(a version of this essay was originally published by the New York Academy of Sciences, as part of a panel discussion on the concept of "will to meaning")
What is the meaning of life? Usually, this is the sort of question that is dismissed out of hand by serious academics as, well, meaningless. It is certainly not something you want to ask any modern professional philosopher, if you do not want to be laughed at or looked at with a mixture of disdain and horror. And yet, quite obviously, this is indeed a fundamental question that all thinking human beings probably ask themselves, at one point or another, during their existence. I will provide two complementary answers later on, but for now let me tackle the phrase will to meaning. It was made famous by Viktor Frankl, a neurologist and psychiatrist who is associated with the so-called third Viennese school of psychotherapy. Briefly, Freud’s approach (first school) was focused on the will to pleasure, Adler (initially a member of Freud’s circle, and then the founder of the second school) articulated a Nietzschean take, based on the will to power, while Frankl built on Kierkegaard’s notion of will to meaning.
Frankl’s book, The Will to Meaning: Foundations and Applications of Logotherapy, established logotherapy as one of the three major schools of modern cognitive-based therapy (the other two, which are now far more practiced than Frankl’s version, are rational emotive behavior therapy, established by Albert Ellis, and the growing family of cognitive behavioral therapies, begun by people like Aaron Beck). The idea is that the most fundamental drive in human endeavors is neither pleasure (Freud) nor power (Adler) but rather the search for meaning. Even a life of utmost pleasure, or of unlimited power, is not worth it if the person who lives it does not find it meaningful.
I think Frankl got it right, by and large. Even though, very clearly, human beings are inordinately fond also of both pleasure and power, it does seem like our ability to reflect on things, coupled with our conscious awareness of our own mortality, generate a powerful drive to seek meaning—to the point of making it up where it clearly does not exist. One place where people often look for meaning is “out there,” meaning in the cosmos at large, often stemming from a god who allegedly created the universe. That is a major (though not the only) reason for the existence and persistence of religions: they provide people both with comfort about death—as many, though not all, of them invent the notion of an afterlife—and with a ready-made source of meaning. We are here because God loves us, or at least because he decided we should be here, and who are we to object.
The problem is, there is no reason whatsoever to think that either one of these two notions is anything but a human fantasy. There very likely is no afterlife, and equally so no god(s). Human beings— the best philosophy and science tell us—are just a particular branch of a highly diversified evolutionary tree, a branch that happened to develop on a completely ordinary planet orbiting a totally average star, itself orbiting in the periphery of one of a couple of hundred billion galaxies in this vast universe. We are made of perishable materials, though it is pretty cool that those materials were forged by the explosion of a star, billions of years ago. Those materials are held together for a cosmic instance for the sole purpose (and I am using the word in an entirely metaphorical fashion here) of reliably producing further versions of ourselves. We call them progeny, our only ticket to immortality, such as it is.
This brings me to the first answer to the question of the meaning of life, the sort of answer that a sensible biologist (as I flatter myself to be) would give. It was perfectly captured in an old Gary Larson cartoon featuring an evolutionary progression: it starts with an amoeba, then a fish, then a reptile, and then at the end is a human being. Each one of these creatures has a little balloon over its head that says “eat, sleep, reproduce.” The last balloon, however, the one hanging over the head of the human, says, “What is the meaning of life?” The biological answer is the same, regardless of whether you are an amoeba or William Shakespeare: eat, sleep, reproduce—especially reproduce. That is the one and only “function” that natural selection has built into every single living organism on this planet: survive in order to reproduce.
But, of course, you do not build a flourishing human life just out of survival and reproduction. There is something more to being human, something that distinguishes us very clearly from the amoeba, the fish, the reptile—and even from our closest primate cousins, gorillas and chimpanzees. What?
At some point during our biological evolution, we became conscious, invented language, and built complex cultures (not necessarily in that order); the details are still being worked out by scientists, but they are irrelevant to my argument here. Cultural evolution took off from its biological counterpart, and much of what we see today in the world— technology, science, art, poetry, and Twitter—is the result of cultural evolution. The latter, though, is not untethered from its biological precursor: in a very important sense, we are biocultural creatures, with biology imposing constrains on what we can and even wish to do—culture allowing us to do it in as many different ways as we are capable of imagining.
Take a simple example: flying. We cannot do it, biologically speaking. Because of well-known biomechanical constraints on the development of the human body, we just cannot grow wings, and even if we did, say like bats, we would have to lose the normal functionality of our forelimbs, not to mention that we would have to get a lot smaller and lighter. It is not going to happen. But flying has been a human dream for a long time (think of the myth of Icarus, for instance), and technology has finally made it possible. It is quite cheap, these days, for at least some of us to get into increasingly small and uncomfortable seats on a commercial airliner and fly across oceans and over mountains in order to reach whatever destination we fancy—and we even get to enjoy peanuts and a fruit juice while doing it! Cultural evolution has made possible what is biologically impossible— within the constraints imposed by our biology, and yet in the myriad ways allowed by our cultural creativity.
It is that very same biocultural nature of humanity that provides us with the best answer to the meaning of life (other than the straightforwardly biological one discussed above). The ancient Greeks and Romans had it figured out, to a large degree. Philosophers from Socrates to Aristotle, and from Zeno of Citium (the founder of the Stoic school) to Epicurus were interested in the study of what they called ethics, from the Greek word meaning character, ˆethos—translated later on by Cicero in Latin as morales, which meant something closer to people’s habits and customs. In modern parlance, ethics (or morality) is narrowly defined as concerned with right and wrong. But the ancients thought of it as nothing less than the study of how to live one’s life, which, of course, included an account of what makes that life meaningful.
In my mind, the ones who got closest to the right answer, which has withstood the test of time and is congruent with modern science, were the ancient Stoics. They advised us to live “according to nature.” By this, they did not mean to run naked into the forest to hug trees, as much fun as that may be. Nor did they simply mean that we should do whatever is “natural,” as that is a well-known logical fallacy (and the Stoics were excellent logicians). What they meant, rather, was that we should take a cue from reflecting on human nature. Human beings are, fundamentally, highly social animals capable of reason. (I said capable; that does not mean that we are reasonable all the time, or even most of the time, unfortunately.) As the emperor–philosopher, Marcus Aurelius put it:
Do what is necessary, and whatever the reason of a social animal naturally requires, and as it requires. (Meditations, IV.24)
The point is not just that interacting with other people, and working toward the good of society, is something natural—in the literal sense of built into us by nature. It is also pleasurable, because it provides us—you guessed it!—with meaning. Plenty of modern social psychology confirms the Stoic intuition that we tend to feel good about our lives when we are embedded in a social net, when we are well regarded by others, and when we engage in activities that give us a sense of purpose and accomplishment. Sure, there are sociopaths among us, but they are accordingly treated as aberrant human beings, to be pitied and, if possible, helped (setting aside the worrisome observation that a disproportionate number of sociopaths appear as politicians or on Wall Street).
This brings me to the second answer to the question of the meaning of life, the biocultural one. It was arguably best articulated by Garrison Keillor, who used to end his American Public Media program, the Writer’s Almanac, by saying, “Be well, do good work, and keep in touch.” That expression clearly situates the meaning of life locally, in our interactions with other people. Meaning is, fundamentally, a human construct. It does not apply to anything else, as far as we can tell. It has to do with society, with how we relate to those surrounding us: so be well, do good work, and keep in touch—and your life will be as meaningful as that of any human animal can possibly be.