Meaning of life

The meaning of life constitutes a philosophical question concerning the purpose and significance of human existence or biological life in general. This concept can be expressed through a variety of related questions, such as Why are we here?, What is life all about? and What is the meaning of it all? It has been the subject of much philosophical, scientific, and theological speculation throughout history. There have been a large number of answers to these questions from many different cultural and ideological backgrounds. The meaning of life can be found in It is deeply mixed 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, conceptions of God, 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. An alternative, human-centric, and not a cosmic/religious approach is the question “What is the meaning of my life?” The value of the question pertaining to the purpose of life may coincide with the achievement of ultimate reality, if that is believed by one to exist.

Contents

  • 1 The Meaning of Life as a Question
  • 2 Scientific inquiry and perspectives
    • 2.1 Psychological significance and value in life
    • 2.2 Origin and nature of biological life
    • 2.3 The Big Bang and humanity’s fate in this universe
    • 2.4 Scientific questions about the mind
  • 3 Philosophical perspectives
    • 3.1 Ancient Greek philosophy
      • 3.1.1 Platonism
      • 3.1.2 Aristotelianism
      • 3.1.3 Cynicism
      • 3.1.4 Cyrenaicism
      • 3.1.5 Epicureanism
      • 3.1.6 Stoicism
    • 3.2 Enlightenment philosophy
      • 3.2.1 Classical liberalism
      • 3.2.2 Kantianism
    • 3.3 19th century philosophy
      • 3.3.1 Utilitarianism
      • 3.3.2 Marxism
      • 3.3.3 Nihilism
    • 3.4 20th century philosophy
      • 3.4.1 Pragmatism
      • 3.4.2 Existentialism
      • 3.4.3 Absurdism
      • 3.4.4 Secular humanism
      • 3.4.5 Logical positivism
      • 3.4.6 Postmodernism
      • 3.4.7 Naturalistic pantheism
  • 4 Religious perspectives
    • 4.1 Western and Middle Eastern religions
      • 4.1.1 Zoroastrianism
      • 4.1.2 Judaism
      • 4.1.3 Christianity
      • 4.1.4 Islam
      • 4.1.5 Bahá’í Faith
    • 4.2 South Asian Religions
      • 4.2.1 Hindu philosophies
        • 4.2.1.1 Advaita and Dvaita Hinduism
        • 4.2.1.2 Vaishnavism
      • 4.2.2 Jainism
      • 4.2.3 Buddhism
        • 4.2.3.1 Early Buddhism
        • 4.2.3.2 Mahayana Buddhism
      • 4.2.4 Sikhism
    • 4.3 Far Eastern Religions
      • 4.3.1 Shinto
      • 4.3.2 Taoism
      • 4.3.3 Confucianism
      • 4.3.4 New religions
  • 5 The meaning of life in popular culture

 

The Meaning of Life as a Question

 

Philosopher in Meditation (detail) by Rembrandt

Questions about the meaning of life have been expressed in a broad variety of ways, including the following:

  • What is the meaning of life? What’s it all about? Who are we? [1][2][3][4][5][6][7]
  • Why are we here? What are we here for? [7][8][9][10][11][12]
  • What is the origin of life? [13][14]
  • What is the nature of life? What is the nature of reality? [13][15][16]
  • What is the purpose of life? What is one’s purpose in life? [4][7][15][17][18]
  • What is the significance of life? [18]
  • What is meaningful and valuable in life? [14][19]
  • What is the value of life? [14][20]
  • What is the reason to live? What are we living for? [12][14][21]

These questions have resulted in a wide range of competing answers and arguments, from scientific theories, to philosophical, theological, and spiritual explanations.

Scientific inquiry and perspectives

 

DNA, the substance containing the genetic instructions for the development and functioning of all known living organisms.

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.

Psychological 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,[22] full engagement in activities,[23] making a fuller contribution by utilizing one’s personal strengths,[24] and meaning based on investing in something larger than the self.[25]

One value system suggested by social psychologists, broadly called Terror Management Theory, states that all human meaning is derived out of a fundamental fear of death, whereby values are selected when they allow us to escape the mental reminder of death.

