WHAT IS LIFE?


To wonder too insistently what ‘the meaning of life’ might be marks you out as being somewhat heavy, weird or just naïve. People nowadays often say – sometimes in a sad way, other times more aggressively and cynically – that ‘life just has no meaning.’

Two reasons are often cited for this. The first has to do with religion. Once upon a time, so the story goes, life had a clear meaning given to us by God: it was about worshiping Him and living according to His dictates. But as religious belief has declined, not only has god supposedly died, but along with him, the meaning he once guaranteed.

Modern science is the second cause of the current crisis of meaning. Scientists tell us that existence, which emerged from a random interplay of chemicals and gases, does have meaning, but it’s of a rather bleak, relentless and narrow sort: for humans – as for all other living things (like amoeba) – the meaning of life is survival and the propagation of one’s genetic material. It sounds very true and at the same time, distinctly futile and melancholy.

Here we want to argue as follows: to wonder about the meaning of life is an extremely important activity, life does have substantial meaning – and there are, in fact, a range of practical steps we can take to ensure we end up leading lives of maximal meaningfulness.

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We should start by saying that there is no meaning in life outside of that which we can find by ourselves as a species. There isn’t any kind of objective meaning written in the stars, in a holy book or in sequences of DNA.

What seems to prompt people to complain that life lacks meaning are particular varieties of unhappiness. Let’s consider some central examples:

– You’re in a relationship, but the intensity you experienced at the start has long gone. You don’t seem to talk about anything important any more or share vulnerable feelings and ideas. It feels, as you put it, ‘meaningless’. Or else you’re single and, though you have many friends, every time you see them, the conversation seems shallow and trivial.

– You are at university studying for a degree. You signed up for the course in part because you often feel confused about who you are and what you want. You thought that reading books and going to lectures would shine a light on things, but the topics are dull and disconnected from your confusion. You complain it feels meaningless.

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– You’re working in a large profitable company and earning a decent sum every week, but the work doesn’t seem, in the grander scheme, important. By which you mean two things: that you don’t seem to be making any great difference to anyone’s life and also that there’s no profound part of you that you’re able to bring to, or incorporate in, your work. It might as well be done by a robot.

From these strands, we can start to extrapolate a theory of meaning.

Meaning is to be found in three activities in particular: Communication, Understanding and Service.

Let’s look at communication first. We are, by nature, isolated creatures and it appears that some of our most meaningful moments are to do with instances of connection: with a lover, for example, when we reveal our intimate physical and psychological selves, or when we form friendships where substantial truths about our respective lives can be shared. Or on a journey to a new country, when we strike up a conversation with a stranger and feel a thrilling sense of victory over linguistic and cultural barriers. Or when we are touched by books, songs, and films that put their fingers on emotions that are deeply our own but that we had never witnessed externalised so clearly or beautifully before.

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Then there’s the meaning that emerges via understanding. This is about the pleasure that can be felt whenever we correct confusion and puzzlement about ourselves or the world. We might be scientific researchers, or economists, poets or patients in psychotherapy; the pleasure of our activities stems from a common ability to map and make sense of what was once painfully unfamiliar and strange.

Thirdly, there’s service. One of the most meaningful things we can do is to serve other people, to try to improve their lives, either by alleviating sources of suffering or else by generating new sources of pleasure. So we might be working as cardiac surgeons and aware every day of the meaning of our jobs or else be in a company that’s making a modest but real difference to people’s lives by helping them get a better night’s sleep, finding their keys or thrilling them aesthetically with elegant furniture or harmonious tunes. Or else our service might be to friends or our own families, or perhaps the earth itself. We’re often told to think of ourselves as inherently selfish. But some of the most meaningful moments come when we transcend our egos and put ourselves at the service of others – or the planet. One should add that in order for service to feel meaningful, it has to be in synch with our native, sincere interests. Not everyone will find medicine or social work, ballet or graphic design meaningful. It’s a case of knowing enough about ourselves to find our particular path to service.

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Armed with such ideas, we can move towards defining nothing less than the meaning of life. The meaning of life is to pursue human flourishing through communication, understanding and service.

In order to have meaningful lives, we can also see that certain things will need to be in play.

We need to have relationships with others: not necessarily romantic ones (that’s been way overdone in our society), but connections of some kind where the important things are shared. It might, of course, be relationships with books or songs.

