We can obey something or someone and still have Free Will. This is an argument made by many philosophers concerning freedom. Isaiah Berlin constructed the concept of two types of freedom: positive and negative. The first is when we, as an individual or community, place restrictions and rules upon ourselves. The second is when we have no restrictions. If we combines these, we have a "truer and more humane" (Berlin) world.

Point: as long as we protect ourselves and do not infringe on others' crucial human rights, then we should be free to do as we wish, taking into consideration any morals and obligations we may have embraced through family, church, or state.

If one sticks to this premise, life will flow with no concern of its meaning. Paraphrasing Curly from City Slickers, the meaning of life is one thing, and one thing alone. But we must figure that out for ourselves as we go.

What is the meaning of life? Nobody has ever given me an answer to this question that I'm satisfied with. Here's a short list:

"To procreate" / "To bring forth the next generation" / "To teach" - The general idea that we live for the next generation. But what's *their* meaning? This just delays the meaning so that 'we don't have to worry about it anymore'.

"Happiness" / "Pleasure" - But happiness doesn't *mean* anything. It is perfectly possible to lie down, decide to be happy, and start laughing... but so what?

"To serve God" - Yeah, yeah, he really makes his purposes well known, doesn't he? This, like any questions answered with a 'God' in them, doesn't actually explain anything.

"To find out the meaning of life" - Ummm... do you know the meaning of the word 'recursive'?

"To live" - Circular and meaningless.

"To experience" - Life is pretty much experience, so this is a lot like the last one.

"To learn" - But to what purpose? You end up dead anyway, smart or not.

"To grow spiritually" - Again, to what purpose? Spiritual growth definately makes your life better, but it doesn't give life meaning.

"To do good" - To what end? To get into heaven? Or just for its own sake? Hmmm... probably the most convincing argument, the only problem being that I don't believe in good and evil.

"To get into heaven" - Right. Well, heaven is great pleasure, right? So then you're just saying that pleasure is the meaning of life. See above.

And so I assume there is no meaning. "But", you might say, "that leaves one directionless in the vast sea of possibilities that is one's life..." to which I reply:

Do as you are compelled

It's not an answer to the question, but it's what gets me up in the mornings.

The irrationalist point of view, especially that of Nietzsche, claims that life has no untimate goal or higher purpose. Life is an abyss of chaos, one must look into the abyss and find the meaning of one's own existence. It is a very personal experience.

"When one looks into the abyss, the abyss looks into you."

Essentialy one must give up the easy answers offered by religions and realize that there is no structure to life, it is entropy. One then can one be free enough to determine their own purpose. Most people can not do this, the few who can are said to have the will to power. The rest adopt a slave morality, that is they try to fit themselves in to the molds carved out by those with the will to power.

A popular saying by theists is, " 'God is dead.' -Nietzsche ; 'Nietzsche is dead.' - God." This is simply poor logic.

What is the meaning of life?

Meaning is not an inherent property of the universe. Meaning is a construct on the part of some conscious mind (see themusic's writup on meaning--"Meaning doesn't mean anything; only people mean"). Specifically, the meaning of some thing (idea/person/place/whatever) to a given conscious mind is an isomorphism (association, if you like) between it and (some portion of) the mind's representation of reality.

There is a human tendency to deny this idea that meaning is not inherent--i.e., to project the meaning we hold internally as an inherent property of its object.
Why do we do this? Well, here's my best guess: Humans are naturally insecure of their own mortality and thus (usually) very protective of their lives. The idea that meaning is just as mortal as we are makes us insecure of and so weakens our internal model for the world. Thus, to understand the world in practice, we believe (or pretend to believe, though there isn't much difference) in our meanings as persisting throughout the world they describe rather than only in our heads. However, in theory, it is possible to understand that meaning is indeed not inherent. That is, we may "believe" that meaning is not inherent and at the same time "believe" in our meanings.

