(it’s funny because I think I can definitively answer the oldest question of mankind in a 1,531-word blog post)
I feel the meaning of life is based in practical purpose; that is, we can answer this question, or at least attempt to, by finding a purpose that is universal to all of mankind. This idea of universality is important, as any answer to the question of the meaning of life must apply to all people, as we are all alive, and the idea of practicality in our purpose is also key, as this means that we are judging our purpose based on our Earthly lives, a trait all of mankind inarguable shares – to judge the meaning of life on the involvement in humanity of a higher, deistic power immediately alienates atheists and agnostics.
Regarding this Earthly purpose, therefore, I would argue that the meaning of life is to provide for future generations, a purpose based partly on our nature as an evolved species of animal, and partly on my views on the broader value, or lack thereof, of the life of the individual.
Humanity’s purpose is firstly grounded in its history: in our evolution from Orrorin tugenensis to the sort of people who think twitter is a valid form of self-expression. The nature of evolution means that the best suited to their environment survive, a condition that I feel we, as a species, subconsciously understand. This is why we fuss over our kids and try to protect them from everything; part of it is out of parental love and care, but it is based on a deeper knowledge that only the strongest, smartest and best survive, so we will try to give our kid the best advantage in these aspects we can.
Obviously, we’re not hunter-gatherers, so the slow runners aren’t going to die for their slow hundred-metre times, but our society is still competitive in terms of finding a job, and still in terms of finding mates; the fact that competition of any sort exists in our society means that our parents will try to give us the best chance of succeeding in that competition, a state of affairs that gives parents the specific purpose of raising, teaching and caring for their children.
This is why Lear’s impassioned question ‘Is man no more than this?’ while going mad naked on the heath is so powerful: without the care and support of our family – Lear is essentially disowned by his daughters – humanity is literally pushed to the brink of survival; this could also be seen in that said daughters die before their father does, suggesting the necessity of parental love to survive and prosper in any society.
Also, the ‘natural’ feelings of care and support parents offer children suggests that this purpose is an inherent part of humanity.
However, I feel this desire to protect and develop extends between any two people of different generations: random old people will tell you what it was like ‘back in the day’ not exclusively because they’re attention-starved, but because they want to educate you; this is why education has become a relatively respected (if horrifically underpaid) profession – people want to help the next generation develop, and others accept the importance of this interaction.
This acceptance of the importance of education is a key piece of evidence for this being the purpose of mankind: it’s no coincidence that the most developed nations and those with the highest standards of living place great value on education: a BBC piece a few weeks ago said South Korean school children go to school for thirteen hours a day, and the nation’s GDP per capita in 2012 was US$ 22,590.16, compared with a measly 6,091.01 in nearby China. I would argue that achieving our purpose must benefit us as a society, and so it’s no surprise that the most prosperous countries in the world are those achieving our purpose in this respect.
My definition of our purpose is also reinforced by our general lack of care of the individual: history is largely focused on the study of periods of time, and the individuals within it, not the study of decades and how they were shaped by those individuals: this is why everyone knows the Roman Empire, but few people could tell you more than three emperors.
This is also seen in the wider study of philosophy: the guy who came up with an idea is important, but readers will often apply these ideas to their own lives, or the ideas of other thinkers, rather than devote their time to learning every detail of that first thinker’s life.
A lot of this is based on practicality: it’s easier to discuss an idea than find primary sources about the life of a guy who lived 2,000 years ago, but I think our species’ de-prioritisation of the individual is still largely reflected in the way we study the past.
I would take this further and argue that the lives of the individual are almost totally unimportant, as we can make few changes to our world when we act alone: Lenin could only start his ‘revolution’ because Germany let him into Russia out of wider political reasons; Hitler could only come to power because of the societal unrest in Germany after the First World War; I could only write this damn post if people as a collective pushed for a platform upon which to publish blogs, and it took two people to code this very website, and another to name it.
Fundamentally, human lives are depressingly short, and I feel it is objectively a better use of our time to build for the future, than indulge in ourselves now: we can either have seventy years of fun, or potential generations of development. Not ‘development’ in a puritan, ‘let’s ban Christmas’ sense, but in the same ways we would live our own individual lives, but on a much bigger scale: instead of playing football professionally for a decade, why not work to promote the sport a grassroots level, allowing many thousands of people in future generations to play too?
This does point to an inherent altruism in human society, that you can obviously argue against: the ‘victory’ of capitalism over communism in the twentieth Century was a victory for the idea of personal advancement over an idea of collective improvement (even if that collective improvement was poorly implemented, to the extent that the collective was actually damaged).
However, even though capitalism is consciously focused on individual improvement, the fact that such advances can result in long-term, societal improvement would suggest that there is a deeper understanding in the minds of people, that our primary goal should be one of improving stuff for people in the future: people got rich in the nineteenth century by building railways, a move that gave them money, but also ‘coincidentally’ formed the backbone of toady’s public transport system, a system that allows anyone to visit anywhere in the country in little time and with relatively little hassle (Oyster card idiocy provided).
Now, with the ease of communication brought about by the Internet, people are building things with intentionally altruistic goals in mind; the Vlogbrothers’ annual Project For Awesome is a great example of a system based on capitalist-style competition, to drive up donations and the quality of videos submitted to advertise each charity, that uses the money generated to help large numbers of people in the long-term.
And it’s not just explicitly charitable stuff either; I’d argue that recent ‘entertainment’ websites, from YouTube to WordPress, are, in part, focused on altruistic goals: yes, you can make a living off one or the other, but these sites are primarily concerned with the production of content, which can be read by multiple people for a long time after they have been written – contrast this to the single person who can directly benefit economically from the sites, and who will only get paid once a month.
I’m not saying that all online creators are saintly bastions of altruism and giving at the expense of their own economic status, nor is the stuff we make particularly intellectually fulfilling or thought-provoking. But the fact that an increasing number of people are sharing their ideas online would point to a deeper understanding of the human purpose to educate and inform those who come after us, in much the same way that the capitalist production of railways ‘coincidentally’ helped lots of people to get around the country, long after their producers made money off them and died.
The meaning of life is obviously incredibly difficult to define, because everyone feels there are different components that constitute life: our practical lives, emotional state, theistic beliefs and so on; theists will probably disagree with my definition of purpose being based exclusively on these ‘practical lives’ and history. However, these are the only factors that are certain to have been shared by all people, so they are the most universal base upon which to answer the question. Although humanity does suck occasionally, a combination of an evolutionary desire to survive and our achievements as a community outweighing those as individuals would suggest that there is some deeper acknowledgement of a purpose that we all share, that is grounded in personal experience and altruism.