The meaning of life
Thoughts on truth and being


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? Could machines be programmed to have self-consciousness, and could we ever know if they really did? In some form thoughts exist, something thinks it is you reading these words at this moment, but our understanding of consciousness is too limited to say what that means with any certainty. Whether those thoughts come from you or this moment is a random ripple on the surface of infinity, or something in between we can’t really prove.

In seeking any meaning we must start with the doubt underpinning all things, the uncertainty that our consciousness cannot completely escape from and therefore should not try. The first point to understand in working out the meaning of life is that we will never know it with complete certainty. Tthehe mysteries of life’s origins, the exact unfolding and creation of the universe, do we have free will, what happens when we die, how are we to live, and so many more questions are topics of long conversation precisely because they have no simple answer. This will not stop many from selling simple answers, nor many more from happily buying them, but they ignore the reality of our consciousness. Uncertainty is truth, overconfidence and absolute certainty are markers of a shallow mind.

Unfortunately, as Bertrand Russell said, "What men[sic] want is not knowledge, but certainty". We want to move about confidently in the world. We want to have thoughts that answer and silence our doubts, that ease our fears and that give us status within the hierarchy of beings. Belief systems fabricated partly for this purpose are popular because people find comfort in them. The fact that many of these beliefs are illogical is of less interest to people than that they find them useful; the more illogical the beliefs are the more tightly people need to cling to them to drown out opposing thoughts. We are remarkably good at keeping facts that interfere with what we would like to believe from encroaching on our everyday consciousness; this deep flaw hampers our collective progress.

In order to survive sentient beings require a largely accurate understanding of the world. Gravity, the laws of physics, the expressions and behaviours of others, whatever deeper understanding we have of such things, we and our ancestors have learned to consider them in our actions or we could not have survived. Higher consciousness is not needed for navigating the world at this level, merely processes like sensual perception, memory, trial and error. This accurate understanding starts to break down when we get to deeper themes, the ones that can only be understood from the perspective of higher consciousness. Most human lives have been and continue to be lived with a conception of the world that at its core is based on falsehoods and delusion. In the past, this was more excusable because we understood so little. Before the ascent of modern science, primarily the theory of evolution, our collective ignorance was underminingly vast. Now, however, we have opened windows into the fabric of our universe; the outlines of our creation story, the structure of the universe, the complex workings of our ecosystems, and so on that must have deep consequences for our collective philosophies. Many religions have slowly and reluctantly tried to reconcile some of our greater knowledge with their doctrines, but there is a point at which to do so threatens their own coherence. One way in which people have tried to avoid this issue is to say we should not try to reconcile them. Steven Jay Gould called science and religion “non-overlapping magisteria”, positing that they were mutually exclusive domains of knowledge. This idea of universal duality has been popular with conservatives who are unhappy with science’s encroachments on the ideas underpinning traditional systems of social organisation and power. Liberals too have often been unhappy with the growing science of human nature because it means that we are not free to think ourselves into any utopian direction we desire. The old stories were preferable to many people because they are free to posit any convenient myth with absolute authority. The desire to sever any connection between meaning and things like evolutionary reality and the laws of physics, however, sets us hopelessly adrift from any tangible centre for thought, especially shared thought. Is there anything but falsity and delusion with which we can base our lives on though? Given the underpinning of doubt in all things, is any attempt at rationality a castle built on sand?

Doubt does not seem the insurmountable barrier to the sincere enquiry into meaning some hold it to be. We cannot escape uncertainty but our entire lives are based on uncertain principles, yet we do not let this mire us into inaction. Chuang-Tse may have wondered if he was a butterfly, but he still believed in the human realm enough to think it worthwhile writing down his thoughts. Almost limitless things could possibly happen to you right now, however, your mind doesn’t overload you with them and instead uses your experience of existence to work out probabilities in assigning mental resources. You are not now fleeing outside to avoid the life-threatening potential for fire in your building, not because it is impossible, but because your mind has weighed your environment and decided that this is unlikely enough to be put aside for this moment.

