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One of the oldest questions is "What is the meaning of life?". But what does the concept of "meaning of life" actually mean? What does it mean for something to be the "meaning of life"?

And why is it so important for many people to have it?

The "meaning of life" is often equated with the "purpose". But then again, purpose of what and for what? If one assumes that it is the purpose of life, the purpose of one's (earthbound or otherwise) existence, then the second part of the question still remains - who benefits from having this purpose? There are two possibilities:

  1. One benefits from one's own existence.
  2. Somebody or something else benefits from one's existence.

One benefiting from one's own existence is related to "creating your own meaning of life", but most of the time when "What is the meaning of life?" is asked, the second type of this answer is implicitly assumed (and also, "creating your own meaning of life" might be considered as contradictory).

However, insisting on the second type of the answer leads to question: What is the purpose of having a purpose? Why do so many people seek and need the "greater" purpose such that they themselves aren't the ones who primarily benefit from such a purpose? I fail to understand the urge to have the reason to exist other than for self.

So, what does the concept of the "meaning of life" actually mean?

Just to be clear: I'm not asking here "What is the meaning of life?", but what does that question mean, what do people have in mind when they ask that question.

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Why does life exist? –  MattBianco May 21 at 7:10
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The Answer to the Question is 42. –  Malachi May 21 at 17:29

4 Answers 4

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I actually would not say that

One of the oldest questions is "What is the meaning of life?"

It is true that people have been asking for a long time how they fit in and what they should do, but it is only recently that people have understood the question in personal and existential terms.

More classical questions are:

 "what does it mean to be a good Greek?" 
 "How can I best participate in society?" 
 "What should I do in light of God's existence?"
 "What am I?"
 "What does reason dictate that I do?" 
 "What is thought thinking itself?"

The generalized question what is the meaning of life involves a detachment from sociological and metaphysical structures that was classically absent. This absence existed for two reasons: (1) the self was never thought of as existing apart from its polis (here meaning its community and its people) and (2) the self was generally thought of in the West as one small part of a metaphysically whole world. When I say metaphysically whole world, I mean one that has a metaphysical layer that makes sense of the whole. The easiest option for this is to have a God. But you can do it without one with fate/determinism. (Note the absence of a robust notion of will until Augustine)

Many things changed in our thinking but I want to highlight a few that have changed the question for us. First, Descartes's version of the question "What am I?" yielded (for him) the answer a thinking thing. And this generates a type of isolated subject. The social contract understanding of society then helps to reorganize society away from a whole. Kant also amps up the role of individual reason. On the other side, the empiricists chip away at the metaphysical picture of the world. Thus, we lose the two bearings that made the question different.

Enter the 20th century, you get early Heidegger and the logical positivists articulating a version of human existence that is largely purposeless. (Heidegger of course finds purpose in mythology in his later works with "the fourfold"). Sartre and the existentialists then bring to the fore the problem of choosing for yourself how to be a self and having to select your own purpose.

(This brief sketch skips over several difficulties (thinkers who do not follow the trend) just to give you a feel for how Western thought has changed the question -- if you want to read more I suggest Charles Taylor -- you can start with The Ethics of Authenticity but if you want to really get his full picture Sources of the Self)

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As a sociological phenomenon, people probably seek the meaning of life because we're social primates and as such it is important for us to occupy the socially-appropriate role in our tribe. Thus it isn't at all surprising for us to have feelings that there is something we "ought" to do be doing. This doesn't tell us anything about its coherence as an abstract idea, but it does warn us that we might have an urge to ask this question that is not rational in nature (and thus it might not even make rational sense).

As far as having the urge to have a greater purpose, the above observation is enough to answer it: solitary social primates generally don't do well. Being part of something bigger (i.e. the tribe) is almost a prerequisite.

Now we get to the tricker issue of what the "meaning of life" really could be. This is not a completely settled issue within philosophy (though one might ask: what is?). For more than you probably want to know, you can read the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy entry.

In brief, if you accept that the idea is coherent (which not everyone does--it could be a grab-bag of various ideas of admirability), it's that there is some universally applicable scoring system that can rate a life highly and that the thing to do is have a big score. For instance, theistic morality tends to stress devotion to the correct deity and socially appropriate behavior. To what extent this is synonymous with purpose is a linguistic question that I'd rather not address right now.

