Since the beginning of time, humans have faced the very complex question of the meaning of life. The answer to this will naturally depend on each person’s individual and unique perception of life and existence. However, if there is one fact almost everyone can agree on, it’s that life is a mysterious puzzle we all attempt to solve as best as we can.
The 4 Common Categories of Life’s Meaning
Despite there being a number of philosophies on the meaning of life, it can be safely said that many of them fall into the following groups of thought, where life either has:
- An objective meaning,
- A subjective meaning,
- No meaning, or
- A mysterious/unexplainable meaning.
There is a significant difference in the way Eastern philosophy deals with life than Western philosophy. While Eastern philosophers think of a collective perspective through “we,” Western philosophers prioritize the “I”, or a single perspective.
A factor that has heavily influenced the debate of the meaning of life is also what exactly defines a philosophy, since it can so easily be mistaken for a religion or an ideology, which would be based on faith and addressed as a theist belief system.
The Modern Humanist Approach
In the 14th century, the belief that humans are the creators of their own fate began, leading to the notion that humans need to help each other to truly grasp the meaning of life.
In the 17th century, subjectivism proposed that the meaning of life depends on each individual’s perception. The achievement of personal goals, in particular, makes life meaningful, and objective goals are nothing more than optional. This school of thought was popularized by Rene Descartes who was quoted saying “I think, therefore, I exist.”
Around this time, Liberals proposed that individuals are free to do whatever they want without the influence of others, unless there is solid reason an action shouldn’t be taken. Therefore, life’s meaning lies in safeguarding personal freedoms against the injustices carried out by political systems. In the 18th century, Kantianism believed that every human’s action should be compared to a universal principle. If an action violates a principle then an individual did not carry out their duty toward other humans. Thus, life’s meaning lies in following your duty to adhere to certain universal principles.
Natural pantheism was humanity’s first attempt to explain existence, dating back thousands of years. Simply put, it is the belief that God is in everything that exists, and that everyone and everything is interconnected.
Considering this, the meaning of life lies in creating peace and helping one another in any way we can. It was first put to paper by the philosopher Baruch Spinoza in 1675.
In contrast to natural pantheism, theism is the belief that a Supreme God exists, so life’s meaning should be decided by the God that one believes in. Theism began since the birth of humanity when people began to believe in a number of different Gods.
How Much Control Do We Have?
In the 5th Century BC, Daoism emerged to give humans a painless way of finding life’s meaning through Wu Wei, which translates to “action without intention” or “naturalness”. Following this way of living leads to locating the Dao, which is ultimately “the way,” achieved only when a person simply behaves as themselves.
Appearing in the 6th century BC was Determinism that mentioned all events happening due to simply following previous events, and given that nothing can be changed in a pre-determined world, free will is virtually impossible. Therefore, the meaning of life in this case is pre-determined, and at times incomprehensible.
In the 5th Century BC, the idea of locating our inner virtue called Ren was developed by the Chinese philosopher Confucius, usually experienced when taking care of those around us such as our family members. Essentially, an individual who wishes to establish the meaning of their life can do so by helping others find theirs.
Creating a Meaning Collectively
Since the 5th Century BC, Mohism suggested the concept of “inclusive love,” that included love for all members of society, so the meaning of life arises from one’s ability to care, causing beneficial results for both the person who cares and the person being cared for.
In the 5th Century BC, Solipsism is a theory suggesting that the only thing that can be certainly concluded to exist is one’s own mind. The idea was first put down by the Greek philosopher Gorgias who claimed that nothing exists, and that nothing can be known about something even if it exists, unless one’s mind gives it subjective meaning.
The Question of Happiness
In the 4th Century BC, believers in Cynicism offered people the notion of happiness during uncertainty, by reaching self-sufficiency, also known as eudaimonia. This could mostly be done by avoiding external influences, including money, fame, and power.
In 1862, Nihilism, or Pessimism suggested that nothing can give life meaning, believing that humans will never really be able to find permanent satisfaction. In the 1870s, Pragmatists believed that since a truth about life is very hard to establish, humans could make do with a useful understanding of it instead. Eventually, truth could be created but not found.
In the 1920s, logical positivism proposed the idea that the only type of truth available to us is facts which are scientifically tested and proven, meaning that life can only be defined by actual experience, unable to be explained beyond what can be observed.
The Existentialist Era
In the 1940s, existentialists claimed that humans are filled with anxiety about the seemingly meaningless nature of life from the very beginning, and that to create a meaning one must decide what their own values are, living according to them.
Still in the 1940s, absurdists challenged existentialists by wondering why humans wonder about the meaning of life when the world cannot be constrained to a finite meaning, comparing searching for life’s meaning to the task Sysiphus in Greek mythology who was told to keep rolling a boulder up a hill only for it to come back falling down.
To wonder about the meaning of life is to experience being human in its deepest form. The answer to this question has been in a number of forms according to various cultural and ideological perceptions. The debate around this question has caused a number of philosophical, scientific, religious, and metaphysical discussions over the ages.
Ultimately, while some view the meaning of life as depending on an individual perception of goals, visions and values, others view it as associated with logical, proven observations.
Scientific perspectives tend to mainly concentrate on proven facts about the universe, giving attention to the properties that make up the physical form of life, helping foster an understanding of well-being and morality. Humanistic approaches, on the other hand, focus on what the meaning of life is on a more personal level, taking into account what an individual wishes to achieve from it.