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The Meaning of Life

An expanded version of this page appears in my book
"New Skins for Old Wine"


What is Life?

Before launching out on the choppy waters of the fundamental question that faces EveryMan, it is necessary to clarify what one is talking about. Before asking about the meaning, significance, purpose or finality of a thing, one should have some idea of what the thing in question is! Historically, life (and especially human life) has been seen as something magical or mystical; a substance extrinsic to or "over and above" to run of the mill inanimate being. In the second Genesis story, God breathes His Spirit of Life into the nostrils of the inanimate Adam, made only of base matter, and Man awakes [Gen 2:7]. The same idea is conveyed in the famous picture of God reaching out the finger of his right hand towards Adam in the Sistine Chapel. Both images are, for me, very similar to the modern myth of  Dr Frankenstein infusing the dead matter of his creation with "life-giving electricity".

The Aristotelian View.

The Thomist and Aristotelian tendency is to view the life, anima or soul of a living being as its "organizing principal", and to insist that every living being has such a thing over and against its material constitution. In the case of all life other than human, this anima is nevertheless considered to be material: inherent in the physicality of the creature; but in the case of mankind it is considered to be immaterial: a spirit, and it is said that it is the fact that Man's soul is a spirit is the pre-eminent justification for saying that Man is created in the image of God. The fact that the human soul is immaterial is linked to its immortality, and the latter deduced (following Plato) from one's personal experience of self-hood and consciousness.

A Platonic Physicist's View.

I believe that most of this analysis is simply mistaken. I think that reality is much simpler than this, the answer to the question "What is life?" is quite obvious. We shy away from it because we fear the implications; but there is no need: we fright at shadows! My contention is this: life is order (or constancy) in flux (or change), that is all. Life is clearly characterized by order and organization. I shall refrain from expounding this premise. However, just as clearly, not all that is ordered is living! Obvious counter examples are a diamond crystal, a silicon integrated circuit, and a virus outside a host cell. These are all static. That is exactly why, I suggest, they are not living.
Constancy in Flux.
Life is also characterized by motion; not so much locomotion (as foxes pursue rabbits for food or as plants turn their photosynthetic organs towards the sun) but by the flow of matter and energy through them. Few of the atoms of which my body is now composed were associated with my being when I was born, yet I am the self-same entity that I was then. The constancy of my being has been sustained by a continual sustenance of food, water and oxygen; and left behind it a wake of waste products. I am "that which stays the same" (or, better, has a persistent continuity) while that which substantiates me does not. I am, just as the Aristotelians teach, an "organizing principal".
"Hence it is not a bad name for the body to call it a river. Possibly, to be exact, the existing substance does not remain in our body for even two days. And yet Paul, let us say, or Peter, is always the same, and this not only his soul, the substance of which is not with us in a state of flux nor ever has fresh elements introduced: he is the same, however fluid may be the nature ot the body, because the form which distinguishes the body is the same."
[Origen: "Selections from the Psalms", in "Selections from the Commentaries and Homilies of Origen"
Tr R.B. Tollinton, p 232]
This is better described as my form, using Platonic terminology. The Platonic term is better as it has no connotation of an extrinsic or additional or magical force that acts on and within the matter of which my body is made. My form or pattern has two distinct components. First it is my genome, my DNA; and the expression of this in terms of the RNA and proteins that form the wondrous mechanism that is my body. Second it is my mentality; more of this later. Note that the first component of my form is, again just as the Aristotelians teach, inherent in my material constitution. Although information (and so in principal abstract), it is held physically. Apart from the DNA base-pair sequence that encodes it, it is not. Moreover, apart from its physical application to the specification of enzymes and structural cell components it is devoid of significance or meaning. In a different context (e.g. as a specification for the "resurrection body") it would be entirely useless.
Solitons and Squirrels.
Most contentiously, I am now going to argue that any number of things that are not generally thought of as living are in a sense, just as alive as a squirrel or myself.

