What is the meaning of life? humankind came up with a variety of answers like being happy, serving a “higher being”, and 42. While some of these may be true, there is one answer that must be true. How can I be so sure? Simply because I exist.
Remember Cogito ergo sum, better known as I think, therefore I am? This pillar of western philosophy stood the test of time and is widely accepted today, hundreds of years after Rene Descartes thought it up. Its beauty comes from its simplicity. You are thinking? good, than you must exist. It is the basis of the Anthropic principle on which my claim here is based.
Charles Darwin taught us about the survival of the fittest, and in contrast, the demise of the unfit. Imagine one of your ancestors millions of generations removed – a mammal that lived 50 million years ago. The evolutionary tree that leads from it to you has many millions of branches. Most of them died off when their genetic makeup proved to be unfit for their environment. Only a few survived, including your grandparents, your parents and you. We can look at the chain of complex organisms leading from that ancient ancestor to you and ask: why did link n exit? It existed because link n-1 strived to stay alive, often against all odds.
If you are link number 2,000,000 in the chain, you exist only because numbers 1,999,999, 1,999,998, 1,999,997 and earlier really wanted to live and were successful at it. The genes you inherited are perfectly suited for keeping you alive at the environment and conditions your parents grew up in (and we can safely assume that you live in a similar environment.) Moreover, they are tuned to make you want to live. Not only are you good at living, you are programmed to strive to stay alive. Otherwise, you wouldn’t be alive today. You are programmed to produce offsprings who would want to stay alive as well.
Imagine all these ancestors; they each probably had different perceived goals and aspirations, a different meaning to their lives. However, one thread necessarily connects all of them – surviving just long enough to procreate and (in some cases) see that their offspring(s) are off to a good beginning. You may argue that this deduction is false for they survived thanks to sheer luck – they all just happened to be at the right place at the right time. This is extremely unlikely, but if you insist I’d argue that chance favors the prepared. This survival talent is shared by all the links in your chain. You should be proud of your evolutionary heritage.
This can be summarized as a corollary to Descartes’ principal: I exist, therefore I want to exist and am successful at it. The opposite is not necessarily true – many have tried to stay alive and failed. It’s only a short leap from here to the meaning of life. If your mere existence implies a strong desire and skill for staying alive, the meaning of life – as in purpose or goal – must be just that – the desire to stay alive and the ability to be successful at it.
Some may say that this is not a real “meaning” in the spiritual or moral sense. I don’t know enough about the spiritual to refute that (and frankly don’t care much about it either.) As for the moral aspects – I’ll leave this discussion for some other time. I can safely say though that the desire to stay alive and the ability to succeed encompasses purpose and progress, not just plain existence. These are necessary parts of staying alive, as improving your condition increases your chance of survival.
So is this all there is to it? just staying alive?
Schopenhauer’s idea of the “will to live” being the only driving force that maintains us is basically what I describe here. Unlike Schopenhauer and other existentialists, however, I’m an optimist. There may not be any objective purpose to life, but this doesn’t prevent us from adopting one of our own. In that respect, it’s a constant struggle to strive toward that personal purpose and direct it inward rather than turning it into a show-off campaign.
Our chains all interlink at some point back, making us – the ones who survived – brothers and sisters in a common cause: the desire to live and reproduce, and the ability to do so. You are here because of the relentless efforts of your ancestors, those who made every effort to get you to this moment. Don’t break the chain.
Endnote: I realize, of course, that these arguments are pretty pretentious and probably suffer from similar shortfalls as the original argument (Cogito ergo sum). However, it’s intriguing to try and capture these lofty ideas in simple catch phrases, isn’t it.