This may be a very basic question but I haven’t seen it arise here at stack exchange, so I thought I’d ask.

Do humans necessarily have purpose or meaning? Can we function without it?

If not, then how do we explain people who claim to get along just fine without it (as well as those who don’t get along so well)? How could we justify to such people that they in fact have, need and/or are seeking purpose/meaning in their lives?

If we can get along without it, then why do some feel the need for it so strongly and/or claim everyone has or needs it?

  • Could you focus your question by focusing on the one thing you care about most? Such as: "Assuming there is no external purpose, and humans can function without...". Else answers need to cover too many possible cases.
    – tkruse
    Apr 17, 2022 at 9:16
  • This question seems similar philosophy.stackexchange.com/questions/45103
    – tkruse
    Apr 17, 2022 at 9:19
  • It might also help if you could explain why this question is interesting to you.
    – tkruse
    Apr 17, 2022 at 9:19
  • I left it open intentionally, as I’m trying to sort out three questions really: do people necessarily have/need purpose, if so how do we know that, if not how do they function without it? Apr 17, 2022 at 13:24
  • 1
    After answering a question on the nature of values, I got to thinking, perhaps meaning is that subset of values one designates to survive oneself. Presumably, as a person faces death or its reminders, that person places greater emphasis on which values are the designated survivors. Yet some persons, whether from faith, nihilism, personality, or otherwise, may not worry about the future, instead staying focused on the values of the now.
    – Michael
    Apr 18, 2022 at 7:06

2 Answers 2


In this context, meaning is essentially a long-term, or persistent, goal or aim. These, in turn, are more or less desires to change or maintain some state of affairs. One question is whether or why some have while others lack such desires. Another question is whether a person can be happy without having such desires.

If a person were to live in pure reaction, without long-term goal or plan, presumably the only meaning or purpose would be that implied by one's nature. In such "pursuit", one's purpose is essentially deferred to instinct. If one has faith that instinct knows the way, perhaps one can be happy in this path.

Moving away from pure instinct, one might defer purpose to ideology, religion, or God. A further option is allowing another person or group -- say a charismatic leader -- to guide the way. If one should fully trust the wisdom of someone or something else, why worry about the meaning of it all?

But for those poor souls having high need for cognition, a more involved approach may beckon. These creatures may be left to ask the hard questions, wanting to know the whats and whys of life and universe. Should one choose a belief system, that system must be understood in-depth. Purpose may become a deep personal affair.

The thing is, meaning is perhaps always present, even if only per instinct; yet it seems not everyone desires to dissect or systemise meaning. The technical difference may be one of instrumental depth, or how far removed or abstracted a goal or aim is from raw instinct.

For example, say we have two men of opposite persuasion who both desire to reproduce. On the one end, man A sows his oats and is thereafter fully satisfied. He feels good, and the job is done. On the other end, man B decides he has to find the perfect mate, after various schooling, followed by finding the right position in the right area. Then, after the children are born, he feels the strong need to help arrange the right schools, followed by seeking to provide guidance and other support for as long as possible.

In the first case, minimal instrumental depth is partaken; while in the latter, maximal. Both cases involve meaning. Both times instinct is the driver. But only one involves extensive cognitive consideration. Naturally we would expect most people to take a more middle road on their instinct-instrumental continua.

Heuristically, a correlation might exist between high instrumental abstraction and long-term thinking; yet in theory, these traits are independent.

On the topic of whether we can function without meaning, an important predicament ought be mentioned. If a person thinks long-enough-term, or with sufficient abstraction, sometimes conventional goals can appear or become futile. For example, if one's goal is to have an everlasting legacy, the thought of the Sun burning out may create a barrier in one's aim. In cases like this, a long-term minded person may need to modify or abandon certain plans and expectations, which may leave one wanting of purpose. Generally, these types of problems begin cropping up when we start questioning instinct -- when we seek too much certainty, or otherwise abandon faith.

  • This is precisely the sort of response I was looking for. I’ll take the time to further consider this and see if I come up with any new questions. Thank you! Apr 17, 2022 at 13:27
  • In the meantime do you have any references you’d recommend? Apr 17, 2022 at 13:27
  • @BrianConnelly -- This answer uses ideas from all over; but at the moment, I might recommend terror management theory.
    – Michael
    Apr 17, 2022 at 13:44
  • I think that if people cognize enough they must realize that very little is in one's personal control, perhaps 1% of what confronts us. If people study past responses of humans to all the kinds of things that happen, they must realize that the various responses usually don't help or succeed only by luck. Yielding to despair makes everything worse and harms others, so, as the little blue book said, "cheerfulness must be the rule." There is no viable alternative than to do one's best and go forward. Not sure why there is any debate.
    – Scott Rowe
    Apr 19, 2022 at 23:22
  • @ScottRowe -- The reality of personal control may be limited, but the desire for control, or Will to Power, seems unbounded. Practically it makes sense to want one's efforts not to be wasted, so it makes sense to seek persistence, whether in genetic, cultural, or material legacy. As mentioned in my other comment, desire for meaning seems to be desire for having something we value, which presumably we contributed to during our lifetime, outlive our person. Reminders of death remind us to check for that special something, our designated purpose.
    – Michael
    Apr 20, 2022 at 2:22

While the meaning of life may be a matter of philosophy or theology, the common search for it might be rather a matter of psychology.

It would seem to me that human life regularly has personal crisis, such as the midlife or quarter life crisis. Or regular events like death of a close person. Those are times when previous life choices are regularly questioned and new decisions must be made involving lots of uncertainty about the future.

That leads to similar mental pressures in many people and similar coping mechanism. Some coping mechanisms, when seemingly successful in some way, would then be shared and spread in society like other memes. One might also argue that this makes individuals susceptible to all kind of profiteers, the tobacco industry, big pharma, esoteric cults.

This view would not indicate a need for meaning common to all humans, but rather an economic demand in many humans in certain situations of life.

  • This was very informative, thank you. Apr 17, 2022 at 13:24

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