1. The Meaning of “Meaning”
One part of the field of life's meaning consists of the systematic attempt to clarify what people mean when they ask in virtue of what life has meaning. This section addresses different accounts of the sense of talk of “life's meaning” (and of “significance,” “importance,” and other synonyms). A large majority of those writing on life's meaning deem talk of it centrally to indicate a positive final value that an individual's life can exhibit. That is, comparatively few believe either that a meaningful life is a merely neutral quality, or that what is of key interest is the meaning of the human species or universe as a whole (for discussions focused on the latter, see Edwards 1972; Munitz 1986; Seachris 2009). Most in the field have ultimately wanted to know whether and how the existence of one of us over time has meaning, a certain property that is desirable for its own sake.
Beyond drawing the distinction between the life of an individual and that of a whole, there has been very little discussion of life as the logical bearer of meaning. For instance, is the individual's life best understood biologically, qua human being, or instead as the existence of a person that may or may not be human (Flanagan 1996)? And if an individual is loved from afar, can it logically affect the meaningfulness of her “life” (Brogaard and Smith 2005, 449)?
Returning to topics on which there is consensus, most writing on meaning believe that it comes in degrees such that some periods of life are more meaningful than others and that some lives as a whole are more meaningful than others (perhaps contra Britton 1969, 192). Note that one can coherently hold the view that some people's lives are less meaningful than others, or even meaningless, and still maintain that people have an equal moral status. Consider a consequentialist view according to which each individual counts for one in virtue of having a capacity for a meaningful life (cf. Railton 1984), or a Kantian view that says that people have an intrinsic worth in virtue of their capacity for autonomous choices, where meaning is a function of the exercise of this capacity (Nozick 1974, ch. 3). On both views, morality could counsel an agent to help people with relatively meaningless lives, at least if the condition is not of their choosing.
Another uncontroversial element of the sense of “meaningfulness” is that it connotes a good that is conceptually distinct from happiness or rightness (something emphasized in Wolf 2010). First, to ask whether someone's life is meaningful is not one and the same as asking whether her life is happy or pleasant. A life in an experience or virtual reality machine could conceivably be happy but very few take it to be a prima facie candidate for meaningfulness (Nozick 1974: 42–45). Indeed, many would say that talk of “meaning” by definition excludes the possibility of it coming from time spent in an experience machine (although there have been a small handful who disagree and contend that a meaningful life just is a pleasant life. Goetz 2012, in particular, bites many bullets.) Furthermore, one's life logically could become meaningful precisely by sacrificing one's happiness, e.g., by helping others at the expense of one's self-interest.
Second, asking whether a person's existence is significant is not identical to considering whether she has been morally upright; there seem to be ways to enhance meaning that have nothing to do with morality, at least impartially conceived, for instance, making a scientific discovery.
Of course, one might argue that a life would be meaningless if (or even because) it were unhappy or immoral, particularly given Aristotelian conceptions of these disvalues. However, that is to posit a synthetic, substantive relationship between the concepts, and is far from indicating that speaking of “meaning in life” is analytically a matter of connoting ideas regarding happiness or rightness, which is what I am denying here. My point is that the question of what makes a life meaningful is conceptually distinct from the question of what makes a life happy or moral, even if it turns out that the best answer to the question of meaning appeals to an answer to one of these other evaluative questions.
If talk about meaning in life is not by definition talk about happiness or rightness, then what is it about? There is as yet no consensus in the field. One answer is that a meaningful life is one that by definition has achieved choice-worthy purposes (Nielsen 1964) or involves satisfaction upon having done so (Hepburn 1965; Wohlgennant 1981). However, for such an analysis to clearly demarcate meaningfulness from happiness, it would be useful to modify it to indicate which purposes are germane to the former. On this score, some suggest that conceptual candidates for grounding meaning are purposes that not only have a positive value, but also render a life coherent (Markus 2003), make it intelligible (Thomson 2003, 8–13), or transcend animal nature (Levy 2005).
Now, it might be that a focus on any kind of purpose is too narrow for ruling out the logical possibility that meaning could inhere in certain actions, experiences, states, or relationships that have not been adopted as ends and willed and that perhaps even could not be, e.g., being an immortal offshoot of an unconscious, spiritual force that grounds the physical universe, as in Hinduism. In addition, the above purpose-based analyses exclude as not being about life's meaning some of the most widely read texts that purport to be about it, namely, Jean-Paul Sartre's (1948) existentialist account of meaning being constituted by whatever one chooses, and Richard Taylor's (1970, ch. 18) discussion of Sisyphus being able to acquire meaning in his life merely by having his strongest desires satisfied. These are prima facie accounts of meaning in life, but do not essentially involve the attainment of purposes that foster coherence, intelligibility or transcendence.
The latter problem also faces the alternative suggestion that talk of “life's meaning” is not necessarily about purposes, but is rather just a matter of referring to goods that are qualitatively superior, worthy of love and devotion, and appropriately awed (Taylor 1989, ch. 1). It is implausible to think that these criteria are satisfied by subjectivist appeals to whatever choices one ends up making or to whichever desires happen to be strongest for a given person.
Although relatively few have addressed the question of whether there exists a single, primary sense of “life's meaning,” the inability to find one so far might suggest that none exists. In that case, it could be that the field is united in virtue of addressing certain overlapping but not equivalent ideas that have family resemblances (Metz 2013, ch. 2). Perhaps when we speak of “meaning in life,” we have in mind one or more of these related ideas: certain conditions that are worthy of great pride or admiration, values that warrant devotion and love, qualities that make a life intelligible, or ends apart from base pleasure that are particularly choice-worthy. Another possibility is that talk of “meaning in life” fails to exhibit even this degree of unity, and is instead a grab-bag of heterogenous ideas (Mawson 2010; Oakley 2010).
As the field reflects more on the sense of “life's meaning,” it should not only try to ascertain in what respect it admits of unity, but also try to differentiate the concept of life's meaning from other, closely related ideas. For instance, the concept of a worthwhile life is probably not identical to that of a meaningful one (Baier 1997, ch. 5; Metz 2012). For instance, one would not be conceptually confused to claim that a meaningless life full of animal pleasures would be worth living. Furthermore, it seems that talk of a “meaningless life” does not simply connote the concept of an absurd (Nagel 1970; Feinberg 1980), unreasonable (Baier 1997, ch. 5), futile (Trisel 2002), or wasted (Kamm 2003, 210–14) life.
Fortunately the field does not need an extremely precise analysis of the concept of life's meaning (or definition of the phrase “life's meaning”) in order to make progress on the substantive question of what life's meaning is. Knowing that meaningfulness analytically concerns a variable and gradient final good in a person's life that is conceptually distinct from happiness, rightness, and worthwhileness provides a certain amount of common ground. The rest of this discussion addresses attempts to theoretically capture the nature of this good.
Most English speaking philosophers writing on meaning in life are trying to develop and evaluate theories, i.e., fundamental and general principles that are meant to capture all the particular ways that a life could obtain meaning. These theories are standardly divided on a metaphysical basis, i.e., in terms of which kinds of properties are held to constitute the meaning. Supernaturalist theories are views that meaning in life must be constituted by a certain relationship with a spiritual realm. If God or a soul does not exist, or if they exist but one fails to have the right relationship with them, then supernaturalism—or the Western version of it (on which I focus)—entails that one's life is meaningless. In contrast, naturalist theories are views that meaning can obtain in a world as known solely by science. Here, although meaning could accrue from a divine realm, certain ways of living in a purely physical universe would be sufficient for it. Note that there is logical space for a non-naturalist theory that meaning is a function of abstract properties that are neither spiritual nor physical. However, only scant attention has been paid to this possibility in the Anglo-American literature (Williams 1999; Audi 2005).
