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Humans seem to have an innate tendency to derive meaning from the meaningless. An example of this is the “poor man’s philosopher”; a naive chap who has an obsessive fixation on discovering the true meaning of life and attaches the utmost importance to the answer. In this superficial view, the question “what is the meaning of life” is taken at face value; literally the agent is searching for meaning in their existence. Alternative questions include “why are we here”, “what is our purpose” and “who or what created us”.

It is my intent to show that such questions are not only unwarranted, but also unnecessary in a modern society with access to empirical reasoning and inquiry. In short, questions that seek to find meaning in life, are themselves ironically meaningless. Life does not need to have a purpose in order to explain its substance; it simply is.

Perhaps this desire for intrinsic meaning is a direct precursor to more formalised, teleological concepts such as theism. Indeed some philosophers argue that in order for reality to hold any sort of value there must be meaning to life. For without it, every action would be reducible to meaningless, unconnected events.

But what exactly is meaning? Firstly, meaning does not equate with truth. Both are mutually independent variables, although there does seem to be a one-way relationship with ‘meaning’ necessary for ‘truth’ but ‘truth’ sufficient for ‘meaning’. Put another way, in order for a truth to exist, it must have meaning, however a meaning does not have to be true in order to exist. Interpretation is thus the main ingredient for meaning; you and I can hold vastly different meanings for the same object. The same can be said of truth (except in the case of universal truths). In the case of linguistic meaning, it is only when our mental representations of meaning either coincide or can be transferred through the medium of explanation that the essence of things can be communicated. Naturalistic meaning concerns the non-linguistic type of meaning of things, such as ‘the sea means wave’ or ‘the clouds mean rain’. In this sense, meaning is also highly subjective; to you clouds might mean rain but to me, clouds mean darkness. So is there any hope for objective meaning in the universe? Does life itself have a meaning?

Modern science aims to improve the situation but attempting to discover universal meanings (that are true) through empirical, rational measures. In a sense, physicists develop theories of universal meaning by probing the question “does the universe itself hold intrinsic, objective and true meaning ?” As in the comedic TV show and series of novels “The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy”, the meaning of the life turns out to be a seemingly nonsensical number; 42 (to quote a cliche that has been beaten to death). This might not be so far from the truth. In a recent issue of New Scientist it is proposed that mathematics is the fundamental, underlying constant that could, theoretically, describe the entire set of parameters for the universe in a set of equations. As physics unearths fundamental truths about the nature of the world we live in, it becomes apparent (through universal constants eg cosmological constant) that there is consistency in meaning. Fundamental and objective meaning can exist, and in fact, describe the set of constraints that both created our universe and set up the necessary conditions for life (among other phenomenon such as gravity and other forces) to develop to fruition.

But we still are lightyears away from a definitive answer to this age old conundrum. Does life need to have meaning and purpose in order to be worthwhile? Mental illness, in particular depression, seems to indicate that no, life without meaning isn’t worth living, if suicide becomes the ultimate test of such a proposition. Conversely, an individual that is enmeshed with life and the world around them is said to be full or purpose, bristling with energy and affirms a sense of meaning to their lives. Again, the notion of relativity and subjectivity is brought into the fray. In short, the meaning of life is whatever you want it to be.

A generalised meaning of life (in the sense that most people speak of it) presupposes the existence of a deity; some external observer that both created the life (and universe) to begin with and also infused meaning into the essence of its new creation. Religion is just another form of scientific theory, albeit incorporating some distinctly non-scientific (and unethical) practices. It has been used in the same vein as science to explain the unknown, and reaffirms the point that humanity is driven towards searching for meaning in reality. From a theistic viewpoint, the meaning of life takes on a distinct impression of servitude and eternal gratitude towards the creator. This seems to betray the congitions of the religious; are they unwilling and simply incapable of taking responsibility for the direction of their lives? Is artificially infused meaning better than no meaning at all? If it prevents such people from prematurely ending their lives due to such a lack of meaning and gives them the capability to act productively towards society then yes, the manufactured meaning offered by theism is better than having no meaning to life. This is one of the reasons why religion (in its milder form) does have its uses in society as the total removal of it could be immoral and unethical ( if meaning is held as a valuable commodity, a human right).

Could this search be fruitless? Are we desperately clutching at straws and telling ourselves everything is ok, life does have purpose and meaning?

The crux of the matter comes down to a matter of opinion. Are we even asking the right question? Does our question make sense? Surely meaning to life can take on any form that the individual desires. Universal moral principles do tend to constrain the array of all possible ‘meanings of life’ such that they gravitate towards the positive, betterment of the self, helping of others etc. The ‘getting your hands dirty’ approach of evolution and naturalism posits that the meaning of life can be reduced to simple drives to procreate; life’s meaning is thus to subdivide, grow, recreate and expand. Personally this isn’t appealing as surely our conscious brains count for something (although the purpose of lower life forms could be said to have such a primitive meaning, and anyway, what about couples that choose not to reproduce?). Humanism aims to tone down the debate by equating the meaning of life with subjective maxims. The power rests with the individual. Life does not have to have an intrinsic meaning in order for that organism to lead a purposeful life. One can simply codify their personal principles and uphold them consistently in order to gain meaning.

The search for meaning, in the sense that it is popularly described, is futile. Not only does it distract from the real issues (the questions of how, not why), but also prevents humanity from taking personal responsibility for their actions. Over-mystifying the question of ‘life meaning’ just muddies the water when in the grand scheme of things, it really isn’t such a complicated issue. “Life”, in the sense that we are familiar with presently, is not special; statistically it is impossible that we are unique. As such, humanity needs to surrender its presupposed notions of grandeur and move away from asking why, and focus more thoroughly on asking how. Only by achieving a societal-wide mindshift of this magnitude will we truly be free to ponder deeper, more meaningful questions as a collective rather than it being left to the philosophers and (reputable) scientists.