“A” or “THE” Meaning of Life
Often people raise the question of the meaning of life. And that is exactly how most pose the question :”What is “the “ meaning of life?”
What I would like to examine is the entire idea of the possibility of the existence of “the “ meaning of life as opposed to “a” meaning of life.
So, we are not quite exactly looking for or pursuing a search for “the” meaning of human life. We are also not examining, except perhaps indirectly at times, the meaning of any other form of life other than human life. We will leave the otters, wildebeests, pigeons, salmon and whales to look for their own meanings.
Let’s start with the idea of “the” meaning of human life. At another time, perhaps very shortly, an examination of the meaning of “meaning” might be in order but for now the focus is upon the “the”. Now that I have drawn attention to it you might wonder about the very notion of there being only one such meaning for human life as assumed by the typical phrasing of the question. The use of the article “the” indicates that there is one and not more. So, if there is one and one only how would that come about? Pursuing this question is valuable as an aid to understanding if there is “the” meaning of human life which humans had ought to know about.
So, what about “the” meaning?
many have been offered and some promoted, but few have been accepted
Well, it is the case that many candidates for the position of “the” meaning of human life have been offered and some promoted but few have been universally accepted and no single one adopted or accepted by the people of the world as that which resonates with their experience and provides them with a sense of whatever it is that having a meaning for one’s life would provide for a person.
There are even a variety of ways to organize all the entrees into the contest for the winner to the “the” meaning of life quest. Philosophical, religious, secular, and scientific or big meanings and little meanings or even popular and unpopular meanings, and so on.
So we have a record that indicates many attempts to pursue the question of “the “ meaning of human life and many candidates for ”the “ answer to the question and none so successful as to indicate that they are genuine candidates. Why not? Well, if there was but one single meaning for human life we might expect some candidate to have acquired considerable acceptance and support world wide by this time. If there is one and only one meaning, then humans over time might be expected to come to understand or discover it and as there are humans all over the planet, there would be some form of universal, or at least global, consensus growing as to whatever “the “ meaning of human life is.
If there is one and only one meaning then what would be its source? It is not simply unlikely to have its source with humans themselves for there is nothing to indicate any humans having invented or created such a meaning for the lives of all members of the human species. No evidence of that. No claims for it. Had someone done that already we might expect that other humans would have taken notice and recorded it and spread the word. Even if such a meaning had been invented or created to the distress or consternation of others, if not disgust or contempt or outrage, then we might expect the rejection of the claim of invention or creation to have been made fairly public. Again no evidence of such.
It is more than unlikely, it is impossible for the origin of the meaning of human life to rest within the human community. If there is no record in the past what about the future? Is it not possible for some human being to provide “the “ meaning of life to the entire species of human beings?
Well, at this point in the history of the human species on planet earth should any human or even a team of humans announce that they have found it or discovered it they would need to explain why it had not been found earlier and why they think that whatever it is would apply to all members of the species as the one and only meaning. Beyond that they would need to “prove” that it actually was, or is, the one and only meaning for human life. That proof would consist of argumentation and there would be a careful scrutiny of the reasoning and evidence offered in support of the claim. Some humans might embrace the answer to the question of life's meaning as it is offered and find comfort in deliverance from the pain and suffering and agony and effort of their own searching for “the “ meaning of life. Many might do so without even examining the arguments in support of the meaning of life so happy with the ending of the search and feeling pleased that their lives now have what was not present before, at least not in their awareness.
However, many humans might find weaknesses in the arguments offered by the discoverers or inventors or promoters of “the “ meaning of life.
Many humans might note that the entire idea of the meaning of human life is not a matter that can be established based on any empirical evidence or logical reasoning.
Many humans might think that the acceptance of any single candidate for “the” meaning of human life would be a matter of the willingness of those who chose to accept it on whatever grounds that they did or no grounds at all and not a matter of some truth or certainly not an objective truth.
So if, and it is a big IF, If there was a single meaning of human life, then it has not had its origin or discovering or acceptance amongst humans and it is so unlikely as to be near impossible for it to come from the human community in the future. The conclusion is that it would not then have its origin with humans. What or where else might be its origin?
