"What is the meaning of life?" is probably the most-asked philosophical question by humanity at large. Common answers include: happiness or flourishing; love; compassion; pleasure; power; knowledge, understanding, or wisdom; and being blessed, or achieving union with God or the divine; or simply that there is no meaning to life. Philosophers, religious authorities, artists, scientists, and countless ordinary people have thought a great deal about the question. In fact, the very concept has become such a cliche that it has often been parodied.
What does it mean to ask what the meaning of life is?
When people ask for a meaning of life, they are asking for life's purpose, justification, or goal — not a "meaning" in the sense in which words have meaning. The definition of life is an interesting issue in its own right, however, especially as relating to artificial and extraterrestrial life. We can also separate this question into two different questions; one about the objective purpose of life, and the other about subjective purpose of life. The subjective purpose of life varies of course from person, and need not be considered any further. Many deny that an objective purpose of anything is possible. Purposes, they argue, are purely subjective. Others claim that life has an objective purpose, though they differ as to what this purpose is, or where it comes from. Topics that one might contemplate, related to the meaning of life, include:
• What kind of life is worth living?
• What should we, as individuals, seek to do or be in our lives? This is a basic question of ethics, particularly virtue ethics, which asks how we should develop our characters.
• Is there a goal toward which society, or the cosmos, is attaining? Many religious believers hold that the world will be transformed or redeemed in the future by divine intervention -- such as the Second Coming of Christ, or the end of the Hindu Kali Yuga. Some secular belief-systems, such as Marxism, have also held out a telos or ideal end-state of society, toward which adherents might strive.
• Is there a goal or purpose I myself am meant to fulfill? Some persons feel an individual sense of destiny or purpose, whereas others do not. Many regard this sort of sense of purpose as psychologically valuable, but of no metaphysical import.
• Can I find satisfaction in my life? How so? Utilitarianism considers happiness or satisfaction to be the purpose of our lives, but different philosophies have widely varying definitions of satisfaction. Epicurus saw satisfaction as moderation and freedom from fear. Gautama Buddha saw it as the release from suffering caused by desires and needs. Harry Browne wrote a libertarian self help book on finding happiness through freedom.
Religion itself, it is often suggested, is a response to humanity's search for meaning or purpose. Indeed, the realm outside life itself referred to in the previous passage could be interpreted as the religious or spiritual realm. Most people who believe in a personal God would agree that it is God "in Whom we live and move and have our being". The notion here is that we do or ought to seek a higher purpose that will give our lives meaning.
One particular perspective on how religion "answers" the purpose for human life is given in the Christian story of creation: That the purpose for man is to "Be fruitful, and multiply, and replenish the earth, and subdue it..." Gen 1:28 Indicating that the propagation of the human race, the care and restoration of the earth, and the control of our environment are the three goals God has set for man. Another perspective looks at the history of what God has taught man, and then summarized.
However, this does not help the non-religious person in dealing with the question "What is the Meaning of Life?" when it is asked in a philosophical context. It is not a complete answer to say "Believe, and you will...