So, what's the meaning of life then? The meaning of (my) life, (my) existence, is my life, my existence. That sounds like the typical kind of "deep thoughts" copout that can be produced almost mechanically, but it isn't: the meaning of any thing is the isomorphism between it and one's internal representation of reality. The isomorphism between my existence/life/universe and my representation of it must be (I claim) the identity mapping. Thus, my answer above seems meaningless (heh, heh) because that's as much meaning as you can get out of that question.

To me, the question is simply the wrong one. To ask for an inherent meaning in life is to give up its inherent freedom. I ask instead, "What should I do with my life/today/right now?" and "What part do I play in what goes on around me (especially society)?", among others.

When I have less time, though, I still answer "42". To me, Adams captured the essence with that answer, i.e., Mu - unask the question, it's the wrong one.

Afterthought: In some sense, society has a mind of its own, and each individual in it is conscious of it to some degree. This provides some insight into how we perceive meaning as something objective, as we see that other people tend to agree with our meanings--see collective subjectivism.

I frequently find myself asking the indomitable question, “What is the meaning of life?”

The moment seems to come to every person during the duration of their natural life when they begin to ponder that question and find themselves at a dead stop as to the answer.

“What is the meaning of life? Wouldn’t you like to know? I would. “Maybe then we would have purpose. Dear God, Hi this is Ink, I know I haven’t been all that faithful lately, but I was wondering. What is the meaning of life? Thanks.”

But even then, if we knew, would it be important enough to care about?

It’s very strange when I see people in some of my classes failing because of lack of effort even when they know that they need the class to graduate.

“Not to be insensitive, but unless you pass it now and get out, guess what? You have to do the same thing next year!” So why do they waste their time sitting there, doing nothing, not caring, when they will just have to do it again, and still hate it. Are these people our future? Sometimes I think the next major disaster that will wipe out all life on this planet is human stupidity.

And you know what else I notice about people? If you get one by him/herself and actually talk to the person it’s amazing how interesting their life is. You get to know how they think and feel and live. But if you talk to the same person in the masses he/she could come across as an ignorant sap, or a pathetic bore.

So today I was thinking about all this and I was thinking about what I wanted to do with my life. For some people this is easy, and can be summed up in a few words, Don’t go to hell. Yeah hell isn’t my choice eternal vacation spot either but I’m not too worried. I think that people value that stuff too much. I think they should worry more about what is going on now then valuing their afterlife so much. Now don’t get me wrong, if your religious beliefs tell you to live that way, great, not my problem though. And just because you believe that, doesn’t mean that I got it wrong.

But I digress, back to the topic of the meaning of life. I was recently talking to my mother and told her about my aspirations to snowboard, and get into parachuting and all that other “extreme” stuff. She replied with the usual, “But that’s so dangerous!” Yeah, so what? We are going to die anyway aren’t we? Not that I’m planning to die from any of that. I’m actually planning just the opposite, to live.

What is truly living? To get up and go to work everyday at 6:00 A.M., have lunch at 12:00 P.M. right on the dot, make a five figure salary before dinnertime, and get home in time to pick up the kids from school and take them to the baseball field? To some people, that is life! For 30-50 years of their natural life, that's what they live for. It is life.

I just have doubts about that for myself. I mean if I got a job like that I would always be dissatisfied with myself, Ink, when are you going to climb Mount Everest, Ink when are you going to visit the tombs of those Chinese philosophers in the peaks of the Da Hinggan Ling range, and most of all, Ink when are you going to spend you’re life pursuing the meaning of life? But the more I think about it, the more I think I got it. The meaning of life is staring us in the face and we just have to embrace it!

It isn’t a single answer, it isn’t 42, it isn’t Kennedy spelled backwards, and it isn’t some strange metaphysical enlightenment. There it is, it’s right there. Some of us search for the meaning of life our whole life and we never realize that we already found it before we begin the search. I bet you’re just dying to know now, I won’t tell you, but if you think about it I’m sure you’ll figure it out. Just like we all do at some point.

