This is perhaps the biggest question in philosophy. I suspect we have all thought about it at one time or another, but it is a scary question, best kept hidden at the back of our minds. It is scary because to confront it means to admit that we may not have an answer. If we don’t know why we exist, what is the point of anything?
Meanings of Life
In the spirit of analytic philosophy, it is worth being clear on what is meant by ‘the meaning of life’, as it could be interpreted in several ways. In the most literal sense it could mean the definition of the word ‘life’. This is not the interpretation I intend, and a reasonable definition of the word can be found in any dictionary (I have checked this myself: life is a condition manifested through growth, reproduction and adaptation to environment). That said it is interesting to wonder how advances in artificial intelligence will challenge our ability to determine whether something is or is not alive.
The question could also mean where did life come from? In the mechanistic style of thinking, a thing is best understood by understanding its causes. In mainstream science this leads us back to the big bang, at which point things get difficult. I’ve not yet read anything in philosophy that provides a compelling answer to the question of what caused the big bang, although the theologian might say that it was caused by God. While a complete understanding of the meaning of life is arguably not possible without understanding what caused the big bang, a partial understanding remains possible.
That leaves us to consider the question in terms of what is the purpose of our lives, why are we here, and what should we do with our lives? It is not surprising that a definitive and universally agreed explanation of the meaning of life cannot be found in any philosophical work (although plenty have tried). Had the answer been established already, it would surely be more widely known. Nevertheless, it is useful to consider some of the history of thought on the question. With some notable exceptions (including Buddhism in India and the Hellenistic Schools of the 3rd century B.C), for most of human history until the start of the modern era, our desire for meaning and purpose in life has largely been satisfied by religion. For example, in the medieval Christian world it was believed that the meaning of life was determined by God as part of a grand cosmic plan, which could not be understood by human beings. Rather than understand, we should obey God’s will on faith by following his works, as conveyed to us by religious books or by the Church. Whatever happens to us in life – the good and the bad, is all part of God’s plan.
Christian faith continues to be a source of meaning and purpose in more modern times. Some believe that the fact Jesus died for our sins means that we are absolved of our sins. It follows that as long as we ask for forgiveness for our sins, we do not need to spend our lives worrying about whether we will be assured a place in heaven. However, in return for that forgiveness we are left with a responsibility to love others and to live in accordance with God’s teachings. Meaning to our existence can also be found in the faith that we are made in God’s image, and He loves us all as a father. Therefore human life must have intrinsic value to God (even if we can’t be sure why).
The majority today do not believe in God, or they believe in a ‘supreme being’ in an abstract sense that is not sufficient to provide a purpose to their existence. This change since the medieval period has largely been caused by the increased self-confidence of humankind in our ability to understand the world, and unwillingness to defer such questions to a higher power that does not respond to us. Yuval Noah Harari in his book Homo Deus describes this as the ‘Modern Covenant’. In the western world at least, most of us have rejected faith in favour of science and verifiable facts. We have taken back control from God, and we decide for ourselves what we can and can’t do. War and plague is not part of a cosmic plan and so has no meaning and no redeeming aspect. On the other hand, we can use science and enlightened thinking to try and eradicate them. The problem is that science has (as yet) provided no help in finding any meaning to existence.
Humanity has increased enormously in power during the modern era, but Harari argues that without a meaning to our existence we have no idea what to do with that power. Without a meaning to life and code of ethics derived from religion, modern society may well have collapsed under the weight of meaninglessness. However, Harari continues by saying that the theistic religions have been replaced in the modern era by something that gives at least the illusion of meaning. This is the modern religion of Humanism, which places humans in the role of gods. Its central tenet is that human experiences give meaning to the cosmos, and that our free will is the highest source of authority in the universe. This sounds good at first glance, and it is appealing to be told that each of us gives meaning to the universe. It is a sufficient answer to the question of the meaning of life for most of us, most of the time, and allows us to focus on more pressing matters. But when subjected to a bit of scrutiny, the idea that human experiences give meaning to the cosmos seems unsatisfactory. Harari talks about the new scientific understanding that challenges the foundations of Humanism (that our ‘free will’ is at best severely limited, and that our minds are not really one indivisible ‘self’ but more a committee of conflicting selves), and I talk about this in my blog post ‘A Post-Liberal Future’. In addition to these scientific concerns, objectively speaking, if the meaning of life is based on each of our individual experiences, that means we will each come to a different answer, so surely we can’t all be right?
We appear to be back at square one, with no single pre-determined answer to the meaning of life within sight, and ominously close to the end of this blog post. But all is not lost, at least in my opinion. Sartre’s Existentialist answer is that we are all free to determine our own purpose for existence, and indeed we have a responsibility to do so. Sartre was influenced by another philosopher Heidegger, who similarly said that we can find meaning to our existence by living ‘authentically’. To my understanding, this means caring or having concern for the things and other people that are important to us. That might be vocations which matter to us, or relationships which are important. Devoting time to the things or the people who are most important to us is in my view the surest way to gaining purpose, and then happiness. We can take practical steps to spend more time on those things, and less on things that, when we really think about it, aren’t as important to us. We may even find that, after some reflection, the accumulation of wealth is not as important to us as we may have subconsciously assumed.
This way of thinking requires us to give up on the desire to have our lives linked to a grand cosmic plan, which requires some humility. Perhaps our lives to do not contribute to some grand universal meaning, but that is OK, and does not necessarily need to prevent us leading happy and purposeful lives. It also requires us to avoid the temptation to over-rationalise the meaning of life, and avoid being too quick to criticise the values of others. Determining what is important to us is in my opinion mostly a subjective exercise, so does not lend itself to objective critique by others. Meaning can be found in all sorts of unusual things, such as writing obscure blog posts about abstract subjects.