What is the Meaning of Life? (On the Importance of Asking Better Questions)

I recently bought an old Life magazine book called The Meaning of Life. It’s a 1988 book where Life’s editors surveyed famous people on the age-old question, “what is the meaning of life?” It’s a fun exercise, but the answers, as you might expect, are all over the place. So much so, that one gets the impression that these people aren’t even answering the same question.

Which, of course, they aren’t. The question, “what is the meaning of life?” is supposed to force us to think about the essential questions fundamental to our existence. But the reality is that it’s just a Poorly Worded Question. It’s so horribly ambiguous and vague, that it begs us to answer any number of different questions, rather than one profound or interesting question.

The word meaning has many definitions, uses, and interpretations, as does the word life. When you ask, “what is the meaning of life?” to many people, what you’re going to get, of necessity, is a bunch of people answering very different questions.

Embedded within the question, “what is the meaning of life?” are all of the following, more precise questions:

  • How are we to understand or interpret the very nature of our existence?
  • What does the fact that humans exist mean to you?
  • Is there someone or some thing that gives life meaning?
  • Is humanity evolving toward some specific purpose?
  • Should humanity progress toward some specific purpose?
  • How did humanity come into existence?
  • What is the purpose of your life?
  • What do you aspire to do in the time that you are alive?
  • What should the purpose of any one person’s life be?
  • How do you make sense of the fact that you are alive?
  • How are we to understand or make sense of our own consciousness?
  • How amazing is it that we are conscious?

If you read a book about the “meaning of life,” what you’re really reading is a series of musings about a whole slew of related but different questions. And if you ask any one person, “what is the meaning of life?” they will invariably substitute that vague, ambiguous, open-ended question with a specific, easier-to-answer question that hits at some of their most closely held beliefs.

Life’s book is fun to read, as long as you read it as the musings of smart and noteworthy people. But we shouldn’t confuse depth and profundity with a Poorly Worded Question. That’s what “what is the meaning of life?” is.

Each of the more precise questions has profundity and depth, too. But they also have the side benefit of being clear enough to answer. It’s great to talk about how amazing consciousness is. I like thinking about the origins of humanity, too. I’m constantly re-evaluating the best way to spend my days on this planet. But these are all different questions.

Smell the flowers. Ponder the mysteries of the universe. But don’t be afraid to apply a little intellectual rigor to your the questions you ask when you do.