On the Meaning of Life

On the Meaning of Life

What is the meaning of it all? What is the purpose of life, the universe, and everything?

Most thinking people, I suspect, ask themselves this at least once in their life. Some get rather obsessed by it, becoming existentialists or religious enthusiasts. But most of us deal with this question in a more foolproof way: by ignoring it. Indeed, when you’re enjoying yourself, this question—“What is the meaning of life?”—seems rather silly. It is usually when we feel depressed, anxious, frightened, nervous, or vulnerable that it arises to our minds, often with tremendous force.

I do not wish to delve too deeply into dubious psychoanalyzing as regards the motivation for asking this question. But it is worthwhile noting down why we so persistently ask it—or at least, the reasons why I have asked it. Most obviously, it is a response to the awareness of our own mortality. We are all going to die someday; our whole existence will come to an end; and this is terrifying. We can attempt to comfort ourselves with the thought that we will be remembered or that our children (if we have any) will perpetuate our line. Yet this is an empty form of immortality, not only because we aren’t around to appreciate it, but also because, however long our memory or our descendents last, they too will come to an end. All of humanity will end one day; that’s certain.

The famous “Death of God” (the decline of religion) in western history caused a similar crisis. If there was no God directing the universe and ordaining what is right and what is wrong; if there was no afterlife but only a black emptiness waiting for us—what was the point? Nihilism seemed to many to be inescapable. Existentialism grew up in this environment, which inherited many of the assumptions of Christianity while (for the most part) rejecting God Himself, which led to not a few tortured, tangled systems of thought that attempted to reconcile atheism with some of our more traditional assumptions about right and wrong and what it means to live a meaningful life.

I had fallen into this same trap by asking myself the question: “If everything will end someday and humans are only a small part of the universe, what is the point?” This question is very revealing, for it exposes some of the assumptions that, upon further reflection, don’t hold water. First, why is something more worthwhile if it lasts longer? Why do we need to imagine an eternal God and an eternal afterlife to feel secure in our meaningfulness? Do people who live to eighty have more of a meaningful life than those who make it to thirty? Put this way, it seems to be a rather dubious assumption. For my part, I can’t figure out what permanence has to do with meaning. And by the way, I also don’t think that the opposite idea—that life is meaningful because it is temporary—is more useful, even though it is a poetic sentiment.

I think all this talk about permanence and impermanence does not get to the essence of the word “meaning.” What is more, it is my opinion that, once we properly analyze this word “meaning,” we will see that this fateful question—“What is the meaning of life?”—will vanish before our eyes. And this is not because life has no meaning, but because the question is based on a false premise.

To begin, let us figure out what the word “meaningful” actually means. To do this, take something that we can all agree has meaning: language. Language is in fact the paragon of meaningfulness; it is a symbolic system by which we communicate. If words and sentences had no meaning, you would have no idea what I’m saying right now. But where does the meaning of a sentence lie? This is the question.

To answer this question, let me ask another: If every human perished in a cataclysmic event, would any of the writing that we left behind have meaning? Would the libraries and book stores, the shop signs and magazines, the instruction manuals and wine labels—would they have meaning? I think they would not.

We don’t even have to engage in a hypothetical here. Consider the Indus Script, a form of writing developed in ancient India that has yet to be deciphered. Researchers are now in the process of figuring out how to read the stone tablets. How should they go about doing so? They can weigh each of the tablets to figure out their mass; they can measure the average height and thickness of the lines; they can perform a chemical analysis. Would that help? Of course not. And this is for the obvious reason that the meaning of a tablet is not a physical property of an object. Rather, the meaning of the script lies wholly in our ability to respond appropriately to it. The meaning of the words exists in our experience of the tablets and our behavior related to the tablets, and is not a property of the tablets themselves.

