From Which Aspects of Reality Can We Gain Meaning and Purpose?
by Allen Tough, Ph.D., University of Toronto
email tough @ ieti.org
People gain meaning and purpose from various aspects of reality. Several components of daily life, for instance, provide most of us with a significant amount of meaning and purpose. Feeling part of the everlasting flow of human history can also be an important source, perhaps combined with efforts to improve humanity's future prospects. Intelligent life throughout a grand universe is a third source of meaning and purpose that we will explore in this chapter.
Within daily life, relationships provide greater meaning and purpose than any other single aspect, according to a study by Diane Whittaker (1989) that was sparked by Tough's earlier survey and conceptual framework (1986b). Her questionnaire item used this wording: "Your relationships with your family, spouse, romantic partners, children, relatives, and friends. The feelings of love, companionship, and trust in these relationships." Almost 90% of her sample gained a large or very large amount of meaning from relationships.
When asked what provided them with meaning and purpose, several respondents in both the Whittaker and Tough surveys mentioned the challenge and satisfaction of their work, the striving required to reach an important target, the idea of living life fully in the here and now, helping people in various ways, learning and self-betterment, and their search for truth and meaning.
Enjoyable leisure-time activities and vacations also provide meaning for many people. When I asked one person why the universe exists, he thought for a few moments and then replied seriously, "So we can enjoy ourselves and have a good time for 70 years or so."
Religion is a very significant part of daily life for many people. They gain meaning and purpose from their religious or mystical experiences, from their faith and beliefs, from prayer, from religious services and study groups, and from being part of a particular religious group or community.
People also gain meaning and purpose from nature, wilderness, and scenery. They feel connected with the natural world and feel lucky to be living on such a delightful planet. They enjoy and treasure the diversity of plant and animal life. They appreciate mountains, oceans, deserts, the changing sky, and the seasons. They garden, travel, hike, camp, watch birds, feel close to pets, and admire the intricacy and harmony of nature. [While I was discussing these concepts with a class at the University of Alaska Anchorage in July 2000, one student pointed out that some people gain meaning and purpose from the past, perhaps from one's ancestors or family history, perhaps from the history of one's community or culture or nation, or perhaps from the age or achievements of human civilization.]
The Long-Term Flourishing of Human Civilization
Many people gain meaning and purpose from feeling part of the ongoing drama of human history. This unfolding drama sweeps from the distant past through the present and onward to an unknown future. Being alive at a particularly exciting and critical period in human history can enhance the meaning and purpose that we gain from being involved in this great adventure. Additional enhancement can come from the hopes, fears, exhilaration, grief, and anger that we experience as we contemplate the panorama of potential future realities, ranging from nuclear holocaust to joyful utopia.
Many people yearn to be connected with something greater than self, something that transcends ordinary daily life. The long-term flourishing of human civilization can satisfy this yearning. People can feel a great love for all humanity and experience a deep connectedness. They can care strongly about its long-term future. They can enjoy and treasure and celebrate being a part of humanity and its never-ending historical/future flow.
A person's images of various potential futures may influence the amount of meaning and purpose gained from humanity's long-term flourishing. If a person is optimistic about the future, or at least believes that a reasonably positive future is possible, he or she is more likely to gain meaning and purpose from the continued flourishing of human civilization than is a person who has only negative images of the future. Some people who foresee a mundane "barely-hold-our-own" future become discouraged whereas others work enthusiastically toward fostering the positive trends or reducing the negative trends. Whether right or wrong, our images of the future are significant and powerful (Bundy, 1976).
Some people gain additional meaning and purpose from their efforts to contribute to the flourishing of human civilization. Not content merely to be swept along as spectators, they actively participate in building a positive future for at least one small portion of humanity. They align themselves with the ideas, movements, causes, and forces that are especially likely to lead to a reasonably positive human future. They oppose destructive, harmful, evil forces. Emphasizing cooperation, harmony, and goodwill, they are considerate of future generations as well as the people they interact with today. They care deeply about the long-term future of their city, nation, and entire civilization. Their caring and commitment provide them with a heroic and challenging mission of extraordinary significance. It far transcends their daily lives and prevents them from being bogged down in petty or selfish personal concerns that are rather trivial when viewed within the grand sweep of humanity's history and future. What other challenges today are as important, as exhilarating, and as necessary?
Intelligent Life Throughout a Grand Universe
Our solar system, our galaxy, and the rest of the physical universe is incredibly old and vast. The universe began about 150,000,000 centuries ago and will probably continue evolving even longer than that into the future. Our telescopes can see distant galaxies as they appeared millions of years ago: their light has taken that long to reach us. The number of stars in each galaxy is mind-boggling, as is the number of galaxies in the universe. Then, too, the physical universe contains many amazing phenomena and events, such as supernova explosions, quasars, pulsars, and black holes. Various phenomena are interconnected; from this perspective the universe is characterized by unity and wholeness.
The vastness, age, phenomena, and grandeur of our physical universe inspire deep emotions and meaning in many people. Being alive in such an old and vast cosmos certainly provides a different context for us than would some other arrangements that we can imagine. Would we not feel different about the universe if absolutely nothing existed beyond our planet and sun, for example, or if the universe were destined to end 80 years from now?
In addition, some people experience a deep sense of awe, amazement, wonder, humility, meaning, or purpose when they contemplate the major mysteries of the universe. We simply do not have definitive answers to some of the most significant questions of all. In the creation of this universe, what happened in the very first instant? What conditions, events, intentions, or design preceded that instant? Does some sort of ultimate purpose, cosmic intelligence, teleological pull, or fundamental undiscovered explanation lie behind the existence and evolution of our universe? Do other universes exist? If so, what are they like? How many intelligent species have developed at one time or another in our universe? What is the ultimate destination of the physical universe, human life, and all other life? What is the meaning or point of it all?
