Sanket Gupta

Design Engineer, Marvell Semiconductor

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Man's Search for Meaning. Is there a meaning to our lives or is it all meaningless?

Having read Viktor Frankl's book "Man's Search for Meaning", I was struck by the fact that he repeatedly emphasizes the pursuit of meaning in our lives. He also says that for some of us who cant find meaning in our lives, we tend to substitute it by pursuing power or money.

On the other hand, proponents of genetics argue that humans have no meaning but to just propagate. Hence, we do things which are beneficial to us and our future generations. Hence, pursuing power or money is justified and is backed by science.

So, my questions are whether we have any meaning at all or we are here to just survive and propagate ourselves? If we do have a meaning in life, how do we find one? Furthermore, can altruism have any "natural" place in our actions?

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    Oct 5 2011: What is justified by science is pursuing knowledge, not money or power.

    Great picture of you at the beach, statring into the horizon, where sea and sky embrace. You've just thrown a pebble in the water, but miserably failed to bounce it off the surface. So you sit on the sand and you start to wonder. Obviously, money and power will get you the girl you like. But is there another path?
    You get back on your feet and right back in the bar by the palm trees. She's still there, but with a friend of hers.
    Breathe in, this is it.
    "Hi, I'm Sanket Gupta"
    "Hi Sanket Gupta. I'm Monique. This is Carla."
    "Hi Sank."
    "Would you mind..."
    "Oh absolutely not, please join us. We were discussing the meaning of the word meaning, believe it or not."
    "Are you philosophers?"
    "Well, you'll be the juge of that. Carla says meaning cannot have its own meaning, since synonim cannot be a synonim of itself."
    "You've lost me already. Monique, could we have a word in private?"
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    Oct 13 2011: what would be a meaning that could be accessible to all people whether educated, uneducated, physically or intellectually challenged, with mental health problems ...........

    or are we talking about a purpose that only educated, literate people can experience
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    Oct 9 2011: why do you want to know ???
  • Oct 9 2011: The pursuit of meaning in our lives has been unknowingly pursued.

    The first natural instinct is FOOD. When hunger is satiated
    The other natural instincts take over.

    Further down the line when we are substantially satisfied
    (which again varies from person to person),the questioning
    Starts about the ‘meaning in our lives’ and it’s purpose.

    The driving factor in this quest is the inherent desire for
    A happy life.After food, shelter and other basic desires,
    The norms of the society start dictating.The desire for
    Name,fame,power,money takes over.The irony is only
    Some achieve it furthering the rate of desire, of, rest of the
    Populace .

    The people away from the rat race out of choice or may be
    Out of other compulsions and have the capacity to think out
    Of the box positively carry the quest to further realm’s.

    The other category are the dedicated professionals:
    scientists, astronomers,philosophers,businessmen(?)
    (steve jobs,..)etc. .At the physical realm, so far there seems to be no end to the quest,one thing is leading to the other.

    Now comes the religion on which the burden of the quest is
    Vested upon.Each individual depending on his capacity if ends half way leads to frustration.With Appropriate faith(leading to gods grace) and forthright questioning self realization has to be pursued,To get the true meaning of life.
  • Oct 9 2011: I believe that life ITSELF is merely a result of chemical reactions the universe created, a way for reality to obtain equilibrium; however, for a life to have meaning, it must be searched for constantly on behalf of the organism, since life is always in flux. That's the best way I can describe it without going into tangents.
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    Oct 7 2011: You gotta do something between cradle and grave. If it seems important to you, then it'll be easier to self-motivate.

