On Absurdity and the Need for Meaning

The Ancient Greeks used to tell the story of Sisyphus, a man who tried to cheat death and defy the Gods. For this he was punished to spend all eternity in Hell, constantly rolling a large stone up a hill. When this stone was about to reach the top, it would roll down again, forcing Sisyphus to turn back and repeat the task. Sisyphus was stuck in a never ending cycle, doing a hard and pointless task that he knew he was never going to be able to finish.

French philosopher Albert Camus took this story and used it as a metaphor for life. In one of his most famous essays “The Myth of Sisyphus”, Camus described his premise on the absurdity of this world. He noted how people search for meaning, while in reality there is none. Life is just absurd, a series of random events which have no meaning in themselves.

Taking this premise, a person has three ways of dealing with this reality.

1) Suicide.

2) Taking a leap of faith.

3) Accepting the absurd.

With the first choice you escape this life, but neither for Camus or any other philosopher was that the correct answer for dealing with the nature of life. Most people deal with this world by taking a leap of faith. They choose to believe in something beyond the apparent absurdity of this world, in some sort of purpose and meaning. Faced with the absurdity of life, they keep on hoping in something more.

Camus called this philosophical suicide, while the body and the mind keep on living, you suspend reason and instead believe without evidence. This type of action can take many forms, whether it be religion, or just the mere act of hoping and trying to find meaning for everyday occurrences and the future. This is a leap of faith, which is inherently irrational.

Instead, what Camus proposed as the right solution is to accept the absurd. You know that life is meaningless and absurd, you accept it, and despite this you continue on living anyways. For the Absurdists following Camus, this is the way to experience the greatest freedom. You live in the moment and for the moment.

It is not the destination that matters, but the struggle itself. This struggle is what life is all about. To quote Camus: “it is enough to fill a man’s heart”. He concludes his essay by stating that “one must imagine Sisyphus happy”.

In order to examine whether this interpretation of existence is close to reality or if there is indeed some sort of a purpose and meaning, we need to take a step back and examine how humans think and how this way of thinking evolved through the millions of years of different organisms struggling to stay alive.

The theory of evolution states that the purpose of a living organism is to survive and to reproduce. To use the argument of Richard Dawkins in his book “The Selfish Gene”, the gene wants to propagate itself. To be able to do that, the carrier of that gene needs to survive long enough to reproduce and thereby pass down genes to their offspring.

This premise could imply some sort of a rudimentary meaning and purpose for life, however I will look at this later. Instead, I will focus on how evolutionary drives shaped the way that organisms (and thereby humans) behave.

The world is a dangerous place. In order for you to survive, you need to have different mechanisms that let you find the dangers and then dealing with these dangers. This means being able to pick up clues from the environment around you and then judging their significance.

The problem is that as you are walking in the street or climbing trees in the jungle, there is too much, but also too little information at the same time! Just look around and you will see that there are too many things around you, most of them of no relevance. So your mind has learned to focus and to block off much of this noise.

However, at times there could be subtle signals which could spell trouble. The problem is that there is often not enough information present to be able to judge the significance of those little signals. To be able to make a decision on what to do next, your mind has to pick up enough of these little signals and then piece them together.

This means that pattern recognition is very important for survival. The fact that oftentimes there is not enough information present, means that you need to fill the blanks in between. Other mechanisms, namely those to do with your memory, come into play when it is time to fill in the blanks. A lot of times this still leaves blank spaces that aren’t filled. You make a guess, a leap of faith.

Once it is time to make a decision, your brain combines the outside signals, with things stored in its memory and then makes a best guess on what to do using pattern recognition. This process is called a heuristic. Many times this process arrives at a correct decision, but sometimes it doesn’t. Instead, it puts all these things together and arrives at an incorrect pattern. This is how things like cognitive biases and superstitions arise.

Superstition is not just a human thing, but has roots deep in prehistory. Experiments with pigeons have shown that they too are superstitious. In 1947, B.F. Skinner, an American psychologist and researcher in behavioral psychology published a paper which described his experiments with pigeons.

