The Meaning of Life / the Purpose of Life
What do we mean by meaning of life? When someone asks us what the meaning of life is, how do we begin to answer that question.
What do we mean by meaning of? If someone were to ask us what is the meaning of X, what type of answer would we give? Descriptive? Or normative?
When someone asks us what the meaning of a word is we give them a definition. In other words, we are attaching the signifier to the signified.
If we see a penalty flag thrown down in a football game, we may lean over to a more knowledgeable spectator and ask “what is the meaning of this flag?” Again, we expect a description of what the flag signifies — which in this context will refer to the general rule, the causes of the rule’s breach, and the effect of the rule’s breach. We may also want to know the reason for the rule. Of course, there may be no strong reason — the rule may simply be a coordinating rule, followed and enforced merely to preserve order.
All words are icebergs, their signifier obscuring and summoning the vast unknown definitions and objects and relationships signified by the sign. Objects too, when subjected to the gaze of consciousness, are icebergs, calling forth to the questioning minds the strangeness of its presence and the nature of its relationship in and with the greater universe. When we ask about the meaning of an object, we are asking for an explanation of those submerged relationships that ground and illuminate the object’s existence.
Life is such an object. When we ask about the meaning of life, we are asking to be told about life’s place in the universe. To the extent that what we are really asking about is the human life, we are asking about humanity’s place in the universe — all the things it can do, achieve, be — we are asking what is signified, or summoned, by our being?
So … what is signified? What is relevant to our Being-In-the-World? The first is clearly that we exist — being. The second is that we are not alone — that we are with others. The third is that our actions have consequences, potentially significant ones. The fourth is that we are mortal, and the dead do not interact with the living and cannot act on the world. This is our place, the ground-state of our existence.
Certain conclusions and relationships follow. By virtue of the structure of our being, we love pleasure and hate pain. By virtue of the design of our species, we can communicate with others and discern that they exist in the world in the same way that we exist in the world. Through our actions, we discover that we can structure our world so as to vary the amount of pain and pleasure we would otherwise experience. We discover that our actions involving others can cause pain and pleasure, in ourselves and in the others. And by virtue of our species, we delight in others, some others more than other others, and some others more than even ourselves.
And of course, presupposing all these reflections, we understand that we can reflect, that our minds are able to model the universe and act out potential actions and interactions — and doing so has direct consequences to our ability to change the world in order to vary the amount of pain and pleasure we receive.
Reflection suggests (and for provides the means for) a system of rules that could aim your world-changing-actions in a certain chosen direction. These rules would regulate our actions involving only the world and our interactions involving others.
Whatever these rules are, they should provide a theory of the personal good (what is pleasure and pain for myself and what I will do to achieve them, the Aim and the Path) and a theory of relationships (how shall I interact with others). Our theory of relationships will include a theory of morality, which will tell us what we can and cannot do to others.
Our mortality will merely sharpen all of these considerations. These then are the rules of our existence.
Still, with only the grounding of our existence and the rules of our existence, something is left out. We don’t yet know the hows and whys of our existence — the connection between our particular existential grounding and the greater universe. We understand the football penalty and its operation, but we want to know why the penalty exists. We want to be explained what football is. We want to know our place in the universe.
It is amazing what we have accomplished so far in the childhood of our species, merely by looking. We now know what the universe is (ever expanding space, stuff, and force) and what we are (self-perpetuating complex stardust). We are the Children of the Universe. This is our world. This is our place.