Over two thousand years ago, the philosopher Chuang-tse awoke after a dream in which he was a butterfly and wondered "I do not know whether I was then a man dreaming I was a butterfly, or whether I am now a butterfly dreaming I am a man."
Your thoughts are all that you have to ponder existence, and they can be fooled. Philosophically there is no certain knowledge and your life could be nothing more than a butterfly's dream. It is an assumption that the person you believe you are even exists.
Rene Descartes famously said, "I am thinking, therefore I exist". Does a thought necessarily imply a thinker though? In some form your thoughts exist, you know that something thinks it is you reading these words at this moment. Whether those thoughts come from you or this moment is just a random ripple on the surface of infinity we cannot really know.
In seeking any meaning you must first start with the doubt underpinning all things, the uncertainty that your consciousness cannot and I believe should not escape from. Therefore the first point to understand in working out your meaning of life is that you cannot know the meaning of your life with complete certainty. There is no simple answer to your every question, the mysteries of the creation of the universe, why you exist, what happens when you die. This will not stop many trying to sell simple answers, nor many more from taking them, but they ignore the reality of our consciousness, of doubt.
Certainty is untruth.
Unfortunately, as Bertrand Russell said, "What men want is not knowledge, but certainty". We want to have thoughts that ease our doubts, that offer answers to our fears, that elevate us in the hierarchy of beings. Belief systems are fabricated for this purpose and many find comfort in them, clinging to them all the more tightly for their often illogical nature. We are remarkably good at keeping facts which interfere with what we want to believe from encroaching on our everyday consciousness.
Most human lives have been, and continue to be, lived with a conception of the world which at its core is based on falsehoods and delusion.
Is there anything but falsity and delusion though, given the underpinning of doubt in all things, is any attempt at rationality a house built on sand?
Doubt is not the insurmountable barrier to a sincere enquiry into meaning some would hold it to be. Your entire life is based on uncertain principles, yet you do not let this lack of certainty mire you into inaction. Chuang-tse may have wondered if he was a butterfly, but he still believed he was a human enough to think it worthwhile writing down his thoughts. Almost limitless things could possibly happen to you right now, however, your mind uses your experience of existence to work out probabilities in making decisions. You are not now fleeing outside to avoid the potential for fire in your house, not because it is impossible, but because your mind has weighed your environment and decided that this is unlikely enough not to worry about at this moment.
You can rationally act because not all principles are equally uncertain nor all information equally suspect. There are different classes of information. The information that we act upon in our lives ranges in certainty from knowledge to belief. Knowledge is information which generally logically accords with our experience of existence. Belief is where we take a position on a given idea though we acknowledge missing logical steps.
The middle ground between knowledge and belief is the area of most human consciousness that plays itself out in our world. It is by trying to understand where a given piece of information fits between these points, that we can usefully order the relevance of our thoughts. We are doing this unconsciously anyway, to be most sure of avoiding fires the best course of action might be to run around your home checking constantly for smoke or flames. The reason we don't do this is that it doesn't correlate with the probabilities of our experience of existence. Even though it is improbable we also don't ignore it, we give it its due weight, like installing smoke alarms, or paying taxes for our local fire department. To start to be conscious of how we think, how we make decisions, and to use it in our daily lives, is a key to wisdom. Our certainty in respect to a given piece of information should be a product of where on the scale between knowledge and belief the information sits.
Approaching rational thought is possible based on understanding the probabilities of events occurring in existence.
We have a finite intellect, in a seemingly infinite cosmos. Even the most intelligent amongst us can perceive but a small drop of the ocean of energy, bound as they are in time, culture and space. Our comprehension of reality is by our very nature flawed, and we must accept that if we are ever to approach anything but delusion in our lives. We should be sceptical, especially of using labels like truth, but our scepticism is most useful grounding us in intellectual rigour, rather than the self-defeating pretence that finding any truths within our lives is impossible. If as Kahlil Gibran said, "knowledge is life with wings", let us not wilfully clip those wings.
Now that I have used the unfashionable word of truth, I should reassert that it is philosophically possible that the existence we live is a total delusion, and we are in actuality living a life completely different from the one we believe we perceive. You may think that this is a trivial point, but many intelligent people cannot move beyond this intellectual dead end and therefore it must be dealt with. If the existence we are totally sensually immersed within is not our real existence, this is probably unknowable. It follows that contemplation of different parallel existences, whilst intellectually stimulating, is not useful in the search for knowledge. All evidence which presents itself to us, other than some abstract edges of thought, points towards the simplest answer; we do not see shadows of reality, but largely reality itself. This is the existence that our consciousness exists within, it is within it we must know ourselves. If we seek any knowledge beyond our own imaginings, then it is only within the context of the reality of this existence that we can empirically accept or deny any idea. Once we accept this reality as being the intellectual plane in which we dwell, the only one we can act within, we can then usefully start to look within it for truths. The alternative is intellectual self-annihilation.
