This is an updated, edited, and slightly sexed up version of a piece I wrote two years ago. If you’ve ever stumbled while trying to answer questions about meaning or purpose in life, or if you feel like you can’t defend your right to your own purpose, this is the article for you.
Is This Really All There Is?
When you started thinking critically about the existence of God, did you ask yourself this question? If you did, you’re not alone. We’ve all thought about it. We’re all worried about what life is about, and what we can realistically expect. Even so, this question is loaded, and not just a little bit.
First, let’s make sure we know what question we’re asking. What does “this” refer to? The obvious answer for most people would be something like “Being alive once and then dying,” or perhaps “The universe that we can see.” Let’s not be vague about it. Let’s settle on what we’re actually talking about. We’ll look at several different meanings, one by one.
Is this one life all there really is?
All the evidence says that it is. Despite hocus pocus claims from preachers and urban legends about people who have been to heaven and come back, there’s no evidence that life goes on after death. Consciousness is dependent on physical processes. When the brain dies and the body decays, there is no longer an organized physical process, so the only logical conclusion is that there is no consciousness.
But what about near death experiences? Couldn’t they be proof of an afterlife? Let’s examine the evidence. All the stories are just that – stories. Anecdotal evidence, as we’ve seen, is extremely weak, and should only be considered when stronger corroborating evidence exists. Were the people who experienced NDEs in good mental and physical condition? Obviously not, as near death is a pretty bad situation, both physically and mentally. We know that even minute changes in the brain can trigger wildly erratic perceptions and behaviors. Dying is a lot more than a minute change in the brain. On the surface, the evidence for NDE‘s as proof of an afterlife seems fragile at best.
We’re still not done, though. Is there better evidence that NDE’s are simply physical, and that the perceptions of heaven and hell are illusions? It turns out that there is quite a lot. Before discussing NDEs directly, we need to be clear on a few terms.
If you’ve ever watched the movie, The Princess Bride, you will remember Miracle Max’s famous words about death: “Whoo-hoo-hoo, look who knows so much. It just so happens that your friend here is only MOSTLY dead. There’s a big difference between mostly dead and all dead. Mostly dead is slightly alive. With all dead, well, with all dead there’s usually only one thing you can do. Go through his clothes and look for loose change.” The scientific descriptions are not as witty, but they’re not radically different. There is a big difference between clinical death and brain death. Clinical death usually results from cardiac arrest. When the heart stops pumping, neurons no longer receive oxygen. Without new oxygen, they continue to fire for a short while, sometimes with odd side effects. It would only be a slight stretch to say that a clinically dead person is mostly dead.
Brain dead, on the other hand, is all dead. Clinical death can be reversed within a certain time frame. We’ve all heard stories, and seen depictions on medical dramas. The heart can be started chemically, electrically, and manually. Assuming that there is still some neural activity, starting a clinically dead person’s heart will bring them “back to life.” Not so with brain death. Once the brain dies, the person is fully dead, and will not come back.
What, then, can we say about people who are clinically dead? For one thing, they are the only people who have ever had NDE’s and lived to tell about them. For another, we can make some observations about what happens when the brain begins to die. If these observations form a parsimonious explanation for NDE’s, we will have a compelling reason to believe they are not supernatural, and do not give proof of an afterlife.*
As the brain becomes oxygen depleted, neural networks begin to break down. Infants and small children have small neural networks. As they age, they form larger and larger networks as they process more and more information. An adult can temporarily break down access to fully formed networks by using drugs, or possibly meditative practice (although the latter is the subject of considerable debate).
The sense of “loss of self” is a commonly reported experience in NDEs, and it has a well understood cause. Though the technical explanation sounds daunting to non-scientists, the cause is quite simple. In some cases, extreme overproduction of serotonin can inhibit the ability of neurons to pump potassium out of neural channels, effectively de-electrolyzing the neurons. In others, drugs can perform a function known as transmitter masking, essentially inhibiting the ability of transmitters to function properly by substituting an imposter chemical (such as an opiate) for the “proper” chemical. The end result is that synaptogenesis (the process of forming synapses) becomes temporarily “flooded.” In other words, new synapses are formed and then overturned so quickly that the brain becomes unable to process them effectively.
Critics will often object at this point in a conversation. After all, scientists have not explained every aspect of NDEs. In fact, most scientists are perfectly willing to admit that there are some very puzzling things about them, and the explanations are not always apparent. Someone who wants to believe in NDEs will say, “Since science doesn’t have an answer, it must be proof of the afterlife.” But that’s not a very good conclusion. It’s akin to saying, “I don’t know how the light in my refrigerator turns on and off, so it has to be gremlins.”
