What do we mean when we ask “what’s the meaning of life” and “what’s the purpose of life”? The way we pose these life-meaning questions indicates a silent assumption – that there is an inherent meaning and purpose to life as such. That these are hidden features of life itself waiting to be discovered by us. This assumption is along the lines of Aristotle’s theory of four causes or four types of questions that can help understand anything.
Having meaning suggests there should be an answer to the question about life’s nature, essence, what it is. In Aristotle’s terms, it is a question about life’s formal cause. Having purpose indicates there should be an answer to the question about life’s direction, goal, where it naturally tends to. For Aristotle, this is a question about life’s final cause.
But is there a universal essence and direction to life in itself that would apply to all life forms that ever lived, live, and will live? For the sake of argument, let’s limit this question and address it only to our actual world, ignoring all the other logically possible worlds. Even so, answering “yes” would mean denying the relevance of each organism’s individual embodiment and living experience.
If we accept this, the answers to the life-meaning questions must be very general. In such a case, nothing but mere existence comes to mind. Life’s essence and purpose simply are to be, to exist – pure being. Some people have identified this notion with God. Others, with nature in the broadest sense of the word (anything that exists is part of nature, and that which exists is nature).
However, is such a universal answer helpful or valuable for a human being? Would you, as an individual, accept it as the meaning and purpose of your life? I wouldn’t. It is too far away from me emotionally, even if I agree with it intellectually. An Aristotelian thinker could suggest searching for the answers at the level of species or kinds, such as cats, humans, rocks. What is the meaning and purpose of human life?
Perhaps this is the proper way of understanding the meaning of our life-meaning questions. After all, we all share in being human; that is something we all have in common; it is something that unites us and allows us to relate to each other – fellow human beings. So it could well be that what we want to understand when asking about the meaning and purpose of life is this humanness that connects us.
Let’s assume we find out the answers. In fact, throughout history, many philosophers (and not only philosophers) thought they had. Yet, I see this common-human-meaning approach as doubly problematic and, in some contexts, dangerous.
Firstly, if the answers were too general, I would once again feel that they are irrelevant to me, personally. Secondly, if they were too specific, I would think they unduly limit individual diversity and personal freedom. Notice what both of these worries have in common? Focus on particular individuals rather than humankind.
Even if the meaning and purpose of all life on the most universal level is simply existence, and even if someone establishes the meaning and purpose of life for humankind on a species level, the true intention of my life-meaning questions is to make sense of life on a particular level. What is the meaning and purpose of specifically my life?
Adding that small two-letter word makes a lot of difference. The question becomes personal, relevant, and stimulates ideas. If existence is what unifies all life, and I am just one of its manifestations representing one of the living species, is there a fixed human mission that I must strive to fulfil? If yes, is that mission inherent or something I can influence and shape? But if such a fixed human mission existed and were inherent, would I even have the ability to question the very existence of that mission? Yet I am questioning it.
I take that as a sign that neither human life in general nor my life in particular has any intrinsic, naturally or otherwise determined essence and purpose. Rather, could the fact that I and many others ask such questions tell more about the human experience of life than about life itself?
The following idea appeals to me: the life-meaning questions reveal important categories of human thought through which we make sense of our lived experiences. Despite their significance to us, these conceptual categories are our features, not innate attributes of life waiting to be discovered.