Let us examine some candidates. Three come to mind as possibilities for consideration: aliens, deities and a single deity.
Although there is no hard evidence for the existence or earthly visitation of aliens, there is a good deal of probabilistic reasoning to support the hypothesis that there are other forms of intelligent life in the universe and at least some with knowledge and technology superior to that of present humans on planet Earth. So, for the sake of argument, or the present consideration, simply entertain the possibility that some such species has journeyed to planet Earth by some means and has been responsible for the development of RNA and DNA and thus for the process of evolution of life forms what then are the consequences of this for the quest for “the “ meaning of human life?
If the meaning of “meaning “ in “the meaning of human life” has to do with the purpose for such life then in one case the aliens had knowledge of where the process of evolution of life forms on planet Earth was likely to lead and they had some purpose in not only doing what they did, but specifically for the human species, then some might claim that the purpose or intention or plan of the aliens constitutes the meaning of human life. This would be the case even if their expressed purpose was just to have fun or goof off or to see what happens and study it or “what the hell why not try this”.
In another case the aliens had no knowledge of where the process of evolution of life forms on planet Earth was likely to lead but they had some purpose in starting it, then some might claim that the purpose or intention or plan of the aliens constitutes the meaning of human life. This would be the case even if their expressed purpose was just to have fun or goof off or to see what happens and study it or “what the hell why not try this”.
There have been several humans who have seriously or humorously considered these possibilities of alien creation or interventions that have produced the human species on planet Earth. (see the Humorous and popular culture treatments in the wikipedia entry below)
There is no knowledge of such alien origin or involvement in the origin of human life. However should either of the possibilities above turn out to be the case there is a sense and a strong sense that whatever was their purpose for doing what they did that led to the human species, human might reject that purpose or intention as being “the” meaning of human life. What then would be the meaning of human life when the purpose for which it was created is not equated with that meaning?
At this point humans would consider what might be termed the “philosophical” meanings for human life or the philosophical approach to meaning for human life. When they do they would no longer be looking for a single set truth about “the” meaning of human life but they would be looking for some conception of the value or purpose for human life that would receive the widest possible acceptance as an alternative to accepting that human life has no other meaning that that which was given to it seriously or in jest or accident by aliens.
Not waiting for the arrival of evidence of aliens and of their involvement with the origination of the human species there has been for centuries attempts to find some answer to the question of meaning. There are :
Pretty much the same case as with the aliens.
Pretty much the same case as with the aliens and deities.
There is something of the absurd in accepting a meaning for human life that would come form a choice to believe in an extraterrestrial origin for the species. Even if it was a deity for some such as Camus there is a real sense of being sentenced to a life not of one’s own choosing and even to an eternal life. In the Myth of Sisyphus, condemned by the gods to ceaselessly rolling a rock up the mountain (where its own weight sent it back to the bottom again), Sisyphus is seen as an exemplar of the human condition, struggling hopelessly and pointlessly to achieve something. But in this he thrives (he could even be imagined happy). By virtue of rebelling against the gods he has refused to give into despair. His life and torment are transformed into a victory by concentrating on his freedom, his refusal to hope, and his knowledge of the absurdity of the situation.
In the absence of evidence of aliens or deities or a single deity other humans who do not believe in a single or multiple deities have either abandoned the search for “the” meaning of human life and either found ways to live with no answer or with a value for life as its meaning. Still there are others who want a meaning for their life and have decided that it is for each human to decide what it shall be and to give life a meaning, at least for their own lives.
So it may well be that there is NO “the” meaning of human life but there is “a” meaning for human life. In fact there are several meanings and humans determine both the meaning of “meaning” and what particular meaning their lives will have.
"If, after all, men cannot always
make history have meaning, they can always act so that their own lives
Many people who have rejected extraterrestrial origins for human life have moved from setting out finding and fulfilling the meaning of human life as their goal and moved to simply living a good life. They can and have abandoned the hope for another life and have focused their hope for a good life in this world during their own time.
This brings up the question of just what is the “good”.
The Dangerous Quest
Searching for THE Meaning of Life
When people assume that there is only one meaning for human life they are holding the belief that some agency other than human has set out such a meaning. Making that assumption or operating on that belief is dangerous.