Still, many will argue that there are common threads. People from different religions have the same kinds of experiences. Kevin Nelson, a neurophysiologist at the University of Kentucky in Lexington, has this to say: “People say that because there’s a common thread running through them all there must be a spiritual element,” he says. “I look at that common thread and I see a biological process.”(New Scientist, October 17, 2006) Nelson believes that he can explain the entire experience in purely scientific terms. He might be able to, but then again, he might miss something. This is not as relevant as it may seem. The important point is that good critical thinking demands that we not make up answers.
In fact, there is a common misconception about NDEs. It’s not necessary to be at death’s door to experience one. Quoting from the New Scientist article:
Nelson says that that’s because despite the name, NDE has little to do with actually being close to death. He argues that the experience stems from an acute bout of “REM intrusion” – a glitch in the brain’s circuitry that, in times of extreme stress, may flip it into a mixed state of awareness where it is both in REM sleep and partially awake at the same time. “The concept that our brain is either 100 per cent awake or 100 per cent in REM sleep is absolutely erroneous,” says Mark Mahowald, a neurologist at the Minnesota Regional Sleep Disorders Center in Minneapolis. “We can have pieces of one state intruding into another, and that’s when things get interesting.”
REM intrusion is a common feature of narcolepsy – a neurological disorder characterised by uncontrollable bouts of sleep that can cause elaborate hallucinations and, sometimes, out-of-body experiences. But REM intrusion can affect anyone, and frequently does. Recent estimates suggest that up to 40 per cent of people have experienced “sleep paralysis”, a form of REM intrusion in which you awaken with part of your brain still in REM sleep and your body paralysed. Often the result is a terrifying feeling of being unable to move, accompanied by visual or auditory hallucinations and pressure on the chest. Sleep paralysis has been offered as a rational explanation for many apparently supernatural phenomena, including witch attacks, visitations by the dead, and more recently alien abductions.
- REM Intrusion. Not a scary vampire nurse.
Scientists are experimenting with the phenomenon of out of body sight, too. Olaf Blanke, a cognitive neurologist at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology, has caused subjects to see their legs, disembodied, from a floating perspective, simply by applying an electrical stimulus to the angular gyrus, a part of the brain involved with processing sensory information. (New Scientist)
There’s yet another example of transcendental experiences that we should look at. Epileptics often report NDE-like perceptions after having particularly intense seizures. Seizures which effect the limbic system are well known for causing religious or transcendent experiences. In a way, this is an opposite cause for a similar effect. When a person has a seizure, their brain is firing too many neurons at once. Just like a computer, our brain seldom uses all of it’s capacity at once. The myth that we only use 10% of our brains comes from a simple misunderstanding of this concept. When a computer is idle, or is only running a few processes, it uses a small percentage of its total processing power. Our brains function essentially the same way. Also, just like a computer, when we over tax our brains, the results are not always pleasant.
There is much speculation about the connection between epilepsy and religion. A nun at a Carmelite monestary in California recently discovered that the visions and transcendental raptures she’d been experiencing for years were actually epilepsy. Careful review of the private lives of many religious figures has prompted the question, were many of the prophets and religious visionaries of the past epileptics? In the end, we will probably never know about those who have long since passed. But new research is coming in all the time, and as the connection becomes more and more concrete, it’s becoming harder and harder to dismiss the evidence that NDEs as well as other mystical experiences are simply misfiring neurons playing a game with our perception.
There’s more. Dismiss for a moment all the possible explanations that scientists have come up with. In a recent survey, researchers found that among people who had had NDEs, a full 60 percent had sleep problems involving REM intrusion. Only 24 percent of people who had not had NDEs had similar problems. There is clearly a physical connection between REM intrusion and NDEs.
Which explanation makes more sense? That there is an afterlife, and the apparent connection to sleep problems is coincidence, or that the connection is evidence of what really causes them?
So, in the end, I think we have to admit that even though we might really want to believe in life after death, there’s simply no good evidence for it.
Is the universe we can perceive really all there is?
The short answer is that we don’t know. Remember that ignorance is not a good reason for making up an answer. So if we don’t have any evidence one way or the other, we have to be content with not knowing.
It’s not as bad as it seems. Suppose there is a multiverse or some other form of … something … that we can’t perceive in any way at all, and which can’t affect our universe in any way. Why worry about it?And if there’s more than this universe, and it can affect us, then when it does, we’ll discover it. And won’t that be exciting!
What does the question really mean?