He would lock them up in a box and then at random times dropped food to them. Most of the pigeons (75% of them in fact) developed some sort of regular behaviors. One bird would turn counter-clockwise three or four times. Another would do pendulum-like head movements. Skinner concluded that these birds developed superstitious behaviors. They acted as if they believed that doing the movements that they were doing would get them food.

The pigeons started to associate a certain part of their actions with food dropping to them. They might have been doing some movement and noticed that food appeared, so this made them think that this was due to them doing that movement. They developed false patterns and cause and effect relationships, when in fact the food was dropped in at random times. Humans behave in much the same way. Many people have some sort of superstitions or tiny rituals meant to help deliver a certain result.

Basically, at fault here is mistaking correlation with causation. You notice that two things seem to happen at similar times. You then think that there might be some sort of a relationship. One of these things usually precedes the other, so this thing must be causing the other thing to happen. This is how superstitions arise. People ascribe meaning to little superstitious rituals. They think that by doing this ritual something else will happen.

Very relevant here is the term locus of control. This is the degree to which people believe that they have control over events in their lives. There are two ways of thinking here: an internal loci (the belief that you can control events in your life), and an external loci (belief that external events control you and you cannot influence them).

Superstitions are a way to try to shift away the locus of control from an external locus to an internal one. This then gives these people more confidence in their ability to control events. For example, if you believe that jumping up and down on one leg ten times before heading out on a dangerous fishing expedition gives you a greater chance of coming back, then this type of activity will give you more confidence, and you will do it. Equally, if you believe that you should not leave your house on Friday the 13th, because bad things will happen, then by staying inside on that day lets you believe that you are preventing these bad things from happening.

That’s why these false patterns end up establishing themselves. The cost of doing this type of action is small, while the cost of not doing it and then ending up in a disaster is much greater. So it is better to do it than not do it. Humans are afraid of not having control, and so are always seeking ways to gain greater control over their lives. This happens even at the cost of false beliefs. If these false beliefs give people the illusion of control, then they are beneficial from a survival point of view.

The search for meaning is a search for control. Your environment is always giving out little signals. You need to know the meaning of these signals, in order to know whether they are good for you or bad for you. So thereby the search for meaning ensures your survival.

Humans have a fear of uncertainty. There are different reasons for this. The unknown also means unknown risks. With the unknown your locus of control shifts more towards the external. You have a lesser chance of affecting events, if you don’t even know what they are.

To lessen the unknown, your brain is always searching for relevant signals in order to reduce the potential of danger. Once it finds signals, it interprets them and gives them meaning. This meaning then increases your own locus of control. Even if the result is a false belief, you still gain more confidence and research shows that more confident people are much more likely to succeed.

So it seems that humans have a need for meaning. It increases their locus of control and thereby makes them more likely to survive. However is there an objective meaning of life?

In order to look at this, we need to keep in mind that there are two separate things: meaning in life, and the meaning of life. The first one is subjective, while the second one is supposed to be objective.

What is the meaning of my life?

Meaning in Life

Looking at the scientific literature dealing with the discussion on the search for meaning in life, there are three distinct facets of this meaning: coherence, purpose, and significance. Different people focus on different aspects of this, with some being satisfied just learning about the world and putting it into categories, while others want to get direction and focus on finding purpose. There are also some who skip these two steps altogether, and just search for significance (selfie time!).

The Need for Coherence

Humans want to understand how the world works and why. They want to know what happens and why it happens. They search for the meaning of things happening around them.

The word “meaning” is hard to define in the English language. In my view the question “why” is at the basis of giving a proper definition to what meaning is. Meaning is about the significance of things. You can only get this in a context, in relations to other things.

As psychologist Roy Baumeister states: “meaning is shared mental representations of possible relationship among things, events, and relationships.” Meaning is basically about mentally connecting things.

