The Meaning of Life

Comedy icon Charlie Chaplin

Charles Chaplin, one of my favorite philosophers

[updated 5-4-2013]
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?

Purpose is what we create, meaning is what we derive. Life in itself, inherently has none of these as they are simply constructs of a couscous mind.” ~Mike Trethowan

Purpose is more a matter of function or utility than intent. My “purpose” (or a god’s purpose, or the universe’s purpose, if you like) for doing anything, is far less meaningful than the actual result. A belief in the purpose of toilette paper is easier to justify than beliefs about the purpose of events or the purpose of my life or of all life; and yet even toilette paper can be re-purposed. Our brains are wired to connect dots and create narratives, compulsively, no matter how sketchy the available information. Its fair to say we don’t know everything about anything. So how much do we need to know to justify a belief about a purpose? (most agnostics are recovering believers) A basic factor for measuring information quality is “fitness for a particular purpose.” So what purpose(s) might a hypothesis or belief about my purpose on earth serve? I think the most common purpose served by believing that life or events have some hidden purpose is to satisfy the brain’s hunger for narratives and to reduce the sense of risk the brain associates with ambiguity. This may satisfy an emotional urge, but I’ve come to feel better served by skepticism and parsimony respecting such urges.

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. (Actually all these aspects initially arise simultaneously, but each can elaborate further even if those preceding it in my list remain static.)  Each of these things can in turn feed back into the aspects 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. In systems theory this sometimes called autopoiesis (from Greek αὐτo- (auto-), meaning “self”, and ποίησις (poiesis), meaning “creation, production”).

Any particular case of structure that arises through mechanical self-organization or autopoiesis can also be broken down again. In fact, it appears that each individual, localized structure that forms in the universe–atoms, molecules, living organisms, 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.

What if there is no meaning to life, but the meaning that we give to it? –Michel Bauwens

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.

Structure of typical bacterial cell

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?

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.

“Men are free when they belong to a living, organic, believing community, active in fulfilling some unfulfilled, perhaps unrealized purpose.” ― D.H. Lawrence

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 8:15 “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 22:13  “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. Of course this alludes back to the opening quotation of this piece:

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”

BTW, utilitarians also advise that we seek the greatest good for the greatest number. I concur.

“How strange is the lot of us mortals! Each of us is here for a brief sojourn; for what purpose he knows not, though he sometimes thinks he senses it. But without deeper reflection one knows from daily life that one exists for other people — first of all for those upon whose smiles and well-being our own happiness is wholly dependent, and then for the many, unknown to us, to whose destinies we are bound by the ties of sympathy. A hundred times every day I remind myself that my inner and outer life are based on the labors of other men, living and dead, and that I must exert myself in order to give in the same measure as I have received and am still receiving… ” ~Albert Einstein

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

Poor Richard


“When I met Heinz in Leiden 1962, I was 34 years old and he was 51. We became friends on our first encounter, it was love at first sight, and we remained like that until his death. It was not the coincidence in our thinking what draw us together, it was the pleasure of each other’s company. It was the joy of being together talking about whatever appeared in our minds. No doubt I learned from him and he learned from me. What did we learn from each other? I do not know, it is difficult to say, yet I frequently think of him remembering the person, the thinker, the scientist, the friend, …, that he was as a sensitive, honest, and ethical person. What he thought he has written in many inspiring forms that one can read. Many authors in this volume that refer to his work show this. But, what one cannot read is the flavour of his delicate care for the others and their dignity that came both from his reflections as a philosopher and scientist, and from his seeing the richness of daily life. I wish to reveal this with a very little event that must have happened some time about 1974 or 1975. We had gone together to some meeting in Los Angeles. As we came to the front desk of the Hotel to pay our accounts, I realized, and said this to him, that after a long distance phone call, I had given by mistake the phone area code as if it were my room number. As Heinz heard me he said: “Let us correct this mistake immediately, so that the beautiful habit of trust is not lost”. He knew and he did not know what he had said. I was listening from my always-present concern about living systems and all that is related to them. His concern was about ethical behaviour, mine was about the mechanism that oriented the historical transformation of living systems in the process of evolution. I did not believe in competition and natural selection as the mechanism that guided evolution, but I did not have an alternative one to propose. Yet, as I heard Heinz I realized that it was habits and preferences what continuously oriented the path that living system followed moment after moment in the realization of their living, defining the course of the genetic drift in which they are necessarily immersed through mutations and recombinations. “Evolution follows in the course of generations the path of the survival of the fit, not of the fittest”, I said to myself. And I also thought that it was the same in the individual life of an organism, which becomes whatever it becomes in its ontogeny following an epigenetic path defined moment after moment by its preferences.

