Definitions

disputant

Meaning of life

The meaning of life constitutes a philosophical question concerning the purpose and significance of human existence.

The concept can be expressed through a variety of related questions, such as Why are we here? and What is the meaning of it all?. It has been the subject of much philosophical, scientific, and theological speculation throughout history and there have been a large number of answers from many different cultural and ideological backgrounds.

The meaning of life is deeply intertwined with the philosophical and religious conceptions of existence, consciousness, and happiness, and touches on many other issues, such as symbolic meaning, ontology, value, purpose, ethics, good and evil, free will, the existence of God, the soul and the afterlife. Scientific contributions are more indirect; by describing the empirical facts about the universe, science provides some context and sets parameters for conversations on related topics.

Introduction

Questions about the meaning of life have been expressed in a broad variety of ways, including, but not limited to, the following:

  • What is the meaning of life? What's it all about?
  • Why are we here? What are we here for?
  • What is the origin of life?
  • What is the nature of life? What is the nature of reality?
  • What is the purpose of life? What is one's purpose in life?
  • What is the significance of life?
  • What is meaningful and valuable in life?
  • What is the value of life?
  • What is the reason to live? What are we living for?

In general, these questions arise from dissatisfaction with life, some aspect of it: where people have difficulty understanding why particular things happen or why the world is the way it is, they seek broader understandings that might help them make meaning out of it. They may even turn to philosophy or theology to provide broad, universal responses to these dissatisfactions. The emphasis of particular questions, and of the answers given to them, are heavily influenced by cultural and philosophical preconceptions, but usually fall into one or more of the following groups:Attempts to find meaning in subjective sensory experience:This may involve a focus on immediate experience and gratification, as in various forms of hedonism or carpe diem philosophies, or in long-term efforts at the creation of an aesthetically pleasing life, as with epicurianism.Attempts to understand, emulate, or instantiate ideal types or states:In some cases this involves purification of the self or other objects, or renunciation of behaviors or objects considered to be imperfect, in order to 'make oneself worthy' of the solution. This often involves practices or rituals, as in Catholicism's practices of communion and confession or the ritual offerings offered in Hindu practice, but may be simple idealization, as in the ancient Greek notion of arete and modern self-help practices of visualizing positive outcomes. In some cases, this may entail imitation or emulation of divine figures: the repetition of Christ's torments in flagellation, or the presence of avatars in Hindu thought.Attempts to create a civic society:Conceptions of brotherly love, universal tolerance, mutual respect, and similar constructs are often advanced as a way to structure a meaningful life for all. Similarly, moral codes and moral structures are often advanced by faiths as a way of maintaining peace and civility. Often these conceptions are connected with some notion of an afterlife where society is perfect and non-problematic; they are practiced in this life in order to ensure entry into the next.Freedom from innate restrictions or conditions:This asserts that there is an 'authentic' or 'natural' way of life which obviates the dissatisfaction of normal (inauthentic or unnatural) existence. Sometimes this is envisioned as submission to a divine or natural order, as in taoism's encouragement to follow the tao or Christian references to God's plan. In other cases, it reflects complete liberation: freedom from all karmic influences in dharmic faiths, or the freedom from social constraints suggested by nihilism

Perspectives from antiquity

Prior to the expansion of the major universal religions - from the first or second centuries BCE to the sixth century CE, depending on the faith - the meaning of life was investigated in terms of human potential and the relationship of individuals to the natural world. Devotion to god or gods was an important aspect of some traditions, but was generally viewed in terms of personal development (as in the Hindu relationship between atman and brahman, or as a social relationship, as in the Jewish covenant. Other traditions relied heavily on reason, discipline, or the development of other human faculties, either as meaningful in their own right, or as tools to reach other meanings.

Hinduism

Hinduism is a diverse religion: there are some tenets accepted by most Hindus, but no doctrines that are universally accepted by all. Most believe that the ātman (spirit, soul) — the person's true self — is eternal. In part, this stems from Hindu beliefs that spiritual development occurs across many lifetimes, and goals should match the state of development of the individual. there are four possible aims to human life, known as the purusharthas (ordered from least to greatest): Kāma (love and sensual pleasure), Artha (wealth), Dharma (righteousness, morality), and Moksha (liberation from the reincarnation cycle).

In the monist theologies of Hinduism, such as the Advaita Vedanta school, the ātman is indistinct from the supreme spirit, Brahman, "The One Without a Second". The goal of life is to know that one's atman (soul) is identical to Brahman, the supreme soul. To the Upanishads, whoever becomes fully aware of the ātman, as one's core of self, realises identity with Brahman, and, thereby, achieves Moksha (liberation, freedom). The notion of lila (play) denotes the universe as cosmic game, wherein meaning is a "play of significance". Lila is manifest in the inexhaustible richness of being and event that are the keys to the meaning of life.

Other Hindu schools, such as the dualist Dvaita Vedanta and other bhakti schools, posit Brahman as a Supreme Being with a personality. In said conceptions, the ātman depends upon Brahman; the meaning of life is achieving Moksha through love of God and upon his grace.

Judaism

Judaism's most important is belief in a single, omniscient, omnipotent, omnibenevolent, transcendent God, who created the universe and governs it. Per traditional Judaism, God established a covenant with the Jewish people, at Mount Sinai, revealing his laws and commandments in the Torah. In Rabbinic Judaism, the Torah comprises the written Pentateuch (Torah) and the oral law tradition (later transcribed as sacred writing).

In the Judaic world view, the purpose of life is to serve God and to prepare for the world to come. The "Olam Haba" thought is about elevating oneself spiritually, connecting to God in preparing for "Olam Haba"; Jewish thought is to use "Olam Hazeh" (this world) to elevate oneself.

