“What is the meaning of life?” is a similar question to “What is the meaning of gravity?” They both have the same answer when looked at that way. Life and gravity don’t have a meaning in themselves. They just are what they are. They are natural processes that behave as they do because it’s their nature. Obviously, that is a circular self-defining definition based on its own self-definition.
It circles back to the word ‘meaning’ and the circular definition from trying to define meaning using words. But there is a notch in this definition because it requires a thinker to give the meaning. Gravity doesn’t need a thinker to pull physical objects together because it came into being with the natural processes of the Big Bang creation of our Universe. But meaning does require a thinker, and to think requires a brain. And to create a brain requires some intervening living processes.
That begins with the early molecules stretching themselves into endless chains and that didn’t need meaning either; those atoms just did their natural bonding processes and linked. The local environment varied, and there were variations in these links and in the vastness of time, one joining together had the ability to break apart into two identical pieces of the original molecule. After that event, the rest is what we call evolution. For the evolutionary process to function it only needed an environment that was similar to where this first event happened. Those conditions were right where the first event happened so it was easy for it to happen again and again to these daughter molecules. The daughters that best fit the environment had more daughters than those that didn’t fit so well. But there wasn’t any thinking; there were simply chemical reactions, and without a thinking brain, there was no potential for meaning. There wasn’t any meaning to this level of life.
At this early molecular stage, there was no possibility of purpose because there were no thinking brains. But we humans do have the capacity for purposeful actions. So the question becomes, when does the transition between a nonthinking amoeba and a modern human occur?
A single-cell amoeba can move toward food and away from danger, but it is only in response to perceptions in the present moment. There isn’t any forethought, and without forethought, there is no purpose, because purpose has a goal in the unseen future. Squirrels search their worlds for food too, and they have much larger brains than an amoeba, and when their work is done they have the forethought to go to their homes for rest. Is this trek homeward founded on forethought or is it just a response to external reminders like it’s getting dark? During last year’s eclipse, people remarked that the birds behaved like it was resting time. Were the birds thinking or just reacting to a darkening of the sun? I didn’t hear anyone comment about squirrels.
At the animal level, it appears that life is a process of eating to gain energy, having sex to reproduce the species, and resting so they can do it again. But these actions are driven by responses to the animals’ inbred genetic history. They don’t think about reproducing the species, they just do what they feel is needed, which is driven by a genetic history of what works. Their DNA goes along for the ride and gets reproduced and the species continues, but it doesn’t think or possess meaning in its actions. DNA behaves like an advanced form of those first long chains of molecules that could break into identical daughters.
It now seems that most of our human meaning is to continue doing what we routinely do. It is only when we pause to consider what the effects of our potential behaviors might bring in the future that the idea of meaning begins to have a purpose. The purpose is guiding things toward a self-chosen goal that is set in the non-visible future.
What is called gossip is a form of predicting social interactions, and it is a driver of human evolution toward better prediction.