“The Meaning of ‘The Meaning of Life’”
by Jay Garfield, Ph.D.
"When asking the question “What is the meaning of life?”, you may want take a step back, reflect and begin by asking, “What is meant by the phrase ‘the meaning of life’”?
Three Types of Meaning: OK, let’s start with a confusing thought. The word meaning, itself, has many meanings. Take these three examples:
Linguistic meaning or semantic meaning is the actual meaning of words. For instance, the word “bachelor” in English means an unmarried, adult male. Or the words “rouge,” and “red” and “marpo” mean the same things in French, English and Tibetan respectively.
Indicative meaning. For example, looking up at the sky and saying, “Those clouds mean rain.” You’re not talking about linguistic meaning or semantic meaning. The clouds aren’t literally signs or symbols in a language and we’re not trying to interpret them. Rather what we mean is they indicate to us that it’s going to rain.
Sense of meaning is when you talk about significance; something being important to you. For example, one might reference their wedding band and say, “This ring is of great meaning to me.” It represents my marriage vows. Or, “The monument I visited today on the National Mall is deeply significant;” it resonates with me. It gives me a certain sense of value and importance. It’s the third of these, this notion of significance, that’s clearly the core meaning when we ask the question, what is the meaning of life?
Pointing To Something Beyond Us: While the notion of significance is the core meaning, it’s not the only meaning. When you are asking why life is significant; why it’s important; why it matters; the others are important too. In fact, all three of these senses of meaning, even though they’re different from one another, are related to one another in an important way – in each case, we’re talking about the sense of pointing to something outside ourselves.
All of these senses of meaning have a sense of one thing pointing to or indicating something well beyond it. In general when we ask the question “What is the meaning of life?” we’re asking the question, what is it beyond our existence that gives our lives significance?
Why Search For The Meaning Of Life In The First Place? Here’s another important question: What raises the question of the meaning of life in the first place? Why is this one of the questions that we feel absolutely bound to answer? There are several things that lead us to raise that question.
One is a fundamental awareness, that human beings develop at some point, of our finitude in a vast and infinite universe; that we are very small, limited and ephemeral phenomenon in a universe that goes far beyond us. Finitude has several different dimensions. On the one hand there is the obvious finitude in space and time itself. If you think about the expanse of the world and the universe in which we live, it is quite vast. The globe that we dwell on right now is enormous. It is dwarfed by the solar system; a solar system that is no more than a spec in a galaxy and a galaxy that is one of billions in a galaxy cluster.
Yet, even if you restrict your gaze and just think only about human history, you see that we’re very small moments in time. We’re here for a few years; maybe even a hundred years if we’re lucky, but in the course of human history which extends over hundreds of thousands of years already, that’s absolutely nothing. What is it about our ephemeral lives in human history that makes them worth living in the first place?
What Makes Us Human? One of the things that you need to ask if you’re asking about the meaning of life is just what it is for a life to be a human life. You need to ask at some point what is it that makes us characteristically human in the respect that is relevant to asking this question.
Is the answer biological? To be human is perhaps to have a certain kind of DNA; to have a certain genetic code; or perhaps it’s to have certain organs – for example, the pre-frontal cortex of the brain. We might say to be human is to be biologically like us; to be genetically related to us; to have the kind of functioning organs that we do and ask what is it about that biological nature that’s important and significant.
Is the answer to the question psychological? It’s not the biology or the brain; it’s how we think. It’s what goes on in our minds. It’s what we’re capable of deducing; the intentions we’re capable of forming and so forth.
Is the answer to the question spiritual? We might say that what makes somebody distinctively human involves something like their relationship to a deity, their relationship to a religious practice, to a religious tradition or something like that, something that transcends biology and psychology and is somehow a deeper effect.
Is the answer to the question, the moral dimension? Is it our capacity for caring about each other, for understanding the difference between right and wrong, for standing under moral imperatives, and for taking responsibility for our actions that makes us human. We might say that anything biologically, psychologically, spiritually different from us, however different it may be, if it’s morally like us that’s the kind of thing whose life is significant.
To What Extent Are We In Control Of Our Lives? Another question to raise, before you can begin to ask the big question, is: To what extent are we in control of our lives? Many people would say that our life is meaningful only to the extent that we are able to do something with it. It may be that everything that we do and everything that happens to us is completely causally determined. Or it might be that we’re free and we have a deep free-will. In either case our lives might be meaningful or meaningless, but the sense of meaning is going to be very different.
