The Meaninglessness (???) Of Existence

Although I cannot say how large it is, a substantial portion of the population subscribes to the belief that life is essentially meaningless. Before I proceed, let me substantiate that statement by pointing to the following:

The list goes on and on.

The "Singularity" Crowd

I believe part of this phenomenon relates to the fact that the development of artificial intelligence has become such a hotbed of technological research and development. If, after all, we can create a life out of spare parts and circuitry, how much meaning could we possibly derive from being a pile of warm and moist, electrified flesh?

The way we conceive of AI has completely infected our view of what consciousness actually is. Consider, for example, this other question on Quora: Can problem-solving abilities exist without consciousness? A great many of the answers to this question involve the existence and use of advanced computation. It doesn't seem to occur to many of the respondents that computers are only capable of solving problems after human beings have clearly expressed to the computer what the problem is, exactly, and how the computer shall reach its solution. In other words, human beings solve these problems, but to save themselves a lot of time and effort, we leverage computers' comparative advantage in calculation and discrete mathematics to arrive at these solutions in a more timely manner.

A simpler example: I can ask my computer to make a useful prediction about the state of my finances six months from now, but until I specify the model by which my computer will answer that question, I might as well be asking it out on a date.

The meaning behind the answers generated by my computer - and yours, and everyone's - originates with me.

Thus, the philosophers and techno-geeks ask the big question: Will we one day invent a computer capable of originating its own problem, designing the methodology for its own solution, answering its own question, and then generating a new array of life-choices based on this newly acquired knowledge?

But the answer is, "No, not really." The reason the answer is no is that human beings would first have to specify the means by which the computer will originate problems, the means by which the computer can design a methodology, the means of implementing that methodology, the means of interpreting the results, the means of storing the newly acquired knowledge, and the means of specifying new choices and problems.

We're no longer in an efficient scenario. I can specify new problems faster than I can develop a robot to specify new problems for me. And of what benefit would such a robot be?

The Nihilist Crowd

Some people want to draw the wrong conclusion from this. Rather than acknowledging that all meaning originates from the human brain, they remark that the human brain possesses no more meaning than what could (theoretically) be programmed into a computer. Their conclusion: meaning, and indeed consciousness itself, is nothing more than a neurological illusion that has evolved because it is ultimately better for species survival. Our brains trick us into believing that life has meaning and that we are interacting with that life, simply because this produces the evolutionarily positive outcome of childbirth and child-rearing.

To spot the error here, we unfortunately have to get a little pedantic about "meaning." 

Suppose I found that "the meaning of life" was to love and be loved by others. Suppose I was able to prove this somehow, and that all philosophers, logicians, and scientists we able to validate this with a priori logical proofs and physical scientific evidence. Suppose no reasonable person could dispute this. Let's call this Scenario A.

Now, suppose an alternate universe in which I found that "the meaning of life" was nothing more than my neurons cooking up a totally phony, but highly realistic, illusion that merely lead me to believe that the "the meaning of life" was to love and be loved by others. Suppose in this world it were somehow proven conclusively and indisputably that there was no real "meaning of life," but that our brains evolved such that we thought that such meaning existed. Let's call this Scenario B.

Okay, back to the real world, now, where we suspect that either Scenario A is true (or something quite like it), or Scenario B is true. Living as we do in this third world, the question I would like to pose to you today is this: In terms of your life and the practical issues you face on an ongoin basis, what is the difference between Scenario A and Scenario B? 

It's an epistemological question. Assuming one of the two scenarios is true, how will you be able to determine which one is the case?

The simple answer is, you cannot. There simply is no quantitative or qualitative difference between a world in which love is the meaning of life, and a world in which there is no meaning, but your brain is programmed to believe otherwise. At the end of the day, it's a non-issue. Either I love my wife, or I only think I love my wife, but in either scenario, my thoughts, beliefs, actions, and life outcomes are exactly the same. 

Thus, Occam's Razor would suggest that Scenario A is the more reasonable explanation. Nihilism - along with every other claim that life or its fundamental attributes are nothing more than an imperceptible illusion - is a violation of basic human rationality.


I could be wrong about all this, of course, but here's the interesting thing about that: It doesn't matter whether I am wrong, because no one will ever be able to perceive a different set of conditions or experience a different set of outcomes based on the "knowledge" that I am wrong.

In other words, you can live a life in which everything is real, or you can live a life in which you merely think that everything is real, but no matter which way you go, your life unfolds in exactly the same way

Life, therefore, has de facto meaning.