It assumes what has not been proven.
It closes off inquiry.
It places the meaning and value of human life in some location other than with the human community.
It denies that humans can determine for themselves what the meaning is of their own lives.
It ignores that in reaching any conclusion as to what THE meaning would be there is a decision making process and so humans are using their will to make the determination of what THE meaning of human life would be.
So then just what is "the" meaning of human Life? Well it appears that there is no way to escape the reality that any answer is the result of human choice. That any attempt to indicate that there is but a single answer would involve some non-human origin and such origin might be resisted by as many humans as would embrace it. Again a matter of human choice. .Humans may choose to have their lives have a meaning. If they do so choose then they can not avoid that the choosing of just what that meaning is to be is a matter of choice as well As humans appear to have awareness and choice that may well be close to the meaning, if one chooses to accept it as so..
The philosophical question "What is the meaning of life?" means different things to different people. The vagueness of the query is inherent in the word "meaning", which opens the question to many interpretations, such as: "What is the origin of life?", "What is the nature of life (and of the universe in which we live)?", "What is the significance of life?", "What is valuable in life?", and "What is the purpose of, or in, (one's) life?". These questions have resulted in a wide range of competing answers and arguments, from scientific theories, to philosophical, theological, and spiritual explanations.
"What is the meaning of life?" is a question many people ask themselves at some point during their lives. Some people believe that the meaning of life is one or more of the following:
Survival and temporal success
Wisdom and knowledge
...to be without question, or to keep
Religious, spiritual and esoteric
? ...to turn fear into joy at a constant rate achieving on literal and metaphorical levels: immortality, enlightenment and atonement
...to achieve a
connection within the natural
...to follow the "Golden
...to advance natural
or to contribute to the
...to live, and enjoy the passage of time
Scientific approaches and theories
Where scientists and philosophers converge on the quest for the meaning of life is an assumption that the mechanics of life (i.e., the universe) are determinable, thus the meaning of life may eventually be derived through our understanding of the mechanics of the universe in which we live, including the mechanics of the human body.
There are, however, strictly speaking, no scientific views on the meaning of biological life other than its observable biological function: to continue and to reproduce itself. In this regard, science simply addresses quantitative questions such as: "What does it do?", "By what means?", and "To what extent?", rather than the "For what purpose?".
But, like philosophy, science tackles each of the five interpretations of the meaning of life question head-on, offering empirical answers from relevant scientific fields.
Thus, the question "What is the origin of life?" has resulted in the Big Bang Theory and the Theory of Evolution, which explain where the universe, sun, planets and human being came from, but which still do not account for the origin of the very first microscopic life form. Some scientists theorize that life on Earth was created when a lightning bolt, comet, or meteor impact, or other accidental event caused a group of organic compounds to bind together, forming a primitive cell. This cell was able to reproduce and eventually evolved into higher life forms. Based on these or similar theories, some philosophers say that because life was entirely coincidental, one cannot expect life to have any meaning at all, other than its own self-perpetuation — reproduction.
Toward answering "What is the nature of life (and of the universe in which we live)?", scientists have proposed various theories or worldviews over the centuries, including the heliocentric view by Copernicus and Galileo, through the mechanistic clockwork universe of Rene Descartes and Isaac Newton, to Albert Einstein's Theory of General Relativity, to Benoit Mandelbrot's Chaos Theory in an effort to understand the universe in which we live. Meanwhile countless scientists in the biological and medical fields have dissected the human body to its very smallest components to acquire an understanding of the nature of biological life, to determine what makes us tick.
The question "What is the significance of life?" has turned scientists toward the study of significance itself and how it is derived and presented (see semiotics). The question has also been extensively explored from the point of view of explaining the relationships of life to its environment (the universe) and vice versa. Thus, from a scientific point of view, the significance of life is what it is, what it does, and why it does it.
The questions "What is valuable in life?" and "What is the purpose of, or in, (one's) life?" are staples of the social sciences. These questions are explored by scientists every day, from the perspective of the life forms being studied, in an effort to explain the behaviors and interactions of human beings (and every other type of animal as well). The study of value has resulted in the fields of Economics and Sociology. The study of motives (which reflect what is valuable to a person) and the perception of value are subjects of the field of Psychology.