I must pause here to address a philosophical pickle. It is an interesting debate whether the meaning of language exists in the minds of language-users (e.g. meaning is psychological) or in the behavior of language-users (e.g. meaning is social). This dichotomy might also be expressed by asking whether meaning is private or public. For my part, I think that there is a continuum of meaningfulness from private thoughts to public behavior, and in any case the question is immaterial to the argument of this essay. What matters is that meaning is a property of human experience. Meaning is not a property of objects, but is a property of how humans experience, think about, and behave toward objects. That’s the important point.

The reason the Indus Script is meaningless to us is therefore because it doesn’t elicit from us any consistent pattern of thoughts or actions. (Okay, well that’s not entirely true, since we do consistently think about and treat the tablets as if they were ancient artifacts bearing a mysterious script, but you get my point.)

By contrast, many things besides language do elicit from us a consistent pattern of thoughts and actions. Most people, for example, tend to respond to and think about chairs in a characteristic way. This is why we say that we know what chairs are for. The social purpose of chairs is what defines them—not their height, weight, design, material, or any other property of the chairs themselves—and this social purpose exists in us, in our behaviors and thoughts. If everyone on earth were brainwashed and told to think about these same objects as weapons instead of for sitting then chairs would have a different meaning for us.

Ultimately, I think that meaning is just an interpretation of our senses. A camera pointed at a chair will record the same light waves that are being emitted from the chair as I will; but only I will interpret this data to mean chair. You might even say that meaning is what a camera or any other recording device fails to record, since the devices can only record physical properties. Thus meaning, in the sense that I’m using the word, depends on an interpreting mind. Meaning exists for us.

I hope I’m not belaboring this point, but it seems to be worth a little belaboring since it is precisely this point people forget when they ask “What is the meaning of life?” Assuming that most people mean “human life” when they ask this question, then we are led to the conclusion that this question is unanswerable. Human life itself—as a biological fact—has no meaning, since no fact in itself has meaning. In itself, “human life” has no point in the same way that the moon or saw dust has no point. But our experience of human life certainly does. In fact, by definition the human experience comprises every conceivable meaning. All experience is one endless tapestry of significance.

I see this keyboard below my fingers and understand what it is for; I see a chair to my right and I understand its purpose. I see a candle flickering in front of me and I find it pretty and I like its smell. Every single one of these little experiences is brimming with meaning. In fact, I would go further. I think it is simply impossible for an intelligent creature to have a single experience that doesn’t have meaning. Every time you look at something and you understand what it is, the experience is shot through with meaning. Every time you find something interesting, pretty, repulsive, curious, frightening, attractive, these judgments are the very stuff of meaning. Every time you hear a sentence or a musical phrase, every time you enjoy a sunset or find something tasty—the whole fabric of your life, every second you experience, is inevitably meaningful.

This brings me to an important moral point. Humans are the locus of meaning. Our conscious experience is where meaning resides. Consciousness is not simply a reflection of the world, but an interpretation of the world; and interpretations are not the sorts of things that can be right or wrong. Interpretations can only be popular and unpopular.

For example, if you “misunderstand” a sentence, this only means that most people would tend to disagree with you about it. In the case of language, which is a necessarily strict system, we tend to say that you are “wrong” if your interpretation is unpopular, because unless people respond to words and sentences very consistently language can’t perform its proper function. “Proper” meaning is therefore enforced by language users; but the meaning is not inherent in the words and sentences themselves. But in the example of a very abstract painting, then we tend not to care so much whether people interpret the painting in the same way, since the painting is meant to illicit aesthetic sensations and not transmit specific information. (In practice, this is all we mean by the terms “objective” and “subjective”—namely, that the former is used for things most people agree on while the latter is used for things that many people disagree on. Phrased another way, objective meanings are those to which people respond consistently, while subjective meanings are those to which people respond inconsistently.)

