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The philosophical question "What is the meaning of life?" means different things to different people. The vagueness of the query is inherent in the word "meaning", which opens the question to many interpretations, such as: "What is the origin of life?", "What is the nature of life (and of the universe in which we live)?", "What is the significance of life?", "What is valuable in life?", and "What is the purpose of, or in, (one's) life?". These questions have resulted in a wide range of competing answers and arguments, from scientific theories, to philosophical, theological, and spiritual explanations.

Popular beliefs

"What is the meaning of life?" is a question many people ask themselves at some point during their lives. Some people believe that the meaning of life is one or more of the following:

Survival and temporal success

Wisdom and knowledge

  • be without question, or to keep asking questions
  • learn from one's own and others' mistakes
  • seek truth, knowledge, understanding, or wisdom
  • explore, to expand beyond our frontiers
  • try to discover and understand the meaning of life



  • achieve a supernatural connection within the natural context
  • achieve enlightenment and inner peace
  • advance natural human evolution, or to contribute to the gene pool of the human race
  • advance technological evolution, or to actively develop the future human
  • become God, or God-like
  • contribute to collective meaning ("we" or "us") without having individual meaning ("I" or "me")
  • die, or become a martyr
  • experience existence from an infinite number of perspectives in order to expand the consciousness of all there is (i.e. God)
  • find a purpose, a "reason" for living that hopefully raises the quality of one's experience of life, or even life in general
  • give life meaning (an example of antimetabole, though this has little impact on its accuracy)
  • produce useful structure in the universe over and above consumption (see net creativity)
  • pursue a dream, vision, or destiny
  • relate, connect, or achieve unity with others
  • seek and find beauty
  • simply live until one dies (there is no universal or celestial purpose, existence has no meaning beyond which one chooses to give it)
  • worship, serve, or achieve union with God

Scientific approaches and theories

Where scientists and philosophers converge on the quest for the meaning of life is an assumption that the mechanics of life (i.e., the universe) are determinable, thus the meaning of life may eventually be derived through our understanding of the mechanics of the universe in which we live, including the mechanics of the human body.

There are, however, strictly speaking, no scientific views on the meaning of biological life other than its observable biological function: to continue and to reproduce itself. In this regard, science simply addresses quantitative questions such as: "What does it do?", "By what means?", and "To what extent?", rather than the "For what purpose?".

But, like philosophy, science tackles each of the five interpretations of the meaning of life question head-on, offering empirical answers from relevant scientific fields.

Thus, the question "What is the origin of life?" has resulted in the Big Bang Theory and the Theory of Evolution, which explain where the universe, sun, planets and human being came from, but which still do not account for the origin of the very first microscopic lifeform. Some scientists theorize that life on Earth was created when a lightning bolt, comet, or meteor impact, or other accidental event caused a group of organic compounds to bind together, forming a primitive cell. This cell was able to reproduce and eventually evolved into higher life forms. Based on these or similar theories, some philosophers say that because life was entirely coincidental, one cannot expect life to have any meaning at all, other than its own self-perpetuation — reproduction.

Toward answering "What is the nature of life (and of the universe in which we live)?", scientists have proposed various theories or worldviews over the centuries, including the heliocentric view by Copernicus and Galileo, through the mechanistic clockwork universe of Rene Descartes and Isaac Newton, to Albert Einstein's Theory of General Relativity, to Benoit Mandelbrot's Chaos Theory in an effort to understand the universe in which we live. Meanwhile countless scientists in the biological and medical fields have dissected the human body to its very smallest components to acquire an understanding of the nature of biological life, to determine what makes us tick.

The question "What is the significance of life?" has turned scientists toward the study of significance itself and how it is derived and presented (see semiotics). The question has also been extensively explored from the point of view of explaining the relationships of life to its environment (the universe) and vice versa. Thus, from a scientific point of view, the significance of life is what it is, what it does, and why it does it.

