How can we define meaning? This is tricky because we run into the issue of circular definitions.
Meanings means meaning — so are we stuck? No, there is a way to get out of this problem, we need to understand the variations of what the word meaning symbolizes, and then we can build our understanding there.
The word meaning has three main usages:
- The significance of something: what is the meaning of life?
- Someone’s intentions: He meant to upset her.
- Ordering information: The meaning of Pediatrician — a medical doctor who manages the physical, behavioural, and mental care of children from birth until age 18.
If one spends enough time thinking about life, it is easy to conclude that none of our actions has any meaning. There is no significance to what we do and the choices we make because we will all be cosmic dust in several billion years.
I remember when this dawned on me in my early teens, and I had a quote from Fight Club written on my bedroom wall about the survival probability for anyone going to zero on a long enough time frame. I felt it was profound at the time, but now I realize this is just lazy thinking.
It may appear strange how the commanders on the Allied side were working so hard to win WW2 while looking back in hindsight, is seems clear that after a certain point, they were always going to win. Yes — because they were working so hard!
One could argue that it doesn’t matter what they did because eventually, all the events of WW2 would be irrelevant, and the sun will expand as it dies and burn up the earth.
With that frame of mind, why don’t we all kill ourselves?
We didn’t choose to be born, but here we are. My feeling is that life is one big mystery, and considering that the chances of one being alive right now are minimal, one may as well learn to live well and understand what one can.
We are all slaves to our evolutionary design. We must accept that we need adequate sleep, oxygen, water, food, and a host of psychological necessities not only to survive but to thrive. We must also accept that evolution is much slower than the cultural and technological changes that have happened in the last few tens of thousands of years.
This brings us to situations where we are adapted to a certain environment and lifestyle that is no longer available. To live a good life, we must understand how to overcome some of the cognitive problems that may have been beneficial to us 200,000 years ago in certain African regions but are not as effective in present-day New York.
Creating meaning how in this big nothingness is challenging. But plenty of evidence suggests that having some semblance of meaning in our lives is far better than having none.
Taking on responsibility is the key to building meaning. It integrates us into society and forces us to improve. We can set goals that are 5-30% harder than our current abilities and enjoy the challenge of reaching them. This can give us a sense of purpose. It doesn’t matter what the goal is; humans have developed various skills and activities worldwide.
A world-class pianist may spend countless hours alone in a room, studying technically complex musical scores. For many people, this would be unbearable. They cannot understand the purpose of it, as they lack an appreciation of music.
Conversely, the pianist may hate being a professional footballer, having to train every day, working with team members, etc.
Very few people have the discipline to become snipers for any of the numerous elite special forces around the world, training obsessively to kill other human beings from a distance.
So the answer to “What is the meaning of life” can be:
The meaning of life is meaning.