This is why meaning is inescapably personal, since experience is personal. Nobody can interpret your experience but yourself. It’s simply impossible. Thus conscious individuals cannot be given a purpose from the “outside” in the same way that, for example, a chair can. The purpose of chairs is simply how we behave toward and think about chairs; it is a meaning imposed by us onto a certain class of objects. But this process does not work if we try to impose a meaning onto a conscious being, since that being experiences their own meaning. If, for example, everybody in the world treated a man as if his purpose were to be a comedian, and he thought his purpose was to be a painter, he wouldn’t be wrong. His interpretation of his own life might be unpopular, but it can never be incorrect.

Human life, either individually or in general, cannot be given a value. You cannot measure the worth of a life in money, friends, fame, goodness, or anything else. Valuations are only valid in a community of individuals who treat them as such. Money, for example, is only effective currency because that’s how we behave towards it. Money has value, not in itself, but for us. But a person does not only have value in the eyes of their community, but in their own eyes, and this value cannot be overridden or delegitimized. And since your experience is, by definition, the only thing you experience, if you experience yourself as valuable nobody else’s opinion can contradict that. A person despised by all the world is not worthless if she still respects herself.

In principle (though not in practice) meaning is not democratic. If everybody in the world but one thought that the point of life was to be good, and a single person thought that the point of life was to be happy, there would be no way to prove that this person was wrong. It is true, in practice people whose interpretations of the world differ from those of their community are usually put into line by an exercise of power. An Inquisition might, for example, prosecute and torture everybody that disagrees with them. Either this, or a particular interpretation imposes itself because, if an individual chooses to think differently, then they are unable to function in the community. Thus if I behaved towards money as if it was tissue paper, my resultant poverty would make me question this interpretation pretty quickly. But it’s important to remember that a king’s opinion of coleslaw isn’t worth any more than a cook’s, and even though everyone thinks dollar bills are valuable it doesn’t change the fact that they’re made of cotton. Power and practicality do not equal truth.

Thus we find that human life doesn’t have meaning, but human experience does; and this meaning changes from individual to individual, from moment to moment. This meaning has nothing to do with whether life is permanent or impermanent. It exists now. It has nothing to do with whether humans are the center of the universe or only a small part of it. The meaning exists for us. We don’t need to be the center of a divine plan to have meaningful lives. Nor is nihilism justified, since the fact that we are small and temporary creatures does not undermine our experience. Consider: every chair will eventually be destroyed. Yet we don’t agonize about the point of making chairs, since it isn’t important whether the chairs are part of a divine plan or will remain forever; the chairs are part of our plan and are useful now. Replace “chairs” with “our lives” and you’ve hit the truth.

You might say now that I’m missing the point entirely. I am interpreting the word “meaning” too generally, in the sense that I am including any kind of conscious interpretation or significance, explicit or implicit, public or private. When most people ask about the meaning of life, they mean something “higher,” something more profound, more noble, more deep. Fair enough.

Of course I can’t hope to solve this problem for you. But I will say that, since meaning resides in experience, and since all experience is personal, you cannot hope to solve the meaning of all human life. The best you can hope for is to find meaning—“higher” meaning—in your own experience. In fact, it is simply presumptuous and absurd to say “This is the meaning of human life,” since you can’t very well crawl into another person’s head and interpret their experiences for them, much less crawl into the heads of all of humanity. And in fact you should be happy for this, I think, because it means that your value can never be adequately measured by another person and that any exterior criterion that someone attempts to apply to you cannot delegitimize your own experience. But also remember that the same also applies to your attempts to measure others.

I will also add, just as my personal advice, that when you realize that meaning only exists in the present moment, since meaning only exists in your experience, much of the existential angst will disappear. Find the significance and beauty of what’s in front of your eyes. Life is only a succession of moments, and the more moments you appreciate the more you’ll get out of life. Don’t worry about how you measure up against any external standard, whether it be wealth, fame, respectability, love, or anything else; the meaning of your own life resides in you. And the meaning of your life not one thing, but the ever-changing flux of experience that comprises your reality.