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Is There a Meaning of Life?

Updated on October 26, 2009

In my third year of university I was given the question: “Can life have a ‘meaning’? If so, what is it? If not, why not?” to answer in thousand words. I had a lot of fun writing this essay, although it was incredibly difficult to do in just a thousand words as I could have gone on for pages and pages. I thought I would share my musings in hope that maybe it would spark an interesting debate!

My argument centres around giving an alternate view to the religious one which says God gives life a meaning that will be obvious at death, or that the meaning of this life is preparation for another life, or something along this vein. I am assuming a position with the view that there is no God and when you die there is nothing else.  On the premise that there is no creator, you would have to believe that our existence on this planet is a coincidence and as such could not have pre-determined meaning. I would take a definition of life to be our continued existence, but beyond that it has no meaning. When we look at the animal kingdom we see that survival is paramount, both for an individual and for a species as a whole. In other words, what is most important is survival and reproduction.  Darwin wrote at lengths about survival in the animal kingdom, most notably, his theories on natural selection and adaptations in ‘On the Origin of Species.’

We might instinctively want to deny it, but human beings are no different to animals in this respect. Look at our biological make up; at a very basic level we are just a product of our cells, which reproduce every so often to keep us alive. This is often seen to be a controversial position, as many people believe in the existence of some kind of soul which is separate from our bodies, but I don’t want to get into a discussion about mind/body duality here. Although it is obvious in animals that they have an instinctive desire to reproduce (think mating season) it does not seem obvious to everyone that this is the same in humans. It is clear that many people do not want to reproduce and have no intention of doing so. But you only have to be remotely familiar with Freud to know that his response to this would be that whereas we may consciously think reproduction is a bad idea, procreation is never far from our subconscious thought.

Obviously I am not denying that there are differences between animals and humans. The fact that humans often decide that it would be a bad idea to have children, whereas animals cannot make this decision, proves this. Humans are considerably more complex than animals, we rely less on instinct and more on reason, rationality, intelligence and sentiments. F.H. Bradley thought individuals are what they are because of the relations they hold and thus the way they interact with society. He claims, ‘he is what he is because he is a born and educated social being, and a member of an individual social organism.’ He thought we could only understand our function through our relations with others. The purpose of life ‘is given by my station in society.’ The words ‘function’ and ‘purpose’ are important here. Rather than a pre-determined meaning, it is more plausible that we ascribe purpose to our own lives. I’d argue that this commonly centres on the prevention of pain, and pursuit of pleasure. This is also the position that David Hume argues for.

I’d say that the pursuit of pleasure is the stronger claim and that prevention of pain would naturally follow from that anyway. Hanfling claims that ‘pleasure is a less satisfactory terminus than pain’, but I would disagree with this. Although it is true that the reason behind many of our actions is the avoidance of pain, it sounds unsatisfactory to say that that purpose of life is the avoidance of pain. The majority of people do not want to just ‘get by’ in life, which is what would happen if all they did was avoid pain. We do not want to just be content and in most cases will strive for something more than that. Humans are on the whole ambitious; we set ourselves goals, we think about the future and make plans. A cynical person may still claim that we do all this because we are trying to avoid pain, but I think it’s more likely that we do all this because we want to be happy, and avoiding pain is just a part of being happy.

If you believe that the avoidance of pain is the main purpose of life, then how can you explain when people put themselves through pain for some further end? People push themselves to the physical limit for all kinds of reasons which they hope will ultimately lead to greater happiness. It’s not only physical pain we want to avoid either. People take business risks even when there is the potential for failure and massive loss because the happiness that could be gained outweighs the possible pain. If all that is important is avoiding pain then why would we do all this?


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    • Shahid Bukhari profile image

      Shahid Bukhari 7 years ago from My Awareness in Being.

      Life is the Gift of God ...

      Nothing is Meaningless in Creation ... Provided you can Understand ... and so is Life ...

      The Meaning of Life, as a human, is within the Purpose of Creation ...

      To be, what The Lord wants us to be ... Is, the Meaning ... In, the Purpose of Life.

    • jenblacksheep profile image

      jenblacksheep 8 years ago from England

      Thanx for reading Madison. I agree, often we need to take a step back and look at things rationally, but emotions do play a very important role and we shouldn't ignore them completely. You know what they say about a woman's intuition!! :D

    • Madison22 profile image

      Madison 8 years ago from NYC

      I agree that humans are more complex than animals and yes, many rely more on reason than instinct. I remember once being advice about a particular situation on how I should follow reason rather than emotion. It was great advice since I can become so emotionally involved which can lead me to believe my instincts are valid and reason goes out the door. Great hub!

    • jenblacksheep profile image

      jenblacksheep 8 years ago from England

      Perhaps it's the other way round though, and you know that something is of real value if it makes you genuinely happy. Brings to mind J.S. Mill's Utilitarianism ... that there are different types of happiness; higher and lower pleasures. so you get a kinda happiness from like eating, drinkin, alcohol etc. but real happiness comes from things like learning a new skill or bettering yourself somehow!

      I do think in general that gaining happiness is what everyone wants in life because you wouldnt ever do something that brought no happiness at all.

    • profile image

      James 8 years ago

      Even if we don't want to just get by in life, happiness might not be the right answer because what makes us happy is the thought that we have done something of real value.

      I am also wondering if you want to say that promoting happiness in general for people is the meaning, or if attaining your own happiness is.

    • jenblacksheep profile image

      jenblacksheep 8 years ago from England

      Some acts of pleasure can definitely cause pain. Just because we pursuit pleasure doesn't necessarily mean that we are always right about what will bring us pleasure. Or in fact, right about what we should avoid.

      Thanx for the comment Denno!

    • profile image

      Denno66 8 years ago

      Sometimes the act of pleasure causes pain as well. The fact that we can avoid many more forms of pain than our 'animal' cousins only reinforces the awareness of our pursuits. I found this article to be fun(anything that makes me actually think, it fun!) Thank you; great Hub!

    • jenblacksheep profile image

      jenblacksheep 8 years ago from England

      Thanx for taking time to read my ramblings Rebekah. I totally agree with what you are saying about choice and how people always blame others for their bad choices. I definitely think it's true that people decide their own fate though and ye, fight or flight has a lot to do with it!

      Thanx again!

    • rebekahELLE profile image

      rebekahELLE 8 years ago from Tampa Bay

      such provocative thought, jen, and I follow what you're saying. although I somewhat agree with the avoidance of pain, I wouldn't really word it that way. Humans are born to make our own path, as we have control over thought. the journey we follow may or may not be destiny, it's more about choice. think of all the people living who have made the choice to do little with their lives? and yet they blame whoever they can, whatever they can, blaming god, blaming their government, blaming their parents, their whoever.

      for whatever reasons, people choose to 'fight or flight'. we move ahead through adversity, risks, obstacles or we resign to do as little as possible thinking that somehow destiny dealt us a bad hand. so people for the most part make their own belief system wanting to avoid pain or loss or judgment. you've heard the phrase, 'as above, so below'?

      I agree. our life is now. we make our own happiness. :)