Can science tell us objectively what the meaning of life is?

Are these the fellows to unlock the mystery?: dopamine, oxytocin, cortisol, seratonin, endorphins

I'm not sure of the status of evolutionary psychology, but apparently not as 'hard' as neuroscience; perhaps too 'theory-laden'.

Are any philosophers taking neuroscience and harder forms of psychology seriously to answer the question, at least at a general level? We might need to fill in the rest with idiosyncratic narratives, but at least we're one step closer.

btw, I really believe the question can be answered. Humans are animals afterall, just very complicated. But perhaps we're just not trying hard enough, or maybe there's something human in us that doesn't really want someone to tell us a definitive answer as that might curtail our sense of freedom as it could become an obligation.

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    Neuro science can tell you what behavior an average human brain is wired to feel gratified about and seek to reproduce. No surprise, this behavior will be focused on you and your tribe surviving and having offspring, not because of some grand scheme but because hominid species who didn't have this drive disappeared, leaving only us. None of this will tell you that this is what you should strive to do. For example a sure way to have high levels of oxytocin is masturbating all day. Not sure that's what you mean by "meaning of life".
    – armand
    Commented Jun 10, 2023 at 2:58
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    The literal meaning of life is whatever you're doing that prevents you from killing yourself.” -Albert Camus
    – user64314
    Commented Jun 10, 2023 at 4:16
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    The meaning of life... You have to define meaning for whom. Meanings are like opinions or preferences, always subjective, personal. Commented Jun 10, 2023 at 5:34
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    Science cannot tell us the meaning of life in principle, and taking it seriously means not expecting it to. Its task is to establish facts, not values, it can tell us how things are, but not what we ought to value and do with our lives, which is what the meaning of life is about, see fact–value distinction. What science can do is provide the means for fulfilling that meaning, for living according to our values and for achieving our goals. But only after we decide what we value and want to achieve.
    – Conifold
    Commented Jun 10, 2023 at 7:44
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    Sorry if i sounded hostile, not my intention. Your reply shows you are mistaken about is and ought statements. Science can tell you the best way to reach a goal ("wash your hands to keep healthy"), but can't tell you what goal you should aim for. You say it yourself: "It can be as basic as wash your hands to prevent infections" yes, if you set as your goal to prevent infection. But you don't have to, and no fact can tell you what your ultimate goal should be, i.e. the meaning of life. And my exemple is valid. Wanna be happy for the rest of your life? Science tells you to overdose on heroin.
    – armand
    Commented Jun 10, 2023 at 13:10

4 Answers 4


According to "The Oxford Handbook of Meaning in Life", one can distinguish three answers to the question of whether neuroscience is relevant to meaning in life.

  • Neuro-neutral: Neuroscience is irrelevant to questions about meaning in life so it can be safely ignored.
  • Neuro-negative: Neuroscience is relevant to meaning in life only as a warning about how meaning can be distorted or destroyed by excessive attention to scientific findings about the mind.
  • Neuro-positive: Neuroscience has findings that contribute to philosophical understanding of meaning in life and to guiding people about how to have meaningful lives.

Quoting further - see this link for full:

This chapter defends the neuro-positive view after critiquing the two alternatives. It shows how neuroscience helps to answer questions about the meaning of meaningfulness, the characteristics of meaningful lives, the objectivity of life’s meaning, strategies for obtaining meaning, and changes in life’s meaning that occur with aging.

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    Good find. Rather than just providing a link though, and the short para you've provided, a good answer would include examples of 'how neuroscience helps to answer questions, about the meaning of meaningfulness, the characteristics of meaningful lives, the objectivity of life’s meaning, strategies for obtaining meaning, and changes in life’s meaning that occur with aging'. Commented Jun 10, 2023 at 13:22
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    Should this be an answer or an extension to the question? If the OP answers a question themselves, often it means they found the correct answer.
    – tkruse
    Commented Jun 10, 2023 at 20:19
  • "There is nothing good or bad, but thinking makes it so." - Shakespeare
    – Scott Rowe
    Commented Jun 11, 2023 at 23:21

Neuroscience describes the bioelectromechanics of the brain in the same way science describes the workings of an automobile engine. Expecting that the blueprints of the engine will give an indication to its "true purpose" seems reasonable but an automobile engine can be used to propel boats, airplanes, etc. So while neuroscience can provide clues as to the brains function, it is limited in its ability to describe the purpose.

