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A logical approach to "The Meaning Of Life"

This is old. I think it's valuable, but there's quicker ways to happiness and joy. Check out my happiness article.


What is the meaning of life?

In this essay, I will try to form a logical progression to clarify and answer this question. Corrections and suggestions welcome.

If you want, you can skip to the answer.


First, the question: "What is the meaning of life"?

One problem in answering this question, is that the meaning of the question iself is unclear, leading to many interpretations.

So, let's use another approach. Why do you wish to know the answer to this question? In other words... if you knew the answer to this question, how would that help you?

To know the "answer" to this question, is to know the best way to live your life.


Let me explain:

Say for example, the "meaning of life", was to make children to pass on your genes, and bring them up to repeat the cycle.
If you knew this was the true "meaning of life" with certainty, then you would know what to do with your life: Once you had brought up a child who had brought up their own child, you could consider yourself to have reached your highest purpose in life, reaching your final goal as defined by this "meaning of life".

(While this satifies some people, to others this seems bleak and overly scientific, "that can't be the meaning of life!". Your response, how something feels, is useful, and I'll come back to talk about this later.)

But the "answer" to the meaning of life need not be biological.

Say the "meaning of life" was to serve, as best you could, the other humans on the planet.
Again, to know that this was the "meaning of life" with complete certainty, you'd know what to do. To achieve your purpose, you would try as hard as you could to serve others. When making choices in your life, you'd make every choice on the basis of how to increase the amount and quality of serving you could give to other humans on this planet.

(While this may satisfy some people, this might seem strange to others. Again, don't be too logical and make a note of your response.)

Additionaly, say the "meaning of life" was to become a reasonable guitar player.
While this seems unlikely, I'm using it to show how the meaning of life could be anything, to show the logic still works.
Knowing that this was the "meaning of life", you would know to reach your highest purpose, you should learn guitar to a reasonable level. Once you were generally recognised as at least "reasonable" at guitar, you would know you had reached your goal in life.

And finally, say there was no "meaning of life". This too is useful. By knowing with certainty there was no meaning, you would know there was not one "goal" in life which it was your highest purpose to reach. You could choose to act, or not, follow your own or other's goals, or not, knowing that there was no objectively "best" finish position, and no route that you would be compelled to follow if you wanted to have your "best possible life".

(Of course even if you know your goal, your life purpose, you don't need to follow this path, it's your choice.)

So to know the answer - to know what the meaning of life is - with complete certainty, is to know what you should do to live your "best" life - The life that satisifies your life purpose to the highest degree possible.

So following this, the question "What is the meaning of life?" can be rephrased as "What should I do to live my 'best' life?"

But maybe this seems as just a difficult a question as the first one. I disagree, because we now have a unambiguous question which we can work towards answering.



Answering the new question - "What should I do to live my 'best' life?"


Looking at this question, it is possible to figure out what form the answer must take. The answer to any "What should I do?" question, assuming it is answerable, must be of the form of an action, or set of actions. Answering "42" (or "Turkey", "Batman", etc) isn't a valid answer, as it doesn't match the question.

So we are looking for an action or a set of actions that would allow you to live your "best life".

So what indeed is your "best" life?

It is when when what you do in your life most closely matches the "meaning of life" as it applies to you. Just as the action of "learning guitar to a reasonable level" is a 100% match for the life purpose of "being reasonable at guitar", and the action of "becoming a grandparent" is a 100% match for the life purpose of "bringing up a child who propagates your genes".


This calculation, of how much an action "most closely matches the 'meaning of life' as it applies to you" can be shown as a mathematical function:



The letters are:
  • = Your match value. 100% is your "perfect life". (Your purpose is complete or you are living a life that matches your purpose 100%)

  • = Something you can do. "Play guitar", "Eat burgers while trying to sing", "Serve others", "Run", and "Skydive" are all things you could do. Actions.

  • = The function. How much does an action correspond to meeting your life purpose, as defined by the meaning of life as it applies to you?
Your 'best life' is the highest value of that can be generated from your match function .

So by changing the input value, , you can generate different values of . Back in the real world, this shows that depending on what you do, you will be closer or farther from your life purpose. (Even if you don't know what that purpose is.)

You'll notice that there is only one input, the action . Your match function is unique to your personal "meaning of life", and putting the same action into the match function of a person with a different "meaning of life" may lead to a different value of .



Examples of the match function


To explain this function, say your "meaning of life" is the first one mentioned; to bring up children to have children and propagate your genes.