    If you're here, that's all the purpose you need.
  • Oct 5 2011: Hi Sanket,
    I like your question. If you wouldn't mind reading my idea that I posted, It relates. I stated an idea that we use religion and spirituality to derive meaning out of life. (hopefully won't piss off too many people).
    I think that the pursuit of meaning within our lives is extremely important to ones existence. We can pursue power and money in order to benefit future generations and yes in my opinion that would be justified. Consider that everyone is aiming to generate a purpose. If our purpose is to attempt to place our offspring in a better situation in the future, our purpose becomes aiding in their lives so that what? The next step would be so that they can find purpose in their lives. One might argue that power and money is not needed in order to pursue purpose. What is it that you want in life? What would make your life fulfilling? Finding love? Understanding the world? Just like a child, you must ask yourself over and over again why?
    The question you are proposing is the debate between Existentialism and Nihilism. If we agree that there is no meaning to life, we accept the absurd. Existentialism argues that we try to fill our lives with meaning with something. The something in my opinion depends on who you are, your experiences which define you and what you find meaning in.
    The comment about genetics and that we have no meaning but to propagate is a primitive idea. Most species protect their own and attempt, primitively to ensure the existence of their race. Humans contain that quality, however we are also aware of our own existence and consciousness and for that we require something more than just propagate, we require meaning.
    Individually we seek to find meaning in life, but become distracted by societal norms. It is my belief that it is one's ultimate desire to be happy, always. And that pursuit of happiness is something that everyone is in search of. How we find it is what gives our life meaning
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      Oct 9 2011: Hi Matt,
      i agree with your ideas that mere propagation might seem primitive. Yet, if you look at most of our actions, they are directed either for our betterment or our children's betterment. If this primary purpose is fulfilled, then people will go ahead and look for higher meaning, purpose or self-fulfillment. I guess Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs is a pretty good explanation for the purpose of our lives.
  • Oct 5 2011: Apologies - this is what I wrote in the other very similar thread I started. It directly relates to the topic at hand.

    Humanity needs to find its own purpose.

    Surviving, evolving, procreating... those are all things that humans do, but they're not purposes in and of themselves - in so far as they're neither unique to humans nor would those things be central to utilizing the capacity that we've evolved as humans.

    It's also something of a trap to believe that there's some overarching purpose to humanity written into the stars or the fabric of the universe. They're romantic notions, but too anthropomorphically biased. The more we've learnt about our universe - the more we've come to understand things don't revolve around us, nor do they think, act or behave as we would if we were them. As such, it would be erroneous to ascribe purpose where none exists.

    For the question of should humanity have a purpose? The response is that absent of an explicit purpose, a mission statement to galvanize and help us understand our progression, we nonetheless act in a manner that move us towards certain directions.

    Without having been explicitly told to do so, we continue to grow our knowledge, technology, our material consumptions and continue to explore our surroundings. Most of all of us seek pleasures in life, while avoiding hardships - to varying degrees of success. These are not bad things in and of themselves - but it also means that the current trajectory that we are on is unsustainable. If we continue to consume with little respect to our environmental limits, then we will impinge on our ability to feel comfort or even gain knowledge.

    I can't divine the ultimate purpose for humanity - I don't believe there is one; that any such idea of purpose will come to grow, change and evolve as the cultures of humanity do so as well. It is nonetheless useful and instructive for us to set a transient goal for humanity.
    Cont. 'Part 02' (ctrl+f)
  • Oct 5 2011: Part 02:
    Such a goal or purpose would have to be inclusive. It would need to work in the interest of all of us, be broad enough that it would be able to cover the wide range of human activities, while still been explicit enough to serve as a signpost - telling us where to go and how far we are from getting there. Ideally, it would be a goal that we could solve for explicitly. Something that we can optimize our behaviour for and would make sense to do so, because it is in our collective individual interests to do so.

    The goal or purpose that emerges from these needs, constraints and restrictions is simple;

    PROMOTE human happiness and comfort, reduce suffering and hardship, and do so in a manner that is as sustainable as possible.

    It is similar to the maxims derived from philosophies like utilitarianism - the profundity of such a purpose comes from understanding that it is a goal that can be solved for only in the context of the complete human system.

    Such a goal is broad enough to cover the rational self interests of all - who among us doesn't work towards increasing happiness while avoiding hardship? It is a goal that is written into our genetic makeup - we experience positive and negative stimuli internally and externally, and it is these things that form the basis for how we act to best survive and propagate.

    It covers notions of love, community, friendship, science and knowledge - it is by encouraging these things that we promote happiness and comfort in a sustainable manner.
    And to do so in a manner that is sustainable fulfils our need for survival and procreation.

    When we step back - we realise that such a goal is what humanity has always worked towards. We all make our ways towards happiness in whatever form we may find them, while seeking to reduce suffering for ourselves and those around us. The trick is simply to make it explicit - so that we can understand the context of all our actions against a greater overall purpose of life.
  • Oct 5 2011: Understanding meaning to life is not instinctive. What is instinctive to men? Procreation and survival. These instincts cause actions. We develop a belief that there must be more to life as a result of our intelligence.

