Answers to the question of the meaning of life fall roughly into one of three categories:
- Negative (nihilistic) answers—life is meaningless;
- Affirmation—it is ok that life is meaningless;
- Acceptance—it is bad that life is meaningless, but we accept this;
- Rejection—it is bad that life is meaningless, and we reject this;
- Agnostic (skeptical) answers—we don’t know if life is meaningful;
- The question is unintelligible; it can’t be answered;
- The question is intelligible, but we don’t know if we can answer it;
- Positive answers—life is meaningful;
- Supernatural (theistic) answers—meaning from a transcendent god or gods;
- Natural (non-theistic) answers—meaning created/discovered in natural world
i. meaning is objective—discovered or found by individual
ii. meaning is subjective—created or invented by individuals.
iii. meaning is both objective and subjective
The Question and Possible Answers – The question of the meaning of life is the most fundamental question of human existence. It asks “what is the meaning, significance or purpose of an individual life in the context of all that was, is, or could be?” Answers to this question come in many varieties: supernaturalists argue that meaning derives from a god or gods; skeptics doubt that an answer to the question exists, or that we could know the answer even if it did; nihilists claim that life has no meaning; while naturalists claim that we create our own meaning (subjectivists), or that we find meaning in the good things in the world (objectivists). None of these answers is entirely satisfactory.
Religious Answers – Religious (supernaturalist) answers are the most popular, but they depend on problematic assumptions about the nature and existence of a supernatural realm. And even if religious claims are true, it isn’t clear how a god grounds meaning. For instance, if you are told that you are a part of a god’s plan you might ask, how does being a part of some god’s plan give my life meaning? Being a part of your parent’s or your country’s plan doesn’t necessarily do that. If you are told that the gods just radiate meaning you might ask, how do they do that? If you can’t be the source of your own meaning, how can something else be? If you are told that a gods’ love gives your life meaning, you might wonder why the love of people around you can’t do that. If you are told that life is meaningful because you will live forever with the gods after you die, you might wonder how that makes life meaningful. (Reading my website for all eternity wouldn’t be meaningful!) You might also question why you would want to live forever with beings responsible for so much evil. So even if there are gods life may still be meaningless.
Philosophical Answers – Turning to philosophical replies to our question, we cannot straightforwardly accept skepticism, since we are forced by constraints of consistency to be skeptical of skepticism. Nihilism haunts us and no amount of philosophizing is palliative in its wake. Yet we reject it too. Why accept such a depressing conclusion when we can’t be sure of its truth? Subjectivism provides a more promising philosophical response—we can create limited meaning without accepting religious, agnostic, or nihilistic provisos. The problem is that the meaning created isn’t enough. We want more than subjective meaning, and the task of creating our own meaning is enormous. This leads us to consider the objective values and meanings found in the natural world—things like truth, goodness and beauty. In the meeting of subjective desires and objectively good things, we find the most meaning available to us in this life.
Death – Yet this is not enough—because we die. How can anything truly satisfy, even subjective engagement in objectively good things, if all leads to nothingness? Death limits the meaning we can experience, since fully meaningful lives necessitate that we live forever. Lives can be meaningful without the proviso of immortality, but they cannot be fully meaningful since they would be limited in quantity. Death puts an end to our meaning and our lives. The defenders of death may claim that death is for the better, but we know in our bones that it is not, as the wailing at funerals reveals.
Transhumanist Answers – Fortunately science and technology may provide our salvation. We might overcome death in the near future using some combination of nanotechnology, genetic engineering, artificial intelligence, and robotics. But this is not enough, for immortality is a necessary but not a sufficient condition for full meaning. Complete meaning requires infinite qualitative goodness as well as an infinite quantity of time. Yet science potentially solves this problem too. If science can overcome death, why can’t it infinitely enlarge consciousness? With oceans of time for future innovation, it is plausible to think that science could make fully meaningful lives possible; it could make a heaven on earth. Still we have no guarantees. Cosmic evolution reveals the emergence of consciousness and meaning, as well as the possibility of their exponential increase, but it doesn’t imply that a more meaningful reality will necessarily unfold or that a state of perfect meaning will inevitably ensue. We don’t know if science and technology will bring about a utopia or its opposite, or hasten our destruction. And even if a glorious future awaits our descendants, we don’t know if we’ll be part of it.
Hope – Uncertain that life will ever be completely meaningful, or that we will participate in such meaning if even it does come to pass, we can still hope that our lives are significant, that our descendants will live more meaningful lives than we do, that our science and technology will save us, and that life will culminate in, or at least approach, complete meaning. These hopes help us to brave the struggle of life, keeping alive the possibility that we will create a better and more meaningful reality. Hope is useful.
The Purpose of Life – The possibility of infinitely long, good, and meaningful lives, along with the hope that this possibility can be realized, brings the purpose of our lives into focus. The purpose of life is to diminish all constraints on our being—intellectual, psychological, physical, and moral—and to remake the external world in ways conducive to the emergence of meaning. This implies embracing our role as protagonists of the cosmic evolutionary epic. We should work to increase the quantity and quality of knowledge, love, joy, beauty, goodness and meaning in the world, while diminishing their opposites. This is the ultimate purpose of our lives; this is what we should do. This implies being better thinkers, companions, artists and parents. It means acting to promote human flourishing, and ultimate the flourishing of all being. Naturally there are disagreements about exactly what this entails, but the way forward should become increasing clear as we achieve higher levels of being and consciousness.
Is Life Meaningful? – Yet knowing the purpose of our lives doesn’t ensure that they are fully meaningful, for we may collectively fail to give life more meaning—we may not achieve our purpose. Thus the answer to our question is that we know how life could be ultimately meaningful, but we do not know if it is or will be ultimately meaningful. Life can be judged fully meaningful from an eternal perspective only if we fulfill our purpose by making it better and more meaningful. If we are successful, our efforts will culminate in the overcoming of all human limitations, and our (post-human) descendants will live fully meaningful lives. If we achieve our purpose in the far distant future, if a fully meaningful reality comes to fruition, and if somehow we are a part of that meaningful reality, then we could say that our life and all life was, and is, deeply meaningful.
Hope Revisited – For now though, forced to live with uncertainty about the future, we must have hope that life can be made continually more meaningful. Hope provides the impetus for our efforts, and makes the continued emergence of meaning possible. Our hope is no small thing.
The Struggle – The kind of hope we advocate is akin to wishing or dreaming, but it doesn’t expect good things to happen. And our hope motivates action; it is not passive. This hope implies that it’s possible to create a better world, we work for that, and in that struggle we find the meaning of lives.