Zoroastrianism

In a trinomial, Good and Evil World, Zoroastrianism's meaning of life is in acknowledging that people are responsible for their moral choices. Zoroaster's philosophical religion promises a hellish Afterlife to men and women who choose evil; and a heavenly Afterlife and a physical reprise of Earthly life.

Jainism

Jainism is a religion originating in ancient India, its ethical system promotes self-discipline above all else. Through following the ascetic teachings of Jina, a human achieves enlightenment (perfect knowledge). Jainism divides the universe into living and non-living beings. Only when the non-living become attached to the living does suffering result. Therefore, happiness is the result of self-conquest and freedom from external objects. The meaning of life may then be said to be to use of the physical body to achieve self-realization and bliss.

Jains believe that every human is responsible for his or her actions and all living beings have an eternal soul, jīva. Jains believe all souls are equal because they all possess the potential of being liberated and attaining Moksha. The Jain view of karma is that every action, every word, every thought produces, besides its visible, an invisible, transcendental effect on the soul.

Jainism includes strict adherence to ahimsa (or ahinsā), a form of nonviolence that goes far beyond vegetarianism. Jains refuse food obtained with unnecessary cruelty. Many practice a lifestyle similar to Veganism due to the violence of modern dairy farms, and others exclude root vegetables from their diets in order to preserve the lives of the plants from which they eat.

Early Buddhism

Buddhism is a nondual worldview, in which subject, object, and action are all seen as illusory. On this account, the meaning of life is to become enlightened to the nature and oneness of the universe.

Theravada Buddhism is generally considered to be close to the early Buddhist practice. It promotes the concept of Vibhajjavada (Pali), literally "Teaching of Analysis", which says that insight must come from the aspirant's experience, critical investigation, and reasoning instead of by blind faith. However, the Theravadin tradition also emphasizes heeding the advice of the wise, considering such advice and evaluation of one's own experiences to be the two tests by which practices should be judged. The Theravadin goal is liberation (or freedom) from suffering, according to the Four Noble Truths. This is attained in the achievement of Nibbana, or Unbinding which also ends the repeated cycle of birth, old age, sickness and death.

Taoism

The Taoists' cosmogony emphasizes the need for all sentient beings and all man to return to the primordial or to rejoin with the Oneness of the Universe by way of self-correction and self realization. It is the objective for all adherents to understand and be in tune with the ultimate truth.

Within the theology of Taoism, all men were originally a being called yuanling from Taiji and Tao, the meaning in life for the adherents is to realise the temporal nature of the existence, and all adherents are expected to practise, hone and conduct their mortal lives by way of Xiuzhen and Xiushen, as a preparation for the spiritual transcendence thereafter. "Only introspection can then help us to find our innermost reasons for living...the simple answer is here within ourselves."

Confucianism

Confucianism recognizes human nature in accordance with the need for discipline and education. Because mankind is driven by both positive and negative influences, Confucianists see a goal in achieving the good nature through strong relationships and reasoning as well as minimizing the negative energy. This emphasis on normal living is seen in the Confucianist scholar Tu Wei-Ming's quote, "we can realize the ultimate meaning of life in ordinary human existence.

Greek philosophy

Platonism

Plato was the earliest, most influential Western philosopher — mostly for realism about the existence of universals. In the Theory of Forms, universals do not physically exist, like objects, but exist as ghostly, heavenly forms. In The Republic, the Socrates character's dialogue describes the Form of the Good. The Idea of the Good is ekgonos (offspring) of the Good, the ideal, perfect nature of goodness, hence an absolute measure of justice.

In Platonism, the meaning of life is in attaining the highest form of knowledge, which is the Idea (Form) of the Good, from which all good and just things derive utility and value. Human beings are duty-bound to pursue the good, but no one can succeed in that pursuit without philosophical reasoning, which allows for true knowledge.

Aristotelianism

Aristotle, an apprentice of Plato, was another, early, most influential Western philosopher, who argued that ethical knowledge is not certain knowledge (like metaphysics and epistemology), but is general knowledge. Because it is not a theoretical discipline, a person had to study and practice in order to become 'good', thus if the person were to become virtuous, he could not simply study what virtue is, he had to be virtuous, via virtuous activities. To do this, Aristotle established what is virtuous: Every skill and every inquiry, and similarly, every action and choice of action, is thought to have some good as its object. This is why the good has rightly been defined as the object of all endeavor (NE 1.1) Everything was done with a goal in mind, and that goal is 'good'.

Yet, if action A is done towards achieving goal B, then goal B also would have a goal, goal C, and goal C also would have a goal, and so would continue this pattern, until something stopped its infinite regression. Aristotle's solution is the Highest Good, which is desirable for its own sake, it is its own goal. The Highest Good is not desirable for the sake of achieving some other good, and all other ‘goods’ desirable for its sake. This involves achieving eudaemonia, usually translated as "happiness", "well-being", "flourishing", and "excellence".

What is the highest good in all matters of action? To the name, there is almost complete agreement; for uneducated and educated alike call it happiness, and make happiness identical with the good life and successful living. They disagree, however, about the meaning of happiness. (NE 1.4)

Cynicism

In the Hellenistic period, the Cynic philosophers said that the purpose of life is living a life of Virtue that agrees with Nature. Happiness depends upon being self-sufficient and master of one's mental attitude; suffering is consequence of false judgments of value, which cause negative emotions and a concomitant vicious character.

The Cynical life rejects conventional desires for wealth, power, health, and fame, by being free of the possessions acquired in pursuing the conventional. As reasoning creatures, people could achieve happiness via rigorous training, by living in a way natural to human beings. The world equally belongs to everyone, so suffering is caused by false judgments of what is valuable and what is worthless per the customs and conventions of society.

Cyrenaicism

Cyrenaicism, founded by Aristippus of Cyrene, was an early Socratic school that emphasised only one side of Socrates's teachings — that happiness is one of the ends of moral action and that pleasure is the supreme good; thus a hedonistic world view, wherein bodily gratification is more intense than mental pleasure. Cyrenaics prefer immediate gratification to the long-term gain of delayed gratification; denial is unpleasant unhappiness.