You can rationally act because not all principles are equally uncertain nor is all information equally suspect. There are different, overlapping, shifting, classes of information. Most of the information that we come upon in our lives ranges in certainty somewhere on the spectrum of knowledge and belief. Knowledge is information that logically accords with our experience of existence. Belief is where we take a position on a given idea though we acknowledge missing logical steps. It isn’t always clear even to ourselves where a given piece of information sits on the knowledge-to-belief spectrum. The way humans think doesn’t always help us here as thought and communication are full of missing steps just as a matter of efficiency. I might say “green is better than red” and although this sounds like an absolute statement, I probably don’t mean it as one. Instead, I would probably be asserting it as my preference, not as a universal truth for all instances at all times. What I might be actually saying is, “When I need to choose between colours in some circumstance where they are relatively arbitrary, I generally think green is more pleasing to the eye or mind than red” and even this elaboration has many shortcuts embedded within it such as the concept of colour. Talking with precision would be tiresome and we generally expect the person we are communicating with to make many assumptions on our behalf. In some circumstances we might want to assert something beyond our own preference, for all people at all places and times, but this would require much more intellectual work. We are mostly the authority on our own subjective experience, but if we try to assert facts, to make more universal claims, they have a higher bar of evidence and even a single counter-example can invalidate them. To try to make universally true statements about the world requires the sometimes tedious but necessary reflection that is the foundation of philosophy. This tedium however is necessary if we want to join with others in a deeper collective understanding. In order to comprehend a more objective truth, we must become conversant in the mechanics of thought. If we aspire to live rationally we require an understanding of the spectrum of knowledge and belief, and this understanding, like many thinking skills, must be learnt and practised.

The ground between knowledge and belief is the area that most human thought dwells within. By trying to understand where a given piece of information fits between these points or put more simply how true something is, we can usefully order the importance and relevance of thoughts. Our minds have evolved to do some of this largely unconsciously anyway and although it often misfires it gets things right enough to be evolutionarily useful. To be most sure of avoiding destructive fires in our home the best course of action might be to constantly check for smoke or flames. The reason we don't do usually this is because it doesn't correlate with our experience of the probabilities of reality. Even though a house fire is improbable we also don't ignore it, we try to give it its due weight by doing things like being careful with open flames, installing smoke alarms, or paying taxes for our local fire department. We have, perhaps unconsciously, found a place to stand in that grey area between certainty and uncertainty. To be more conscious of how we can think well amid uncertainty and complexity, and to navigate doubt in our daily lives, is a foundation of wisdom. Evolution has tried to help us here by giving us what we often call intuition, a mechanism that stores and reminds us of past lessons even if they don’t consciously come to mind. Intuition is a blunt mechanism that evolved in a very different world to the one we now inhabit, and probably evolved in very different minds to the ones we now possess, it should be listened to but not necessarily trusted. To harness our intuition towards wisdom we can bring the processes of thinking more into the light and make thinking well and making better judgements more deliberate.

Valuing rationality is a necessary start, but it won’t suddenly make us rational. Making our thoughts more rational is possible based on practising more deliberate thinking about the probabilities of events occurring in existence. When we are given a certain piece of information, how we evaluate it should be a product of where on the scale between knowledge and belief the information sits and we often won’t immediately know this. Complicating this is that any given piece of information is part of a web and in evaluating it we must also consider the supporting and connected knowledge. If a source of information we have found we could generally trust in the past gives us information, we might be inclined to think it likely to be true, whereas information from a source we know nothing about or one that has often been false in the past gives us information we would evaluate that more sceptically. Another filter we can use is trying to understand the self-interest or biases of a source of information, so if they have a financial, political, identity or other interest in propagating a certain belief or piece of information, this should be a trigger to evaluate it more carefully. Webs of probabilities and what is called Bayesian reasoning, are our tools in trying to navigate the uncertainty and complexity of our information landscape. After all, amid uncertainty we must still act, even as we are learning how to act.

