The meaning of your life is the meaning you give it. It consists in what you create through the identification and pursuit of values fitted to your talents and interests, together with the relationships you form in the process. First and foremost, good relationships give meaning to life; so does the pursuit of worthwhile goals; so do pleasure and enjoyment; so do respect and friendship, both given and received, in the course of pursuing worthwhile goals. Life can thus be very rich in meaning, and it not uncommonly is so.
There is no single one-size-fits-all top-down answer to the question: “What is the meaning of life?” People are various, life is various, circumstances differ; there are many ways that life can be good, flourishing and meaningful, just as there are many ways it can be bad. Luck, and events beyond anyone’s control, have their place in determining the character of a life, and all lives encounter difficulties at times. But meaning is something that incorporates the negative things too, and the way they are faced and borne.
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The purveyors of ideologies and religions which claim to know what the one-size-fits-all meaning of life is wish to force everyone into the same mould, no matter what their individual starting point. Of course many people prefer others to do their thinking for them, and accordingly want others to tell them what is valuable and how they should live. They wish to go to the supermarket of ideas and buy a frozen pre-cooked packet of beliefs, ready to use. So long as they continue not to think, this might do; but they have to expend much energy on shutting out doubts.
There can obviously be lives that feel meaningful to those living them which are not, by any standards, good. A sadist in the SS might take great satisfaction in committing horrors, but the fact that all moral thinking must be governed by the Harm Principle – which says: it is never right to harm others in their own efforts to make lives meaningful for themselves – condemns them.
A few seemingly lucky individuals have all the world’s good things handed to them on a plate, and might not mind being the passive recipients of them, their own merits or activity playing no part. Are their lives meaningful? It is better to think that a genuinely meaningful life is a product of activity and choice – that it is one’s own work.
The proper question, therefore, is not “what is the meaning of life?” but “What is the meaning that, out of my relationships, my goals, my efforts, my talents, my various interests, hopes and desires, I am or should be creating for my life?” Trying to answer this question is itself part of life’s meaning.
This is an edited extract from AC Grayling’s forthcoming book, Thinking Of Answers, to be published by Bloomsbury in March
The first thing that comes to mind when I hear the phrase “the meaning of life” is the computer Deep Thought from Douglas Adams’s The Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy. The machine spent seven-and-a-half million years calculating “the answer to life, the universe and everything”, so surely everyone now knows the meaning of life is 42? Actually, I’ve always been grateful to Adams for drawing attention to the oddity of expecting an answer to this question. There’s a sense in which asking it is akin to inquiring into the meaning of breakfast – it just isn’t the sort of thing that has a meaning. Perhaps we are making the same mistake when we ask about the meaning of life? In neither case does the form of scientific rationality represented by Deep Thought promise a satisfying result.
Nevertheless, we can and do talk about the meaning of our lives. Many claim that each of us imposes a meaning on our life through choices we make. If this is right, given that we make different choices, then our lives have different meanings. On this account there really isn’t a meaning of life, there are just meanings of lives, created by us and only limited by our energy and imagination. We decide what will make up the meaning of our life. One problem with this view is it doesn’t provide resources for evaluating the choices an individual makes in the context of the choices of others. Another is that it has nothing to say about the significance of death other than that it constitutes the limit of our ability to make choices.
Returning to the question of the meaning to life, what kind of answer should we expect? If there were a satisfying answer it would transcend mere concern with our individual lives. A transcendent dimension is at the core of most religions. By providing a narrative about human origins, our place within the cosmos, our experience of good and evil, and our post-mortem future, religions introduce this dimension into our self-understanding.
Religions provide a unifying framework within which we can evaluate our choices, and assess how they cohere with those of others. Seeing our lives in this wider frame of reference can intensify our experience of the choices to be made by locating us in the context of a community with shared values. If we are to talk about the meaning of life at all, rather than just the meanings of lives, we need this individual-transcending dimension.
This, of course, does not provide a single answer to the question of the meaning of life. I am claiming instead that without a religious perspective, life has too many potential meanings. A religious perspective can help us sort through possible meanings and to make choices based on values which transcend narrow self-interest.
Dr Victoria Harrison is director of the Centre for Philosophy and Religion at the University of Glasgow
Drivers in Italy should be attentive of the street sign “Senso Unico” – “One Way”. It could equally well be applied to the course of life: proceeding in one direction from conception to death. In English, however, “sense” suggests “meaning” or “significance”, and even “purpose”. So the question arises, can any sense or meaning be made of human life beyond its “one way” direction towards death?
For the ancient Greeks and Romans philosophy was focused on two questions: what is the nature of reality? And what is the best kind of life? So far as the first is concerned, cosmology and physics have achieved much in answering it, but the second seems not to be amenable to scientific resolution. Perhaps an evolutionary theorist might say that the best life is one in which we survive to reproduce; but this hardly bears scrutiny, for we know that what matters is not the mere fact of existence but the value of life, and the values within it.
The French-Algerian writer Albert Camus opens his book The Myth Of Sisyphus with the claim that: “Judging whether life is or is not worth living amounts to answering the fundamental question of philosophy. All the rest … comes afterwards.” Some academic philosophers would regard this as theatrical if not hysterical, but I think Camus is right: human reflection risks becoming idle speculation if it does not engage the issue of the meaning of life.
