What is the meaning of life?
Principia Cybernetica Web

What is the meaning of life?

The meaning of life is to increase fitness

This is the quick answer to this fundamental question. In order to start giving the long answer, we should first examine each of the key terms in this sentence:
a very complex concept which can have many interpretations. In this context we will assume it signifies the "why" (origin - past) or "wherefore" (purpose - future) of life, but in a way our answer also may explain us the "what" (definition - present).
in this context it normally means our present being here on earth, but this may be generalized to include life as a particular type of organization and development characterizing biological organisms, and even more universally as organization and development in general.
intuitively, a system, configuration or "state-of-affairs" is fit if it is likely that that configuration will still be around in the future. The more likely we are to encounter that system, the more fit it is. Though there are many ways to be fit, depending on the exact situation, we may say that fit systems tend to be intrinsically stable, adapted and adapting to their surroundings, capable of further growth and development, and/or capable of being (re)produced in great quantities.

Fitness is the most important and tricky term of the answer to define. It can only be defined in terms which are not obvious themselves, and so need further definitions, and so on. One can hope that after a few rounds of definitions, the meaning will become sufficiently intuitive to be satisfactory for most readers. The whole of Principia Cybernetica Web can be viewed as an attempt to provide a sufficiently extensive semantic networks of concepts clarifying concepts (such as "fitness").

this should be obvious enough. The use of the term "increase" implies that the concept to which it is attributed, "fitness", is to some degree quantifiable (see e.g. a definition in terms of transition probabilities). Note, however, that it is everything but obvious how to do this: fitness is difficult to measure, and is relative, depending on situation, environment and moment in time. At the very least, we assume that there exists a partial ordering, i.e. some configurations are more fit than others. A more general form of the answer is "not to decrease fitness": in some circumstances it may be good enough to keep fitness the way it is. Increase of fitness determines a preferred direction of evolution.
We may conclude by paraphrasing the answer in the following way: the purpose of (living) organization is to continuously increase future probabilities of encountering this same type of organization. The argumentation for this can be found in the variation and selection principles of evolution.

"Higher" values

The above definition has been criticized as being overly reductionist, trying to reduce higher, "spiritual" meanings to mere biology. Although the concept of fitness originated in biology, its meaning here is much wider. It can be argued that our higher mental faculties and values are direct extensions of the general concept of fitness.

"Self-actualization", Maslow's term for maximally developing all our potentialities, and thus reaching the highest level of psychological health and awareness, is merely the implementation of fitness increase in the mental domain (see my paper on Maslow). Similarly, it can be argued that happiness is a direct sign that we have managed to improve our fitness. Thus, if people say that the meaning of life is to "learn and develop", "actualize our potentialities", "improve the balance of pleasure and pain", "enjoy ourselves" or "simply be happy", they are expressing a more limited version of the answer above (limited in the sense that it is more difficult to apply to non-human life, and does not take into account other aspects of life).

On the other hand, people who express the belief that the meaning of life is to "love and be loved", or "promote cooperation and togetherness" are expressing the importance of our social needs, which are another component of fitness. Indeed, fitness for individuals requires fitness for the group to which these individuals belong, and this implies cooperation and "love" rather than selfishness and hostility.

Even those people who state that "life has no meaning" do not contradict the present definition. Indeed, if "meaning" is seen in the restricted sense of a fixed, external purpose, then life has no meaning. "Increasing fitness" is not a goal explicitly imposed by some God, but rather the "implicit goal" governing all of evolution. There are an infinite number of ways in which fitness can be increased, so we cannot say that life necessarily has to move to one end state rather than another. Most changes are initially blind. It is just that some directions (those that decrease fitness) are likely to be eliminated sooner or later by selection.

We remain free in choosing which of the directions we will take: goals or values are not imposed on us. The fitness criterion is merely a guideline to help us choose those most likely to prolong and develop life. But the final decision will depend on our our personal circumstances, and therefore requires reflection. In that sense, the present answer also encompasses the answers of those people who state that the meaning of life is "a personal choice", "to be found within oneself", or even "to ask the question 'What is the meaning of life?'".

Other philosophical questions

The above answer provides a foundation for answering other fundamental questions of philosophy, including:
What exists? (ontology)
configurations that have a minimal fitness. Below a certain fitness treshold, phenomena are so variable, or fleeting that they cannot be observed in any objective manner, and have no causal influence on anything else, so we might as well say that they don't exist. Examples are "virtual particles" in quantum field theories.
What is (true) knowledge? (epistemology)
fit models or representations of fit configurations. Phenomena with low fitness are too unstable to allow reliable models (see previous paragraph). Good models should satisfy some additional criteria in order to be fit themselves.
How should we act? (ethics)
by doing things that increase our own long-term fitness, taking into account the fitness of the systems (society, ecosystems) to which we belong. Enhancing long-term fitness is the fundamental good, or basic value of our philosophical system.
For more answers to the "meaning of life", see:

Copyright© 1997 Principia Cybernetica - Referencing this page

F. Heylighen,

Dec 2, 1997 (modified)
Apr 22, 1994 (created)


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