The Meaning of Life

by Marshall Brain

[This page is derived from a presentation I did at TEDx NCSU in October, 2010. Its goal is to help all of us understand the meaning of life. It starts with a discussion of where we come from, and then turns to the question of meaning. You can find a video version of this presentation at the bottom of the page.]

We are gathered to discuss one of humanity's biggest questions: What is the meaning of life? Along the way we will answer another core question - Where did we come from? We will look at these questions from a scientific viewpoint.

So let's start at the beginning. Where did you and I come from? Here is an idea that many of us have heard before, but it bears repeating because it explains where we came from:

Hydrogen, given sufficient time, turns into people

How is this possible? How would hydrogen atoms - the simplest atoms in the universe - be able to transform themselves into human beings? It's a fascinating story; it is the story of our creation. Let's spend a minute understanding this story at a high level...

Where did human beings come from?

In the beginning, approximately 13.75 billion years ago, there was hydrogen - lots and lots of hydrogen along with a little helium. Objects that have mass attract one another, and hydrogen atoms have mass. So the universe's hydrogen atoms had a tendency to clump together.

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If a large group of hydrogen atoms clump together, there is enough gravitational pressure to create a fusion reactor - a sun. It radiates massive quantities of heat and light into space. It also forms fusion products in its core. Hydrogen atoms fuse together to form helium atoms. Helium atoms fuse to form carbon and so on, forming all the elements up through iron.

Large stars then explode as supernova. These explosions are gigantic and create all of the heavier natural elements up through Uranium. A cloud of dust and debris spreads out across space.

The dust from these supernova explosions collects into new solar systems, like ours. New stars form, with orbiting planets made from the fusion products of former stars. The process repeats.

Let's take one quick tangent here to look at the size of our universe. Stars live in groups that we call galaxies. How many galaxies are there? Current estimates run anywhere from 100 billion to 500 billion. How many is that? Let's assume that a single grain of salt represents one galaxy. Take a one pound (0.45 kg) package of salt and pour it out onto your kitchen table. That little pile contains about 10 million galaxies. There are approximately 10 million grains of salt in a pound. So to get 200 billion grains of salt, we need about 20,000 pounds of salt. That's a dump truck load of salt, or a pile 12 feet wide and 6 feet high. There are a lot of galaxies in our universe.

But galaxies are not as big as a grain of salt. They are monstrous. The milky way galaxy - our galaxy - is 100,000 light years across. There are 200 to 400 billion stars in our one galaxy. Many of those stars have their own planets.

Let's look at one star, our sun. Let's model our sun as an ordinary soccer ball. And here is earth, to scale: It is about 2 millimeters wide - the size of a typical peppercorn. At this scale, Earth the peppercorn resides about 75 feet (24 meters) away from the sun, the soccer ball. That's to scale. Neptune would be a chickpea about half a mile (0.8 km) away from the soccer ball.

The point is that our universe is utterly enormous. Planet earth is a tiny speck that is part of a galaxy which, at the scale of the universe, is a tiny speck itself.

Nonetheless, this tiny speck of a planet - this peppercorn - is us. On this peppercorn we have life. Millions of species form an intricate web of life on planet Earth today. Where did this life come from? Through the processes of abiogenesis and evolution, life arose, life evolved, and today, on this peppercorn, we have us. People. Roughly 7 billion people and rising.

Millions of interlocking pieces of scientific evidence, revealed through several centuries of discovery, paint this amazing picture of our universe. This is how Hydrogen turns into People.

The meaning of life

On this peppercorn floating in space there are about 7 billion of us right now. We are born, we live, we die.

So, what is the meaning of our lives while we are on this planet? The fact is that we are an accidental species - one out of millions of evolved species - living on a tiny speck of a planet in a gigantic universe whose size is incomprehensible. This is our reality. Our species could disappear tomorrow for all we know because of an asteroid strike or a nuclear war. The universe would not care. So what is our meaning?

It would be easy to say that our lives have no meaning. But this is untrue. The unique thing about humans is that humans are conscious, intelligent, thinking beings. Humans create meaning. It is the most important thing that we do. Yes we create tools. Yes, we gather knowledge. Yes, we do math and music and so on. We are called Homo Sapiens - the wise apes. But we really might better be called "The apes that create meaning", because we bring meaning into existence with our intelligence and our thinking. We create meaning through conscious choice and conscious acts.

Here is an example. Pull a $20 bill (or its equivalent in your nation) out of your wallet. Examine it rationally. It is a piece of paper with some ink on it. In reality it is a nearly worthless piece of paper. But in our society, this piece of paper has real meaning. If I drop a scrap of newspaper of the same size on the ground, it will be ignored. If I drop a $20 bill on the ground, it will get scooped up instantly. The two objects are almost exactly the same except for the arrangement of the ink molecules on the paper. Yet one scrap of paper can buy $20 worth of food, and the other is worthless.