Many people will find the previous two versions of our question to be lacking. There’s something else hidden in the question. It’s bigger than just the question of the nature of reality. What we really want to know is this: “If life is just the product of blind evolution and physical processes, what is the purpose of it all?” This comes closer to the question that’s really on our minds, doesn’t it? We want to know if there’s room for hope in life. Is there something to look forward to, or is life really just an exercise in respiration, mastication, and procreation?
When we start thinking about the question this way, it becomes bigger, and more pertinent. We want to know what meaning this life might have. Why are we here? Is there something that we should accomplish? If there is no higher purpose, why are we bothering with all the drudgery and obligation? Why don’t we just throw off our yokes and run free through the streets, or live out in the woods, solitary and blissfully unfettered?
Hopefully, you can see the disconnect between the question and these hypothetical answers. Regardless of the existence of an afterlife, we fulfill our earthly obligations because it’s in our best interest to do so. Humans are social creatures. We crave love and friendship, and the best way to get them is to give them.
- Isn’t love a good enough reason to get up in the morning?
As a result of a long and staggeringly complex chain of adaptive events, we have developed brains which drive us to reproduce and form long term bonds. When we have offspring, we have a natural bond with them, and we try to protect them, teach them, and give them the best possible chance to live happily. This stands to reason, of course. Those of our ancestors that did not have these drives as strongly tended not to reproduce as successfully.
Looking around the animal kingdom, we can see how this fits logically into place. Our brains come at a high cost. Such complex organs require many years to grow to maturity. During that time, we are vulnerable and easily killed. We do not have claws, or night vision, or highly developed senses of smell or hearing. We cannot survive most environments without clothing. Without protectors, human children would virtually always die. At least one parent is necessary for the continuation of the species. So, we can say with virtual certainty that there is a purpose in life. For the goal of continuing the human species, it is necessary that we live in such a way that our children have the best chance of growing old enough not only to reproduce, but to then live on long enough to provide the same chances for their children.
If this seems overly simple to you, you’re thinking well. Intuitively, we know that there’s something more than just reproduction. After all, many people do not, or cannot have children. Are we to say that their lives are worthless? Obviously not. What else is there, then? Here, we can go in many different directions, and we can find truth in almost all of them. Art, literature, invention, service, discovery – all these things are meaningful to us and bring us pleasure. Many of them benefit people in ways that we can link directly to reproduction, if we wish. The discovery and harnessing of electricity led to the invention of the transistor, which led to the invention of the computer. With the help of computers, we invented amazingly complex and powerful devices like Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI) machines. With these machines, we are able to detect and cure many physical illnesses that would otherwise lead to death, often before the sick individuals are able to reproduce.
Can we say, then, that everything is linked to reproduction, and leave it at that? I suppose we could, but that feels rather empty, doesn’t it? Even if a childless inventor creates something that benefits someone else, who later has a child, it seems cold to suggest that this is the only purpose in his life. There are so many aspects of life, it feels impossible to reduce them down to a single, unified purpose. How could we possibly say that reproduction, or altruism, or money, or fame, or anything else, for that matter, is the single purpose in life?
Perhaps you have just had a “Eureka” moment. If not, bear with me for a bit longer. Think about everyone you know, and try to think of one or two people who seem to march to a different drummer. Perhaps it’s an eccentric artist who lives in a trashy house, doesn’t own a car, and only eats rice and beans. Maybe it’s that cousin who insists on remaining single, even though he’s got enough money to have five wives and fifty children. Or, maybe it’s the woman who has never wanted to have children, even though she’s been happily married for ten years, and is in the prime of her life. What can we say about their sense of purpose? The answer, obviously, is that they each have very different goals in life!
Now, think about the last time you browsed through the self help section at a bookstore. Did you notice how many different versions of the “Truth that will set you free” there are? Hundreds, maybe thousands, of self-help books proclaim their own secret to living a happy life, filled with purpose. You know this already, but have you thought about what it means? Each of these books is selling well enough to still be on the shelves, and unless you live in a bubble, you’ve met someone who claims that they’ve found the answer they’ve always been looking for. (Except in rare cases, it seems that we never agree completely with these people!)
If the answer isn’t obvious enough already, here it is: There is not one universal “purpose” for humanity. Because of differences in genetics, culture, and individual experience, each person has a built in set of likes, dislikes, and motivations. In short, each person has their own unique purpose.
That’s great, but what is the purpose in life?
When I first began thinking about life without religion, this last epiphany was difficult for me to accept. Something deep inside me rebelled at the notion that we can just leave things so open ended. How can we really say that every person has their own purpose, and they’re all equal? How can we hope to mobilize humanity towards a common goal if everybody just gets to make up their own meaning? What of morality? What of obligation to our fellow man?