Navigating complexity and doubt in order to live well and contribute to a better world is a challenge, but perhaps one worthy of our higher consciousness. We are finite intellects trying to understand a seemingly infinite cosmos. Even the most intelligent among us can perceive but a small drop of the vast oceans of energy and information, bound as we are in perspective. Our comprehension of reality is by our very nature limited and flawed, and we must integrate that into our thinking if we are ever to consistently approach anything beyond delusion in our lives. Even approaching truth is hard. No matter how diligent we are, what we think is true often isn't and vice versa. Truth sits outside of us. No one is its final judge or arbiter. Yet some things are more likely to be true than others and this is enough to work with. Scepticism of truth is needed for grounding us in intellectual rigour but becoming too sceptical risks an almost self-extinguishing pretence that finding anything approaching truth is impossible. If, as Kahlil Gibran said, "knowledge is life with wings", to be either overly certain or doubtful is to wilfully clip our own wings, to rob ourselves of some of the mystery, beauty and challenge of our existence.

To navigate reality the tools sentient beings have evolved are senses and a consciousness with which to coordinate and order sensual knowledge. Consciousness is comprised of elements like sensual receptors, memories, logic and imagination. These are all evolutionary endowments that are creations of a mathematical universe that through us has the ability to think about itself. Carl Sagan said any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic, and anything beyond our current understanding, such as the mysteries of higher consciousness, approaches this. We are beings rooted in earth and clay who also contain a magical potential, and finding truth seems not to lie in preferencing either of these parts of our nature, but rather in reconciling them.

Having repeatedly used the unfashionable word “truth”, we should reassert that our experience of existence is entirely mediated through minds that can be and often are fooled. Our bodies, if we have one, could be living a life completely different from the one our mind perceives. We may think this a mildly interesting point, but I have met people trapped in this intellectual dead end. They do not so much believe it is true, after all on what basis could they assert it was so, but rather that it fatally undermines the foundations of truth. As a matter of pragmatism, if the existence we are sensually immersed within is not our real existence, this is probably unknowable. Contemplation of different parallel existences we might be within, whilst intellectually stimulating, gives us little or no useful information about how we are to live and relate with each other in the reality we perceive. Imagination is important in pondering alternate collective futures, but we do not begin from nowhere and thus pure reason alone is not enough. Our visions for progress should be anchored in the limitations and mechanics of our reality, especially evolution, the experiments of history and the crooked timber of human psychology, to have any hope of offering holistic progress. All evidence that presents itself to us, other than the abstract ideas of pure thought, points towards a shared physical reality largely as we perceive it. We may only be seeing shadows of reality, but if so then that is the prison our consciousness exists within. If we seek any knowledge beyond our imaginings, then it is within the context of the reality of this existence that we can empirically accept or deny any idea. Once we accept the intellectual plane in which we collectively dwell, the only one that offers us empirical, shared knowledge, we then have a useful central basis on which to discuss truths. The alternative to believing in an objective shared reality beyond human thought is intellectual self-annihilation.

Evolution and Meaning

Many would say we should ignore evolution in our quest for meaning. This is understandable; if someone acted unjustly or cruelly and defended it as consistent with evolution, we would consider this a bad-faith argument. Pointing to the sometimes cruel nature of evolutionary reality to justify further cruelty is selective thinking, and mistakes one facet of evolution for its whole. Evolutionary reality is a complex blend of beauty and ugliness, joy and terror that defies the human preference for simple narratives and certain thoughts. The cruel aspects of evolution had propaganda ministers in the religious faiths who sought to undermine the replacement of myths that for generations had sustained their lives and power. We can look at social beings, such as ourselves, to see many other facets of evolution, including caring, sacrifice and selflessness. Humans evolved with both selfishness and sociality as potential evolutionary beneficial survival strategies, useful in different situations. We cannot understand ourselves or envision utopias, without understanding these aspects of our construction. The foundation of our existence, our relationship with ourselves, each other and our world, is evolutionary. To try to remove the central logic of our story from the discussion of our collective experience is an artificial and improbable boundary. Those who ignore evolution in discussing meaning are disconnecting their ideas from reality.