In this case, the action of "being a virgin" would score 0%, as this does not correspond with the life purpose of propogating your genes.



However with the same meaning of life, "becoming a grandparent" would score 100%, as it meets your goal of bringing up a child who can pass on their genes. This 100% score means you have met your life purpose with this action.



And of course all the intermediate actions, dating and becoming a parent for example, have corresponding values.





To further illustrate the point, here are the "Be reasonable at guitar" and "Serve others" examples in mathematical notation. Remember that the function will generate different values depending on your purpose in life. So may have a different value if your life purpose is "propagating genes" to "playing guitar reasonably".


If your life purpose is "playing guitar reasonably":








If your life purpose is "serving others":









...but actions not so relevant to "serving others" would score low:








These are all examples, and maybe you would adjust some of the output values, but I hope you get the idea.

So now we have a (conceptual) function which takes actions and tells us how well it matches our life purpose. We also know that when the output value from this function is highest, the action matches what we should do to live our best life.



Your life compass


Have you ever had the feeling of "This feels right", "This is what I should be doing"? Or conversely, have you ever had the feeling of "This feels wrong", "This is not what I should do"? This is your life compass, and will help us figure out your purpose in life.

As we wind our way though life, different experiences feel some about of "Yes, I should be doing this" or "No, I shouldn't be doing this.". Some experiences are so good or bad they cause to make radical changes to our lives, but in most cases, you just remember how something felt and carry on.

So all of us carry a memory of experiences and how they felt. Everyone has a different collection of experiences, and people assign different amount of positive or negative feelings to each one. For example, one person may think teaching is boring or difficult, but another may find it deeply fulfilling.


We can use this life compass to discover the workings of your match function, . When we know how actions are converted to match values, we can work out what actions would lead to the best match to your life purpose.



Introducing the "lifemap"


Say for a moment, this represents your life:




It is a map of all possible experiences one can have, or as Bob West calls it, a "quality of life surface". Every point on the surface is an experience. Maybe the top left point (in the dark area) is "skiing", and the point in the very middle is "teaching mathematics".

All of life's experiences are on a continuum, that is, more related experiences are physically closer to each other on the map. So around the "skiing" point would be "snowboarding" and other snow sports, and around "teaching mathementics" would be "taking a mathematics degree", "teaching physics" and "understanding calculus".

The colours on the surface refer to your feeling about each area. The brighter the area is, the more the area feels "right", and the darker the area, the more it feels "wrong". This measurement of how "right" somthing feels comes from your life compass, and is what we will use to determine how close the experience is to a life most aligned with your life purpose, our match function .


Of course, you haven't had all of life's experiences, so we cannot know with 100% detail your real life map.


If you knew with complete accuracy the value for every place on the map, (you knew how every possible life experience felt with regards to how it matched your purpose), you could quickly choose what would give you the best life (the brightest dot) and know areas you should avoid (the dark area at the top left for example).



Making your lifemap


If you have only ever had one life experience and it was "moderately satisfying", without other knowledge, you wouldn't know if other areas in life would be more or less satisfying, thus leading you to estimate the following lifemap:



However, if you had had two life experiences, you could start to guess what new areas might be better or worse for you, based on how related a new experience was to what you had already experienced.



As more points are added (values about how you felt about different experiences), you can start to see more detail.



When 10 points are reached, it is possible to see a much clearer image of your real lifemap.




Here is the real lifemap and the 10-point estimate side by side: (Click to enlarge)




Adding more points, the map gets clearer still.

The following lifemaps have been generated by picking 30 random points. Each map has differerent random points. (Click to enlarge)




Which seems to be a good approximation for your real life map:



Of course, the more points, and the wider range they have, the better.


So how do you create a personal lifemap? Well, you can do this yourself by trying many new experiences and guessing what new things would most satify you, but a few problems with this are:
  • When choosing a new experience, you can only choose from experiences you have heard about. This limits your pool.
  • You may be unclear (or incorrect) in what a new experience entails. This may cause you to select something that doesn't match your expectations when you try it for real.
  • You may have unconcious bias towards a particular kind of experience, no matter how off-the-wall you try to be.
So to help with these problems, I've made a computer program, LifeMapper. You tell it some lifepoints (your ratings of experiences), and it generates a personalised map.

The program then suggests experiences which will most satisfy you and shows any bias you have in your current life experiences (Maybe you have had mainly geeky experiences, or you seem to gravitate around languages).
The program also shows you what experiences are most different to the life you know now, thus what you should do to most widen your range of life experiences.


Try LifeMapper



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