Main article: Atheism
Atheism's strictest sense means the belief that no god or supernatural overbeing (of any type or number) exists, and by extension that neither the universe nor we were created by such beings. Atheism pertains to three of the five interpretations of the meaning of life question: "What is the origin of life?", "What is the nature of life (and of the universe in which we live)?", and "What is the purpose of, or in, (one's) life?" Since they believe gods had nothing to do with it, most atheists believe that life evolved and was not created. The nature of the universe is one in which no god exists, and therefore its nature is left to our devices to determine, via more or less scientific means. As for the purpose of life, some atheists argue that since there are no gods to tell us what to do, we are left to decide that for ourselves. Other atheists argue that some sort of meaning can be intrinsic to life itself, so there is no need for any god to instill meaning into it.
Main article: Existentialism
The 19th century philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer offered a bleak answer by determining one's life as a reflection of one's will and the will (and thus life) as being an aimless, irrational, and painful drive. However, he saw salvation, deliverance, or escape from suffering in aesthetic contemplation, sympathy for others, and ascetic living. Søren Kierkegaard, a Danish philosopher of the 19th century, argued that life is full of absurdity and the individual must make his or her own values in an indifferent world. For Kierkegaard, an individual can have a meaningful life (at least one free of despair) if the individual relates the self in an unconditional commitment to something finite, and devotes his or her life to the commitment despite the inherent vulnerability of doing so.
According to the philosopher Martin Heidegger, human beings were thrown into existence. Existentialists consider being thrown into existence as prior to, and the context of, any other thoughts or ideas that humans have or definitions of themselves that they create. As Jean-Paul Sartre put it: "existence precedes essence", "man first of all exists, encounters himself, surges up in the world — and defines himself afterwards. There is no human nature, because there is no God to have a conception of it."
Since there is no predefined human nature or ultimate evaluation beyond that which humans project onto the world; people may only be judged, or defined, by their actions and choices. Choice is the ultimate evaluator. Again, quoting Jean-Paul Sartre: "Man is nothing else but that which he makes of himself."
Main article: Humanism
To the humanist, (biological) life's purpose is built-in: it is to reproduce. That is how the human race came to be: creatures reproducing in a progression of unguided evolution as an integral part of nature, which is self-existing. But life's purpose isn't the same thing as human purpose, though it is a factor thereof. Human purpose is determined by humans, completely without supernatural influence. Nor does knowledge come from supernatural sources, it flows from human observation, experimentation, and rational analysis preferably utilizing the scientific method: the nature of the universe is what we discern it to be. As are ethical values, which are derived from human needs and interests as tested by experience.
Enlightened self-interest is at the core of humanism. The most significant thing in life is the human being, and by extension, the human race and the environment in which we live. The happiness of the individual is inextricably linked to the well-being of humanity as a whole, in part because we are social animals which find meaning in relationships, and because cultural progress benefits everybody who lives in that culture.
When the world improves, life in general improves, so, while the individual desires to live well and fully, humanists feel it is important to do so in a way that will enhance the well being of all. While the evolution of the human species is still (for the most part) a function of nature, the evolution of humanity is in our hands and it is our responsibility to progress it toward its highest ideals. In the same way, humanism itself is evolving, because humanists recognize that values and ideals, and therefore the meaning of life, are subject to change as our understanding improves.
The doctrine of
is set forth in the
A Secular Humanist
Main article: Nihilism
Friedrich Nietzsche characterized nihilism as emptying the world and especially human existence of meaning, purpose, comprehensible truth, or essential value. The term nihilism itself comes from the Latin nihil, which means "nothing". Nietzsche described Christianity as a nihilistic religion, because it removes meaning from this earthly life, to instead focus on a supposed afterlife. He also saw nihilism as a natural result of the idea that God is dead, and insisted that it was something to be overcome, by returning meaning to the Earth.
Martin Heidegger described nihilism as the state in which "there is nothing of Being as such", and argued that nihilism rested on the reduction of being to mere value.