I don’t know maybe I’m crazy, I’m different, I’m not the average guy with dog. I’m Ink, and I finally realized both the meaning of life and my purpose in relation to the aforementioned subject. I’ll search all my life and die knowing that I already knew. That’s a great thought to end on.

But before I go I have something to ask of you, next time you’re out in the world doing who-knows-what, think about somebody else’s perspective. Next time you see that crazy lady with an afro holding up the sign on the street dancing for money, just ponder for a minute, maybe she’s not crazy, maybe she has found out the meaning, just as you have.

I guess we all will eventually understand, some people just seem to get it before others, it may take you your whole life, it may take you one day, and it may take you five minutes, but when it comes you’ll know it. It’s like love, when you feel that, you know that something amazing just occurred, even when you might be unsure of what it is, inside, you know, you really do.

So next time you see me aspiring for the far reaches of the troposphere on the pinnacle of Mount Everest, hiking through the lush jungles of the Amazon, or maybe even exploring the farthest reaches of China, seeking the legendary center of the earth, don’t call me crazy! Take a minute to look at it from my side, and think about the meaning of life, and then smile.

Inkwell out.

The Meaning of Life

To me, the meaning of life consists of three major areas; enlightenment, happiness, and service. In my life I want to become as enlightened (by being open minded and understanding towards all other people) and intelligent as possible while simultaneously being a happy individual and aiding my society through various services and volunteer organizations. In order to assimilate as much information as I can, within the relatively short time span of my life, I must enlighten myself to as many different lifestyles as possible. I have taken many steps to be open and understanding; without this open mindedness I would be more prejudiced and would discount many peoples views and lifestyles as “wrong” before truly understanding them. I also am sure to keep as many avenues open, so that I can change any situation that I get myself into if need be. In my life I strive to be self satisfied and content, yet not complacent. Happiness is an essential part of any life, as it is in many others. In conjunction with making my own life enlightening as well as enjoyable, I believe that helping others is an important part of life. By committing myself to certain community organizations, I am helping individual people as well as the collective whole of the community in which I live.

In my life, I want to understand people, and enjoy their company. The only way to be close to as many people as possible is by being open to their views and opinions, even if they differ from mine. Understanding is an important aspect of becoming enlightened, and without an understanding of a situation, many mistakes would be made before a lesson could be learned. In order to be understanding with all the different people around me, I must remain open to ideals that vary greatly from my own, and I must be willing and able to accept their validity. In my life, I keep an open mind towards all opinions before forming an opinion about them, which allows be to gain a subjective understanding. Another form of openness is keeping ones options open. I have made a conscious effort to have as many options as possible in whatever situation I am in. This is especially true of my education, since I have become an unconventional student by becoming home schooled, my options have increased from the limits of public high school to a nearly endless list of possibilities. By taking this step out of an institutionalized education, I am able to take college classes while other people my age are trudging through their final year of high school. In my life, being open and understanding gives me a better view of other people, as well as helps me keep my options open.

I predict that any answer to the question “What is the meaning of life?” will include “happiness”. Being self satisfied is important in life, to be happy whether alone or with company is invaluable to a persons individuality and independence. There is little that I am unwilling to do in order to be happy. However, to be content in life does not mean to be complacent. In order to be a happy individual, I strive to be assertive in order to be content, this not only helps me be cheerful, but avoids a dangerous complacent attitude. I am unwilling to remain in an uncomfortable situation, and will not allow myself to stay upset for long periods of time because of my strong belief in happiness. An assertive attitude helps me remain self-satisfied which feeds into my happiness. With the help of friends, family, and an assertive attitude, I am able to maintain a joyful disposition.