The questions "What is valuable in life?" and "What is the purpose of, or in, (one's) life?" are staples of the social sciences. These questions are explored by scientists every day, from the perspective of the life forms being studied, in an effort to explain the behaviors and interactions of human beings (and every other type of animal as well). The study of value has resulted in the fields of Economics and Sociology. The study of motives (which reflect what is valuable to a person) and the perception of value are subjects of the field of Psychology.

Philosophical views

Value as meaning

In that they attempt to answer the question "What is valuable in life?", theories of value are theories of the meaning of life: great philosophers such as Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, Descartes, Spinoza, and many others had clear views about what sort of life was best (and hence most meaningful).

Atheist views

Main article: Atheism

Atheism in the strictest sense means the belief that no god or supernatural overbeing (of any type or number) exists, and by extension that neither the universe nor we were created by such beings. Atheism pertains to three of the five interpretations of the meaning of life question: "What is the origin of life?", "What is the nature of life (and of the universe in which we live)?", and "What is the purpose of, or in, (one's) life?" Since they believe gods had nothing to do with it, most atheists believe that life evolved and was not created. The nature of the universe is one in which no god exists, and therefore its nature is left to our devices to determine, via more or less scientific means. As for the purpose of life, some atheists argue that since there are no gods to tell us what to do, we are left to decide that for ourselves. Other atheists argue that some sort of meaning can be intrinsic to life itself, so there is no need for any god to instill meaning into it.

Existentialist views

Main article: Existentialism

The 19th century philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer offered a bleak answer by determining one's life as a reflection of one's will and the will (and thus life) as being an aimless, irrational, painful drive. However, he saw salvation, deliverance, or escape from suffering in aesthetic contemplation, sympathy for others, and ascetic living. Søren Kierkegaard, a Danish philosopher of the 19th century, argued that life is full of absurdity and the individual must make his or her own values in an indifferent world.

According to the philosopher Martin Heidegger, human beings were thrown into existence. Existentialists consider being thrown into existence as prior to, and the context of, any other thoughts or ideas that humans have or definitions of themselves that they create. As Jean-Paul Sartre put it: "existence comes before essence", "man first of all exists, encounters himself, surges up in the world — and defines himself afterwards. There is no human nature, because there is no God to have a conception of it."

Since there is no predefined human nature or ultimate evaluation beyond that which humans project onto the world; people may only be judged, or defined, by their actions and choices. Choice is the ultimate evaluator. Again, quoting Jean-Paul Sartre: "Man is nothing else but that which he makes of himself."

Humanist views

Main article: Humanism

To the humanist, (biological) life's purpose is built-in: it is to reproduce. That is how the human race came to be: creatures reproducing in a progression of unguided evolution as an integral part of nature, which is self-existing. But life's purpose isn't the same thing as human purpose, though it is a factor thereof. Human purpose is determined by humans, completely without supernatural influence. Nor does knowledge come from supernatural sources, it flows from human observation, experimentation, and rational analysis preferably utilizing the scientific method: the nature of the universe is what we discern it to be. As are ethical values, which are derived from human needs and interests as tested by experience.

Enlightened self-interest is at the core of humanism. The most significant thing in life is the human being, and by extension, the human race and the environment in which we live. The happiness of the individual is inextricably linked to the well-being of humanity as a whole, in part because we are social animals which find meaning in relationships, and because cultural progress benefits everybody who lives in that culture.

When the world improves, life in general improves, so, while the individual desires to live well and fully, humanists feel it is important to do so in a way that will enhance the well being of all. While the evolution of the human species is still (for the most part) a function of nature, the evolution of humanity is in our hands and it is our responsibility to progress it toward its highest ideals. In the same way, humanism itself is evolving, because humanists recognize that values and ideals, and therefore the meaning of life, are subject to change as our understanding improves.

The doctrine of humanism is set forth in the Humanist Manifesto [1] and A Secular Humanist Declaration [2].

Nihilist views

Main article: Nihilism

Friedrich Nietzsche characterized nihilism as emptying the world and especially human existence of meaning, purpose, comprehensible truth, or essential value. The term nihilism itself comes from the Latin nihil, which means "nothing". Nietzsche described Christianity as a nihilistic religion, because it removes meaning from this earthly life, to instead focus on a supposed afterlife. He also saw nihilism as a natural result of the idea that God is dead, and insisted that it was something to be overcome, by returning meaning to the Earth.