Nihilism rejects claims to knowledge and truth, and explores the meaning of an existence without knowable truth. Though nihilism tends toward defeatism, one can find strength and reason for celebration in the varied and unique human relationships it explores. From a nihilist point of view, the ultimate source of moral values is the individual rather than culture or another rational (or objective) foundation.
Main article: Logical positivism
Of the meaning of life, Ludwig Wittgenstein and the logical positivists, said: expressed in language, the question is meaningless. This is because "meaning of x" is a term in life usually conveying something regarding the consequences of x, or the significance of x, or that which should be noted regarding x, etc. So when "life" is used as "x" in the term "meaning of x", the statement becomes recursive and therefore nonsensical.
In other words, things in a person's life can have meaning (importance), but life itself has no meaning apart from those things. In this context, a person's life is said to have meaning (significance to himself and others) in the form of the events throughout his life and the results of his life in terms of achievements, a legacy, family, etc. But to say that life itself has meaning is a misuse of language, since any note of significance or consequence is relevant only in life (to those living it), rendering the statement erroneous. Language can provide a meaningful answer only when it refers to a realm within the realm of life. But this is not possible when the question reaches beyond the realm in which language exists, violating the contextual limitations of language. Such a question is broken. And the answer to a broken question is an erroneous or irrelevant answer.
Other philosophers besides Wittgenstein have sought to discover what is meaningful within life by studying the consciousness within it. But when these philosophers looked for a holistic definition of the “Meaning of Life” for humanity, they were stone-walled by the Wittgenstein linguistic model.
Logical positivism asserts that statements are meaningful only insofar as they are verifiable, and that statements can be verified only in two (exclusive) ways: empirical statements, including scientific theories, which are verified by experiment and evidence; and analytic truth, statements which are true or false by definition, and so are also meaningful. Everything else, including ethics and aesthetics, is not literally meaningful, and so belongs to "metaphysics". One conclusion is that serious philosophy should no longer concern itself with metaphysics. Thus free will is not a positivist assertion, while teleology is the closest thing to it that can be verified.
Main article: Pragmatism
Pragmatic philosophers suggest that rather than a truth about life, we should seek a useful understanding of life. William James argued that truth could be made but not sought. Thus, the meaning of life is a belief about the purpose of life that does not contradict one's experience of a purposeful life. Roughly, this could be applied as: "The meaning of life is those purposes which cause you to value it." To a pragmatist, the meaning of life, your life, can be discovered only through experience.
Pragmatism is a school of philosophy which originated in the United States in the late 1800s. Pragmatism is characterized by the insistence on consequences, utility and practicality as vital components of truth. Pragmatism objects to the view that human concepts and intellect represent reality, and therefore stands in opposition to both formalist and rationalist schools of philosophy. Rather, pragmatism holds that it is only in the struggle of intelligent organisms with the surrounding environment that theories and data acquire significance. Pragmatism does not hold, however, that just anything that is useful or practical should be regarded as true, or anything that helps us to survive merely in the short-term; pragmatists argue that what should be taken as true is that which most contributes to the most human good over the longest course. In practice, this means that for pragmatists, theoretical claims should be tied to verification practices--i.e., that one should be able to make predictions and test them--and that ultimately the needs of humankind should guide the path of human inquiry.
Main article: Transhumanism
Transhumanism is an extension of humanism. Like humanism, it propounds that we should seek the improvement of the human race as a whole. But it goes on to emphasize that we should also actively improve the human body with technology, to overcome all biological limitations such as mortality, physical weakness, limited memory capacity, etc. Initially this meant we should all become cyborgs, but with the advent of bioengineering, other options are opening up. Thus the main goal of transhumanism is the development of man into the posthuman, the successor to Homo sapiens: Homo excelsior. The ideal achievement of this goal would of course be applied to the current population before they suffer the consequences of aging and death.
Therefore, in terms of the five interpretations presented at the beginning of this article, the meaning of life for the transhumanist is that life originated from evolution, that the nature of life is what we discern it to be through scientific observation and measurement, that the human and what he is becoming is the most significant thing in life, that the most valuable things in life are getting along and progressing the lifestyle of all people, and that it is imperative for us to control the nature of life to improve upon our natures.