The search for understanding is not about merely observing what is happening around you, but actively asking questions. What happened? How did it happen? Why it happened? Finding meaning is about seeing events and then interpreting them. The basic steps are: observation, evaluation, interpretation. You ask questions and then find answers and explanations for things.

However, the search for meaning is not just about understanding. It is about feeling that things make sense. It is about coherence and fitting things in their proper place, about coming up with frameworks and mental schemas (mental models).

Coherence, frameworks, mental schemas are all about patterns and putting them in the right categories. This then allows you to predict things. So meaning in itself is also tied to predictability. If you understand how something behaves now, you will be able to predict how it will behave in the future.

One way to convey meaning in a coherent framework is by telling stories. Humans are storytelling animals. They like to form narratives, piecing different events together into one complete whole. This is the way that meaning had been conveyed from one generation to the next in prehistory, when humans lived in small tribes, had no written language, and had to struggle to survive. Even now, parents teach kids about the world by reading or telling them stories (or the kids learn by themselves by watching stories on TV).

Meaning is conveyed in words. In order to be able to communicate with other humans, you need to have a similar understanding of what the words that you are using mean. However this is not always the case, and even if you do use the same words when talking to someone else, both of you might have a different understanding of what is being discussed. When speaking to people, you not only need to focus on the words, but also the context and search for hidden meaning behind them. Maybe it is the ability to use language and all the complexities associated with communication that forces people to search for higher meaning.

Trying to understand the world is at the basis of many people’s daily activities, whether they are a businessman, politician, or a scientist (science is basically about finding meaning). A big part of the internet is centered around the search for meaning, with blogs and discussion forums being filled with people who are trying to understand how the world works. The act of sitting down and writing a blog piece on a certain subject or discussing it on a public forum is the result of the need of people to find meaning.

Sometimes, this search for meaning goes a bit too far, when people make too many connections and confuse themselves. This is called apophenia, and happens when people see imaginary connections between unrelated things. One example is people seeing faces or other pictures in the clouds, or turning to conspiracy theories to explain world events. All of these are a result of the fact that people have a need to search for meaning, even in places where it doesn’t exist.

This search for meaning is tied to the question of what is reality. How you perceive things informs what type of meaning you find. This brings us to the notion of a subjective reality and the limits of perception. Perception is limited because of the fact that everyone is looking at the outside world from another vantage point.

Imagine every person in the world living in one building and having one window to look through. Each window allows the person to see certain things, but because of the way it is placed it hides other things. Another person living a bit further away and looking through a similar window might see some of the same things that the first person sees, but they might also see other things. This gives them a different perspective on the reality outside.

Another mechanism that affects your perception of reality is something that I already discussed before and it is the process of your mind filtering out much of the things happening in the outside world in order to focus on things it deems important. All these different things are behind the way that humans construct their world and interpret the reality around them. This impacts the meaning that they find.

The Need for Purpose

While meaning is about understanding the world and fitting it into categories, the search for purpose is about giving your life direction. Purpose is about acting on that initial understanding of the world that you form.

The need for knowing the purpose is deeply ingrained in the psyche. If you look at most everyday objects that you see around you, their meaning to you is usually tightly coupled with a purpose that they serve. You might be in your bedroom right now reading this. Just look around. You might see a bed. What is a bed? It is a thing meant for you to sleep on. You might see a desk. What is a desk? A rectangular thing with legs meant for you to write on.

So your mind automatically associates meaning with purpose. It is hard for it to comprehend something without a purpose. Your brain hardwires purpose for things deeply into its structures. This is due to how it functions. Connections are formed between neurons. This then allows your brain to react faster and more automatically.

This also causes many cognitive biases. One of these is functional fixedness, where a person can imagine only the traditional use of an object and doesn’t think of other uses for it. For example, the connection between a hammer and its purpose to beat down nails is hardwired. This is what people think of when they see a hammer. A hammer could just as well serve as a paperweight. However because people have seen a hammer only be used in one way many times causes the brain to create connections between neurons related to these things, which then clouds the brain from other potential purposes.

