The Ultimate Meaning of Life

5 min read

What, if anything, makes life meaningful?

Some find meaning in life by altruistically helping others. Since assists assist the proliferation of our species, the desire to do so may be innate, and stem from our biology.

Others find meaning in helping the planet, and that’s adaptive as well, since our species’ survival hinges on the well-being of the planet that sustains us. So that, too, may be at least partly innate, and stem from our biology.

Many claim that the most meaningful experiences of their lives are associated with having children, and that too, makes adaptive sense. We are wired to behave in ways that leave a biological legacy, which requires that you survive long enough to have offspring and ensure their survival, such that they bear offspring, and so on. If (despite the hardships) we find childrearing meaningful, we are more likely to do it and try to do a decent job of it. So, people find meaning in raising children and becoming grandparents. And many find meaning in simply surviving (hearing the birds, smelling flowers…), which of course makes us likelier to become parents and grandparents.

Surviving and having offspring isn’t the only avenue to meaning in life. We participate in two evolutionary processes: biological and cultural. We appear to be wired to behave in ways that leave a cultural legacy, whether through participation in activities or rituals that we, in turn, pass on to others, or by generating new elements of culture. And sure enough, many claim that their most meaningful experiences are associated with the generation or appreciation of creative works.

You may wonder: Does the desire to contribute to and participate in cultural evolution arise from the same source within us as our biological drive to survive and bear offspring? Or is it acquired from others through social transmission? Is it born or bred? My hunch is that neither of these is correct. But if it isn’t innate or learned, where else could it come from?

To answer this, we begin by noting that culture, as an evolutionary process, rides piggyback on biological evolution in the sense that it depends on lineages of biologically evolved organisms for its existence. So, culture is, in a sense, subservient to biological evolution. However, it is also separate from it, and it can even turn our focus away from our biological imperatives. Consider, for example, the artist who, in the throes of creative passion, neglects her children, or the musician who is so immersed in his music that he forgets to eat. Thus, the biological and cultural forces that drive us are, though intertwined, quite distinct.

I suspect that the desire to contribute to cultural evolution and leave a cultural legacy is not something you are born with, nor something you’re explicitly taught, but it may emerge from deep within you in the first few years of life. To explain why, each human is comprised of two integrated, self-organizing, self-mending webs. The first is the web of biochemical reactions necessary for the survival and preservation of the organ systems that constitute a person’s soma or body: their biological self. The second is the web of associations and streams of thought necessary for the survival and preservation of the knowledge, memories, and beliefs that constitute a person’s internal model of the world, or worldview: their cultural self. I believe that the desire to contribute to culture arises from this second self-organizing web, your worldview.

Our worldviews all have similar shapes because we live in the same world and are wired in similar ways. But because our experiences are, to some extent, unique, and the way we’ve processed or made sense of them is also unique, they are all slightly different. These individual differences are what enable us to make unique contributions to cultural evolution. The world has never been seen before from your point of view, and as a result, only you can leave your particular mark on the world. (In fact, maybe you owe it to the world—perhaps not to its current inhabitants but to its future inhabitants—to call it as you see it and leave your mark as only you can, since the world will never know another you.)

So, our question becomes: is a worldview the product of nature, nurture, or something else? My colleagues and I have studied this extensively, synthesizing relevant information from anthropology (Gabora & Smith, 2018; Voorhees, Read, & Gabora, 2020), archaeology (Gabora, 2006, 2008; Gabora & Smith, 2019), psychology and cognitive science (Gabora, 1998, 2003; Gabora, Beckage, & Steel, 2022; Gabora & Steel, 2020), neuroscience (Gabora, 2002, 2010, 2018; Gabora & Ranjan, 2013), and genetics (Chrusch & Gabora, 2014), as well as mathematical Gabora & Steel, 2017, 2020a,b, 2021,2022) and computational (Gabora, Chia, & Firouzi, 2013; Gabora & DiPaola, 2012; Gabora & Tseng, 2017) modeling.

Long story short, we posit that to have a worldview, all your mental representations—that is, your knowledge, memories, and beliefs—must weave themselves into an integrated network, such that starting from any one mental representation, there is a (direct or indirect) associative pathway (i.e., some possible stream of thought) that could get you to any other mental representation. The upshot of this is that you can combine ideas, adapt existing solutions to new situations, express the pain of a loved one’s death in song or the thrill of newfound love in poetry (Scotney et al., 2019), or even re-express a piece of music as art (Gabora, O’Connor, & Ranjan, 2012). In other words, you can put your own spin on what has come before; you can contribute to, not just the transmission of existing elements of culture, but the evolution of culture.

In part two of this series, we’ll look at two significant transitions toward the achievement of this kind of integrated cognitive network structure. With the crossing of this second transition, our ancestors became modern humans, Homo sapiens, who looked and acted and thought pretty much as we do now.

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