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.

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.

Origin and nature of biological life

The exact mechanisms of abiogenesis are unknown: notable theories include the RNA world hypothesis (RNA-based replicators) and the iron-sulfur world theory (metabolism without genetics). The theory of evolution does not attempt to explain the origin of life but the process by which different lifeforms have developed throughout history via genetic mutation and natural selection.[26] At the end of the 20th century, based upon insight gleaned from the gene-centered view of evolution, biologists George C. Williams, Richard Dawkins, David Haig, among others, conclude that if there is a primary function to life, it is the replication of DNA and the survival of one’s genes.[27][28]

However, though scientists have intensively studied life on Earth, defining life in unequivocal terms is still a challenge.[29][30] Physically, one may say that life “feeds on negative entropy”[31][32] which refers to the process by which living entities decrease their internal entropy at the expense of some form of energy taken in from the environment.[33][34] Biologists generally agree that lifeforms are self-organizing systems regulating the internal environment as to maintain this organized state, metabolism serves to provide energy, and reproduction allows life to continue over a span of multiple generations. Typically, organisms are responsive to stimuli and genetic information tends to change from generation to generation as to allow adaptation through evolution, these characteristics optimalizing the chances of survival for the individual organism and its descendants respectively.[35][36] Non-cellular replicating agents, notably viruses, are generally not considered to be organisms because they are incapable of “independent” reproduction or metabolism. This controversy is problematic, though, since some parasites and endosymbionts are also incapable of independent life. Astrobiology studies the possibility of different forms of life on other worlds, such as replicating structures made from materials other than DNA.

The Big Bang and humanity’s fate in this universe

 

The metric expansion of space. The inflationary epoch is the expansion of the metric tensor at left. (WMAP image, 2006)

Though the Big Bang model was met with much skepticism when first introduced, partially because of a connection to the religious concept of creation, it has become well supported by several independent observations.[37] 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.[38] Some physicists think that the Big Bang occurred coincidentally, and when considering the anthropic principle, it is most often interpreted as implying the existence of a multiverse.[39]

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.[38]

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.[40][41]

 

Hieronymus Bosch’s Ascent of the Blessed depicts a tunnel of light and spiritual figures, often described in reports of near-death experiences.

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.[41][42][43]

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.[44] Hypotheses of consciousness and spacetime explain consciousness in describing a “space of conscious elements”[44], often encompassing a number of extra dimensions.[45] 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.[46][47] 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 free will to quantum fluctuations,[48] quantum amplification,[49] quantum potential[48] and quantum probability.[50]

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”.[16][49][51] Proponents of this view cite accounts of paranormal phenomena, primarily extrasensory perceptions and psychic powers, as evidence 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.[52][53][54] Although some critical analysts feel that parapsychological study is scientific, they are not satisfied with its experimental results.[55][56] Skeptical reviewers contend that apparently successful results are more likely due to sloppy procedures, poorly trained researchers, or methodological flaws than to actual effects.[57][58][59][60]

Philosophical perspectives

The philosophical perspectives on the meaning of life are those ideologies which explain life in terms of ideals or abstractions defined by humans.

Ancient Greek philosophy

 

Plato and Aristotle in The School of Athens fresco, by Raphael.

Platonism

Plato was one of the earliest, most influential philosopher to date — 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 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 is done with a goal, 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.[61][62] 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.[63][64]

Epicureanism

 

Bust of Epicurus leaning against his disciple Metrodorus in the Louvre Museum.

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.[65]

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.”[66]

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.”[66] The principle applies to one’s personal relations thus: “to be free from anger, envy, and jealousy”.[66]

Enlightenment philosophy

The Enlightenment and the colonial era both changed the nature of European philosophy and exported it worldwide. Devotion and subservience to God were largely replaced by notions of inalienable natural 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.