Supernaturalist thinkers in the monotheistic tradition are usefully divided into those with God-centered views and soul-centered views. The former take some kind of connection with God (understood to be a spiritual person who is all-knowing, all-good, and all-powerful and who is the ground of the physical universe) to constitute meaning in life, even if one lacks a soul (construed as an immortal, spiritual substance). The latter deem having a soul and putting it into a certain state to be what makes life meaningful, even if God does not exist. Of course, many supernaturalists believe that certain relationships with God and a soul are jointly necessary and sufficient for a significant existence. However, the simpler view is common, and often arguments proffered for the more complex view fail to support it any more than the simpler view.
2.1 God-centered Views
The most widely held and influential God-based account of meaning in life is that one's existence is more significant, the better one fulfills a purpose God has assigned. The familiar idea is that God has a plan for the universe and that one's life is meaningful to the degree that one helps God realize this plan, perhaps in the particular way God wants one to do so (Affolter 2007). Fulfilling God's purpose by choice is the sole source of meaning, with the existence of an afterlife not necessary for it (Brown 1971; Levine 1987; Cottingham 2003). If a person failed to do what God intends him to do with his life, then, on the current view, his life would be meaningless.
What I call “purpose theorists” differ over what it is about God's purpose that makes it uniquely able to confer meaning on human lives. Some argue that God's purpose could be the sole source of invariant moral rules, where a lack of such would render our lives nonsensical (Craig 1994; Cottingham 2003). However, Euthyphro problems arguably plague this rationale; God's purpose for us must be of a particular sort for our lives to obtain meaning by fulfilling it (as is often pointed out, serving as food for intergalactic travelers won't do), which suggests that there is a standard external to God's purpose that determines what the content of God's purpose ought to be (but see Cottingham 2005, ch. 3). In addition, some critics argue that a universally applicable and binding moral code is not necessary for meaning in life, even if the act of helping others is (Ellin 1995, 327).
Other purpose theorists contend that having been created by God for a reason would be the only way that our lives could avoid being contingent (Craig 1994; cf. Haber 1997). But it is unclear whether God's arbitrary will would avoid contingency, or whether his non-arbitrary will would avoid contingency anymore than a deterministic physical world. Furthermore, the literature is still unclear what contingency is and why it is a deep problem. Still other purpose theorists maintain that our lives would have meaning only insofar as they were intentionally fashioned by a creator, thereby obtaining meaning of the sort that an art-object has (Gordon 1983). Here, though, freely choosing to do any particular thing would not be necessary for meaning, and everyone's life would have an equal degree of meaning, which are both counterintuitive implications (see Trisel 2012 for additional criticisms). Are all these objections sound? Is there a promising reason for thinking that fulfilling God's (as opposed to any human's) purpose is what constitutes meaning in life?
Not only does each of these versions of the purpose theory have specific problems, but they all face this shared objection: if God assigned us a purpose, then God would degrade us and thereby undercut the possibility of us obtaining meaning from fulfilling the purpose (Baier 1957, 118–20; Murphy 1982, 14–15; Singer 1996, 29). This objection goes back at least to Jean-Paul Sartre (1948, 45), and there are many replies to it in the literature that have yet to be assessed (e.g., Hepburn 1965, 271–73; Brown 1971, 20–21; Davis 1986, 155–56; Hanfling 1987, 45–46; Moreland 1987, 129; Walker 1989; Jacquette 2001, 20–21).
Robert Nozick presents a God-centered theory that focuses less on God as purposive and more on God as infinite (Nozick 1981, ch. 6, 1989, chs. 15–16; see also Cooper 2005). The basic idea is that for a finite condition to be meaningful, it must obtain its meaning from another condition that has meaning. So, if one's life is meaningful, it might be so in virtue of being married to a person, who is important. And, being finite, the spouse must obtain his or her importance from elsewhere, perhaps from the sort of work he or she does. And this work must obtain its meaning by being related to something else that is meaningful, and so on. A regress on meaningful finite conditions is present, and the suggestion is that the regress can terminate only in something infinite, a being so all-encompassing that it need not (indeed, cannot) go beyond itself to obtain meaning from anything else. And that is God.
The standard objection to this rationale is that a finite condition could be meaningful without obtaining its meaning from another meaningful condition; perhaps it could be meaningful in itself, or obtain its meaning by being related to something beautiful, autonomous or otherwise valuable for its own sake but not meaningful (Thomson 2003, 25–26, 48).
The purpose- and infinity-based rationales are the two most common instances of God-centered theory in the literature, and the naturalist can point out that they arguably face a common problem: a purely physical world seems able to do the job for which God is purportedly necessary. Nature seems able to ground a universal morality and the sort of final value from which meaning might spring. And other God-based views seem to suffer from this same problem. For two examples, some claim that God must exist in order for there to be a just world, where a world in which the bad do well and the good fare poorly would render our lives senseless (Craig 1994; cf. Cottingham 2003, pt. 3), and others maintain that God's remembering all of us with love is alone what would confer significance on our lives (Hartshorne 1984). However, the naturalist will point out that an impersonal, Karmic-like force of nature conceivably could justly distribute penalties and rewards in the way a retributive personal judge would, and that actually living together in loving relationships would seem to confer much more meaning on life than a loving fond remembrance.
A second problem facing all God-based views is the existence of apparent counterexamples. If we think of the stereotypical lives of Albert Einstein, Mother Teresa, and Pablo Picasso, they seem meaningful even if we suppose there is no all-knowing, all-powerful, and all-good spiritual person who is the ground of the physical world. Even religiously inclined philosophers find this hard to deny (Quinn 2000, 58; Audi 2005), though some of them suggest that a supernatural realm is necessary for a “deep” or “ultimate” meaning (Nozick 1981, 618; Craig 1994, 42). What is the difference between a deep meaning and a shallow one? And why think a spiritual realm is necessary for the former?
At this point, the supernaturalist could usefully step back and reflect on what it might be about God that would make Him uniquely able to confer meaning in life, perhaps as follows from the perfect being theological tradition. For God to be solely responsible for any significance in our lives, God must have certain qualities that cannot be found in the natural world, these qualities must be qualitatively superior to any goods possible in a physical universe, and they must be what ground meaning in it. Here, the supernaturalist could argue that meaning depends on the existence of a perfect being, where perfection requires properties such as atemporality, simplicity, and immutability that are possible only in a spiritual realm (Metz 2013, chs. 6–7; cf. Morris 1992; contra Brown 1971 and Hartshorne 1996). Meaning might come from loving a perfect being or orienting one's life toward it in other ways such as imitating it or even fulfilling its purpose, perhaps a purpose tailor-made for each individual (as per Affolter 2007).
Although this might be a promising strategy for a God-centered theory, it faces a serious dilemma. On the one hand, in order for God to be the sole source of meaning, God must be utterly unlike us; for the more God were like us, the more reason there would be to think we could obtain meaning from ourselves, absent God. On the other hand, the more God is utterly unlike us, the less clear it is how we could obtain meaning by relating to Him. How can one love a being that cannot change? How can one imitate such a being? Could an immutable, atemporal, simple being even have purposes? Could it truly be a person? And why think an utterly perfect being is necessary for meaning? Why would not a very good but imperfect being confer some meaning?
