Part of a three-part series of essays on human nature:
What is the Meaning of Life (you are here)
Free Will: Fact or Wishful Thinking?
Belief: Are We Just Fooling Ourselves?
Ethics: Do They Work Anymore?
What is the Meaning of Life?
According to a USA Today survey, the question most people wanted to ask God was, “What is the meaning of life?” Chapter 33 offers a clue, Striving to prevail is will. Striving to resolve solvable problems definitely confers life meaning for all animals, including humans(1). Such life meaning comes from an uplifting sense of tangible achievement. Civilization makes pulling this off much more complex than it was for our hunter-gatherer ancestors. We can often find ourselves taking on insolvable problems which is usually life depressing. Civilization requires us to play a role in ‘choosing’ solvable problems to tackle, i.e., we no longer have the solvable hunt and gather matter to fill our days.
Our innate fondness for pleasure and dislike for pain complicates our ‘choices’. Striving is painful in various ways, so we envision tactics for achieving our goals with as little hardship as possible. On the other hand, pain and hardship in its broadest sense actually imparts life meaning. In contrast, pleasure merely offers a respite from this daily “work” of living. We naturally avoid (fear) the hardship and seek (need) the pleasurable. In the wild, that would be a healthy response, for in the wild, you cannot avoid hardship. Somewhat ironically then, actually succeeding at circumventing the hardship side of nature quickly becomes too much of a good thing, and robs us of life meaning. Indeed, “too much of a good thing” appears to be a hallmark of human innovation.
Our notions of free will, ethics, and belief all play a major role in this destabilizing effort to outwit natural processes. As we succeed, we become further estranged from nature. Together, these core notions make them promising areas to probe for insight.
(1) Social connection is the other main source of life meaning for social animals. Our success at circumventing hardship has weakened this aspect. After all, sharing hardship is a major factor in pulling people together.