Martin Heidegger described nihilism as the state in which "there is nothing of Being as such", and argued that nihilism rested on the reduction of being to mere value.

Nihilism rejects claims to knowledge and truth, and explores the meaning of an existence without knowable truth. Though nihilism tends toward defeatism, one can find strength and reason for celebration in the varied and unique human relationships it explores. From a nihilist point of view, the ultimate source of moral values is the individual rather than culture or another rational (or objective) foundation.

Positivist views

Main article: Logical positivism

Of the meaning of life, Ludwig Wittgenstein and the logical positivists, said: expressed in language, the question is meaningless. This is because "meaning of x" is a term in life usually conveying something regarding the consequences of x, or the significance of x, or that which should be noted regarding x, etc. So when "life" is used as "x" in the term "meaning of x", the statement becomes recursive and therefore nonsensical.

In other words, things in a person's life can have meaning (importance), but life itself has no meaning apart from those things. In this context, a person's life is said to have meaning (significance to himself and others) in the form of the events throughout his life and the results of his life in terms of achievements, a legacy, family, etc. But to say that life itself has meaning is a misuse of language, since any note of significance or consequence is relevant only in life (to those living it), rendering the statement erroneous. Language can provide a meaningful answer only when it refers to a realm within the realm of life. But this is not possible when the question reaches beyond the realm in which language exists, violating the contextual limitations of language. Such a question is broken. And the answer to a broken question is an erroneous or irrelevant answer.

Other philosophers besides Wittgenstein have sought to discover what is meaningful within life by studying the consciousness within it. But when these philosophers looked for a holistic definition of the “Meaning of Life” for humanity, they were stone-walled by the Wittgenstein linguistic model.

Logical positivism asserts that statements are meaningful only insofar as they are verifiable, and that statements can be verified only in two (exclusive) ways: empirical statements, including scientific theories, which are verified by experiment and evidence; and analytic truth, statements which are true or false by definition, and so are also meaningful. Everything else, including ethics and aesthetics, is not literally meaningful, and so belongs to "metaphysics". One conclusion is that serious philosophy should no longer concern itself with metaphysics. Thus free will is not a positivist assertion, while teleology is the closest thing to it that can be verified.

Pragmatist views

Main article: Pragmatism

Pragmatic philosophers suggest that rather than a truth about life, we should seek a useful understanding of life. William James argued that truth could be made but not sought. Thus, the meaning of life is a belief about the purpose of life that does not contradict one's experience of a purposeful life. Roughly, this could be applied as: "The meaning of life is those purposes which cause you to value it." To a pragmatist, the meaning of life, your life, can be discovered only through experience.

Pragmatism is a school of philosophy which originated in the United States in the late 1800s. Pragmatism is characterized by the insistence on consequences, utility and practicality as vital components of truth. Pragmatism objects to the view that human concepts and intellect represent reality, and therefore stands in opposition to both formalist and rationalist schools of philosophy. Rather, pragmatism holds that it is only in the struggle of intelligent organisms with the surrounding environment that theories and data acquire significance. Pragmatism does not hold, however, that just anything that is useful or practical should be regarded as true, or anything that helps us to survive merely in the short-term; pragmatists argue that what should be taken as true is that which most contributes to the most human good over the longest course. In practice, this means that for pragmatists, theoretical claims should be tied to verification practices--i.e., that one should be able to make predictions and test them--and that ultimately the needs of humankind should guide the path of human inquiry.

Transhumanist views

Main article: Transhumanism

Transhumanism is an extension of humanism. Like humanism, it propounds that we should seek the improvement of the human race as a whole. But it goes on to emphasize that we should also actively improve the human body with technology, to overcome all biological limitations such as mortality, physical weakness, tiny memory capacity, etc. Initially this meant we should all become cyborgs, but with the advent of bioengineering, other options are opening up. Thus the main goal of transhumanism is the development of man into the posthuman, the successor to Homo sapiens: Homo excelsior. The ideal achievement of this goal would of course be applied to the current population before they suffer the consequences of aging and death.

