What’s the meaning of life? In popular culture, this is often considered the quintessentially philosophical question—for better and for worse. It’s the sort of question whose importance is undeniable but actually answering it seems impossible. The idea that we might find an answer to this question seems ridiculous—as if, all along, there were a clear, straightforward answer that had somehow eluded us.
Maybe the answer eludes us because we don’t really understand the question. Douglas Adams hints at this: in The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, he writes of the supercomputer Deep Thought, which takes 7.5 million years to compute the answer to the ultimate question of life, the universe, and everything. At long last it produces its answer: 42. Deep Thought points out that its creators never thought to figure out what the question was. (It turns out that the Earth is an even more powerful supercomputer built in the wake of this disappointing answer to compute the question—but it gets destroyed five minutes before producing the question.)
Instead of asking about the meaning of life, we might find more traction by asking about meaning in life. Some people, we feel, lead meaningful lives, while other lives seem less meaningful. I feel this tension in my own life. Sometimes my daily activities feel rich and full of purpose. At other times, they seem empty and futile. What gives that feeling of meaning to our lives?
This question of meaning is a question of value: a meaningful life seems like a better one. But meaningfulness is its own distinctive dimension of value. A meaningful life isn’t necessarily an ethically virtuous life, for instance. Moral uprightness might contribute to a meaningful life, but meaning and virtue don’t entirely overlap. Susan Wolf’s famous paper “Moral Saints” opens with the remark: “I don’t know whether there are any moral saints. But if there are, I am glad that neither I nor those about whom I care most are among them.” Wolf argues that a life devoted to doing the most possible good would also be oddly shallow, narrow, and limiting. A maximally moral life wouldn’t be an especially meaningful one.
On the other hand, some lives that seem rich in meaning aren’t the most morally upstanding. One thinks of Picasso or Gaugin or any one of a number of artists. The biographies of philosophers—surely people who understand what makes for a meaningful life if anyone does—don’t always inspire moral admiration.
So what makes for a meaningful life? One significant factor is simply whether it feels meaningful. But there are problems with reducing meaning in life to the subjective question of whether one’s life feels meaningful. Philosophers who object to this subjective stance relish coming up with examples of activities that lack meaning however meaningful they feel to the person undertaking them: counting blades of grass, maintaining a precise number of hairs on one’s head, excelling at long-distance spitting, and so on. No matter how meaningful grass-counting might feel to the grass counter, the rest of us might reasonably decline to describe that life as meaningful.
A deeper concern is that the need to feel a sense of meaning can be downright pernicious. Conspiracy theories are all about creating a subjective feeling of meaningfulness. They tie a whole series of seemingly unconnected facts and events into a tightly interconnected narrative. What a conspiracy theory does, in effect, is provide life with a rich sense of meaning: there’s a great drama playing out around you, a battle between good and evil, and you have an important part to play in this drama. Small wonder that conspiracy theories attract people whose lives otherwise lack clear markers of meaningfulness.
A conspiracy theorist likely has a stronger and more consistently felt sense of meaning in her life than I do. Must I then concede that her life is more meaningful than mine? Not if I can claim that people can be wrong about the meaningfulness of their lives. But to do that, I need to show that there’s more to meaning than a subjective assessment of meaningfulness.
If there’s an objective dimension to meaning in life, what are the features that make a life objectively meaningful? A number of answers present themselves as intuitive. A meaningful life involves meaningful relationships with others—family, friends, loved ones. A life committed to some higher purpose seems meaningful—think of Gandhi, Mandela, or Martin Luther King, Jr. Artists and thinkers win our admiration: it’s not for nothing that they lived.
These intuitive responses raise as many questions as they answer. What makes these kinds of lives especially meaningful? Can we formulate some set of criteria for meaning? And, most important, on what basis do we deem these lives meaningful? Gandhi is widely admired but are we adjudicating objective meaningfulness by majority rule? An aggregation of subjective judgments doesn’t get us to an objective verdict. In that case the only thing distinguishing the person counting blades of grass from Gandhi is that other people are more inclined to admire Gandhi than the grass counter. But if the grass counter feels fulfilled and content, why should she care whether others admire her?
This question of objective meaning might seem pressing only for atheists. If you believe in God, you have a divine guarantor to certify some ways of life as especially meaningful. But even theists run into trouble. The so-called Euthyphro Dilemma (named after the Platonic dialogue in which it first appears) poses a chicken-and-the-egg worry. Does God proclaim that some ways of life are best because He sees that they’re objectively good or are they objectively good only because of God’s say-so? If the former, we’re still left with the problem of objective meaning: what is it about these ways of life that makes them good? And if the latter, then it would seem to be just a matter of God’s whim that Gandhi’s life is more meaningful than the grass counter’s.
Faced with these difficulties, a third alternative might seem attractive: abandon the search for meaning altogether. Maybe we’re chasing after an illusion when we seek meaning in life. As I noted above, the search for strong meaning leads some into the grips of conspiracy theories. Conspiracy mongering might just be an extreme instance of a malady we’re all subject to. Any all-embracing conception of meaning is a canard: we purchase a feeling of integration at the cost of self-deception.
Albert Camus presents the case for the absurd in The Myth of Sisyphus. The best life isn’t one imbued with a sense of meaning, he argues, but one disillusioned of what he calls “the nostalgia for unity.” The challenge, according to Camus, is to have the courage to commit oneself to a life without meaning.
Easier said than done, of course. But it does leave a question for those (like me) who sometimes feel their lives are richly meaningful and sometimes feel a bit deflated. Should we work to identify what best gives a sense of meaning to our lives and pursue that? Or should we embrace those moments of deflation and try to wean ourselves from the felt need for meaning?