My quest to find the meaning of life

Over the course of 10 years, I wrote a book on the meaning of life titled “Why: An Agnostic Perspective on the Meaning of Life.” I didn’t do it to get rich quick, or because God told me to or because I’m the smartest person alive. My motives came from somewhere much more down to Earth. To understand why I wrote this book, you need to know the whole story.

I’ve always been a introvert, predisposed to working alone on long projects, and I’ve always loved puzzles. At the age of 17 I made a conscious decision to make a hobby out of solving difficult logic puzzles for the fun and challenge of it. Originally, this consisted of completing puzzle books, which I did with varying levels of success. That got boring quickly though, because I was just rearranging words, letters and numbers, which felt tantamount to mental masturbation. I wanted to solve real problems that had useful implications for myself and hopefully the rest of society.

The first big challenge I picked was creating a perpetual motion machine. Although I failed to build a working perpetual motion machine, I don’t count the quest as a failure, because it provided me hundreds of hours of entertainment and valuable problem-solving practice. When that thought-experiment had run its course I started looking for a new one. It wasn’t long before the question of the meaning of life caught my attention.

The challenge started out as a game, but the more I thought about it, the more seriously I took the question. I considered myself a responsible person who followed all the rules and lived a successful life by modern society’s standards, but could I say for certain I knew the meaning of life? No. So could I honestly be sure I was fulfilling it. No. I was just expecting I’d nail it by chance; I was leaving it up to chance whether or not I validated my existence or wasted it in vain. For the first time it struck me that the meaning of life might not be a novelty riddle after all. It might be a matter of life and death. In fact, it might even be a matter of eternal life and death… and that wasn’t even the worst part.

What shook me even more profoundly was the realization that if I didn’t know the meaning of life then I couldn’t teach my future children what it is or how to fulfill it. I was leaving their fate up to chance as well. How could I do that in good conscience?

To my surprise I found I wasn’t playing a game any longer. I was waffling at a crossroad in life. Should I go down that rabbit hole or find a way to write these thoughts off and get back to my routine, comfortable life? I didn’t have to second guess myself for very long. Regardless of anything else, the bottom line was I was planning on become a parent, and I had a responsibility to my unborn children. A father’s job is to teach his children how to make the most out of life, and since I didn’t know the meaning of life I didn’t have an end goal to teach my children how to accomplish. I was going to have to find some kind of answer to the meaning of life so I could teach my descendants everything needed to know to have the best chance at validating their existence and making the most out of life.

Being a child myself at the time, I had no idea where to begin answering such an enigmatic question, but I knew history was full of people much smarter than me. I assumed/hoped one of them had already figured it out. So I started making trips to the library and book stores hunting for the book the master wrote his/her revelation down in.

Some of the things I read had promise, but without exception they were all flawed in one way or another. Most of the self-help books were oversimplified and based on emotion more than logic. You could sum up most of them in the phrases, “The meaning of life is a good cup of coffee.” Or “Love everybody.” Nice sentiments but vague to the point of being useless.

The books written by self-proclaimed spiritual gurus tended to ramble incoherently and not be based on any kind of evidence whatsoever. The authors just said, “This is the answer,” and expected the reader to accept their mystical conclusions without asking for any logical or empirical proof.

As for Western philosophy… I know I could get crucified for saying this, but I would describe most of what I read as nine parts academic masturbation and one part insight. For all the amazing and useless things I read, I never found a systematic, logical, empirically valid explanation of the meaning of life.

And then there’s the world’s religious books. The first problem they pose is that most of them claimed to be the final truth on life and state it is foolish, arrogant, or outright immoral to question them let alone believe in any other belief system. So even if I quit searching for the meaning of life and bet my soul on any religion, I would still be committing blasphemy according to multiple other self-proclaimed holy books. This concerned me deeply, because I don’t want to go to Hell. If blasphemy is immoral, then I don’t want to commit it, but we’re all in a no-win situation. In the end I figured, if you’re damned if you do and damned if you don’t, you may as well do your best.

