The Meaning of Life
If there’s one question that is virtually synonymous with philosophy, it’s this – what is the meaning of life? There are no shortages of answers out there, and yet most of these answers, if not all of them, are deeply dissatisfying. Why does everyone who takes a stab at this question end up seeming pseudo-profound at best or just plain wrong at worst? With that in mind, this essay, rather than adding one more carcass to the heap, is an attempt to uncover exactly why the meaning of life seems to resist our best efforts at a… well, a meaningful resolution.
Let’s begin by taking a quick look at how this question typically tends to get answered. The answers can be loosely grouped into four categories.
Prosaic:- These answers revolve around practical goals and achievements. Some common examples include making money, raising a family, getting a good job or acquiring knowledge.
Scientific:- This category usually centres on evolutionary science and interprets life in a rigorous, materialist, Darwinian sense. It typically boils down to the notion that the meaning of life is to procreate and pass your genes on to the next generation. Anything on top of this is either illusory or contrived.
Poetic:- The answers generated from here tend to read more like inspirational or motivational quotes. Examples include classics such as, “love like you’ve never had your heart broken, cry like you have, sing like no one’s listening, dance like no one’s watching, etc.” or “be the person you wish you were”. You also get gems like the meaning of life is to live; to experience; to find your passion or to make the world a better place.
Religious/New age:- This category certainly has the longest history of the four and typically involves something like worshipping a deity, trying to ‘graduate’ to an after-worldly paradise or purifying a ‘Higher Self’ for further advancement in some grand, spiritual adventure.
None of the answers procured from any of these categories seem particularly satisfying. Let’s take a quick look at why this might be.
The prosaic answers are solid, practical and sensible, but they hardly seem particularly… well, meaningful. The meaning of life is getting a good job? Is that it? Will I really feel like my life has meaning once I make a lot of money? What about people who already have a lot of money or a good job? Do their lives no longer have meaning? Even knowledge. In what sense does my knowing a lot contribute to my life having meaning?
The scientific category is very much a product of our modern, post-scientific revolution sensibilities. Science takes the notion that everything (even human reality) is composed of matter and is therefore ultimately reducible to nothing more than the mindless and deterministic, causal interplay between the little billiard balls that make up nature. Scaling this physics-centred view up to larger conglomerations of little billiard balls doesn’t change this fundamental picture.
A fuller discussion of this is well beyond the scope of this essay, so I will simply point out that this seems to be at odds with obvious facts about human reality. I don’t think I find that woman attractive because her features indicate she is healthy and will produce healthy offspring and yet science assures me it is so. I don’t think I find pictures of landscapes appealing because that is what my Pleistocene ancestors used to look out on, but apparently I do. For a being that can pose to itself the question of its own life’s meaning, the answer that all of my behaviour can be deciphered by looking to the evolution of my ancient ancestors seems woefully insufficient.
The first thing you will notice about the answers in the poetic category is that they contain little to no actual information. The meaning of life is to live? Fortunate that, considering I don’t have much choice over that particular detail. And what exactly does that mean anyway? Experience? I am experiencing something every second I am awake. Should I be aiming for good experiences, exciting ones, challenging ones? Why? How does this bestow meaning on my life?
Ultra-motivational/inspirational quotes can come with a warm, fuzzy feeling but in my experience, those kinds of things tend to have a dramatically short shelf-life and require a constant expenditure of energy to maintain. This doesn’t mean they are false, but if they are the meaning of life, surely we should see some kind of robust intersection with reality. If the meaning of life is something like a passionate adventure, why does it so often seem to be the exact opposite; getting up early, going to work, breaking up squabbling kids before bed, managing (sometimes sensitive) interpersonal relationships, etc.? One second-hand book dealer wondered out loud to me why it was that people were always trying to offload motivational books on to him. Presumably they had either all become successful, active, well-adjusted dynamos of industry or read and then subsequently forgotten whatever pearls of wisdom the books supposedly contained. Again, this is not an “official” argument against them as the meaning of life, just because people fail to use these tools doesn’t mean there is something wrong with them, but their effectiveness in this regard certainly seems to falter under scrutiny.
