Why do we, as human beings, seek meaning and purpose for our lives. The Monty Python explanation aside, seriously, why do we contemplate our “being?” Why do we ask, “Why am I here?” Why won’t this question ever go away?
And why do we search for answers when tragedy strikes? What is it about us that won’t rest until we find this closure? If we’re here just to exist, why do we look for meaning to life? Why do we wonder?
And why is it that, as far as we know, only humans ask these questions? For example, our pets don’t wonder about the meaning of life; despite our anthropomorphic imaginations about what they may be thinking, they just exist and survive and respond to stimuli.
Why must we express these ponderings in art, poetry, literature, and music? Why is the most popular subject about romantic love? Why isn’t it just about responding to our sexual animal instincts so we can pass on our genes to the next generation?
It seems, for most people, finding ultimate meaning to their lives has nothing to do with science. As Jose Ortega y Gasset said:
Any philosophy of life, any way of thinking about the questions that really matter will thus end up going beyond science—not because there is anything wrong with science, but precisely because its intellectual virtues are won at a price: science works so well because it is so focused and specific in its methods. Scientific truth is characterized by its precision and the certainty of its predictions. But science achieves these admirable qualities at the cost of remaining secondary concerns, leaving ultimate and decisive questions untouched.” (Ortega, “El origen deportivo del estado,” quoted from McGrath, “The Big Question…”, p.4)
Despite the concerted efforts of extreme antitheist polemicists like Richard Dawkins and those who have followed in his footsteps, the percentage of Americans who are spiritual is going up (Pew 2017 – people are also getting less religious, but I would include myself there). The point here is, people intuitively know that our lives cannot be defined by or reduced to our biology.
Theologian, N.T. Wright shared his thoughts on the meaning of life, that we sense that we were made for something more than what we can see and observe. And that there’ve been profound intuitions about the metaphysical reality going back to the beginning of time.
As Ortega said, this is why science can only answer secondary concerns. The big picture questions remain untouched. And as Nobel Prize winning biologist Sir Peter Medawar said, these are “questions that science cannot answer and that no conceivable advance of science would empower it to answer.” (“The Limits of Science,” p.66)
MIT professor Rosalind Picard is also an active inventor with multiple patents, including wearable and non-contact sensors, algorithms, and systems for sensing, recognizing, and responding respectfully to human affective information. Her inventions have applications in autism, epilepsy, depression, PTSD, and many others. In spite of all her accomplishments, she shares how she found real meaning to her life in this short clip:
According to Dr. Ravi Zacharias, it seems there are four rudimentary components that brings meaning to our lives. The four come together as a composite and cannot stand in isolation.
- Wonder (a sense of awe, enchantment, transcendence)
- Truth (about our true identity, worth, destiny)
- Love (to be loved for your own sake and nothing else)
- Security (that death is not the end)
Dr. Zacharias shares an amazing story about a Vietnamese man put in prison after the war finding meaning in discarded pages of the Bible (used for toilet paper) in spite of having atheist Marxism pounded into his head by his captors.
24 “The God who made the world and everything in it is the Lord of heaven and earth and does not live in temples built by human hands. 25 And he is not served by human hands, as if he needed anything. Rather, he himself gives everyone life and breath and everything else. 26 From one man he made all the nations, that they should inhabit the whole earth; and he marked out their appointed times in history and the boundaries of their lands. 27 God did this so that they would seek him and perhaps reach out for him and find him, though he is not far from any one of us. 28 ‘For in him we live and move and have our being.’ As some of your own poets have said, ‘We are his offspring.’ (Act 17:24-28 NIV)