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Moving Towards Complexity: The Meaning of Life

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Last night at the bar, I found myself in a conversation about the meaning of life. I had just met the guy, who worked in tech, and he shared how he used to think the meaning of life was to reproduce – until he spoke with a gay person who wasn’t interested in that. Now, he believes the meaning of life is “conversations”. Although I appreciated his openness to change, I found the final conclusion trite. Is the meaning of life really just about reproducing, or about people connecting and relating with each other verbally? Doesn’t feel true to me.

Time to revisit my own evolving definition of the meaning of life.

My seminal experience on the subject was reading Frankl’s Man’s Search for Meaning as a nineteen-year-old. His reflections on his time in concentration camps were incredibly powerful, and one passage left a lasting impression on me:

Success, like happiness, cannot be pursued; it must ensue, and it only does so as the unintended side effect of one’s personal dedication to a cause greater than oneself or as the by-product of one’s surrender to a person other than oneself.

– Victor Frankl

This was a great starting point. In short, Frankl is saying we find meaning through dedicating ourselves to another person or cause. Finding this ability to dedicate oneself can supersede any individual life circumstances, even being a prisoner in a concentration camp. In Frankl’s words, 

“Those who have a ‘why’ to live, can bear with almost any ‘how’.”

– Victor Frankl

This all resonated with me because, like any good philosophical theory, it felt intuitively true. It is inherently rewarding to impact something outside yourself, and relationships + causes feel highly meaningful.

But it also felt insufficient in its lack of direction. I’m happy to dedicate myself to a person or cause, but how do I decide on the right people or causes? 

There was no unifying theory. It also feels true to me that someone who dedicates themselves to a brutal cause (like Nazism) or a toxic partner is not leading a meaningful life. Frankl actually makes a point of not addressing this, instead claiming that this must be decided individually. This quote from him sums up, in my opinion, where his philosophy falls short:

“Ultimately, man should not ask what the meaning of his life is, but rather must recognize that it is he which is asked. In a word, each man is questioned by life; and he can only answer to life by answering for his own life; to life he can only respond by being responsible.” 

– Victor Frankl

Word soup. What am I supposed to do with that?

For years, I didn’t have a good answer. But now one has emerged. 

In the book Shantaram, there is an exchange on the nature of the universe between the protagonist and a famous philosopher, Khader. He introduced the idea that the universe has a tendency towards complexity. In his words (abridged because Khader is pretty verbose):

The universe began with the Big Bang, although there was no explosion. In the first moments after that great expansion, the universe was like a rich soup made out of simple bits of things. Those bits were so simple that they were not even atoms yet. 

As the universe expanded and cooled down, these very tiny bits of things came together to make particles. Then the particles came together to make the first of the atoms. Then the atoms came together to make molecules. Then the molecules came together to make the first of the stars. Those first stars went through their cycles, and exploded in a shower of new atoms. The new atoms came together to make more stars and planets. All the stuff we are made of came from those dying stars. We are made out of stars, you and I.

The universe has a nature, and its nature is to combine, to build, and to become more complex. 

– Khader Khan, Shantaram. The full exchange, which is excellent, can be found here.

Over time, the universe has been moving towards complexity. This holds true in the history of the earth, as well: we’ve moved from a barren, amoebic planet to one with incredibly complex physical and social dynamics. 

Science backs this up in a really interesting way. 

The second law of thermodynamics, established in 1865, is that “the entropy of the universe tends to a maximum.” In other words, particles, if no action is applied to them, have shown to lean towards resting state that is chaotic and disorderly.

Atom’s tendency to entropy (chaos)

But is chaos the same as complexity? New research has shown on an atomic level, it is. 

Studies have shown that particles in a state of entropy eventually form highly complex, unmistakable patterns. So the universe truly does tend to complexity, and that complexity is beautiful. 

One example of this is the recently discovered “quasicrystal” (left), which like regular crystals, forms distinct patterns on an atomic level. Unlike regular crystals, it is subject to entropy and can form an unlimited number of patterns. This is relevant because the atoms are moving apparently at random, but the final result is something entirely orderly.

If it’s true at the particle level, why wouldn’t it be true on a human level?

Khader argues that our purpose is to contribute to the universe’s motion towards complexity, possibly even an “Ultimate Complexity”, like a universal version of the particle pattern above. 

For humans, complexity can manifest itself in many ways, most of which are intuitively good: deep relationships, communities, technology, art, and even new humans. 

Anything we do that contributes to that complexity, such as forming a deep connection with someone, is meaningful. Anything we do that reverses it (such as killing someone), is wrong. This was pretty compelling to me. 

When I shared this to the tech guy at the bar, he liked it, but had a rebuttal: who says it’s always better when things are complex? 

Especially in the modern age, don’t most people want things to be simpler? Much of what he did as a designer, for example, was reducing complexity in interfaces, and he (rightfully) considered that meaningful.

But I think this argument misunderstands ‘complexity’ and our purpose in it. When we say we want things “simple”, we really want things that are not technically complicated, but still deep and complex. The “simple pleasures” of enjoying someones’ company or a cup of coffee are really only meaningful when they’re rooted in a deep, complex appreciation for that person or coffee. 

Herman Miller chair: another example of design simplifying complex systems

Similarly, good design only simplifies when it takes something complex and makes it easier to interact with (think: one button on an iPhone). By making it more user-friendly, the designer is actually distributing the underlying complexity of the product further into the world. Teaching is also analogous: it’s the job of a teacher to distil complex concepts into simple frameworks for their students to understand, which effectively distributes the concepts’ complexity into the world. 

Simplicity is only meaningful when it allows us to connect to something complex.

So, what’s the meaning of life?

As I see it, the meaning of life is to dedicate oneself deeply to people and causes that help move the universe towards complexity.

I like this definition because it is intuitive, moral, aligned with the science of the universe, and provides real direction while still being deeply personal. It also allows for the possibility of spiritual forces and a connection something greater (Ultimate Complexity).

So in the end, I do think Frankl was right: “each man is questioned by life“. This expanded definition provides a better framework for finding my answers.

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