So, to the final category, religious and new age. In a way, this category has answers that best fit the question. Shaping my life according to ideals set out by an infinitely superior deity, cultivating my Higher Self, etc. These are the first answers that genuinely seem to qualify as meaningful. They have the potential to really define my life and yield something that I can proudly call meaningful. This is why it is such a tragedy then that they are all false. Surely one of the first requirements for something to be meaningful is that it actually be real. If I want to say that a deity grants my life purpose and meaning, then that deity must exist. If there is no deity then the meaning he or she was supposed to bestow becomes just as fictional. The same can be said for our fictional “Higher Self”. (Again, I won’t go into a fuller discussion on this topic here – there is plenty of material already out there, including a few blunt essays of my own at www.absurdbeing.com/atheism)
So, the traditional answers all fail to deliver on their promise of giving life meaning. What are we left with then? Well, the obvious response, although perhaps not so obvious before the Enlightenment and philosophers like Nietzsche, is to say that life simply has no meaning. This is the first thing we can admit with almost absolute certainty. There is no intrinsic meaning to life, as in some grand purpose we can discover. That would necessarily require the existence of some kind of divine architect or grand cosmic plan; at the very least, something “beyond” humanity, and, as I’ve argued elsewhere, this is a very unlikely proposition.
This then leads to the final iteration in this line of thought. There may not be a given meaning of life, but this need not stop us from determining our own meaning. What’s the meaning of life? Whatever I decide it to be. I make my own meaning. On the surface, this seems fine. Human consciousness is, I think, the kind of thing that creates meaning and there is no reason why it cannot create meaning for itself.
However, I would actually go further, and say that not only can consciousness create meaning for itself, it cannot not do so. We are all of us, every second of our lives, with every action we take and every attitude we hold, declaring exactly what it is that gives our lives meaning. And herein lies the rub. The meaning of life can be watching re-runs of daytime soap operas on TV just as readily as it can be helping sick children in a third world country. The realisation that no one gives my life meaning but me and that no matter what I do (or don’t do) I am giving my life meaning, strips something from the ‘aura’ or ‘specialness’ of the term.
And another rub. There is absolutely nothing holding you to your chosen “meaning” once you have chosen it. In fact, I daresay it is very likely that what you see as your life’s meaning today is not what you imagined the meaning of your life to be ten or even five years ago. This “radical freedom” can, of course, be empowering but it also cannot but trivialise and demean what we initially thought was something profound, something almost sacred.
To sum up the story so far; there is no special, intrinsic meaning of life so it is up to each of us to give our own lives meaning and this can only be an individual endeavour. The problem with this however, is that this “meaning” turns out to be a fairly poor substitute for what we were initially searching for.
Now, the theme of this essay thus far has been that the “answers” to the question “what is the meaning of life?” all fail for a variety of reasons. So is this a fundamentally unanswerable question? Is it destined to remain a bastion for people who want to point to something “ineffable” or “undefinable”, something “beyond concepts”, the “Tao which cannot be spoken”?
In a word, no. I want to suggest that there is a subtle confusion surrounding the question of the meaning of life and it has been lurking in the background throughout this whole essay. I have deliberately not addressed it but have, in fact, wallowed in it up to this point. This confusion sabotages any search for the meaning of life from the very moment one posits the question and very effectively leads one astray as long as it goes unnoticed.
To see what I am talking about we need to direct our attention to the word “meaning”. Something can be meaningful or meaningless; that is, have or not have meaning. ‘Meaning’ in this sense is tied up with importance. My wedding ring is meaningful to me because it symbolises something important; my marriage. A book can be meaningful to me because I consider that it has an important message. Note that the word ‘important’ here means important to me. We can recognise that a book has an important message (say, about global warming) while it still remaining not particularly meaningful (to me) if global warming is not the kind of thing that terribly interests me. This is not how we use the word “meaning” in the phrase “the meaning of life”.
Let’s narrow our search to the particular expression of interest; i.e. the “meaning of…”. In this sense, we might enquire about the “meaning of a dream” or the “meaning of a word”. Now here, we find ourselves searching for an explanation. To try to figure out the meaning of a dream is to try to understand or interpret it, to explain it. The meaning of a word is also a search for an explanation. What does this utterance represent? Explain it to me. Make it clear for me.
