The meaning of life -- Why are we here?

The thread about why marijuana is illegal got some responses that I thought were disappointing, so let’s try something that might be more fun.

People have pondered for centuries about the meaning of life and why we are here. I have done some amateur research in this area and come up with an explanation that, so far, has not been dented by anyone – including the scientists and biologists to which I have offered it.

In order to discern the meaning of life, we first have to define what “life” is. That is, what is it that separates us and all the plants, animals, microbes, and viruses from the non-living rocks?

If you look around, you will find a number of definitions of life.

Dictionaries tend to define “life” as “that which is not dead.” If you look up “dead” you will usually find “that which is not living.” Not a lot of help.

Most of the other definitions, by more serious people, consist of a list of things that commonly occur in life. For example, it must have growth, metabolism, be able to reproduce, etc. The problem with all such lists is that there are invariably possibilities where some creature could fulfill all the requirements but one. For example, it is conceivable that an organism could be created that would grow and metabolize but didn’t have the capability to reproduce. Does that mean that the organism is not living? Sadly, nearly all of the conventional definitions of “life” have some failing in that regard – not that making a list of things it does is really a good definition for anything, anyway.

If anyone wants more knowledge of the various definitions, I refer them to If you want to play the devil’s advocate with those definitions you will quickly find that most have major holes.

The only definition that I have found that (so far) is not subject to those holes is my own: Life is that which seeks to continue its own existence.

That encompasses all the other explanations, and goes them one better. Think it over and research it yourself if you like, but no one that I have been able to find has been able to come up with a better definition.

Now, in order to continue its own existence, life must do two things:

  1. It must consume something (eat) for purposes of energy and reproduction. (For those who will biologically nitpick, consumption also implies elimination of wastes, although it is conceivable that there is some creature out there that eats but doesn’t eliminate wastes.)

  2. They must reproduce themselves. Living things have a finite individual life so, if they are going to continue, they must make some more of themselves.

Strictly speaking this is not a requirement of life, because there may be one-time creatures that eat, move around, and do other things we associate with life, but were born without gonads. It would be more correct to say that they must reproduce themselves in order to be noticed by us.

That’s it. The basic purpose of life in general is to eat and have sex.

For higher animals, there is a third requirement. That is, they have an advanced nervous system to help all the various parts of their body communicate and work together. The nervous system requires regular input, just like the body requires food. Without input, the nervous system dies, taking the creature with it.

Nervous system input is what you and I might commonly recognize as “entertainment”.

Therefore the reason we are here is to eat, screw, and be entertained. (And, if you consider what you typically want to do on a Saturday night, it all fits – dinner, a movie, and head home to hit the sheets – food, sex, and entertainment.) (Noting, of course, that food, sex, and entertainment often overlap.)

If you look around and think about it a little bit, I am sure most of you will be surprised to recognize the vast influence of the last item – entertainment. Look around you. Is there anything around you that IS NOT a function of entertainment?

You are here in this forum because of entertainment. You use a color monitor because of entertainment. The walls in your room are painted because the color is more entertaining. Your clothes have patterns and colors designed to entertain, etc., etc., etc. (That’s not to mention the far more obvious movies, TVs, music, cars, sports, etc., etc., etc.) Everything you do can be safely pigeonholed into food, sex, or entertainment (including my own writing here).

Now some of you will undoubtedly ask about “spiritual fulfillment” in one manner or another – what about God? I explained this idea to a Russian scientist once who immediately grasped the idea and agreed that it was the best idea on the subject so far. When someone asked him about “spiritual fulfillment” he responded, “That’s entertainment.” And, of course, he is right. “Spiritual fulfillment” is simply something to keep the nervous system entertained. In short, people go to church and believe in God because it is entertaining in one form or another.

It should be remembered here that nervous systems don’t just require input – they fairly well demand it like a junkie on a ten-thousand dollar a day habit. Consider all the input that is happening with your own body right now – from the soles of your feet to the top of your head, you are getting constant input. If input is inadequate, it is clear that the nervous system will try to create its own. Hence – religion.

There are another four or five pages I could do on the subject but, so far, nobody has put a dent in this theory. Anyone want to try?

This is just to tempting. Basically, you missed the fourth thing. Making the world a better place. Sure, you might think you enjoy things more with just the first three, but once children get born due to all that sex, and see what a bad condition you have left the world in, you are in for some trouble. No argument about the "spiritual fulfillment” part, though.

That’s either entertainment or reprodution, however you want to view it. Just like keeping a baby warm and well-housed is “reproduction”. If the kid doesn’t survive, then reproduction doesn’t succeed. That covers the basics of "making the world a better place – that which directly relates to the survival of the children.

But lots of people talk about “making the world a better place” in terms of planting trees, picking up litter, encouraging the arts, etc., etc. – things that don’t directly relate to the survival of the children. That’s entertainment.

BTW, the very idea that the world needs to be a “better place” is entertainment itself. I don’t think dogs worry too much about making the world a better place.