Epicureanism

To Epicurus, the greatest good is in seeking modest pleasures, to attain tranquility and freedom from fear (ataraxia) via knowledge, friendship, and virtuous, temperate living; bodily pain (aponia) is absent through one's knowledge of the workings of the world and of the limits of one's desires. Combined, freedom from pain and freedom from fear are happiness in its highest form. Epicurus's lauded enjoyment of simple pleasures, is quasi-ascetic abstention from sex and the appetites:

When we say . . . that pleasure is the end and aim, we do not mean the pleasures of the prodigal or the pleasures of sensuality, as we are understood to do, by some, through ignorance, prejudice or wilful misrepresentation. By pleasure we mean the absence of pain in the body and of trouble in the soul. It is not by an unbroken succession of drinking bouts and of revelry, not by sexual lust, nor the enjoyment of fish, and other delicacies of a luxurious table, which produce a pleasant life; it is sober reasoning, searching out the grounds of every choice and avoidance, and banishing those beliefs through which the greatest tumults take possession of the soul.

The Epicurean meaning of life rejects immortality and mysticism; there is a soul, but it is as mortal as the body. There is no afterlife, yet, one need not fear death, because "Death is nothing to us; for that which is dissolved, is without sensation, and that which lacks sensation is nothing to us".

Stoicism

Stoicism teaches that living according to reason and virtue is to be in harmony with the universe's divine order, entailed by one's recognition of the universal logos (reason), an essential value of all people. The meaning of life is freedom from suffering through apatheia (Gr: απαθεια), that is, being objective, having "clear judgement", not indifference.

Stoicism's prime directives are virtue, reason, and natural law, abided to develop personal self-control and mental fortitude as means of overcoming destructive emotions. The Stoic does not seek to extinguish emotions, only to avoid emotional troubles, by developing clear judgement and inner calm through diligently practiced logic, reflection, and concentration.

The Stoic ethical foundation is that good lies in the state of the soul, itself, exemplified in wisdom and self-control, thus improving one's spiritual well-being: "Virtue consists in a will which is in agreement with Nature". The principle applies to one's personal relations thus: "to be free from anger, envy, and jealousy".

Pre-modern perspectives

The rise of universal religions marks a shift from concerns about personal potential and relationships to the natural world, to a focus on more profound forms of devotion and all-inclusive salvation. In the Christian, Muslim, and Sikh faiths, this manifested as subjection to God: salvation was not a personal achievement, but rather a token of God's grace to be earned by the devout. Eastern traditions like Buddhism and Hinduism, likewise, moved from their primary focus on individual liberation to more abstract ideals of liberation for all. In all, this era magnified and generalized ideals of love, compassion, and relief of human suffering that had little or no place in earlier philosophy.

Christianity

Though Christianity has its roots in Judaism, and shares much of the latter faith's ontology, its central beliefs derive from the teachings of Jesus Christ, as presented in the New Testament. Life's purpose in Christianity is to seek divine salvation through the grace of God and intercession of Christ. The New Testament speaks of God wanting to have a relationship with humans both in this life and the life to come, which can happen only if one's sins are forgiven (). In the Christian view humankind is inherently and innately sinful, but Christ's death and resurrection provide the means for transcending that impure state (). The means for doing so varies between different sects, but all rely on one form or another of subjugation to God's will.

Creating and sustaining a relationship with God, under the Christian view, is the basic purpose of human existence.

Catholics believe that penance is required in earning forgiveness of sin, especially mortal sin. Orthodox Protestants and evangelicals do not believe that one's actions, in themselves, have an impact upon one's personal salvation and entry to Heaven; instead, one's acceptance of Christ as saviour and repentance of sin determine existential fate.

In the Westminster Shorter Catechism, the first question is: What is the chief end of Man?, that is, What is Man's main purpose?. The answer is: Man's chief end is to glorify God, and enjoy him forever. God requires one to obey the revealed moral law saying: love the Lord our God with all our heart, with all our soul, with all our strength, and with all our mind; and our neighbour as ourselves. The Baltimore Catechism answers the question "Why did God make you?" by saying "God made me to know Him, to love Him, and to serve Him in this world, and to be happy with Him for ever in heaven.

Mahayana Buddhism

Mahayana Buddhist schools de-emphasize the traditional view (still practiced in Theravada) of the release from individual Suffering (Dukkha) and attainment of Awakening (Nirvana). In Mahayana, the Buddha is seen as an eternal, immutable, inconceivable, omnipresent being. The fundamental principles of Mahayana doctrine are based around the possibility of universal liberation from suffering for all beings, and the existence of the transcendent Buddha-nature, which is the eternal Buddha essence present, but hidden and unrecognised, in all living beings. Philosophical schools of Mahayana Buddhism, such as Chan/Zen and the vajrayana Tibetan and Shingon schools, explicitly teach that boddhisattvas should refrain from full liberation, allowing themselves to be reincarnated into the world until all beings achieve enlightenment. Devotional schools such as Pure Land buddhism seek the aid of celestial buddhas - individuals who have spent lifetimes accumulating positive karma, and use that accumulation to aid all.

Advaita Hinduism

Islam

In Islam, Man's ultimate life objective is to seek the pleasure of Allah, by abiding the Divine guidelines revealed in the Qur'an and the Tradition of the Prophet. Earthly life, is merely a test, determining one's afterlife, either in Jannah (paradise) or in Jahannum (Hell).

For the pleasure of Allah, via the Qur'an, all Muslims must believe in God, his revelations, his angels, his messengers, and in the "Day of Judgment". The purpose to the creation of man was for glorifying and worshipping Allah: I only created jinn and man to worship Me (Qur'an 51:56). Worship testifies to the oneness of God in his lordship, his names, and his attributes. Terrenal life is a test; how one acts (behaves) determines whether one's soul goes to Jannah (Heaven) or to Jahannam (Hell).