Life should not be lived with only ones self in mind. Helping others is important because it enriches ones own life by bringing joy into other peoples lives. Also, community services are important because they aid to the betterment of the society in which we live. I am active in several community organizations including: Food Not Bombs (where we cook all vegan meals to serve on Sundays downtown) and Free Radio Asheville (a micro-powered radio station that stands up for the First Amendment Rights of all Americans). I find that I feel better about myself when I give something back to the community in which I live because I know that my actions are having direct effects upon the microcosm of our society which the town I live in portrays.

The meaning of life is to become enlightened upon as many different views and opinions as possible while remaining open, understanding, and happy. However, a life cannot be lived all for itself. Helping others, and giving to your community is an invaluable gift that you can give to the world.

It's friendship, right? Or maybe not. People who cannot stand being alone are ultimately not very interesting.

There isn't one.

Life is meaningless because it ends in death.

Obviously your own beliefs about the world, religious or otherwise, will dictate how you feel about this. But this is what I have learned:

"A man can do nothing better than to eat and drink and find satisfaction in his work." Ecclesiastes 2:24 (NIV)

"I know there is nothing better for men than to be happy and do good while they live. That everyone may eat and drink, and find satisfaction in all his toil--this is the gift of God." Ecclesiastes 3:12-13 (NIV)

...and so on...

This isn't meant to be as depressing as "eat, drink, and be merry, for tomorrow you may die", although in the end that is basically what it boils down to.

The best thing to do is take it as a release: don't bother worrying about why in your life; just live, with all the soul you have. It is its own reason, its own meaning.

To quote a Sproutling from Legend of Mana:

"To live... is to live."

The meaning of life. That is the topic everyone wants an answer for, and what everyone seems to have an answer for.

I used to think the love of God, or a significant other was the only thing that really filled the holes, making us complete. But over the past few years, I've begun to re-evaluate that belief.

Perhaps the meaning of life is to realize that from the very beginning, when we appear from the womb, that we are complete.

What I mean is that even from the moment we're born, we have no needs, wants, or desires. Now I know what you're thinking. "Infants need care, nutrition, and attention." Sure, these things are necessary for survival, but being complete does not necessarily incorporate survival.

So here is where my idea comes in. I think we go through our lives, creating situations, quests, and tasks for ourselves to fill these voids in which we have created for ourselves. The only true purpose for humans is to actually realize that we are complete, to break free of the illusions. It would take our entire lives to come to this realization. Life has to be lived to its fullest before we can realize that it was unnecessary for anything but the realization that where we have arrived is indeed exactly where we started. It's an interesting paradox. We are complete from the beginning, and find ourselves unable to cope with that reality

...And thus it continues. Wars, capitalism, religion, politics... When a person is stripped of all worldly belongings, he/she is left with one thing, themselves. When you think of it, a person is theoretically capable of sustaining life without the aid of worldly possesions (Yes, I know this is highly unlikely in the real world, but lets be hypothetical for a moment). A person can enter and exit this life without knowing love, beliefs, religion, the capital of Alaska, or even how to feed themselves like "humans."

I am directed to one case in where an uneducated farmer's daughter concieved a baby girl. Her father strictly said "I don't wanna hear no baby crying, and I sure as hell don't wanna see it." He allowed her to keep the baby in the attic. The mother brought her food daily. Other than that, there was little or no interaction with the child. She did not develop language skills, could only communicate in gutteral grunts, and ate like a dog, lapping the food up with her tongue. The authorities finally found the girl around age 7 or 8. She was passed around foster homes for a while till she died at age 11. There was little progress made with her, but caretakers did manage to get some basic physical communication out of her. There was little or no progress made with vocal communication. The girl died, having not been influenced for 8 of her 11 years by the outside world. She lived in the attic, content because she didn't know any better. She was complete, and did not need the outside world to make it so. My point is, anything we do in this world is just wasting time till either we A)Realize our completion, or B) Die trying. We need nothing in this world, and anything we do detracts from our ultimate goal.

So what impetus is there to continue after realizing such a thing? Well, there really would be no point in continuing. Perhaps that is why people who have lived a full life die peacefully. They are absolutely sure that they are complete, and always have been.