Loss of Meaning argument
Main article: Religion
Relationship to God
To "be fruitful, and multiply; fill the
earth, and subdue it"
"The first of all the commandments is: 'Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is one. And you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your mind, and with all your strength'." This is the 'first commandment' according to Jesus (Mark 12:28-31), and is also a quote from the central prayer of Judaism, known as the Shema (Deut 6:4-9).
"And the second, like it, is this: 'You shall love your neighbor as yourself'." (Christianity: Mark 12:28-31). Judaism records this both in the positive sense (Leviticus 19:18: "Love thy neighbor") and the negative sense (Hillel, ""What is hateful to yourself, do not do to your fellow man. That is the whole Law; the rest is just commentary")
Both of these commands are relational and are primarily concerned with knowing God in order to equip the believer to maintain a loving relationship with other members of the human race. According to Benedict XVI, the ultimate reason for loving God and men is that "God is love" (Deus Caritas Est) and men are made in his image. The Christian God, he says, is the Logos, (the Word: meaning and reason).
glorify and enjoy God
Sapiential Meaning of Life
Similar ideas are contained in the hidden treasure referenced in hadith qudsi: "I (God) was a Hidden Treasure and I desired to be known. Therefore, I created creation in order that I might be known". In this esoteric Muslim view, generally held by Sufis, the universe exists only for God's pleasure. However, because the happiness of God is not dependent on anything temporal, creation works as a grand game with the Divine serving as the principle player and prize.
The Book of Job begins with God applauding over the piety of Job. Satan, one of the heavenly host, says to God that Job is only faithful because he is rewarded accordingly, and asks permission of God to test Job. In his tribulation, Job suffers again and again without ever finding out the cause of his life's horrors. Instead, only God and the reader are allowed to know that the sorrows of life are merely a game played on the cosmic level. The game itself is incidental, yet it at the same time the will of God in the creation of life.
The Book of Light presents the nature of God and the purpose of creation. According to Michael Sharp, God is consciousness and the purpose of creation is to have fun (alleviate boredom). Creation exists "as a dream inside the mind of God" and we are all Sparks of the One Creator Consciousness. The Book of Light is a copyleft and available from 
The Urantia Book offers a point of view on the vast meaning of life by reconciling humankind's innumerable problems with discrepancies between creationism, evolution, cosmology, modern science, philosophy, history, theology and religion.
James Redfield gave a New Age perspective on the meaning of life in his book The Celestine Prophecy, suggesting that the answers can be found within, through experiencing a series of personal spiritual insights. Later in his book God and the Evolving Universe: The Next Step in Personal Evolution (2002) co-written with Michael Murphy, he claims that humanity is on the verge of undergoing a change in consciousness.
Another answer was given by Neale Donald Walsch in his trilogy Conversations with God, in which he asserts that the purpose of this present creation is for That-which -Is (God, Spirit) to know itself experientially rather than merely conceptually, by creating of itself a billion billion individuals who interact, and learn, and thus can rediscover through actual experience, their divinity by experiencing and exploring it in this world.
People say what we're all seeking is a meaning for life. I don't think that's what we're really seeking. I think that what we're seeking is an experience of being alive so that our life experiences on the purely physical plane will have resonances within our innermost being and reality, so that we actually feel the rapture of being alive..
Or maybe there is no meaning to life; that is, "What you see is what you get", as portrayed in the comedy film The Meaning of Life: you are born, you eat, you go to school, you have sex, you have children, you grow old (if someone doesn't kill you first), and you die, and in Heaven every day is Christmas. At the very end of the film, Michael Palin is handed an envelope, opens it, and says nonchalantly: "Well, it's nothing very special. Uh, try to be nice to people, avoid eating fat, read a good book every now and then, get some walking in, and try to live together in peace and harmony with people of all creeds and nations."
naked mole rat
from the television series
insists that the meaning of life is
interpretation can be seen in the painting,
Where Do We Come From?
What Are We? Where Are We Going?
Another popular belief is that the meaning of life is to die, according to comedians and other types of media. In similar vein, Smith in the final part of The Matrix trilogy, Matrix Revolutions, tells the protagonist Neo that "it was your life that taught me the purpose of all life. The purpose of life is to end."