We also need to have a culture conducive to fostering an understanding of oneself and the world. The enemies of this include being surrounded by mass media that throws out chaotic information or an academic environment that promotes dead, sterile investigations.

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And lastly we need to have good work, which means a world filled with businesses and organisations geared towards not just profit, but the assistance and genuine improvement of human kind. In addition, we need to help people to discover their own particular inner ‘tune’ that they can put into their work, so that people aren’t just serving per se, but serving in a way that taps into their heartfelt interests.

There are, sadly, a lot of obstacles to meaningful lives. In the area of communication: it’s things like an over-emphasis on sex, an underplaying of friendship, a lack of neighbourliness or an absence of nourishing culture. It’s also, at an internal level, bugs in one’s emotional software that make one afraid to get close to others.

In the area of understanding, it’s a lack of good media, a suspicion of introspection and psychotherapy, and a pompous and disconnected academic world.

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And in the area of service, it’s an over-exaggerated concern for money in individuals and companies that puts the focus on financial gain over the genuine needs of others. It’s overly large systems in which the individual is lost and can’t see the impact of his or her work. And internally, it might be about an inner timidity, snobbery or a follow-the-herd mentality, which prevents one from properly getting to know oneself and one’s authentic talents.

To build a more meaningful world, we have to place the emphasis on emotional education, on community, on a culture of introspection and on a more honest kind of capitalism.

We may not have meaningful lives yet, but it’s central to affirm that the concept of a meaningful life is eminently plausible – and that it comprises elements that can be clearly named and gradually fought for.

The following answers to this fundamental question each win a random book.

Life is the aspect of existence that processes, acts, reacts, evaluates, and evolves through growth (reproduction and metabolism). The crucial difference between life and non-life (or non-living things) is that life uses energy for physical and conscious development. Life is anything that grows and eventually dies, i.e., ceases to proliferate and be cognizant. Can we say that viruses, for example, are cognizant? Yes, insofar as they react to stimuli; but they are alive essentially because they reproduce and grow. Computers are non-living because even though they can cognize, they do not develop biologically (grow), and cannot produce offspring. It is not cognition that determines life, then: it is rather proliferation and maturation towards a state of death; and death occurs only to living substances.

Or is the question, ‘What is the meaning (purpose) of life?’ That’s a real tough one. But I think that the meaning of life is the ideals we impose upon it, what we demand of it. I’ve come to reaffirm my Boy Scout motto, give or take a few words, that the meaning of life is to: Do good, Be Good, but also to Receive Good. The foggy term in this advice, of course, is ‘good’; but I leave that to the intuitive powers that we all share.

There are, of course, many intuitively clear examples of Doing Good: by retrieving a crying baby from a dumpster; by trying to rescue someone who’s drowning. Most of us would avoid murdering; and most of us would refrain from other acts we find intuitively wrong. So our natural intuitions determine the meaning of life for us; and it seems for other species as well, for those intuitions resonate through much of life and give it its purpose.

Tom Baranski, Somerset, New Jersey


The ceramic artist Edmund de Waal places an object in front of him and begins to tell a story. Even if the patina, chips and signs of repair of the inanimate object hint at its history, the story is told by a living observer. A living thing is an object that contains its story within itself. Life’s story is held in the genome, based in DNA. Maybe other ways for memorising the story may be discovered, but in environments subject to common chemical processes, common methods are likely to emerge.

Although we have only the example of the Earth, it shows that life will evolve to fill every usable niche, and to secure and further diversify those niches. This should not be thought of as purposeful. Life embodies a ‘plan’, but one that does not specify ends, only methods acquired iteratively. Inanimate processes can be cyclic but not iterative: they do not learn from past mistakes.

Life exists at many levels. Life is also a process through which energy and materials are transformed; but so is non-life. The difference is that the process of life is intimately linked to story it contains, whereas non-life is indifferent to the story we impose upon it. Yet life is only a story, so it can act only through matter. Therefore life is by nature a toolmaker. Its tools are potentially everything that exists, and its workshop is potentially the whole universe. So why do humans risk undermining the life of which they are part? Because they try to impose upon it a story of their own making. Yet humans, the ‘tool-making animals’, are themselves tools of life, in an unplanned experiment.