But then again, what do I know? I'm just a newbie.

Thanks to Jim Lindsay for the discussion that led to this post

The Meaning of Life: a philosophical approach

People may be surprised to learn that analysing the meaning of life has not been central to the western philosophical tradition. Philosophers in the English-speaking world have focused for the past 100 years on analytical philosophy, reluctant to consider big questions which they felt could not be tackled in a rigorous way. The meaning of life was also in the past a matter that was addressed by religion rather than philosophy.

However, in recent years, a number of thinkers including Thomas Nagel and Robert Nozick have considered the topic. It has also become important in twentieth century European philosophy, particularly in the writing of existentialists such as Jean-Paul Sartre.

Here I will consider what the question "What is the meaning of life?" actually means, and I will show how some people have attempted to answer it. The modern philosophical approach takes a number of lines of attack, sometimes looking at what people are talking about when they talk about "the meaning of life", sometimes considering what goals would be valid, beneficial and non-self-contradictory, and sometimes considering the different ways different things can have "meaning". Many of these answers are concerned with what sort of life we should live, and what the goals of human existence should be, but some of them find other sorts of meaning, and some find no meaning at all.

The question, and why it matters

What is "the meaning of life"? Or specifically, what sort of thing is a meaning of life? Would we recognise it if we found it? What are we looking for? We must answer all these questions before we embark on any inquiry.

Traditionally, "the meaning of life" has been taken as roughly synonymous with "the purpose of life". Therefore, if you ask, "what is the meaning of life?" you really want to be told what you need to do to live a good life, or what goals you should be striving for in life.

On the other hand, some people think the meaning of life should tell them why life is better than death, why they should bother living, or why they should respect human life. But the meaning of something is not always the same as its value. An example of this is a painting, which may well have a meaning, and may also have a value, and a painting with a meaning may be more valuable than one without a meaning, but the meaning and the value are not the same thing.

Historical answers

Although philosophers in the past 2500 years have spend more time debating other topics such as the nature of knowledge, what it means to call an action good, and the relationship between names and objects, the topic of the meaning of life has been addressed by a variety of people. Philosophers from Aristotle to the present day have set out to ask what the goal of life is, and how that goal should be reached.

Aristotle was far more concerned with the question of how to live a good life than most western philosophers. He believed that the highest goal was a state of contemplative wisdom. The way to reach this, he felt, was to lead a balanced life, doing all things in moderation, being neither foolhardy nor cowardly, neither indifferent to others nor over-emotional, neither passive nor domineering. However, it is not certain how applicable these rules are to all circumstances1, and few people these days desire to spend their days in a quiet contemplation.

After Aristotle's day, the main force in Europe promoting the idea of the purpose and meaning of life has been the Christian church. A central principle of Christianity is that only a divine plan gives life meaning. Ultimately, the consequences of our actions in leading a good life will be the glorification of God and a place in Heaven.

The Christian view depends on two principles, that a meaning of life must be imposed from outside by an omnipotent being, and the idea that only immortality can give life meaning: "If we are to believe that all our striving is without final consequence, life is meaningless ... it scarcely matters how we live if all will end in dust and death" 2. Both of these suppositions will be attacked below. In addition, you can argue from observation that any apparent grand plan which someone claims exists is flawed (see David Hume's Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion).

More recently, science has fundementally altered our views of the origins of life, and hence of its purpose. Science suggests life is contingent, with no external power giving meaning to it. According to William Grey, biology gives a causal explanation of "why are we here?" but not a teleological explanation3. In other words, it can tell you why you exist, if what you want to hear about is evolution and genetics and star formation and protein synthesis, but it cannot tell you the purpose of this.

