What is the Meaning of Life?And no, this isn't a joke, I'm going to answer it. But, you see, the reason this question is so difficult to answer is because the question is vague. I mean, we've all heard that joke-response: "If you want to know the meaning of life, look it up in a dictionary!". Haha, yes, very funny... and I will offer that answer as well, but the reason people can give this answer to the question is because "meaning" is an ambiguous term. The answer to that question depends entirely upon the context of what you mean when you say 'meaning'.
When people say "what is life's meaning" they could be referring to life's worth, origin, purpose, or in fact definition. But, if you know the context of the question, then the answer is pretty easy. In fact, I answered this over 11 years ago now, I actually covered this in a note on my computer, and that's where some of the content of this blog post comes from (although, I couldn't help but update some of the information to reflect my greater education). So, today, I will answer every single possible interpretation of the question "what is the meaning of life" starting with...
What is the Definition of 'Life'?
Well, if you're curious. Luckily, the Word of the Day is: 'LIFE'
Life /luyf/ n. 1. The condition that distinguishes organisms from inorganic objects and dead organisms, being manifested by growth through metabolism, reproduction, and the power of adaptation to environment through changes originating internally. 2. The sum of the distinguishing phenomena of organisms, especially metabolism, growth, reproduction, and adaptation to environment. 3. The animate existence or period of animate existence of an individual: to risk one's life; a short life and a merry one. 4. A corresponding state, existence, or principle of existence conceived of as belonging to the soul: Eternal life. 5. The general or universal condition of human existence: Too bad, but life is like that. 6. Any specified period of animate existence: A man in middle life. 7. The period of existence, activity, or effectiveness of something inanimate, as a machine, lease, or play: The life of the car may be ten years. 8. A living being, especially a human being: Several lives were lost. 9. Living things collectively: the hope of discovering life on other planets; insect life. 10. A particular aspect of existence: He enjoys an active physical life. 11. The course of existence or sum of experiences and actions that constitute a person's existence: His business has been his entire life. 12. A biography: a newly published life of Willa Cather. 13. Animation; liveliness; spirit: a speech full of life. 14. Resilience; elasticity. 15. The force that makes or keeps something alive; the vivifying or quickening principle: The life of the treaty has been an increase of mutual understanding and respect. 16. A mode or manner of existence, as in the world of affairs or society: So far her business life has not overlapped her social life. 17. The period or extent of authority, popularity, approval, etc.: the life of the committee; the life of a bestseller. 18. A prison sentence covering the remaining portion of the offender's animate existence: The judge gave him life. 19. Anything or anyone considered to be as precious as life: She was his life. 20. A person or thing that enlivens, cheers, or brightens a gathering or group: the life of the party. 21. Effervescence or sparkle, as of wines. 22. Pungency or strong, sharp flavor, as of substances when fresh or in good condition. 23. Nature or any of the forms of nature as the model or subject of a work of art: drawn from life. ♦ adj. 24. For or lasting a lifetime; lifelong: a life membership in a club; life imprisonment. 25. Of or relating to animate existence: the life force; life functions. 26. Working from nature or using a living model: a life drawing; a life class in oil painting.
That's one possible interpretation of the question, but it's not what you meant, is it? See, people asking this question tend to mean something more spiritually or cosmically significant. But, now that we know what life's definition is, it's meaning can refer to its , origins, nature, significance, value, or purpose. So, let's have a look at some of the more existentially pertinent questions regarding the meaning of life . . .
Why does Life, the Universe & Everything Exist at All?
This is a fascinating question, most commonly written as "why is there something, rather than nothing?" and whilst we may think that the cause or circumstance of how something can exist may be cosmically significant, as Lawrence Krauss has pointed out, this is is actually a question for physics, not philosophy. This theory takes into account the expansion of the universe, dark matter, spatial geometry and Einsteinian equations . . . so, I have to simplify it. If you want a more educated explanation, check out Why There is Something Rather Than Nothing by Lawrence M. Krauss. But, for the sake of this blog...
There is "Something" because Nothing is incredibly unstable. When you remove all matter from space, it isn't weightless, in fact empty space accounts for around 70% of the weight of the universe. This is because on the subatomic scale, Empty Space is full of virtual particles which appear, exist for a miniscule amount of time and disappear, and in large enough volumes of space, gravity can act upon this energy, resulting in these energies coalescing to create matter, such as in the big bang.
Of course, this answer has some interesting questions, but I'm not here to explain theoretical physics, I have several more iterations of an existential question to answer!
What is the Origin of Life?
Well, lo and behold, once again, we no longer need philosophy, but science. I thought that, perhaps, I could at least switch to biology. However, biology is the study of life and prior to life biology is irrelevant, just like how prior to to the invention of language, spelling is irrelevant. Technically, the field of science we need to look at is chemistry. Because, that's all life really is, complex carbon-based chemistry.
So, what is the origin? 38 Billion Years Ago, we have evidence that Life began, and what evidence we have suggests that it all began with RNA, which is a kind of polymeric molecule that encodes genetic information on a single strand (as opposed to DNA's double-helix), Just like DNA, RNA can store and replicate genetic information, but it is also a molecule which can arise through simple chemical reaction with materials which we know to have been common on the prebiotic Earth. Because RNA is capable of replicating through a catalytic reaction using ribosomes (or perhaps an intermediary molecule), once you bring replicating genes into the picture, then you have a kind of chemical evolution. Molecules can get larger or smaller and change over time and natural selection comes into play. Molecules which reproduced using abundant elements were capable of reproducing more. In fact, there's evidence to show that this would lead to the development of cells, as molecules with some kind of protective layer would have an advantage over more vulnerable molecules, and in an aqueous environment, molecules can naturally coalesce into a lipid bubble, a kind of oily substance that molecules can stick to to create an outer wall for a cell. These lipid bubbles over time and further replication can evolve into a cell membrane which would then protect the RNA within from the competing RNA molecules that are consuming them.