The Five Pillars of Islam are duties incumbent to every Muslim; they are: Shahadah (profession of faith); Salah (ritual prayer); Zakah (charity); Sawm (fasting during Ramadan), and Hajj (pilgrimage to Mecca). They derive from the Hadith works, notably of Sahih Al-Bukhari and Sahih Muslim.

Beliefs differ among the Kalam. The Sunni concept of pre-destination is divine decree; like-wise, the Shi'a concept of pre-destination is divine justice; in the esoteric view of the Sufis, the universe exists only for God's pleasure; Creation is a grand game, wherein Allah is the greatest prize.

Sikhism

The monastic Sikh religion was founded by Guru Nanak Dev, the term "sikh" means student, which denotes that followers will lead their lives forever learning. This system of religious philosophy and expression has been traditionally known as the Gurmat (literally the counsel of the gurus) or the Sikh Dharma. The followers of Sikhism are ordained to follow the teachings of the ten Sikh gurus, or enlightened leaders, as well as the holy scripture entitled the Gurū Granth Sāhib, which includes selected works of many philosophers from diverse socio-economic and religious backgrounds.

The Sikh Gurus tell us that salvation can be obtained by following various spiritual paths. Therefore, Sikhs do not have a monopoly on salvation: "The Lord dwells in every heart, and every heart has its own way to reach Him." Sikhs do not consider they have an "exclusive" right to salvation. Sikhs believe that all people are equally important before God. Sikhs balance their moral and spiritual values with the quest for knowledge, and they aim to promote a life of peace and equality but also of positive action.

A key distinctive feature of Sikhism is a non-anthropomorphic concept of God, to the extent that one can interpret God as the Universe itself (pantheism). Sikhism thus sees life as an opportunity to understand this God as well as to discover the divinity which lies in each individual. While a full understanding of God is beyond human beings, Nanak described God as not wholly unknowable. God is omnipresent (sarav viāpak) in all creation and visible everywhere to the spiritually awakened. Nanak stressed that God must be seen from "the inward eye", or the "heart", of a human being: devotees must meditate to progress towards enlightenment. Nanak emphasized the revelation through meditation, as its rigorous application permits the existence of communication between God and human beings.

According to Sikhism, every creature has a soul. In death, the soul passes from one body to another until final liberation. The journey of the soul is governed by the karma of the deeds and actions we perform during our lives, and depending on the goodness or wrongdoings committed by a person in their life they will either be rewarded or punished in their next life. As the spirit of God is found in all life and matter, a soul can be passed onto other life forms, such as plants and insects - not just human bodies. A person who has evolved to achieve spiritual perfection in his lifetimes attains salvation – union with God and liberation from rebirth in the material world.

Shinto

Shinto is the native religion of Japan. Shinto means "the path of the kami", but more specifically, it can be taken to mean "the divine crossroad where the kami chooses his way". The 'divine' crossroad signifies that all the universe is divine spirit. This foundation of free will, choosing one's way, means that life is a creative process.

Shinto wants life to live, not to die. Shinto sees death as pollution and regards life as the realm where the divine spirit seeks to purify itself by rightful self-development. Shinto wants individual human life to be prolonged forever on earth as a victory of the divine spirit in preserving its objective personality in its highest forms. The presence of evil in the world, as conceived by Shinto, does not stultify the divine nature by imposing on divinity responsibility for being able to relieve human suffering while refusing to do so. The sufferings of life are the sufferings of the divine spirit in search of progress in the objective world.

Early modern perspectives

The colonial era and the Enlightenment both changed the nature of European philosophy and exported it worldwide. Devotion and subservience to God were largely replaced by notions of natural (God-given) rights and the potentialities of reason, and universal ideals of love and compassion gave way to civic notions of freedom, equality, and citizenship. The meaning of life changed as well, focussing less on humankind's relationship to God and more on the relationship between individuals and their society. This era is filled with theories that equate meaningful existence with the social order.

Utilitarianism

The origins of Utilitarianism date to Epicurus, but, as a school of thought, it is credited to Jeremy Bentham, who found that nature has placed mankind under the governance of two sovereign masters, pain and pleasure, then, from that moral insight, deriving the Rule of Utility: that the good is whatever brings the greatest happiness to the greatest number of people. Later, on grasping the conflict of principles inherent to that formulation, he revised it and dropped the second part, limiting his definition of the meaning of life to "the greatest happiness" principle.

Jeremy Bentham's foremost proponent was James Mill, a significant philosopher in his day, and father of John Stuart Mill. The younger Mill was educated per Bentham's principles, including transcribing and summarising much of his father's work. In Utilitarianism, J.S. Mill argued that cultural, intellectual, and spiritual pleasures are of greater value than physical pleasure, because the former would be valued more highly, by competent judges, than the latter; a competent judge being anyone experienced in the low pleasures and the high pleasures.

Nihilism

Nihilism rejects any authority's claims to Knowledge and Truth, and so explores the meaning of life (existence) without knowable truth. Rather than insist that values are subjective, and might be warrant-less, the nihilist says: Nothing is of value: morals are valueless, only in place as Society's false ideals, created by social forces. Despite tending to defeatism, one can find strength and reason in the varied, unique human relations Nihilism explores.

Friedrich Nietzsche characterized nihilism as emptying the world, and especially human existence, of meaning, purpose, comprehensible truth, and essential value; succinctly, nihilism is the process of "the devaluing of the highest values". Seeing the nihilist as a natural result of the idea that God is dead, and insisting it was something to overcome, his questioning of the nihilist's life-negating values, returned meaning to the Earth.

To Martin Heidegger, nihilism is the movement whereby Being is forgotten, and is transformed into value, in other words, the reduction of Being to exchange value.

