Reality itself can have no purpose. For a thing to have a purpose, it has to be made with one in mind, like a car or a gun. To avoid an infinite regress wherein a creator creates reality with a purpose in mind, but we then have to ask, “What created the creator?”, and then, “What created the creator’s creator?” ad infinitum, the ‘original’ reality itself must simply be uncaused. By definition, an uncreated, or uncaused, thing cannot have a purpose. Ergo, reality can have no inherent purpose as it is necessarily uncreated, uncaused.
In common parlance, the phrase “the meaning of life” is synonymous with “the meaning of reality” and by extension “reality’s purpose”. As we have established, there can be none. Not happiness, not wealth, not wanton destruction, not Evil or Good or anything else. The reality is that reality has no absolute meaning, whether or not we are materialists.
In my view, consciousness chooses/creates meanings. It is a meaning creator. The meaning(s) it creates is/are arbitrary in the sense that a priori meaning is not part of the fundamental constitution of consciousness, while data and change are. One illustration of this is the indelible nature of subjectivity. For example, a piece of information (pattern of data) such as 010101010101 can have no correct, objective meaning. Instead and in various ways, consciousness perceives the experience of meaning into it. Maybe one moment a pattern is perceived as pleasing, the next irritating. In more familiar terms, sunshine on your face is a streaming pattern of data that can be nice one moment and annoying the next. This subjectivity scales all the way up to love, for me the most mysteriously, paradoxically complex and simple pattern there is (or patterning: everything changes, as reality/consciousness is always changing). As conscious beings, we therefore choose love as the vector of becoming with our own free will, not because God/Daddy/Mummy/Whatever tells us it is the meaning of life, or because it just somehow is, always will be and always has been The Right Thing To Do. In other words, it’s not a correct choice, it’s just a choice. We choose it understanding, deeply, why we do so. Choice cannot be forced upon us, by definition.
If we have in our philosophy – as I do – creative consciousness as a fundamental requirement for there to be something rather than nothing at all, that creative consciousness may assign itself, for whatever reason, some preference or set of preferences that we might call a self-selected purpose or Way, i.e., love. But this is not the same as with a designed object like a car or a gun: such objects cannot make choices or experience preferences in the same way that patterns of data have no inherent meaning.
In the more familiar human domain, some cultural set of preferences – e.g., Capitalism – can become sacrosanct when sufficiently successful over time. It is perpetuated and propagated via various propaganda techniques to society as a raison d’être, but is in fact arbitrary rather than Natural Law / ‘God Given’. It is sold as Natural Law, because when society is composed of a large number of people, its cohesion over time requires very complex systems of self-governance and/or imposed governance that take a long time and huge investment in blood and tears to develop. For ‘reasons of national security’, these defining, core systems must therefore be beyond question. A successful set of preferences (a.k.a The System) is thus the core generator of a society’s wealth because it is the very way its people are able to agree on what wealth is in the first place. To change it in its fundament – to bring about radical change – is to risk (apparent) destruction of that wealth, and certainly a period of profound disorientation and suffering. This logic must surely also apply to consciousness itself, and indeed to all systems. Why change a winning game? Never touch a running system!
This is, of course, the logic of conservatism, the sensible urge to protect and nurture accumulated wealth. It doesn’t matter that what is protected is arbitrary/confected in some important way, the conservative impulse is generally sensible.
However, nothing is perfect. Any set of preferences likely includes one or more flawed notions such as perpetual economic growth, or human dominion over nature, or racial purity. If it does, it will eventually have to adapt those flaws or perish. This is neutral evolution as it abuts Natural Law, not some a priori, immutable meaning revealing itself as an absolute good.
Following this logic, we can deduce that free will is a necessary component of the nature of reality and is almost synonymous with consciousness: Free will creates meanings but has no meaning itself. Free will cannot emerge after billions of years of mechanical determinism. Free will is necessarily unpredictable and cannot be pre-planned. Reality is thus fundamentally about unpredictable choices and their unforeseeable consequences as feedback loops that enable consciousness to evolve, via iterative learning through successive sets of preferences over time, rather than devolve, where unchecked devolution would be a decay into the patternless chaos that is the full-entropy or fully dormant state of consciousness/existence. So meaning making selects, via free-will choices and in a survival-oriented way, those sets of preferences that further consciousness’ evolution, a process that makes it richer, wealthier/healthier over time. Evolution cannot be about uncritical obedience or blind loyalty to some absolute good.
What this boils down to is that we are, as conscious beings, co-creators of our future via our choices, inescapably. Not solipsistically, but in terms of our individuated interdependence and moral culpability for our choices and actions. Only we can do the work that is our growing up to finally become capable of making only, or primarily, those choices that tend to promote health/wealth over time. Logically, the more of us actively and knowingly engaged in this, the better for all of us.
I am because we are. The quality of my continuation depends on the quality of our continuation.
It’s like in The Iron Giant. At the end of Ted Hughes’ wonderful story, the Iron Giant must choose whether it becomes a merciless, unthinking weapon or loving superhero. It is not fundamentally one or the other, it is ‘merely’ a patterning of data with a certain set of attributes, as we all are.
Humanity is now face-to-face with an Iron Giant-like decision. An epoch-ending bifurcation point is upon us as a species, one part of which is our political economics. Any new political economics capable of properly addressing steady-state growth while encouraging the healthy maturation or qualitative growth of all its subjects will likely be radically different to today’s capitalist orthodoxy that holds perpetual economic growth and monetary profit as absolute goods. Time will tell whether we evolve into something more nuanced and loving, or devolve into something more dictatorial, fearful, exploitative and controlling than is currently the case. The choice is ours.
As always, our ability to choose how our future unfolds, depends directly on how we mature as individuals, and thus as a species, towards love.