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What Is The Meaning Of Life?

“What is the meaning of life?” is one of the oldest human questions, and one asked by millions of people searching online.

Sometimes the question grows out of genuine curiosity, and sometimes out of despair when life seems meaningless. It is somewhat more common among teens and young adults who are coming of age and naturally wondering, what is life all about?

To answer this important question very carefully, let’s be sure to define our terms:

Definitions of “meaning” and “life”

  • Meaning” can be defined as “the thing that is conveyed especially by language” according to Merriam-Webster. You can tell they are trying hard not to use the word “meaning” in their answer, because it is pretty awkward.  Dictionary.com gives two answers:
    1. what is intended to be, or actually is, expressed or indicated; signification; import: the three meanings of a word.
    2. the end, purpose, or significance of something:What is the meaning of life? What is the meaning of this intrusion? 
    So we might say that “meaning” has two main uses: one is word definition, and the other is purpose or significance.
  • Life” has multiple meanings. Merriam-Webster suggests:

1. a: the quality that distinguishes a vital and functional being [or any other animal or plant] from a dead body
b: a principle or force that is considered to underlie the distinctive quality of animate beings [in other words the force that enables life, and not just the characteristic of being alive and not dead]
c: an organismic state characterized by capacity for metabolism (see METABOLISM sense 1), growth, reaction to stimuli, and reproduction
2. a: the sequence of physical and mental experiences that make up the existence of an individual, as in
children … are the joy of our lives
b: one or more aspects of the process of living
…5. the period from birth to death

So given these different definitions, how you personally define “the meaning of life” may be different from how other people define it, and your own interpretations may change over time as you learn and explore more about life and meaning.

“Meaning of life” and philosophy

Philosophy, which means “love of wisdom,” can give you as many answes to “what is the meaning of life” as you have time to listen or read. That’s because philosophy is all about different worldviews or views of reality that have been developed, advocated and in some cases lived over the centuries. A worldview is a view of the meaning of life in the broadest sense. Here are just a few examples:
  1. Platonism: Founded by Plato, this school of thought emphasizes the existence of abstract concepts or forms as the ultimate reality and believes that true knowledge can be obtained through reason and contemplation.

  2. Aristotelianism: Developed by Aristotle, it focuses on sensory observation and logical reasoning to understand the world. Aristotelianism encompasses a wide range of subjects, including ethics, metaphysics, and political theory.

  3. Stoicism: Originating in ancient Greece and later popularized in Rome, Stoicism promotes the idea of living in accordance with nature, accepting what cannot be changed, and cultivating inner virtue and tranquility.

  4. Epicureanism: Founded by Epicurus, Epicureanism emphasizes the pursuit of pleasure and the avoidance of pain. However, it defines pleasure as the absence of disturbance and advocates for moderation and simple living.

  5. Skepticism: Skepticism questions the possibility of certain knowledge and asserts that knowledge is limited to appearances and subjective experiences. Various forms of skepticism have emerged throughout history, challenging beliefs which others held to be unquestionably true.

  6. Cynicism: The Cynics, led by Diogenes of Sinope, rejected societal norms and material possessions, advocating for a simple life in accordance with nature. They emphasized self-sufficiency and the pursuit of virtue.

  7. Existentialism: Arising in the 19th and 20th centuries, existentialism explores themes of individual existence, freedom, responsibility, and the subjective experience of meaning. Prominent existentialist thinkers include Søren Kierkegaard, Friedrich Nietzsche, Jean-Paul Sartre, and Albert Camus.

  8. Rationalism: Rationalism asserts that reason is the primary source of knowledge and that truths can be discovered through deductive reasoning. René Descartes and Baruch Spinoza are notable rationalist philosophers.

  9. Empiricism: Empiricists argue that knowledge is derived from sensory experience and observation of the world. Key figures in empiricism include John Locke, George Berkeley, and David Hume.

  10. Pragmatism: Developed by Charles Sanders Peirce, William James, and John Dewey, pragmatism focuses on the practical consequences of beliefs and emphasizes the importance of experience and experimentation.

  11. Marxism: Based on the ideas of Karl Marx, Marxism analyzes social and economic structures, emphasizing the struggle between the working class (proletariat) and the owning class (bourgeoisie). It seeks to bring about a classless society through revolution.

  12. Utilitarianism: Utilitarianism, associated with Jeremy Bentham and John Stuart Mill, proposes that the moral worth of an action should be determined by its ability to maximize happiness or utility for the greatest number of people.

Scientific materialism and the meaning of life

In recent years there has been growing debate between the pros and cons of scientific materialism and other meanings of life. Scientific materialism, or just plain materialism, claims that nothing is real except matter and energy in space-time. 

This means that non-observable things such as consciousness, mental processes, and spirituality can be explained in terms of matter and its interactions. According to scientific materialism, everything in the universe, including human beings and their consciousness, can be understood through scientific inquiry and the laws of physics.