All things being blasphemy, the way I chose to commit it was to put all the religious books I could find to the test of empirical and logical truth. Without exception, they all contained historic and scientific errors, textual problems, absurdities, contradictions, and incoherent moral codes. Hundreds of thousands of books have been written about each religion, attempting to explain their mysteries. But Occam’s Razor can explain all of them in one sentence: All the religions humans have created are mythologies.

If that’s true, it creates as many questions as it answers. How was the universe created? What defines ethics? Is life meaningless, or is the purpose of life simply beyond the grasp of human intelligence?

The last question bothered me the most. If it really was true that we can never know the meaning of life then that would mean we have one, but can never sure if we’re succeeding at it. Does that mean we were never meant to fulfill it? Would that mean, for all practical purposes, life has no meaning? Are our lives nothing more than pieces in a cosmic game of Periwinkles? Are we not important?

My inability to answer any of these questions drove me to existential depression. I tried to act like nothing was wrong and continued going to work and socialize with friends but found it hard to be enthusiastic about anything since it seemed nothing we did mattered in the long run.

Walking through my tiny corner of the universe, I couldn’t shake my suspicions that it would be absurd for life to exist without a purpose. Surely there had to be a reason why such a complex universe full of complex living beings existed. So as I went through the motions of life I continued to think about and observe the world around me hoping to find the clues I’d missed.

On my way to work in the mornings I passed by a large oak tree, and I’d often stop to stare at it and ask myself, “What are you doing there Mr. Tree?” One day I was studying Mr. Tree when I found the clue I was looking for. The tree contained patterns. The branches weren’t geometrically organized, but there was a pattern to how trees in general look. Then I looked down at myself and found patterns in my body. We can recognize humans from other animals because our structure follows the same pattern. Skeletons follow patterns. Heredity follows patterns. Biology is all about patterns. For that matter, so is the rest of nature: gravitational pull, chemical reactions, and mathematical equations. These all behave according to patterns which reflect phenomenally elegant order in the universe.

It would be illogical to assume that everything in the universe behaves according to predictable patterns, but life (and all the patterns it contains) came into existence on accident. It’s no more an accident for life to exist than it is for water to freeze. The universe was meticulously designed to produce living beings. The immeasurable level of detail in the design of the universe isn’t an accident.

Atoms, molecules, solar systems and DNA are so ingeniously designed that I can’t discount the possibility an intelligent God created them. If that’s true, then why does God let bad things happen? Does/should God answer prayers? How do you learn about an absentee God of science? Do you even need to know God, or were we put here to do something else?

I wanted to explore these questions, but a voice in the back of my head kept asking, what if I’m wrong about religion, and there really is an angry, jealous God?  If I ever claimed to figure out life for myself, would I be punished? Would I go to hell? Were humans not meant to think for themselves? Why would God create children who aren’t supposed to think for themselves?

With or without God, is it still impossible (or at least too difficult) for humans to figure out? If the question can be answered, who’s smart enough to do it? Could I do it or should I leave it to the professionals? But who are the professionals? What would make someone qualified/disqualified to find the meaning of life anyway? Do you need a doctorate degree, a Nobel Prize, membership in a high IQ club, or at least published book under your belt before you’re certified to… ask questions?

I lost sleep asking myself these questions. I knew if nobody else had life figured out, then I’d have to do it on my own, but I didn’t think I could or should for all the reasons stated above. But then again, not trying was as good as suicide…and in the case of my potential offspring I was responsible for, manslaughter. This infuriated me. I kept telling myself, “This is insanity. It doesn’t make any sense.” Then, after a long night of tossing and turning in bed, I finally let myself admit the simple and obvious truth of the matter. It was insanity. It didn’t make any sense because it was illogical.

There may or may not be a God. We’re all just stranded in this big, elegant universe. We’re so lost we don’t even know how lost we are. If God’s out there, we’re left on our own to sink or swim. We don’t know the difference between right and wrong or if there is one. There is no instruction book. All we can do is figure out life for ourselves.