If God, as the supra-sensory ground and goal, of all reality, is dead; if the supra-sensory world of the Ideas has suffered the loss of its obligatory, and above it, its vitalizing and up-building power, then nothing more remains to which Man can cling, and by which he can orient himself.

Bahá'í Faith

The Bahá'í Faith, founded by Bahá'u'lláh, emphasizes the spiritual unity of humanity. In Bahá'í teachings, religious history has unfolded through a series of God's messengers delivering teachings suited to the spiritual capacities of the people in the time and place, whose fundamental purpose is the same.

The purpose of human life is spiritual growth. An organic process that continues after death. There is no Heaven or Hell; they are states of spiritual nearness to and spiritual remoteness from God. Life continues in an afterlife, through which the soul may infinitely progress to exalted spiritual realms, ending in the Presence of God. God's essence can not be fathomed, yet can be understood through his "names and attributes", called gems, including compassion, justice, knowledge, and wisdom. Education (especially spiritual) reveals the divine gems that God has in one's soul.

Liberalism

Contemporary perspectives

Pragmatism

Pragmatism, originated in the late-nineteenth-century U.S., to concern itself (mostly) with truth, positing that only in struggling with the environment do data, and derived theories, have meaning, and that consequences, like utility and practicality, also are components of truth. Moreover, Pragmatism posits that anything useful and practical is not always true, arguing that what most contributes to the most human good in the long course is true. In practice, theoretical claims must be practically verifiable, i.e. one should be able to predict and test claims, and, that, ultimately, the needs of mankind should guide human intellectual inquiry.

Pragmatic philosophers suggest that the practical, useful understanding of life is more important than searching for an impractical abstract Truth about life. William James argued that truth could be made, but not sought. To a pragmatist, the meaning of life is discoverable only via experience.

Existentialism

Each man and each woman creates the essence (meaning) of his and her life; life is not determined by a supernatural god or an earthly authority, one is free. As such, one's ethical prime directives are action, freedom, and decision, thus, Existentialism counters rationalism and positivism. In seeking meaning to life, the existentialist looks to where people find meaning in life, in course of which using only reason as a source of meaning is insufficient; the insufficiency gives rise to the emotions of anxiety and dread, felt in facing one's radical freedom, and the concomitant awareness of death. To the existentialist, existence precedes essence; the (essence) of one's life arises only after one comes to existence.

Søren Kierkegaard coined the term "leap of faith", arguing that life is full of absurdity, and one must make his and her own values in an indifferent world. One can live meaningfully (free of despair and anxiety) in an unconditional commitment to something finite, and devotes that meaningful life to the commitment, despite the vulnerability inherent to doing so.

Arthur Schopenhauer answered: "What is the meaning of life?" by determining that one's life reflects one's will, and that the will (life) is an aimless, irrational, and painful drive. Salvation, deliverance, and escape from suffering are in aesthetic contemplation, sympathy for others, and asceticism.

For Nietzsche, life is worth living only if there are goals inspiring one to live. Accordingly, he saw Nihilism ("all that happens is meaningless") as without goals. He discredited asceticism, because it denies one's living in the world; denied that values are objective facts, that are rationally unnecessary, universally-binding commitments: Our evaluations are interpretations, and not reflections of the world, as it is, in itself, and, therefore, all ideations take place from a particular perspective.

Humanism

Per Humanism, the human race came to be by reproducing in a progression of unguided evolution as an integral part of nature, which is self-existing. Knowledge does not come from supernatural sources, but from human observation, experimentation, and rational analysis (the scientific method): the nature of the universe is what people discern it to be. Like-wise, "values and realities" are determined "by means of intelligent inquiry" and "are derived from human need and interest as tested by experience", that is, by critical intelligence. "As far as we know, the total personality is [a function] of the biological organism transacting in a social and cultural context."

People determine human purpose, without supernatural influence; it is the human personality (general sense) that is the purpose of a human being's life; humanism seeks to develop and fulfill: "Humanism affirms our ability, and responsibility, to lead ethical lives of personal fulfillment that aspire to the greater good of humanity". Humanists promote enlightened self-interest and the common good for all people. The happiness of the individual person is inextricably linked to the well-being of humanity, as a whole, in part, because we are social animals, who find meaning in personal relations, and because cultural progress benefits everybody living in the culture.

The philosophical sub-genres posthumanism and transhumanism (sometimes used synonymously) are extensions of humanistic values. One should seek the advancement of humanity and of all life to the greatest degree feasible, to reconcile Renaissance humanism with the twenty-first century's technoscientific culture, thus, every living creature has the right to determine its personal and social "meaning of life".

Logical positivism

Logical positivists ask: What is the meaning of life? and What is the meaning in asking? If there are no objective values, then, is life meaningless? Ludwig Wittgenstein and the logical positivists said: Expressed in language, the question is meaningless; because, in life the statement the "meaning of x", usually denotes the consequences of x, or the significance of x, or what is notable about x, et cetera, thus, when the meaning of life concept equals "x", in the statement the "meaning of x", the statement becomes recursive, and, therefore, nonsensical, or it might refer to the fact that biologic life is essential to having a meaning in life.