My first example is the Red Spot of Jupiter. This seems to be an unbelievably extensive storm system that has been active in the atmosphere of the giant planet for as long as humans have been able to observe it. I do not contend that it is organic in character (i.e. made up of carbon based molecules), nor that it is conscious. Consciousness is not a necessary characteristic of life: a bacterium is not conscious!  I do contend that the Red Spot has a persistent identity that is clear and unequivocal, and that this exi-stence (this standing-out from its context: the generality of the atmosphere of Jupiter) is dynamic: dependent on a flow of energy (it feeds off this flow) and is independent of the particular molecules which happen to be participating in its form (more Platonic theory) at any particular time.

At a lower level of being, the Severn Bore solitonic-wave (or any "shock-wave" phenomenon, for that mater) is also alive, but hardly so that it matters. Life, as such, is nothing more than an emergent property of any moderately complex non-linear system! A quality-metric for life might be established in terms, on the one hand, of the internal complexity or intricacy of the persistent pattern; and on the other, in terms of its external robustness: its ability to withstand outside forces that tend to its dissolution. According to such (a) measure(s) a squirrel is much more alive than a shock-wave!

Artificial  Life
From this perspective, the question "is it possible to make artificial life?" is easily answered in the affirmative. In a trivial sense, every time an explosion is set off, life is briefly created! Taking the question more seriously, the answer is still yes. Even though a silicon integrated circuit is inanimate, the patterns of data that it can substantiate may easily gain an anima. For example, the "game of life" [Martin Gardner: Scientific American, Jan/Feb 1971] now popularized as a standard "screen-saver" on many unix Workstations can accommodate persistent patterns in flux, even ones that reproduce themselves! These are, according to my perspective, primitive informational life-forms. Moreover, contemporary interest in micro-engineering may also give rise to entities that can construct other examples of themselves from a suitable matrix, and so become building blocks of a different form of artificial life.
The Ant Hill and the State
Although the individual ant is an organic life-form in its own right, I believe that an ant Nest has its own anima, existing at a higher level of being than organic life. If you want to call this hyperlife to distinguish it from the base animation of the individual insects, then you may; but I believe this to be misleading. Life is life; at whatever level of organization its patterning is encountered. There is clearly a "principle of organization" characteristic of the community of ants, of which the individual insects are blissfully ignorant; just as there is a "principle of organization" characteristic of an individual ant of which its proteins are ignorant. When an ant Nest is attacked or disturbed, the commonality reacts en-mass: as a coherent entity, in its own right. Of course, the organization here is rooted in the shared genome of the many individual ants; but each insect is best seen as a part of a particular organ of a single body, which communicate and co-orditate their actions by means of chemical messengers, just as the co-ordination of the organs of a mammalian body is largely mediated by hormonal signals.

The anima of an ant Nest is no more organic than that of the Red Spot of Jupiter, or the Game of Life is organic. Moreover, if the individual ants were replaced, one by one, by small robotic mechanisms that were constructed and programmed to behave just as individual ants behave, the anima of the ant Nest - its defining form - would be entirely unaltered as its base composition gradually changed from biological to mechanical elements.

The State has a similar relationship to human society as the Nest has to ant society. The main difference being that human individuals are conscious of their own roles and to an extent are aware of the existence of the higher level emergent anima. They can even feel that they belong to it, and have a conscious care for its continuation: this is called patriotism.

Now one might argue that the anima of the Nest is more significant than the anima of any number of individual ants. One might even half seriously attribute such an evaluation to individual ants. After all, their animae are entirely oriented towards, fulfilled in, and justified by the anima of the Nest! To apply a similar analysis to human society is clearly Faschist. Liberal political thought has always insisted that the State only exists to further and prosper the lives of those human individuals whose activity constitutes its being. At root, this conviction arises from a belief that the human individual has a trencendent or spiritual significance.

The Life of  Ideas.
Darwin's grand idea of the "survival of the fittest" can be applied to the interaction and conflict of states, cultural norms and philosophical, religious or political ideas. All such abstractions are instantiated by humans who together as groups participate in their forms. The virtue and utility of a state, norm or idea is established over time in terms of its persistence. Some are helpful towards the individuals who constitute them, enabling them to prosper in their own lives. Some are harmful, but persist nevertheless by infecting and efficiently hijacking a society that is otherwise sufficiently vital to tolerate the drain which such a pathological "virus-like" idea or cultural norm represents. Some would say that (all) religion(s) are examples of the second type of idea. Others would argue that although "untrue", religion is necessary in order to give an apparent rational to human life and prevent self-conscious beings from becoming suicidal as they grasped the intrinsic futility of their existence.