Looking for purpose

When you come across a new object, you usually want to know what it is for. You gain a better understanding of the new object by finding out its purpose. Many times for a person, the purpose of an object is the biggest chunk of the definition that they give it and the meaning that they assign to it. This search for meaning and purpose is inherent in the way that you look at the world.

This need for knowing the purpose of objects translates into a need for knowing the meaning and purpose of your life. Viktor Frankl, a psychologist and Holocaust survivor, wrote a book called “Man’s Search for Meaning”, where he reflected upon his experiences in Nazi concentration camps. His conclusion was that what divided the inmates who survived the experience from those who withered away and died, was that the survivors found meaning in their experiences and found purpose which willed them to live on.

There is some debate on whether people create their own purpose or they find it. This is for a long discussion, however the important take-away which both sides agree upon is that each person has a specific purpose which usually differs from that of other people.

This purpose then helps people define their goals, and also gives them a reason to work hard and struggle through set-backs. Most of all, it helps them have hope. Hope is a powerful driver for human motivations and actions.

These conclusions are supported by numerous scientific studies, which show that people who say that they have some sort of a purpose for their lives are usually happier than those who see their life as having no meaning and serving no purpose.

The Need for Significance

Significance or the feeling that your life has some sort of an inherent value is the third thing that people search for in life. One major drive of some people is that they want to make some sort of an impact on the world. This then defines the value that they give to their lives and can be channeled in many ways, ranging from dedicating your life to altruistically helping others on one side, all the way to shameless attention whoring on the other side.

Having a purpose is one key ingredient for a life which is significant and helps channel your life activities in some constructive ways. Some of the people who might not have searched for a purpose can still feel a need for feeling that their life is significant and then this results in things like Big Brother or endless selfies on Instagram.

If people don’t see the significance of their lives, they might become resigned to apathy. While they might not commit suicide outright, they might become less attentive and less driven, which then reduces their chance for survival.

I want to be remembered


That’s why the brain has some inherent mechanisms to pump up your self-worth and keep you from falling into apathy. One type of mechanism is what I call ego-based cognitive biases. These are biases like the backfire effect, where people who are faced with evidence contrary to their dearest beliefs, not only discard this evidence, but actually strengthen their initial beliefs.

This is because some of these beliefs are heavily tied to your identity, which is then tied to your self-esteem. These are in turn tied to your ideas on your place in the world and your overall significance. If these are shattered, you can very easily fall into apathy or worse. That’s why your brain cares more about preserving your ego over finding out objective truth.

Selfishness is built into your genes. They drive you to survive and a certain tendency for solipsism is inherent in this. This is why you might see the opposing sides in a battle or a sports match both praying, all believing that it is them that God or some other invisible force will protect and deliver victory to them.

However, significance is a very slippery slope, and if it is not tied to the two other things (meaning and purpose) it can drive people to apathy or things like drug abuse.

Maslow’s hierarchy of needs (named after psychologist Abraham Maslow) can help illustrate some of these points. His initial pyramid ended with self-actualization at the top. The search for purpose is part of this search for self-actualization, while the search for meaning (and the underlying pattern recognition) is also present in the lower levels as well.

Later in life, Maslow added another layer to the top of the peak and above self-actualization. This was the need for self-transcendence. This is how he described it: “Transcendence refers to the very highest and most inclusive or holistic levels of human consciousness, behaving and relating, as ends rather than means, to oneself, to significant others, to human beings in general, to other species, to nature, and to the cosmos.

The significance of your life is heavily tied to this level of the hierarchy. While meaning and purpose are concepts which can be grasped, significance is a very abstract concept. Usually people try to tie it to something beyond them.

It seems that the need for meaning for people is stronger in the modern world, especially in the spiritual sense. Because of the fact that we don’t have to worry about survival and we have mostly satisfied many of the needs on the lower levels such as food and shelter, the human mind turns to other worries.

