Meaning of life
It is easy to find that ‘life’ is very difficult to define and understand as a concept. Scientists and philosophers are continually unable to give a sound description of the concept. The line between the living and the non-living is not perfectly defined.
When the meaning of ‘life’ is unclear, the task of understanding the meaning of life is absurd.
A good description of the problem is related to the following scenario — a person asks a professional chess player to describe the single best chess move. The poor chess player would have to blink and stare at the speaker. The best chess move is related to the very particular scenario in a particular game of chess. There is no such thing called a best move. Similarly, the meaning of life gains some sense only if it is mentioned in a particular circumstance for a particular individual. Though in all likelihood, it would not make sense even then.
The ‘Why’ and ‘How’ questions
The problem with an objective analysis lies, I think, in the manner of thinking which we just can’t seem to shirk away. We, as a species of thinkers, have always wanted to attach meaning to our experiences. There is some meaning for most of the everyday observations around us, but an extension of the same to the problem of existence seems tricky. The word meaning is loosely tied to the question of Why. The meaning of an event is generally said to be understood if we answer the ‘why’ question.
I tend to think that in general, the ‘why’ question is one notch above the ‘how’ question. In many instances, the moment the ‘how’ is answered, the ‘why’ seems closer to an answer. For example, if I truly want to understand why the sky is blue in colour, I would have to understand at-least parts of what a colour is, what a sky is, how a colour manifests itself, how the sky can have a colour, and so on. Answering these questions will get me much closer to the ‘why’ of it.
A materialist’s perspective
Anyway, it is my intuition that the answer to the ‘how’ of existence might take us closer to the ‘why’ of existence. To think solidly as a materialist, the argument for existence problem might be something like this –
All objects and activities have a physical origin, and there is nothing beyond the physical realm (that is to say, that there is nothing which can exist that cannot be observed directly or indirectly by the senses). The human being is also an object performing certain activities, and he too is entirely just physical. If the physical existence of a human being is completely understood in relation to the physical existence of his surroundings (the ‘how’ question), and if the existence and functioning of his mind is objectively and physically discernible, then much of the mystery is solved. Any non-materialist who argues that it still doesn’t explain the ‘why’ of man’s existence can be told that the act of asking ‘why’ is by itself an evolutionary brain relic that had the purpose of understanding the surroundings intimately by asking such questions, to survive better.
But does the dear materialist answer everything? The extent of a person’s answer or question depends on his level of satisfaction with the current answer he has, which again depends on his ego and ability to learn and think. There is one major assumption which the materialist makes here — that the surroundings of the man exist. The surroundings may really exist, but without answering the ‘why’ question. To answer why the surrounding exists, we would again have to go to the ‘how’ of it. Answering the ‘how’ of the surroundings’ existence is very troublesome as scientists have found.
Can we know everything about our Universe?
For scientists to find out the ‘how’ of any question, they need credible evidence which, in this case, turns out to be lots of data. In acquiring this data about the early universe and the present universe, we have come across a big stumbling block — the universe is unimaginably large and the data that can reach us is unimaginably small. Furthermore, the data that we can receive have very finite speeds of coming to us. It is so finite and limited (or conversely the universe is so large) that we would need countless time to get most of it, and much of it is already lost to us too! Our own observations, experiments and conclusions tell us that it is virtually impossible to understand our universe in its entirety. We are doomed to make hypotheses (theories stand until they are proven wrong by a new observation and it’s difficult to see why we won’t get surprises) with the limited data we receive and be content with it.
So, we are stuck in that physical realm. Of course, there could always be an undiscovered way out. As J.B.S Haldane so rightly put it — ‘the universe is not just queerer than we suppose, it is queerer than we can suppose’. So, the door always remains open for new surprises, but only when we keep trying to find something.
So what if we are able to KNOW everything?
Suppose that we do get a pleasant surprise, a way to cheat the limitations we currently experience. Let’s assume we have been granted access to the dimension of time and that we can observe any time point at any space point of the universe without disturbing the events of that time (yes, a daring assumption). Let’s also assume that all other practical difficulties that may arise have been taken care. Now we have infinite data (infinite processing power too by this time), and we can un-cover all secrets of existence of the universe. Even with that kind of an all-encompassing explanation in that far away age, a person can very easily ask ‘Why all this at all?’. This is problematic. I personally see it as a valid question. The argument that the act of asking ‘why’ is an evolutionary brain relic is not a very satisfactory answer to me, though I don’t question the truth of the argument.
So, here comes the second problem with objective analysis — we just can’t seem to resist asking questions on the same issue with better refinement. There is always a ‘why’ that will survive all attempts to answer. Thus, our love for infinity on either end, smallest or the biggest, is exposed. This tendency is a fundamental error (if at all), falling perhaps in our way to achieve the very thing we seek — ultimate knowledge.
The bottom-line is this: although intellectual efforts help in understanding a great deal about our existence, they are not suitable for someone who is going to keep asking ‘why’. The supreme suitability of intellectual efforts in practical human achievement shows that the blame must fall on the individual who persists in asking ‘why’. It is his limitation and his love for infinity, consciously or sub-consciously, that makes him ask such persistent questions.