The meaning of life is unthinkable

What’s the meaning of life?

This question has haunted me for as far as my memory goes. Fourteen years ago – in 2005, when I was 18 – I wrote on my blog:

Purpose/Aim of life

First things first. Everybody says one should have some definite aim in life. But I consider living life to live, nothing else. Consider this, nobody lives after their death. So why waste ur whole life chasing an aim? Even if you get there. I mean even if you achieve so called aim, what next? Enjoyment or yet another aim? Enjoyment is OK. But there are many other ways in which u can enjoy ur life without wasting ur life in chasing an aim. No matter what, U are going to live. I don’t know if I am making any sense. But it is what I want to convey.

Then two years later in 2007, I wrote a trio of posts. The first one – How do I live my life? – was an attempt to do a long conversation with myself.

I live my life in a way that should look cool to me if I were watching myself. Every action I do, every decision I take (well, almost every; there are certain actions and decisions on which you don’t have any influence) is intended to look cool to me. In short, I aspire to be me.

Next, I tried to wish away the question in the post titled The Meaning of Life

Think of the meaning of life in front of a mirror and you will know the answer.. Ha Ha..

It’s true. Almost inevitably, whenever I stand in front of the mirror, thinking of a deep philosophical question, I cannot help but laugh loudly.

Dissatisfied, I posted another blog with an attempt to provide a generic answer to The Purpose of Life.

Oh my humble followers, today I give you the greatest truth of all time. No saint, no leader, no visionary has known it. But today you will be among the selected few who will know the real truth of life. I know you have been looking here and there for the meaning of life, which tons have professed to be knowing. But those tons of people were wrong. They didn’t know a bit. I KNOW THE REAL PURPOSE OF LIFE.

So, are you ready to swallow the real thing. I warn you: you might not accept it as the truth as it is so deceptively simple. Nevertheless, here it is:

“The sole purpose of life is to kill boredom”

That was pretty bold and foolish of me but, hey, I was 20!

Nihilism and beyond

All this questioning in my teens led me to Nihilism. Quoting from a 2013 post Life as a question with no answers

Even though he does not hate life, he would have been perfectly at peace if he were never born. It isn’t as if he prefers not to exist, it’s just that existence doesn’t matter to him. The question of life is moot. Meaningful life is an oxymoron. This indifference might seem cruel or pompous, depending if you love him or not, but that’s what the truth is and he’s unable to change it. Multiple times, he has tried shouting at the sky, demanding the universe some sort of an answer, but he has never got one.

I had identified myself as a Nihilist in 20s, but with 30s it dawned on me that identifying myself with a label or a category wasn’t what I wanted to do. Nihilism claimed to know the answer and that answer was meaninglessness. But I knew in my gut that I really didn’t know the answer or whether asking for an answer is even sensible thing to do.

Tired of asking the question, I’ve now started embracing the analogy of life as a game:

On the subject of winning the game, Life has introduced several new innovations. First, the game doesn’t make it clear what does the player need to do to win it. (Heck, it doesn’t even tell you how to play – the tutorials are useless and really don’t prepare you for actual gameplay). In absence of a giant red arrow that says “next level”, many players wander for a while and then simply give up and abandon the game. (I didn’t want to quit because on forums other players were discussing that the game has a bug where quitting it deletes the game from the hard disk permanently. It’s a crazy bug, no?)

It keeps coming back, but why?

The funny thing is that all this mental grinding over the last 15 years hasn’t erased the question from my head. Even though, intellectually, I know that life is to be lived, not to be questioned, emotionally, the question pulls me towards itself again and again.

Recently, I’ve been thinking why is that the question keeps nagging and what can I do to settle it for some time.

Digging a bit further, I realized that there are two parts to the question:

  • First: why do we keep questioning what is the meaning of life?
  • Second: why don’t we ever get satisfied with an answer?

Why do we keep questioning?

One insight comes from evolutionary biology: our ancestors who were curious did better, survived more, and had more descendants than the ones who didn’t question things. Our drive for information foraging is evolutionarily advantageous. The entire bedrock of Science is this unceasing questioning about why something happened.

Why don’t we get an answer?

Our drive for questioning comes from trying to understand the world around us. We ask why did the rain happen because we want to control it. The answer to a ‘why’ question in the world necessarily includes a cause and an effect. Our thinking ability is shaped by our intuition about physics and that intuition says things have causes and effects. The cause-and-effect structure of our thinking is so fundamental that even babies perceive the world that way.

This causal mode of thinking has served us very well in most domains where we’ve applied. However, when we apply it to our life and ask a question such as ‘why am I alive’, or ‘what’s the meaning of life’, we don’t perceive a necessary cause or a necessary effect. Unlike other why questions which are about the external world that must have cause and effect, when it comes to our own actions, the sense of free agency is so strong that we feel there is nothing we must do. Unlike Newton’s theory of gravity where two masses must attract each other, there’s nothing I must do. I can choose to lounge around. I can choose to change the world. Or I can choose to die.

An answer to this question is fundamentally unthinkable because our thinking requires a cause-and-effect. As I wrote in the review of the book The Outer Limits of Reason, this strong feeling that everything must have a cause and effect is so ingrained that we have trouble accepting the randomness of quantum mechanics. If we cannot bring ourselves to accept that the position of an electron could be arbitrary, how can we come to accept the felt arbitrariness of life? We feel that there must be a hidden variable explaining this arbitrariness.

Another difficulty accepting an answer to the question of life is that it’s trivial to negate the answer by acting or imagining to act opposite to what the answer suggests. If a guru says life’s purpose is in helping others, why does eating ice cream feel so good?

To reiterate, I feel the answer to what’s the meaning of life is unthinkable because thinking implies cause-and-effect chains and in first person perspective, there is no necessary cause or effect. We can’t find meaning in our life because we feel like free agents. This confusion, like most philosophical confusions, arise from confused language use. Philosophers call it the category error. (For a further deep-dive on this, see my earlier essay: philosophy is politics.)

Either we can give up being free or we can give up questioning life.

But giving up either is hard

You bet it is. So what is one supposed to do?

Do you notice a contradiction when you use the word ‘supposed’ in context of life? Anything I say that you must do in life is inadmissible because you can simply act otherwise and prove me wrong.

The only thing I can advice is that be suspicious of anyone who claims to have an answer. You can choose to live however you want to.

And if you are not sure how to live your life, keep drifting without guilt.

Have an opinion on this essay? You can it to me (tagging my handle @paraschopra) or you can send your feedback on email. Thank you!