2.2 Soul-centered Views
A soul-centered theory is the view that meaning in life comes from relating in a certain way to an immortal, spiritual substance that supervenes on one's body when it is alive and that will forever outlive its death. If one lacks a soul, or if one has a soul but relates to it in the wrong way, then one's life is meaningless. There are two prominent arguments for a soul-based perspective.
The first one is often expressed by laypeople and is suggested by the work of Leo Tolstoy (1884; see also Hanfling 1987, 22–24; Morris 1992, 26; Craig 1994). Tolstoy argues that for life to be meaningful something must be worth doing, that nothing is worth doing if nothing one does will make a permanent difference to the world, and that doing so requires having an immortal, spiritual self. Many of course question whether having an infinite effect is necessary for meaning (e.g., Schmidtz 2001; Audi 2005, 354–55). Others point out that one need not be immortal in order to have an infinite effect (Levine 1987, 462), for God's eternal remembrance of one's mortal existence would be sufficient for that.
The other major rationale for a soul-based theory of life's meaning is that a soul is necessary for perfect justice, which, in turn, is necessary for a meaningful life. Life seems nonsensical when the wicked flourish and the righteous suffer, at least supposing there is no other world in which these injustices will be rectified, whether by God or by Karma. Something like this argument can be found in the Biblical chapter Ecclesiastes, and it continues to be defended (Davis 1987; Craig 1994). However, like the previous rationale, the inferential structure of this one seems weak; even if an afterlife were required for just outcomes, it is not obvious why an eternal afterlife should be thought necessary (Perrett 1986, 220).
Work has been done to try to make the inferences of these two arguments stronger, and the basic strategy has been to appeal to the value of perfection (Metz 2013, ch. 7). Perhaps the Tolstoian reason why one must live forever in order to make the relevant permanent difference is an agent-relative need for one to honor an infinite value, something qualitatively higher than the worth of, say, pleasure. And maybe the reason why immortality is required in order to mete out just deserts is that rewarding the virtuous requires satisfying their highest free and informed desires, one of which would be for eternal flourishing of some kind (Goetz 2012). While far from obviously sound, these arguments at least provide some reason for thinking that immortality is necessary to satisfy the major premise about what is required for meaning.
However, both arguments are still plagued by a problem facing the original versions; even if they show that meaning depends on immortality, they do not yet show that it depends on having a soul. By definition, if one has a soul, then one is immortal, but it is not clearly true that if one is immortal, then one has a soul. Perhaps being able to upload one's consciousness into an infinite succession of different bodies in an everlasting universe would count as an instance of immortality without a soul. Such a possibility would not require an individual to have an immortal spiritual substance (imagine that when in between bodies, the information constitutive of one's consciousness were temporarily stored in a computer). What reason is there to think that one must have a soul in particular for life to be significant?
The most promising reason seems to be one that takes us beyond the simple version of soul-centered theory to the more complex view that both God and a soul constitute meaning. The best justification for thinking that one must have a soul in order for one's life to be significant seems to be that significance comes from uniting with God in a spiritual realm such as Heaven, a view espoused by Thomas Aquinas, Leo Tolstoy (1884), and contemporary religious thinkers (e.g., Craig 1994). Another possibility is that meaning comes from honoring what is divine within oneself, i.e., a soul (Swenson 1949).
As with God-based views, naturalist critics offer counterexamples to the claim that a soul or immortality of any kind is necessary for meaning. Great works, whether they be moral, aesthetic, or intellectual, would seem to confer meaning on one's life regardless of whether one will live forever. Critics maintain that soul-centered theorists are seeking too high a standard for appraising the meaning of people's lives (Baier 1957, 124–29; Baier 1997, chs. 4–5; Trisel 2002; Trisel 2004). Appeals to a soul require perfection, whether it be, as above, a perfect object to honor, a perfectly just reward to enjoy, or a perfect being with which to commune. However, if indeed soul-centered theory ultimately relies on claims about meaning turning on perfection, such a view is attractive at least for being simple, and rival views have yet to specify in a principled and thoroughly defended way where to draw the line at less than perfection (perhaps a start is Metz 2013, ch. 8). What less than ideal amount of value is sufficient for a life to count as meaningful?
Critics of soul-based views maintain not merely that immortality is not necessary for meaning in life, but also that it is sufficient for a meaningless life. One influential argument is that an immortal life, whether spiritual or physical, could not avoid becoming boring, rendering life pointless (Williams 1973; Ellin 1995, 311–12; Belshaw 2005, 82–91; Smuts 2011). The most common reply is that immortality need not get boring (Fischer 1994; Wisnewski 2005; Bortolotti and Nagasawa 2009; Chappell 2009; Quigley and Harris 2009, 75–78). However, it might also be worth questioning whether boredom is truly sufficient for meaninglessness. Suppose, for instance, that one volunteers to be bored so that many others will not be bored; perhaps this would be a meaningful sacrifice to make.
Another argument that being immortal would be sufficient to make our lives insignificant is that persons who cannot die could not exhibit certain virtues (Nussbaum 1989; Kass 2001). For instance, they could not promote justice of any important sort, be benevolent to any significant degree, or exhibit courage of any kind that matters, since life and death issues would not be at stake. Critics reply that even if these virtues would not be possible, there are other virtues that could be. And of course it is not obvious that meaning-conferring justice, benevolence and courage would not be possible if we were immortal, perhaps if we were not always aware that we could not die or if our indestructible souls could still be harmed by virtue of intense pain, frustrated ends, and repetitive lives.
There are other, related arguments maintaining that awareness of immortality would have the effect of removing meaning from life, say, because our lives would lack a sense of preciousness and urgency (Lenman 1995; Kass 2001; James 2009) or because external rather than internal factors would then dictate their course (Wollheim 1984, 266). Note that the target here is belief in an eternal afterlife, and not immortality itself, and so I merely mention these rationales (for additional, revealing criticism, see Bortolotti 2010).
I now address views that even if there is no spiritual realm, meaning in life is possible, at least for many people. Among those who believe that a significant existence can be had in a purely physical world as known by science, there is debate about two things: the extent to which the human mind constitutes meaning and whether there are conditions of meaning that are invariant among human beings.
Subjectivists believe that there are no invariant standards of meaning because meaning is relative to the subject, i.e., depends on an individual's pro-attitudes such as desires, ends, and choices. Roughly, something is meaningful for a person if she believes it to be or seeks it out. Objectivists maintain, in contrast, that there are some invariant standards for meaning because meaning is (at least partly) mind-independent, i.e., is a real property that exists regardless of being the object of anyone's mental states. Here, something is meaningful (to some degree) in virtue of its intrinsic nature, independent of whether it is believed to be meaningful or sought.
There is logical space for an intersubjective theory according to which there are invariant standards of meaning for human beings that are constituted by what they would all agree upon from a certain communal standpoint (Darwall 1983, chs. 11–12). However, this orthogonal approach is not much of a player in the field and so I set it aside in what follows.
According to this view, meaning in life varies from person to person, depending on each one's variable mental states. Common instances are views that one's life is more meaningful, the more one gets what one happens to want strongly, the more one achieves one's highly ranked goals, or the more one does what one believes to be really important (Trisel 2002; Hooker 2008; Alexis 2011). Lately, one influential subjectivist has maintained that the relevant mental state is caring or loving, so that life is meaningful just to the extent that one cares about or loves something (Frankfurt 1982, 2002, 2004).