I submit that it is this we are asking for when we ask about the meaning of life. We are seeking an ‘explanation’ for life. How can I understand this thing called ‘life’ I find myself thrown into? This is what makes the question deep and profound but it is also what renders every answer inadequate. Every answer fails to satisfy precisely because every answer equivocates on the word ‘meaning’. We start out asking for an explanation (“What is the meaning of life?”) but end up suggesting a purpose instead. Every single answer recommended above gives a goal or purpose, not an explanation, for life.
But not only have our answers all missed the point, they cannot possibly do otherwise. This is not because there is no meaning of life; rather, it is because the question itself is completely devoid of meaning. To see just how nonsensical it is, try substituting another term for ‘life’. “What is the meaning of trees?” “What is the meaning of tables?”
You might imagine that you can make some headway by telling me how a tree provides shelter for certain animals, absorbs carbon dioxide and emits oxygen, takes in nutrients from the soil, converts light into energy via photosynthesis, etc. But these things don’t ‘explain’ the tree. All they do is describe it or list what it does. A tree simply isn’t the kind of thing that can have a meaning. The question is ridiculous.
Note also that providing a detailed account of its history, where it came from, also fails to explain it. You might be able to explain its origin, all of the minutest details about the acorn it grew from, its physical constitution, the parent tree it came from, and so on, but this is still not to explain the tree or elucidate the meaning of trees. To see this, imagine you ask me about the meaning of a Spanish word and I proceed to tell you how Spanish is derived from a dialect of Latin and the particular word you are interested in was coined in the year XYZ by a Mr. A who first used it to describe a situation brought about by a recent advance in technology – and then walked away quite pleased with myself. Clearly, I have failed to deliver what you requested. Or even more telling, what if I ask you, “What is the meaning of Spanish?” What answer would you give? What answer could you give?
Just as there is no meaning of trees there is no meaning of life but we should not see this as a failing on our part. It is not because our puny intellects aren’t up to the task of grasping something as profound as life. Even the most mundane items lack an explanation that could be called their ‘meaning’. What is the meaning of this book on my desk? It’s not that I don’t know, nor is it even that it has no meaning; rather, the question itself is meaningless. Books don’t have a ‘meaning’. I want to emphasise this point. This is not an epistemological limitation on our part. Nothing is going unanswered here. The meaning of life is unanswerable in the same way that the question, “What colour is the number 3?” is unanswerable. This question doesn’t point to some profound truth we need to contemplate for thirty years in a cave, it’s gibberish. The question, “What is the meaning of life?”, falls into the same category.
So exactly what kind of thing does has a meaning then? From my two earlier examples, dreams and words, we can discern that meaning can only be imputed to symbols, things that represent something else. Dreaming that all of your teeth fall out doesn’t mean you need to go to the dentist. It is a metaphor for something deeper, it needs explaining. It is the same with a new word or, even better, a word from a foreign language. We can ask what the word means precisely because language is symbolic. An utterance or a scribble on a piece of paper mean something. They refer to something else, a physical object or a concept, and it makes perfect sense to enquire about this referent. Since life is not a symbol for anything else, it is not the kind of thing that can have a meaning, that is, an explanation.
Note that this is different from saying life is meaningless. On the contrary, as I have described it above, life can be meaningful while at the same time lacking a meaning. To call something meaningful is simply to note that it is important or valuable to you, and life, even though we can’t explain it (that is, find a meaning for it), may still be (and, in fact, almost certainly is) important to you, as something you value.
Thus, our enquiry initially observed that all answers to the meaning of life failed to satisfy and while we did identify what was lacking in each case, it turned out that there was a deeper problem underwriting this lack; one that tidily explained exactly why each answer was lacking. Each answer was unsatisfactory precisely because they were answering a different question. We were getting purposes when what we wanted was an explanation. To even ask the question, “What is the meaning of life?” is to have misunderstood the kind of thing life is. Specifically, life, since it is not a symbol, is just not the kind of thing that can have a meaning.