If, by chance, you run into a super intelligent computer, you should ask it the meaning of life. Science fiction writers could not be clearer on this. So, when I tried the Artificial Intelligence (AI) known as ChatGPT,1 my first request for it was to explain the meaning of life.
I watched as the computer spit out one word after another. The anticipation reminded me of that moment before a hand of cards when a dealer is sending cards in your direction. You hope for a winning hand.
This is what the AI came up with:
I was not enlightened by the AI’s perspective on meaning, but we can learn something about our society from it. The response is in line with popular opinions we might find from influencers on social media. Let’s evaluate the AI’s answer line by line.
“The meaning of life is a question… that may never be fully answered”
What a discouraging way to get things started! Not only has everyone from the beginning of time failed to answer this question, but you may never be able to. Perhaps no one will.
These are the kinds of statements that lead people to stop searching. And if there is no hope to understand what makes life worthwhile, how can we be expected to build a meaningful life? Why try? ‘How can I find meaning’ is a question that everyone should experiment with until they find the answer they can live with. We all need to know that we matter.
“There is no ‘right’ answer that applies to everyone”
I want to challenge this statement. There are “wrong” answers that apply to everyone. Becoming a serial killer, for example, is a bad way to build a meaningful life. No exceptions. Also, some answers are more correct than others, meaning they are more likely to leave people feeling like they have meaningful lives.
The key is to find those activities that are most likely to maximize ones’ sense of meaning. Healthy families, for example, are cited as a reliable source of meaning across time and cultures.2 There are other “right” answers that have consistently given people a sense of meaning for thousands of years.
“The meaning of life is to find happiness”
Happiness and meaning are related but not the same. According to some prominent researchers, happiness is mainly about getting what you want while meaning is about doing positive things for others.3 If you spend your life searching for happiness, you may find it but miss out on meaning. So, the statement that meaning comes from happiness is more likely lead someone away from a meaningful life than toward it.
“The meaning of life is to fulfill a certain destiny or purpose”
This is my favorite snippet from the AI’s response, and I still don’t love it. The AI does not say what our destiny might be. It offers no hint as to how we can fulfill our grand purpose. This statement seems to be a vague reference to God and his plan for the universe and each of us. It is more likely to lead the reader to questions than it is to an answer.
“The meaning of life is to simply exist”
This sounds like the famous quote from the philosopher Alan Watts.4 “The meaning of life is just to be alive.” This phrase strikes me as circular, using the word “life” to define itself. The point of life is to live? The purpose of existence is for us to exist?! Perhaps, we are supposed to avoid dying or live life to its fullest, whatever that means. Maybe there’s some profound truth in this, but I am not seeing it.
“The meaning of life is to make the most of the time we have on this earth”
Instead of attempting to answer the question, the AI asserts that the meaning of life is to spend time engaging in meaningful activities. It’s unclear what those activities are or how we are supposed to make the most of them. Some lives or ways of life are apparently better than others, but we cannot tell why from the context.
This may be a reference to the work of Albert Camus, who taught that the meaning of life is whatever distracts us the pointlessness of our existence. Perhaps the AI is recommending that we fill our lives with distractions, which doesn’t strike me as very meaningful.
“The meaning of life is a deeply personal question”
Yes. How to create meaning in life is a deeply personal and important question. We all need to believe that we matter and have something worthwhile to offer.
However, if the purpose of this statement is to suggest that the meaning of life is so deeply personal that only individuals can find it on their own, I disagree. People are most likely to count their lives meaningful if they have strong connections with others. Meaning is socially negotiated more than it is deeply personal.
“Each individual must decide for themselves what it means”
If everyone must choose for themselves what the meaning of life is, the implication is that they can decide that it is whatever they want it to be. If meaning can come from anything and everything, then it is nothing – a lie that we each tell ourselves. It would be more accurate to say that everyone must discover what types of behaviors make life meaningful and which do not.
Final thoughts on the AI’s perspective
For all its sophistication, ChaptGPT’s answer is worse than nothing. The AI seems determined to make readers question whether their lives are meaningful and to make them search for answers where there are none. I put more trust in the wisdom of the ancients on this topic than I do in modern technology. Hopefully, future versions of ChatGPT will get closer to the mark.
If you would like to dig deeper into what exactly makes life worthwhile and why, consider ordering a copy of my new book. It is filled with new theories, meaningful stories, the latest data, and my own personal struggles to find meaning. A Worthwhile Life is scheduled for release on March 14, 2023.