A Philosopher’s Lifelong Search for Meaning – Part 1 – Life and Meaning

… continued from the Preface

  1. Meaning of Life Versus Meaning in Life 

I distinguish between two basic questions concerning life and meaning.

The first is: “What is the meaning of life?” It might also be expressed: “Why does anything exist?” “Does anything matter?” “Does the universe have a purpose?” “What’s it all about?” This is the cosmic dimension of the question. It asks if there is a deep explanation or universal narrative that would make sense of everything, including us.

The second is: “Can I find meaning in life?” It might also be expressed: “What’s the point of my life?” “Does my life matter?” “What kind of life is meaningful?” “How should I live?” This is the individual dimension of the question. It asks if there is a valuable, significant, or worthwhile way of living that prevents life from being futile, pointless, or absurd.

Thus the often-asked, singular question, “what is the meaning of life?” is really a marker for an amalgam of all the above questions. 

Putting our two main questions together leaves four possible (overall) answers:

1) Both the cosmos and our individual lives are (ultimately) meaningful;
2) Both the cosmos and our individual lives are (ultimately) meaningless;
3) The cosmos is (ultimately) meaningful but our lives may still be meaningless;
4) The cosmos is (ultimately) meaningless but our lives may still be meaningful;

        2. What Do We Mean by Meaning?

We may not be able to precisely define the concept of meaning, but as a starting point we can say that either an individual life or the cosmos are meaningful if they have value, worth, or significance. This implies, I’d argue, that a meaningful cosmos contains properties such as truth, beauty, goodness, and justice, while a meaningful life is one of flourishing, contentment, happiness, and love.

Still, the dominant view today among English-speaking philosophers is that meaning is a final and distinct value. To see this consider that meaning isn’t synonymous with, for example, happiness or moral goodness. We can imagine happy or morally good lives that aren’t very meaningful—lives spent pursuing physical pleasure or collecting coins—and meaningful lives that aren’t especially happy or moral—the life of an unhappy, immoral scientist who makes important discoveries. This shows that meaning isn’t the same thing as happiness or moral goodness. In short, meaning is a unique good.

Note too that meaning varies over time. The cosmos may be more or less meaningful now than it will be in the future—it may one day become perfectly meaningful, totally meaningless, or something in between. Individual lives may also become more or less meaningful over time, and their meaning also varies from person to person. In other words, meaning is a gradient good.

Put differently, I’d argue that for an individual life or the cosmos to be meaningful they must matter, be good, and be long-lasting. The more they matter, the better they are, and the longer they last—assuming all these conditions hold—the more meaningful they are. In other words, a fully meaningful cosmos is the best one that can be, and a fully meaningful life is the best one that we can live. 

However, a meaningful life isn’t necessarily devoid of all obstacles for many meaningful projects—developing our talents, educating our minds, raising our children—involve disappointment. I’m not implying that suffering is good or desirable simply that it often accompanies our attempt to live meaningfully. Still, a maximally meaningful reality would be devoid of evil.

  1. Should We Ask About Meaning?

Questions about meaning and life arise because we are big-brained hominids capable of adopting a detached point of view—we can disengage from life and reflect on it. This ability to reflect is made possible, or at least greatly enhanced, if our basic needs are met—i.e., we possess a modicum of wealth, health, and education, don’t fear for our safety, live in a relatively just political order, etc.

Our consciousness of suffering, impermanence, death, and our apparent insignificance in the vastness of space and time especially stimulate questions of meaning. We can’t live long without wondering why life is so hard; we can’t love passionately without asking why we and our loved ones die; we can’t think deeply without realizing that something about life is amiss. We wonder where it all came from, where it’s all going, and what it’s all about. These questions resonate deeply within us and are hard to silence.

Yet even if we could avoid our deepest questions, we should not. Our questioning ennobles us and it is part of the rich interior life that differentiates us from less conscious beings. We simply don’t fully actualize our powers of thought and reason until we reflect seriously on ourselves and our place in the cosmos. The examined life, all other things being equal, is better than its opposite.

