“I don’t try to imagine a personal God; it suffices to stand in awe at the structure of the world, insofar as it allows our inadequate senses to appreciate it.” – Albert Einstein
Some people believe that there is one single meaning of life. They think that the universe was created for a purpose, and that human beings are part of some larger cosmic plan. They think our meaning comes from being part of this plan and is written into the universe – waiting to be discovered.
My conclusions are different. I do not see any obvious purpose to the universe, rather it is a natural phenomenon with no design behind it. Meaning is not something out there, waiting to be discovered, but something that we create in our own lives. And although this vast and incredibly old universe was not created for us, all of us are connected to something bigger than ourselves. Whether it is family and community, tradition stretching into the past, and idea or cause looking forward to the future, or the exquisite wider natural world on which we were born and evolved. This way of thinking means that there is not just one big meaning of life, but that everyone will have different meanings.
Each one of us is unique. Our different personalities depend on the complex mixture of influences from our parents, our environment and our connections. They change with experience and changing circumstances. There is no simple instruction manual for living that is applicable to everyone. We all have different tastes and preferences, different priorities and goals. One person might like soccer, long walks in the wood and caring for their family. Another might enjoy cooking, watching reality TV and enjoying a glass of wine.
We can find meaning through our family, our career, committing to a project, even in politics. We can find it in simple pleasures like gardening and bird watching and in eons of other ways. This means giving reign to our creativity or curiosity, intelligence or emotions.
The time to be happy is right now. And the way to find coherent meaning is to get on with it and live as fully as we can.
Where does death fit into this? One thing we can sure of is that we all will eventually die. Some find this hard to grapple with. They prefer to believe that death is not the end – but that we might live on somewhere, whether in a different life on earth, or in another place where people are rewarded or punished.
But wanting something to be true is not the same as it being true. There is no real evidence to support the idea that our minds could live on past the end of our bodies (note: there is no proof otherwise either).
What sense could we make of things that we value? Love, experience, achievements, communication, feeling the environment on our skin, if we were disembodied? And if life is eternal, wouldn’t it lose all structure, meaning, shape and purpose?
Think about watching a good movie or eating your favourite food. These are simple pleasures, but one of things that makes them pleasurable is that they come to an end. A movie that continued on forever and a type of food that you never stopped eating will both very quickly lose their appeal.
Death is a natural part of life. It makes sense to me to try not to be afraid of this, but instead to come to terms with it. Then, we can truly focus on finding meaning and purpose in the here and now, making the most out of the one’s life we can be certain we have, and helping others do the same. This means choosing good over bad without the need for reward and accolades.
When we do eventually die, we will live on in the work we have done, and in the memories of everyone whose lives we have been part of. Our bodies will break down, and reunite with the cycle of nature. The atoms that make up our bodies now, will go on to make other beautiful things.
Some people believe that what is right and wrong never varies on circumstance. That it can be expressed in ever constant, unchanging commandments. These commandments are often found in religious texts, or other authorities to help discover what it is that some higher being wants of them.
But what if instead, morality was not set by rules, rather we think for ourselves about what might be the best way to live. This means being forever empathetic – always considering the effects of our actions on other people and even animals we have influence over. We have to respect the rights and wants of everyone around us, finding the kindest form of action, or at the very least the one that will do the least harm.
We have to consider each situation, and not just take a ‘one size fits all’ approach. We should weigh up all the evidence we have available about what the possible consequences of our actions will be.
This way of thinking about how we act is based on reason, experience and empathy, and mutual respect. It is not based on tradition or reference to authority. We have to think hard. Luckily though, most of us do most of the time, without really having to think about it.
Morality is not something that comes from outside a human being, gift wrapped and handed to us by some external source. Just look at our closest relatives in the animal world, we see the same basic considerate tendencies that we recognise in ourselves. Tendencies like affection, cooperation, all the things needed to be part of a group, and thrive.
It is clear that our social instincts form the basis of morality, and that they are a natural part of our existence. That is not all there is though. The long experience of our ancestors have developed and refined our sense of morality, and we have all inherited their efforts.
This does not deny the fact that there are people put there who do harm and make bad choices. But, ultimately, morality comes from us, not from anything else. It is about people – individual good will and social responsibility. Not being completely self absorbed and selfish, but kind and considerate towards others.
Ideas of freedom, justice, equality and happiness, fairness, and all other values we live by are human constructions. That is something to be proud of, as we stride to live up to them.
Ever since we have been capable of thought, we have asked big questions about how everything works. Some believe that there is another reality beyond the one we are in, a supernatural world. That would mean that knowledge comes from supernatural revelations, visions, or celestially inspired scriptures. Others think that understanding the world can be achieved by observing it carefully. Forming ideas about why things are the way they are, testing those ideas through experiments, refining them in the light of experience, then testing them again.
Out of all the various methods we have come up with to figure out how the world works, observation, experimentation, and the testing of theories against evidence has arguably the best track record. The world has been predicted to end by pundits many times, yet here we are. Ancient divine books contain description of the universe which has turned out to be spectacularly wrong.
If asked to chose whether to take medicine prescribed by a doctor whose methods have been tried and tested, and one who has selected medicine based on his vision, it is highly likely you will not chose the medicine from the visionary.
We will probably never know everything. But the testing of theories against evidence has proved itself a million times to be a reliable way to gain knowledge about how it all works. Science has cured deadly diseases, developed incredible technology, and continues to learn things about the universe that fill us with wonder. When we want to know fact from fiction, there really is no better method.
I often make the mistake of thinking that things that are obvious to me are just as obvious to everyone else. Some find it hard to swallow that it is possible to divulge meaning and contentment without strictly following a religion. Although ironically, the fundamentals I have outlined above I’m sure are fundamentals of all great religions.
You don’t need religion to have morals. If you cannot determine right from wrong then you lack empathy, not religion.
Religions are, by definition, metaphors: God is a dream, a hope, a woman, a mother, a father, a country,a city, a house of many rooms, a philosopher, someone who loves you—even, perhaps, against all evidence, a higher being whose only interest is to make sure your football team, army, business, or marriage thrives against all opposition. Religions are places to stand and look and act, vintage points from which to view the world. So none of this tangible. Never a word of it is meant to be literally true.