Nicholas Taylor, Little Sandhurst, Berkshire


First the technical definition. Life is self-organising chemistry which reproduces itself and passes on its evolved characteristics, encoded in DNA. In thermodynamics terms, it has the ability to reduce local entropy or disorganisation, thus locally contravening the third law of thermodynamics.

But what is life really about, if anything? The two possibilities are, life is either a meaningless accident arising from the laws of physics operating in a meaningless universe, or it is a step in a planned ‘experiment’. I say ‘step’, because this cannot be the end. The current state of life is as yet too unstable and undeveloped for it to be the end. And I say ‘experiment’ because the evolutionary nature of life suggests that its future is not known. If therefore the universe itself has a purpose, it seems most likely to be to explore what the outcome of the evolutionary experiment would be.

But what will be the outcome? If, as many physicists now believe, the universe is only information, then harnessing all the resources of the universe in one giant evolutionary process could plausibly provide a useful outcome for a species clever enough to create the universe in the first place. On this interpretation, life will ultimately organise all the physical resources of the universe into a single self-conscious intelligence, which in turn will then be able to interact with its creator(s).

Dr Harry Fuchs, Flecknoe, Warwickshire


Life is the embodiment of selfishness! Life is selfish because it is for itself in two ways: it is for its own survival, and it is for its own reproduction. This desire is embodied in an adaptive autocatalytic chemical system, forming life’s embodied mind.

Anything that is not itself is the other; and the collection of others constitute its environment. The organism must destructively use the other to satisfy its reproductive desire, but on achieving this, it produces an additional other – but now one that also embodies its own selfish aim and the means to satisfy this aim. Therefore, even by an organism satisfying its desire, it makes the continuing satisfaction of its desires ever more difficult to achieve. A partial solution to this dilemma is for genetically-related entities to form a cooperating society.

The underlying mechanism of evolution is therefore the iteration of the embodied desire within an ever more complex competitive and social environment. Over vast numbers of iterations, this process forces some life-forms along a pathway that solves the desire for survival and reproduction by developing ever more complex and adaptable minds. This is achieved by supplementing their underlying cellular embodied chemistry with a specialist organ (although still based on chemistry) that we call its brain, able to rapidly process electrical signals. Advanced minds can collect and process vast inputs of data by ‘projecting’ the derived output back onto its environmental source, that is by acting. However advanced it might be, an organism is still driven by the same basic needs for survival and reproduction. The creative process, however, leads the organism towards an increasingly aesthetic experience of the world. This is why for us the world we experience is both rich and beautiful.

Dr Steve Brewer, St Ives, Cornwall


In our scientific age, we look to the biologists to define ‘life’ for us. After all, it is their subject matter. I believe they have yet to reach consensus, but a biological definition would be something like, ‘Life is an arrangement of molecules with qualities of self-sustenance and self-replication’. This kind of definition might serve the purposes of biologists, but for me, it has five deficiencies. First, any definition of life by biologists would have little utility outside biology because of its necessary inclusiveness. We humans would find ourselves in a class of beings that included the amoeba. ‘Life’ would be the limited common properties of all organisms, including the lowest. Second, the scientific definition of life is necessarily an external one. I think that knowing what life is, as opposed to defining it, requires knowing it from within. Non-sentient organisms live, but they do not know life. Third, in the scientific definition, there is no place for life having value. However, many would say that life has value in its own right – that it is not simply that we humans value life and so give it value, but that it has value intrinsically. Fourth, there is the question of life as a whole having a purpose or goal. This notion is not scientific, but one wonders if the tools of science are fit to detect any evolutionary purpose, if there is one. Fifth, for the scientists, life is a set of biological conditions and processes. However, everywhere and always, people have conceived of a life after biological death, a life of spirit not necessarily dependent on the physical for existence.

The scientific definition of life is valid in its context, but otherwise I find it impoverished. I believe there is a hierarchy of living beings from the non-sentient, to the sentient, to humans, and perhaps up to God. When I ask, ‘What is life? I want to know what life is at its highest form. I believe life at its best is spirit: it is active, sentient, feeling, thinking, purposive, valuing, social, other-respecting, relating, and caring.