Here, we are departing the meaning in life territory and going towards the meaning of life territory.

Meaning of Life

Not that long ago, the meaning of life was something that most people didn’t think about, since it was a given. It was religion that gave the ultimate answers. These answers might differ slightly depending on the religion, but the final result was that they gave certainty to the vast majority of the population. They “knew” where they were going and why.

However, this religious worldview received huge cracks when humans started to look at things more scientifically. Astronomers like Nicolas Copernicus knocked the Earth from the center of the Universe, and biologists like Charles Darwin gave this worldview a final death knell when they knocked away the notion of humanity as God’s ultimate creations, and instead showed that humans are just like any other animal, undergoing the same biological and evolutionary processes.

These paradigm shifts on the outlook on the world, went hand in hand with changes in how humans worked in the world. This process has now culminated into a world full of desk jockeys clicking away in their open spaces, starring at a screen all day.

Just compare the description of Sisyphus going about his day and the daily routine of the average human. Most people spend their day huddled in the office, doing some weird work, arguing over some senseless things, only to repeat a similar thing the next day. It is just like Groundhog Day, except that time does actually pass and you have no choice but to do the same thing again. Sisyphus never wins, but neither does the average Office Man.

No wonder there is a crisis of meaning. Many people realize the absurdity of it all, becoming unmotivated and depressed, just going through the motions. There must be something more to life than this endless drudgery and the search for meaning begins.

For some people this search passes through the meaning in life stage and into the meaning of life stage. According to Maslow, self-transcendence is the ultimate and highest need. This manifests itself in many people becoming more spiritual, searching for answers and going into territory which cannot be found or explained by science. They make the ultimate leap of faith.

Psychologist Jesse Bering in his book “The God Instinct” argues that humans have a tendency to believe in a higher force, and this is due to the evolutionary advantages this type of belief brought to people. While modern life has eliminated the need for God, it has paradoxically also eliminated absurdist explanations of the world. In the ancient world, people acknowledged the role that luck played in everyday life. When Gaius Julius Caesar was asked what his greatest quality was, he replied that “he was lucky”.

In today’s world, the notion that luck plays a huge role in how things turn out is largely discounted. Instead, you get narratives of how sports stars, executives or movie stars did this and that, which helped them get to where they are at now. The message is that if you do the same things, you can get there too.

However, for the most part these types of explanations are full of survivor and hindsight biases. They discount luck and play with the notion that the world is predictable and not random. This tendency to create huge narratives also opens up the way to search for higher meaning.

With grand narratives you connect the dots in sequential ways. Randomness is taken out of the picture and the story becomes a series of causes and effects. This type of thinking then shapes your views on the reality around you.

The debate on the nature of reality can also be linked to the debate on the meaning of life. When randomness is no longer taken into account, you have a tendency to think that there is an objective reality out there. If there is an objective reality out there, you can logically argue that you “find” your purpose in life and furthermore there could also be a potential meaning of life.

We can bring absurdity back into the discussion when we acknowledge that randomness and luck are indeed powerful shapers of a person’s life. Many people deep down acknowledge this fact, even if they try to stick to their ideas on a grand narrative.

One primary driver for people wanting to believe that the current reality is not the final one is the fear of death. People see injustice around them, the bad guys winning, and wonder how can this happen. They then reflect upon the fact that death is around the corner and take a leap of faith, wanting to believe that death is not the final act, but instead the beginning of a new one, in which justice will finally prevail.

Sixth century philosopher Boethius, one of the last learned Romans, penned his most famous work “On the Consolation of Philosophy” while sitting on death row in jail, betrayed by bad people and convicted for a crime he didn’t commit. He struggled with the randomness of the world, and finally solved this fear on a metaphysical level. This brought him comfort.

So can we conclude that there indeed is no meaning of life and that this search is just a figment of a person’s imagination? Not so fast.

