Tag Archives: purpose of existence

An Old Man From Jersey Explains: The Meaning Of Life

This is a mini-series of comics about a naive but curious ten-year-old boy who pesters a crude but wise old man while he sits on the steps to their dingy New Jersey apartment building trying to read the newspaper.

 

An old man sits on the steps to his dingy New Jersey apartment reading a newspaper. A naive but curious ten year old boy stands on the grass nearby pestering him with questions.

If you enjoyed this post, you’ll also like these:

 

 

An Old Man From Jersey Explains Life
The Meaning of Life
How to Think Like a Genius
Knowledge and Learning
Biker Philosophy
My Tweets About Philosophy 

TRANSCRIPT

 

KID

Hey Mister!

OLD MAN

What do you want, Kid?

KID

Can you explain life to me?

OLD MAN

Where do you want me to start from?

KID

From the beginning.

OLD MAN

Okay, now look. If I offered you 100 billion dollars to do it, and I promised to kill your whole family if you didn’t then would you do it?

KID

Um, yeah.

OLD MAN

That’s right. You wouldn’t even have to think about it or work up the motivation because there would be no choice There’d just be one path in front of you.

KID

The heck does this have to do with life?

OLD MAN

If you don’t understand how important life is or why then you won’t have the appropriate motivation to take life as seriously as you should. Then you won’t put the appropriate amount of effort into living, but if you truly, truly understood the value of life then you wouldn’t have to debate with yourself or work up the strength to sacrifice any of the relative temptations of the world to pursue life’s highest purpose. Your motivation would be so strong there’d only be one choice, one path before you. So the first lesson you need to learn about life is how valuable it is and why.

KID

Cool beans. So how valuable is life?

OLD MAN

How old are you, kid?

KID

I’m ten and a half years old going on eleven.

OLD MAN

No you’re not. You’re closer to 14 billion years old. All the stuff in your body was there at the Big Bang. Galaxies rose and fell around you as you floated to a place where the atoms in your body could finally come together in a way that makes you, you.

KID

So you’re saying I was meant to be here since the beginning of time?

OLD MAN

…that or you’re infinitely lucky to be here.

KID

So I’m either destined or lucky to come all this way just to die!? What’s the point of existing for a second if I’m not going to exist forever? Doesn’t the brevity of life make life pointless?

OLD MAN

The finite amount of time you get to live here is infinitely valuable because of its scarcity alone. You asked me how valuable life is. Well, here’s my answer. It’s infinitely valuable.

KID

Gosh, that’s a burden of responsibility bordering on a guilt trip.

OLD MAN

…ironic that it’s coming from an indifferent universe. Anyway, given that every second of your short, irreplaceable life is infinitely valuable, that makes the following question infinitely important: What’s the most important thing you can do with your life?

KID

I don’t know how to read a clock much less answer that question.

OLD MAN

Then find someone who knows the meaning of life and ask them.

KID

Who knows the meaning of life?

OLD MAN

Nobody.

KID

In all of human history?

OLD MAN

Nobody. Ever. Anywhwere. Did you get an instruction book to life when you were born that explained everything? No, well, nobody else did either. Nobody has any idea what’s going on. There are no experts, no authorities, no grown ups.

KID

My mom knows the answer to any question I ask her. And if she didn’t know what’s right and wrong then how could she spank me for doing wrong?

OLD MAN

We might get taller, and we might memorize a lot of facts, but philosophically we’re al stuck at 5 years old guessing at life and faking our maturity level until we start believing whatever it is we’re doing is what humans are supposed to be doing.

KID

So…you’re saying you’re not the person to ask about the meaning of life?

OLD MAN

Ask as many people as many questions as you can, but never take anything for granted, because you’re fate is your responsibility. It’s up to you to figure out the meaning of life.

KID

But you just said nobody ever figured it out.

OLD MAN

…sucks, don’t it?

KID

So that’s life? You’re born lost. The End. Hope it don’t suck to be you.

OLD MAN

You watch too much anime. So what if we don’t know why we’re here? The point is we’re still here. We still gotta do something. Since we don’t have anything more important to do than figure out what we’re supposed to be doing then we may as well spend our lives figuring that out.

KID

But if we can’t figure out why we’re here then how do we figure out what to do now that we’re here?

OLD MAN

There are things we can know about ourselves and the universe we’ve found ourselves stranded in. The more of those things we know the better we can live. We might not be able to prove we lived ight according to the ultimate maxim, but we can do something good with what we’ve got, and that which a man can do he should do.

KID

Sounds good. So where do I start my education?

OLD MAN

You can’t understand how a car works until you understand the parts that make up a car. Same thing with life. And what’s life then? Life is being a walking, talking, breathing, thinking creature stranded in this great, big, beautiful, lonely, indifferent universe.

KID

So I should become a mechanic? Got it.

OLD MAN

If you want to understand life then you gotta understand the universe that gave birth to you and that you live in. Learn all the science you can, because that’ll teach you the facts that everything else is built on.

KID

So once I become a super scientist then where do I point my telescope to start studying the meaning of life?

OLD MAN

That grass you’re standing on is alive. Why don’t you just ask it?

KID

Hey grass! why are you alive? It didn’t answer.

OLD MAN

Did it do anything?

KID

No. It just sat there and grew.

OLD MAN

Well there you go then.

KID

Are you saying the meaning of life is to just sit here and grow?

OLD MAN

I’m just pointing out what life does.

KID

But our lives would be pointless if all we did was just get big, grow old and die like grass.

OLD MAN

So you’re saying this grass’s life is meaningless?

KID

The life of grass has meaning because it’s a part of the food chain.

OLD MAN

…and whatever life form is at the top of the food chain has the most meaningful life, right?

KID

Exactly, but does that mean if more advanced aliens come along it’ll make my life worthless?

OLD MAN

But does that mean if more advanced aliens come along it’ll make my life worthless?

KID

Okay, I take that back. Life is inherently valuable to each individual life form simply because it’s alive.

OLD MAN

Now that that’s settled the grass is still growing into taller grass. What are you growing into?

KID

A taller human?

OLD MAN

That’s your body. What about your mind? What about your identity?

KID

I am what I am.

OLD MAN

That’s good that you acknowledge you’re a product of your environment. Now you need to acknowledge that you’ve yet to blossom into a significantly independent identity.

KID

Do they teach how to do that in school?

OLD MAN

I’d suggest enrolling in some online psychology classes.

KID

Now are you saying the meaning of life is to be a psychologist?

OLD MAN

The grass is here to be grass, and you’re here to be you. If you have questions about how to be you then I suggest you talk to the people who study “yous.”

KID

That’s painfully logical. So who am I supposed to be trying to become while I’m here?

OLD MAN

I suspect the point is that you get to pick.

KID

There’s no wrong answer?

OLD MAN

Well, you’re the one who is going to have to live with yourself. so You get what you got.

KID

So that’s life then?

OLD MAN

…I didn’t say to take my word for it.

 

 


My Quest To Find The Meaning Of Life

The cover of my book, "Why: An Agnostic Perspective on 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 an introvert, predisposed to working alone on long projects, and I’ve always loved puzzles. At the age of seventeen, 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 becoming 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 bookstores 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 are 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 historical 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.

If you enjoyed this post, you’ll also like these:

The Meaning of Life
My Goals
My Life Stories (in chronological order)

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