I maintain that it doesn't make sense to simply "create your own meaning in life". I have come across this view, which is generally held by most humanists, pretty often, and it doesn't seem to make much sense to me. I'll try and explain.

When we talk of meaning in life, we generally mean some sense of larger purpose that we can hang on to, despite ups and down, so that our lives are lived out in some kind of harmony to our environment. Meaning can either be given to you, or it can be created. However, if it is created, we are left with a problem, and that is the problem of the choice itself. There are many problems with choosing one's own meaning (for example, how do you reason with a person whose meaning in life is to get drunk and fall into a ditch?), but the biggest problems is that if we select a meaning in life like we choose a meal at an all-you-can-eat or buffet, then the very fact that we are choosing reduces what could have been a larger purpose to something that is much smaller i.e. my whim.

In summary, I conclude that meaning or purpose can be handed to you, as done in traditional cultures, or Christianity, or as possibly done in some totalitarian societies. But to say that you are creating your own meaning is a bit of a contradiction.

How would a humanist answer this?

  • 3
    If you need an external agent to create meaning for you, what is to say this "meaning" is not simply his whim?
    – firtydank
    Mar 4, 2014 at 8:56
  • 1
    Is God's meaning meaningful because it comes from God, or does God give meaning because it is meaningful? It is the Euthyphro dilemma all over again.
    – firtydank
    Mar 4, 2014 at 9:15
  • 3
    For what it's worth, I agree with you that "creating your own meaning" without further explanation rather distorts the meaning of "meaning"; you want to dig deep enough to know why that choice was a good one. You omitted a number of possibilities, though, including ones that posit (or show evidence) that we are meaning-generating in a similar way to how we are consciousness-generating. You don't exactly create your own consciousness, but it surely is yours.
    – Rex Kerr
    Mar 4, 2014 at 9:19
  • 1
    @RexKerr: Could you please expand on meaning-generation or share a link? I'd like to know more about this.
    – Joebevo
    Mar 4, 2014 at 11:56
  • 1
    @Joebevo - If I had good links I'd post them as an answer.
    – Rex Kerr
    Mar 4, 2014 at 11:59

7 Answers 7


First, you must be using humanist in an idiosyncratic way. There's no necessary exclusion between believing in God or having the values of society and being a humanist.

There's a speech that gives at least one humanist's answer: Existentialism is a Humanism by Jean-Paul Sartre. You could start there. In that text Sartre argues that even if there is an external meaning to life as supplied by God or some other force, it is ultimately still up to each individual to figure out why they are alive and what purpose they think life has. Using the example of a solider who needs to decide whether to fight for France as a patriot or to obey the [Roman Catholic] Church and his mother and become a priest, Sartre points out that all of our beliefs are to some extent chosen.

I'm not necessarily in agreement with Sartre, but I think Sartre does make the valid point that we shouldn't identify choosing as the problem with purposes in life. Your critique might still remain but with the qualification mere choosing.

Sartre's account is actually quite similar to Heidegger's in this respect since for Heidegger the meaning of our lives is that we die. Thus, the challenge is that we need to accept that and still live. (For this reason, Heidegger was sometimes called an existentialist though he denied the label).

For a more elaborate version of the critique you raise against choosing one's own purpose in life, I think the best choice is to turn to Kierkegaard's pseudonym Anti-Climacus and specifically the text The Sickness unto Death. While not denying the need to make a choice towards a purpose in life, he points out that choosing a purpose of one's own origination lasts only as long as the willing toward that purpose lasts. i.e., as long as I want to find my identity in my political persuasion, I can do so. But the moment I stop doing so, the entire identity is lost. For Anti-Climacus, the solution is to find your identity in how God identifies you and depend on that fixity. (I have a forthcoming paper on this topic in IPQ later this year).

  • 1
    What does it say?
    – iphigenie
    Mar 4, 2014 at 13:39
  • 1
    @iphigenie the question seemed like homework so I responded in kind. I've provided a more thorough answer above.
    – virmaior
    Mar 5, 2014 at 0:06
  • +1 for "... for Heidegger the meaning of our lives is that we die. Thus, the challenge is that we need to accept that and still live." Mar 6, 2014 at 15:48

You're right. If everyone can create "meaning" based on personal preference not some philosophical idea it will amount to contradiction. Because the concept of purpose on itself (as far as the pure abstract meaning denotes) refers to whatever we pursue in our life. In this sense getting answers can be counted as the purpose of writing questions in Stack, just as making money is for seeking employment, or every other end we seek in our daily decisions no matter how important or intelligent. However when raised in a philosophical discussion, purpose denotes an overarching ultimate end that guides and shapes all of our life decisions towards itself. In this sense purpose doesn't refer to our particular daily life sough-after goals, neither our personal whims and preferences. It will only make sense when rooted in a philosophy that logically argues for some universal truth. Otherwise the term purpose wouldn't bear any philosophical sense and would inevitably reduce to more petty things such as our arbitrary whims that are unqualified for the kind of universal validity that is presumed in a philosophical definition of the term.