Classical liberalism

Classical liberalism is a set of ideas that arose in the 17th and 18th centuries, out of conflicts between a growing, wealthy, propertied class and the established aristocratic and religious orders that dominated Europe. Liberalism cast humans as beings with inalienable natural rights (including the right to retain the wealth generated by one’s own work), and sought out means to balance rights across society. Broadly speaking, it considers individual liberty to be the most important goal,[67] because only through ensured liberty are the other inherent rights protected.

There are many forms and derivations of liberalism, but their central conceptions of the meaning of life trace back to three main ideas. Early thinkers such as John Locke, Jean-Jacques Rousseau and Adam Smith saw humankind beginning in the state of nature, then finding meaning for existence through labour and property, and using social contracts to create an environment that supports those efforts.

Kantianism

 

Immanuel Kant is regarded as one of the most influential thinkers of the late Enlightenment.

Kantianism is a philosophy based on the ethical, epistemological and metaphysical works of Immanuel Kant. Kant is known for his deontological theory where there is a single moral obligation, the “Categorical Imperative, derived from the concept of duty. Kantians believe all actions are performed in accordance with some underlying maxim or principle, and for actions to be ethical, they must adhere to the categorical imperative.

Simply put, the test is that one must universalize the maxim (imagine that all people acted in this way) and then see if it would still be possible to perform the maxim in the world. In Groundwork, Kant gives the example of a person who seeks to borrow money without intending to pay it back. This is a contradiction because if it were a universal action, no person would lend money anymore as he knows that he will never be paid back. The maxim of this action, says Kant, results in a contradiction in conceivability (and thus contradicts perfect duty).

Kant also denied that the consequences of an act in any way contribute to the moral worth of that act, his reasoning being that the physical world is outside our full control and thus we cannot be held accountable for the events that occur in it.

19th century philosophy

Utilitarianism

 

Jeremy Bentham

The origins of utilitarianism can be traced back as far as Epicurus, but, as a school of thought, it is credited to Jeremy Bentham,[68] 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. He defined the meaning of life as 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.[69]

Marxism

According to Marxism and communism, the meaning of life is to serve one another, in peace and with integrity as equal and just beings.

Nihilism

Nihilism rejects any authority’s claims to knowledge and truth, and so explores the significance of existence without knowable truth. Rather than insisting that values are subjective, and might be warrantless, the nihilist says: Nothing is of value, morals are valueless, they only serve as society’s false ideals.

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”.[70] 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.[71]

 

The End of the World, by John Martin.

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.[70] Heidegger, in accordance with Nietzsche, saw in the so-called “death of God” a potential source for nihilism:

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.[72]

The existentialist Albert Camus asserts that the absurdity of the human condition is that we search for external values and meaning in a world which has none, and is indifferent to us. Camus writes of value-nihilists such as Meusrault[73], but also of values in a nihilistic world, that we can instead strive to be “heroic nihilists”, living with dignity in the face of absurdity, living with “secular saintliness”, fraternal solidarity, and rebelling against and transcending the world’s indifference.[74]

20th century philosophy

The current era has seen radical changes in conceptions of human nature. Modern science has effectively rewritten the relationship of humankind to the natural world, advances in medicine and technology have freed us from the limitations and ailments of previous eras, and philosophy —particularly following the linguistic turn— altered how the relationships people have with themselves and each other is conceived. Questions about the meaning of life have seen equally radical changes, from attempts to reevaluate human existence in biological and scientific terms (as in pragmatism and logical positivism), to efforts to meta-theorize about meaning-making as an activity (existentialism, secular humanism).

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.[75][76] To a pragmatist, the meaning of life is discoverable only via experience.

Existentialism

 

Edvard Munch’s The Scream, a representation of existential angst.

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 opposes 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.[77]

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.[78][79]

For Friedrich 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 necessary, 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.[71]

Absurdism

Albert Camus, the French Algerian philosopher who is often associated with existentialism but enthusiastically refused the term[80], is famous for propounding his theory of the Absurd. According to absurdism, there is a fundamental disharmony that arises out of the co-presence of man and the universe. Man has a desire for order, meaning, and purpose in life, but the universe is indifferent and meaningless; the Absurd arises out of this conflict.