Why ask the Question?

I suppose that most readers will by now have characterized me as a pure "naturalist", entirely dismissive of the spiritual and supernatural in any account of life. Moreover, it may seem that the kind of account I have given of life: that it is nothing more than "order in flux", and that the life of a (wo)man essentially the same kind of thing as the transient existence of a solitonic ripple on the river Severn; inevitably results in the conclusion that life is of no intrinsic value or worth or meaning. "The existentialists have it", it would seem. Now, in fact I am not a "naturalist", but I believe that one can go a great deal further without invoking any kind of non-physicality or divinity, and in the interest of clarity one should do just that. In particular, I now suggest that before tackling head-on the question "What is the Meaning of It All?" one should reflect on how this question arises in practice. I believe that this elucidates what the question really means and generates the answer almost automatically.

The problem with Life is Death.

So, why do human beings ask the question "What is the meaning of life?" I think that it is in response to a dawning on the consciousness of mortality. Once they realize they are going to die, adults spend a lot of effort trying to avoid the question of the meaning of their lives by immersing themselves in activities: work, sex, sport, politics, family life or hobbies. The aim is to distract themselves from the inevitability of their demise; but still, hovering in the mid distance, the spectre of their mortality will not be turned back by such amateurish wardings. None of these distractions work, and the plight of Man is captured very well by Meatloaf's cry of honest despair: "I want my money back!" [Bat out of Hell II]
Of such is the Kingdom of Heaven
Children just get on with their busy lives. They don't stop to think why they are bothering to do what they do. They just do it and have immense fun doing so. Every experience is a welcome novelty to them, their lives are sufficient unto themselves, not needing any justification. It is just good to be. To be and to have fun: to delight in being. Behaviourally, this is very similar to the adult attachment to distractions, but in its origin and rationale it is very different. The child has no fear from which it requires distraction. It has confidence that its parents have all the answers and will provide all necessary goods: only when this faith is lost can adult trepidation take centre stage.

You may notice that my account of the life of a child could be applied almost without variation to God. God is outside time, so everything that He knows is new and immediate to Him. God's justification is only HimSelves. The Divine Being is utterly sufficient for itself. God is a child. God simply is, and it is good.

I Am who Is
Ayn Rand's Obectivist philosophy (following, I suspect, Aristotle) ultimately identifies "the good" with "being". There is no higher justification of anything than its being so. When men try to justify their own lives in terms of the purposes of God, they seek to give meaning to their mortality in terms of the Immortal: but what is God's purpose except just to be? When parents try to justify their own lives in terms of their children they do something similar: but if their family line were to die out in the distant future, what did all their nurturing amount to?

Rand, I suspect, thought that her identification of good with being was a strong basis for atheism. She would have thought that it made Man sufficient for himself and removed the necessity to rely on God to provide meaning and value in human existence. I suppose that many fundamentalist evangelicals would agree with her. They would want to seek to relate all significance back to God, and would see my direct identification of good with being as subversive of this programme. Now, I hope that I have adequately established that such an identification is in fact the central core of traditional Judaeo-Christian theism. In an orthodox analysis of the problem of purpose, the role of God is that of ultimate guarantor of value; not its arbitrator. What is good is so because it is (good), not because God asserts arbitrarily that it is good. On the other hand, because God is the Creator of All; what is is so because God chose to make it so: as part of an overall coherent pattern, the Cosmos.

The Game of Life

So, the reason why (wo)men ask "What is the meaning of my life?" is because they have realized that it is going to end. If they were immortal, the question wouldn't arise. Of course, a certain quality of life would be necessary to suppress the question. The prospect of spending an eternity feeling hungry and thirsty and ill (or whatever) would likely raise the question even more strongly! The "little death" of significant suffering endured with no prospect of relief and no object in view is just as bad in its own way as death proper.

