“The real questions are the ones that obtrude on your consciousness whether you like it or not…the ones that you ‘come to terms with’ only to discover that they are still there. The real questions refuse to be placated. They barge into your life when it seems most important for them to stay away. They are the questions asked most frequently and answered most inadequately, the ones that reveal their true natures slowly, reluctantly, most often against your will. ” – Ingrid Bengis.
Our first task is simply to clarify what we mean when we ask: “What is the meaning of life?” For example the use of the singular third person conjugation of ‘to be’ is rhetorical. There is no presumption that there is only one answer; there may be and are more likely to be multiple answers. And there may in fact be multiple facets of the meaningful life for any individual. In short, we do not seek a single, all-purpose response to the query.
Also the word ‘life’ should not be taken too concretely. We are neither asking for a dictionary definition of the word ‘life’ nor the significance of living things in the general sense. Instead the question implies an individual human life and usually the individual life of the one posing the question.
The use of the word ‘meaning’ however is tricky. There are three contexts of this word: linguistic, indicative, and importance. I have already pointed out that the linguistic or denotative use of ‘meaning’ is not intended. The indicative use of the word ‘meaning’ – for example, dark clouds mean it is likely to rain – also is not operative here. The use of ‘meaning’ refers to significance, importance, or lasting value.
In brief then the question so far can be reworded: “What significance(s) and/or lasting value(s) does life have for individual humans?” or “What significance(s) and/or lasting value(s) does life have for me?”
Additional versions of the question offer further clarification, including:
What’s it all about?
What is the point of it all?
Why am I here?
Where do I fit in?
What is the point of (my) life?
What should I do with my life?
What is my purpose?
How can I make a good life for myself?
What will make me happy?
What is the definition of happiness?
Is life worth living?
None of these is an absolute equivalent of the original question, but from them we extract additional key elements of any answer: an understanding of reality, a role and purpose(s) for the individual, a need for action, the criteria of happiness, and a hope that any meaning must outstrip any suffering and futility we experience.
In closing, the original question can be reworked into a more awkward but more exact form: “Based on a well-developed understanding of reality, what role and conduct, if any, will promote the highest level of happiness, lasting significance, and value for me, relative to the suffering and futility I will experience in the course of my life?”
Next time we will investigate whether the question is itself flawed.