Back to the question of reason to exist: actually, it's awfully hard to come up with a good "for-self" reason to exist instead of not exist that doesn't just boil down to "I feel like continuing to exist". (It's also hard to come up with a good reason to do precisely what you feel like.) So I don't think retreating to the individual perspective aids anything here. You end up in an unsatisfying tautology: I feel like continuing to exist because that's what I feel.

The closest objective "meaning of life" comes from biology, and it's a bit of a stretch from the classic definition. If we allow that meaning and purpose can be synonymous, and allow purpose to be the target of goal-directed behavior, and we allow non-intentional algorithms' output to count as goal-directed behavior, then the meaning of life is to (successfully, in the long run) reproduce: reality is structured such that evolution is unavoidable, and will optimize for successful-reproducers.

If we had lives of the complexity of bacteria, this might (and only might) be enough to form a pretty clear idea of what we ought to do. Extracting a satisfying mission statement (an answer to "what is the meaning of life") for complex social multi-generational globally-networked creatures with vast nonverbal stores of information and vast non-personal stores of capability is tricky at best. The obvious approaches that might work for bacteria neither seem very satisfying for us, nor are they usually a good idea even for maximizing our reproductive success.

So at the end of it all (at least pending more satisfying evolutionarily-compatible answers, or another universal source of meaning e.g. from the commonalities of human cognition) we end up to a rather unsatisfying answer to a desire that probably wasn't all that rational to begin with.

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It can be answered in several ways and changes the response when one asks "do you know the meaning of life?" There are two answers that come to mind: 1: procreation as with all life is for the survival of the species.

2: Answering "I do not know" would be my other response

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The question isn't "What is the meaning of life?", it was about the meaning of the concept of "meaning of life". Those two questions may sound similar, but they are very different in content. First question is the popular one that many people ask while the second one is asking what are they actually asking. First question is usually considered a difficult one, but the second one shouldn't be so much because it simply asks to clarify the first question. Since so many people are posing the first question, one would expect that they know what are they talking about, what are they asking. –  Danijel May 21 at 17:25

Question asked: "Describe the meaning of question about meaning of life"

I think: This question equal to the question: "Find a meta-model", that describes a model of "life meaning".

OR

"Find a higher-model", that describes a model of "life meaning".

The same , if we were talking about meaning of a hammer. The hammer itself is not having meaning, but in context of its value: for example value for the carpenter's work. Carpenter's work is a meta-model to describe a meaning of a hammer's existence.

In general, the higher model - is a meta-model, it able to describe a "lower" subject in its terms.

The meaning of "meaning of life" may be described only in terms of HIGHER model, in terms of meta-model.

I think we (people) divided into 2 categories:

1) First category: This category thinks it knows what is meta-model for our life. they think GOD is a meta-model, ultimate constant, that can serve for the definition of life-meaning. Everything is simpler here. Do according to holy scripts and it is a meaning. Benefits of such narrow-mindedness: this model does not change with time, this model does not have a higher model - it is ultimate. You can measure meaning of life , based on that ultimate constant.

2) Second category: This category does not know what is our life meta-model. Meta-model (higher value) could be like one of that (see free examples):

a) Aliens , who visited our Earth and use us as a feed. E.g. they learn from our mistakes and build better world somewhere else. They keep REAL meta-model of our life. Real higher model of which we completely unaware.

b) Universe, which suffers from aliens , described before(suppose aliens are harmful for the most of the universe),if we die, the Universe will be better, because also aliens die without their feed (us). The Universe keeps the REAL meta-model for our life purpose. We are not aware of that model also. The aliens model is only child of a Universe model and we are child of a child.

c) Future world, where one of WW2 survived (father of Putin, as example) becomes a father of a GREATER and BLOODIER dictator, than Hitler was. This future world may prefer, that Hitler lived and killed the subject's father. This time-spanned, changing meaning for the meta-model is always to be a VARIABLE in any meta-model(in any "higher value", that we assume).

So, for me, when meta-model is not known, then model is not possible to define. So there is no meaning in life, because we do not know the higher value meaning.

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Can you edit this? This is stream of consciousness and nearly impossible to follow. –  virmaior May 21 at 12:02
    
Edited the answer and happy you asked to edit it. I understood it better. –  Vladimir Nabokov May 26 at 13:39

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