Subjectivism was dominant for much of the 20th century when pragmatism, positivism, existentialism, noncognitivism, and Humeanism were quite influential (James 1900; Ayer 1947; Sartre 1948; Barnes 1967; Taylor 1970; Hare 1972; Williams 1976; Klemke 1981). However, in the last quarter of the 20th century, “reflective equilibrium” became a widely accepted argumentative procedure, whereby more controversial normative claims are justified by virtue of entailing and explaining less controversial normative claims that do not command universal acceptance. Such a method has been used to defend the existence of objective value, and, as a result, subjectivism about meaning has lost its dominance.
Those who continue to hold subjectivism often are suspicious of attempts to justify beliefs about objective value (e.g., Frankfurt 2002, 250; Trisel 2002, 73, 79, 2004, 378–79). Theorists are primarily moved to accept subjectivism because the alternatives are unpalatable; they are sure that value in general and meaning in particular exists, but do not see how it could be grounded in something independent of the mind, whether it be the natural, the non-natural, or the supernatural. In contrast to these possibilities, it appears straightforward to account for what is meaningful in terms of what people find meaningful or what people want out of life. Wide-ranging meta-ethical debates in epistemology, metaphysics, and the philosophy of language are necessary to address this rationale for subjectivism.
There are two other, more circumscribed arguments for subjectivism. One is that subjectivism is plausible since it is reasonable to think that a meaningful life is an authentic one (Frankfurt 1982). If a person's life is significant insofar as she is true to herself or her deepest nature, then we have some reason to believe that meaning simply is a function of satisfying certain desires held by the individual or realizing certain ends of hers. Another argument is that meaning intuitively comes from losing oneself, i.e., in becoming absorbed in an activity or experience (Frankfurt 1982). Work that concentrates the mind and relationships that are engrossing seem central to meaning and to be so because of the subjective element involved, that is, because of the concentration and engrossment.
However, critics maintain that both of these arguments are vulnerable to a common objection: they neglect the role of objective value both in realizing oneself and in losing oneself (Taylor 1992, esp. ch. 4). One is not really being true to oneself if one intentionally harms others (Dahl 1987, 12), successfully maintains 3,732 hairs on one's head (Taylor 1992, 36), or, well, eats one's own excrement (Wielenberg 2005, 22), and one is also not losing oneself in a meaning-conferring way if one is consumed by these activities. There seem to be certain actions, relationships, states, and experiences that one ought to concentrate on or be engrossed in, if meaning is to accrue.
So says the objectivist, but many subjectivists also feel the pull of the point. Paralleling replies in the literature on well-being, subjectivists often respond by contending that no or very few individuals would desire to do such intuitively trivial things, at least after a certain idealized process of reflection (e.g., Griffin 1981). More promising, perhaps, is the attempt to ground value not in the responses of an individual valuer, but in those of a particular group (Brogaard and Smith 2005; Wong 2008). Would such an intersubjective move avoid the counterexamples? If so, would it do so more plausibly than an objective theory?
Objective naturalists believe that meaning is constituted (at least in part) by something physical independent of the mind about which we can have correct or incorrect beliefs. Obtaining the object of some variable pro-attitude is not sufficient for meaning, on this view. Instead, there are certain inherently worthwhile or finally valuable conditions that confer meaning for anyone, neither merely because they are wanted, chosen, or believed to be meaningful, nor because they somehow are grounded in God.
Morality and creativity are widely held instances of actions that confer meaning on life, while trimming toenails and eating snow (and the other counterexamples to subjectivism above) are not. Objectivism is thought to be the best explanation for these respective kinds of judgments: the former are actions that are meaningful regardless of whether any arbitrary agent (whether it be an individual,her society, or even God) judges them to be meaningful or seeks to engage in them, while the latter actions simply lack significance and cannot obtain it if someone believes them to have it or engages in them. To obtain meaning in one's life, one ought to pursue the former actions and avoid the latter ones. Of course, meta-ethical debates about the nature of value are again relevant here.
A “pure” objectivist thinks that being the object of a person's mental states plays no role in making that person's life meaningful. Relatively few objectivists are pure, so construed. That is, a large majority of them believe that a life is more meaningful not merely because of objective factors, but also in part because of subjective ones such as cognition, affection, and emotion. Most commonly held is the hybrid view captured by Susan Wolf's pithy slogan: “Meaning arises when subjective attraction meets objective attractiveness” (Wolf 1997a, 211; see also Hepburn 1965; Kekes 1986, 2000; Wiggins 1988; Wolf 1997b, 2002, 2010; Dworkin 2000, ch. 6; Raz 2001, ch. 1; Schmidtz 2001; Starkey 2006; Mintoff 2008). This theory implies that no meaning accrues to one's life if one believes in, is satisfied by, or cares about a project that is not worthwhile, or if one takes up a worthwhile project but fails to judge it important, be satisfied by it, care about it or otherwise identify with it. Different versions of this theory will have different accounts of the appropriate mental states and of worthwhileness.
Pure objectivists deny that subjective attraction plays any constitutive role in conferring meaning on life. For instance, utilitarians with respect to meaning (as opposed to morality) are pure objectivists, for they claim that certain actions confer meaning on life regardless of the agent's reactions to them. On this view, the more one benefits others, the more meaningful one's life, regardless of whether one enjoys benefiting them, believes they should be aided, etc. (Singer 1993, ch. 12, 1995, chs. 10–11; Singer 1996, ch. 4). Midway between pure objectivism and the hybrid theory is the view that having certain propositional attitudes toward finally good activities would enhance the meaning of life without being necessary for it (Audi 2005, 344). For instance, might a Mother Teresa who is bored by her substantial charity work have a significant existence because of it, even if she would have an even more significant existence if she were excited by it?
There have been several attempts to theoretically capture what all objectively attractive, inherently worthwhile, or finally valuable conditions have in common insofar as they bear on meaning. Some believe that they can all be captured as actions that are creative (Taylor 1987), while others maintain that they are exhibit rightness or virtue and perhaps also involve reward proportionate to morality (Kant 1791, pt. 2; cf. Pogge 1997). Most objectivists, however, deem these respective aesthetic and ethical theories to be too narrow, even if living a moral life is necessary for a meaningful one (Landau 2011). It seems to most in the field not only that creativity and morality are independent sources of meaning, but also that there are sources in addition to these two. For just a few examples, consider making an intellectual discovery, rearing children with love, playing music, and developing superior athletic ability.
So, in the literature one finds a variety of principles that aim to capture all these and other (apparent) objective grounds of meaning. One can read the perfectionist tradition as proffering objective theories of what a significant existence is, even if their proponents do not frequently use contemporary terminology to express this. Consider Aristotle's account of the good life for a human being as one that fulfills its natural purpose qua rational, Marx's vision of a distinctly human history characterized by less alienation and more autonomy, culture, and community, and Nietzsche's ideal of a being with a superlative degree of power, creativity, and complexity.
More recently, some have maintained that objectively meaningful conditions are just those that involve: transcending the limits of the self to connect with organic unity (Nozick 1981, ch. 6, 1989, chs. 15–16); realizing human excellence in oneself (Bond 1983, chs. 6, 8); maximally promoting non-hedonist goods such as friendship, beauty, and knowledge (Railton 1984); exercising or promoting rational nature in exceptional ways (Hurka 1993; Smith 1997, 179–221; Gewirth 1998, ch. 5); substantially improving the quality of life of people and animals (Singer 1993, ch. 12, 1995, chs. 10–11; Singer 1996, ch. 4); overcoming challenges that one recognizes to be important at one's stage of history (Dworkin 2000, ch. 6); constituting rewarding experiences in the life of the agent or the lives of others the agent affects (Audi 2005); making progress toward ends that in principle can never be completely realized because one's knowledge of them changes as one approaches them (Levy 2005); realizing goals that are transcendent for being long-lasting in duration and broad in scope (Mintoff 2008); or contouring intelligence toward fundamental conditions of human life (Metz 2013).