Furthermore, good answers to our deepest questions promote our survival and flourishing, as well as aid our descendants in successfully navigating into the future. Without knowing the purpose of our lives we don’t know where we should go or how we should get there. Without an understanding of life and meaning, we are lost, adrift on our cosmic journey without a compass. But where do we look for understanding? Some look to religion.

Part 2 – Religion and Meaning

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12 thoughts on “A Philosopher’s Lifelong Search for Meaning – Part 1 – Life and Meaning

  1. An interesting introduction to the complex question of meaning of life, based on his wide-ranging, deep study of all important books and papers published on the subject in the last several years. My thanks and gratitude for his efforts.

  2. I do not possess a good mind for philosophy, but rather for that which is ancillary to philosophy. Here goes…

    “we can’t love passionately without asking why we and our loved ones must die; we can’t think deeply without realizing that something about life is amiss.”

    One factor of something about life being amiss is, we only sincerely care about ourselves and our loved ones– we have been programmed through millions of years that way–which negates our altruism.

    “We wonder where it all came from, where it’s all going, and what it’s all about.”

    This goes back to my last comment regarding your previous article here. An interest in life being a Simulation; just say we begin with the pre-Socratics, examining the threads leading to what we call ‘modern’. All our aggregate knowledge/wisdom was programmed into us for better and worse: a simulation.
    Eschatology is a fancy way of terming prophecies programmed into the Sim: self fulfilling prophecies, as they continually influence our thoughts and actions.

    “The examined life, all other things being equal, is better than its opposite.”

    Agreed, nevertheless something can be said for ‘All I need To know I Learned In Kindergarten’. Progress could actually, quite ironically, be a religious mirage. Politics (which naturally means policies to live and die by) is after all derived from ancient religion transmuted into law and politics. Religious figures developed eventually into political figures. Eschatology has very often been prophecy concerning Redemption and modern politics, economics, psychology, and so forth, frequently infer some sort of redemption. When none might ever exist.
    In other words, meaning and purpose can be available to us– whereas any genuine redemption may be pie-in-the-sky piled up over millennia.

  3. John,

    I really like the way that you have framed the question of meaning in terms of two main categories of questions surrounding the “individual” and the “cosmos”. It strikes me that another way to describe those two aspects of meaning is by calling them “subjective meaning” (for the individual) and “objective meaning” (for the cosmos).

    Even though human consciousness arises through a unique combination of biology and circumstance, an individual uses consciousness “subjectively” to evaluate questions of value and worth. One individual’s passion in life is another individual’s waste of time.

    In contrast, what we know about the cosmos is largely through the accumulation of scientific knowledge; i.e., the universe appeared to begin about 15 billion years ago, is expanding and may ultimately suffer heat death or some other fate eons in the future. It seems to me that cosmic meaning can only be explored objectively, by continued investigation and accumulation of scientific knowledge.


  4. Thanks for these thoughts about ultimate questions and meaning. I am a man of a certain age and I believe I’ve examined my life pretty thoroughly. But meaning continues to elude me. Family didn’t add any meaning, nor did religion or philosophy. That doesn’t mean life isn’t enjoyable or rich in experiences for me. But meaning? Chasing that has been a waste of my time…a quixotic venture at best. I’m not at all suicidal or depressed about it. In fact, I’m relieved to be able to just be okay with the absurdity of my life. As they say: “It’s all good.”

  5. really appreciate your comments. I’ve often felt as you do but at other times not. JGM

  6. thanks Jim. In fact, in an earlier version I did call them objective and subjective but for some reason changed the terminology. I might put it back in. Keep the comments coming. JGM

  7. Everyone wants and attains some meaning and purpose, but not virtue or justice. Justice and virtue are relative to time/place.

    @ “One individual’s passion in life is another individual’s waste of time.”

    Yet everyone wants power and money. So people definitely have something in common– no matter how negative.

    @ “But meaning? Chasing that has been a waste of my time…a quixotic venture at best.”

