What is the Meaning of Life?
The meaning of life is that which we choose to give it.
Posted Mar 03, 2018
[Article revised on 1 January 2021.]
The question of the meaning of life is perhaps one that we would rather not ask, for fear of the answer or lack thereof.
Still today, many people believe that we, humankind, are the creation of a supernatural entity called God, that God had an intelligent purpose in creating us, and that this intelligent purpose is "the meaning of life".
I do not propose to rehearse the well-worn arguments for and against the existence of God, and still less to take a side. But even if God exists, and even if He had an intelligent purpose in creating us, no one really knows what this purpose might be, or that it is especially meaningful.
The Second Law of Thermodynamics states that the entropy of a closed system—including the universe itself—increases up to the point at which equilibrium is reached, and God’s purpose in creating us, and, indeed, all of nature, might have been no more lofty than to catalyse this process much as soil organisms catalyse the decomposition of organic matter.
If our God-given purpose is to act as super-efficient heat dissipators, then having no purpose at all is better than having this sort of purpose—because it frees us to be the authors of our purpose or purposes and so to lead truly dignified and meaningful lives.
In fact, following this logic, having no purpose at all is better than having any kind of pre-determined purpose, even more traditional, uplifting ones such as serving God or improving our karma.
In short, even if God exists, and even if He had an intelligent purpose in creating us (and why should He have had?), we do not know what this purpose might be, and, whatever it might be, we would rather be able to do without it, or at least to ignore or discount it. For unless we can be free to become the authors of our own purpose or purposes, our lives may have, at worst, no purpose at all, and, at best, only some unfathomable and potentially trivial purpose that is not of our own choosing.
You or others might object that not to have a pre-determined purpose is, really, not to have any purpose at all. But this is to believe that for something to have a purpose, it must have been created with that particular purpose in mind, and, moreover, must still be serving that same original purpose.
Many Junes ago, I visited the vineyards of Châteauneuf-du-Pape in the South of France. One evening, I picked up a rounded stone called a galet which I took back to Oxford and put to good use as a book-end.
In the vineyards of Châteauneuf-du-Pape, these stones serve to capture the heat of the sun and release it back into the cool of the night, helping the grapes to ripen. Of course, these stones were not created with this or any other purpose in mind. Even if they had been created for a purpose, it would almost certainly not have been to make great wine or serve as book-ends.
That same evening over supper, I got my friends to blind taste a bottle of Bordeaux—an evil trick, given that we were in the Rhône. To disguise the bottle, I slipped it into one of a pair of socks. Unlike the galet, the sock had been created with a clear purpose in mind, albeit one very different from (although not strictly incompatible with) the one that it came to assume on that joyful evening.
You might yet object that talk about the meaning of life is neither here nor there because life is merely a prelude to some form of eternal afterlife, and this, if you will, is its purpose.
But I can marshal up at least four arguments against this position:
- It is not at all clear that there is, or even can be, some form of eternal afterlife that entails the survival of the personal ego.
- Even if there were such an afterlife, living for ever is not in itself a purpose. The concept of the afterlife merely displaces the problem to one remove, begging the question: what then is the purpose of the afterlife? If the afterlife has a pre-determined purpose, again, we do not know what that is, and, whatever it is, we would rather be able to do without it.
Reliance on an eternal afterlife not only postpones the question of life’s purpose, but also dissuades or at least discourages us from determining a purpose or purposes for what may be the only life that we do have.
If it is the brevity or finiteness of human life that gives it shape and purpose (an argument associated with the philosopher Bernard Williams), then an eternal afterlife cannot, in and of itself, have any purpose.
So, whether or not God exists, whether or not He gave us a purpose, and whether or not there is an eternal afterlife, we are better off creating our own purpose or purposes.
To put this in Sartrean (or existentialist) terms, whereas for the galet it is true only that existence precedes essence, for the sock it is true both that essence precedes existence (when the sock is used on a human foot) and that existence precedes essence (when the sock is used for an unintended purpose, for example, as a bottle sleeve). We human beings are either like the rock or the sock, but whichever we are like, we are better off creating our own purpose or purposes.
Plato once defined man as an animal, biped, featherless, and with broad nails (thereby excluding plucked chickens); but another, much better definition that he gave was simply this: "A being in search of meaning."
Human life may not have been created with any pre-determined purpose, but this need not mean that it cannot have a purpose, or that this purpose cannot be just as good as, if not much better than, any pre-determined one.
And so the meaning of life, of our life, is that which we choose to give it.
But how to choose?
In Man’s Search for Meaning, the psychiatrist and neurologist Viktor Frankl (d. 1997) wrote about his ordeal as a concentration camp inmate during the Second World War.
Tellingly, Frankl found that those who survived longest in the concentration camp were not those who were physically strong, but those who retained a sense of control over their environment.
We who lived in concentration camps can remember the men who walked through the huts comforting others, giving away their last piece of bread. They may have been few in number, but they offer sufficient proof that everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of human freedoms—to choose one’s own attitude in any given set of circumstances—to choose one’s own way.
Frankl’s message is ultimately one of hope: even in the most absurd, painful, and dispiriting of circumstances, life can still be given a meaning, and so too can suffering.
After his release, Frankl founded the school of logotherapy (from the Greek logos, meaning "reason" or "principle"), which is sometimes referred to as the "Third Viennese School of Psychotherapy" for coming after those of Freud and Adler. The aim of logotherapy is to carry out an existential analysis of the person, and, in so doing, to help her uncover or discover meaning for her life.
According to Frankl, meaning can be found through:
- Experiencing reality by interacting authentically with the environment and with others.
- Giving something back to the world through creativity and self-expression, and,
- Changing our attitude when faced with a situation or circumstance that we cannot change.
"The point," said Frankl, '"is not what we expect from life, but rather what life expects from us."