  • The purpose of a motor would be: to move something. "Where do you want to go today?" It is controlled by the nut that holds the steering wheel.
    – Scott Rowe
    Commented Jun 11, 2023 at 23:19
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    @ScottRowe A segment on the PBS show "This Old House" was "What does this do?" where they would bring out a strange tool and ask the experts to identify its purpose. It was fun to see how their minds worked since they were wrong more often then not. But it's a good reminder that reverse engineering alone may not be enough to determine purpose.
    – user64314
    Commented Jun 12, 2023 at 16:08
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    Lol. We've been poking at the brain for 100 years too, asking, "What does this part do?"
    – Scott Rowe
    Commented Jun 12, 2023 at 20:39

Science favors the theory of evolution to explain the cause of our existence, and that cause means there is no objective purpose to our existence.

Psychological science can help detect subjective purposes to existence, meaning reasons to live that people have found or created. That would be a question for psychology, not philosophy though.

Philosophy knows the concept of ethical naturalistism, which would allow to sustain moral propositions with natural facts. It is (I believe) a minority view however, the is-ought-gap describes the majority view that it is a fallacy to derive what should be from what is. So it would be a fallacy to assume that our biology determinism morality or purpose.

In general, that's also safer, as some people find themselves with urges that are prone to harm others, and it's good to have some morality to protect those who would otherwise be harmed.

  • "a question for psychology, not philosophy" Aristotle's eudaimonia, the greatest good for the greatest number, confrontation with the absurd, awakening to the true nature of reality, & many other proposals in philosophy have been raised as purposes you can choose to direct your life around. You may disagree that any impel you personally. But surely you cannot claim they aren't philosophy.
    – CriglCragl
    Commented Jun 10, 2023 at 10:26
  • There is no topic for which there won't be a community member pleading that this is philosophy. Philosophy is seen then like a supermarket of topics. Still, the better answers are available where science has dug much deeper with experimental research than mere thought.
    – tkruse
    Commented Jun 10, 2023 at 11:02
  • come on guys. Another discipline informing philosophy should be completely uncontroversial. It's happened countless times.
    – user65720
    Commented Jun 10, 2023 at 11:42
  • No one has answered my question to date. I assume no one is informed on the topic. Fair enough.
    – user65720
    Commented Jun 10, 2023 at 11:52
  • The unexamined definition is not worth having, I'd say. In this answer I make the case that rather than living well being a branch out from understanding the world, that understanding the world is only part of living well, of cultivating wisdom: philosophy.stackexchange.com/questions/99784/…
    – CriglCragl
    Commented Jun 10, 2023 at 12:43

You are presuming reductionism, where higher order things like morality, purpose, and consciousness, can be reduced to lower level things like neurons, or quarks. The most famous explicit reductionist is Patricia Churchland, whose most recent relevant work is Braintrust: https://www.amazon.com/Braintrust-Neuroscience-Tells-about-Morality/dp/0691156344 Churchland has done a lot of writing, and has inspired a lot of other authors, so there will be a large selection to dig into further of related works.

Another noteworthy reductionist is Daniel Dennett, whose latest major work is here: https://www.amazon.com/Bacteria-Bach-Back-Evolution-Minds/dp/0393242072 this book is not explicitly on how to live life, but Dennett is a polymath and will touch on it. Dennett himself is a prolific writer, and if this work does not specifically address your interest, he has multiple other books that may.

However, global reductionism is now a small minority position in philosophy of science, although it remains the majority view among neurologists. Most philosophers follow the sciences and consider sciences either their own independent truth systems (pluralism), OR to be emergent from and only dependent to a limited degree upon their substrates. This includes the vast majority of physicalist philosophers.

For an emergence view, psychology would be EMERGENT FROM, not defined by neurology. And sociology would be EMERGENT FROM, not defined by psychology. And morality would be EMERGENT FROM, not defined by sociology. So, even for a physicalist who accepts emergence, neurology would be nearly useless to try to figure out what we should do with our life, as that is a question so many tiers away, that neurology would give almost no insights.

And for a pure pluralist view, there would be no value whatsoever to what neurology might suggest about values and purposes.

So -- if one accepts non-reductionist thinking, goals and purposes have to be studied and understood as their own separate field/subject.

  • Right, it is like a computer: transistors, systems, operating system, Microsoft Word, your dissertation. Study transistors for all time, and you'll learn nothing about dissertations. This just seems so obvious as to not need agreement.
    – Scott Rowe
    Commented Jun 11, 2023 at 23:16

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