First, let’s talk about some things we can easily and simply explain – the basis of meaning, value, relationships, morality and caring.
OK, that’s kind of cheeky, but I did say the basis of these concepts, not in-depth application! So…
“What is the meaning of life?”
This is, of course, such an age-old, central question of philosophy that it’s become a cliché. But we’re actually going to finally and definitively answer that question right now.
A great place to start looking for the answer to that question is to consider the point in the universe’s history when “meaning” started to have any meaning.
Fairly early on there were some pretty cool things – galaxies, nebulae, planets, black holes… But did any of it matter? What if a beautiful comet crashed into a planet? What if that beautiful planet got sucked into its star? Or if that star got sucked into a black hole? Would any of that matter?… Not really, right?
The reason is that there was nothing that it mattered to. There was nothing in existence which could bestow meaning on anything… So when did that change? Was it when self-awareness evolved? Or just consciousness itself? It turns out, we don’t even need awareness of any kind!
Long, long ago, but not very far away (possibly right in your backyard), there lived a Very EARly Life form. We’ll call it Vearl.
Vearl was special. Vearl could do something no other organism in earth’s very short history could do. We’re not sure what it was, exactly. But that doesn’t matter. What matters is that, by doing it, Vearl proactively ensured his survival.
We’re not talking about evolving a better cell membrane or more efficient gene expression – those are passive and out of Vearl’s control. We’re talking about something like moving away from heat, or towards food, or out of direct sunlight, or decreasing his metabolism when food was scarce.
Whatever it was, the key is that it was proactive (taking positive action). When Vearl did this, he acted, for the first time in history, like something mattered. He acted like his existence mattered.
He didn’t ‘think’ his existence mattered – remember, Vearl doesn’t have any comprehension or awareness whatsoever, not even that he exists. Instead, Vearl’s life gained meaning simply by him acting as if it did. It’s very important that we not have comprehension as a criteria for meaning, and we’ll see why this is so important later on.
Now you might say, “OK, but what about if the first proactive thing Vearl did was to glow pink, or swim into a lava flow? Wouldn’t ‘glowing pink’ or ‘death by lava’ then be what matters? That’s still just subjective!”
Oh, well then I guess it can’t be quite that simple. What makes ‘existence’ matter in a way that is objective? For that, we need another player. A very important player. A player that seems to be exclusive to The Big Answer. One which other philosophical approaches fail to include as a participant in this way. Are you ready to meet this player?
The player we’re going to introduce is: Reality.
Before you say, “that’s lame… and not exclusive,” let’s clarify. Reality is not something The Big Answer works ‘in’ or even ‘with’. Reality is literally a co-creator of this model – an active participant. That’s what’s so cool and makes this line of reasoning actually work, and why it is objective.
To be clear, we’re not anthropomorphizing reality – reality isn’t conscious; it isn’t aware, nor does it care about anything. All it does is ‘keep it real’.
Reality doesn’t care if Vearl exists, or if he glows pink, or if he gets charbroiled. And, honestly, since Vearl has no awareness himself, he can’t consciously care about those things either. So how does this unlikely, oblivious pair create meaning?
That’s the beautiful thing! When Vearl acts as if his existence has meaning, reality can do something it can’t do with any other potentially meaningful action – reality can “reward” Vearl with more existence. Vearl and reality are now agreeing on and co-creating meaning from existence, the only thing that reality can objectively weigh in on.
If Vearl subjectively chooses to like frying in lava, reality will actively put an end to that. Reality is constantly terminating any value system that goes against one’s ongoing existence. Civilizations that valued things that led to their destruction aren’t here anymore, and civilizations today that are doing the same thing are headed in the same direction. It’s not that you can’t subjectively value something else, it’s just that if you do, you can’t expect to do so for very long.
If Vearl subjectively likes something that doesn’t affect his existence, like glowing pink, there is no way for reality to reward or punish that. It literally doesn’t and can’t matter in any objective sense.
And there you have it – the only thing in the universe that can possibly matter at all in any objective sense is acting as if one’s own existence matters. Which is not actually as bleak as it sounds…
To see why, click here to go to Part 2.