In two articles I unpack some of the reasons why we avoid these two topics: the problem of ill-defined ideas; the present-day tension between religious and secular interpretations of the world; the difficult question of their relevance to both our personal and collective lives; and the historically fascinating and challenging presence of purpose and purpose-talk in biology.
But let’s start with that old chestnut . . . the meaning of life.
Psychologist Jonathan Haidt calls this the Holy Question: a kind of ultimate question or Holy Grail. For him the opaqueness of its meaning boils down to just two questions of real interest. Firstly there is the question of purpose – ‘Why are we here on Earth?’ … to which there are essentially two answers, one relating to God’s plan and the other relating to the history of matter in the universe. Secondly, there is the question of meaning within our lives – ‘What are the various ingredients of a happy and fulfilling or complete life?’ … an empirical question about which psychology now has clear answers. There is a danger that we can confuse these two questions and their answers: if we think that there is no divine plan for the universe and therefore no meaning in that particular sense then we can conclude, in error, that our lives themselves lack meaning.
The question can now be re-framed in a form to which an answer can be given: how do we flourish and maximise our happiness or sense of well-being?
The question of happiness is addressed in the article on Happiness itself which introduced the equation H=S+C+V as a suggestion that happiness is largely a matter of genetics that can be fine-tuned through surrounding conditions (C) and voluntary activities (V). For Haidt the most important component of C is love, as secure relationships and secondly engagement through developing goals that are generally related to ‘work’ – what it is that you do in life, what gives you self-esteem. Of course this proposal assumes (remembering Maslow’s hierarchy of human needs) that all our basic needs have first been met. Haidt makes the observations that we all respond well to getting things done and that self-determination and choice in our work lives (reduced supervision) improves esteem and helps to break down the distinction between ‘jobs, careers, and callings’. Further, happiness does not come just from within as suggested by Buddhism and Stoicism, or even from the combination of internal and external factors but through their interplay – happiness comes from between. This he describes as vital engagement which consists of flow (as enjoyed absorption) combined with meaning (as subjective significance) in a process of connection between self and object, which can interprate as scientifically or mystically as we like. This idea has now become part of routine positive psychology which emphasises that vital engagement does not reside in the person … or the environment … it exists in the relationship between the two.
Haidt goes on to make a point that is critical for the link between meaning, happiness, purpose and sustainability. He addresses the problem of scale. We are physical bodies with brains (minds) united into societies and cultures. To understand ourselves fully we must study ourselves at all scales, at least the physical, psychological and sociocultural. When these scales are smoothly integrated we have something special which Plato referred to as ‘harmony’ but Haidt calls ‘cross-level coherence’. Only in the last few years has cross-disciplinary academic work been satisfyingly integrating many aspects of our explanatory world, much of it through psychology, as at the physical scale through cognitive neuroscience and sociocultural scale through cultural psychology – ‘Meaning and purpose simply emerge from the coherence‘… ‘Just as plants need sun, water, and good soil to thrive, people need love, work, and a connection to something larger‘. The secret to the meaning of life is our understanding of human nature.
What is the meaning of life?
We can look at this question analytically and quickly dismiss it as incoherent. The word ‘meaning’ is itself an excellent example of polysemy, it has at least 20 meanings or senses.
So, are we posing a semantic question (about the meaning of the word ‘life’ or the many meanings of the word ‘meaning’?); is it a scientific question (about biological life, human life, the whole of existence, the universe, or the place of humans within it); is it a normative question (what should I do to make my or some other life or lives more productive, constructive, or purposeful)? Any answer could legitimately include a dizzying conglomeration of ideas. Perhaps the difficulty is the apparent arrogance of providing an answer … or, conversely, an astute answer may be so general and obvious that it is both uninteresting and uninformative. We can point out that philosophically only beliefs and statements can have content and meaning. Maybe we treat the question personally and think that our views on the matter should not be for public consumption?
These are all valid criticisms pointing to a lack of clarity in the question.
One factor in all this is that such questions have traditionally been asked within a religious context and therefore been given a stock answer, something along the lines … ‘the meaning of life is to play our part in the fulfilment of God’s plan for his Creation’. So asking this question anticipates a similar kind of answer.
In a secular world how does the atheist or agnostic reply in kind? Does she insist on life’s irrelevance and futility with a grandiose statement like ‘We can only achieve true freedom when we realize our meaningless position in a purposeless universe’?