Following on from this, the existentialism of Jean-Paul Sartre is a branch of modern philosophy which places the meaninglessness of life at its heart. Sartre begins by considering questions of existence and essence. He finds he must start with the fact that he exists, an existence which in the absence of God has no external purpose. Whether he was born or not is of no interest to any cosmic force. From there he must construct his own human nature: "Man, with no support and no aid, is condemned every moment to invent man". The meaning of life must be determined by each person on his or her own: he "exists only to the extent that he fulfills himself; he is therefore nothing else than the ensemble of his acts, nothing else than his life." (Quotes from Jean-Paul Sartre, "Existentialism is a Humanism").


A common criticism to the quest for a meaning to life is: how can something which is finite have a meaning or a purpose? According to this objection, life is short, and we will soon be dead and forgotten. People saying this believe something must be eternal to have a meaning. Clearly many things which have meanings are abstract, and thus eternal or everlasting, for instance mathematical symbols.

However, if we consider practical examples from life we see that not all meanings are eternal, for example the grades on a college assignment have meaning only until you get your degree. Some things mean a lot at the time, but their value proves to be ephemeral.

We can also approach the question from another angle and ask, could eternal life have a meaning? Bernard Williams has argued that only a finite life has meaning, because infinite life would be intolerable, and we would eventually tire of it.4 In fact, being short might give life more meaning. Being close to death seems to increase many people's desires to accomplish things. And the fact that we fear death so much indicates that life has value and importance, at least to ourselves.

Does it matter if we don't have a meaning?

For those who do not believe in a god, modern science seems to suggest that life is contingent and without a masterplan. Life has not been created with any purpose. We are just a collection of organic molecules thrown into existence by complex statistical and chemical processes. No higher power cares if we live or die. Life in that sense has no meaning.

This may be an insuperable problem for some people. With no one to tell you what to do, what is there to fall back on? Is there any way of knowing what is right or wrong, what you should or shouldn't do? In practice, most people find answers to these problems. People seem to have a natural need to invent goals, tasks, purposes and beliefs. So does it matter if life has no God-given meaning? If we treat life as though it has a meaning, does that make life valuable in itself? To answer this, it is necessary to consider what are the legitimate sources of value and purpose.

The source of meaning

The debate above focussed largely upon whether meaning must be externally given or can be internally given. For a Christian, meaning is defined by the will of God and the teachings of Jesus and the prophets. Similar considerations tell a Jew or a Moslem the purpose, goal and meaning of life. The meaning of life is to follow the rules of a religion, obey its precepts, love and worship its God. This might lead you to question whether a meaning not derived from an external source is valid. Does the absence of religion and a higher intelligence mean life can have no meaning?

In fact you can turn the question around. Is an externally-given purpose sufficient? A chicken in a factory farm has a purpose to its life, to produce eggs or be killed and eaten. This bird has a meaning to its life, but such a purpose would not be sufficient for a human being. (Incidentally, a similar thing applies to all moral principles: is the fact that an instruction is given by God sufficient to ensure that it is moral? If God demanded you to kill your child, as he did of Abraham, would you be justified to refuse? Is there a higher law than that of God? Such issues cannot be answered here, but they suggest we might dispute an externally-imposed meaning of life, even if one was to be found.)

If we reject external forces as the source for the meaning of life, or fail to find any meaning in the universe, it is left to us to give our own lives meaning. If we are choosing our own meaning, this raises another development. Perhaps there are different rules for different people; perhaps the meaning of life varies according to who you are.

Maybe when people are looking for the meaning of life they should look inward, not outwards. If you are asking "what is the meaning of life?" you might need to unlock your inner goals. The psychologist Lawrence Kohlberg felt that people moved through six stages of personal development. 1) respect for power and punishment, aged 1-5, 2) self-interest, aged 5-10, 3) seeking approval, aged around 8-16, 4) internalised social rules, aged 16 and over, 5) belief in democracy as a social contract which is only ever achieved by some people, culminating in the rarer-still stage 6, where people formulate their own moral principles and seek to live by them.5

However, there are a number of things which people commonly regard as giving life meaning. Many of the simpler ideas fall apart quickly under philosophical inspection, but we are left with a number of ideas that show how people can and do attach a purpose to life.