Now, I freely admit that I don't know at which point you would call that "life" however, nature doesn't care, because once you have these cells, then they can continue to evolve into multicellular organisms, which can become sentient, then sapient, then . . . well, us. It takes billions of years, but it all started with a chemical reaction.
What is the Nature of Life?
By nature, life is ordered chaos. Life is the randomest of random, spreading out with high extremes and low extremes, from having no legs to having fifteen; being colourful and glowing to almost totally transparent; from the size of a hillock to the size of an angel dancing on the head of a pin. Life is completely wild and untamed and crazy . . . but, there's some order to it.
Because, if things becomes too big, they will collapse under their own weight, things too small won't have the necessary space to grow a brain; if something is too aggressive, it will either starve itself or kill itself off, but if something is too passive, it will be eaten alive. The nature of life is kept in check by the nature of . . . well, nature. Natural selection is the force by which life is kept in balance and allowed to truly evolve. It is the great equalizer.
But, this doesn't apply just to biology. In art and culture, we create anything and everything, but the forces of the zeitgeist decides what is appreciated or depreciated as the case may be. Ideas are shared, discussed, adapted or rejected based on critical thinking or subjective approval. Even in science, you can hypothesize any claims, but once it is tested the results of that testing determines whether a claim is accepted or rejected.
That's what all life boils down to, ultimately - absolute chaos.
What is the Significance of Life?
Finally, we approach, not science, but philosophy. In response to this, I think it was best said, in The Myth of Sisyphus by Albert Camus (apparently that's pronounced 'kahm-oo', not 'kam-iss'):
"There is but one truly serious philosophical problem, and that is suicide. Judging whether life is or is not worth living amounts to answering the fundamental question of philosophy. All the rest— whether or not the world has three dimensions, whether the mind has nine or twelve categories—comes afterwards."
That's quite the statement, and I feel that it's apt. After all, what is being discussed here is whether or not life is worth living, and ultimately, if it isn't, then death is the only logical solution. Now, if you personally are suicidal - please, seek help, there are some great mental health hotlines available internationally.
For, you see, life is significant because we experience it. But, more importantly, we give the universe significance.
I'm not being grandiose, far from it, rather what I'm saying is, significance is a quality that is inherently subjective. A rock cannot tell you how significant something is, because a rock isn't a thinking subject. You can't "measure" significance, you can't "weigh" it or put it under a microscope. That's because quantities, things you can measure, are objective, undeniable, unchanging. But, qualities such as significance or worth, can vary from person to person (or, subject to subject), it depends on their perspective. In a sense, significance doesn't "exist" except in your mind. So, if you remove that mind, where does the significance go?
Well, it disappears. Without Life, significance isn't possible, because there would be no one who could discover what they consider to be significant. Even if no one was alive to see it, a beach two kilometres long would still be two kilometres, because that's objective. But, if no one were alive, then no one could determine the beauty, serenity or significance of a beach, because the universe itself doesn't care.
What is Valuable in Life?
Okay, now this is just foolish. What is valuable to you? What is valuable to your neighbour? What is valuable to anyone? It is all different. Just like significance, value is subjective. This is the one which mostly rolls down to opinion. Value in Life is up to you. What is valuable in life to me would have to be truth, love, freedom and happiness, but people can, and most definitely will, disagree, so there is no wrong answer to this question, just what you believe.
What is the purpose of, or in, (one's) life?
The purpose 'of' your life? Well, that's simple . . . there isn't one. Scroll up, I went through a simple explanation of abiogenesis above. So, we weren't created "for a reason", since chemicals don't have agendas . . . we were created "by a natural, chemical reaction". In a sense, I guess that technically makes me a nihilist, I don't think life has an inherent purpose.
But, that doesn't mean that I think life can have an inherit purpose. Which is to say, although there's no objective purpose, that doesn't mean you can't have a subjective one.
So, the purpose 'in' your life? Well, that depends entirely on what you find valuable in life. If you find family and community valuable, then your purpose in life may be to have a family of your own and become a part of your community. If you find money and success to be valuable, then your purpose in life may be to earn money through becoming successful. Personally, as I said, I find truth, love, freedom and happiness to be of value. So, I consider my purpose to be searching for and teaching the truth, finding and sharing love, promoting and securing freedom for myself and others, and being happy (through writing, since that makes me happy).
Anyway, that's my answer . . . or, I guess, answers to the ultimate question of Life, the Universe and Everything. I can see why people prefer the answer 'Forty-Two', it requires less knowledge of physics, biology, philosophy and language. Although, very few people seem to get the joke that forty-two is literally "The Wrong Answer to a Meaningless Question". And, that's kind of the point isn't it? I honestly don't think the answer matters that much, that's how I came up with these answers eleven years ago. I didn't bother putting in the research, I usually just said "ask a scientist", but, at the end of the day, the meaning to life is either something complicated, fascinating, but ultimately useless for most people or, "Well, it depends, what do you think?"