What Do You Mean When You Talk About Meaning (of Life, That is)?

Meaning of life concepts show up regularly around the Forum. But they are never clearly defined. (Just wait until you try to do it!) The sources are usually assumed to be understood. Even the questions seem to be implied, but looking at the lists of questions and sources of theories makes it clear that the Meaning of Life is not a matter of consensus.

It seems complicated. Here are some related questions people commonly ask regarding Meaning of Life:

  • What is the meaning of life? What’s it all about? Who are we?
  • Why are we here? What are we here for?
  • What is the origin of life?
  • What is the nature of life? What is the nature of reality?
  • What is the purpose of life? What is the purpose of one’s life?
  • What is the significance of life?
  • What is meaningful and valuable in life?
  • What is the value of life?
  • What is the reason to live? What are we living for?

And there are many different views related to sources or foundations for Meaning, if indeed there is any Meaning, as seen in the following broad categories:

  • God
  • Soul
  • Subjective to each person
  • Objective feature of nature
  • No meaning

If you would like to read a bit on the topic, here are a very few resources.
Biologos.org Resources:
Science as an Instrument of Worship - Article - BioLogos
Ask the Beasts: Darwin and the God of Love (Book Review) - Article - BioLogos
Ecclesiastes, Education, and the Pursuit of Meaning - Article - BioLogos
Reviewing “Darwinism and the Divine” by Alister McGrath - Article - BioLogos
The Flawed Theology and Philosophy Behind Christian Resistance to Evolution - Article - BioLogos

Outside Resources:

THE Meaning of Life.


A familiar answer regarding the chief end on man (smiling remembering the book discussion) is : Man’s chief end is to glorify God, and to enjoy him for ever.

When I ask myself about meaning in life, I think it is similar in that I would say it is in relationships. Relationships with God, family, friends. And when we lose those relationships through death or otherwise, we grieve their loss.

From a scientific standpoint, was this an evolved characteristic to develop relationships,or was it something uniquely given to us aa humans in relationship with God and each other?


When I think of the meaning of life I guess I think of productivity. That we should be contributing back to our families, friends , community , church and even to nature itself. One of the worst things to me are lazy people. Those who choose to not take care of themselves. They choose to be a burden to their families and society. Like those who could work full time but only want to work 16 hours a week so they can continue to get a government check and they live with someone but choose to not get married solely because they want to be able to collect more checks and they just let everything around them fall apart waiting for someone else to feel bad for them and fix it but if you ever went to them for help, they just can’t for a million reasons.

The other part of that is contributing to nature which is a big deal to me. I feel disgusted by people who only want a manicured lawn saturated in chemicals and calls everything weeds and pests. Everything is icky and gross.

So for me a big part of the meaning of life is being someone who gives back into this world and don’t just simply take. To me to be a loving person is to be a person who serves. If all you do is get served, then you’re just wasting life away.


Phil, do you mean this concept of meaning in life?

Interestingly, that seems to be evolving along with us. The book WHat do we mean when we talk about meaning (sample linked below, which is what I’ve read of the book, talks a fair bit about the history of the concept of meaning of life.

You make some good points. I think productivity is widely valued as some aspect of meaning.
What kind of meaning is possible for people with disabilities of varying severity do you think? Or also for people experiencing mental illnesses? Really anyone who is unable to participate in a traditional model of human productivity?

As noted, the meaning of life can be approached from more than one viewpoint. I would like to lift up two viewpoints and philosophical questions related to those. At the moment, I have more questions than answers.

One viewpoint is the meaning of the existence of humans and other species (species level). If there is no god, then I would say no special meaning - we just happen to exist. With Creator (God), the question becomes more interesting. A common Christian approach is what @jpm wrote: we are meant to live in relationship with God and others. God is love and He wants to share a loving relationship with humans.
I do not know if this is a sufficient answer, it might be (probably is) a too narrow perspective.

