Perhaps the most fundamental of questions we, as sentient beings, can ask is simply: what is the meaning of life? Most days we may let that question sit in the back of our minds, allowing us to move along unhampered, but occasionally something will trigger an existential dilemma, and the question will come full force into our minds: why are we here?
Although science may seek to answer any number of peripheral questions – such as the origins of life, or the literal definition of life – the assignation of a more abstract meaning is not something within science’s purview. Many scientifically-minded people will simply shuffle the question aside, choosing instead to focus on more practical matters. For some, however, the meaning of life is an incredibly practical concern. Without a deeper sense of purpose, people may find themselves adrift in a sea of depression or an inescapable malaise.
Some scientists take the view that not only is there no objective meaning to life, but that this search for meaning can in fact be easily explained by evolutionary drives. The argument against teleology – as this search for meaning is called – goes something like this: an organism which has evolved advanced abstract thinking as a competitive edge will be constantly seeking to utilize that ability to its full potential; in order to do this, every object and situation found in the environment must be deconstructed and looked at from the perspective of its use value; this drive is then deeply internalized, and manifests itself as looking for ‘meaning’ in all things – both physical objects and more abstract concepts such as life itself.
Others take the stance that the meaning of life is simply to procreate. From an evolutionary perspective, it seems that organisms evolve to spread their genes as best they can, to prolong their species – or subsequent species – as long as possible. Unfortunately, in the modern age humanity appears to have gotten to a point where this fundamental drive is no longer a positive force, and may in fact be counter-productive.
For the majority of people, neither of these two answers suffice. Most people are not satisfied with simply believing there is no purpose to life – indeed, that the desire for purpose is simply an error based on primitive programming – or that the purpose is as simple as spreading our genes. As science is not willing – or is perhaps unable – to delve into teleological questions, this most fundamental of questions is therefore left to philosophers and theologians to answer.
In many religions, the meaning of life could best be characterized as living virtuously in the eyes of God. In the Judeo-Christian faiths, for example, a core belief is that of an afterlife. The meaning of life therefore is to live within the bounds of the Laws proscribed by God, in order to reach that beneficent afterlife. Another perspective looks simply at living in harmony with God as bringing meaning to one’s life. From this perspective, meaning is derived from feeling the experience of God – which in turn is found by having faith in God’s guidance, and being open to feeling that spirit.
Other religions take the stance that the meaning of life is simply to have fun, or to play. Some look at life as a great game that we have no choice but to play, and therefore our goal is to maximize the pleasure and discovery we get from this game. Others believe that all of existence was created by God as a path to enjoyment, or as a way for Him to better discover Himself. This is a common belief in many mystic traditions, which see life as an infinite unfolding towards greater experience and understanding.
Often, when people ask what the meaning of life is, what they are actually asking is what is good in one’s life. The question is not about a grander purpose, but simply how to arrive at joy and peace in one’s own experience of that existence – no matter what the ultimate meaning might be. There are many answers to this question, but most spiritual and philosophical teachings agree that the meaning of life is some combination of loving, giving, and experiencing others. That it is not the things we accumulate, or the feathers we put in our caps, but rather the joy we bring to others, and the individual differences we make in the world.
Ultimately, there can never be an objective answer as to what the meaning of life is. But what seems certain is that on some level the purpose is simply to live it, and to do so in a way that feels right to you. To live every day in such a way that on your inevitable death bed, you can look back on your life and smile. To live every day, not as if it is your last, but as if it is your first: with wonder, with faith, and with goodness in your heart. Virtually everyone, from Atheists to Catholics to Buddhists to Deists, would likely agree that without fully embracing the experience of being alive, any meaning there may be is ultimately for naught.