As beings looking for hope in a meaningless world, Camus says that humans have three ways of resolving the dilemma.

  • Suicide: The first solution to the dilemma is simply to end one’s life. Camus rejects this choice as cowardly.
  • Religious belief in a transcendent world: Such a belief would posit the existence of a realm that is beyond the Absurd, and, as such, has meaning. Camus calls this solution “philosophical suicide” and rejects it because it amounts to the destruction of reason, which in his view is as fatal as suicide of the body.
  • Accept the Absurd: According to Camus, this is the only real solution. It is to accept and even embrace the absurdity of life and to continue living. The Absurd is a crucial characteristic of the human condition, and the only true way to deal with this is bold acceptance of it. Life, according to Camus, can “be lived all the better if it has no meaning.”[81]

Secular humanism

 

The “Happy Human” symbol representing Secular Humanism.

Per secular 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.[82][83] 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.[82] Like-wise, “values and realities” are determined “by means of intelligent inquiry”[82] and “are derived from human need and interest as tested by experience”, that is, by critical intelligence.[84][85] “As far as we know, the total personality is [a function] of the biological organism transacting in a social and cultural context.”[83]

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:[82] “Humanism affirms our ability, and responsibility, to lead ethical lives of personal fulfillment that aspire to the greater good of humanity”.[84] 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.[83][84]

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”.[86]

From a humanistic-psychotherapeutic point of view, the question of the meaning of life could also be reinterpreted as “What is the meaning of my life?”[87] Instead of becoming bogged down in cosmic or religious question about overarching purpose, this approach suggests that the question is intensely personal. There are many therapeutic responses to this question, for example Viktor Frankl argues for “Dereflection”, which largely translates as ceasing to endlessly reflect on the self, instead of engaging in life. On the whole, the therapeutic response is that the question of meaning of life evaporates if one is fully engaged in life. The question then morphs into more specific worries such as “What delusions am I under?”, “What is blocking my ability to enjoy things?”, “Why do I neglect loved-ones?”. See also Existential Therapy, Irvin Yalom.

Logical positivism

Logical positivists ask: What is the meaning of life? and What is the meaning in asking?[88][89] If there are no objective values, then, is life meaningless?[90] 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 biological 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 not like his distaste for broccoli, he found no satisfactory, empirical method of proving this:[66]

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.[91]

Postmodernism

Postmodernist thought – broadly speaking – sees human nature as constructed by language, or by structures and institutions of human society. Unlike other forms of philosophy, postmodernism rarely seeks out a priori or innate meanings in human existence, but instead focuses on analyzing or critiquing given meanings in order to rationalize or reconstruct them. Anything resembling a ‘meaning of life’, in postmodernist terms, can only be understood within a social and linguistic framework, and must be pursued as an escape from the power structures that are already embedded in all forms of speech and interaction. As a rule, postmodernists see awareness of the constraints of language as necessary to escaping those constraints, but different theorists take different views on the nature of this process: from radical reconstruction of meaning by individuals (as in deconstructionism) to theories in which individuals are primarily extensions of language and society, without real autonomy (as in poststructuralism). In general, postmodernism seeks meaning by looking at the underlying structures that create or impose meaning, rather than the epiphenomenal appearances of the world.

Naturalistic pantheism

According to naturalistic pantheism, the meaning of life is to care for and look after nature and the environment.

Religious perspectives

The religious perspectives on the meaning of life are those ideologies which explain life in terms of an implicit purpose not defined by humans.

Western and Middle Eastern religions

 

Symbols of the three main Abrahamic religions – Judaism, Christianity, and Islam

Zoroastrianism

Zoroastrianism is the religion and philosophy named after its prophet Zoroaster, which influenced the beliefs of Judaism and its descendant religions. Zoroastrians believe in a universe created by a transcendental God, Ahura Mazda, to whom all worship is ultimately directed. Azhura Mazda’s creation is asha, truth and order, and it is in conflict with its antithesis, druj, falsehood and disorder. (See also Zoroastrian eschatology).