Interestingly, we are the result of a life that we have lived guided by our preferences.

At any instant of our living, our living is the present of a history in which the operational coherences of all processes occurring in the living of a living system, in the biosphere, or in the cosmos, have no purpose, aim, or meaning in themselves, they just are. It is we, observers that do not see the coherences of the dynamic architectural matrix of existence that the living of a living system entails, who attempt to connect any moment of the present of a living system with some imagined event in its future through the invention of explanatory causal notions such as purposes, aims, or intentionality. We ascribe these notions to the operation of living systems or of the cosmos in the belief that they connote features of the operation of the living system or of nature. Notions such as aim, purpose, or intention, are valid in the domain of human reflections about the course of human doings which, when used as explanatory notions, obscure the generative dynamic architecture of the biological matrix of existence of living system that gives rise to the events that appear for an observer as its future.”

~Humberto Maturana Romesín, Matriztic Institute, Santiago, Chile, “The origin and conservation of self-consciousness”

  • A neurobiological theory of meaning in perception.

    • From a biological perspective a theory of meaning might be far more useful in understanding brain function than a theory of information. However, there are significant problems in devising such a theory. There is no widely accepted definition of meaning by which to express it in a set of state variables in a model. It is not subject to quantitative measurement, prediction and description with mathematical and statistical tools. It cannot be transmitted using information as a carrier. Books, articles, graphs, paintings, icons, and other human artifacts are designed to elicit meaning in observers by information transmission, but the meaning that results is observer dependent:  “I have already explained what I think of literal representation; but one cannot insist enough on this: there is no true meaning of a text. No author’s authority. Whatever he may have wanted to say, he wrote what he wrote. Once published, a text is like an implement that everyone can use as he chooses and according to his means: it is not certain that the maker could use it better than someone else” [p. 1,597, Paul Valéry, 1957]. Clearly meaning is constructed within each brain following search for and reception, through the senses, of the requisite information. Proof of this statement is in this paragraph. Every reader on reading it will have a distinctive understanding from the information in the letters, that will depend on background and expectation, but no understanding will be entirely congruent with that of the author or any other reader, nor will any reader remember the sequence of letters. Evidently meaning is a closed system in each brain, that the brain expresses by forming external representations. It uses the body to make gestures, words, icons, and other symbols to broadcast or channel its internal states of meaning. Meaning derives from intention, which is the creation and projection by the brain of alternative future states, desired or feared. These hypotheses are constructed in attractor dynamics by extrapolation from past experience, and they serve to control choices and directions of actions in the present. The projections are tested by actions into the environment and are evaluated and updated from the sensory consequences of the actions.
  • The Meaning of Human Existence by Edward O. Wilson

  • Edward O. Wilson “The Social Conquest of Earth”

    • (1:32 The biological basis of human nature.
  • Neural decoding of collective wisdom with multi-brain computing

  • Beethoven’s Anvil: Music In Mind And Culture

    • Why does the brain create music? In Beethoven’s Anvil, cognitive scientist and jazz musician William Benzon finds the key to music’s function in the very complexity of musical experience. Music demands that our symbol-processing capacities, motor skills, and emotional and communicative skills all work in close coordination–not only within our own heads but also with the heads (and bodies) of others. Music is at once deeply personal and highly social, highly disciplined yet open to emotional nuance and interpretation. It’s precisely this coordination of different mental functions, Benzon argues, that underlies our deep need to create and participate in music. At once daring and scholarly, this remarkable book offers a sweeping vision of a vital, underappreciated force in our minds and our culture.
  • Mind Matter Mapping: How to Ergonomically Grow Externalized Subconscious Thoughts into Living Semantic Web Agents

  • Sound for Detoxification (

  • Pattern survival versus gene survival (

    • 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…
  • A Psychiatrist Who Survived The Holocaust Explains Why Meaningfulness Matters More Than Happiness

  • Michel Bauwens: The Meaning that We Give to Life  What if there is no meaning to life, but the meaning that we give to it?

  • E.O. Wilson: Science, Not Philosophy, Will Explain the Meaning of Existence (9 min video) 

5 Responses to “The Meaning of Life”

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