One major test of these theories is whether they capture all experiences, states, relationships, and actions that intuitively make life meaningful. The more counterexamples of apparently meaningful conditions that a principle entails lack meaning, the less justified the principle. There is as yet no convergence in the field on any one principle or even cluster as accounting for commonsensical judgments about meaning to an adequate, convincing degree. Indeed, some believe the search for such a principle to be pointless (Wolf 1997b, 12–13; Kekes 2000; Schmidtz 2001). Are these pluralists correct, or does the field have a good chance of discovering a single, basic property that grounds all the particular ways to acquire meaning in life?
Another important way to criticize these theories is more comprehensive: for all that has been said so far, the objective theories are aggregative or additive, objectionably reducing life to a “container” of meaningful conditions (Brännmark 2003, 330). As with the growth of “organic unity” views in the context of debates about intrinsic value, it is becoming common to think that life as a whole (or at least long stretches of it) can substantially affect its meaning apart from the amount of meaning in its parts.
For instance, a life that has lots of beneficent and otherwise intuitively meaning-conferring conditions but that is also extremely repetitive (à la the movie Groundhog Day) is less than maximally meaningful (Taylor 1987). Furthermore, a life that not only avoids repetition but also ends with a substantial amount of meaningful parts seems to have more meaning overall than one that has the same amount of meaningful parts but ends with few or none of them (Kamm 2003, 210–14). And a life in which its meaningless parts cause its meaningful parts to come about through a process of personal growth seems meaningful in virtue of this causal pattern or being a “good life-story” (Velleman 1991; Fischer 2005).
Extreme versions of holism are also present in the literature. For example, some maintain that the only bearer of final value is life as a whole, which entails that there are strictly speaking no parts or segments of a life that can be meaningful in themselves (Tabensky 2003; Levinson 2004). For another example, some accept that both parts of a life and a life as a whole can be independent bearers of meaning, but maintain that the latter has something like a lexical priority over the former when it comes to what to pursue or otherwise to prize (Blumenfeld 2009).
What are the ultimate bearers of meaning? What are all the fundamentally different ways (if any) that holism can affect meaning? Are they all a function of narrativity, life-stories, and artistic self-expression (as per Kauppinen 2012), or are there holistic facets of life's meaning that are not a matter of such literary concepts? How much importance should they be accorded by an agent seeking meaning in her life?
So far, I have addressed theoretical accounts that have been naturally understood to be about what confers meaning on life, which obviously assumes that some lives are in fact meaningful. However, there are nihilistic perspectives that question this assumption. According to nihilism (or pessimism), what would make a life meaningful either cannot obtain or as a matter of fact simply never does.
One straightforward rationale for nihilism is the combination of supernaturalism about what makes life meaningful and atheism about whether God exists. If you believe that God or a soul is necessary for meaning in life, and if you believe that neither exists, then you are a nihilist, someone who denies that life has meaning. Albert Camus is famous for expressing this kind of perspective, suggesting that the lack of an afterlife and of a rational, divinely ordered universe undercuts the possibility of meaning (Camus 1955; cf. Ecclesiastes).
Interestingly, the most common rationales for nihilism these days do not appeal to supernaturalism. The idea shared among many contemporary nihilists is that there is something inherent to the human condition that prevents meaning from arising, even granting that God exists. For instance, some nihilists make the Schopenhauerian claim that our lives lack meaning because we are invariably dissatisfied; either we have not yet obtained what we seek, or we have obtained it and are bored (Martin 1993). Critics tend to reply that at least a number of human lives do have the requisite amount of satisfaction required for meaning, supposing that some is (Blackburn 2001, 74–77).
Other nihilists claim that life would be meaningless if there were no invariant moral rules that could be fully justified—the world would be nonsensical if, in (allegedly) Dostoyevskian terms, “everything were permitted”—and that such rules cannot exist for persons who can always reasonably question a given claim (Murphy 1982, ch. 1). While a number of philosophers agree that a universally binding and warranted morality is necessary for meaning in life (Kant 1791; Tännsjö 1988; Jacquette 2001, ch. 1; Cottingham 2003, 2005, ch. 3), some do not (Margolis 1990; Ellin 1995, 325–27). Furthermore, contemporary rationalist and realist work in meta-ethics has led many to believe that such a moral system exists.
In the past 10 years, some interesting new defences of nihilism have arisen that merit careful consideration. According to one rationale, for our lives to matter, we must in a position to add value to the world, which we are not since the value of the world is already infinite (Smith 2003). The key premises for this view are that every bit of space-time (or at least the stars in the physical universe) have some positive value, that these values can be added up, and that space is infinite. If the physical world at present contains an infinite degree of value, nothing we do can make a difference in terms of meaning, for infinity plus any amount of value must be infinity.
One way to question this argument is to suggest that even if one cannot add to the value of the universe, meaning plausibly obtains merely by being the source of value. Consider that one does not merely want one's child to be reared with love, but wants to be the one who rears one's child with love. And this desire remains even knowing that others would have reared one's child with love in one's absence, so that one's actions are not increasing the goodness of the state of the universe relative to what it would have had without them. Similar remarks might apply to cases of meaning more generally (for additional, and technical, discussion of whether an infinite universe entails nihilism, see Almeida 2010; Vohánka and Vohánková n.d.).
Another fresh argument for nihilism is forthcoming from certain defenses of anti-natalism, the view that it is immoral to bring new people into existence because doing so would be a harm to them. There are now a variety of rationales for anti-natalism, but most relevant to debates about whether life is meaningful is probably the following argument from David Benatar (2006, 18–59). According to him, the bads of existing (e.g., pains) are real disadvantages relative to not existing, while the goods of existing (pleasures) are not real advantages relative to not existing, since there is in the latter state no one to be deprived of them. If indeed the state of not existing is no worse than that of experiencing the benefits of existence, then, since existing invariably brings harm in its wake, existing is always a net harm compared to not existing. Although this argument is about goods such as pleasures in the first instance, it seems generalizable to non-experiential goods, including that of meaning in life.
The criticisms of Benatar that promise to cut most deep are those that question his rationale for the above judgments of good and bad. He maintains that these appraisals best explain, e.g., why it would be wrong for one to create someone whom one knows would suffer a torturous existence, and why it would not be wrong for one not to create someone whom one knows would enjoy a wonderful existence. The former would be wrong and the latter would not be wrong, for Benatar, because no pain in non-existence is better than pain in existence, and because no pleasure in non-existence is no worse than pleasure in existence. Critics usually grant the judgments of wrongness, but provide explanations of them that do not invoke Benatar's judgments of good and bad that apparently lead to anti-natalism (e.g., Boonin 2012; Weinberg 2012).
