What is the meaning of life?

The question ‘What is the meaning of life?’ appears to imply there is some answer out there that can be discovered. However, the fact that we can ask a question does not mean it must have an answer. Indeed, ‘What is the meaning of life?’ is a strange sort of question. We normally ask for the meaning of something when we are asking for the meaning of words or sentences, but that is not what people are doing when they ask about the meaning of life. It does not, then, appear obvious what the question itself means.

Nonetheless, ‘What is the meaning of life?’ is a question many people ask. So the question must make some sense to them. It would appear, for most, it is connected with the desire to feel that our lives are worth something, that our lives are not completely pointless and devoid of value or direction. As conscious, thinking, and feeling beings it is difficult to escape this need.

Living without an ‘ultimate’ meaning of life

Some people believe that there is some ‘ultimate’ meaning of life, that there must be a bigger, grander meaning or purpose that lies beyond us. Without such a universal purpose, they may argue that something must be missing from our lives. Our existence is in some sense devalued, they say. But that is not the only way to understand it.

‘So why this sense that the atheist worldview lacks something? Perhaps it is that, for many, the worldview they have come to assume contains religion. A worldview without it therefore looks like a jigsaw puzzle with some large and vital pieces missing – take away religion and it just doesn’t look complete. But this is an illusion created by the assumption that religion has a part. To overcome this, it is necessary to try to see the atheist worldview as complete in itself, and not as the religious world view with key parts removed. Then the list of what atheists do believe in will seem to be as it is: more than enough to fill a life.’

Humanist Philosophers Group

There would also be difficult questions raised if our purpose were determined by a force external to ourselves:

‘Having our purposes laid down by an all-powerful being could, from one point of view, be regarded as the very opposite of a meaningful existence. If we were placed in a society where our functions were assigned to us by a ruling power, or if we were to discover that our brains had been designed by a powerful computer programmer who decided for us what goals we should pursue, we should hardly feel that our lives had suddenly become charged with meaning. We – most of us – want to be free to adopt our own purposes and decide for ourselves how to live, and we may feel that if we were not able to shape our own lives they could have no meaning for us. So can’t we say that the meaning of life consists simply in that – in choosing and perusing our own goals and finding satisfaction in the achievement of them? Isn’t that enough? Why do we need to derive our purposes from an external source?’

Richard Norman, Handbook of Humanism

Is meaning then created not discovered?

For humanists, who do not believe in a god or an afterlife, there is no reason to think there must be a hidden, external, or ‘ultimate’ meaning of life: life isn’t ‘for’ anything, it just is. There is no underlying purpose to it all. We know we are the product of evolution – the outcome of random variations over billions of years – so there is no reason to think our individual existence is part of any grand plan.

The humanist may then say that it is up to us to decide what the meanings and purposes of our own lives will be. It is an open question as to whether such meanings can be ‘found’, ‘created’, or simply ‘experienced’. However, we are able to endow our own lives with a sense of direction and purpose – we can make our own lives meaningful. To many humanists this knowledge can provide a sense of both freedom and relief.

‘…we philosophers and “free spirits” feel illuminated by a new dawn; our heart overflows with gratitude, amazement, forebodings, expectation - finally the horizon seems clear again, even if not bright; finally our ships may set out again, set out to face any danger; every daring of the lover of knowledge is allowed again; the sea, our sea, lies open again; maybe there has never been such an “open sea”.’

Friedrich Nietzsche, The Gay Science

Question: How might we make our own lives meaningful?

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This article is from the free online course:

Introducing Humanism: Non-religious Approaches to Life

Humanists UK