Since humanity possesses free will, people must be responsible for their moral choices. By using free will, people must take active role to play in the universal conflict, with good thoughts, good words and good deeds to ensure happiness and to keep chaos at bay.

Judaism

Judaism’s most important feature is the worshiping of 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 the one true God and to prepare for the world to come.[92][93] The “Olam Haba”[94] 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. [95]

Christianity

 

Hans Memling’s The Last Judgment, which depicts St Michael the Archangel weighing souls and driving the Damned towards Hell.

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. (cf. Gospel of John 11:26) 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 (John 3:16-21), (2 Peter 3:9).

In the Christian view, humankind was made in the image of God and perfect, but the Fall of Man caused the progeny of the first Parents to inherit Original Sin. The sacrifice of Christ’s passion, death and resurrection provide the means for transcending that impure state (Romans 6:23). The means for doing so varies between different groups of Christians, but all rely on belief in Jesus, his work on the cross and his resurrection as the fundamental starting point for a relationship with God. Under the Christian view, people are justified by belief in the propitiatory sacrifice of Jesus’ death on the cross. The Gospel maintains that through this belief, the barrier that sin has created between man and God is destroyed, and allows God to change people and instill in them a new heart after His own will, and the ability to do it. This is what the term ‘reborn’ or ‘saved’ almost always refers to. This places Christianity in stark contrast to other religions which claim that believers are justified with God through adherence to guidelines or law given to us by God.

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.[96] 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 forever in heaven.”[97]

The Apostle Paul also answers this question in his speech on the Areopagus in Athens: “From one man he made every nation of men, that they should inhabit the whole earth; and he determined the times set for them and the exact places where they should live. God did this so that men would seek him and perhaps reach out for him and find him, though he is not far from each one of us.”[98]

Islam

In Islam, Man’s ultimate life objective is to seek the pleasure of Allah (the Arabic equivalent for “God”) by abiding by 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 Jannat (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“.[99] Qur’an describes the purpose of creation as follows: “Blessed be he in whose hand is the kingdom, he is powerful over all things,who created death and life that he might examine which of you is best in deeds, and he is the almighty, the forgiving” (Qur’an67:1-2)and “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 Jannat (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).[100] 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;[101] 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.[102][102]

Bahá’í Faith

The Bahá’í Faith, founded by Bahá’u’lláh, emphasizes the unity of humanity.[103] To Bahá’ís, the purpose of life is focused on spiritual growth and service to humanity. Human beings are viewed as intrinsically spiritual beings. Our lives in this material world provide extended opportunities to grow, to develop divine qualities and virtues, and the prophets were sent by God to facilitate this.[104][105]

South Asian Religions

Hindu philosophies

 

A golden Aum written in Devanagari. The Aum is sacred in Hindu, Jain and Buddhist religions.

Hinduism is a religious category including many beliefs and traditions. Since Hinduism was the way of expressed meaningful living for quite a long time immemorial, when there was no need for naming this as a separate religion, Hindu doctrines are supplementary and complementary in nature, generally non-exclusive, suggestive and tolerant in content.[106] Most believe that the ātman (spirit, soul) — the person’s true self — is eternal.[107] 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).[108][109][110]

In all schools of Hinduism, the meaning of life is tied up in the concepts of karma (causal action), samsara (the cycle of birth and rebirth), and moksha (liberation). Existence is conceived as the progression of the atman (similar to the western concept of a soul) across numerous lifetimes, and its ultimate progression towards liberation from karma. Particular goals for life are generally subsumed under broader yogas (practices) or dharma (correct living) which are intended to create more favorable reincarnations, though they are generally positive acts in this life as well. Traditional schools of Hinduism often worship Devas which are manifestations of Ishvara (a personal or chosen God); these Devas are taken as ideal forms to be identified with, as a form of spiritual improvement.

Advaita and Dvaita Hinduism

Later schools reinterpreted the vedas to focus on Brahman, “The One Without a Second”,[111] as a central God-like figure.

