The Meaning of Life

All living creatures are driven by a compulsion to replicate their genes if they can possibly do so. This is a central pillar of modern Darwinist thinking. It follows that the sex drive is basic to any understanding of the meaning of life. But when I come to consider my own species, the issue becomes more complex. Why not, since we are sui generis in the degree of our complexity?

Our twentieth century is different from every epoch that has preceded it in human history and prehistory, in this fundamental respect: the awareness has dawned on many of us that there are too many people for the planet to support comfortably, or soon will be. It follows that it can no longer be taken for granted that having more children serves humanity’s central purpose. But that involves a massive and fundamental attitudinal shift, tectonic in its implications. It mortally weakens what until now has been the central element for many people in their felt definition of the meaning of life–having children. Can you subtract that central element of the meaning of life without life becoming meaningless? The answer has to be the substitution of other purposes that plausibly supply equivalently compelling doses of meaning to the human psyche.

Humanism tells us that we are our own masters, that we cannot rely on some abstract deity to guide our way. The Progressive Humanist view takes this logic a step further, and bids us to look to the future to perceive the meaning of our lives. It tells us to look beyond the immediate problems and turmoil and setbacks of the present month or year or even decade, and think in multi-generational terms about where humanity as a whole is heading. That long-term future, when we think about it, holds the answers to the eternal question about life’s meaning.

That future will lie in outer space, and under the oceans; it will lie in inner space, in increased understanding of our own bodies and minds; it will lie in our poems and symphonies and paintings, and in the new fashions in which we shall sculpt the natural environment. There is much to be done, and those who contribute to getting it done will be suffused by a sense of the importance of what they are doing that can compensate for any curtailment of their reproduction. We want a world where every individual life is genuinely important, and where everyone can contribute to that vast river which is humanity as a whole. We can achieve that condition, not right away, but eventually. Our efforts to get there can provide meaning enough for my generation, and yours, and yours….for as far down the road as I can see.


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