    The quest to answer the question drives many to an exhaustive search that culminates in death. The search can take many forms, but is usually recognized as passion for something, be it extreme power, wealth, supreme intelligence, altruistic pursuits or other lofty ideas. People often get so caught up in the idea that reaching some achievement or goal answers the question, that they forget the question. Perhaps some satisfaction, but no answer. Funny thing is that their quest often defines the meaning of their life to on-lookers.

    Others realize that at least part of the puzzle is to seek happiness for as much of your life as possible. However, if you can find happiness in accomplishing instinctive things, you get two for one return on your time. If you can align your passion in your life's work and be happy, you get three for one return on your time. If you get to the end of your life's work, and you feel satisfaction in the body of work; or you have influenced those that you have hoped to influence; or perhaps you have made some contribution to the common good of many people, then perhaps you get some higher return on your investment of time. This yield depends on how true you were to your personal value system, your perception of your capabilities relative to actual performance, and life's circumstances.

    Adages such as "do your best" seem to provide guidance for the search to meaning in life. Defining purpose should be a constantly evolving process. If you have a positive outlook and have the ability to take advantage of the high yield paybacks on time invested discussed above, then you should achieve satisfaction. I think the purpose of life is to be satisfied with how you spent your life when you die.
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    Oct 5 2011: Intelligence, when working together with morality and altruism, has meaning because the repercussions on others and our surroundings are holistically and universally acceptable.

    Base instinct, when it is misguidedly justified by human intelligence and corroborated by immorality and selfishness, has no meaning at all because it benefits no-one, except the bearer of that intelligence.

    Base instinct, WITHOUT human intelligence, has meaning for those who contemplate it in looking on, because it is responding to the greater scheme of nature, which is self-regulating, sustainable, and lives or dies according to nature's rules. Base instinct on its own also responds to natural selection and evolution - its morphology changing with environmental conditions. As an aside, it is open to question as to whether intelligence halts the trajectory of evolution...?

    The deciding factor of 'having meaning' or not, is the presence of an intelligence in the first place in order to contemplate 'meaning', and what we choose to do with it - and secondly, what effect that intelligence has on entities externally.

    Our own basic instincts are dangerous, because the addition of intelligence makes those instincts exploitative, greedy - and from a world perspective - perilously unsustainable, and therefore meaningless.
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    Oct 5 2011: This question the most intimate question ever. As this defines a man.

    In my humble opinion,Altuism is what makes us human.
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    Oct 5 2011: Look, wealthy and powerful (but often boring and brutal) men are not more succesful in attracting women than gentle, altruistic, artistic or simply handsome men.

    If there was a strict evolutionary advantage for power and wealth, and a disadvantage for kindness, artisticness or altruisism, then the latter would no longer be here. But they're here, and their number is growing.

    But I agree with the fundamental idea that there is no "humanistic" purpose for life, only a biological one. However, our big brains have become the main tool for our success as a species. And that brain produces "culture". So culture has become part of human biology: an artistic but poor man can be highly succesful amongst women, and spread his genes just as easily.
    • Oct 5 2011: I like your ideas Laurens, but I differ in thought a little. We are assuming that it is everyone's purpose to propagate. I understand that if no one were to breed, the existence of the species would fall. However, there are plenty of people in our current age that have no desire to propagate. That being said, aside from the continuance of our species, what is it that we desire with breeding? Is it a selfish purpose that we want to see more of ourselves in our offspring in the future?
      I would say that happiness is what is the purpose of life and what drives us to attain that is what we fill our lives with. I see that many people mentioned that creating a better life for all and a more sustainable happier environment could be a purpose of life, but the definition I am using to define "purpose of life" is something that everyone is born with. Everyone desires a better situation and to be happy. It is that drive for happiness or a better situation that lead us to desire wealth and power because it is what we perceive to be the method for reaching that better life/happiness.
      On one hand I agree that it is intrinsic in our biological structure to propagate, however as culture interferes, our situation changes and it no longer becomes a necessary feature of our current existence. It was once a purpose of life, but now is not. If we were to be in a situation in which our existence was wavering, it would reclaim its position as a purpose.
      I hope i made sense. I confused myself as I wrote this ;)