We must ground our understanding in evolution, especially of ourselves with all of our biases and limitations, in order to, as the ancient Greeks bid us, “Know thyself”. Much life including that we evolved from, has been 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 information points it has to seek situations of benefit to itself, to survive and reproduce. For humans, the primary motivators for all our senses and even our thoughts are pleasure and pain, as in the quote from Jeremy Bentham "Nature has placed mankind under the governance of two sovereign masters, pain and pleasure". Pain helps a being avoid damage, pleasure helps them seek benefit and in each being aeons of evolutionary wisdom based on these simple mechanisms are embedded.

As consciousness evolved and became more intricate, especially in higher consciousness, the understanding of what was likely to benefit a being became more sophisticated. From the inflexible purely instinctive-led existence, some beings moved to a niche of more complex, brain-centric, learning and thinking; a model of evolution where instead of waiting for genetic change, ideas could radically change our response to our environment in a moment. Upon pleasure and pain, the advanced intellect layers concepts of good and bad that allow us to make choices beyond automatic reactions to stimuli. Memory and thought can see benefits in actions further than instincts alone would allow. Pain and pleasure’s intellectual children include good and bad, right and wrong, fair and unfair, justice and injustice. Each concept is rooted in a basic duality of our senses and survival, but more subtle and socially sophisticated reflecting the increasing capabilities and complexity of our intellects. These concepts span disconnected cultures which some have claimed is evidence of an external moral source, though it could not be more clear that they derive from evolution.

There is a basic physical, objective basis for the concept of right and wrong, which is not completely arbitrary, but based on the mechanisms of the evolutionary system. Right is a sophisticated understanding of pleasure and wrong is a sophisticated understanding of pain, One promotes life and one damages it and these are approximations for guiding well-being and flourishing. We have intellectualised these into concepts so intricately that they are sometimes scarcely recognisable, but it is in our nervous system that they have their base.

Free will

What can we make of concepts such as right and wrong if there is no such thing as free will? Some say we are 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 the limitations of our freedom, many things about our lives are determined by things beyond our control such as our genetics and life experiences. Just being human at a certain place and time has profound impacts on our perspective of existence. These important ideas have political implications for how we structure our world to give people the best chance of flourishing. As with denying truth, however, denying free will stands against our lived experience. Until an idea can be reconciled with our lives, we should accept our understanding of it as incomplete. Questioning foundational concepts is both interesting and necessary, we should go where the truth leads us, but in the wrong hands, such ideas become the end of a conversation rather than an important point along the way. Most people need to think more about higher unifying truths and feel they have more agency over their lives and the world, not less.

To believe we are inescapably automatons at the behest of external forces conflicts with our everyday experience of existence. As we construct the moments of my life, we feel we are making consequential decisions, and to discard this evidence for an idea of pure reason seems premature. The idea that we are not free reminds us of Zeno's paradoxes, which are Ancient Greek thought experiments that appear to prove things such as that we can never move from one point to another, or that if a tortoise was given a head start against the legendary runner Achille’s, Achille’s could never overtake the slower tortoise. Even modern thinkers find it difficult to conclusively disprove Zeno’s paradoxes. The simplest refutation came when, after Diogenes the cynic listened to Zeno disprove the idea of motion, Diogenes wordlessly got up and walked out of the room. Similarly, the refutation of free will denies a reality in which we constantly make choices, for an idea that cannot be proven or disproven. It is potentially disempowering and fatalistic to believe something that absolves us from the consequences of our actions. From a pragmatic political point of view, many people already feel powerless to make positive change, giving further backing to this idea by denying individuals any agency at all seems like a poor use of philosophy. If truth leads us to dead ends, we must look for other truths with which to guide us.