Our entire monetary system is an abstraction - meaning created by human beings out of thin air and embodied as little scraps of paper, or arrangements of bits in computer memory. Yet this abstraction has so much meaning now that people can die for lack of these scraps of paper. For the tens of thousands of people who die of starvation every day, this abstraction is deadly.

Human beings create meaning. Therefore you can create meaning in your life. We can give our lives meaning in at least four different ways.

Way 1: Generosity, Giving

Do you use Reddit? I'm curious, because I'm a big fan of Reddit. The following story can be found on Reddit and comes from a user named WarToad. It shows one way to create meaning:

Now let me ask you a question - would you feel like your life has meaning if you could do something like that for another human being? WarToad spent a few hours, and a few dollars, and he changed not one but two lives, and probably the lives of her parents as well.

You might be thinking, "How can I possibly duplicate that?" Consider how many teens run away - there are about 1.6 million new teen runaways per year in the U.S. Or think about how many kids are living in broken homes and could be helped. Or think about the billions of people living on $1 per day around the world. Or the 10 million kids who will die this year from easily preventable things like starvation and cholera.

It would not be that hard to find someone to help.

One way to create meaning is to help others. This has been a consistent theme for thousands of years across hundreds of philosophies and theologies. It is an indisputable scientific fact that, for most people, in helping others we help ourselves. We enrich our own lives. It is as though helpfulness is wired into the human psyche, and we gain immense benefits when we connect with that wiring. Look inside yourself. Think about how Makayla's story makes you feel. Understand its meaning.

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What about bringing it down to your own home. What if you were to become the ideal spouse? Or the ideal parent? What if you devoted your life to making your kids' lives better. What if you really thought about that and did something to radically improve your family life - the lives of your immediate family? How would you do it?

People often say that a story or event "restored their faith in humanity." What if you, personally, were one of the people who restored faith in humanity? What if we all were, and we did it a couple times a day? How much different would our society be? How much more meaningful would our lives be?

Way 2: Design

The second way to create meaning is to think about your own existence. A typical human being in the developed world has a life expectancy of 70 to 80 years. If you live to the age of 82, that's about 30,000 days.

The most important way to give your life meaning is to simply ask yourself - what is the meaning of my life? "What is the meaning of life?" is not the question. The question is "what is the meaning of my life?" That is the question that matters.

How many of us ask ourselves this question?

It is in asking this question that we give our lives meaning. It is so simple. Simply ask.

Your life is a series of choices. Your life is a series of opportunities. Your life is a series of decisions. Your life is a series of actions. You control your life, and its meaning, with your daily actions. We often ignore that. Many people often go through life and completely miss it.

We are given three great gifts when we are born. We have:

It is in understanding these gifts and making the most of them that we give our lives meaning.

But we must ask. "A life unexamined is not worth living." Think about how many people miss that opportunity to do whatever they want with their lives, with their existence.

Please ask yourself this key question: What will I do with my existence? WWIDWME? Ask yourself this question each morning and evening for several weeks and see what develops. What is the meaning of your life? In answering that question you give your life meaning. You can give it far more meaning than you can imagine. You get to design your life.

Way 3: Projects

Many people's lives are significantly enriched and given meaning by the projects they undertake during their lifetimes. These projects might take the form of businesses and charities they start, organizations they actively participate in, causes that they champion, discoveries and inventions that they unlock, books that they write, artworks that they create, hobbies that they pursue, etc.

Think of Albert Einstein. Did his life have meaning? Of course it did. He made some of humanity's most important scientific discoveries. And there are millions of other scientists and engineers who make discoveries every day that improve our lives in myriad ways.

Think of the thousands of authors and artists who have enriched our lives and brought clarity to complicated issues.

Think of all the businesses you interact with each day. Each one has a founder, and then a team of people who keep the business thriving. See How to Make a Million Dollars for ideas.

Think of the charitable organizations all around the world that relieve suffering and raise awareness. Each one started with a single individual or a small handful of people and grew from there.

All of these people (and many others) have made significant contributions to the advancement of our species. Their projects give their lives significant meaning, while also benefiting the rest of us.

Way 4: Unity

We are all in this together.

Me, and you, and everyone on this planet, we are all in this together. We are members of the same species. We are all on the same team.

But we very rarely act like a team. If I were to say to you right now, "What is the goal of the human species?" What would your answer be? Sure, you might be able to make something up, but the fact is that we don't have a goal. We have never talked about it as a species at a worldwide level in a way that has filtered down to all of us so that we all carry a common vision. We haven't talked about it at a national level either, and probably not even at your local level.