In seeking to comprehend our existence, our available tool is our consciousness, comprised of elements like our senses, memories, logic and imagination. These are endowments from evolution, the creations of an existence which through us has the ability to know itself.
Many would say there is little point in looking towards evolution in a quest for meaning. This would ignore the reality that the foundation of all parts of our existence, our relationship with ourselves and our world, is evolutionary. To try to remove evolution, the central logic of our being from the discussion of our meaning is an artificial and improbable boundary. It is an attempt to understand reality devoid of its central logic. It is yet another indicator that ideas have come to live greater lives than we do. That introspection has taken the place of a mind cognisant of its connections to all things.
We must look to evolution to understand where our minds are now. Much life, including that we evolved from, can be evolutionarily successful with no more logic underpinning its actions than automatic reactions to stimuli like light and dark. The more complex stimuli a being can react to, the more it can seek situations of benefit to itself. For humans, the primary motivators for all our senses and even our thoughts are pleasure and pain, as Jeremy Bentham said: "Nature has placed mankind under the governance of two sovereign masters, pain and pleasure". A simple mechanism that can be triggered by a variety of situations, pain helps us avoid damage, pleasure helps us seek benefit.
As consciousness evolved and became more intricate, it's understanding of what was likely to benefit it became more sophisticated. From the inflexible purely instinctive led existence, we move to a more complex, brain centric, learning and thinking model of evolution, but always with that instinctive model as our base. From pleasure and pain, our advanced intellect went on to create more intricate concepts of good and bad which allow us to make choices beyond automatic reactions to stimuli. Our memories and intellect can see benefits in actions further than instincts alone would allow. Pain and pleasure intellectually evolved to good and bad, right and wrong, justice and injustice. Each similar in having a basic duality based on our senses, but each more subtle and socially sophisticated than the last. These concepts span cultures as few others do and this has been claimed as evidence of the existence of an external moral source such as a god, though it is clear that they derive from evolution.
So there is a basic physical, objective basis for the concept of right and wrong, which is not completely arbitrary as many would have us believe. Right is a sophisticated understanding of pleasure, wrong is a sophisticated understanding of pain. We have intellectualised these into concepts so intricately they are sometimes scarcely recognisable, but it is in the nervous system that they have their base.
Are we something more than our senses though?
Some would say we are just processes reacting to stimuli beyond our control, and that everything we will ever do is no more in our control than whether the universe expands. This no doubt has truth in it, many things about our lives are controlled by our genetic inheritance and our life experiences.
It is also immensely important knowledge in the quest for self-realisation, to become aware of what influences our thoughts and lays beneath our motivations and desires. Without introspection, people will be unconsciously driven by the external forces of genetics and environment rather than develop their own meaning of life. By understanding their drives people can try to gain liberation from those which produce automatic outcomes and become more truly their higher selves. People need the education to understand themselves, that everything they are motivated to do comes from somewhere, often simple evolutionary drives obscured by layers of thought. "Know thyself", said the ancient Greeks, and the cost of not achieving this could be unconsciously destroying our world.
Personally to believe we are inescapably automatons at the complete control of external forces conflicts with my everyday experience of existence. As I construct the moments of my life, I feel as if I am making decisions, the person I am, what I do, is influenced by my plans and thoughts. The idea that we do not have free will is, therefore, more in the realm of Xeno's paradoxes, because it denies my reality for an abstract idea. My experience of existence tells me that I can make consequential change in this world. It is disempowering and fatalist to believe otherwise, it absolves us from the consequences of our actions, and in and of itself is a tenuous and unprovable idea.
Theories are interesting, and if they have even a facet of important truth in them they can compel the mind. Our experience of existence in the world, however, is in a realm much less open to interpretation and delusion than ideas. Empiricism, the testing of our theories in the measurable and observable physical world, is a guard on some of the common errors of thought and therefore a fundamental tenet of science. Empiricism has been formulated because there are many ways in which we commonly make mistakes in thinking - habit, skipping steps in logic, judging without the required information or thought, believing what it is in our own interest to believe, conformity and misjudging the required amount of doubt.
Ideas are not inherently good in themselves, even our own, they can hold us back from progress as easily as they can move us forward. The difference between the two is no clear line, and it takes a disciplined and subtle mind to navigate ones way between them. This is the general vicinity of wisdom.