John Talley, Rutherfordton, NC


I listen enthralled to scientific debate on what, how, when and where life was created. However, questions remain which may never be resolved. In this vacuum, philosophers and religious thinkers have attempted to give meaning to life by suggesting goals: Plato suggested the acquisition of knowledge, Aristotle to practice virtue, and the Stoics, mental fortitude and self-control. Today’s philosophers echo the existentialist view that life is full of absurdity, although they also tell us that we must put meaning into life by making our own values in an indifferent world. But if life is just a journey from womb to tomb, will such ‘meaning’ be sufficient to allow the traveller at journey’s end to feel that it was worthwhile?

Perhaps the hypothesis upon which Ivan Tyrrell and Joe Griffin have based their therapy could help (see Human Givens, 2003). They describe that we are born with evolved needs that seek satisfaction from our environment. These are physical and emotional needs, which, when enough of them are met, ensure the health of the individual, maximising his or her ability to achieve meaning in life. Griffin and Tyrrell have proven empirically that when sufficient needs are met an individual will enjoy mental and physical health, unless there is damage or toxicity in the environment. Some of these needs were identified by Maslow in his ‘Hierarchy of Needs’ in his 1943 paper ‘A Theory of Human Motivation’, Psychological Review, 50 (4), but Griffin and Tyrrell focus more clearly on emotional needs such as:

• To achieve, and to feel competent

• To fulfil our sense of autonomy and control

• To be emotionally connected to other people and part of a larger community

• To have a sense of status within social groupings

• For privacy and rest, to reflect and consolidate learning

• And yes – to have meaning in one’s life

Meaning becomes difficult, if not impossible, to achieve if these needs are insufficiently satisfied. Unfortunately, modern society seeks meaning to life through materialism, to the detriment of our biological needs, leading to dissatisfaction and a consequent inability to find meaning. The result is an exponential increase in mental ill-health. Sadly, then, many of us will not experience the satisfaction of a meaningful life journey.

Caryl A. Fuchs, Flecknoe, Warwickshire


Life is the eternal and unbroken flow of infinite rippling simultaneous events that by a fortuitous chain has led to this universe of elements we are all suspended in, that has somehow led to this present experience of sentient existence. Animal life (excluding that of humans) shows that life is a simple matter of being, by means of a modest routine of eating, sleeping and reproducing. Animals balance their days between these necessities, doing only what their bodies ask of them. The life of vegetation is not far from that of animals. They eat and sleep and reproduce in their own way, for the same result. So life is a beautiful and naturally harmonious borrowing of energy.

Yet we have taken it for granted. We have lost the power to simply be happy eating, sleeping, reproducing, believing we need a reason to be alive, a purpose and a goal to reach, so that on our deathbeds (something we have been made to fear) we can look back and tell ourselves we have done something with our lives. Life has lost its purpose because we have tried to give it one. The truth is that we are no more significant than the sand by the sea or the clouds in the sky. No more significant. But as significant.

No matter what your race, religion or gender, when you first step outside your door in the morning and feel the fresh air in your lungs and the morning sun on your face, you close your eyes and smile. In that moment you are feeling life as it should be. No defining, no understanding, no thinking. Just that feeling of pure bliss. For that is what life is.

Courtney Walsh, Farnborough, Hampshire


Of all Webster’s definitions of ‘life’, the one for me that best covers it is, “the sequence of physical and mental experiences that make up the existence of an individual.” Indeed, life is a continuum of accomplishment, failure, discovery, dilemma, challenge, boredom, sadness, disappointment, appreciation, the giving and receipt of grace, empathy, peace, and our reactions to all sorts of stimuli – touch, love, friendship, loss… One can either merely exist or try to achieve, working through the difficult times, perhaps learning a thing or two. Everyone has a story. I’ve been surprised when learning something new about an acquaintance or friend that must have been very difficult to manage or survive; but there they are in front of me. It’s how you come out on the other side of those challenging times that is important. How you land, get on with it, and keep on truckin’.

Life cannot be planned: there’s fate, and there’s simple bad luck. Failure can bring crushing disappointment, or you can try and make a new plan. A person can waste an inordinate amount of time mourning what they don’t have, or plans that don’t work out. But who wants to waste that much time regretting?