As I struggled with these questions, I slowly began to realize something profound – something that would ultimately change how I viewed my own life as well as those of the people around me. Behind each of these troubling questions, there are hidden assumptions about the nature of reality. Without questioning these assumptions, we risk answering a question that isn’t even valid to begin with.
Are all purposes equal?
Suppose I place two identical dinner glasses next to each other and carefully measure out eight ounces of water from one source. Are they equal? Yes, and no. They contain roughly the same amount of water, so they are equal. However, they do not contain the same number of water molecules, and are not equal. The water in each glass came from the same source, so they are equal. One glass is intended for a man who has not had a drink in three days. The other is intended for another man who has had over a gallon of water today. The glasses are not equal.
When we ask if all life purposes are equal, what is it that we’re really asking? The standard Christian answer goes something like this: ‘All lives are equal in the eyes of the Lord, for he loves us all equally.’ Or, another pastor might tell us, ‘In the end, the only difference that matters is whether or not we are saved. Your life is worth nothing if you go to hell, but your happiness will be complete if you accept Jesus and go to heaven when you die.’
Do you see the error in the question now? When we ask, “Are all purposes equal,” we are carrying the same baggage as when we were Christians. We are assuming that there is a single goal, granted by God, and that all lives can be measured by this goal. Now that we know there is no such thing, we must disabuse ourselves of the notion that we can still ask the question in the same way. We must recognize that every person has their own drives and goals, and we must rethink our entire approach.
Where does this leave us? It might feel to you that it leaves us in an impossible position. If we must specify exactly what we mean by equality, it’s possible to ask the question of purpose in thousands of different ways, and every answer will be different! How are we to ever find something to hold onto? How do we find our own purpose?
Is it possible that humans can unite for a common goal if everyone gets to make their own meaning? Again, there is a hidden assumption in this question. In asking the question, we are assuming that it is a good thing for humanity to have a common goal! If you’ve assumed that, you must ask yourself, “How do I know that it’s good for humanity to have a common goal?” “What is the common goal?” “When I say it’s good for humanity, to which end is it good?”
The answers are difficult. We instantly recognize huge obstacles. Many nations are busy trying to feed their own people, while others throw away scraps that would be treasures for some. Is it fair to say that ending world hunger is a good goal? Though it seems noble enough on the surface, there are many scientists who say there are too many people on earth, and that we will not have enough resources if we continue to reproduce at current rates. Maybe the problem isn’t a lack of food. Maybe it’s a surplus of people. This might be a callous thing to suggest, but let’s remember that our very own nation has only recently supported the killing of tens of thousands of civilians in a foreign country, with the stated goal of removing one man from political power. History is littered with tales of entire populations who willingly killed thousands, or even hundreds of thousands, for lesser goals than preserving the ecosystem and allowing the human species to continue to survive. So it should be obvious to us that even very noble goals — ending a dictatorship, reducing our population to sustainable levels — if they become our sole focus, can become the cause of great evil. Only by taking many noble goals into account — human compassion comes to mind immediately — can we look at individual goals with clear vision.
Many people, myself included, would like to see humanity united in the goal of sustainable coexistence with the other species on the planet. This seems a very noble goal, but the price would be high. Cars and electrical plants produce most of the greenhouse gases introduced into the environment by humans. Sustainable living might well involve severe restrictions on vehicles, fuel, and power consumption. We might have to restrict reproductive rights. Standards of living might have to go down for many wealthy nations. Is it fair for me to say that my goal is the one that we should follow? Should fairness be the measure by which we choose a goal?
What of Morality?
Without mincing words, I will simply say that this question is ludicrous. Please pardon me for being blunt, but after more than a decade of answering this question, it gets tiring. Morality and purpose in life are not related to each other. Morality is our sense of right and wrong with respect to our fellow humans. Our purpose in life is our goal. A person can be either moral or immoral and still have purpose. He may accomplish his purpose, or not, and his morality has little or nothing to do with it. Both moral and immoral people have purpose. Enough said.
If my purpose is my own, how do I judge whether it’s good?
It may seem trite to say that we judge our lives by our own happiness, but it’s not nearly as naïve or simplistic as it sounds. Again, I’d like to reach back to my Christian days and retrieve the standard religious response to happiness as its own purpose. “Judging our lives by our own happiness is selfish and short-sighted. God has a design for us, and often, we are called on to sacrifice our own happiness for what is good and right in God’s divine purpose. Those who pursue happiness for its own sake are doomed to ultimate failure!”
