What is the meaning of life?
To begin with, I need to stress the importance of meaning as a human concept. This may be disputed, by those who claim that meaning is generated outside of the individual, but as you will see, this belief can be incorporated into my theory of meaning and how it is created.
Events and actions do not have meaning, outside of human interpretation. ‘Nothing is good or bad but thinking makes it so.’ One need only visit a sporting event to understand how an individual event such as a goal or try can have a vastly different meaning for two otherwise similar human beings. Any occurrence is assigned meaning by a human brain, framing that occurrence within the context of its own values and beliefs. Value judgements about the triviality or importance of an event, its morality or lack thereof, are not possible without the observer to apply them. When the last human on Earth dies, who will be able to point to an event and say this is bad or good?
So, people acquire meaning through experience, through the values and beliefs they are taught (directly or indirectly) by those around them and by society. Systems and structures of meaning, whether one creates them consciously through study and thought, or accepts them passively through the teachings of others, become the pillars of our lives; they affect the way we feel about an event, and direct how we act in any given situation.
As Sartre said, we are ‘condemned to be free’. We have the burden and the gift of deciding the meaning of our own existence, each and every one of us. And this determines how we act; our lives are our own responsibility.
Some individuals allow their values and sense of purpose to be defined for them by a teacher, or invisible man, or other entity, and thus defer the decision of meaning to a moral authority they perceive to be greater than themselves; but nonetheless this act, in itself, is a decision of a kind. We cannot escape the fact that we must choose the meaning of our own lives, even if that choice is to embrace someone else’s rules and values.
(Indeed, we cannot stop ourselves from creating meaning; we begin to assign human motive to other living things, and even vast inanimate things like the universe, simply because to do so is instinctive, almost automatic. The current theory around our willingness to assign motive to things like storms and computers, is that it is the remnant of a survival trait which prompted action on our part where otherwise we might have failed to act appropriately. If we perceive a landslide is trying to kill us, it makes the situation much more immediate, and the required action much clearer. However, we can now see how it can be flawed to reason in this way.)
It is also true that a meaning can and will change for a person during their lifetime. You do not value things now the same way you valued them as a chil,d and your ideas about what is important have changed as you’ve assimilated new information (whether accurate or not) and undergone new experiences. Thus, meaning cannot be defined as a universal statement or even feeling. It is unique for each individual, and indeed for each time and place in that individual’s life. This is because of the nature of the universe, and of human existence; which is to say we are in flux.
If we search for absolutes, which you might realise by now is a risky thing to do, we can only say: change is the only true constant. The only permanence is impermanence.
It is not logical to expect that meaning can ever be expressed in absolutes, even for an individual. Instead, we find meaning in the search for meaning. (If this seems paradoxical, consider the fact that at the end of our lives, we die. We do not sit down to sum up our lives and describe the meaning of them in a neat package, or if we do, we inevitably find multiple ways to express the truth of our existence, such as it has been at various points over the course of the years. And others who examine our lives from the outside will find their own ways of interpreting and understanding them.) We constantly rediscover our own meaning as we go through the inevitable changes life brings. The goal is the struggle. The destination is the journey.
So the answer to the question, ‘what is the meaning of life’ must ultimately be another question: what do you think it is? The answer is the question. But your answer is yours alone.