This survey closes by discussing the most well-known rationale for nihilism, namely, Thomas Nagel's (1986) invocation of the external standpoint that purportedly reveals our lives to be unimportant (see also Hanfling 1987, 22–24; Benatar 2006, 60–92; cf. Dworkin 2000, ch. 6). According to Nagel, we are capable of comprehending the world from a variety of standpoints that are either internal or external. The most internal perspective would be a particular human being's desire at a given instant, with a somewhat less internal perspective being one's interests over a life-time, and an even less internal perspective being the interests of one's family or community. In contrast, the most external perspective, an encompassing standpoint utterly independent of one's particularity, would be, to use Henry Sidgwick's phrase, the “point of view of the universe,” that is, the standpoint that considers the interests of all sentient beings at all times and in all places. When one takes up this most external standpoint and views one's finite—and even downright puny—impact on the world, little of one's life appears to matter. What one does in a certain society on Earth over an approximately 75 years just does not amount to much, when considering the billions of years and likely trillions of beings that are a part of space-time.
Very few accept the authority of the (most) external standpoint (Ellin 1995, 316–17; Blackburn 2001, 79–80; Schmidtz 2001) or the implications that Nagel believes it has for the meaning of our lives (Quinn 2000, 65–66; Singer 1993, 333–34; Wolf 1997b, 19–21). However, the field could use much more discussion of this rationale, given its persistence in human thought. It is plausible to think, with Nagel, that part of what it is to be a person is to be able to take up an external standpoint. However, what precisely is a standpoint? Must we invariably adopt one standpoint or the other, or is it possible not to take one up at all? Is there a reliable way to ascertain which standpoint is normatively more authoritative than others? These and the other questions posed in this survey still lack conclusive answers, another respect in which the field of life's meaning is tantalizingly open for substantial contributions.
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Books for the General Reader
- Baggini, J., 2004, What's It All About?: Philosophy and the Meaning of Life, London: Granta Books.
- Belliotti, R., 2001, What Is the Meaning of Life?, Amsterdam: Rodopi.
- Belshaw, C., 2005, 10 Good Questions about Life and Death, Malden, MA: Blackwell.
- Cottingham, J., 2003, On the Meaning of Life, London: Routledge.
- Eagleton, T., 2007, The Meaning of Life: A Very Short Introduction, Oxford: Oxford University Press.
- Ford, D., 2007, The Search for Meaning: A Short History, Berkeley: University of California Press.
- Martin, M., 2002, Atheism, Morality, and Meaning, Amherst, NY: Prometheus Books.
- Messerly, J., 2012, The Meaning of Life: Religious, Philosophical, Transhumanist, and Scientific Approaches, Seattle: Darwin and Hume Publishers.
- Thomson, G., 2003, On the Meaning of Life, South Melbourne: Wadsworth.
- Young, J., 2003, The Death of God and the Meaning of Life, New York: Routledge.
Other Internet Resources
- Seachris, J., 2011, “Meaning of Life: The Analytic Perspective”, in Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy, J. Fieser and B. Dowden (eds.)
- Vohánka, V. and Vohánková, P., n.d., “On Nihilism Driven by the Magnitude of the Universe”.
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What Is The Meaning Of Life?
The following answers to this central philosophical question each win a random book. Sorry if your answer doesn’t appear: we received enough to fill twelve pages…
Why are we here? Do we serve a greater purpose beyond the pleasure or satisfaction we get from our daily activities – however mundane or heroic they may be? Is the meaning of life internal to life, to be found inherently in life’s many activities, or is it external, to be found in a realm somehow outside of life, but to which life leads? In the internal view it’s the satisfaction and happiness we gain from our actions that justify life. This does not necessarily imply a selfish code of conduct. The external interpretation commonly makes the claim that there is a realm to which life leads after death. Our life on earth is evaluated by a supernatural being some call God, who will assign to us some reward or punishment after death. The meaning of our life, its purpose and justification, is to fulfill the expectations of God, and then to receive our final reward. But within the internal view of meaning, we can argue that meaning is best found in activities that benefit others, the community, or the Earth as a whole. It’s just that the reward for these activities has to be found here, in the satisfactions that they afford within this life, instead of in some external spirit realm.
An interesting way to contrast the internal and external views is to imagine walking through a beautiful landscape. Your purpose in walking may be just to get somewhere else – you may think there’s a better place off in the distance. In this case the meaning of your journey through the landscape is external to the experience of the landscape itself. On the other hand, you may be intensely interested in what the landscape holds. It may be a forest, or it may contain farms, villages. You may stop along the way, study, learn, converse, with little thought about why you are doing these things other than the pleasure they give you. You may stop to help someone who is sick: in fact, you may stay many years, and found a hospital. What then is the meaning of your journey? Is it satisfying or worthwhile only if you have satisfied an external purpose – only if it gets you somewhere else? Why, indeed, cannot the satisfactions and pleasures of the landscape, and of your deeds, be enough?
Greg Studen, Novelty, Ohio
A problem with this question is that it is not clear what sort of answer is being looked for. One common rephrasing is “What is it that makes life worth living?”. There are any number of subjective answers to this question. Think of all the reasons why you are glad you are alive (assuming you are), and there is the meaning of your life. Some have attempted to answer this question in a more objective way: that is to have an idea of what constitutes the good life. It seems reasonable to say that some ways of living are not conducive to human flourishing. However, I am not convinced that there is one right way to live. To suggest that there is demonstrates not so much arrogance as a lack of imagination.
Another way of rephrasing the question is “What is the purpose of life?” Again we all have our own subjective purposes but some would like to think there is a higher purpose provided for us, perhaps by a creator. It is a matter of debate whether this would make life a thing of greater value or turn us into the equivalent of rats in a laboratory experiment. Gloster’s statement in King Lear comes to mind: “As flies to wanton boys we are to the gods – they kill us for their sport.” But why does there have to be a purpose to life separate from those purposes generated within it? The idea that life needs no external justification has been described movingly by Richard Taylor. Our efforts may ultimately come to nothing but “the day was sufficient to itself, and so was the life.” (Good and Evil, 1970) In the “why are we here?” sense of the question there is no answer. It would be wrong, however, to conclude that life is meaningless. Life is meaningful to humans, therefore it has meaning.
Rebecca Linton, Leicester
When the question is in the singular we search for that which ties all values together in one unity, traditionally called ‘the good’. Current consideration of the good demands a recognition of the survival crises which confront mankind. The threats of nuclear war, environmental poisoning and other possible disasters make it necessary for us to get it right. For if Hannah Arendt was correct concerning the ‘banality of evil’ which affected so many Nazi converts and contaminated the German population by extension, we may agree with her that both Western rational philosophy and Christian teaching let the side down badly in the 20th century.
If we then turn away from Plato’s philosophy, balanced in justice, courage, moderation and wisdom; from Jewish justice and Christian self-denial; if we recognize Kant’s failure to convince populations to keep his three universal principles, then shall we look to the moral relativism of the Western secular minds which admired Nietzsche? Stalin’s purges of his own constituents in the USSR tainted this relativist approach to the search for the good. Besides, if nothing is absolute, but things have value only relative to other things, how do we get a consensus on the best or the worst? What makes your social mores superior to mine – and why should I not seek to destroy your way? We must also reject any hermit, monastic, sect or other loner criteria for the good life. Isolation will not lead to any long-term harmony or peace in the Global Village.
If with Nietzsche we ponder on the need for power in one’s life, but turn in the opposite direction from his ‘superman’ ideal, we will come to some form of the Golden Rule [‘Do unto others as you would have them do unto you’]. However, we must know this as an experiential reality. There is life-changing power in putting oneself in the place of the other person and feeling for and with them. We call this feeling empathy.