Therefore, in terms of the five interpretations presented at the beginning of this article, the meaning of life for the transhumanist is that life originated from evolution, that the nature of life is what we discern it to be through scientific observation and measurement, that the human and what he is becoming is the most significant thing in life, that the most valuable things in life are getting along and progressing the lifestyle of all people, and that it is imperative for us to control the nature of life to improve upon our natures.

Religious beliefs

Main article: Religion

It is often suggested that religion is a response to humanity's need to simply stop being confused, or to the fear of death (and the concomitant desire not to die). By defining a realm outside of life (the spiritual realm), these needs are fulfilled by providing a meaning, purpose, and hope for our otherwise pointless, directionless, and finite lives. 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 ought to seek a higher authority who will give our lives meaning and provide purpose through divine guidance. The decision to believe in such an authority is called the "leap of faith", and to a very large degree this faith defines the faithful's meaning of life.

One need not maintain a physical belief (caricatured as 'god particles') in religious entities in order to believe in them. Pragmatism postulates their existence in the phenomenal domain along with entities such as numbers, money, centers of mass and status. Like any other scientific theory one may hold a valid belief in such entities if and only if they are useful to the believer, for example by providing a meaning of life.

An example of how religion creates purpose can be found in the biblical story of creation in the Old Testament of the Bible: the purpose for man is to "Be fruitful, and multiply, and replenish the earth, and subdue it" Genesis 1:28. This indicates 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. However, instructions given by God and the meaning of life (or the purpose of one's existence), are not necessarily the same thing.

Another example, this one from the New Testament of the Bible, in Mark 12:28-31, are the two greatest commandments as spoken by Jesus: "The first of all the commandments is: 'Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is one. And you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your mind, and with all your strength.' This is the first commandment. And the second, like it, is this: 'You shall love your neighbor as yourself.' There is no other commandment greater than these."

The Westminster Shorter Catechism looked at the history of what God has taught man, and summarized it at its outset: "man's chief end is to glorify God, and to enjoy Him forever". [3]

Islam's viewpoint is that God created man for one purpose only and that is to worship God: "I only created jinn and man to worship Me" (Qur'an, 51:56). Worshipping in Islam means to testify to the oneness of God in his lordship, names and attributes. All acts of worship should be exclusively for God, not through any intermediary nor with a hidden wordly intention. The term worship may be divided into 2 categories. That is the partaking of relgious rituals, sanctioned by God or through working, producing, innovating and improving the quality of life, thus striving for the Creator. To Muslims, life was created as a test. Patience, is seen as integral part of the muslim faith and character. How well one performs on this test will determine whether one finds a final home in Jannah (Heaven) or Jahenam (Hell).

Spiritual views

Template:Spirituality portal Mitch Albom wrote about his dying professor Morrie and their last lessons together in the bestseller Tuesdays with Morrie in which some interesting questions were raised. Albom's life as a writer was until then in vain because he chased the wrong things in life: bigger houses, bigger SUVs, and bigger paychecks. No matter how big they were, they still could not fill his emptiness. The reality that we all have to confront eventually is the same thing Morrie realized when he learned he had Lou Gehrig's disease: that the world was as green and as alive as before he contracted the terminal illness. The world does not stand still nor come to an end just because you do. The professor's experience haunted the author in his ego-centric view of life, and inspired him to change. Albom learned from Professor Morrie that the true meanings in life are in the giving, the loving and the sharing of what you've had, which in turn live on by being passed down from generation to generation.

The Book of Light presents the nature of God and the purpose of creation. According to Michael Sharp, God is consciousness and the purpose of creation is to have fun (alleviate boredom). Creation exists "as a dream inside the mind of God" and we are all Sparks of the One Creator Consciousness. The Book of Light is a copyleft and available from [4]

The Urantia Book offers a point of view on the vast meaning of life by reconciling humankind's innumerable problems with discrepancies between creationism, evolution, cosmology, modern science, philosophy, history, theology and religion.