The things (people, events) in the life of a person can have meaning (importance) as parts of a whole, but a discrete meaning of (the) life, itself, aside from those things, cannot be discerned. A person's life has meaning (for himself, others) as the life events resulting from his achievements, legacy, family, et cetera, but, to say that life, itself, has meaning, is a misuse of language, since any note of significance, or of consequence, is relevant only in life (to the living), so rendering the statement erroneous. Bertrand Russell wrote that although he found that his distaste for torture was like his distaste for broccoli, he found no satisfactory, empirical method of proving this:

When we try to be definite, as to what we mean when we say that this or that is "the Good," we find ourselves involved in very great difficulties. Bentham's creed, that pleasure is the Good, roused furious opposition, and was said to be a pig's philosophy. Neither he nor his opponents could advance any argument. In a scientific question, evidence can be adduced on both sides, and, in the end, one side is seen to have the better case — or, if this does not happen, the question is left undecided. But in a question, as to whether this, or that, is the ultimate Good, there is no evidence, either way; each disputant can only appeal to his own emotions, and employ such rhetorical devices as shall rouse similar emotions in others . . . Questions as to "values" — that is to say, as to what is good or bad on its own account, independently of its effects — lie outside the domain of science, as the defenders of religion emphatically assert. I think that, in this, they are right, but, I draw the further conclusion, which they do not draw, that questions as to "values" lie wholly outside the domain of knowledge. That is to say, when we assert that this, or that, has "value", we are giving expression to our own emotions, not to a fact, which would still be true if our personal feelings were different.

Postmodernism

Scientific approaches

Claims that descriptive science can shed light on normative issues such as the meaning of life are highly disputed within the scientific and philosophy-of-science communities. Nevertheless, science may be able to provide some context and sets some parameters for conversations on related topics.

Significance and value in life

Science may or may not be able to tell us what is of essential value in life, but some studies bear on related questions: researchers in positive psychology (and, earlier and less rigorously, in humanistic psychology) study factors that lead to life satisfaction, full engagement in activities, making a fuller contribution by utilizing one's personal strengths, and meaning based on investing in something larger than the self. Social psychology examines factors that lead to infants thriving or failing to thrive, and in other areas of psychology questions of motivation, preference, and what people value. Economists have learned a great deal about what is valued in the marketplace; and sociology examines value at a social level using theoretical constructs such as value theory, norms, anomie, etc.

Neuroscience has produced theories of reward, pleasure and motivation in terms of physical entities such as neurotransmitter activity, especially in the limbic system and the ventral tegmental area in particular. If one believes that the meaning of life is to maximize pleasure, then these theories give normative predictions about how to act to achieve this.

Origin and nature of biological life

The mechanisms of abiogenesis are unknown: theories include the RNA world hypothesis; the primeval soup, and exogenesis. Almost all are contingent upon the evolution of genetic traits via genetic mutation and natural selection. At twentieth century's end, based upon insight gleaned from the genetic view of evolution, biologists George C. Williams, Richard Dawkins, David Haig, et al., posit that if there is a primary function to life, it is the survival of one's genes, thus, existential success is not in the survival of species, but in the successful replication of genes.

Astrobiology studies the possibility of different forms of extraterrestrial life, such as replicating structures made from materials other than DNA. It also conducts experiments to search for traces of life on Mars and meteorites.

The Big Bang and humanity's fate in this universe

Though the Big Bang model was met with much scepticism when first introduced, partially because of a connection to the religious concept of creation, it has become well supported by several independent observations. However, current physics can only describe the early universe from 10-43 seconds after the Big Bang (where zero time corresponds to infinite temperature), a theory of quantum gravity would be required to go further back in time. Nevertheless, many physicists have speculated about what would have preceded this limit, and how our universe came into being. They generally agree amongst themselves that the Big Bang occurred coincidentally, and when considering the anthropic principle, it is most often interpreted as implying the existence of a multiverse.

However, no matter how the universe came into existence, humanity's fate in this universe appears to be doomed as —even if humanity would survive that long— biological life will eventually become unsustainable, be it through a Big Freeze, Big Rip or Big Crunch. It would seem that the only way to survive indefinitely, would be by directing the flow of energy on a cosmic scale and altering the fate of the universe.

Scientific questions about the mind

The true nature and origin of consciousness and the mind itself are also widely debated in science, the explanatory gap is generally equated with the hard problem of consciousness, and the question of free will is also considered to be of fundamental importance. These subjects are mostly addressed in the fields of cognitive science, neuroscience and philosophy of mind, though some evolutionary biologists and theoretical physicists have also made several allusions to the subject.

Reductionistic and eliminative materialistic approaches, for example the Multiple Drafts Model, hold that consciousness can be wholly explained by neuroscience through the workings of the brain and its neurons, thus adhering to biological naturalism.

On the other hand, some scientists, like Andrei Linde, have considered that consciousness, like spacetime, might have its own intrinsic degrees of freedom, and that our perceptions may be as real as (or even more real than) material objects. Hypotheses of consciousness and spacetime explain consciousness in describing a "space of conscious elements", often encompassing a number of extra dimensions. Electromagnetic theories of consciousness solve the binding problem of consciousness in saying that the electromagnetic field generated by the brain is the actual carrier of conscious experience, there is however disagreement about the implementations of such a theory relating to other workings of the mind. Quantum mind theories use quantum theory in explaining certain properties of the mind. Explaining the process of free will through quantum phenomena is a popular alternative to determinism, such postulations may variously relate the free will to quantum fluctuations, quantum measurement, quantum potential and quantum probability.

Based on the premises of non-materialistic explanations of the mind, some have suggested the existence of a cosmic consciousness, asserting that consciousness is actually the "ground of all being". Proponents of this view cite accounts of paranormal phenomena, such as extrasensory perceptions and psychic powers, as existence for an incorporeal higher consciousness. In hopes of proving the existence of these phenomena, parapsychologists have orchestrated various experiments. Meta-analyses of these experiments indicate that the effect size (though very small) has been relatively consistent, resulting in an overall statistical significance. Although some critical analysts feel that parapsychological study is scientific, they are not satisfied with its experimental results. Skeptical reviewers contend that apparently successful results are more likely due to sloppy procedures, poorly trained researchers, or methodological flaws than to actual effects.