  • Do you mean there needs to be a global consensus what the meaning is? I think every person can define it for him self. Do you think the meaning should be defined in subsets of mankind with at least two persons? Mar 31, 2018 at 1:18
  • @VolkerSiegel, No, I meant it must argued to have universal validity. That it is true for everyone. Of course, not all may agree that it is indeed universally valid, but if people simply following their whims can be taken as meaning of their lives, then I don't see where the boundary lies for purpose in the philosophical sense. Purpose then equates whim and vice versa.
    – infatuated
    Mar 31, 2018 at 4:31

(Pardon the preaching, but you asked what is usually a religious trick-question.)

There are many ways of interpreting 'making your own meaning in life'. Psychedelicists simplify the framing into Choose your delusion.

The ones who truly focus on 'delusion' live life through a drug, either real or virtual.

They don't care that their objective life is meaningless because their subjective life is rich. This is all kind of Walter Mitty to me. But it works for some, to live in the Virtual Monastery of the Machine Elves or the Abbey of Brother URL. I will write them off as a reference point for this answer, because if it comes naturally to you, the solution is so obvious it does not submit to analysis.

It is also where you have to go, if you decide the answer is 'true'. The person who asks exactly this question is usually ready to hand you a religion of some sort. Montaigne was more Catholic than any priest, even if he had no faith. Ever since him, Jesuits have been asking this question of precocious schoolboys, and handing them Montaigne. (Now, maybe worse yet, Camus.)

The ones that focus on the 'choose' fall prey to the problem you identify.

Having control that is not power diminishes the feeling of meaning. Options become a burden, as you look at each and feel required to consider it, since what matters in the end is the choice.

The search becomes yet another course of problem-solving, which devolves into puzzle-solving and a 'scientistic' approach to life, even if your choices lead you far away from a grounding in science. You become a servant to your judgement criterion, a scientist with a paradigm.

The alternative is to focus on 'your'.

You can admit that all animals are addicted to some feeling of power, and take your own subjective passion as that judgement criterion. Then by the previous insight, you are the servant of your Self.

Neitzche captures this in the aphorism that "One must make of the Self a work of Art." Let me play out the nuances of this improved framing.

A work of art does not solve any problem, or to the degree it does, that problem is more easily solved in more utilitarian way. An artistic chair is not generally a better chair, it is one that conveys some part of the constructor's internal vision. But it remains an aspect of that internal vision to have chosen to make furniture rather than music.

And good art does not depend upon access to supplies and media. It is often driven by constraint, improved by what the artist had to work around. Some of the crazy Inca totems graffitied by street people onto stone blocks in the impoverished dying empire of Peru are truly awesome art.

So an artful life cannot be chosen for psychological comfort, or for utility. It will speak for itself, or it will go away. Nor can one blame lack of art on lack of opportunity.

Producing good art does not feel like a choice from among options, it feels like an expression of something internal, which is one way of identifying power.

Good art is also not a source of fear. You may bring fear to it, but to the degree you are your own master, there is no failing. So good art is done with respect toward, but not fear of, observers and their tastes. And the options foregone are not missed opportunities, they will simply appear in other art, rather than this piece.

It is continual choice, nonetheless. To claim it is given to the artist is to fall back into a realm of muses and therefore gods. We know better: to think this way is so unwise, given history, that it is irrelevant whether or not it is true. It should not be believed.

So the internal self that produces taste and determines what matters, although we might have been given large parts of it, does not belong to what produced it. It is still its own independent source of power in need of interpretation.

  • 1
    Kenneth Rexroth said, "Against the ruin of the world, there is only one defense: the creative act." About 35 years ago I wrote in my diary: "Art denies comfort as a means of expression", which is related to what you are saying. "...irrelevant whether it is true." Oh my God. You make a lot of excelent and well -aid points here. Bravo!
    – user16869
    Feb 12, 2016 at 0:31
  • @nocomprende This whole side of Nietzsche -- the 'New Philosophy' meant to be 'A Symphony, written presto', is hard to relate as philosophy. There is so little room for proof or elaboration that if it does not land right, your point is simply lost. How do you argue in favor of any of the points that make this work? I am glad this 'landed right' for at least a couple other people here.
    – user9166
    Feb 15, 2016 at 20:43

The Kantian idea that our system of meaning and purposes must be universalisable is appealing. That what we coherently formulate as meaning for ourselves, we implicitly should advocate for everyone. You could bolster that by looking at the Private Language argument. Isn't a private meaning for life, a 'beetle in a box'? Sarte and Camus while emphasising the personal confrontation with a nauseating and absurd world, still wrote books about tgat, apparently seeking some measure of universalising of their framing of the problem, and their methods in response.