James Redfield gave a New Age perspective on the meaning of life in his book The Celestine Prophecy, suggesting that the answers can be found within, through experiencing a series of personal spiritual insights. Later in his book God and the Evolving Universe: The Next Step in Personal Evolution (2002) co-written with Michael Murphy, he claims that humanity is on the verge of undergoing a change in consciousness.

Mythologist Joseph Campbell, in his famous The Power of Myth interviews with Bill Moyers, answered the question in the following way:

People say what we're all seeking is a meaning for life. I don't think that's what we're really seeking. I think that what we're seeking is an experience of being alive so that our life experiences on the purely physical plane will have resonances within our innermost being and reality, so that we actually feel the rapture of being alive.

Humorous treatments

The very concept "the meaning of life" has become such a cliché that it has often been parodied, such as in the radio series The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams, later released as a novel, a television series, a film, and a computer game. His answer was 42. As the story goes, an advanced race of hyper-intelligent pan-dimensional beings (mice) builds a gigantic computer called Deep Thought to find The Answer to The Ultimate Question Of Life, the Universe and Everything. Seven and a half million years later, the computer gives the answer: "42". After giving the answer to an (unsurprisingly) underwhelmed audience, Deep Thought explained that the problem with the answer was that no-one really knew what the question was. In reference to this series, "42" is commonly provided as an honest answer if someone feels the word "meaning" is too vague. Joe Bob Briggs miscommunicated this in one of his columns as "43".

Or maybe there is no meaning to life; that is, "What you see is what you get", as portrayed in the comedy film The Meaning of Life: you are born, you eat, you go to school, you have sex, you have children, you grow old (if someone doesn't kill you first), and you die, and in Heaven every day is Christmas. At the very end of the film, Michael Palin is handed an envelope, opens it, and says nonchalantly: "Well, it's nothing very special. Uh, try to be nice to people, avoid eating fat, read a good book every now and then, get some walking in, and try to live together in peace and harmony with people of all creeds and nations."

Rufus, the naked mole rat from the television series Kim Possible, insists that the meaning of life is cheese.

Paul Gauguin's interpretation can be seen in the painting, Where Do We Come From? What Are We? Where Are We Going?

In Bill and Ted's Bogus Journey, Bill and Ted end up meeting God. Before being admitted into his presence, St. Peter (billed as The Gatekeeper on asks them what the meaning of life is, and they reply "Every rose has its thorn. Every night has a dawn. Every cowboy sings a sad sad song.". These are the lyrics to a song by Poison, an 80's heavy metal band.

See also

  • Evolutionism
  • Perennial Philosophy
  • Simple living
  • The Urantia Book The Urantia Book, Parts I-IV; esoteric narratives on the meaning of life.
  • World view
  • It's a Wonderful Life
  • The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy

General philosophy topics

  • Philosophy - main article on Philosophy, leads to many others
  • What is the meaning of life? - one of the most paradigmatic questions of Philosophy.
  • Philosophy Portal - another good starting point
  • Philosophy Wikiproject - a community of philosophically minded contributors working together to improve Wikipedia's coverage of philosophy as a whole.

General philosophy lists


  • Dreams, Evolution, and Value Fulfilment, Jane Roberts, Amber-Allen Publishing.
  • Unlimited Power: The New Science of Personal Achievement; by Anthony Robbins. Random House Publishing Group, 1987. ISBN 0449902803


  • Hanfling, Oswald [ed.] Life and Meaning: A Reader 1987, Oxford: Basil Blackwell. ISBN 0-631-15784-0
  • Nozick, Robert. The Examined Life: Philosophical Meditations 1989, New York: Pocket Books. ISBN 0671725017
  • Wiggins, David. "Truth, Invention, and the Meaning of Life" in Proceedings of the British Academy LXII (1976); reprinted in his Needs, Values, Truth (Aristotelian Society Series, Volume 6) 2nd edition, 1991, Oxford, Basil Blackwell. ISBN 0-631-17555-5

Seeker, Carlos "Searching for answers" ISBN: B00006331T

External links

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