Common ideas

If you ask people to come up with the goal of life, the single reason we are here on this planet, there are a few answers you might hear. Some of these derive from philosophies or religions, while others appear common sense. However, these simple ideas all prove somewhat inadequate, leading to the conclusion that the meaning of life is not one thing, but is a cluster of elements and ideas.

To help others. Altruism is commonly considered a virtue. However, it arguably has most value in a world where everyone else is selfish. It fails as a universal principle. If the highest goal is to help others, then no one would accept help or let another person put him or herself out for you.

To reproduce. Many people believe the single thing that gives their lives most meaning is to have children, which ensures a little bit of immortality, both in passing on their DNA and in passing on their wisdom. According to the philosopher Schopenhauer, Will, the driving force of human beings, seeks to perpetuate itself through history. However, it is unclear where the value lies in a perpetual sequence of reproduction if the lives being lived are not themeselves of value. If all we do is pass on the same struggle to our children, is that a gift? And even if you see it as a way of achieving immortality, an eternal series perpetuating through existence would rapidly lose all track of who you are in memory and diluted genes, and in any case the universe may be finite in time (either through heat death or contraction).

To achieve the maximum pleasure for oneself. Hedonism is an ancient goal of mankind, promoted in a moderate form by the Epicureans as the highest good. But there are practical problems. Is it better to live a short and very happy life or a long and content one? And most people would not want (if given the chance) to spend the rest of their days hooked up to a morphine drip, never moving; or living as a brain in a tank fed pleasurable perceptions through wires.

The features of a meaning of life

People find a meaning to their lives in a number of ways. Most common is through personal relationships, although commitment to a political cause or occasionally another goal (e.g. science and art) can give life purpose. What are the factors that determine the meaningfulness of a life?

Meaning derives from impact. People feel their lives are so small when compared to the immensity of space and time. This makes them feel their lives have no meaning. However, while we can't affect the universe, but we can affect some things. A component of the meaning of life is therefore the desire to make an impact, to leave a legacy, to make a change, to erect a monument more lasting than bronze. Is the desire to produce things and leave things behind good? It produces great works, but it may not be sufficient: it ignores the ephemeral and privileges the future against the present.

Meaning derives from relationships. Our lives get meanings as we come to matter to other people. Meanings are often conferred to things not in isolation, but in groups. And our lives can come to have meanings if they are assigned value by other people who depend on us. There is however a problem with this: can meaning be conferred by other people if their lives have no meaning either? We may be able to circumvent this objection if you are working towards a greater goal, although that presupposes the existence of a greater goal.

Meaning derives from activities. Real experiences seem to give life meaning, while false experiences do not. This is why people would not want to spend their life as a brain in a tank watching Simpsons reruns while a steady trickle of single malt Scotch runs through their veins. Many people devote a large amount of time to seeking out authentic experiences, for example backpacking through Asia. The meaning of life must derive from interaction with the world, from sensation and feeling.

Symbolic meaning

Finally there is another type of meaning. Things can have meaning as symbols. In this case, the meaning is not intrinsic, and is not necessarily felt by the person living the life. But they come to represent something enormously important to other people.

Many people's lives have meanings as icons, exemplars or stories. Marilyn Monroe, Kurt Cobain, John F. Kennedy, and Jesus all have distinctive cultural significances as heroes or victims. Their lives have meanings, although in those cases the meanings all come from deaths. But other people can serve as symbols while still alive: Nelson Mandela became a symbol of the possible freedom of South Africa while in prison, and his release took on enormous symbolic importance as a result.

Of course, there is no necessity for a meaning to be a good one. Myra Hindley had become a symbol of pure evil before her recent death, and Adolf Hitler, Chairman Mao and Stalin will doubtless be remembered for far longer than any of their victims. This sort of meaning to life is haphazard, depending on a myth-making machine, although self-publicity may go a long way, and doing something of value or note is nearly essential.