However, there are several reasons why some people dispute or object to scientific materialism:

  • The problem of reductionism: Critics argue that scientific materialism tends to reduce complex phenomena, such as consciousness, emotions, and human experiences, solely to physical and material explanations. They believe that reducing such phenomena to purely physical terms fails to capture their richness, subjective aspects and true reality.
  • Subjective experience: Critics point out that scientific materialism has difficulty accounting for subjective experiences, such as the “qualia” or subjective qualities of sensory perception. Subjective experiences, such as the taste of chocolate or the feeling of love, cannot be fully explained by materialistic explanations alone.
  • Emergent phenomena: Some argue that there are emergent phenomena in the universe that cannot be reduced to the properties of the constituent physical parts. Emergence refers to the idea that complex systems exhibit new properties or behaviors that cannot be predicted or explained solely by examining their individual components.
  • Mind-Body problem: The mind-body problem is a long-standing philosophical issue concerning the relationship between the mind (consciousness) and the physical body. Critics argue that scientific materialism struggles to explain the nature of consciousness and how it arises from purely physical processes.
  • Value and meaning: Critics suggest that scientific materialism, by focusing solely on objective and empirical facts, neglects the realm of values, ethics, and meaning. They argue that human existence encompasses more than physical explanations and that subjective values and meaning play a significant role in human life.
  • Limitations of science: Some people dispute scientific materialism because they believe it places undue emphasis on the scientific method as the only valid way of acquiring knowledge. They argue that science may not be equipped to address all aspects of human experience, such as aesthetic judgments, moral values, or questions about purpose and ultimate meaning.
  • It’s important to note that these objections to scientific materialism do not necessarily reject the scientific method as a way to make valuable new scientific discoveries or insights gained. Instead, they question the completeness and adequacy of a purely materialistic worldview in explaining the totality of human existence and experience.

But scientific materialism is much more dangerous than you may realize. Today most public schools teach subjects based entirely or implicitly on scientific materialism. Discussions based on religion and faith are often forbidden except perhaps in some sociology classes. 

The same holds true for practically everything you read or see in the mass media, as well as what is acceptable in courts and the judicial system.

“If you can’t observe it with your senses or scientific instruments, it is not real, therefore it is not acceptable for discussion,” goes the common, often-unspoken belief that scientific materialism is the one and only path to knowledge and truth.

In strong contrast to scientific materialism, we have the growing emphasis and belief in the reality of consciousness.

Consciousness and the Meaning of Life

An increasing number of people believe that consciousness is not a creation of the brain, but is rather independent of the brain and connected with everything else in the universe.

This means that the brain or mind acts as a radio-like receiver of conscious thought which arises from the source of all consciousness, which some see as the source of all existence, and others view as God, or both.

One of the more impressive examples of this growing view of reality is the experience of Dr. Eben Alexander and others who have had Near-Death Experiences (NDEs). In an NDE, the person’s body dies, their spirit or soul goes to heaven and encounters other spiritual beings or deceased family members, then returns to the body as it is resuscitated or recovers from catastrophic illness. 

Dr. Eben Alexander is a neurosurgeon, formerly on the faculty of Harvard University Medical School, who gained public attention for his book “Proof of Heaven: A Neurosurgeon’s Journey into the Afterlife,” in which he described his own near-death experience (NDE).

In 2008, Alexander fell into a coma as a result of a severe bacterial meningitis infection that attacked his brain. During his coma, Alexander experienced a profound NDE that included encounters with spiritual beings, a journey through various realms, and a sense of profound love and interconnectedness. He described his experience as evidence for the existence of an afterlife and consciousness beyond the physical body. You can read about his amazing experiences on a YouTube video here.

Read more about Near-Death Experiences and see other videos of people who had such experiences here.

There is much more to belief in consciousness than Near-Death Experiences. Videos on YouTube and books on amazon about consciousness are numerous.

Wholism, Order and the Meaning of Life

Some people believe that everything in the universe is one enormous, ordered whole. Everything is connected to everything else. We are all part of the One Whole. 

This view is set forth by the late prominent physicist David Bohm in his book, Wholeness and the Implicate Order, summarized here. Bohm believed that there is a visible order which we can all observe, which he called the explicit order. Beneath the surface, there is an invisibile implicate order which holds everything together in an organized Whole.

Author Buck Lawrimore expressed a similar view of reality and the meaning of life in his book, How To Understand Ultimate Reality: Order, Energy and God, which is available to read online here, and as a book on amazon here.

God and the meaning of life

People of the Judeo-Christian faith and other faith systems believe that the meaning of life is strongly determined by and linked to God, the creator of the universe and of life itself. By this faith, God gives meaning to life through his on-going creation, which did not end with the Garden of Eden but is constantly evolving throughout the world today. By this faith, the purpose of life is to be in a love relationship with God, and thereby with other people (neighbors), as well as loving oneself. 

Love is the very nature of God, and Jesus said the greatest commandments are to love God with all your heart and soul and mind and strength, and to love your neighbor as yourself.

Such love gives a very positive meaning to life. It is not just a logical choice, it is a leap of faith. Because when you look upon all the troubles in the world, war, death, natural disaster, murder, suicide, crime, selfishness, crippling disease, conflicts and more, you can lose your bearings, lose hope.

But when you focus on God’s love for you and others, your ability to communicate with him through prayer, all the beauty of creation, the joys of being human, the amazing accomplishments of mankind expanding every day, including the discoveries of science and the creations of the arts, then you can choose a much more positive meaning of life. 

So then, what is the meaning of life?

Just as you must choose someone to marry or not, where to live, what sort of work you will do, and much more, so the meaning of life is a choice you make. This article has only hinted at all the myriad thoughts, ideas and viewpoints you might consider in choosing your own answer.

The meaning of life is like a self-fulfilling tool. If you choose to view life as evil and depressing, you will indeed find it to be evil and depressing. If you choose to view life as filled with love and joy, you will indeed find it filled with love and joy. 

Instead of “what you see is what you get,” the greater truth is, “what you choose is what you see.” 

Think of the kind of life you want to have, the kind of world you want to live in, then choose the meaning of life that will show it to you. It is in many ways the most important choice you will ever make.

Learn about How To Be Successful In Life with this related article.




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