Life has happy surprises, small moments to cherish. It’s a matter of weighing the good and bad times – the challenge is to balance both, ending up with a life looked back on that was worth the mighty effort. I’m not meaning to sound like a Pollyanna – I assure you I’m not – it’s just more pleasant to strive for a modicum of equilibrium. If I can manage that, I’m good.

Cheryl Anderson, Kenilworth, Illinois


“Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player,
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage
And then is heard no more. It is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
Signifying nothing.”
(Macbeth, Act V, Scene V)

These words of Shakespeare’s Macbeth summarize interesting ideas about the nature of life. The first line expresses two of the three marks of existence as per Buddhist thinking, Anicca, impermanence, and Anatta, non-self: a “walking shadow” is as insubstantial and impermanent as anything imaginable; a “poor player” neither creates nor directs his role, and the character being played only exists because of an author. Macbeth’s entire statement, particularly the last sentence, expresses the third Buddhist mark of existence: Dukkha, dissatisfaction.

The stage metaphor in the second line represents boundaries or limits. Scientific research into the nature of life often focuses on the material, energetic, and temporal limitations within which life can exist. The temporal limit of life is known as death. In the spirit of this interpretation, the idea of being “heard no more” could imply that life constantly evolves new forms while discarding older ones.

Macbeth hints at the wisdom of mystery traditions while anticipating the revelations of genetic science by stating that life “is a tale”. Now, this refers to the language-based, or code-based, nature of life. Readers may consider this in relation to DNA and RNA, and also in relation to John’s Gospel: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” (The implications of the phrase “told by an idiot” exceed the scope of this inquiry.)

In five concise and poetic lines, Shakespeare defined life as an impermanent, non-self-directed, unsatisfactory, limited, ever-changing, and ultimately insignificant code.

Devon Hall, Albuquerque, New Mexico


Life is the realisation of its own contingency. But that’s not the end of it; it’s merely the means towards the creation of meaning. Life is thus a constant process of becoming, through creating values and meaning. Life is therefore perpetual transcendence, always moving into the future, creating the present. Life is also acceptance: the acceptance of finitude; acceptance of one’s responsibilities; acceptance of other human beings’ existence and choices. Life is neither fixed nor absolute, it is ambiguous; life is the possibilities entailed by existence. Life is the consciousness of humanity; it is perception of the world and the universe. So life is sadness; life is death. Life is suffering and destruction. But life is also happiness; life is living. Life is joy and creativity. Life is finding a cause to survive, a reason not to die – not yet. It is youth and old age, with everything in between. Overall, life is beautiful – ugliness is fleeting. Corpses and skeletons are lugubrious; living flesh is resplendent, all bodies are statuesque. Human life is love and hate, but it can only be life when we are with others. Life as fear and hatred is not real life at all. For some, life is God. We would all then be His children. We are nevertheless the spawn of the Earth.

Human existence is freedom – an edifice of plurality.

Greg Chatterton, Cupar, Fife


If the ancients could do philosophy in the marketplace, maybe I can too. So I employed some modern technology by texting the question ‘What is Life?’ to all my contacts. I didn’t explain the context of the question, to avoid lyrical waxing. Here are a sample of replies. Life is: being conscious of yourself and others; a being with a soul; experience; what you make it; your chance to be a success; family; living as long as you can; not being dead; greater than the sum of its parts; complex chemical organisation; different things to different people; a mystery; a journey; don’t know; a quote from a song, “baby don’t hurt me”; life begins after death. I asked a regular in my favourite café. They said, “man’s chief end is to glorify God and enjoy him forever.” A person suffering from a degenerative disease answered: “life is sh** then you die.” Another with the same illness interviewed in our local newspaper said, “My life is a mission to help other sufferers.” A colleague said “some would want to shoot themselves if they had my life, but I’m happy.” I posed the question at my art club and we did no painting that day…

I was surprised to find that I had no immediate definition of life myself (hence the idea to ask) and that there is no consensus (only one reply was repeated), but then, that also is life.

I sometimes catch myself considering life when I arrive at the turning point on my evening walk. It’s a dark spot which makes stargazing easier, and the heavens are a good place to start, since life as we know it began there (the heavier atoms like carbon which make up our bodies initially formed in dying Red Giant stars). This makes me feel two things about my life: it’s a dot because the cosmos is immense; but it’s an important dot in the cosmos because I can consider it.

Kristine Kerr, Gourock, Renfrewshire