In monist Advaita Vedanta, atman is ultimately indistinguishable from brahman, and the goal of life is to know or realize that one’s atman (soul) is identical to Brahman.[112] 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).[107][113][114]

Dualist Dvaita Vedanta and other bhakti schools have a dualist interpretation. Brahman is seen as a supreme being with a personality and manifest qualities. The ātman depends upon brahman for its existence; the meaning of life is achieving Moksha through love of God and upon his grace.[113]

Vaishnavism

Another branch of Hinduism is Vaishnavism, where Vishnu is the principal deity. Not all schools of Vaishnavism teach a meaning to life, but Gaudiya Vaishnavism, for example, teaches Achintya Bheda Abheda meaning worship of a separate and single true God while at the same time acknowledging the essential oneness of all souls.

Jainism

 

The Jainist Vow of Ahimsa. The dharmacakra (wheel) is the resolve to halt the cycle of reincarnation via truth and non-violence.

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 the physical body to achieve self-realization and bliss.[115]

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.[116]

Buddhism

Early Buddhism

Buddhism is a nondual doctrine, in which subject, object, and action are all seen as illusory. Buddhists believe that life is suffering or frustration. Which does not mean that there is no pleasure in life, but this pleasure does not cause everlasting happiness. The suffering is caused by attachment to objects material or non-material which in turn causes one to be born again and again in the cycle of existence. The Buddhist sutras and tantras do not speak about “the meaning of life” or “the purpose of life”, but about the potential of human life to end suffering through detaching oneself from cravings and conceptual attachments. Suffering can be overcome through human activity, simply by removing the cause of suffering. Attaining and perfecting dispassion is a process of many levels that ultimately results in the state of Nirvana. Nirvana means freedom from both suffering and rebirth.[117]

 

The eight-spoked Dharmacakra

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 Nirvana, or Unbinding which also ends the repeated cycle of birth, old age, sickness and death.

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.[citation needed]

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[citation needed] accumulating positive karma, and use that accumulation to aid all.

Sikhism

 

The Khanda, an important symbol of Sikhism.

The monotheistic 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, so Sikhs do not have a monopoly on salvation: “The Lord dwells in every heart, and every heart has its own way to reach Him.”[118] Sikhs believe that all people are equally important before God.[119] 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.[120]

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,[121] Nanak described God as not wholly unknowable, and 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.[121]

Far Eastern Religions

Shinto

 

Shinto torii, a traditional Japanese gate

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.[122]

Taoism

 

Taijitu symbolizes the unity of opposites between yin and yang.

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 cultivation and self realization. All adherents should understand and be in tune with the ultimate truth.

They believe all things were originally from Taiji and Tao, and the meaning in life for the adherents is to realise the temporal nature of the existence. “Only introspection can then help us to find our innermost reasons for living…the simple answer is here within ourselves.”[123]

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.”[124]

New religions

There are many new religious movements in East Asia, and some with millions of followers: Chondogyo, Tenrikyo, Cao Đài, and Seicho-No-Ie. New religions typically have unique explanations for the meaning of life. For example, in Tenrikyo, one is expected to live a Joyous Life by participating in practices that create happiness for oneself and others.

The meaning of life in popular 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.

 

Charles Allan Gilbert’s All is Vanity depicts a young woman gazing at her reflection in a mirror, but all is positioned in such a way as to make the image of a skull appear.

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 five minutes before it finishes calculations.[5][7][11][125] 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.[126] Subsequently, in the hopes that his subconscious holds the question, Arthur Dent guesses at a 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.[127] However, Dent, Fenchurch, and a dying Marvin did see God’s final message to his creation: “We apologise for the inconvenience”.[128]

 

Hamlet with Yorick’s skull

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.”[129] 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.”[129][130][131]

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. 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.”[132]

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.[133] The Matrix series also presents 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.[134]

The popular show Conan The Barbarian had the famous quote for roughly the meaning of life as “To crush your enemies — See them driven before you, and to hear the lamentation of their women!” [135], which was originally a quote of popular historical figure Genghis Khan from Harold Lamb’s nonfiction book Genghis Khan: The Emperor Of All Men, pages 106-107[136]


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