Can we really comprehend the nature of the world with our limited tools at the moment? Something is unscientific if it cannot be proven by the current methods of science. This of course doesn’t mean that it doesn’t exist. It just means that we can’t test it yet.

In the 1880s, Edwin A. Abbott, an English schoolmaster wrote a short book called “Flatland”. It is about a world of geometric figures living in a 2D universe. In one of his dreams, the main character, A Square, one of the inhabitants of this world, visits a 1D universe. Its inhabitants are points and they cannot comprehend that something beyond their one dimension can exist. Living in denial, they try to kill A Square.

Back in his own 2D universe, A Square is visited by a being from the 3D universe. However A Square cannot see this being as anything than a 2D circle. The being tries to prove his point by going up and down through this 2D universe, with the circle expanding and contracting throughout.

The point of the story is that the inhabitants of the 1D universe could not comprehend the reality of another dimension on top of theirs, while the inhabitants of the 2D universe could not comprehend the reality of a third dimension.

Maybe it is like that with us. We can comprehend the three dimensions of space and one of time, but maybe we just have a limited understanding of how the universe really works. Maybe this expanded understanding holds the key to finally finding the meaning of life.

Some scientists have come up with the notion of a multiverse and the many-world interpretation of the universe. This interpretation was formulated by physicist Hugh Everett and later expanded upon by other physicists. It works with the principles of quantum physics and asserts the objective reality of the universal wave-function.

What it is saying is that all possible things that could have happened actually did happen and that all the possible things that can happen will happen. Basically, the universe branches into two at each possible decision point, which ends up creating an infinite number of universes, each minutely different from the other.

If you take this perspective, then it totally changes how you understand the basic functioning of the world. The traditional interpretation is that there is only one universe, which is moving forward and only one set of events. You have free will and can choose your course of action. In the many world interpretation, everything that could happen does and so while in this universe you chose one course of action, in other universes you chose a different action at each decision point.

If everything that can happen does happen in many-worlds, then how can you have one universal purpose? The many worlds interpretation of quantum physics implies that you have many purposes and the fact that you might think that you have one certain purpose in this universe is just a matter of chance. In the other universes that split off from this one, chance assigned you thought patterns that differ a bit and you think you have other purposes.

However, while the many-worlds interpretation shows itself in mathematical equations, it cannot be tested with the current levels of technology. What it does show is that the universe is vastly more complex than we can imagine from our simple vantage points and 3D minds, where time seems to flow in only direction.

The nature of time is also incredibly interesting. The current conception of time is that it is linear, flowing from one point and never getting back to it. In the words of Ancient Greek philosopher Heraclitus “you cannot stand in the same river twice.

However perhaps this is just a simple interpretation of time from our perception. After all, to most people in the past (and some even today), the Earth seemed flat. Maybe time is circular, or has some other properties.

The Universe

When you look at it from this higher perspective, where you acknowledge that there are unknown properties of time, the potential interconnectedness of things suddenly pops out at you. Maybe this concept of God or some universal principle, is just a certain function of this weird interconnectedness of space-time. This is just speculation on my part and cannot be tested.

Let’s go back to our universe and examine the notion of a universal purpose from some basic principles that are generally accepted by the scientific community and have been tested. One of these is the theory of evolution.

The first principle of evolution is based on giving living things the basic purpose of survival and reproduction. So the first principles acknowledge a founding purpose for each living organism, one that drives their actions. However the basic premise of evolution is also that it is random, based on random mutations. Randomness is thereby inherent in the entire process.

Yet to some scientists, evolution also seems to have a direction. They state that evolution has a tendency to move towards greater complexity. It started off with some very primitive organisms, moved onto more complex ones, and now it has resulted in humans, organisms that are aware of their existence and can change the environment around them.

This does not mean that evolution moved purposely to create humans, but that it has a tendency to move towards the creation of more complex organisms, with the rise of intelligent life being an inevitability.