And we pay for that. We pay dearly for it.

Imagine the following scenario. The first UFO arrives. It truly arrives. The ship is the size of a small continent and it parks in low earth orbit for all to see. It is utterly amazing. A super-intelligent alien species emerges - thousands of aliens beam down to interview the human species. They do an assessment of the planet. What they discover shocks them:

Now these aliens, they have neither faces nor palms as we understand them, but one of them comes back to the ship doing the alien equivalent of a face palm repeatedly. Another is doing the equivalent of our crying. A third finds his voice: "I talked to one human who said human life is sacred, yet 30,000 children died just today, and every day, of easily preventable causes like hunger and cholera." Another: "They claim that love and peace are their highest values, yet they spend $400 billion a year on men and machines whose sole purpose is to wage war." Another: "I talked to one who said liberty and freedom are the highest values, and yet the majority are trapped in such poverty that they are in essence enslaved by it. Where is the freedom in that?"

To an objective outside observer, we appear to be insane as a species.

When human beings come together in groups with common goals and common purposes, we are often able to accomplish amazing things. Human beings are often able to rise, individually and in groups, to remarkable levels of love and generosity. But more often than not we fail to do that, and we are left with a planet, and a species, in the state observed above.

If you look at us as an outside observer would, as a whole, we are really pretty appalling as a species right now. Just to take the planet's nuclear arsenals as an example: We find ourselves in a situation where the United States has approximately 5,000 operational warheads. And Russia has about the same. Each warhead can destroy an entire city, killing millions of people. We call it the doctrine of mutually assured destruction. "Mutually Assured Destruction" - MAD - even the name sounds like we are insane. Yet this is the best idea we have been able to come up with as a species. And many other countries have warheads as well that they could unleash at any moment for any insane reason.

How do we fix this? We would need to understand that we are all in this together and ask ourselves collectively, What is the meaning of our lives? What do we hope to accomplish as a species? How can we work together to achieve those goals? Our individual lives would have much more meaning if we did this, because we are each playing a part in this larger effort.

What IS our goal as a species? What do we hope to accomplish together? Why is it that we never ask ourselves this question on a global or national basis?

Heaven on Earth

Here is my vision for the human species. I believe that we should create Heaven on Earth for every human being: 6.8 billion people living together peacefully without suffering. We try to get as close to that goal as possible, in an environmentally sustainable way.

What would heaven on earth mean? It would mean that each and every person on the planet has access to an an abundant supply of healthy food and clean water. That each and every person has access to luxurious housing and clothing. That we are all safe. That we can all communicate with everyone. That we all have free and open access to education and entertainment. That cutting edge health care is available freely to everyone, and the cutting edge is advancing as quickly as possible, curing more and more diseases and ailments as fast as we can. And so on. We do that in an environmentally sustainable way. Obviously there would be no wars. Obviously we would have to find ways to resolve our differences. Obviously we would need for it to be environmentally sustainable - otherwise we poison the planet and destroy ourselves.

What if we made that our worldwide goal?

It sounds ridiculous, doesn't it? Impossible. That's because our thinking is so backwards right now. However, robots could make it possible (see also Manna). In fact, robots could make it easy if we designed society to take advantage of them. What if we got creative as a species and discovered new ways to make it happen?

Then what? Having gotten our house in order, what would we like to do next? What is our goal as a species? What do we hope to accomplish with our collective existence?

Let me ask you this. Would our lives be better, would they have more meaning, if we knew we were working together toward common goals as a species? What if we were all consciously working together for common goals, and we all knew that? What if you had a feeling that everybody was trying to help you each day, because we are all members of the same team? Would that make life different? Would that make life better? Would it make life more meaningful? Would that give you more hope looking into the future?

I think it might.

So let's review. What is the meaning of life? There are at least four ways that we can create meaning. We create meaning by helping others. We create meaning by consciously choosing what we will each do with our existence. We create meaning by undertaking significant projects that benefit humanity. And we can also, at a higher level, create meaning for ourselves as a species.

As you go through your life, ask yourself the most important question: What will I do with my existence? WWIDWME? Make the most of your 30,000 days on earth. Strive each day to make positive changes in your own life, and to have a positive impact on the lives of those around you. Decide to be better. It will make a huge difference.

See also:

The following presentation was recorded at North Carolina State University. The presentation itself starts at 5:00. The player will automatically forward to the "Meaning" part at the 32:50 point. There is an editing error at 22:12 (it appears that part of the Q/A portion has been inserted at that point) - forward to 31:50 to skip the error.