We find ourselves in a universe we did not create, subject to conditions we did not choose, and vulnerable to injury, loss and death. Yet we also know ourselves to be capable of creating beauty, of developing deep and loving relationships, of finding nature intelligible and glorious, and of sensing the possibility of some fuller existence beyond the limits of time and circumstance. This combination of facts is at once mysterious and promising, suggesting there really is some deep truth about human existence, which if we could find it would give us solid grounds for despair or hope.
One possibility is that life has meaning to the extent that we give it such. Like sense breathed into spoken sounds that otherwise would be mere noise, or satisfaction injected into a mundane task, meaning may be something invested by us in the mere matter of everyday existence. But how can we invest what we do not have? If there is not already some real meaning in our plans and purposes then the schemes in which we express them will be worthless. It is hard to resist the thought that much of what passes for a “good life” is as authentically valuable as the proclaimed worth of pre-crisis property portfolios.
The idea that life has the meaning we give it is as profound as a Christmas cracker catchphrase. And so the serious questions remain: is there any purpose in human life? Is it worth living? Two kinds of meaning are evident in human existence. First, there is that of all living things, each of which can be assessed against a specific developmental order. By this “organic” standard we can judge if a human life is flourishing or failing, just as we can that of a cat or a cactus.
Second, there is the meaning that a life acquires as it unfolds as a story built up out of episodes, sequences, sections and chapters. This is a matter of dramatic meaning, in relation to which we are author, actor and audience: at times shaping events, at times living them and at times observing them with amusement or edification.
But is there any more? The image of theatre raises a further possibility. Could it be that we are players on a stage shaped for us, entering into a drama not of our own making, and invited to co-operate in leading the story, or our part of it, towards a meaningful and happy conclusion? Every major culture has been shaped by religion, and whatever some philosophers, scientists and others may have thought about the “withering away” of religion, faith remains a major force in human life.
It is important to consider why that should be so. One explanation is that voiced by St Augustine 1500 years ago when he wrote in his Confessions that: “You made us for yourself Lord, and our heart is restless until it comes to rest in you.” Whatever one’s prior convictions or doubts this is a possibility worth considering as another new year gets under way. We ask questions about the meaning of life because we are creatures for whom life has a meaning; but the meaning it has comes from our nature not as bodies but as souls. On this account our art-making and our love-seeking, our scientific inquiries and our philosophical reflections, all reveal a desire to enter into a form of relationship with God. That may be the ultimate sense, meaning and purpose of human life, and one in which all restless yearnings cease – but we shall have to wait and see.
John Haldane is professor of philosophy and director of the Centre for Ethics, Philosophy and Public Affairs at the University of St Andrews. His newest book, Reasonable Faith, is published next month by Routledge
I remember very vividly the thought that ran through my mind when I first saw the famous life-sized model of the blue whale at London’s Natural History Museum. The largest animal in the world, this specimen is 28 metres long and is so big that a hall had to be built especially to house it.
As I entered the gallery and looked up at the beast, I thought: “Is that it?” I was the victim of inflated expectations. My imagination had been fuelled by the cover of a Ladybird book version of Moby Dick, in which the eponymous whale looked as though it were the size of a tower block. I’d also seen science fiction stories of Godzilla and King Kong, in which huge monsters stood taller than sky-scrapers. In short, my idea of huge had become ginormous and in comparison, the whale was merely big.
A version of the Blue Whale Problem faces most of us when we consider the meaning of life. In our imagination, it’s too big or deep to ever be fathomed. Thousands of years of religion have led us to expect that it must involve something beyond this world, or at least some mystical, elusive secret.
So when we are told that it’s basically about creating a life that is worth living, it’s almost impossible not to think: “Is that it? Surely there must be more to it than that?”
There isn’t, for reasons that can be explained in simple terms by people who are not octogenarian sages to people for whom lighting a scented candle is the closest they’ve come to transcendental meditation. If you think meaning is about an ultimate purpose, you’ve got three problems. One, I’m afraid it looks like the universe has no purpose.
Two, if your life did have a final goal, then what would be the meaning of your life once you’d fulfilled it? Three, if a God created a purpose for your life, that would only give it meaning for him, not you. A master’s purpose is not a slave’s meaning. Meaning is not something we are born with and nor can it be thrust upon us: we must achieve it.
To ask if life has meaning is to ask why it is worth living. And the glib wisecrack that it is better than the alternatives is actually pretty much the whole truth. Alive, we can smell fresh coffee in the morning, see the smile of a person we love, feel our hearts stir to a piece of music, watch the sun rise, laugh at a classic episode of Father Ted, and much, much more. If you need to ask why these things are worth doing you just haven’t appreciated what is great about them. Find your own examples. Whatever they are, you’ll find life is its own answer, as Ray Bradbury wrote in The Martian Chronicles.
Is that it? It had better be, because when our time is up, that really is it.
Julian Baggini is editor of The Philosophers’ Magazine. His latest book, Should You Judge This Book By Its Cover?, is published by Granta, £12.99