This intelligent life does not have to be humans. If you look at the evolution of dinosaurs, you can see that many of them grew more complex and intelligent. For example, the Late Cretaceous Era just before the asteroid hit and wiped out most of life on this planet, saw the evolution of a small species of dinosaur called the Stenonychosaurus. It had a relatively large brain for its size and also semi-manipulative fingers which could grasp things.

Paleontologist Dale Russell formulated a theory that if the Extinction Event did not happen 65.5 million years ago, this small dinosaur was on a path to evolve into a more intelligent being similar to modern humans, a dinosauroid.

Physicist Adrian Bejan in his book “The Physics of Life: The Evolution of Everything” formulated the Constructal Law. This law states that there is a universal tendency of evolution to move towards design. He bases this on the premise that everything is composed of systems which change and evolve in order to flow more easily.

According to him, the laws of physics are fundamental for evolution and they are the ones which shape this drive towards design. To quote Bejan’s definition of the Constructal Law: “For a finite-size flow system to persist in time (to live) it must evolve such that it provides greater and greater access to the currents that flow through it.

This Law applies not only to evolution, but any time of system, ranging from water, to trees to electronics. The world is basically about the maximization of flow. The different things in the world evolve so as to allow different currents to flow more easily through them.

An example of this that is often given is that of raindrops eventually turning into huge rivers, with river basins flowing into larger bodies of water like lakes or seas. Little raindrops fall together, then coalesce, forming into trickles, which then move down joining up with other such trickles to form larger bodies of water flowing downstream.

The flow

Eventually they form into large rivers. Why? The reason is because it allows them to flow more easily. A single water drop can be stopped by almost anything, but a large body of water can eventually cut through rock. Just look at what the Colorado River did with the Grand Canyon.

Bejan further argues that there is a similarity between the structures of such disparate things as lighting, trees, and even internal systems in the body like the circulatory system. All of them behave the way they do, because they are trying to maximize flow. This then results in similar structures arising.

This of course does not mean that there is any type of intelligent design. All this could have arisen independently of any outside interference or creation. However if there is indeed one simple principle governing such disparate things, it gives credence to the possibility of there being one objective reality. And with there being one objective reality, you open up the possibility for a greater meaning and purpose.

Or maybe the simple answer to all of this is that the meaning of life is 42. That is the answer to the eternal question in “The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy”, and maybe this is indeed the answer to everything.

The world is a complicated place, and if you want to find your inner tranquility from all the chaos around you, then you can start by reading some guides from the ancient philosophers: Marcus AureliusDiogenes of OinoandaEpictetusPlutarch, and Boethius. I highly recommend that you read through the philosophies of all these guys, and then find the advice that fits the best for your own circumstances.

Note: I originally published this story here.

7 thoughts on “Is There A Purpose For All This? The Absurdity Of This World And The Search For The Meaning Of Life”

  1. Thanks for your article. It must have taken a while to write it. I especially liked the part about Albert Camus. I think I’ll read Camus again. I followed a similar path looking at science and evolution for answers to the purpose of life. I agree that meaning is often through service to other people, witnessing their lives, their existence. I’ve been reading a book by psychiatrist Ralph Lewis — Finding Purpose in a Godless World. He also outlines the biological basis of religious conviction, existentialism, cognitive bias and evolutionary psychology. Our defects must have been adaptive: they brought us this far, something like that. But his scientific description of purpose touches on the complexity that evolution produces. It’s not just that we were designed to go forward because we have a back and a front; we don’t just go forward to eat and multiply; we improve the world by gaining insights and creating our own purpose, which includes all the pursuits we should justifiably be proud of. Indeed, we are now calling this geological period the anthropocene. Maybe I have a dark soul, but I wonder whether we will get the wisdom to stop nuclear proliferation and all the other serious problems we have caused. Or perhaps we will need a speciation event.

    1. Wow thanks for the thoughtful comment! Yes, Camus is interesting when it comes to his view on how the world works. He was an absurdist (although not a complete nihilist), in that he viewed the world as not having an overall purpose or meaning, and that every human needs to find their own way. In this he had a different answer from Soren Kierkegaard, the Danish philosopher, who initially defined existentialist philosophy. Kierkegaard went in the other direction, he knew that the world was absurd, but instead chose to make a leap of faith and believe anyways (so a lot of his writings focus on Christianity and God).