Viewed from the time perspective of 15,000,000,000 years, the universe has clearly been evolving. Presumably it will continue to do so for many billions of years. Individuals, species, civilizations, and particular stars may fade and disappear, but the physical universe, the laws of nature, and the evolution of intelligent life throughout the universe will continue for an unimaginable length of time. The continuing unfolding of life and the physical universe provides significant meaning for some people. Indeed, the evolution of life and civilizations toward higher and higher forms may provide ultimate meaning and purpose in the universe.
As some people reflect on what is known about the universe, particularly about life on earth, they are struck by the significant and pervasive tendency or "drive" for life to begin in all sorts of places and then to survive, develop, flourish, and spread. This evolutionary flow or drive toward widespread flourishing life can be seen in the diversity of plant and animal life on our planet, in the emergence of intelligence and consciousness in humans, and in the development of various cultures and civilizations on earth.
As we saw in the previous chapter, human civilization is part of a universe-wide struggle for life to begin, develop, and flourish. Highly advanced species and civilizations probably exist in our galaxy and many other parts of the universe. Developed thousands of years beyond our level, such civilizations may feature comprehensive knowledge and wisdom as well as superb technology and deep compassion. This aspect of reality provides meaning for some people. They treasure such a possibility. It enhances their sense of purpose in the whole universe. It provides a special context or perspective. They realize that some form of contact with advanced extraterrestrials may occur within the next 30-100 years. The possibility of such an adventure can be a significant source of meaning and purpose in the universe.
This meaning and purpose is further enhanced by the possibility of a galactic or cosmic project. Now or eventually we may be part of a grand project: the spread of advanced harmonious life throughout the universe. Such life may be characterized by understanding, intelligence, wisdom, compassion, love, joy, knowledge, effectiveness, transcendent experiences, and a high level of awareness and consciousness.
Such a project may already be underway in our galaxy and other galaxies. Indeed, our efforts to develop a more competent, compassionate, cooperative, and enlightened human culture here on earth may well fit into some grand galactic project of which we are unaware. Sometime during the next few centuries we may deliberately join such a project with other advanced civilizations.
The future of our universe is somewhat open rather than completely predetermined. If we let our imagination run free and look far ahead into the very distant future, many possibilities come to mind for grand cosmic projects. Perhaps our efforts will enable the forces toward life and harmony to triumph over deterioration, decay, and entropy. Perhaps the evolutionary and deliberate flow of events will result in a highly positive future for advanced beings throughout the cosmos. Some incredibly advanced beings may evolve into powerful, pervasive, all-knowing, compassionate masters of the universe who will plan and influence the broad directions of life, as imagined by Arthur C. Clarke (1982, chapter 51). Perhaps humanity's ultimate purpose is to be a happy and successful part of the grand cosmic process of evolution.
Reality and Meaning
Even though a person experiences or knows about the existence of certain reality, she or he may gain little meaning and purpose from it. A person may be aware of daily life, potential futures for humanity, the physical universe, or other aspects of reality and yet gain little sense of meaning. The person may feel dispirited or depressed: life feels meaningless. We see, then, that we are looking at a two-step process. First, the person must perceive that certain aspects of reality exist. Second, the person's mind or emotions must somehow create significant meaning from this reality. The reality is "out there" but meaning and purpose are then added by us individually and collectively. With the possible exceptions of God and advanced extraterrestrials, no aspect of reality directly tells us the meaning and purpose of the universe; instead we have to interpret or create the meaning ourselves.
It is also possible for people to gain a great deal of meaning from their belief in some reality that does not actually exist. Our meaning is gained from our beliefs about reality, not necessarily from an accurate perception of reality itself.
A particular aspect of reality from which some people gain significant meaning can create just the opposite sense?a sense of reduced meaning or total meaninglessness?for others. Hepburn (1982) has discussed this sort of reaction to the vastness and age of the universe. The same phenomenon could occur as people contemplate highly advanced civilizations flourishing throughout our galaxy; human life might, to some people, feel diminished and less meaningful within this perspective.
The universe simply exists as it is. We do not know why it exists nor even whether there is a reason for its existence, although each of us can wish that the universe would provide more meaning, a different meaning, or a clearer meaning.
On the one hand, for good mental health, it may be best simply to accept the reality that does exist and the meanings that we already gain, instead of wishing for something more. There is no point wishing for meanings and authoritative answers that do not in fact exist.
On the other hand, we may be quite correct in our wishing. Perhaps some sort of "why" or other meaning, some ultimately superb destination, or some guiding intelligence is built into the grand scheme of things but overlooked by most of us. We may be wishing for something that really is there but not yet discovered or noticed.
In any case, plenty of meaning is already available to us from various aspects of daily life, from playing a part in the flourishing of human civilization, and from the likelihood of intelligent life spreading throughout our grand universe.
Copyright © 1991 by Allen Tough. All rights reserved.
This is a slightly revised version of chapter 8 from the book Crucial Questions About the Future by Allen Tough. A list of references begins on page 125 of that book.
In the U.S.A., the book was published in 1991 by University Press of America (Lanham, Maryland); phone 1-800-462-6420 to order a copy (or order from your usual source for books). In other countries, the United Kingdom version of the book (published in 1995 by Adamantine Press Limited) can be ordered from Central Books, 99 Wallis Rd, London E9 5LN; telephone 181 986 4854 or fax 181 533 5821, or order from your usual source for books.
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Galaxy painting courtesy of Jon Lomberg
This page last updated 29 June 2007
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