Children of the 80s were raised on Douglas Adams’s The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy (1979) in which the ‘Answer to The Ultimate Question of Life, the Universe, and Everything’ was ‘42’. Then there was the Monty Python film The Meaning of Life (1983). In a romp through Shakespeare-like ‘stages of man’ the film ended with a frumpish lady delivering a bed-time homily in a dénoument that ran … ‘Try and be nice to people. Avoid eating fat. Read a good book every now and again. Get some walking in, and try to live in peace and harmony with people of all creeds and nations’.
These messages though conveyed in their inimicable way through comedy were in fact serious commentary, telling us that such questions are silly and should therefore be ignored. All-in-all the point being made was that ‘everything’ (the universe) had neither meaning or purpose and it is folly to look for it. We will return to this theme later.
The irony is that, whatever we think of the universe, our individual and collective lives are obviously full of both meaning and purpose. Most peoples’ lives surely contain more pleasure than pain and we seem to have a strong, if not innate, ‘will to live’. Animals do not commit suicide. And just as our individual actions have purpose and meaning so too is our collective action directed towards definite goals. In this sense the question What is the meaning of life? is legitimate, serious, real, and especially relevant for global society today.
But first let’s look at ‘purpose’, a word that seems more straightforward with a transparent definition something like ‘what something is for, what it is directed towards, its overall intention‘.
Religion & meaning
Throughout history religion has provided humanity with an explanation of the world: how, when and why it began, how everything works, what it all means and, for most religions, how it will all end (see Grand narratives). Almost all religions, as an integral part of their doctrine, also provided a code of social behaviour as a rule-based morality. Across the world this need for direction and meaning has come, in the last 2000 to 3000 years, from Buddhism, Hinduism, Islam, Judaism, Christianity, Jainism, Taoism, and Confucianism and, arguably, from subsequent political ideologies.
In Europe, after the establishment of Christianity following the conversion of Roman Emperor Constantine in the fourth century, the Christian Church was the focus of community life. Church was where you confronted the really big questions and events of life. Your birth was acknowledged when you were received into the Church at your baptism; your presence within the Church was strengthened through the ritual of ‘confirmation’; church was where, in the sight of God, you vowed a life-long relationship with someone of the opposite sex in marriage; finally, it was the place where the community acknowledged your death as your soul was taken ‘up’ (see grand narratives, Great Chain of Being) into the spiritual realm. The Christian religion told people that they were on earth to fulfill God’s purpose and that through Jesus they could receive redemption for their sins and gain access to heaven. In a way, that was all anyone needed to know. It was an answer to everything. Seated in a church pew, looking up at the priest in the pulpit, you would learn about the meaning and purpose of existence and be chided for your sins. Until about the middle of the 19th century the Bible was regarded as a complete explanation of everything. Almost everyone believed in the Bible’s literal word-for-word truth: after all, it was the word of God. Because religion was woven into the very fabric of community life it may have been possible to harbour a few doubts and questions, but a godless world simply made no sense.
Individual meaning in a secular world
The challenge to religious belief came in the Early Modern Era when a scientific and intellectual revolution began. Explanations of things were now based less on the Plagtonic transcendental spiritual world of the divine above and more on the material world here on Earth – so life circumstances were perceived as alterable by human means and not totally dependent on divine will – humanitarianism. This was a process of human empowerment. But could people lead moral lives without a religious moral code? Without such a code surely anything was permitted?
science could not provide answers in all spheres of human life but it did provide a steadily-improving explanation of the physical world – its origins, composition, and possible ends. In the 19th century it bagan to explain life on earth, its origins and evolution – and in recent times it has provided new insights into human nature. Gaps in human knowledge previously explained by God were now being explained by phenomena in the material world. Though the Church and religion still plays a major role in the lives of most of the people on planet earth, in the Western world it is parents and schools that now do much of the groundwork in preparing young people for life, explaining to them what we know (or don’t know) about the universe, planet earth, morality and what we need to do to get along with one-another.
Religion had offered certainty and reassurance that, providing we were good, all would be well after death, even if things were grim down here.
So in a secular society what is the answer to a question like ‘What are we here for, and what does it all mean?’.
For the non-religious life is given whatever meaning we like. Most of us gain meaning and purpose through our families and relationships, our interests and concerns, our hobbies and work. In this sense the answer is trivial, like Monty Python. We give life meaning ourselves, it is not imposed from either ‘outside’ or ‘above’. Except that we do live in a community and, like Plato, we want to live in a Just society (one that is safe, fair, and flourishing).