Whether we know or will admit it, everyone does this. We look at everything around us and come to our own conclusions. So I said, “To Hell with taboos,” and made a decision to consciously do what I’d already been doing all along. I’d figure out my own systematic, logical explanation of the meaning of life. The point wasn’t to create a book to publish. It was to create my own personal guidebook to life. 

Having decided that, I turned my attention to the enormous task of figuring out where the hell to begin. Ask yourself, “What is the first thing you need to do to answer the question, ‘What is the meaning of life?’” That’s a riddle within an impossible riddle. When I posed it to myself, I felt completely dumbfounded, but in that boggled, fuzzy state of mind I had a moment of horse-sense clarity. I realized if you want to answer any question, you need a step-by-step guide to answering questions.

So I went back to the library and the bookstores and read a stack of books on logic and problem solving. I learned a lot of useful things from those books, but I didn’t find the streamlined guide to answering questions I was looking for. So I looked back over everything I had learned about thinking and boiled it down to a neat list.

  1. Ask a question.
  2. Gather data
  3. Identify the variables you have.
  4. Identify the variables you don’t have.
  5. Sort the data.
  6. Apply formulas.
  7. Ask sub-questions.
  8. Question your answer.
  9. Apply the solution.

I spent years applying these steps to the question of the meaning of life and piecing my conclusions together in this book. I included a detailed breakdown of my method of problem solving in Chapter 14 since everything you’ll ever do in life will be the product of questions you’ve asked yourself. No matter what the meaning of life is, it involves problem solving since everything does.

If you read “Why” you’ll see how I applied these steps to the question of the meaning of life. If you just want to know the final conclusion I came to, read the next paragraph for the spoiler:

Regardless of whether or not God or an afterlife exists, or even if there’s no meaning to life at all, the most logical thing a living being can do with their brief time here is fulfill their potential. If that sounds anticlimactic, it’s because the most interesting part of the question, “What is the meaning of life?” isn’t “what,” it’s “why.”

This book isn’t the final answer on life. God didn’t reveal it to me. It’s just the conclusions I’ve come to that I base my life around. If you read my book and find even a single sentence lacking I hope you don’t dismiss all my observations and conclusions. Takes what you find to be true, and leave what you don’t. If you have a better answer, the world needs it. I need it. The way I’ll measure the success of my book isn’t by how many people believe me but by how many I inspire to ask questions.

You can download “Why: An Agnostic Perspective on the Meaning of Life” for free on Smashwords. I also have a few other E-books listed for free there, and I have some other books for sale on Amazon. You can find a list of all my books on the E-book page of my website, The Wise Sloth.

If you’re wondering what else I’ve done with my life, here are some more stories from my past:


3 responses to “My quest to find the meaning of life

  • Brock Stockman

    Human beings like to think in analogies and like to pose questions. Just like analogies don’t apply in every situation especially complex ones sometime questions about complex things don’t either and are nonsensical. Asking “What’s the meaning of life?” is literally the same as asking “What’s the meaning of a rock?”. You can create a meaning for a rock based on a subjective perspective or there can be no meaning assigned or even many different interpreted meanings on the same rock. Thus lies the problem and why we have so many religions. So to get to the root of the problem we must face that the question “what is the meaning of life?” itself it bad, does not apply and in the end is what I like to call a logic fuck.

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  • Michael E. Henderson

    I used to sit around wondering the same thing. Why am I here? What is my purpose? What is God’s plan for me? Where did this all come from? Where will I go after I die? I was religious most of my life, but it was starting to fade. So one day I decided to read the Bible. That’s when I became an atheist.

    From page one, it was clear that the Bible and its god were a fabrication. The god was vile and murderous, probably insane, and the stories were inconsistent and nonsensical.

    The Jesus story is no less a fabrication and utter nonsense. No thinking person could believe any of it, and the “reason” behind the Jesus story is ridiculous.

