In Douglas Adams’ Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, a question is asked: “What is the meaning of life, the universe and everything?” The answer given, “42”, shows that this is comedy and not to be taken seriously but the question itself has been taken seriously and debated endlessly throughout human history.
The question is pernicious because it is based on an unquestioned assumption, namely that life does have a meaning, that this meaning applies to all people at all times and that this meaning can be known. Once such a meaning is defined (and very many have been defined), the way is open to powermongers to impose it on the rest of us, curtailing our freedom, narrowing our intellectual horizons and putting our lives at risk.
To see that this is no imaginary threat we only need look at any of the religious or political dictatorships that have cast their shadow on human history and continue to do so, or at cults such as Heaven’s Gate, which led its befuddled followers to group suicide, or Aum Shinrikyo, which perpetrated the sarin gas attack on the Tokyo subway.
If there is such a thing as The Meaning of Life, then who or what decides what it is? It is no good trying to discern it in nature because nature knows nothing of meaning: meaning is a mental construct. Thus only a mind can conceive of a meaning and apply it to something.
Religious believers will of course say that it is their deity that decides The Meaning of Life and conveys it to us. Even if the whole notion of a deity were not paradoxical and therefore absurd, we would have to face the fact that the gods apparently disagree fundamentally among themselves as to what The Meaning of Life actually is, begging the question: Which god, if any, has the right answer? The question is thus swept up by storms of religious dispute.
Can the question be solved by the cool logic of secular philosophy? It is hard to see how. If the conclusions of philosophy are to be more than the idiosyncratic opinions of the individual philosopher, they have to be anchored somehow in the real world. This is the reason for the Cartesian “Cogito” (Cogito ergo sum, “I think therefore I am”). But how do you connect a mental construct with the world of trees, rocks, rivers and tigers? I know of no way. (Science also has this problem but we will leave that for another day.)
Where, then, does this leave The Meaning of Life? The answer is that there is no such thing as The Meaning of Life. Or, if you prefer, there is no objective (i.e. mind-independent) reality called The Meaning of Life, only whatever meaning the individual chooses to invent for himself. No one such meaning has any priviledged status: all are as good or as bad as one another.
If you want to see a meaning in life, that is up to you but be aware that, like all ideologies, this one constrains you and limits you rather than freeing you and opening your horizons.
I prefer the view that life has no intrinsic meaning. I apply my own meaning to it, not a fixed meaning, but whatever meaning seems appropriate at the moment. Gods and creeds, both spiritual and political, are so many dictatorships pressing their dead hand upon the human mind and are to be rejected.