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Does Life Have Meaning?

Updated on March 6, 2013
Socrates believed that finding life's meaning requires self-examination.
Socrates believed that finding life's meaning requires self-examination. | Source

Modern science tells us that, in cosmic terms, earth is a grain of sand on an endless beach. Measured against eternity, a human life is merely the blink of an eye. Can something so seemingly inconsequential be said to have meaning?

My experience has been that most people - myself among them - answer this question with a resounding "Yes!". Human life does have meaning. What that meaning is, however, or where it can be found, are among life's hardest questions to answer. People often turn to such things as religion, heritage, duty and service to others in an attempt to find - or create - meaning in their lives.

One of history's greatest thinkers, the Greek philosopher Socrates, suggested another place we could look.

Socrates: The Unexamined Life

Faced with execution for "corrupting the youth" of Greece with his teachings, Socrates made it clear that he had no regrets regarding what he had done, nor would he change his ways if he were allowed to live, when he said that "the unexamined life is not worth living". It is perhaps Socrates' best-known quote, and one that remains relevant in the 21st century.

The Socratic Method

Socrates' method of using questions to point out flaws in an argument in an attempt to get at the truth has become known as the Socratic Method. It is still taught today in law schools, and is used in some forms of psychotherapy and counseling to help patients understand their own feelings and address their erroneous beliefs.

To Socrates, a worthwhile life was one in which we discard the answers that have been fed to us by others, and learn to think for ourselves. As we have no way of knowing if someone else actually understands what they are talking about (in Socrates' experience, they often didn't), wouldn't it be better to use our own powers of critical reasoning to discover the truth about our world - and about ourselves? Socrates believed so, and it was his encouraging people to do just this that got him into trouble with the Powers That Be, who had their own ready-made set of answers for their citizens to blindly accept.

Examination was at the very heart of Socrates' method of teaching. Rather than lecture on the subject of philosophy, Socrates would ask a series of questions designed to help a person understand his own beliefs, recognize contradictions and logical flaws in those beliefs, and then examine alternatives. This might ultimately lead a student to a better understanding and knowledge of the subject, but it could also lead to the discovery that he has no understanding of it at all. This realization is not a bad thing, however, as the biggest impediment to learning anything is the belief that you already know it.

Of course, it would be foolish to completely discard the accumulated wisdom and knowledge of mankind, and it would be a terrible mistake to disregard such things as heritage and tradition, but we shouldn't simply accept these without question, either. Nor should we expect these sources to completely answer life's important questions for us. For our lives to have meaning, we also have to look within. While the answers to life's questions may be different for each of us, surely some part of ourselves must be contained in those answers.

Poll: The Meaning of Life

Do you believe life has intrinsic meaning?

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Socrates: Know Thyself

Socrates offered another bit of advice to his students: "know thyself". For those of us struggling to find meaning and purpose in our own lives, "know thyself" is worthwhile advice - and living an "examined life" may be the best way to do it.

Quiz: Philosophy Quotes - Who Said It?

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    • Doc Sonic profile image

      Glen Nunes 4 years ago from Cape Cod, Massachusetts

      Thanks Harishprasad. You're correct when you say "It is not wise at all to accept any stuff blindly".

    • Harishprasad profile image

      Harish Mamgain 4 years ago from India

      Unless one is not free to think for himself/herself, the intellect cannot penetrate into the real substance of something whether at physical or spiritual level. It is not wise at all to accept any stuff blindly and naively. Socrates preferred death over blind belief. Very important and valuable message in this hub,Doc Sonic.

    • Doc Sonic profile image

      Glen Nunes 5 years ago from Cape Cod, Massachusetts

      Crystal, yeah, I have been known to look to the sky now and then and say "a little clue would be nice". Doesn't usually work, though...

      You're right, encouraging children to explore and question is very important. It took me a long time to realize that just because someone says something, it doesn't necessarily mean that they know what they're talking about.

    • Crystal Tatum profile image

      Crystal Tatum 5 years ago from Georgia

      This is a very interesting and well-written hub. Does life have meaning? We all hope so, we don't get a handbook when we arrive here telling us what that meaning is - if anything, that's my beef with God;) I grew up in a church where I was told what the meaning of life was, but it never really made sense to me. I think one of the most damaging things about our culture, or my culture, is that it doesn't encourage children to explore for themselves the truth, but instead criticizes and punishes for even questioning.

    • Doc Sonic profile image

      Glen Nunes 5 years ago from Cape Cod, Massachusetts

      LisaKoski, thanks for reading and commenting. I'm glad you enjoyed the hub. Unfortunately, I don't think the quizzes show up on mobile devices. I can't see them on my iPad, either.

    • LisaKoski profile image

      Lisa 5 years ago from WA

      Fascinating hub. You've definitely got me thinking and I'm sure this will stick with me at least until the end of the day. For some reason, your quiz is just showing up as a blank space but that may be because I'm using my cell phone.

    • Doc Sonic profile image

      Glen Nunes 5 years ago from Cape Cod, Massachusetts

      Thanks rebecca. Whether it came from God or evolution (or even ancient extraterrestrials), we all have the faculty of reason. Not using it would be like a person who can see choosing to wear a blindfold their entire life, letting other people tell them what was out there. They'd get by, but it certainly wouldn't be the same. By the way, I don't necessarily agree with all of the quotes in the quiz, but I included them because, like Socrates' "unexamined life" quote, they are fairly well-known, although most people don't know where they came from.

    • rebeccamealey profile image

      Rebecca Mealey 5 years ago from Northeastern Georgia, USA

      Very deep thinking and feeling. I sure flunked the test, but I enjoyed reading all the quotes. I feel what you are saying. We can not dismiss all the knowledge of the world's greatest thinkers, but we still need to develop our own thoughts and beliefs at the same time.

    • Doc Sonic profile image

      Glen Nunes 5 years ago from Cape Cod, Massachusetts

      Thanks Patrice. It's OK - I didn't know who said a lot of those things either. I was familiar with the quotes, but I had to look up who actually said several of them. I didn't figure I'd get many readers on this hub, it was just something I felt compelled to write. It was in answer to a question someone posted. I'm glad you enjoyed it.

    • profile image

      PWalker281 5 years ago

      If the quiz is any indication, I don't know much about philosophy, but I did enjoy reading this hub about Socrates and the Socratic method. I remember studying and being fascinated in college by Kant's views about the nature of reality, but don't recall any of the other philosophers you mention in your quiz. But I do believe life has intrinsic meaning and purpose. Great hub, Doc. Voted up and interesting.