The answer

In conclusion, the meaning of life is...

...not anything I can tell you. It isn't something a philosopher can impose on you. This article should have shown that it is not even something your god, goddess or pantheon of assorted divinities can tell you. Hopefully, the above account will act as a guide, by telling what features will give your life meaning, and what will prove to be irrelevant or valueless. But I don't recommend you spend too much time worrying about it. To that intent, I shall finish with a proverb. Life is like Moby-Dick: Ahab and the whale are cool and there's lots of interesting stuff about nineteenth-century seafaring, but if you try and work out what it all means, you'll only go mad and ruin it for yourself.

On the other hand, if you are up in your attic one day this winter, and you come across a little black book with a silver lock, and if you can find the key, and within you find an answer, please tell me what it says.


1Richard Kraut, "Aristotle's Ethics", Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, May 1, 2001, <http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/aristotle-ethics/, accessed December 5, 2002.

2(Clark, C.H.D. 1958 1967. Christianity and Bertrand Russell. Quoted in Paul Edwards, "Meaning of Life." In The Encyclopedia of Philosophy, ed. P. Edwards, 4:467-77. New York: Macmillan. Quoted by William Grey, "Evolution and the Meaning of Life", Zygon Vol 22, No 4 (1987), pp. 479-496, reprinted at <http://www.uq.edu.au/~pdwgrey/pubs/meanlife.html>, accessed December 5, 2002.

3William Grey, "Evolution and the Meaning of Life", Zygon Vol 22, No 4 (1987), pp. 479-496, reprinted at <http://www.uq.edu.au/~pdwgrey/pubs/meanlife.html, accessed December 5, 2002.

4Bernard Williams. 1973. "The Makropulos Case." In Problems of the Self, 81-100. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, referenced in William Grey, "Evolution and the Meaning of Life", Zygon Vol 22, No 4 (1987), pp. 479-496, reprinted at <http://www.uq.edu.au/~pdwgrey/pubs/meanlife.html>, accessed December 5, 2002.

5 L Kohlberg The psychology of moral development: The nature and validity of moral stages. Harper and Row, San Francisco, 1984. Discussed in Clayton E. Tucker-Ladd, "Psychological Self-Help", Mental Health Net, <http://mentalhelp.net/psyhelp/>, accessed December 5, 2002.


This write-up is based in part on my recollections the course on The Meaning of Life, taught as part of the philosophy honours program at the University of Edinburgh, Scotland. It also draws on the following sources:
  • Brenda Almond, "What's The Meaning of All This?", reprinted from Philosophy Now Issue 24, 1999, <http://www.philosophynow.demon.co.uk/almond.htm>, accessed December 5, 2002.
  • Keith Augustine, "Death and the Meaning of Life", Internet Infidels, <http://www.infidels.org/library/modern/features/2000/augustine1.html>, accessed December 5, 2002.
  • William Grey, "Evolution and the Meaning of Life", Zygon Vol 22, No 4 (1987), pp. 479-496, reprinted at <http://www.uq.edu.au/~pdwgrey/pubs/meanlife.html>, accessed December 5, 2002.
  • Richard Kraut, "Aristotle's Ethics", Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, May 1, 2001, <http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/aristotle-ethics/>, accessed December 5, 2002.
  • Thomas Nagel, What Does It All Mean? A Very Short Introduction to Philosophy, Oxford University Press, Oxford, 1987.
  • David Schmidtz, "The Meanings of Life", 2001, <http://info-center.ccit.arizona.edu/~phil/faculty/extra/dschmidtz/dschmidtz_meanings_of_life.htm>, accessed December 5, 2002.
  • Clayton E. Tucker-Ladd, "Psychological Self-Help", Mental Health Net, <http://mentalhelp.net/psyhelp/>, accessed December 5, 2002.

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