Persons who concentrate on empathy should develop emotional intelligence. When intellectual intelligence does not stand in the way of this kind of personal growth, but contributes to it, we can call this balance maturity. Surely the goal or meaning of human life is therefore none other than finding oneself becoming a mature adult free to make one’s own decisions, yet wanting everyone in the world to have this same advantage. This is good!
Ernie Johns, Owen Sound, Ontario
‘Meaning’ is a word referring to what we have in mind as ‘signification’, and it relates to intention and purpose. ‘Life’ is applied to the state of being alive; conscious existence. Mind, consciousness, words and what they signify, are thus the focus for the answer to the question. What seems inescapable is that there is no meaning associated with life other than that acquired by our consciousness, inherited via genes, developed and given content through memes (units of culture). The meanings we believe life to have are then culturally and individually diverse. They may be imposed through hegemony; religious or secular, benign or malign; or identified through deliberate choice, where this is available. The range is vast and diverse; from straightforward to highly complex. Meaning for one person may entail supporting a football team; for another, climbing higher and higher mountains; for another, being a parent; for another, being moved by music, poetry, literature, dance or painting; for another the pursuit of truth through philosophy; for another through religious devotions, etc. But characteristic of all these examples is a consciousness that is positively and constructively absorbed, engaged, involved, fascinated, enhanced and fulfilled. I would exclude negative and destructive desires; for example of a brutal dictator who may find torturing others absorbing and engaging and thus meaningful. Such cases would be too perverse and morally repugnant to regard as anything other than pathological.
The meaning of life for individuals may diminish or fade as a consequence of decline or difficult or tragic circumstances. Here it might, sadly, be difficult to see any meaning of life at all. The meaning is also likely to change from one phase of life to another, due to personal development, new interests, contexts, commitments and maturity.
Colin Brookes, Woodhouse Eaves, Leicestershire
It is clearly internet shopping, franchised fast food and surgically-enhanced boobs. No, this is not true. I think the only answer is to strip back every layer of the physical world, every learnt piece of knowledge, almost everything that seems important in our modern lives. All that’s left is simply existence. Life is existence: it seems ‘good’ to be part of life. But really that’s your lot! We should just be thankful that our lifespan is longer than, say, a spider, or your household mog.
Our over-evolved human minds want more, but unfortunately there is nothing more. And if there is some deity or malignant devil, then you can be sure they’ve hidden any meaning pretty well and we won’t see it in our mortal lives. So, enjoy yourself; be nice to people, if you like; but there’s no more meaning than someone with surgically-enhanced boobs, shopping on the net while eating a Big Mac.
Simon Maltman, By email
To ask ‘What is the meaning of life?’ is a poor choice of words and leads to obfuscation rather than clarity. Why so?
To phrase the question in this fashion implies that meaning is something that inheres in an object or experience – that it is a quality which is as discernible as the height of a door or the solidity of matter. That is not what meaning is like. It is not a feature of a particular thing, but rather the relationship between a perceiver and a thing, a subject and an object, and so requires both. There is no one meaning of, say, a poem, because meaning is generated by it being read and thought about by a subject. As subjects differ so does the meaning: different people evaluate ideas and concepts in different ways, as can be seen from ethical dilemmas. But it would be wrong to say that all these meanings are completely different, as there are similarities between individuals, not least because we belong to the same species and are constructed and programmed in basically the same way. We all have feelings of fear, attachment, insecurity and passion, etc.
So to speak of ‘the meaning of life’, is an error. It would be more correct to refer to the ‘meanings of life’, but as there are currently around six billion humans on Earth, and new psychological and cultural variations coming into being all the time, to list and describe all of these meanings would be a nigh on impossible task.
To ‘find meaning in life’ is a better way of approaching the issue, ie, whilst there is no single meaning of life, every person can live their life in a way which brings them as much fulfilment and contentment as possible. To use utilitarian language, the best that one can hope for is a life which contains as great an excess of pleasure over pain as possible, or alternatively, a life in which as least time as possible is devoted to activities which do not stimulate, or which do nothing to promote the goals one has set for oneself.
Steve Else, Swadlincote, Derbyshire
The meaning of life is not being dead.
Tim Bale, London
The question is tricky because of its hidden premise that life has meaning per se. A perfectly rational if discomforting position is given by Nietzsche, that someone in the midst of living is not in a position to discern whether it has meaning or not, and since we cannot step outside of the process of living to assess it, this is therefore not a question that bears attention.
However, if we choose to ignore the difficulties of evaluating a condition while inside it, perhaps one has to ask the prior question, what is the meaning of meaning? Is ‘meaning’ given by the greater cosmos? Or do we in our freedom construct the category ‘meaning’ and then fill in the contours and colours? Is meaning always identical with purpose? I might decide to dedicate my life to answering this particular question, granting myself an autonomously devised purpose. But is this identical with the meaning of my life? Or can I live a meaningless life with purpose? Or shall meaning be defined by purpose? Some metaphysics offer exactly this corollary – that in pursuing one’s proper good, and thus one’s meaning, one is pursuing one’s telos or purpose. The point of these two very brief summaries of approaches to the question is to show the hazards in this construction of the question.
Karen Zoppa, The University of Winnipeg
One thing one can hardly fail to notice about life is that it is self-perpetuating. Palaeontology tells us that life has been perpetuating itself for billions of years. What is the secret of this stunning success? Through natural selection, life forms adapt to their environment, and in the process they acquire, one might say they become, knowledge about that environment, the world in which they live and of which they are part. As Konrad Lorenz put it, “Life itself is a process of acquiring knowledge.” According to this interpretation of evolution, the very essence of life (its meaning?) is the pursuit of knowledge: knowledge about the real world that is constantly tested against that world. What works and is in that sense ‘true’, is perpetuated. Life is tried and proven knowledge that has withstood the test of geological time. From this perspective, adopting the pursuit of knowledge as a possible meaning of one’s life seems, literally, a natural choice. The history of science and philosophy is full of examples of people who have done just that, and in doing so they have helped human beings to earn the self-given title of Homo sapiens – man of knowledge.
Axel Winter, Wynnum, Queensland
Life is a stage and we are the actors, said William Shakespeare, possibly recognizing that life quite automatically tells a story just as any play tells a story. But we are more than just actors; we are the playwright too, creating new script with our imaginations as we act in the ongoing play. Life is therefore storytelling. So the meaning of life is like the meaning of ‘the play’ in principle: not a single play with its plot and underlying values and information, but the meaning behind the reason for there being plays with playwright, stage, actors, props, audience, and theatre. The purpose of the play is self-expression, the playwright’s effort to tell a story. Life, a grand play written with mankind’s grand imagination, has this same purpose.
But besides being the playwright, you are the audience too, the recipient of the playwrights’ messages. As playwright, actor, and audience you are an heir to both growth and self-expression. Your potential for acquiring knowledge and applying it creatively is unlimited. These two concepts may be housed under one roof: Liberty. Liberty is the freedom to think and to create. “Give me liberty or give me death,” said Patrick Henry, for without liberty life has no meaningful purpose. But with liberty life is a joy. Therefore liberty is the meaning of life.
Ronald Bacci, Napa, CA
The meaning of life is understood according to the beliefs that people adhere to. However, all human belief systems are accurate or inaccurate to varying degrees in their description of the world. Moreover, belief systems change over time: from generation to generation; from culture to culture; and era to era. Beliefs that are held today, even by large segments of the population, did not exist yesterday and may not exist tomorrow. Belief systems, be they religious or secular, are therefore arbitrary. If the meaning of life is wanted, a meaning that will transcend the test of time or the particulars of individual beliefs, then an effort to arrive at a truly objective determination must be made. So in order to eliminate the arbitrary, belief systems must be set aside. Otherwise, the meaning of life could not be determined.
