The Search for the Meaning of Existence

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Story of Evolution, Evolution of Stories
Bryn Mawr College, Spring 2004
Second Web Paper
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The Search for the Meaning of Existence

Mary Ferrell

Daffodil bulbs instead of balls
Stared from the sockets of the eyes!

from Whispers of Immortality
by T.S. Eliot

We live and then we die. Its scary, the death part, and the living part is quite amazing. There is a great dichotomy surrounding our existence. One minute we are here, another we are gone. What is existence? What is the purpose of existence? The big metaphysical question has my interest. We grasp to understand it all but it evades us. This magnificent universe has not answered our questions.
Some people believe that our existence is a divine destiny, a creation of God, or of some purposive energy. Others say that the greatest meaning of life is to share love. These people believe that life has meaning! Actually has it! I grew up thinking that both of these meanings of life were true. There was a universal energy of good, always able to overcome bad, and love was the greatest value of all. I believed that my life would have meaning if I contributed to the good and loving energy in the world. Will my life have more meaning if I am a good loving person than an uninterested loner person? Will my life be more valuable to the universe?

Everyone would like to have meaning in their life, even those of us who are becoming cynical to meaning as an absolute. We all would be more comfortable if we knew of some transcendent value to our existence that surpasses life itself, into death. We do not know of this transcendence though. Society in the 21st century is on shaky foundations. We have tossed religious proclamations out the window and embraced science as the ultimate authority. Problem is, science is not providing metaphysical answers so we are out there in space floating around aimlessly
Currently, through the last decade or so, after seeing the substantial depth of scientific observations supporting Darwinian evolution, I begin to see another possible "meaning of meaning", and hence, a new meaning of life. Beware Darwin's dangerous idea! I now see meaning, as an emergent process of evolved human consciousness that functions as an environment analyst. I see both meaning and consciousness as aftereffects of physical processes in the brain and nervous system. Sounds pretty drab and desolate, huh? Or exciting, depending on who you are, where you are, and what time it is.

According with The Theory of Evolution, meaning could be a measurement scale within our mind that we use to size up the value of our environment. There is a possibility that life has no inherent meaning other than as a value in service of survival. Whew! Where's my romantic notion of the meaning of life as great goodness! I feel a far off sense of sinking into an abyss of a black star but mostly I am OK. The uncontainable universal acid of Darwin's Dangerous Idea described by Daniel Dennett in his book by that name has affected me (1). However, I do not mind. I think Darwin brings us closer to a better reality, in more ways than biology - a more democratic reality, less aristocratic, less patriarchal. Those details are for another paper.

The evolving process endows the biological organization with meaning (Grobstein). How could any aspect of life be meaningless? There is so much about the natural world that seems to have significance, intention and purpose; green grass and leafy trees are so cooling on a hot day; the earth receiving sunshine so that we may have energy to live and reproduce. There is still life itself, magnificent life, full of the ability to love, feel happiness, eat chocolate, and smell a rose. T.S.Eliot says that LIFE = MEANING. Somehow, this comforts me. It works -The birds and the bees and the flowers and the trees ... life is so full of meaning! Full of meaning, but we know not that this meaning is transcendent beyond life. Nevertheless, maybe, there is no need to transcend.

This feeling of meaningfulness seems to be a qualitative mental feature of the brain that has been designed to better sense the environmental patterns around us, giving them values of meaning, so that we can better calculate them into our plan for survival. Dennett states that human beings are products of evolution and their capacity to have 'meaning' is due to a suite of specific adaptations (1). It makes sense that the cool green grass and the shade trees have special meaning to me. They almost feel as if they are gifts of a God or a good force because they aid my survival. The universe seems to have special meaning also, because it is my home, a place where I live (survive!). The differential values of meaning that we assign to our environment aid survival, just as the differential values of emotions or feelings such as happiness, fear, and orgasm aid survival. If something has a lot of meaning, happiness, orgasm, etc. we treasure it. If it causes a lot of fear or does not have a lot of meaning, we do not waste our time on it.

However, I have digressed in the last two paragraphs from the metaphysical meaning of our whole existence, to using meaning as a tool for existence, although, maybe one can teach about the other. Perhaps, the reason why we ask the big metaphysical question of 'what is life and existence' is that we are programmed to ask questions of meaning. It could be that projecting this question of meaning out into the big unknown beyond life and the concerns of our niche is futile and not one of our worthwhile features. On the other hand, evolutionarily speaking, we have a chance that our metaphysical question of the meaning of life will aid our survival. Questions of meaning usually serve us well in our environment as a tool of survival. Maybe one day this bigger quest will serve us well. In the meantime, here we humans are - in this magnificent universe, however, we have no idea why? It's a weird feeling, isn't it?

Literature Cited

Dennett, Daniel. Darwin's Dangerous Idea. Evolution and the Meaning of Life. New York: Touchstone, 1995.

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