Focus on humans leaves the meaning of the other species open: are they just something that is, or did God have a special meaning for each species? Does He want to have a loving relationship with other species too? Human thinking might say ‘yes’ for pets and cute mammals but what about the ugly or harmful species, like mosquitos, parasitic worms or rats?

Another viewpoint is the personal meaning of life. Is my personal purpose or meaning of life the same as that of all other humans?
If the answer is that our purpose is identical to that of other humans, then we would be replacable in the sense that any person could replace us, the humanity or God would not lose anything significant when one person is replaced by another.
If my life has a unique purpose, in addition to the purpose of any other human, how could I find and understand it? Only through life experience?

It feels a bit annoying that I do not yet have satisfying answers, I can only ask questions. Makes me think if finding answers is one of the purposes of life…


That is a fine Wiki article. Meaning is intrinsic: autotely. We’re evolutionarily wired for meaning and therefore life is what you make it.

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Kai, I think it’s valuable to look at many angles and sources the way you are doing.
Your use of “if/then” statments indicates how hard it is to put our finger on what the question is asking in the first place. Are there some other ways you might frame the question that more closely reflect your view/s?


Do you mean that meaning is both objective and subjective?
And what do you mean by meaning?

The wiki article is ok. I found the Stanford Plato article (the first link and without a preview) a better-written, fuller discussion. I did like the list of questions in the wiki article helpful enough to use in the OP though.


Something I often think about with the question of whether there is meaning is the question of whether not eating meat is part of what it means to be a human being. It’s something people will probably forever disagree about. And it would be something to say that meaning is purely subjective to avoid that kind of disagreement. But saying it is purely subjective is essentially saying there is no meaning. While seemingly good for putting an end to disagreement, it ultimately unravels our social fabric.

It helps to clarify what the question means before one can answer it, doesn’t it? The very term “meaning of life” is so ill-defined, it can mean nearly anything. As it is used, its meaning must be subjective.

How would you phrase the question in order to answer it in the way you find best describes reality?

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It either defines you, or you define it.

I wouldn’t dispute subjective elements to it, like the way gifting plays a part, but the question is ultimately do you define it, or does it define you.

Meaning is entirely subjective, predicated on wiring that nonetheless seeks it. It’s a by-product of pattern recognition. Threat and opportunity detection. I’ll read the Stanford.


Ok. Great.

So how would you phrase the question in order to answer it in a way that you find best describes reality?

And what would your answer be?

What is meaning?

Thanks for looking at the Stanford. (or have the screen reader voice it while you do other things.)

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What is the chief end of man?

I’d answer it with three books, 2 of which I read, the third was highly recommended by my former pastor, and I know the author well enough, I’d trust what he has to say:

Desiring God by John Piper
Letters to a Young Calvinist by James Smith
The Call by Os Guiness

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I forgot to recommend in the resources part of the OP, taking a look at the amazon link , which will take you to the very generous preview of the book “What do we mean when we talk about meaning.” The preface (pages 3 - 10) talks about the history and development of the question and how differently the question presents depending on the language in which it is asked.

It’s a good skim, if you’re interested.

It’s been a long time since I’ve read DG, as well as WIDDG. Don’t know who else here may have read them. I have LYC but haven’t ready it yet. Never heard of TC. I’m currently in a reading group, working on Fear and Trembling and hardly have time to do that, and I’ve been doing my own reading to prepare for this post.

Feel free to pull in some meaty quotes from your favorite resources you find relevant to the discussion.


I’ll try to give that a read, and maybe follow up with some comments.


Smith’s book has a chapter called Enjoying God by Enjoying Creation. I’d be very interested in your response to it. It was ground breaking for me, as Piper’s book DG was so influential but there was a hole in it I kept feeling.

As far as The Call, this video of Os Guinness looks like a good intro. I’m going to give it a listen today.

Uh oh… 3 minutes in and Os Guinness is quoting Kierkegaard :grin:

WIDDG…When I Don’t Desire God.
Felt like road kill after I read

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