We, humanity, have the ability to see deeply into our existence. We have knowledge about ourselves, our lives, our place in the universe that as far as we are aware is unique to us. We are the peak of consciousness in the known cosmos, which is a mysterious and beautiful thing to be. It also implies responsibility.
We have what is called the "Theory of Mind". This relates to having a concept of self, and therefore others. This ability is only found in a handful of the higher brain centric species. Humans can have this ability in an extremely complex and subtle manner.
I believe this higher knowledge has a direct bearing on morality. Pain and pleasure, very self-focused experiences, are the basis of meaning that our evolutionary existence gives us, To extend that understanding to the consideration of others, that they are beings undergoing the same experiences as ourselves and are of no less importance, is what our advanced consciousness gives us the ability to do.
The next logical step, the intellectual evolutionary step we have been struggling to make for thousands of years, is"I think therefore you are". This is the difference between humanity, being an intricate evolutionary being following instincts, and an intellectually evolved being that asserts their own and other's unique individuality.
We know that the pleasure and pain we feel is felt similarly by those around us from the same sorts of stimuli, that they feel very much as we feel. Treating others as if they mattered less than we do can only be based on self-obsession, there is no logical basis for it except in the distant echos of evolution before we evolved social intelligence. Other people are, as Immanuel Kant said, ends in themselves. Many who hold the opinion that they matter more than anyone else will make appeals to reason, to "how the world is" as the basis for their actions, however, it is by ignoring reason, empathy and many other of our higher faculties, that they are able to hold such delusions. Meaning centres on the self by the same poor reasoning that once led us to believe the universe revolved around the earth. Logically this is ridiculous, that any one person is of primary importance in the human story, but for lack of deeper thought, it remains a pervasive absurdity. We need a Copernican revolution of the ego.
Our understanding of evolution logically takes this concept of consideration to other animals. We know that other beings have similar emotions and nervous systems as we do, coming from the same evolutionary base, and we should consider their happiness as important. That they have the potential for advanced consciousness is something we also choose to ignore, though many of them are far more evolutionarily advanced than humankind once was. Self-interest is too short-sighted for such understanding.
An understanding of doubt, humility for the limitations of our consciousnesses means we should avoid interfering with the natural processes of the world in which we live, for it has a logic we are yet to fully comprehend. To interfere with a process which made the incredible biological diversity of our world and think it is a sensible thing to do is to delude ourselves to our current level of knowledge and wisdom. We make choices for life on this earth now and into the future, in all that we do it deserves our consideration, and often the most intelligent thing we can do is let it be.
Our search for power has ever outpaced our search for wisdom. We act with certainty where there should be doubt. Our inability to see all ends means it will always be a challenge to know how to do the "right" thing, to act most compassionately, to least interfere with the natural world in negative ways. Like the tenuous nature of meaning itself or the achievement of complete fulfilment in one's life, the difficulty of reaching a state of absolute certainty does not mean it is a path we should avoid.
I believe that having an advanced consciousness as we do brings with it its own meaning. With the seemingly limitless paths our consciousness endows upon us, its great ability for comprehension and imagination, it becomes an evolutionary path within itself. To have this tool within us that could potentially do such great and inspiring things, and to not use it and develop it, make of it something beautiful and true, seems a stunted approach to our own existence. It is a denial of the potential within ourselves, of evolution.
Meaning is not out there to be found in the universe, it is a creation of the human mind, we need deep introspection and self-knowing to even begin to understand it. As the most advanced creative force in the universe, it is up to us to choose to use our creative energies to bring into being the universe as we would wish it to be. As my guide, I use a meaning that as much as I am able, takes into consideration all the facets of the existence I inhabit, my happiness and sense of beauty, a consideration for everything beyond me and especially all that can suffer.
Therefore what do I think the meaning of life is? To use our energies to create a universe which offers the greatest chance of advancement, fulfilment and happiness to all that lie within it. It is in a world where the majority of people are working towards this goal, we have the greatest chance of finding these things for ourselves. There are limitless possibilities for each of our lives in large and small ways to contribute to achieving this goal, using our talents and passions where we think they will be most useful and fulfilled.
As I believe the journey is within, it is up to us to discover our own individual meaning of life within the greater scheme. Mine is to find happiness, to love and help others, to be creative, to share, to think and find deep truth, to be compassionate, to communicate, to indulge my senses, to enjoy my time as a conscious piece of this soaringly glorious universe. It is a path of human potential, of equality, of equal consideration for all that lives.
This is my meaning, I hope this has stimulated you to think about yours.