      I think evolution is a good first principle to always keep in mind when trying to figure out why humans act the way they do. The thing to remember is that evolution doesn’t produce the “best” answer, but instead one fit enough to survive. That’s why there is no perfection, and instead the way living things function consists of a series of trade-offs that are good enough to survive and reproduce.

      Will the human race ever gain wisdom? I am an optimist and you can see that over time, humanity has improved and a lot of things in the current world are much better than in the past. However, human nature is human nature and there is unfortunately a self-destruct tendency in there that usually comes to bite us in the ass. For example, I wrote an article on how the current political scene around the world is starting to see the same tendencies that were present when the Roman Republic collapsed and turned into the Empire. Does this mean that history will repeat itself? The warning signs are there, however I hope that we have learned enough so that we can keep from going down that dark path again.

      1. I think the utility of evolution in this argument is the same as any objective empirical knowledge: we have to tether our understanding to reality without being overly reductionist. I think Ralph Lewis would advocate for the freedom option (number three). I think the term absurd is correct, but it needs to be understood as ‘independence’ in the statistical sense. Absurd refers to the fact that circumstances are random. Guilty people do get away with murder. Your next door neighbour could be a mass murderer, or a saint, or a sibling you didn’t know you had. But that doesn’t really mean there is no meaning. It means there is no inherent meaning as far as we know. There is emergent meaning, which is the meaning that occurs between sentient beings or that we create by our actions. The mistake the leap of faith people make is in inferring an omniscient being in our own image. Empirical evidence shows that it is more probable that we are making that up. So the sensible thing to do is respect other people’s sensibilities, but not to fall into the same bias.

        1. Yes, absurd = independent or random is a good way of looking at it. If you hit 5 heads in a row in a coin toss, there is still a 50-50 chance that the next toss will also be heads, since the next toss is independent of all the previous ones. Random stuff happens to people and concepts such as karma or rewards for good behavior that most people believe in (and that are the basis of religions) are probably just leaps of faith.

          However, you could also argue that the universe deep down is deterministic, but the problem is that it is so complex that we haven’t been able to dig down to the initial causes. That’s in a way applying the argument of chaos theory. Things might seem random at first sight, but there are underlying mechanisms at work which in reality aren’t random, but since the system is so sensitive to any slight differences, it can swing in wild ways and give the appearance of randomness.

          You have probably heard of these guys before, but interesting reads that discuss how things like morality could have evolved in an absurd world are Frans de Waal (a primatologist known for his work on chimpanzees), as well as Richard Dawkins and his selfish gene theory.

          As for me personally, I am wavering between accepting the absurdity of the world and taking a leap of faith. Not sure which way to swing. I am skeptical of things that don’t have a scientific basis and you cannot prove with experiments, but deep down still hope that there is some sort of inherent meaning in the world independent of your own personal meaning.

          1. Yes, like most people who live in Italy under the shadow of the Vatican, I also keep the door open to the possibility that there is some inherent meaning. However, we know that humans have a tendency to see or infer order in situations we know to be random. This is a major weakness we have. Knowing that we have this tendency (and several other similar biases) makes it more implausible that there would be an inherent order, but we just aren’t noticing it. In any case, we don’t really need that order in or supreme consciousness in order to have meaningful lives. That’s because it’s challenges, not rewards, that make us who we are.

          2. Yup, agree with the fact that humans tend to see patterns where none exist (faces in the clouds anyone? 🙂 )

  2. I tried dividing my article into parts. One on meaning in life, which is something that is particular to an individual and something that an individual person creates for themselves. The second part I discuss whether there is an objective meaning of life. This one is outside of the individual and highly speculative (and probably cannot be answered with the current state of scientific knowledge).

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