Certainly, the aim of this essay is to answer a why, but not about the meaning of our existence but about our belief that such a thing could exist in the first place. That is the hypothesis with which I would like to begin: life has no intrinsic meaning. To most, such a claim would seem to be nihilistic or even completely fatalistic. As such, I must also prove it is not -actually, quite the opposite.
To understand that point we must take into account certain background about our nature. Apparently, we are born creationists and dualists -we are psychologically predisposed to accept an agent as a cause of everything, to invent a conscious being that creates or causes, just as religion does. A psychologist by the name of Paul Bloom came to the conclusion that religion is a byproduct of an innate disposition: children are born prepared to embrace a dualist theory of the mind, the idea that there is a fundamental distinction between mind and matter. Due to the fact that dualists belief that the mind is some kind of disembodied spirit, they personify inanimate physical objects and hence tend to fall easily in propositions like "mental disease is actually a demonic possession." Luckily, it is a disposition that disappears after years of experimentation with our environments, unless it is dogmatically taught. It is easy to be a creationist, whereas not so much to understand natural selection at first glance -it does not make any intuitive sense.
In her study "Are Children Intuitive Theists?", the psychologist Deborah Keleman demonstrated that the youngest among us have a higher tendency to grant everything a purpose: clouds are "for raining", pointy rocks are "so that animals can scratch on them when they get itchy". This phenomenon is called teleology, an innate predisposition that many never overcome.
What does this have to do with the meaning of life? It is an assertion that encompasses all of humanity, thereby begging for a religious explanation more often than not. Innate teleology and dualism 'help' us to readily accept religion: they prepare us to belief in a soul that inhabits the body instead of being an integral part of it, and in the same way it can also lead us to belief in a deity as a pure spirit independent of matter instead of an emergent property of complex matter. As Richard Dawkins so humorously put it in "The God Delusion" when dealing with this topic: "If everything has a purpose, whose purpose is it? God's, of course."
Definitively, the simple mind of a child and of those adults that never outgrow such a dogma have a propensity to 'agentify' objects and processes that actually don't have any consciousness. We personify nature, which is a priceless poetic quality but must not be confused with reality.
Unfortunately, it is often confused. Even university professors still use an essentially creationist vocabulary, unknowingly ascribing intentions where they themselves know there aren't any. There is, for example, the struggle of the immune system against pathogens -it isn't a directed process: There was a point in the evolutionary process of immune system cells in which a cell mutated randomly and acquired the ability to synthesize a never before seen antibody which happened to be able to fight certain bacterium. Said antibody did not aim to fight that bacterium, but rather it happened to fight it.
That is, in a random fashion and because of a genetic 'accident' the cell was able to fight a certain type of pathogen and live through it, thus enabling it to reproduce. In subsequent infections the cell with such an ability would recognize the pathogen and synthesize the antibody, not because it 'knew' that was the proper process, but rather because it is genetically determined to do so. The cells with those genetic features outlive the pathogen and reproduce, spreading its genetic makeup, while those cells that can't fight the pathogen die without any offspring. That is what we all know as 'natural selection.' It is vital to understand that there are plenty of mutations that lead to a worse adaptation to the environment, which is why that organism does not survive and does not leave any offspring behind. If evolution was a consciously directed process, no organism would carry through an adverse mutation. However, it happens constantly. There is no intention or purpose behind these mutations: they are advantageous, adverse or neutral random processes.
The funny thing is that even learned individuals keep ascribing a conscience where there is non, saying things like "This cell mutates in order to synthesize an antibody that fights against the bacterium" when they should actually be saying "This cell's accidental mutation results in the synthesis of an antibody that fights against the bacterium." Not only is the actual randomness of the process a less intuitive concept but the words themselves are not as succinct. Our language has not caught up to modern science.
Essentially, it is because of this unconscious form of thinking and expressing ourselves that a minority of scientists could even accept the premise of the creationist point of view; it is intuitively attractive. It is then obvious what someone not instructed in critical thought, skepticism, the scientific method, logic and natural selection would think.
We must apply the same logic when discussing our own existence. Begging for the reason of our existence or an intrinsic purpose simply does not make any sense. Albeit imploring to the heavens "Why are we here?" constitutes a grammatically correct question, it is actually void of any meaning.
"What I would say about the question 'Why?' is: Why do you think you have any right to ask it? It is not a meaningful question unless you specify the kind of answer you're expecting. As a biologist is very easy to answer the question 'Why do birds have wings?' in Darwinian terms, [...].I would point out that it is not so much that it doesn't deserve an answer but that an answer does not exist. I don't mean to say it is an insignificant issue or that we will never know the answer. I claim something very different: there is not an answer because the formulation of the motion is afflicted by a painfully obvious logical leap -the 'agentification' of our existence, the act of ascribing a creative or causal mind to the universe.
To the question 'Why do mountains exists?' we could give an answer in terms of the geological processes that give rise to them, but that's not what you want, is it? You want something about their purpose. 'What's the purpose of a mountain?' is a silly question, it doesn't deserve an answer. The mere fact that you can frame a question in the English language doesn't mean that it is entitled to an answer. If I say to you 'What is the color of jealousy?', it is a perfectly grammatical English sentence, but it's not a question that deserves an answer."
Even if it has been demonstrated that there is not a logical path that can lead us to wonder the intrinsic meaning of life, many will refute the argument not because of its consistency but because of its consequences: it is a statement from nihilism and, even if it was true, it would be best to keep believing the opposite in order to relieve us and quell the hardship that life often entails. But as I have foreshadowed, it is quite the opposite.
In any case, before going through that route, something must be made clear: deceiving ourselves never was, is or will be the solution to any of our problems. Luckily, humans are not only guided by their instincts and we can wonder any kind of questions: Carl Sagan pointed out that if it was true that we have a genetic predisposition for mistrusting foreigners the best antidote to racism and xenophobia is to have that knowledge and accept it -I say that being true that there is not a universal meaning of life the best antidote to nihilism is to have that knowledge and accept it.
But going that far is unnecessary in this case. It may have come to your attention that every mention of the "meaning of life" is accompanied by an adjective: intrinsic, universal. No, the human species is not born with an unmovable vital purpose, nor is there any global cause for our existence. Instead, each of us can find our own real reason.
Why are you here? Each and every one of you can decide a cause in which to immerse to the best of your abilities. You don't need for the rest of the world to find the same reason as you, commanded by a totalitarian being or a spiritual unity. You are not sheep, so you are not in the need of any imaginary shepherd. The loss of that paternal figure is not something to regret -humanity is reaching the point of independent adulthood, and it's about time.
After all, what could be more precious than the adventure of seeking a reason to exist? Go find your own meaning of life.
(Leer la versión original: El sentido de la vida)