What is a meaningful life?

David: What kind of things do you find meaningful?

PA: The growth of understanding. I think understanding is an entertainment for getting through life, because it enriches the living experience. Maybe I’m speaking just as an academic now.

David: Well, no, but your house has books in it, but it also has art.

PA: Yes.

David: You collect art and you go on holiday and you learn about Impressionists.

PA: Well, it’s enrichment, isn’t it? And I think we’re given these few decades between one form of dust and another form of dust. And I think it’s such a privilege to be interdust – interdust, not into dust! – that we should make full use of it. And so one is turned on by the joy of understanding, and I, as a scientist, I put that right at the heart of being alive.

David: Some people say ‘Science is always saying that everything is meaningless and that life is meaningless.’ And they balk at this and say that life has to have a meaning.

PA: Life is not meaningless, ultimately, because we are contributing to civilisation and all the joys, and maybe the pains, that that brings.

Ard: So David doesn’t believe in God, but he wants to find purpose in the physical universe.

PA: Purpose is…

David: What is meaning?

PA: Meaning is, I think, deeper enjoyment when you are alive. There’s no point in worrying about what enjoyment you’ll get when you’re dead. There’s no point in worrying about, you know, what enjoyment you missed before you were born.

David: Fair enough.

PA: So what you’re really doing is looking for the joys in these few decades that each of us has of being alive.
David: I’m trying to get something else, I suppose.

PA: And that joy is not just… By joy, I don’t mean selfish joy. I mean there is joy that comes from contribution to other people’s joy.

David: Right. But I suppose it’s… When Boltzmann and Zermelo come along with heat death, with entropy, it’s all ultimately… all the great works of art and all the joys and all the poetry and all the science and all our understanding will eventually end in a big, universe-sized cold soup. And the reaction was, ‘It makes everything meaningless. It’s all ultimately futile and has zero meaning.’

Do you subscribe to that? That ultimately you should look at the universe and say, ‘Look, it’s a meaningless accident, and therefore everything that happens in it is a meaningless accident.’

PA: That would be such a barren view.

David: Yes. But sometimes one gets the feeling that that’s what’s being pushed by some people in science.

PA: Well, if I were a cosmic being and stood back and looked at the lifespan of this universe over a span of a trillion years, I would see it as a mere flea on the cosmic entity. In which case, we’d be totally meaningless. But we’re not that sort of being, and I think that we see life on the scale of millennia, if we think big enough. We can see joy and delight and all those things that contribute to the pleasure of being alive. So grasp the moment. Carpe diem. The diem might be a trillion years, but it’s still there to be grasped.