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Can Life Have Meaning in a Random Universe?

Our sense of purpose is not dependent on the universe having a purpose.

Allexxandar | Dreamstime
Source: Allexxandar | Dreamstime

Science tells us that life is an accidental by-product in a random universe. Despite many people’s wishful attempts to draw different conclusions from science, make no mistake: Science is unequivocal that both the universe and life lack inherent purpose. Many have difficulty accepting this, both because they cannot conceive how our complex world could arise spontaneously and unguided, and, perhaps especially, because the scientific worldview seems nihilistic to them. A purposeless universe implies a godless universe. Can there be purpose and meaning without God?

People assume that our human sense of purpose is dependent on the universe having a purpose, and without such purpose they assume that life has no meaning. This is a wholly unsubstantiated assumption. Our purposeless universe has become infused with local pockets of purpose, and this has happened through entirely natural, spontaneous processes. Purpose emerged in the universe with life itself. Purpose and meaning (and morality too) can be entirely explained as natural phenomena, emergent from a random, material universe.

We are hardwired to be purpose-driven.

All living creatures are purposeful. Simple creatures are goal-directed in rudimentary and non-conscious ways. Highly evolved creatures like us are purpose driven in complex, elaborate, conscious ways. The fact that all this evolved out of the very same basic life-instinct for gene replication does not detract from our motivation in the slightest. We have evolved to be exceedingly adept at being purpose-driven and meaning-making. Our ability to do so is in no way dependent on the universe having inherent purpose.

There are very many sources of life satisfaction and meaning commonly cited by people, whether they are religious or secular, including but not limited to: family, relationships, love, friendships, community, work, career, feelings of accomplishment, creativity, mastery of skills, overcoming problems or personal deficits, recovery from previous failure, fortitude in the face of adversity, personal growth, learning, insight, curiosity, discovery, adventure, dedication to others, service, and all manner of contributions to society (whether on a modest or grand scale). There is endless richness to human experience and motivation.

On the other hand, many conditions can lead people to lose or lack purpose or meaning and to become unmotivated, depressed, or even suicidal. Many specific psychiatric or brain disorders cause loss of the "appetite for life"—loss of interest and pleasure, apathy, and deficits in goal-directedness. Psychological and social factors can do this too, triggering depression due to feeling devalued or rejected by others.

It’s important to appreciate as well that disappointment, regret, and feelings of failure are inevitable aspects of the human experience. Feelings of failure can increase our empathy toward other fallible human beings. We’ve all been there at some point.

In my clinical experience as a psychiatrist, an existential crisis resulting from the realization that the universe has no inherent purpose is seldom the underlying cause of depression or suicidality. In fact, people are often mistaken in their attributions for why they are depressed and suicidal, as evidenced among other things by the frequent "evaporation" of existential crises on antidepressant treatment.

Depression does not discriminate between religious/spiritual people, who believe in a purposeful universe, and atheists, who do not. Indeed, belief in a purposeful universe can be very hard on believers when they suffer cruel adversity as they may feel a profound and shattering sense of cosmic injustice and abandonment by God.

Life may be ‘absurd,’ but it is far from worthless.

Some ask: What is the point of trying to accomplish anything if there is no larger purpose to the universe? What’s the point if we simply cease to exist after we die? The existentialist philosopher Albert Camus wrote, “There is but one truly serious philosophical problem, and that is suicide. Judging whether life is or is not worth living amounts to answering the fundamental question of philosophy.” Despite what he called the “absurdity” of life, Camus rejected suicide as a philosophical or personal conclusion to this problem. He argued that we must accept the contradiction between the desire for human reason and the unreasonable world. We must accept and even embrace the sense of absurdity, without false hope. However, we should not passively accept the absurd with resignation, and we should never fully accept it; it requires constant confrontation, revolt, and engagement. In his personal life, Camus regarded life as valuable and worth defending; commitment was important to him. He was part of the French Resistance against the Nazis. He regarded life as absurd but certainly not hopeless.

Most atheists feel far more positively about life than Camus did—indeed, people who have embraced science, not only as a profession but also as a worldview, tend to be among the most inspired and purpose-driven members of society. But some people are more melancholic due to temperament or circumstance, which may well have been the case with Camus. Nevertheless, Camus’s call to arms is resolute: full engagement in life’s struggles.

Because what we do matters to others

Even among those with the gloomiest or most uninspired outlook on life, any otherwise mentally healthy person possessing moderate empathy and humanity and a little ability to transcend egotism can be moved to care enough to do something, anything, to mitigate suffering and increase happiness in other people. The suffering and happiness of other people is as real as our own and will continue long after we die. We might doubt whether our own existence matters. But others will continue to exist, and others after them. We all have the opportunity to affect others while we are alive, and how we do so will continue to matter to those others long after we are gone. As many people have discovered, when you live your life with commitment to others, a lot of really good things happen to you. Your own life becomes much more satisfying, enriched, and meaningful. There are few ways to feel that your own life matters more than being committed to other people. And people will generally reciprocate your caring and devotion.

Collective goals

At a societal level, there is much we need to do to improve the ways we live together and get along with each other. We have come a long way already. Modern secular democratic societies, for all their remaining problems, are on the whole flourishing far more than human societies did at any time in history. But we still have big challenges ahead of us. One of the foremost of these is stewardship of the environment. As the most evolved species on this planet, we have the ability and responsibility to protect the biosphere from our excesses. No heavenly father will save us, but we are god-like in our powers to the non-human life forms on this planet. Sentient creatures experience suffering and pleasure, and non-sentient organisms are essential for the survival and flourishing of sentient beings. They should all matter to us.

All we have is each other, huddled together on this lifeboat of a little planet in this vast, indifferent universe.

Far from being nihilistic, the fully naturalist worldview of secular humanism empowers us and liberates us from our irrational fears. With its emphasis on humans having to rely on ourselves and each other, it motivates us to live with a sense of interdependent humanistic purpose. The secular humanist worldview reminds us that while the universe doesn’t care, people do.


Parts of this article are taken from: Ralph Lewis, Finding Purpose in a Godless World: Why We Care Even If The Universe Doesn’t (Amherst, NY: Prometheus Books, 2018)

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