The meaning of life – according to Yuval Noah Harari (and me)

I’ve just finished reading “21 Lessons For The 21st Century” by the Israeli writer Yuval Noah Harari. The penultimate chapter – by far the longest – addresses perhaps the most important of existential questions: what is the meaning of life?

First, he addresses a popular story told for thousands of years which explains that “we are all part of an eternal cycle that encompasses and connects all beings”. He mentions two examples of this circle of life story: the Hindu epic the Bhagavad-Gita and the Disney epic “The Lion King”.

Next he looks at religions and ideologies that believe in “a linear cosmic drama which has a definite beginning, a not-too-long middle and a once-and-for-all ending”. Such religions include Christianity, Islam and Judaism and such ideologies include nationalism and communism. Harari rejects all such deterministic stories as lacking in evidence and failing to explain the world as we find it.

So he turns to other views on the meaning of life. There is the ‘leave something behind’ approach, the ‘something’ ideally being a soul or one’s personal essence. Again there is a paucity of supporting evidence. Another version of this story is leaving ‘something tangible’, either cultural (such as a poem or a book) or biological (such as children and grandchildren). Of course, many people do not achieve this, so can this really be the meaning of life?

He goes on to consider briefly other ideas such as providing kindness or finding romance. But he regards all such ideas too limited to represent genuine meaning. Indeed he concludes: “Any story is wrong, simply for being a story. The universe just does not work like a story”.

So Harari comes to the view that: “The meaning of life isn’t a ready-made product. There is no divine script and nothing outside me can give meaning to my life.” He is very attracted to Buddhism and explains that “According to the Buddha … life has no meaning and people don’t need to create any meaning”. He argues that “The big question facing humans isn’t ‘what is the meaning of life’ but rather ‘how do we get out of suffering?'”

And how do we do that? He is passionate about Vipassana meditation which involves observation of the present moment with concentration on breath and sensations throughout the body. So keen is he on such introspection that he meditates for two hours each day and each year takes a meditation retreat of a month or two.

So where do I stand on all this? I am sceptical of all metaphysical concepts and all deterministic philosophies. I choose to concentrate not on a release from suffering but on the acquisition of joy. Like Harari, I believe that life has no intrinsic meaning, but I do not accept that we don’t need to create a meaning and I find the notion of excessive meditation something of a retreat from reality.

In the absence of any intrinsic meaning of life, I believe that we can and should create our own meaning and live consistently by that vision. I choose to give my life meaning through creativity (constantly discovering, learning and sharing) and community (giving to family, friends and the global society).



XHTML: You can use these tags: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <s> <strike> <strong>