The meaning of life in pop culture

The mystery of life and its meaning is an often recurring subject in popular culture, featured in entertainment media and various forms of art:

In Douglas Adams' popular comedy book series The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, the Answer to the Ultimate Question of Life, the Universe and Everything has the numeric solution of 42, which was derived over seven and a half million years by a giant supercomputer called Deep Thought. After much confusion from the descendants of his creators, Deep Thought explains that the problem is that they do not know the Ultimate Question, and they would have to build an even more powerful computer to determine what that is. This computer is revealed to be Earth, which, after 10 million years of calculating, is destroyed to make way for a galactic bypass moments before it finishes calculations. In Life, the Universe and Everything, it is confirmed that 42 is indeed the Ultimate Answer, and that it is impossible for both the Ultimate Answer and the Ultimate Question to be known about in the same universe, as they will cancel each other out and take the universe with them, to be replaced by something even more bizarre, and that this may have already happened. Subsequently, in the hopes that his subconscious holds the question, Arthur Dent guesses at question, coming up with "What do you get when you multiply six by nine?", probably an incorrect guess, as the arrival of the Golgafrinchans on prehistoric Earth would have disrupted the computation process. However, Dent, Fenchurch, and a dying Marvin did see God's final message to his creation: "We apologise for the inconvenience".

In Monty Python's The Meaning of Life, there are several allusions to the meaning of life. In "Part VI B: The Meaning of Life" a cleaning lady explains "Life's a game, you sometimes win or lose" and later a waiter describes his personal philosophy "The world is a beautiful place. You must go into it, and love everyone, not hate people. You must try and make everyone happy, and bring peace and contentment everywhere you go." At the end of the film, we can see Michael Palin being handed an envelope, he opens it, and provides the viewers with 'the meaning of life': "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."

Homer: God, what's the meaning of life?
God: Homer, I can't tell you that.
Homer: Why not?
God: You'll find out when you die.
Homer: Oh, I can't wait that long.
God: You can't wait 6 months?
Homer: No, tell me now...
God: Oh, OK... The meaning of life is...
In The Simpsons episode "Homer the Heretic", a representation of God tells Homer what the meaning of life is, but as usual the one who really wanted to know (the viewer) is left disappointed. Just before God tells Homer the meaning of life, the credits music starts and the show ends, interrupting God's explanation to humorous effect. The dialogue is noted in the box to the right:
Earlier in the episode, Homer founds his own religion, in which he tries to worship God in his own way, later pointing out to Moe that it has no hell and no kneeling. However, Homer quickly abandons his self-indulgent personal religion after his house almost burns down, taking the fire as a sign of divine retribution, and exclaiming "O Spiteful One, show me who to smite, and he shall be smoten." Ned assures Homer that the fire was not God's vengeance and Lovejoy explains that God was "working in the hearts of your friends and neighbors when they came to your aid."

At the end of The Matrix Revolutions, Smith concludes that "the purpose of life is to end" and is determined to move that purpose along. Ofcourse the series is best known for treating the idea of "living in a simulated reality" and the associated question whether such an existence should be considered meaningless, in a way that may be compared to Plato's allegory of the cave and how certain belief systems view our reality, like Buddhism or Gnosticism.

In the Red Dwarf episode "The Inquisitor", the crew is captured by a powerful being called The Inquisitor, a self-repairing simulant who survived until the end of time and, coming to the conclusion that there is no God and no afterlife, decided that the only point of life was to make something of yourself. The Inquisitor then proceeds to put each of the crew members on trial and forces them to justify their existence. Failure to do so will result in a sentence of being erased from history.

In Peanuts, Charlie Brown explains he thinks the purpose of life is to make others happy, to which Lucy responds that she doesn't think she is making anyone happy, and—more importantly—no one is making her happy, so someone isn't doing their job, eventually she asks him "You say we're put on this earth to make others happy? ... What are the others put here for?" On several other occasions, Charlie has asserted several other things in relation to life and its meaning: "In the book of life, the answers aren't in the back.", "That's the secret to life... replace one worry with another.", "Happiness is anyone and anything at all that's loved by you. and "Life is like an ice cream cone...you have to lick it one day at a time. Lucy has also declared "Life is too short to waste it listening to some person who doesn't know when to shut up! Time is too valuable!" and "All you really need is love, but a little chocolate now and then doesn't hurt."

In Bill and Ted's Bogus Journey, Bill and Ted end up meeting God. Before being admitted into his presence, St. Peter asks them what the meaning of life is, and they reply with the lyrics to the song "Every Rose Has Its Thorn" by Poison.

In Dune, a seminal science fiction novel by Frank Herbert, the meaning of life is defined as "not a question to be answered, but a reality to be experienced".

In A Man Without a Country, author Kurt Vonnegut sums up life with the words: "We're all here to fart around. Don't let anyone tell you any different!" In Vonnegut's novel Breakfast of Champions, "To be the eyes and ears and conscience of the Creator of the Universe, you fool." is Kilgore Trout's unwritten reply to the question "What is the purpose of life?"

In The Secret of God, the Universe, and Life author Maxwell Wynter, whose main character has a near death experience in which he witnesses the creation of God and the Universe, concludes that perhaps the secret of life is that "we cannot know with certainty". So we live in hope: for security; for cures to illnesses; for a good future; that when we depart this life we will have made a contribution to the world; "hope that there is more to life than death, figuratively or literally, at the end ... ” We have faith that the things that we believe in, although we cannot see feel or touch them, are real." Then there is love, “a love that is completely accepting of all others; a love for the spirit deep within us that guides us on the path to inner peace and contentment."

A quotation by Anton Chekhov states "You ask "What is life?" That is the same as asking "What is a carrot?" A carrot is a carrot and we know nothing more." He also professed "All of life and human relations have become so incomprehensibly complex that, when you think about it, it becomes terrifying and your heart stands still.

Leo Tolstoy expressed "Faith is the sense of life, that sense by virtue of which man does not destroy himself, but continues to live on. It is the force whereby we live." and "The sole meaning of life is to serve humanity.

Fyodor Dostoevsky asserted "The greatest happiness is to know the source of unhappiness." and "To live without hope is to cease to live.