    If so, you would not have come to this Reason and Meaning site. Chasing meaning has not been a total waste of your time.

  8. I meant to tell you that as a result of my talk a few weeks ago, I got to have dinner with Tim Williamson, the Wykeham Professor of Logic at Oxford (a position once held by A J Ayer). One of the other members of the dinner party was a young student who is about to apply to Oxford, so I asked Professor Williamson “what kind of person / student finds success at Oxford?” He thought about it briefly, and then responded that he could say that “the people who DON’T do well studying philosophy at Oxford are the ones who go there looking for a meaning for life.” (!) I suppose that’s right that you won’t find answers, but I think it’s sad the academy doesn’t always support the question as well as you do.

    A couple reactions popped into my head while I read the above.

    –> “a meaningful cosmos contains things like truth, beauty, goodness, justice, joy, and love”

    So a “meaningful” cosmos is a cosmos that is “full of meaning”? That’s perhaps an interesting truism. It makes me wonder if after the Big Bang, while stars were still forming, would you say the cosmos was meaningless? At least thus far. But now that life has arisen, at least here on Earth, the cosmos is meaningful? At least for now.

    –> “The cosmos may be more or less meaningful now than it will be in the future—it may one day become perfectly meaningful, totally meaningless, or something in between.”

    This jibes well with Dennett’s evolutionary perspective that essentialism ought to be put to rest. Meaning may not be an essential and eternal quality of the cosmos, because perhaps nothing is essential and eternal. Meaning may evolve slowly slowly in tiny increments. And it may survive, or it may go extinct. Since, epistemically, we can’t seem to know the future, we seem resigned to live with whatever meaning we have or can reasonably foresee.

    I’m anxious to see where you go with the rest of this.

  9. Again thanks Ed. I’ve never had dinner with anyone who held a chair as prestigious as Ayer’s, so you’re doing well! Your comment about the meaning of life reminds me of my friend who lives in London, Dr Caspar Addyman. He wrote a book called “Help Yourself” and asked 650 philosophy professors about the meaning of life and only got 22 replies! He especially liked my essay on the topic found here:


    that essay addresses almost all of your questions about the evolution of meaning and you will find excerpts from it in what is forthcoming. As for defining a meaningful cosmos as one full of meaning you are correct that’s a tautology but I’d like to think by using other terms I do a bit more than that. Of course defining anything is very hard as G E Moore found out when he tried to define the good!

  10. Ed’s comments triggered a few more thoughts on this topic along the lines of my previous comment.

    When I consider the “meaning” of something, I often mentally substitute different words, such as “value” or “worth” to help clarify in my mind what I am thinking about. This is similar to how meaning is defined in the essay as “purposeful, valuable, or significant”. The value or worth of any human life, or of humanity as a whole, clearly contains things like “truth, beauty, goodness, justice, joy, and love”. But those qualities all seem to rely on a human perspective and subjectively vary from individual to individual and from one generation to another. Do they apply to the cosmos?

    My view is that our planet is such a tiny speck in the vastness of the universe that the human perspective of meaning described above does not apply to the cosmos. The fact that human consciousness has evolved to the point where we can appreciate our place in the cosmos may be nothing more than one more proof of concept that the universe can support intelligent life. Due to its vastness, there surely must be countless other life forms scattered throughout the universe, many having the intelligence to ponder the cosmos as we do. When our particular species goes extinct, as it surely will, that event will not reduce the value or worth of the cosmos, which in my view is simply to support the existence of life. That value doesn’t sound like much, but it is a wondrous thing (especially to us at this time)!

    The gradient good of the cosmos then depends on its ability to support the existence of life. Scientific knowledge has given us some hints as to what might happen to the universe eons in the future, but our complete understanding is lacking. We simply do not know what the end game is for the universe – will it continue to support life or will it end otherwise? Humans will be long gone, but it is intriguing to think about, ponder and investigate!

  11. Great points and questions, many of which will be addressed in subsequent entries. JGM

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