One might get board, I suppose, if one took the wrong attitude to immortality. In Anne Rice's vampire novels [e.g. Interview With the Vampire: 1976], her undead heroes and heroines have to grapple with the down-side of their imperishability; some do so more successfully than others. Some go mad, but some achieve nobility on a grand scale. Perhaps God gave Adam the gift of Death alongside the gift of Knowledge in order to prevent his progeny succumbing to sloth, lethargy and ennui. Mortality is a marvellous motivator! It seems to me, however, that (given the right attitude: which would follow from being in a state of intimate friendship with God, and the whole company of Heaven) if one's life had no termination, one could happily spend an infinity of time exploring the Universe, unravelling its secrets, creating and admiring works of art and so on; just as is envisaged in the Catholic doctrine of "the Resurrection of the Body". There would be no reason for doing so apart from the fun of the activity; no purpose apart from the activity itself; no imperative except the simple child- and God-like joy of being.

Eternal Life.

It follows that the true answer to the question is not to be framed in terms of a specific purpose, as would seem proper. The true answer is the remark of Our Lord: "I have come that they may have life, and have it more abundantly" [Jn 10:10]. The whole point of the redemption was to re-establish Mankind's immortality: once this was done, the question of the purpose of EveryMan's existence ceased to arise. In particular, the purpose of Man's life is not to serve God. God has no need of such service. Neither to obey God. God's only command is that we love: Him (as our ultimate good, the source and sustenance of our continued existence) and each other (as secondary goods, helpmates in achieving the fulfilment of our plans and aspirations). This command is nothing more than a Divine recall to our own rational self-interest.

Without the prospect of ever-lasting life, no adequate answer can be given to the fundamental question of "Life the Universe and Everything". With it, the question does not need to arise.

Of course, according to Tradition (wo)man's immortality per se was never in jeopardy. The spiritual soul of man (a concept that we have not dealt with yet) is immortal: however, without the redemption its eternal destiny was to be apart from God, in isolation, with no (adequate) context to explore, or in which to achieve anything. Such an eternity is unthinkably awful: the negative loss of fellowship with God most terrible, but the positive "fires" of unremitting introspection resulting in the endless exponential dissolution of the personality truly horrid also.

Jesus tells us that "This is eternal life, that they know thee the only true God" [Jn 17:3], for only in a state of friendship with God, and in the context of the Communion of Saints, will life without end be wonderfully tolerable: for in the New Jerusalem, "God .... will be with them; He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be any mourning nor crying nor pain any more" [Apoc 21:4].

What is life all about?

Life would be adequate as  its own purpose, apart from death. Death makes life futile. In the face of death, we live in a void deprived of meaning. Hence for life to have a rationale, it must be eternal – somehow.
Not only is life its own purpose (on the assumption that the “problem of death” can be solved) but being is the same thing as “good”.  It is simply good for a thing to (continue to) exist and to (continue to) be what it is. Hence, it is good for a living thing to (continue to) live and “being” is the definition of “good”.

“Ought” is determined by what leads to the continuance of life, which is two-fold:

  1. “Health” – internal coherence, order and harmony.
  2. “Prosperity” – the ready availability of those external resources which life needs.
God is non-contingent being. God is utterly robust and deathless. God’s only purpose is to be God. God’s being can be identified with “the Form of the Good”. The being of all creatures (better called “existence”) is next in the order of reality but is marked by change and – in isolation from its source – decay, death and futility.

Intimate association with God (friendship) offers the prospect of robust existence and eternal life. God’s superabundant being can serve as a permanent and solid resource basis for the life of all beings that enter fellowship with God. Friendship involves a certain equality and the ability to relate as peers. Formally, this is impossible for Man and God; but an adequate basis of intercourse can be established in terms of a shared understanding of “what is good” – Beauty and Justice.

In order for a human being to understand for themselves what Justice and Beauty are, it is necessary (on the negative side) for them to experience a period of separation from God; so that their minds are not overwhelmed by the episteme which would necessarily result from a direct association with God. In order for them to learn and personally approve of Justice and Beauty they must (on the positive side) have a period of education by play and by “trial and error”. Without this time of education a human being would be forced to simply accept God’s episteme of Justice and Beauty “on authority” as an automaton, rather than discover these realities for themselves.