On the other hand it might be that you can find a middle path; that certain things about us are determined, but certain things about our lives are free. Perhaps the meaning lies in the places where we can make choices. It might be that the meaning lies in exactly how we’re determined; it might be, for instance, that it’s what God has in mind for us that makes our lives meaningful. All of these questions will require being raised.
Is There One Single Answer To The Meaning Of Life? There’s yet another important question to ask. Is there really only ONE right answer to the question, “Is there a meaning of life?” And if there is one answer what is the ONE meaning? We must consider that this might not be true; there might be many meanings of life. There may be many different answers. For instance, the answer might vary over time; it might be that in one era the meaning of life is one thing, but in another era, it’s a different thing. It may be that what makes a life meaningful for a small child is different from what makes life meaningful to an adult; different again from what makes life meaningful to an elderly person.
Meaning may vary not only over cultural time, but it might vary over individual time. For example, the meaning of life for somebody growing up in classical India is different from the meaning of life growing up in modern Europe; different again from the meaning of life growing up in contemporary United States and there will certainly be many different answers to the question of the meaning of life that come from an individuals at different stages in their own lives.
What Would Count As An Answer For The Meaning Of Life? What would count as an answer, to the question, “what is the meaning of life?” One kind of answer might be: taking very seriously the problem of our finitude and the infinitude of the universe. That the only thing that could be an answer to the meaning of life question would be some account of the relationship between finite beings like us and a vast, infinite universe. That’s one possibility.
Another possibility is we take the spiritual dimension to humanity more seriously. That the only possible answer to the question, “what is the meaning of life?” is an answer that gives us some sense of what our relationship to a divinity; to a god, to a greater spiritual existence.
There are other possibilities, too. We might be asking about the relationship of our own lives to the lives of those around us, to our immediate past, to our ancestors and to those who come after us. For example placing very special importance on the relationship between our own lives, the lives of our ancestors, and the lives of our children in determining what could make our own lives meaningful.
Individual Dimensions To The Meaning Of Life: There are two big dimensions that we need to consider as we pose the big question of the meaning of life – the personal dimension and the collective or relational dimension.
When you ask the question in the personal dimension, you’re asking: “If I think of myself as an individual worrying about my own life, in what does the meaning of my life consist?” You might have a number of different kinds of answers to that. You might say: a meaningful life is a life of reason – a life that is led reflectively, thoughtfully, where you make choices in an informed way, where you’ve got good reasons for the things that you do, and you can look back on your life and say, “Yes I did the right things and I did them for the right reasons.”
On the other hand it might be that you say: a meaningful life would be a life of faith, a life in which you find some higher value, some spiritual value, and am able to accommodate yourself and your concerns to what you see as the dictates of that higher spiritual value.
Or you might say what makes your life meaningful is that you’re able to lead it naturally in harmony with your own nature, in harmony with the nature that you find around you, where you think of yourself fundamentally as an organism and you try to shed social accretions, get back to your natural way of being and live that way.
Collective Dimensions To The Meaning Of Life: Beyond this individual dimension there’s a second, social dimension to thinking about the meaning of life; it’s the dimension of connectedness. In this dimension you need an account of what your relationships are to each other, to the broader world, to the universe, to our society, in order to answer the question, what is the meaning of life.
On this dimension you might ask the question: Are we primarily independent agents in voluntary association with one another? That is, when we think about our society is it a group of individuals who get together and say, let’s form a society and make some agreements, as we might see in the social contract tradition where we see government and social institutions as constituted and legitimated by the wills of individuals.
It might be that we are essentially social beings, that that’s what our fundamental nature is, and that when we think about ourselves as individuals that’s no more appropriate than it is to think of my hand as an individual instead of as a part of my body.
Do we choose our roles in society? Or does society give us our role? Is our context not primarily social but natural? Are we fundamentally animals living in an ecosystem, and so that what gives our lives meaning is our connection to other animals and plants in that broader ecosystem? Are we simply tiny parts of a very vast cosmos and that we need to think of ourselves relationally in relation to the whole? There are so many questions to consider and so many possible answers to choose.”