There is no meaning to life. There could only be one if the universe had been created by someone with a purpose in mind. And since gods only exist in the minds of uneducated or deluded people, there can be no ultimate purpose to life, only the limited purposes that we create for ourselves.
At the time of the Big Bang there was no one around to see the universe expanding. The universe felt nothing and was observed by no one. It existed, but might just as well not have. It expanded, gravity pulled matter together into clumps that formed stars. Because of the intense heat generated, some of the bigger stars created heavier elements, exploded and scattered these heavy elements around space. Gravity gathered these fractured rocks and dust together and squeezed them into balls to make planets.
A few billion years later life on Earth got started. A soup of lifeless chemicals shot through with some electrical or chemical energy was probably how it all began. Life grew out of lifeless matter.
Actually, this idea is not as weird as it sounds since it happens all the time. What were you before you were born? A sperm and an egg. And before that? Just chemicals coursing through your parents bodies. What is required to make a living thing is not living material but lifeless chemicals arranged in a certain way.
Once living creatures came about, a limited kind of purpose was born: the purpose of mating and getting yourself reproduced and into the next generation. In truth, what animals were reproducing was not themselves but their genes. And since genes are really just mindless bits of DNA that don’t think or have purposes, this can’t really be described as a genuine purpose either. Genes just mindlessly do what they do and use animals as their mobile homes. If animals had purposes of their own that were separate from those of their genes they might choose to lie in the sun all day and not bother with all the fighting and the child rearing. But animals don’t have purposes of their own. They are built by genes and are driven by their genes’ wishes.
The same was true for humans for most of history. We were also just ‘gene machines’. But one fine day our genes made the mistake of making our brains so big that we could think for ourselves. We started to reflect and plan. Our brains became not only capable of imagining scenarios that hadn’t yet happened, but also to include ourselves in our picture of the world. Like an animal seeing itself for the first time in a mirror, we took a mental step back and performed the previously impossible task of envisioning ourselves carrying out some future action.
At some point some caveman must have thought, “Hang on a minute. I can see why my genes would want me to have lots of children. After all, it gets them into the next generation. But what about me? I don’t get into the next generation. I just spend my precious time on earth caring for snotty-nosed kids and then I die. Where’s the fun in that? So let’s have a re-think. During my three score years and ten I’m going to have some fun for myself.”
Many people in prosperous countries have had the opportunity to try this out. Unfortunately they have often found that enjoyment, if aimed at too directly, isn’t as satisfying as they thought it would be. Always maximizing your own happiness can leave you feeling lonely, selfish and isolated. Like cooking dinner for one, it can seem a bit barren and pointless.
Admittedly, changing nappies isn’t as much fun as running after cave women or drinking mead with the lads, but watching your children grow up, playing with them, having a structured family life and someone to look after you in your old age has its satisfactions. And although we have learnt to rebel against our genes, the truth is that our genes’ interests overlap with our own, for the simple reason that they built us and gave us desires to match their goals. We can uncouple our desires from our genetic goals, like when we have sex while using contraceptives and in doing so we take the icing but leave the cake. Even so, our desires are still those given us by our genes; we didn’t create them.
Once we de-coupled our purposes from those of our genes but found that pleasure alone left us feeling a bit shallow, we looked around for some other kind of purpose to life. If just following your selfish desires wasn’t all it was cracked up to be, then how about living for a community centred around a common belief, like Christianity or Communism. In a way this was merely swapping being a gene machine for being a religious or political machine, whereby the individual sacrifices himself for an idea rather than his genes. Richard Dawkins would call these religions and political ideologies ‘memes’. They ‘infect’ the carrier like a virus and make him do their bidding.
You could also dedicate your life to the creation of beauty or to the appreciation and understanding of nature and the universe. The former done by artists and poets, the latter by scientists.
You can take your pick from these ways of living and you can set goals for yourself and even ponder how the repercussions of your actions will still be echoing down through centuries after you are dead, like the thoughts of Shakespeare have done. Yet even this does not constitute the meaning of life but merely your own personal meaning, one that you created for yourself rather than one handed to you at birth or inherited from your culture.
Outside of our own personal meanings lies a big, cold, almost empty universe that came out of nothing and is slowly expanding, cooling and will some day die.