This process is painful, however. It is characterised by uncertainty, doubt, pain and suffering. Nevertheless, it is only by engaging in this difficult process that one can first discover and then gain a better understanding of what Justice and Beauty are and so become a good person and so be able to converse with God as a friend.

All worldly beauty and justice is limited, however. The pleasure that it gives is fleeting and partial. There are two rational responses to worldly reality:

  1. Romanticism: To accept it as a sign of the greater reality that lies behind it; to enjoy and revel in the goods of this life without forgetting for a moment that they are no more than an echo of one’s ultimate good and to be drawn by the enjoyment of the pleasures and joys of this world towards the Form of the Good – which is God.
  2. Asceticism: To recognise the danger of becoming distracted from The Form of the Good by involvement with lesser material goods, and so to step back in “self-denial” from secular joys and pleasures so as to focus one’s mind and heart on what really matters; the only adequate object for one’s love: the Form of the Good – which is God.
These alternatives are both directed towards developing a right relationship between the mind and heart and reality. This is a proper and ordered appreciation of the value of things. It is, on the one hand, the establishment of an ardent desire for what is ultimate and sound and wholesome and life-giving and, on the other hand, a detachment from what is superficial and untrustworthy and which leads to suffering and death.

Each of these responses has its dangers. Romanticism can become senselessly hedonistic, sinking into the pursuit of short-term pleasure for its own sake. One can become so caught up in the business of this world that one forgets one’s true business – which is preparation for eternal friendship with God. Asceticism can become so cerebral or, worse, self destructive, harsh and cold that it entirely loses contact with the very object that it is supposed to be connecting with!

The two paths are not mutually exclusive. Different spiritualities combine and interweave them together in various patterns of life and outlook, and each of these patterns attracts certain people, on the basis of the kind of character they have – their strengths and weaknesses and their past life-stories.


The astute reader will have noticed a glaring hole in what I have said (perhaps more than one, but I am presently interested in one particular hole!) I have said that the question "What is the Meaning of Life?" arises when a (wo)man becomes conscious of mortality (or suffering). There is one problematic word there, which may not be apparent because we are so personally familiar with the problem that we dismiss or fail to see it. The problem word is "conscious". On the account I have given of life as Order in Flux, it has no role. It is possible to make some further progress in a naturalistic vein, and to do so is surely worthwhile: but in the end I think it becomes more and more starkly clear that "conscious" is a word that signals the spiritual.
Memory and Truth.
The progress that can be made, naturalistically is as follows. In a sufficiently complicated living system it is possible to conceive of  internal states that map onto and so represent aspects of the present and past environment of the life-form. These states can be identified as impressions and memories, they are the coinage of consciousness but are not consciousness. A diary has such internal states, but is not conscious. So does an exposed photographic film, and it has no awareness either. Arranging to store data either in terms of solitonic waves or within a neural net makes no significant difference. In each case, some representation of external reality exists in the internal states of the system: making these states transitory, or their persistence dependent on a flux of energy or matter (ie living) doesn't add any mystical substance that would make the system "conscious". We can however legitimately introduce a very important word at this point. This word is "Truth", understood as "correspondence with reality" [Aristotle, A. Tarski, K.R. Popper]. The correlation of a memory or impression with the state of the environment that gave rise to it is its verisimilitude or truth. Of course it is easy to say this, quantifying such a metric is a quite different matter!
Conjectures and Refutations.
Another step can be reasonably be taken. It is quite conceivable that dynamic internal states of a very complex living organism (c.f. unix processes running on a computer) might represent analogues of external systems, not just memories or impressions of observables, but rather abstractions: ideas; theories; and/or models of their future behaviours. Now we can legitimately  introduce the concept of falsifiability ["The Logic of Scientific Discovery" K.R. Popper]. A theory that makes many accurate and pertinent predictions is worthwhile: it may enable the life-form that has developed it to anticipate external threats and opportunities and so "live long and prosper". It is a "correct belief": "ortho-doxa" [Plato]. A theory that makes a single wrong prediction, while perhaps still of some (great) utility (e.g. Newtonian Physics)  is "refuted" and must be replaced, or adapted: generally speaking by some un-justified and arbitrary "conjecture". Darwinian selection steps in at this point.