Theories are interesting, and if they have even a facet of important truth in them they can deepen our thought and compel our minds. Our experience of the physical world however is less open to interpretation and delusion than abstract ideas and is thus the foundation of a shared conception of the world that can enable productive communication. The name we give to a way of thinking that grounds all knowledge in our sensual experience of the world is Empiricism. If someone tells us an idea that is outside of our knowledge of physical existence, even if they give us an argument that sounds plausible or seems to demonstrate it to us, we still require that idea to be connected back to our general understanding of how the physical world works. People who believe in the supernatural do so because they don’t have this requirement for knowledge, they are quite content to ignore large steps in their construction of ideas. Empiricists believe in Hitchen’s razor “That which can be asserted without evidence, can be dismissed without evidence”. We know too much about human frailty to think any idea can be verified on human testimony alone. The testing of our ideas against the measurable and observable physical world guards us against many of the common errors of subjective thought, which is why it is a fundamental tenet of science. Empiricism is necessary because there are many ways in which we commonly make logical fallacies in our thinking - habit, skipping steps in logic, judging without the required information or thought, believing what it is in our self-interest, overtrusting, under-trusting, conformity and misjudging the required amount of doubt. Once we have a rough agreement on the nature of truth, reality, and what we consider provable and disprovable, we have a foundation around which rational discussion and ideas for collective progress become possible.

Higher consciousness

We, humanity, have the ability to peer deeply into existence. We have knowledge about ourselves, our lives and our place in the universe that as far as we are aware is unique to us. We are the peak of known consciousness in the cosmos, which is a mysterious and beautiful thing to be. It might also imply something about how we should live, even our responsibility. Aristotle thought rationality was the defining characteristic of human beings. Like any single characteristic that we try to pull out and say “This is uniquely human” rationality to some degree is likely possessed by other species. We see other species that can echo and often surpass humans in a variety of intellectual capabilities, but no extant species have the range, depth and powerful combination of so many capabilities that humans have. If a being does not have a capability for something, such as morality, it would make little sense to judge them according to it, but is the opposite true? The very fact that humans have certain capabilities, especially unique ones, does not logically lead to them being our purpose, but it at least opens up the possibility.

Humans have what is called the "Theory of Mind"; a concept of having a self that acts separately from the world. This ability has been proven in only a handful of higher brain-centric species and humans can embody this ability in a complex and subtle manner. The classic test of this is to use a mirror and see if an animal recognises themself, or instead thinks they see another animal behind a window. Recognising ourselves is a short step away from recognising others. Recognising ourselves in others is perhaps the next step and a foundation for complex social relationships. Empathy is a window into other sentient beings, the more similar their behaviours and expressions seem the more we feel we recognise their experience of existence. This higher knowledge seems required for morality, though we can still choose whether we use that knowledge for positive or negative social ends. We all seek to understand the world, the only question is whether we use our understanding primarily to improve the world or to profit from it.

The intellectual evolutionary step many humans have been struggling to help us collectively make for thousands of years, at least since the Axial age, is a conceptual move from “I think therefore I am” to "I think therefore you are". This step is to reconcile the differing evolutionary inheritances of our construction; the more ancient instinctive being from which a higher consciousness emerged but probably cannot completely transcend. Our maturation as a species and as individuals requires balancing the parts of a self that are obsessed with sensual and emotional experience with a higher consciousness that can become cognizant of its connections to other sentience, the evolutionary system and the infinite cosmos. This higher self can simply be left to do what it evolved to do, serve the needs of our genetics, but this is a sad diminishment of our potential. Our collective flourishing lies in becoming cognizant of our role in a grand, collective story that spans time and space, and deciding to play a positive role in that story.


I knew how woefully incomplete and flawed my attempt at writing a meaning of life was likely to be from the outset. Even if it happened to be coherent or logically sound, anyone would be free to discard it, just as they are free to deny or support any idea. Writing a meaning of life is hubristic and error-prone, but yet also seemingly necessary. The discussion of our purpose and how we are to live is too important to ignore, be silent about or hand over to others. Meaning, or the lack of it, is the spring from which our effects upon the world largely flow. We might wish for a meaning of life emblazoned across the sky because this would give us certainty, but we are more free for it not being so. Even if there was some supernatural force in the universe dictating how we should live, this would not extinguish our duty to think for ourselves, for we would have to choose whether to trust it. To have unquestioning faith in any power that passively oversees the horrors of our world is to verge on complicity. If we wish to avoid intellectual servitude or self-annihilation, the remaining path is the philosophy of Existentialism; that part of the power, duty and burden of higher consciousness is to find a coherent and pragmatic meaning within this existence.

