Ah, Jeremy. This is not a trivial question. And most of the non-religious people have converged on the same answer; I liked Bobby Strick’s formulation.
When I was in my 20s, I yearned to cheat death by joining that 0.1%. Hence the whole “get my scientific papers laminated and sent to Svalbard” thing, which I was actually in earnest about.
And you know, it is wonderful to change the world, and it is wonderful to invent something. It is wonderful to have your name outlive you. But it won’t be for that long. Even if we survive as a civilisation another century, which is a big if, who gets to be remembered from 2000 years ago? Not that many. Who from 10000 years ago? Nobody. That’s not just the invention of literacy; that’s the way it goes. All that we are about, all our inventions and innovations and art and science and glory on this earth, all of it will be dust one day, and will be forgotten even before it is dust. At best, your greatest deed buys a century.
So. Ignore that 0.1%. Do not ignore the urge to create, or to change the world, or to make a difference; just don’t think it buys you more than a century. It has meaning, not because of what people will think of it 10 millennia hence: they won’t (even if there are people around by then). It has meaning, because the meaning is with us, right now, with our society, with our fellow humans, with our community of understanding.
Meaning, as any semiotician will tell you, is pointless without someone there to do the interpreting of the meaning. And who’s doing the interpreting? You’re looking at them. You’re it. And your fellow humans are it.
And that goes for the remaining 99.9% as well. The meaning of life? It’s with those who do the interpreting. It’s with us, your fellow humans. Right now. Live now in us. Live now for us. Live now with us. And we’ll do the same with you.
… Wow, Jeremy. Who knew semiotics could be so life-affirming!