Oscar Wilde has declared "Life is far too important a thing ever to talk seriously about." and "Keep love in your heart. A life without it is like a sunless garden when the flowers are dead.

In William Shakespeare's Hamlet, Prince Hamlet states: "To be or not to be, that is the question." Though many may connect this statement with the action of Hamlet thoughtfully holding a skull, the monologue associated with Yorick's skull is actually "Alas, poor Yorick! I knew him, Horatio; a fellow of infinite jest, of most excellent fancy; he hath borne me on his back a thousand times; and now, how abhorred in my imagination it is! my gorge rises at it. Here hung those lips that I have kissed I know not how oft. Where be your gibes now?" The phrase "What a piece of work is a man" also comes from the play Hamlet, it appears in Act II, scene II, where Hamlet praises man and yet he cannot be delighted, asking "What is this quintessence of dust?
And in the play Macbeth, Macbeth, in his darkest hours, proclaims: "Life's but a walking shadow, a poor player, that struts and frets his hour upon the stage, and then is heard no more. It is a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.

Additionally, a multitude of various films and novels make use of existential themes: Films like Requiem for a Dream, Vanilla Sky and Waking Life treat the issue of how illusions can cloud the mind to an apparently negative or meaningless reality. The Alchemist and City Slickers both present the meaning of life as an individual journey to find one's own "path", which is best explained simply as the overall way one chooses to lead their life.

Popular views

"What is the meaning of life?" is a question many people ask themselves at some point during their lives, most in the context "What is the purpose of life?" Here are some of the life goals people choose, and some of their beliefs on what the purpose of life is:

...to realize one's potential and ideals

  • ...to live life to the fullest.
  • ...to lead a full and productive life.
  • ...to chase dreams.
    ...to live one's dreams.
  • ...to spend it for something that will outlast it.
  • ...to matter: to count, to stand for something, to have made some difference that you lived at all.
  • ...to expand one's potential in life.
  • ...to become the person you've always wanted to be.
  • ...to become the best version of yourself.
  • ...to seek happiness and flourish.
  • ...to be a true authentic human being.
  • ...to be able to put the whole of oneself into one's feelings, one's work, one's beliefs.
  • ...to follow our destiny.
    ...to submit to our destiny.
  • ...to shape your own destiny.
  • ...to create your own reality.

...to achieve biological perfection

  • ...to survive, that is, to live as long as possible, including pursuit of immortality (through scientific means).
    ...to live forever or die trying.
  • ...to evolve.
  • ...to replicate, to reproduce. "The 'dream' of every cell is to become two cells."
  • ...to be fruitful and multiply. ()

...to seek wisdom and knowledge

  • ...to expand one's perception of the world.
  • ...to follow the clues and walk out the exit.
  • ...to learn as many things as possible in life.
    ...to know as much as possible about as many things as possible.
  • ...to seek wisdom and knowledge and to tame the mind, as to avoid suffering caused by ignorance and find happiness.
  • ...to face our fears and accept the lessons life offers us.
  • ...to find the meaning of life.
    ...to find the purpose of life.
    ...to find a reason to live.
  • ...to resolve the imbalance of the mind by understanding the nature of reality.

...to do good, to do the right thing

  • ...to leave the world a better place than you found it.
    ...to do your best to leave every situation better than you found it.
  • ...to benefit others.
  • ...to give more than you take.
  • ...to end suffering.
  • ...to create equality.
  • ...to challenge oppression.
  • ...to distribute wealth.
  • ...to be generous.
  • ...to contribute to the well-being and spirit of others.
  • ...to help others, to help one another.
    ...to take every chance to help another while on your journey here.
  • ...to be creative and innovative.
  • ...to forgive.
    ...to accept and forgive human flaws.
  • ...to be emotionally sincere.
  • ...to be responsible.
  • ...to be honorable.
  • ...to seek peace.

...to love, to feel, to enjoy the act of living

  • ...to love more.
  • ...to love those who mean the most. Every life you touch will touch you back.
  • ...to treasure every enjoyable sensation one has.
  • ...to seek beauty in all its forms.
  • ...to have fun.
    ...to enjoy life.
  • ...to seek pleasure and avoid pain.
  • ...to be compassionate.
  • ...to be moved by the tears and pain of others, and try to help them out of love and compassion.
  • ...to love others as best we possibly can.
  • ...to love something bigger, greater, and beyond ourselves, something we did not create or have the power to create, something intangible and made holy by our very belief in it.
  • ...to love God and all of his creations.
  • ...to glorify God by enjoying him forever.

...to attain spiritual enlightenment

  • ...to reach the highest heaven and be at the heart of the Divine.
  • ...to have a pure soul and experience God.
  • ...to understand the mystery of God.
  • ...to know God.
  • ...to know oneself, know others, and know the will of heaven.
  • ...to attain union with God.

...to have power, to be better

  • ...to strive for power and superiority.
  • ...to rule the world.
  • ...to know and master the world.
    ...to know and master nature.
  • ...to fill the Earth and subdue it. ()

One should not seek to know and understand the meaning of life

  • The answer to the meaning of life is too profound to be known and understood.
  • You will never live if you are looking for the meaning of life.
  • The meaning of life is to forget about the search for the meaning of life.
  • It's best to just get on with life and stop worrying about what it means.

Life has no meaning

  • Life or human existence has no real meaning or purpose because human existence occurred out of a random chance in nature, and anything that exists by chance has no intended purpose.
  • Life has no meaning, but as humans we try to associate a meaning or purpose so we can justify our existence.
  • There is no point in life, and that is exactly what makes it so special.

Or its minimal counterpart: life has meaning:

See also

Origin and nature of life and reality

Significance of life

Value in and of life

Purpose of life

Miscellaneous

References

External links

General

Scientific

Philosophical

Spiritual

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