The world retains the tension between religious and secular understandings of purpose and meaning. Darwin‘s biological evolution of organisms is only now being followed by a similar critical reappraisal of the mind and morality. Philosophical and religious answers that have stood for millennia are now receiving new answers based less on theology and more on recent scientific work in neuroscience, evolutionary and moral psychology, and studies of human nature.
The ‘meaning of life’, which once lived in a dark and mysterious place, has for the last 50 years been coming out into the light. Today it shines bright and clear.[Finding an answer may not be easy but that is no reason to regard the attempt as trivial. The ‘attempt’ is discussed in the article Morality and sustainability section What is the purpose of morality?]
What are the really important things in life? Does my life, and life in general, have any meaning? How should I live?
Questions about meaning and purpose are with us every moment of the day in every aspect of our lives, but we shy away from talking about meaning and purpose in general terms. Perhaps we think that answering these sort of questions might make us look foolish, or that the answers might entail abstruse and incomprehensible philosophical musings …
Societal meaning & purpose
When school and parents provide most of the moral guidance to children society at large can view morality as being in a state of flux, not fixed, absolute, and eternal like the ten commandments. How is this done?
Today our moral education has taken on an interesting and perhaps bizarre twist. In recent times, and especially since the 1960s, in the Western secular world much of the critical examination of values and transmission of social norms has been, not from pulpit to pew, but through the mass media – that is, through popular social media. No longer content with the words of ancient texts written by tribal nomadic people thousands of years ago we now tune in to radio, television, film, newspapers, magazines, social media, ‘shock jocks’, stand-up comedy, and the internet to get a feel for what our fellows are thinking about the issues of the day.
Being sensitive to mental indoctrination we tend nowadays to give people more space to try and sort out things for themselves. As a parent you soon learn that a direct ‘chalk and talk, tell them the way it is’ approach just doesn’t work anyway. Children are not interested in our grand views about the world, they are more interested in more challenging problems like ‘ … what we call the space under a kettle … or the spaces between the teeth of a comb’.
In spite of the horrors that appear daily on our television screens, and the ever-present possibility of some global calamity, it appears that we can sensibly speak of moral progress as more and more people (not to mention the animals and the environment in general) are included in our sphere of moral concern. The news does not give us an accurate feel for historical perspective: for example, the world has never experienced less per capita violence. It was not so long ago in Europe that the public disembowelling of some unfortunate person was family entertainment and nowadays it seems unlikely that the old tradition of one European country invading another will continue. We have indeed moved on.
Attribution of purpose to body parts, animals and plants is, then, a form of anthropomorphism or personification. We are mistakenly assuming and speaking as though they have mental states like ours, as when we talk of the weather being ‘angry’.
But things are not that simple. We can make a rule that only conscious humans may make statements of purpose but this does not explain the way that organisms actually do seem to exhibit purposiveness in some form. In the biological world there seems to be a continuum of ‘purposiveness’ that first appears in a rudimentary form in the simplest of organisms which appear to be ‘orientated’ towards survival. Part of the difficulty in using teleological language is that we extrapolate back, as it were, from our own consciousness into a continuum of decreasing cerebral complexity and we want to draw a precise cut-off, when it is just not possible to do so. Indeed, purposiveness (in the sense of an organism that is adapted to survive and reproduce) is exhibited in all organisms including plants, which have no cerebral apparatus at all.
The purpose of the universe
That might be a compelling story, but what about the universe? Of course we cannot say with absolute certainty that the universe has no designer but there is no evidence to indicate otherwise. If he, she or it did it then we have been given no physical evidence of this and then where did he, she or it come from themselves? As cognitive scientist Steven Pinker (as well as Monty Python) has said: it is time we grew out of the belief that the universe must have some supernatural meaning.
Humans endow their lives with their own meaning, it is what our existence is all about. However, just because we ‘design’ our own lives does not mean that life itself and the universe must have a human-like designer, this can be regarded as simply a form of personification or anthropomorphism, a feeling that everything must be as we are.
The ultimate question
Be this as it may, we are all constantly looking for meaning and purpose. I remember consuming books on existentialist philosophy in the 1960s and remembering the slick phrase ‘we can only achieve true freedom when we realise our meaningless position in a purposeless universe’. True or not, Monty Python gets my money.
So here we are in the 21st century. Does humanity have any meaning?
Most of us get meaning and purpose from our relationships, interests, and the personal goals we set for our lives. Does it make sense then to ask if there is a general purpose for humanity? Well, if we are asking this question in an absolute cosmic sense then, from what has been said here, the answer is ‘no’ … or ‘42’ if you like.