Having children as a cultural norm is a precondition for ourselves to be born. Having values of people being willing to fight and risk life for their communities was a precondition to building stores of value like grain silos and animal herds, that marked transition to settled living and cities. Considering meaning purely as an individual is a mistake, a mirage, like the Cartesian disembodied brain of the cogito. These values have to remain woven in to culture or the value chosen is entropy, the end of iteration, of community, of thought, of being.

But that doesn't lead to meaning being purely objective, permanent, unchanging. We each are in slightly unique circumstances, and should, must, reinterpret and apply what we know. Each community is is in slightly unique circumstances too, and that has to limit how universalisable a set of meanings is. A willingness to sacrifice for the collective good has long been positive, but the two world wars showed the increasingly existential threat of leaving that unchecked, of 'Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori'.

" A religion is a unified system of beliefs and practices relative to sacred things, that is to say, things set apart and forbidden -- beliefs and practices which unite into one single moral community called a Church, all those who adhere to them." - Durkheim

This understanding of religion was formed to make space for more than Abragamic fauths, for Congucianism Daoism, Shinto, Sami shamanism and Candomble. But notice it also makes space for values like habeus corpus and free speech to be understood as literally sacred to the moral communities who are bound together by holding them as inviolable (to various degrees).

So I see a truly humanist stance as recognising our situation, that much about our meaning systems is inherited, founded in biological and social functions. But we can and must reinterpret and challenge that. History is not 'out there', but remade by each generation, who mix the past with their own concerns, and find new true insights, inexhaustably. Like a dialectic process, we cannot simply recieve meaning, we cannot simply create meaning 'from scratch', the received and created collide, and we live an evolving synthesis.

It is a neglected aspect of theology, how doctrines are reformed and changed. The judicial schools of Islam, rabbinical debate of Judaism, and pentacost of Christianity all make their own specific impacts. Even revealed words demand reinterpretations. Let the dialectic continue.


meaning just means meaning which results in meaningful meaning and that means it means meaning by means of using the inherent meaning to create meaning

Definition of meaning: what is meant by a word. What is meant = what is to be expressed

Finding your own meaning = finding your own expression means of expression or method of expression.

Also known as living within your means. Or doing what you can do. Instead of what you can't. Simply being "who you are". Finding your own meaning is contrasted to what "everybody else" thinks your meaning is and how you should be expressing yourself.

Can you find your own meaning? Definitely.

  • Right now this isn't really an answer to the question at hand...
    – iphigenie
    Mar 11, 2014 at 10:38
  • @iphigenie How about now?
    – user16869
    Feb 12, 2016 at 0:38
  • 1
    Meaning does mean what we mean it to mean - because, answers aren't the answer. ;)
    – CriglCragl
    Mar 29, 2020 at 7:18

1. When we talk of meaning in life, we generally mean some sense of larger purpose that we can hang on to, despite ups and down, so that our lives are lived out in some kind of harmony to our environment.

Not necessarily. The study of meaning making is a vast field of study. In addition to the ontological aspect you have the linguistic (meaning through written communication), symbolic (meaning communicated through symbols). See Semiotics.

2. Meaning can either be given to you, or it can be created.

Sort of irrelevant. Where something comes from is a construct of causality, which does not correlate to the inherent truth, or essence of the subject. It is like saying because my shoes were made in China, the overall functionality of the shoes are lower. This is a genetic fallacy

3. However, if it is created, we are left with a problem, and that is the problem of the choice itself. (for example, how do you reason with a person whose meaning in life is to get drunk and fall into a ditch?),

Why concern yourself with another persons actions if they do not interfere with your actions or your community at large?

4. But the biggest problems is that if we select a meaning in life like we choose a meal at an all-you-can-eat or buffet, then the very fact that we are choosing reduces what could have been a larger purpose to something that is much smaller i.e. my whim.

I don't see how you came to the rationalization that choosing reduces what could have been a larger purpose.

I find your premise lacking. You seem to advocate Determinism as a higher level of meaning-making without providing valid logical reasons other than people like to eat a lot and drink and fall in a ditch.

