Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Purpose of Life

Just what is the point of life, what is the meaning, why go on? Well, every nature program I ever saw seemed to take the stance that the point of life was reproduction. You know, bagging the hottest doe in the herd, passing the ol' genes on, the circle of life. I can see the logic behind that, but, well, it rings rather hollow, just not all the way there. Certainly it is a requirement of higher life; no sex, no more species. I follow that far.

But so little of an animal's life is actually about mating. I mean, the act itself for most creatures is ridiculously brief; though even then, there may be marathon sessions. Tigers are quick in bed, but will mate every five or ten minutes for days. Craziness. That bastard must be freakin' exhausted, and the female? Tore up. Especially considering the tiger's penis has barbs on it. So much for sex evolving to be pleasurable, so as to encourage the continuation of the line....

But what about the courtship process, the wooing, the fighting between males? True, take that into consideration and the time involved increases. But mating season is what, a month, six weeks at most for a deer? Far less for most other creatures; a dog or lion comes into heat, and pretty quick she has a mate. The actual percentage of their life involved in this is minimal. We humans are different of course, taking things to new levels of sexual involvement, but I'm trying for perspective here.

(You can try to factor in the time it takes a buck to grow his engery and nutrient intensive antlers, but that is somewhat of a stretch, and a thing largely unique to the deer family. Other ungulates don't shed their headgear yearly. And of course most animals don't have any such anatomical analogue.)

So, sex isn't the main focus of the day to day. What is? Eating. Nature, red in tooth and claw, the battle for survival, that's what it's all about. Well, we run into problems here too. Sure, a weasel will starve to death on a cold night if it doesn't get up and eat, thanks to its ridiculous metabolism, and yeah, herbivores do spend most of their time grazing, but what about the predators? Let's face it, the struggles of the hunter are few, and very brief, over quite quickly. Dogs, lions, these creatures spend most of their time doing... nothing. The social ones play and socialize, all of them sleep a lot, or just stare contentedly into space.

And what about plants, and the other kingdoms? Life is not limited to Animalia. A tree spends half of its life in the dark, and in cold regions, months in dormancy. Or this-- I read an article years ago, about these chemosynthetic bacteria (archaea, actually) living in the mud on the continental shelves. Chemosynthesis is vastly less energy efficient than photosynthesis, leading to a far less productive metapolic process. Thus, these bacteria sit there in the deep muck, slowly turning the sulfates into methane hydrates. So inefficient is their metabolism that it may take a thousand years for them to store enough energy to divide once. And there's enough methane down there that if it all defrosted and bubbled up at once, the atmosphere would catch fire, and that'd be the end of life on Earth. So they've been down there some time.

Tell me, what is the point in this? I can see none. None of these explanations really get to any meaning, they simply say, one survives in order to survive, one has children that one's children may have children. This is not meaning, this is description (thus, never look to science for meaning). I mean, one could say that life is about reproduction, even if it's not the daily focus: creatures eat so they can eventually reproduce. But you could just as easily say they reproduce just so they can eat for longer, via the generations.  It all feels so empty. Like the wheel of samsara, after many lives, the sex, the food, the power, and the thrills eventually become tiresome; so too do these circular explanations leave one unsatisfied.  And the end, it doesn't make sense to live for any one thing, right? To go about eating, sleeping, fighting, all so you can mate and pass on genes. So really, my parameter of "whatever a things spends most of its time doing" doesn't really relate to the purpose of their life.

I'm reminded by the movie Dead Poets Society, a specific scene where Mr. Keating, played by Robin Williams is instructing his class as to the purpose of learning poetry. He says, "We don't read and write poetry because it's cute. We read and write poetry because we are members of the human race. And the human race is filled with passion. And medicine, law, business, engineering-- these are noble pursuits and necessary to sustain life. But poetry, beauty, romance, love, these are what we stay alive for." A great scene from a great movie. But here I am, in agreement with that, yet also looking for a deeper perspective, an evolutionary perspective. Certainly life didn't just go on with circular logic of surviving to survive for 4 billion years, waiting for humans to evolve so meaning could finally be found... did it?

But, wait, let's go back; just what are those bacteria doing down there in the ocean's mud? What about those lions staring at the horizon, or the trees dreaming in the winter's night? It's hard not to see them as the original meditators. Whatever the point of life is, it's found in the present moment, whatever moment that happens to be. And does a dog have Buddha-nature? How can it be doubted?


  1. My first qigong teacher said that once you have reproduced, you have fulfilled your biological destiny. Everything else is actually meaningless. After fulfilling your biological destiny, the universe doesn't care. There is no objective meaning; you find your own.

    Cat penises are barbed apparently to induce ovulation in the female. This is one reason why cats can have such bizarre litters...they can have more than one father of the litter; domestic female cats may mate with more than one male in any estrus.

    42 is the angle in degrees for which a rainbow appears or the critical angle (which has something to do, I think, with the refraction index of water).

    Life may not have meaning, but 42 has a lot:

  2. Reproduction is essential to life, in the same way that menial labor jobs like cleaning toilets or washing dishes are essential to society; someone's got to do it, but it ain't gonna be me.

    I cannot speak for bacteria or other forms of life. I can only speak for myself as a self-aware human being in the possession of consciousness and freewill.

    For me, life would be unlivable without meaning, but it is not important whether life has an objective meaning or higher purpose, what is important is that you find and create one for yourself.

    I have always said and wholeheartedly believe that the purpose of life is to learn, to discover your own purpose, to create your own meaning, and to actualize it to the fullest extent. For some people that very well may include reproduction, getting married and raising a family. For others it may be something else completely different, and still be just as meaningful, if not more so.

    But the key element of purpose does seem to involve creation of some kind, whether it be the reproduction of your species, or the creation of some other value, idea, innovation, or service. In other words, there are other ways of creating, and adding to the value of your species, that do not involve the biological act of reproduction.

  3. Since I wound up on this page due to the image at the top, I feel compelled to point out that the image is wrong.

    42 is the answer to "the ultimate question of life, the universe and everything.", not the meaning of life.

    And the answer doesn't make sense since we do not know the ultimate question. If the question was "what is the meaning of life" then we'd know the question, wouldn't we?

    People who can't grasp simple concepts and/or post images they don't understand, shouldn't be trying to decipher the point of life.