But this is silly: it is not rational. This is saying that because there is no ultimate meaning and purpose, everything is therefore ridiculous and meaningless. The point is that it is we who give our individual and collective lives whatever meaning we wish to give them. There are still ultimate answers to questions of meaning and purpose but they may be different from the traditional historical ones. Meaning may be different for different individuals and groups. Does this then throw us into a kind of relativity of meaning?
Not necessarily. Our collective goal is not difficult to establish (see Morality & reason). From the earliest times philosophers have homed in on the idea of ‘flourishing’, ‘well-being’, ‘happiness’, along the lines of the utilitarian ideal of creating the greatest happiness for the greatest number over the long haul. That is a kind of moral exhortation. Maybe something like: to live together peaceably so that each of us can achieve our maximum possible individual and collective potential now and into the future.
Of course the trick, the Catch-22, is that this is not simple in practice as there are many paths to such an end. But what we have posed here is a ‘how’ question, a question that can be tackled by science and reason, not a metaphysical ‘why’ which is a question of teleology that is beyond both our control and understanding.
So, though we can give our collective lives whatever meaning we like there is already a broad general agreed path that has come to us from antiquity and which we still find compelling. Devising a kind of global mission statement might be foolhardy but it is not absurd. And ’sustainability’, whose goal is ‘human well-being’, is an excellent place to start.
For scientists, social scientists, economists and us all we must translate broad general goals into specific ends. What we are talking about is the increasingly sophisticated fine-tuning of our management of the most complex system we know of, the biosphere. Everyone’s contribution matters.
Only a generation or two ago, in a fragmented world, such an agenda would have sounded ridiculous. The interconnectedness and interdependence of globalisation has changed all that. It is possible to speak intelligibly of moral, scientific and technological progress and there is enough meaning and purpose here to keep us all busy for a long long time.
Evolution espouses the view that life accretes, builds up, or unfolds in a ‘bottom-up’ way. Intelligent design sggests that the process is more top-down.
Aristotle on the purpose of human life
Aristotle provides an extremely simple and compelling analysis of the purpose of human life using the ideas of ergon (function) and arête (excellence).
A carpenter’s saw is excellent when it fulfils its function by cutting well; an architect is excellent when s/he designs houses well. He then considers plants, animals, and humans.
Plants have the capacity for growth, nutrition, and reproduction and when they are fulfilling these potentials we say they are thriving or ‘flourishing’. A gardener can observe the plants and assess their condition. Whether they are thriving or not is a matter of scientific fact not the gardener’s opinion. Of course, different plants may have different needs and capacities if they are to flourish.
Animals have the same basic capacities as plants but they are also capable of movement. If they are confined in that movement by being caged or restricted to a very small area then we are unlikely to think that they are flourishing. In addition, many animals are sentient – they can see, taste, smell, and feel pleasure or pain, appetite and aversion. Though the animal may fulfil its plant-like capacities, if it is restricted in its sensations then we do not consider it as doing well or flourishing as it might.
Humans have the capabilities of both plants and animals but they also have the capacity to reason and use language. These last capacities allow is to develop relationships and political structures, to plan for the future, to assess rationally modify our natural desires and emotions, to educate with special human disciplines like music and mathematics … even to wonder at the universe and the purpose of human life. If we lack these capacities – if we are restricted in our plant-like, animal-like, or intellectual capacity – then we may well manage in some way but we are not flourishing to our greatest potential. Those activities that further the exercise of our natural capacities are ‘good’ and those that restrict or hamper them are ‘bad’.
So what is the ergon (function or purpose) of the human being?
Though we have and need many of the important capacities of plants it would indeed be strange if our greatest goal was to flourish like a plant. And again it would not seem right if we simply maximised our sensation, pleasure, and bodily appetites and maximised all our other animal-like capacities. Though these capacities (as well as the plant capacities of growth, nutrition, and reproduction) must be an integral aspect of our lives – we are animals after all – they cannot be the way for us to flourish. To flourish we must make the best possible use of our reason and language, the characteristics that define us as human beings. Aristotle referred to humans as ‘rational animals’. The exercise of our human intellectual capacities, including our relationships and the examination of the cosmos and our place in it, are what gives meaning to our lives. This is the uniquely human way of flourishing.
Just as it is possible to determine objectively how a plant or animal may flourish, so it is possible to determine objectively the kind of environment in which a human can flourish. By reading and thinking about this article you are engaging in such a human capacity – so congratulations. And next time someone asks you the meaning and purpose of life, perhaps Aristotle’s views can serve as at least a starting point for the conversation.