In trying to understand the meaning of life we cannot start with our desires and work outwards, for that path might lead to a meaning of our own life, but this is just a fragment of the larger mosaic. Meaning engaged in as a solitary endeavour probably deserves a lesser name, for meaning must consider and reconcile itself with our context, it is an intimate relationship between our thought and the external objects on which it rests. We are part of many stories, and very few if any of the important ones centre on us. Meaning centres on the self, or extensions of our self like our family, beliefs, nation, or species, by similar reasoning to that which once led us to believe the universe revolved around the earth. The self-centred story the senses tell us is compelling but biased and correcting this limited false narrative does not diminish us but rather the opposite, it enables us to unfold and merge with deeper themes, to expand the idea of ourselves out even into the cosmos. Humanity has long repeated to itself that the earth and other life were created for us, but our true place is as a thread in a larger, shared story all the more grand because it is both true and universal. Embracing our story that is entwined with all of life, the creation and composition of our universe, requires us to embark upon a Copernican revolution of the ego.

Humility for the limitations of our understanding and consciousnesses requires us to foster a reverence for the evolutionary systems that breathed life into us. To think we can confidently meddle amid interweaved evolutionary wisdom formed over millions of years, processes that created natural beauty and diversity we can scarcely comprehend, is to delude ourselves about our level of insight. Our refuge against the limitations of knowledge must be wisdom; to discern when to act boldly, when to act with caution and when to let things be. Human dominion means the choices we make are consequential not just for us but for all life; we should be hesitant to interfere in the evolutionary journey of others. In all that we do life as a totality, as a system, deserves our consideration and respect.

Meaning it is not somewhere beyond to be discovered, but nor is it entirely within us. It is the communication between the self and the non-self, the perception and the perceived, the consciousness and all that it rests upon. We sift for clues amongst the physics of the universe, the biology of life, the path of evolution, the lessons of human history, sentient emotion, consciousness, senses, and even in non-human intellects including the ones we might come to create.

What does it mean to be the ability of the cosmos to see into itself? Advanced consciousness, as both an extraordinary gift and a burden, brings with it its own unique meanings. Our seemingly endless, limitless intellect and imagination create unique evolutionary paths. To have such almost magical potential within us and to not make of it something beautiful and true, seems a denial of our being, a stunted approach to our moment before the canvas of existence. We are part of the higher powers of this universe. We can use what power we have to bring into being a universe more as we would wish it to be. Our collective thought and action can make the universe kinder, fairer, more beautiful and life-promoting. With different choices, we can also make the world a harsher, uglier place and as history has shown, this can happen not only when we act with explicitly bad motivations but also from selfishness, apathy or ignorance. What we cannot do is exist and stand apart from existence at the same time. We construct existence together, some part of the experience of life for others is in our hands. We may not choose this power or responsibility, but by the mere fact of existing we are part of a morality play and our only real choice is what part we play in it. In defining ourselves and putting to use our life energy, the question we must ask is not will the world be different because of our moment in it, but only how it will be different.

The meaning of life in the universe, of our individual life, of our collective human lives and of the earth’s evolutionary system of life, are different but interwoven mysteries in which we swim. Complete answers to any of these might exhaust the limitations of human thought, no individual certainly can own these questions or answers, and any who do come to some higher revelation merely create a higher stepping-off point for the next generation of minds to incorporate and surpass. Meaning might be like climbing a mountain, that as we ascend one summit our view widens and our perspective sees that other unexplored summits loom still; or perhaps a fractal pattern is a better analogy, we plunge its depths only to find ever more depths and so on. Perhaps, as the opening verses of Tao Te Ching say, neither the path that can be trodden nor the name that can be named are true and eternal, rather they are like signposts to greater realities. Life and the experience of life would seem to overflow any vessel in which we try to contain them and there is deep beauty, mystery and challenge in this. In our pursuit of truth we push the vessel of collective consciousness from which we were nursed to become ever more vast and encompassing. The task of knowing thyself is not to disappear into one’s own reflection, but to delve deeply enough that we can recognise our connections to all things. Our meaning, or we might say our task, is by our flourishing to play a part in the more beautiful, compassionate and just unfolding of the grand story of life and consciousness.