  • Maybe he is concerned about the blind leading the blind? You are apparently a one-eyed man, among a few others here as well.
    – user16869
    Feb 12, 2016 at 0:34
  • Another possibility. My friend who said "maybe I should slash my wrists right now?" also did not understand the Ayn Rand quote: "You are not thinking or really existing unless you are willing to risk even your own sanity in the judgment of your existence." He kept asking: "How is sanity risked in judgment?" I could not explain it to him. Maybe my other friend could have, the one who said, "You can never know anything, really."
    – user16869
    Feb 12, 2016 at 2:33

The problem with having a human choose his or her own meaning in life is that it would make life and the universe relative. Without absolute truth to define existence and purpose, existence would cease to exist. Furthermore, in a relative world no one could ever give judgment or justify any action, because what is right or wrong is decided by the individual.

This relative world state doesn't make sense because we know that there are absolute truths in the world. For example: Gravity, Energy, Cells, etc.... You can't pick and choose what you think right and wrong is. The fact is truth is truth and wrong is wrong and no matter what you say or do it wont change just because you don't like it.

On another note: Something can be objectively good but still subjectively hated. This is not a contradiction because subjectivity has no bearing on the objective quality of something. Something can not both be objectively good and objectively bad, however it can be subjectively liked and hated as long as there are two or more people because one person can not like and dislike something. Also, if you claim that the quality of something is objectively set by the perspective of the person experiencing it, then its not objective because that's the definition of a subjective perspective not an objective one. It is a relative statement attempting to set an absolute rule, therefore the previous relative claim can not be true.

The crux of the problem has to do with this law: The law of non-contradiction. This law means that two ideas of opposing truth can not both be true at the same time. If (A is B) then the statement (A is not B) cannot be true on the same time. Like the debate of the existence of a God. Whether you believe a God exists or not is not the point of this argument, but either "there is a God" or "there is not a God" and they can not both be true.

It does not matter what you believe to be true, belief is not proof. It does not matter what you think to be the purpose of life is. What matters for this argument is that if one man says he finds the purpose of life to be drinking alcohol till he dies and another man says he finds the purpose of life to avoid drinking alcohol. The first man might be right, the second man might be right, or they may both be wrong but they will never both be right because they contradict each other. The truth to the purpose of life is hard to find because it is not a yes or no question. There is an answer to why we exist, most people just give up because it is arguably the hardest truth to prove.

WE set our own choices and path we walk, but just because you choose something does not make it right/true. By the concept of relativism however, murder is not bad or good because a person could just believe the truth otherwise. If you disagree with this statement than you do not believe in a relativistic world because how can that person be wrong if HE SETS his truthful purpose in life. Why do we need a justice system to enforce a law if the laws are relative? What is proposed by allowing ourselves to set truth instead of proposing to find truth is chaos and anarchy.

In conclusion, there is an inherent contradiction to creating your own meaning in life because it says that truth in this universe can be relatively decided instead of being absolute, non-contradictory, objective, and constant. However, by creating truth instead of trying finding it, you are in contradiction to others who don't agree with you and if there is a contradiction in proposition of truth one or both must be wrong.

Side note: isn't fascinating that we, as human beings, have the ability to even comprehend this question? Just imagine the amount of consciousnesses it takes to question the reason for one's own consciousnesses.

  • Truth is relative. The absolute truths you suggest are concepts at best that in themselves will vary. Hilter was voted into power. Slavery is acceptable. Women can't vote. The earth is the center of the universe. The earth is flat. These are all so called truths that are now false. Just because at this point in time, you believe in an absolute through, doesn't mean it wont be invalidated like the previous examples.
    – Shadowzee
    Jul 25, 2019 at 3:07
  • Welcome to Philosophy SE! You can improve you answer at any time with the edit function. Adding, for instance, references with similar views elevates your answer above a personal opinion and gives a people some further reading opportunity. - Interesting point about seeking truth rather than deciding it, made my wonder how a dog decides to stop chasing its own tail...
    – christo183
    Jul 25, 2019 at 3:08
  • How is "God's will" any more or less relative than "my dad's will"? And repeat the same question with "my will". You're correct that it's "relative," but so is meaning based on God's personal preferences. Everything is contingent on something. Jul 26, 2019 at 18:58
  • "You can't pick and choose". Didn't you pick your religion, or choose to stay in it? What makes it more authoratative than Greek polytheism or Islam? Only where and when you were born? How do you pursuade those not born then and there, you picked and chose right? What do you think of the catuskoti in Indian tradition , in relation to the law of non-contradiction ?
    – CriglCragl
    Mar 29, 2020 at 7:14

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