Objectively however, life has no meaning because meaning or significance cannot be obtained without reference to some (arbitrary) belief system. Absent a subjective belief system to lend significance to life, one is left with the ‘stuff’ of life, which, however offers no testimony as to its meaning. Without beliefs to draw meaning from, life has no meaning, but is merely a thing; a set of facts that, in and of themselves, are silent as to what they mean. Life consists of a series of occurrences in an infinite now, divorced of meaning except for what may be ascribed by constructed belief systems. Without such beliefs, for many the meaning of life is nothing.
Surely, however, life means something. And indeed it does when an individual willfully directs his/her consciousness at an aspect of life, deriving from it an individual interpretation, and then giving this interpretation creative expression. Thus the meaning in the act of giving creative expression to what may be ephemeral insights. Stated another way, the meaning of life is an individual’s acts of creation. What, exactly is created, be it artistic or scientific, may speak to the masses, or to nobody, and may differ from individual to individual. The meaning of life, however, is not the thing created, but the creative act itself; namely, that of willfully imposing an interpretation onto the stuff of life, and projecting a creative expression from it.
Raul Casso, Laredo, Texas
Rather than prattle on and then discover that I am merely deciding what ‘meaning’ means, I will start out with the assumption that by ‘meaning’ we mean ‘purpose.’ And because I fear that ‘purpose’ implies a Creator, I will say ‘best purpose.’ So what is the best purpose for which I can live my life? The best purpose for which I can live my life is, refusing all the easy ways to destroy. This is not as simple as it sounds. Refusing to destroy life – to murder – wouldn’t just depend on our lack of homicidal impulses, but also on our willingness to devote our time to finding out which companies have murdered union uprisers; to finding out whether animals are killed out of need or greed or ease; to finding the best way to refuse to fund military murder, if we find our military to be murdering rather than merely protecting. Refusing to destroy resources, to destroy loves, to destroy rights, turns out to be a full-time job. Oh sure, we can get cocky and say “Well, oughtn’t we destroy injustice? Or bigotry? Or hatred?” But we would be only fooling ourselves. They’re all already negatives: to destroy injustice, bigotry, and hatred is to refuse the destruction of justice, understanding, and love. So, it turns out, we finally say “Yes” to life, when we come out with a resounding, throat-wrecking “NO!”
Carrie Snider, By email
I propose that the knowledge we have now accumulated about life discloses quite emphatically that we are entirely a function of certain basic laws as they operate in the probably unique conditions prevailing here on Earth.
The behaviour of the most elementary forms of matter we know, subatomic particles, seems to be guided by four fundamental forces, of which electromagnetism is probably the most significant here, in that through the attraction and repulsion of charged particles it allows an almost infinite variation of bonding: it allows atoms to form molecules, up the chain to the molecules of enormous length and complexity we call as nucleic acids, and proteins. All these are involved in a constant interaction with surrounding chemicals through constant exchanges of energy. From these behaviour patterns we can deduce certain prime drives or purposes of basic matter, namely:
1. Combination (bonding).
2. Survival of the combination, and of any resulting organism.
3. Extension of the organism, usually by means of replication.
4. Acquisition of energy.
Since these basic drives motivate everything that we’re made of, all the energy, molecules and chemistry that form our bodies, our brains and nervous systems, then whatever we think, say and do is a function of the operation of those basic laws Therefore everything we think, say and do will be directed towards our survival, our replication and our demand for energy to fuel these basic drives. All our emotions and our rational thinking, our loves and hates, our art, science and engineering are refinements of these basic drives. The underlying drive for bonding inspires our need for interaction with other organisms, particularly other human beings, as we seek ever wider and stronger links conducive to our better survival. Protection and extension of our organic integrity necessitates our dependence on and interaction with everything on Earth.
Our consciousness is also necessarily a function of these basic drives, and when the chemistry of our cells can no longer operate due to disease, ageing or trauma, we lose consciousness and die. Since I believe we are nothing more than physics and chemistry, death terminates our life once and for all. There is no God, there is no eternal life. But optimistically, there is the joy of realising that we have the power of nature within us, and that by co-operating with our fellow man, by nurturing the resources of the world, by fighting disease, starvation, poverty and environmental degradation, we can all conspire to improve life and celebrate not only its survival on this planet, but also its proliferation. So the purpose of life is just that: to involve all living things in the common purpose of promoting and enjoying what we are – a wondrous expression of the laws of Nature, the power of the Universe.
Peter F. Searle, Topsham, Devon
“What is the meaning of life?” is hard to get a solid grip on. One possible translation of it is “What does it all mean?” One might spend a lifetime trying to answer such a heady question. Answering it requires providing an account of the ultimate nature of the world, our minds, value and how all these natures interrelate. I’d prefer to offer a rather simplistic answer to a possible interpretation of our question. When someone asks “What is the meaning of life?,” they may mean “What makes life meaningful?” This is a question I believe one can get a grip on without developing a systematic philosophy.
The answer I propose is actually an old one. What makes a human life have meaning or significance is not the mere living of a life, but reflecting on the living of a life.
Even the most reflective among us get caught up in pursuing ends and goals. We want to become fitter; we want to read more books; we want to make more money. These goal-oriented pursuits are not meaningful or significant in themselves. What makes a life filled with them either significant or insignificant is reflecting on why one pursues those goals. This is second-order reflection; reflection on why one lives the way one does. But it puts one in a position to say that one’s life has meaning or does not.
One discovers this meaning or significance by evaluating one’s life and meditating on it; by taking a step back from the everyday and thinking about one’s life in a different way. If one doesn’t do this, then one’s life has no meaning or significance. And that isn’t because one has the wrong sorts of goals or ends, but rather has failed to take up the right sort of reflective perspective on one’s life. This comes close to Socrates’ famous saying that the unexamined life is not worth living. I would venture to say that the unexamined life has no meaning.
Casey Woodling, Gainesville, FL
For the sake of argument, let’s restrict the scope of the discussion to the human species, and narrow down the choices to
1) There is no meaning of life, we simply exist;
2) To search for the meaning of life; and
3) To share an intimate connection with humankind: the notion of love.
Humans are animals with an instinct for survival. At a basic level, this survival requires food, drink, rest and procreation. In this way, the meaning of life could be to continue the process of evolution. This is manifested in the modern world as the daily grind.
Humans also have the opportunity and responsibility of consciousness. With our intellect comes curiosity, combined with the means to understand complex problems. Most humans have, at some point, contemplated the meaning of life. Some make it a life’s work to explore this topic. For them and those like them, the question may be the answer.
Humans are a social species. We typically seek out the opposite sex to procreate. Besides the biological urge or desire, there is an interest in understanding others. We might simply gain pleasure in connecting with someone in an intimate way. Whatever the specific motivation, there is something that we crave, and that is to love and be loved.
The meaning of life may never be definitively known. The meaning of life may be different for each individual and/or each species. The truth of the meaning of life is likely in the eye of the beholder. There were three choices given at the beginning of this essay, and for me, the answer is all of the above.
Jason Hucsek, San Antonio, TX
Next Question of the Month
The next question is: What Is The Nature Of Reality? Answers should be less than 400 words. Subject lines or envelopes should be marked ‘Question Of The Month’. You will be edited.