most to do with the meaning of life. I also agree with your thesis that people who are together synchronize their communications in various ways, which makes possible mass action. Actually, this is pretty much a truism in social psychology, which can have good or bad consequences. People need to be cognizant of what they are trying to accomplish in order for shared synchronous communication to have good effects. Otherwise, it becomes pretty much a follow-the-leader case of conformity. It would even make sense to say that the main driver of culture and language, both for the better or worse, is the phenomenon of people synchronizing their communications and matching each other. I love those pictures. I wish I could do that. I would point out that the interesting picture of the hand growing other hands shows a left hand growing 5 right hands. Shouldn’t it be a left hand growing 5 left hands? It would have to take a handedness/brain laterality cognizant lefty such as myself to notice that. I am not a fan of psychoactive drugs but the other techniques for psycho-neuro-synchronization should work. I still disagree that most of our behavior is instinctively or unconsciously motivated, as discussed elsewhere, but many thoughts and feelings originate in our unconscious. We program ourselves and turn ourselves into cognitive misers typically, which is quite different from instinctive behavior. That is the automatizing of learned behavior, which can involve most parts of the brain, rather than the small instinctive lower part of the brain. We can train and retrain ourselves to behave better. I suppose that could be the meaning of life.

    • Poor Richard Says:

      Natural Lefty, thanks for making some very good points. I agree that the general idea of social synchronization is fundamental in social psychology and I may add mention of that in my essay. I am really just highlighting some of the more recent findings from the life sciences, especially neuroscience, on that topic and extrapolating a bit in a way that might stimulate some interest. Good point about guarding against synchronization turning into conformity. I’m sorry if the incongruity in the hand picture was disturbing. I wonder if the artist did that intentionally. I agree that we turn ourselves into worse cognitive misers and automata than we have to be. The lines between inheritance (instinct and other endogenous cognitive and behavioral patterns), developmentally acquired cognitive characteristics, later subliminally acquired conditioning/programming, and voluntary conditioning and learning are impossible to draw accurately and I won’t quibble about whether the collective activities of the unconscious and irrational automata outweigh the activities of the conscious, rational “elves” of the mind. Hey, not a bad picture: a head full of busy little robots and elves. I think I vaguely remember something like that from an old Saturday morning TV cartoon. You make a good point that consciously and intentionally learned behavior often becomes automatized. So many layers! The important point is what you said: we can train and retrain ourselves for the better! “Amen” to that.


  2. Poor Richard Says:

    Cross-posted obo Fred Pauser
    [Thank you, Fred, for inspiring the article!]


    You ask the right questions such as: “Where Do We Come From? What Are We? Where Are We Going?” and ” What human desire or urge are we seeking to fulfill?”

    To a considerable extent we can answer these questions drawing upon our relatively recently acquired store of scientific knowledge.

    You stated: “…imagine that the purpose of matter and energy is to produce progressive overall organization and complexity within the universe; and the purpose of life is to continue and extend that trajectory of evolution into ever-greater forms of complexity and diversity.”

    Yes. The stars generated the various atoms which compose the earth and our bodies. As Carl Sagan famously remarked, we are made of “star stuff.” The evolution of suns, galaxies, planets, and the evolution of life are of the same process. we are products of the universe. We are related to all life, which is verified by DNA studies. This is what (who) we are.

    There is an important point that your article seems to imply, but it should be made explicit, which is this: Regarding life, any mutation or alteration that causes increased complexity which is then incorporated by that species, BRINGS WITH IT SOME SORT OF INCREASE IN CAPABILITY RELATED TO SURVIVABILITY. Otherwise natural selection would reject it. In other words, evolution does not produce increased complexity just for the sake of greater complexity.

    You wrote: “But we probably should admit that the word purpose had no meaning until that word was created by us.” And a bit later: “…the province of meaning and purpose is confined to the human consciousness…”

    That seems like a type of anthropomorphism to me. If humans did not exist, it would still be an objective fact that the universe has evolved in a progressively directional manner. That direction is primarily of increasing complexity and diversity of matter, which initially set the stage for the emergence of life, and with life came a direction of increasing diversity and further complexity accompanied by increasing capabilities. Based upon this, it seems that objectively the GENERAL purpose of life is to increase capabilities. (And it appears that the final part of your article is about your ideas regarding increasing human capabilities – it seems you are following your innate evolutionary impulse!)

    Toward the middle of the article there seems to be some confusion regarding specific and individual purposes. Specific individual purposes feed into larger purpose. For example, the purpose of wings is flight. What is the purpose of flight? It varies a bit for insects and birds, but generally it is about survival. Wings represent an increase in capability, which ups the antee in the competitive process of natural selection for survival – which then tends to lead to further refinements and increases in capabilities.

    It is important to recognize the *creativity* of the universe. It created the stars and atoms, it created the evolutionary process, it created life, it created us. And we humans reflect the creativity of the universe by our actions and deeds. Look at how human culture and technology has evolved in just the past few thousand years. The *desire* to discover, improve, advance, and gain in capabilities, is in our genes! This is the big picture, despite the fact that *individual* humans may perceive their purposes in many varied and contradictory ways. We now have a competition of memes.

    You wrote: “If our broad purpose is to increase overall capability and utility (the greatest good) for the biosphere, by consciously promoting evolution in every way possible, how should we act? What kind of lifestyles and institutions should we favor?”

    To the extent that we can accurately perceive how evolution functions, and then align our goals to coincide, we would probably be better off. Our actions and the “greatest good” is ultimately “judged” (so to speak) by nature and evolution.

    The last part of your article reflects principles of evolution: You put forth *creative* ideas on how to *progress* in life, with emphasis on *cooperation* (a key element of evolution which is often underplayed), leading to *increased-capabilities* — and for us humans, hopefully increased satisfaction. Yes, Richard, I think you are on the right track.

  3. Quotebag #53 | In defense of anagorism Says:

    […] “While technology offers solutions to resource problems in theory, in practice it also favors greater stratification of wealth and power. If recent trends continue we may be faced with a future of corporate neofeudalism (privatized governance).”—Poor Richard […]

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