What is the distinction between seeking to continue existing and merely happening to continue existing? There are all sorts of things that have been quite successful at continuing to exist, despite the notable handicap of not being alive. One might even say that some of these things “seek” to not be destroyed (in the high school chemistry sense that that one oxygen atom “wants” to be connected to another, for example). Of course, no one would really ascribe intentionality to atoms, but what about more complex things? Does a virus seek to continue it’s own existence (/reproduce itself) or does it merely do so without any intentions? Is there a sharp distinction to be drawn between life that seeks, and nonlife that merely does? I would submit that the problem of defining life is inherent in the very concept of life. Evolution does not present us with perfectly sharp lines, and we must work with the fact that there will always be fuzzy areas where there is no definite answer on whether something is alive or is not.

Doing something, as opposed to just sitting there and being entirely dependent on outside forces.

The oxygen atom is not a good example, I think – no better than the example of a rock that holds together because of gravity.

As for the virus – yes. The difference being that the virus actually does something of its own, rather than just being the subject of gravitational pull. That is, at the very least, it independently assembles bits of material into replicas of itself.

I am not sure I understand that sentence, except as answered above.

I would agree that the issue has been pretty fuzzy up to this point. I think my definition makes it pretty clear where the dividing line is, though. It has to do something, rather than just be the subject of other forces.

The more “scientific” explanation of “do something” would be that it must resist entropy.

So you got the “What makes us alive” part. But you didn’t answer the “Why?” part.

Why does one want to consume, copulate, and cheer?

This brings us back to metabolism and reproduction as being (two of) the defining features of life. Are you proposing anything other than changing the old metabolism-and-reproduction model to metabolism-and/or-reproduction?

One-time creatures? They out-number the ones with gonads and many get noticed without reproducing. What a strange way to describe women.

Welcome to SDMB.

That’s what life does. It does it because it is life. That’s why.

Yeah, the scope of the definition – and some of the logical implications.

Where on earth did you get the idea that women don’t have gonads?

The explanation for life is that mechanism which got us here in the first place. There is nothing which commands us to continue such activities now we’re here. As Stephen Pinker says of his decision not to have children,

Meaning, on the other hand, is a cognitive “significance output”. I find meaning in some activities because my amydala outputs a high significance judgement where other activities, such as praying or golf, don;t push my cognitive buttons so.

The meaning of life is therefore what you experience upon learning the natural explanation for your existence in this universe of one temporal and three spatial dimensions. My amygdala provide an amazing sense of awesome wonder at this. Others seek their wonder from other sources or other explanations, and I hope they find all the meaning there that I find here.

To me life itself is purpose, I was born to live the best I can,which includes kindness to others, and trying to understand them, and treat the enviroment so all have a good place to live and suceed.

I was born, because by chance my parents met, had sex on a certian time, many sperm tried to fertilize my mothers egg,one made it so I was conceived,life is passed on, and I was born to live(as was my forebearers). I consider I started out a winner,if some other sperm had made it I would not be here. I know it is not sentimental, but I think of flowers that grow in a field,forest, ot meadow, no one even knows they exist but they live out their time. One could ask why animals or plants are also here. We are dependent on their life to exist.


On the matter of ‘life’.
DNA seeks to perpetuate itself through time and space. By way of evolution there have been a multitute of complex organisms that act as time machines for DNA - this is life.

An individual organisms life does not start or end. Life is a continuum of beings that transport DNA through the ages. Life started and it will end. Individual organisms act to form the stream of life.

On the matter of ‘entertainment’.
Read up of memes. Memes are similar to life. If life is the information stored in DNA perpetuating itsef through a variety of organisms, memes are units of information that propagate from one human brain to another as ideas, concepts, notions,… any thought that happens to be easily propagated.

In all discussion of evolution, remember that information that survives through time only does well if there is a drive for it to propagate and it adapts to its environment. Without these qualities the information quickly fades. Genomes and ‘how to make fire’ possess both these qualities.

Who says there is a “why?” Why do you need a “why?”

That’s “entertainment” if I ever heard a good description of “entertainment”. “Amazing sense of awesome wonder”? Sounds to me like something you would hear from people leaving a Steven Spielberg movie.

I agree wholeheartedly. What’s wrong with “it is what it is?” To quote a line from National Lampoon’s Radio Dinner:

You are a fluke of the universe
You have no right to be here
Whether you can hear it or not
The universe
Is laughing behind your back.

Are you offering this as an alternative definition?

As for memes, I don’t find anything to indicate they are similar to life. They look to me to be closer to computer viruses and computer viruses are not life.

Why are computer viruses and memes not life? Because they don’t do anything. They are only acted upon. A computer virus is just a set of meaningless instructions until a computer acts on those instructions and makes another copy. The instructions themselves didn’t do anything of their own.

Computer viruses and memes are closer to chain letters. Let’s suppose that I say to you “Repeat this sentence.” You then say “Repeat this sentence.” The sentence itself is not alive. It is simply a product of other things reproducing the sentence.

Indeed, I would certainly say that I found Schindler’s List and Saving Private Ryan meaningful. If you consider this to be merely synonymous with “entertaining”, then yes, the natural explanation for my existence entertains me where others are entertained by a supernatural one.