So it would seem that a naturalistic framework for some of the most significant and remarkable activity of human-kind can be established with little difficulty. Of course, unequivocally demonstrating that the human brain is sufficiently complex and subtle to substantiate sense impressions, memories, ideas and theories is a non-trivial endeavour. It should not be presumed that because one can conceive it might be, that it is so!

The final step that I can propose in this programme is as follows. Just as internal states of a living organism might represent external sense impressions and constitute theories or models of objective reality: so if the brain is in some way able to sense or monitor its own internal states, then it is inevitable that it would develop internal processes that modelled its own behaviour. In more conventional language, the mind would reflect upon its own thinking. So if one understood what awareness or consciousness was, one would have little difficulty in understanding (at least in principal) self-awareness.

Mind and Matter

I have no difficulty in attributing the whole of the mind: memory, reason and imagination to the status of evolving configurations of the brain. In particular, I see no theological reason for not doing so. Human beings are, according to Tradition, composite beings; part matter, part spirit. When we die, while we are "in Heaven", awaiting the Final Trump and the resurrection of the body, we are not fully our-selves.

When our brains are diseased, damaged or wear out, our minds are sadly degraded. Now, it can be maintained that the mind is not substantiated by the brain and such dementia should be explained in terms of a loss of communication "between" the mind and brain and the breakdown of the control of the latter by the former. However, it is fairly apparent that the higher mammals have not only the faculty of memory, but also a degree of reason and imagination, yet that their "souls" have traditionally been considered to be material. While it is no more clear to me that this "traditional view" is any more part of "Apostolic Tradition" than the "traditional view" of human homosexuality, this is exactly the state of affairs that I have been arguing for: in a good deal more detail than the Scholastics, but still painting with very broad brush-strokes.


At this point my naturalism fails. I can see no way forward. Moreover, I welcome this. On the one hand, I hardly know what I mean by consciousness. I find it impossible to put into words. On the other hand, I am convinced that I am conscious and that this is the only thing about me that matters in the end. Without awareness, my mind doesn't matter ["In Soft Garments" Mgr Knox]. If I was not conscious, I doubt that mere knowledge of my mortality would cause me to ask "What is the purpose of it all?"

It would be a revealing experiment to interact with an artificial intelligence and see whether it ever originated the concept of consciousness or awareness itself, without prompting. Neither outcome would be conclusive; for no matter how long one waited without this happening, the delay could always be explained by saying that the AI had never been provoked into mentioning its own experience of awareness: after all, the experimentalists would certainly have ensured that the AI had no clue that its human corespondents were conscious! Equally, if the AI did claim to be conscious, one would never be sure that it was. The main reason that I believe that other people are conscious is that I know that I am and they seem to be things belonging to the same category as myself, so I have a reasonable expectation that their being and life is very similar to mine.

To Sleep, Perchance to Dream

One clue to the meaning, significance and explication of consciousness is one's experience of sleep and dreaming. To an extent, one's consciousness ceases to be when one sleeps. This suggests that it is a product of the waking brain. On the other hand, when one dreams one has consciousness of a sort: instead of being founded on sense impressions of objective reality, the dream consciousness is focused on imaginary expressions of subjective reality. Still, between dreams, one's best guess is that one has no consciousness at all: though it is quite impossible to establish this. After all, memories of dream consciousness are notoriously transitory, it is not unreasonable to think that all memory of any consciousness between dreams would evaporate instantly.  Indeed, our experience of sleep would be as well explained by a suspension of memory as by a suspension of consciousness!

Identity and Memory

It is impossible to conceive of self-consciousness in the absence of memory. For me to have an idea of my self, it would seem necessary to know that this "self" was a persistent entity, else as soon as I had grasped that "I am", the "am" would have become "was" and be forgotten! Persistence in Flux, yet again. To an extent, my idea of myself is caught up in the memories that I have of my life story. I know that "that was me, back then" because I remember those things happening to me.

Nevertheless, I am not my memory, still less my memories of me. Note how "I" and "me" and "my" keep on appearing in the grammar as well as the various aspects of my mind (in particular memory, though will and conscience and imagination could feature in similar discussions).

This discussion is taken further in a later paper.

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