Whatever the "meaning of life" may be (I interpret "meaning" as "purpose" here) is for us, Homo Sapiens, do we assume the "meaning of life" for humans differs fundamentally from the "meaning of life" of other animals?

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    I think we still lack the ability to understand animals to give meaningful answer.
    – rus9384
    Mar 30, 2018 at 9:48
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    Mice don't speak, but God has spoken and informed us that we were created in His image. As Augustine said, "For since man is most properly understood (or, if that cannot be, then, at least, believed) to be made in God's image, no doubt it is that part of him by which he rises above those lower parts he has in common with the beasts, which brings him nearer to the Supreme." (City of God, Book XI)
    – user3017
    Mar 30, 2018 at 12:17
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    People do not agree on humans' meaning of life not to mention animals' meaning of life. Although in case of humans there are a few popular points. In case of animals points usually become beliefs. Noticeable point of view there can be darwinism - animals just meant to exist and survive.
    – rus9384
    Mar 30, 2018 at 13:45
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    @MichaelK I do just the same as the wolf (change forest to city). Apr 3, 2018 at 14:16
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    @MichaelK regarding "do you have a purpose in life if you are ignoring the purpose someone has assigned to you?" - good points. Do I have a purpose in life? I don't know- that's worth a separate question. And why should anybody bother to assign a purpose to me? And I do not see why anybody else should assign purpose in the first place. Apr 3, 2018 at 14:21

2 Answers 2



A non-human animal has a set of dispositions and behaviours which are typical of its kind. It may learn certain skills. It may develop certain preferences. It may acquire certain emotions. It can make at least rudimentary choices, as when a house cat hesitates between one bowl of food and another then selects one. There is so much continuity between non-human and human animals but one point of difference, to me, is that human beings can and do have lifeplans. They can imagine the distant future and project plans into it. They can inject meaning into their lives by conceiving projects, often of considerable complexity through time, and carry them out. They can of course refuse to regiment their lives in this way but to do this is itself to adopt a lifeplan of a sort. They can also decide that their lives are meaningless or have become so, and end them by suicide.

It is true that our knowledge of the capabilities of animals is still rudimentary but there seems no evidence that non-human animals can inject meaning into their lives in these ways. It makes them in no way inferior, only different.


Human lives are stories, texts, narratives. By which I mean (to personalise) that my life takes on different significances as I view it in retrospect now from one angle, now from another. As I recall it across many decades now, I can rotate my perspective on it; it looks different, and is different, as I consider it under different aspects : as a series of relationships, as a string of careers, as a 'chapter of accidents'. I not only have a self-image, accurate or not, but a history of self-images : and this history has significance. My life has a sort of meta-meaning as succession of self-images that have come and gone. And all this I can tell, communicate, to others as I am doing now.

I doubt if anything in the life of non-human animals matches anything like this.


Here I find, or think I do, complete commonality with non-human animals. Religious people may see everything, human and non-human, as having a role in a divine plan. The life of everything 'signifies' or matters within that plan. But I take no stand on religion, at least here, either for or against. It is not what I have in mind just now. I am thinking of something else : that the significance of my life, as a living organism, is no different from my cat's : we come into existence and pass away and in the long run 'Leave not a rack behind'. If there is life after death, nonsense to some and a firm belief to others, that makes no difference to my point : our organic life begins, ends, and is forgotten. Biologically and historically it is, my life and my cat's, a temporary and evanescent incursion. A sobering thought ? No, just a fact of life and death.

  • "No one remembers the former generations, and even those yet to come will not be remembered by those who follow them." Ecclesiastes 1:11 (NIV) Apr 4, 2018 at 14:18
  • +1 However, I wonder if you are saying in the first part that non-human animals do not make choices? I can see my cat choosing to eat or not, to go here or go there. Animals have alternatives they can choose from as we do. Apr 4, 2018 at 15:10
  • @Frank Hubeny. My cat chooses, too, or seems to. I've revised the text - with thanks. GT
    – Geoffrey Thomas
    Apr 4, 2018 at 16:09
  • @elliot svensson. A beautifully apt quotation. My final para. can't compete. Thank you for this contribution. Best : Geoff
    – Geoffrey Thomas
    Apr 4, 2018 at 18:48

Meaning in life is generally received from some higher authority or external reference, as with the notions of "worth," "purpose," "value," etc. Thus a wolf living wild may gain meaning in its life by becoming tamed by a person. You might say that the success of an ecosystem makes the life of its members meaningful.

Anything higher than a person can function to provide meaning. All the ideals of good, of progress, of success, or of power (and many others) are commonly used this way.

Although many people refrain from doing so, many other people look for meaning in supernaturally-sourced writings or direct revelation, to find what higher beings think their life's meaning is. Nearly all religions maintain recordings of supernatural revelation.

Because texts cannot communicate directly to animals, humans must act as mediators for supernatural writings to provide animals meaning. If animals were to receive revelation directly from supernatural beings, we would not know because they can not communicate that with us; we would not know if they had meaning or not.

Some related links obtained through Google:

Psychology Today article by Dr. Andy Tix

Dr. Michael F. Steger

TED Talk: Meg Jay

  • A wolf does not wake up in the morning and think, "Who am I?". "What is my purpose in life?". "Does it really, cosmically speaking, matter if I don’t get up and go to work?". If a wolf ignores the meaning of life in the forest, does it have a meaning of life?
    – MichaelK
    Apr 3, 2018 at 9:51
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    @MichaelK I do just the same as the wolf (change forest to city). Apr 3, 2018 at 14:13
  • @MichaelK, according to my answer above, the wolf by itself in the woods has meaning because of its ecology and won't suffer existential angst. But if the wolf is somehow tamed by a person (if it becomes like John Wren's dog Chips, for instance), then the tamed wolf will have a purpose for which it will put aside its other needs. Apr 4, 2018 at 14:09
  • @elliotsvensson "the wolf by itself in the woods has meaning because of its ecology and won't suffer existential angst". What? I have no idea how you derive the statement "the wolf has meaning" from that which I just quoted. A wolf exists in a biotope. A wolf acts within that biotope. The wolf's actions affect that biotope. Animal populations within that biotope tend stay somewhat balanced, even if they do oscillate somewhat over time. But how do we go from this to saying "The wolf has meaning", as in purpose?
    – MichaelK
    Apr 4, 2018 at 14:14
  • Here's the thorough response: The success of the ecosystem depends on the wolf doing its part to support the pack, transport seeds and fleas, keep down the rabbit population, etc. If the wolf is lazy or mopey, the rabbits will eat all the plants and the ecosystem won't make it. Thus in the woods, the wolf's life is for the purpose of fulfilling its ecological role. Apr 4, 2018 at 14:25

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