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, the 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 benefit 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 answer leads to a 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 a 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.

  • 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
    – user164536
    May 21, 2014 at 4:48
  • Why does life exist?
    – MattBianco
    May 21, 2014 at 7:10
  • 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. May 21, 2014 at 9:08
  • 6
    The Answer to the Question is 42.
    – Malachi
    May 21, 2014 at 17:29
  • >> what does the concept of the "meaning of life" actually mean? This is a vague question. Meaning stands for many different things. One reference: plato.stanford.edu/entries/life-meaning
    – user
    Aug 6, 2020 at 13:00

3 Answers 3


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)

  • Is not everything in this planet and the universe just a freak accident? And aren't freak accidents meaningless with meaning assigned to them such as "serving a God or Supreme Beings", "to seek pleasure", "self full fillment" ad nauseum, ad infinitum?
    – user48488
    Jul 11, 2021 at 16:17

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.


As for the meaning of life, I'm quite satisfied with my current vision and to get there I tried to be the most "down to earth" and tried to be inspired by the "thing" that generated us: nature. I see that the meaning of life is the development of consciousness, not psychologically, but technologically.

Consciousness is the emergent property of the finest matter we have encountered to date in the entire universe. In the same way that a set of atoms forms molecules with properties that do not exist in individual atoms, and in the same way that a set of molecules, such as water, also gain properties that do not exist in individual molecules (such as surface tension, cohesion, adhesion, etc.), consciousness emerges from an extremely complex arrangement of matter. For water molecules to gain surface tension they only need to join each other in a liquid state. However, to form consciousness as we know it, we need a much more refined molecular arrangement that depends on multiple layers of organization (atoms -> molecules -> organelles -> cells -> tissue -> organ -> system -> organism).

Life on this planet between highs and lows took 3.5 billion years to produce our nervous system and the nervous system of many other species, and this is the clear path that life has followed: the complexification of systems. On this planet, everything has become more complex over time and this process seems to have no limits.

Now that we are aware we can further accelerate this process through technologies. If we can one day shift our consciousness from the organic world to the inorganic world then we will accelerate even more and enjoy increasing cognitive potential. If we can't make that transition, that's fine, we can still make computers that do the thinking for us.

So that's it, for me, the meaning of life should be the constant search for the growing development of this very refined emerging property that we enjoy. If this is not the meaning of our life, at least it is the nature of this planet and one day my grandfather told me: "In the search for a meaning in life, human beings do not realize that nature has its own meaning, and that we are part of it". I think I agree. One day walking through a garden I concluded that life is an "anti-entropic" process, when I shared this "eureka" moment with a friend he told me that Erwin Schrödinger, in his book "What is life?" defined life as an anti-entropic process, that is, one that fights against entropy, fighting all the time to maintain the stability of organic molecules, cells, tissues and ultimately the organism. Based on my idea that had already been advocated by Schrödinger, I further endorse the idea that the meaning of life is the struggle for the improvement of consciousness, a structure that, in order to exist, needed life to declare an endless war against entropy. ..

  • 1
    You seem to be trying to answer the question What is the meaning of life? and not the question What is the meaning of "meaning of life"? which is being asked here.
    – Danijel
    Jul 13, 2021 at 12:19

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