    This is the first step to understanding the meaning and purpose to life. Shed any religious belief. Not until you do that will you be able to clearly understand your purpose.

    Then look around at the other higher animals. What do they do? Whether it be dogs, wolves, bears, monkeys, birds, or any such animal. It’s all the same.

    Their sole purpose is to perpetuate the species. That’s it. Everything else they do is done purely to make that happen.

    They spend their days searching for food. All day, every day.

    They establish and defend territories so they have enough food, and to protect the young.

    Males often fight over the right to mate with females, which assures those most able to defend the clan will spread their genes.

    This is all done to establish conditions favorable to reproduction. Any conflicts within or between clans is purely related to obtaining resources or mating.

    Now, look at humans. With a few exceptions, our behavior is no different from a pack of wolves. We have a few extra trappings because of our brains, but that’s the only thing that separates us from any other animal.

    We have the ability to make art and music, but what is that, really? We learned that if you pluck a string or strike a hollow log, they make a pleasing sound. If you smear colored material on a wall, you can make it look like recognizable objects.

    We can do science, which is a matter of logic and methodology.

    We are aware of our own mortality, which leads to a fear of death.

    We have the ability to wonder about things.

    When you combine the fear of death and wonder with the lack of scientific knowledge, the human mind has a tendency to invent gods. The invention of gods has been the single greatest calamity to mankind.

    When man attributes his existence and the existence of the universe to a god, it masks the real purpose of his existence. He starts to think he serves some divine purpose, based on whatever dogma he follows in the context of his religious belief.

    His neighbor also thinks he has a divine purpose, but his interpretation of the religion is different. Enter Islam vs. Christianity; Shiite vs. Sunni; Catholic vs. Protestant; etc., etc. I don’t have to tell you where that has all led.

    It all stems from man’s arrogant belief that he is a higher being than all the rest, and that he has some high purpose. The real tragedy of it is that it’s all a lie.

    When you consider the world without the foggy lens of religion (or any spirituality) you see things as they are: we are nothing but smart apes. Therefore, our sole purpose is to reproduce. That, and that alone. When you understand that, you understand man and everything he does.

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  • Fred

    It is very simple to me. We are all part of something much much much larger. We simply help that thing be. We are all tiny parts of a cell. We should all remember the study of cells in grade school. Cells make up all living forms. Every cell has a Nucleus that other parts of the cell revolve around. Now if you look at our solar system its very simple. The sun is the nucleus all the planets, asteroids, etc… make up the other parts of the solar system.

    For a long time people have wondered what lies on the edge of our solar system. I already know the answer. The answer is a Cell Membrane that we can not penetrate if we wanted to. In other words if we fired a rocket from earth and it some how kept going all the way to the end of our solar system, it would then crash into the Membrane and be no more.

    On the other side of the membrane is PLASMA. When we look up at the night sky, we see STARS and science has already confirmed that stars are the suns of other solar systems in the galaxy, that are likely surrounded by their own planets.

    What science does not know, but luckily I do, is that separating our solar system and that solar system is a membrane and a river of plasma. In other words, when we look at the stars in the night sky, what we are really looking at is the Nucleus of the cells closest to the cell we reside in. Like our cell, that cell is following the flow of the plasma and will be along side our cell until it or our cell dies, as cells do. When scientists talk about stars fading out, what they are describing is a cell dying.

    We are just parts of a cell that no microscope can see. We are all part of another living being that is probably taking a dump as I type this. If we refer to a GOD. I would say that being that we are part of is the God we should be referring to If we want to make our god happy and healthy, we need to take care of ourselves and our solar system. Our wars and our pollution and etc.. are likely more of a cancer to our god. Perhaps we are cancer cells?

    THAT is our meaning of life. To provide a healthy wholesome life to the living being we are a microscopic part of. The best way to do that is to take care of ourselves and our environment and continue to grow in a strong, healthy and intelligent way.

    Any questions?

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