Though this sounds menacing, it’s psychologically empty. First, it’s creating a strawman – a weak version of a philosophically sound position. Consider a hypothetical person, Bob, who decides that every decision in his life will be made based on which available action will make him the happiest. On the first day of his new life, Bob realizes that expensive gourmet food makes him happier than scrambled eggs, so he goes to the finest restaurant in town and orders their best breakfast. After breakfast, he considers whether to go to work or play a video game. His job is pretty boring, and he’s often unhappy while there, so he decides to play the video game. By the end of the day, he’s ready to go out. His wife wants him to go pick up the children from baseball practice, but the fact is, he doesn’t want to deal with them right now. A beer would make him happier, so he goes down to the bar, leaving the kids without a ride. Somewhere around two in the morning, Bob realizes that paying money for a cab will not make him happy, so he gets into his own car even though he’s drunk, and drives home.
Clearly, this situation is ridiculous, but why? At each crucial decision, Bob weighed each of his choices and decided on the one that would make him happiest. If we were to predict Bob’s future, it’s not very bright. He’s going to get fired from his job. He will run out of money. His wife will divorce him, and his children will most likely hate him. It’s also very likely that he’ll lose his driver’s license. He might even kill someone while driving and go to jail for the rest of his life. Since choosing happiness obviously doesn’t lead to good decisions, we can see that the Christians are right… right?
This hypothetical situation is an example of something called reductio ad absurdum. (That’s Latin for “reduction to the absurd.) What I’ve done is taken the spirit of the Christian argument and taken it to a logical conclusion to demonstrate that it’s absurd. When Christians say that pursuit of happiness is a dead end, or that it will end in destruction, they are talking about pursuit of instant happiness. As intelligent beings, we are able to make predictions of the future and realize that there is short term happiness and long term happiness. Unless Bob is insane or incredibly stupid, he will realize that he cannot spend all his money in one day, and that he must go to work, and that he must pick up his children. He will hopefully realize that the short term sacrifice of a few dollars far outweighs the consequences of being arrested for driving under the influence. In short, he will realize that short term happiness often must be sacrificed for long term happiness. This doesn’t take religion to figure out. It only takes a little common sense. Very little.
When we say that happiness is its own goal, we are obviously not talking about only short term happiness. We mean a more or less continual state of contentment and long term happiness, derived from both instant gratification and immediate sacrifice for a greater long term good. We are constantly making conscious and unconscious decisions about what will be best for us. In the end, it’s about a balance of long and short term satisfaction – having enough happiness now, but sacrificing enough that we can continue to be happy in the future.
Perhaps you will object that the pursuit of happiness as its own goal doesn’t take altruism into account. If we’re always looking out for ourselves, how can we account for helping others, even when there is no direct benefit to us? To answer this question, simply think back to the last time that you sacrificed something of your own – something that you valued highly – for the good of another person. Maybe it was your valuable time donated to a blood drive. Maybe you sat through a tedious photo presentation of your neighbors’ trip to Branson, Missouri because you knew how much it would mean to them. When it was all over, and you thought back on what you had done, and realized that it was the right thing to do, how did it make you feel?
The reason we do things for others is that it makes us feel good. Perhaps we don’t enjoy it at the time, but in the long run, we feel like we have done a good thing, and we are happy with ourselves. It’s simply an example of sacrificing short term happiness for long term happiness. It may seem flippant to dismiss such a big question with such a simple answer, but science backs it up.
Fine. So what is the purpose of life?
Now, finally, we can return to our original question. What is the purpose of life? The answer, simply enough, is that your purpose is your own. Everyone else has their own purpose, too. Many people accomplish great things in their lives and feel a great sense of fulfillment. Others live their entire lives without doing much of anything by most standards. In the end, each person must judge themselves by their own standards.
There is no final judgment, but there is constant judgment while we’re alive. There is no divine forgiveness of sins, and no wiping clean of the slate. If we screw up our own lives, there is not always a way to fix it.
In one sense, we can do whatever we like with our lives, but we are constantly beholden to those around us. When we die, we will no longer exist, and none of it will matter to us. What greater motivation is there for living the best life possible? What other purpose do we need than the realization that we only get one chance, and if we mess it up, there are no mulligans? Life, then, is its own purpose, and we, as individuals, have the chance, but not the obligation, to live happily.
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* It’s worth pointing out that if there were cases of complete brain death where the patient came back and reported an NDE, that would defy the natural explanation and would suggest the possibility of consciousness after death. It’s crucial to notice that there has never been one case. In this instance, a lack of evidence is most certainly evidence of lack. With so many millions of deaths in hospitals, we would expect at least one case that defied science if there were life after death.